Looking for important travel information while backpacking in Mexico? Here you will find information on working in Mexico, entry visas, Mexico hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About Mexico
- Things to do in Mexico
- Entry Visa Requirements
- Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs
- Mexico Hostels and Budget Accommodation
Facts About Mexico
It is impossible to apply any single definition to Mexico as a country. To the north lie arid deserts fringed by dust-whipped frontier towns, while the south is covered in a dense tropical forest dotted with ancient ruins and mysterious sinkholes.
Mountains and gorges, marshlands and lakes punctuate the schizophrenic topography of this melting pot of modern and ancient, reflecting in a native ethnic diversity unparalleled in the western hemisphere. The descendants of Mayans, Aztecs, Mixtecs and a host of others have mixed with Spanish invaders to carve out their existence in colonial towns, sleepy seaside ports and modern cities – leaving long forgotten ruins to the tales of the ancients.
To complete the picture, take two coastlines running down the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the country and you can see that Mexico has something different to offer everyone.
Some parts of Mexico are traditional tourist destinations for residents of the US and, as such, you can find many locations offering Ibiza-style club and bar based nightlife in cities such as Cancun. However, a more adventurous traveller willing to get off the beaten track can discover amazing Aztec-style temples, medieval convents, nature reserves and other cultural highlights.
- Currency: Nuevo Peso (MXN) = 100 cents. Traveller’s cheques in American Dollars($) are widely accepted.
- Time Zone: Covers 3 time zones between GMT -6 and GMT -8
- Language: Spanish, although English is widely spoken.
- Telephone Services: Country code +52, International Access code 98
- Emergency Numbers: 08 in Mexico City
Climate in Mexico
It’s important to check weather patterns in order to determine the best time to go backpacking in Mexico. In general a very hot country, the climate mostly varies with altitude – low lying areas are extremely hot and humid whilst higher lying areas are more temperate. Hurricane season starts June 1 and ends in November and can be very destructive.
Things to do in Mexico
Built upon the original site of the Aztec capital, Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. Notorious for its choking pollution, gridlock, and high crime levels, it is a formidable but worthwhile challenge for the experienced traveller.
The Archaeological Museum is a worthwhile starting point for those in search of ancient culture as you will find Mexico’s ruins recreated and many original pieces on display. Head into the Zona Rosa for bustling nightlife with lots of tequila, and for lunch order delicious blue corn tortillas from the street, if you dare.
A couple of hours bus ride from Mexico City, the ancient citadel of Teotihuacan is simply amazing. So old as to be an archaeological mystery even to the Aztecs, its ancient spooky atmosphere is tangible as you walk down the enormous central causeway known as The Avenue of the Dead, feeling dwarfed to the size of an ant by two enormous flanking pyramids – the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun (the second largest pyramid in the world).
A couple of hours flight or around 8 hours on a bus from Mexico City you will find Oaxaca. A beautiful colonial town set on a mountainside, Oaxaca is famous for its clean air, bright light and inspiring local culture – making it a draw for artists from all over the world. Nearby market towns provide an excellent, colourful day out where you will see local Mixtec people clad in brightly coloured traditional clothing selling their wares.
The nearby Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban are a short bus ride away and well worth a visit. You can mountain bike or hike around this area, which is also good for bird watching.
Oaxaca’s coast is a mere 5-hour drive down mountain roads that plunge through dense forest in an impossibly precarious series of curves and switchbacks that make the journey itself an adventure. The ample Pacific coastline provides an opportunity to escape the crowds on the tranquil beach of Mazunte or head to the busy seaside town of Puerto Escondido. Dolphins, turtles and many types of birds can be spotted at various points along the Oaxacan coast.
The ancient city of Palenque offers some of the finest Mayan architecture Mexico has to offer. A large, sprawling site including domestic, official and religious buildings that are surrounded by dense tropical forest, Palenque offers an immersive archaeological experience that is only rivalled by nearby Tikal in Guatemala.
The nearby ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak are also worth a visit and can be accessed by a trip down the Usumacinta River. In the same way, you may also enter neighbouring Guatemala.
The Yucatan Peninsula
Besides the party beaches of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, by far the most unique thing the far south of Mexico has to offer is its Mayan ruins. Famous sites such as Tulum (the walled city) and the 100ft tall pyramid at Coba are truly national treasures and at least one such site should be on every backpacker’s itinerary.
If this isn’t your scene you could spend some time relaxing on Xpu-Ha beach where you can indulge in scuba diving should your budget stretch to it. Xcaret is another great attraction, with activities such as snorkelling, swimming with dolphins, horse riding and various Mayan-themed demonstrations and shows. You may find this a bit touristy and it is mostly geared towards the American tourist dollar but it is still a worthwhile place to visit.
Beautiful Baja California is an animal lover’s paradise. From January to March you can see whales, and throughout the year sea lions, dolphins and turtles plus a huge variety of other aquatic life. Sea-kayaking adventures, boat trips and snorkelling are all readily available, and the weather year round is conducive to an excellent holiday.
Access Baja California at the city of La Paz by air, bus or, even better, a glorious 400-mile train ride through the Copper Canyon starting (or ending) in Los Mochis or Chihuahua.
Unique Activities in Mexico
Another good way to get an idea of things to do in Mexico is to scan the activities offered by Get Your Guide or Viator. They work directly with local tour operators, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
If you know your schedule ahead of time, a great insider tip is to buy tickets for major tourist attractions ahead of time. Tiqets has entrance tickets and skip the line passes for major tourist spots in Mexico so that you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
How to Travel Around Mexico
Air travel between major cities in Mexico is provided by a number of national airlines. Many flights connect through Mexico City, often requiring you to take two flights to get to any destination.
If you’re flying to Mexico or plan to take short flights within the country, we recommend using a few different flight comparison search engines. Kiwi is a new favourite among travellers. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to Mexico with them compared to the other websites out there.
Of course, it is always worth checking Skyscanner to guarantee you’re getting the best deal. Both websites offer great flexible search options, allowing you to search the whole country of Mexico to find the cheapest airport to fly into, and also see prices for a full month if you’re flexible on travel dates.
Bus travel in Mexico
Buses are largely available and quite affordable considering the vast distances you will be likely to travel. However, the system is dominated by many small companies and there is no central resource for bus information. Buses almost always go from a bus terminal, and there is usually a separate terminal for second class buses (no air conditioning, so not recommended!).
The best approach is to just turn up at a bus station, there will almost certainly be a bus of some kind going to where you want to go or at least nearby where you can get a connecting bus.
Backpacking Tours in Mexico
Though part of the fun of backpacking Mexico is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group. For these times, a popular option among backpackers is G Adventures. They hand-select local guides to ensure authenticity and quality. This is especially a good option for those travelling Mexico alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. Their most popular trips in Mexico are their 18-to-30 somethings tours or Classic tours through Mexico and other parts of Central America.
Health and Safety in Mexico
Tap water is generally considered unsafe and for this reason, avoid drinks served with ice. Caution should also be taken when dealing with street vendors serving food. Although the food served by these vendors is a wonderful part of the Mexican experience, make sure you take a discreet look at how the food is prepared before purchasing.
The health service in Mexico is adequate but you will need comprehensive travel insurance. Also, be aware that many Mexican hospitals will not deal directly with your insurer, so normally you will have to pay for medical aid and then seek a refund from your insurer.
You are recommended to obtain Polio and Typhoid vaccinations before travelling to Mexico. Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, is also present in some rural areas so cover up and avoid being bitten. Finally, Rabies and Cholera have not been eradicated, so take precautions to avoid them, for example, by avoiding being bitten by animals. Should you be bitten you are advised to seek medical advice immediately.
Polio and Typhoid shots can be provided by your local GP and will normally cost you about $30 or so, sometimes this is increased by a doctor’s consultation fee.
Crime may be encountered in some areas of Mexico and travellers are advised to maintain high levels of personal security. There have been reports of taxi drivers robbing passengers so it is best to use officially regulated taxi’s found in taxi ranks. There have also been instances of “express kidnappings”, these opportunistic kidnappers require victims, families, partners, etc. to withdraw money from cash machines in exchange for the release of the victim.
You may be asked to show identification by the police so you should have several photocopies of your passport available. Leave your actual passport in a hotel safe or another secure place while you are out and about if possible.
Finally, take sensible precautions. Do not carry around large sums of money, try to dress down and conceal any valuables, and avoid walking unaccompanied or in small groups at night. Bear in mind, dressing down does not mean ripped jeans and a messy t-shirt, young Mexicans like to look smart. For the ultimate immersive experience head to the local shopping mall and kit yourself out in national labels only.
Taking these precautions should ensure that you keep yourself safe; most crimes in Mexico are opportunistic, so if you present yourself as a much more difficult target you are unlikely to be bothered.
Entry Visa Requirements for Mexico
You will need a valid passport for the duration of your stay in Mexico. In addition, you will need an EFT card which essentially functions like a 90-day tourist visa. These are available from border crossings, Mexican consulates, Mexican international airports and onboard planes arriving in Mexico. If you are flying to Mexico you will normally be issued an EFT free of charge, otherwise, the usual cost is $15 and they can be issued on the spot.
Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in Mexico
Restrictions lie on many nationalities entering Mexico: those from the EU, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, amongst others, must have a tourist card (tarjeta de turista) to enter, which lasts up to 90 days. Furthermore, it is illegal for tourists to find work in Mexico, so the range of job opportunities is particularly limited to either teaching English or volunteer work.
Teaching English in Mexico
Mexico City is the most flourishing city in terms of people wanting to learn English: The News and Mexico City Times are both good places to start looking for vacancy details. Work is available in schools, universities, and general workplaces where employers enrol their workers in language classes.
Because of restrictions on international workers, many schools employ foreign teachers in scholarships, otherwise, you will need a CV in Spanish, with TEFL and university certificates to obtain a work permit. For more information on the TEFL qualification, see their website listed below. The average monthly pay for teachers of English as a foreign language is the equivalent of US$ 400, and often expenses for accommodation are provided.
Volunteering in Mexico
GAP Activity Projects Ltd runs placements for volunteers in Mexico as language tutors, work with disabled and children, and also conservational projects. GAP provides accommodation and pocket money but volunteers are expected to pay an initial registration fee. Projects can last for anything from four to eleven months and vary considerably in content. Since most people will speak Spanish in the areas that GAP projects operate, knowledge of this language is necessary.
For more opportunities in teaching English as a foreign language, Teaching and Overseas Projects for Volunteers run one month or more long programmes where volunteers spend eighteen hours each week teaching English to schoolchildren, taking part in animal care, or even work in the local media. Accommodation is provided either with host families or living with other teachers in local hostels.
Mexico Hostels and budget accommodation
Accommodation is cheap and readily available in all cities, however, it can be noisy so check the location and where your rooms face as you may be able to ask for a quieter room at the back of the building. There are higher class hotels in touristy areas but obviously, these come at a premium. Youth hostels are quite widespread and most can be booked online before your visit.
We have had good experiences finding hostels on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation while backpacking in Mexico is by checking hotels.com and booking.com. With both sites, you’ll not only find hotels, but also homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodation. We have discovered some great finds and have appreciated the ability to book ahead.
You can use their advanced filtering to narrow your results by budget, location score, overall review score, and amenities. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip.
In colonial towns, there are lots of converted old properties, and you can live in the residences of original conquistadores replete with stone fireplaces and sprawling central courtyards.
Land reform in the South has opened up a new class of hotel based in the opulent haciendas of the now extinct super-rich oligarchs; pricey but worth it if you have a few extra hundred pounds left over before your flight back home. On the beaches of Mexico, you can find charming beach huts and ecological hotels made from local materials in a traditional style, often at very cheap prices.
Useful Links for Backpacking in Mexico
- The Mexican Ministry of Tourism can give you travel advice and tourist information about Mexico before you leave.
- Cancun Discounts Useful information about Cancun, including finding the best deals on tours, airfare, and more.
- Wikipedia offers reams of information on Palenque and other important Mexican archaeological sites.
- Kiwi, Skyscanner, and Opodo – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to Mexico and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and things to do while backpacking in Mexico. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- Tiqets – Website selling entrance tickets and skip the line tickets for major tourist spots in Mexico
- G Adventures – small group backpacking tours in Mexico, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find accommodation in Mexico. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used booking site in Mexico. Hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodation with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- Travel Insurance – read our comprehensive overview of Travel Insurance and some recommended providers for your backpacking trip to Mexico
There you have it, the ultimate Mexico backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Mexico.
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