Mexico is one of my most favourite countries ever. I spent six weeks in Mexico City, Guadalajara, San Pancho, Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca last year. I’d go back and do exactly the same again I loved it that much. Of course there’s more to the country though – next time I’ll be on the Yucatan Peninsula to see more after my quick Cancun experience when I was 20.
If you’ve got limited time, or you’re at the research stage for your ultimate Mexican gap year trip, I’ve narrowed down the 10 things you have to do to truly say you’ve ‘done’ Mexico.
The Best Things to Do in Mexico
1. Watch the Lucha Libre
This is like the Mexican version of WWE. Men and women train to look like they’re fighting but really it’s all for show. For something fake though, it all looks very real with the action getting pretty intense.
Up to six people pile into the ring and perform expert moves to make it look like they’re kicking the hell out of each other while the bloodthirsty audience look on. Things take a slightly interactive turn when those in the expensive seats start verbal fights with these in the cheap seats meaning it’s straight-up banter all night. Get a two-pint beer and a few snacks and it’s all great fun sitting ringside for all the action.
2. Learn to Surf in San Pancho
A beachside town, San Pancho has the waves, the sunshine and the perfect accommodationin the form of surf housesto make a weeklong surf haven. Instructors will take on beginners and those a little more advanced for a week of guidance that, no matter your ability, will have you feeling you’ve really improved by the end. I managed to stand up on the first day, ooo yeah.
One week of tuition is all you need to go from flat out falling to gliding the waves with expert precision, hopefully, but not guaranteed.
3. Visit Day of the Dead Festival
Day of the Dead Festival, known locally as Dia de los Muertos, is when families and friends celebrate the lives of their dead loved ones. In Mexican culture it’s believed that on November 1st, souls return to the living for just 24 hours and you must be there to greet them with the pleasures they enjoyed most in life.
While it sounds like it could be fairly morbid, it’s anything but. The festival lasts three days and involves big family parties at the cemeteries, which actually look pretty good once they’re all done up, lots of food and drink and lots of celebration. Don’t forget your get-up though – it’s customary to paint your face and dress up in traditional Mexican style.
4. Eat at the street food markets
While a diet of tacos and nachos is not one to complain about, your tummy might be craving a little more love a few days into your trip. Mexican street markets are where it’s at if you’re looking for flavour. A tostas, or Mexican style sandwich, is my recommendation with lots of choice of fillings and usually accompanied with a few tasty sauces. Remember there are so many other tasty treats to try though, so don’t fill yourself up. Pick a stand and try whatever they have, usually you won’t go wrong (but I can’t promise).
5. Swim at the Hierve el Agua Waterfalls
Hierve el Agua (Spanish for ‘the water boils’) is a set of natural rock formations in Oaxaca that have created these incredible springs that are truly beautiful to see.
They look good but they feel better so remember your cozzie to take a dip in the pools. Enjoy some of the smaller ones with their invigorating mineral-rich water before taking a dunk in the mountainside pool, aka the best infinity pool ever.
Near to the springs is also the Hierve el Agua Waterfall, which looks like it’s frozen but is actually the salty crystals forming in the flow that makes it look still.
It’s easy and cheap to get to the Hierve el Agua area using three buses from Oaxaca City yourself, or join a tour to make it even easier but a little more expensive.
6. Scuba dive in Cancun
Cancun remains my first and best experience when it comes to scuba diving. Asa complete beginner I signed up for a day of diving with Manta Divers where I got a two-hour theory class before I even dipped a toe – they’re the real deal.
Once I was ready, it was feet first into the underwater wonderland of Cancun. While they may not be the clearest waters, there’s some pretty cool creatures you can have a hold of (only if you’re careful and with the right instruction) that’ll give you your sought after Little Mermaid moment.
As well as exploring the open waters you can go exploring in some of the 3000 cenotes. These are a whole network of caves and tunnels that have cool formations on the inside. With your scuba equipment you can see how the caves were formed and check out the incredible sea life too.
7. Try flyboarding in Puerto Vallarta
Get ready for your Buzz Lightyear moment because it’s to infinity and beyond with flyboarding. There are loads of companies offering this great experience and while it may seem like a tourist pull, it’s a super fun activity to do and the closest you’re ever going to get to flying.
Once you’ve had your tutorial and mastered the art of toe-heeling, you’ll be zig zagging across the waves and doing the dolphin dive in no time. The 30-minute experience gets you a briefing session, expert tutorials and enough time to belly-flop a fair bit.
8. Go off the beaten track in Chapala
Lake Chapala might be where the rich Americans go to retire but it’s also where backpackers go for the best views. As Mexico’s biggest freshwater lake you can take a boat out on it and visit the castle on the island, or just cruise around the surface for a while with a friendly tour guide.
Warning though, no one goes in the water! The lake is actually dying because of dehydration, phosphorus levels, heavy metals and overfishing, so unfortunately you’ll have to leave the speedos at home. Great views though.
9. Explore the ruins, everywhere
Visiting ruins may not sound super exciting but prepare to become a Ross Gellar convert, because the likes of Monte Alban and Tulum will leave you in awe and more than a little excited.
With building work dating well back to around 500BC, these ruins are all that remain of ancient cities. Historians and archaeologists have been exploring them for years, and they are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
10. Learning about Frida Kahlo in Mexico City
Frida Kahlo was one cool lady and one of the best artists of the century. Her work is colourful and dreamlike and usually shows herself in some bizarre scenarios. She was from Mexico City and created some of her best works in her little blue family home in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Now a museum to honour her, you can visit the house and learn about the life of this feminist icon and national heroine. The home she shared with her husband Diego can also be visited as well as Diego’s mistress’s home, Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño, which features a large collection of both Frida and Diego’s work – all bizarrely brilliant.