Before this current trip to Mexico, I had been to Mexico about six or seven times. Not once had I even thought about staying there long-term. I had backpacked Central America before and did spend some time in Mexico but half of that was spent in… ugh… Cancun. However, don’t let the negative preconceptions of touristy resort-lands deter you from choosing Mexico as a backpacking destination. After wrapping up this last trip, I’m convinced that Mexico might be the perfect country for anyone looking to dip their toes into the world of backpacking.
On this latest trip, I was looking for a not-so-quick getaway and decided that that $300 roundtrip flight to Mexico City was not worth overlooking. I booked my flight back just a few days in advance and decided to explore some areas that I had not ventured into before, mainly the Puebla and Oaxaca regions.
With the trip taking place during the twilight of summer, I was shocked at how few Americans I had met. I am a huge advocate for backpacking and solo travel and just have to tell any of my American readers this. If you are looking for a taste of what the backpacking lifestyle has to offer, then Mexico is an incredible country to go on your first backpacking trip. Why?
There is A LOT to do and see in Mexico
There is so much more to Mexico than Cancun or Cabo or any of the other resort towns that American retirees and spring breakers flock to. I was in awe at the diversity of things I was able to do in such a short time here. It would take years to see everything there is to see in Mexico and it would be a crime to not even try to take advantage of the beauty and adventure that Mexico has to offer.
In a few short weeks, my friend and I went from an 18,000 foot tall mountain (the 7th tallest in the Americas) to the vast desert biosphere of Tehuacan-Cuicatlan to the serene mountains of San Jose del Pacifico and to the quiet beaches of Mazunte. Mexico’s bustling capital of Mexico City, the beautiful colonial center of Puebla, the thriving and vibrant cultural hub of Oaxaca City, and the laid-back backpacker haven of Puerto Escondido rounded out our trip.
It was hard to fit even just those places in a three-week itinerary, and my goal of making it to famous San Cristobal de las Casas and the rest of the Chiapas region fell severely short once I realized how much more there was to do. Each region of Mexico could take up months of your time. In the end, I was glad that I opted for a not-so-ambitious itinerary that limited my 10-hour bus rides to just a couple.
The history and culture is as exciting and vibrant as any country out there
Mexico is as beautiful and diverse as any country I have been to but the culture of Mexico is also among the strongest and passionate there is in the world. With hundreds of thousands of indigenous people still calling Mexico home, you can experience so many exciting traditions and vibrant cultures. From the local dialects that are still widely practiced to the artisanal talents passed down from generation to generation, the Mexican people are much more intriguing than just tacos and tequila. From the Zapotec weavers to the residents of San Jose del Pacifico where magic mushrooms are an everyday thing, the cultures I encountered on this trip alone were rich and varied.
Some people might say that Mexico hardly counts as leaving the United States but those people are definitely wrong. Sure, places like Cancun’s Zona Hotelera might just feel like over-commercialized extensions of America, but people who choose to delve deeper into Mexico’s culture will be treated with an experience of a lifetime. With a country as large as Mexico, it is pretty difficult to think of any other country that can rival it in terms of the variety of cultures, indigenous tribes, and traditions that continue to exist.
It is very affordable and you can stretch your money out long-term
While the tourist centers of Mexico like Cancun and Cabo will drain your bank account in a matter of days, backpacking through Mexico’s less resort-y destinations is very affordable. At most, a hostel would cost you $12 a night although you could easily find cheaper ones for as low as $3 a night. Even without grocery shopping and cooking your own meals, food is a very minimal expense in Mexico. When you can get tacos for around $.50 each, your trip can stretch out a lot longer.
Transportation to get from place to place is also cheap, with even the longer bus rides only running you about $30 maximum. If you’re willing to travel the local way, you can get some extremely cheap prices for the tradeoff of interesting bus rides and crazy drivers. A dollar or less can pretty much get you anywhere in town on a local bus or shared truck or colectivo.
A major factor of seeing whether or not backpacking is right for you is if you can give up your usual vacation comforts to stretch your money out. That means no posh hotels, minimal taxis, and sometimes, cooking your own meals. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit of practice at this point but I found that Mexico is perfectly set up to introduce new travelers to backpacking. You won’t be thrust into unfamiliar territory immediately.
Even living on a budget in Mexico is pretty comfortable. The $10 hostel rooms were some of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. Street food is already pretty cheap which doesn’t force you to cook your own meals if you don’t have to. The variety of transportation options allows you a lot of flexibility. If you’re hoping to notch a long-term backpacking trip under your belt in the near future but have never backpacked before, Mexico is a great place to start.
For Americans, it is close to home should you ever feel too far out of your comfort zone
I understand that long-term travel and backpacking is not for everyone but I do encourage everyone to at least try it once. Venturing solo halfway across the world to somewhere like Vietnam or Turkey might not be the best idea to dip your feet into the backpacking world.
Somewhere like Mexico is a perfect place because you would be already familiar with the culture and be able to find plenty of similarities to the U.S. You probably took some sort of Spanish classes when you were in school so hopefully you might still know enough to get by. It also is just a short flight back home should you realize that backpacking might not be for you or if you start feeling too uncomfortable to continue. However, I’m positive that you’ll be completely fine.
Mexican people are among the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world
Imagine going to your grandma’s house and being welcomed by all the food, warmth, and affection that you could desire. That’s Mexico. Mexico is your grandma’s house. While the Mexican people will generally mind their own business, if you need help, then they will be there at the first sign of trouble to help you out and do whatever needs to be done. I don’t think anyone has told me “I don’t know” here in Mexico. If you ask someone for help, advice, or recommendations, you will get an answer. If they don’t know, they will ask someone else until it becomes a community affair to help you get to where you need to go.
If you find yourself in one of the smaller, less-touristy Mexican towns, this hospitality and warmth will be much more evident than any big touristy city. If you show respect and an effort to learn the languages and culture, you will be treated like a guest of honor.
Backpacking is one of the best adventures you can have. It is my personal favorite style of travel and allows you to see more of a country at a more relaxed pace. It stretches your money out and once you get good at managing your money, you might find that you actually end up spending less money abroad than you would at home.
Although Mexico is often seen by Americans as a quick beach getaway rather than a long-term travel destination, I strongly believe that it is one of the best countries for backpackers, both new and seasoned. It is a country you cannot miss out on.