From live music in colonial towns to jungle-shrouded ancient ruins, Mexico hums with vibrant colour. Here’s the list of our top things to do in Mexico.
Lime and chilli.
Two things I will forever associate with Mexico. Squeezed on tacos, wedged into beers, delicately placed on cocktails. Lime is so prevalent it amazes me there’s no consensus on what to call it in Spanish. No problem calling for chilli though, in Mexico, everything calls for chilli.
Things are hot in Mexico.
The days are hot, the dancing is hot. Things got heated in our car trying to navigate Mexico’s roads. Live music heats up sleepy towns and ancient ruins bask in the burning sun. Luckily, Mexico has an antidote for all this zest and heat.
From cooling off in idyllic swimming holes to roaming ancient ruins, from snorkelling with manta rays to eating insects, here are our top things to do in Mexico.
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1 / WATCHING THE EARLY MORNING LIGHT GLOW OVER PALENQUE
Happy to be back on smooth road after bouncing over speed humps and dodging car-size potholes in Zapatista held territory, we set off early in the morning to beat the tourists to Palenque. Driving into the car park we passed vendors selling everything from sunhats to toy cobras; a welcome change from manchette-wielding kids holding ropes across the car to get us to stop.
Palenque was a powerful Maya city-state which reached its pinnacle in the 7th century. After its decline, temples adorned with classic bass-relief carvings and palaces decorated with hieroglyphics were absorbed into the jungle. It has since been restored and excavated displaying ruins which date back to 226 BCE, harmoniously integrated into the beautiful landscape.
As the sun peered over the top of the Temple of Inscriptions, the green of the jungle glowed with warm dappled light. Howler monkeys climbed through trees and over temples using ancient ruins as their fortress to survey the land.
We sat on the top of the Palace, the home of once powerful leaders. The day was just starting to warm up with shadows forming on ancient stone inscriptions. Bus groups had not yet descended on the park. Looking across the vast complex of Palenque, almost completely alone in the early morning, was one of our top things to do in Mexico.
Related // All you need to know about driving in Mexico
Palenque – 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$32 to enter the national park & M$70 to enter the ruins | Getting there: Palenque is located about 90 miles southwest of Villahermosa.
2 / UNDERSTANDING MEXICO’S LINKS WITH COMMUNISM IN COYOACÁN
On the quiet backstreets of Coyoacán kids played soccer in the middle of quiet tree-lined streets while parents kept a watchful eye from behind their taco stand. In bohemian bars and cafes, locals talked Mexican politics while their drip-filter coffee slowly brewed on tables scratched with random thoughts.
Coyoacán is famous for its communist links. Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who lost his battle with Stalin to lead the Soviet Union, was forced into exile. He settled in Coyoacán where he met the famous Mexican artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Today, Coyoacán houses museums to both Kahlo and Trotsky in their former homes.
Trotsky’s house is an unassuming building on a quiet street. Photographs, books and memorabilia from his life fill every corner. An exhibition covering his involvement in the Bolshevik Revolution lines the walls of a small corridor. His desk still contains the notes he was taking when he was hacked to death by an ice pick.
Strolling through the garden we could feel the atmosphere of the parties he held with Kahlo and Rivera still lingering in the air. Bullet holes in the walls from unsuccessful assassination attempts reminded us of Cold War stories from our youth. Trotsky’s house is like a scene out of a John Le Carré book, vintage communication equipment cluttered well-used desks where plots were schemed and communist theories debated.
Related // Our 3-day Mexico City Itinerary
Leon Trotsky Museum – 10.00 – 17:00 Tue – Sun | Price: Mex$40 | Location: Av. Río Churubusco 410, Del Carmen, Coyoacán, CDMX.
3 / SWINGING FROM ROPES INTO HACIENDA SAN LORENZO OXMAN
The sun was high and the shadows were thin at Chichén Itzá. With tired feet and clothes sticking to sweaty bodies, it was time to cool off. We drove out from colonial Valladolid through small country villages that seemed to be stuck in another generation, making a beeline for Hacienda San Lorenzo.
Famed for being one of the most atmospheric wild swimming spots in Mexico, Hacienda San Lorenzo is a beautiful cenote close to Chichén Itzá. Roots and vines from the trees above stretch down deep cavernous walls to a clear icy pool. A rope has been installed to facilitate swinging Tarzan-style into the water. We joined the queue with a group of excited French youngsters.
The heat of Chichén Itzá washed off the second we jumped in the water. Icy, but clean, tiny fish long since accustomed to the temperature swam around us. Vine covered walls towered above with rays of sun punching through the top.
After watching kids devoid of all common sense dive from the top (about 25 m) we enjoyed a beer by the pool feeling refreshed and relaxed. The hum of the French kids echoed from the bottom of the cenote. The sun started to set over the tops of the trees and another top thing to do in Mexico was coming to a close.
Related // Best wild swimming in Mexico
Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman – 8:00 – 17:00 (Mexican hours); Cost: 30 peso per person | Getting there: Hire a bike in Valladolid for around 80 peso for the day, otherwise parking is included in the entrance fee. Taxis are easy to order from the hacienda | Location: Calle 54, Valladolid
4 / LISTENING TO MEXICAN FOLK MUSIC IN COLONIAL PUEBLA
A string quartet played in the corner of a small family restaurant in San Cristóbal de las Casas. A jazz band enlivened a boat ride back from Cozumel, swaying to the rhythm of the ocean. A lone guitarist strolled the backroads of Tulum looking for someone to entertain. Live music is alive and kicking in Mexico and Puebla is no exception.
Puebla is a small city in Chiapas that was effortlessly conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. They wasted no time in erecting colonial architecture which today is adorned with local Talavera tiles.
We wandered through the antique market. An odd assortment of furniture rested against pastel coloured walls. Ceramic plates were neatly displayed on torn lace tablecloths. Lime and chilli piled high beside a hand-drawn menu was our signal that it was time to eat. We grabbed our tostada and a beer and pulled up a milk crate in front of a group of musicians.
With accordion, violin, double bass, drum, banjo and clarinet, they entertained us to the well-polished sound of Mexican folk music. As the heat of the day started to cool, vendors packed up their antiques and switched to evening mode: beer carts and food stalls. We listened, soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed one of our favourite things to do in Mexico.
5 / SWIMMING IN THE TROPICAL OASIS OF MISOL HÁ
Navigating the lush jungles of Chiapas was a hazard. Recent heavy rains turned the road into jelly. A man with a flag was doing his best to control traffic through a section of road that was mostly sitting as rubble at the bottom of the valley. Relieved and tired from the concentration, we made it to the tropical oasis of Misol Há.
Only 20 km from Palenque, Misol Há is a 35-metre single waterfall that drops into a crystal clear circular swimming hole with large rocks and ferns framing the circumference. Behind the waterfall, a path leads to grottos cut into the stone.
It was a typical hot Mexican day but the steady flow of the falls kept the water a crisp temperature. I wanted to bypass the swimming and sit in the sun, but with people were watching, I had to jump in. The chill of the water shocked me to the core.
Refreshed beyond the point I really wanted to be, I crawled onto the rocks and lay there like a cold-blooded reptile sucking as much heat into my skin as possible. Soon, feeling came back to my limbs, the sun was beating down, a gentle breeze toyed with the treetops.
We pulled out a picnic lunch positioned on our rock. The sound of the waterfall set a tranquil mood as sunbeams flickered through the spray. Missing chunks of road were a distant memory as the oasis of Misol Há turned a soft golden hue on a late Mexican afternoon.
Misol-Há – 06:45 – 19:45 | Cost: small fee for parking | Getting there: Misol-Há is 20 kilometres from Palenque on the road to San Cristóbal | Address: Camino a Cascada de Misol-Ha, Chiapas
6 / EATING GRASSHOPPERS IN MEXICO CITY
Sleepy and dull, the deserted streets of Mexico City looked washed out under yellow street lights. Around a corner, hubbub escaped from the only bar open. A small window glowed and a few people spilt out on the street, chatting in their best drunken slur. Inside, no one noticed how foreign we looked, or acted at all surprised when we ordered chapulines.
The Aztecs consumed grasshoppers regularly, and throughout Mexican history, poor people have eaten them out of necessity. Now these long-legged delights are hopping back onto the broad spectrum of menus from street carts to the finest Michelin starred establishments. Considering that 80% of the world’s population regularly eat insects as part of their diet, it seemed like the perfect thing to do on our first night in Mexico.
Inside the bar, a relaxed, casual, atmosphere made us feel right at home. Obscure music played on an old jukebox, competing with the football on the TV and the bellows from the people watching it. We squeezed ourselves on a small bar stool and waited for our chapulines and beer. Long spindly legs on top of our tacos made it clear what we were eating. It may not have been our favourite Mexican food, but sitting in the bar, trying something we’ve never eaten before, amongst the hubbub was one of our top things to do in Mexico.
7 / CATCHING A SPEED BOAT TO THE JUNGLE-SHROUDED YAXCHILÁN
The pier at Frontera Corozal on the Usumacinta river hummed with the vocal gymnastics of touts offering trips to Yaxchilán. The best-value price was promised earnestly. Then, like a cartel, money was swiftly handed over to multiple people as we were led to a weary-looking old man trying to sleep on his boat. Our driver for the day.
Yaxchilán was a powerful Maya empire that collapsed at the start of the 9th century. The ruins they left behind are long since covered in twisted vines and roots from the jungle which is slowly consuming it. Well-preserved sculptured stone lintels containing hieroglyphics describe the history of the city, their rituals and conquests. It sprawls over a wide area with ruins hidden at the end of long walks down forested paths.
The might and power of Yaxchilán became visible as we turned the final corner on the river. With Guatemala on one side, towering stone structures appeared from above the tops of the trees on the other. Their ancient vantage point showing off the dominance Yaxchilán held over the area. As we sped up the river, with the wind easing the heat from another Mexican day, ancient empires started coming to life. Powerful city-states nestled deep in the jungle, intimidation tactics from a once mighty leader.
Related // Maya history through ancient ruins
Yaxchilán – 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$60 plus M$800 for the return boat ride and 2 hours to explore | Getting there: Regular boat services leave from Frontera Corozal.
8 / SNORKELLING IN THE CLEAR WATERS OF COZUMEL
Fresh-faced and with coffee in hand, we scurried along the streets of Playa del Carmen early in the morning to catch the first boat out to Cozumel. In the other direction came the revellers, locked arm in arm and swaying from side to side, just making their way home from their night out. Playa del Carmen has something for everyone. For us, it was the opportunity to go snorkelling in Cozumel.
The tiny island of Cozumel, just off the coast from Playa del Carmen has some of the best snorkelling in Mexico on the largest barrier reef system in the Western Hemisphere. The shallow warm waters of El Cielo Reef has a seabed literally covered with colourful starfish, while Paradise Reef is home to friendly sea creatures and masses of colourful coral. These waters would be our nightclub for the day.
As soon as we dived in, glammed-up fish made their approach in the clear shallow waters. Pink and yellow coral danced to the rhythm of the ocean. Turtles swayed awkwardly against the currents, not really able to pick up the beat. Owning the space, sharks sped past with confidence and ease, intimidated by nothing. We took it all in from behind our snorkelling masts.
As we floated above divers, their air bubbles fizzing around us like a foam party, a large green moray eel considered leaving his small cave. Perhaps nursing some kind of hangover himself, he eventually made it out and gave us one of our top things to do in Mexico.
Related // Our 2-week Mexico Itinerary
Ferries – Ferries run from Playa del Carmen to Columzel regularly, starting at 7 am | Schedule: here
9 / RELAXING ON THE PARADISE THAT IS TULUM BEACH
Our first impressions of Tulum were not good. Built around a busy highway, the town was mostly petrol stations and tyre replacement services. A constant stream of trucks passing through, divided the town with the opposite side barely visible through the dust.
But at night Tulum town centre comes alive. Pop up artists and roaming musicians entertain lively crowds. The worn dusty town fills with street food stalls, craft markets, and a chilled relaxed vibe. Tulum town is traveller territory. Internet cafes, cheap food, plentiful beer and a comfortable mix of local and foreigner. Four miles away on Tulum Beach, the vibe is very different.
High-end resorts and fine dining establishments line the many beaches of Tulum. With insubordination to the way we normally travel, we spent the day on Playa Paraíso, one of Tulum’s premier beaches. We shucked off our travel budget and hired a lounger for the day. Servers marched over soft white sand as they delivered cocktails one after another. Palm trees swayed overhead on one of the best beaches we have ever been to.
Related // Mexico – The good & the bad on our 1-month road trip
Playa Paraíso Beach Club – 10:00 – 18:00 | The beach club is located at El Paraíso Hotel, bookings can be made through your hotel | Location: Carretera Bocapaila
MAP / OUR TOP 9 THINGS TO DO IN MEXICO
To see the list of places we found captivated us so much they made our top things to do in Mexico click on the icon to the left of the title on the map
How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.
MORE READING FOR MEXICO TRIP
Mexico has a vibrancy and energy that hits you the minute you arrive. There’s plenty to explore in Yucatán near the biosphere reserve of Celestun, plus here are some more of our guides:
Aztec and Myan ruins in Mexico
How to develop your Mexico road trip
3 days in Mexico City
Our tips for driving in Mexico
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