It’s hard to pin down exactly when I fell in love with Mexico. I have an awful memory and while it serves me well in eagerness to turn the next page on a book I’ve read too many times it’s pretty awful when it comes to telling origin stories. Did it start during one of many late night naive and ill-conceived Taco Bell runs? Or while ogling Rick Bayless’s biceps on Mexico: One Plate at a Time? Or that one time I had Cactus Tacos in LA? I honestly don’t really know. Every white girl has to have a fixation with a culture that is not hers and I imprinted on Mexico like a lonely baby duck. I’m not proud but it’s true. I have the tortilla press and a cat named Frida to prove it.
So of course when we got married a couple years ago (in a Mexican restaurant…) and finally had the “opportunity” (i.e. money) to plan our first real trip there was really no questions as to what destination we would choose. After years of searching for the best tacos in New York (Tacos Matamoros, IMHO), listening to Cafe Tacvba, and drinking too many palomas, our time had come. Little did we know how frequently we’d be coming back. Since that first trip to Mexico 3 or so years ago we’ve been back 4 times. My passport looks less like a log of international destinations and more like a coffee shop’s frequent buyers card.
Nevertheless when I tell people we’re going on vacation and mention that it’s Mexico, again – I feel a little sheepish. We tend to put pressure on ourselves to explore as much of the world as possible. As if a 7 day trip to Bali could provide you with a Cliffs Note guide to a culture that you’ll never understand. Traveling is a luxury and pretty damn expensive any which way you do it. What’s so wrong with going to the same place over and over? Don’t we do the same thing with our favorite restaurants and lovers? Every time we travel to Mexico we find ourselves able to go a little deeper into a world that continues to surprise and delight. If that isn’t the purpose of travelling I don’t know what is.
Not convinced yet? Here’s eleven more reasons why our much maligned neighbor to the south deserves a first, second, and third visit- and no, visiting Cancun isn’t sufficient. That’s like visiting Boca Raton and saying you’ve been to America. Technically yes, realistically a very poor representation of our country as a whole. Sorry Boca Raton, but it’s true.
PANUCHOS, PAMBAZOS, AND PALETAS
Every region in Mexico has it’s own food that you’ve never heard of. Birria in Guadalajara (goat stew), pambazos in Mexico City and Puebla (sandwiches that come pre-dunked in sauce), and longaniza in Valladolid (smoked sausage with sour oranges). If you’re sticking to the stuff found on a Taco Bell menu you’re doing yourself a disservice. The food of Mexico is diverse, plentiful, and fucking delicious.
Of course on our first trip to Mexico we were a little skittish of street food due to all the bad press, but now we just follow the same rules we do in New York (ye olde if that cart looks gross don’t eat from it) and we’ve never had a problem. Before every trip we do our best to research (IT’S JUST WHO I AM) what specialties are made in that region and then promptly stuff our faces with it. For research purposes of course.
PUEBLOS MAGICOS, YOUR BUILT IN GUIDEBOOK TO MEXICO
Mexico is a big country. Obviously it can be overwhelming to pick a city/town/village to visit in a country of this size. No one wants to end up in the Mexican equivalent of Dogpatch, Arkansas. Luckily Mexico has built in a dummies guide called Pueblos Magicos. We’ve visited a couple of places on this list (Valladolid, Tulum) as well as many state capitals (D.F., Guadalajara, Merida, Oaxaca City) and have never been disappointed by their beauty and vibrancy. It’s a good way to “get off the beaten path” without going so far out you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. AKA Dogpatch, AR.
CAVES THAT YOU CAN SWIM IN
ENOUGH MUSEUMS + GALLERIES + AND INDEPENDENT DESIGNERS TO SATISFY EVEN THE BIGGEST BUSYBODY
Try as I might to be a “beach person” I am sadly a “city person”. I can’t handle sitting for too long even if I am surrounded by turquoise waters, hammocks, and frozen beverages. So when we travel we tend to go for cities. Luckily Mexico does cities really well. Of the capitals we’re visited they’ve always been walk-able and full to the brim with free/cheap museums and local galleries. On our current trip to Oaxaca City we’ve visited Museo de Arte Contemperano de Oaxaca, Centro Fotografico, MUFI, and Museo Textile de Oaxaca. So that’s everything from modern art to stamp collecting in a city of 300,000 people- and that’s just a drop in the hat of the cities offerings.
If looking at stuff you can’t buy isn’t your “thing” don’t worry in my experience every city also has tons of local designers and art fairs to spend your hard earned dough at. On this trip I picked up a handcrafted necklace from Vianney Mendez that’s sure the de-boringify even the most basic black top. In Mexico City I bought shiny pink oxfords and lusted over Carla Fernandez’s clothing. There is truly something for everyone.
GOOD OLD FASHIONED MANNERS
Earlier in the week I took a tumble down a couple of steps (classic Tiina) and cut my heel. With blood pouring down the back of my leg we cleaned up with bottled water and some napkins on a street corner. A car drove by, pulled over, and a woman asked if we were okay and needed a ride home. The New Yorker in me had no idea what to do. In New York you can have blood pouring out of your eyes and the closest thing to help you’ll get will be someone taking the time to document your misery to put in on Gothamist as clickbait. Mexicans are nice. That’s a generalization, but in my experience that generalization has been well warranted.
COURTYARDS + SUCCULENTS + PASTA TILES
ALL THE PRE-COLUMBUS RUINS YOUR INDIAN JONES LOVING HEART CAN HANDLE
Why in gods name we spend so much time as kids studying the pyramids of Egypt when they’re are pyramids in the
backyards of our next door neighbor, I have no idea. All over the country there are pre-Columbus cities and ruins. In New York City day trips consist of “time spent visiting trees”, in Mexican cities is more like “time spent visiting archaeological sites”. It’s ridiculous. On our trip to Tulum we climbed up Coba where I promptly freaked the fuck out. Lucky for you most sites prohibit climbing now so you don’t have to have a panic attack on the top of an ancient pyramid.
MERCADOS + TIANGUIS FOR WHATEVER WEIRD SHIT YOU’RE INTO
Every Mexican town has local markets for food, clothes, home goods, and handicrafts. These are epic experiences and can be overwhelming to the senses. Where else can you buy leather sandals next to chocolate and seasoned crickets? These mercados are a one stop shop for pretty much everything you could ever need. Visit one and then eat at the busiest place- the folks that are willing to wait in line know what’s what. Lesser known are local tianguises, smaller markets that pop up various days of the week. During our trips to Mexico we’ve discovered smaller organic markets, antique markets, and even punk and heavy metal markets. Now you know where to find that Mago de Oz shirt. You’re welcome in advance.
DRINKS COME WITH FREE FOOD, NO JOKE
We found this most frequently in Merida but I suppose it’s everywhere you just have to find the right place. Some cantinas will provide free snacks (botanas) to patrons while they drink- and I’m not talking about free peanuts and popcorn. You’ll get meats, cheese, spiced cucumbers, and fried potatoes. La Negrita Cantina and El Eladio both had tasty bites and a great vibe. There’s nothing wrong with killing two birds with one stone, especially when one of those birds is free and is food.
DANZA FOLKLORICO IN THE ZOCALO
I like to go to bed early. Ask anyone. Mexico does it’s damnest to keep me out late with it’s danza folklorico in the city zocalos. Every time we have visited Mexico we’ve witnessed these dances and been mesmerized by the connection to history, culture, and tradition- things we desperately lack in our American lives. I’m not going to try to speak eloquently about these experiences because the truth is I know nothing of this world but it’s beautiful and a privilege to visit. Walking through the city late at night we’ll stumble on groups of people practicing these dances when I’m more likely to be found scrolling through a never ending Instagram feed.
We planned our recent trip around these dances and visited Oaxaca during their Guelaguetza festival and it’s been an absolute treat to see the explosion of national pride and representation of the various regional dances. It’s something worth seeing, even if only once.
Traveling to the same place over and over should feel redundant. Yet, each time I realize how little I know about our southern neighbor and how much more there is to explore. It’s counter intuitive to the way we view travel but maybe our experiences would be richer if the places we visited warranted more time and attention than a highway rest stop. Why keep searching when you’ve already found some place you love to visit? Is new always better? Or our we just letting FOMO drag us around the globe searching for a perfect experience that doesn’t exist?