Before this current trip, I had been to Mexico six times. Not once had I even considered staying long-term. I backpacked Central America before and did manage to spend some time in Mexico. Unfortunately, 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. I decided that a $300 roundtrip flight to Mexico City was not worth overlooking. I decided to explore some areas that I had not ventured into before, mainly the Puebla and Oaxaca regions.
With the trip taking place in the twilight of summer, I was shocked at how few Americans I met. I am a huge advocate for backpacking and solo travel and just have to tell 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 for your first backpacking trip. Why?
There is A LOT to do and see in Mexico
There is much more to Mexico than Cancun, Cabo or any of the other resort towns that retirees and spring breakers flock to. It is actually unbelievable how many different types of adventures you could squeeze into such a short trip. It would take decades to cover everything in Mexico. It would be an injustice to yourself if you didn’t even try to take advantage of it.
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. We made it to the serene mountains of San Jose del Pacifico then 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. My ambitious goal of making it to San Cristobal de las Casas and the rest of the Chiapas region fell short once I realized how much there was to do. I severely underestimated the wonders of this country. Each individual 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 two.
The history and culture of Mexico is as exciting and vibrant as any country out there
The diverse cultures of Mexico are among the most interesting and most exciting in the world. With millions of indigenous people still calling Mexico home, there are many traditions and vibrant cultures to experience. Local dialects are still widely practiced. Artisanal talents are still 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 widely used, the cultures I encountered on this trip alone were rich and varied.
I’ve heard people say that Mexico hardly counts as leaving the United States. Those people could not be more wrong. Sure, places like Cancun’s Zona Hotelera are just over-commercialized extensions of America, but the people who delve deeper into Mexico’s culture will be treated to an experience of a lifetime. A country as large as Mexico has few rivals when it comes to its variety of cultures, indigenous tribes, and age-old traditions that continue to exist.
Mexico is an affordable destination where you can stretch your money out long-term
While the touristy beach resorts of Mexico will drain your bank account in a matter of days, backpacking through Mexico’s quieter destinations is extremely affordable. A hostel would cost you about $10 a night. Lower end ones even go for as low as $3 a night. Without grocery shopping and cooking your own meals, food is still a minimal expense in Mexico. When you can get street tacos for around $.50 each, your trip can stretch out a lot longer. Compare that to your typical $15-20 meal in Europe and Mexico becomes an even more attractive destination for budget backpackers.
Transportation in Mexico is also cheap. Long bus rides from city to city will only cost 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, 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 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, Mexico is (geographically) close to home should you ever feel too far out of your comfort zone
Long-term travel and backpacking is not for everyone. However, I do encourage everyone to try it at least once. Venturing solo halfway across the world to somewhere hectic like Vietnam or India might not be the best idea if you just want to gently dip your feet into the backpacking world.
Mexico is a perfect place because you would already have a basic familiarity 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 you might already 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 ask for. That’s Mexico. Mexico is your grandma’s house. While the Mexican people will generally mind their own business, if you need help, they will be there at the first sign of trouble to help 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 get you 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 favorite style of travel because it allows me to experience 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 actually end up spending less money abroad than 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. That goes for both newbies and backpacking vets. It is a country you cannot miss out on.