By Grace Barnott and Robert Palin
Mexico often has a reputation of being a perilous and daunting place. However, our trip there in the summer of 2012 proved to be quite the opposite.
We spent almost a month in Central America visiting Mexico and Guatemala beginning our adventure in the city of culture and excitement; Mexico City. After hearing advice to be cautious (which we still would strongly recommend for any Central American capital city. Be very aware of taxi’s in Mexico City and do your research) we left the airport wary of our surroundings but soon realised that we had every reason to be relaxed. The manager at our hostel in Mexico City gave us a map and a list of safe areas in the city to stick to. Our first day trip was an excursion to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. This historic landmark is definitely worth the visit as it gives you a taste of Mayan culture and has a real sense of a world that existed long before our time. If you choose to visit here make sure that you bring plenty of sun cream, water and a parasol as the heat and lack of shade makes for an extremely hot, but worth it, day out. As an extra stop when we visited the pyramids we were shown the Guadalupe Basilica where a sacred painting of Mary takes residence. What makes this place so unique is the passion and tradition that comes with it and climbing to the very top of the steps is really something spectacular. Whilst in the area of Mexico City, make sure to have a true sample of Mexican life by visiting a mescal factory and indulging yourself in the various types of tequila and mescal that the region has to offer. Whilst there, we were lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to sample 95% freshly squeezed tequila. But look out for worm salt. Yes, that’s right, salt made out of worms which, we discovered goes surprisingly well with oranges.
On the way to Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hack-ah), we stopped at Puebla for the night. This quaint town was bursting with unusual colonial buildings and colour. We recommend this place despite only having a short stay there as it gave us a different flavour of Mexican life just south of the capital. To experience a real taste of Mexico, Oaxaca is a must see place when traveling to this part of the world. On arrival we basked in the afternoon sun at Benito Juarez square where locals spend hours amidst the many scents and colours of the market. The next day we set out on another day trip which included a visit to Tule, a magnificent old tree with as many twists and turns within it as the lives of the many people who have sat beneath its shady branches in its 2000 years of existence. The next part of this journey was the geographical wonder Hierve el agua, which is a natural calcium carbonate pool in the middle of the Mexican mountains whose rocks give the impression of cascading water. To the left of these cascades, lays a pool so natural and fresh that people come from hundreds of miles to cure their ailments or to simply swim and play about in. Driving back in the tour bus from this memorable landmark we passed an indigenous village in the mountains where the locals still used old traditional methods of living. This moment will stay with us forever, especially coming from such a Western society. Whilst relaxing in your hostel, take an opportunity to have a few drinks at a bar or on the roof terrace taking in the glorious night time views. Many hostels we stayed in offered cheaper, freshly made drinks made by the bar staff there. We decided to venture to the bar next to our hostel where we tried a selection of different tequilas. This is also an excellent chance to meet people and make friends.
The next stop for us was San Cristobal De Las Casas. This town in the mountains was bustling and vast. Being so high above sea level, it was also a welcome break from the intensity of the heat. Our first experience in San Cristobal was a trip to Sumidero Canyon. It felt like we were travelling on a speedboat down the Amazon River. It could easily be mistaken for a prehistoric film set with the huge rocky tree covered surroundings disappearing into the low setting clouds. Here we came face to face with crocodiles and were told stories about explorers had first discovered this glorious portion of nature and the trials and tribulations they encountered as well as the memorials left to them hidden in the depths of the coves. The following day we visited the extraordinary Palenque ruins concealed deep within the Jungle settings of Mexico. Here we experienced wild animals such as humming birds and howler monkeys amongst more Mayan wonders. San Cristobal comes alive at night with streets filled with people of all ages and music playing in the square. San Cristobal certainly satisfies all senses.
We then crossed the border into the traditional and wondrous country of Guatemala. Straight away we were amazed by the sights and at this point we really began to feel the spirit of travelling. Whilst driving through you cannot help but stare out the window at the combination of natural and man-made features such as dramatic waterfalls tumbling down the rocks on the side of the road and huge lakes at the forefront of spectacular mountains. Whilst in Panajachel we haggled for souvenirs at the street markets and ate fantastic local cuisine. Panajachel is a warm and welcoming place where many travellers decide to stay due to the atmosphere and friendliness. We then decided to visit Antigua in the south of Guatemala. Antigua is a place of tradition and awe. We spent our time exploring the covered markets brimming with colour and life. Here, merchants will call you into their stalls to gaze upon their crafts and workmanship. Make sure to indulge yourself in culture at one of the many street food venders and dare yourself to try something you never have before. It may inspire all your cooking. Antigua has many bars that invite in tourists and have local drinks and friendly people. Mexico is quite a carnivorous country, so being easily able to find vegetarian and vegan food in Guatemala was a welcome surprise. A must try is the traditional tamale; a maize based delicacy wrapped in plantain.
On arrival back to Mexico, we travelled across the Yucatán in order to explore the countries beautiful Caribbean coast. Starting in Tulum, we ventured to the white sandy beaches and were very impressed to see huge sea turtles and stingrays swim across our path whilst snorkelling in the warm, clear water of Akumal. After traveling up to the more tourist inhabited Playa Del Carmen, we were told by the hostel manager about cenotes. Curious as to what these where we decided to take a collectivo (safe mini-vans that pick people up from stops along the road) to the location of the nearest cenote. When we arrived we discovered deep, cool, crystal clear water surrounded by trees and caves. We felt brave enough to jump from a high ledge and have our feet pedicured by the fish that resided there. This was a fantastic experience. The Yucatán is fantastic for young party goers due to the range of bars, clubs and neon lit streets. We were recommended to try a freshly prepared sugar-cane mojito in Tulum that our new travel friends had suggested. We were not disappointed and even had an attempt at chewing on the sugar cane.
Many places that we visited will forever remain in our memories and we could not have chosen a better part of the world to spend our summer. Viva Mexico, hasta luego!
Advice for travellers
- Always talk to people. More often than not, residents and other travellers will know places that might not necessarily be in the guide books and you may discover something amazing as well as having a great opportunity to meet people.
- Be aware the Spanish in Mexico is spoken with slight differences. We thought that we knew the language but it turned out we did not know it as well as we thought we did. Some Mexicans we talked to also found it hard to understand British accents.
- Stock up on medication, it’s easier than describing embarrassing symptoms in another language.
- Bring plenty of mosquito repellent and after bite treatment .Don’t forget to book an appointment with the doctor on what inoculations you may need.
- Stock up on sun cream.
- Do not over pack before you go, the markets will make you want to buy everything you see and you will run out of bag space.
- You cannot go to Mexico without sampling the Mescal and tequila on offer, keep an open mind about local food and drink.
- Research into the place your traveling to.
- Bring spare money. And then bring more spare money on top of that. With the wonders and delights of a different culture, you soon spend more than intended.
- Bring soap, hand sanitizer and toilet roll because not all places supply this and it comes in handy when on the road.
- It’s a cliché, but enjoy it whilst you are there. You may miss home comforts at points but you may miss traveling even more when you get home. Remember, you wanted to get away for a reason.
Ways of saving money
- Choose hostels over hotels where you can. Hostels may sometimes have a bad reputation but we found they really are fine.
- If you can, book a hostel which has its own cooking facilities and buy and cook your own food. This also is a great opportunity to try the local cuisine on the cheap.
- Buy alcoholic drinks at the hostel. We found these had better offers than the bars.
- Look for hostels in which breakfast is included.
- Get public transport rather than taxi’s.
- Shop in markets.
- If you do have a kitchen, buy some plastic boxes and pack your own lunch. It might come in handy more than you think.
- Book excursions through your hostel or sometimes we found that spending a day soaking up the local atmosphere and exploring the local markets etc. was a lot more satisfying.