Thinking about the three months Austin and I spent backpacking through southern Mexico in 2013 makes my heart soar. It is easily my favorite travel experience to date, and certain places we discovered on that trip have become my favorite spots on the planet. There were so many peaks on this journey, it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. But I’m going to try all the same:
Campeche, Cancun, Chichen Itza, El Panchan, Isla de Mujeres, Merida, Mexico City, Mitla, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Palenque, San Cristobal de las Casas, a secret place, Teotihuacan, Tulum, and Valladolid, Mexico.
Best Place We Stayed
Posada Don Mario
We stumbled into Posada Don Mario after a long day of travel and several hours of wandering the streets of Oaxaca in search of an affordable place to set our packs down during Semana Santa. The prices were very reasonable, our room was small but colorful and comfortable, and the staff was absolutely delightful. A delicious cooked-to-order breakfast was included in the price of our room, and the hotel was walking distance to just about everywhere we wanted to go. We extended our reservation three times while staying at Posada Don Mario – we loved it that much.
On the morning we left the cleaning lady chased me down. I had struck up a friendship with her as well as the breakfast cook – two middle aged Oaxacan ladies with gold in their teeth. Neither of them spoke any English, but I made an effort to smile and converse with them in my scattered Spanish whenever we crossed paths. They both embraced me as I left, and the cook took my hands in hers. In very strained and obviously practiced English, she told me “You are very beautiful girl. You have very beautiful life. Please come back soon.”
I truly cannot wait to do just that.
Best Thing We Ate
We ate well in Mexico. We often cooked for ourselves using local vegetables, and tortillas and cheese made locally. We also spent many meals on the beach, feasting on fresh fish prepared in a variety of ways. But I’m going to have to cheat here by declaring the best thing we ate in Mexico to be… well, a drink.
Mezcal was a very fun (and quite affordable!) discovery for me. We tried a number of varieties during our time in the country – crema, anejo, blanco – sampled everywhere from mezcal factories, to city tasting rooms, to homemade brews sold in Coca Cola bottles in small town tiendas. I loved the earthy flavor and the way it warmed me up on chilly mountain nights or kept me pleasant long after the sun had set over the ocean. A few weeks ago Austin and I stumbled upon a bar in Breckenridge, CO that served the same brand of mezcal whose tasting room we had visited almost a year before. We paid way too much for a single shot, but the agave aroma instantly brought me back to some very happy places.
Best Place We Visited
Oaxaca Oaxaca OAXACA. Absolutely. Definitely. Definitively. No doubt about it in my mind. The beaches were beautiful. The mountains were stunning. The capitol city my new favorite in the universe. The people were kind. The culture diverse and fascinating. And the food? The food was pretty damn good. I have seriously considered returning to Oaxaca for some extended Spanish courses. Really I have been searching for an excuse to revisit for a year now. I miss this state, those beaches, and that city in the same way I miss my childhood pets. I cannot wait to return to Oaxaca’s sweet, sweet embrace – hopefully sometime soon.
Favorite Archeological Site
We visited many amazing archeological sites in Mexico. Teotihuacan, Tulum, Monte Alban, Mitla, and Chichen Itza were all incredible in different ways. But the jungle setting of Palenque took my breath away. Maybe it was that the heavy greenery made wandering the massive site feel more intimate. Or maybe it was that the architecture felt so different, almost eastern in comparison to the other pre-Columbian sites we visited. Staying at the traveler’s compound of El Panchan made the experience that much more interesting. Falling asleep to the calls of howler monkeys was very, very cool.
Best Decision We Made
6 Weeks of Sun
Getting ‘stuck’ in our secret place (yes, it’s still a secret!) was without a doubt the best thing we did during our time Mexico. Yes, had we moved on sooner we would have been able to see more, but staying in one place for six weeks allowed us to become a part of the community of this beach town. We fell easily into a healthy routine of swimming, walking the beach, and yoga, and when we left I felt the best I’d had in years.
We really only went to the Districto Federal in order to fly back to the states. I had heard many unappealing things about the city from both travelers and people who had never been. After delaying our departure from Oaxaca so many times, we wound up in D.F. for barely 3 days, and only because I was bound and determined to see Teotihuacan. In the end the city totally blew me away, and I can’t wait to return with a little more time to spare.
San Cristobal de las Casas
The situation with the street children in San Cristobal was so difficult for me to witness that it at times felt suffocating. While I loved the city, in the end I couldn’t bear to turn another child away from my table. I’m not proud to admit it, but it really wore me down. Ultimately the constant begging was the reason I had to leave when I did.
What I’d Do Differently
For a first-time trip to Mexico, I’m really happy with all of the decisions we made. In the future however, I don’t really see the need to return to the Yucatan Peninsula. We chose to fly into Cancun because it was the cheapest rate we could find. But for the most part I found the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche to be hugely overpriced. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t beauty there. I loved the colonial town of Valladolid and the cenotes we explored. And I would have regretted it if I hadn’t visited some of the more famous ruins in the area. But I felt the value for our money was much, much better in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and even D.F.
On The Next Trip…
Our original plan was to start in Cancun, and then make our way north until we could catch a ferry to Baja California. From there we planned to return to the states overland via San Diego. I’m still very interested in exploring the country north of D.F., though I worry that my love affair with Oaxaca would keep me from moving once I’ve gone back. Maybe the best way to do it would be to start in the north and move south, so that Oaxaca is the grand finale?
I cannot stress enough how amazing this country is. It breaks my heart every time I hear someone describe it as anything other than beautiful. I understand that the news coming out of Mexico can be very scary these days, but that wasn’t the Mexico I experienced. My Mexico was not only safe, it was warm, and loving, and fascinating, and rich, and yes… at times it was poor and even desperate. But it was always, always beautiful.