The things backpackers do in Mexico

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

↑ “Buenos días señor. ¿Habla español?” “Sí, Sí, pero sólo un poco!” Sketching my Mexico travel route.

Without being picky about definitions, here are some things I think that a backpacker* traveling in Mexico would typically do. This condensed list is based on my experiences in Mexico about which I will write in detail over the next few weeks using a slightly different style than my previous travelogues. I made a feeble attempt at hand drawing the route map.

So, here’s a list of 12 things that might interest the backpacker* in you:

1. Climb pyramids

↑ Sitting in front of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, Hidalgo.

The Mayans, Aztecs, Teotihuacans and other pre-Columbian cultures constructed huge pyramids and elaborate cities with intricate and beautiful artwork. Most of their treasures have been lost – either during the Spanish conquest or simply over time – but some large ones remain. I visited several ruins that had pyramids: Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. In Mexico, a backpacker would certainly spend time exploring these historical sites.

2. See “cultural” shows

↑ “Danza de los Voladores” (Dance of the flyers), being performed outside the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

Mexico has dozens of indigenous traditions and loads of Spanish influence on top. As a result, the culture and arts scene is very rich and diverse. A backpacker, while traveling through various cities, would most certainly stumble upon street artists, dancers, music shows and what not. In the city of Mérida, there was activity around the Zócalo (central plaza) for the entire day: street concerts, music and dance shows, buskers, etc. It was lovely!

3. Dodge tourist traps

↑ Lane in an “Artisan Market” at Cholula, Puebla.

There are always a tons of souvenir shops, artists markets and places to buy trinkets from – their density is especially higher near tourist places such as ruins and city centers. Yucatan is overrun by shorts-wearing camera-wielding resort-going tourists that crowd in a tourist-bus for visits to exclusive art shops. Needless to say, a seasoned backpacker would know how to deal with the “special price for you” type stores.

4. Watch a fight

↑ “Lucha libre” (Free fighting), a wrestling performance that people absolutely love.

After a very religious evening of Fiesta de San Sebastian (Festival of Saint Sebastian) on narrow streets of Taxco, Guerrero, the crowds assembled at the zócalo in front of the cathedral around a fighting arena. There were WWF style matches with loud cheers and kisses from the girls for the winner. The losers get to hang around and get their pictures taken with random people, including backpackers like me.

5. Get bewildered

↑ Stone columns depicting Toltec warriors at Tula, Hidalgo

The sheer magnitude and scale of pyramids and statues like these made me excited and amazed by the artistic and technical skills of the native cultures of Mexico. Granted that one cannot possibly see everything there is in the world to see, a backpacker to Mexico is in for random treats like this one – which go beyond what the guidebooks describe. Get bewildered when you can!

6. Discover strange street food

↑ “Neveria” (ice-cream parlour). Later I had Tequila icecream, with chili sauce ofcourse!

After I got over my initial fear of eating street food in Mexico, there was no going back, literally. Most of my meals were on the road, in markets, on street corners, dingy hole in the wall places. A backpacker will bravely venture out in the real world and taste the grub that’s served on the street… without worrying too much about Montezuma’s revenge (i.e. diarrhea). I did suffer mildly one night though…

7. Participate in a fiesta and a student protest

↑ “Lower tuition fees!” A student demonstration in Puebla, Puebla.

While exploring places, often unaware of local political developments, backpackers may find themselves trapped in random situations. In this instance, the street around Puebla’s zocalo suddenly got overrun with students and demonstrators. They were noisy and ineligible but peaceful nevertheless. In another situation, I emerged out of a lane and found myself in the middle of a Christian religious procession.

8. See colourful houses

↑ Hundreds of brightly coloured houses. This one is from a village called El Chico, Hidalgo.

I was very impressed with houses painted in shades of bright colours. Coming from snowy Toronto, it was therapeutic on the eyes. Even in small towns, places were painted in bold colors, very pretty. Whenever I was taking a picture of such a place, passers by sported a puzzled look.

9. Visit a colonial church or two

↑ A church at Valladolid town plaza, Yucatan. Pretty much a standard city layout.

The fact that there were large number of churches around was very convenient. Everytime you needed a break from the scorching sun or wanted to get away from the crowded street or just sit and relax, little churches and chapels were right there. A backpacker in Bhutan will most likely get tired of visiting the monasteries over and over, just as a backpacker in Peru would feel about visiting the colonial churches there. Church fatigue, for lack of a better word, did kick in after some days.

10. Explore ruins

↑ Decorative facade at Uxmal, Yucatan

For an archeology and history buff, Mexico is a paradise. The art work at various ruins, whatever is left, is superb, intricate and expressive. Lot of the original colour and splendor has been lost, but some elements and detail of the glorious past remain, and are waiting to be explored.

11. Hang out at local hotspots

↑ Eating a Gordita on a busy intersection, somewhere around Cuernavaca, Morelos.

If a backpacker sticks around central plazas or street corners and such local hangouts, s/he is bound to experience something that a person on a tour bus will never do. Maybe someone will ask you about snow in Toronto, or someone will offer you a glass of jugos (juice) and yet others will ask you why Indians wear a mark on their forehead, but at the end, you will be left with delightful smiles and wonderful memories.

12. Get lost… or just end up somewhere unplanned…

↑ Signs or no signs, angels or not, one is bound to get lost.

For those who don’t religiously follow a guidebook, getting lost is nothing new – I missed a stop because the driver forgot to tell me, or I got wrong directions, hitchhiked to an unknown place or I simply assumed a certain street will lead to somewhere. Well, it depends on the definition of being “lost.” Strictly, I was never lost, I was just “exploring” unplanned, haha. Afterall, how can one get lost? Its not in the middle of Amazon or Sahara. Seasoned backpackers are very likely to be master navigators and are firmly aware of their place (and be a smart ass about it, as you just read).

Now tell me!

Several traits described here are universal and relate to a certain philosophy of travel. Tell me, what kind of behaviours among those listed here do you exhibit, and what else do you do?

* Note: After reading the comments, I must clarify that I had no intention of making this sound like an ‘exclusive’ backpacker list at all (regardless of the definition of that term).

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery