Seeking Adventure in Mexico
Spicy red peanuts are piled high next to green cactus pads and tiny purple tomatoes. Technicolor streamers hang off giant star-shaped piñatas. A smiling man beckons me to try his fresh white hominy, as women call out their wares: chiles, nopales, chapulines. Heady aromas of ripe mangos and pineapple mingle in the air above mountains of mole mixes: orange amarillo, green pepito, and inky black with dark Oaxacan chocolate. I nibble a coconut-stuffed lime and sip on ruby-hued hibiscus juice, strolling aisle after aisle of tulips and roses. I’m awash in the multicolored sensory overload of a Mexico City market and falling deeper in love with every step I take.
I had traveled to Mexico before, but not like this. Like many Texans, Mexico was the first foreign country I ever visited. As a six-year-old, I crossed the border into Nuevo Laredo with my family, and I remember gaping at the colorful pottery in the market, just the same as I do now. A few years later, we embarked on a classic Galveston cruise to Cancun and Cozumel, washing ashore at Playa del Carmen with legions of Americans to shop for bottles of vanilla and rainbow-striped blankets.
But that’s not Mexico. Not really. Playa is a Disney-fied version of Mexico that’s designed to cater to vacationing Americans who want their Starbucks and their chain restaurants. Go to Hulen Mall, turn off the air conditioning, eat some tacos – that’s Playa del Carmen, minus the beach. “It’s plastic,” one Mexican said to me, “It’s not real Mexico.”
Real Mexico? It isn’t hard to find when you dare to look beyond the cruise ship crowds, the pre-packaged R&R, and your preconceptions of the country.
Flying into the metropolitan sprawl of Mexico City, brightly colored buildings pop up through the concrete sprawl: purple, pink, and lemon yellow. Flying two and a half hours to reach a foreign country is a traveler’s dream; I arrived in Mexico with no jet lag, an abundance of energy, and plenty of vacation money left over from my $128 flight. I headed straight to the Zocalo, the vast urban plaza that is the pulsing heart of the city. My Uber driver chatted the whole way, friendly about my attempts to converse in very broken Spanish.
He dropped me off by the ornate Metropolitan Cathedral, which overlooks the Zocalo and the Templo Mayor, an unearthed Aztec pyramid. This area had also been the heart of the ancient Aztec empire. Its colonial church and Aztec temple are strange neighbors but also a fitting microcosm of modern Mexico, which has fused Spanish influences into a Mesoamerican world. Subway cars rumble past centuries-old stone pyramids. Party boats glide through Aztec-built canals.
I wander past colossal carved heads and intricate jade masks at the National Anthropological Museum, a mind-blowing collection of Mexican treasures. Next door at Chapultepec Park, families float at the lake in paddleboats and kids run down the pathways with balloons. Hawkers yell out their wares: red wrestling masks, light-up play swords, and pink cotton candy.
One of the greatest archaeological sites on the planet rests in the sunshine just outside of Mexico City. The ancient city of Teotihuacan should a household name. Home to the third-largest pyramid ever built, Teotihuacan was established two thousand years ago by a people whose name is lost to history. We don’t even know what they called their city. Hundreds of years after it was abandoned, the mighty Aztecs named it Teotihuacan, City of the Gods, because they imagined that only gods could build such a place. Stepped pyramids tower over its enormous main avenue, which runs for over two miles. Climb 248 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and you are rewarded with magnificent views, and you can feel the lingering power of the mysterious people who once made this their home.
Teotihuacan was the first of nine ancient cities I explored, each revealing a new facet of Mesoamerica. We all know about the Aztec and Maya, but Mexico’s ancient cultural tapestry was much more diverse than that. Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Tarascan, and Veracruz peoples have all left their marks on the land and contributed to Mexico’s distinctly rich heritage.
In Mitla, the Zapotecs designed jigsaw puzzle-like walls with thousands of little pieces to withstand the region’s frequent earthquakes. Palenque’s steamy-hot jungle ruins revealed the power of Great King Pakal through delicate artwork and monumental architecture. And Chichen Itza? The “World Wonder” Maya city was crowded yet endlessly impressive – and totally Instagrammable. Professional models posed in front of the biggest pyramid, their backs to the cameras and long dresses and hair flowing behind. It’s so nice that the ancient Maya provided such shareworthy backgrounds for our selfies.
My trip through southern Mexico ended predictably at the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Cancun. The stunning blues of the Caribbean Sea in Cancun literally took my breath away, and my beach resort was a welcome change after three weeks of budget hotels. But I felt like I was in a capsule there, a sanitized and processed version of Mexico far removed from the rest of my experiences elsewhere in the country. I talked to resort guests who returned here to the coast time and time again, but had never ventured any further in. “Isn’t it dangerous?” one sunbather asked me. “How can you travel on your own?”
I explained that the regions of Mexico that I had been traveling in were ranked as “Security Level 2” by the U.S. State Department. This is the same security level as Great Britain, Italy, and France. Mexico City, Oaxaca, Campeche, Chiapas, and the Yucatan are all far from the border troubles that make the news here in the States. Is it 100% safe? No. Is it 100% comfortable? No. The roads in Chiapas are studded with speedbumps, and the struggle of Montezuma’s revenge is definitely real. But sometimes you have to give up a little comfort for the sake of adventure. And adventure is waiting for you in Mexico.
Raised in the Fort Worth area, Shilo Urban moved to Austin, Maine, Paris, Seattle, New Zealand, and Los Angeles before finding her way home a few years ago. Along the way, she has had over three dozen different jobs, including high school French teacher, record label manager, and farmhand for endangered livestock breeds. She’s traveled to more than 50 countries and always has the next trip planned. Shilo has been a freelance writer for over a decade and has published in Fort Worth Magazine, Fort Worth Weekly, and Afar. Her interests include lost civilizations, jalapeño peppers, and Game of Thrones. She is currently writing a thriller and lives in Fort Worth with her two wiener dogs, Steve and Lenny.