This article is from the July 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
Tourism A to Z
by Jane Onstott
A frequent contributor to the Mexico File, Jane is currently updating the fourth edition of The Insiders’ Guide to San Diego. She lives in San Diego County. A couple of middle-aged housewives resuscitate their rusty high-school Spanish in order to flirt with the cute young waiters bearing icy, handmade margaritas, which prove helpful in loosening the tongue. The waiters are delightfully chatty and attentive – just what the women need to remind themselves that soccer moms and dutiful wives are goddesses too.
Snowbirds and many older travelers have a different agenda. They want to move their home base to a warmer, or maybe just more exotic, place and set up housekeeping for several months or more. They commonly return to the same sites, seeking familiar restaurants, social clubs with Tuesday night bridge games, and friends who return year after year.
A stressed-out business exec dons well-worn tennies and comfortable jeans, jettisoning her $120 patent-leather mules for another sort of mule – well, a burro actually – one that will transport her to the bottom of Chihuahua’s Urique Canyon. She puts her trust in god, the guide, and the burro (not necessarily in that order) and enjoys the sheer thrill of the deep-drop, granite block scenery. At least all decision-making is out of her hands.
People travel for all sorts of different reasons – for adventure, to meet new people, to escape their jobs and to relieve the routine of daily existence. And whether you want to spelunk or just de-funk, there are more options than ever for a holiday in Mexico.
There are small escorted tours, booked ahead from your country of origin. These usually have an English-speaking tour guide and sometimes another person to coordinate travel and accommodation, and local guides are sometimes hired as well. Another option is buying day tours once you arrive at your destination. This gives more flexibility (unless it’s a small city with only one or two tour operators); try to get a recommendation from a fellow traveler or the state or municipal tourism office. Cruises offer an entirely different sort of vacation; and don’t forget the big-bus tours many of us associate with travel to Europe. (“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Tlaquepaque.”) Some families pile into their vans or SUVs and simply hit the road in “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” mode, but most people have limited time and specific goals.
Within the past decade, we’ve been given a whole new range of travel options. Ecotourism, adventure, cultural, and educational tourism, sustainable tourism, and rural tourism are the new buzzwords of the travel industry. By the time you’ve researched all the new options, you really are ready for a cold one by the pool.
The term is self-explanatory, and usually involves straying from the crowds and, often, challenging oneself physically. Rock climbing and rappelling, spelunking, cave and sink-hole diving, and mountain bike treks involve greater risk, burn more calories, and are geared for those who want to physically challenge themselves as well as commune with nature. Although by no means limited to the 20-something set, it’s geared to a youthful market and the guides and often the operators tend to be young aficionados of the sport in question.
Not surprisingly, some of Mexico’s premier nature-based excursions are to areas least visited on traditional vacations, including the mountains and gorges of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the lush river valleys of la Huasteca, and the tropical forests of northern Veracruz. Rafting enthusiasts and kayakers take advantage of warm waters and a growing number of adventure tour operators in Veracruz.
Other adventure tours, such as whale watching in Scammon’s Lagoon and Mag Bay, in Baja, offer gratifying encounters with some of nature’s most interesting creatures without much physical effort by the client. Both the more active and passive types of adventure tours may involve overnighting in one-, two- or three-star hotels, hostels, or campsites, although many begin or end in 4- or 5-star hotels in the destination/departure city.
What’s Out There?
Nearly six percent of Mexico’s national lands (30 million acres) enjoy various levels of protection as national parks, biosphere reserves, and other designations administered by federal or state government. National parks generally are most accessible and have the most infrastructure; biosphere reserves may be difficult to find and have limited or no services. Both reward the traveler with beautiful – or just plain strange – landscapes and the opportunity to visit tucked away hamlets little visited by outsiders.
Northern Mexico’s deserts can appear bleak and boring or fascinating and beguiling, depending on your tastes, the amount of water you’re carrying, and your tolerance for dirt and for heat – or in the winter, snappy cold nights and dawns.
Foreboding and far from civilization, El Parque Nacional del Gran Desierto del Pinacate is not the destination for the idly curious. Throughout the moonlike landscape of El Pinacate (named for a local dung beetle), in the great Sonoran Desert, is the largest collection of volcanic craters and cinder cones in the world.
Largest of the steep-sided holes in the ground, Cráter Elegante rises dramatically from the flat desert floor. Measuring about a mile from rim to rim, the chasms walls rise 165 feet in the air. This and the surrounding craters were most likely created when boiling hot magma encountered groundwater – forming explosions that blasted through the earth’s crust. Hundreds of smaller cinder cones and underground lava tubes can also be explored within the 1.8-million acre park. Four-wheel drive is helpful but not required; a high clearance vehicle is a must. Backcountry camping is allowed, and there are two basic campgrounds but no facilities. The best time to visit is spring, when the weather is mild and wildflowers may be in blossom. All visitors must register at the main entrance gate, 32 miles south of the Sonoyta border crossing (at Lukeville, AZ).
If mountain landscapes attract you more than deserts, Mexico has a cluster of climbable peaks southeast of Mexico City. Between the capital and Puebla, the shapely volcano Iztaccíhuatl (“White Woman”) lures many mountaineers to its 17,237-foot (5,254 m) peak. The summit climb is non-technical (which is not the same as “not difficult,” it just means that certain types of equipment are not required!). There are quite a few different routes to the top, and although the peak can be scaled year-round, September through the beginning of May are most recommended. Those who prefer their air laced with oxygen may prefer hiking or picnicking closer to the base of the legendary mountain.
Higher still, Pico de Orizaba (AKA Citlaltépetl, which is Nahuatl for “Star Mountain”) is a classic, cone-shaped snowy peak at 18,871 feet (5,750 m) above sea level. Hearty souls who make it to the top will, on a clear day, spy quite a few other peaks: Malinche, Cofre de Perote, Iztaccíhuatl, and her highly active neighbor, Popocatépetl, which is closed to climbers. Hikers can explore the pine forest trails around Citlaltépetl’s primitive base-camp shelter (accessible only by four-wheel drive). The best months to climb Pico de Orizaba are October through May.
The shifting dunes of glistening gypsum and pristine oases of Reserva de la Biósfera Cuatrocienegas require no strenuous effort to visit. In the little-visited northern state of Coahuila, hundreds of crystalline pools are formed from subterranean aquifers and mineral springs. The individual composition of the springs causes them to have different levels of clarity and color. Only a few pools, and a section of the spring-fed Mezquites River, are open for swimming, but it’s worthwhile to tour as much of the area as possible. The easiest way to visit is to bring your own vehicle and hire a guide in the town of Cuatrociénegas, about 51 miles from the city of Monclova. It’s a relatively short drive to Monclova from the Texas border at Piedras Negras or Nuevo Laredo.
While the aim of adventure touring is plainly to challenge the body and engage the senses, the goals of “ecotourism” are more obscure, or at least defined with some difficulty. One of two central tenets is involving the community in the traveler’s experience in a meaningful and profitable way. Another is that it protects the environment. For example, a successful ecotourism project might provide a poor community an alternate source of income to environmentally harmful activities such as logging evergreen forests. Locals might guide visitors to caves or waterfalls, lead horseback riding or hiking outings, rent campsites or lodgings with simple eateries, and sell homemade jams, liqueurs, agricultural products, or crafts.
A subsite, so to speak, of ecotourism, rural tourism is the industry’s most recent buzzword. In Mazatlan, tourism officials promote tours to the sleepy town of El Quelite, where tourists visit a rooster breeding farm, a tortilla factory, and a bakery. They are sometimes treated to a pre-Hispanic ball game before sitting down to a typical lunch of grilled meat and made-that-moment tortillas in the home of the town’s doctor and leading citizen, Dr. Marcos Osuna.
More directly involving indigenous communities are a string of “Tourist Yu’u” lodgings in Oaxaca state. Comfortable cabins were built by the government in places like Benito Juárez, a village in a pine forest overlooking the Oaxaca Valley and Santa Ana del Valle, a traditional Zapotec rug-weaving town. Villagers must cooperatively maintain and manage the facilities. The community earns a modest profit and travelers get reasonably priced accommodations in interesting, out-of-the way areas where there are otherwise no lodgings.
Chiapas state has a similar program, with accommodations in places such as Frontera Corozal, where those traveling to the Maya ruins of Yaxchilan can spend the night at community-run Escudo Jaguar. The cabins have wide verandahs with hammocks. Inside there are ceiling fans, screened windows, and mosquito nets. Overlooking the river, the restaurant serves both snacks and full meals.
Many tour operators simply slap the word “ecotourism” on their brochures, with a vague reference to outdoor activities or encounters with locals performing traditional dances or selling crafts. Other operators and environmental groups are working slowly but doggedly to truly involve local communities, to encourage use of solar power, preserve precious water resources, and to educate local entrepreneurs and guides about the benefits genuine ecotourism offers.
Cultural and educational tours
It’s nice to learn something when you travel, and even when someone else does the research. A knowledgeable guide might explain why, for example, the ancient Maya mural at Cacaxtla retains its vivid red, yellow, blue, and black pigments while those at Bonampak, in Chiapas, have faded dramatically.
In Mexico, myth, magic, and superstition are a part of daily life, and this lore – no doubt a combination of fact and fantasy – finds its way into the banter of guides both worldly and humble. As long as you’re not using the info as exclusive research for your doctoral thesis, the tidbits of local lore can are often more entertaining than an excess of historical facts.
That said, I was conducting research last time I visited the ruins of Teotihuacán, north of Mexico City, and was seriously dismayed when my guide informed me that that great city had been razed by the Aztecs, when in reality the former predated the latter by more than 500 years. From that point on, all of the information he gave me was suspect. In any case his primary goal was to usher my Japanese tour-mates and me into a restaurant where he could cool his heels and no doubt receive a free meal. (We refused, insisting he take us to see the ruined apartments of Tepantitla: if we couldn’t learn anything, we might as well see as much as we could.)
Locals aren’t the only ones dispensing misinformation, however. On a recent trip to Cabo, my American horseback riding guide told us there is only one type of iguana, and several other dubious facts. Those who are sticklers for accuracy – delivered in perfect or near-perfect English – may prefer the high-end tours offered by National Geographic and The Smithsonian. These and other university-, museum-, or research-based tour operators are geared to well-heeled travelers willing to don sturdy walking shoes for a bit of indulged adventure. These clients want to see Mexico but particularly value getting accurate, detailed information about the places they visit, as well as comfortable accommodations.
National Geographic ( www.nationalgeographic.com ) usually offers several cultural/educational trips to Mexico each year. This November there’s a photography workshop in the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato state. A photographer with 20-something years shooting for National Geographic will school a small group in the fine art of capturing images on film. Participants pay $2,090 for the 8-day tour, supported by an NG photo editor, a tour leader, and local guides. This year’s Mexico trips through the Smithsonian ( www.smithsonianjourneys.org ) include one to the Copper Canyon and another to the Maya ruins of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The 13-day Maya civilization trip costs just under $3000. Both NG and Smithsonian tours cover accommodations, most meals, tips, and local transportation, but not international airfare. The main selling point of these tours is the knowledge and experience of their trip leaders. Other cultural and educational tours are run by locals or expats who live and work in Mexico. In Oaxaca, potter Eric Mindling’s Manos de Oaxaca ( www.manos-de-oaxaca.com ) leads participants far off the tourist track. Most of his clients are potters and weavers looking to add traditional forms of artistic expression to their craft. In addition to studying traditional methods of dying, weaving, mask making, and pottery, they’ll experience life in the Mixe or Zapotec villages that they would otherwise have no opportunity to visit. A typical 9-day journey into the mountains, with market visits, weaving or pottery demonstrations, and side trips costs $1,380 (with 5-6 participants, a few hundred less per person with 7-9 pax). Expect rustic lodgings and basic but clean and healthful food while in the mountain hamlets. If it’s cooking that fires your cultural curiosity, study Mexican culinary arts with Susana Trilling, owner of Seasons of My Heart cooking school ( www.seasonsofmyheart.com ) outside Oaxaca, Oaxaca. Susana and her husband Eric own a small ranch in the rolling countryside near the village of San Lorenzo. You’ll scour bustling markets for locally grown ingredients and learn to prepare unusual regional dishes. Trilling now offers regional tours to areas such as Tehuantepec, where women literally run the marketplace (and just about everything else); men till the fields and can often be seen swaying in hammocks in the shade. This ancient culture is fascinating. The women – tall, plump, stately, and proud – drink plenty of beer and dance together on feast days and at parties in their elegant and arresting clothing. The Tehuantepec tour (12 days; $2,300) combines culinary classes with cultural immersion. I’ve mentioned here just a few examples of adventure, educational, and cultural tourism. Many other less-than-traditional tours and trips can be found speaking with other travelers, cruising the web, and in future editions of The Mexico File! Information on more traditional travel, such as cruises or air and hotel packages, is available from most any travel agent as well as on the web. Whether you choose to go alone or in pairs, in a car or on one of Mexico’s comfortable first or deluxe class buses, or on an arranged tour, you can bet that each trip will be an adventure, with surprises both pleasant and exasperating. Just sit back and let that burro lead the way.Things to See, Places to Go
Many of Mexico’s most cherished annual events are well-known and well-publicized: Veracruz’s Carnival, Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza and Radish Festival, Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino, and many more. Listed below are a smattering of suggestions for destinations a bit off the main road: festivals, workshops, or year-round events that I’ve seen and admired or have been told are worthwhile.
Art and Art Festivals
Each year on the East Cape (best known for the windsurfing), north of La Paz on Baja’s Gulf of California, the Los Barriles Arts Festival (AKA East Cape Festival de Artes) is a wonderful event held the last Sunday in March (sometimes early April). Sponsors of the non-profit event keep entrance fees low and so lure scores of talented artists from all over Baja California Sur. Most are visual artists but over the years there have been crafters too, selling jewelry, pottery, and textiles. Everything must be made by hand by the vendor him- or herself: you’ll find nothing shipped over from Guadalajara. It’s held outdoors on the grounds of the Hotel Palmas de Cortez (tel. 624/141-0050). To really enjoy the festival, stay at least one night at the beachfront hotel, which has a pretty swimming pool and tennis courts. During the festival there are performances, several outdoor bars, plus food vendors.
In November of this year, the state government of Yucatan and environmental groups such as Pronatura will host the second annual Unite for Birds Festival, in Merida. It’s a week of workshops, social events, exhibits, and birding – more than 400 species can be spotted. Birds are identified in Spanish, Mayan, and English; most but not all of the workshops are conducted in Spanish. For information contact www.ecoyuc.com/toh.html . Charreadas are worthwhile events often overlooked by foreigners visiting Mexico. Almost always held Sundays at noon or in the early afternoon, the charreada is a demonstration of horsemanship inadequately translated as “Mexican rodeo.” Sure, men do amazing things with lassos both on and off their horses. Men compete both individually and in teams, while women’s teams, called escaramuzas compete in highly skilled but less demanding (and dangerous) events. The drama is intense and the beasts are beautiful, as are the riders in their stunning costumes. Most charreadas also feature regional dancing, food, and of course, mariachi music. The custom is deeply rooted in Guadalajara, but prevails throughout the north, central, and Pacific states.Festivals of Music and Performing Arts
Each May Morelia gears up for the annual International Festival of Organ Music. The series of concerts is one of the few times each year the lovely cathedral’s 4,600-pipe organ is used. The 6-day event draws musicians from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and of course, Mexico. Perhaps better known and more widely attended are San Miguel de Allende’s Festival Internacional de Jazz, held in late November, and Cancun’s Festival de Jazz, held for a week in late May. In Mazatlán, the entire month of November is dedicated to cultural events, many held at the renovated, 19th-century Teatro Angela Peralta in the heart of Old Mazatlán. May is the month to enjoy crafts, fine art, regional dancing, and other cultural events during Puerto Vallarta’s Fiestas de Mayo. Meridians in the sweltering state of Yucatán take advantage of the slightly cooler weather in late October and early November to hold their own ambitious cultural fair, Oto o Cultural.
Here is a good resource for researching different types of travel. Some define types of tourism, others have columns, book reviews, and chat groups/postings. Check them out at www.MexicoConnect.com .