Arts & Entertainment, etc. and International Travel and Opinion and Travel and The Traveling Life

TRAVEL: Heading south of the border again and again

August 27, 2011

Katrina and I have made more trips (10) to Mexico and traveled to more cities and towns there (35) than we have to any other foreign country in the last 12 years. Yet, only one prior column mentioned Mexico—the one about several train trips, including the Copper Canyon rail excursion.

Part of my enthusiasm for Mexico comes from being able to speak Spanish passably, increasing opportunities for interaction with the locals and the likelihood of friendly assistance when needed. It also improves our travel options along the way.

Spending my first 21 years in New Orleans and the next nine years in Houston made Mexico quite accessible, which is one reason I studied Spanish. My first visits were long weekend trips to the Texas-Mexico border cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez.

While living in Houston in the 1960s, I traveled the length of the country by driving to Acapulco in the extreme south via one main road and back to the U.S. via the other, stopping along the way at out-of-the-way villages and towns where I encountered no tourists. It was this trip more than any other that instilled in me the desire to travel.

You are probably aware of the tourist attractions in the country, such as Mexico City, Acapulco, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. In those locations, you see gorgeous beaches and world-class hotels and resorts and modern high-rise buildings, along with many of the well-known brands of hotels and restaurants.

But there’s another Mexico, still residing in the third world. There, donkeys walk on dusty roads and markets feature live chickens, hand-woven baskets and piles of dried chiles. It’s a country of gorgeous mountains, steep valleys, dripping jungles, rainforests, modern metropolises, old mission towns, Indian villages and vast coastlines. And its colorful history intersects with ours, including such famous events as the Mexican raid on the Alamo in San Antonio. Remember the Alamo? Sure you do. At least, a version of it.

Mexico made the reputations of such luminaries as Sam Houston and Davey Crockett. Pancho Villa operated in the early 20th century in the town of Chihuahua, in Northern Mexico, the starting point for the Copper Canyon train trip to the Pacific. Before boarding the train, we visited the museum devoted to Villa, who once captured the entire city by disguising his men as peasants going to market. It’s a story even more interesting when you are actually in that market.

Mexico, including the Aztec civilization, was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. The missionaries then followed with their culture and religion, much of which took hold in the country and has remained. Family bonds are important here, as is the Catholic faith. The music, from Marimba to Mariachi, reflects the passion and romance of the people.

Most Mexicans today—about 75 percent—are Mestizos of mixed European and Native American descent with the strongest sense of national identity. Those of purely European ancestry, about 10 percent, still control the country’s political power and economic wealth, just as the Spanish did more than three centuries earlier. It seems there are not many people in between the few very wealthy and the poor.

On the annual listing of favorite cities of the well-heeled and well-traveled readers of Condé Nast Traveler, there are only two cities in recent years that made the top 10 that were so small or relatively unknown that they had to include the name of the country. Both were in Mexico—San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca—and they happen to be two of my favorites.

Both are authentic Mexican towns from the colonial era. You won’t find a Holiday Inn, Starbucks or McDonald’s in either town. The historic centers of both have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and you’ll find little modern construction. Instead, there’s extensive restoration of historic buildings alongside cobblestone streets. The central plazas of both serve as centers of life with impromptu mariachi sounds and, especially in Oaxaca, classical music. San Miguel de Allende, a cultural city, has attracted a North American expatriate community of artisans, teachers and writers, including several from Indianapolis.

 Other places worth going out of your way to visit are Guadalajara, Taxco, Morelia, Merida and Queretaro. Another is the tip of the state of Baja California with such interesting towns as Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, La Paz and Todos Santos.

Mexico has wonderful archeological sites, including Chichen Itza, Tulum, Monte Alban and Teotihuacan. In fact, Mexico has 31 World Heritage Sites, ranking sixth in the world in that important category behind only China (47), Italy (45), Spain (42), France (35) and Germany (32).

One of our favorite activities is sitting outside in the central plaza of Mexican towns, drinking a margarita or having coffee and a pastry while listening to music, people-watching and absorbing the ambiance.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the current violence in Mexico. The Department of State has issued a Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens traveling to and living in Mexico about the security situation there. “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year and the Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes. Nevertheless, crime and violence are serious problems and can occur anywhere. While most victims of violence are Mexican citizens associated with criminal activity, the security situation poses serious risks for U.S. citizens as well. It is imperative that you understand the risks involved in travel to Mexico and how best to avoid dangerous situations. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where criminal activity might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”

Despite the violence, the Mexicans are some of the friendliest people we have encountered in our travels. For your next vacation, consider going south of the border, down Mexico way. Katrina and I might see you there on trip 11 or 12 or 13.•

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Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears occasionally. His new book, “Traveling with Frank and Katrina,” is available in stores now. He can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.

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