Best Things I Never Did in Mexico City: A Guide to Going Back
September 16 was Mexican Independence Day, and I am missing that place in a big way. It is possible that the missing is less about Mexico specifically and more about how life was while I was there. My three-month stint in Mexico City ended in early February when I returned to the States, just in time to end up in lockdown amidst the pandemic. Thus Mexico, in my mind, is the last time things were normal. Free travel, maskless socialization, ostensible job security. This makes the sprawling city that stole my heart that much more sacred.
With Mexico on my mind, I decided to do something out of the ordinary and talk not of the awesome things I did during my time in CDMX, but instead of all the other awesome things I didn’t do.
The more you travel, the more you find out you’ll never have enough time. To hit every tourist attraction, every island in an archipelago, each quaint coffee shop in town, every best bar, every beautiful beach. And while it annoys me that this just isn’t possible (call it FOMO), I am growing to accept it. That being said, these are the top things I wish I had gotten around to while staying in Mexico City, and a mini travel guide for myself should I go back for when I go back.
And, in no particular order, here they are:
1. See Monarch Butterflies
Every November, millions of Monarch butterflies migrate south from Canada and the US to spend the winter months in the forests of central Mexico. (Not a bad plan, if you ask me.) It is said that the forest turns orange from November to February when the Monarchs take over to hibernate and mate. There are several butterfly sanctuaries in the states of Mexico and Michoacán where visitors can go to see swarms of orange and black wings covering the trees and fluttering in the air.
El Rosario is the most well-known monarch sanctuary, though based on reviews, that may be due to better tourism marketing than any real difference in quality of experience. This sanctuary is located in the state of Michoacán, just over the Western border of it and Mexico. I have not heard much about this as a day trip, most people seem to stay overnight in the nearby town of Morelia.
Piedra Herrada Sanctuary is the closest to Mexico City and makes a popular day trip. It is located in the Valle De Bravo, West of CDMX. Google Maps gives me an estimate of between 1 hr 20 mins and 2 hrs 40 mins from the city to the sanctuary, which if you know anything about Mexico City’s traffic, sounds about right. Get on the road early and be mindful that a rental car will likely cost significantly more when you pick it up than the price you’ve selected online.
Another option is to take a guided tour in which transport would be included. Some people hate tours, but if you know me you know that I’m not one of them. Here are some day tours to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary from Mexico City via Tripadvisor. And here is a 6-day itinerary if you’re looking to hit several monarch-viewing sites and other beautiful stops along the way. There are also public transport options, like taking a bus, which will likely be cheaper, but will involve staying overnight in a nearby town. Again, not the worst way to get a more authentic Mexico experience.
This is one thing that I do NOT want to miss next time I’m in Mexico, and in fact is something I’ll likely plan my next trip around. From what I hear it is that good.
Things to note: The Monarch population is dwindling—hello life-ruining human activity! While this is a worthwhile experience (in which I plan to partake) we must ensure that we are respectful, good visitors. Keep quiet in the sanctuaries so as not to disturb the butterflies. Do not venture into any blocked areas of the sanctuary. And watch where you step! Also, note that the Monarchs tend to roost at higher altitudes, meaning you’ll be taking a hike up to see them. I’m not sure how intense this is, but dress appropriately for changing temperatures, uphill climbing, and bring some water.
Here is more information regarding Monarchs in Mexico via Mexperience.
And this Matador Network article can tell you about other sanctuaries I haven’t mentioned.
2. See a Fútbol Match
Fútbol, or soccer, is the most popular sport in Mexico, and there are THREE major teams you can root for in Mexico City. Choosing a team, getting caught up in the hype is oh-so Mexican, and sports lovers will find themselves very at home in the capital.
After only a few hours walking through the city, you are likely to start recognising the different football kits. There is the yellow of Club America, the blue with the red cross of Cruz Azul, the panther’s head of Pumas de la UNAM, and the white and red stripes of Chivas.
El Estadio Azteca, the futbol stadium in CDMX (and football stadium, when the NFL plays outreach games for their International Series), is the largest stadium in all of Mexico and packs in more than 87,000 people. I had hoped to get to a match at some point during my three-month stay in Mexico, but somehow time slipped by and I never made it. This is one cultural experience I will be sure to fit in next time!
Here is an in-depth article on the deets of going to a “soccer” game in Mexico City.
3. Xochimilco Boat Cruising
Ahhh, the Venice of Mexico. Those boozey boats you’ve heard about. Or maybe what you’ve seen is serene canals, farmers living on the marsh, working the sopping land. The experience of Xochimilco is really what you make of it.
These canals, in southern Mexico City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, btw, are the remnants of an ancient system of commerce. Back in pre-Hispanic times, they were used for transporting goods, and the land patches between waterways were farmed by Aztecs. Today, you can rent a brightly colored boat to take you on a cruise, where you can drink, eat and float along at a pace much slower than the rest of the bustling city. This is best done with a group of friends. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, you may consider taking a group tour to Xochimilco, but most of these include other tourist stops and end up being full-day events. Not the worst, just a matter of preference. At the docks and on the water you can find vendors selling snacks, drinks, and willing to sing for some pesos. There is also a creepy-looking place called Isla de la Muñecas, Island of the Dolls, that serves as a memorial for a “poor girl who met her fate too soon in strange circumstances.”
I said a million times that I would visit Xochimilco and never did. The experience may be overrated, as some people say, but it is such a Mexico City thing to do that I’m all in for a visit the next time I’m in town.
Here is some more info and reviews on Xochimilco via Tripadvisor.
If you’re interested in taking a tour, here are 10 from Viator.
4. Take a Dance Lesson
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that before I ever stepped foot in CDMX, I spent 6 weeks in Medellin Colombia, studying Spanish, facing fears, and getting to know la gente. One of my favorite things I did in Colombia was salsa. Let me be clear: I am NOT good at salsa. But taking lessons and then being able to bring them out in salsa clubs was one of the funnest, and most culturally immersive experiences of the whole trip.
Looking back, I wish I had done it in Mexico, too. Latin music and Latin dance, is simply the best. There is no argument, so don’t even try it. Latinx/o/as are born with rhythm, and seem to be immune to awkward. And while salsa got my goat in Colombia, there are different types of music that are local to Mexico, and more locally, to Central Mexico, that have their own unique style, rhythm, and you guessed it—dance.
Mariachi is what you might think of when you think traditional Mexican music. Violins, trumpets, guitars, a vihuela, and a guitarron, a whole lot of energy and an unmistakable sound that makes you want to move. There are different dances for mariachi music, depending on what region of the country you find yourself in.
Cumbia is another popular music in Mexico, and while it took me a minute to warm up, eventually I started to really like it. There are a few cumbia songs I simply can’t get enough of.
Cumbia originated in none other than Colombia, but since the ‘40s has been imported, adopted and tailored by other Latin American countries. Including, of course, Mexico. Apparently, Cumbia and Salsa can be danced interchangeably, but there are slight differences in the style of dance.
Basically, if you are looking to immerse yourself in a Latin culture, you’ve got to learn to dance. Don’t be like me and waste three months not learning to cumbia like a local.
Check out this list of 6 places to learn to dance in Mexico City by Matador Network.
One of my favorite Cumbia Jams, don’t judge, just thank me later.
5. Visit the Yucatan Peninsula
Does this count as a Mexico City thing? Technically no, unless you’re me. The reason I’m counting it is because at the close of my stay in Mexico, I was planning to visit the Yucatan Peninsula, but ultimately opted to stay instead in the state of Oaxaca, hanging in Puerto Escondido and Mazunte.
Literally zero regrets about this decision because, like I said before, Mazunte is Magic. But not making it to this tropical, cave-filled, white-sand-dusted, palm-tree-laiden, historical piece of Mexico means that another trip to one of my favorite countries is in order. (Who’s coming!?)
Visit another UNESCO World Heritage site: Chichen Itza Pyramids. See Mayan ruins. Swim in underground caves, called cenotes. SCUBA with Sea Turtles, sharks and brightly colored fish. Check out PINK Lakes, at Las Coloradas. Take one of these 6 hiking trips through the jungle. And of course, lay your butt on some seriously pristine white sand beaches.
And there they are, the things I missed. The top 5 things that give me little pangs of regret about my time in Mexico. This post will serve as a guide to going back to Mexico City and making even more memories. And I hope it helps you out in your Mexico-trip-planning too!
Mexico’s borders are open to U.S. citizens at the moment, so start planning! And, just in case you want to plan another trip after Mexico, check this list of all destinations open to US citizens.
What are your favorite things to do in Mexico City? Or the country of Mexico? Tell me what I missed! If you want more info on Mexico city check out some of my other blog posts from my three-month stay.
Mexico City & Awesome things to do there:
Bumps in the Road (Things don’t always go according to plan)