It’s hard to imagine a country or culture more vibrant than Mexico. From the joyous festivals to the vivid costumes and fresh, tasty cuisine, Mexican culture is a celebration of colour and diversity.
To learn more, I invited Mexico travel expert Lorenza to share a bit about her country’s heritage plus her favourite cultural experiences and tips for visitors.
This is a guest post by Lorenza Haddad from When I Roam. Lorenza is a Mexican writer reflecting on a life well-traveled with depression.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.
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When most people think of Mexico, they think of Cancun or the country’s beaches during Spring Break. Mexico is so much more than that.
Mexican culture is a product of its history. To understand Mexico, it’s crucial to understand mestizaje. The clash of two different cultures during the conquest did not lead to the eradication of one and the triumph of the other – instead, it created a seamless mixture of indigenous Mexican cultures and the European Catholicism imported by the Spaniards.
This constant pull from the past and push from the present explains so many of the problems in Mexico today.
7 unforgettable ways to experience Mexican culture
Here are 7 easy, budget-friendly and amazing ways to experience real Mexican culture as a tourist.
1. Taste Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine is recognised by UNESCO as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Mexico has incredible variety in its food, ingredients and regional nuances.
Indigenous staples include corn, seafood, turkey, tomato and chilli, while Spanish introductions include beef, dairy, pork and rice. The food from the northern, central and southern regions differs greatly. For me, some of the best food is found in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is incredibly unique and a must-visit destination for Mexicans and foreigners alike. Its vast, beautiful beaches are famous among surfers; but it also offers incredible archeological sites, artisan crafts, mountainous valleys, and colourful festivities. Near the Arbol del Tule, a Montezuma cypress tree which is believed to be 2,000 years old, you’ll find a little local market. Here, you can try many Oaxacan delicacies, including tlayuda with tasajo and chapulines.
A tlayuda is a sort of pizza with a base made from corn. The sauce is frijoles (beans) and the topping quesillo, tasajo, a cut of dried beef that was introduced by the Spanish, and chapulines, grasshoppers fried with chilli. It’s something you must try!
Another Oaxaca specialty is homemade Mexican chocolate, a staple of Mexican culture with its own Spanish influences. In the past, cacao beans were used as currency. The warm cacao beverage, made with water, spices, peppers and herbs, was reserved for the elites and consumed by soldiers before battle. When it was later transported to Europe, cinnamon and sugar were added. Today, you can have it either way. A hot chocolate with chilli is a delicious drink for the colder months.
You cannot leave Mexico without trying some of the many different iterations of tacos. In the north of Mexico, along the coast of Baja California Sur, you can stop along the highway at small local restaurants to try the lobster tacos. These are huge wheat flour tortillas with beans, rice and local Mexican lobster. Here, lobster is not an expensive delicacy, but something the ocean provides in abundance.
Also try tacos al pastor or even better, tacos de canasta, one of the many street foods preferred by Mexicans. Near the Zocalo in Mexico City on Francisco I Madero Street you can find one of the most famous taquerias, Los Especiales. The small local restaurant is easy to miss, so be on the lookout.
Order however many tacos you want – there are three different varieties to try. Then order uno de cada uno, or one of each, of beans, chicharron (pork rinds with sauce), and potatoes. The tacos de canasta are soft and greasy, a messy, cheap and delicious staple of Mexican cuisine. Don’t forget to add the sauces scattered around the room – my favourite is the green one with avocado.
2. Visit San Juan Chamula Church
In the city of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas you can experience one of the most fascinating aspects of Mexican culture, Chamulan Catholicism.
Before visiting the church, there are certain things you must know to fully appreciate this unique expression of religion and cultural fusion. The pueblo (village) appears to be straight out of a movie, with girls, women and boys all barefoot and selling all kinds of handmade crafts to tourists. The church itself is very colourful, with crosses in its cemetery instead of headstones, the ‘guardians’ dressed in white with wool vests charged with protecting the town’s culture.
San Juan Bautista Church was built during the evangelisation of Mexico in the 1500s. Evangelists recruited indigenous populations in the building of the churches with the idea that they would be more likely to attend mass. The artwork around the doorway here is one of the only churches where pre-Hispanic embellishment was used to symbolise a rebellion against conquest. This push back against the replacement of indigenous culture produced a very unique expression of Catholicism.
As you enter San Juan Bautista Church, the smell of incense is the first thing you notice. As you look around, you see that the church has no benches and the floor is covered in dried pine-needles. They crunch as you move forward amongst the burning candles.
Within these walls, worshippers perform their own special kind of religion, what people call Chamulan Catholicism. If you are lucky, you can witness a shamanistic ritual inside the church, where a curandera or shaman (usually a woman) sacrifices a chicken for the health of a child.
San Juan Chamula is ruled by usos y costumbres, customs and traditions of the Tzotzil. The Mexican constitution allows for indigenous populations to be autonomous and have their own rules and authority. When visiting, take care to be respectful. Do not take pictures of locals without asking first, or inside the church. For Tzotzils, having their picture taken is like having a piece of their soul taken away.
3. Celebrate Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead)
One of the most important celebrations in Mexico is Day of the Dead, marked every year on November 2nd. It too has been recognised by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
On this day, the dead return to walk among the living. Unlike Halloween, it’s not a grim or scary day – Mexico’s relationship with death is a unique one. Mexicans make fun of death, joke around with it and celebrate it. In primary school, kids are taught to make calaveras, rhyming poems where death comes for someone you love or admire. Coco, the Disney movie, captures this colorful and beautiful celebration.
Altars or ofrendas are built in homes to celebrate loved ones who have passed, and are often decorated with papel picado, cempasúchil flowers (marigold), and whatever food and drinks the deceased preferred. You can’t miss the sugar skulls or the pan de muerto, a sweet bread that is my favourite treat. Get your face painted as a catrina or catrin to get into the spirit. It’s an incredibly festive and colourful day to experience.
Day of the Dead is celebrated across Mexico but one of the biggest and most traditional festivities takes place in Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan. It starts on the night of November 1st when families visit the graves of their loved ones, extensively decorating them with arches of cempasúchil, papel picado, and food. Around the lake, indigenous people gather in their canoes with a single candle lit to guide their way to the island of Janitzio, where an all-night vigil in the cemetery takes place.
Tourists can visit the cemeteries, keeping a respectful distance from those celebrating – maybe you’ll become friends with the locals and get invited to join the celebration. Mexicans love sharing their parties with others; even people who live in houses with dirt floors will offer you their tortilla, rice and beans.
4. Listen to Mariachis
Mariachi music is another of Mexico’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity elements. You cannot have a real Mexican party without Mariachis!
One of the most romantic things you can imagine is being woken up in the middle of the night by your love giving you a serenata with mariachis from below your bedroom window. For my 15th birthday, my parents organised a serenata for me and my friends. Listening to mariachis and singing mariachi songs is a sort of Mexican rite of passage.
Mariachi music can be romantic, songs about Mexico, or even songs about spite. It’s performed by musicians with string instruments and trumpets, dressed in charro outfits. It’s a very unique style of singing and performing, especially the part where they shout: ‘ay, ay, ay, ay!’
To enjoy mariachi music, go to Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City in the evening. Head to Tenampa Salon where you can enjoy live mariachis and drink tequila and mezcal. If you’d rather a more family-oriented place to visit during the day, check out Restaurante Arroyo. They have live mariachis during Mexican lunch time, from 3pm until 5.30pm – best enjoyed while eating their staple dish, barbacoa.
If you want to request a song, ask for El Rey, Si Nos Dejan, Matalas, Cielo Rojo, or Mexico Lindo y Querido.
5. Join Guelaguetza
The Guelaguetza is one of the biggest indigenous cultural events in Mexico. It is held annually on the two Mondays after July 16th, except when that Monday falls on July 18th, the date when President Benito Juarez passed away.
This event was originally about sharing and community – the word guelaguetza roughly translates from Zapotec as ‘reciprocal exchange of gifts and services’. Today, it has become a celebration of indigenous culture, a way to flaunt the dress, dance and cuisine of these communities. Celebrating cultures in an event loved by tourists and locals alike is one way Mexico’s indigenous culture, traditions and language can survive.
Dancing is the main event. The heavy embroidery and colourful ribbons of the traditional costumes provide such a colourful backdrop to this display of Mexican culture and represent the attitude towards life. During the festival, you can try different typical foods, buy artisanal crafts, and drink mezcal.
You can see the Guelaguetza in the Auditorio Guelaguetza amphitheater in Oaxaca City. In the mornings, you will enjoy traditional dance shows, and in the afternoons see the Ballet Folklorico de Oaxaca re-enact the Princesa Donaji. You can also see smaller, more local versions of the Guelaguetza in towns such as Culiapan.
6. Drink Tequila in Tequila, Jalisco
A must for young and old alike, visiting Tequila in Jalisco and taking the Tequila Express is a beloved Mexican tradition. Two different trains depart from the city of Guadalajara bound for two of the biggest and oldest distilleries of Mexico, La Rojeña by Jose Cuervo, and Casa Herradura. On the train ride, you get to enjoy all the tequila you can drink – but don’t overdo it because once you arrive, you have a lot more to do and drink!
During the 2-hour train ride, you can play loteria, a traditional Mexican bingo-like game. Once you arrive, you’ll be received with mariachis and music before taking a tour of the agave fields and the distilleries.
The Jose Cuervo Express leaves every Saturday It takes around 11 hours for the whole itinerary, including a visit to the town of Tequila, where you also get time to enjoy the town and eat a meal. The Herradura Express runs on Saturdays and Sundays and visits Amatitan, with lunch at Casa Herradura.
These are not just boozy trains, but an educational opportunity to learn more about how tequila is made, and the incredible role los jimadores play in the process. See and taste why tequila is a source of Mexican pride.
Children are allowed on the train, just be aware that this is an experience centred around alcohol. The basic wagons are designed for families, while the premium ones are adults only.
7. Visit the Firefly Sanctuary
In Tlaxcala state, you can find an amazing show performed by nature that is a favourite Mexican tradition for families. Millions of insects light up the night sky in the woods near Nanacamilpa in an incredible mating ritual.
The Firefly Sanctuary tour starts at twilight, around 8pm. First, you walk into the woods and learn a little bit about the insects. Once darkness encroaches, small lights start appearing, one by one, until suddenly the climax of the mating ritual reveals millions of lights all around you. Try not to touch the fireflies, and if one lands on your hand, do not swat it away – leave it resting as it turns on and off. The twinkling lights remind me of a peaceful Christmas.
There are cabins near the sanctuary where you can stay and enjoy the beautiful wooded mountain scenery. The season is from June to August, with the best conditions occurring after rain and when the moon is waning. Come prepared with a waterproof jacket and warm clothing.There are a limited number of authorised places where you can visit the fireflies. Find out more on the Tourism Agency of Tlaxcala’s website.