I’ll admit it; I was apprehensive about going to Mexico. I had heard so much through the media that I expected to be shot and killed as soon as I left the airport. My geeky obsession with ancient cultures was enough to lure me there. I’m glad it did. Mexico has been a delightful experience for a variety of reasons. It has far exceeded my expectations and at no point did I feel threatened. The people have been welcoming, helpful and friendly.
The first question I am asked in Hostels is “How long have you been here?” after I answer “Five weeks.” The follow-up question is “How dangerous is it?” I understand. I felt the same when I arrived. They are as equally surprised by my positive experience as I am. I hope they can go on to share such a positive story as I can.
My initial plan was to visit Teotihuacan and then fly to the more touristy places of Cancun and Playa del Carmen but the feel of Mexico city was too vibrant that I chose to stay some extra days. Bustling yet without the chaotic urgency of somewhere like London, Mexico city felt like a modern city built into delightful colonial buildings. Whether those building should even exist is a different matter completely but the buildings are stunning. Even someone as religious sceptic as myself couldn’t help but appreciate the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, in the historic centre of Mexico City, where I was staying.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not going to profess to have a deep understanding of Mexican culture after spending a few weeks floating from place to place. Nor am I saying that there are no areas that are not friendly to tourists. I am just saying that Mexico and Central America both exceeded my expectations. There is far more to Mexico to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. In fact, I would go as far as to say that those places do a disservice to the country of Mexico. Probably not financially but maybe culturally. Take Tulum for example. I visited Tulum at the end of my trip. By this time I had visited numerous Mayan ruins in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. I have to say that to visit Tulum and declare it a visit to a Mayan ruin is the same as to visit Playa Del Carmen and say you have visited Mexico. It is a sanitised version. An Instagram friendly snapshot. Just large enough to present something different but not too large to bore people with history. There is even an opportunity to swim if the history of Mexico doesn’t wet your whistle. Maybe if I’d visited it at the start then maybe I wouldn’t be so down on Tulum but people back home had said to me “You have to visit Tulum. It’s amazing!” Well, it’s okay, I guess. It’s just there are better ruins out there.
My personal favourite ruins I visited was Palenque. With only 5% of the ruins uncovered it still offered an outstanding insight into the Mayan life. It was also quiet compared to Chichen Itza which allowed for some time to reflect and try to comprehend what I was looking at. Don’t get me wrong Chichen Itza was absolutely stunning. A monumental achievement and definitely worth seeing. Even if only to be believed as none of the photos does any of the places justice.
I understand why people visit Cancun and Playa. The beaches are sublime. It’s just that there is more to Mexico than Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Mexico is also one of the few places that have Cenotes. These magical underground pools with sparkling blue water in. The ones I visited just outside Merida, had a variety of Cenotes. Some open-topped and some sealed like a secret chamber. Whilst I swam in one of the open-top ones it began to rain which created a scene straight out of a movie. Even without the rain, it was still a delightful experience.
One of the things I noticed about Mexico, Guatemala and Belize was the use of colour. I find Britain to be bordering on puritanical in its use of colour. Any deviation from black, blue, grey and white is seen as a professional affront. So to see the houses painted bright colours was a welcome change. A change that should be welcomed in Britain to offset the drab weather but would probably be met with a visit from the council.
It’s almost as if colour is used to express an appreciation of life. The colours, coupled with the music that plays everywhere creates a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere. Almost as if life is one long celebration of being alive. That it is something to be enjoyed and experienced with joy. This is reiterated by the “go slow” mantra in many of the places I visited. Especially the island of Caye Caulker, Belize.
I started this blog by saying that I was apprehensive about going to Mexico and Central America due to the level of violence portrayed in the media. At no point during my five weeks visiting did I feel threatened. Admittedly, I didn’t wander around too many strange areas but I found the people to be friendly and helpful. I was as vigilant as I am walking the streets of any major city. I think those reports do the residents of these countries a disservice. Obviously, there are bad people around the world. I read a news article about a woman who was mugged on the way home in London. Does this then mean that all 8 million residents of London are muggers? Definitely not. There are shootings all the time in the US does that mean that everyone will pull a gun? Certainly not. The same applies to all the people in Mexico and Central America. There was a news article in a British tabloid about the dangers of Mexico whilst I was in Mexico. Some of the comments explained that that’s why Mexico should be avoided. Unfortunately, this belief is more prevalent than a few small-minded people. Yet most of the other travellers I have met in my time here all share positives tales and profess their affection for the area.
I’m glad I came to this part of the world. The sights and sounds were a joy. It far exceeded my expectations. Not to mention the fact I got the opportunity to toast an English Muffin on an active volcano in Guatemala. That is not a sentence I ever expected to say.
The other activities in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize that were available that I chose not to participate in were: diving/snorkelling the second largest coral reef in the world, viewing the blue hole from the air, caving, tubing and dolphin watching to name a few.
There was wildlife everywhere we went. From lizards to birds to Monkeys. Many called the Mayan ruins home so it was an added bonus to see some howler monkeys whilst looking around Palenque or Iguanas whilst visiting Xunantunich
Above all, though my favourite thing had to be the food.
“I had a salad at the airport on the way home and had a dodgy stomach. Must have been washed in the local water.” That was the advice given to me when I said I was visiting Mexico. Now the problem is with things like this is that what the person failed to tell me was that they had spent the previous fourteen days getting blasted drunk on cheap all-inclusive alcohol. Taking that into consideration may not have been the salad’s fault. So I took the advice with a pinch of salt but still approached the food with an air of caution. The first place I visited in Mexico city was El Mayor which is located in Centro Historico. I went because I was looking for something vegetarian and had been struggling to find something all day. My terrible Spanish didn’t help the search so I opted for a restaurant. The views were fantastic and the food was the best meal I’d eaten in months. I had shrimp Tacos for starter and Tuna steaks for main. Everything was cooked to perfection. The only problem was the price. Now those two dishes and a bottle of water cost about twenty-five dollars. Which, when I have another five months of travel to cover was a treat, not the norm but it was worth it.
As I walked the streets of Mexico City taking in the sights and sounds, I couldn’t help but notice all the vendors selling street food. I had to try something. A one-off I told myself, if I get a dodgy stomach then that’s what happens. I was pretty much convinced that I would. Even though I had tried street food in south-east Asia without problems.
The sign said 5 tacos for 35 pesos so I ordered and waited as the guy chopped up the pork and crackling and scooped it up with the tortilla. It has become apparent that Mexicans love pork. I wonder if that is a Spanish influence as they love pork too. I paid and took the plate. I have to admit I was a little excited. I hadn’t eaten meat for two years. There was a selection of sauces and sliced onions on a table next to the stall, so watching a local I followed suit and loaded up with a selection of extras. I couldn’t believe it was 35 pesos for five tacos with sauces and extras. It looked delicious. I tentatively raised the taco to my mouth, the lie that it would be a one-off echoing in my mind. The first bite was an explosion of flavour. The constant cooking left its taste on the meat. This combined with the chilli, onion and fresh lime gave it an extra kick. Simple but so effective. The other four were gone in no time. I vowed that I would only eat meat whilst in Mexico.
I waited for the dodgy stomach but it never came. What I did get though was an apparent addiction to tacos. Prior to Mexico, my favourite food had been Italian. Again so simple but so beautiful and ruined by the rest of the world. Mexican food can claim the same. How the world is not resplendent with taco stands is beyond me. It is quick, easy and so so tasty. It is the meal of the modern age. No washing up. No messing about.
The next few days became a taste test of the street food of Mexico City. It was so good. After a while, I headed to Cancun and stayed in Hostel Ka’beh. A great hostel with breakfast, wifi, free coffee and a free dinner. What made it a great hostel was the location. Yes, it was easy to get to the beaches but at the end of the road is the Parque de las palapas which is filled with food stalls. A variety of Mexican dishes all at great prices. It is a great way to save money. I’m not sure if in the four days I was staying there I spent as much on food as I did in that first meal in Mexico City. The quality is fantastic and I had no problems with my stomach. Nor did any of the people who frequented it with me on an hourly basis.
If you are an all-inclusive type of person I recommend trying some local food. The flavours are sublime and it gives a truer reflection of the culture. Not to mention putting money into the pockets of the local people.
Playa del Carmen was a little trickier to navigate. My hotel, Hotel Caribe, is situated quite close to the tourist strip. So the food prices in the area are through the roof. I had a walk around and found a good taco place, that is open 24 hours a day. Billy the kid tacos, although not quite as cheap as Palapas it is still reasonable. There is a well-priced menu of the day at Sabor de luna, which is just sound the corner.
The last place I visited on the tour was El Hongo in Playa del Carmen, although away from the strip. It is much more than just a restaurant serving great food, it is a place that is creating a brighter future for the children in the neighbourhood through art and creativity. The local is adorned with the artwork of the local children. Many of which not only gain a sense of purpose but some also go on to have successful careers.
Mexico has probably raced to the top of my favourite food table. With its tantalising flavours and ease, tacos are the greatest snack on earth. Especially from a street vendor who spends his/her life making them.
Anyway, it is Taco time.
If you don’t believe me about the delights of Mexico then I implore you to see for yourself. It is quite clear that most of the countries violence is in the northern territories where there is a drug war. Many of the other areas are safer than many other countries: How safe is Mexico?
Adios Mexico, it’s been delightful.
Thanks for having me,
I spent a couple of weeks wandering on my own but also used this trip Mayan Adventure. I only spent a week in Guatemala and Belize hence the focus on Mexico but I had an enjoyable time in them all.