Mexico was the first stop of my Latin America world tour component. After spending a few weeks back home over the New Year break I was fully recharged and eager to embark on a region I knew very little about and had not travelled to prior. Many friends back home warned me about the difficulty of travelling in this region and safety concerns that exist but that didn’t seem to deter me one bit, in fact it just added to the excitement.
I flew into Los Angeles where I experienced some issues at immigration due to not having an exit flight out beyond Mexico. After navigating through that I spent 2 nights there and even though I don’t rate LA very highly I did enjoy the awesome food scene, especially around Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Thai Town. After chowing down as much Ramen, Bibimbap and Morning Glory Salad that my stomach could handle in 48 hours I was ready for the short flight over to “El Defe” as it’s known by the Mexicans or Mexico City for most people reading this post.
I was fortunate enough to meet two American guys of Lebanese descent on the plane over. They were staying in a fancy hotel in Zona Rosa which is an upmarket district in Mexico City and kindly offered me a lift out that way. I remember my first impressions driving out from the airport where I was amazed by the sheer scale of the city and how crazy the traffic was with strange highway layout and lack of any road rules. Every barrio (neighbourhood) we drove through was unique and would range from open street markets to upmarket street malls to slums. With a population of 25 million it is one of the largest cities in the world.
After downing a few Modelo Negra at the hotel I was ready for the short subway ride into the Zocolo (Centro) district where my hostel was located. On the topic of beer, even by my standards I consumed a lot of beer in Mexico and I must admit I am a huge fan of the easy drinking locally brewed cervezas such as Bohemia, Victoria and Indio that exist beyond the well-known Corona and Sol which I don’t think I even drank during my 6-weeks there. In fact I have continued to be impressed with a few of the local cervezas in both Guatemala and El Salvador but these countries have nowhere near the variety that Mexico possesses.
The Mexico City metro system is something every visitor needs to experience – insane or crazy are words that come to mind but remarkably it does work efficiently. Huge masses of people flood the system from 5am through to midnight and are rushing from all directions. I was literally never waiting more than a few seconds for a train which and I was constantly thinking how great it would be to have a system half as good in Australia. Getting in and out of the trains was a mission in itself as there were several times where I missed stops or was not able to board due to not being able to navigate through the volume of people. The trains themselves are not your typical trains as they have rubber tyres and inside you will see all types of people selling things from music CD’s (with sound systems pumping the music for all to hear) to food to nail scissors – you name it. Probably the most confronting thing were the beggars who would literally throw themselves onto broken glass which I found really shocking and why people actually encourage this by giving them money bewildered me. At 5 Mexican Peso per ride (about US$0.40 cents) it is also a bargain.
There are so many things to do in Mexico City and in my 10 days there I never had a dull moment. It seemed like there were an endless supply of museums, art galleries, archaeological sites, markets, parks, nightclubs, restaurants and sporting/entertainment events. A few of the highlights for me included a night at the Mexican wrestling, visiting the Mesoamerican pyramids at Teotihuacan and checking out the Frida Kahlo Museum.
After a week in Mexico City I had no idea where I was headed to next and as much as I enjoyed the city I needed some relief from the cold nights and volume of people. Towards the end of my stay I was really fortunate to have met Bec (a cool Australian girl) and we hung out together for a few days. We got along really well and she strongly recommended I visit a small beach town called Puerto Escondido (or simply Puerto) in which she had spent a fair amount of time. I could tell from the smile on her face every time she spoke about the town that it must be something special, so I booked a cheap flight and off to Puerto I went.
Bec was so right about Puerto – I literally fell in love with the place. It is now the place where I have spent the most time (4 weeks) during my 9 month-long solo world tour. The weather was perfect, the beaches were beautiful and it just had the most friendly and relaxed vibe. During my first week I stayed in a super chill hostel called Osa Mariposa where I made some amazing new friends with both the crew that worked there as well as fellow travellers. We had some great surfing sessions during the day and would party pretty hard during the evenings either at the hostel or at a few of the local nightclubs. Friday nights at Sativa were my favourite with a great DJ playing constant old school hip hop all night – I was in heaven!
I very quickly decided that I wanted to spend a bit of time in Puerto so one of the first things I did was to enrol into a local Spanish language school that had been highly recommended. One of the goals of my world tour is to return home fluent in another language and after 2 weeks in Mexico I knew I was not going to last very long in Latin America without the local lingo. I could not have picked a better place to learn and will always remember Puerto as the place I started learning Spanish.
Bec also introduced me to a few of her friends that were still in Puerto – Sara (Australian) and Jacco (NZ). By sheer coincidence I stumbled across a cool apartment near my hostel which I decided to lease. At about US$120 per month for a private room and bathroom it was an absolute steal. It was also full of many Puerto locals which provided ample opportunity for me to practise my new Spanish skills but by far the funniest thing was that coincidentally next door to my apartment was where Sara and Jacco were staying.
My daily routine in Puerto would consist of language school in the morning, followed by lunch at the mercado (market) and afternoons surfing or hanging out with friends and then finishing the day with parties in the evening. I consumed a lot of the local beverage called Mezcal which is unique to the region of Mexico where I was staying – Oaxaca. Even though my untrained palate found Mezcal very similar to Tequila they are actually different as Tequila (a form of Mezcal) can only be made with one variety of agave: the Blue Agave where Mezcal can be made with upwards of 30 varieties of agave, though most are made with the Agave Espadin.
Another highlight in Puerto was spending a few days at a super quiet beach called Chachoua a few hours north of Puerto. I tagged along with Sara and Jacco and we set up camp literally on the beach in hammocks under the shelter of an abandoned beach restaurant. Our intention was to surf, fish and simply chill out for a few days. Unfortunately the surf was not happening and the fish were not biting but we made do with collecting local coconuts to make a few vodka & coconut water cocktails and ate at some of the basic home-style restaurants in the area. We were also super lucky to stumble across a turtle in the evening that was laying eggs on the beach.
Probably the only low light of my 4 weeks in Puerto was coming down with a severe case of food poisoning right at the end of my stay. I had come across so many travellers whom had experienced food poisoning in Mexico and after 5 weeks without any issues I felt like I was superman so I would push the limit eating basically anywhere I felt the desire. This naïve confidence obviously caught-up with me in the end but it has not stopped me from eating from the street or otherwise.
As the saying goes all good things must come to an end and leaving Puerto was no exception. I had booked a flight to Cuba booked a few weeks earlier and even though I was super excited about that, part of me wanted to stay in Puerto. I remember spending my last night taking in another picturesque sunset then having family dinner with the crew at Osa Mariposa reminiscing about the earlier 4 weeks and having plenty of laughs. I could not have scripted a better way to see out such a brilliant stay in Puerto.
After returning to Mexico on a high after getting local in Havana I did feel somewhat guilty about not seeing more of what Mexico had to offer. So I decided to spend a week checking out some sights around Oaxaca City, San Cristobal and Palenque. These towns are best known for their indigenous people and cultures. I must admit I now have ruin fatigue after seeing so many ancient Mayan ruins but I certainly don’t regret visiting any of those beautiful towns.
San Cristobal in particular was a beautiful little colonial town which oozed so much character. Home to some stunning cathedrals and markets I also particularly enjoyed a day trip to a Mayan village in the surrounding mountains called San Juan Chamula. I was intrigued with the traditional attire of the village men and spent over an hour inside the Church of San Juan observing the spiritual religious practises and admiring the floor area which is completely covered in green pine boughs and soft-drink bottles. Chamula families kneel on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Posh (sugar-cane-based liquor), Coca Cola or Pepsi, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.
Palenque is probably my most favourite of all the ruin sites visited thus far. The ruins date back to 226 BC to around 799 AD and after their decline were absorbed into the jungle. My guide informed me that to this day there is no plausible explanation about why the Mayan’s abandoned the site and much of the scripture was destroyed once conquered by the Spanish. Only relatively recently was the site excavated and restored and is now a famous and beautiful archaeological site.
Not far from the ruin site are the beautiful waterfalls of Agua Azul. It was a great way to finish off the day swimming in the clean refreshing waters and admiring the postcard scenery.
Squeezing all 3 towns and respective attractions into a 7-day timeframe was a stretch but definitely achievable for anyone considering doing the same. From Palenque I decided to further challenge myself and cross the border to Guatemala using exclusively public transport in the form of local minibuses, chicken busses and the odd bici-taxi. Starting at 5am in Palenque I arrived in Flores (Guatemala) at around 5pm. That was definitely an adventure in itself for which I’ll save for my upcoming Guatemala post.
Mexico is a massive country that offers travellers so much diversity from big cities to beautiful beaches to ruins that compete with some of the best in the world. The local food obviously is well-known and a favourite of many and is as popular as the easy drinking cerveza, mezcal and tequila. Even though it is the obvious starting point for any latin american adventure, I’m super glad I began my journey there.
I still have some unfinished business in Mexico – particularly the Yucatán Peninsula. With a close friends 40th birthday coming up at the end of the year (which happens to be in Mexico) I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to explore places like Tulum and Merida. I’m sure I’ll also swing past Puerto whilst I’m there as no trip to Mexico is complete without chilling out in one of my favourite places.
If you haven’t been to Mexico and/or considering a trip there, my simple advice is “Just Do It”.
Hasta luego mis amigos.