When it comes to diverse landscapes, Mexico is the full package. It boasts the most gorgeous beaches in Central America, archaeological sites nestled in the jungle, lush rainforests and mountains. Visitors come to enjoy its family-friendly resorts along the Riviera Maya or stay in ancient haciendas to enjoy peace and tranquillity in the countryside.
This might make it hard to notice that Mexico also claims incredible city trips. Mexican cities blend together the best the country has to offer. From vibrant zocalos packed with flavourful food stalls, world-class museums, colonial architecture and easy access to stunning nature and pre-hispanic sites, it would be a shame not to cross the following cities off your bucket list.
1. Mexico City
The Mexican capital city goes by many names. From DF (pronounced De Efe), it became CDMX (short for Ciudad de Mexico) and might change its name again in the future, just like the city transformed itself to leave behind its shady reputation and become one of the trendiest cities in the continent.
Formerly known as Tenochtitlan, it is the oldest capital city in the Americas and is by nature the heart of Mexican culture. Destroyed in the 16th century to be rebuilt according to Spanish standards, the city learned how to mix its native heritage with colonial architecture. The biggest zocalo in all America lies at the core of its historic centre and has become the place where all communities gather to celebrate traditional festivals. Not too far stand the majestic Cathedral built by the Spanish conquerors and the National Museum of Anthropology devoted to Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage.
A stay in CDMX is indeed all about contrasts as well as it is a journey throughout history. It starts from the mysterious site of Teotihuacan to the imaginative paintings of Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan, from the Paseo de Reforma lined up with posh shopping spots to the vibrant markets of Jamaica and Sonora selling black magic items, from fancy cafe culture in la Roma to the perfect picknick spot at the floating gardens of Xochimilco.
Oaxaca is a city that is of great significance as much as it is a foodies heaven. Both are very true, especially in the state's capital city. The region had been inhabited early on by the Zapotec and the Mixtec people, before the Aztecs had found it of great strategic value and established a military position. When the Spanish first arrived in the area, in the middle of the 15th century, the Zapotecs and the Aztecs were waging a long-lasting war. The conquest put an end to it as the Spanish settled in the area, naming their city Guajaca after the Nahuatl name of the city, which would later turn into Oaxaca.
Nowadays, the city's mixed heritage shows in its architecture, most notably in its many churches like the Cathedral of our Lady Assumption, whose richly-decorated interiors can hardly be matched. It is also a gate to discovering Zapotec history, in the ancient sites of Monte Alban or Mitla.
The city's history also shows in its cuisine, with its distinctive flavour making good use of traditional ingredients such as chocolate, spices, edible insects like chapulines or Oaxaca cheese. One of Oaxaca's essential experiences is indeed to stroll through the authentic Mercados Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre to have a go at locally-produced mescal or at rich mole.
Only four hours separate Mexico's capital city from the student city of Guanajuato. Yet, too few a tourist takes the time to explore the state of Guanajuato and miss on this amazing city. The Unesco didn't miss it though and Guanajuato became a Unesco Heritage Site in 1988, rewarding its splendidly preserved colonial architecture.
The most important city in the state of Guanajuato is hard to describe and is best experienced through wandering its colourful, vivid streets with a camera in one hand. Upon first sight, Guanajuato is indeed one of the most camera-ready cities in Mexico. The infinite horizon of its multi-coloured houses paving the hills surrounding the city, the romantic feel of its narrow cobbled streets with evocative names such as the Calle Sangre de Cristo (street of the blood of Christ), the cafes and food stalls serving fresh fruits seasoned with lime and spices, the sense of decay of some its buildings yet the liveliness of the mariachi singing near the zocalo all concur to create the quintessential Mexican city experience.
Guanajuato's location makes it easy to visit the equally romantic town of San Miguel de Allende as a day trip, where each doorknob, each unassuming wall, each small street seem to tell an inviting story. The city is also surrounded by ancient silver mines, such as the Mine of Valenciana or the Mine El Nopal, which have become tourist highlights.
It takes a bit of effort to get to Campeche. The closest airport is either in Merida, up north, or in Villahermosa, a five-hour drive away. For that reason, most visitors tend to stick to the northern part of Yucatan, eager to get as soon as possible to the idyllic beaches of the Riviera Maya or to cross the Mayan site of Chichen Itza off their bucket list.
If they knew that Campeche is considered as Mexico's gourmet capital and that it is the only walled fortress city in Mexico, they might think twice. Sure, there are no gorgeous beaches in Campeche but its peaceful malecon (sea-side walk) is a prefect walk at sunset and its overall laid-back atmosphere makes it hard to resist its charm. Campeche's links with piracy are hard to summon when strolling through its tranquil cobbled streets, lined up with colourful colonial houses, but that troubled part of the city's history is best explored by visiting the bulwarks and old city walls surrounding its historic centre.
The area's Mayan heritage is rich too as the lesser-known site of Edzna is a short drive away, while Campeche can be a gateway to exploring the further yet wonderful sites of the Ruta Puuc, such as Uxmal or Kabah.
5. San Cristobal de las Casas
The state of Chiapas has been known for its wilderness and for its free-spirit. Being the southernmost state in Mexico, it shares a common border with Guatemala but also shares many cultural aspects with its neighbour. Chiapas is home to many ancient ruins nestled in the jungle, such as Palenque and Tonina, and nature is never too far, which is true even for its cities.
Located in a small valley surrounded by hills, San Cristobal de las Casas is undoubtedly the most beautiful city in Chiapas but it also boasts a unique atmosphere. The city's colourful architecture and cobbled streets makes it look like any other colonial city but its mountainous location and vibrant indigenous culture almost have an Andean feel to them, although the most appropriate comparison would be with the market cities of the Tierras Altas in Guatemala. Markets where people from local communities sell traditional handcraft are indeed a common sight in the city, just like native women wearing traditional embroidered dresses.
San Cristobal is also a perfect starting base to explore native towns of Chiapas, such as San Juan Chamula or Zinacantan, or to take a breath of fresh air at the close by Canyon del Sumidero.