Mexico gets a bad rap.
Listen to the news reports and you’ll be told the entire country is a corrupt, violent, drug-filled hellhole. Murderous gangs roam the landscape, apparently, and a vacation south of the US border is as likely to leave you decapitated as sunburnt. It’s just better to stay at home, where you’re nice and safe behind your big fence and double-locked door, and watch another episode of Funniest Home Videos.
The media just loves to spread fear and uncertainty, and it does a great job of it. After three months in the US being told how scary and dangerous Mexico was, I’d almost started to believe the stories myself.
Until, of course, I actually went there.
With no set plans for how long we’d stay in Mexico, Lauren and I negotiated a two month lease on an apartment in Sayulita. Within a week, we’d extended it to three. While Sayulita certainly isn’t the quiet little beach town it once was, outside peak season it still retains much of its charm.
Street vendors sell tacos for a few pesos, kids play amongst the slow-moving cars and horses on the cobbled main street, groups of men sit on the beach drinking beers and swapping stories as the sun plummets into the Pacific. There’s a parade of some sort every week, and fireworks seem to mark everything from a major religious festival to a day ending in y.
There’s been an influx of expats and vacationers to Sayulita in recent years, and in many parts of the world this would result in jaded locals that couldn’t care less about another foreigner in their town. Instead, all I ever seemed to get was smiles and a friendly greeting.
I barely knew a word of Spanish when I first arrived, and even that didn’t seem to faze people. If I didn’t understand, rather than getting frustrated, they’d slow down or use a different phrase. Once they knew I was in town for a while, several restaurant owners seemed to make it their personal mission to help me learn, not swapping to English until we’d exhausted every possibility. I loved them for it — there’s no better way to learn a language than immersion, but I’d totally understand if nobody had the time or desire to help a stupid gringo improve his vocabulary.
Even when we finally decided to move on from our little beach town, we weren’t done with the kindness. Upon discovering that I couldn’t book bus tickets online with an overseas credit card, our landlady took it on herself to spend half an hour on the phone with the bus company doing it for me instead.
“You didn’t have to do that”, I protested.
“I didn’t have to. I just wanted to.” came the reply.
Our next stop, Guanajuato, was a gorgeous colonial city in the central highlands. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, yet for some reason doesn’t seem to receive all that many foreign tourists. Other than a lack of beaches, I’ve absolutely no idea why – but it was a great excuse to work on my language skills.
Despite non-Spanish speakers being relatively uncommon, I was again met with smiles and understanding everywhere I went. From the taco stand owner who performed an energetic game of charades to explain which part of the animal the meat came from, to the woman at the bakery who’d laughingly correct my pronunciation, to the bystander at the convenience store who stepped in to help me top up my mobile phone, nothing was ever a problem.
I regularly wandered around late at night, through the city streets or on unlit mountain roads on the outskirts, and was never accosted with anything more than a muted ‘buenas noches’ from passers-by. I’ve felt far less safe in London or Melbourne than I ever did in Mexico. We stayed in one of the absolute best Airbnb apartments we’ve ever rented (use this link for $25 off your first booking) and, overall, just loved our time there.
Heading to the Yucatan peninsula was a shock after the chilly, understated beauty of Guanajuato. Foreigners were everywhere in this, the most heavily-touristed part of the country. Prices were higher, as you’d expect them to be – but they were higher for everyone. Eating mostly at street stands and hole-in-the-wall quesidilla places, I wasn’t charged a peso more than the locals that surrounded me.
The food was so great that I’d have been happy to hand over the extra cash, mind you – the succulent tang of cochinita pibil, the spicy texture of tamales con queso and the morning comfort of chilaquiles verdes had me anticipating every mealtime with ill-concealed delight.
And then there were the beaches.
And the ruins.
And the sea life.
And the iguanas.
And the cheap, efficient collectivos (shared minivans) that took me between them all.
With views, landscape and quality of life like this, is it any wonder that most Mexicans seem to love their country? Or that I quickly joined them in that assessment?
Of course, Mexico isn’t perfect. Just like everywhere, it has its problems. There’s income disparity, obesity and lack of opportunity in many rural areas, and yes, drug trafficking and the associated violence is a major problem in some parts of the country.
The thing is, though, that as a tourist, you’re not going to find yourself in the places where the narcotraffickers hang out. Do a minimum of research about your destination, take the same basic security precautions that you would back home, and you’re unlikely to have a problem. I spent half a year in Mexico, and felt far safer than I did during my three months in the US beforehand. There’s a visible police presence anywhere that holidaymakers are likely to be – the authorities don’t want bad things to happen to visitors any more than the visitors do.
As respected travel writer Robert Reid points out, you’re much more likely to get murdered in Houston or New Orleans than in Mexico – yet governments and the media aren’t putting those two cities on their ‘do not travel’ lists.
Avoid the problem areas in the north of the country, and you’ll have a wonderful experience filled with glorious weather, friendly people, amazing history, delicious food and remarkable scenery. Oh, and it’s cheap. Not Southeast Asia cheap, but still, pretty damn inexpensive – especially if you stay away from the tourist bars and restaurants.
And the thing is, if I’d listened to the naysayers, I’d never have known just how amazing Mexico really is. I’d have skipped it and gone somewhere ‘safer’ – and my life would have been far less rich as a result. Like anywhere else, the best way to know what a place was really like was to buy a ticket and just head there myself.
Even if it did mean missing the latest episode of Funniest Home Videos.