I've always been defensive about Mexico - from the culture, to the safety, to being the authenticity-police on the food and the language. I've been lucky to know Mexico as one of the places my family rooted itself since I was a young girl growing up and even going to school there for some time.
On the contrary, the country of Mexico gets a gnarly reputation for the drug cartel, extortion and desperation. So after my rap on how safe it has always felt to me, how kind the people are, and how ridiculous everyone is for assuming such extremes, I get asked, "Where in Mexico did you grow up?"
My answer usually has people laughing: "Cabo San Lucas."
I'll still defend Cabo, but I finally got the experience I was looking for. I got to know the "real" Mexico. Two immersive weeks of travel through Central and Southern Mexico later, I can speak to my defenses and what I innately knew in my heart about this beautiful culture and country.
My family is in the alcohol industry (ironic, huh?) so I conned them into a trip to Oaxaca that I had wanted to take for my own reasons. It worked out great for everyone. I got to explore a new city that I'd heard so many vibrant stories about, while everyone else got to taste traditional Mezcal.
Oaxaca is made up of lush farms, beautiful mountains, cobblestone roads and dusty colonial buildings painted in bold primary colors. The energy is alive and festive. Music blaring in the streets, spontaneous dance parties where the locals spin you around with open arms, fireworks going off in the middle of the day (yes, the day), loud parades, and plenty of bustling open-air markets.
In one day you could visit Monte Alban, the famous Zapoteca ruins, explore the cutting-edge art scene and attend a mega-street festival such as, Guelaguetza or Dia de Los Muertos. This city is famous for its fiestas as it hosts the biggest of the two main celebrations in Mexico. Progressive and historical all at once, this city is full of dynamic contradictions.
Throughout our entire stay in this city, I didn't question safety one time. Even wandering the streets by night, it actually felt safer than many American cities I've been to. The people are so warm and welcoming, the streets are impeccably clean, and did I mention the food is delicious?
Guadalajara, meaning "Valley of the Stones," is Mexico's second largest city. It's home to just over 5.1 million residents and to the infamous, tequila, which is why my family added this to the itinerary. I came for the adventure. In complete, embarrassing honesty, I'd been to Guadalajara twice before as a kid and remembered it as a sleepy farm town. To my surprise, when I asked locals in Oaxaca what Guadalajara was like, they replied in a saucy fashion, "very ritzy."
"Very ritzy" is far more fitting than my preconceived notion of the place. This big city is modern mixed with ancient. Between elaborate stone cathedrals and more traditional structures are towering, artistic and angular skyscrapers straight out of an architect's dream.
The shops carry true artisanal goods (I mean generations of perfected trade) of items from handmade furniture to high-end clothing by local designers. Restaurants are bougie and malls look like high-end outdoor ones you'd find in the US. A well-educated crowd, this city has been called the Silicon Valley of Mexico. Just outside the city, the surrounding area of Jalisco is covered in endless, beautiful rows of agave, where both mariachis and tequila originated.
The main takeaway from Central and Southern Mexican-culture? Jokes. Bromas y chistes. People in Mexico have such great senses of humor. With a light-hearted air, they always find time to platicar (chat) and bromear (joke). In fact, there are about 11 different ways to say the word, "joke," in Spanish. It's no wonder so many fun, festive things were invented by Mexicans (think: maracas, sombreros, tequila).
Though the fun is real, there's no turning a blind eye or making it all seem like roses and daisies. There are real, dangerous situations happening in Mexico today. Just like in any big city, there's poverty and violence in both of these cities. As Mexico is still considered a developing country (though considered one of the most advanced developing countries in the world according to Investopedia), the slums are real slums. I'm not here to lead you in blind, but here's a final story for food for thought:
As we sat around a table one day with Mexicans, Bolivians and Americans, my mom candidly asked about the safety of Guadalajara with regards to the cartel.
"The cartel? Not to worry here." Replied a Mexican woman.
"What about the safety in general?" My mom asked.
The woman responded: "In the United States you have mass-shootings and terrorist-threats... In Mexico, we have the cartel."
If you didn't get that, read that conversation again.
There's some truth to both assumptions, and there are also plenty of media-construed untruths.
Don't let fear taint you. See for yourself.
What did the "real" Mexico teach me? I was reminded that we are truly more the same than we are different. We are one race, one people, same fundamentals.
We are no more than a reflection of one another.
Oh yeah, and let loose a little.