When I wrote about my ten (pre-trip) favourite countries at the end of last year, Mexico was the winner. After spending six weeks there, I’m even more in love with the country than I was before. Here are some of the reasons why:
One of the first things that struck me about Mexico was how colourful the country is. chili, limes & tomatoes in bright green and red. Colonial cities with their churches and houses painted in shades of pink, yellow, red and terracotta. The delicate purple of the jacaranda trees and the dark pink of the bugambilia. Shops and businesses with premised hand painted in bright shades of every colour of the rainbow. The multicoloured outfits of indigenous women everywhere, especially in the Copper Canyon, Oaxaca & Chiapas. The deep blue of the pre-rainy season skies, and the even deeper blue of Frida Kahlo’s house. And all of them glowing brightly under a sun that feels twice as intensely as it does in Europe, which is going to feel very grey and drab comparison when I return.
It’s not just all the colours that make Mexico look amazing. Even without them the place would be pretty special. Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, San Cristobal de las Casas and Oaxaca are easily the match of historic cities in Europe in terms of the beauty of their architecture. The copper canyon is the most breathtaking piece of scenery I’ve ever seen. The beaches of Zipolite and Tulum are wonderful places to chill out, and are as beautiful as my favourites in Spain’s Formentera and Thailand’s islands. Even journeys are invariably stunning – it’s a huge country, and a very mountainous one, and almost every long bus trip I took allowed me to either see them rising up in the distance or to wind my way through them on narrow, twisty roads, such as the road from Oaxaca to Zipolite or best of all, the long descent to Batopilas. The Copper Canyon railway must be one of the finest in the world, especially the section that clings to the side of the canyon itself, and my flight from Guadalajara to Puebla gave me the spectacular sight of the twin volcanoes of Popo and Izta poking above the clouds.
Mexico doesn’t just look gorgeous, it tastes and smells pretty great too, thanks to all the amazing food. It’s pretty impossible to write about Mexico without mentioning the subject. It’s hard to imagine food without chili, tomatoes, vanilla and chocolate – and yet European cuisine lacked all of them before the Spanish conquered Mexico. All the Mexicans I met are immensely proud of their culinary traditions and the variety of food they have, and for quite good reason. I don’t think I ate a single bad meal their, whether it was in nice restaurants or simple street-food stands. Aside from any individual dish, one the things that stands out most for me is the quality of the ingredients – the ubiquitous trio of lime, chili and tomato were juicier, spicier and sweeter than I ever find at home, and the pattern seemed to be repeated for everything. Fruit in particular was always fresh and packed with flavour. It’s hard to pick a single highlight, so I’m going to go with four, all of which I bought on the street. First of all is fruit with chili. Now I love chili, but had never been previously convinced at some of the uses Mexicans put it to, such as in beer or desserts. But eventually curiosity got the better of me and I had to try this popular snack, which is basically a fruit salad of various types of melon and mango covered in chili powder – and it’s amazing. Second would be the gorditas I tried in Zacatecas – a gordita is basically a fat tortilla split in half, filled and then fried. In Zacatecas I had one made with nopal cactus and chili. Not only was it the spiciest thing I ate in the country, it was also one of the best. Finally comes the humble street taco. I feel like I should be ending this section by describing some obscure dish only cooked in one little village on the first Thursday in April, hitherto undiscovered by the world of travel. But no, one of the best things in Mexico is the most common. Available everywhere, the simple snack of floury fresh tortillas, finely diced grilled meat (chicken and chorizo is my favourite), covered with a salsa of onion, tomato, coriander and lime, maybe some guacamole, and always a selection of chili sauces (smoky chipotle being the best in my opinion), really is hard to beat in terms of flavour and freshness. And all ridiculously cheap too.
While the treats that Mexico has to offer for the eyes, nose and tongue are always delightful, the ears get a more mixed deal. Music is everywhere in the country, and it’s not always welcome. It feels like there is no escape from it anywhere. Buses blare out frantic reggaeton and Mexican pop even at 5am. It can be hard to find a restaurant or cafe that doesn’t have someone playing live, and the ones that don’t will invariably be playing the radio or MTV loudly. Gay clubs pack out to the sounds of local pop heroes such as Gloria Trevi (the Mexican Madonna, whose life story makes the original one seem pretty tame) and Yuri. In Guadalajara Mariachis stalk the streets, and in Mazatlan it’s the huge brass bands playing Sinaloense music. Even the pharmacies for some reason always seem to have huge speakers in the doorway blasting out some form of frantic pop throughout the day. English language music is not all that popular, so it’s no surprise that I heard numerous soundalike covers of a range of US records, most odd of which was a cover of ‘Another brick in the wall’. Inexplicably most popular of all are the various styles of music from the desert states in the north of the country, immensely cheesy love songs (there appears to be some form of law that requires all Mexican songs to include the word ‘corazon’ (heart) every dozen words) played by bands of men in matching spangly cowboy suits and hats, and which always comes with an oompah-style instrumental backing that makes them sound strangely Austrian. Strangely enough I even grew to like some of it by the end, especially the rather bonkers ‘Fine fine fine, very good very good very good’, which really has to be heard to be believed:
Last but not least is the people. It must be one of the friendliest countries in the world, and I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with Mexicans about their country, something they are all very passionate about. They’ve also shown me a remarkable amount of patience with me as I’ve mangled their language in my attempts to communicate in Spanish.
I definitely plan to return – Mexico City is now one of my favourite cities in the world, and I’d love to go back and spend more time there. Guanajuato is another place I could easily see myself spending more time, and I’d love to return to Oaxaca state to hike in the mountains of the Pueblos Mancomunicados, to see Monte Alban, take a cookery course and return to the beaches of Zipolite and Mazunte to relax. Plus there are still loads of places that I didn’t get to see that I want to come back for – Baja California, the Chihuahuan & Sonoran deserts, the Cañon del Sumidero in Chiapas, the whole of the Gulf Coast, El Tajin, Campeche, Taxco, Morelia and Cuernavaca to name just a few. It’ll be interesting to see if I’ve peaked early in my trip – I hope not, but it’ll take something to topple Mexico.