Bordered by the United States to the north, and Guatemala and Belize to the south, Mexico is a vast country made up of 39 states. Part of North America, it boasts the luxury of having multiple different seas on its shorelines – the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea.
It’s crossed from the north to the south by two mountain ranges – technically, extensions of the Rocky Mountains further north – and it’s crossed east-to-west by the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt; it’s in the latter that you’ll find Mexico’s three highest peaks – all volcanoes.
With a temperate climate in the north and tropical in the south, Mexico is a megadiverse country: arid regions, high snowy peaks, coral reefs, jungles, and ancient ruins await.
Baja California is a peninsular state of Mexico that extends 1,500 kilometers southeast into the Pacific Ocean. To the north is the American state of California; Baja California literally means ‘Lower California’.
This Mexican state is famed for its beaches, with Los Cabos – where most visitors arrive via its airport – being replete with stretches of beautiful sand and sea. Located on the southern tip of Baja California, there’s the resort city of Cabo San Lucas; come here for great beaches and nightlife, too. In general, the best beaches are to be found on the western, Gulf of California shore; the bay of Bahía Concepción is another one of these prime beach spots.
For surfing, however, you should get yourself to the west coast. Here the Pacific Ocean makes for some good waves. The city of Ensenada, Baja California’s third-largest, is home to good surfing – and is also one of the oldest cities in the California region, founded by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.
Across the Gulf of California from the Baja California Peninsula, the large area of Northern Mexico comprises seven states – from Sonora on the west coast to Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico.
The state of Sonora gives its name to the Sonoran Desert. This area is largely dry and arid, with rainfall supporting vegetation only at the highest elevations here. During the wet season, however, certain areas – like San Carlos – bloom and turn green and yellow with little flowers.
One of the most famous natural wonders in the region is the Copper Canyon, or Barrancas del Cobre in Spanish. Located in Chihuahua, and part of the Sierra Madre Occidental range, this area is actually made up of six distinct canyons, making for epic landscapes and majestic views.
Elsewhere, there are coastal plains, such as in Sinaloa, where plant species like the elephant tree thrive.
Bajío is a relatively small region roughly in the center of the country; it’s a primarily mountainous area that was historically known for silver mining. The region is home to the heritage of Spanish colonial rule of Mexico. As such, there are plenty of towns and cities throughout the region, which comprises the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Querétaro.
The largest city of the region is Guadalajara. This huge cultural hub is not only considered to be the birthplace of the quintessentially Mexican mariachi music, but it’s also the place to go for some of the grandest examples of colonial architecture you’ll see in Mexico.
For starters, there’s Hospicio Cabañas, of the biggest (and oldest) hospital complexes in all of the Americas, founded in 1791, then there’s the Mexican Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, a grand neo-gothic cathedral.
Other towns include environmentally friendly León and its collection of old churches, San Miguel de Allende with its large population of foreign artists and Guanajuato; considered one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Mexico.
It’s in the region of Central Mexico where the country’s sprawling capital of Mexico City is located. Looming over the capital is the dormant volcano of Iztaccihuatl, a snow-capped peak (the country’s third-highest) that towers 5,230 metres above sea level and dominates the landscape.
Not quite as tall, but very impressive, is the 3rd-century BC Great Pyramid at Cholula, which comes topped with an ornate sanctuary and other religious buildings. Nearby is the city of Puebla, fourth-largest in Mexico; it brims with sights, such as the exquisitely gold encrusted Capilla del Rosario.
That volcano is located in Tlaxcala’s Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park, which boasts the second-highest peak in the country – the active Popocatépetl, at 5,426m. In this vast national park, you can hike, cross daring suspension bridges, and maybe even catch sight of the endangered volcano rabbit.
Hidalgo is home to Basaltic Prisms of Santa María Regla, an amazing Giant’s Causeway-esque rock formation lining a ravine with a waterfall cutting through it for exquisite scenery. Also in Hidalgo is the box canyon of Tolantongo, a geothermal wonderland of caves, hot springs, caverns, geysers, and fantasy-landscape waterfalls.
The coast of the state of Veracruz stretches northeast and southwest, making up much of the Mexican Gulf. For visitors looking for a mix of beaches and architecture, with a lot less of the tourist crowds of central Mexico or the Yucatan Peninsula, Veracruz provides a mix of both sand and history.
It was in Veracruz where the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs began. It was also the cradle of the aptly named Veracruz Mesoamerican culture at El Tajín,
The extremes in elevation are stark; from the strips of beach, dunes, and shifting lagoons of the coast at sea level, to the permanently snowy top of Pico de Orizaba – also known as Citlaltépetl – it’s a massive 5,636-metre difference.
Smaller settlements, such as Papantla, which hides archaeological sites and Aztec monuments, and Xico – complete with cobbled streets and baroque church square – have been declared pueblos magicos or ‘magical villages’. These quiet, charming settlements make Veracruz an intriguing place to explore.
The Pacific Coast of Mexico has long been famous for the party cities of Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, but there’s much more to do here than let your hair down. There’s nature to explore aplenty, with miles upon miles of coastline for a start.
Colima boasts San Benedicto Island, the largest of the Revillagigedo Islands; it’s an uninhabited spot with a dramatic volcano and a lot of marine life in its seas, including manta rays. There’s also El Tortugario Ecológico, a national reserve complete with mangroves that releases turtles into the ocean.
Away from the coast, Grutas de Cacahuamilpa National Park in Guerrero boasts one of the world’s longest cave systems – the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa Caverns. In the outside areas of the park, there are ample opportunities for pursuits like rock climbing and rappelling.
Straddling the states of Jalisco-Michoacan is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico – Lake Chapala. Fed by the Lerma River and encompassing over 1,100 square kilometres, this lake boasts many scenic beaches and fishing spots.
Set on the southeastern coastline of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ca), is famous for its indigenous people and their culture, including Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Most of these live in the more central valley region, rife with archaeological sights.
Its capital and largest city, also named Oaxaca, is a prime destination here. There are charming streets, astonishing examples of baroque architecture – such as the fortress-like Church of Santo Domingo and the ornate carvings of Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad – and markets to explore.
There’s also the sprawling archaeological site of Monte Albán, complete with pre-Colombian ruins dating back thousands of years, with ancient ruins to be seen at Yagul, too.
On the coast, choose from beachside retreats like the surfer hangout of Puerto Escondido, for a quieter, more alternative vibe, or more purpose-built resort-type beach towns such as Huatulco.
Chiapas & Tabasco
The region of Chiapas and Tabasco is wedged between Veracruz and Oaxaca in the west, the Yucatan Peninsula to the northeast, and Guatemala and Belize to the east. This area is famous for coasts on both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, but also inland lakes and Mayan ruins.
The charming, mountainous town of San Cristóbal de las Casas retains much of its Spanish colonial flavour – complete with red-tiled roofs and cobbled streets. Bonampak boasts the ruins of a Maya state, where you can see beautiful murals preserved through the centuries.
For more ancient history, Palenque is the place to go, where stone ruins of tell of yet another Maya state that flourished for more than half a millennium before being engulfed by cedar woodlands.
Chiapas is also famous for its turquoise Laguna Miramar, nestled deep in the wildly biodiverse Lacandon Jungle that spans the border with Guatemala; with warm waters, it’s a great spot for swimming and canoeing.
North of Chiapas, Tabasco is more than the namesake of the pepper and spicy sauce made from it. There’s the lush jungle landscape around the near Tapijulapa, where you can walk across hanging bridges spanning the river until you reach the incredible sulfur Villa Luz Waterfalls.
Jutting out into the ocean with the Caribbean Sea on its east and Gulf of Mexico on its right, the Yucatan Peninsula is known for being home to the Maya Civilization. The aptly named Maya Riviera, with famed party towns like Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, is the place to go to see remnants of the civilization.
Most famously, the pyramid of Chichen Itza is located on the Yucatan Peninsula and is almost engulfed by the jungle canopy. This region of Mexico is also very well known for its cenotes – sinkholes and caves in the jagged karst landscape now filled with fresh water – as well as some impressive cave systems, some of which were considered sacred by the Mayans.
For more water, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef lies just off the east coast of the peninsula. It’s the second-largest barrier reef in the world, stretching all the way to the bay islands of Honduras, and is naturally home to a plethora of marine life.