Mexico is oft associated with spring-breaking teenagers and escapees of cruise ships that pour into port cities like Cancun. However, the Mexico that I know is so different, a place where stereotypes do not have a lasting foothold.
A favorite area of mine is the peninsula that juts out into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Ocean in the state of Quintana Roo. Whether with a tour group like G Adventures, or on your own, take time to head inland because there is a wealth of culture and history that begs to be experienced.
I usually start on the ocean in Playa Del Carmen where to be sure the Haagen Dazs stands and designer outposts on the main strip do seem to paint a contradictory picture. Don’t be dissuaded, follow your taste buds to a humble taqueria and prepare to swoon. Sure, you can order tacos al pastor in the East Village of New York City but I’ve never had a taco that was better than those I enjoyed with fresh cut limes and a cold, bottled Mexican Coke in a Playa Del Carmen taqueria. For dessert, add a little spice to your night with one of the fire shows that occur after sunset on the beach. It is true that they have now become de rigueur in many places around the globe catering to paradise-seeking tourists but it is in Mexico that it seems they are so appropriate; the Mayans themselves practically call through the swirling flames.
NGO’s like Kanché, who provide tours of sustainable and eco-friendly small businesses, will enable you to meet locals who do not speak another language besides their own. Food, as it so often is, can be the common language. Roadside stands that amount to an open kitchen with a few stools will serve pounded, pan-fried chicken with black beans and rice. It is simple food rooted in history.
Luxury is not the culinary language in the interior of Mexico, not like in the coastal resorts. Yet the food will be more fresh, more authentic. Touring a family-owned farm or orchid-growing facility can serve as a reminder that while an organic stamp of approval has become one of the hallmarks of the sustainable movement in countries like the United States, it’s simply the way it has always been done in rural Mexico.
Take a long walk through one of the bioreserves that are no more than two hours inland from Playa, and see what happens when the cycle of nature is left largely undisturbed. Watch your guide cut the stem of a plant, then insert it in water which will become as red as blood. Perhaps recall the Mayans and their dark sacrificial habits. Are there any still lurking in the pyramids at Chichen Itza? Could they be right about 2012? Your mind may wander out in the jungle, finding more questions than answers. Yet better citizens are made by examination than are made by umbrella-laden tequila drinks, enjoyed from a lounge chair.
It is in the rural communities inland where you can meet women who own their own businesses, a sign of progression that is still unusual. Meeting with a group of such women that create organic bath products and medicine like those at Maya Dzak could open your eyes as to how important it is to take charge of your own future even when others tell you, you can’t.
End your day playing soccer with children, you’ll pass games occurring in every empty lot or cleared plot of jungle. No common language is needed when a love of sport is universal.
The beaches of Mexico are certainly worth enjoying, and call to me whenever I need to relax, but it is my time in the interior of the country that has truly endeared it to my heart. I hope you will one day be able to say the same!