Mexico—and why you need to go

Hay cosas que sentimos en la piel, otras que vemos con los ojos, otras que nomás nos laten en el corazón. —Carlos Fuentes

Mariachis, elotes, cerros, colores. Mexico has it all, and although the current political climate in the United States is committing a grave error by stereotyping our neighbors to the South, you and I don’t have to.

I wanted to go to Mexico for a really long time, but I put it off so my husband and I could make the trip together—I mean, it is his birthplace, after all. The wait was arduous but well-rewarded.

I spent my time in Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guanajuato. My journey there was a bit unique, since I was meeting my in-laws for the first time and I can’t concoct Mexican in-laws for you/fix you up with a Mexican, but I can give you some of the highlights of why you need to go (fair warning: Cancún does not appear on this list).

First of all, the food is fantastic. I think that goes without saying, but it is so good that I will say it anyway. Yes, having three hundred little tacos at midnight is the bomb, and I would never knock the taco, but it goes so much further. Enchiladas, tortas ahogadas (the staple of Guadalajara), tinga, elotes, garbanzos, churros, and a thousand kinds of aguas frescas (jamaica is my personal favorite). I think I ate my weight in tortillas, and I had enough paletas and nieves to supply a small town.

Second, the whole area is shatteringly beautiful. I went during the dry season, and on long road trips—like the pilgramage we made to the shrine of la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos—rolls of the earth and the tangles of blistered nopales went on forever. The city of Guanajuato looks like it fell into a pool of all the colors in the world (see post’s featured photo), and Jalisco’s maguey fields are blue and unending. Plus the sunsets are like . . . unreal.

Third, the music. I say this with a grain of salt, because banda is not my jam (just no), but something about an open and free-flowing musical culture is just generally soul-nourishing. Whether you’re listening to the mariachi groups competing for attention in San Miguel de Allende or a trío of musicians bringing down the house in Guadalajara, music is a big deal in Mexico, and it’s good—even when you’re being woken up at seven in the morning by “Adiós, Amor” booming from a tricked-out sound system after you’ve already heard that song six hundred times. Music makes people lighter.

How to not love Mexico? The dogs at night, the roosters in the morning, the cities where extreme poverty and extreme wealth do a strange dance, the variants of Spanish that rise and fall like singing. I think it’s particularly important to get to know our neighbors now, and you can look at the atrocities going on in Washington, D.C. for two seconds to figure out why (I fielded so many questions about “Trompas” that I can’t even tell you, and there is no good answer to any of them).

And of course I have to talk about the people, the people who made me feel for every second that I was at home. I was brought into people’s kitchens and living rooms and backyards, fed and hugged and loved immensely. I had a lot of long conversations about things like politics and sexism, and I like to think we all learned from each other.

For about three weeks, I spent a lot of my time in rural Mexico, in a thumbprint-sized rancho with less than a thousand people. There is something about this part of the country—the cows rambling in the shade, the women walking from house to house with umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, the young people in the plaza after dark, the altars to la Virgen set up on the hills with candy, prayer cards, and photos of loved ones left behind as offerings—that is both comforting and timeless, something that feels like one long exhale.

I look forward to going back and exploring more of the country. From the stomping grounds I was able to cover this time, here are some places that you just can’t miss:

  1. Guadalajara (Jalisco): The colonial district of Guadalajara is beautiful, and includes many must-sees like its cathedral, which dates back to 1541. Of course, the enormous city has a million other things to do—including book stores, coffee shops, and fabulous shoe shopping, due to a strong local shoe industry.
  2. Tonalá (district of Guadalajara, Jalisco): The districts of Tonalá and Tlaquepaque are the shopping meccas of the city for artisan goods. So many beautiful things—blown glass, handmade furniture, paintings, and more. I bought some beautiful glass pieces for $10. Also, if you can make it on a Thursday, you’ll be able to go to the “tianguis,” or the flea market, where you’ll find 50x more of everything.
  3. Arrandas (Jalisco): This town of about 47,000 people is set squarely in tequila country, and in particular, it’s home to Cazadores—one of the most recognized brands of tequila in the world.
  4. La Piedad (Michoacán): La Piedad’s plaza is gorgeous, and its main cathedral is super impressive. Its streets are winding and charming, and play host to a lot of shopping.
  5. El Cerro del Cubilete (Guanajuato): I’d never heard of this place and I don’t understand why. Located near Silao, it’s a 8,000+ ft. mountain in the middle of rolling farmland, and if you can make it to the top, the indescribable views knock the air out of you.  It’s home to the geographic center of Mexico and topped by a church and statue of Christ that commemorate the slaughter of Christians and the destruction of the first statue during the Guerra de los Cristeros.
  6. La Ciudad de Guanajuato (Guanajuato): Guanajuato gave me #earthfever. The city is plastered by so many colors it’s almost obscenely beautiful, and has a thousand gorgeous cafés, restaurants, hotels, and shops. You can visit the Callejón del Beso (Kiss Alley, so-named because the upper-story balconies are close enough for neighboring lovers to embrace) or, if you’re slightly more morbid, el Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum).
  7. San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato): The darling of ex-pats everywhere, especially the U.S. ones. San Miguel is a well-preserved Spanish Baroque city that levels up on charm by light years. The neo-Baroque cathedral looks like it stepped out of Barcelona, the plazas are filled with mariachi bands, women selling paper flowers, and kids cracking confetti-filled eggs on their heads. Just be warned: there are a lot of ex-pats here, which affects things like prices and overall vibe.

I also toured a slaughterhouse (not recommended), an agave sweetener factory (recommended), went to birthday parties, rode on a motorcycle, and observed an exercise class for seniors, including one very motivated priest. I’ll be returning for the New Year, and I can’t wait to report back on what a Mexican New Year’s Eve looks like. ¡Hasta pronto!