VIBRANT — you hear that word used a lot when people describe Mexico. For me it generally brings to mind bright colours (which you’ll find no shortage of in Mexico’s food, flowers and fabrics), but it also means “full of energy and enthusiasm” making it truly the perfect adjective for a country with so much heart. Street markets are bustling with cheerful vendors calling out to passers-by, local mezcal makers will spend hours telling you about the merits of agave, and it’s not uncommon to see grown-ass adults making out like teenagers in subway stations.
We didn’t plan to see Mexico on this trip which I think makes looking back on our experience there feel that much sweeter – like a cherry on top of what’s already been a very delicious travel sundae. Our vague initial itinerary for this part of the trip included a brief jaunt through Central and/or South America on our way over to Europe. But when the cheapest flights from New Zealand happened to go through Hawaii (hello Honolulu layover!), it didn’t make much economical sense to go so far South before heading North again in a month’s time. So when my parents said they’d be up for a little mid-trip rendezvous in Puerto Escondido, a surf mecca and growing tourist destination in Oaxaca, we were sold.
Living La Vida Local in Puerto Escondido
The initial draw for going to Puerto Escondido (called simply Puerto by the locals) was to also visit our friends Fil and Sara who had moved there about a year before. Not only was it really nice to see familiar faces and have conversations beyond the typical backpacker banter of “Where you from? How long ya here for?”, it also provided a welcome break from our usual guessing game of figuring out what the deal is with a new place all on our own.
Looking back on our weeks in Puerto, our time there felt totally different from other places we visited and made us realize how much a local guide can influence the way you experience a destination, especially a small community. Instead of a group of random people passing you by, you get to know a little about who they are through the introductions your friends provide.
“This guy’s the lead singer of that band we heard on the radio earlier today. This guy grew up in the next village over and started a surf school here. This girl always brought amazing cakes to our parties and now she’s just opened her own bakery down the street. This guy quit his corporate consulting job and just bought a house he’s going to convert into Airbnb rentals. This guy’s writing a screenplay about Iron Maiden.”
With all this extra information, you suddenly start to see these people through a new lens. They stop looking like strangers and start looking like a community. And in Puerto Escondido, that community is filled with possibility. In typical surf-town fashion, the vibe is super laid-back, but it’s also decidedly hopeful. When the rent is cheap and the cost of living is low, it doesn’t seem so crazy to start your own restaurant or make a film about a heavy metal band. In fact, it’s really inspiring. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you can do anything.
After all, when the second best reviewed restaurant in town is run by a crazy man named PePe who serves salty tacos from his unlicensed beach hut (while passing around a joint rolled using a page from the bible), you know that this is no ordinary place!
Of course, as is the case with all of the developing countries we’ve visited that are popular with the backpacker crowd, what’s considered a “low cost of living” is entirely relative. The divide between locals and foreigners is obvious, and there’s certainly some resentment (especially when it comes to sharing the waves), but unlike other expat-infused communities we’ve visited, these groups seem to be much more integrated. It helps that pretty much all the expats there speak Spanish – and that our friends Fil and Sara make an intentional effort to get to know everybody – but I think they’re also brought together by their shared passion for the ocean and their preference for the kind of lifestyle that a place like Puerto Escondido affords.
With not much to do in Puerto beyond surfing and suntanning, spending a couple weeks here was a welcome break for us from the constant research and planning required when you’re on the move. Instead we could spend each day making guacamole, raiding the next door mango tree and being escorted around in the back of Fil’s pick-up, trying not to burn our butts on the sun-scorched metal.
Besides our day trip to Mazunte and our nighttime swim with the bioluminescence, our highlights from Puerto Escondido are pretty simple. Packing a bag of brews (or a bottle of delicious locally made passionfruit mezcal) and heading to the beach at La Punta to watch the surfers and sunset each evening – these are my favourite memories. With fishermen, families, expats and locals all gathered in one place, it didn’t feel like a tourist activity at all. It’s just a lovely daily ritual practiced by the entire community and I’m grateful we got to be a part of it for a little while.
Falling in Love With Mexico City
I didn’t expect to love Mexico City as much as I did. Probably because I didn’t have any expectations about Mexico City at all. Or at least I thought I didn’t. After our visit to the capital city (often referred to as CDMX by tourists or DF by locals) Mike and I were both surprised by how blown away we were by this place. But why shouldn’t this sprawling metropolis packed with so much culture, cuisine and character have made our list of most anticipated destinations?
Despite considering ourselves very logical people – not easily swayed by a nightly newscast and certainly not by anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth – it seems we’d unknowingly formed some ideas about what Mexico beyond the all-inclusive world was like. Even if you know it’s completely false, when the leader of a country says “Mexico is the number one most dangerous country in the world”, you can’t help but be influenced by that on some subconscious level, especially when you have no first-hand experience to contradict that claim.
Although incidents involving kidnappings and cartels were taking place nowhere near Mexico City, I think part of me assumed that the biggest city in Mexico would also be the most dangerous. Isn’t that how it works? More people = more danger? If Playa del Carmen and Cancun were at risk, surely in less-touristy Mexico City, these problems would only be escalated?
I wouldn’t say we were afraid to go to Mexico City per se, but until fairly recently it just wasn’t really on our radar as a place we wanted to visit. And while I’m sure there are parts of CDMX that are probably more sketchy than the trendy neighbourhoods of Roma and La Condesa where we spent most of our time, I never felt the least bit unsafe while we were there. We freely wandered the streets eating so much incredible food – from crispy octopus tostadas, to freshly fried churros doused in cinnamon sugar, to mouth-watering Cochinita Pibil (a traditional slow-roasted pork dish) at a hole-in-the-wall joint that encouraged you bring your plate back to the grill for a second helping! I couldn’t get enough. Mexico City is also known for its vast range of museums and its National Museum of Anthropology is as fascinating as it is stunning.
One of my favourite memories from our time in CDMX was our mid-day visit to a local pulqueria where we sampled many different flavours of pulque, a milky wine made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. The wine itself was okay (a bit slimy for my taste!), but the atmosphere in this place was incredible. We walked in through the unassuming entrance, poking our heads through the black rubber flaps blocking out the afternoon light, and happened upon the most hopping place in town. It was 1pm on a Monday, but it felt like we could have been at a Vancouver dive bar on a Saturday night! Everybody (without a day job?) was there: young, old, men, women — and the occasional tourist who was also made to feel welcome. We shared a table with some young locals and an older guy at the next table over asked where we were from. When I told him “Canada”, he smiled widely and said “Welcome to Mexico!”. I’m fairly certain he then proceeded to lecture our young table mates in Spanish on why they should be nice to us. Even if we’d been American, I got the feeling he would have welcomed us just as warmly.
We flew out of Mexico City to New York where we spent a few days en route to Portugal. Now armed with that first-hand experience needed dispel any misconceptions we’d had about CDMX, it made it that much more heartbreaking to see how Mexicans were treated upon entering the US. Sheepishly walking past the lineup of hundreds of Latin Americans who would be waiting hours to be screened, we felt grateful to be Canadian; to have the (often taken for granted) privilege of quickly scanning our electronic passport and continuing on our way. Although we are getting more and more questions about why we’ve been travelling so long and how we are paying for this trip without working, that is a hassle caused by our own choices and not a result of discrimination against our nationality.
As we grabbed our bags and waltzed out of JFK airport, passing even more Latin Americans being questioned (again!) at the exit, it felt like we we’d crossed over into a different world.