We often hear bad press about Mexico which can cause some misconceptions and unfounded anxiety about visiting this vibrant country. Just like any country in the world, there are good and bad parts, things you are amazed at, sights that make you glad and very sad, and places to avoid. Our brief experience of Mexico was mostly very positive and we got to see amazing sights and experience authentic Mexico outside of the Americanised tourist resorts.
Traveling on the bus out of Mexico City as we headed north to Queretaro, you get to see some of the overcrowding and poorer areas of the city on the edges of this huge urban
sprawl. We discovered more and more that the gap between the haves and the have-nots was much wider here than we had experienced on our travels so far. Most of the areas we stayed and experienced were middle class and comfortable, not too different to any large city, but when you see the shanties and half-finished houses that many endure you realise that not all enjoy that prosperity. Our bus was comfortable, and traveling by long distance bus seems to be a very common means of getting from place to place in Mexico. We enjoyed a few rides between cities and it was nice to take in the views of the countryside as we rolled along wide highways.
Arriving into Queretaro, we were amazed at the development going on in this third largest city in Mexico. The sprawl of new-builds extended over the far hills and it was very interesting to see the growth with seemingly no issues economically. Our daughter rents in one of the new developments, being the first occupiers of their townhouse in a secure gated community. Prices here are cheap to buy and rent, we saw condos being advertised at between 1,300,000 – 1,800,000 pesos (which is about US$68-95,000/NZ$100-145,000 for a brand new 2-3 bedroom house). We were very impressed at the landscaping and amenities provided for these communities, there is a lot of open and green space with playgrounds and dog exercise areas, and each community had a shared pool and “clubhouse”.
Old town Queretaro was just as beautiful as any Spanish town we had seen, with cobbled streets and pedestrian walkways amongst typically Spanish buildings and churches, but with much more colour. Trees were trimmed into shapes that provided shade to sit under and, on the Sunday we strolled around, the town was buzzing with families walking together and interacting, sitting in the shade or at outdoor cafes.
Our daughter and her boyfriend (and his family) introduced us slowly to authentic Mexican food, we started with mole chicken, progressed to carnitas (barbecued pork in tacos) for Sunday brunch, and then on to gorditas (like a pita, but a filled taco), tacos and enchiladas…not one burrito in sight! Mexican food in Mexico far exceeds anything you may have tried at Mexican restaurants around the world. We loved wandering into a store where the old women at the front were rolling and pressing the tortillas, you could see the meat being barbecued or cooked in the back. No doubt about the freshness of anything, and we never had any stomach issues. Salsas are provided on each table and we were often warned about the heat of each.
During our stay with our daughter, we took brief road trips out of town, renting a car for 4-5 days at a time and exploring new places. We travelled north of Queretaro to San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful city vibrant with colour, enjoying a couple of nights here wandering the streets of the old town and again trying out the delicious local cuisine (including discovering a little corner of NZ with excellent coffee!)
Pena de Bernal was a tiny village with a huge monolith towering above. We were not brave enough to the climb to the top, but could see others braving the treacherous looking track that wound up the rock face.
Guanajuato is a riot of colourful buildings, with wonderful vistas from a lookout above the town. The old town was busy on the Saturday we visited, and strolling troubadours offered music around the historic centre.
These fabulous places had a strong Spanish flavour in their architecture, but the difference was the colour! No bland stone buildings here, there was a freshness and brightness in the painted facades.
One of the highlights of our time in Mexico was a trip to see the monarch butterfly sanctuary (mariposa) just out of Zitacuaro. We had seen photos from others travelling here, but the experience was truly amazing. Millions of monarchs rest here during the US and Canadian winter months, the trees are laden with these beautiful insects and the air is alive with the fluttering. Check out my videos here…
Exploring the countryside around here was fascinating, the roads were generally fine, but we encountered many huge speed bumps (judder bars) around the small towns, always with roadside stalls set up just where you need to slow/stop to manoeuvre over these mini-mountains. Again the colour used to decorate the buildings made the area so vibrant.
We had been warned that this area may be unsafe, but research beforehand reassured us that things had improved over the past few years and, although we were aware of a heavily armed police presence, we never felt threatened. Our rental car took us through tiny villages and countryside that varied from productive to barren.
Another stop in Morelia on our way back to Queretaro delighted us, except for our accommodation being adjacent to a loud nightclub that started its music just as we were trying to drop off to sleep at 10.30pm – we discovered that night noises in Mexico were always late and loud, including the letting off of fireworks or party celebrations. Our personal waking/sleeping hours definitely mismatched the locals.
We had a couple of days in Guadalajara before departing Mexico, and once again enjoyed exploring different neighbourhoods and took a day trip to Tequila, using a local bus service, to explore this fascinating town. We took a tequila tour, finding out about the production of this liquor, tasting various strengths of alcohol through the process and finally a guided tasting that improved our views about tequila, but not enough that we would buy a bottle to take home.
Our month in Mexico was definitely eye-opening; we were charmed by the vibrant and colourful towns and villages, enjoyed driving on the roads that were (mostly) just as good as anywhere else we had travelled, took in the history and marvelled at how similar but, at the same time, different it was to Spain. The food was amazingly good value, Mexico is a very cheap place to live and explore. It was much better than (some) media would lead us to believe in terms of safety, cleanliness and culture. I’m sure we will be back and look forward to exploring and discovering more of this fascinating part of the world.