Why Traveling to a Country so Far from God Makes More Sense Than Ever

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.

Eyes Open Even Wider

Remember back in kindergarten when you were taught basic rules of safety? Don’t take candy from strangers, and don’t get in a car with that nice man.

Sometimes I wonder if expats checked those rules at the border.

Don’t take food from strangers. That free sample at Costco is one thing, particularly if you’re among those of us who’re known to cruise the aisles for lunch. And so are those slices of pineapple and jicama offered by vendors at intersections. The stranger offering you a sip of something on the bus is another matter. Just don’t do it, not for thirst and not to be polite.

Forget answering your door after dark, if you’re not expecting visitors. Friends who drop by unexpectedly can call you on their cellphones, right from the street.  Domino’s is not going to deliver a pizza unless you ordered one thirty minutes ago, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses almost never come around after dark. The city is not sending a fumigator around at 7 p.m.  And the kid who wants to look for that ball that fell into your yard can just wait until you’re good and ready to toss it over the wall.

Don’t invite strangers in, not even for a minute. Sure, it sounds easy and hospitable to let that guy with a clipboard step in to your patio while you retrieve something from the house. Just don’t do it. Are you listening? There’s nothing rude about shutting the gate securely, making that person wait in the street. That’s how it’s done in Mexico. And that’s how polite people do it. You’re not going to be hurting anyone’s feelings. Get used to it.

Don’t leave garage door open.  Not even for a minute. And the same goes for your house or apartment.  Throw that deadbolt when you enter. What may have been perfectly safe back in Oklahoma isn’t the same here.

When you’re in your car, keep the doors locked at all times. Put your purse on the floor, not on the passenger seat, particularly when the windows may be open.  Don’t leave mail with your address within plain view. At an intersection, if someone taps on your window, don’t respond.

Take taxis. It doesn’t matter if you’re only 2 blocks from your destination. If the street is empty, or if something just doesn’t look right, spring for the cab. Cab fare is always cheaper than loss. You’re not lame for doing this.

How many times have you seen someone dawdle and fumble while looking inside a purse or wallet for their money on the street? They’re opening a window of opportunity for greedy mitts to reach in and help themselves.

Strangers’ stories are interesting. Read them at your leisure, but don’t waste your time and create a window of opportunity by listening to the saga of woe du jour from someone on the street who wants to tell you how she’s pregnant by her husband who took off for Tijuana a year and a half ago and now needs a prescription for birth control. Slings can fool you. What these people need is far beyond your pay grade in the first place. Do them a favor, and tell them to go to DIF, the Red Cross, or even the local church.

And those ladies going door to door, collecting for the church posada? Unless you personally know them, don’t give. Ask them for the name of the contact person at the parish church, and tell them that you’ll make your donation there.

“Did you hear about your neighbor who was in an awful car accident and died?”  The man at your gate points over to the house down the street, and you ask if it was Sara. Yes, he tells you, it was Sara, since you just provided her name to him. He goes on to explain how her family needs money for her funeral, so you dig into your purse. The problem is that Sara wasn’t in a car accident, she didn’t die, and her family doesn’t need money to bury her. You just gave that nice young man money some spending money.

“But he was such friendly guy, helping my carry groceries in and even the garrafón.”  Of course, the fellow had every reason in the world to be friendly: to establish trust, gain access to your house, and to establish that you were a team.  That charmer just put you into his debt.

Would you let a stranger hold your billfold for a few minutes? Don’t let others use your cell phone. The obvious is that they could easily walk away with it, which not only means that you could lose the cell phone, but more importantly, your directory of phone numbers and potentially your cell phone time.

Watch your friends. Friends who are saps can taint you by association. You’re hanging out with Herman, who is known for telling beggars “I don’t have any money, my wife has all the money.” And then he points to you, and you’re not even his girlfriend. The ladron will assume that you’re just as dumb as Herman and approach you.  Friends don’t make other friends victims.

“Oh, but these people have so little, and I have so much.” Keep that up, and the tables will be turned real soon.

“I wouldn’t want these people to think I’m prejudiced.” Not to worry, they’ll just think you’re dumb.

“Oh, I can’t be absolutely sure he stole it. I’d hate to accuse an innocent man” How many times have you heard that before?  “I’d really hate for him to think that I don’t trust him.”

Act like prey, and you’ll be treated like prey.  Even if you don’t know the terrain, act like you do.

And we’ll have even more in the next installment.

Eyes Wide Open

Your nephew is not at the bus station. Not in Guadalajara, and not in Dallas. And Bill Gates isn’t going to send you $100. Don’t volunteer information to callers.  If your troubled nephew’s really calling, he’ll tell you his name right off the bat.

Pay the extra $12 MXN for an unlisted phone number. Who looks up friends in the phone book anyway these days? Telmex charges practically nothing to change your old number.

Get rid of that bilingual or English-only recording on your phone’s answering machine. Everyone who would deign to still leave a voice message already knows the drill.

Particularly in San Miguel de Allende but also in other expat havens, gringos love to name their houses, often revealing their own names or their children’s. It’s quaint, and it’s cute, but it’s a really bad idea. Take your name off your house.  “Casa Newton” may sound perfectly fine on your house back on the Jersey Shore, but it’s not a good idea in Mexico – no matter how proud you may be of your abode.  You don’t need to broadcast “Gringo lives here.” Don’t waste that pretty tile plaque on strangers; put it in the inside where you can enjoy it.

You’re not the only soul on the block who speaks English, and you’re not Travelers Aid. Give up your Good Samaritan dreams – or spend them on someone deserving. Someone who runs up to you on the bike trail or parking lot or even approaches your home with that “Do you speak English?” is rarely looking for a conversation class. Let the pros do their work. Hand out their phone number – 066 – with reckless abandon. An operator’s always standing by to take a call from the troubled.

Leave your home address off any cards you may have printed. You’re not in retail these days. Sure, that may mean giving up bragging rights to that genuinely awesome vacation rental on a swank street in a place like San Miguel de Allende, but it’s also an advertisement that you don’t need to make.

Whether you’re approaching your house on foot or by car, if there’s someone hanging around the door that doesn’t belong there, move on. Take a spin around the block rather than chance a potentially dicey situation.

At the grocery store, don’t leave your purse or parcels unattended in your cart, not even for a minute while you answer some stranger’s question. Keep your purse attached to your body, even if it means strapping it cross-chest Arab-style.

Don’t take Mi Casa es tu Casa so literally. There is a huge temptation to show off your house to new-found friends you just met on the plaza and to welcome friends of friends to parties and gatherings. Be careful. That friend may be as trustworthy as an Eagle Scout, but what about that friend of a friend?

Citizenship and fluency in whatever your native tongue might be are absolutely not harbingers of security. We tend all too often to place misguided trust in landsmen. Crooked Irish people hung around Ellis Island waiting to take advantage of good, honest newly-landed Irish, and the descendants of those scam artists are still in operation in Mexico. Yes, you read that right: more than a few criminals share citizenship with their victims.

Leaving town? Don’t leave your house unattended. Keep the lights on, a radio on, and have someone check up on things at random hours. Better yet, have someone stay in the house. If you can afford to leave town, you can afford to guard what you’ve left behind.

Estadounidenses seem to have a deep-seated need to be liked, to appear friendly, to engage, and perhaps even more so when they’re abroad. And so many of them feel so darn sorry for what they encounter in Mexico that they’ll go overboard, checking their common sense.  Observe how Mexicans of your station act, and take your cues from them. You don’t need to open the door to everyone who knocks, hearing out their tale, and you don’t need to explain anything. You’re under zero obligation to provide answers to anyone.

And that talkative cab driver, the guy you met for the first time when he opened the car door? He may only be bored, but that’s no reason for you to tell him your life story, including how and why you live in Mexico.  Really, would you share that much information with a random taxi driver in Chicago?  Talk about the weather, if you simply must talk.

Criminals don’t always look like thugs. Some of them even wear genuine Lacoste, not even pirated, because they can afford to, all the better to blend in. Some of them even look like you and me. Appearance is no guarantee of morality. Take a look at Bernie Madoff.

‘Tis better to be considered rude than robbed.  Why should you be concerned about offending someone who’s out to offend you?

Learn to look straight ahead, and learn to be deaf to those pleas. Pretend that you’re French or Spanish or Israeli or one of those nationalities not known for taking on Estadounidense attributes.

What you know, as in conocer, is not dangerous, but what you don’t know is.

Never Again

Crime victims harbor a sense of shame, as if they did something wrong. And that’s not right. Talk to others about your experiences.

Learn to say “Never again.” I did. 

And here’s how it all happened.

More than half a lifetime ago and far away, back in a supposedly wholesome small town in Iowa, I was a victim of a home invasion and assorted acts which resulted in Class B felony charges against the perpetrator. It’s not worth going into great detail here today about what happened, but somewhere past the fear of thinking I was going to die, which is probably a logical consequence of hearing “Bitch, you’re going to die” more than a few times while someone twice your size is shoving you across the room before slamming and pinning you on the floor, and then wondering what a mess your blood’s going to make on the carpet, I clicked into gear, telling assailant that he had a way out. We could keep this between ourselves, no police called, no charges pressed, the decision was his. I kept repeating “The decision is yours” over and over again. He froze and stared at me incredulously, released his hands from my neck and then picked himself up and walked out the door. I scrambled to lock the door and called the sheriff’s office.

They picked up the criminal less than a half hour later a few miles down the county black top.

My family doctor had me meet him at his home across the street from the hospital, where he patched me up in his kitchen.

The next day, the local newspaper called to tell me that they were going to politely leave my name off the front page story. I told the reporter that my name was going to appear in that story, because I didn’t do anything wrong.  News travels too fast in a small town anyway, and there was no reason to leave matters to conjecture.

Two days later, court service day rolled around, the morning allotted to motions, short hearings, criminal arraignments, pleas and sentencings at the county courthouse. Black and blue handprints stained my neck, bruises making a bracelet around my wrist, and my hands were still shaking.  One cocky bastard of a lawyer asked me if I’d refused to put out. I picked up his stack of files and threw them across the room.  A few minutes later, I’m standing at the bench with another criminal client, a beastly and gross thug, the kind you wouldn’t want to face in a dark alley even in broad daylight, the kind of guy other inmates wouldn’t like to come across in a prison yard, who would find himself sentenced to another round of life on the installment plan.  What he told me while we waited for the judge was something that stunned me:  “I heard about what happened to you, and I’m real sorry.” Of course, he’d heard, he’d been in the same county jail as the assailant.

The defendant would ultimately plead guilty and do time. And he would go on, during his first week in a halfway house years later to commit the same Class B felony once again. I looked up the court file and wrote to the victim, just to tell her she wasn’t alone.

It took me a long time to really recover from the ordeal. But what took me more aback was the reaction of others. They didn’t want to hear about what happened. It’s too scary, they’d say. So, I didn’t really say much—until now.

And that’s part of the reason that I feel far safer in the wilds of Michoacán than I ever did in southwest Iowa.

¡Mami, mami, ayúdame!

¡Mami, mami, ayúdame! Soy tu hija. The caller was crying. Noticing the area code was in the D.F., I hung up. Five minutes later, she called again, and noticing it’s the same number and hearing voices in the background, I’m prepared to take her call. Lowering my voice, I ask

Policia preventiva, en qué puedo servirle?

She hung up on me. The nerve!

It’s scamming time again in our old country. Even though crime knows no season, El Buen Fin, aguinaldos and charitable spirit make for easy pickings.

Two gringos walking around Morelia’s Paseo Altozano met up with a young man racing toward them, agitated and waving his jacket, imploring them with “Do you speak English?” His English sounded perfect to them. They stopped to hear his tale about coming from Puebla, picking up a taxi at the bus station, and being robbed of all he had by the taxi driver. He was supposed to meet a friend at the mall, but somehow had missed the connection. Could they help him out? He pulled $15 in Estadounidense currency out of his pocket, which they exchanged for Mexican pesos, wondering what was going on. And then they caught on that something just might’ve been amiss. They told him to go on his way, suggesting he might find help at Walmart. They were lucky.

A local who’d lived her entire life in my neighborhood was a victim just last Thursday, right in the middle of the day. She encountered the man on the otherwise sleepy residential street, claiming to be a curandero from Uruapan, offering up his services in reading palms, predicting the future, and performing limpias to chase away the evil spirits which harbor in everyone’s house from time to time. She waved him away, telling him she didn’t have any money. He followed her around the block to her house, and as she entered, he forced his way in, telling her not to scream and calling her names. He wouldn’t leave until she’d forked over some of her stashed-away cash. That’s only money, and it’s nothing compared to the psychological crisis he’s inflicted upon her. Location: one block from my house. Native Mexicana.

Then there’s the pigeon drop, which happened only last year to a foreigner living in Patzcuaro. An indigenous woman, looking all sweet and innocent, approaches the woman, saying she can’t read and showing a letter from her employer. She is supposed to locate a person in Patzcuaro to pick up her lottery winnings, which the employer will lay claim to. A confederate  steps in, claiming to be a psychologist, answering in the affirmative when the foreigner asks if he works at a local school, and the scam is in place.  You know where this is headed: all three head to the lottery office, the foreigner puts up the requested property to assure all of her honest and good intentions, and the victim’s left high and dry.

Another phone call, this time to a foreigner living in the next town over. It’s his nephew Jason, who he hasn’t heard from in ages, calling from jail, begging for discretion and assistance.  Never mind that the foreigner supplied the nephew’s name for the caller. And down the road to Guadalajara the man called uncle drives, but not before he’s put together a fair amount of cash to help out his new-found nephew.

A plumber shows up.  “Your husband didn’t tell you that he’d called me?” he says. “I’m here to fix the hot water heater. Gaining access to the house, he’s shown the way to the hot water heater, and left to ply his trade – which was sifting through the homeowner’s belongings.  Two blocks down the street from me. Native Mexicana.

“We’re la señora’s cousins from Salamanca,” the well-dressed duo who’d alighted from a late-model car told the housekeeper who answered the door while her patrona was in Centro. Shuffling them off to the den to wait while she made them tea, she called her patrona, who reported that she had no cousins.  The housekeeper kept the couple waiting for the police to arrive.  Four blocks from my house. Native Mexicana.

And here’s my favorite: the dead baby. A young lady rings at my gate, asking for money for her dead baby. I cut her off. A month passes, and the dead baby lady returns. I give her the same treatment. Month three comes around, and here she is again. You’d think she’d learn by now.  This time I answer the gate, and I ask her if she’s carrying around the same dead baby as before or if she has a baby die on her each month. I tell her that, whatever the case may be, she’s really got a problem which only DIF can help her with. Sputtering obscenities, she takes off running down the street.

We’ll take a look at some ways to spot scamsters,  snollygosters, and criminals and what steps you can take to keep them at bay in our next blog post, but until then, what scams have you seen put into action in Mexico or wherever you may be?