What to know before you go
Article written by Julian Luca for TRAVA Travel
I’ve been fortunate enough to do some decent travelling in my life...
In my time I've managed to see a lot of Europe, a fair chunk of the States and a good amount of Asia. Earlier this year my travels took me to Central America. I didn’t quite know what to expect and for better or worse made the decision not to over plan or prepare too much for the trip. I knew it was going to be different and I was looking forward to soaking in the surprise of it all.
If I'm being honest, my original idea of Mexico might have been slightly influenced by movies and taco commercials. It was hard to know exactly what to expect:
I knew Mexico City was one of the biggest cities in the world, but was everyone dressed like the 3 amigos?
And did the girl who ended the hard shell/soft shell taco debate live in the same blood soaked, war torn towns as the cartels?
In this article I'm not going try and school you on everything Mexico and ruin the surprise.
Instead here are a few tips that might clear a few things up and make your Mexication that little bit better.
Happy Travels ✌️
IT'S NOT THAT DANGEROUS
Nothing says Romantic Getaway like Sunsets and the Military
According to The Institute of Economics and Peace Mexico ranks just behind Palestine, Israel and Venezuela as the 22nd most dangerous country In the world. To be fair I was a little worried about what to expect, but in the whole month that I was travelling through Mexico I never once felt close to unsafe and neither did anyone else that I spoke to.
Every now and then you will see military vehicles loaded with soldiers and artillery that reminds you of some of the struggles that the country is going through. You hear stories about people being mutilated, and tourists being kidnapped, but as I said at no point in time did I or anyone else I met feel threatened.
In saying that, like all places you should be careful, try not to stick out too much, don't go out alone if you can help it and stay away from cities that are notorious for violence like Tijuana, Juarez and Acapulco.
GET A LITTLE LINGUAL
You’d probably be surprised by how much Spanish you already know. If you were around in the late 90’s, The Offspring would have taught you how to count to 6 and you are probably familiar with terms hola (o-la), adios, gracias, cerveza and maybe despacito. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make you fluent - but you don’t have to be.
With basically no prior Spanish training I was able to have conversations with locals within a couple of days of arriving. To be fair, I didn’t really know exactly what was being said, but a little understanding, some hand movements and access to a translation app opens a lot of doors to conversations you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Hola Chicos, puedo (Camera action) un photo ~ Hey Kids, can I (Camera action) a photo
It is definitely worth doing some homework before you go. There are heaps of language learning websites, YouTube videos and Audiobooks that can help you get familiar with the basics of Spanish. It should be noted that Spanish is spoken differently all around the world. I found Mexican-Spanish speakers to be clear and easy to understand + learn from. In my experience the same cannot be said for Spanish-Spanish, and Argentine-Spanish speakers.
The best way to learn Spanish, (or any other language) is to completely immerse yourself in it. Enrolling in a language school in Mexico is a great way to learn the language and meet new people. There are many language schools in Mexico that offer short + long term tuition. These schools usually operate with core morning classes and optional afternoon classes. I found most students tend to take the afternoon to explore the city or surrounding towns with their new classmates. A few times a week the schools also organise cultural activities like dinners and visiting local attractions.
Many schools also give you the option to live with a local family. That way you are forced to practise and have no alternative but to get great at it. The home stays also help you develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the local culture and cuisine.
KNOW SOME HISTORY
Roughly 40kms North of Mexico City lies the ancient Mesoamericn city of Teotihuacan
MEXICAN HISTORY IS INSANE - that's the only way to put it
Just a few highlights:
The Gods made people from corn
There was A LOT of human sacrifice
An eagle eating a snake on a cactus determined the location of the promised land
The Mayans had such a great understanding of Astrology that they were able to design buildings whose shadows would appear as animals on festive days.
They were invaded by giant white aliens with 2 headed horses.
A Mexican ruler gave away a large portion of the current United States in exchange for his life... he would eventually die.
Now, obviously I am not doing any of the history justice, but even if you're not a history buff, it is almost criminal to travel through Mexico without understanding the events which have shaped it into the country that it is today.
You can get a lot of information from books or the web. Daniele Bolelli does a pretty interesting podcast on the conquest of Mexico if that's your thing
Otherwise you can pick up a lot of history by doing a tour. I did a Contiki tour and as well as being a lot of fun travelling around with other young people, our tour guide was pretty cool and really informative. It’s also a great way to travel if you’re solo and worried about safety or language barriers.
IF YOU DON'T LIKE TEQUILA...
LEARN TO LIKE TEQUILA
I’m a fairly adventurous person, I’m always open to trying weird + wonderful things which have included delights like pig brains, chicken feet and grass hoppers.
However, I like many others had been traumatised by tequila too many times in my adolescents - so much so that the smell alone would cause me to roll into a ball on the floor and cry.
You can visit Mexico and not drink Tequila...
But it's just more fun if you do.
Although I wouldn’t say I love Tequila now, I can definitely tolerate it a lot more, and I owe it all to the magical healing powers of cocktails.
If you don't like tequila, but you want to... use margaritas, tequila mojitos and tequila sunrises as a gateway drug to get you back on the real stuff.
You should also stay away from white tequilas, the darker stuff has been aged longer and is better quality. Mezcal is a smokier version of tequila and is f-ing delicious. Oh and if you’re at a bar and see a snake venom tequila... Definitely do it - It's Awesome!
Hope this helps, sorry in advance for the hangover
It was hard work learning to like Tequila, but we got there thanks to my good friend Margarita
BRING YOUR DANCING SHOES
Let me make this clear, I'm not a dancer. I’ve never been a dancer, I’ve never wanted to be a dancer, but in Mexico… you have to be a dancer.
Music runs through Mexican people's veins, you can feel the rhythm in the way people talk, through the colour of the buildings and the flavours in their food. It should not be a surprise then, that Mexican people know how to move to music.
There is a good chance that if you are travelling through Mexico, you will find yourself in a Mexican bar, with Mexican people, all doing the Salsa. I strongly recommend that you don’t stand in the corner with your arms folded. Have a tequila or 2 if needed, and get on that D floor!
I was lucky enough to be hanging with some locals the first time I popped my Salsa cherry... they were gentle and happy to help the gringo through the experience. Within a few hours I had danced with half the dance floor and was even throwing in some twirls and dips. I’m sure I looked ridiculous but fuck it, I had a good time.
THE FRIDA EFFECT
Celebrated Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo is one of the most popular and celebrated icons in the Country
Wherever I went in Mexico I kept seeing paintings and photos of this perculiar woman with a very identifiable monobrow. I soon discovered that that woman was Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist prominent from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. She and her works are famous throughout the world and is celebrated for her iconic representation of Mexican culture and the female experience.
Even if you’re not into art, it’s worth knowing Frida’s story. At 16 she nearly died in a terrible bus accident. She suffered traumatic injuries from the disaster which included broken bones all the way from her collar bone down to her feet and damage pelvis from a steel rail that pierced straight through her hips. She had a volatile relationship with fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She was heavily involved in politics, had affairs with world leaders and had her own mini zoo at her famous blue house which included all sorts of exotic animals like fawns and monkeys.
There are some interesting Frida Kahlo documentaries on YouTube, and Salma Hayek played her in the film Frida which is available on Netflix.
EXIT TAX SCAM
If you arrive in Mexico by car, boat or foot you will have to pay a tax to leave the country.
However if you arrived via a commercial flight you ‘shouldn’t’ have to pay the tax
(Roughly AU$35 from memory)
When you fly into Mexico you pay a departure tax and receive a FMM card. By either showing this or an itemised receipt for your flight you are supposed to be exempt from paying the exit tax. Unfortunately, it’s called a scam for a reason. The border crossing people are notorious for making this a difficult routine and forcing tourists to pay the extra money which goes straight into their pockets.
In my case, people were getting charged different amounts for the tax and it seemed that by the end of the line the border people were more willing to acknowledge the documentation. If you are leaving the country (particularly by boat) just have a chat with the other travelers who are boarding with you, make sure you are all informed and understand what is going on, and that way you will have the best chance of holding on to your money.
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