Monday, May 02, 2005
IMPRESSIONS OF MEXICO
A soccer game on the beach at Puerto Escondido
Our 30 days in Mexico really gave us an idea of the wealth of diversity in this sizeable country. We traveled through norteño country (the north), with its desert landscape, its silver mining towns, and its cattle rancheros, reminding us a bit of Texas and the American west. We spent some time in the west-central highlands, with its cities full of Spanish colonial architecture and its countryside full of orchards, farms, and even volcanoes. We had our fun in the sun on the Pacific beaches, from the huge bustling city of Acapulco to the cozy traveler’s scene of Puerto Escondido, to the remote and mostly unknown villages of the Michoacán coast. We soaked in the progressive arts scene and strong indigenous culture of southern Mexico’s cities of Oaxaca and San Cristóbal De Las Casas. And we ventured into the southeast jungle, where the ancient Mayan ruins and the exquisite natural beauty are large tourist draws.
Yet, since we were almost always on the go, never spending more than 2 nights in any one location, we never really made a deep connection with anyone or anyplace. And despite the fact that we traveled through probably a dozen states, we missed out on close to another 2 dozen. We completely avoided Mexico’s 2 largest cities: the cultural hub of Guadalajara, and the monstrosity of Mexico City, with its 18 million people, its plethora of museums, its traffic nightmares and its gigantic violent slums. Also we skipped out on 2 of Mexico’s 3 coasts: the long, swampy oil-producing region along the Gulf of Mexico, and the tropical southeastern coast along the Caribbean Sea, with its tourist meccas of Cancun and Cozumel and its fantastic coral reefs. With this in mind, it would be hard for us to say that we really feel like we know Mexico. We do know enough that we love Mexico and we look forward to our next visit!
The next few sections are our attempt to give you an idea of what it’s like to travel in Mexico.
“Don’t Drink the Water!”
This was by far the most common advice we heard as we were getting ready for our trip. Of course, the “Montezuma’s revenge” syndrome that affects so many travelers is truly legendary. Due to the use in Mexico (and other “developing countries, i.e. Central America) of water purification technology that’s different from what’s used in the U.S., the tap water here contains micro-organisms that our bodies aren’t used to. The notorious result of this for many travelers is an uncomfortable 3-4 days of endless running to the bathroom. For the most part, Mexicans have no problems drinking the tap water, and actually, once Americans are used to it, the water is in fact safe to drink. Supposedly the key to avoiding illness is a regimen of very gradual adjustment.
We’re happy to report that we had absolutely no illness of any kind during our 30 days in Mexico. It definitely helps that it’s so easy to buy bottled water in even the smallest towns. Also the ice cubes that almost all restaurants and bars use are purified as well. Still, we played it pretty safe for the most part. At first we even avoided using the tap water for brushing our teeth, although after a few days we let our guard down on that. The other thing to be careful of is eating uncooked vegetables (such as salad), as these are often washed using tap water. However before long, we succumbed to the salad temptation as well with no negative consequences. (Not that it was a good salad or anything)
(Note: Rob was not so lucky in Guatemala, where they call it “Tajumulco’s revenge”. However with the help of a homeopathic remedy given to us as a gift by our friends and experienced world travelers Eric & Jubilee before we left California, plus a diet heavy on bananas, he was able to recover in less than 2 days. Thanks again, E&J!!)
In a number of ways, Mexican food is not a whole lot different than you’d expect from eating at Mexican restaurants in the U.S. There are few major differences, though, as well as some noticeable regional variations. One thing we noticed right away is that the Mexican version of salsa is generally very spicy compared with its U.S. counterpart. Because of this, Carley was rarely able to enjoy the chips & salsa that arrived at the table as soon as we sat down for almost any meal.
One thing that we found kind of odd was the relative absence of burritos. Aside from a handful of places, most menus we saw did not list burritos as an option. In the U.S., the burrito almost seems to define Mexican food these days. As for chimichangas (fried burritos), forget about it – this is purely a Texas invention.
Another major discrepancy we noted was that the Mexican quesadilla is really nothing like what we expected. In our experience in the U.S., a quesadilla is two flour tortillas with melted cheese in the middle (or a single tortilla folded or cut in half with melted cheese in the middle). In Mexico, this is called a sincronazada, whereas a quesadilla is more like a spongy pastry stuffed with cheese and vegetables (often mushrooms, sometimes spinach or squash flower) or fruit. A sweet quesadilla might contain pineapple or strawberry. Also the Mexican enchiladas we sampled were a bit different than those we’ve had in the U.S. Instead of rolled tortillas stuffed with cheese and other goodies, the Mexican enchiladas were folded tortillas with the cheese on top. Like U.S. enchiladas, the Mexican versions were smothered with sauce and then baked.
For breakfast, eggs are very common in Mexico, and there are 2 distinctly Mexican dishes that are served almost everywhere: huevos rancheros (fried eggs on top of a tortilla, smothered with spicy salsa) and huevos mexicanos (eggs scrambled with diced tomatoes, onions and chile peppers). However plain old eggs – both scrambled and fried – are commonly served with bacon, ham or sausage. Omelets are also not uncommon. Most Mexican breakfasts (in fact, quite a few Mexican meals) come with a side of refried beans, rather than the home-fried or hash-browned potatoes common in the U.S. Refried beans tend to be pinto beans in the north and central parts of the country, whereas refried black beans are the norm in southern Mexico and Central America.
Another surprising discovery was the relative ease with which one could find more “American” type standards, such as pizza, sandwiches, and hamburgers. Almost any large town or medium-sized city offers several such options.
One of our favorite aspects of Mexican food is the much higher prominence (than in the U.S.) of fresh fruit and fruit beverages. Almost anywhere you can find roadside stands selling cups of freshly chopped fruit, often a mixture of banana, pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, and (if you’re lucky) mango, all for around US$1. It sure is a lot easier to eat like this when someone cuts it up for you! Also very common are aguas frescas (literally fresh waters) which are actually freshly squeezed fruit juices thinned with water and sweetened with a little sugar. These come in quite a few flavors, including melon, strawberry and pineapple, as well as hibiscus flower and tamarind. Sometimes aguas frescas even come in vegetable flavors, including cucumber and celery. (surprisingly very refreshing on a hot day!)
The most common fruit in Mexico, however, is the ever-present lime. The lime is truly a fruit for all occasions. Besides garnishing any seafood dish, it also comes with breakfast, beer, soup and even fresh fruit. The idea is that just about anything tastes better with lime juice squirted on or into it. A fringe benefit is that due to lime’s strong acidic content, it is a natural disinfectant that kills potentially dangerous bacteria. Thus, squirting lime juice on the fresh fruit you buy from a roadside stand gives you extra insurance against getting sick due to poor sanitary practice. Lime juice is the key ingredient to Mexico’s famous ceviche – a cold seafood salad (either fish or shellfish) which is effectively “cooked” by soaking in lime juice for at least 10 hours, instead of the normal method of cooking with heat. The lime even has medicinal applications – Mexicans squirt lime juice on cuts and abrasions to ward off infection!
Another very common fruit in Mexico (to our pleasant surprise) is the avocado. Used more like a vegetable (you’ll find it in almost any salad, on top of your burger, or with your eggs), the avocado is technically a fruit, built more like a mango, with its tough outer peel and large hard core. Avocado is commonly made into a salad of its own, the famous guacamole – made with tomato and lime juice, it’s often served with corn chips for dipping.
In general, if you like meat and spicy sauces, Mexican food has a lot to offer! Beef, chicken and pork all come in a variety of styles, often marinated in some kind of spicy sauce. However, don’t expect the typical U.S. style of thick juicy steak; Mexican steak is cut much thinner and usually cooked well-done. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even try items such as lengua (beef tongue) or chicharrón (deep fried pork skin), which are usually served on tacos.
On the other hand, if you’re like Carley and generally eat neither meat nor spicy food, don’t despair. Thanks mostly to tourism, vegetarian and health-conscious food is definitely making inroads into Mexican culture, and even the non-touristy small cities have a smattering of vegetarian-friendly establishments, sometimes offering soyburger and even tempeh. Many of these places also serve yummy fruit, yogurt and granola combinations for breakfast.
Accommodations in Mexico
We can’t really tell you anything about luxury hotels in Mexico, since our goal was to keep our budget as low as possible. However we can tell you that there are some pretty significant differences between a budget hotel in Mexico and a budget hotel in the U.S.
For one thing, tile floors are the norm here. We can pretty much guarantee you won’t get a hotel room with a carpeted floor. Also air-conditioners are pretty much non-existent in budget hotels, no matter how hot it is. At least you’ll have a ceiling fan and sometimes a circulating floor model taboot. If you’re lucky you’ll have a window to let light in; other times your room will resemble a dungeon when the door is closed.
However the main differences between a Mexican budget hotel room and a U.S. hotel budget room are in the bathroom. For one thing, almost without exception, the Mexican showers we used were not enclosed or separate from the rest of the bathroom, not even with a curtain or ridge. Instead, there is just one tile floor for the whole bathroom that slopes gently toward the drain underneath the shower head. You don’t step “into” the shower, you just step under it. As for an actual bathtub, forget about it. At least most of the hotels we stayed in had hot water. The notable exception was along the Pacific coast, where the weather was already so scorching hot by April that we were glad for our cold afternoon shower.
The other thing that is possibly difficult for an American to get used to (and this is probably true in any “developing” country) is that the plumbing is not designed to be able to handle toilet paper, so you’re requested to use the garbage can instead. Many hotels do not actually have a sign requesting this; rather it’s just assumed that you use this practice everywhere. In fact, it’s also advisable that you carry your own toilet paper in your pack with you, as quite a few bathrooms will not offer this amenity. The worst bathrooms will not even offer a toilet seat! (and we had close to a dozen of these as well) You can see where there USED to be a toilet seat, but for some inexplicable reason, there isn’t one anymore. (Maybe people steal them?) You should also bring your own mirror, as this is not always provided either.
A typical Mexican budget hotel bed will most likely have very uncomfortable pillows, so you may want to bring your own, as we did. Some of their pillows felt like they were filled with clay! At least the sheets always seemed to be clean. The blanket is usually a typical Mexican-style blanket, thick and warm with pretty patterns woven into it.
Overall, the best thing about budget hotels in Mexico is that they truly are BUDGET! Most of the places we stayed were under US$20 per night!
However, a more attractive option for many travelers is a hostel or a guesthouse. In addition to the dorm-style rooms holding 6 or more people that is typical of hostels, many of the hostels in Mexico also offer private rooms (with shared bathroom), so you don’t have to worry about locking up your possessions. These establishments typically offer a shared kitchen so you can cook your own meals as well. Also many of them offer tent space as well as hammocks you can rent (and places to hang your own hammock, if you have one). These places also definitely fall within our definition of “budget”.
Driving in Mexico
Here we offer what might be a somewhat unusual perspective for travelers in Mexico, since we drove from one end of the country to the other in our car. This was of course due to our unique situation, as we were moving all of the possessions we may want (including our dog!) for a lengthy stay in Central America. However, we acknowledge that it’s really a different perspective than what most travelers get, since the majority of visitors arrive by air and then use buses or taxis to get around.
The one thing that is a huge pain-in-the-rear about driving in Mexico is the incessant onslaught of large speed-bumps, right in the middle of the highway, practically everywhere! Unless you’re on one of Mexico’s few freeways or on one of the toll highways, you have to go over about half a dozen of these speed-bumps in every single small town you pass through. In the larger towns and cities, the number increases dramatically. The painful thing is, most of these speed-bumps are positively bone-rattling. Unless you slow down to almost a complete stop, you’ll bounce your head off the ceiling of the car, in addition to causing everything in the car to spill over. Almost all Mexican drivers give these speed-bumps complete respect. There were times that we did come to respect the speed-bumps – when we had to pull out on to the highway into heavy traffic, for instance. Most of the speed-bumps are placed at or near busy intersections, in place of traffic lights. So at least we weren’t “slaves to the traffic light” nearly as often as we would have been in the U.S.
Despite the speed-bumps, driving in Mexico turned out to be relatively easy for us, despite all the warnings we’d heard. The major highways are all in relatively good condition, the traffic patterns were mostly familiar for Americans (it would be much more difficult to drive in Britain or Australia, for instance!), and the important signs were easy to figure out even for Rob, who didn’t know a whole lot of Spanish when he left the U.S. The main rule we tried to adhere to was to not drive at night, since many Mexican roads are very poorly lit and full of random pedestrians at night. Nevertheless, we ended up driving at night a few times anyways (mostly in Morelia and Oaxaca, where we stayed in no-tell motels outside of town), and we had no problems whatsoever.
Until relatively recently, the biggest horror story one used to hear about driving in Mexico was the scarcity of gas stations. American road warriors heading south of the border were advised to load up with extra gas cans. (and no, not just one!) We’re happy to report that this is not the case anymore. Apparently in the past 5 or 10 years the Mexican government embarked on a spree of building shiny new gas stations all over the country. Of course all the gas stations are owned by the national oil company, PEMEX, so prices are the same everywhere. Gas prices were about the same as in California, though with the ridiculously high price of oil these days, gas was probably our biggest expense in Mexico.
We were also a bit worried that we’d be the only people in Mexico driving a Chevrolet, which in theory could be a big problem – if the car broke down somewhere, we’d need to find a garage that could get parts and get us on the road again. It turns out there was no need for concern. GM has a big operation down here, and we saw plenty of other Chevy’s, as well as other American-made cars throughout the country. However, the most popular cars (and vans) here are Nissan, by far. We also saw quite a few Volkswagens, especially the old-style Beetles and micro-buses. We never saw a single Vanagon, Westfalia or Eurovan, though, so it’s probably a really good thing we left ours back in the U.S.
The View From The Car Window
As you approach just about any typical Mexican town, you’ll notice a variety of vendors set up alongside the road, selling everything from fruit, tacos and beverages to souvenirs, crafts and magazines. They especially like to congregate at the speed-bumps, since everyone has to slow down anyway. If the highway takes you through the center of town (which it often does), there’s almost always a central square, or plaza, which is usually the nicest part of town. This area is usually the trickiest for driving, as almost all of the streets become one-way, and it’s really essential to pay attention to every sign. (Just ignore the obnoxious truck-driver behind you honking his horn at you for going too slowly!) On the other hand, it’s generally the best place to get out and explore! Often there will be an open-air market somewhere around the center of town, with row after row of wooden stalls filled with vegetables and fruit, handicrafts, souvenirs, CDs of popular Mexican music, and freshly prepared snacks (tacos, pupusas, pancakes, French fries – almost everything fried!). Generally the best selection of hotels, restaurants and Internet cafés will be around this area as well.
Back out on the highway, one of the more annoying sights in Mexico is the ubiquitous trash alongside the highway and huge piles of garbage on the outskirts of every town. Apparently the infrastructure for rural trash collection in Mexico (and probably many other developing countries) has been practically non-existent until recently, and it seems to be deeply embedded in much of Mexican culture that the earth is a big trash receptacle. (This didn’t really surprise Carley who saw trash piles 10 times worse in Nicaragua). Fortunately the Mexican government has recently embarked on a nationwide campaign to change this attitude, and every highway from one end of the country to the other is now lined with signs every few miles advising not to litter, with slogans like “a clean highway is a safe highway” and “keep the highways clean – with you we can do it” (all in Spanish, of course). Some highways even advised that drivers could be fined for littering, much like the U.S. So far the signs don’t seem to have had too much effect, but maybe in a generation or two the country will be much cleaner.
Another common sight on the highway, which can be quite annoying to the driver, is the endless fleet of large trucks (many of them so rickety that you wonder how they don’t fall apart; some completely overflowing with fruit or sugarcane) and the astonishing number of large buses (since a high percentage of Mexicans require public transport to get around). All of these large vehicles move VERY slowly when going uphill, causing exasperating traffic pile-ups, with impatient drivers pulling hair-raising passing games around dangerous mountain curves. Then on the downhill, the huge buses (most of which are quite modern compared with buses in Central American countries) really get going, and too often the bus drivers engage in aggressive tailgating and dangerous passing that would clearly cost them their license in the U.S. The good things about there being so many buses are that you can easily get to just about anywhere in Mexico by bus, and it probably decreases amount of cars on the road.
However there’s apparently even another form of public transport in Mexico – the pickup truck! A very common site on the Mexican highway is an old pickup truck with up to 8 people riding in the back, usually with a home-made canopy attached to the truck-bed for shade. This is probably more of an informal mode of public transportation available only to villagers, but to be honest, we did not ask.
A common site on Mexican highways; a pick-up truck carries a load of locals, while a big-rig slows traffic to less than 20mph
One other occasional sight on the highway is the Army checkpoint. These are scattered throughout the country, almost always outside the towns in more rural areas. There are usually about a dozen soldiers holding automatic weapons, some of them even entrenched in bunkers of sandbags. At these checkpoints, all drivers are instructed to stop. Often after a cursory glance or a couple of questions, however, we were waved through; only once did a soldier look through any of our bags, and he let us go after only a minute. However, we expect that the soldiers are much more thorough with regard to northbound cars. These soldiers are looking for drug smugglers, and of course the contraband is not headed AWAY from the U.S.!
One of the great things about traveling in Mexico is that your dollar will take you pretty far here. We each spent around $300 a week, including all day-to-day expenses such as hotel, food, phone cards for calling home, and gas for the car. (However if you factor in such things as car insurance and medical/traveler’s insurance, this cost goes up to maybe $350 a week.)
We’ve heard stories and read in books that it’s a good idea to carry some extra money in case you need to grease the bureaucratic wheels at the border or pay a bribe (mordida) to get out of a situation with the police (which are quite often corrupted due to insufficient salary). According to some accounts, police around Mexico City are notorious for pulling over cars with American plates and coming up with bogus charges. Also it’s worth noting that if you’re involved in a car accident, you’ll probably be paying money to the police. However we didn’t experience any such encounters, and our border crossings were perfectly smooth and hassle-free (besides the standing in line waiting for our paperwork). Of course we were traveling south; apparently the border is more of a hassle when going north, often involving a search of your possessions, due to the enormous amount of drug-trafficking headed toward the U.S. Anyhow, none of the other travelers we’ve spoken with so far had any problems in Mexico either, so it seems the odds are very much against this sort of problem.
Traveling with Kina
At our first hotel in Mexico, Carley asked the receptionist if we could bring our dog into the room. With the look he gave us, you would have thought we had grown furry tails ourselves. “Well, I just don’t know what to say. No one has ever asked me that before.”
With the exception of a small number of well-to-do Mexicans, most people do not keep pets like we do in the U.S. Mascotas, especially dogs, often serve a more utilitarian function, being caged on rooftops or in yards to bark madly at would-be thieves (or anyone else who just happens to be walking down the street). In addition, dog fighting has grown in popularity in recent years, making the populace-at-large petrified of anything bigger than a Chihuahua. We have to admit that the general fear of dogs served our purposes pretty well. No one was going to mess with us with our mean-looking German Shepard/coyote mutt – who is actually a complete creampuff, but we’re not telling.
The receptionist at our first hotel did let Kina in, as did most of the other hotel/hostel owners. We were rejected in several places, but we always found a canine-friendly spot so Kina never had to sleep in the car. We even met one other woman traveling with her dog who said she had no problems staying anywhere (though her beagle was much smaller than Kina). That being said, we wouldn’t go so far as to advocate bringing your pet on your Mexican vacation since Kina, who had to stay in the car or hotel during many of our activities, probably didn’t have as much fun as we did.
On to Our Stay in Guatemala