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Viva Mexico – it’s not all tequila, salsa and sombreros

The rugged beauty of Barrancas del Cobre.


Viva Mexico – it’s not all tequila, salsa and sombreros

Mexico is a warm and welcoming country with an enticing combination of history, food and cultures. BRUCE McMAHON adventures into the ancient and colourful villages and landscapes that have yet to be taken over by hordes of tourists.

The story of Mexico stretches back to the Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs, through to Spanish colonials and then independence in 1821. The result is a mix of indigenous foods, ceremonies and beliefs blended with European influences and architecture.

While modern Mexico City boasts wide boulevards, majestic plazas and soaring cathedrals alongside today’s skyscrapers, there are also hundreds of rural villages from mountain tops to seaside plains where old adobe buildings, 16th century churches and horse and carts are still used.

Across city and country there remain ties to ageless days through food and festivals. This is a colorful country of contrasts, best engaged (and best understood) outside the resort complexes favoured by some gringos. Forget the Hollywood versions and explore an enchanting, multi-faceted country.

The city of Mazatlan, about halfway down the Pacific coastline, offers both old and new. For a more authentic experience check into the old town where well-worn hotels such as La Siesta overlook the ocean and boast the 1950s-1960s history of guests such as authors Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey.

Colourful streets of Oaxaca city.

People-watch from a seaside balcony, lie on the beach, wander old and narrow streets to centro historica’s bustling markets for buys from clothes to food to souvenirs. Choose from any number of great restaurants for that night’s dinner (seafood is excellent), and take in the charms of the small Machado plaza on a Friday evening.

Mazatlan sits in Sinaloa, one of 32 states and one known for tales of drug cartels. Yet this is a safe and sociable city and as one 60-something expat Californian says, she’s far more worried about her daughter’s safety getting home from work in San Francisco each night.

Eating out in Mexico, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, is forever a treat. There’s always a choice and rarely is something too hot in taste.

The Australian dollar isn’t always grand so it can be $A40 for two for a big breakfast, maybe $A80-plus for dinner. That’s with a couple of coffees or beers or margaritas.  Mexicans aren’t big on wine. It’s available in fancier restaurants perhaps, and not so much in many  eating places. But the beer is always good and cold. (Craft brewery Tres Islas in Mazatlan is worth a longish walk from the beach.) And there’s always the magic of mescal.

Better be quick if headed to Mazatlan town, as the word is that North Americans are discovering this is a top spot for working remotely and are moving south for a better, cheaper work-lifestyle balance.

There remains a swathe of Mexican cities, town and countryside where travellers have room to move, where there are precious few touristas from outside the Americas. There are beaches, jungles, mountains and desert to explore plus that intriguing edge to Mexico – without the chocolate-box prettiness and piety of Europe which helps sort out the travellers from cruise-liner, group-tour tourists.

Take Oaxaca, a World Heritage listed city and named the Best City in the World in 2023 by Travel and Leisure magazine. Even during Day of the Dead celebrations, when the city swells with visitors, streets accommodate folk and festivities and fireworks without feeling crowded and without busloads of gringos.

This is a magical city, full of folk art and artisans with ties to age-old traditions such as elaborate, hand-made rugs, wood carvings and pottery.

There’s all manner of accommodation from grand old hotels to bungalows. And there’s plenty to see in strolls around the town. Taxis are cheap enough to head out for a mescal distillery tour, a trip to Mount Alban’s ancient ruins, a visit to the world’s largest tree at Tule or the bustling Sunday markets at Tiacolula (the last one a must for goods from foods to clothes to handicrafts to furniture or simply a great day out). Oaxaca is worth it for the food alone, from world-class, new age Mexican with wondrous combinations to street food. It’s aways fresh.

Tomatoes here, in one of their home countries, are full of proper flavour. So too avocados and chilis, so salads and salsas are outstanding. Mexico is also home to the Caesar salad.

One of Mazatlan’s beaches.

There are hundreds of other beaches and cities and villages to explore through Mexico. Mazatlan and Oaxaca and surrounds are just two examples offering up fine slices of Mexican histories, cultures and foods. Hundreds of other restaurants and bustling markets and festivals are also still to be discovered.

For a toe in the water, try Rosarito just over the US border. It’s a little ramshackle in parts but quieter than some other Pacific coastal towns, or Tijuana, 22km north.

Australians don’t need a visa to visit Mexico for up to 180 days but will need a United States’ ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) for travelling via the US.  And yes, there are warnings from authorities about travel there but In seven visits, we’ve never seen any dramas or felt concerned for personal safety. Mexicans are always relaxed and welcoming.

Viva Mexico! As one seasoned traveller exclaimed after her first visit in 2023 – “Mexico, I’ve had you all wrong.”


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