Almost ten years ago, while travelling around California, I hopped on the trolley from San Diego to Tijuana and spent half a day in the unlovely border town. Since then, I have been wanting to return to visit the real Mexico. As usual, I picked up a copy of Lonely Planet Mexico soon after its release in September last year and dived in. It is impossible to 'do' Mexico in a two-week holiday and it was really difficult to narrow down my itinerary when so many places sounded fascinating. I knew I wanted to stay for a few days in Mexico City (DF), a few days in Oaxaca and a few days on a beach, but beyond that, I couldn't bear to strike San Miguel de Allende, say, off my list. I was also waiting for the flights to go on sale, but they never did (NB it's much cheaper to fly to Cancún than Mexico City; I compromised by flying into the capital and out of Cancún).
In the end, I think my route worked quite well: I had four full days in DF, three full days in Oaxaca, one full day in Mérida and another in and near Chichén Itzá, and almost three days on the beach at Isla Mujeres. Because I had booked an internal flight from DF to Cancún as part of my main flights, I did waste a bit of time travelling from Oaxaca to Mérida, which involved a bus to DF, a flight to Cancún and another bus to Mérida. I wish I had just flown (probably via DF) to save the time and the hassle. The extensive network of cheap and pretty pleasant first- and second-class long-distance buses in Mexico makes travelling around the country quite convenient.
I chose most of my hotels based on a combination of Lonely Planet recommendations and Booking.com ratings, and most of them were pretty nice. I spent about 1,100 pesos (just under £50) per night, on average — Isla Mujeres was easily the most expensive — but you can pay a lot less if you are travelling with someone else or stay in hostels.
Mexico's capital is a huge, sprawling city that is often criticised for its lack of character but I was rather charmed. The city centre is relatively easy to explore, and I thought four days was long enough to see most of the main sights (including an easy day trip to the Teotihuacán site) and sample a lot of the varied culinary culture. I stayed in the artsy Roman neighbourhood, partly because of its great coffee shops and partly because of its convenient location, close to the centro historico, the restaurant-filled Zona Rosa, smart Condesa and the Bosque de Chapultepec. The metro is cheap (5 pesos, or about 20p, per journey) and fast, but can get hot and very crowded at rush hour. I never felt unsafe and even travelling with a small suitcase never felt too inconvenient. You can buy a tarjeta de metro (contactless top-up card) at a 7-Eleven store and top it up at a metro station.
My hotel, La Querencia DF, was great (1,020 pesos/£43 per night). Located in a beautiful, small colonial house near the Avenida de Chapultepec, it was a calm oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I was upgraded to a king room, which was tastefully decorated and had a comfy bed. The wifi was so good that I mourned it for the rest of the trip, and the (included) breakfast featured freshly squeezed juice and a different traditional Mexican breakfast item each day. There was a lovely rooftop terrace, with a covered area for when the evening rains arrived. Best of all, the two owners, Pico and Miguel, were super-friendly, spoke great English and were always ready to help with travel advice and food recommendations.
En route from Oaxaca to Mérida, I had one more night in DF and I stayed at Hotel Catedral (about 950 pesos/£39), near the Zócalo in the centro historico. I picked it for its convenience for the TAPO bus station and airport but I was actually very impressed. I had an actual view of the cathedral from my room (the photo below was taken from the terrace, one floor up), and the room had been recently refurbished. Friendly staff and good wifi made it more than just a 'convenient' overnight layover, although I definitely preferred staying in Roma to the hectic, touristy centro historico.
In terms of planning your time in DF, you will probably want to spend one day exploring the sights and markets in the centro storico. A trip to Coyoacán (a short metro ride south of the centre) to visit Frida Kahlo's house and the rest of the neighbourhood could take another day with, perhaps, a bit of shopping and cafe-hopping in La Condesa in the afternoon. You will also want to spend at least half a day visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Castillo de Chapultepec, both located in the Bosque de Chapultepec. Almost everything — even the bosque — shuts on Mondays, so it's a great day to visit Teotihuacán, which is open. It's about an hour away by bus, and you will probably want to spend at least three hours exploring the site.
I had heard great things about this small, but pretty and lively city located some 300 miles southeast of Mexico City and I couldn't wait to explore the culture and especially the food. I took an ADO bus from DF, which took just under seven hours with traffic. I stayed at Hotel Las Golondrinas (750 pesos/£32), a few blocks from the main square — the city centre is small and easily explored on foot, so most hotels are within a few minutes' walk of the Templo de San Domingo and the Zócalo. Las Golondrinas is small and very colourful — the main building is sky blue and inside, the rooms are a warren of single-level, yellow buildings arranged around a series of leafy patios. My room was big and tastefully decorated. The wifi could be a bit spotty at times, but good enough for me to stay up late watching the final UK election results coming in. Breakfast was served in one of the patios, surrounded by flowers, hummingbirds and the eponymous swallows. It wasn't included but was good value — around 40-60 pesos (under £3) for most dishes — and very tasty. My favourite dish was the chilaquiles (pictured below), which was delicious. The staff spoke some English, but my Spanish was improving by then. They also did all my laundry for about 50 pesos.
Three days was about enough time in Oaxaca, although with an extra day, it would have been nice to visit some of the surrounding villages. I spent half a day at the Zapotec site of Monte Alban, most of a day doing a cooking class, a day or so exploring the city centre sights, and a day on a tour to Hierve El Agua, Mitla and Teotitlan. The rest of my time was spent eating, drinking mezcal and shopping!
DF and especially Oaxaca were pretty hot — the temperatures were in the high 20s and early 30s — but when I stepped off the bus in Mérida at 8.30 pm, it was insanely warm and humid. One day the mercury hit 40 degrees centrigrade in the afternoon, at which point, I retreated to the hotel swimming pool. I stayed at Hotel Marionetas (about 950 pesos/£40), which was about a ten-minute walk from the central square, Plaza Grande, but a lovely place: small and colourful, with a pretty swimming pool. The décor is thoughtful and traditional and the sink was quite frankly the most beautiful I've ever used. The air con was good, but the thick stone walls made the wifi very flaky, despite the efforts of the staff, but sufficient for looking up bus timetables and sending a few quick emails. The included breakfast was served by the pool and involved fruit, bread and yoghurt. The folks who greeted me at reception on the first night were super-sweet too. On Booking.com, a few people mention dogs barking early in the morning, but I slept very well on the huge, comfy bed.
You can easily see many of the main sights of Mérida in a day — many of the historical points of interest are based on the central Plaza Grande. With one more day, I could have visited another Mayan site or some cenotes nearby, perhaps. Compared to DF and especially Oaxaca, Mérida felt a lot more touristy. In fact, Lonely Planet had only one Mexican food recommendation for the town, and there were so many tacky souvenir shops and cheesy bars. On my second day, I took a tour to Chichén Itzá and a cenote and then dropped me off in Cancún. You can do this route by public bus (ADO buses leave Mérida at 6.30, 8.30 and 9.15 every morning), but the convenience of the tour won me over in the end, and only cost a few pesos more.
I arrived at Isla Mujeres late at night after my tour from Mérida. The last leg of the journey was by ferry from Puerto Juarez, a couple of miles north of Cancún's city centre. The ferries operate regularly from early morning to late and the round trip costs 145 pesos (about £6). When I checked into my hotel — Hotel Playa Media Luna — I was hot, tired, hungry and grumpy and was worried that I had been cheated out of a promised balcony. In fact, the standard rooms on the ground floor have terraces with a hammock and a view of the pool and the sea, which is rather nice! I was less impressed that my room was literally adjacent to the reception, and the wifi was probably the worst of the trip. The room itself was unimaginatively decorated but pleasant enough and a decent size. When I booked on Expedia, the rate was about £80 per night, but I spotted a cheaper deal on Booking.com the week before I left London and Expedia agreed to a price match. I paid about £56 per night, which felt like a much fairer price, although I think the other hotels on my trip were better value.
A lot of Americans stay here — on the island in general, and this hotel in particular — and the included breakfast of toast with PB or J, apples and coffee probably reflected that. The small pool was lovely and the hotel's beach — a pretty but rocky cove — was picturesque, if not great for swimming or sunbathing. This matters little when you can walk to the best beach on the island, Playa Norte, in about ten minutes. I liked to walk along the beach rather than going back out onto the street. It took about ten minutes to walk into the main 'town centre' too, although I didn't venture very far for the entire three days. Isla is lovely but doesn't feel very much like Mexico. There are a lot of Americans here — many have been coming to the same hotel for decades — and some Europeans. I missed 'spring break' (intentionally), but there were still a lot of college-age kids zipping around town in the ubiquitous golf carts. Hotels and restaurants are more expensive too, although it's still cheap. The only place on the entire trip where I felt slightly dubious was at the bank on Isla when I needed to get some cash out. A guy, who looked rather shady, was trying to talk to me and get me to 'help' him use the ATM when I was already carrying out my own transaction. I declined.
Would I have liked to spend longer here? Maybe a day or two, if I was travelling with someone else. The beach is wonderful and the snorkelling is fantastic, but there isn't much else to do and I preferred the charm and authenticity of Oaxaca.
- Sight-seeing. Beware Mondays. Even some parks close on Mondays in Mexico, and museums, some archaeological sites, churches and other attractions are often a no-go. Many of the major museums and archaeological sites seemed to charge 64 pesos (about £2.70), but this can vary, as can the rules of what you can take in. Food and drink (sometimes even water) are often banned, and big bags, tripods and even ear buds can be verboten too. Selfie-sticks, it turns out, are OK in most places.
- Food. Some people advise being cautious with street food, but I ate mainly street food and was fine. There were so many dishes, varieties and flavours on offer, from tortas (rolls filled with meat and/or cheese) in DF, to fish tacos on Isla Mujeres, to esquites (corn with cheese and chilli), to Oaxaca's tlayudas (giant crispy tortillas folded in half and served with meat), and sweet nieve sorbets and churros. Markets with comedors (eating counters) are a good place to start — eat where the locals go, if in doubt. I drank only bottled water — most of the hotels provided purified water in the room, which was nice — but I did have quite a few aguas frescas (fruit blended with water), and I suspect the water used wasn't always purified. "If it smells good, eat it," I said to one of the guys from La Querencia about my impending trip to Oaxaca. "And, you know, even if it doesn't, go for it," he encouraged me. Indeed: I ate grasshoppers and agave worms! Oaxaca is definitely the destination for cheap but great quality fine-dining too. There are stacks of great restaurants where you can can a really excellent meal from top chefs.
- Money. The 23-ish pesos to the pound exchange rate is pretty good but makes a lot of things sound expensive. I had to keep reminding myself to do the conversion before baulking at a 100 pesos (£4) dinner. I expected it to be hard to use 1000 pesos notes (I used them on long ADO bus journeys costing over 500 pesos), but it can also be difficult to persuade people to accept 500 peso notes, even if you are spending over 200 pesos. Then, of course, you have to tip almost everyone, so you want a supply of 10 peso coins and 20 peso notes. When you get change, however, you seem to end up with dozens of 1 and 2 peso coins instead. This all meant that I was constantly strategising about money. Many restaurants, shops and hotels take credit cards and there usually multiple ATMs, even in smaller towns.
- Buses. You can find bus schedules and prices for first-class buses on the ADO (pronounced ah-day-oh) website. From DF to Oaxaca, for example, it cost me about 600 pesos (£25). You can book in advance but I never did and always had a double-seat to myself. There are different classes of ADO (GL and Platino — luxury and first class) but I always took the regular ones, which are a bit cheaper and still very comfortable. The one annoyance is that you have to watch bad, straight-to-DVD movies dubbed into Spanish constantly and with no way of muting the sound. Keep your ticket because they sometimes print a coupon at the bottom, which gives you 10% of the value of your ticket off your next ticket (I discovered this very late). Second-class bus information can be found on the Ticketbus website, which crashes and resets constantly, but at least it exists, right?
- Other transport. I took secure taxis to and from the Mexico City airport (around 200 pesos (£8.50) each way) to avoid having to master the metro during rush hour with luggage. In DF, I used the metro a lot and quite liked it (at some stations they have mini museums in the connecting tunnels, which is great, and there are carriages reserved for women and children during rush hour, although I didn't use them). Elsewhere, I tended to walk most places as I was concerned about being ripped off or getting into the 'wrong' kind of taxi. Many cities have airports, so flying can also be a quick, if not cheap, way to get around.
- Language. I speak Italian and French well, and have, over the years, acquired a reasonable competence in Spanish, even if I sometimes have to use the Italian word if I don't know the Spanish one. In many of the more touristy locations, a lot of people speak English, but I always prefer to try Spanish until I get stuck and then switch. It also meant you could get to know tour guides, hotel and restaurant owners and other locals a little better.