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Winter Climates in Mexico

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Mexico’s winter season begins on or around December 21 each year, and although the seasonal change does not feel as marked as it does further north in the hemisphere, if you’re living or visiting here during this time of year, you’ll feel a distinct change in the air and its temperatures.

The climate in Mexico begins to turn during the Autumn when temperatures at higher altitudes will begin to feel generally cooler from late September.  By mid-to-late December, towns and cities situated at higher elevations can feel chilly or even cold after sundown, and in the early hours of the morning.

How marked the temperature change feels depends on where you are in Mexico.  Areas situated at lower elevations and near the coasts lose their high humidity and heat to become pleasantly warm, whereas the central highlands and some areas along the Gulf Coast are cooler and also become subject to temporary cold fronts from the north —colloquially called nortes in Spanish— which can bring gusts of icy wind and even overnight frost for a few days at a time.  Cold spells tend to pass surprisingly quickly and on most winter days daytime-high temperatures can reach a pleasantly-warm 21-23 degrees centigrade; 70-74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cooler winters in Mexico’s central highland regions

As we outlined in a related article, Mexico is a land of three lands, featuring low-lying coastal plains, central highland areas, as well as some settlements situated high-up in the mountains.

Winter climates in Mexico’s central highlands range from temperate to cool, and can turn cold on occasions.

Mexico’s northern regions (as well as Mexico’s Copper Canyon) can experience sub-zero temperatures and even snowfall through the winter months.

In the central highland states of Querétaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas, as well as the western highland areas of Guadalajara and Chapala/Ajijic winter temperatures can oscillate between being comfortably warm during the day, to freezing overnight; these areas are also subject to cold spells brought by inclement weather fronts from the north.

Temperatures in the valley of Mexico City, situated at an elevation of around 7,300 feet above sea level, can feel quite cool and sometimes cold overnight between late November and early February.

Where to find warmth during winter months in Mexico

For warmth during December, January and February, you’ll need to be situated in lower-lying areas, or near Mexico’s coasts.   Los Cabos and Baja California Sur, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Cancún and the Riviera Maya, Manzanillo, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Huatulco, Mérida and the Yucatán peninsula —places which can get very hot during the summer months— tend to enjoy gloriously comfortable and warm temperatures during the winter, which is why they are so popular with part-time winter residents, sometimes referred to as “snowbirds.”  These are also favorite winter-getaway places for residents of Mexico’s highlands who may repair to the coast for a few days’ dose of sweet warm air, especially if a cold front lingers.

Further south, in less arid states and those which slope down to the coasts, the climate tends to be more temperate year-round, and while winters can feel cool and be subject to cold spells, they don’t get as cold as those states situated further north.  South of Mexico City, the states of Morelos, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas are less prone to cold or freezing temperatures during the winter months.  West of Mexico City in Michoacán, one of the states which features highland areas inland and coastal plains as you travel west to the Pacific, temperatures can vary dramatically: Pátzcuaro can feel quite cold after sundown during winter months, whereas a three-hour drive west from there to Zihuatanejo the climate becomes pleasantly warm.

Enjoy Mexico’s long daylight hours, even during winter

A big attraction of Mexico’s climate is that, temperatures aside, it offers long hours of daylight all year-round.  During winter, daylight hours do shorten a little, and while much of the country observes Daylight Savings Time, most places in Mexico enjoy between ten and eleven hours of daylight every day of the year—in contrast to Canada, the northern US, and Europe, where you can experience as little as five hours of daylight in the depths of winter.

Winter brings the Monarch Butterflies to Mexico

The Monarch Butterflies begin to arrive in Mexico from around mid-November. The highland oyamel fir-tree forests where they overwinter are coldest during December, causing the insects to cluster together on the trees for warmth, so if you want to see the butterflies in a more active state, then the ideal time to visit them is from mid-January to mid-March —the peak viewing season— when the daytime temperatures are warmer.

Late winter climates in Mexico

By late January, you can begin to feel the climate shifting again, and by late February temperatures in the central highlands can return to feeling quite warm as winter yields to spring in Mexico, ushering-in some of the driest days of the year before the rain season begins in May or June.  Temperatures near the coasts begin their transition back from warm-to-hot during the spring, which is also when the humidity returns to places situated on and near the coast.

Check individual travel guides here on Mexperience for climate by location. You can get full details about the weather by region and season on our guide to Climate in Mexico.

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Fashion and Lifestyle

The Cold Comes in Snaps and Waves

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Cold weather in the temperate areas of central Mexico comes and goes throughout the winter months in a series of “numbered fronts” that bring icy gusts which may also cause early frosts for a few days at a time. Then it warms up for a while before the next numbered front makes its way down from the US—Mexico’s principal trading partner and supplier of cold fronts.

One practical result of this polar disorder is that the interior climates in Mexican homes are usually a day behind the frequently-changing outdoor weather; remaining warm when it’s actually near freezing out, and vice-versa.

It’s therefore not surprising occasionally to see people dressed for the North Pole on relatively mild days, or shivering in shirtsleeves on cold days.

The timing of the cold fronts is uncertain, but there’s almost always one in the week of November 20, which apart from being the anniversary of the start of the 1910-1917 Revolution, is when the tree-farms on the hilly fringes of Mexico City usually start selling Christmas trees that you can cut down yourself.

Evidence that it can get quite cold in the central highlands is to be found in supermarkets, which each year set out an array of portable electric heaters at the front of the store, clearly visible as you step-in from the chill.  And early risers in the capital know how fridge-like the first Metro trains out of the shed can be on those nippy mornings, so it’s not unusual to see some particularly assertive commuter walking through the carriage slamming the windows shut—although this habit is less-frequent now as people prize fresh-air above warmth during the flu season.

Cold spells across Mexico’s central highlands can be felt anytime from late autumn through to early spring, although by mid-to-late February temperatures usually begin to rise appreciably, creating some windy days in March, as spring returns bringing back the warm days, and more light during the evening hours following the clocks change.

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Kings’ Day Gifts and Kings’ Loaf Traditions in Mexico

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Never a country to shirk its festive responsibilities, Mexico traditionally closes out its Christmas and New Year celebrations on January 6th, Día de Reyes or Three Kings Day.

Also known as Epiphany, the date marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ child: they are traditionally considered to have numbered three wise men, corresponding to the three gifts mentioned in the Bible.

For many years, Three Kings Day was the date when gifts would be given to Mexican children, who would put shoes out before going to bed on the evening of January 5th. Although this was gradually and inexorably taken over by the imported tradition of Santa Claus, families here maintain the tradition of giving children toys on Three Kings Day. Rather than the main course, this is for many a complement to the excesses of modern-day Christmas; “Por no dejar” —for the sake of keeping it— as some may say.

The continuation of Three Kings Day celebration is notable in the commercial world — toy prices in Mexican stores aren’t discounted to unload leftover inventory until around the second week of January, and the days leading up to January 5th can often see shoppers out late at stores and markets desperately seeking to fill last-minute orders.

The extravagant meals taken at Christmas and New Year are not repeated on Día de Reyes, but instead Rosca de Reyes (“Kings’ Loaf”) is eaten, usually with hot chocolate. The large oval-shaped cakes — sweet bread topped with crystallized fruit and sugar — are interspersed with little plastic dolls representing the baby Jesus. Whoever gets a doll in their slice, and you have to cut your own to avoid feelings of being cheated, is supposed to buy the tamales on February 2nd — Día de la Candelaria: a Catholic tradition celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple.

How many of the people who get the slices with dolls actually end up buying the tamales themselves is an open question. But you probably don’t want to gather for Rosca with people who insist on further slicing each slice horizontally to inspect for dolls: not the spirit you’d want to start out the year with.

Rosca de Reyes, of course, shows up in the shops long before January, just as Pan de Muerto is usually available long before Día de los Muertos—in some places as early as August.

There are other ways in which Día de Reyes marks the end of the long holiday season, sometimes referred to as Guadalupe-Reyes to describe the slow month between Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and the grade schools going back for the new term around January 7th.

It’s also the time to start taking down Christmas trees, festive lights, and other seasonal decorations. But there’s no rush.

Candelaria on February 2nd isn’t a holiday in the sense of having the day off work, but it does come a few days before the Constitution Day holiday, which is celebrated on the first Monday in February.  That is also an official holiday, and for U.S. sports fans it has the added advantage of usually being the day after Super Bowl Sunday.

So tamales and American football. It doesn’t get much more convenient, or neighborly, than that.

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Elevation: Why 7,000 Feet Can’t Deliver a Free Lunch

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Mexico is a mountainous country, and many of its towns and cities away from the coasts are situated at elevations of least 5,000 feet above sea-level.

If you plan to live in Mexico, or visit here on a self-catering or camping vacation, a consideration to take into account is that the elevation (the land’s height relative to sea level) has an effect on food preparation, because water situated at higher elevation boils at lower temperatures.

The science is quite simple.  The atmosphere surrounding Earth creates pressure against all objects within it.  Barometric pressure at sea level equates to a little less than thirty inches of mercury, or 14.69 pounds per square inch.  At this pressure level, water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade, 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, the density of the air becomes thinner at higher altitudes (which is why it’s harder to breathe at higher elevation) and the pressure continues to drop constantly until you reach space, where there is no air, no density, and no pressure.

Water thus boils at a lower temperature because the pressure on the water molecules is lower at higher altitudes, requiring less energy for the molecule bonding threshold to be reached (the point at which molecules break away and coalesce into steam).  And so, because less heat (energy) is required to break up the molecules, the water boils at a lower temperature.

Boiling water, cooking, and baking at high elevation

Water doesn’t always boil at 100C/212F: For example, at 5,000 feet above sea-level water will boil at 94.9C (202.9F); at 6,000 feet water boils at 93.8C (200.9F); and at 7,000 feet water boils 92.7C (198.9F).  This online calculator works out the figures.

Tea and coffee: Some tea-drinking connoisseurs argue that coffee is a better beverage option when one is situated in high elevation, because tea requires a high water temperature to “steep” properly.  That’s probably more a matter of personal taste than science, but as staying well-hydrated is important when you’re situated at higher elevations, it’s worth noting that tea quenches thirst whereas coffee aggravates it.

Baking at high elevation in Mexico: If you’re accustomed to baking cakes and pastries in places situated at lower elevations, you’ll discover that the proportions of ingredients and the timings needed to complete the bake will need to be adjusted. This article shares some useful tips about baking at higher elevations.

General cooking: In terms of everyday cooking, you won’t experience an energy gain, i.e. use less fuel, to cook your meal because although the water reaches boiling point sooner, you need to leave your food cooking for longer.  An example is preparing a hard-boiled egg.  If it takes five minutes to hard-boil an egg at sea-level it will take proportionally longer at higher elevations; so any gain realized through lower boiling points is lost in the longer while it takes for the heat-energy transfer to take place.

This is another way of demonstrating that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch”—not even in high places.

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