When in Mexico … well, do something purely Mexican! This top-ten list breaks down the can’t-miss, can’t-find-elsewhere activities for your next visit to our southern neighbor.
If all you know about Mexico is its beaches, you’ve been missing out. Rich in both natural wonders and culture, it’s a country brimming with unique experiences to set any trip apart. ALG Vacations® lists out our top ten.
- Take part in a temazcal ceremony.
Held in a Mayan sweat lodge, these purification ceremonies cleanse body and mind alike. Herbal steam from hot stones rids the body of toxins and improves blood flow as mindful grounding in the moment led by a healer, or temazcalero, relieves stress and anxiety. A cold shower afterwards counterbalances the heat, but as with any wellness treatment, you should be sure to drink plenty of water the rest of the day to keep hydrated.
Pro-tip: Planning a wedding or special occasion? Pre-book a temazcal for a day or two before the big day. Hotels like Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya (pictured here), Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa, and Dreams Playa Mujeres Golf & Spa Resort from the AMR™ Collection offer them on site.
- Discover wild diversity at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of Mexico’s largest protected areas, the “Origin of the Sky” was inhabited by the Maya for more than 1,200 years; 23 archaeological sites still stand within the reserve. The surrounding coastal wetlands, tropical forests, palm savanna, lagoons, mangroves, beaches, forested islands, and cenotes still serve as a sanctuary for wildlife: jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, over 330 species of birds, spider and black howler monkeys, as well as the manatees, turtles, and 400 types of fish of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Low-impact tours let you experience this natural wonderland and help preserve it.
Pro-tip: If you’re traveling with all adults, consider staying at Bahia Principe Luxury Sian Ka’an. The resort’s Treasure Ambassadors can offer insider recommendations for exploring the area.
- Celebrate the Day of the Dead.
El Día de los Muertos has gained a lot of attention in the States over the last few years, but while it occurs the two days after, don’t confuse it with Halloween. In fact, this holiday is one of Mexico’s most significant, honoring loved ones who have passed. Offrendas, beautiful homemade alters, offer food and gifts to the departed; those among the living celebrate with music, parades, and the now-iconic skull masks and candies. Join the festivities—considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO—throughout Mexico, even at some all-inclusive resorts.
Pro-tip: Brew the day’s traditional hot chocolate any time you need a tasty treat. Destinations like Oaxaca (waa-haa-ka) sell wooden molinillo whisks for frothing the cocoa in true Mexican style. Drop a chocolate “tablet” spiced with cinnamon into milk, heat, and spin away.
- Explore one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
A great city of the ancient world, where Toltec culture fused with Mayan, the Yucatan’s Chichen Itza is the best remaining relic of the two civilizations. Founded around 465 C.E. for access to two natural cenotes, it was considered a sacred place; its crowning glory, “the Castle,” served as the Temple of Kukulcan, a feathered serpent god. Actually a pyramid stretching nearly 100 feet toward the sky, it’s just one of the archaeological site’s 26 ruins. Located a 90-minute drive from Merida and about a 2.5-hour ride from Cancun or Riviera Maya, you can easily turn it into a day trip, especially if doing an official tour.
Pro-tip: Chichen Itza may be open 365 days a year, but getting your tickets in advance is highly recommended. Sign up for a tourwell in advance to secure your spot.
- Try authentic Mexican eats.
Tacos and fajitas may be mainstreams on menus across the U.S., but real Mexican cuisine has so much more to offer. Dig in to street food classics like breakfast tamales, open-faced tostadas with shredded meat and melted cheese, and corn on the cob (elote) or in a cup (esquite) slathered with cheese, mayo, and chili powder. For dessert, try a raspado, shaved ice topped with a salty-sweet-spicy pickled fruit sauce, or churros dipped in dulce de leche. Of course, you’d be remiss to miss out on the national dish: mole, a complex sauce incorporating as many as 40 ingredients—usually fruits, nuts, seeds, chilies, and sometimes chocolate—often served over meat or rice.
Pro-tip: Sign up for a cooking class at your resort. All-inclusive hotels from Cancun to Los Cabos offer them at compliments, and you’ll gain a souvenir you can enjoy over and over again.
- Float through the Xochimilco canal system.
Get a glimpse of the distant past in the Valley of Mexico, just 40 minutes south of Mexico City. Remnants of the original city, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, can still be seen along the UNESCO-listed canals of Xochimilco (sow-chee-meel-co). Named “Flower Field” in Nahuatl for its chinampas, or floating gardens, there, trajinera, gondola-style boats with brightly painted wooden frames, fill the waterways with live music. Give yourself at least half a day to dine on board, chat with locals, and admire the market’s fresh flower crowns and bouquets.
Pro-tip: Set a faster pace by renting a pedal boat or bike at Xochimilco Eco Park. Quesadillas and aguas frescas, water refreshingly flavored with fruit and sugar, from one of the many vendors along the canals make for a perfect picnic lunch.
- Purchase one-of-a-kind folk art.
Imitated but never replicated, Mexico’s exquisite crafts follow methods lovingly passed down from generation to generation—and nowhere more so than Oaxaca. Browse its shops and markets for colorful, original woven rugs; hand-embroidered huipil blouses and guayabera shirts; painted wooden alebrije figures of fantastical animals; latticed black or green-glazed pottery where no two pieces are alike; and woven-palm bags, baskets, and hats. In Riviera Nayarit, support the indigenous Huichol artists by taking home a beaded necklace or intricate yarn painting. If Puebla’s your destination, the local Talavera tiles, baked exclusively from the area’s six naturally colored clays, are a splendid souvenir.
Pro-tip: Buy directly from the artist whenever you can, and remember to be respectful of their time and skill when haggling. Not only will you support their talent, but you’ll have a positive impact on the community you’re visiting.
- See the great monarch butterfly migration.
Come winter each year, millions of monarch butterflies come to Michoacán. From November through March, the UNESCO-listed Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and its sanctuaries allow nature lovers to witness this spectacular migration—a distance of up to 2,500 miles—to the region’s oyamel fir forests. Orange wings transform treetops into a striking imitation of fall foliage; peep for curious butterflies fluttering from branch to branch until every perch is covered.
Pro-tip: Get active! Climate change, deforestation, and pesticides are increasingly threatening this remarkable journey. Support the World Wildlife Foundation’s commitment to reseeding one billion square feet of butterfly habitat by planting one square foot in your yard or patio pots.
- Catch a mariachi performance.
Mexico’s most famous musical genre and an Intangible Cultural Heritage, mariachi has been part of the country’s folk culture for at least 300 years. While its sound varies between region and style—traditional without trumpets and modern commercial, playing a wider variety of songs—Puerto Vallarta, Riviera Nayarit, and Mexico City remain some of the best places to take in a performance. Though typically heard at festivals, weddings, and other special events, it’s worth checking with your resort to see if they have a band playing on site.
Pro-tip: Prep for your trip by familiarizing yourself with the classics. Check out this playlist of popular mariachi tunes you can recognize—or request!—when listening to a live band.
- Make the Night of the Radishes a night to remember.
’Tis the season for … radishes? Putting a decidedly unique spin on holiday festivities, this one-time Christmas market event has become its own annual tradition in Oaxaca, a city well-known for its artistic heritage. Held December 23, the Noche de Rábanos was born in 1897 after farmers, inspired by wood carvings, created sculptures out of the red root vegetable. Today, see hundreds of musicians, saints, even villages made by local artists from oversized radishes, corn husks, and dried flowers.
Pro-tip: Arrive for the afternoon start to beat the crowds. Beautiful but ephemeral, the radish art only lasts for a few short hours, and lines to see it can drag on closer to evening.