Southern Mexico is alluring and wildly diverse. From the surf havens of the Pacific coast to the sparsely populated rainforest of the Lacandón Jungle of the southernmost state of Chiapas, to incredible Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec archeological sites visitors have endless opportunities to explore the culture, nature, history, and heritage of this fascinating region.
Mexico is among the most popular tourism destinations in the world. Many of its sites and cities are easily accessible and very accommodating for tourists, while other sites remain hidden far from the typical tourist paths awaiting the intrepid travelers who seek them out. Some of the most popular attractions in southern and south eastern Mexico include the cliff divers of Acapulco, Guanajuanto with its historic old city and colonial era architecture, the Caribbean beach resorts of Cancun and Cozumel, and the Mayan sites of Tulum and Chitchen Itza (Yucatan Peninsula). Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca is regularly noted as one of the top surf spots in the world.
Besides these noteworthy sites there are ample opportunities for those who wish to delve still deeper into the heart and history of Mexico and its people, past and present. Across Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the stretch of coast known as the Mayan Riviera (south of Cancun), unknown numbers of ancient Mayan sites remain completely unexcavated. In many cases these enormous complexes are buried deep in the jungle beneath mounds of dirt and concealed behind draping vines and rainforest foliage.
Isolated and remotely located in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas lays the beautiful Laguna Miramar where one is surrounded by jungle, small indigenous communities, murky snaking waterways, and the roar of howler monkeys. Also in Chiapas are the attractive Cañón del Sumidero, the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and a growing number of small ecotourism ventures which allow visitors to experience indigenous culture, history, and the ecological significance of the region.
The Yucatán Peninsula, bordered by both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, has a wealth of reasons to visit. These include many Mayan sites, beautiful beaches, delicious regional food and an interesting culture unique to the peninsular states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo.
Oaxaca is home to coffee plantations, beautiful Pacific beaches, indigenous culture, crafts, and delicious local food as well as important archaeological sites such as Monte Albán.
Many people in southern Mexico speak indigenous languages, especially in the Yucatán peninsula, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. The majority of non-indigenous people speak Spanish, while indigenous people often speak both their native language and Spanish or in some cases solely their native language.
Prominent indigenous groups in the region of Oaxaca are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.
The most commonly spoken indigenous languages spoken in Chiapas are Tzeltal and Tzotzil, though there are at least seven other languages spoken in the region as well. Many of the states’ indigenous people live together in small communities living mostly rural lifestyles, while others reside in larger cities such as San Cristobal. Agricultural products such as coffee, bananas, cacao, and corn are grown in the state. The ongoing struggle between Zapatistas and the Mexican government over indigenous rights and land ownership remains a regional issue.
Many people on the Yucatán peninsula are Mayan, Mestizo, or of partial Mayan descent, and Mayan languages are commonly spoken in the peninsula in addition to Spanish.
The food of southern Mexico varies across the region. Yucatán cuisine for example is distinctly different from that of Chiapas, Oaxaca, or other states. Coastal regions on both the Pacific and on the Caribbean and Gulf coasts feature fresh seafood and local produce.
Chiles are a common ingredient, with many different types being grown across Mexico. Other products that grow in southern Mexico include corn, cacao, coffee, and various fruits and vegetables such as banana, plantain, squash, achiote, yucca, fresh herbs, and more. Corn tortillas are prepared fresh daily and are served with nearly every meal.
One of Mexico’s most famous dishes is mole, a complex sauce (or dish with the same name) consisting of many ingredients and with many regional and intra-regional variations. Some of the best mole can be found in Oaxaca, where at least seven different types of mole are made. Some of the most popular are mole negro (made with chocolate and chili peppers), mole coloradito and mole poblano.
Mezcal is a distilled liquor made from the maguey plant (a type of agave) that grows in the region. The liquor is distilled elsewhere in Mexico as well though it is most closely tied to Oaxaca, and is an excellent accompaniment to the local food.
An interesting dish in Oaxaca is squash vine soup with chochoyones (corn dumplings), which is made with fresh zucchini, corn, and broth, as well as the blossoms, vine, and leaves of the squash.
For fiestas and special occasions a hearty soup such as caldo mixe may be prepared, using chiles, vegetables, and several different kinds of meat.
The food of the Yucatán is widely celebrated. It is uniquely characterized by not only Mayan traditions and locally grown products, but also Caribbean, Cuban, French, and Spanish influences.
Some interesting Yucatán dishes include lobster in coconut milk, shrimp with garlic and citrus, and many different types of tacos and other street foods featuring regional ingredients with a distinctly Yucatán flair.
Coffee is grown widely in Chiapas, and it is possible to visit a plantation in the highlands to learn about and taste the local coffee. The main city of Chiapas, San Cristobal, has many dining options and is well known for its baking traditions and regional dishes. An interesting item from San Cristobal is Sopa de Pan de San Cristobal (San Cristobal style bread soup). The cuisine of Chiapas incorporates a blend of Spanish and Mayan influences.
Pipian sauce (served with meat such as pork) is made from pumpkin seeds, chiles and vegetables, and is delicious. Mole is also popular in Chiapas, and seafood is featured in coastal areas.
Note: A number of dialects and indigenous languages are also spoken across the region, especially in rural areas
When to Go
When to go depends largely on the area you are visiting and what activities you are interested in doing. October through May is generally pleasant for visiting Southern Mexico. September can be rainy.
December through April are generally dry and warm, attracting people from colder climates during the winter and spring months. In high altitudes such as the highlands of Chiapas, temperatures can be cold particularly from November through February.
December through April is a popular time to visit the Yucatán. Easter and Christmas are popular holidays in Mexico and touristic areas can be especially crowded during these times.
Dress is generally casual across southern Mexico, though it is wise to dress modestly, particularly in rural and indigenous areas and when visiting churches or other sites. Be respectful of the local cultures and be aware that different cultural groups may have varying customs.
Always ask before taking photos of indigenous people or of people in general, such as in a market or village.
Dress appropriately if hiking in the jungle – wear sturdy shoes, long pants, and long sleeves. Protect yourself from the sun with a hat and adequate sunblock.
Most people arrive in Mexico by air. The main airport is in Mexico City, though there are also other airports across the country including Cancun, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan. If arriving in Mexico City, travelers can take an additional flight to a regional airport in southern Mexico or they can arrive by car or bus.
It is possible to rent a car for travel around the country or to travel by bus. There are both business class and first class options for buses, which travel between major destinations.
There are no train services in southern Mexico. Distances by road can be long. There are many airports across the region for those who wish to travel domestically by air.
Drug crime is a persistent problem within Mexico, and while dangers are often more serious in certain areas or in specific states, it is important to check current events and inform yourself about the present situation before traveling to any part of Mexico. Be careful when or avoid driving on remote roads at night, and if traveling alone. Mexico is a vast country and though some regions may be wise to avoid, others are very safe, and millions of people visit the country annually with positive experiences. Inform yourself about where you are going, and be a responsible and aware traveler.
In some areas including parts of Chiapas and Oaxaca, malaria and dengue fever can be contracted by mosquitos, and it may be wise to either take appropriate medication prior to your departure, and to avoid getting bitten by using a mosquito net at night, sleeping indoors, and applying bug repellent. Mosquitos can bite during the day or at night.
Travelers should be up to date with relevant vaccinations (talk to your doctor if you are unsure). Take care to eat in hygienic establishments, and find out if the water is safe to drink in the area you are traveling in (in many rural areas the tap water is not safe to drink).
Visitors must obtain a tourist card, which can be purchased upon arrival. A valid passport is required. Visitor from the US, Canada, the UK, and some other countries do not require a visa to visit Mexico if traveling as a tourist (not for work or to live). Visitors from other countries may require a visa in addition to a valid passport.
Top 10 Sites
1. Tulum (Quintana Roo)
2. Chichen Itza (Yucatán)
3. Palenque (Chiapas)
4. Parque-Museo La Venta (Tabasco)
5. Comalcalco (Tabasco)
6. Agua Azul waterfalls (Chiapas)
7. San Cristóbal De Las Casas (Chiapas)
8. Hierve el agua (Oaxaca)
9. Monte Albán (Oaxaca)
10. Laguna Miramar (Chiapas)
Top 5 Things To Do
1. Take a boat ride along the Río Grijalva in the Cañón del Sumidero (Chiapas)
2. Embark on an adventurous trek in the Lacandón jungle (guide recommended)
3. Explore and snorkel or swim in the incredible cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula
4. Sample authentic Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca
5. Visit an alfarería (workshop) in San Bartolo Coyotepec, where you can see the handmade black pottery barro negro being made by local artisans (Oaxaca)