Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.
Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.
All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.
On Local Grassroots Tourism
Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.
I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.
Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?
On Work & A Little Adrift
For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.
There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.
Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.
To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.
On Current Travels
Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.
My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.
Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.
On What’s Next
I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.
It was the accessibility of both fun and culture that convinced me Mexico was an ideal place to travel with my two nephews. Long-time readers will remember the epic homeschooling adventure I undertook with my niece Ana. Hard to believe that we left four years ago. Ana had just turned 11-years-old and instead of entering the 6th grade, she and I spent nearly seven months traveling Southeast Asia. As my two nephews neared that same age, it was time take them on adventures too. In fact, the day my nephew Eric turned 11 years-old, he informed me that it was “his turn” and so what did I have planned? He put me on the spot.
My two nephews, Vic and Eric, are 10- and 11-years-old. What would be a good trip for the three of us? I’m not brave enough to travel with them for seven months. But I wanted a place that would—like Asia did for Ana—inspire them to dream of other places and find interests outside of their tiny lives in Florida. Mexico has long been one of my favorite places. The Yucatán Peninsula in particular has a unique mix of Maya culture and ancient ruins. And the region’s miles of sandy beaches are also perfect for two active (and naughty) little boys. I won’t lie, having a lot of activities for them was a big consideration. I was a tad terrified to travel with them both solo. The plan took shape earlier this year; I passport-ed them both and secured their travel documents before I left for Japan in the spring.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I used Google image searches to show them the possible adventures. They exclaimed over the Maya temples, begged to zip-line high over the Mexican jungle, loved the idea of seeing wild animals, and dreamed of swimming in the icy blue waters of the sunken cenotes.
With three weeks and a rental car, my nephews and I spent the bulk of July driving a winding route around the Yucatán Peninsula. We backtracked at points to visit family. We drove two extra hours to return for a beloved pair of forgotten swimming trunks. There were hairy moments when I knew I was crazy to travel alone with the two of them. But we also had adventures—man, did we have some adventures. A few months out from the trip and I still can’t imagine a better place to have road-tripped with my nephews. Readers often email me asking how I chose when and where to visit—they want to know the reasoning that goes into picking each new place. That question likely goes doubly so when traveling with kids, so here goes. Four main things factored into why I picked the Yucatán for traveling with the two boys:
Everything is condensed and close. Driving days are never longer than three to four hours, and even that long is rare. (unless you backtrack for beloved swimming trunks… … … :::facepalm::: )
Spanish culture and language are accessible. They both loved practicing the new words and Eric is taking Spanish classes in school this year. Plus, two young boys are hard work and I speak Spanish, so I thought that would help ensure a smoother trip. Places like Japan are fascinating, but add an extra layer. I would have dealt with their culture shock and my inability to speak the language, on top of juggling two kids who have never left the country. Mexico, however, seemed like a solid first-trip adventure.
A huge range of cultural and kid-friendly activities. The Yucatán has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It’s safe, and has a diverse range of things to do in every area: swimming, beaches, ruins, wildlife, walkable towns, and even theme parks.
It’s affordable. The boys live in Florida. It was a quick skip over the Gulf of Mexico, and once we arrived, I could afford to keep us flush in tacos and fun activities.
After my trip with Ana, many of you guys emailed me to say although seven months was too long, that you’d love to do something similar with your own nieces/nephews/kids. Here it is, an alternative adventure. Three weeks of family-style (mis)adventures all through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This is more of a photo-journey through our road-trip with stories—hover over each photo for more information. We started on the beaches, then wound our way inland to the cultural heart, and ended at a biosphere reserve.
Before we left to Isla Mujeres, I’ll also own to a travel n00b mistake that I can only blame on being totally overwhelmed. It took hours to secure the rental car. It was a headache navigating into the city at rush hour. Once checked in, we headed out to a great park I knew from a previous trip, Parque de las Palapas. I was hungry, the boys were hungry, and they were also humming with excited energy. So we headed to the ATM and then planned on getting food. Sheer chaotic excitement is the only explanation I have for my nephew Vic. He grabbed the cash from the ATM, fanned it out and waved it around the glass booth (which faced the busy street), and exclaimed in sheer elation, “MONOPOLY MONEY.” I was so startled that I left my ATM card in the machine. And yeah, if you follow the site, I’ve done that gem before. I can look at this now and see the humor. Mexican pesos are colorful and he’s never seen them before. It’s funny, right? Right? Sob. Anyway, it set the tone for three weeks of shenanigans.
With only the pesos I had just withdrawn and a small safety stash of U.S. cash, I tried hard not to wig out. I was lucky my dad hadn’t yet left on his cruise. Since he’s on all my accounts (precisely for situations like this), he wired me money. Walmart wire transfer is fantastically cheap by the way (#thingsIwishIdidntknow). Schwab, my bank, which I love dearly, mailed me a new card asap and my parents brought it with them since we were meeting up six days later in Cozumel.
Crisis averted. And with an alarming amount of cash in my purse (and a stern conversation about ATM behavior), we began the adventure.
The Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm was a highlight of the entire trip and it was the perfect way to start our travels. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun, but it’s a world apart from the vibe of Cancun. Ferries run all day between Cancun and Isla so we ditched the frenetic party atmosphere and ritzy hotel boulevard in Cancun. Within an hour of leaving Cancun, we found ourselves in a great apartment just a block off of the shallow beach waters.
My Seattle-based aunt was jonesing for the tropics, so she joined us at the start of our trip. The four of us golf-carted around the sweet little island. We spent three days sipping coconuts and digging in the sand. We bought two pool noodles; they proved fun and useful as we moved from pools to shallow bays to sometimes more unpredictable waters. My aunt is a swim instructor and it was fun to watch both boys soak up her advice on how to better their strokes and become stronger swimmers. Although we’re from Florida, they don’t have a pool at their house and I’ve long worried about their weak skills. This trip was an invaluable chance for them to spend a lot of time practicing (and in a place where it doesn’t feel like forced practice!). This was an excellent way to start the trip because the town is small and navigable, and the waters in Playa Norte are shallow for a hundred meters at least.
Much to my amusement, Vic was a little entrepreneur on the island. He is convinced he could have launched a thriving coconut selling business and made millions if we had stayed—he talked one local hammock vendor into buying his coconut for an impressive 75 cents. It was endlessly cute.
Cozumel was the island of fun coincidences and meetups. The boys and I timed our Cozumel trip to meet my parents the morning their cruise ship docked. Having already explored the island for two days, the boys and I took them to a hole-in-the-wall spot for Mexican street food. Together we all wandered through the town squares and capped it off with a snorkel. The time passed all too fast before we brought them back to their ship and waved goodbye. But the fun continued and I owe a big thanks to Tam from Travels with Tam. She is a friend, blogger, and A Little Adrift reader, and she welcomed my unruly gang to her home in Cozumel for the afternoon.
In our days on the island, it was the sea life that won out with the kids. Eric raved about his snorkel north of Money Bar; he saw all kinds of fish and sea-crawlies. In the evenings, we wandered the shores near downtown Cozumel; the boys skipped rocks and dug through all the tide pools looking for snails. I’ll likely never claim it’s my favorite spot in the region, but we found beautiful underwater sea life and had a wonderful time visiting friends and family. As my parents continued through the Caribbean, the boys and I journeyed back to the mainland—we had some Maya temples to find!
Xplor Theme Park and Playa del Carmen
But first, before the Maya temples, we had a theme park to explore. My nephews have spent their entire lives living in south-central Florida—they’re adrenaline junkies. We have a dozen parks within an hours driving distance of my hometown. They live and breathe theme parks. I don’t know where they get it from, I’m terrified of rollercoasters. Two things coincided though. They found out I took Ana zip-lining in Thailand years back. And they found images online of the dizzying number of adventure parks in the Yucatán. The folks at Olympus Tours offered to comp an experience for us, all I had to do was pick. I felt confident traveling the interior once we were poking around through Mexico’s small towns and community based organizations—that’s my thing—but I never neared the theme parks on my last trip to the region. Marhuata and Leo teamed up to take my nephews on a day that they continue to recount at speeds a mile a minute.
We headed out to Xplor early in the day, a theme park that plays off of the natural landscape. It’s actually built into underwater rivers and cenotes—with ziplining, of course, that was paramount to the boys. The park was beautiful, more than I was expecting. We paddled through the underground river, sped across the tree canopy on zip-lines, and generally got our thrills out. I’m usually that aunt. The who gives books and educational toys on holidays. So they were justifiably psyched that I agreed to a Mexican theme park. And as a plus, it also scored me a trade-off promise that they would each read age-appropriate information on Maya culture. Win. It was good fun; it’s a fantastic thing to do with kids and the other nearby parks have varying types of activities. I reviewed the park’s rides, pros, cons, etc at Xplor here.
Hidden bonus? They wolfed down dinner and then passed out cold that day. Who am I kidding, I did too. :)
We began to shift the tone of our trip in Tulum. While we spent our early days on beaches and with family, Tulum marks the beginning of the history and culture part of the trip. We could have been on any white sandy beaches in the world in the first week of the road trip. We couldn’t help but know we were in Mexico once we reached the sprawling Maya temple complex at Tulum.
These Maya, they sure knew some prime real estate.
Tulum’s ruins run right up to the water’s edge. Grey stone temple complexes all but tumble into the Caribbean waters.
The boys’ fascination with the Yucatan’s iguanas continued here; but I’d be lying if I said the boys loved Tulum. It was a scorchingly sunny day at the ruins. While I wandered and read about Tulum, the boys camped out in the shade near several massive iguanas and soaked in the vibe. The beach waters were also too rough for them, so we passed through Tulum en route to the verdant heart of the region. Next up was Valladolid and the tiny Mexican towns awash in culture, food, and history. (Side note: Tulum is where we left those beloved swimming trunks I had to backtrack for… I am still doing a facepalm that I actually returned for a pair of shorts. I can only say that after the despair we had over losing a pair of beloved goggles, it just seemed easier).
Looking back now, I wish that I had slowed down one bit more and actually done the Akumal turtle swimming experience, which we would have done between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Instead, I thought we needed some history in our trip and skipped it. That was a #fail for me. Lesson learned. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the ruins more if we had started with some sea turtle interactions.
The vibe definitely changed when we reached Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500s. This is also when we got down with some serious street eats. I was able to find more of the informal food that I usually eat in Mexico. Before that, the beach towns tended to cater to tourists. The good street food was farther from the tourist areas than we could easily travel on foot. But here, we booked a place on the Plaza Central and used this as a base to go temple-hunting and cenote swimming. The biggest site is Chichén Itzá, and we marveled at the echoing acoustics built into the ball court. Vic fixated for ten minutes on mastering the clap that would travel down the expansive ball court and then bounce back as an echo. He was thoroughly impressed when finally managed to get the echo to sound out.
The real winner though, was Ek’ Balam. The site is far less touristed than nearby Chichén Itzá. There are ruins that you can climb up and see high views of the region. The relief work on one of the tombs is also impressive and the best in the entire region—among the best restored in all the known Maya temples. A huge jaguar mouth sits open with carvings on all sides—serpents, winged men, and hellish creatures. This was a hit with the kiddos. It’s been restored, which makes it easier to see and imagine what these temples might have looked like at the hey-day of the Maya kingdom. It was a small complex, so we headed to the sunken cenotes after, the water cool and refreshing in the heat of July in Mexico!
Chichén Itzá and Cenote Dzitnup
All of us agree, there is just something special about Izamal and there’s no way to put our finger on it. If we had only used our guidebook, we might have skipped this tiny, sleepy, yellow Mexican town. But I turned to my friend Wandering Earl for travel planning advice—he lived in the region for years—and he said this was a must-do. We had planned to spend two days. We ended up settling in and spending four days doing little more than playing with new Dutch friends and eating street eats in the central plaza.
The boys loved it. Horses clomped through the cobblestone streets, the boys understood the small town’s walkable layout, and they loved the nightly pork sandwiches. The photos perhaps say it better than I can express. It’s just a magical little spot in the heart of the Yucatán.
En route to Celestún, we broke up the drive with a horse-drawn carriage ride out to a trio of cenotes. Cenotes are underground cave sinkholes. The limestone bedrock in the Yucatán Peninsula is so porous that all lakes and rivers are actually underground. They are the best way to cool off in the interior. A local community based organization operates the Cuzamá cenote. This CBO ensures that profit-sharing among the families near this rural and off-beat tourist attraction. Getting to Cuzamá is half the fun too. If you hadn’t yet woven through the pothole strewn back roads of Mexico, you will en route. Notable is that there is a scammy business just before you reach the CBO. If you’re driving, keep driving until you reach a sun-drenched and informal spot at the end of the road. Men will be waiting there ready to whisk you to the swimming holes. The horse ride was good fun, and the third swimming hole, Cenote Chacsinicche, was by far the best for the kids. They delighted in cannon-balling from the ledge into the cool, clear blue water.
We came to Celestún for the flamingos and crocodiles—it was all about visiting the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Eric loves animals, and his one big request for the trip was seeing crocodiles in the wild. We only saw one baby crocodile, but he was so distracted by the flamingos, birds, and swimming holes that he never noticed (I wondered after if we would have had more success at Río Lagartos :-/ ). The town of Celestún is low-key and tiny. I mean little. It’s a Mexican vacation spot more than a tourist spot, so there wasn’t much English spoken. Most of the families (umm, all of them) were Mexicans taking in the summer vibes. The kids had a blast digging deep holes in the sand, and their industriousness attracted the other kids who helped them dig and collect worms from the sand—an activity that apparently needs no spoken words.
The shenanigans continued here, too, lest I paint too rosy a picture of it all. The boys found a small, beached boat and attempted to drag it out to sea while I procured Gatorade for us all. I sent them back to the sand digging, pulled my sunhat lower, traded my Gatorade for a Sol, and was just glad they hadn’t gotten in the boat and headed for Cuba.
One of the sweetest towns in Mexico, Mérida, has a vibe all its own. Each area of town boasts its own central park area, but the main one near the touristy areas is abuzz in activity every night of the week. There isn’t a lot to do in Mérida per se. My nephews were scarcely interested in the museums. They did, however, find the markets intriguing, the parks filled with other children, and plenty of street food and ice cream to keep them chugging along as we toured the various churches and architectural sites. They were little champs most of the time. The three weeks had passed in a blur and Mérida and Celestún were the last stops on our trip. By the third Saturday, we were wheels up on the airplane by 9am and I had them deposited back to my brother soon after. I welcomed the break. Traveling with them gave me a fresh perspective on all the work that goes into juggling two kiddos on the road. But it was a good tired too, for the most part.
On the whole, I had long hoped to share a travel experience with my nephews, and this tripped served in that capacity. With the mix of food, culture, and beach-fun time, it was the perfect place to take two active little boys. Many of my readers have pondered taking a niece, nephew, or sibling overseas, but the logistics can seem overwhelming. In this case, I am so happy I had the chance to show those two kiddos a small part of why I love traveling the world. It wasn’t always easy—they were exceedingly naughty—but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.
For readers who have long followed this journey, you may wonder about where Ana was while her brother Vic and cousin Eric went on an adventure? While we road-tripped across Mexico, Ana met up with Dani, a friend Ana and I last traveled with in Cambodia. Dani and Ana have stayed in touch over the years, and since Ana continues to beg for the chance to explore other places, Dani invited her to NYC for a week. They palled around the city, sending me Snapchats and texts. I was so glad she had her own adventure, too. And I am happy to report that Ana, now in the 10th grade, has stayed interested and curious about the world. I hope, if nothing else, this trip ignited in my nephews a lasting curiosity about the people and places outside their home bubble, and that they continue to use that curiosity to finish school and travel more.
So, whatdya think? I felt crazy at times for going solo with them, but it was an adventure. Do you have any plans to travel with kids/siblings/nephews?
The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.
The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.
With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.
Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.
Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.
Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico
Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.
What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.
What to Read: The People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.
Over the past few months I’ve talked a lot about relaxation, and how it’s one of those pieces of life at which I have not excelled in the past. I spend far too much time on the computer even though I had a palapa full of hammocks just 100 feet from my doorstep for months. But in moving to Mexico earlier this year, I tasked myself with expanding my capacity for relaxation. In this transition phase I wanted to use Mexico to look at what comes next for me—where I am, where I want to be, and any next steps to get there. And I wanted to learn balance. Though I post lots of pretty photos of my travels, I sometimes spend upwards of 10 hours in front of my computer, the perk of travel being that after those 10 hours I got to eat delicious tacos.
Balance though. It’s something we all struggle with; I have yet to meet someone who feels they perfectly balance each aspect of work-life-kids-relaxation-hobbies-etc. This is true for long-term travel as well.
So, relaxation. Living in San Pancho, Mexico was a gift to myself of time and space to process and plan, but perhaps more than that, to simply exist and live in the current moment. I failed at finding balance more days than not, but the successes, the times when I slowed down to enjoy meals and friends, are some of the sweetest memories and sweetest successes of my time there. And I credit most of this positive mental shift to deciding to slow down. I gave myself permission to relax and do less and it pulled me from my funk. And since it was so successful, I thought I’d share the lessons my little beach town taught me, a manifesto on the art of relaxation. :)
Accept the Art of the Hammock
Hammock-time just screams for a good book. I spent a lot of hammock time reading on my Kindle, working my way through a heap of travel books in my queue. While in Mexico I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The China Study, The Gifts of Imperfection, and No Touch Monkey, among about 15 others. (Heads up: a review post is in the works for some of the travel and non-travel books I’ve read and loved recently.) The key here was to put everything down and prioritize hammock time, to include it in the list of things that needed to get done, not just the “if I time” list.
Find a shady spot
Hearing distance from the ocean is ideal
Keep an iced beverage within reach for maximum relaxation
Resist any form of sightseeing—just hammock time
Learn the Art of Play
My more new-agey friends term it “getting in touch with my inner child,” and you know … that does pretty much sum it up. I had my time in hammocks these past five months, but I also spent dozens of hours volunteering with the kids at the community center and hours with the playing puppies in San Pancho. I spent my time in laughter and joy. Though I plan to share more about my time volunteering here, the short of it was days of singing songs with them, coloring pictures, and making egregious errors in my Spanish that left us all in stitches more than once. By seeking out those people and parts of life that still have carelessness, joy, and wonder, I could hijack some of that for myself. :)
Hunt down kids or puppies (bonus points for the two together) and volunteer, chase a dog on the beach, etc.
Join a beach volleyball game, they always need another team member
Ride a bicycle—made me feel 10
Embrace the Art of Friendship
The new friendships I fostered by staying in one spot created the best recipe for relaxing and de-stressing. I counted on the faces and friends all over town as a surest way to let go of any anxieties I had (have) over where my life is heading next. During my periods of rapid travel it’s difficult to make the sort of friendships that last longer than the location. These fast friends are fun; they are genuine as well, but they often lack the depth of friendships formed over months instead of mere days. Fast-friends are an integral part of travel—these people who come into my life over a couple of days ensure that travel is rarely lonely. But part of relaxing into a new place is having the time to go deeper than the surface questions “how long are you here for” and connect.
If the surest way to keep stress at bay is by surrounding yourself with good people, I succeeded there. San Pancho is a unique town in that it harbors an eclectic mix of expats and locals. I am grateful to this town for the evenings spent in conversation listening to the wonderful local bands (like Pantera Fantasma and Dos Bertos), beach bonfires, and afternoons sipping hot copomo discussing philosophy, life, and love.
Say yes to meeting up with friends
Set a weekly meetup at a coffee shop
Join expat Facebook forums for your town
Practice the Art of Good Health
If sleep, exercise, and good food are essential I won the battle on two of the three. I loved having a kitchen and I made use of the Friday organic market in nearby Sayulita. It seems counter-intuitive since I always post yummy food photos, but it’s actually hard to consistently eat healthy on the road between the packaged snacks and eating out every day, so markets and a kitchen are ideal for feeling healthier. Now add to that lots of sleep and it’s golden. San Pancho was a cinch on this front because the town closes by well before midnight and the roosters start crowing by 7, so that was a solid block of sleep each night.
Exercise is a tough one. On the upside, I ride my back everywhere. Downside, it’s not a very big town so “everywhere” doesn’t add up to much. My friend Victoria taught yoga in the park—it was lovely but the only word to adequately describe my attendance would be “sporadic” (and she would probably use the word “rare”).
Shut down the computer and do something (anything) active
Integrate more greens into your diet (they really do make a difference, and smoothie-it up if you can’t handle some of them in regular form)
Cut out sugars and packaged snacks
Immerse in Art of the Nature
Travel puts me in direct contact with diverse landscapes—I’ve hiked the tallest mountain ranges in the world and swum in the clearest waters on earth. And it’s in Mexico that I began to practice mindfulness and live in each gift from nature around me. It’s a town tradition here to take in sunset on the beach, and they are doozies. Some of the prettiest I’ve ever witnessed, and each one different from the next. This ritual alone, of sunsets on the beach was my favorite part of the past six months. Finding that connection to nature and coupling it with friendships as we all sat at the water’s edge each night took away some of the last tinges of sadness I had over personal things that happened last year.
Take a hike, swim, or long walk
Just sit somewhere and observe what’s nearby
Be present in the moment by spending some nature time solo
Technology is my biggest failure point. And the same thing for many traveling friends. If I’m not careful, I find myself sucked into mindless hours in front of my computer screen, not always even productive time if I answer the addicting lure of Facebook. So while you think I’m sightseeing in this great place, sometimes I’m actually Facebooking with my other “traveling” friends. And there’s something wacky about that … so in this guide to the art of relaxation, cutting out screen time is a must.
And now that I am home in Florida, I’ve been working on incorporating more of these into my home routine too. In between visiting friends I have actually driven to the beach here. I live 15 minutes from the beach but sometimes it’s years between visits for me, and that’s a shame. I’m working on being more mindful, more balanced. How about you? Anything you struggle with as well in navigating that balance?
I have lived and worked from around the world for more than a decade. Before settling on living in Mexico, I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for five months, and then moved back the following year. That was the first time I stayed put in one spot and became a semi-expat. As the months passed, I was so surprised by how affordable living there was that I shared a cost of living post … mostly for the readers in the A Little Adrift community who had written me over the years wondering how they could afford to also live abroad. Long story short, that post went viral and a million visitors have read about the $500 baseline costs to live in Thailand.
Clearly the financials are interesting. So, with that in mind, this post below also outlines my semi-expat stint in a tiny beach town in Mexico—this time with a bonus five-minute video, covering everything the post below does if you’re keen on video rather than text! My baseline (and total) costs to live in Mexico came in under $745 every month. I’ve also lived in Oaxaca too, and it’s even more affordable (I spent well under $600 per month).
This post was last updated in early 2019 with new information. This video shares the costs, style of living, quality of life, and other details about living as an expat in Mexico:
If you’re a reading person instead, below are the details covered in the video.
Total Cost of a Month of Living in San Pancho, Mexico
This entire post outlines the baseline costs—my fixed monthly expenses for one person living in a beach town on the west coast of Mexico. Living in Mexico is ideal for budget-conscious expats, retirees, and travelers. Those living in nearby Costa Rica or Panama tend to have higher monthly averages, so I found my Mexico living situation ideal. Mexico also has a very generous visa policy—six months on arrival for Americans, which helps keep total living costs low.
The chart shows the basics you’ll need to cover when living in most parts of Mexico. Puerto Vallarta and surrounding communities are generally pricier than spots in Oaxaca, and perhaps on par with places like San Miguel de Allende.
Not included in this breakdown of living costs: medical/health insurance, my plane flight to Mexico, or any expenses I incur outside of living (running this site, insurance, work, etc).
But all the baseline costs are all included in my totals, and really unlike the Thailand post, this total includes toiletries and any expenses inside Mexico that cropped up—I never withdrew more than USD $750 from the ATM each month. And this budget is on the high-end for one person; if I had looked around for an apartment or shared a house with friends my costs would have lowered to $600 (and my friend Earl says that’s about the cost of living in Playa del Carmen on the east coast beaches as well). I also spent less than that easily when shared a flat and lived in Oaxaca, which is an inland city and far cheaper than the coastal towns, so your money goes further. I share a heap of Mexico resources at the end.
Rent & Internet
Electricity & Water
One of the high points of Mexico, a clear advantage over living in Asia, is the visa situation. As a U.S. citizen, I receive a six month visa on arrival automatically, and this can be reset simply by crossing a border and coming back … indefinitely. For those considering moving overseas without the chance for a retirement visa, the visa policy in Mexico is a big boon. The visa situation in Southeast Asia is a lot trickier, and although I didn’t include the visa runs into my baseline costs in SEA, it was absolutely a big part of living there for six months and it could add up a lot if you were there years on end.
Right now, the peso is roughly 19 or 20 pesos to 1 US dollar. Use that figure as a guide to the food and transport costs I mention (check that exchange rate here). In the video and these breakdowns, I very specifically quote pesos and not dollars as my costs because the exchange rate may vary, but you will be paying for your life in pesos!
What Does That Look Like in Terms of Living Life?
The various facets of living abroad are part of what makes one place appeal to some expats while others prefer something vastly different. I’m on the fence between Asia and Latin America, I love them both for different reasons, so rather than compare these aspects of life to each other, below is the food, life, and culture you get for that budget living in a beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
A Light, Airy Studio Apartment
I didn’t look very hard for my apartment; in fact, it’s the first one I came across. I loved the family compound I lived within (they had a separate house with three rental apartments within their lot) and it’s one of the things I value living solo … I like having other people nearby who have my well-being in mind in case something happens. So, the apartment was 4,500 pesos per month ( $375 at the time) which is on the high-end for a studio in my town but the price included all utilities and really strong internet, which is essential for my online work.
A high point of living in Mexico is the fact that apartments and houses come with full kitchens (though mine was minus an oven), this is really great if you’re keen to cook—anything you rent here will likely come with a stove and pots and pans if it’s a furnished apartment. Other than the kitchen, it had everything else you would expect in a studio—full-size bed, counter with stools (where I worked from), closet, and a bathroom (a tour is shown in the video above).
Other places in town rent out as vacation rentals or rooms for anywhere from USD $200 per month on the very low-end (likely no wi-fi) to $500+ for 1 and 2 bedrooms. And one town over, in Sayulita (which is bigger and more touristy has a great beach, a lot more food, bars, etc), the apartment prices are actually pretty comparable—ideal if you like the idea of Mexico but think my town was a bit too small! :)
Delicious Vegetarian Eats
It’s no secret I’m a vegetarian, so for me, a country gets bonus points for not only the accessibility of vegetarian food, but the understanding of the concept of vegetarianism. Mexico’s good on both fronts, though not always great. During high season my little town had just enough options to keep it interesting, and as the seasons shifted I cooked in my apartment a lot more using fresh veggies from the markets, which was fun and gave me a kick toward my goal of becoming a better cook (Asia spoiled me because the lack of kitchens and cheap street food meant I never had to learn to cook these past years).
For costs, a cheap quesadilla runs 15 pesos (just over $1) at one of the stands, a nicer taco costs about 40 pesos (about $3.25), and a veggie meal at one of the handful of restaurants in town runs up to $10 or $15 USD. I was lucky to have friends in town so I could split one of the big pizzas for our weekly Friday-night gatherings, and my friends Victoria and Steve often hosted potlucks.
I also drink a lot of coffee; so although I made my own pot each day, the food budget included many espressos each week. My food budget was pretty generous, so if you cook at home, even adding the cost of cooking meat, I think you could get by on 1,000 pesos each week. I often bought organic veggies (expensive) at the Friday market in Sayulita, so the food budget is generous for a range of eating styles.
Getting From Here to There
One of the perks of living in a one-street town is that you don’t need a whole lot of transportation! That being said, I chose to live on the far end of the main street very close the community center where I volunteered (and about a 10-minute walk from the beach). A mere 10 minutes doesn’t seem like much, but in the scorching heat I was happy to have use of a bicycle from the family compound.
And for leaving San Pancho, Puerto Vallarta is about 45 minutes away and costs just a few dollars each way on the bus—this is the closest big city. Sayulita is a perfectly lovely small town (much bigger than mine though) and it was merely 20 minutes up the road. This ride costs $1 each way on the bus or a quick (and easy) hitchhike ride.
Sayulita was perfect to have nearby if I needed to vary up my food, explore a bit, or just get out of town for a few hours. There are many other beaches driveable, some ruins, old stuff to look at, etc if you’re keen to explore. I worked a lot so my bike took me most anywhere I wanted to go.
Nightlife in San Pancho
I am not a partier. Whew, glad we got that out of the way. Now, when I say that I have a low-budget for alcohol and partying you can adjust it accordingly for yourself. San Pancho is a great town for nightlife if you like a bit of variety but nothing too crazy—no dance clubs, but we did have two great bars and a lot of live music throughout the week. In fact, during high season there was live music at one of the bars or restaurants nearly every night.
One of the things I loved best about the town was that the pace of partying was a lot closer to what I prefer—everyone chilling, talking, listening to music, and enjoying company. Add to that some game nights at Victoria and Steve’s for Jungle Speed (had never heard of this game but it was fun and hilarious to play in a group), beach bonfires, and conversation … I felt like Goldilocks—San Pancho was just right.
Quality of Life in Mexico
This bit surprised me some, I knew that many Americans headed south of our border to live but I never really understood why until I stopped and spent four months on the Pacific coast taking in the truly stunning sunsets, the relaxed atmosphere and the affordable lifestyle. The only thing I expected but never found was the fear and danger.
I talked about danger last week and how our perceptions and reality are often skewed, and I think that is true of Mexico. While there are certainly dangerous places in Mexico, the country is huge. The people and cultures shift and change with the terrain and there are some surprisingly safe cities throughout the country if you know where to look (look to the blogosphere!).
I really loved the access to affordable healthcare (a bonus Thailand had as well), like-minded expats who I now call close friends, and a pace of life that encouraged me to slow down and enjoy the little moments.
The short of it all is that Mexico proved more expensive at daily living than Thailand, but still at least half the rent I paid living in Los Angeles in my pre-travel days. And the flights to Mexico are far cheaper for North Americans. Although it wasn’t as cheap, I have continued to make Mexico a regular stop on my travels in the years since I lived in San Pancho. The plane flights are affordable, I speak the language, and I enjoy the culture. It’s a privilege to even have this ability, and I appreciate that Mexico has a lot to offer American expats. And likewise, many of these towns appreciate the influx of money and added services that come with expats moving to town.
It’s the sum total of it all that I love—by living outside the U.S. (I now reside in Barcelona, Spain), I am able to scale back the hours I have to work each week to survive, and instead focus that attention on doing things I love: volunteering in the nearby community center, taking photographs, and having the time to enjoy the friendships I make. No place is perfect, but for $750 a month, nightly sunsets, lots of friends, and tasty tacos … I’ll return to Mexico soon. :)
Relevant Links and Resources for Moving to Mexico
Consider a good travel insurance policy like World Nomads to cover you while you’re either in transit visiting your future homes, or their insurance policies (coupled with Clements for personal belongings) can well as long-term expat insurance too. I have used them both in tandem since 2008.
Read The People’s Guide to Mexico: Even if you’re a veteran Mexico traveler, this is hands-down the best guidebook you should use to understand the various regions, the cultural quirks, and all the reasons Mexico is a fantastic place to travel and live. It comes highly recommended by me, and by heaps of Amazon reviewers too.
Living in Guatemala: This eguide shares the cost of living and what it’s like in one of my favorite spots in Central America, Guatemala. Although different than Mexico’s expat scene, there are some very compelling reasons (great culture and affordability, to name two) to consider moving to Guate.
A Better Life for Half the Price: A Mexican expat breaks down all the major expat spots in the world with costs, quality of living, and resources. I learned heaps and found a couple countries I hadn’t previously considered. It’s worth buying if you’re still searching out which country is best for the life you want to live.
Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America: There are a lot of these general guides. The book above, Better Life is about where is a good culture fit, whereas this is the better of the lot of “move overseas” books that covers the practicalities and very hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this can kick-start your process. And if you are laser-focused on the retirement topic, versus moving overseas at a different state in life, this retirement guide has great advice.
The Tax Book for U.S. Expats: This is well-priced and unique to expats and retirees filing abroad. It gives a granular look at forms, terms, and sorting out exactly how to file — good for those with complicated tax situations. More recently released, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans goes broader and is aimed at younger expats and digital nomads still working and handling how to earn income overseas, pay taxes, and live a nomadic life. It doesn’t explain the terms or niche situations/forms as well as the other book, but instead acts as a guide for younger travelers. Depending on your situation, pick up a copy of one of these guides before you leave so that you will have a tax system in place that maximizes the opportunities to easily file.
You’ll also want property insurance once you’re living overseas — I’ve used Clements for many years now.
Check out a Facebook group called “On the Road in Mexico” is a good place to ask questions of other expats.
And dig through the two solid Mexico expat forums here.
Oaxaca City, Mexico. I haven’t written up this as a full detailed budget post, but I lived in Oaxaca for six months in 2016. The pace of life is different inland, and the city is at altitude (about the same as Denver). There is also a large expat community of snowbirds. There is a rich cultural and food history. I wrote a detailed guide to visiting Oaxaca. Budget-wise, my rent was half of rent in San Pacho and for more space. If you’re looking at long-term rentals (not the three-month apartment rentals that are quickly filled in winters by snowbirds), you can find a two-bedroom on the edge of Oaxaca Centro for less than USD $300. Food is affordable and the city has some of the most famous restaurants in the country.
San Pancho Travel and Visit Specifics
Airport to SP: Cheapest is the bus, by far. Taxis are going to run you a fair bit more. The bus makes a number of stops, but it’s not so bad. I had a friend who luckily was able to pick me up my first day, but after that I frequently made the trek into Puerta Vallarta via bus. Where ever you book for accommodation will also be able to arrange a taxi pick-up (sometimes for less than the going rate if you hail one) if you reach out beforehand. If you are already in the area, the bus is straightforward and takes 45 minutes to an hour from downtown PV.
Finding Accommodation: I recommend arriving in San Pancho before trying to find a place to stay, otherwise you will only find vacation rentals listed. Once you are in town, you can rent a bicycle for the day or walk around town and you will see many signs for rent. You can also talk with local expats and ask around. With average Spanish, you will have no problem finding something in just a few days, especially if it’s low season (get there before November). If you don’t speak Spanish, or you came in high season, pop into the real estate agencies. They handle rentals too and are fantastic resources on any city mentioned.
For where to stay, there are three tiers of pricing, the Hostal San Pancho or Shaka Surf House if you don’t mind a shared-dorm; these are the two most affordable options in town. Above Hostal San Pancho is an affordable, very nice guesthouse called Refugio de Sol—this is absolutely your best bet for private accommodation that’s still budget to mid-range prices. If that’s booked though, other nice private accommodation in the $60 tp $80 per night range include: Verde Luna, Casa Terraza, and Jardín San Pancho B&B.
If you’re in Sayulita, my friends rented a nice place from Villas Vista Suites for three months— I would start there for online hunting. If you’re using Sayulita as your base, consider the Aurinko Bungalows or Casa Pia as a mid-range option and then daytrip over to San Pancho. These all come recommended, and if you plan to move to the area they are a good base.
Working: There are some places that hire expats, though it’s under the table. To get these gigs you will definitely need to be in town and getting to know the people, places, and other expats. I know for sure that some friends worked at the mid-range and high-end restaurants in SP or Sayulita. A few expats also taught English for a small stipend at Entre Amigos, the community center.
Other: For work and living, it really will be so much easier on the ground. It’s a very small town and the expat community is super supportive. It’s a cinch to get the lay of the land once you arrive. Places like Darjeeling have fantastic tea and food, and then live music throughout the week. SP is more low-key than Sayulita, but there is usually something to do two to five nights a week depending on the season, and then you can always go to Sayulita if you need more of a vibe sometimes.
Deciding Where to Live
In response to numerous emails asking about the differences between the handful of towns north of Puerto Vallarta, here’s Cliff’s Notes summary of the differences in case you’re sussing out which is better for you. All three would have similar costs of living. And then I include a couple other towns and thoughts in case you’re looking at other Mexican towns:
Bucerias: Sprawling, no defined downtown area, neighborhoods stacked behind a big road and a beach. Very close to the PV, several big resorts. Less heavy with expats than any other surrounding town. No defined personality.
Sayulita: Very small, beach is very crowded with surfers because the water is good for swimming, entirely walkable within the town. Lots of restaurants, shops, a language school, etc. Touristy but a very clear personality with organic markets, yoga shops, surfers, etc. More of a nightlife than San Pancho (a later nightlife I should say).
San Pancho: Tiny, one main road, a handful of options for restaurants. One, sometimes two, coffee shops. Beach is gorgeous but not very safe for kids swimming (though some do) because of strong waves/undertow. A tight-knit group of expats, can’t leave home without seeing someone you know. Local kids have free reign of the whole town. Lots of musicians and something going on each night of the week in high season at one of the pubs/bars.
Guanajuato/San Miguel: In the interior, these two towns just exude pretty colonial charm. San Miguel del Allende is smaller and more popular with expats, while Guanajuato is a decent sized city with a great vibe, an affordable cost of living, and a decent-but-not-overwhelming expat community.
Oaxaca: I lived here for six months and found it is one of the most affordable expat cities in Mexico. The community is different than what you find in San Miguel or PV, it seems there are more opportunities to integrate into Mexican life. This is the food heart of Mexico, there are many indigenous cultures in and around the city, and the only real drawback is the political nature of the city—there are a lot of strikes and protests from the teachers unions and other groups.
Yucatan: Hugely popular with expats (and spring breakers), a bit pricier than the west coast, gorgeous beaches and diving. Very touristy region in general but convenient and safe.
Cost of Living Comparison
Still researching the right spot to live? Our Cost of Living Guides share extensive resources or all the major expat spots around the world. These guides include thorough breakdowns of the culture, quality of life, vibe, and—importantly—budget breakdowns so you can better plan which spot in the world best meets your needs.
If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.
Mexico surprised me with the hospitality and friends I found when I arrived at the beginning of the year with no real plans and no certain direction for my life. I flew into Puerto Vallarta sure that I would visit with friends who were living near there for a month, and then move onto another region filled with colonial towns. I loved the little town of San Pancho so much that I decided to stay put for four months and live in this small Mexican beach town. Well, at least until it was time to seek out those colonial pueblas at a breakneck pace and make my way to my overland to Mexico City so I could catch a flight to Costa Rica.
I arrived in Costa Rica a few days ago, and my dad and Ana arrived last night. Our plan is to explore a bit here and then travel together to Panama, where my dad grew up living in the Canal Zone. As I end the Mexico portion of my travels for the next while, I wanted to share highlights from my Instagram feed and camera roll over the past four months. One of the things I love about Instagram is that photos often capture moments, angles, or snapshots in a way I don’t usually share on the blog. The entire medium is intended more as a slice of life type sharing and it appeals to me a lot, even as I go in the exact opposite with my own photography (my 2013 goal is to fully understanding manual mode and everything my nice travel camera can do by the end of the year!).
I’ll be offline for a couple of days now as my family and I cross into Panama and go exploring, but I’ll share those adventures via Facebook in the coming days and weeks … and likely in the coming months on the stories since I am a few months (years?) behind on the blog. :)
Photos of Colonial Towns in Mexico
Breakfast in Mexico: scrambled egg burrito topped with salsa picante, mashed avocado, and crema. (That offensive olive was an oversight, I picked the others off).
Fresh coconuts anytime, only alarming part was the number of machetes laying around town. This was a perk to living in my tiny town; tiny specialized shops serviced every small niche you’d need, and it was all close together and walkable.
Sunset and stormy weather; the beautiful ones stacked on themselves and some nights I was just beside myself with how pretty they were. The sunset became a nightly ritual and many people in the town also gather for conversation, drinks, and nightly views like this.
Thanks so much for following the Mexican leg of my journey, I started traveling too quickly over the past couple weeks to share more about the tiny towns I visited on my overland travels after San Pancho, so those will come later this summer. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re there, I think it’s such a fun way to share more “in the moment” pieces of life on the road. What’s your favorite shot?
For the past four months, I have lived in San Pancho, Mexico in a studio apartment that, while small, has a stove-top, pots and pans, and the ability to cook. After four-and-a-half years on the road, this is the first time I’ve slowed down enough to shop at the local markets and then bring those flavors home. With a full kitchen, I’m using local vegetables and spices to recreate my favorite traditional dishes. Naturally, I started with a dish that seems crazy simple on the surface, but it offers a lot of nuance when you dive into the recipes: guacamole.
When I lived in Southeast Asia, I ate out for every meal. While street food is both cheap and delicious, it’s difficult to gain insight into how a nation combines flavors to create distinct cuisine. Cuisines around the world combine the same basic flavors in a different way to create a flavor profile unique to a country, culture, or region. For this reason, I take cooking classes in every country as I journey around the world. My mini cookbook collection has flavors from Thailand, dishes from Laos, Tibetan momos from Nepal, and sumac-flavored Jordanian salads. It’s a grand thing to take the class, but then to also adapt those dishes to your own palate and tastes. For Mexico, I have various cookbooks for vegetarians, but now that I’m in the country, it’s time to test out recipes and learn more about how Mexican flavors work within the country’s most popular dishes.
I’m dedicating my time in Mexico to learning the flavors of Mexican foods. This current cooking obsession is in self-defense too, because there are few vegetarian options in my small town. There are only so many cheese quesadillas a girl can eat.
Instead, I hunt down the ingredients at my local vegetable stand and markets. Then, I use these base ingredients to create vegetarian versions of the enchiladas, soups, and tacos everyone else enjoys.
Traveling vegetarians have a hard time finding healthy, balanced meals, so with the time and kitchen space here in Mexico these past months I decided to give it a go on the simple dishes. I look to the markets and restaurants to find food that is 1) simple enough to cook even in a hostel kitchen and 2) relatively healthy and 3) tasty enough to prepare for friends and family back home.
Added to that, if you know me well then you know I can rant for hours about food quality and the evolution of our food industries. Yet, I only occasionally talk about food here on ALA, even though acquiring food thrice times daily is a huge part of the traveling experience.
So let’s talk food, specifically, guacamole.
Guacamole is a dish that gives full focus to a fruit I love and eat in some form nearly every day: the humble avocado. I have an ongoing love affair avocados these days (and a Pinterest board dedicated to the food). In Mexico, avocados are affordable and they work as an amazing addition to most anything in life. A medium ripe avocado in Mexico runs about 5 pesos, or rather 40 cents. The woman next door is an avocado whisperer. She runs a vegetable shop, so I tell her what I want an avocado for—smoothie, guacamole, or sliced on the side—and she digs through the stack to find one perfect for that task. This translates into just overripe for the smoothie, under-ripe for the side slices, and perfectly ripe for guacamole.
Creating the perfect guacamole is one of the first tasks I assigned myself when I rented my apartment earlier this year. I live next door to the best produce shop in town, it’s just a few shops down from the tortilleria. I have fresh chips and ingredients nearby, so creating the perfect guacamole recipe was my new mission. I asked others, I tested other recipes online, and after months I have concluded that these two recipes take care of every potential guacamole need.
How to Make the Perfect Party Guacamole
My friend Guy is a talented filmmaker at Planetary Collective. He lived in San Pancho for a couple of months while their team finished editing the trailer for their beautiful documentary about the story of our interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe. In my murmurings about guacamole, Guy announced that he had created the best guacamole recipe known to man, and since that’s a challenge I am willing to test people on, I asked him to make it!
Guy hosted a Mexican night complete with elotes, fish tacos (for the carnivores), and his famous guacamole. After trying it, I had to agree with him, it was incredible—creamy with a strong kick and a light smoky flavor. And while delicious, there is no way I could eat the entire bowl because it burns after too long (in such a good way). I conceded to him that this combination was pretty close to the holy grail of guacamole. This is now my go-to as a taco topper or party dip. It’s just spicy enough that no one at a party will hog the guacamole, but all will sing its praises. :) Guy graciously shared his carefully honed recipe.
Ultimate Party Guacamole Recipe
3 avocados 5 cherry tomatoes 1/2 red onion (finely chopped) 2 medium chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (de-seeded and minced) 1 serrano or jalapeño peppers (de-seeded and minced) 1 bunch of cilantro (de-stalked and chopped) 1 lime (juiced) 2 tbsp agave syrup salt and pepper to taste
If you’re in a place with iffy water, soak the tomatoes, cilantro, and peppers in a disinfecting solution. Mash the avocado until creamy, add the rest of rest of the very finely chopped ingredients; top with a pretty tomato sprinkling.
How to Make a Quick, Everyday Guacamole
This second one is mine and is super simple—only a tad spicy, it’s chunkier, limier, and a go-to quick fix hearty enough to make a lunch for one. I make this twice a week as a meal.
Here in Mexico, the local guacamole has far more lime (and chili) than most versions back home. Many of them are also served as a liquid, not that scoopable guacamole we think of at the local Mexican restaurant. For that reason, I emphasize that this is my version of a lunch guacamole, which acts more like a salad guac than a traditional guac. There is a taco-stand avocado salsa here as well. It’s a completely different texture—liquid and meant for spooning onto tacos — and isn’t intended as a chip dip. This is a good recipe for authentic, liquid taco-stand guacamole. And to understand the range of spiciness, this article elaborates on the differences between habanero, serrano, and jalepeño peppers. Flavor-wise I generally prefer serrano, but all would taste good here.
Ultimate Everyday Guacamole Recipe
2 medium avocados (I use the small, Mexican avocados) 1 medium vine-ripe tomato (diced) 1/3 red onion (diced) 1 small garlic clove (minced) 2 limes (juiced, or replace one lime with 1/2 tsp of lime zest if you really want to kick it up a notch) 1 or 2 serrano peppers (de-seeded and minced) cumin and salt to taste
Cube and lightly mash the avocado with a fork, you want it still pretty fairly chunky, then simply add in the rest. Some people add mayonnaise, crema, or sour cream to their guacamole. Any of these additions are delicious, if less healthy. They will also change the color of the guacamole, and they make it creamier, with a smoother flavor.
Additional Guacamole Resources
If you’re an avocado lover like me, then you might want to check out these cookbooks and avocado tools.
Absolutely Avocados: This amazing cookbook has guacamole recipes from all over the world and integrating spice profiles from a range of diverse cultures. You will never get bored making guacamole when you can just page through and find a new take on a well-loved dish. Best yet, most of the recipes are pretty easy and don’t include too many crazy ingredients, so it’s truly easy to use on a whim.
Taco! Taco! Taco!: The Ultimate Taco Cookbook: Three exclamation points is about how enthusiastic I am about tacos, and this cookbook is a good start for anyone trying their hand at homemade tortillas and creative taco fillings. (And since Mexican food is not vegetarian-friendly, vegans should look to Vegan Mexico for great recipes with that zingy combination of flavors unique to Mexico).
Extra tools: Neither of these are necessary, but I use a Mexican molcajete when I prepare my guacamole, and back home I have an avocado slicer, which saves a good deal of time if you are preparing avocados often!
Last weekend, I had one of types of experiences that keeps me traveling all these years. And there are elements of it that won’t convey well as I share the hour I spent with a taco stand family from the interior of Mexico, but its the pieces of their story, the new information about their culture that gave me an unexpected window into the lives of the people who surround me each day.
Though it started as just lunch, the fun that my open, earnest questions brought to the encounter reminded me that curiosity—the need to find out more, find out why, how, and the story behind something—is a central part of the travel experience and can transform a place and a people.
When I sat down at a pop-up-taco stand across the street from my apartment, I was mostly leading with one thought: “feed.me.now .”
Minutes later, with a cold agua fresca de jamaica and a potato, mushroom, and cheese taco taking away my single-minded focus on obtaining food, I pull out of my self-focus and strike up a conversation with the grandmother who was peering at me with open curiosity and a glint of humor as I ungracefully tackled my taco (it was not pretty: sauce dripping down my arm, chunks plopping onto my plate, and me attacking my food like a half-starved dog).
This taco stand was new; in fact I had only seen it open for the past two days, taking up the corner outside of a dusty, unused storefront that hadn’t seen love in a good decade. San Pancho is tiny town and the arrival of new food sources is not to be taken lightly. Putting my mediocre Spanish to use, I began to ask questions. The first thing I had noticed before dispatching with my lunch was the blue corn tortilla—so pretty and the only place in town serving them. So I asked the grandma where they source their corn.
Turns out, the taco stand was only in town for three days and the family is from the deep interior of Mexico but came to San Pancho, a beach town, for the long weekend and to perhaps make some money since the tourist trail is thinner in other regions of Mexico. As we talked more, the daughter chimed in as she continued to pat, press, and fry fresh blue tortillas. The corn came from their own fields and this is really the only type of tortilla they ever eat as a result.
We talked more and I made my way over to her prep table, pointing at things and questioning her about their use. When she could tell I was genuinely interested in the process (I think my request to paparazzi her as she molded the pale blue dough tipped her off), her entire demeanor opened up and she shifted her task from making tortillas to instead walking me through the process of making tortillas.
There is a tortilleria here in town with a huge machine capable of processing hundreds of plain white corn tortillas, but it was her handmade process that fascinated me: the milky blue dough that transforms into a dark navy disk as it fries on the grill.
The street stand was empty of others, so the daughter walked me through the process for fresh corn tortillas, even pulling her son into the mix.
The process for making corn dough, or rather masa de maíz, has not changed since ancient times, and is quite simple. The large, mottled blue and yellow corn kernels soak for a few hours in lime water, which loosens and softens the kernels. They are then fed through the grinder, turning them into a soft and mushy pile of dough that can be dried and stored, or used immediately exactly as is to make delicious, fresh corn tortilla rounds.
The son was thrilled to show me the process … do you see, do you see how thrilled he is?! As much as I joke, he was happier than he looks, each time I raised the camera he got serious and “official” looking.
He was a good teacher too, and even gently chastised me as I took a turn on the grinder. Apparently my grinding wasn’t steady enough and I was making the corn the wrong texture … the young boy’s assessment made his grandmother hoot with laughter. In fact, her guffaws were the backdrop for the entire lesson as she watched me photograph each part of the process. I no doubt looked a little silly to her since it’s as natural as breathing to this family, and even something as simple as turning a crank flummoxed the gringo. :)
The taco stand is a family affair and as more hungry people arrived, I contented to sit next to the grandmother once more and chat with her as they prepared a stack of fresh tortillas for me to take home. She was a funny lady and my only regret is that my questionable Spanish meant I only understood about 70% of her stories. But even though I tried to smile and nod through it, to piece together elements as best as possible, it was five minutes later that I realized she knew I wasn’t catching it all. (And here I thought myself a good actress!)
I bagged my hot tortillas, curiosity sated and feeling happy to have learned so much on what started as merely a quick run for lunch. Then grandma called me over for one last piece of advice. She said, “I’ll slow down now so you understand. You take these home and they will last one week. After a week, the ones that are left, you be a good girl and you fry them up. Not too hard for you to do I think? You just fry the old tortilla very crispy, then add-on some sour cream or avocado, and [insert yummy noises now].”
And with that advice, she shooed me away so she could help her daughter serve the newcomers.
And so, it is with that kitchen wisdom that I will now leave you as well since I think it’s pretty handy advice for the old tortillas that always end up sitting for months at the bottom of the fridge (you know you probably have some in there now, don’t deny it). It’s tasty and these served me as a yummy snack for several days in a row.