My list of hidden gems of the Mexican culture
During May 2023 I visited Mexico and I experienced moments that will stay on my mind forever. I participated on a Mexican wedding, ate delicious food, discovered with my own eyes the Mayan history and met interesting people from all around the world.
With this article I would like to share with you some tips. Things that you may did not know about Mexico and you most probably will not find on a regular tourist guide book.
Safety and how secure is Mexico
Let us start with my biggest concern before visiting Mexico, since in Europe we have a bad impression about safety issues of this country. I visited multiple cities and regions around Mexico. From Mazatlan city on the pacific ocean down to the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Chiapas and Puebla and finally the capital, Mexico City and I felt secure the whole time. I did a big part of my journey with a group of other people and other times I was visiting cities with only one other person or even alone.
Yes, I saw plenty of police presence while walking or traveling by bus. From officers driving their bicycles to road-checkpoints organized from the army in the state of Chiapas. I found fascinating the differences in the way the police officers were dressed and behaved. In Merida city (Yucatan state) police officers were friendly and had a european attitude, while in Mazatlan city, police had a more army style and behaved more distanced.
When visiting Mexico I would suggest you to take the usual precautions that you would take if you were to visit a European city.
- Stay low profile while walking on the streets. Do not wear flashy jewelry or watches. Wear comfortable clothes with no big logos or many colors.
- I was carrying my mobile phone and a GoPro camera, however, I retrospectively think that it is possible to carry a larger camera around and take pictures with it. I did not feel that people were starring at my gear. Do not forget that Mexico is a well advanced country and the middle class there is wealthy too.
- Get informed about which neighborhoods are safe and which ones to avoid. For example in Mexico City the La Condesa, Roma, Centro and Coyoacan areas felt extremely safe. From all the cities I visited I consider Merida and Puebla the safest ones.
- The Metro ride in Mexico City is not as extreme as you might think and its a very fast way to go from A to B if you do not have a lot of time to spend in the city. Just bring your backpack on the front side of your body and you are good to go.
The colored houses
Let us move to something that blew my mind away and made me fall in love with the country of Mexico. The bright and colorful walls of the houses. I visited touristic cities like Merida, but also smaller cities like Cholula, in Puebla state, and they all share in common the bright colors people painted their houses with. Walking on the streets of Mexican cities is always an experience. On every corner new yellow, green, red or blue painted houses are waiting for you to discover them. Go ahead and touch their walls, feel their paints and take pictures in front of them. Most of the times you can spot the older colors behind the newest ones and this reveals you the history behind each house. You can see the old letter signs, some of the houses were repair-shops or bakeries many years ago. I loved the way the different colors were connecting between the houses and took many close up pictures of these interesting color combinations.
Most of the buildings are one storey houses and there is a reason behind it. In the old times the Mexicans belonging to the middle class wanted out of prestige reasons to be the only family living in a house. This is why they built only the ground floor of a house. This architecture lets the sun and the wind pass uninterrupted through the streets and gives you a vacation perspective, even in bigger cities. Explore more than the historical center of a city. Merida or San Cristobal de las Casas offer some neighborhoods with fantastic architecture, close to the center. I suggest you to walk a lot, be open minded for what you see and explore the colors, the smells and tastes these neighborhoods have to give you!
The street food
I loved it! There are numerous of street food stands on every street especially in Mexico City. The most common food served on the streets is tacos. Forget about the tex-mex tacos variation we know in Europe. When you order tacos in Mexico, you will get a thin soft tortilla bread made out of maize. On top they will put some pieces of meat, similar to the gyros or kebab meat we know in Europe, fresh chopped tomatoes with onions and finally parsley. That’s it. Maybe some avocado for my vegetarian friends.
During the day but mostly after the sun goes down many Mexicans open up their doors of their houses and sell homemade cooked food. I found that to be the case in many neighborhoods in Mexico City and in the Puebla state. I guess this is a thing in other Mexican cities too. The variation is enormous. Meat, vegetables and fruit salads just to name some of what is being offered. Always accompanied by tortillas. The owners often sell homemade beverages too like banana juice and you will have to drink the Micheladas which is beer combined with lime and chili.
You do not want to miss the food markets of the cities you are visiting. These places are one of the most lively places downtown where you can buy different types of chili peppers, eat exotic fruits, vegetables and tacos or drink a hot chocolate or a fresh pressed mango juice. Raw meat like chickens are also to be found and the food market seems to me as a meeting place for the Mexicans and visiting them is a great way to learn about the culture of the country.
Driving in Mexico
I have to admit it, before visiting Mexico my impression was that I will find a place still struggling to catch up with the western countries in terms of roads infrastructure and driving mindset. It turned out that this belief was totally wrong. I noticed only a few road holes while driving and Mexican drivers are less crazy and more careful than Greeks (:P).
A thing that you are definitely going to notice on the Mexican roads is the road bumps. They are everywhere on the roads of small towns or villages in order to make people drive slower. Maybe the motivation of the driver is to pass them with minimum speed so not to damage her car, but these things really accomplish their purpose.
The quality of the transportation by bus is exceptional. Bus coaches are far more comfortable than their cousins in Europe, departures are made at the predefined times, arrivals done earlier than expected and great customer service is offered. During my stay in the country I rode multiple times with ADO and Primera Plus buses.
The soda drinks and snacks obsession
Thats a funny one. The food in Mexico is definitely a highlight, but what made me great impression was that people in Mexico love drinking soda drinks and eating snacks. There are so many different types of them, most of them unknown to us in the European market.
In the Chiapas state, where the majority of the population is Mayan Indians, Coca Cola has also another very interesting usage. It is being used on religious celebrations as a substitute to wine, which represents the blood of Jesus Christ. People take bottles of soda drinks into the churches and leave them there as an offer to the saints. They also drink them while visiting their relatives on the cemetery who passed away. It is a way of cherishing the connection between the alive and the dead people.
Another observation is that since water quality is poor in most of the Mexican cities, people tend to drink more and more soda drinks to satisfy their thirst. In San Cristobal we were even advised to close our mouth when we were showering so that we do not swallow the contaminated water.
Speaking of snacks, you can find plenty of modified bikes traveling around the cities where the seller is carrying a big amount of different snacks which you can buy and combine them with different homemade hot sauces. Doritos chips seems to be the most favorite type of snack. My advice to you is to try just a bit of a hot sauce at the beginning. They might all look like innocent ketchup sauce but some of them can be really spicy.
The Volkswagen Beetle car
This iconic car from Germany can be found everywhere in Mexico. The Volkswagen factory in Puebla used to build this type till 2003, so seeing a Beetle driving on the Mexican streets is far more common than in Europe. Some of these cars are well maintained while others in a decaying state. I mention it again, Mexico is all about different and bright colors. The Beetles could not be an exception to that rule. Red, green, yellow and blue Beetles parked on the streets combined with the colorful walls behind them give you opportunities for great photos. Take close up photos of the details of the car and do not be afraid to pose on the side way, mimicking you entering the car ;)
Speaking of cars, for your transportation in Mexico City I can certainly suggest you Uber. The quality of the provided cars might not be the best, however, you get drivers who know the streets and do everything they can to navigate you away from traffic jams and drink you as fast as possible to your destination. Prices are fair and I always felt safe when riding an Uber car.
The Uxmal Mayan ruins
Yes, Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatan state, is the most famous Mayan pyramid in Mexico and you will most probably visit it. However, the hidden gem of the Mayan old towns is called Uxmal which is also in Yucatan. Smaller pyramids can be found there, but the connection between the ruins and the surrounding nature is undescribable. Only a few tourists where there when I visited the ruins and in addition a great Guide told us everything we needed to know not only about the ruins but also about the Mayan life in general.
You will learn about the dark sides of the Mayan people, like the human sacrifices but do not focus only on that perspective. The Mayan civilization did some incredible mathematical and astronomical discoveries. You are going to see dozens of iguanas around the ruins and you can take some great pictures without having the hordes of tourists following you.