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12 Best Mexico Experiences

Thanks to the worldwide appeal of its cuisine and traditions, Mexico is a nation that enjoys a rather high profile among travelers. But it's much more diverse than you might expect. With dramatic canyons in the north, lush jungles in the south and sunny beaches on both coasts, Mexico is heaven for nature lovers. And its array of historic cities and colonial-era Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) provide countless options for combining modern sophistication and age-old traditions.

In this slideshow you can explore a few of the truly unique experiences that await in Mexico, from movie sets that conjure the excitement of the old west to pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead celebrations and majestic old haciendas recast as elegant hotels. You can walk in the footsteps of one of the 20th century's most famous artists, glide down some of North America's best whitewater rapids and attend an opera performance in an ornate theater, just steps from a sun-soaked beach.

Getting inspired? Don't forget to check out our advice on where to stay and how to get around.

--written by Mark Chesnut

Learn More About Mexico


Ride a Camel on the Beach

Camels and Mexico aren't usually mentioned in the same sentence, but a tour operator called Cabo Adventures offers an Outback & Camel Safari that provides an offbeat way to navigate the sands of Baja California Sur.

The camel ride is just one part of this ecologically focused tour, which includes a walk through unspoiled desert vegetation to learn about indigenous flora and fauna. Next you'll hop aboard an open-air truck to explore the desert further, keeping an eye out for ancient cacti, foxes and deer. The truck will drop you off on an isolated beach along the Pacific coast to meet the camels that will be your traveling partners. From your perch atop one of these magnificent creatures, you'll get a high-up view of the sand, the ocean and perhaps even a few whales. After your camelback experience, you'll be treated to some traditional Mexican cuisine at a local ranch, complete with freshly made tortillas and salsas, followed by a tequila tasting session.

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Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Chic Los Cabos by Aida M Garcia-Toledo
Los Cabos is made up of two towns: San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Both towns are connected by an 18-mile stretch of spaciously separated waterfront hotels, golf courses and luxury home developments. Most of the waterfront hotels are on lovely wild beaches, where you quickly become hypnotized admiring the power of the waves crashing down on the shore. Read more!
Los Cabos Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Study Art in San Miguel de Allende

This attractive little city has attracted a lot of expats from the United States and elsewhere, thanks to its welcoming, laid-back vibe, rich culture and diverse activities. San Miguel de Allende's artsy side is one of the reasons why foreigners love it here too.

Back in the 1940s, writers and artists first began arriving in large numbers at the Escuela de Bellas Artes (School of Fine Arts). Today, numerous local artists and schools provide opportunities for visitors and residents alike to tap into their own artistic potential. Journey Mexico offers a tour itinerary that includes time for museums and galleries, but for specific learning experiences, consider checking out organizations like Classes Unlimited, which provides information about writing, photography and art classes.

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

The Keys to San Miguel de Allende by Bruce D.
The Instituto Allende is an immense, beautiful colonial building, made of stone and founded in 1938. It's now part of the University of Guanajuato. In the fifties and sixties famed Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo was artist-in-residence. Now you can study drawing, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, art history, painting, batik, language and much more. Read more!
San Miguel de Allende Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Visit Western Movie Sets in Durango

The bustling northern city of Durango, founded in 1563, has a historic center that rightfully holds a place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But visitors can enjoy a decidedly different take on history when they tour the movie sets here that have served as a backdrop for dozens of westerns.

Some 150 national and international films have been made in and around Durango, from the 1955 flick "White Feather," starring Robert Wagner, to 2004's "Bandidas," with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek. Chupaderos and Villas del Oeste are the key spots for movie fans; here, you can watch cowboy shows, go horseback riding and visit old-fashioned saloons and banks.

Visiting these attractions is easiest when booked through a local tour operator -- and an upgraded highway now makes Durango an easy day trip or overnight excursion from the beach resort of Mazatlan (it's about 90 minutes each way). Vista Tours and Best Day are among the companies that offer guided visits.
Durango Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Experience the Day of the Dead

This legendary annual event, which takes place at the beginning of November, is a traditional way to pay respect to deceased family members and ancestors. Candy skulls, cemetery picnics and colorful decorations are a few of the fascinating visuals that mark Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which blends traditions from Christianity and pre-Hispanic cultures.

The central state of Oaxaca, where these centuries-old traditions are especially strong, is one of the best places in Mexico to experience Dia de los Muertos. Festivities begin one week before November 1. With MOC Adventures you can learn Day of the Dead mask-making techniques, shop the local markets to buy artifacts to build a commemorative altar and participate in comparsas (parades). Tours with G Adventures allow visitors to attend cemetery vigils in towns like Xoxocotlan and Atzompa, as well as the Oaxaca and Etla Valley Day of the Dead parades.

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Oaxaca, Mexico Day of the Dead Festival by Ralph Koerber
The Day of the Dead is timed to Halloween in the U.S. and acknowledges death and the return of the deceased as part of the death sequence. Students build altars and sand exhibits in the streets. The festival includes tented areas in streets and parks, rotating portable local markets found in certain areas of the city offering fun, sights, sounds and your choice of food and other delicacies to satisfy every taste. Read more!
Oaxaca Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Swim With Whale Sharks Near Cancun

The largest fish in the world, whale sharks grow up to 40 feet and weigh as much as 20 tons, so you can imagine how exciting it must be to swim alongside these giant, gentle creatures. On Mexico's Caribbean coast, whale sharks gather between June and September, mostly around the islands of Holbox and Contoy, to feed on nutrient-rich waters (they may be sharks, but they feed on plankton and have no interest in large mammals like humans).

Several tour operators provide arrangements for guided boat rides from Cancun to swim and snorkel with the whale sharks -- the best tours provide trained experts who can explain the habits of the giant fish. Cancun Whale Shark Tours offers standard excursions as well as private VIP tours aboard a 35-foot boat. Most tours also include snacks and drinks onboard. This is one experience for which you'll want to bring along a waterproof camera for photos and even video underwater.

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Feliz Navidad in Cancun, Mexico! by Terry Matthews-Lombardo
The date was Christmas; the location was Cancun, Mexico. The occasion? Nothing other than a family holiday together for our small group of four professionals. What everyone unanimously wanted was a trip that would provide relaxation from our hectic lifestyles as well as our daily routines. Read more!
Cancun Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Ride a Cable Car in the Mountains

Silver mining helped make the city of Zacatecas a wealthy colonial hub as far back as the 16th century; today, its stunning landmark architecture has landed it on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As if the colonial city weren't scenic enough, the Swiss-built teleferico aerial tramway, which opened in 1979, provides a stunning bird's-eye view of the entire region. The tramway runs a route of almost half a mile, at a height of nearly 280 feet, between Cerro de la Bufa and Cerro del Grillo, two small mountain peaks that overlook the city. At Cerro de la Bufa, you can snap photos of the city below, as well as statues and a small church and museum that documents one of the battles that took place during the Mexican Revolution.

To make the most of the breathtaking views and great photo opportunities, join one of the tour operators that includes a ride on the aerial tramway. Both Best Day and Price Travel offer four-hour Zacatecas city tours in which experienced tour guides can point out the sights and architectural landmarks, and explain the role of this lovely city in the battle of the revolution.
Zacatecas Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Stay on a Historical Hacienda

During the 19th century, plantation owners on the Yucatan Peninsula began making fortunes by producing rope from henequen, a variety of the agave cactus that grows abundantly here. Part of the wealth poured into the construction of majestic haciendas -- stately residences set on sprawling estates. The henequen industry has shrunk since then, but many of these beautiful residences have been restored and recast as upscale small hotels. They can serve as uniquely elegant bases for exploring the wonders of the Yucatan -- and while the accommodations may be historical, they're decidedly 21st-century when it comes to amenities, with flat-screen cable TV, Wi-Fi, air conditioning, minibars and iPod docking stations among the luxuries.

The closest hacienda to the capital city of Merida is Xcanatun, a gorgeous property with lush gardens, a spa, spacious guestrooms and a restaurant so well regarded that it attracts lots of locals. Farther afield, the Luxury Collection, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, manages five lovely properties. At Hacienda Temozon, for example, guests can indulge in spa treatments and romantic dinners while overnighting in one of 28 guestrooms, most of which have been named to commemorate their original use (such as Pharmacy, School and Pay-house).

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Yucatan Wandering by Paul
While researching our destinations back at home Hacienda Yaxcopoil caught our interest. The hacienda dates from the 17th century and is a veritable museum covering about six acres. The rooms still have period furniture and one room is full of Mayan artifacts uncovered when the hacienda was a working henequen producer. Read more!
Yucatan Haciendas Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Follow in Frida Kahlo's Footsteps

Among the most fascinating artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are especially revered in their home town of Mexico City. Visitors can learn about their personal and professional lives while wandering the Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, spent much of her life and died in 1954. Now home to the Museo Frida Kahlo, the Casa Azul (aptly named for its deep blue facade) is set in the tranquil neighborhood of Coyoacan. In addition to rotating art exhibits, the facility maintains several rooms almost exactly as they were when Kahlo lived here, including the art studio where she painted.

Another noteworthy stop on the Kahlo trail is the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Home Studio Museum), set in a pair of modern structures that served as their home and workspace between 1930 and 1940. Diego Rivera was actually a bigger name on the art scene than Frida Kahlo in those days, and walking through his art studio -- where his materials still sit, seemingly awaiting his return -- offers a fascinating glimpse into his creative mind as well.

Both museums are located quite a bit south of the main tourism circuits in the city and can be reached by a combination of Metro and taxi, or by one long taxi ride -- although perhaps the easiest way to visit is by joining a tour. Grayline has a guided tour called "A Day with Frida and Diego Art Culture Tour" that includes a visit to Casa Azul and the Anahuacalli Museum, which is dedicated to the work of Diego Rivera, while Turibus, a double-decker, hop-on/hop-off sightseeing bus service, has a southern circuit route that includes a stop at the Casa Azul.

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Mexico City Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Ride the Rails Through the Copper Canyon

One of the few places left where you can take a passenger train in Mexico is also one of the most scenic. The Chepe runs comfortably equipped trains between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, passing through the spectacular scenery of the Copper Canyon. Deep canyons, soaring mountains, steep waterfalls and vast desert plains create stunning backdrops for the trip, which crosses 36 bridges and runs through 87 tunnels. Every train has modern reclining seats as well as meal service, air conditioning and restrooms.

Journey Mexico offers a seven-night itinerary that includes accommodations in historical and rustic lodges en route, with plenty of time for nature walks and shopping in craft markets operated by local indigenous people. Tia Stephanie Tours offers custom Copper Canyon packages that can include rail trips aboard the Chepe.

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Copper Canyon Trip by vagabondginger
The following morning we boarded the El Chepe train in El Fuerte to the Posada Barrancas stop, winding through tunnels and across bridges. It took almost 100 years to lay railroad track in this rugged terrain, making this 'Train in the Sky' one of the most exciting train journeys in the world. Read more!
Chihuahua Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

See an Opera in Mazatlan

Vacationers may know Mazatlan primarily as a beach destination, but the city's nickname, "the pearl of the Pacific," can just as easily refer to the precious treasures that lie in its historical city center. In the 19th century Mazatlan became an important port and a cultural hub for the region -- and in recent years, many of the handsome structures that dot the city center have been restored to their original beauty, making it a delightful place to stroll, dine and enjoy an increasingly rich cultural life.

The shining star of Mazatlan's cultural scene is the Angela Peralta theater, named after a Mexican opera diva who died in 1883 of yellow fever shortly after arriving in Mazatlan for a performance. Founded in 1874, this lovely venue has been returned to pristine condition and hosts an array of performances throughout the year, including opera, theater and orchestral music. Take a seat in one of the three balcony levels and you just might feel like you've stepped back in time to an earlier, more elegant era. No visit to Mazatlan would be complete without checking to see what's happening at the theater; tickets can be purchased through tour operators including Pronatours.

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Casa de Leyendas ... Mazatlan, Mexico by sandi weston
The Casa de Leyendas ... beautiful ... it's a huge renovated mansion. They have six rooms, all different. Of course we had our pick. All of the rooms have private bathrooms and doors to the balcony that overlooks a really pretty courtyard and pool. Also, unlike many of the hotels in Mexico, the mattress was very soft and comfortable!! Read more!
Mazatlan Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Take a Cooking Class in Merida

The historical capital of Yucatan state is a hot spot for foodies, thanks to the region's rich and unique culinary traditions, which blend indigenous Mayan flavors with influences from elsewhere in Mexico and across the oceans. Among the most-loved dishes are tortillas, enchiladas, Edam cheese (which came from the Dutch), sour orange (from the Caribbean) and cochinita pibil, a juicy marinated pork dish cooked in an earthen pit.

For a tasty introduction to the intricacies of local cuisine, sign up for a class at Los Dos, a cooking school operated by U.S. expat chef David Sterling. His talents in the kitchen have been recognized by the likes of the New York Times and even Martha Stewart, and he's more than happy to share his secrets with you too. His eight-hour Taste of Yucatan class includes an overview of Mayan cooking techniques and ingredients, while the one-day Chocolate Indulgence is perfect for travelers with a sweet tooth.

Local tour operator Adventures Mexico offers customized and set tour itineraries that can include classes at Los Dos.

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Merida Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

Go Whitewater Rafting in Veracruz

The idea of shooting down bubbling rapids may seem daunting to the inexperienced, but don't worry: the Mexican state of Veracruz, which sits on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, has some of the best whitewater rafting options in all of North America. And that includes options for first-timers and travelers who want a bit of excitement without going (literally) overboard. More than 40 rivers percolate through this scenic state, offering countless options for enjoying the natural beauty while trying your hand with a paddle.

Rio Actopan -- the Actopan River -- is one of the best choices for beginner rafters. With rapids ranked class II and III, it's ideal for families too. June through October is the best time to take to the water; be sure to bring a waterproof camera for photos of the beautiful scenery, which includes a dramatic limestone canyon and lush mango plantations.

Discover Veracruz Tours and Aventura Extrema are among the tour companies that offer whitewater rafting trips here, with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the local cuisine and culture too.

Advice from a Traveler Who's Been There

Road Trip Yucatan Peninsula - Oaxaca by nomadic-traveler
Moving away from the relatively low lands of the Yucatan Peninsula, we started to experience the lush green mountain regions of Mexico. The highlight of our trip into Veracruz was the whitewater rapids of the Rio de Oro, with breathtaking views from all angles. Read more!
Veracruz Hotels Recommended for You

*Prices above are provided by partners for one room, double occupancy and do not include all taxes and fees. Please see our partners for full details.

More Travel Inspiration

Did you enjoy this slideshow? For more destination info and travel advice, be sure to sign up for our free travel newsletter!
Best Time to Go to Mexico
If you're traveling to the Caribbean or Pacific coasts, beware of hurricane season, which can bring storms any time between June and November. (If you're willing to take the risk, you may find reduced rates at resorts.) Winter and spring are popular times to visit for their dry weather and pleasant temperatures. Rates often go up around popular holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Independence Day and Day of the Dead.

Mexico on a Budget
Mexico is a very budget-friendly destination, especially if you take the time to explore less touristy areas away from the coasts. Public transit is an affordable option in many parts of the country; if you end up in a taxi instead, agree on a fare with the driver before departing. To save a few pesos on meals, seek out street food and goodies from local markets (most restaurants serve tourists and are priced accordingly). Finally, make purchases in pesos rather than U.S. dollars to get the best possible prices -- and don't be afraid to haggle.

Learn More About Mexico


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12 Best Mexico Experiences (Courtesy of Ilya Frankazoid/Shutterstock.com)camels on beach in los cabospaintbrush palette artistold west saloon durangoday of the dead oaxacaswimming with a whale shark cancunzacatecas cable carhacienda temozon mexicodiego rivera studiocopper canyon trainangela peralta theater mazatlancooking class los doswhitewater rafting veracruzSign Up: Tips for Your Next Adventure (Courtesy of Jose Ignacio Soto/Shutterstock.com)

Best of Mexico

Ride a Camel

Study Art

Visit Western Movie Sets

Witness Day of the Dead

Swim with Sharks

Ride a Cable Car

Stay on a Hacienda

Follow Frida Kahlo

Ride the Rails

See an Opera

Take a Cooking Class

Go Rafting

More Travel Inspiration

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