From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico’s Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Riding the Rails Through Mexico's Diverse Landscapes
Mexico's extensive rail network offers a fascinating way to explore the country's diverse landscapes and cultures. Winding through jungles, forests, deserts and bustling cities, Mexico's trains open a window into the heart and soul of this captivating nation.
One of the most popular routes is the Chihuahua al Pacífico, or ChePe, which runs through the Copper Canyon in northern Mexico. This area is home to breathtaking vistas and rural villages populated by Rarámuri people, who are renowned for their long-distance running abilities. Riding the ChePe train allows you to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Copper Canyon, which rivals Arizona's Grand Canyon in size and scope. Gaze out over steep gorges blanketed in pine forests as the train slowly snakes its way through the mountains.
Farther south, the Ferrocarril Chiapas-Mayab provides a vibrant taste of southern Mexico as it connects colonial cities with Mayan ruins. Palenque is an archeological gem, its temples rising out of dense jungle. The trip also stops in Campeche, a lovely coastal town surrounded by ancient walls. Throughout your journey, sample regional specialties like tamales and moles as you engage with the friendly locals.
No rail trip through Mexico would be complete without a ride on the Ferrocarril Suburbano, which departs from Mexico City. This commuter train is a microcosm of Mexican culture, packed with mariachi musicians, food vendors and travelers headed to work in the energetic capital. Your face will be plastered with a near-permanent smile as you experience the infectious joy Mexican passengers exude during their daily commutes.
The Carratera Panorámica railroad offers an escape into the natural splendor of western Mexico. Watch the landscape transform from rugged desert to lush jungle before reaching a glimmering beachside oasis in Manzanillo. You'll feel like you've stepped into a tropical paradise as you breathe in the sea air and soak up uninterrupted ocean vistas.
What else is in this post?
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Riding the Rails Through Mexico's Diverse Landscapes
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Stopping at Puerto Vallarta's Paradise Beaches
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Exploring Guadalajara's Vibrant Culture
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Traveling Through Time at Teotihuacan's Pyramids
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Mayan Majesty at Chichen Itza
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Colonial Charms in Merida
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Cancun's Quintana Roo Coast
- From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Savoring Local Flavors Along the Route
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Stopping at Puerto Vallarta's Paradise Beaches
After traversing Mexico's diverse landscapes by rail, arriving in Puerto Vallarta feels like stumbling upon a hidden tropical paradise. As the train pulls into the station, you're greeted by palm trees swaying in ocean breezes and the laughter of travelers headed to the beach.
Puerto Vallarta gained fame when director John Huston chose it as the location for his film The Night of the Iguana in 1964. Since then, it has blossomed into one of Mexico's premier beach destinations. Miles of golden sand meet sparkling blue Pacific waters, creating a picture-perfect scene.
Travelers flock to Playa Los Muertos to soak up the quintessential Vallarta beach experience. Its lively streets are lined with restaurants, bars and shops, while the beach itself bustles with activity. Beachgoers blissfully pass hours lounging on the sand before cooling off with a dip in the temperate waves.
Those seeking a more relaxed vibe often head just south to Playa Conchas Chinas. This "Beach of the Curled Shells" is dotted with secluded coves sheltered by rocky outcroppings. The turquoise waters beckon snorkelers and kayakers, while sunbathers claim shady spots beneath thatched palapas. At sunset, margarita in hand, it's easy to see why Conchas Chinas charms repeat visitors year after year.
North of downtown, Playa Mismaloya offers a peaceful alternative. Its tranquil waters create near-perfect conditions for swimming and paddling. Beachcombers delight in the seashells scattered across Mismaloya's ivory stretch of sand. Nightly torchlight walks, where guides share the area's folklore, provide a magical end to a day at this serene beach.
Puerto Vallarta's other famous beach is at the Marina Vallarta, located just north of the city center. While popular with cruise ship passengers, the marina's beaches still retain their beauty. Beach breaks and water sports abound, with options ranging from paddleboarding to deep sea fishing charters. Sundowners are best enjoyed from the Marina's beachfront eateries and bars.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Exploring Guadalajara's Vibrant Culture
Guadalajara overflows with vibrant culture just waiting to be discovered. As Mexico's second largest metropolis, Guadalajara packs a mighty cultural punch. Wandering its streets provides an authentic taste of Jalisco's traditions. From rodeos to tequila tasting, Guadalajara immerses you in the passion of Mexico.
A rodeo arena may seem an unlikely cultural experience, but charrería is an integral part of Jalisco's heritage. Charrería evolved from the expert horsemanship required by hacienda cowboys. Today it thrives as a competitive sport focused on roping, riding and herding cattle. Attending a charreada lets you experience the pageantry and skill of charros firsthand. The thunderous hoofbeats, swirling dust and raucous crowds capture charrería's spirit of competition and community.
Of course, no discussion of Jalisco is complete without mentioning tequila. The famous spirit has been produced near Guadalajara since the 16th century. Many distilleries now welcome visitors for tours and tastings. At Jose Cuervo's La Rojeña distillery, you'll learn centuries-old production methods before sampling Cuervo's smooth signature tequilas. More hands-on experiences like jimming agave hearts and operating the tahona stone wheel connect you directly with tequila's origins.
Beyond charros and tequila, Guadalajara boasts an impressive roster of cultural institutions. The Instituto Cultural Cabañas is a Spanish colonial complex transformed into an avant garde art museum by famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán. His genius blends contemporary design with historic architecture, creating truly unique gallery spaces. Another must-see is the Regional Museum of Guadalajara. Wander through painstaking recreations of colonial shops and houses for an immersive journey into the city's past.
Of course, no trip to Guadalajara would be complete without exploring two of Mexico's most iconic traditions - mariachi and salsa. Mariachi music originated in Jalisco, so hearing it played in its homeland offers an unparalleled experience. Plaza de Armas is filled with roving mariachi bands that will happily serenade you. Salsa dancing also rules the nightlife scene. Join free salsa lessons at Cubilete before showing off your new moves at nearby clubs like Angeles and Malecon's Salsa Bar.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Traveling Through Time at Teotihuacan's Pyramids
Just outside Mexico City lies Teotihuacan, home to some of the most iconic remnants of Mesoamerica's mysterious pre-Columbian civilizations. Teotihuacan was established around 100 BCE and flourished until 750 CE as the cultural and religious center of the region. Today, it stands as one of the largest and most significant archeological sites in Mexico. Exploring Teotihuacan is truly a journey through time that connects you viscerally with Mexico’s ancient past.
The epicenter of Teotihuacan is its Avenue of the Dead. This imposing, 4-kilometer-long thoroughfare is flanked by imposing pyramids and temples. It perfectly aligns with the constellations Pleiades and Sirius, reflecting the astronomical precision of Teotihuacan’s urban planners. As I walked this broad avenue lined with ropes of copal incense, I couldn't help but imagine colorful processions of priests, warriors and nobility traveling the same path centuries before me.
At the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead looms the Pyramid of the Moon. I was awestruck by its breathtaking size as I climbed its 250+ steps to the top. Gazing out at the sweeping view of Teotihuacan's meticulously planned grid, I marveled at what incredible vision and skill it took to construct this massive pyramid out of stone and clay in 100 CE without modern machinery. It gave me chills to stand atop the same spot where rituals were once performed to honor Teotihuacan's moongoddess. The energy of the past is still palpable today.
However, Teotihuacan's most iconic structure is without a doubt the Pyramid of the Sun. At 750 feet across and 250 feet tall, this colossal pyramid is one of the largest in the world. As I approached the pyramid from the Avenue of the Dead, its sheer size was almost incomprehensible. Climbing its 248 steps left me breathless, but once at the top I was rewarded with a 360° panoramic view of the entire archaeological zone. I could envision tens of thousands gathering here to witness human sacrifices atop this imposing pyramid dedicated to their sungod. Though an arduous climb, standing atop this ancient feat of engineering made the centuries that separate us from Teotihuacan's first inhabitants vanish into thin air.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Mayan Majesty at Chichen Itza
Of all the wondrous Mayan ruins scattered across Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, none capture the imagination quite like Chichen Itza. This sprawling ancient city transports you back over 1,000 years to experience the apex of Mayan civilization firsthand. As I wandered Chichen Itza's broad, stone-paved boulevards, I was awestruck by the scale and artistry of its exquisite temples. At every turn, intricate carvings and ingenious engineering speak to the impressive sophistication of the Mayan people who once called this place home.
The feathered serpent god Kukulkan is venerated throughout Chichen Itza in thrilling ways. The iconic step pyramid El Castillo is devoted to Kukulkan and displays stunning astrological precision. This pyramid’s steps cast eerie, undulating shadows on the Spring and Fall equinoxes that simulate a snake slithering down the structure to the earth. I was lucky enough to be there on March 21st to witness this phenomenon for myself. Watching Kukulkan’s shadow come to life was truly jaw-dropping, leaving no doubts about the Mayans’ astronomical capabilities.
El Caracol, the observatory temple, also honors Kukulkan while exemplifying Mayan architectural sophistication. It perfectly aligns with the planet Venus’ movements and houses a spiral staircase that produces an echo mimicking Kukulkan’s revered rattle. Standing inside this circular stone tower, hearing the feathered serpent’s voice bounce off the walls, I couldn’t help but feel touched by the Mayan reverence for their gods that led them to construct such an acoustically complex edifice.
Yet the structure that most vividly captures power and artistry at Chichen Itza is the ball court. This sunken rectangle was the stage for a ritual ball game that held profound religious meaning for the Maya. My pulse quickened as I imagined the court crowded with raucous spectators as two teams battled to propel a solid rubber ball through stone hoops high on the walls. The losing captain was sacrificed here, his spilled blood considered an offering to the gods. Gazing out at the immaculate stone carvings of jaguars, eagles and gods that ring the court, I marveled at how this sacred space of ritual competition almost oozes majesty and drama.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Colonial Charms in Merida
Nestled in the Yucatán Peninsula, the city of Mérida exudes colonial charms that transport you back through the centuries. As an important cultural and financial hub during Spain's colonization of Mexico, Mérida retains the faded grandeur of its storied past through beautifully preserved architecture. Wandering the historic center today provides an immersive glimpse into 16th century New Spain.
At the heart of Mérida lies its main plaza, the Plaza Grande. Encircled by archways, this leafy square comes alive at night with music, dancing and food vendors. The plaza's palm trees and fountains lend a tropical flair, while the 17th century cathedral and The Palacio de Gobierno anchor two sides with neoclassical façades. Sitting on a bench here, I found it easy to envision Spanish galleons arriving centuries ago, loaded with conquistadors bent on building a provincial capital.
Just northwest of Plaza Grande, I stumbled upon one of Mérida's architectural gems - the Monja Complex. This imposing 17th century convent whisks you back to colonial rule and the spread of Catholicism. The building's scale is immense, with high stone walls enclosing graceful arched corridors that surround a tree-filled courtyard. Ornately carved wooden doors and stained-glass windows add striking decorative details. As I toured the complex, I was struck by how the contemplative quiet within contrasted with the structure's fortress-like exterior. Moving between its light-filled courtyard, cool stone halls and narrow cells once occupied by cloistered nuns provided a vivid glimpse at colonial life in Mérida.
In the Santiago neighborhood just south of Centro, the sprawling Casa de Montejo stands as the city's finest civil architecture. Built in 1549 for Mérida's founder, it showcases both plateresque and Baroque styles on an imposing scale. Intricately carved stonework lavishes the facade, complemented inside by hand-painted tiles and soaring murals that celebrate Mérida's rich history. As I toured the casa's grand rooms and verdant courtyard, I appreciated how this stately mansion fused Spanish and native styles, just as Mexico's early colonial society blended its diverse cultures.
Beyond the centro histórico, mansions built during Mérida's 19th century henequen boom also beckon. Along Paseo de Montejo, the city's tree-lined main boulevard, stand stunning examples of Porfirian and French Eclectic architecture. The opulent interior of 1908's Casa Quinta Montes Molina offers a glimpse at the lifestyle of henequen moguls, who sought to emulate the sophistication of European nobility. Strolling Paseo de Montejo under its lush arching laurels, I could imagine the city's elite parading by in horse-drawn carriages during Mérida's wealthy era.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Cancun's Quintana Roo Coast
Sparkling turquoise waters beckon along Mexico's famed Riviera Maya coastline. This 100 mile stretch of Quintana Roo's Caribbean coastline continually captivates sunseekers drawn to its sugar-sand beaches, underwater wonders and luxury resorts. While mass tourism has transformed former fishing villages like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Cancun remains the gateway to this coastal paradise.
As the epicenter of tourism in Quintana Roo, Cancun attracts hordes of vacationers to its wide beaches and lively hotel zone. Some may dismiss Cancun as a spring break playground packed with all-inclusive resorts, but its beaches truly are stunning. 14 miles of powdery sand kissed by gentle waves make it easy to see why Cancun remains popular. Activities like parasailing, jet skiing or catching a boat to Isla Mujeres offer fun diversions for when you need a break from beaching. Of course, Cancun is synonymous with nightlife as well. From open air bars with live music along the lagoon to nightclubs pumping until the wee hours, Cancun certainly knows how to show visitors a good time after the sun goes down.
Yet Cancun also provides easy access to more laidback destinations further south along the Riviera Maya that better capture Quintana Roo's carefree, beach-life vibe. A 45 minute drive south takes you to Puerto Morelos, the perfect antidote to Cancun's bustle. Its seaside charm stems from scenic beaches devoid of highrises, fine nearby reefs that draw snorkelers and a committment to limiting development. Here, your choice of small hotels puts you close to the beach without being surrounded by thumping pool parties.
As you head further down the Riviera Maya, be sure to spend a day in Tulum to experience its effortlessly cool beach scene. Hip boutique hotels back onto palm-fringed beaches, creating an off-the-grid ambiance. Plan to arrive early to snag a beach lounger, as Tulum's gorgeous coast lures a chic yet laidback crowd. Once hunger strikes, beach clubs like Ziggy and Mi Amor serve up fresh seafood with a side of tropical ambiance. Grab a spot in the sand to bask in Tulum's buzzy yet low-key vibe.
Tulum also provides access to the incredible Mayan sites perched just inland amid dense jungle. Muyil and Tulum boast evocative, crumbling ruins from this once powerful civilization. Exploring their temples and plazas provides context for the Riviera's history before jetsetters arrived. Cobá offers the chance to climb Nohoch Mul, Quintana Roo's tallest pyramid, for awe-inspiring jungle views that make the 120 steps to the top worthwhile.
Really wanting to unplug? Continue driving 2 hours south toMahahual, where harborfront seafood shacks and tin-roofed bungalows exude barefoot tranquility. Its laidback charm stems from Mahahual's location far from the tourist zones, which helped it retain a fishing village vibe. Here, the beach reigns supreme, so your biggest decision is choosing between shaded lounge chairs or the hammock for an afternoon siesta.
From Mayan Ruins to the Beach:All Aboard! Exploring Mexico's Scenic Coast and Ancient Ruins by Rail - Savoring Local Flavors Along the Route
One of the greatest joys of riding Mexico's railways is the opportunity to savor authentic regional cuisine. The flavors of Mexico offer a true feast for the senses, with complex moles, fiery salsas and fresh seafood stealing the show. Indulging in local specialties as you pass through diverse landscapes and communities provides a delicious lens for understanding Mexico's culinary soul.
In northern Mexico, hearty dishes reign. The Copper Canyon railway takes you through cattle country, so be sure to sample soft tacos piled high with juicy carne asada. Follow locals’ lead by squeezing fresh lime and salsa on top to cut the richness. Wash it down with an icy bottle of Pacifico beer for the perfect lunch alongside the tracks. Further south, sample tamales with complex, herb-infused fillings unique to each area you pass through. Some of my favorite stops featured tamales with mole negro, fluffy goat cheese or even delicate squash blossoms.
As your journey continues through coastal regions, you’ll delight in an abundance of ultra-fresh seafood. Street food reigns, with vendors serving up ceviche, grilled fish tacos and even whole fried fish on the beach. Be daring and try regional delicacies like aguachile, a spicy shrimp dish swimming in lime juice, or cocteles, cocktail-style seafood salads doused in tomato juice. Pair your meal with a chilled mangoneada, a refreshing mango-chili ice pop that perfectly balances sweet and spicy.
Inland destinations also have iconic dishes to discover. Guadalajara is renowned for its tortas ahogadas, birote bread sandwiches soaked in spicy tomato sauce. Traditional versions feature slow-roasted pork, but creative locals have invented all types of variations. Be sure to dig into pozole while there too, a hearty hominy soup punctuated with pork, radish, onion and oregano. Guadalajara's sweeter side stars cajeta, caramel sauce made from goats milk that gets drizzled over everything from fruit to ice cream.
No discussion of Mexican cuisine is complete without mentioning mole. Oaxaca claims bragging rights as the Land of Seven Moles thanks to its complex, chocolate-tinged sauce. Savoring subtle differences between negro, verde, coloradito and amarillo moles could keep your palate occupied for weeks. Mole negro's rich, smoky flavor beautifully cloaks chicken or turkey, while brick-red mole coloradito packs a pleasing caliente kick. Seek out these iconic moles at restaurants and food stalls in Oaxaca City or Chiapas.
Of course, the Yucatan Peninsula beckons with sunny Caribbean flavors too. Slow-roasted cochinita pibil, juicy achiote pork, stars on menus, tantalizing with citrus and spice. Seafood reigns supreme closer to the Quintana Roo coast, where grilled fish gets served Maya-style, smothered in tomatoes, onions and fiery habanero salsa. Be sure to try pan de cazón, a handmade tortilla stuffed with refried black beans and crispy dogfish, for a true local treat.