Flight Centre’s Susan Wonders explores the culture and excitement of Mexico.
It was our last night on holiday. “Before you leave, you must taste the real Mexico,” says our waiter, “One of you,” he looks to my husband and back to me, “must have the chicken mole poblano.”
I consider fighting my husband for the right to it, but the dish has his name written all over it. His idea of great food is to take his favourite things and eat them together for a culinary taste explosion. Chips and icecream. Nougat and beer. So chicken mole poblano – or, for the uninitiated, chicken in a chilli chocolate sauce – is right up his street.
I decide to play it safe with the enchiladas.
Big mistake. When the chicken mole arrives, it is delicious – not too chocolatey, or too heavy on the chilli. The sauce gives the chicken a spicy warmth. It is intense, rich and dense with flavour. My husband lets me try two forkfuls, then he shields his plate with his arms and eyeballs me across the table. “Eat your enchiladas. They’re getting cold.”
I’d forgotten the first essential for getting the most out of Mexico: a sense of adventure. Although it’s not the most challenging country for travelling in by any means, there are plenty of things here that are quite unlike home – no part of the day is ever dull.
The morning wake-up: At home you might be content with a coffee or a trip to the gym, but here the best way to spend a morning is to dive straight into a bit of sun worship. And where better to do that than in the ruinous cities of some of the world’s most well-known sun worshippers, the Aztecs and the Mayans. There’s a reason for this timing, of course – much of Mexico can get hot in the middle of the day, so the relative cool of the morning is far more conducive to trudging round the large sites. (Chichen Itza, for example, covers around 6.5 sq. km, while barely-excavated Coba is spread over a vast 80 sq. km.)
Meet with locals: On land and in sea, Mexico has a wide variety of fauna, and sometimes they can pop up in unexpected places. Iguanas crossing the road south of Cancun. Spider monkeys in the jungles around the ruins. Crocodiles eyeballing your hire car as you slow near a lake. And if you’re a diver or snorkeller, you’re in luck. Depending on where you go, you might get manta rays, turtles, barracudas and even whale sharks. As for one of Mexico’s most famous – and creepy – residents, the tarantula, we spent a week looking out for them but, thankfully, didn’t see one.
Heat up at lunch: Here, the humble sandwich should be off your menu; there are too many other great alternatives. Mexican food is not only eaten but also celebrated, and the style bears little resemblance to the sad imitations often found in New Zealand. The ideal dish is a blend of bold colour, aroma, decoration and herbs and spices – which often include that Mexican staple, chilli. They’ve got the use of it down to a fine art; archaeological evidence shows that people in Mexico were growing and eating chilli 1,500 years ago.
Imbibe some culture: The Aztecs and Mayans may not have appreciated the Spanish roaring into Mexico in the sixteenth century, but for visitors today, the art and architecture they created are some of the country’s highlights. Many colonial cities retain their old town plan, cobblestone streets and historic buildings. Several city and town centres are in fact UNESCO World Heritage zones (Mexico actually has more UNESCO listed sites than anywhere else in Central America, and the fifth-most in the world). Afternoons are a great time to head into the great cool spaces of the cathedrals, monasteries and museums before venturing out to do some shopping.
Forget the All-Blacks: Unless you’re in mourning, you’ll want to leave that dark New Zealand palette at home in your wardrobe. In Mexico colour is a way of life, splashed over everything – houses, garden walls, monuments and churches – and boldly represented in traditional crafts. Your house will thank you if you bring a bit back. Chances are you’ll be tempted by what could be the world’s most useful souvenir, the striped blankets that are often sold by roadsides and in most resorts. They’re perfect picnic rugs. Or bargain for some traditional belts, fabrics and jewellery. At the very least, make sure you pick up a woven fan – cheap, cheerful and helpful against the heat.
A drink before dinner: In other global hot spots, you might try a gin and tonic, or, if you’re a teetotaller, perhaps a lemon, lime and bitters. Here, it’s beer, all round. Or tequila (possibly in a cocktail). Or the very popular chelada (also known as a michaelada), which is basically beer again with some additions. It comes in a variety of forms, with the most common being beer, salt, lime juice and chilli or hot sauce. Serve in a salt-rimmed glass, accompanied by homemade taco chips and (chilli) salsa, next to a golden stretch of beach and you’re set.
Party like it’s 2010: Mexicans stay up late. Whether it’s the tequila, the cheladas or the mostly superb weather, both city nightspots and resort bars are packed until the wee hours. Add to that the many different holidays and regional festivals, from the famous Day of the Dead, Mexico-wide, to the International Mariachi festival in Jalisco, and an excuse to celebrate is never far away. However, if you’re planning an early night, beware that it’s hard to escape the party fever. Even the humble local restaurant gets in on the act. On our first night staying in the outskirts of Cancun, we sat down for a quick meal in what seemed to be a quiet restaurant. But it turned out the adjacent table was having a birthday, and before we knew it, a rousing family band had set up at the side and was belting out their tunes.
It’s a rollercoaster ride, but as a reasonably touristed destination, you can do Mexico the hard way or the easy way. The hard way involves lots of (sometimes very slow) public transport, a bit of waiting at airports, train and bus stations – and possibly the occasional encounter with a chicken. It’s rewarding, but you’ll want time, patience, plus a good smattering of Spanish.
The easy way is to concentrate your visit in one area, take a flight to one of the main cities and stay at one of the many resorts. Then hire a car to explore a bit further afield. Less Spanish required. Or if you’re time poor and keen to pack in as many highlights as possible, without spending days on the road, consider taking a cruise. These days it’s easy to fly in to one of the American cities on the West Coast and cruise down, with a couple of longer cruises even going all the way round through the Panama Canal to Cancun. Or take a cruise to Cancun and around the Yucatan from Miami. You can even book it all from here.
But either way, don’t forget to pack your sense of adventure.
For hot deals to Mexico and other exciting destinations, visit the Flight Centre website at www.flightcentre.co.nz or phone 0800 427 555.
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