Beaches and desert, that’s what comes to mind when most Americans think of Mexico, forgetting it’s a vast and diverse country. Beans and tortillas at every meal. Roaming mariachis. And the ever-present U.S. Department of State travel advisory.
Nearly three times the size of the state of Texas, if Mexico were superimposed over Europe, it would extend from somewhere off the northeast coast of Ireland clear over to the Black Sea. Let’s look at some rankings:
- Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
- It’s the 10th-most populated in the world.
- It’s the 13th-largest country in the world by area.
- After the United States and Brazil, it’s the third-most populated country in the Americas.
- After the United States, it’s the second-most visited country in the Americas.
- Worldwide, it’s the sixth-most (or better, depending upon who’s counting) visited country.
- Mexico is one of the top five most megadiverse countries.
Yet so many educated, sophisticated people—some reading this magazine—dismiss travel to Mexico as cheap, low status, basic, unsophisticated, somehow not meriting the attention given to just about any European or Asian venue.
Travel to Mexico doesn’t have to evoke tired and kitschy emblematic velvet sombreros, cacophonous banda and dueling mariachis, bullfights, and rainbow-hued serapes. Forget border-town Mexico. Forget the Mexico that you learned about in junior high school Spanish class when the focus was Pedro, his burro and their piñata.
Forget what you thought was Mexican food and Cinco de Mayo. Chimichangas and preprandial tortilla chips are to Mexican cuisine what green beer and St. Patrick’s Day are to Ireland: something celebrated only north of the Rio Grande.
Forget that notion that Mexico’s only about beaches. Or isn’t the place to visit in the summertime, which is actually the best time to see central Mexico and where most of Mexico lives. Texans, tabbing themselves sweatbirds, and others in the know have been enjoying refreshingly cool summers in the interior for years.
Just as the United States isn’t all about seed corn caps, hip-hop, square dancing, and Elvis Presley, there’s a real, authentic Mexico lurking behind those icons.
The case for Mexico
About 20 years ago, the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism implemented a program called Pueblos Magicos. It spotlighted 132 small towns, many in rural areas, noted for history, culture, handicrafts and folklore, nature, and gastronomy. That was followed by Mexico City’s Barrios Magicos, some 21 enchanting and interesting neighborhoods in the world’s fifth-largest city.
Traveling to Mexico makes more sense now than ever. Whether your idea of a great vacation is focused or serendipitous, there’s something for everyone in this country.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States,” said President Porfirio Diaz, a wily dictator or one of the country’s greatest, depending upon your point of view, more than a century ago. Interpret the quote as you wish, but it does capture Mexico’s inextricable, love-hate relationship with the United States.
Mexico is close, which means you can fly here in almost half the time it would take to reach any major European venue, leaving even a smaller carbon footprint, too. There’s no jet lag issue. Even though there are four time zones, most of the country is in the central time zone. Or you can drive, which is a terrific, if time-consuming and somewhat more challenging, way to see and enjoy the country.
Mexico speaks American. Not just your language, but the language of energy, values, and attitudes. One time, driving the famously dangerous and sinuous Espinazo del Diablo (Devil’s Backbone) between Durango and Sinaloa, a sign advertising a roadside restaurant where English was spoken demanded that I stop. The proprietress, who’d lived there for ages, was from Mississippi.
More Americans live in Mexico than in any other country outside of the United States. No matter where you go, you’ll run into someone who speaks your language. And no travel adapters are required.
But it still is Mexico, another country not your own. It delivers value for the money. You can pay thousands of dollars a night for swank lodging, or you can pay $60 a night for middle-class but still respectable, clean, safe, and comfortable accommodations. The Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, Waldorf Astoria, Rosewood, St. Regis, and One and Only chains have set up shop in major resort areas, and if you’re traveling on a less-lavish budget, there are even more independent properties you can afford.
Consistently ranking among the world’s top 10 cuisines, Mexican cuisine isn’t all beans and tortillas. World-class Mexican restaurants serve up Mexican food, traditional and with worldly twists, without a single taco or enchilada. If Mexican food isn’t to your taste, international eateries abound, ranging from cutting-edge modern menus to P.F. Chang’s and Applebee’s. A meal at the fanciest restaurant in my town, featuring aged imported beef, costs about a quarter of what the same repast would go for at a Chicago steakhouse.
No longer limited to the more-famous Baja California and the Parras Valley in Coahuila, Guanajuato and Queretaro have their own wine regions. And wine and cheese routes. The central highlands are the up-and-coming wine region, finally getting world-wide recognition.
What demands your attention
There are routes to explore the nation’s wars of independence and revolution, tequila, nature, marine life, the Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara towns, mole, convents and monasteries, Huasteca culture, Maya culture, and even hot springs and health. There’s fully as much to do as there is in Europe or Asia. More than just the Spanish settled this country, where waves of French, Italians, Middle Easterners, Germans, Asians, Mormons, and Mennonites have moved in and called the country home.
Even after visiting the top archeological sites—Chichen Itza, Teotihuacán, Palenque, Cobá, the Templo Mayor, Monte Albán, El Tajín, Tulum, and Cholula—there are even more less-known but just as interesting ones that bear exploring. Indigenous villages, nature reserves, colonial cities and towns, markets, palaces, haciendas, castles, and even the country’s own version of Rodeo Drive beckon.
Festivals? We’ve got them, ranging from the celebration of folk dance, mariachis, coffee, chocolate, wine, cheese, beer, carved radishes, lentils, pears, avocados, tacos, tamales, preserved foods, grilled meat, mezcal, tequila, blown glass ornaments, pottery, Catrinas, international and domestic film, international music, geraniums, Carnaval, Day of the Dead, molcajetes, mojigangas, burros, candles, wood carving, the patron saints of every burg and neighborhood, sexual diversity, storytelling, folklore, folk art, guitars, horror films, embroidery, peace, witchcraft, herbal medicine, and books.
You name it, there’s a festival for it.
Supposedly only Paris (or London, depending upon the source) has more museums than Mexico City, but who’s counting? Maybe it’s art that piques your interest. The Museo Soumaya is known for its knockout, over-the-top architecture as well as what’s inside. You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $5 to visit world-class museums, a genuine bargain compared to comparable venues across the world.
Don’t believe everything you hear
Let’s pause unpaid promotion of Mexican tourism for a moment to address the elephant in the room, which has replaced, for the time being, warnings about drinking the water. There are drug cartels operating in this country.
But the odds of the average, intelligent foreign tourist encountering or even recognizing them are slim. Most crime the usual tourist will encounter will be from the unorganized, thieving sector. But Mexico’s safer on a usual day than Mall of the Americas on a weekend. Arm yourself with common sense, leaving expensive items at home and steering clear of areas that appear hinky. There are places you just don’t venture off to in your own town, right?
This isn’t a country to visit once and call it one and done. Mexico reveals itself like an onion, layer by layer, and one lifetime isn’t enough to figure it all out. The beauty is that the entire country is easily accessible—no tour guides or organized tourist activity are required. It’s the perfect place for the self-guided traveler.
A version of this article appeared in Experience (April/May 2022), a magazine published by the American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.