FITTING A SOMBRERO into your luggage is actually quite difficult. Lesson learned.
Technically, since I visited Mexico three years ago this month, I’m writing this in complete retrospect. It’s funny, though, because although I was greeted by smiles, salsa and sunshine some time ago, the Mexico-shaped imprint is still so clear that it doesn’t feel retrospectivo at all. For a moment, after the trip was booked, I thought myself fairly ‘out there’ for travelling to Mexico. It was the most far-flung place I’d been to, but when I realised that the land of tequila and tacos was in fact one of the world’s Top 10 most visited countries, it transpired that I wasn’t that ‘out there’ at all. It was a pity, for all of five minutes (which is how quickly the 10 ¼ hour flight felt). There had to be a reason for why Mexico is so popular.
You might have had this yourself, too, but I’ve sometimes felt a little underwhelmed when stopping off a plane. You know that experience, when you think ‘Oh… is this it?’ Probably unnecessarily pessimistic of me, but I have to say that my first impression of Mexico was a little like that: the sky was wonderfully overcast and I had to chomp my way through the 98% humidity to make the slightest sense of where I was. My fears were nonetheless allayed once I left Cancún Airport by the beaming little Mexican man I christened Pablo hurling bottles of Corona to us on the way to the hotel. (I was no longer in the EU, that was for sure.) And thus began my Mexican experience, with an ice cold Corona in hand on the Riviera Maya: a small strip of land on the Yucatán Peninsula, sandwiched between toucan-filled tropical jungles and the Caribbean Sea. It’ll come as no surprise then, to know that this little corner of the country has experienced a huge boom in tourism over the past twenty-five years. That said, it’s a intensely historic part of Mexico with a strong identity – it has its own langauge and was the hub of the Mayan civilisation, and you don’t have to stray too far from Cancún (which, let’s face it, could be anywhere in the world) to discover the Mexico you’re longing to see.
There is a wealth of things to do here; tourists of all inclinations are spoilt for choice. For thrillseekers, if the variety of open air eco-theme park-resort-aquarium-garden-zoo-attraction-things such as Xcaret, Xplor or Xel-Ha, (and they’re fond of the letter X round here) aren’t enough, perhaps you can find something worthwhile beneath your feet. No, literally, because beneath the huge expanses of rainforest is a completely different world. Cenotes (pronounced say-no-tays) are unique to Mexico – specifically this region – and they are deep, pit-like holes that lead to a whole network of underground caves and waterways begging to be explored and naturally, make for unforgettable diving experiences.
But if, like me, you prefer normal oxygen to H2o, or something that looks less like the Greek Underworld, there are other options. Take Valladolid, for example, one of the area’s main towns. It is unmistakeably Mexican, boasting the evidence of Spanish colonialism as well as the scruffy-but-chic Mexican backstreets with brightly painted walls and cigar-smoking señores sitting in the shade in their vests. Another destination is sunny Playa del Carmen, a scaled-down and far less-Americanised hub of activity on the coast. It’s commercialised, yes, but not like Cancún and you can at least believe you’re in Mexico here. If you do feel the need to escape from humanity for moment or two, it’s the place to catch a short ferry over to the island of Cozumel which is, I’m told, a world-class destination for scuba and snorkelling.
To quote the cliché, variety is the spice of life (yawn) and in every sense of the word, they don’t come spicier than Mexico. Its cuisine is renowned for its exploitation of chillis, but wait! Is the French cuisine limited to just snails? Mexican food is, I think, a bit misunderstood in that it has had a reputation of big, beefy, bolshy chilli-and-cheese dishes piled onto it from its Texas neighbour. In fact, real Mexican food is complex but simple, light but powerful and as vibrant and colourful as the country it belongs to. Like all Latin countries, food is an integral part of life, and no less so in the haciendas of Mexico. If I can’t convince you, perhaps the fact that Mexican cuisine is the only national cuisine to be protected by UNESCO will?
And finally, if you’re after a generous slice of Mexican culture then Tulum is certainly special. I’m not a huge ancient history fan, but visiting a Mayan ruin (however similar they might all look to the amateur eye) is #8 on my Travel Bucket List, and they don’t come more impressive – or indeed more Mayan or ruined – than Tulum. Once you get over how old the site is, with its crumbling walls and the detailed carvings into these walls, its location is what really steals the show. It’s stunning. It was built here for the reason being that it faces the sunrise, and it seems to be where the sea, the land, the sky and the sun all meet, at a perfect junction that happens to be atop a rocky cliff above turquoise sea. For that I can’t thank the Mayans enough.
I do have a slight bone to pick with these Mayans, though. Yes, Tulum is beautiful, but I remind you it’s exposed to the skies. The Mayans didn’t want shade, you see, because they built Tulum entirely around the movement of the sun. Selfishly they didn’t think about the people who’d come and visit their city hundreds of years later, least not the ones who aren’t used to 41°C (106°F) Mexican summers… Never mind – I came back culturally enriched with a decent tan, at least.
The tan wore off, of course, but Mexico’s spell hasn’t. I admit, my time in Mexico was brief, both in terms of time and geography, but I don’t feel too bad about it. Why? More than any other country I’ve visited (so far), Mexico’s spell has had the greatest effect on me. It is the perfect travel destination: it’s exciting, intriguing, vibrant, stimulating, alluring. Few other countries have such a clear and rich cultural identity and heritage as Mexico. It is brimming with history, good food and tradition, not to mention the vast array of flora and fauna across a diverse landscape, from the scorching Sonoran Desert to the north to the lush forests of the Yucatán in the south. If you couldn’t already tell, I’ve become a Mexicophile and I will no doubt return here time and time again.
God, I feel tipsy with nostalgia writing this. Excuse me whilst I make myself a quesadilla.