03-2002 / 02-2003
Admiring a 1300-year-old Maya palace at Palenque as howler monkeys growl in the sweaty emerald jungle around you. This is Mexico. Sliding from a palm-fringed sandy beach into the warm, turquoise waves of the Pacific. This, too, is Mexico. Dining on salmon enchiladas and chrysanthemum salad at Mexico City fusion restaurant, dancing through the night at a high-energy Guadalajara nightclub, kayaking at dawn past a colony of Baja California sea lions. All these are unique Mexican experiences.
Every visitor goes home with their own unforgettable images. Such a large country, straddling temperate and tropical zones, reaching 5km into the sky and stretching 10,000km along its coasts, with a city of 19 million people at its centre and countless tiny pueblos everywhere, can hardly fail to provide a huge variety of options for human adventure.
In my opinion, Mexico is what you make of it. Its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry is adept at satisfying those who like their travel easy, with Cancun and Acapulco being the pioneers on it. But adventure is what you’ll undoubtedly have if you take just a few steps off the pre-packaged path.
The Yucatan Peninsula, although in the gringo trail, still has some of the best treasures hidden in this vast country. Merida, Valladolid and San Cristobal de las Casas are some of the finest examples. Here is where I spent most of my time since exploring it attracted more and more my interest to this unknown part of the world. Although I started my Mexican adventure in Cancun, I quickly realized that what people fall in love with is outside, in the “pampa”. Small pueblos that you can pass by if you don’t pay much attention, that’s where the original Mexico is. Even if you’re stretching in your hammock and lazing on the beach of Tulum, extend your visit with a dip in a senote (underground water reservoirs).
Of course Chitzen Itza and Uxmal are definitely not to miss. Although overcrowded, you still have to see them. Get there as early as possible to beat the busloads from the nearby resorts. Enjoy the day appreciating the great Maya ruins and the civilization that came along with them. I was lucky to get a team together from my hostel in Valladolid and get to the Chinzen Itza ruins while it was still dark. A local showed us the way to sneak in before the doors opened. I still shudder when I think about those first moments in the ruins, with the sun just starting to rise.
On the contrary, in Uxmal I wasn’t that lucky. I got there really late because of a great party the previous night with a lot of tequila. The busloads were already there and the place, although huge, was almost full of people. I had a hangover so I took a nap in the near jungle and woke up two hours before closing. I had to run to cover it all but at least I saw it without all the tourists.
From personal experience I can say that speaking a little Spanish definitely helps to be closer and share the experience with the remaining Maya inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula. They immediately change their attitude as soon as they see that you at least try to speak their language. If you add to that some interest for their culture that makes them your people and you really feel part of the pack.
Caught between the relentless beat of progress and the echoing shouts of tradition, the Yucatan Peninsula stands at a crossroads. On one side you have the brawny mega-resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen with their sterilized guests. On the other are the proud, steadfast traditions of the Maya, the mystery of the ceremonial centres created by their ancestors and the Old World allure of colonial masterpieces such as Merida and Campeche. On every blond beach and every patch of jungle, you can still feel the beat of the heart of Ixchel, the earth goddess, marvelling at her remarkable creation.
As for the activity-based tourists, community tourism and genuine ecotourism are developing fast in rural areas. The opportunities for getting out to Mexico’s spectacular wild places and interacting with local communities are greater than ever. From world-class canyoneering near Monterrey to cooking lessons in Veracruz, Mexico has it all and most importantly, they all are easy to reach and do.
Another highlight on my Mexican adventure was Oaxaca. The state itself is one of the most spectacular areas of Mexico. I advise you to spend some time there to allow the interesting Mexicanos to unravel their beautiful culture. Places like Puerto Escondido with its commercial beach front or the fishing village of Zipolite can surely seduce you and keep you there for long. So allow yourselves a good amount of time if you really want to get to know the area.
Are you planning your first trip to Mexico after all that? Be ready for more crowds, noise, bustle and poverty than you’re accustomed to, especially if it’s your first trip outside the developed world. But don’t worry; most Mexicans will be only too happy to help you feel at home in their country. Invest a little time before your trip in learning even just a few phrases of Spanish. Every word you know will make your trip a little bit easier and more enjoyable. Make sure you get out there in the unknown and I can promise you an unforgettable experience that only Mexico can give you.