For our 20th wedding anniversary, we were looking for a trip of a lifetime. We wanted to commemorate the achievement of making it through the years together, a trip that could serve as a true celebration of our relationship. My mind drifted to visions of Europe, spots I’d been before and loved (France, England, Germany) and places I hadn’t yet been able to explore (Italy and … well, Italy!).
While brainstorming, my husband suggested Mexico City. I thought he was joking. Who travels to Mexico City? The images that Mexico conjured for me were foreign, impenetrable lands deep in trouble: gang wars, violence, poverty, a wasteland.
Why not just go to Europe, I pressed. In Mexico we could get kidnapped, robbed, maimed … killed. The risks were too high. He thought I was overreacting; people do actually vacation there, he assured me.
My husband and I are Mexican food foodies, a love that was cultivated by living out west for 20 years. We’ve dined ourselves stupid in Santa Fe too many times to count and we’re groupies of Rick Bayless and the Chicago culinary empire he’s built. We’d spent too many milestone meals at restaurants in the States, he said. For our 20th it was time to go to the source.
We’d “done” Europe multiple times together, and as much as we’d both loved every trip, traveling there again wouldn’t be stepping outside of our comfort zone. We needed to go someplace new where the experience would be completely foreign to us both. It was time for a true adventure.
He was right. If we wanted real Mexican food, that was the place to go and I agreed that we were in need of an adventure. But Mexico City continued to feel like a heavy lift. We proceeded anyway, purchased our tickets, booked a hotel; the wheels were in motion, even though I was unbelievably unsure.
Many times, I almost insisted we cancel the trip. My inner wimp was fighting hard. I couldn’t stop worrying that it was all a terrible idea and that I was risking a bit of adventure at the possible expense of never seeing my daughter again. Was it selfish to want to go? Did I even want to go? Not really.
We faced a slew of sarcastic “Good luck!” wishes from some friends and heartfelt pleading in other’ eyes when we told them of our travel plans. It all took a toll.
I fretted. I lost sleep. I consoled myself. I trusted him and I wanted to stand up to him. I almost didn’t go.
And that would have been a huge mistake.
Travel Opens Eyes We Didn’t Know Were Closed
What I found in Mexico was so very different than the picture my friends had back home. The Mexico I experienced was not the image I had conjured from folklore and dated media stories.
Following are just some of the realities we experienced in traveling deep into the heart of Mexico, spending ten days between Mexico City and Puebla, one of the country’s other largest cities.
- It’s Tourist-Friendly – We never felt that anyone was trying to harm us or steal from us. No one really paid us any mind at all, actually. It felt no different than traveling in Europe. Polanco, the upscale neighborhood where we stayed, was home to foreign embassies, co-working spaces, and classy-looking men and women in business attire. The neighborhood touts one of the most expensive streets in the Americas, Avenida Presidente Masaryk; it’s referred to as the Beverly Hills of Mexico. Polanco was full of hipster restaurants and high-end retailers. Everyone went about their daily lives with no mind to the reality of the reputation their city has to the outside world. These people were living the good life and I started fantasizing about owning an apartment there along with them.
- Uber Is Optimal – I was nervous to use Uber in a foreign country, especially one with such a dangerous reputation, but after much assurance from locals and friends that it was not an issue, we hopped in one to go to dinner in another neighborhood, Roma. The driver was no different than any Uber driver we’d had back in the States. We had been warned not to take the green taxis – these were the ones, I was told, where the driver would steer you to an ATM and hold a machete to your face while forcing you to drain your bank account and hand over all of your cash. City cabs are pink now, and everyone we met directed us to Uber instead. Are the cabs safe? I didn’t want to find out. Uber worked great.
- It’s Clean – There were always people sweeping the sidewalks and scrubbing down the stoops of store fronts. Almost every bathroom had an attendant. Everywhere there were workers in a state of keeping things in order. Travel Tip: Public restrooms in places like parks require money and are BYOTP – fortunately, I had a travel pack of Kleenex in my purse.
- Hospitality Is King – Mexico takes hospitality to a whole other level (this may be true of Central America in general; I’ll admit that this was my first Latin vacation). I’ve never experienced such attention to customer care or perhaps I was experiencing what it’s like to travel rich. Either way, here are some of the highlights of the exceptional customer service we experienced:
- Our B&B in Mexico City – Pug Seal Tennyson:
- This adorable boutique hotel offered American and Mexican coffee day and night, and tequila in a decanter. Our tequila intake was more often limited by our overflow meter on food and beverage consumption. We ate a lot.
- Breakfast was a gourmet menu with a ten-entrée selection, every dish as amazing as the one before.
- While enjoying a book and a mug of tea in the courtyard, my husband and I were surprised with a 20th anniversary cake topped with a lit sparkler. The staff paired the cake with an hour-long customized playlist of classic American love songs designed just for us.
- Upon arrival, we mentioned that we might be interested in going to the National Museum of Anthropology. By the time we had returned from lunch on our first day, the B&B staff had phoned the museum and had us assigned to an English-speaking tour group at a specific time the following day. We were handed a Post-it with a tour director’s name we should ask for when we entered the museum.
- Securing our booking for the regional bus that would bring us to Puebla was proving difficult. The B&B staff didn’t hesitate at pulling up the website on their computer and attempting to help us secure our fare (this still didn’t work – it was likely an issue with the website – but purchasing our tickets at the counter at the bus station was no problem).
- Editing note – As of 2021 editing, it appears that the Tennyson location of Pug Seal is no longer available.
- This was, hands down, the nicest hotel we’d ever stayed at. Upon arrival, they greeted us with two tumblers full of a refreshing, non-alcoholic drink of apple juice, honey, and spices, perfect after our two-hour bus ride. Then they one upped the beverage, presenting us a silver platter topped with two hot washcloths to refresh ourselves before checking in. Top-notch stuff indeed.
- We went for a late lunch/early dinner at a well-regarded local restaurant. Puebla is where mole (a chocolate/chili sauce often paired with chicken breast and doused in sesame seeds) was invented and we were on a quest to partake. There was a half-hour wait at 3:00 in the afternoon. While waiting for our table, the hostesses offered beer, shots of tequila, or bottled water from a metal tub where all were sitting on ice. Everything was complimentary, we were welcome to have as much as we wanted. I’ve never been offered a free drink while I was waiting for an un-reserved table in America and certainly never “all you want.”
- Bus Travel Works Great – We were thrilled that the bus served as a safe, comfortable, and economical means of local travel. We took an Uber to the closest bus station from our hotel and found a large selection of transit options to our destination; in fact, a bus to Puebla left about every 30 minutes. We boarded a large, regional bus, with bathrooms, movies, and complimentary water and cookies. The seats reclined more and were more cushioned than on any airplane I’ve ever experienced. The bus was on time and completely safe. Rides were very affordable. Our ride to Puebla converted to about $15/person.
- Pay Attention to the Weather Report – July is their rainy season and the temperature can get seriously chilly. I’d packed a few pairs of jeans, some long-sleeve shirts, and sandals. Locals were donning jackets and boots. My feet were always freezing. The next time we go, I’ll pack sweaters and close-toed shoes.
- Altitude and Pollution – While the high altitude of Mexico City never bothered me, I did note the thick brown cloud we flew into when landing. Once on the ground, though, I didn’t notice the pollution, maybe because the park – the “dense forest” in the middle of the city – was filtering out the toxins in the air.
- Don’t Drink the Water – This cliché lived up to the hype: Be over-the-top careful when ordering drinks and mind your ice intake! Always, always get bottled water. Brush your teeth with bottled water. Our hotel had safe drinking water and left decanters in our room. We used this to fill up water bottles while walking around during the day. My husband and I both did get Montezuma’s Revenge (otherwise known as Traveler’s Diarrhea). We believe our contaminated water came from ice made from non-filtered water in restaurants. Beware the frozen margarita.
- It’s a Perfect Four-Day Weekend from the States – Between the easy, direct flight (3.5 hours from Chicago), the same time zone as the Central U.S., and the favorable exchange rate, Mexico City serves as a terrific yet exotic four-day weekend destination.
- Recommended Vacation Schedule – We would have lazy mornings, enjoying a wonderful breakfast at our hotel and savoring the Mexican coffee, before taking off to explore a neighborhood and its museums. After a day of sight-seeing, we’d return to the hotel for reading/tea-time before cleaning up for dinners out.
- Museo Nacional de Antropología: The natural history museum contained a comprehensive education on all things Mayan/Aztec, ending when the Spanish arrived. We spent 6 hours here, popping out for a bit of street food for lunch. We still didn’t see everything.
- The Blue House – Museo Frida Kahlo. This was a pilgrimage for us. Much of the movie about Frida Kahlo’s life was filmed here, in her home. It’s truly a magical experience walking through the museum, seeing Frida’s wheelchair and custom-built art easel, her bed, with a mirror above it, so she could paint her self-portraits when bed-bound.
- If you’re a history buff, you’ll be humbled by this tour through Museo Trotsky, the last home of Leon Trotsky – designated heir to Lenin. Trotsky was hunted down in exile by Stalin, killed by the dictator’s hired assassins. Trotsky was the “nicest” bad guy. This tour pairs nicely with Frida Kahlo’s house, as they were friends and neighbors. You might want to watch “Frida” from your hotel room at night to serve as a capstone on the day. (It was available for us on Netflix.)
Our takeaways from Mexico: The people are kind and they exude hospitality. When we apologized for not speaking their language, they jumped in with whatever English they knew. We felt comfortable, safe, and relaxed. It was a truly wonderful vacation and cultural experience.
This trip was a good reminder for me that we all need to travel outside our comfort zones way more often. I was ignorant to the realities of Mexico before traveling. Because I summoned the courage to go, my eyes were opened to a wonderful land of kind people, rich with history and tradition … and, of course, the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life.
When we travel, we usually discover that the other side isn’t much different from us, that our worries are unfounded, steeped in fear and ignorance. I hope that I continue to be brave and travel outside my comfort zone. There is so much of this world yet to see.