Travel Mexico: Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico City and Querétaro

Immerse yourself in Mexican culture and way of living for three weeks - memories that will last a lifetime.

VIVA LA VIDA: The lettering that adorns one of Frida Kahlo's most famous paintings is not just a term. It is a way of life that is adored and practiced from the bottom of their hearts.

Mexico was love at first sight. With an area of almost two million square kilometres, it is impossible to cover all the places on your bucket list in three weeks. Especially if you don't want to limit yourself to a specific region like the Yucatán Peninsula. For comparison: the state of Quintana Roo in southern Mexico alone is roughly the size of the whole of Switzerland.

Nevertheless, three weeks are enough to immerse yourself in the Mexican and above all indigenous culture of the country, eat tortillas until you drop and simply live life to the fullest. Note: We chose this itinerary and the corresponding lengths of stay because of a wedding we were invited to in Mexico.

  1. The Yucatán Peninsula
  2. Mexico City and surroundings
  3. Santiago de Querétaro

Our journey started at Zurich Airport and took us on a 12-hour flight to Cancún, where we spent the first night in an airport hotel.

Holbox - following the sun

Just off the Yucatán Peninsula, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the white sandy beaches of Isla Holbox stretch across a long, narrow strip of land. Holbox means ‘black hole’ in the Mayan language and comes from the dark water in the Yalahao lagoon in the south-east of the island, which is characterised by mangroves. For a long time, Holbox was one of the absolute insider tips and one of the places less flooded by tourism - in stark contrast to Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. However, word seems to have spread about Holbox in the meantime, as the island is very well visited - at least for our taste.

Nevertheless, Holbox offers Caribbean flair, turquoise-coloured water, a kilometre-long, gently sloping sandy beach and charming beach huts with thatched roofs in abundance. The ideal place to unwind, soak up the sun's rays with a Michelada in hand and fill your stomach with fresh seafood and fish.

There are several ways to reach Holbox from Cancún within two to three hours. In any case, the journey goes via the harbour of Chiquilá. The cheapest option is to travel by ADO bus, which was recommended to us by many travellers. Private vans with minibuses are also frequently used by travellers. As I unfortunately came down with the flu on the first day, we opted for an Uber - definitely one of the more expensive, but more comfortable and flexible options - for which we paid around 50 dollars per person. In Chiquilá, we then took the ferry for around half an hour. There are two companies that alternate every half hour and generally offer the same service. Once in Holbox, I would take one of the ‘golf cart’ taxis, depending on the luggage situation and location of the hotel, as the sandy roads on the island tend to turn into small to large marshlands at all corners.

Then we come to two of the most important questions: Where to stay and where to eat? Unfortunately, we were a little unlucky with our choice of hotel, which is why I won't be recommending the accommodation here. But we were all the more spoilt in terms of food! If you like simple, local flair and fish, ‘Las Panchas’ is the place to be. Our favourite (which we ate several times): Fillete al mojo de ajo (fish fillet with garlic, served with rice and salad).

As I was completely put to bed with the flu after our arrival in Holbox, we didn't book a single tour. However, there are numerous providers offering half-day or full-day tours around the island. If you travel to Holbox between May and September, you may be lucky enough to encounter a whale shark on a snorkelling tour.

Our verdict: Holbox is certainly the right choice for a few days of relaxation on the beach. For our taste, however, the island is too focussed on partying instead of culture and nature. We were therefore not sad when our journey continued in the direction of Valladolid. This time with private transport organised by the hotel - absolutely the right decision, as we had an incredibly friendly driver who fortunately recommended another driver for a day trip around Valladolid.

Valladolid - exploring Mayan culture

The small colonial town is located in the Mexican state of Yucatán and is surrounded by numerous Mayan strongholds and countless cenotes. Fortunately, Valladolid seemed a lot quieter and much less touristy than Holbox. Whether on your own or as part of a free walking tour, all of the city's highlights can be easily reached on foot. The vibrant centre is formed by San Servacio Cathedral and the Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado. Here you can also witness an impressive Mayan show in the early evening, where a simplified version of the Mesoamerican ball game is performed.

The Calzada de los Frailes is also easy to reach from here. The little street is surrounded by small shops and restaurants that come to life, especially in the evening. We particularly recommend ‘Le Kaat’ and ‘Idilio’. The former is a vegan restaurant with a small courtyard and delicious smoothies. In the evening, the menu is accompanied by live music. The ‘Idilio’ is located a little closer to the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena and is quite hidden behind a small local museum. The huge garden offers the perfect location for a romantic dinner for two. The widely spaced tables give the impression that you are all alone with your ‘significant other’. The food is excellent and scores particularly highly in terms of value for money.

If you head in the other direction from the cathedral, you have the opportunity to visit the ‘Zaci’ cenote in the centre of the city. Although other cenotes in the area are certainly more picturesque, in our opinion Zaci is clearly underrated. Not far from here is the Mercado Municipal de Valladolid. The spacious halls are filled with fresh fruit and local delicacies. A visit is particularly worthwhile as part of a free walking tour to enjoy a tasting or two.

If you're still hungry, the Lonchería Mati on the opposite side of the street serves an authentic lunch among the locals. Simple - but one of the best quesadillas I've eaten in Mexico!

Last but not least, we come to our accommodation: we had much better luck in Valladolid and were completely satisfied with our choice. The Hotel Waye is one of the newer hotels in the city and is located a little outside the city centre, which is only a 15-minute walk away. The staff were extremely courteous and attentive. The rooms were very tastefully furnished and the extensive breakfast menu gave us the energy we needed for our biggest day trip: the ruins of Chichén Itzá and two wonderful cenotes.

Chichén Itzá, Tsukán and Ik Kil

Around 45 minutes from Valladolid is one of the seven wonders of the world: Chichén Itzá. The imposing Mayan pyramids are definitely worth a visit despite the high number of tourists! We decided to organise the day with a private driver, who picked us up at the hotel early in the morning and drove us to Chichén Itzá. The site is open to visitors from 8am and it is advisable to get there as early as possible - ideally right at opening time - to avoid the large tour buses from Cancún and other package holiday destinations.

For Chichén Itzá, it is worth booking a local guide directly on site. Without the background knowledge of the rich history and culture, the visit is comparable to going to the cinema without a soundtrack. Tourists should expect to pay 1,000 pesos for an English guide - currently equivalent to around 50 Swiss francs or around 60 US dollars. But the investment is worth it!

If you want to spend the rest of the day in the area, there are numerous cenotes to choose from, each more impressive than the last. We left the decision to our driver, who didn't disappoint us.

In addition to the beautiful underground cenote filled with fish, deep blue water and small birds that find their way into the cave through the small openings in the ceiling, the Santuario Tsukán allows visitors to witness the Mayan culture of past times. A small village is set up on the site, where various foods and spices are presented, tortillas are baked, and even corn is planted. The area is very spacious, which spreads the visitors out nicely. We personally liked this cenote better, as it seemed more natural and was also smaller.

Nevertheless, our next stop, the Ik Kil cenote, was also a wonderful experience. Here you have the opportunity to jump into the water from different heights. This cenote is open and is characterised above all by the romantic lianas that dangle down into the water from above.

What you need to be aware of on this day trip is that it is not cheap. There is an entrance fee for Chichén Itzá and every cenote, and in some cases, you have to pay separately for a locker to store your valuables. However, it is well worth the money, as it really is a unique experience and you realise that a great deal is invested in the preservation and maintenance of these sites.

Mexico City and the surrounding area

Now it was time to say goodbye to the Yucatán and make our way inland by plane - to Mexico City. We started our first day with a hearty breakfast at the centrally located ‘El Cardenal’ (be sure to order the hot chocolate for breakfast - it tastes delicious). We then visited the local sights, which are all in close proximity to each other.

The Templo Mayor with its museum tells the story of the Aztec empire that once lived there. The many preserved sculptures and ornaments allow visitors to immerse themselves in the way of life at that time. The nearby government building - the Palacio Nacional - is also not to be missed. The imposing building is home to one of the most famous frescoes by Mexican artist (and Frida Kahlo's husband) Diego Rivera. Make sure to bring your passport or another form of identification, as you won’t be able to visit the building otherwise.

The pompous cathedral, which is not to be overlooked with its large square, is also well worth a visit. If you want to catch a breathtaking and unique view over a large part of the city, end your tour on the Torre Latinoamericana - one of the tallest buildings in Mexico City. Another unique experience is witnessing a “lucha libre” night, a professional Mexican wrestling show which is nothing like you’ve seen before!

One place that should definitely also be on your bucket list is the Frida Kahlo Museum in the Coyoacán district. Tickets must be booked in advance as you are allocated a specific time slot for the visit. Please note: the museum is very strict about these times. If you arrive too late or don't have a pre-booked ticket, you have to stay outside. Unfortunately, you only have one hour for each visit, which is why you should walk through the various rooms of the museum relatively quickly.

Nevertheless, the Casa Azul is an important part of Mexican culture and Frida Kahlo is a symbol of many national values. If you want to fill your belly before or after your visit, the nearby Mercado de Coyoacán offers many delicious and affordable catering options.

Another highlight, which is particularly worthwhile for larger groups, is a trip to Xochimilco to ride the colourful trajineras. These are a type of boat equipped with tables and chairs so that you can round off your trip with a picnic (ideally filled tortillas, of course) and pulque (the Mexican national drink, which was drunk by Mayans, Aztecs, Huastecs and other Mesoamerican cultures).

You will also have the option to buy food from smaller boats and trajineras passing buy as well as pay a mariachi band to play a few songs for you. Fun fact: The whole of Mexico City used to look like the natural canal landscape of Xochimilco. The whole city was practically built on water and small green elevations.

Last but not least, don't miss the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacán. The whole area is extremely extensive and much larger than Chichén Itzá, but it has not been renovated to the same extent. A sun hat and airy clothes are definitely recommended here, as there are hardly any shady spots and you can quickly get burnt or sunstroke in the intense midday sun. Even though our guide was not as hands-on as the one we had in Chichén Itzá, I would still recommend having someone to explain the details to you as it makes the site much more interesting.

As in Valladolid, we were more than satisfied with our choice of accommodation. The Hotel Marbella is very well connected by Uber in all directions. The rooms are very spacious with extremely large bathrooms, clean and modern for a mid-range hotel. The breakfast is also impressive and the staff are extremely friendly and attentive.

Querétaro - a hidden gem

I wonder why our last stop has not yet achieved worldwide fame for its beauty, cleanliness and charm. Santiago de Querétaro - or simply Querétaro for short - is around a three hours' drive north of Mexico City. The bus company “Primera Plus” offers an incredibly comfortable journey at a very good price and connects Mexico City airport with the Querétaro bus terminal. The buses are equipped with “in-bus entertainment” and have comfortable seats that can be adjusted into cosy reclining chairs without disturbing the other passengers too much. There are also two toilets for a weak bladder.

The centre of Querétaro is simply picturesque and is reminiscent of a mixture of the Italian Venice and an ancient Spanish stronghold - without the stench and unbearable crowds of visitors. The colonial city, which has played a central role in Mexico's history, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Not only were meetings of the independence movement held here, but the first constitution after the end of the Mexican Revolution was also drawn up inside the walls of one of the local buildings.

Here you can simply let yourself drift, explore the individual alleyways, markets and numerous churches without a plan, visit local shops and try local delicacies. If you want to learn more about the rich history of the individual buildings and monuments (which would definitely go beyond the scope of this article), you should definitely book a tour with a guide - it's worth it!

Anyone craving a little culinary variety at this point will find what they are looking for at Café Mané. If you like it sweet, you should definitely order the crêpes with Nutella and strawberries, and for salt lovers I can recommend the ‘mollete’, an open sandwich spread with bean paste and topped with cheese.

Querétaro is also the place where you can enjoy a traditional ‘barbacoa’. Legend has it (according to the Mexicans) that this is where the barbecue was invented and brought to America. A little outside the centre but easy to reach with Uber, the ‘Don Lole’ offers an authentic experience. Barbacoa is lamb that is slowly roasted for 24 hours in holes in the ground. The juice that is collected in the process is then served as a soup called “consomé”. There are also delicious vegetarian dishes such as quesadillas or “sop”, a thick tortilla topped with beans and cheese. The traditional Latin American game “lotería” is also played here, in which we won and got seven bottles of beer as a prize.

One place we unfortunately didn't make it to is Bernal. The small village is about 60 kilometres from Querétaro and is said to be very picturesque.

In conclusion, Mexico is a wonderful country with a rich culture and incredibly friendly and hospitable people. I can hardly wait to return and experience more of this impressive landscape and way of life.