Well gang, it’s officially been a month in Mexico.
Four weeks ago, I landed in Mexico City, unsure of what I would encounter but incredibly excited for the vastness of possibility.
Four cities, a small gaggle of new friends and a roller coaster of emotions later, I feel like a new person in some ways — one who is constantly re-establishing her needs, wants and personality in new places and with new acquaintances, often in a new language. The normalcy of routine is gone, but in its place have come so many lessons, realizations and a small understanding of life lived in different cities and towns — ranging from trivial to enlightening.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
1. Culture is everywhere. And much of it is free. Free museums, free performances in the parks, live music on the streets. Art of all kinds, thrives, and is welcomed.
2. Oaxacan craftsmanship, in particular, is intricate and inspired. Save room in your carry-on just for the incredible food (coffee, chocolate, mezcal) and goods (wooden, leather, woven, pottery) you’ll find here.
3. The people are beautiful. And dressed colorfully and differently, and selling beautiful, interesting things.
4. But be careful about taking photos. Many people in Mexico and Central America are genuinely scared to have their photos taken — they believe it steals their soul. So pull out your camera with caution.
5. Mexican markets are some of my favorite places in the world. Lively and almost always packed, you’ll find some of the best food, here.
6. Oaxaca is packed with them, considering its small size. Artisan markets, food markets, produce markets, you name it, you’ll find it in Oaxaca.
7. Agave grows like a weed in Oaxaca. You can’t walk a block without seeing some.
8. And it makes an incredibly diverse spirit. Mezcal has the capacity for a very wide range of characteristics — spicy, smooth, earthy, herbal and sweet.
9. Hand-smashing it makes all the difference, too. Small operations? Those are probably giving you the best mezcal.
10. Altitude sickness is a real thing. Mexico City has elevations of up to 12,000 feet above sea level. The highest elevations in the state of Oaxaca are about the same. Consider than Denver is only about 5,500 feet above sea level. So if you feel symptoms (rapid heatbeat, dizziness and confusion or even vomiting), don’t be surprised. It’s likely to pass after a day or two.
11. The climate, in Mexico City, is similar to San Diego. Think 50s to 70s, pretty much all year. Warm afternoons; cool nights. Layering is essential.
12. Except from June to October, it rains a lot. Expect daily downpours in that time, when the city typically gets more than 30 inches of rain.
13. And navigating the intersections in CDMX is TOUGH. Someone decided that six and eight-street intersections, and a lot of them, were a good idea. The challenge of walking in a straight line has never been greater.
14. But find a way, because eating on those streets is a good idea, especially in Mexico City. The street food is everywhere, it’s cheap and it’s not to be missed as it was recognized by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of mankind.”
15. Eyeballs are tasty. So are brains, and grasshoppers. Get out of your uninformed headspace. Brains taste like scrambled eggs with cream cheese. Grasshoppers taste like potato chips. You like those things, right?
16. Brain juice is also very difficult to get out of jeans. So lean over something, would ya? Ply your lap with napkins. Because if that mess gets on you, you’ll spend 3 weeks and 4 lavendarias trying to get it out.
17. There is a limit to the appetite for tacos. Hot take, I know. But it’s true. Try eating them for 17 meals in a row. They will eventually become less interesting.
18. And other things on tortillas, too. There are a lot of things on tortillas here. And the tortillas are really, really good. But after 27 meals, I want something else.
19. And corn in general. You get my point.
20. But real carne asada is the best thing in the world. Like whoa. Proper carne asada — cooked over open flame and adorned with salsa, grilled vegetables, avocado and soft, soft tortillas — will make you nearly pass out from happiness.
21. Don’t expect anyone to bring you a single lime with your beer — but you might get an entire plate. Plus salt and chili seasoning, of course. A single lime in a beer is not a thing, but TONS of lime with salt and chili — aka a Michelada — is.
22. Lettuce is also not really a thing. Good luck finding any that isn’t brown around the edges. After searching for a while, you’ll understand why most restaurants don’t use it.
23. But the fruit is amazing. Fresh and sweet and juicy and everywhere. Can we implement fruit and fresh juice stands on the streets in the states??
24. In general, the cuisine is not very diverse. OK, an asterisk here. Mexico as a country actually has a lot of variations in its food from place to place, but finding cuisines beyond that is a bit tough. Some towns have “Asian fusion” or “sushi,” but most aren’t of the quality you can find in the U.S.
25. Except in San Cristobal de las Casas. Yeah, San Cristobal is a different story. Looking for Thai, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, Korean, Italian, French, Spanish food? You can find it all!
26. By the way, San Cristobal is my favorite place in the world. It’s somehow quaint and bustling, international and indigenous, all at once. The people are friendly, the streets are filled with markets and live music and amazing food. And it’s one of the most beautiful locales I’ve ever seen — tucked into the mountains where it feels like fall all the time.
27. Did I mention they have $1 wine? Cheap! Wine! That! Comes! With! Free! Snacks! And! It’s! Actually! Good!
28. Actually, Chiapas is the cheapest state. Despite the sometimes fancy feel in its chic and stylish cafes and restaurants, Chiapas is quite affordable across the board. Hooray!
29. FWIW, Mexicans make great wine but they rarely drink it. You wouldn’t believe it, because you don’t see wine on many menus because it’s just not part of the culture, and when you do, it’s often very expensive and *not* Mexican wine. But it turns out the stuff made in Mexico is delicious! And they’ve been making it since the 16th century when the Spanish arrived. Why don’t we hear about it more?
30. People really like their celebrations in San Cristobal — at 4 a.m. Festivals are a regular deal in San Cristobal, especially in August when the town celebrates a variety of patron saints. How do they celebrate? Well, with a lot of extremely loud explosions throughout the night, every night. And bands that march through the town at 4 a.m. Now imagine all of this in a valley surrounded by mountains on each side, effectively making it an echo chamber, and remember that a lot of houses are partially outdoors. Cool!
30. In Huatulco, huachinango (red snapper) is plentiful and delicious. Those waters are chock full. And it’s some of the best fish you’ll eat.
31. And there is nothing better than cooking it on open flame and eating it whole. Best to stay at an amazing Airbnb and let your amazing host help you.
32. It’s really F-ing hot there though. The normal climate? 85 to 90 with 65-85 percent humidity rates! And no AC! Sweat will be dripping off your arms and legs faster than you can say “I want to buy all seven fans, please.”
33. Like really. Guys, I’m not kidding. It’s hot! Your brain starts to shut down.
34. Thank god there are beaches — more than the advertised 36. Huatulco is known for its nine bays, containing 36 beaches, according to the tourist books. But there are actually more! Ask the locals. They know.
35. Composting in Huatulco is the law. So everyone does it. Mind-blowing!
36. Also impressive: the streets in Mexico are immaculate. This is true in most cities, including huge ones like CDMX. There is no culture for throwing cigarettes or spitting gum onto the streets. And you’ll see people manually sweeping them — or throwing soapy water on them — constantly.
37. It’s best to carry wet wipes and tissues on you at all times. Bathrooms are less clean. They also often don’t have toilet paper. And sometimes you don’t want to touch the sinks. So there you go.
38. And apparently I use too much toilet paper. I have learned this based on the amount of toilet paper I am given at the places I stay and how quickly I run out.
39. P.S. you can’t flush it here. Most bathrooms, including where you’re staying, will likely ask you not to flush your TP. There’s a trash can instead. I know, kinda gross, but the toilets just get clogged too easily.
40. There are so many cultural differences. Big ones, smalls ones.
41. People don’t care about money so much, and they’re not defined by their careers. Wow, there’s a big one for ya.
42. But a lot of children work. This is heartbreaking. Supposedly 10 percent of kids in Mexico work. Travel around, and you’ll realize some of them are REALLY young, age 4, 5, 6. They sell things, they beg. But often times, the money doesn’t actually go to the child, but to a handler out of sight.
43. House plants are a necessity. Every window, home or business, is filled with them, in colorful pots.
44. But WiFi, apparently, is not. It’s hard to find very fast WiFi in most places.
45. Hot showers are a luxury. So don’t take them for granted. You may not have them all the time.
46. Postcards are very hard to find, mail is very expensive and it takes forever. Outside of very touristy places, postcards are not typical. And if you send one, it may take two months to arrive.
47. You need to get used to noise. There’s a lot of noise, everywhere. Loud music. Trucks that drive-by broadcasting advertisements. People calling out their wares on the street. It’s normal here, so get used to it.
48. Patience while walking is necessary. Walking etiquette does not exist. There is no getting out of the way to let someone pass. Stopping suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk is common. And the typical pace of walking is verrrrrrryyyyyyy slooooooowwwww.
49. Lines rarely mean anything. So don’t expect them to mean anything. Oh, you were first? That’s cute. You’re going to need to fling yourself at that cab at the airport taxi stand if you want it.
50. At airports, you pay for different things. Like printing a boarding pass and for overweight carry-ons.
51. On highways, the shoulders are used liberally. Passing cars on two-lane roads ain’t no thing. Passing on turns ain’t no thing. Passing even though you can only see 10 yards in front of you ain’t no thing. And if you’re the oncoming traffic, well, that’s where the shoulders come in.
52. But Mexican buses are pretty dang luxurious. There are reclining seats, ample leg room, movies and bathrooms! With toilet paper! Wow!
53. Service at places fancy and casual is almost exclusively tableside. Very rarely do you order something at a counter. Even at very laid back coffee shops, you’re almost always getting table service. Sometimes your coffee arrives on a tiny tray or with a tiny canister of milk. It’s all highly luxurious.
54. People are very casual about when you pay your check. Rarely do you pay first. Even for coffee, even at food trucks. You casually eat your food, somewhere nearby, then go pay. No one is stressed out about it.
55. You tip 10 percent in restaurants, you don’t tip cabs but you do tip the people who bag your groceries. It’s true! Save some coins for the baggers.
56. But in so many ways, we’re also the same. We all have families, we all have struggles, we all have joy, we all like drinking beer in the sun.
57. Mexicans should probably hate Americans but most don’t. Instead, they’re overwhelmingly friendly and gracious and kind and open. They smile. They listen. They love.
58. I’m learning so much about myself. A lot I tell you.
59. I can go minimal and be OK. When your things disappear, you realize you can still manage just fine.
60. I actually brought too much. I’m making a list of things to ditch next time I come through the states.
61. Traveling without an end date is different than traveling any other way. It’s not vaca, it’s life.
62. So it’s OK to take a day off. You need this. You didn’t go non-stop in your normal life, right?
63. I’m navigating through extreme highs, yes, but also extreme lows believe it or not. With my entire life flipped upside down, I understand anxiety and depression in a new way.
64. Constantly saying goodbye is exhausting. To places, to people, to momentary routines.
65. But constantly saying hello is invigorating. I’m also always meeting new people, seeing new things.
66. I miss the most basic things. Like coffee and the newspaper in the morning, like making eggs in my kitchen, like my bedroom slippers.
67. But I’m starting to understand what’s truly important to me. And it’s not necessarily what I thought it was.