I follow my tour guide down a shadow-filled lane, and the sounds of car horns and traffic start to melt away. In its place, we hear a soft, almost inaudible music – some kind of trumpet, we guess? The percussion and horns grow louder, and we exit the shady side street into an enormous square, filled with hundreds of mariachi bands.
It’s like we’ve entered an alternate universe run by Mexican musicians, each playing similar yet distinctly different tunes. We’ve arrived at the Plaza Garibaldi, a surprise my tour guide chose to end to our first night in Mexico City. Each evening, the city’s mariachi bands belt out glorious ballads for locals and tourists alike, with bellowing voices and animated hand gestures. Their ostentatious costumes are all unique in their own way, from the suave suits to their flashy sombreros, and the best part? You can soak it all up from the al fresco restaurants and bars surrounding the plaza, while sipping on local tequila.
For ladies looking to travel through Mexico alone, the capital city is a great starting point to dive headfirst into the flamboyant culture. Mexico City wowed me from the minute I got there, with street markets and traditional Latin dance performances on every other street corner. Museums are a dime a dozen, from the National Museum of Anthropology to the legendary Frida Kahlo Museum, and the food – oh man, the food.
On my Central America Encompassed tour, our guide weaved us in and out of narrow laneways and street vendors until we found a modest taqueria that was a favourite with the locals. It was a simple tortilla with rotisserie-style beef, some hot sauce and a wedge of lime, but it was the best meal I’ve ever had. Getting around this city is easy thanks to the metro and bus system, and always provides the goods when it comes to entertainment, with the bustling Plaza Garibaldi just one example.
From the nightlife to the history books, you can’t leave this city without a trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan, 50 kilometres out of the city. Aim to pick up a local guide, who will walk you down the ‘Avenue of the Dead’ and point out the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Then, on your way back to the city, stop in at the religious landmark that is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to see devoted Catholics paying their respects to their Patron Saint.
If Mexico City is the starting point on your one-woman show, make Puebla and San Cristóbal de las Casas next on your itinerary. It’s only a 2.5-hour bus ride to Puebla, and in reasonable comfort as well. The buses in Mexico aren’t those bright, multi-coloured school buses you see in many Central American countries; instead, you’ll feel safe and cosy inside a coach-style vehicle, with a bathroom and designated seating. But keep in mind that petty theft can happen, particularly on longer bus journeys when you’re likely to fall asleep, so keep your valuables in a bag or pouch under your shirt.
Puebla is one of the most welcoming cities I’ve experienced, with its cobble-stoned streets easy to navigate and every building a bold, distinguishable colour. For architecture nerds, arrange a guide to the Santa Domingo Church and Rosary Chapel and bask in the bejewelled, intricate designs, or visit Cholula town to see the Great Pyramid. Puebla is also known for its Lucha Libre – Mexican wrestling show – and is the perfect solo activity; the atmosphere and performances are wild, and the audience is always in fantastic spirits.
To get to San Cristóbal de las Casas, you can catch a bus via the laidback colonial town of Oaxaca, known for its arts scene, including folk art, fine art and dance, not to mention markets selling colourful woven blankets and shawls. From here, hop aboard the first-class overnight bus to San Cristóbal, remembering to keep your valuables close. Wandering the streets and people watching in the town’s Plaza 31 de Marzo is an activity in itself, but also make time to explore the Catedral on the north side of the plaza and observe worshippers quietly from the back.
For female travellers flying into Cancun instead of Mexico City, the historic town of Mérida should be on your itinerary. Founded in 1542, Mérida is brimming with old-world charm, and is ripe for exploring with countless museums and markets. And on Sundays, the streets turn into an open-air dance floor for salsa dancers and merengue bands. The city is also a jumping-off point to explore the Cuzama cenotes – natural underground swimming holes – and the Mayan ruins of Uxmal.
From here, you can head across to Playa del Carmen for a well-earned break by the beach, complete with a margarita or four. Most of the locals speak enough English to communicate easily, and all the main attractions are within walking distance – except for one important site that’s well worth the three-hour trek, and that’s Chichén Itzá. This Wonder of the World comprises both Toltec and Mayan Ruins, with the iconic El Castillo pyramid the star of the show. Tours are simple to organise through your hotel or on the main strip, and you’ll be far from alone exploring this awe-inspiring attraction.
- Know your surrounds: Pick up a business card from the hotel when you check-in, so when you venture off on a solo journey, you can find your way home just by showing a taxi or local your hotel details.
- Be street smart: Check with your tour leader (or hotel reception) which towns are safe to go out in alone, and which ones aren’t. You can still enjoy the nightlife and local vibes, but you’ll be more aware of which cities you should stick with groups for.
- Play it cool: Don’t wear your expensive active wear, sparkly jewellery, or Beats headphones when you’re out and about. You want to come across an approachable, low-key tourist rather than a naïve target for thieves or shady salespeople.
- Learn the language: Or take a travel-sized phrase book with you everywhere you go. Unless you’re in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, English isn’t something you’ll hear often, so it pays to know how to communicate with locals.
- Take a tour: If it’s your first solo trip (like mine was), or you’re not completely confident navigating the vast country alone, a tour is the perfect way to go. Make friends from all around the world, get local insights you won’t find on TripAdvisor, and relax knowing the whole itinerary is taken care of.
Ready to see it for yourself? Jump on a small group adventure through Mexico with Intrepid now.
Feature image by Lucy Piper.