MEXICO. What surprised me the most

I’VE BEEN TO the USA over 70 times. Set foot in 43 states. When I first went there back in the 80s I was amazed at the lack of social cohesion. It’s worse now with the political divide and I don’t go there anymore.

But I had never been to Mexico. Now I have and I’m glad I did. What a wonderful country! Why did I leave it so long?

If you’ve never been you really should consider it. I went for my son’s wedding in Cancun and also spent a few days in Mexico City, one of the world’s most fascinating metropolises. Everything was fabulous, but what amazed me most was just how absolutely Mexican everything is.

All the clichés, everything you might think about what Mexico might be like – it really is  like that, only moreso. The food really is Mexican food. They do drink lots of tequila and margaritas. They do play mariachi music. And that they are very, very proud of their country.

I mentioned in the lack of social cohesion in the states. Mexico has its problems, but I had a long conversation with a cabdriver in Cancun about life in Mexico. He spent 10 years in the states, he said, but it was always us versus them. He was earning good money, but he came back to Mexico because people look after each other and society means something.

Okay, so it’s only anecdotal and one guy, but I saw it everywhere. People are happy, they support each other, and they are very welcoming of strangers.

When I was researching my Top 100 book I looked at the visitor numbers for countries around the world. Mexico is the 10th most visited country on earth, with 35 million visitors a year. But 30 million of them come from the USA, an incredibly high percentage. The other side of that coin is that 80 Americans travel internationally each year, meaning that Mexico is by far their most popular destination.

All of which means the tourist industry in Mexico, which is very big, is geared around Los Gringos. I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but judging by the number of resorts everywhere, most of these people stay in them, closeted from the real Mexico and only venturing out to dip their toes in the water before returning to the safety of their compounds.

That’s no way to travel. You gotta get out and get a feel for the place and mix with the locals and do their thing. Many people are concerned with Mexico’s high crime rate and violence, and to be sure it’s there. The drug war kills thousands each year.

But for the average visitor doing regular things Mexico safe enough, and certainly better than most of Latin America. You just take the normal precautions.

Cancun is an interesting place. It’s a holiday town that didn’t exist 50 years ago, when the Mexican Government and its business cronies decided it would be a great place for a resort area. And that’s just what they built. There is a long strip of land between the Caribbean and a large lagoon with hundreds of resorts catering to foreign–mostly American – tourists. I stayed in one of them for a few nights to be near the other wedding guests, but I had a much better time staying downtown where the real people live.

Diego Rivera

Mexico City

Mexico City blew me away. Over 20 million people and counting. I stayed only a block off the Zocalo, the main square in the middle of town, flanked by the Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitana, the largest and ugliest religious structure in the Americas. The palace was great, largely on account of Diego Rivera’s fabulous murals around the central courtyard. There are over a dozen of them, each of them very large and depicting a different aspect of Mexican history (see above). I bought a big book of all his murals and watch that Frida Kahlo movie after I got home.

I also visited the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, one of the largest museums in the world and certainly the best for pre-Columbian artefacts. A full day wouldn’t give it justice. A jumper came from there up to two famous houses, Casa Leon Trotsky and Casa Azura, where Frida Kahlo lived. They are only five minutes walk from each other.

I stood in the room where the great Bolshevik got an ice pick through the head in 1940, that interested me a lot more  than Frida’s house, which is one of the most visited places in Mexico, full of young women visiting the shrine of the interesting artist who has become something of a feminist goddess.

I took the Metro back to the city centre, and most crowded and dirtiest train I’ve ever been on except in India. It’s the cheapest on earth, but avoid it if you can.

I think what I liked most about Mexico is the food. I’ve always liked the cuisine but of course you get it done really well in its homeland. The variety is much greater than you might expect if all you knew of it was what you get in your local Mexican restaurant, and it was uniformly excellent. And I like the fact that in just about every shop I went into the man behind the counter surreptitiously offered me a shot of tequila. That’s service.

When I got back home I read T.R. Fehrenbach’s monumental history of Mexico, Fire and Blood. All the best works of history have ever read, from a man who was an insurance salesman before deciding to become a popular historian. The sheer scope and violence of Mexico’s long history is astonishing. It’s amazing the country survived at all.

Now I can’t believe it that it took so long for me to get to Mexico. I want to go again.

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