Category Archives: Mexico

Top 12 Places in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Got a hankering for some time on a tropical beach? Deep blue sky, turquoise water, gentle waves and soft sand? A styrofoam cooler by your side, packed with sweating Coronas? Yeah, that sounds about right.

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You can find nice beaches all over Mexico’s 5,800 miles of seashore, but when you picture paradise, you’re probably thinking of the Mayan Riviera, the 90-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south (and beyond to Punto Allen, by some estimations).

Cancun, the unofficial capital of the Mayan Riviera, is famous for all-inclusive luxury resorts, with all-day pool parties and all-you-can eat restaurants. Similar though larger resorts are all along the coast too, like fancy communities with private beaches and activities for all ages.

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But, while the beach may be the big draw in the Mayan Riviera, those who venture out of the resorts (or stay elsewhere) can explore ancient Mayan cities, swim in freshwater cenotes (sinkholes and caves), run through the jungle, or visit charming colonial towns.

Most resorts arrange tours to these places, but if you don’t want to be led like cattle around mysterious pyramids in a noisy group of camera-wielders, it’s easy to use public transportation like buses or colectivos (passenger vans) for much cheaper and with the freedom to spend as much or little time as you want.

Or you could always stay on the beach all day, snorkeling and sipping margaritas. You really can’t go wrong in the Mayan Riviera—with so much to do and see, your trip may be the best long weekend, two weeks, or six months of your life.

This list contains 12 of the best, which of course is totally subjective. (I wanted Top 10, but couldn’t include less than 12. And still I’ve left things out…)

What you consider the best of the Mayan Riviera depends on what you’re into. If you can’t get enough scuba diving or snorkeling, for example, you’ll want to check out Akumal or Isla Mujeres, although you can find great dive sites everywhere. The Mesoamerican reef, the second longest in the world, follows the entire coast. Or, in Isla Mujeres, besides the reef you can check out the Underwater Museum of Art, which features more than 500 sunken sculptures.

And water sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and kite boarding are just the beginning. Landlubbers can golf, mountain bike, ride a zipline, explore an underground river, have a spa day, check out museums, go shopping in an air-conditioned mall, take a day trip to an island, explore an adventure ecopark, take the kids to a zoo, or relax on a beach that’s much less developed than Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

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Here are my suggestions to help you plan your trip to one of safest and most interesting parts of Mexico—maybe the entire world.

By the way, details, directions, and extra suggestions for these places and many more are in my guidebook to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, available here or at Amazon.com—but if you just have a quick question, I’ll be happy to answer it in the comments.

Click the book to view on Amazon.com:

Playa del Carmen

Cancun gets all the hype, and for good reason. Though heavily developed, Cancun has plenty to do for all ages, a fun atmosphere, and a big beautiful beach.

But if you’re on a budget and want to walk barefoot from your low-key hotel to the beach every day, then look no further than Playa del Carmen. ADO, the bus from the airport to downtown Cancun, also has a direct bus to Playa.

Due to erosion, the main beach isn’t quite as wide as it used to be, but unlike Cancun with its huge resorts, none of the hotels and restaurants on the beach are taller than five stories. The pedestrian-only street Quinta Avenida (Fifth Ave) follows the beach, with an enormous selection of Mexican and international restaurants, trendy bars, world-class nightclubs, and no fewer than three shopping malls.

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There’s nothing like an evening stroll on Quinta Ave, with mariachi groups, smiling hustlers, Mexican families, sunburnt foreigners, and pretty girls dressed for the club all competing for your attention. Though public drinking is not allowed in Mexico, on Quinta Ave no one seems to mind. Grab a beer or two from a convenience store and wander around.

Also, Playa del Carmen’s location roughly in the center of the Mayan Riviera makes it an excellent base for exploring the other places on this list, including the island of Cozumel right offshore. Ferries to Cozumel leave from the southern end of Playa del Carmen’s main beach, a five-minute walk from the central bus station.

If you want to enjoy some nearby nature, a short walk to the south of central Playa del Carmen takes you to the Xaman-Ha Bird Sanctuary inside the Playacar gated community. Though the entrance fee is a little steep at 300 pesos (about $15 USD), you can see macaws, parrots, flamingos, iguanas, the cute jungle rodent sereque, and maybe a solitary spider monkey up in the trees.

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Tip: If you find Playa’s modest beachside hotels and central location appealing, but not its shopping malls and party scene, then look into Puerto Morelos, a relaxed beach town about 30 minutes to the north, which is also a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Chichén Itzá

Technically not on the Mayan Riviera but in the state of Yucatán, Chichén Itzá gained international notice in 2007 when it was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. About three hours from Cancun, this enormous ancient Mayan city with its pyramids, skull carvings, and two cenotes will give you a taste of the history of the region that you certainly wouldn’t get if you only stayed on the beach.

Chichén Itzá’s most famous structure is the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the blocky, angular pyramid built to represent the Mayan calendar (for example, 91 steps on four sides, or 364, plus the platform, 365). The time of its construction is estimated to be between 650 and 800 AD.

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But there’s much more to Chichén Itzá than the main pyramid, and you need hours to get through it. Although many people visit as part of a large, loud tour group, getting there on your own is easy, and doing it yourself means that you’ll have plenty of time to explore. Especially in high season, try to get there at 8 a.m. when it opens to make the most of your day.

Doing it in a day trip from Cancun is possible, especially if you rent a car, but the best way to see Chichén Itzá is to stay the night before in the pretty small town of Valladolid 40 minutes down the road.

Valladolid

Valladolid’s main claim to fame may be its proximity to Chichén Itzá, but its colonial architecture, authentic Mexican market, downtown cenote, 16th-century convent, and beautiful parks make it a great place for a short visit before going to the ruins.

Like nearly every Mexican city, the exact center of Valladolid is the zócalo, or central park (parque central), which is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, bars, banks, government buildings, the cathedral, and the Bazar Municipal food court.

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In all directions from the zócalo, Valladolid’s narrow streets have more parks, museums, and churches—even a Buddhist temple. The best way to experience Valladolid is to simply wander around. If you’re not up for too much walking, however, choose one direction: either toward the convent southwest of the zócalo or to the cenote and market to the northeast.

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This small town is worlds apart from the beach-going glitz of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. And by staying the night in Valladolid before you go to Chichén Itzá, you can have a head start on all the tour groups swarming the archeological site.

To get to Chichén Itzá from Valladolid, take a colectivo (passenger van) from the lot one block away from the ADO bus station.

Tulum

Tulum can refer to three distinct places, all near each other: the Mayan ruins, the beach, and the small highway town. The ruins are some of the most beautiful in Mexico, mainly because of their location on cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.

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Don’t miss the little beach under the tallest structure, El Castillo (the castle), also known as the lighthouse. Despite its tiny size, it’s one of the most famous beaches in Mexico, routinely appearing on “Top X Best Beaches” lists. Swimming out in the gentle waves, turning around, and looking at the ruins from the water may impress you even more than gazing up at Chichén Itzá’s iconic pyramid.

Tulum the beach (not the little one under the lighthouse) is also considered one of the best in Mexico, with little development and miles of soft sand. It’s an easy walk from the ruins, or a short taxi ride from the town (and highway).

The town is nice too, though a little far from the beach. But you can find discount hotels and fresh Mexican-style seafood, and it’s a good base for exploring places like the ruins of Coba and more cenotes farther inland, or the immense Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south.

Cobá

If you can’t get enough Mayan Ruins, then after you’ve explored Tulum and Chichén Itzá, Cobá is the next big ruin complex to check out, where you can rent bicycles to explore the large ancient city deep in the jungle.

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The ruins are an about hour inland from Tulum town, and only one ADO bus from Tulum goes to Cobá and back every day. (Confirm on the ADO website.) Second-class buses are more frequent, but you’ll have to go to the ADO bus terminal in Tulum town to ask for the schedule. Try to leave early and come back late—Cobá is big.

Cenotes

There are no mountains on the Yucatán Peninsula, just a long expanse of porous, sponge-like limestone covered with jungle. A vast network of underground rivers and caves holds fresh water, essential to the inhabitants of the region. Where you have access to this network—a big sinkhole or cavern—you have a cenote, a great place to swim and explore.

You’ll see visits to cenotes advertised everywhere as part of the big adventure parks with funny names like Xel-Ha and Xcaret. But you don’t need to spend all day or $100 USD to visit a cenote. Smaller, often family-run cenotes are all over the Yucatán, which by some estimates contains more than 6,000 cenotes, some expansive and some little more than a hole in the ground. (Most aren’t developed for tourism, of course.)

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Just south of Playa del Carmen is a cluster of four cenote parks across the street from the Barceló resort, which include Cenote Cristiliano, Jardin del Eden Cenotes, and Cenote Azul, all within walking distance of each other with entrances on the highway.

Several good cenote parks are also near Tulum, including Dos Ojos Cenote about 10 minutes north of the ruins and Gran Cenote on the way to Cobá.

Because of their low entrance fees (usually 100-200 pesos) and natural jungle settings, these smaller cenote operations are excellent alternatives to the big adventure parks. You can swim in all of them, and most offer scuba diving as well.

Big Adventure Ecoparks

You can’t miss the names: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor. From the moment you land at the Cancun airport, you’ll see them everywhere, rivaling the nightclub Coco Bongo in ubiquitous promotion. They’re also favorites of the guide/hustlers on Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen.

These places are big nature parks built around cenotes and beaches that have adventure activities and include all your food and drinks. If you want to go, I’m sure you’ll have a good time, but before you agree to a tour with someone you meet on the street, at least check the prices online to compare.

Three of the most famous ecoparks are just south of Playa del Carmen: Xcaret, Xplor, and Rio Secreto. Xcaret is the largest of these and has Mayan ruins, dolphin shows, and an emphasis on culture. Xplor, owned by the same group as Xcaret, is more about adventure activities—it has an underground river and a big zipline tower that you can see from the highway.

Across the street is Rio Secreto, which is more than a cenote, but a tour through one mile of an underground river. Unlike smaller cenotes where you can just show up, for Rio Secreto you should make reservations on their website.

Xel-Ha, another ecopark owned by Xcaret that they describe as an enormous natural aquarium, is closer to Tulum. While the three major ecoparks that begin with “X” all have nature and water activities, perhaps you could say that Xplor is more about adrenaline, Xcaret is more about culture, and Xel-Ha is more family-oriented.

By the way—elsewhere in Mexico, “x” is usually pronounced like an “h”, as in México (ME-hee-co). But in the Mayan Riviera, it’s usually pronounced like “sh”, as in Xel-Ha (SHELL-ha), Xpu-Ha (SHPOO-ha), and many more. But there are exceptions—Xplor, for example, is pronounced how you’d expect (explore).

Xpu-Ha Beach

Beach after beach line the Mayan Riviera, with many occupied by big resorts. Although Mexican law states that all waterfront is public land, if there’s no public access point, then essentially the beach is private. If there’s a specific resort you want to check out, take a look at their website to see if they offer day passes.

Hidden between the resorts, the public beaches on the Mayan Riviera are much less developed and more laid-back than Playa del Carmen and of course Cancun. Good ones include Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Akumal (especially for snorkeling), Xcacal, and Maroma. Also, if you have a rental car or don’t mind paying for a taxi, just north of downtown Cancun is Isla Blanca, a long, undeveloped, isolated penninsula surrounded by beautiful clear water.

For a long beach with a central location and little development, you can’t go wrong with Xpu-Ha, south of Playa del Carmen. You can get there on public transportation—get off on the highway and walk up the sandy road. There’s a convenience store and a restaurant or two on the beach, but little else, making for a great escape from pool parties and daytime club music.

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Punto Venado

Punto Venado is a hidden spot that’s also just south of Playa del Carmen. It has a small, isolated, pretty beach in a bay with a pleasant beach club. Mexican food (especially seafood) at the club is good and with reasonable prices, even for drinks.

But the real draw—at least for me—is its mountain bike park, which has trails for beginners but is definitely for people comfortable on a mountain bike. The well-maintained yet rugged trails pass through the jungle, with one stretch following the sea. It’s full of animals like iguanas, spider monkeys, coati, and crocodiles. Highly recommended. Check their website for entrance and bike rental fees.

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Cozumel

On a clear day you can see the hotel skyline of Cozumel from Playa del Carmen. Only 6% of Cozumel is developed—the rest is jungle and beach—and it has an interesting history too. Besides being an important Mayan population center, this was also where Cortés first landed in Mexico before traveling to Veracruz and then inland to the Valley of Mexico to conquer the Aztecs.

There are excellent dive sites all around the island, so good that Jaques Cousteau called it one of the most spectacular places for scuba diving in the world. If you only want to dive, however, you can visit a Playa del Carmen dive shop first—they arrange dives off Cozumel too.

Cozumel is an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen—just walk to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket, and hop on. Several ferry companies make the trip all day, every day.

The ferry disembarks in the town of San Miguel de Cozumel. Its pretty zócalo (center square) is a straight walk from the ferry dock. All around the zócalo are restaurants and shops, and there are a few banks with international ATMs if you need money.

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As the ferry arrives, you’ll see the big cruise ship docks to the south. Because of these cruise ships and the thousands of tourists who pour out of them daily, everything in Cozumel is overpriced, especially souvenirs. Because of this, to save money on lunch or a scooter rental, walk outside of the downtown core. Once you get off the pedestrian streets, things get a lot cheaper.

The coastline of San Miguel de Cozumel is a seawall next to the road. It’s nice for a walk, but to go to a beach you’ll need to hire a taxi or rent a car, 4-wheeler, or scooter. Again, you’ll get better prices on all of these the farther you get from the ferry and cruise ship docks—three or four blocks away should suffice.

Most beaches are on the western shore, which faces Playa del Carmen, while much of the eastern shore is a rocky, wild coastline. A fun beach trip is to first go to Playa Palancar near the southern tip of the island. From there you can get a boat to El Cielo, a remote beach with crystal-clear, shallow water.

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As if the laid-back town and perfect beaches weren’t enough, there are also several Mayan sites on the island. Two of the biggest are San Gervasio and El Cedral. San Gervasio is up a bumpy dirt road, so if you want to take a rental car there, tell them at the rental office to confirm it’s ok.

Isla Mujeres

For a trip to an island that’s closer to Cancun (just north of the hotel zone) and has world-class beaches within walking distance of the ferry terminal (world-class scuba-diving too), head to Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres (which translates to “Ladies’ Island,” supposedly named for goddess images found there in the 16th century) has spacious beaches and a cool little village on the northern end of the island, with parks, ruins, and beach clubs farther south. It’s a fun and easy day trip from Cancun or even Playa del Carmen, and there are lots of hotels if you want to spend the night. Like Cozumel, it has great snorkeling and dive sites, including the Underwater Museum of Art off the southern point.

Take a left out of the ferry terminal to get to Playa Sol, the beach facing the mainland, or walk a little farther for Playa Norte on the (you guessed it) north shore of the island, yet another candidate for the best beach in Mexico.

Though ferries to Isla Mujeres do leave from Cancun’s hotel zone, the cheaper and more direct ones leave from Puerto Juárez just north of downtown. It’s a short ride in a taxi or a local bus from downtown Cancun.

Cancun and Zona Hotelera

Playa Delphines in Cancun’s hotel zone

Perhaps you have noticed that nothing on this list is actually in Cancun! Don’t get me wrong—Cancun is a wonderful place, though it’s not exactly the best spot to appreciate nature or experience culture. In fact, if you don’t stay in a resort in Cancun, then you may not even go there, except for the airport of course.

Some geography: the Cancun known to travelers is a long, thin island full of big resorts, shopping malls, marinas, restaurants, and nightclubs. Called the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone), this is what people are talking about when they talk about Cancun.

Downtown Cancun is on the mainland, and despite the tourist industry is a typical working-class Mexican city. You can find good budget hotels and restaurants there, along with some interesting markets and city parks.

If you’re not staying in a huge resort in Cancun’s hotel zone but still want to spend some time on the famous beach, go to Playa Delphines (Dolphin Beach) about halfway down the island. There’s plenty of space, good swimming, and if you get there early enough you might find a shady spot under a wood-and-palm-frond shelter.

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For some exploring, just across the road is El Rey, the largest archeological site in Cancun. Although not an enormous city like inland Chichén Itzá or a stunning seaside photo opportunity like Tulum, it’s a great place for an afternoon stroll among the limestone structures and sunbathing iguanas.

And if you can’t get enough of all things Mayan, head north to Cancun’s Mayan Museum, which features the San Miguelito ruins, another small Mayan site reached by walking through the jungle.

Click the book to view on Amazon.com:

As I wrote above, there’s much more in the Mayan Riviera than these 12 places. But perhaps the best thing of all is to just slow down and take your time. Swim all day, spend a few hours walking Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen, or take a seat under a pyramid to contemplate a civilization that’s long gone, as groups of tourists hustle past, trying to get in one more photo before they are rushed away to the next preplanned destination.

After all, even though there’s so much to do in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, remember—it’s a vacation! And it’s Mexico! Take it easy.

And for more places to see, insider tips, and hotel, restaurant, and transportation suggestions, please take a look at my guidebook. Thanks, and happy travels.

Travels in Mexico

Probably my favorite thing about living in Mexico—among many favorite things—is that a short drive, bus ride, or flight can take you to a whole other world.

Every corner of Mexico has pretty towns, ancient ruins, and natural areas like sunny beaches, lush jungle, and towering mountains.

Below are some photos from my travels during the past four months.

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Next to the town of Xilitla, in a mountainous sub-tropical region called the Huasteca Potosina, the surrealistic garden Las Pozas is a fascinating place to explore. Built (but unfinished) by the eccentric English artist and art patron Edward James between 1949 and 1984, Las Pozas is a series of poured-concrete structures and buildings surrounded by jungle at the foot of mountains, which even has big waterfalls and swimming holes.

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You can climb on practically everything, and every path going through deeper jungle leads to more structures, most overgrown by creeping forest. Mysterious and bizarre, it reminded me of visiting ancient ruins, though with a different history and architecture, of course.

The entire Huasteca Potosina region has streams and waterfalls, some for swimming and jumping.

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Closer to where I live, the Nevado de Toluca volcano—its native name is Xinantecatl—is a scenic and very high place to do some hiking.

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Two lakes are inside the huge crater:

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This dry flower grows all over the slopes of the volcano:

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Sierra Morelos park is right next to the town of Toluca, about an hour away from the volcano:

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Small homes, farms, and even some ancient ruins can be found on the slopes of the mountains.

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Below is Calixtlahuaca, the ruins of a Pre-hispanic city:

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Far away at the easternmost part of Mexico are the white-sand beaches and turquoise water of the Mayan Riviera on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Below is Puerto Morelos, about halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen:

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The virgin in the Cozumel public market:

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A little to the south of Playa del Carmen is Punto Venado, which has excellent mountain bike trails through the jungle and along the coast. On my ride I saw crocodiles, lots of iguanas, and a big family of coati—something like a tropical raccoon that lives in the trees in groups, like monkeys.

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Flamingos and other birds in the Xaman-Ha Bird Sanctuary near Playa del Carmen, in the Playacar gated community:

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And of course the world-famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza:

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On the other side of Mexico on the Pacific coast, the beach-lined bay of Acapulco is a five-hour drive from where I live, perfect for a long weekend. You can get a nice, reasonably-priced hotel right on the beach with views like this:

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Sunset over the ocean at Acapulco:

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Thanks for visiting. Stories to follow for some of these places…

Tips for Flying in Mexico and Finding Cheap Domestic Flights

Mexico’s discount airlines and general airport information

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Unless you enjoy excessive air conditioning, bad movies in loud Spanish, or sleeping sitting up, don’t take a long-distance bus between major cities in Mexico, at least not before checking the price of domestic flights.

This isn’t because long distance buses are bad, uncomfortable, or dangerous. In fact, for most independent travelers in Mexico, the bus is the way to go. A variety of bus companies with competitive prices travel all over the country, and riding them can be a fun experience that brings you closer to the locals. Second- and third-class buses are often surprisingly cheap, and though expensive, first-class buses are much nicer than Greyhound, with big reclining seats and plenty of legroom.

But a flight from, say, Mexico City to Cancun is bound to be cheaper than the first-class bus, especially if you start looking for discount fares a month or so early. And obviously much faster—a two-hour trip instead of 20 (or more).

Looking for flights

Before you commit to that overnight bus trip, take a look at the schedules and prices of Mexican airlines, which I’ve listed below. If possible, start searching for flights about a month or two before your trip and check back from time to time as these airlines may have temporary promotions. A good way to hear about these discounts is to sign up for their mailing lists or follow the airlines on Facebook or Twitter.

Although you can view them in English, their websites can be a little clunky, so search with patience. One good feature of many websites is that you can see the prices for the days before and after the day you choose, so you’ll know if a different date is cheaper.

When you are ready to pay, these discount airlines try to add on all kinds of extra fees, like for extra luggage or choosing your seat early. Just say no to everything.

Tip: If you’re a resident of Mexico, like me, and will fly international, when buying tickets check the box that you’re a Mexican citizen so you won’t pay the fee for foreigners to enter Mexico, which is about 20 USD and automatically added to the price of flights. But it depends on the airline; this won’t work if the webpage also asks for the passport number.

Sometimes these airlines show up on travel sites like expedia.com, but it’s a good idea to check their websites directly. And of course other airlines fly within Mexico, including all the big international ones. But, like for that overnight bus ride, ALWAYS compare with Mexico’s domestic companies:

Aeromexico

https://beta.aeromexico.com/en-us

Aeromexico is a major airline with destinations all over the world, so it may not have the cheapest prices, but it’s worth a look.

Interjet

https://www.interjet.com/Home.aspx

Interjet is an inexpensive option for all the major cities in Mexico and nine in the U.S., and it also has regular flights to Cuba and several destinations in Central America.

Volaris

https://www.volaris.com/?culture=en-US&Flag=us&currency=USD

I have mixed feelings about Volaris. Their flights are typically the cheapest, especially during their regular promotions. They have more destinations than Interjet, including lots of cities in the U.S.

I’ve flown with Volaris many times and while usually everything is fine, the company is clearly disorganized and sometimes unprofessional: Big delays are common, they send you way too many emails after you buy tickets (in Spanish, which has confused a few of my English-speaking friends who wondered what all the notices were about), they do everything they can to add extra charges to your flight, and you can’t trust any information you get from their call center. But hey, their flights are really cheap, and I have no complaints about the courtesy of their flight attendants and staff, other than that one manager in Cancun…

VivaAerobus

https://www.vivaaerobus.com/en

VivaAerobus has fewer destinations to Mexico and the U.S. than Interjet or Volaris, but their prices can be incredibly low.

Magnicharters

http://www.magnicharters.com

Based in Monterrey, Magnicharters is a small airline that offers travel packages (hotels, etc.) and also flies to Orlando and Las Vegas.

Aeromar

https://www.aeromar.com.mx

Other than to McAllen, Texas, Aeromar only flies within Mexico. It’s a smaller airline, so your options are limited, but discounts abound.

Checking in

Always check-in online to avoid long lines at the airport. This is especially true for major holidays, like Christmas, New Year’s, Semana Santa (the week before Easter when everyone is off work), and the last two weeks in July.

Another reason is that because of their low prices, these independent airlines can be quite popular, so there may be long lines all the time, not only on big travel days. Also, having low prices means that they charge for everything, including choosing your seat and extra bags. So checking in early can let you know what you’re in for.

But as I mentioned above, their websites can be clunky and don’t work well. So if the online check-in doesn’t work, think about showing up to the airport a little early.

In bigger airports, like in Mexico City, you may see several different lines of people waiting for one airline. Ask a staff member for the correct line before committing to a wait. Also be aware that there may be two different check-in desks, domestic and international, in different parts of the airport.

Immigration and Customs

Although the information above deals with domestic travel, your first experience flying in Mexico will most likely be when you arrive from abroad. So here are a few tips about that.

After you get off the plane and enter the immigration area of the airport, make sure you get into the line for foreigners, not the one for Mexican citizens. Give the immigration officer your passport and the tourist card you filled out on the airplane. If you didn’t get it on the airplane, look for them in the waiting area. They are called the forma migratoria múltiple, or FMM.

It’s in Spanish but with English translations in the little boxes. Fill out both parts, and don’t write anything in the USO OFICIAL (official use) section.

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They usually don’t ask any questions, but simply stamp your passport and the FMM. If they do ask anything, it will probably be which hotel you are staying at, so have that info prepared just in case.

They’ll give you the bottom portion of the card. Put it in a safe place because you’ll need it to leave Mexico. If you lose it, you’ll have to pay an expensive fine, somewhere around $50 USD.

On arrival, most travelers to Mexico receive permission to stay six months in the country. You can see how much time they give you on the card.

The fee to enter Mexico, which changes often but is currently about $20 USD, is automatically included on the price of your plane tickets. In a way, that card is a receipt for the fee.

Next, after getting your luggage from the baggage claim, you’ll go through customs. Have the customs form filled out, which they also should have given you on the plane.

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The procedure is simple—when the officer waves you forward, give him or her the form and press the button. It’s random: If the light turns green, you are free, and if it turns red, you will be searched. Like anywhere in the world, if you get searched, don’t complain or cause problems, which will automatically slow down the process. Just cooperate and keep your mouth shut.

When you are flying within Mexico, of course, you don’t need to go through immigration or customs, though you will need your passport for identification.

Transportation out of the Airport

Every airport I’ve been to in Mexico is modern, safe, and easily navigable, even Benito Juarez International in Mexico City.

The most important information about any airport is how to get out of it. In Mexico the easiest way is to use a safe taxi—taxi seguro in Spanish. They are also called taxi autorizado, or authorized taxis.

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The price depends on which part of the city you will go to. Look at your hotel’s address for the colonia (neighborhood), often abbreviated to Col. If you’re downtown, near the city’s zócalo (center square), the colonia is probably centro.

Prices may be posted, or you may have to ask. If you don’t speak Spanish, write the name of the colonia on a piece of paper to give to the person. The price is for the trip, not the amount of people, so you can save money by finding someone on your flight to share with if your destinations are the same.

Compare the different prices from the different booths. If the attendant does not show you a written price, either posted in the booth window or from a folder or laminated document, be suspicious of being overcharged.

You pay at the booth and get some sort of receipt or ticket. Then walk outside and look for a line of taxis and give the taxi driver your ticket. You don’t have to tip him at the end of the ride, though I’m sure he’d appreciate 10 or 20 pesos.

The safe (or authorized) taxis are more expensive than the loose taxis waiting outside, but they are safe (hence the name). Do not take a ride with someone who approaches you inside the airport, which is definitely not safe. Keep looking for the taxi booths.

Larger airports may have buses as well, which is a good option if your destination is far from the airport, like a nearby town.

For instance, you can take a bus from the Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport in Chiapas to San Cristobal de las Casas (about an hour away), or from the Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen (1 hour 20 minutes away). There are stations in both terminals of the Mexico City airport with buses going to surrounding cities like Puebla, Querétaro, and Toluca.

To find the little bus station or group of booths inside the airport, look for bus icons on the signs inside the airport after you leave customs that say transporte foráneo (ground transportation), autobuses foráneos, or terminal autobuses (bus terminal).

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Of course, you can always rent a car and pick it up at the airport. Read all about driving in Mexico and renting cars here.

Changing Money

Try not to change money at the airport, as you’ll get a bad exchange rate. If you must, at least wait until after customs. The money-changing booths you see inside the baggage claim area typically have the worst rate.

To prepare for this, look up the official exchange rate online at a website like coinmill.com. Then you’ll have an idea of how much extra you’re paying. (Of course, not even banks change money at the official rate—they always raise the rate a little more for buying and lower it a little for selling.)

Make some notes about how many pesos your home currency will get you, so you aren’t trying to make rushed calculations after a long flight. Make a sheet like this:

  • $10 USD = 216 pesos
  • $20 USD = 432 pesos
  • 100 pesos = $4.62 USD
  • 200 pesos = $9.25 USD

(These are just examples—please don’t use them. Actually as I write this in early 2017, the peso is the lowest it has ever been against the U.S. dollar, at least since it was devalued in the ’90s.)

Currency exchange booths never change money at the official rate. The peso will always be worth a little less when you sell it and a little more when you buy it. Another tip—besides comparing the rate with your notes, also look at the difference between the rates for buying and selling. The bigger the difference, the more you’re getting ripped off.

A good alternative is to withdraw from an international ATM inside the terminal. Make sure it is from a bank, not a “commercial” ATM that charges higher fees. Common banks in Mexico are Bancomer, Banamex, Banorte, Santander, HSBC, and Scotiabank.

You’ll know the ATM has access to international networks if it has symbols like Cirrus, Plus, or Pulse. Look at the back of your card for these same symbols. If there are no symbols, you can try it, but it may not work. And for some reason the Visa or Mastercard symbol doesn’t always guarantee your Visa or Mastercard will work. If it doesn’t, just look for another bank ATM.

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Of course, another option is to look for an exchange bank back home and get pesos there before you leave. Exchange banks specialize in currency exchange and, in my experience, always have the best rates, though of course compare to the official rates. You might even be able to do this at a regular bank. Not only will you save money, but you’ll save yourself the hassle of changing money once you arrive. Be sure to hide it in your socks!

Final Tips

Leave your hotel early the day you depart. You may get stuck in traffic or the airport may be inexplicably busy that day. Sure, waiting in the airport is boring, but it’s better than running around lost and frantic.

Be sure you know which airport terminal your flight will depart from or if you have a layover and must change planes. They are based on airline, and it’s easy to figure out by searching Google.

Tip: In the departure area of the Mexico City airport (maybe others too), you can buy a beer at a convenience store and drink it at the gate, certainly for a better price than at TGI Fridays.

Mexico City, for example, has two terminals too far apart to walk between. You take a little train and you must show your boarding pass to use it. Cancun has three terminals and a little shuttle bus running between them, though terminals 2 and 3 are within walking distance (5-10 minutes).

Which brings me to my final tip. Tequila and other booze is cheaper at a liquor store or big box store (Comercial Mexicana, Wal-Mart, etc.) in the city than at the duty-free shop in the airport. (Remember, NEVER buy tequila from a tourist shop, like near the beach, as it will be flagrantly overpriced.) Just wrap a few bottles up in your checked luggage, depending on how many liters you are allowed to bring into your country. At the moment it’s three liters for the U.S., but you should confirm this with a Google search.

Have a nice flight, and please ask questions in the comments if I’ve forgotten something.

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