Thu 1 Mar 2012 - Fri 1 Jun 2012
In season five, episode 10 of The Shield (a show we got hooked on while in India as it aired every night on one of the English channels), four characters faced a conundrum. One man was facing arrest for something they all had done. They debated about what they should do next. Should he take the fall for the four corrupt detectives? Or should he – gasp – flee to Mexico? The scene ended with the four men in deep contemplation. What would be worse? Prison, or living in Mexico?
I blame the media for perpetuating these myths. We are bombarded with images of illegal Mexican immigrants desperate to cross the invisible border into the USA, news reports of kidnappings in resort towns, the ever-discussed War on Drugs and the corruption that keeps the substances moving, and popular TV shows portraying Mexicans as unskilled labourers or highly skilled gangsters. Mexicans in the movies, TV shows or the news often fit into one of two categories: wearing white “wife-beaters”, bandanas and tattoos, or sombreros, ponchos and an empty bottle of tequila. Nothing good seems to come from Mexico. So what would real Mexico be like?
When we ventured into Mexico, we were pleasantly surprised. We found bustling, shady Zocolos surrounded by beautiful Colonial buildings, massive, restored ruins peppered with out of breath tourists, beaches and cenotes ideal for relaxing, and some of the friendliest people we have ever met. A constant flow of fiestas and festivals means that music, dancing and food are staples in the Mexican lifestyle. We found well-equipped hostels, a plethora of restaurants, and a bus system that made travel a breeze. The real Mexico, it seems, is a well-kept secret that only those who venture away from the border in the North or the idyllic beaches and party scene on the coasts get to see. Yes, the crime and corruption that follows the drug business in the North is real, but for most tourists and local Mexicans, the reality is much different.
So.... while it may be mandatory to spend some time on Mexico’s beaches, which one is for you? We ventured to Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Puerto Escondito. Here is a low-down of our impressions.
First, Cancun resorts sit on a beautiful stretch of sand and provide all-inclusive tourists with an amazing view, but not much else. Cancun is designed for those looking for seclusion and not planning on leaving their resort. The flaw here is that Cancun town is a bus-ride away, and the strip of hotels on the beach doesn’t even provide a destination for walking. If you plan on remaining horizontal for your vacation, you might not mind. We stayed in a hostel in Cancun town, took the bus to the beach, and immediately felt out of place with the wristband wearing holidaymakers.
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen, while being criticized for being “artificial”, does provide a town attached to the beach, and it is quite easy to either choose the touristy and overpriced 5th Avenue, or avoid it all together. We stayed in the residential area of Playa, and liked the options in terms of restaurants, shopping and beach-going. We much preferred sitting on the public strip of sand, watching Mexican and international families build sand castles, or play football and volleyball. The transport connections are a big plus here, as it is quite easy to base yourself here and still visit Tulum, Cozumel, Cancun, Akumal etc. We stayed for two weeks while taking Spanish lessons, and felt it was a great choice for us.
Cozumel is another option, but what it makes up for in diving and snorkeling opportunities it lacks in another area – sand. This rocky island offers a less touristy glimpse into Mexican life, especially if you leave the pier area, but it doesn’t have that postcard perfect beach that many people desire.
Tulum is better known for the ruins by the same name, but it also offers opportunities for beachfront accommodations. Unfortunately, the quaint bungalows that many people hear about are now overpriced and get mixed reviews from travellers. Another option is to stay in town and take a bike or taxi to the beach, an option we chose and enjoyed. Tulum is much more secluded than the previous three options.
Lastly, on the Southern Coast of Mexico sits Puerto Escondito, known more for its world-class surfing than for anything else. Here you can chose to relax in the hippy-feel of la Punta, or party in the touristy area of Zicatela. Just watch where you’re swimming, as the waves are fierce!
As a developed country, many aspects of Mexico are on par with what you would expect in North America or Europe. However, one aspect that is not, is the environmentally friendliness of everyday life. For example, plastic bags are everywhere, and the push to use fewer just doesn’t exist. In one pathetic example, I watched a man buy two drinks from Oxxo (a convenience store chain), put them in a plastic bag, walk a few meters to where his friend was waiting, remove the drinks and throw the bag in the garbage. The 7 second life-span of that bag is typical in Mexico. If you are planning a visit to Mexico, please do the earth a favour and bring the following; 1) a refillable water bottle, as most hostels provide free filtered water, 2) a small reusable bag to carry with you to avoid contributing to the plastic problem. Also, as Styrofoam is a popular choice for take-away drinks and food, you might be able to reduce its use by sitting and consuming in the restaurant or cafe instead. Also, while eating in a restaurant, you can choose the “agua del dia” or “agua de sabor”, a fresh fruit/water concoction made in large quantities daily. Our favourite was jamaica (pronounced ha-MA-ee-ka) made from hibiscus flowers. Drinking a glass of this refreshing red drink meant that we weren’t using a plastic bottle or aluminum can.
As a vegetarian, I was worried about finding options in Mexico. Luckily, vegetarianism in gaining in popularity, and choices were abundant. In the following cities, mold-breaking vegetarian restaurants can be found: Playa del Carmen, Merida, Campeche, San Cristobal, Oaxaca, Puebla, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. In many other cities, restaurants quickly whipped up something vegetarian, or had options already on the menu.
We stayed in Mexico for three months, one of which was spent learning Spanish in Playa del Carman and Oaxaca, and another two months travelling around. We quickly learned that while the Zocolos were constantly abuzz with activity and wonderful vibes, having a hotel farther from the action simply promoted a lot of walking, something we were happy to do. However, after a while, the Colonial architecture started to feel repetitive and some towns started to blur together in our memory. The following is our route, and we have taken the liberty of highlighting places that we recommend in order to help readers who are planning a trip and need to prioritize. Italicized destinations are highly recommended for their proximity to ruins, amazing colonial architecture, or unique beach. Of course, over the years we have found that our preferences rarely align with those of other travellers!
Cancun – Playa del Carmen – Cozumel – Tulum – Valladolid – Merida – Campeche – Palenque – San Cristobal de las Casas – Puerto Escondito – Oaxaca – Puebla – Queretaro – San Miguel de Allende – Guanajuato – Zacatecas – Guadalajara – Patzcuaro – Morelia – Tepoztlan – Cuernavaca – Mexico City
- Learn Spanish! The basics will be enough to make a difference, as this was one of the only countries we have travelled to where locals didn’t default to English when interacting with a foreigner. Even a little bit helps! Another perk of signing up for a Spanish school in Mexico is that you can get a very valuable student card. Mexican student cards (not international ones) can get you free entry into ruins, museums, exhibits, etc. all across the country.
- Just go! Don't confuse your comfort with your safety. We consistently felt safe. The police presence is an extra precaution, but we never had any issues. The bus system is fantastic, the hostels are a great place to meet other travellers, the locals are warm and welcoming, and the food is amazing. But let's just keep it our little secret.