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

I think it’s safe to say that most gringos go to Mexico for the beaches.  I’ve been guilty of being one of those gringos too – Up until last week, the only places I had been in Mexico were Tijuana, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.  In the latter two places, my friend and I stayed in all-inclusive resorts – while this was relaxing and all, 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 the exotic, white-sand beaches.

So I booked a trip for the long Memorial day weekend.  I had invited a few friends along, but nobody could come – so I ended up venturing solo.  Why not?!

Admittedly, up until a few years ago, I had never traveled alone before.  It was one of those things that I had never even considered doing alone. And guess what? Now, I love it! While I admit that it is definitely nice traveling with a friend(s) and having someone to share the experience with, I have also had tons of fun traveling by myself – it forces you to branch out and meet new people that you might not otherwise meet, while also allowing you to be free to create your own itinerary without having to compromise with someone.  If nothing else, you will learn to enjoy your own company and become even more independent.

Many people would probably think I’m crazy for going to Mexico by myself.  In the US, 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 is like any other city.  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 to (border cities are obviously not as safe) and how you travel.  As my mom always told me, keep your antenna up, don’t be stupid (and by “stupid”, I mean get excessively inebriated, put your drink down, be loud or wander 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.  Tip: For anyone who lives in San Diego (or close by), I highly recommend looking 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 little ridiculous to pay $15 bucks just to cross the border, so I left my car by the border (I just did street parking, so I wouldn’t have to pay for parking while I was gone), then took an Uber to the border, walked across and from there, took a taxi to the airport  (with my broken Spanish, bargained my taxi fare down from $20 to $8 –  it definitely helps if you speak a bit of Spanish, otherwise you can expect the inflated gringo price, as I call it). Once at the TJ airport, it probably took me all of five minutes to get my boarding pass and get through security – couldn’t have been easier.

Once I arrived in Mexico City (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 would highly recommend this hostel to anyone visiting DF (Distrito Federal), as Mexicans refer to Mexico City. I expected to be sharing a room with 5 other people, but instead, I had an entire room to myself the first night (the second night I shared with an older man who snored incessantly – but that’s a different story!) – 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.

This is what it looked like…

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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, I saw this…

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Not a bad view to wake up to!

Exploring DF 

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

In many parts of the city, I really felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. Being blonde probably didn’t help with that…

Anyway, since I love rooftops (who doesn’t?), my first stop was El Mayor, a few minutes walking distance from my hostel.  The restaurant was quite nice – 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 I mean…just look at that view! The restaurant overlooks the Templo Mayor, one of the cities major archaeological sites.

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My next stop was the more ritzy, upscale neighborhoods of La Condesa and La Roma.  I took the metro to get there – but I was unable to pay with a credit card and had no pesos on me – the kind woman working behind the counter paid for my fare, giving me a ticket anyway.  I cannot imagine something like that ever happening in the US – where if you are so much as 2 pennies short, the cashier will make a fuss and not let you purchase your item.

Once in La Condesa, I passed by this beautiful, tranquil park, filled with lush greenery.DSC_0497

The buildings looked a little something like this:

Using the maps feature on my phone, I then wandered further on to the neighboring, La Roma – out of all the places I saw in Mexico City, this was my favorite neighborhood. Populated by trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and shops and colorful buildings, La Roma was some place that I could see myself living in.  It is also apparently one of the best barrios in DF for those who want to have a fun night out.

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I found it interesting how much the demographic shifted based on the neighborhood (like many cities).  La Roma had a completely different vibe than the other neighborhoods I explored.  It also was much less crowded.

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

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And then walked around some more…

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I of course did not have time to see everything – things I did not see that I would like to when I go back: the neighborhood of Coyoacán, which is where Frida Kahlo’s Blue House is; the Palacio de Bellas Artes; and the National Museum of Anthropology.  If I had had even just one more day there, I would have gone to see the legendary Teotihuacan Pyramids (just an hour bus ride away).

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 5 times the ENTIRE country of New Zealand, by the way), 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 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”.  I can’t stand it.  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.

Also, as a United Statian (trying to use the PC term for “American” here…), to be expected, everything was so cheap in comparison to what I’m used to. 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 have heard of people who came to DF and hired bodyguards), I felt incredibly safe walking around.

Another observation of Mexico City: the crazy, aggressive driving.  In some parts of the city, there were so many people in the streets, yet drivers would just keep driving (whatever happened to stopping for pedestrians?).  There were also multiple instances where it looked like another driver was going to run into us – it seems like traffic laws are not obeyed or enforced in this city…?

Even though I studied Spanish for two years in university and more recently, have been trying to re-learn the language, I was surprised at how much of a struggle it was for me to communicate.  I felt like I was constantly saying “Como?” “Que?” I think part of it (in addition to my Spanish being bastante mal at this point), is that Mexicans tend to speak extremely fast and mumble their words a bit – or at least it sounds that way to me! Because in the past at least, I’ve found Argentinian Spanish for instance, much easier to understand.

One thing that surprised me was the fact that Mexico City is not a major party city. Bars mostly close at 2AM (my friend told me this was because of the noise and an attempt to not keep the neighbors awake too late).  My taxi driver in Tijuana concurred.  He told me that he was born in Mexico City, and when I asked him whether he preferred TJ or DF, he told me he preferred TJ because it was better for partying.  Who knew!

Onwards and northwards 

After soaking in all of the craziness DF had to offer, the next day, 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 (that were all dubbed in Spanish without subtitles – not exactly foreigner-friendly).

I arrived in Guanajuato later than expected, around 8:30PM, without a place to stay (I don’t like to plan ahead much…I think spontaneity makes things more interesting!).  I ended up finding a place at the last-minute and could not have been happier with how it all worked out.  Yet another quaint, beautiful hostel (called Casa de Dante) set a bit away from the main city center, yet within walking distance.  To reach the hostel, one has to walk up a seemingly endless set of stairs – let’s just say that, while doing this carrying an approximately 25 pound bag, I felt like an Olympic champion after I made it there…and the views made it all worth it.

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

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In addition to the hospitality (everyone was so friendly – and they even had an endless supply of free earplugs), one thing I loved about the hostel was all of the little 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. Yet another thing I love about traveling: meeting interesting people from around the world who are just as excited as you are about exploration, travel and adventure – yay!

One thing I found funny was that, at Casa de Dante, I was the only female staying there (granted, there were not many people staying there at all while I was there) – but I was also one of the few (if not the only) females staying at my hostel in Mexico City.  I wonder if it’s just coincidence/my own experience or if there are just not many solo female travelers in Mexico?

Night on the town 

In any case, it was Saturday night and the streets were packed, alive with music everywhere.  I felt like I never wanted to leave this place.

One thing I found surprising was that many restaurants were already closed by the time we got into town – granted, it was a late hour to be eating (11:30PM or so…), but I guess I assumed that, like Spain (where restaurants generally close at 2AM on weekends), the eating hour would be much later than average – especially for such a lively, seemingly party city.

We eventually found a restaurant that was open (yay!) and had a drink before eating.  Now, 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 beer (and the one that you will probably see the most people drinking) is Dos Equis, Victoria and Leon (the Mexican guy from my hostel said this was his favorite).

One of the alcoholic drinks that everyone should try in Mexico is Mexcal, a distilled beverage made from the agave plant (native to Mexico) that comes in many different types of flavors. It is basically like tequila, but tastier (tequila is actually a type of mexcal), traditionally served with orange instead of lime and chili salt or sal de gusano (salt ground with the dried caterpillers that infest agaves) instead of regular salt – you can drink it as a shot or sip it.

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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. San Miguel, while apparently very charming and beautiful (also a colonial town with cobblestone streets), is much more touristy – it’s known for being the Disneyland of Mexico.  And I preferred a more authentic Mexican experience anyway. By the way, if you are looking for a truly authentic Mexican experience, Oaxaca, south of Mexico City, is definitely a place you should add to your list.

Anyway, you can see why it was hard for me to leave this place…

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

After spending the day touring around, 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. Yup. This view 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 found interesting (and 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 is definitely 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 (included with our stay).  I was shocked to discover that the hostel actually has its own private chef who cooks and serves its guest – the most I’ve seen a hostel ever have for breakfast is bread and maybe waffles! 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 (true story: even the airport tacos in Mexico put US tacos to shame).

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One last tip

I will leave my fellow travelers with one last word of advice, which I’m sure you have heard many times before: do. not. overpack.  This seems to be a perpetual problem of mine that I have difficulty overcoming.  I have definitely gotten better over the years – I will never forget the time when I was 18 years old and went to Nice, France for 3.5 weeks with my best friend one summer, and I packed not one, but two massive duffle bags full of clothes, shoes and other items. We had a 2-day layover in Zurich and there I was, lugging along two huge suitcases down the street with me – it was a disaster. Not to mention –  embarrassing.

This time, I packed about five days worth of clothes, yet ended up wearing probably 1/3 of them in a four-day period.  In addition to my clothes and toiletries, I packed my camera, one non-fiction reading book, one Spanish grammar book (I’m trying to work on my Spanish here…), a Spanish dictionary, a notebook and a book in Portuguese.  Even with approximately 20 hours of travel, I barely used any of them.  Lesson learned: for four days of travel, bring one book, two sets of clothes (and sufficient underwear, of course), a camera (if desired) and necessary toiletries. No more. You will thank yourself in the end – trust me on this!

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