Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Mexico >
Mar 8, 2008 07:33 AM

Best Mexico area to vacation for food (and culture)?


I need your help. I did a little search of this Mexico board and didn't find the answer to my question, so I'm hoping you can help. I'm planning a SOLO vacation of 4-7 days to Mexico and am trying to decide where to target. Outside of the U.S. border towns, I don't have any traveling experience in Mexico. Probably most important to me is to be in an area with really outstanding food culture where I'll be able to try a number of things. (Of course, I'm not talking about "resort" food culture, but rather where you can find amazing things on the street and in local restaurants.) Having a couple of cities close by that I can get to with this is top priority.

Also important:
-Reasonably safe for solo (male) traveler
-Presence of sea and mountains is a plus
-Would love some good history/ruins, too
-Not ridiculously/unbearably hot in the summer (I may not be able to make this one work)

So, Hounds, what do you think? Can you help steer me to the right region/cities? You haven't let me down before!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Three placed popped immediately to mind - Oaxaca, Morelia and Mexico City. None of them would give you both mountains and sea, though.

    Oaxaca is the seat of the former Zapotec empire and home to the ruins at Monte Alban and Mitla. The mercados are alive and vibrant with food, vendors, activity and are never boring. You can watch chocolate being made from cacao beans. The food is some of the most interesting and delicious in Mexico. It is one of the premier art and folk art destinations and boasts many fine museums. Huatulco is on the coast of the state of Oaxaca and can be reached by bus from Oaxaca City. It will be hot and humid during the summer months, Oaxaca City is at a much higher elevation and will be cooler. Both will be moderately priced and safe for a solo traveler.

    Morelia is a charming colonial city in the state of Michoacan and has been declared a UNESCO Heritage city. I think 7 days might be too long, but you could also visit Patzcuaro which is only about 45-60 mintues away. From the cultural standpoint there are many colonial era buildings and museums since Morelia has close ties to many of the heroes of the fight for Mexican Independence. In Tzintzuntzan you can visit the yacatas (sp) which are circular pyramids built by the Purepecha. They are less impressive than Monte Alban or many of the Aztec ruins, but the site is a relaxing place to visit. Michoacan rivals Oaxaca in terms of native folk art (and in my opinion exceeds it, but that's just one opinion). For food in this area, your best bet would be to contact Cristina who posts on this board as she lives in Morelia and is very knowledgeable about local specialties and food. This area, too, is very safe for the solo traveler and moderately priced.

    Mexico City is the granddaddy of them all. The food is top notch, the markets immense, thriving and alive. And from the cultural standpoint it's hard to beat. World class museums, world world class arts and entertainment, world class food. It's got it all, including stifling traffic, too many people and more than it's share of crime. But, if you take normal precautions and don't take dumb risks or do things you would never think about doing at home, you would probably be perfectly safe in D.F. as well. If you stay at a major hotel and use the hotel services to arrange things like taxis or tours you'll be just fine. I think Mexico City is a place everybody needs to go at least once in their life. The energy is amazing.

    13 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva


      This is EXTREMELY helpful, thank you! On the map, it appears that Oaxaca and Veracruz are not that far from each other-- would you recommend a trip there if I made it to Oaxaca? I've heard it is a very vibrant city...

      Any recommendations from others?

      1. re: rotary11

        I embrace DiningDiva's high praise for the attractions in Mexico City. They can't be covered in a year, much less a week.
        Interpret your map more closely- Oaxaca is a potential day or overnight trip during a week's stay in Mexico City; Veracruz is east and far enough away to be a weekend destination for city-dwellers. Not at all practical for your itinerary.
        Also, if it is summer in Mexico and you are looking at salt water, it is oppressively hot at sea level. Mexico City is around 2.2 KM altitude ,and has a wonderful climate year around. But the largest city in the world is an anomaly in that it is the only large city not located on a river or an ocean.
        Continue with your homework because not every wish on your list is possible.

        1. re: Veggo

          "But the largest city in the world is an anomaly in that it is the only large city not located on a river or an ocean."

          Well not anymore anyway... not since Texcoco was drained, and several rivers diverted to make way for the concrete jungle =)

          Mexico City has dozens of great day trips... here are some outstanding ones:

          > Puebla City
          > Xalapa-Coatepec (Veracruz)
          > Cuernavaca
          > Queretaro
          > Tlaxcala City

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            Tempus fugit, y agua, tambien, hermano :)

            EDIT: and man's tinkering with nature may be a contributing factor for most of Mexico City being a secondary/tertiary earthquake zone.

            1. re: Veggo

              I haven't heard that one... what is the theory?

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                That the displacement of centi-billions of KG's of water has created sensitive shear lines from upward pressures beneath the mantle. The US embassy, on Reforma, near the "Angel" statue, may be the most vain address in DF, but it is technically in a primary earthquake zone. Drainage /diversion of water has been probably 90/10 natural/ man induced in the last millenium. Just my opinion; I can't speak for the Department of State. But Mexico City is still sinking and stressing its infrastructure.

                1. re: Veggo

                  Veggo, I won't hire you as a seismologist or engineer. Sediments, especially sands, essentially liquify during earthquakes, making them the worst to build on in quake zones. Here in Cali, earthquake damage is high where building is on old river beds. There is very little damage where I live: above the city a bit on a basaltic formation that bounces the quake waves back towards the city and valley plain below.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    You are correct in that the spongy nature of sediment accumulation magnifies seismic damage- as was the case in 1985 in which thousands of souls and buildings were lost in Mexico City's quake. The US Embassy there was built in the early 60's, long before the 3 earthquake zones of vulnerability in the City were identified. And since then, only limited personnel are permitted to live within a convenient distance to the embassy property. Other countries endorse the US criteria, and it partially explains the decline of the Zona Rosa area over the past 2 decades.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      Que vengas a tomar una cerveza conmigo.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Debemos, y mas, fumar puros. Entonces, we can both tell Bill Hunt what he missed out on :)

        2. re: rotary11

          Oaxaca to Veracruz is a long trip by road and probably you would be routed through Mexico City by air.

          DiningDiva's suggestions are spot on. Mexico City is a cultural and dining delight. Oaxacan food would come next. I live in Patzcuaro and frequent Morelia. I love living in the area and the arts and crafts in Tzintzunzun and Santa Clara are terrific. Temperatures are cool in the summer because we are in the rainy season. Usually sunny mornings, stormy afternoons and cool evenings. The food is not as good in this area, IMHO. Our favorites are Carnitas de Carmelo in Quiroga, several restaurants in Patzcuaro and Morelia.
          Use reasonable precautions and you should be safe in any of the areas you inquired about.
          Let us know what you choose and we can give you specific suggestions for the destination.
          Have fun planning your trip.

          1. re: Pampatz

            We were in Quiroga yesterday, "pigging out" on Carnitas de Carmelo. It's a worth while, hands-on eating experience.

            However, don't overlook the second line of "barbacoa" vendors, a few señoras serving adobo-covered shanks of lamb/mutton, served as either tacos or in bowls of spicy red "consomé".

        3. re: DiningDiva

          Concur... Mexico City should be the anchor of any serious cultural & foodie trip to Mexico + a few day trips. No city in Mexico comes even close to D.F. (200+ museums, 100+ theatres, numerous Ancient Ruins... 100,000+ opportunities to find good Chow etc., etc.,)

        4. Hi Rotary,

          Here in Morelia, you'll find mountains, safety, incredible history, excellent food, and cool summer temperatures. I know it's hard to believe that parts of Mexico are nearly downright chilly (no pun intended) in the summer, but that's what the weather is like in Morelia, Pátzcuaro, and the Central Highlands, where we're located. For the amount of time you plan to be in Mexico, IMHO Morelia would be the perfect combination.

          Have a look at this:, particularly at the food-oriented archives, and then email me for more information.


          1. What an interesting and extremely helpful series of responses! All three destinations sound lovely, and to be honest I had discounted the DF based on what might be some misperceptions of traveling there. After reading these posts, I'm considering anchoring myself in Mexico City and potentially doing a couple of day or overnights to Oaxaca and/or Morelia (both of which sound outstanding). Do you have any practical suggestions for reliably traveling to one or the other without incurring expensive airfare costs? Is there regular train service, for example?

            I think I will do a little research on each destination, which likely will create a few new questions, but I think this is a GREAT start. If others have additional suggestions, keep them coming in!

            Thanks to you all, more soon...

            1 Reply
            1. re: rotary11

              There are a lot of things in Mexico that don't always work, bus service is *not* one of those things. One of the easiest and most economical ways to get around Mexico is by first class or executive bus. Morelia is a 4 hour bus ride from Mexico City, Oaxaca is 8-9 hours.

              A big word of caution, don't be deceived by distances on a map. Just because places look to be close together doesn't mean the travel time is that short. The Mexican road system, outside of major metropolitan areas, developed differently than that in the U.S. and isn't quite as big, wide, fast or as efficient at delivering people from point "A" to point "B". Which brings up the issue of time. Mexicans have a whole different view, understanding and relationship with the concept of "time". It's far, far more than the stereotypical "manana" time and has it's roots in Mexico's early indigenous cultures. Mexican's aren't always as concerned about getting somewhere in the fastest amount of time or by the shortest distance. It's about the journey and the trip, not how long it takes to get there.

              If I can give you one piece of advice for traveling in this country, it is to make no value judgments, put your American (or European) beliefs about what is "right" and how things "should" operate on the shelf and leave them home. If you're open and can allow yourself to sink into ebb and flow of what is going on around you, your visit and experience will be more fun and more rewarding. Mexico is not the U.S., it's not Europe and it's not Asia. It's a massive, sprawling, vibrant and distinct country with a touch of magic and wonder that makes it unlike anyplace else. (And really, the whole topic of "time" is too involved to discuss here). I would MUCH rather spend a Sunday morning leisurely strolling up the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City (when it is closed to vehicular traffic) watching all the cyclists, being amused by the sidewalk sculptures and snacking on fruit, than sitting on a bus on the way to somewhere else.

              Personally, I would not split the trip up and try and do day trips. You'll see a lot of territory from a bus window but it's a rather antiseptic way to see the country. You would get a much better understanding of the country on foot, walking streets, spending time in markets, hanging in the zocalo, having a beer at a sidewalk bar, strolling through a museum, whatever.

              There are lots of direct and non-stop flights into Mexico City from most major U.S. airports. On most carriers you have to change planes in D.F. (Mexico City) in order to reach other cities within Mexico. Continental Airlines, however, flies small jets non-stop from Houston to about 20 small cities in Mexico. There are 1 or 2 flights a day into Morelia and Oaxaca making both these cities very accessible directly from the U.S.

              You could easily spend a week in Oaxaca doing the ruins, the markets, the museums, and the craft people. Mexico City is enormous and you would need far more than 7 days to even scratch the surface of what's available to you. And because it is enormous, you always have to factor in the travel time from one destination to the next in the city. A week in the central highlands touring around Morelia, Patzcuaro, Santa Clara, etc. would be relaxing and ample time to get a feel for the area. Don't feel like you have to rush and don't feel like you have to see everything at once in a short period of time. You can't.

              You asked up-thread if you should consider a side trip over to Veracruz from Oaxaca. As others have said, the bus trip is longer than it looks and in the summer Veracruz City will be really hot and humid because it is on the Caribbean. If you can stand hot and humid for a day or 2, Veracruz *could* be an option. You could do a whirlwind of the sights in Veracruz City and then decamp for Xalapa (which is also spelled Jalapa), Xico, Coatepec, etc. which are smaller cities up in the mountains where the weather will be more temperate at that time of year. I'm not sure that this would really fulfill your food and culture criteria as well as the other locations would.

              I think your best bet would be to home base in one city, explore that, and the immediate surrounding area, to your heart's content and don't worry about day trips to places that are hours away by bus. You'll make yourself nuts trying to stick to an overly ambitious schedule, which will only serve to encroach on your enjoyment of the trip. Any trip to Mexico should be about enjoyment, not covering a lot of ground in the shortest amount of time :-D.

            2. Rotary11
              I went to Oaxaca about three years ago (solo as well), and really enjoyed myself, walked around a bit during the day had lunch in the zocalo, maybe a nap in the afternoon and then generally back to the zocalo for the evening meal as well. Always lots of people around and the area was great to just sit and people watch.
              Going to Mexico City on March 13 (solo again) so i'll see what it's like soon, really looking forward to this trip, planning on eating lots.

              2 Replies
              1. re: damonster

                Damonster, your trip to Mexico City might be a bit different than you expect. You'll be there during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when everyone in Mexico who *can* take a vacation, *does* take a vacation. The vacation period is two weeks, during which time Mexico City becomes a shadow of itself. Some restaurants will offer their usual menus and some will offer a *menú cuaresmeño* (Lenten menu). Some that specialize in red meats close on Fridays until Easter. Some restaurants and businesses close completely during Semana Santa and Semana de Pascua.

                I'm sure you'll find plenty to do and see nonetheless, but it's always good to have a heads-up when you might find things a bit different than expected.


                1. re: cristina

                  Thanks for the heads-up didn't realize til after I'd booked that it was over the Easter period, I'll make the best of it anyhow and I will be going back sometime this summer, just not sure when yet.

              2. A little outside the scope of this thread... but I just wanted to point out to any American travelers out there reading this thread... thinking about a trip to Mexico City.... many of the European visitors do itineraries that are way off the Travel Site / Book beaten path... there are many hotels located outside of the Tourist zones but near Subway stations... that are perfectly clean, comfortable & safe for about $30 to $40 (restrooms included NOT hostels).... the relevance is that you will be in a common neighborhood dining at places frequented by the Mexico City populace... and the food at the most popular neighborhood eateries is usually leagues better than your Mid Level touristy places like Cafe Tacuba, Fonda Santa Clara etc., and is a fraction of the price.

                A great option for people interested in longer trips, with great opportunities for cultural immersion and to really get the city are the 1,000s of Pensiones. A Pension - which is derived from the word Pension as in a Retirement Fund - are generally homes of aging Empty Nesters or Widows etc., that rent out rooms mostly to Students... are usually located near Universities... and thus convenient to subway stations... usually offer Home Cooking packages (which is incredibly invaluable if you are serious about getting to know Mexican chow beyond Restaurant food)... and will run you $50 to $100 per week.

                7 Replies
                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Nopalito, that is really beautiful and thoughtful advice.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    If I had to pinpoint the cities where I've had the best meals/food I've eaten it would be - Patzcuaro (a fantastic spot which specializes in fried white fish from the lake), Mazatlan (shrimp), Merida (Italian food), Puerto Vallarta (Cafe des Artistes), San Miguel de Allende (Bubambilia's), Mexico City (San Angel Inn), Guadalajara (Cocina something or other), lobster on Isla Mujeres.

                    1. re: bronwen

                      Yeah... but if you had to choose a base of operations... I got Mexico City.... so I will see your Patzcuaro white fish and raise you some Golden Trout Mixiotes in Malinalco.... Cafe des Artists and Bugambilia's are both comparable to restaurants in D.F. but only D.F. offers 100+ restaurants at that level or better, Lobster on Isla Mujeres & Shrimp in Mazatlan are tought to surpass... but the quality of seafood available in D.F. is only marginally inferior.

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        EN, ahh...Malinalco. The Mexican golf equivalent to Augusta National. And the local trouts and scenery. You have struck a tender chord :)

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                          Pátzcuaro white fish? Ick. Pátzcuaro isn't famous for its seafood, given that it's several hours from either the shore or the major markets of the DF and Guadalajara, and the white fish is farmed now, not caught wild in the lake.

                          Let's talk about Pátzcuaro corundas and uchepos instead, and atole de grano, and enchiladas placeras...all the delicacies that are best eaten in street stands, not in restaurantes de manteles largos.

                          I'll see your golden trout mixiotes and raise you a bowl of atole de grano, eaten on the street in Pátzcuaro's small plaza.

                          And SAM! How wonderful to see you here again. Where've you been?


                          1. re: cristina

                            Hey... I was checking out your blog and saw the Zinacantan post... you might be interested in this (at the bottom of Page 1, and top of Page 2 you will find some things from Zinancantan and los Altos de Chiapas):


                            1. re: cristina

                              I am in (almost) complete agreement with Cristina.
                              (I live close to Pátzcuaro, and IMO, the best food, outside of private homes, is in the mercados or from selected street stalls.)
                              There is very nice, if not world-class seafood at Mariscos La Güera, on the edge of Pátzcuaro, where the Calle Tena joins the highway to Sta. Clara de Cobre. It's a well run and locally very popular restaurant.

                              Atole de Grano is to me, representative of the essence of Pátzcuaro cooking. But you must eat it there, from a cheap china bowl, and not "para llevar", for the full ambience.