Before arriving in Mexico during our ongoing Trans-Americas Journey we estimated that we’d spend about eight months in the country. By the time we finally tore ourselves away we’d spent 18 months driving 24,737 miles through 29 of the 31 states in Mexico. We recently went back through all 177 of the posts we’ve published about Mexico on our travel blog and compiled this list of the top 10 reasons to travel to Mexico.

Top 10 reasons to travel to Mexico

The beach in Tulum is fabulous, but Mexico is so much more.

1. The beach is just the beginning

It’s easy to get the impression that Mexico is one long, white sandy beach peppered with frosty cold Coronas and festively-colored hammocks. And there’s plenty of that. However, the great big pleasant surprise about Mexico is its geographic diversity. For example, the north offers expansive deserts. The vast central area of the country is downright mountainous (the capital, Mexico City, is at 7,350 feet or 2,240 meters). One of the largest canyon systems in the world is in Mexico along with enormous volcanoes, meandering caves, impressive waterfalls, and tumbling rivers. Here are some awesome outdoor adventures in Mexico.

Copper Canyon exploration

A Raramuri (Tarahumara) man in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

This series of six interlocking canyons in northern Mexico is both larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. We know because we spent a month exploring the area on the Copper Canyon train, driving through the Copper Canyon, and hiking through the Copper Canyon from Cusarare to El Fuerte. We camped on the rim of the Sinfarosa area of the Copper Canyon, enjoyed the area’s massive Basaseachi Waterfall and generally got a sense of the indigenous Tarahumara (who, we learned in the canyon, actually prefer to be called Raramuri) and the gorgeous world they fled into to escape the enslaving Spanish.

 

 

 

 

 

Cenote swimming in the Yucatan

Welcome to a Mayan swimming pool.

When the ceiling of a cave falls in and the cave fills with crystal-clear fresh water it’s called a cenote. They’re gorgeous oasis perfect for snorkeling and even scuba diving, as we found out when we jumped into Dos Ojos Cenote in southern Mexico for one of the most other-worldly scuba dives of our lives. Near Merida you can rent a horse-drawn cart to pull you along a small-gauge railway track around a long circuit that includes stops for swims at three dramatic cenotes. Up the adrenaline factor by joining the locals and swinging into the water off massive descending tree roots, Tarzan style.

 

Laguna Media Luna lake diving

Speaking of other-worldly dives, how about diving in a crystal clear, constantly warm, spring-fed, fresh water lake at 3,200 feet (975 meters)? You can do it in Laguna Media Luna in central Mexico.

Lagos de Montebello beauty

You can’t dive into them, but the collection of brilliantly colored  lakes (turquoise, jade, aquamarine) that make up the Lagos de Montebello region in southern Mexico is stunning and includes one of the closest things to a US-style national park road in all of Mexico.

Colossal Cacahuamilpa Caves

Cacahuamilpa cave Mexico

Inside the enormous Cacahuamilpa cave system.

We’ve ventured inside a lot of caves on the Trans-Americas Journey but none were as surprisingly awesome as the massive Cacahuamilpa Caves in the Parque Nacional Grutas Cacahuamilpa in central Mexico. One of the largest cave systems in the world, it has two rivers running through it, impressive rock formations and no nasty bat poop smell. Honest.

Nevado de Toluca trekking

The active Toluca Volcano in central Mexico (just 50 miles / 80 km from Mexico City) is the fourth highest peak in the country. At 15,354 feet  (4,680 meters) it’s a weather-beaten, rugged corner of the country most visitors don’t visit. We did, though the summit eluded us…

Rafting the Rio Antigua

White water rafting in Mexico was born in the Jacolmulco region of Veracruz state in the central/southern part of the country and the area continues to offer watery thrills.

2. You’ll become a better cook (and a better eater)

tacos al pastor Mexico

Tacos al pastor in Mexico. How we miss them.

Since leaving Mexico not a day goes by that we don’t long for the amazing food we ate there. There just is no beating the food you get in Mexico. Whether you have $1 or $100 to spend on a meal you’re gonna get good eats. Here are a few appetizers.

– Making mole poblano at the cooking school at Mesones Sacristia hotel in Puebla

– The tempting tacos of Mexico City

– Why everyone should mix lemon sorbet and cheap red wine like they do in Queretaro

– The best ice cream in the country

3. You’ll finally learn how to drink good tequila (and mezcal)

blue agave jimador tequila mexico

Blue agave being harvested, the first step toward tequila.

Tequila is a passion in Mexico–a delicious, fascinating passion. To be called tequila the stuff must be made from blue agave from specific regions in Mexico including the town of Tequila (near Guadalajara) where large producers and small producers rub shoulders. Tequila can also be produced in the Los Altos region. Yes we visited both areas. What’s your point?

Tequila may be “the drink of Mexico” but in the foodie state of Oaxaca (birthplace of mole, tlayudas and much more) a community of small batch mezcal makers is quietly at work on a tasty revolution.

Forget shots. Start sipping.

4. You’ll really appreciate a good cup of coffee

A visit to the coffee plantations in the Ruta del Cafe in Chiapas is a tasty education in the economics of coffee, how to brew a perfect cup, and a glimpse at impressively innovative organic farming methods that are changing the way coffee is grown in Mexico. It doesn’t hurt that many of the plantations now have gorgeous hotels and spas on site too.

5. They’ve got animals all over the place

monarch butterflies Mexico

The monarch butterfly migration in Mexico.

Monarchs on the march
Monarch butterflies know Mexico is a great place to go. Every year, between November and March, hundreds of millions of monarchs somehow navigate their way to the exact same areas of central Mexico—some flying 5,000 miles (8,000 km) or more from where they were born in Canada and the northern US. Scientists say they’re drawn to Mexico’s fir trees, but can’t provide a more complete explanation than that. Once the butterflies arrive, they rest and eat then mate like crazy before attempting the return flight home. And you can stop by and check them out.

flamingos in Mexico Rio Lagartos

Flamingos in Mexico.

Flamingos galore
In the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site in Yucatan state, we saw thousands of long-legged, pink stunners as they gorged on the shrimp that thrive in this unique super-salty estuary.

 

Cave of swallows
Every morning thousands of swifts fly up and out of their home inside a 1,220 foot deep pit called the Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of Swallows) in San Luis Potosí state. The birds burst out into the world and spend the day feeding before returning home in the evening. Yes, we have video.

Abyss of the parrots
The Sima de las Cotorras (Abyss of the Parrots) in Chiapas state is another feathery find as hundreds of parrots squawk their way out of an almost perfectly round sinkhole that’s 525 feet (160 meters) wide and 460 feet (140 meters) deep.

howler monkey mexico

Howler monkeys spend most of their time eating. And howling.

Scarlet macaws and howler monkeys
Centro Ecoturistico Ara Mocoa Las Guacamayas is a sanctuary for the flamboyant namesake birds (guacamayas is Spanish for scarlet macaws) and a haven for other jungle finds like howler monkeys. You’ve got to hear it to believe it…

 

6. You won’t believe how great the hotels are

We’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels in Mexico from quirky boutique properties to flawless all-inclusive resorts. Here are just a few of our most memorable Mexican stays.

Maison Couturier hotel Mexico

The Maison Couturier hotel is a slice of France in Mexico.

Verana: A hippie-chic hilltop retreat outside Puerto Vallarta (as published in Afar)

Maison Couturier: French farmhouse charm in Veracruz

Clarum 101: Guadalajara’s hidden hipster

Casa de Mita: Your Punta Mita beach home, only WAY better

Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort:Riviera Maya all-inclusive-ness, perfected

Casa del Atrio: The best arty b&b bargain in the laid back (but happening) town of Queretaro (as published in our piece for National Geographic Traveler)

Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal: A Mayanist infuses his passion into the first boutique hotel on the doorstep of the Palenque archaeological site

Boca Chica: Elvis was here, sushi by the seashore, and a dose of retro Acapulco

7. You’ll be amazed by the Mayans

Uxmal-Cuadrángulo de las Monjas-Nunnery Quadrangle-detail Mexico

The Uxmal archaeological site in Mexico, one of dozens of amazing Mayan site.

We don’t know exactly how many Mayan archaeological sites there are in Mexico. We do know that we visited 54 of them–from stars like Palenque and Chichen Itza to little-visited off the beaten path sites like Hormiguero. We’ve compiled this handy alphabetized list of archaeological sites we’ve visited with links back to our original posts about them. so you can easily plan your own Indiana Jones adventures.

8. You’ll never watch US-style rodeo the same way again

rodeo Mexico

A rodeo stars chats up the crowd in Mexico.

Rodeo was invented in Mexico, specifically in the Lagos de Moreno area of Jalisco which is still a hotbed of horsemanship. Lagos is where we spent many blissful days riding from hacienda to hacienda (often over stretches of the original Camino Real), watching amazing horse trainers at work, cheering along with the crowd at charreadas (Mexican rodeos), taking part in branding day and learning how to ride like a charro (Mexican cowboy). Sort of.

 

 

 

 

9. The cultures (and culture) will floor you

Mayan market ocosingo mexico

Mayan women at the market in Ocosingo, Mexico.

Mexico is a huge country and every region has produced distinct cultures including the Aztecs and the Lacandon, who cling to existence with less than 1,000 members. Vibrant (literally) cultures remain strongest in Chiapas where many different traditions in clothing, food, and customs exist in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas.

For culture of another kind, you can’t beat the museums of Mexico City where you can see everything from ancient Olmec heads carved out of enormous boulders to the most modern of modern art. We’re from New York City and we were floored by the museums here.

10. You’ll have a clue what you’re talking about when the issue of tourist safety in Mexico comes up (again)

For the record: after 18 months of independent overland travel driving nearly 25,000 miles (4,000 km) through 29 of the country’s 31 states we can report, first hand, that we have never seen or sensed any threat or danger of any kind at any point anywhere in Mexico. Period.

Here’s more about travel in Mexico