Whilst glorious beaches are most people’s reason to visit Mexico, this vibrant country also brims with incredible culture. Ancient ruins, folk legend, colourful markets, exuberant fiestas and many more ancient ruins. Here’s 5 for starters.
Teotihuacan, near Mexico City
This incredible pyramid complex is home to some of the world’s oldest ruins, dating from 1st-7thC AD. Bizarrely no one knows who built them; they mysteriously lay abandoned until the Aztecs arrived, and modern archaeologists are still baffled as to their original purpose (it is speculated that rituals were performed here to keep the end of the world at bay). Day-trippable from Mexico City (50km, via bus or metro).
Base yourself at El Patio 77, a grand eco-conscious B&B in the bohemian San Rafael barrio of Mexico City. Its spacious rooms are excellent value (from £76) and the friendly owners will give you insider tips on their city (including where to buy the best burritos!).
Mexico’s cultural capital, this lovely colonial city is all cobbled streets, vibrant galleries and friendly little restaurants. It’s a hub for creativity; local handicraft markets brim with colour and it’s a hotspot for fiestas – their November Day of the Dead celebrations are the biggest in the country.
Base yourself at Las Bugambilias, a family-run guesthouse decorated with cheerful folk paintings, bright textiles and religious icons covering everything from angels to skeletons. The family also run the restaurant next door.
Chichen Itza, Yucatán Peninsula
One of the New 7 Wonders of the World, this sacred site was the most important city of the Mayan people, and is now over 1,000 years old. Its stepped pyramids, columned arches and majestic temples showcase their amazingly advanced principles of architecture. More impressively, the El Castillo pyramid demonstrates the importance of astronomy to the Mayan’s lives: twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow of a serpent falls on the pyramid. As the sun sets, this snake climbs down the steps, to join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase.
Base yourself at: Hacienda Chichen. This colonial hacienda is a 2-minute walk from the site, which means you can visit early morning (before the crowds arrive) or late in the day, and at night, while spending the heat of the day in the hacienda’s exotic gardens and pool. What’s more, the excellent spa offers traditional Mayan treatments…
Freshwater cenotes, near Tulum
Swimming through these mysterious natural sinkholes is an unforgettable experience. Just north of Tulum, Cenote Dos Ojos is one of the largest, an underwater cave system with crystal-clear waters. In some parts, you’re able to wade; others are so deep that people scuba dive. At deeper sites like Ik Kil, the water is significantly inkier, and the experience eerier; you’ll see submerged tree roots and deep-water fish if you dive.
Base yourself at Cabanas La Luna, a handful of laid-back cabanas on a pristine stretch of Tulum beach; the true castaway dream. (NB, staying here will also allow you to experience 3 other Mexico Must-Sees, that didn’t make this grade: Tulum’s white sands, the impossibly blue turquoise Caribbean Sea, and the famous Tulum ruins, all pictured up top *swoon*).
Ancient Palenque, a former Mayan city, stands among dense jungle in the state of Chiapas. Less than 10% of the site has been properly excavated – it’s estimated there are still 1,000 structures enclosed by impenetrable jungle. Some of the hieroglyphic-etched temples rise high into the sky (the tallest is an incredible 75 foot, ‘House of the Nine Sharpened Spears’), and you can climb most of the structures. Tropical bird calls and howler monkeys swinging through the trees thrillingly add to the atmosphere.
Base yourself at: Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal, a gorgeous Mayan palace 3km drive from the ruins. Romantically, its owners met at the ruins in 2005! Don’t miss the opportunity to take a Temazcal – an authentic Mayan sweat lodge, which creates steam from hot stones and herbal waters and is a wonderfully cleansing experience.