Beyond the Beaches: Getting to Know Some of the Real Mexico

I think it’s safe to say that most gringos visit Mexico for the beaches. I’ll be honest: I’ve been guilty of being one of those gringos too.

Up until last week, the only places I had visited in Mexico were Tijuana, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. In the latter two cities, my friend and I stayed at all-inclusive resorts and the only time we ventured out was to go to a few local bars (chaperoned by the resort staff of course).

While this was undoubtedly a relaxing and fun experience, I wouldn’t say we gained any sort of understanding of the Mexican culture or way or life. Culturally, we may as well have been in Florida.

I was curious to see what else this massive, neighboring country of mine had to offer. A few Google searches showed me that there was much more to see there than just exotic, white-sand beaches.

So I booked a trip for the long Memorial Day weekend. None of my friends could join, so I ended up going solo.

Many people would probably think I’m crazy for going to Mexico by myself. In the U.S., Mexico is perceived as being incredibly dangerous and off-limits to travel to. When I first moved to San Diego, I was initially terrified of going to Tijuana, based on everything that people told me. In the end, I realized it’s like any other city. Side note: Word on the street is that if Tijuana were a U.S. city, it would be ranked number #35 or so on the list of most dangerous U.S. cities. True story.

While it’s true that kidnapping, drug trafficking and assaults are more common in Mexico than many other countries, it also depends on where you go (border cities are obviously not as safe) and how you travel.  As my wise mother always told me, keep your antenna up. Don’t be stupid (and by “stupid,” I mean get excessively inebriated, leave your drink unattended, be loud, or wander down vacant streets at night), and chances are, you’ll be fine.

Even so, I was a little nervous about traveling to Mexico by myself, given the bad rep that it has stateside. I had heard enough stories to incite a little fear in me.

Getting to Mexico 

I booked my flight from Tijuana to Mexico City–or DF (Distrito Federal) as the locals call it. Tip: Anyone who lives in the San Diego area should seriously look into flights from Tijuana if you are heading south of the border; my flight was at least $200 cheaper than it was from San Diego.

There is a bridge from San Diego that will take you directly to the Tijuana airport, but I found it a bit ridiculous to pay $15 just to cross the border, so I parked my car on a random street by the border, then took an Uber to the border, walked across, and from there, took a taxi to the airport. With my broken Spanish, I somehow managed to bargain my taxi fare down from $20 to $8! Lesson learned: Don’t accept the gringo price.

Once at the TJ airport, it probably took me all of five minutes to get my boarding pass and walk through security–couldn’t have been easier.

When I arrived in DF (around 1AM), I took a taxi to my hostel, Casa San Ildefonso. The location was central (Centro Historico de la Cuidad) but in a pretty (supposedly) touristy area. Funnily enough though, I barely saw any other tourists outside of the hostel.

I expected to be sharing a room with like five other people (as is the case in most hostels), but instead, I had an entire room to myself the first night and the second night, had to share it with just one other person.

There were three spacious bedrooms connected to one another, with two beds in each room, all of which shared a common bathroom.  Set in a gorgeous colonial-style building, with high ceilings and hardwood floors, it felt almost more like a hotel or European mansion than a hostel.

Looked a little something like this:

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The area immediately surrounding the hostel is pedestrian-only, and it sits behind the beautiful Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (Former College of San Ildefonso). So when I stepped outside, this was the view I was greeted with:

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Exploring DF 

I only had one day and night to spend in Mexico City, since I also wanted to visit Guanajuato, further north. I chose to spend my time just walking around and checking out the different neighborhoods and architecture.

Since I’m a big fan of rooftops, my first stop was El Mayor, a Mexican restaurant set on a rooftop overlooking Templo Mayor, one of the city’s major archaeological sites.

The food was expensive by Mexican standards, but average to cheap by most U.S. standards (I paid like 60 pesos or a few bucks for a delicious, seemingly bottomless pit of guacamole).

And the view made the above-average cost worth it…

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Next, I went to check out the more ritzy, upscale neighborhoods of La Condesa and La Roma. When I got to the metro station, I found that I was unable to pay with a credit card–and had no pesos on me. Luckily, the kind woman working behind the counter paid for my fare. I cannot imagine something like that ever happening in the U.S., where if you are so much as two pennies short, the cashier will not let you purchase your item.

Once I made it to La Condesa, I passed by this beautiful, tranquil park. DSC_0497

The buildings in the neighborhood looked a little something like this:

I then wandered a bit further, into the neighboring La Roma. Out of all the places I saw in Mexico City, this was my favorite district. Populated by trendy cafes, chic restaurants and avant-garde boutiques, La Roma has got it going on. It’s also got a vibrant nightlife scene for those who are looking for a fun night out.

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I eventually took an Uber back to my hostel, and along the way, I saw some more stunning historical sites in the central neighborhood of Zócalo

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And then walked around some more…

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A few observations about DF 

One thing I loved about Mexico City was that, despite being a massive city with a population of over 21 million (fun fact: that’s more than five times the size of New Zealand), I’ve never met such friendly, helpful people. If I so much as looked a little bit lost, whether on the street or on the metro, people would come up to me and ask if I needed help. This happened not once, not twice, but multiple times.

Everyone I encountered was also so polite. For instance, Uber drivers would actually get out of the car and walk over to the other side just to open the car door for me.  Nice to know that chivalry is not dead after all!

Here in the US, my pet peeve is being called “ma’am.” In Mexico, I loved that everywhere I want, people called me “senorita” (“miss”).  I imagine that this is a result of the more casual, friendly Mexican approach.

To be expected, everything was so cheap in comparison to the U.S. It was nice to be able to eat out at a nice restaurant and not feel like I’m spending half my weekly income.  And considering the fact that a 20-minute Uber ride costs only about $2 (no exaggeration here), which is cheaper than the cost of a metro ride in New York City, I could take an Uber everywhere and not feel guilty about it.

Despite the warnings I had heard about Mexico City (I had actually heard of people who came to DF and hired bodyguards), I felt incredibly safe walking around by myself.

I definitely felt safer walking around than I did sitting in the backseat of Ubers or taxis. It doesn’t seem like traffic laws are really obeyed or enforced in DF. Even when the streets were congested with people, drivers would just keep driving. Whatever happened to stopping for pedestrians? There were also multiple instances where I actually thought that another driver was going to run into us.

One thing that surprised me was the fact that Mexico City is not a major party city. For the most part, bars close at 2AM; my friend told me that this is done in order to keep the noise level down, so that residents can actually get some sleep.

Onwards and northwards 

After soaking in all of DF’s madness, I headed on to Guanajuato.

I took an Uber to the main bus station in the north of the city and from there, took a bus to Guanajuato. The ticket was quite expensive (around 600 pesos or 30 dollars for a 5-hour bus ride), but each passenger had their own reclining chair and TV with a wide selection of movies and TV shows (that were all dubbed in Spanish without subtitles – not exactly gringo-friendly).

I arrived in Guanajuato later than expected–around 8:30PM–without a place to stay.  I ended up lucking out and finding an awesome place at the last-minute.

I stayed in yet another quaint, beautiful hostel (called Casa de Dante), set a bit away from the main city center (but within walking distance). To reach the hostel, I had to walk up a seemingly endless flight of stairs–not easy when you’re lugging an approximately 25-pound bag along with you!

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Like Casa San Ildefonso, this hostel had a very open, airy feel to it. The top level also had a massive balcony that occupied two levels. Pictures don’t do justice to those views, but can at least give you an idea…

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In addition to the hospitable staff and endless supply of free earplugs (!!), one thing I loved about the hostel was all of the distinctive signs and decorations throughout. As you can see, there was a heavy emphasis on drinking!

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After I arrived at the hostel (around 10:30PM), I went out and explored the town with a Kiwi guy and a Mexican guy who were staying in my room.

Not sure if this was just coincidental, but I found it interesting that I was the only female staying at Casa de Dante and was also one of the few (if not the only) females staying at my hostel in Mexico City.

Saturday night on the town 

Even though the streets were packed and alive with music everywhere, many of the restaurants were already closed by the time we got into town.

So what exactly do you order on a night out in Guanajuato? I’m not a huge beer person, but apparently, Corona is not the type of beer you should be drinking in Mexico. From what I’ve heard, the best Mexican beers (and the ones that you will probably see the most people drinking) are Dos Equis, Victoria and Leon.

Mexcal, a distilled beverage made from the agave plant (native to Mexico), is also a must-try. It is basically like tequila, but tastier, traditionally served with orange slices instead of lime slices. And instead of being served with normal salt, mexcal is accompanied by chili salt or sal de gusano, which is sea salt ground with the dried caterpillars that infest agaves. Gross, I know. I actually didn’t know that until I looked it up afterwards–and probably would have been better off not knowing that.

Anyway, mexcal comes in many different flavors, and you can drink it as a shot or sip it, whatever suits your fancy.

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Daytime exploring 

The next day, Sunday, I had planned to spend the morning and early afternoon in Guanajuato and then head on to San Miguel de Allende (which is only an hour away and on the way to Mexico City, where my flight was flying out of on Monday night), but I was so entranced by Guanajuato that I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

You can see why…

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Like DF, I also felt very safe walking around the city, both day and night.

I spent another day touring around, and on my last night, I went to get a drink with the guys from my hostel at a bar that boasted one of the best views of the city (and a shot of mexcal for 50 cents). This view (seen below) is also about 100 times better in person.

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We then all went out for some dinner and drinks. Even though it was a Sunday night, the town was full of people out and about. There’s really no off-night in Guanajuato!

One thing I appreciated was how few tourists there were in Guanajuato. During my time there, I only heard English spoken a few times outside the hostel. It definitely is nice to be in a foreign country and actually feel like you are in a foreign country.

The next morning, before I left, we had a delicious, homemade breakfast at the hostel (which was included with our stay). I was shocked to discover that the hostel actually had its own private chef on staff, who cooks and serves the guest. The most I’ve seen a hostel ever have for breakfast is bread and maybe waffles if I’m lucky! This put all the other hostel (and hotel) breakfasts I’ve ever had to shame…

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Shortly after breakfast, I headed back to the bus station, where I took a bus to Querétaro, and from Querétaro, hopped on a bus that took me directly to the airport in Mexico City.

It may have been a lot of traveling, but hey, at least I had some nice views on the way there…

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I bid farewell to Mexico with some delicious tacos. Even the airport tacos in Mexico put US tacos to shame:

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