COVID-19 (coronavirus) update: Though the land border between the US and Mexico is closed to non-essential traffic until November 21, Mexico is open to visitors from around the world. Read the latest travel restrictions and how they may affect you. Keep in mind that this article was written before the pandemic, and take appropriate steps to stay safe.
It’s no surprise that the overriding media image of Mexico as a land rife with drug cartels, gun wielding mobsters, and crooked politicians contributes to fear among travelers. Certainly, there’s a questionable cadre that maintain their grip on influential industry and government posts, and collusion between local police and drug cartels is rampant.
You don’t have to look hard to find extreme examples of corruption in Mexico. But, for travelers, corruption on the whole is not generally a problem (unless you are pulled over while driving a conspicuous black SUV rental car or you find yourself at ground zero of a protest or demonstration). While political involvement in the drug war remains the overriding issue for Mexicans, for most travelers on the ground, Mexico feels no more corrupt than Paraguay, Honduras, Argentina, or even Italy. Bear in mind that no one skips a trip to the Amalfi Coast because they're afraid they are going to wake up with a horse’s head in their bed.
From the deserts of the north to the tropical forests of the Pacific, the rich marine feeding ground of the Sea of Cortéz, or the pine forests in the Mexican Central Plateau, Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet. With its varied topography and distinct eco systems, Mexico is home to the second highest number of mammal species (540), more than a thousand species of bird, and more reptile species (700) than any other country.
In a vast country that, at times, can be a tough place to get your head around, travelers find transcendence in the country’s exhilarating natural wonders. Few experiences can rival the thrill of watching around 30 billion butterflies float around the tree forests at the eastern perimeter of Michoacán state, the winter haven for Monarch butterflies for over 10,000 years. In the mystical state of Chiapas, a place with more shades of green than you believe conceivable, the vertical walls of the jaw-dropping Cañón del Sumidero plummet to 2,600 feet.
The Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán is where the Mesoamerican Barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, provides a haven for one of the world's largest populations of manatees, mammoth whale sharks, and marine turtles. And on the west coast, the lunar landscapes, surreal rock formations, hirsute cacti, and striking coastline of the Baja peninsula defy hyperbole.
In the heart of the Sierra Madre, the magnificent Copper Canyon is four times the size of the Grand Canyon. Composed by the folds and yawning gorges of over 20 copper-streaked canyons reaching a height of 7,550 feet, this is nature, hardcore. For the faint-hearted, the formidable canyons can be admired from a distance, played out with Technicolor glory on the train windows of the Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad. For the intrepid adventurer, hiking, biking, and horse riding are just some of the recreational pursuits that allow closer encounters with the bastion of biodiversity, and keeps the endorphins flowing.
Knowing a thing or two about Miguel Hidalgo, the revered 19th-century Mexican priest, freedom fighter, and father to many children (a vocational threesome that was more common than you might think) goes a long way towards making some amigos in your local cantina. Hidalgo, one of the nation’s leaders during the War of Independence, met a grisly end when he was captured and executed on July 30, 1811.
It’s also sound policy to be familiar with the seminal dates on the Mexican festival calendar.
For starters, Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo (a common gaffe), it’s actually September 16. It was on this day, in 1810, in an obscure town called Dolores in the state of Guanajuato, that Hidalgo's fabled Grito de Dolores triggered the war of insurrection (and subsequent independence from Spain).
Few locals can tell you exactly what Hidalgo actually said, but it seems that it was sufficiently arousing to motivate Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish regime.
Wherever you are in Mexico, September 16 embodies the Mexican penchant for living life loudly. The tequila-infused fervor reaches a crescendo with fireworks, parades, marching band competitions, and cars driving endlessly up and down streets with their stereos cranked to concert level.
For reference, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when Mexico defeated the French army (hence, a big celebration in Puebla).
With its remarkable fusion of high and low culinary techniques, not to mention its stunning tropical setting, Mexico has become a hot epicurean destination seducing gourmands the world over.
Every foodie seems intent on championing the credentials of Mexican street food. In fact, Mexican cuisine is now deemed so good that UNESCO has put it on the cultural heritage list.
Every stall in every market in Mexico provides a ringing endorsement of Mexico’s culinary heritage, and taste after palette-searing taste will make every Mexican meal (i.e. TexMex) you have ever eaten feel like a cultural atrocity. Where else in the world can you taste a succulent meat dish that has been cooked for five hours in a hole, tuck into chicken draped in fragrant mole sauce—that material expression of the Mexican spirit—served alongside purple corn, and nicely rounded off with a dollop of avocado ice cream?
While tortas are well-knpwn to veteran travelers in Mexico, the delights of the lesser-known pambazo sandwich have yet to reach the masses. The finest pambazo iterations are found at any village street market. Stale, white bread rolls are marinaded with guajillo chili sauce to soften and imbue the crust with an earthy terra-cotta hue. The chili-bathed bread is then dried, spliced, and loaded with toppings to create an unholy mess of Mexican staples: peppers, onions, potatoes, chorizo, black beans, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, and queso fresco. Certainly not a date meal, a pambazo is one of those explosive dishes that require a fork (for polite eaters at least) at the grand finale.
Unlike your average flat corn patty, tlacoyos are mixed with either requesón (a type of soft Mexican cheese), refried beans, or fava beans before they are grilled. Popular in Oaxaca, tlacoyos – from the Nahuatl word for "snack" – were originally consumed with just a tad of salsa, pronto, before they assumed a leathery consistency. Over recent years, canny abuelas have started to modify their traditional recipes to trump the stiff competition. Ubiquitous and cheap, at stalls throughout most cities, towns, and villages you’ll find loaded versions of the humble tlacoyo reinvented with nopales (sliced cactus), refritos (refried beans), cecina (semi dried pork) and chicken, doused with sour cream, onion and grated cheese.
The chicharrón (fried pork rind or crackling) reaches its artery-hardening zenith in Mexico. Made with actual pork skin, chicharrónes are sold in thick sheets on the street or in the market and are generally used to deliver a salty crunch factor to tacos, tortas, or soup. Flour varietals—the Mexican equivalent of a potato chip—are commonly served in traditional cantinas, with lime and hot sauce, when you order a beer.
Going to Mexico and not trying mole is like skipping lobster in Maine or a steak in Buenos Aires. Mexico is best tasted through its seven signature moles, a rainbow sauce of bitter chocolate and spice that's frequently invoked as a symbol of the fusion of Mexico’s indigenous and European heritage. Puebla is deemed the birthplace of mole, but Oaxaca and Tlaxcala also jostle for the honor. Classic mole poblano, a dark red or brown sauce served over meat, is the perfect initiation into Mexico’s culinary odyssey that blurs the boundaries of sweet and savory.
If you take a libation that oozed (allegedly) from the 400 breasts (no less) of an Aztec goddess named Mayahuel, chances are most alcohol fans are keen to take a shot.
Before the fire of tequila and the sultry smokiness of mezcal, there was another beverage in Mexico fermented from agave nectar: pulque.
As legend would have it, Mayahuel introduced the elixir to her godly peers, including 400 rabbit gods whose intemperance was so legendary that a ‘pulque high’ was counted in rabbit units. If you were totally hammered, you attained a score of 400 rabbits, in reference to Mayahuel's copious breasts.
In the middle ages, the Aztecs knew how to live it up. The Aztec royals, resplendent in their gold and jade encrusted costumes (often fashioned from flayed human skins), would have sipped their pulque from gilded goblets. If the common folk (known as macehualtin) were caught imbibing the sacred nectar, they would be flogged. Repeat offenders would be sacrificed to the gods. After the conquest, pulque was consumed by the masses in spit-and-sawdust pulquerías, which led to its brawny image as a poor man’s tipple.
Nowadays, pulque is experiencing something of a renaissance (especially in its more palatable cocktail iteration). Young Mexicans and international travelers revel in the authenticity of pulque’s truly pre-Hispanic qualities, not to mention its healthy profile; evidently it’s loaded with vegetable proteins.
When Cortés and his crew arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519 they found the milky substance with a noxious odor known as pulque too weak for their liquor-hardened livers. The conquistadors began experimenting with the maguey plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash with a bit more oomph. The result was mezcal.
Forget the gnarly, gimmicky vision of a worm adrift in palette-searing liquor. This agave-derived spirit has become the darling of mixologists the world over.
In the hip mescalerías of Mexico City, mezcal connoisseurs distinguish mezcal’s varietals with descriptions more common to scotch.
Distilled from the honey sugar solution at the heart of the maguey plant, mezcal is cooked by hand and comes in a wide variety of flavors ranging from campfire smoky to fruit-forward or nutty, depending on the production process and the type of maguey that is distilled. The agave plant is cooked for days over the cinders of an earthen oven (from where it gets its smoky taste).
In its more refined iteration, mezcal is a drink to be sipped (a ritual known as a besitos or little kisses) and savored rather than slammed. Acolytes claim that mezcal is a much purer tipple than tequila and that it goes down smoothly and never betrays you with a hangover the next day. World Nomads in no way advocates that you test this theory.
While its cool credentials may have been usurped by mezcal, tequila remains Mexico’s most iconic export.
Technically speaking, tequila is a type of mezcal, and that’s where the nomenclature gets tricky: tequila is only tequila if it comes from the blue agave plant, which is unique to the state of Jalisco and its environment.
Fiery younger tequilas are abrasive and best used in margaritas or as a shot washed down with a partner shot of sangrita (little blood), a fruit based drink aimed at balancing out tequila’s acidity. Reposado (barrel aged for under a year) and smooth, textured añejo (aged for between one and three years) are the kind that you can happily let linger on the tongue.
Patrick Abboud meets the people who are changing the face of Mexican life and busting stereotypes around food, music and machismo.
So you're a woman heading off to Mexico, and sensibly you want to know what to expect, and how to stay safe while traveling.