Mexico is a country full of surprises. Whilst it is a popular holiday spot with tons of tourists flocking to Cancun and the beaches around the Yucatan Peninsula every year, few tend to explore the rest of Mexico, particularly the central region.
Having spent nearly 6 months traveling around pretty much the whole country, I can safely say that people are missing out. The central region of Mexico was one of my favourite parts.
Home to cool cities, colourful towns, and beautiful beaches, all easily accessible as a day trip or weekend getaway from Mexico City, if you're planning on visiting Mexico you shouldn't miss out on this area.
This Mexico travel guide will allow you to make the most of your time backpacking Mexico. If you start out from Mexico City, you can definitely fit all of these cities into your Mexico itinerary. This guide will also get you away from the typical tourist hotspots like Tulum and instead give you an incredible chance to experience Mexico culture, history, and get your fill of tequila.
When to visit
Dry season in Mexico runs from December through to April. This is also Mexican winter, with December being the coldest month. However, you'll find that the days are still hot and you can definitely hit the beach during this time. Just bring a jacket to wear in the evening.
How to get around
The bus system in Mexico is great. Regular buses run between all the towns on this list and bus schedules and bookings can easily be found online. The buses themselves are comfortable, with most having a toilet, charging ports, and sometimes even individual TVs! This is undoubtedly the best way to travel around Mexico.
Here's my list of 8 Central Mexico Cities you really shouldn't miss out on
1. Mexico City
If you're planning a trip to Central Mexico then chances are you'll be arriving in Mexico City. A large and vibrant city full of museums and parks, it's a popular city for expats in Latin America. Although my time here was somewhat dampened by strict COVID measurements, I could definitely envisage myself living here.
It's also going to be the place where you first taste real Mexican food, and oh my god you are in for a treat! After spending some time in Mexico you will have forgotten how you could ever have eaten a meal without tortillas and a ton of different salsas. Mexican food is amazing, and Mexico City is the perfect place to experience it.
Mexico City is made up of a number of different neighbourhoods, all connected by a great public transport system, or if that's not for you then Uber is available.
My favorite neighbourhoods were La Condesa and Roma. With pretty streets, small parks, street art and tons of cafes, bars, and restaurants, these are popular areas for expats.
About 3 hours north of Mexico City lies the place for wine and cheese in Mexico. Yes, you heard that right. Although Mexico might not be famous as a wine-producing country, it does make its own wine and Queretaro is the place to head if you want to have a day exploring vineyards and wine tasting.
Most of the vineyards are just outside Queretaro itself, with a lot being found around the small town of Tequisquiapan. A cute place to visit in its own right, Tequis has a nice main square and loads of wine shops, and can easily be reached by local bus from Queretaro.
As well as sampling the wine, head to Cava de Quesos Bocanegra, which literally translates as 'cheese cave', to taste the locally produced cheeses. Here you can have a tasting of the different cheeses paired with wine, and/or buy a cheese board and sit in their peaceful garden.
3. San Miguel de Allende
A small but extremely pretty town, San Miguel de Allende is one of the nicest Pueblo Magicos I visited in the whole of Mexico. The church in the central square is gorgeous and walking through the pretty streets here you'll find tons of really nice restaurants and bars.
The town has a European feel with upmarket rooftop bars serving fancy cocktails. The best rooftop bar is Quince. Expensive by Mexican standards, it's totally worth it for its rooftop terrace overlooking the cathedral.
For sunset, buy some local San Miguel craft beers and head up to the Mirador to watch the sunset over the city.
As one of the most interesting towns on this list, Guanajuato has the unique feature of being built above a series of underground tunnels. This means all the cars and buses drive underground, leaving the city pretty much car-free and walkable.
The town has loads of plazas, including the one outside its famous yellow church, and these are great to sit and chill at a cafe or bar. In the early evening head up to Al Pipila Monument for a great view of the colourful town from above.
Guanajuato is surrounded by hills so there are lots of hiking opportunities. Walk from town to the Presa de la Olla reservoir and from here you can start the short but steep hike up to the top of La Bufa for great views.
One of my favorite things about Guanajuato was the lively vibe all over the town. In the evening the streets are filled with traditional mariachi bands each competing for attention. The plaza outside Teatro Principal seemed to be the main spot for music, so grab a seat outside one of the many restaurants here and enjoy the show.
Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico and as such has loads to see and do, including the biggest indoor market in Mexico. Head here to try all the Guadalajara specialties, including goat stew and torta ahogada (a pork sandwich covered with tomato salsa - seriously so much better than it sounds).
Spend a day walking around the Plaza de Armas and checking out the architecture and churches. One church you shouldn't miss is Templo Expiatorio del Santisimo. It's not right in the centre, but it's stunning inside and out and up there with the best churches I've seen in Mexico.
The best area to stay is in Chapultepec. The streets here are lined with bars and restaurants, loads offering cheap drink deals (21 pesos (~$1) for a beer, yes please), so it's a great place to hang out through the afternoon into the evening.
Although you can explore most of the city on foot, Guadalajara has a great public transport system. Take the tram to Tlaquepaque where you'll find the main street lined with tons of bars and restaurants and the central plaza full of street food. It's a great place to spend a day hanging out.
If you've had enough eating and drinking and want to get out in nature, grab an Uber to Bosque Los Colomos. It's a really nice park with a small lake and lots of walking trails. The afternoon I spent here I saw terrapins, iguanas, loads of giant squirrels (not sure if there's a different name for them but that's what they looked like), and tons of colourful birds. It's a great reprieve from the city centre.
Everyone knows that Mexico is famous for Tequila but did you know that Tequila is an actual town that you can visit? Well it is and it's everything you'd imagine, with tons of tequila distilleries, tons of bars selling huge ceramic mugs of tequila, and everyone sitting around drinking!
As well as just drinking your way around the town, make sure to actually visit a distillery to learn how tequila is made. Not only will you see the whole process from agave plant to bottle, you'll get to taste all the different types. And there's a lot of types!
The Jose Cuevo distillery is the most famous, but I headed instead to a distillery just outside the centre of town called Tres Mujeres, and I couldn't recommend it more.
More popular with local Mexican tourists, for 50 pesos (~$2.5) I had an English-speaking guide to myself and tried 8 different types of tequila. That's 8 shots, so safe to say I was pretty tipsy after!
7. Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta is probably the one spot on this list that is well known amongst international travellers, especially Canadians and Americans. As such it has a number of large hotels and a stretch of large and brashy bars along the waterfront.
The Zona Romantica area is a much better place to spend an evening. In amongst the large number of gay bars here you'll find some nice restaurants and craft beer places. But the real reason Puerto Vallarta is on this list is for the places outside of the centre.
Whilst the beach in Puerto Vallarta is nice and a great place to watch the sunset, the best spots lie to the south of Puerto Vallarta towards Boca de Tomatlan. There are regular local buses heading this way for only 10 pesos, which is great as you'll probably find yourself taking this bus a lot!
Mismaloya Beach is a great beach only 20 minutes or so on the bus. Or if you take the bus all the way to Boca you can get a taxi boat to Yelapa Beach. Not only is this beach beautiful, but the boat ride there is also stunning and gives you the chance to see the whole coastline from the water.
Alternatively, from Boca hike to Las Animas Beach. It's an easy but beautiful hike all the way along the coast, past some other small sandy beaches where you can stop. From Las Animas, you can easily grab a water taxi back to Boca if you don't want to hike back.
Finally, if you're visiting during whale watching season (December - March), then taking a boat trip is a must.
I did a boat trip to the Marietas Islands, and even though it wasn't technically a whale watching tour I still saw so many humpback whales and dolphins. It was one of the highlights of my trip.
8. San Pancho
An hour or so up the coast from Puerto Vallarta sits San Pancho Beach, a wide sandy beach by the small hippie town of San Francisco. Consisting of pretty much one main road, it still has pretty much everything you need with nice cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Just up the road is Sayulita. Slightly larger and more developed, it's a popular spot with tourists and digital nomads. It's therefore pretty busy and more expensive, and so between the two, I preferred San Pancho. But if you're looking for more of a long-term base by the beach then Sayulita would definitely be a good option.
That's my travel guide to visiting Central Mexico. It's an amazing area to explore and one that takes you off the traditional tourist trail and lets you experience the real Mexico.