Many countries fall victim to this but Mexico might get it the worst. Most people from the States have been there. They’ve went to an all-inclusive resort in Cancún or Cabo for Spring break or a quick weekend away. They got shuttled straight from the airport to their resort where they drank their sorrows away within the confines of said resort. They said “Hola or Adiós” one or two times and were super happy to get a passport stamp on the way out. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, nothing wrong with it at all but I want to dive into a bit more detail into the Mexico I saw and lived in. We think of Mexico as a quick vacation destination for the wealthy, the source of illegal immigrants that cause all these “problems” and the pathway in which cartels get drugs into our borders through underground tunnels. Sure, we stereotype many countries, but Mexico, since it is our closest neighbor, might get it the worst. I’m here to share my experience on what I see as a vibrant, colorful country with amazing people and culture. Mexico to me isn’t the resort destination but the taco carts and mezcal bars, the local famers markets and the lucha libre matches.
For my last and final month on Remote Year, I spent 5 weeks living in Mexico City. Mexico City, by metro population, is one of the most populous cities in the world and its elevation is 1.5 times higher than Denver’s. It is such a big city area-wise that there are several “neighborhoods” that operate more like mini-cities due to having everything one might need within its confines. We stayed in the area of Condesa and spent much of our time there. This was partly because it had everything we needed but partly because the traffic was so bad that a 30 minute walk would take 28 minutes in an uber. From about 4-8pm, you really didn’t want to travel too far in a car so having everything we needed within a 20 minute walk was quite nice. I guess they save the best for last because my apartment this month was the nicest of the year as it had two floors, a huge, open kitchen/living room and a little patio. Because of this, Yun (my roommate again this month) and I had a few get togethers. The first, he made Korean tacos for the Remote Year staff and second where we “drank around the world” with many of our friends. This was definitely a nostalgic month so we all tried to spend as much time with each other as we could.
The food this month was definitely my favorite part. Mexican food was my favorite type of cuisine before the trip but trying the authentic flavors of Mexico puts it far and away as my favorite now. The food is super simple but so delicious. The taco, something we all know and love is simply a corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat topped with cilantro and chopped white onion. That’s it! No cheese, no lettuce, no tomato, no sour cream. Just a few simple ingredients served with your choice of hot sauce. Every little taco stand, hole in the wall spot and restaurant had their own home-made hot sauce. Each one was a little different and most were way hotter than anything you can find in American tex-mex restaurants. The green one was always the hottest and I spent many of my meals sweating from getting a bit over-ambitious on my first couple of bites. So anyway to recap, the tacos are simple, delicious and all cost less than $1! At my favorite lunch spot, I could get 6 tacos, chips with 4 different types of salsas and a Dos Equis all for $6 including tip. The dollar still goes far in Mexico and if you find the right place you can find the most delicious meal you’ll have for less than a subway meal back home. I also ate at some very fine dining establishments this month and that is part of why Mexico City is so great. On one corner you can eat at a delicious taco stand and on the next you can have a modern, fine-dining take on Mexican cuisine which gives you two perspectives on how a certain dish or certain ingredients can totally be transformed.
Each Tuesday, they would block off a street near our workspace and have a farmers market. This was a market like I’d never seen before. It was a huge maze of fresh produce and fruits (many of which I had never seen before) and lines of vendors cooking up fresh tacos and other dishes. Behind the food, were rows of huge cases of freshly made horchata with so many flavors to choose from. I loved just walking around that market and taking it all in. It was like a little city once you were in the middle of it and it had everything you could ever need. This side, the local side, is what I really remember about Mexico City and came to love.
Another myth I was able to de-bunk by living in Mexico, is tequila. We all think there are so many different kinds of tequila from different regions and so on but really tequila is a lot like Champagne. Tequila can only be called by that name if is made from one certain plant (blue agave) and from a certain region – Tequila, Mexico outside of Guadalajara. Like Champagne and sparkling wine, Tequila might be the most popular spirit made from agave but it is far from the only one. Mezcal, which is becoming more and more popular in the states really is the traditional drink of Mexico. There are hundreds of varieties of the agave plant and each of them mature at a different time. Blue agave, used to make tequila, reaches maturity at about 7 years and then is aged anywhere from 30 days to a couple of years which gives you the different styles (blanco, reposado, anejo – which translate to white, rested and aged). Every other agave plant used to make a spirit is by default mezcal just like every sparkling wine made outside Champagne, France cannot use that name. Since there are many different varieties of agave with different maturation times, there are so many different types of styles, flavors and smokiness to mezcal . In fact, in rural parts of the country most people make their own mezcal in their backyard. It truly is the drink of the Mexican people.
In the beginning of the month, we were suprosied that we got laughed at several places for ordering margaritas. They aren’t a popular drink to the locals and most restaurants do not even serve them. Grocery stores don’t even carry margarita mix. What do the locals drink? – shots of mezcal or a paloma (mezcal/tequila mixed with grapefruit juice/soda). Just like every country has its unique way to drink, most of the locals would take tequila or mezcal shots throughout the night and maybe sip on a light mexican beer in between. I loved finding little hole in the way mezcal bars and tasting a flight of several different types. Many were way too strong for me but they were cool to taste.
During the month, we did many fun things like attend a traditional Lucha Libre wrestling match, enjoyed a hot air balloon ride over Aztec pyramids and ruins and spent my birthday in the beautiful city of Tulum with its many underwater caves. There really is tons to do in Mexico and because we were there for five weeks and many of us didn’t want to go anywhere else our last month, we were able to participate and enjoy many activities within the city.
Mexico City also had a pretty good craft beer scene and I was able to meet and talk to most of the owners as they shared with me the emergence of craft beer and different styles of beer within Mexico in the past five years. The Mexican people are extremely friendly and more intelligent then they let on. You can ask if they speak English and they will say no, but they will most likely understand everything you say and speak it themselves just fine – they just feel more comfortable speaking Spanish. It really is a refined city with modernizations you would expect in any city here. Traffic, and because of this, smog is a problem but it also is in most developing country’s biggest cities. I’m so glad I was able to live in Mexico City and really experience the culture and realize its not all beaches and margaritas. I am hopeful that the Mexican economy can continue to grow so the middle class can begin to flourish and that more Americans decide to visit cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara, San Miguel and Oaxaca so they can see the true beauty of this great country.