If you've been thinking of coming down to Mexico, and not just for a quick action packed vacation, but to actually check out what living down here may be like, it may be a bit overwhelming to decide which city to check out first. There's dozens of world renowned beach cities, one of the largest cities in the world, and quaint villages. So which is right for your first time? Well, that depends on your personality. If large metropolises are your thing, than Mexico City may be the perfect place to start, but I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, especially for their first trip to the country. At the end of the day there is no one city that would be best for everyone. That being said, I will go over two cities that I believe are perfect for many people on a first trip to Mexico. However there's one question that needs to be asked first:
Beach or No Beach?
Many people coming to Mexico for the first time want to go to the beach. The beautiful beaches are what many people think of when thinking of Mexico. The beaches are world class, and they should not be missed, however there's more to Mexico than the beach. There are many cities in the central part of the country that have near perfect weather year-round. We're talking more or less 70F (~20C) most of the year. Whichever you prefer, there are many great options, however there are two cities, one with a beach and one without, that I think come out ahead of the competition, especially for first timers.
The Beach: Playa del Carmen
My pick for the best city for your time to Mexico if you're looking for a beach is Playa del Carmen. This city on the famed Caribbean coast of Mexico, just 1 hour south of Cancun, is a great place all around. While you can't go wrong with other beach cities such as Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, or if you want something more laid back, Puerto Escondido, Playa del Carmen some specific advantages over other cities for first timers.
The city is easy to access, the airport in Cancun is one of the most well connected airports in the country. Whichever city you call home, it likely has cheap flights to Cancun. If you're coming from the US, you can find round trip flights for as low as $200 to Cancun (however normally expect them to be between $300 and $400). Once arriving in Cancun, there are frequent first class buses which will take you to Playa del Carmen in one hour for about 10 USD.
Once in Playa del Carmen, the town is extremely walkable. There's no Uber, but that's not a problem due to the town's walkability, however there are plenty of taxis if you do find yourself in a situation where walking is not possible. 5th Avenue is a walking street closed to cars that runs a block off the beach for over a mile. Along this street you will find everything you need, but we'll get into that later on.
Authentic, but Comfortable
One of the best parts of Playa del Carmen is that while it has all the comforts and amenities you would want, you still feel like you're in Mexico. One of the issues with many Mexican beach cities, such as Cancun, is you feel like you're in an amusement park. Everything you experience has been designed to cater to American and Canadian tourists. While Playa del Carmen still has this to an extent, it's toned down enough so that it feels more authentic without sacrificing the amenities you need and expect. Most service staff, especially along 5th Avenue, will speak English and potentially some other languages as the city attracts many European tourists as well.
Along 5th avenue you'll find tons of great restaurants and cafes with fast wifi. However, go one block further from the beach to 10th Avenue and you'll find even more great places, but at a fraction of the price. This makes Playa del Carmen a perfect jumping off point if you're new to Mexico. Stay along 5th Avenue as you get acquainted. Once you're more comfortable you can venture further into town and eventually to other cities in Mexico more off the tourist trail.
The city itself has everything you need; great restaurants, nightlife, and of course the beach, but if you're looking to get out of Playa for a bit, there's a ton to do around the city. One hour south and you'll find yourself in Tulum, another great beach town with incredible Mayan ruins that look over the ocean from atop the cliff they set on. Tulum has a more laid back, bohemian feel, and it can be a nice getaway from the more high energy Playa del Carmen.
Two hours to the west you'll find the colonial city of Valladolid if you'd like to experience something more authentically Mexican. Nearby Valladolid is the world famous Chichen Itza pyramid. A couple hours further down the highway is the beautiful city of Merida, the largest city in the Yucatan Peninsula and my pick for one of the best cities to live in Mexico.
Also around Playa del Carmen you'll find dozens of cenotes which are basically fresh water swimming holes. These sinkholes connect the underground river network that runs throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
Perfect Weather Year-Round: Guanajuato
Authentic Colonial Mexican City with Young Energy
Guanajuato is a colonial city in the mountains of Central Mexico. Due to the geography and age of the city, many of the streets are too narrow for cars. Therefore, in the historic centro that sits at the bottom of the valley, many streets are walking only. Going up the side of the mountain are many more walking only alleyways known as callejones. This makes the city a great place to live if you don't have a car.
If the beach isn't your thing and are looking for a more authentic experience, Guanajuato could be the perfect option. In Guanajuato you'll get a lot more practice with your Spanish. You could get by without Spanish, but your experience will be a lot more rewarding if you know a little bit before getting here. You'll also have the opportunity to try many traditional Mexican dishes.
Although the town is authentic, it is definitely not boring as it is also a university city. Thus, the city has many trendy restaurants and bars that will keep you entertained during your stay.
If for some reason you are looking for a change of pace while in Guanajuato, you should take a trip to Queretaro, a much larger nearby city that still keeps its colonial feel. Check out this article I wrote on Queretaro during my stay there:
Many cities in Mexico and Latin America in general have perfect spring-like weather year round. We're talking more or less 70F (~20C) all year. This blows many people's minds who are unfamiliar with the region.
Guanajuato is one of these cities due to two geographic features. Situated within the tropics, the city receives the kind of sunlight you imagine when thinking of a tropical beach destination. However, Guanajuato is not at the beach, it's sitting at 6,600 feet above sea level. This elevation cools it down just enough to make perfect weather all year.
So if you're not a fan of the heat, a city in the central part of Mexico such as a Guanajuato could be the perfect option.
Again, the perfect city will vary for each person based on their individual preferences. However, it's hard to go wrong with Playa del Carmen or Guanajuato. I hope this article has helped guide you on where to take your first trip to Mexico. If you're still unsure, my best advice is to just dive in. Book a ticket and get on the ground to see for yourself. Mexico is a beautiful country and its hard to go wrong when choosing a vacation destination.
Need a Place to Stay in Mexico?
Whether you decide to go in the Playa del Carmen, Guanajuato or anywhere else in Mexico, I highly recommend Airbnb. I often book a month on Airbnb when arriving to a city and then use that time to find local rentals. With Airbnb you can find beautiful furnished apartments right in the best parts of town and often cheaper than a hotel. Click the banner below to receive $40 off your first stay.
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