Mexico in the 1990s was like Britney Spears’ meltdown in the 2000s. It was ugly. Thankfully Mexico is working hard to clean up its image (I don’t know if I can say the same for Britney), and the country is significantly different. In other words now is the time to leave the travel crowd behind and explore interior Mexico.
Spend a Sunday morning at the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral watching older couples dance to live music, find a traditional medicine woman and pay to have your evil spirits shooed away, or rent an eco-bike and explore the city on two wheels. Either way, Centro Historical (historical centre) and street markets are buzzing with activity on the weekends and both are a great insight into Mexican culture.
Tip: The best street market is at La Lagunilla. Go on a Sunday and see if you can stumble across a cock fight or find some black magic artifacts.
While street markets, traditional medicine women, and dancing are highlights on a Sunday morning in Mexico City, one of the best ways to experience Mexican culture is a Lucha Libre match on a Friday night.
Yes, Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, and yes, it is absolutely fabulous. Unlike the WWE in North America, Lucha Libre is highly entertaining and full of unexpected twists and turns. Literally! Lucha Libre is a combination of wrestling and acrobatics. One moment an opponent will be on the ropes in a corner pumping up the crowd, and the next minute he is flipping backwards, twisting in the air, wrapping his feet around his opponent’s head and taking him down. It’s shock worthy and absolutely captivating.
Tip: The best place to experience Lucha Libre is at The Arena in Mexico City, but there are matches held throughout Mexico.
Exploring Mexico’s ancient ruins gives travelers an insight into the country’s pre-Columbian civilizations and how those civilizations have impacted life in Mexico. A guided tour of Zapotec ruins in Oaxaca reveals the importance of a central plaza where locals sold their wares, temples, and the palace. All of which are still important pieces of Mexican life today as every city, town, and village has a main plaza (square), central church, school, market, and government building. All within blocks of each other.
Tip: Visit the ruins of Monte Alban, Palanque, and Templo Mayor as well as Tulum and Chichen Itza.
The Spanish invasion brought Catholicism to Mexico and thanks to Cortés, a lot of bloodshed. During this period the Tenochtitlan tribe was practically wiped out, Aztec cities were completely destroyed, and the stones from those cities were used to build churches (usually over top of the cities they had just obliterated). But that is not all as Cortés tortured and killed the kings and emperors of several ancient tribes.
The Spanish invasion ushered in 200 years of colonial rule, and it was during this time that many of today’s important Mexican cities were established, including Mexico City and Puebla.
The fight for independence took 11 years (1810 to 1821) and had a profound effect on Mexico. While many North Americans think Mexican independence is May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), they couldn’t be further from the truth. Mexican Independence is actually September 16th, the day (September 16, 1810) a local priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued The Cry of Independence.
Tip: Head to Mexico City for Independence Day celebrations.
The reformation of Mexico introduced individual states, brought about the 1857 Constitution (created by President Ignacio Comonfort), and the reign of President Benito Juáraz, who many mistake as the first president of Mexico. The reformation was bloody and saw the invasion of the French in the 1860s. This invasion brought about the Battle of Puebla, in which the French were defeated on May 5, 1862, the true origin of Cinco de Mayo.
Tip: Be sure to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the city of Puebla.
Mexico’s history is salacious and some times gory, and still a big part of life in the country. Mexicans are passionate about their history and revere their ancestors. Every city will have the same selection of street names near the centro historical (Hidalgo, Reforma, Insurgents, to name a few), they speak of historical celebrations the same way a Baltimore Ravens fan talks about the Super Bowl.
Bus travel in Mexico is the way to go, regardless of you budget. The buses feature plush seats, foot rests, and some times free wifi; which makes them significantly better than those in the United States and Canada. Bus travel is also cheap.
Mexico has three bus classes, Deluxe and First Class buses offer larger seats, bathrooms onboard, a free beverage, and faster routes (less stops), and Second class buses make more stops, which gives you a chance to buy snacks and have bathroom breaks. Although the fares are reasonable ($60 USD to travel deluxe class from Mexico City to Oaxaca), the ride is indeed long, so wear comfortable clothing.
Mexico’s street food is the most affordable way to eat, and varies depending on region/state. Street food is cheap, heavy, filling, and delicious. Everything you want street food to be. Popular street foods are tacos, quesadillas, tostada, torta (hot sandwiches), dorado (fried tacos), and birria (a beef or goat meat stew). Street foods will feature freshly made corn tortillas, salsas, and locally grown produce.
Read Buses and Tacos: An Indie Travel Experience in Mexico for more in depth information on the vast bus network in the country and great eats you can get along the way.
Street food is a way of life in Mexico, and no matter what time of day it is, there is almost always a street cart open for business, so pull up a plastic stool and get ready for delicious meal, after delicious meal. And all for under 30 pesos ($2.25USD)!
Tip: To keep things sanitary street food plates will be covered with a clear plastic bag. Once you finish your food the vendor removes the plastic bag, and puts on a fresh bag. This way the plate stays sanitary.
Mexico has an impressive network of hostels, which includes a few eco-friendly and designer options; like Mexico City’s Downtown Beds hostel and Oaxaca’s Hostel Angel.
Hostel beds in Mexico range in price from $12 to $16 USD per night for a dorm room, and many of the hostels offer day tours, rooftop BBQs, and plenty of time to hang-out with other indie travelers.
Check out hostels in Mexico
Indie travelers can travel in Mexico for $55 a day which will cover the cost of a private room at a hostel, a meal from a taco cart, a meal at a restaurant, bus transportation, and a couple activities. Obviously you can spend less or more than this daily budget, depending on your travel wants and needs.
Stay safe by talking to locals. Yes, you should (and need to) talk to locals. A local will be able to tell you which areas of a city to stay away from, and which areas you should visit. Think of locals as an exercise in crowd-sourcing, always ask more than one!
Location, location, location. This rule works for businesses, hostels, food vendors, and drug dealers. Don’t buy seafood or cocaine from the guy walking around the beach offering it to every foreigner he sees, but do eat from a seafood street cart. As with life at home, if an area doesn’t feel right, leave. It is that simple.
The Mexican government, tourist boards, and locals want you to visit their country. They want to share their culture, history, and passions. Many Mexican cities are being renewed. Graffiti is being cleaned up, buildings restored, and eco-friendly accommodations, activities, and transportation are slowly appearing throughout the country.
Traveling through interior Mexico will expose you to experiences that are far removed from those found in the coastal hot spots. Take your time traveling through the interior. Spend an afternoon hanging out at the main plaza, watching locals, and listening to a local Mariachi band. Splurge and take a cooking class with a local woman in her home, eating way too much Mexican food and getting a close-up look into local culture. Spend hours sitting on a bus traveling from point A to point B, wondering when North America is going to catch-up in terms of bus standards.
Thanks to the popularity of places like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, traveling in the interior can feel like you’re traveling off-the-beaten-path, and that after all, is the goal or almost every indie traveler.
For more on traveling in Mexico, check out the following articles and resources:
- Mexico Indie Travel Guide
- Top 10 Destinations for Indie Travelers in 2013
- Everything You Need to Know About Traditional Mexican Food and Drink
- Four Reasons to Visit Mazaltan