Mexico is a big country with over 30 states, some of which are vastly different in culture, cuisine, landscapes, and lifestyles. Often, Mexico’s reputation as a whole suffers from violent incidents that are only restricted to some regions of the country. I implore you not to overlook Mexico as a travel destination. It’d be akin to being scared to go to the Grand Canyon because of gang violence in Chicago. You may hear about cartel violence happening in Sinaloa or Ciudad Juarez, but none of that will impact your travels in Chiapas or Campeche. Heck, those places are closer to the U.S. than they are to many states of Mexico.
Mexico is a richly diverse country, but it’s always good to exercise caution. I’ve traveled all throughout the country, visiting over twenty states without any issues. However, I do know we all have to start somewhere, and it wasn’t even until my fifth time in Mexico that I explored outside of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. If you don’t know where to start, here are some incredible destinations that are safe to visit. For first-timers to Mexico, these cities are a great place to start.
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Merida was my first real introduction to Mexico, deciding to tack it on to a trip to Cozumel back before I ever really started traveling. It captivated me right away and showed me a side of Mexico that I had never seen before. It was colorful and vibrant, with beautiful architecture and lively plazas. The food was amazing, and my first time being serenaded by mariachis as I ate remains a core memory.
I’ve been back several times since, and still love Merida just as much as the first time. It’s a great introduction to Mexico. It is often ranked the safest city in Mexico. It’s also just a 5-hour bus ride away from Cancun, so if you tire of the beach life and want to dip your toes into a more authentic side of Mexico, Merida is a great option.
Be sure to visit the archaeological site of Uxmal, as well as the pueblos magicos of Izamal and Valladolid while you’re here. Indulge in the various styles of Mexican food here, where you’ll find classics as well as Yucatecan specialties unique to the region. Besides that, just roam around the beautiful historic city center, admiring the cathedrals and colorful buildings.
Not too far from Merida, you’ll find the colorful, coastal town of Campeche. The colonial city center is one of the most charming in Mexico. It’s a relatively quiet town, but with good dining options and a few bars here and there. Walking along the boardwalk at sunset is a chill way to spend an evening, while day trips to the archaeological sites of Edzna or Calakmul are must-dos during the day.
Campeche is safe to visit, albeit a little on the quieter side if you are looking for a more lively destination. If you plan on visiting Campeche, I wouldn’t spend more than two days here, and would tack it to a longer trip. It’s a great way to break up the journey between Yucatan to Chiapas, or as an add-on to a trip to Merida.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
San Cristobal de las Casas, or just Sancris for short, is perhaps my favorite small city in Mexico. Nestled in the rolling hills of Chiapas, this mountain town is the perfect getaway for nature-lovers. Within the city, you’ll find an abundance of local markets, beautiful churches, lively walking streets and plazas, and a plethora of great restaurants and bars to choose from. Stay at Puerta Vieja Hostel, whose generous inclusions (breakfast, dinner, cocktails!?) for an absurdly low price (it was $8 when I was there but now it’s been bumped up to $13) have become the thing of legend among backpackers.
Outside the city are where the true adventures lie. From the breathtaking waterfalls of El Chiflon, to the turquoise waters of the Montebello Lakes, natural beauty is aplenty in Chiapas. A day tour to the Sumidero Canyon will have you feeling like you’ve stumbled into Jurassic Park. There are hiking areas and caves even closer to the city, and options for horseback riding and other outdoor adventures. Although Chiapas as a whole may not be the safest, I found San Cristobal to be perfectly safe with a bustling tourism industry.
Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca
I don’t have enough words to describe just how much I love Oaxaca. There’s a reason it’s captivated so many travelers over time. I haven’t met a single person who had a bad thing to say about Oaxaca. The high praise for Oaxaca is well-deserved. As a travel destination, it is safe, budget-friendly, and has everything you could ask for. Many agree that Oaxaca has the best food in all of Mexico.
Outside the city’s vibrant center, there are incredible wonders to be explored. The ruins of Monte Alban and the otherworldly Hierve el Agua are musts. For a good time, visit a mezcal distillery and then party it up in Oaxaca’s various bars and discotecas. Oaxaca is an incredible place to immerse yourself in the local Zapotecan culture. No matter your priorities as a traveler, Oaxaca is a must-visit destination. If you’ve never been to Mexico, visit Oaxaca and I guarantee you’ll fall in love with the country.
Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
After Oaxaca, a visit to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido is a must. It’s become a haven for surfers, backpackers, and beach bums. One can catch a flight from Mexico City or take the long and winding bus ride from Oaxaca. Puerto Escondido is rapidly gaining popularity among younger travelers, and although it’s changed quite a bit in recent years, it still remains my favorite beach destination in the country.
Unlike other beach destinations, Puerto Escondido is big enough where you could avoid tourists if you wanted to, or indulge in people-watching as the sun sets in La Punta. One can still find a very local scene by staying in Centro, and there are a few beaches that are mostly frequented by the locals. While Carrizalillo and La Punta are the most famous beaches, there are plenty more to explore, including one where you can help release baby sea turtles.
If you desire a beach destination without the luxury hotels and skyrocketing prices of places like Cancun and Tulum, then Puerto Escondido might be for you. If you want something even more barebones, the neighboring town of Mazunte or the island of Chacahua are well worth a visit.
Only a couple of hours away from Mexico City, you’ll find perhaps the most beautiful city in the country. Puebla is home to gorgeous cathedrals, streets lined with colorful, patterned houses, and lively, green plazas. It is a wanderer’s paradise, with a huge city center that one could roam aimlessly for hours upon end. The food is incredible, and rivals Oaxaca for the best food in the country.
Close to Puebla, you’ll find the small town of Cholula. A day trip here is a must, if not a multi-day getaway in itself. Visit the largest pyramid in the world and the catacombs that run below the city. The nightlife here is also some of the liveliest I’ve found in Mexico, which was surprising for a relatively small town. These two cities are safe and beginner-friendly destinations for travelers looking to experience Mexico at its best.
Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo
Although developing rapidly in recent years, Isla Holbox remains a somewhat hidden paradise off of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Some resorts and luxury hotels have popped up recently, but largely, the island remains island living at its fullest. Dirt roads, two ATMs that never work, and long strips of pristine beach, what more could you ask for? I stayed at Tribu Hostel right along the beach, renting a bike from them to adventure during the day and come back for some sunset beers on their terrace. Perfect way to spend the day, if you ask me.
It’s easily accessible from the bigger tourist hubs of Cancun and Merida, requiring a bus ride and a ferry to get to the island. Isla Holbox is the perfect beach destination for travelers who want sparkling cyan waters without the mobs of tourists that flood the Riviera Maya. It is a safe, laid-back island destination that can’t be missed.
Located two hours from Mexico City in the state of Morelos, you’ll find the village of Tepoztlan nestled under sacred mountains. This pueblo magico is the perfect weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City. It’s a cute town with cobbled streets and murals lining the hilly alleyways of the town. It’s home to lively markets, including a huge street market during the weekends. There are opportunities for hiking, with a popular one being the hike up to Tepozteco Pyramid.
This quaint, quiet town is perfectly safe and one that I totally recommend for anyone visiting Mexico. I stayed at EKKO Hostel, taking in stunning, unobstructed views of the mountains from its cozy patio.
Coyoacan, Mexico City
Within the confines of one of the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, you’ll find the charming oasis of Coyoacan. Mexico City can be overwhelming and chaotic, although I’ve grown to love its varied neighborhoods. For first-timers to Mexico City, I would recommend staying in the town of Coyoacan. It is famed for Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, although there is much more to see and do than just that. There are lively markets home to colorful artisan goods and delicious food. Hostel Cuija is a great place to make your home base in the city.
While it is outside of Mexico City’s historic center and main tourist hubs, it’s easy to get to and from by public transport or Uber. Coyoacan provides small town Mexico vibes in the big city.
Mexico has no shortage of incredible destinations to visit. Once you start getting comfortable traveling around Mexico, go off the beaten path and see what other hidden gems there are to discover.
Also, be sure to check out my complete itinerary for backpacking in Mexico with 77 jam-packed pages covering over 33 different destinations in this amazing country!
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
By popular demand… Here is the complete itinerary for one of my favorite countries in the world, Mexico. In this 77-page guidebook, I cover 30 of my favorite Mexican destinations, including how to get to each city, where to stay, and the best things to do in each city. I also include tidbits of useful information like things to know before going to Mexico, as well as my favorite party destina…
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