Note: I can only write about what I know and have personally experienced. I share it with you as a tool to help launch you on your own path of knowing and understanding. Buen viaje!
Mexico was my first love. It was my first experience with cultural immersion and my first exposure to the heartbreak that comes with saying goodbye to a place that feels like home. I spent a semester studying in the colonial town of Morelia where I lived with a host family my Sophomore year in college. While there I had the opportunity to travel to D.F., San Cristobal, Palenque, Urapan, Guanajuato, and Puebla. This year I returned to Mexico and spent a month traveling with my sister by bus. I returned to some of the same places and also visited San Blas, Oaxaca, Tulum, Cozumel, and Merida. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way…
It seems like you can´t listen to the news or read CNN without hearing some horrific story of mass murder at the hands of the drug cartels in Mexico. According to the media, Mexico has been overrun by these lawless bandits and they are wreaking havoc on the people. To some degree, this may be true. Ever since President Felipe Calderón declared war on these drug lords they have responded with fury. I was nervous about returning to Mexico, but except for one close call in Cozumel, I felt safe and secure while there in June 2013. Unfortunately, female foreigners will not avoid cat-calls from all directions and the men have no shame in approaching and flirting (sometimes aggressively). However, ignoring the remarks and walking away will usually dispel the attention.
In general people are welcoming and helpful and even big cities like the capitol feel safe and tourist friendly. As always, use discernment and wisdom when traveling and if a place or situation feels unsafe, leave. Mexico has so much more to offer than the famous resorts and biased news reports should not keep you from exploring this beautiful country.
Mexicans are generally what they are perceived to be- passionate, warm, excitable, proud, and family oriented. They are overly polite and gracious and generally try to make visitors feel at home. Communication can be more indirect and subtle, yes may actually mean no, depending on the situation and context. Common phrases like “Good afternoon,” and “May it go well with you” (said when leaving), are exchanged between strangers when entering or leaving a store, passing on the street, or greeting a group of people. Instead of the formal handshake, one kiss is exchanged on the right cheek when saying hello and goodbye. (For more Spanish lingo tips, read my “Crash Course in Spanish” post).
Mexico is diverse, and like other Latin cultures the divide between the mestizo and indigenous populations is not only racial but also economical, educational, and geographical. The evidence of American influence is hard to ignore, however the farther away from the border with the United States the more this diminishes. It is hard to deny the mixture of cultures, however Mexicans are fiercely proud of their heritage and are sensitive to protect their own identity.
The pace of life in Mexico is slow and enjoyable. Religious festivals and holidays play an important role in the structure of daily life and while not all are practicing Catholics, the church´s power is unmistakable. The gusto and effort that goes into celebrating important events and holidays is contagious and indigenous traditions continue to shape these festivities.
Women dress more conservatively here. Though girls wearing shorts is becoming more common, in general pants and long skirts are the norm. Sleaveless shirts are a bit more acceptable, however wear sleeves if you want to visit any of the cathedrals. Appearance is very important for both men and women and Mexicans never look “sloppy.” Looking nice and put-together will earn you their respect as it also demonstrates an amount of respect for them. Mexico has a rainy season and a dry season so plan ahead to see what the weather will be for your travels.
I could (and did) eat Mexican food every day. Maíz (corn) is a staple here supplemented with refried beans, bread, and an assortment of chiles. I grew to love mole, which is a traditional sauce made with chocolate and chiles served with chicken or beef, street tacos, and stuffed peppers among other dishes.
Food varies widely by region and seafood is plentiful along the coast. Mexican panaderías are great places to grab a light breakfast or bread on-the-go. The main meal of the day is lunch served around 2pm followed by a late light dinner around 9-10pm. There is so much variety in Mexican food and the flavors are playful and spicy. Tex-Mex will usually be served where the tourists are, however burritos, chips and salsa, and nachos (unless they are chilaquiles) are not truly Mexican dishes.
Flavored water such as horchata (a cinnamon and milk type drink), fresh juice, and cheap beer are a compliment to any meal. My favorite Mexican beers are Pacifico, Modelo, and Indio (which are far better than any Corona), while the tequila is also impressive. (Mezcal is a special variety from Oaxaca that you must try)! Coffee bars are plentiful and going out for a cafecito with a friend is a common pastime. Ice cream shoppes serving gelato (really decent, in fact!) also makes for a nice treat.
Mexico has an excellent bus system and it’s fairly easy to travel through the country this way. Bus tickets can be purchased in advance, but it’s often easier to go directly to the terminal to check prices and schedules the day before you want to leave for the next town. Prices vary depending on distance and how many stops the bus will be making. Direct routes are more expensive while second class buses stop more often and don’t have the same amenities. When I traveled there in June I spent an average of $25-$30 per ticket for an average 3-4 hour journey. Most buses will use a cam-corder to take a photo of each passenger as a security measure, so don’t be surprised when this happens.
Taxis are fairly cheap but you must be extremely careful when hailing a cab. It’s best to call a trusted company ahead of time or visit a neighborhood taxi “sitio” where transport can be arranged. Instances of tourists getting robbed are higher in big cities like Mexico City, so exercise caution. It’s cheaper to take combis or inner city buses.
Airline tickets are often cheaper than bus tickets, depending on the distance traveled and Volaris is an excellent discount airline that I’ve flown several times. As a bonus they don’t charge for luggage!
What else would you like to know about Mexico? Have you encountered anything during your travels to this country you’d like to share? I’d love to hear your stories!Google+