“True love in Mexico isn’t between lovers. It’s between a parent and a child. Mexico is an intensive culture of sons adoring their mothers, and this is why I claim Mexico is matriarchial because the one constant faithful, inviolable holy love of love- the love of your life- is not your wife or your lover, it’s your mother.“
Top Reasons Why Mexico is an Ideal Long Term Travel Destination
My Traveling in Mexico Story
When I (Paul Heller) was in high school, my parents told me they had some money I could use to go to Europe. I calculated that the money was enough to spend about two weeks in Europe. Then I realized that I could spend several months on the same cash traveling around Mexico instead and travel in more comfort. My parents agreed.
During the four months I spent traveling in Mexico in High School and College, I went all over the country and fell in love with Mexico. I have also never found any other country that attracted me as much.
I am not alone in my love for Mexico, 4 of the top 25 cities nominated by Travel and Leisure magazine readers as the best city for travelers in the world are in Mexico. (Oaxaca, #1; San Miguel de Allende, #2; Mexico City #6; Merida #12, Mexico has more cities on the list than any other country worldwide).
I love France, Italy, and Spain; the historical sites, food, and culture are vibrant. However, whenever I have spent several months in these countries, I crave the flashy colors, spicy food, and playful, naïve arts and crafts of Mexico.
Traveling in Mexico Is Safe If You Are Careful
Despite all the bad news we hear from Mexico, I usually feel safe in Mexico. That said, it does pay to be careful. In my case, all of my problems have involved taking the wrong taxi, including:
- I took a taxi in Oaxaca, and the driver told me I needed to pay him because he had injured his finger while helping me carry my luggage into a hotel. He got loud and demanded that I give him the equivalent of $75 to pay his doctor’s bill. I suspect this was a con but decided to pay him to avoid a confrontation.
- I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico, in January 2020. It was the worst thing that happened to me after spending nearly seven years traveling worldwide. I could have avoided it if I had ordered an Uber, taken a taxi from a stand, or asked the hotel to call a cab for me. I wrote a blog post about the kidnapping.
However, my primary impression of Mexico is the many times Mexicans went all out to help me. When traveling around Mexico as a young man, a very humble man took me into his home for a day and a half when I had diarrhea on a bus. Even when I was express kidnapped, local Pueblans went out of their way to keep me safe during the rest of my stay.
Traveling Around Mexico is Inexpensive Compared to the US/Canada, and Europe
I have tracked all I spent traveling worldwide during the last fifteen years. I spent between $250-300 a day in the US and Canada, $200-$250 in Western Europe, and $100-$125 daily in Mexico.
While it seems low to me, Budget Your Trip maintains that the average traveler to Mexico spends $82 a day. (The US, in contrast, costs $223 a day. This number comes from what travelers reported spending. Economists note that most people, unlike myself, are overly optimistic). In my experience, travelers underestimate and underreport their actual expenditures.
I Admire Mexico’s Strong Sense of Cultural Identity
What about Mexico that allures me (and many thousands of other Americans) to make it my home? For me, at least, I like being somewhere with a sense of deep cultural roots and a real sense of identity. While I treasure the multicultural and globalized culture in the US, at times, I feel like the US is missing a sense of cultural identity. Mexico has this sense of cultural identity in spades.
Mexicans have the spirit of artists and craftsmen. They can craft unique and unexpected art pieces from seemingly mundane, everyday items, and their dishes integrate incredible flavors and ingredients into a cuisine unlike anywhere else on Earth.
It is easy to find creative things that reflect an artistic vision in Mexico. In the US, so much seems cookie-cutter, made by a machine, to look like something you would find all over the place. This sense of creativity and cultural identity is what I love most about Mexico.
How do I explain this to people who do not know Mexico? It is hard to do to put my finger on it. However, when I tried to figure it out, a slideshow of different Mexican images popped into my mind, including:
My Biggest Reason for Traveling in Mexico: The Country’s Amazing Diversity
When I explain what I love about Mexico, the images that pop into my mind include the country’s colonial cities, Day of the Dead, other festivals, music, cuisine, and folk art.
Mexican Colonial Cities
- Rows of multi-colored houses painted in colors would shock the Home-Owners Association in most American suburbs and yet somehow work well together.
- Plazas and parks with topiaries, gazebos, and iron benches. (Mérida has confidant chairs designed so a couple can look at each other).
- Churches with exuberant Baroque churrigueresque altars and carved exteriors featuring a playful mix of Christian symbols and indigenous iconography. (I highly recommend all the top 10 churches listed in this article on the top 10 churches in Mexico from Culture Trip. I have visited all of them except the one in Paricutin. I also recommend the main cathedral in Morelia, the convent in Tlayacapan (Morelos), and the convent of Izamal (Yucatán).
- Government buildings with colorful murals detailing significant events in Mexican history and culture.
- Fantastic museums. Mexico City has more museums than any other city on Earth, except London, including a new Human Rights Museum (officially known as the Museum of Memory and Tolerance) and an Interactive Museum of Economics.
- Nearly every Mexican city has unusual museums like the new Baroque museum in Puebla and San Luis Potosí’s Mask Museum.
- Mexico also has excellent historical museums housed in old convents and churches like Oaxaca’s spectacular Santo Domingo church.
- While Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology is among the world’s best, the anthropology museums in Xalapa, Merida (Palacio Cantón), and (yes, this is a surprise) Cancun are also noteworthy.
- Musicians everywhere. Whenever I walk around most Mexican downtowns at night, many restaurants and bars have live music featuring many genres.
- A lot of cultural events. Many colonial cities had theaters built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, like miniature versions of the great European theaters.
Mexico’s Diverse Scenery
Most of the images that Americans think about Mexico revolve around beaches. Yet, only about 10% of the population of Mexico lives near the coast. Until the 1950s, the only large coastal cities in Mexico were ports. (Supposedly, computers helped determine most Mexican beach resort cities in the 1950s, and until then, most of the resorts were small fishing villages).
Only two of these ports, Acapulco and Veracruz, were necessary until the 20th century. (Galleon ships used in the Spanish trade between Europe and Asia used to be unloaded in either of these cities. The goods were transported across Mexico and reloaded onto another ship that would come and supply the products, including things from Mexico, most importantly gold and silver (for transport to Spain or the Philippines).
Mexico has a lot more scenery than just beaches. It is one of the most mountainous countries on Earth. The country’s northern half has deserts with unique plants (The Baja Peninsula has over 100 endemic flora species, including the iconic boojum tree).
Lush tropical and semi-tropical landscapes predominate in the southern half of the country. (I love the flamboyant flowering trees near the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean). Many places in Mexico even have snow regularly.
Mexico also has incredible wildlife. I could stare at the flamingos in the Yucátan and the butterflies in Michoacan for hours, In addition, Mexico is home to between 10% and 12% of species (though Mexico only accounts for less than 1/2 of 1% of the world’s land). One of my travel dreams is to see the whale migrations in Mexico and the white sharks and elephant seals on Baja’s Guadalupe Island. (If I suddenly win the lottery, I would love to go on this Baja boat trip with Uncruise).
Mexico’s Rich Archaeological History
Note: I recommend reading this list of the Best Aztec and Mayan sites from everysteph.com. While many of these sites aren’t Mayan or Aztecan, I agree with all but one of Steph’s recommendations. (I would replace Mitla, El Tajin, or Tula for Tulum. Tulum is overwhelmed by tourists, and though its setting is stunning, the buildings in Tulum are nothing to write home about).
I am blessed to have visited around 60 pre-Columbian archaeological sites in Mexico (and around a dozen others in Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras). I am amazed at these pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sites’ sophistication, size, architecture, and long history. (Note: I have not seen Calakmul and Bonampak but hope to visit these places soon).
While many people have heard of the Mayans and the Aztecs, fewer people know how many other large Pre-Columbian civilizations existed throughout Southern and Central Mexico, including the Olmecs (the first major Mesoamerican civilization), Zapotecs, the Toltecs, the Totonacs, etc.
Several of my favorite Mesoamerican ruins came from non-Mayan or Aztec civilizations, including:
- El Tajin. No one is sure who built El Tajin; however, it was the most important city in Central Mexico from the 6th-12th century AD, coinciding with the fall of Teotihuacan and the establishment of Tenochtitlan. (I loved El Tajin nichos, niche style, pyramids).
- Monte Alban and Mitla. Built by the Zapotecs. Monte Alban was an important Mesoamerican city between the 5th Century BC and 800 AD. Mitla was an important Mesoamerican center between 750 AD and the 1521 AD Spanish conquest. (Mitlas’s ornamental fretwork is astonishing).
- Teotihuacan. No one knows who built Teotihuacan; however, in the first 500 years AD, Teotihuacan had 125,000 people, making it the 6th largest city globally. It was abandoned in the 6th-8th century AD. (If you have time to see just one of the non-Mayan sites, make it Teotihuacan)
Mayan and Aztec Sights
However, the Mayans and Aztecs are still the most exciting players in Mesoamerican history.
You can easily see many architecturally prominent and historically significant examples of Mayan civilization throughout Southern Mexico, including:
- Chichen Itza, Ukmal, Ek Balam, Kabah and Mayapan (present-day Yucatan state). (I recommend Uxmal or Kabah tried Puuc style decoration is breathtaking and seems modern).
- Coba, Kohunlich, and Dzibanche (Quintana Roo) (Kohunlich-awesome masks- is my favorite of the sights).
- Edzna and Calakmul (Campeche). Note: Calakmul is now difficult to access, especially without a car; however, that may change with the Tren Maya project.
- Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán (Chiapas) (Palenque is my favorite Mayan site anywhere).
The Pre-Columbian Mayan Civilization established cities as early as 750 BC. The Mayans abandoned most of their significant city-states by the 13th century.
However, there are still 7 million Mayans in southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras today and a few cities like Tulum existed at the time of the Spanish conquest.
Living in Merida, I have many friends with Mayan heritage, some of whom still speak Mayan. The local Yucatecan Spanish dialect uses Mayan words and grammar at times.
When the Spanish arrived in 1521, they defeated the Aztec empire. Like the Mayans, most Mesoamerica civilizations were not organized into significant cultures during the conquest.
Interestingly, few archaeological sites associated with the Aztecs are open to the public. The Spanish built their cities on top of Mesoamerican civilizations. In addition, the Aztecs were a relatively new Mesoamerican empire which enabled the Spanish to enlist many disgruntled tribes on the edge of the Aztec empire to fight against the Aztecs.
The Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan less than 200 years before the conquest. However, Tenochtitlan, the modern-day Mexico City, had between 200 and 400,000 people at the time of the win, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Day of the Dead and Other Remarkable Mexican Festivals
The Mexican Day of the Dead is perhaps my favorite festival anywhere. because I love the:
- Altars decided to the dead. People decorate these altars to reflect the real person, complete with warts and all. (Many altars include cigarettes and tequila).
- Smell and look of the paths of marigold petals are used to direct the dead person’s spirit from the front door to the altar.
- The idea of inviting the dead into your home and talking to them on the Day of the Dead.
- Candles, flowers, and incense decorate the loved ones´ tombs.
The Day of the Dead feels more meaningful and human than Halloween.
I highly recommend visiting a famous Day of the Dead cemetery like Xoxocotlan cemetery in Oaxaca to watch the families commune with their dead loved ones on incense-scented gravesites decorated with marigolds.
Mexico is also home to many other remarkable festivals I hope to visit someday. Mexico City hosts one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages on December 12th (the Virgin of Guadalupe Day) to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mazatlan hosts one of the top Carnival parades anywhere, and Guanajuato is home to the famed Cervantino theatrical and art festival.
My favorite festivals are smaller-scale, like the joyous Youth Carnival parade in Merida’s Plaza Principal.
I love traditional Mexican music, dance, and costumes. As I have learned the words to many songs, I admire the passion and heartfelt sentiments expressed by the music. I also love the diversity of musical influences in Mexican music, including Polish polka, salsa, French waltzes, cumbia, Cuban bolero, and indigenous pre-Columbian music.
Mariachi looks so stylish in its charro suits with its waist-length jacket with silver or gold buttons, bow tie, fitted pants, short boots, and broad embroidered sombreros. Dancers look even more elegant in traditional embroidered long dresses and white linen costumes.
I enjoy Mexican cuisine’s variety of spices, sauces, and innovative ingredients. My mouth waters when I think of my favorite dishes, including:
- Sweet Tamales
- Avocado Ice Cream.
- Tequila and Fig Ice Cream
- Chile Relleno. Pepper stuffed with traditional Mexican cheese or a picadillo made of diced pork, raisins, and nuts, seasoned with cinnamon. The pepper is often fried in an egg white batter and served in a tomato sauce;
- Pozole. A soup made from hominy and meat usually garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, salsa, or limes.
- Chiles en Nogada. Poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo (apples, pears, and peaches) topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, served at room temperature.
- Mole. Like Indian curry, every Mexican cook has a different mole sauce recipe. Generally, a mole sauce contains fruit, chilis, nuts and seeds, spices (cinnamon and cumin), and chocolate. I have even tried and liked mole chocolate souffle for dessert.
- Quesadillas with Huitlacoche, a corn fungus that tastes vaguely like truffles.
Over time, after eating so much Mexican food, I have even grown to prefer my cuisine a bit spicy.
Mexico’s Regions and People
Mexico has many different regions and people.
Mexico’s Diverse Population
- Small Haitian refuge communities in Tijuana, Tapachula (on the Guatemalan border), and Mexico City.
- Venezuelan refugees
- 50,000 Korean Mexicans (including many Koreans who came to work in the sisal haciendas in the Yucatan)
- 1,500,000+ Mayans (Many of my friends in Yucatán have Mayan last names).
- 1,500,000 Afro-Mexicans, including several whose ancestors were enslaved people who escaped from the US via the Underground Railroad. Veracruz even has some cities with a substantial Afro-Mexican population.
- Estimated 100,000 Jews, most of which live in Mexico City.
The US heavily influences Northern Mexico. Many cities in Sonora, Baja California Norte, and Chihuahua (the country’s traditionally wealthiest region) look like similar cities across the border in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas (often some of the US’s poorest regions). Mexican has many small, little-known communities, including:
The countryside features deserts, mountains, high plains, Copper Canyon, and the Las Pozas Gardens in Xilitla in San Luis Potosí (one of the oddest places I’ve ever visited). Xilitla is the fantasy garden ruins of Edward James, a truly eccentric Englishman).
The North also features beautiful coastal ports and resorts like San Carlos, Sonora; Mazatlán, Sinaloa; Ensenada, Baja California (the Guadalupe Valley near Ensenada produces some world-class wines), and Cabo San Lucas, Southern Baja California.
Check out Northern Mexico’s stunning colonial cities and towns like Zacatecas; San Luis Potosí; Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosí, Todos Santos, Baja California; and Alamos, Sonora. (Most of these cities served Mexico’s rich silver mines, which bankrolled the Spanish empire for three centuries)
The North is also home to Mexico’s wealthiest and most business-friendly city, Monterrey. Monterrey is home to many of Mexico’s biggest companies. Nearly every major foreign company has at least a foothold in the city. (Monterrey is the only major Mexican city I have never visited),
The Central part of Mexico has incredibly varied climates depending on altitude. At sea level, in a place like Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco, the temperature is scorching and humid between April and October (mainly in May and September), especially when it is not raining or breezy.
At 2000 to 4000 feet, the weather is pleasant most of the year at a place like Cuernavaca or Lake Chapala. Summer is rainy, and winter is dry, but the temperature stays around 20 to 25 degrees year-round.
Cuernavaca is also home to two of my favorite small museums in Mexico, the colorful and lively home of Robert Brady, one of Mexico’s best-known and eccentric expats, and La Tallera, the workshop of David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s foremost 20th-century muralists.
From 4000 feet up, in a place like Puebla, it can be frigid during the winter at night and will never get extremely hot, even in the summer. Near Pueblo is Cholula, home to one of the world’s most giant pyramids (now covered by a church) and some of Mexico’s most beautiful small Baroque churches.
Puerto Vallarta is famed for its beautiful location, active nightlife; world-class restaurant scene; beautiful Malecon (check out the statues), art walks; small but attractive colonial downtown, and Isla Rio Cuale; and GLBT+ friendly atmosphere. Puerto Vallarta, which also has the most active and sophisticated expat community on Mexico’s coast, is the only coastal community I would like to live in Mexico. (I love the plays and small concerts at Act2PV).
Central Mexico is also where traditional Mexican culture is most evident and vibrant. Most of what the outside world associates with Mexico, such as Michoacán folk art, mariachi, molé, and tequila, comes from central Mexico, particularly the states of Jalisco (home of Guadalajara) and Michoacán. Jalisco and Michoacán also were the home regions, until twenty years ago, of most Mexican immigrants to the US. Michoacan is the destination of the world’s largest migration of monarch butterflies and the world’s largest producer of avocados.
Mexico City, which is a mile high (and can get cold in the winter), is the center of Mexico’s economic and political life. Nearly every first-time visitor is stunned by the city’s cultural sophistication and cosmopolitan population. Mexico City houses some of the world’s top restaurants (Pujol, Quintonil), staged the world’s largest nudist gathering, and was the first city in Latin America to legalize gay marriage (in 2010).
Yet, both Guadalajara and Queretaro house Mexico’s Silicon Valleys with large branches of companies like Oracle, Bombardier, etc. Queretaro state is even home to a burgeoning Napa Valley. Seemingly, another of its Queretaran red and sparkling wine producers receives accolades every few months. Puebla is also a significant foodie center, known for its terrific molés, cemitas (humungous sandwiches with everything but the kitchen sink inside), rajas poblanos (yummy, grilled chili peppers with corn and cream), and chiles en nogada. (chiles stuffed with a mixture of shredded meat, fruits, and spices with a walnut-and pomegranate cream sauce
Southern Mexico splits into two distinct regions. Oaxaca and Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche).
Oaxaca and Chiapas are Mexico’s poorest regions yet the most culturally and touristically rich Mexican areas. Oaxaca is famed for its traditional dishes like tlayuda (a bit like pizza), molé, my personal favorites, sweet tamales, and quesadillas with squash blossoms (flor de calabaza). Oaxaca is also the home state of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first indigenous President, and contains some of the country’s most interesting Meso American ruins at Monte Albán and Mitla.
Chiapas’s central tourist center, San Cristobal de las Casas is over 7000 feet high in elevation (I have seldom been as cold as I was in San Cristobal in December 2012). (I had lunch with Trudi Blom, the Danish anthropologist who founded Na Bolom in 1984. She has subsequently died). San Cristobál is one of the few places in Mexico where you can see Mayans dressed in their folkloric clothing and visit Catholic churches in nearby towns like Zinacantán and San Juan Chamula that retain Mayan images and rituals. San Cristobál is also home to the Casa Na Bolom.
The Yucatan peninsula is flat and hot from late March to November. There are no above-ground rivers or lakes but incredible and refreshing cenotes (limestone pools). Since it is on a large limestone plateau, the peninsula’s water supplies come from underground rivers and caves.
Since large mountain ranges separate the Yucatán peninsula from the rest of Mexico, Yucatán has different food, language, archaeology, and history from the rest of Mexico. It has strong ties to Cuba and Spain, as evidenced in its wide use and production of chile habaneros (which were never used but widely traded in Havana), guayaberas, and cuisine. (I highly recommend visiting a traditional honey production facility in Yucatán. The honey, though expensive, is delicious).
While the Yucatán is best known for its beach resorts in Cancún, the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, there are plenty of other worthwhile, but lesser-known, beach and lagoon-oriented destinations in the Yucatán, including:
- Bacalar (stunning lagoon of seven colors),
- Isla Holbox,
- Puerto Telchac
- San Crisianito (Check out the pink salt flats)
The Yucatán peninsula also has some fantastic colonial cities: Merida, Valladolid (check out the Casa Los Venados, the most extensive privately-owned folk art collection in Mexico), and Campeche (home of my favorite central plaza in Mexico).
Mexican Popular Art
Perhaps more than anything else, I adore Mexican popular art. Mexican popular art is the most energetic expression of the country’s creativity and passion. It is so naïve, joyful, and full of soul. So many decorative arts in the US feel like a knockoff made in a factory in China. I have decorated my house with small handmade arts and crafts from various artistic mediums and Mexican regions.
My favorite piece of art is a retablo (small, colorful oil paintings, generally made of tin) dated 1953 from a Yucatán church thanking God for delivering the painter from the vice of alcohol and partying. I am also very fond of the six pieces of art pictured above from Michoacán, which showcase the regions’ lacquer work, wooden religious statues, and copper crafts.
Want to Find Out More About Traveling in Mexico?
- I have had the pleasure of meeting Mexico Cassie and enjoy reading her posts about living and traveling in Mexico on her Website and Facebook.
- The best guidebook for ANY country is the People’s Guide to Mexico. It details everything from the uses and preparation for all the ingredients you find in a Mexican market to driving in Mexico. Unfortunately, the guide has not been updated since 2011, but it is still a must-have part of any Mexicophile’s library.
- Here is a great video from Ford Quatterman (an American Mexicophile) about why he chose to settle down in Mexico after traveling around Latin America