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Mexico inspires with its art, architecture, people — and it’s safe, too

February 2011

This is a tale of two countries. The first is Mexico, and so too is the second.

The first Mexico struggles with internecine warfare. Fueled by America’s inexorable craving for drugs, a no man’s land has been carved along the border as far north as Monterrey and along the coast to Acapulco.

Racked by debilitating corruption and a callous concentration of financial and political power at the top, with a third of its 120 million citizens living in wretched poverty, this Mexico frustrates the ideal to forge a better future for its citizens.

The second Mexico is permeated with awe-inspiring history, populated by a people quick to share the joy of their culture and express their love for their country. My traveling companion and photographer, Marion, and I decided to ascertain firsthand whether Mexico is a safe country to visit outside the all-inclusive compounds. Our three-week journey began in mid-December in Mexico City, a dense urban environment of over 20 million. For three days we stayed at Hostel Amigo ($50 a day) in the Zocalo (city centre).

The clean, high-ceiling suite with private bathroom included breakfast, supper and the company of young travelers from Europe, Israel, South America and Australia. At the hostel, bilingual Alajendro and Beatrice provided modestly priced walking tours of the area. Their knowledge of the city led us to understand Mexico’s long tradition to establish a national identity. Guardedly, our guides allowed us a glimpse into current governmental shortcomings as well.

Demonstrations are part of daily life in Mexico, such as this one calling for more jobs in Peubla City.

The city’s colonial buildings and cathedral structures—many sinking precariously into what was once a swamp—are breathtaking. The magnificent, world-renowned Teotihuacan ruins, an ancient people’s bridge between the sun and moon, provoked our imaginations. Excavated Aztec ruins provided a glimpse into a civilization that conquered most of Latin and South America until Spanish “guns, germs and steel” decimated native civilizations in the 16th century.

The city’s festive mercados displayed every imaginable Christmas decoration; delicious meals prepared “on the street” made for a variety of filling snacks for less than $3.

Certainly not to be missed is Mexico City’s marble and glass Bellas Artes Museum. This world class art centre houses the famous wall-size, original copy of Diego Rivera’s original Rockefeller mural.

In the evenings, we strolled in the upper-crust areas of Condesa and La Roma, areas replete with a bookstore the size of a movie theatre, cafés, piano bars, restaurants and lovely green spaces that reminded us of Paris and New York.

During one evening walking tour, we took in a classic Mexican wrestling match, more a choreographed comedy than a serious fighting match. No one gets hurt and a fighter’s worst nightmare is the loss of, literally, “face,” where the losing parties forever forfeits the right to wear their uniquely designed masks. An event not to be missed!

Like any large city, there are areas for travelers to avoid. The most significant danger for seniors, however, is the appalling pollution that hovers over the city like some extraterrestrial cloud. Other than that, we felt safe.

If pulmonary sensitivity is your weakness, skip Mexico City and move on to our next two destinations: the eponymous state capitals of Puebla and Oaxaca, both easily accessible by Mexico’s first-class, long-distance bus service.

After Mexico City, Puebla, a UNESCO world heritage site, has the largest number of universities in Mexico, which accounts for its youthful, avant-garde flavour. A two-day stay is sufficient to view a number of the 5,000 colourful buildings that incorporate the baroque, Renaissance and classic architecture styles. A must-see is the Cathedral, a magnificent church structure in the Zocalo that took 300 years to complete.

In Puebla, we tasted typical Mexican fare: Tlayudas (distinctive Mexican calzones), the mole chicken- covered with a spicy sauce composed of chocolate and chili, the giant Semita (sandwich), trussed with chicken Milanaise, avocado, and other fried veggies. All are delicious.

What is totally unpredictable when traveling in Mexico are the “demostraciones” that seem part of daily life. Our first encounter occurred in the Zocalo in Puebla City, in front of the state’s administration offices. Hundreds of peaceful demonstrators armed with nothing more than their infant children, pleaded for jobs.

To be a senior traveler in our world means to contribute—if only in some diminutive way—to its citizens in need. We never fail to buy handicrafts offered for sale by the poor or to give money to those who can do nothing more than extend their palm.

The next leg of our Mexican journey found us in Oaxaca, another UNESCO world heritage site, a city nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. We stayed at the highly recommended and charming B&B Casa Gigi, $99 for three nights complete with a breakfast prepared by Gigi, a retired elementary school teacher.

Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations inhabited this area for thousands of years and we were able to explore their cultures in the well-furnished museums near the town’s Zocalo and their well preserved pyramids within a short bus ride.

One evening, another “demostracion” took place just outside the city centre. Whiffs of tear gas floated in the air while Oaxacans continued their leisurely pace.

Walking the beach at sunset is glorious in Puerto Escondido. Photos: Marion Kery

We chatted with two senior women who travelled all the way from Australia to partake in the unique radish sculpture festival—literally sculptures made from giant radishes.

The next leg of our journey, a week of beach R&R, was a welcome finale to our travels. After a comfortable 12-hour bus ride from Oaxaca through winding mountain roads, we encountered our third “demonstracion.” Organizers stopped all vehicles leading to and from a bridge just outside the resort town of Puerto Escondido, 368 kilometres south of Acapulco. Since only emergency vehicles and pedestrians were allowed to pass over the bridge, we decided to schlep our wheeled suitcases with other intrepid passengers rather than wait the estimated four hours inside the bus. The adventure was well worth the effort to get there.

Puerto Escondido is a beachfront town unspoiled by all-inclusives, high-rise hotels and an international airport; it lives up to its Spanish name of hidden port. Kilometres of stellar beaches and casual nightlife make it a relaxing destination.

With the exception of walking the beaches after dark, the town is friendly and safe —night or day.

Puerto Escondido has lots of characters: white-haired North American hippies and retirees banter over cold beers and spiked “café au laits.” Busloads of Mexican families (there’s a large trailer camp just off the beach) arrived for the holiday season and brought a festive feeling to the town.

Part of the attraction for North Americans is the price of lodging and meals. Comfortable motel-like rooms can be found from $30 to $100 a night. Many retirees choose month or longer stays that fit any budget.

So what is the “safe” bottom line regarding travel to Mexico? We found Mexicans to be engaging, warm, friendly and honest. For senior travelers who carefully choose the cities and towns to explore and use common sense once there, Mexico is a country you will long to revisit.

Good health and safe journeys.



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