From cactus dotted orange deserts to lush green jungles fringing white beaches, Mexico is a lot more varied than many people expect it to be – and that's just the terrain, before you consider the cultures that have inflicted, or lent, their influence, and built their cities and monuments here and the pace of life you could potentially holiday at.
This Holiday Idea uses two bases, Mexico City and the Mayan Riviera, and accesses Mexico's main highlights from there. It's up to you which order you do them in, it's easy enough to fly in and out of either, but in this instance WR has assumed you'd rather relax on the beach at the end of your travels rather than at the beginning.
Mexico City is rendered in strong coloured and is awash with strong flavours, and arriving here can be a shock to the system – but it's probably going to be from the change in altitude, Mexico City is North America's highest city – and you can quickly sort that out with a few nips of tequlia taken in one of the stately old cantinas just off the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), which is Mexico City's main square.
Once your composure is recovered you can set to exploring the area. One edge of the square is dominated by Mexico's National Palace. Public entry is though the middle door and inside you can get your first official taster of Mexican art in Mexico – it's called the 'Epic of the Mexican People' by Diego Rivera, and it tells the story of Mexico from 1521 to 1930. You'll see more of Rivera's art before you leave Mexico, but for now there's some more upstairs. The history of the building is also well worth looking into if you become fascinated by the mural.
At the Zócalo's north end, is the Metropolitan Cathedral and beside it are the remains of the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple of the Aztec nation. When it was first constructed this double pyramid temple was around 80m high, and even though it's been buried there's still quite a lot to see today: first there's the different stages of excavation as layers for each temple building dynasty are removed, and then there's the over 7,000 artefacts that have been collected from the dig and are presented in the onsite museum.
Spend your first evening at the Zona Rosa, Mexico City's nightlife hub - so named for the pink hue of the streets. This is a perfect place to people watch. As a point of reference it's also close to the Independence Monument (El Ángel de la Independencia).
You need to make sure that at least one of your days in Mexico City falls on a Saturday or Sunday so you can fully appreciate the city's market culture. There are markets both days: on Saturday head over to San Ángel, one of Mexico City's oldest and prettiest neighbourhoods, for the Saturday craft market in the Plaza San Jacinto. This market is known for quality art and pottery as well as all sorts of handicrafts, and the restaurants that line the square are some of the city's best. The thing to remember at this market is that inside the bazaar building are the permanent stores with the higher quality purchases and outside are the bargains. The Frida Kharlo and Diego Rivera Museum and Studio is only a short walk away.
On Sunday try Tepoztlan for chillies of all kinds, La Lagunilla, whichis known for unique souvenirs, including old coins and paintings and all sorts of 20th Century treasures, including magazines, clothes, books, toys, furniture etc., or La Merced, which is one of the busiest places in Mexico City, the place to pick up your Mexican produce, and an excellent place to try antojitos: street finger food tasters.
If you have time spend your afternoon relaxing on a boat in the canals of the 'Floating gardens' of Xochimilco, or if it's a Sunday, stroll over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) theatre and art gallery and see the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico perform traditional pre-Hispanic dance performances. There are performances almost every Wednesday and Friday.
The other Mexico City must-do is Bosque de Chapultepec Park, for its ancient forests and archaeological treasures, many of them housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Castle. Some people visit Mexico City just to see this museum: significant exhibits include the Aztec Stone of the Sun, the mysterious giant stone heads that are relics of the Olmec civilization and rooms full of Mayan treasures.
If you have time, or else you love silver jewellery, Taxco is worth considering for a day trip - it's where a lot of the colonial silver came from, and it's also where some of Mexico's best silversmiths have always been found, so it's an excellent place to buy your Mexican silver if that's on your travel here to-do list. Taxco is also supposed to be one of Mexico's prettiest towns.
The Mayan Riviera on the Yucatán Peninsula has beaches similar to the Caribbean, diving similar to Belize and ancient monuments similar to those found in Guatemala or Peru. It's also got lush jungles where you can not only come upon a lost city, you could also come upon some pretty exotic animals. Base yourself in one of the coastal resorts and you have the freedom to build your own itinerary out of our recommended highlights. But first you have to choose where to be based.
Cancún is one of the easiest places to arrive at because it's close to the airport, but its other main assets are the white and aquamarine Caribbean style beaches, the lifestyle and the watersports. The other main options are Playa del Carmen, which has one of the nicest beaches in Mexico and an 18 hole golf course, the new resort of Puerto Costa Maya, which lays on activities thick and fast, including dune buggy-ing and sea kayaking, or one of the towns on the island of Cozumel, which is on the Great Mayan Reef, a destination that divers and snorkellers the world over rave about.
Wherever you choose to stay there are two sets of ruins you won't want to miss, Tulum and Chichén Itzá. Tulum is closer to the resorts, and smaller, and while it's also not one of the most impressive Mayan ruins, it's probably the one with the best backdrop: it stretches all the way to the edge of the cliff where it overlooks pristine beaches and a bright aquamarine sea. You can see Tulum's highlights in an afternoon, but Chichén Itzá, on the other hand, is one of Mexico's most famous ruin complexes, and is large and busy, so you'll want to arrive early.
Chichén Itzá was a commercial, cultural and spiritual centre over hundreds of years which you'll be able to appreciate in the changing architectural styles. One of the most interesting and impressive things about these ruins is the way the structures are aligned so perfectly with the heavens, as well as with the peninsula's other Mayan ruins. The Temple of Kukulkan is both the largest and most important of Chichén Itzá's structures, you can't miss it, and this is a good place to begin to understand the Maya and Toltec vision of the world and the universe. Coba is another local ruin, home to about 50,000 people in its heyday.
Diving is another reason people visit the Mayan Riviera. Just off its coast, between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen weave the Great Mayan Reef and the Palancar Reef. More than 100 different kinds of coral grow here, supporting around 500 different species of fish, dolphins, sharks and sea turtles. The Isla Mujeres on the Cancun end of the reef has huge protected lagoon that's been made into a marine park which is great for new divers and snorkellers, and just north of the island is the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, a local favourite and a good place to see sharks at their most passive due to low salt levels in the water. More experienced divers will probably be more interested diving the pirate wreck.
You could also try a spot of cenote diving in the eerily still underground caverns and tunnels worn under the landscape by the ocean. The water temp is consistent and visibility is really good – the view is surprisingly un-repetitive.
There's any number of near perfect beaches along this coastline, and the water comes in all shades of blue. The resorts all have markets, so you've got your shopping wrapped up. But if you're interested in other ways to spend a relaxing afternoon you could visit Punta Laguna and Ma'ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve. The reserve was set up to protect the regions more exotic fauna: spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas and jaguars, but it also protects some Mayan ruins within its boundaries, and the small town of Punta Laguna. Here life is lived at a different pace, pigs and chickens seem to have right of way, and people have time to make their own tortillas instead of rushing to the shops to buy them...
Visit the Yucatán Peninsula for the ancient Mayan ruins, the Caribbean style beaches, the diving, adventures in the jungle, or for the culture - there are almost too many reasons.
There's no doubt that the lush jungles of the Mayan Riviera hide many treasures, but while some people covert the ancient Mayan temples hidden in the jungle' depths, some visitors dream of the perfect Caribbean beaches that the jungles fringe.