If you'll pardon my gushing for a moment, I'll get to the practical stuff once I have this out: El Camino de Santiago is just the best. If I had to pick 30 days of my life to re-live over and over again, it would be the month that we spent on the Camino Frances (the most popular route between St Jean Pied de Port, France and Santiago, Spain) in 2013. It's my favorite cultural experience in the world, and I'm so glad it exists. If you're here, I'm guessing you have at least a vague sense of what it is, and if not the Wikipedia Camino article will get you up to speed better than I can. But if I had to summarize, I would call it a 500 mile purpose-driven long walk across northern Spain where cheap wine and beer and coffee and croissants rain down like manna from heaven as you wander through picturesque ancient villages. It's really my favorite thing in the world.
The best part of the Camino experience, in my opinion, is the community. That thin ribbon of Spanish land is populated by interesting, super supportive people of all shapes, colors, ages and nationalities who are there because they want to have a life changing experience - but not in a weird way. It's a rare place in the world where there's a strong sense that a large and diverse group of people are all in it together to help each other succeed and figure out how to accomplish a goal they set and sacrificed to achieve.
We're featuring a bunch of Camino stories on this week's podcast, and in the supportive spirit of the pilgrimage in Spain, I've been thinking about the one key to a successful trip for those who might find their way here who are contemplating it. I don't want to do another comprehensive write up (there are lots of those online), so I want to present the "if you could only write one blog post" principle that describes a successful approach in a nutshell.
I also realize that our readership isn't primarily composed of people contemplating el Camino de Santiago, but is almost exclusively an audience who are interested in various forms of outdoor travel and adventure. And as such, I've also been thinking about what gives the Camino its particular appeal for that crowd - our normal audience of travelers, athletes, and adventurers.
And I think I've got the principle that addresses both crowds:
What's Alex Honnold got to do with Anthony Bourdain? Why are outdoor athletes so frequently also globetrotting world travelers?
I gotta admit, the last year or so I've been feeling a bit like a gordo, because our previous regimen of endurance running and thru-hiking has largely been supplanted by travel - both internationally in Latin America and at our home in the US, for Boldly Went events. While we still get out for a healthy number of runs, hikes, and paddles, most of our energy has been going to learning Spanish and planning road trips.
I know we're not the only ones who share both passions - for outdoor adventure and for international travel - and the question of whether stories from abroad are welcome at our outdoor adventure events comes up in pretty much every city. All of this has me reflecting a bit on why there is so much overlap in the communities: between dirtbag athletes and vagabonds.
What itch is being scratched?
The topic came up for me initially because, sitting on a plane, flying home from Mexico a few days ago, I was thinking about how this year I really want to get back into ultra shape (probably a 50k route we make up ourselves rather than a race) and complete another (shorter) thru-hike on the Colorado Trail after a couple years away from major athletic challenges. When I ask myself why, beyond wanting to stop feeling like an impostor when people ask me about my Cascade Crest 100 hat, I can think of at least 6 things that these kinds of outdoor adventures bring to one's life.
1) A regular, heady, emotional mix of fear, insecurity and excitement.
2) Fun logistical challenges that involve incorporating both mental and physical aspects.
3) A sense of accomplishment for having done things that are on the edge between possible and impossible.
4) A sense of identity that comes from being a part of a tight-knit community, and from doing something that not many people do. Feeling strange, and special.
5) A better sense of one's place in the cosmos - as a small, weak creature in the middle of a big, beautiful world.
6) A sense of being physically healthy, and strong. Feeling like, if you want to do just about anything, you will be capable of doing it (with a bit of training).
While we used to spend almost all of our leisure time on outdoor pursuits, we've gone through several phases, including during the last few years, when travel has taken over a significant amount of that energy and time. Sitting on a plane, thinking about why that's felt like a relatively even trade, it struck me that our drifting around has actually scratched a lot of the same psychological itches that the trails used to. For instance:
1) Stepping off of a plane into the middle of Guatemala City for the first time was a similar feeling to taking the first steps on our PCT thru-hike. It was the fear, insecurity, and excitement that comes along with setting out into an unknown environment to take on a challenge with some actual dangers that you're not sure you're up to confronting. Terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
2) The logistics of international travel are probably even more complicated than the logistics of running 100 miles through the wilderness. While the physical challenge is primarily to avoid putting anything in your mouth that will give you dysentery, when you're traveling every day is a puzzle to be solved - navigating foreign cultures, languages, and bus stations.
3) While social media makes it appear as if travel is just drifting around looking at pretty things (which, in some ways, it can be), in actuality it comes with a strong sense of accomplishment as you see yourself learning new languages and navigating formerly difficult situations more easily. On our recent trip to Mexico, it was still shocking to step off the plane into a foreign culture, but after 5 previous months of Latin American travel, it wasn't scary in the same way. It was a familiar kind of fear that we knew we were capable of navigating. Estuvimos listos.
4) There's also a strong sense of community and identity that comes along with meeting other international travelers. Beyond finding people who love the same places you do, there's a bond that comes with sharing the same types of experiences I've been talking about here, and of feeling like you're all the same kind of weird.
5) And there's no reality check that better helps you to understand your place in the world than being dropped into the middle of a foreign country, where you don't speak the language, and where you no longer understand how things work. You're small. The world's big.
Maybe those sets of psychological needs help explain why some of us are more drawn to adventure than others. But definitely, somewhere in that overlap is the reason that when we travel, we repeatedly run into people who are into the outdoors: as with our recent random connection through AirBnB with Edy, in Coatepec, Mexico, who has traveled widely and also happens to be a mountain guide. And when we meet people in the outdoors community, they are very frequently travelers as well - as when we met Chad Guenter in Canmore, Canada through a SUP boarding connection, and it turns out he'd previously lived in Jalcomulco - a town not too far from Edy's in Mexico.
So, I think that there genuinely is a shared psychology - a dirtbag DNA if you will - that defines people who are driven to explore, whether that's through outdoors pursuits or international travel. We're all after the same sorts of things in life - curiosity to see what's around the next literal or proverbial bend, sure, but also a shared desire for the types of growth that come along with both types of experiences. Maybe as a group we all get bored easily and need a challenge, or maybe we need to set ourselves apart as different in some way or another. Or, conversely, need to feel that even though we are a bit different, there are a lot of other people who are different in the same way.
And so, yeah, of course we let it slide at events when a storyteller wants to talk about a travel adventure that only peripherally involves the outdoors.
One itch travel doesn't scratch, unfortunately, is the need for physical fitness. So while the trip to Mexico that we just returned from was great, sitting around drinking cerveza and eating sweet, delicious mole poblano doesn't get you in ultra shape on its own. So I'm going to head out for a run. But we're going to keep it kind of short: we have a road trip to pack for tomorrow.
If you want updates when more blogs like this come out, or updates on the weekly podcast featuring stories of outdoor adventure (with the occasional travel experience mixed in), our upcoming book, or all of the other cool stuff we're up to, we hope you'll sign up for our weekly newsletter here!
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This is the fourth in our series on Mexican travel, which started with an article on why we love Mexico and aren't afraid of her, and was followed by an attempt to cut through some fear by being real about the challenges and offering some practical advice for travel here. The third entry focused on our favorite part of the country, the sorely underrated Veracruz State. With this post I want to close by speaking from the heart, about what makes Mexico feel like more than just a travel destination to us.
Creating community that creates adventure
For the second year in a row, Angel and I find ourselves vortexed in Coatepec, Mexico. After popping in four days ago with plans to move on quickly, we're posting from the same family's AirBnB that we were sitting in this time last year when our day trip turned into a week. Once again, we're stuck here, with no plans to leave until our plane tickets force us to.
We didn't intend to be here, and I didn't intend to finish this series on Mexico out with this particular post, but there's something about Coatepec that consistently changes our direction.
A year ago, the first entry we ever made on this blog was about Carlos, our AirBnB host who opened up a world of fantastic connections and experiences in Coatepec. I've thought a lot this year about how our experience with him, and with his family, captures the spirit of what we hope to do with Boldly Went. As I've tried to summarize that spirit in a phrase, what I've come up with has been "creating the community that creates adventure."
It's no coincidence that being back in the house, reconnecting with Carlos and his family, has us thinking again about that dynamic, and in truth we've made a series of connections on this year's trip that have felt like creating community that then evolved into adventure.
On our first stop, in Orizaba, we were warmly received by the local trail running group - the Alameda Runners - and they took us out on our best outdoor experience there, a 10 mile run through the local national park.
In Catemaco, we wanted to go on a hike, so we booked something that was ominously and (we learned) appropriately called the "extremo" route in a local eco reserve with Tour en el Pariaso, where we spent 6 hours alone with our guide Arnulfo, off trail through the jungle, on a route that concluded with a river crossing dicey enough that Angel prefaced it by making her peace with death, in pure sincerity.
In Coatepec, our first AirBNB host was a guy named Eduardo. I don't know how we always manage to do this here, but he is also a mountaineer and climber who is partners with Jorge Salazar Gavia, one of Mexico's best alpinists, who is currently preparing to lead a group up Everest. Eduardo took us out to a spectacular but rarely visited local waterfall - La Granada - that he'd been visiting since he was a child, and now routinely visits with his son. And, he took us to a spot that he said he believes no gringos have visited before, a climbing crag hidden behind a long bushwhack and scramble on an acquaintance's property.
And today, as I'm writing, we're just back from the small town of Jalcomulco with Antonio and Carla, who run Ruta Verde, and who are Carlos's daughter and son-in-law. We met them last year, and today we went to check out the property that they have set up for independent, off-grid living. (My favorite thing about it is their security system for when they're away, which is a series of honey bee hives placed in the entryways to their small cabana.)
Creating adventure that creates community
All of those experiences fit the category of "community creating adventure", because they involved people we've met taking us to places we wouldn't have been otherwise.
But being back in Coatepec at Carlos' house has felt more than just another chance to have new adventures. It's been more like a family reunion after our great experience here last year. And to bring things full circle, in this way, actually, while it's been an important lesson we've learned in the past that community is the means through which we can have better adventures, the most valuable thing this year's trip has highlighted is that the reverse is also true - that adventure is a means through which people with real differences can build real community.
All of the experiences I've mentioned were great because we saw beautiful things and had some intense experiences, but they will stick with us because we developed a sense of connection to the people we went with.
The Orizaba running group left us with the sense that the city was a place we could live, because there are clearly a large number of like minded people - trail and ultra runners, and a larger active outdoor community.
And after our shared struggle with Arnulfo through the jungle in Catemaco, we sat in his house - a primitive affair with a packed dirt floor and only partial walls - shared a meal, and talked about the particular struggles Mexican environmentalists face due to pressure from oil and gas developers and government with other priorities. At one poignant moment on the outing, clearly pleased that we seemed to be enjoying the experience, he told us, "This place is my life. They say if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." By the end of our time together, we were laughing, hugging, and exchanging contact information.
Similarly, when we went out with Eduardo, he took us to see places that he clearly valued, not just because they were beautiful, but because they were hidden treasures near his home, and places he'd been visiting since he was a child. He's traveled widely in Mexico and abroad, but we got a sense of the roots he's developed in Coatepec, and the locals love about the place. It's the kind of experience that makes you feel connected by proxy - to the place, but also to the people here.
And Antonio and Karla: we met them last year at Carlos' recommendation, and hired them initially as guides. This year, coming back, we've hung out with them because they're our friends - like-minded Mexican dirtbags figuring out how to live an adventure-filled, environmentally-connected, unconventional life - not entirely dissimilar to our own.
So, a thing that has to be said is that we love Mexico more because we've made these connections than because it's full of pretty, interesting places. But our quest to access those beautiful places by finding locals to take us there has been the means to the end of feeling at home here, in a place and a culture that's very different from our own.
And being back in Mexico generally, and Coatepec specifically, has been a great reminder that it's that magic, in the interplay between community and adventure, that we really want to tap into with the things we do at Boldly Went - in our storytelling events, and through our podcast and writing. We think that's the transformative part of adventure: the human connections that both help you to redefine yourself, and that help you recognize a shared humanity with people who otherwise might seem foreign.
And, of course, the best value comes in actual face to face interactions, and from the beginning it's been our goal to help make those real, human connections happen. So, if you're interested in experiencing the outdoors, and the outdoors community in Mexico, and you have anything you want help figuring out, please shoot us a message. Better, if you want us to hook you up with some local connections, or make some recommendations, get in contact with us. We know people and feel connected to the place, and we've seen some really amazing places here - we want to help you do the same!
The goal of our Navigator Network is to facilitate both these types of adventures and these types of relationships with people who are experts in their local communities. If you're traveling and are interested in figuring out how to connect with locals, get out on more hardcore adventures than the average tour experience, or get to places that are off the normal tourist radar, along with Mexico we have connections in Guatemala, the Canadian Rockies, Chile, Nepal, and the Pacific Northwest. You can check out the Navigator Page here, but if you don't find what you're looking for, please send us a message directly, because we're developing that part of the project and want to see how we can use the connections we've gathered all over the world to help people like you!
If you want updates when more blogs like this come out, or updates on the weekly podcast, the Navigator Network, our upcoming book, or all of the other cool stuff we're up to, we hope you'll sign up for our weekly newsletter here!
And if you find what we're creating useful and entertaining, consider being more involved with our network and join us on Patreon.
Following up on last week's post about why we love Mexico and aren't afraid of her, this week's entry in our 4 part series is a "how to" guide that you might not even know you need. Our goal here: to cut through some fear by being real about the challenges and offering some attainable solutions.
First things first: Mexico can and should be an outdoor lover's dream location. It's affordable and accessible, the terrain and climate is incredibly varied, and real, unsanitized adventure is possible for the intrepid traveler. It's 365 days of summer, and there are world class locations for any warm-weather sport you can imagine: Baja's got amazing mountain biking, Potrero Chico and Salta have incredible rock climbing, Pico de Orizaba and the central MX volcanoes are some of the highest peaks in North America, Jalcomulco and Tlapacoyan have world class whitewater, there's flatwater paddling in Catemaco, Valle de Bravo is a paraglidiing Mecca, the Copper Canyon is one of the ancestral homes of ultra-running...
But the reality behind the cool photos (like the following one from the top of a scramble outside the Quiahuiztlan ruins that we completed in questionable clothing and footwear) is that outdoor adventure travel here takes a skill set beyond just being good at whatever sport you're into.
The thing we've learned is that going for a trail run, hike or climb in Mexico (as with most places in Latin America) can be a frustrating experience for travelers from the English speaking West, because things simply don't work the same way here. If you expect to show up, drive to a well-maintained natural area with a developed infrastructure, and set out into the wilderness for days on your own, you're likely going to be disappointed.
As we argued in the last post, Mexico is nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be prepared for. There's a different culture around the outdoors here, and it's helpful to have a little bit of guidance.
The struggle is real. Si hay problemas.
Mercifully, the specific challenges that someone looking for outdoor adventure in Mexico faces can be summarized concisely, and the strategies to solve those problems can be both straightforward and 100% Aventura if you're prepared.
Generally speaking, all of the issues we've personally experienced are a result of the fact that beautiful places frequently aren't well protected here. While National Parks exist in Mexico, they tend to be relatively small, fractured affairs where private citizens own interspersed tracts of farm land and still utilize the public lands for a variety of purposes. Many of the beautiful places here are in small protected parks, or on private property. It's understandable in a country where resources are short, and it can be an advantage in that you'll likely find people selling food and water pretty much everywhere you go. But it's a disadvantage for a specific set of reasons.
1) If you set out on your own, you never know when you're going to wander (or float if you're on a river) into someone's yard or field, and piss them off.
2) There are dogs everywhere - some of which are pets, some of which are semi-domesticated or guard dogs, and some of which are feral and want to bite your face off. For people who've traveled virtually anywhere in Latin America, this won't be a big surprise. It's a standard recognition that a dog bite ruining your trip is one of the most realistic risks here.
3) While there are places you can go to hike, climb, or wander, infrastructure tends to be much more limited than in the US, Canada, and Europe, and trails here tend to be a mix of use trails and publicly managed routes. Many times the infrastructure is maintained exclusively by private individuals or organizations to varying degrees of success.
4) Also, there are no trail maps. Once we asked someone about trail maps, and they just laughed. There are no trail maps.
5) And finally, because there's a language barrier and most of us gringos haven't gone to the trouble of learning Spanish, it can be difficult to know what you're getting yourself into - even if you try to do your research. (This is also, not incidentally, a real safety issue for those who plan to drive themselves to remote areas in Mexico. Do you know the traffic laws and symbols here? Can you read the signs? It's pretty important that you can read the signs. Please don't kill anyone while you're here.)
We've traveled enough in Latin America to know that none of those problems are insurmountable, but they do demand a solution.
The best solution isn't the easiest one.
There is a straightforward and common solution to these problems - group adventure tours that help outsiders navigate and get to Mexico's beautiful places safely and easily. Unfortunately, this approach is very frequently ethically sub-optimal.
The issue isn't with groups, or paying someone to help navigate challenges when you don't have time or energy to figure it out yourself (although that can be one of the most rewarding parts of travel). The issue is that these 1-2 week group tours tend to be operated by businesses based in the US, Canada, or Europe, and charge amounts of money that, if given to locals in Mexico, would pay their salary for a year.
I personally don't think this is generally due to nefarious purposes, and most tour agencies do employ locals and pay decent wages. It's just a simple economic reality that the cost to pay employees to market and organize trips and perform administrative tasks in the US/UK/Canada is dramatically higher than the cost of paying guides in Mexico, so the vast majority of the money for these types of trips tends to stay with the people who already have more of it.
For illustration, Mexico is a country with extreme disparities in wealth, but a middle class professional job tends to pay in the range of $12 - 15k US dollars per year. Even budget adventure travel offerings tend to charge at least $1000/week per person for trips, and organize groups of 6 - 10. Along with that price being ridiculous if you know the local economy and are as cheap as us (our budget here tends to be $1200/person per month for everything including travel and accommodation), the economic reality there is pretty straightforward. If the bulk of those payments were going to Mexican nationals, the adventure tourism industry would be a highly lucrative one that would provide a healthy living for a large number of people, and would provide strong economic incentive to protect the areas that travelers are paying to see. Every dollar that ends up outside of the country is a lost opportunity, and in the current system, that's a lot of dollars. Is it exploitative, exactly? I don't know - but that equation definitely seems off.
Thankfully there are are an increasing number of Mexico-based organizations offering safe, fun, and ethical adventure tours, and those can be a good option if that's what you're into.
But apart from tours, a trip to Mexico to get outside can be significantly cheaper and have a significantly bigger impact on things that are important - the local ecology, and the local economy - simply by choosing to use local resources to solve the problems we've talked about here. Anyway, most of you reading this are looking for real adventure - not a packaged tour. Mexico is a great place for it if you choose to figure it out.
Tour operators are right: the solution is social.
Whatever the issues with adventure tours, the solution that they've happened upon is, in my opinion, the best one. If you want to get outside in Mexico (or Latin America generally), travelers should avoid being obsessed with independence, and embrace the fact that it's going to be social.
By way of preface, what this means is that, if you're planning to go to Latin America to climb a mountain, go hiking, or paddle a river, your experience will be dramatically better if you learn a little bit of Spanish. The best places here tend to be populated primarily by people with no English skills, and while you don't have to be fluent, even a few phrases will make navigating much easier, will allow you to make basic personal connections, and will give you a base to learn while you're here. There are some great free tools for this. Duolingo is a fantastic free app that can teach you the basics in a month or two, and it gave us enough of a base to survive the first time we traveled here. And SpanishDict is generally seen as the best, free dictionary app. And, of course, you could also get into the habit of paying locals by taking immersion courses while you're here. There are lots of locally run programs that combine Spanish lessons and outdoor outings, and such a combo trip could be a particularly rich experience. And if you have a little bit of Spanish knowledge, it will make it significantly easier to follow the rest of what I'm going to recommend.
1) Embrace public transit.
After you've picked up a few basic Spanish phrases, when it comes to accessing beautiful places, it's actually an advantage to be in Mexico because you almost never need to have a car to get around. A mix of public transit and private taxis will get you anywhere here, and there are transit options and taxis that operate in every dusty out of the way town you could possibly end up in. The system can, at times, be difficult to navigate but as a general rule, if you are willing to pay someone for transportation, you will find someone who will provide, no matter where you are going. And it's not weird - it's just how the millions of people navigate here who don't own cars.
As an example, when we were visiting Nevado de Toluca last year, which is a beautiful volcano outside of Mexico City, and a popular destination, we were able to secure bus transportation from the city to a dirt road at the base. While there was no public transit headed to the top at the time, we were told we would be able to locate a taxi. We got off the bus, wandered to the road, and didn't see any options. There was, however, a stand selling elotes (best corn on the cob ever), so we asked them. They made a phone call, and a few minutes later a guy showed up with a truck, named a price, and made a plan to pick us up when we were finished with our hike. This is a standard Mexican travel experience - nothing unusual.
For hiking and mountaineering, we've found that you can usually find the information you need, in English, about how to get to places using public transit or private taxis simply by Googling "how to get to...". Climbers are classically dirtbaggy, so it's no surprise that Summit Post is also a great resource that usually has instructions on how to get where you're going using local transport if you're climbing or hiking. And while English-language information online is at times out of date, infrastructure and transit in Mexico has been improving in recent years, so we've generally found that getting places is easier than older sources will indicate, so the internet can be used to develop a functional plan.
As a side note, it also seems to be true that safety in Mexico for travelers has also generally been improving in recent years. While Mexican taxis have a reputation for being dangerous, I can only say that we've traveled for months here and taken dozens of taxis, and never had an issue. Hail ones that look official and have drivers licenses and pictures posted on the windows, and agree on a price beforehand if the taxi isn't metered.
2) Embrace local guide culture
Similar to transportation, if you want someone to help you get to an area, you don't have to pay a gringo tour operator thousands of dollars: you're going to be able to find someone local to do it. And if you ask around, you're going to be able to find a variety of levels of offerings - from world class mountaineers, paddlers and canyoneers to kids who will rent you gear and go out with you but aren't certified in anything. For high risk activities, of course follow the same principles you would anywhere else - do your research beforehand and make sure you're travelling with a top tier outfit. For low risk activities like mountainbiking, flat water paddling, or hiking, just pay that local kid - and give him a good tip. You're not going to be paying a lot to get to the same places you'd go on those adventure tours.
And if you're bitter about paying for something "you could do yourself", try to figure it out yourself. That's where we started. It's difficult and frustrating, and in our experience it's way better to just support the locals who will make it easy. Look at it as doing your part to support the development of the local outdoor community and reinforce the financial benefits of protecting beautiful places.
The reality is that those kids are the outdoor community in Mexico. They're often well-educated about, and engaged with, their local terrain, and spend their days outside because they love it - similar to guides anywhere else in the world. We've made some of our best connections in Mexico by hiring them as guides, and have found some great, like-minded people scrapping to make a living doing what they love.
3) Take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new skill for much less than at home.
Travelers from around the world have been wise to the fact for decades that Latin America is the most affordable place to learn Spanish language skills in a high quality environment. College educated professors in, for instance, Guatemala or Bolivia, charge pennies on the dollar compared to schools in the US or Europe to train students in new languages, so it's worth it for learners to spend the money to fly to those places to study rather than paying higher tuition at home. (Or, nowadays, to connect via Skype to teachers in Latin America rather than paying tutors at home. ) It's a mutually beneficial relationship - Latin American professors make a decent living, and travelers save a significant amount of money.
There's a direct, untapped, analogy here for what is possible with adventure travel in Latin America. There are trained, certified guides here in mountaineering, paraguiding, rafting, kayaking, and more - many of whom speak English - and it's a real untapped opportunity to make learning a new skill the goal of a trip to Mexico. It might take some asking around, but you will pay significantly less than if you took lessons at home, and you'll get to see amazing places in Mexico while learning and get to know some folks in the outdoor community here intimately.
4) Connect with like-minded locals through the same avenues you would at home.
And for a final point here, it's also true that things aren't so different down here that nothing you've learned at home will be applicable. If you have a strategy for getting out to your favorite spots at home that involves tapping into local knowledge, there's a fair chance it can be replicated here. We're primarily trail runners, and Mexico has a well-developed culture around that sport. We had a great experience in the mountain town of Orizaba by searching for a local trail running group on Facebook and going out on their weekly run with them on local trails. We've gotten good beta at a local hiking/mountain sports shop in Toluca, and there are running or outdoor retailers in most cities. Generally speaking, as anywhere else, if you can rent or buy gear from a place, you can also get good information on where and how to go, and make connections with people who will go with you if you plan ahead a couple of days. And there is always the option, as well, of planning ahead to attend local events - races and festivals - to get supported access to areas that might be difficult to navigate otherwise.
While travelling independently, and utilizing local resources, might not be as straightforward as paying for a package tour that will take the challenge out of the experience, in my opinion, keeping it local is a better way to travel. It's the way that you're going to connect with actual Mexicans and get a sense of what the outdoor culture looks like here. It's also the way you're going to keep your tourist money where it belongs, in the local communities that protect the places you want to go. And it's going to cost you dramatically less than if you booked a package tour. While it's almost definitely going to make you anxious to travel this way at times, especially if your Spanish isn't strong, it's also going to be an incredible learning experience that will make you feel like a hero when you're done. Mexico is a beautiful country with one of the world's great cultures, and adventure travel can and should be one of the best ways to tap into it.
If you liked this post, you'll probably also like our post on our philosophy of adventure travel, and on the things that we love about travel in Mexico. You'll also probably like my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's a fun "how to" guide like this, but for your entire existence.
Since we're here for the next month, we've decided to put out a series of (hopefully helpful) posts about travelling in Mexico, so yesterday I started doing a bit of research into what other people are writing.
And OMG people, the first thing that pops up when you Google "Travel in Mexico" is the "Mexico Travel Warning" from the US State Department. This means that the second sentence the potential American visitor reads is this anxiety-provoking caution: "U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various Mexican states."
And after scrolling past the Lonely Planet and a few other entries, the Googler also gives you a front page link to a site on safety that includes life-saving advice such as to carry your money in a money belt under your clothes, avoid taxis, and "blend in as much as possible" in order to avoid getting robbed.
Reality check, gringo, people see you shoving your cash awkwardly into your belt, and even if you aren't decked out in matching USA jumpsuits, no one in Mexico is going to mistake you for a local. Also, "Mexican citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various U.S. states", so what's your point?
And besides that, please just STAAAAHHHPPPP...
Take a deep breath.
Mexico is nothing to be afraid of.
Don't get me wrong, Mexico has its issues like the rest of us, but I can't bring myself to post another word on the internet about strategies to stay safe in the country. Posts about safety are primarily posts about fear. There's enough of that going around, as evidenced by "Build the wall" and the general state of international politics these days.
A major reason all of this gets me so riled up is that we love it here. And love, some say, is the opposite of fear. Mexico, for us, isn't a danger zone, but is one of our favorite countries in the world for travel. A beautiful place, filled with beautiful people, beautiful landscapes, and beautiful churros. And we believe that there's a lot more to love here than there is to fear. Love is the most appropriate relationship that Americans and Mexicans should have with one another, and that's what the focus is going to be for our posts this month. Strategies to help Americans learn to love Mexico. Love! Claro?
Someone else can teach you about travelling safely in Mexico (it's not rocket science, btw). I want to teach you to travel fearlessly, and you'll do that when you figure out how much there is to love about place. So without further ado, let's get to it with our first post - 7 Major Reasons to Love Mexico.
7 Major Reasons to Love Mexico
1) The people.
Americans talk down about everyone (I blame all that elementary school indoctrination about how we're the greatest country in the world), but if there's a nationality that's less deserving of our negative stereotypes, I can't think of one.
I rate Mexicans with Kiwis as the warmest, most welcoming people I've come into contact with. My theory about why this isn't a common American assumption is that it's the language barrier, and it's totally worth it to learn a little bit of Spanish just to visit Mexico and get to know some Mexicans. (Our recommendation: go to Guatemala and study for a few weeks - it's a way cheaper and way faster way to learn than studying in the US, and we have a great connection we can hook you up with.) An added bonus if you put in the time is that having a bit of language skill breaks down the fear of the unknown that comes with traveling in a place where you don't understand what people are saying.
We love travelling via AirBnB here - not just because you can get a nice spot for $20 - $30 a night, but also because you almost always end up developing relationships with amazing people. Being invited to family dinners, drinks, or parties might not be standard, but it also isn't unusual.
Seriously, if you stay in one place in Mexico for more than a few days, you're going to have a couple of local friends, a bartender, a barista, a tortilla lady, and a favorite server at a local restaurant. If you go on a tour, you're going to end up having dinner with your guide's family, and it's not going to seem weird. It took me two years to establish those kinds of connections in Seattle.
You might be saying cynically that, sure, people are friendly when you're spending money, but for real, it's cultural. Last year we spent a week in Coatepec, Veracruz, and by the end of day two locals with no financial interest in us had invited us to a King's Day Party and given us an expensive book about their city. I'm still not sure why they were so nice to us.
And last year, we were visiting the month after he who shall not be named was elected on a platform of building walls and deporting Mexican babies. We expected some hostility as Americans, but the prevailing attitude we encountered was a sincere confusion: "Why is that guy being so mean to us? We thought we were your friends?"
Screw the negativity. Build bridges, not walls. They're right: Mexicans and Americans should be friends.
2) The food.
I know this is entirely cliche, but cliches are there for a reason. Mexican food is hands down the best in Latin America, and in my opinion the best regional cuisine in the world. Take that for what it's worth, because that's coming from someone who's never traveled in Southeast Asia. But whatever - the food here is hugely varied, delicious, and cheap. Everything from the street food to haute cuisine is amazing, and bland isn't a word in their vocabulary. Mole and churros and pescado and good coffee and flan for days.
Don't drink the water though, or eat anything uncooked that was washed in it - Montezuma's Revenge is a real thing.
3) The Music
I'm not saying you have to love mariachi bands, but there's nowhere more musical than Mexico. When I dashed out the initial notes for this post, it was 11 pm on a Tuesday in a densely populated neighborhood, and there was a band outside that had been playing for hours at what our host described apologetically as "a celebration of all of the various baby Jesuses from all of the churches in town". We were on a boat yesterday and a band of marimba playing buskers floated up and offered us a private performance of La Bamba for $2.50. In a small mountain town last year on New Years day at 8 am, a guy who seemed to be seriously mentally ill wrote a customized song for us about how he hoped "the white people from the north" liked his town.
And it's not just the people on the street. Mexico has an incredible and complex music scene. Check out this video by Rey Pila from Mexico City - an amazing band and a nice indicator of the variety of music that Mexicans are making. It's a remarkably musical place.
4) The Culture.
On a related note, "Culture" is a difficult thing to define, but there should be no argument that Mexico represents one of the great world cultures. Art, music, dance, dress, architecture, food, religion. It's all distinctive, varied, and densely packed here.
As an American traveler, it's shocking just how different Mexico is from the United States, and even from Spain, it's ostensible cultural ancestor. Mexico is an incredibly interesting mix of Mayan, Spanish, and gringo influences, with the occasional Korean restaurant thrown in for good measure. It's a huge travel opportunity to be so close to a country with such a rich culture.
Word to the wise - as an American traveler a lot of the best parts of Mexican culture are hidden from plain site. It's a classic Mexican experience to be walking down a seemingly ill-kept, dusty side street, and happen on to a beautiful restaurant that serves the most amazing mole poblano you've ever eaten, or to stumble on to the grounds of a world-class art museum. (Both of those things happened to us today in Xochimilco in Mexico City.) That's a great metaphor for the country as a whole - in many places, externally things look a bit rough, but once you get through the doors it's remarkable how much there is to discover here.
One of our favorite ways to discover some of that hidden culture is by following the national tourism board's recommendations and visiting designated "Magic Towns", or more properly, Pueblos Magicos, which are small towns with recognized outstanding cultural, historical, or ecological significance, which are granted money to maintain their character and entered into a tourism network to boost their economy. It's a fantastic program aimed at preserving and promoting some of the best of Mexico, and it provides a traveler with a valuable map of dozens of incredible places that are generally otherwise off of the beaten (gringo) path.
5) The Landscape.
It's weird, but outside of a couple of hours in port in a lame cruise we took 8 years ago, we've actually never traveled in the popular tourist spots in Mexico. Which is to say that we've never spent meaningful time in the places that are famous internationally for their beauty: Tulum, Baja, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Oaxaca. We've spent the majority of our 6 weeks (which will be 2 months at the end of this trip) in Central Mexico, in the mountains around Mexico City, and in Veracruz State (which I'll tell you more about in a future post!)
But I would still count Mexico as one of the most beautiful places I've ever traveled. The image of Mexico as one big desert surrounded by beautiful beaches is totally inaccurate. (That's Australia, actually). The central Mexican volcanoes are some of the most dramatic peaks in the world. The jungles in Veracruz are packed with waterfalls dropping into crystal clear pools, massive lakes with islands populated by monkeys and toucans, and picturesque villages surrounded by coffee plantations - a poor man's Hawaiian Island nestled between the Caribbean and Orizaba, the 3rd highest peak in North America. And Chiapas (where we've also never been) is reputably even more spectacular as a tropical jungle paradise.
Mexico is a huge country - 15th largest by area in the world - and it's packed with mountains and varied climates. In my enthusiasm I've almost forgotten that this is a blog aimed at outdoor adventurers, but because of its size and varied terrain, opportunities for adventure here are endless. Mexico is made up of rock climbing meccas, surfer's paradises, world class paddling rivers, paragliding enclaves, mountain biking hot spots, and arguably the birthplace of ultramarathon running. Most of these spots are relatively undeveloped and undiscovered by outsiders, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. The whole country is a freaking treasure trove.
6) The Accessibility.
It's no small thing that Mexico City is a 3 hour flight from most airports in the Southern US, and that you can drive to Mexico if you want to. But that's not exactly what I'm talking about.
Mexico, as a travel destination, is super easy to navigate on a budget, and without a car. Uber is widely available in many of the cities, is unbelievably cheap, and is generally seen as more secure than standard taxis. Although, we have personally never had an issue with a standard taxi so we don't have any problem taking those either. (Just ask the cost before getting in and make sure you're okay with it.). And Mexico, like all of Latin America, has a fantastic and well developed bus network. It's a common North American assumption that buses in Latin America will be run down affairs. While it's true you can travel in dusty and crowded local transit for next to nothing (we do it a lot - it's great value for money), you can also travel in upscale intercity buses that are the equivalent of flying business class. My hypothesis is that, because flight prices are out of reach for most Mexicans, and because many people don't own cars, the bus system is complex, comprehensive, and multi-tiered. In Mexico I've ridden in everything from an air conditioned luxury coach with wifi and in-ride movies to the back of some dude's friend's truck. You might have to shift between modes of travel, and brave a little uncertainty, but in Mexico public transit will get you anywhere.
Click here for a great, level headed introduction to bus travel in Mexico.
The same site also has a great, level headed introduction to taxi use in Mexico.
7) The Price
I'm sure you can get great deals at all inclusive resorts in Mexico too, but I'm talking about real travel.
For someone, particularly based in North America, looking for an international travel experience in a dramatically different culture and a genuinely beautiful place, it's hard to beat Mexico - particularly when you factor in the cost of flying to other low-cost destinations (South East Asia, Eastern Europe, etc.). It's not unrealistic at all for Angel and I to set a budget of around $1000 per person for our month here, including flights.
Because the tourism industry is well developed (with 35 million travelers in 2016 alone, it's one of the most visited countries in the world), it is also easy to spend a significant amount of money in Mexico if you stick to highly gringo'd establishments. But our strategy of finding AirBnBs in Pueblos Magicos, and eating at local restaurants with solid Google and/or Yelp ratings has been a winning one. We also solicit recommendations of places to eat and visit from locals - our hosts, baristas, people who inexplicably befriend us, etc. - and so our trips tend to look like tours of beautiful spots where Mexicans go on vacation or on the weekend, but international tourists haven't yet overrun. That strategy has helped us discover several of our favorite places (Coatepec, Jalcomulco, Valle de Bravo), and it's got us headed to the mountain town of Orizaba tomorrow, where we'll be posting from this time next week.
Local knowledge is golden in Mexico, because if you're the cautious type, locals can advise you on whether that beautiful spot you've been eyeing up is safe to visit, and whether that popular place all the tourists are going is actually worth it. They'll point you to the great local alternatives and the hidden local spots.
My caveat when accessing local knowledge: don't be stingy about paying for it. Tip your freaking bartender. And if it's an option to pay a kid to take you on a tour of a cool place, even if you could get there on your own, it's good form to help that kid make a living. And if that kid charges you a couple dollars more than he charges the local tourists, don't be a dick and freak out about it - remember, if you're reading this you almost definitely work in a stronger economy than Mexico's. You almost definitely are getting a killer deal anyway on an experience you'll remember forever, and your payment is one way to do your part to build good will between our country and our Southern neighbors. And anyway, feeding the tourism economy is a big part of what keeps cool places protected. There are a lot worse ways for you to spend that money.
In our experience this is particularly true when it comes to adventure travel. Mexico, as mentioned, is full of amazing places to climb, run, bike, cave, surf, dive, or whatevs. In North America and Europe, people tend to be used to being independent in those activities: grabbing a map or some GPS tracks and going. In most of Latin America, Mexico included, that's not really a thing for the most part. Places where you can do all of that stuff tend to be undeveloped (meaning there are no extensive trail systems) and accessing the great outdoor locations often requires local knowledge to help navigate private property, unmarked use trails, or feral dog territory. The development of the activities you love requires the financial support of the locals who are doing them!
(I swear this post wasn't written as a plug for the Navigator Network we're working on developing, but this is exactly the problem we identified while travelling that we're working on addressing! We don't have any official connections here yet, but I can tell you that Ruta Verde is a top notch and totally local outfit that can help get you out rafting, kayaking, canyoneering, hiking, trail running, and mountain biking in Jalcomulco - one of Veracruz's amazing humid adventure meccas, situated in a gorgeous canyon carved by international quality whitewater. We have no financial affiliation with them, but highly recommend them because they're good, environmentally active people, and are internationally qualified as guides. For those who care, they speak English too.)
I'm sure if you're thinking about a trip to Mexico, you'll find plenty of internet warnings about safety. But with all of that, and to conclude here, I hope that you'll see that Mexico has way more to love than to fear.
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A couple of days ago, Angel and I had beers with our friend Sara. She hiked the PCT the same year as us, and finished on the same day even, but we met for the first time at our last Seattle event a couple months ago. Our conversation - like so much of what happens through Boldly Went - centered on the importance of the outdoor community. This morning as I was thinking about that topic I re-read this post from a previous blog, written last year. The PCT, all you people, possibilities, the things the outdoors community contributes to the world: It's all meshing together into nostalgic goodness, so I wanted to repost this blog here, with special thanks to Anish and the Urbanski's, and of course Sara, for being such inspiring people. I think it's a helpful reminder that it's the people we surround ourselves with that let us live the dirtbag dream.
In the last two years I've thought a lot about the role that friends play in my life. When Dad was sick and then passed away, friends came out of the woodwork to support us, provide encouragement and free therapy, and offer some perspective on how they moved through similar periods in their lives. On the PCT, especially after Northern California, friends kept us sane, dragged us along and helped us get through a grueling push to the border with both emotional and material support. When we were traveling in Latin America, friends from home were the thing that I missed the most. And when we were back in the States, friends let us crash on couches and in their yards for basically two months of free accommodation.
I've realized for a while that, in order to do cool things in life, it helps a lot if you surround yourself with cool people: that is, if you make friends with people who have done the things that you want to do. Since being back in Seattle, I've been reminded that the community here makes an irreplaceable contribution to my life, because the Northwest is filled with smart, interesting people doing amazing things.
But it's true that there are several responses one can have when surrounded by smart, interesting people doing amazing things. Broadly speaking, one can be inspired, but one can also become jealous, and develop a sense of inferiority when one hasn't achieved a similar level of amazingness.
Haters gonna hate pretty much everyone
This came into clear relief yesterday when one of the most amazing people in the Northwest, Heather "Anish" Anderson, posted that she'd made the mistake of reading the comment section of an article that the Seattle Times recently published about her. (If you haven't heard of Heather she's one of the most accomplished outdoor athletes alive - holding speed records on both the PCT and AT thru-hikes, something no person, male or female, has done before. You should click here and read the article. It's better than my blog, and she's way more interesting than me.)
I checked it out, and predictably enough, half the commenters were a basket of deplorables with a list of reasons that Anish's records were either reflective of moral failings or not that impressive. While I don't make a habit of reflecting on the comment section (Never read the comment section, and definitely don't perseverate on it enough to write a blog post about it!!), immediately after reading I went on a hike up the PCT (appropriately enough), so I spun on this particular cesspool of transparent bitterness, ignorance and jealousy for a few hours.
And more than many, this comment section was exactly that: transparent bitterness, ignorance and jealousy. Gut responses from people who don't know Anish, aren't hikers, and clearly didn't comprehend what they read in the article, if they even read it. There were a bunch of comments, but maybe the most elegant piece of trolling was from "lordofflys":
"I call it "an insatiable desire to get your name in a record book". There are a lot of people in the Great NorthWest [sic] who prefer the outdoors to a sedentary lifestlye. [sic] Get in line."
Haters gonna hate, and stupid haters gonna hate stupidly. Those who know Heather know that she is humble to a fault, and is an intense introvert who seems almost embarrassed when she talks about her accomplishments.
Must be nice
But to be honest, I have to admit that I do kind of understand the impulse that arises when confronted by another person's accomplishments, to explain away what they've done. It seems like a natural defense mechanism based in insecurity, designed to help us feel okay about our own situations: I hurt my knee in college so I can't..., My parents didn't have money so I can't..., I wasn't born beautiful so I can't... And anyway I wouldn't even want to because those accomplishments are wrongheaded and meaningless.
We could call it the "must be nice..." impulse, and probably everyone has felt it, even if most of us have a filter that kicks in somewhere in the steps between reading a news article, creating an account, logging in, and gleeking our frothy bitterness all over the unwitting internet public. I've said it myself, and Angel and I have had it directed at us more than once - particularly while we were traveling. "Must be nice to not have to work for a living," "Must be nice not to have any kids to worry about," "Must be nice to have that kind of money."
The thing about "must be nice" is that, along with pissing off the person it's directed at, it is self-defeating for the person who says/thinks/feels it. The rhetorical equivalent of "must be nice" is "you can do that, and I would like to. But I can't, because...".
Even if the "because" in that statement is followed by some truth, it's useless. It is just a statement of the conviction that you are in a different category from people who figure out how to do the things they want in life. They did that, I can't, so they're stupid. It's possible to sit with that attitude, but it doesn't get you anywhere.
Spirit Animals and Role Models
And that brings us full circle back to the value of cool friends, because it isn't just about surrounding yourself with the right people - it is about taking the right attitude towards them. Specifically, it's about figuring out which lessons you can take from their lives and apply to yours, rather than seeing their situation as foreign, and therefore irrelevant, to yours. Philosophically it's about seeing yourself as having influence over your situation, and about seeing relationships as symbiotic - having the potential to improve both your life and the other person's.
(I'm genuinely not sure why this clicked in when it did, but for me that realization hit almost exactly when I turned 30. That was a time when I stopped feeling jealous about Angel's ability to get a job easily and make a decent living, and decided to retrain to healthcare so I could do the same. And it's a time when I decided to stop feeling jealous about healthy, fit people, and to start triathlon training, which across time ended up transitioning into ultramarathons, running across Spain, hiking the PCT, and about a million other things I never thought I could do in my 20s, and I still kind of can't believe I've done - none of which I would have been able to do without the influence of friends, incidentally.)
A way to express that truth is that its better to look for role models in life than rivals. This was actually one of the reasons the particular comment section under discussion got me spinning. Besides the fact that Heather's a friend and an incontrovertibly good person, along with the humble marmot, she's basically my spirit animal. The type of life she's carved out, and the things she's accomplished are inspiring to me, and the article about her got me thinking about life possibilities - more time outside, less time spent earning money I don't need to buy things I don't want. More adventure and accomplishment, less resignation to life. The commenters are the incarnation of the buzzkill part of the brain that tells you "that's not possible".
A Personal Case Study on Finances
A simple, practical way to apply the role model idea is that when confronted by a person who has done something amazing, or better, something that you're jealous about, better than saying "must be nice..." is to ask the question, "How'd you do that?" When you ask it out loud, you almost always learn something valuable, even if the person's context is dramatically different from yours.
For a personal example, we have a couple of friends, Matt and Julie Urbanski, who appear to have their act together as much as anyone I know. And while they're incredibly lovely people, I have to admit that in some ways my gut response when I think about their life is jealousy: particularly in the fact that they have only spent intermittent periods of time working since college, and have traveled for periods of up to three years at a time without traditional jobs. They both have degrees in finance, and because I'm completely ignorant of that field, my gut response to their situation is that they must have been able to save like a million dollars from a few years of work and so now can do what they want. Must be nice, but I can't make that kind of money as a nurse.
But, a few weeks back, they posted a helpful article on their blog about financing their lifestyle, and it prompted me to think more concretely about their situation. I know they live frugally, have a few sources of income that are portable wherever they are in the world, and basically have a huge sense of freedom and possibility in life despite the fact that they have a kid and careers and lots of goals that people tend to see as prohibiting travel. But I didn't know anything about the concrete financials behind that, and I was assuming that they were in a place financially where we weren't.
So, I asked specifically how they did it: how much money did you have in savings when you quit your jobs, and how much do you feel like is "enough"? While I won't go into specifics, I was surprised to learn that when they started traveling their net worth looked very similar to ours now. I also learned pretty quickly that a key difference between us and them is that their sophisticated understanding of the way that investment works is what allows them to feel a sense of financial freedom and control as much as the actual money they have in the bank.
Their situation is significantly different from ours. I personally like having a home base in Seattle, while they seem to be persistent drifters. I'm generally happy with the working life, as long as I'm doing something meaningful, and while I want to be able to travel I see myself doing it for nearly as long of periods of time as them. But I do want their sense of financial freedom and control, and I do want to feel like I'm able to fully decide when and where I want to work, and when and where I want to travel, in the way that they do. And so, as we're making financial planning goals across the next few years, I'm going to be using them as a key resource rather than an object of ignorant bitter envy. They're way better role models than rivals (especially since they kick our butts in most important areas of life)!
And so, to summarize...
Don't read the comments, but more importantly don't write any comments yourself.
I really believe that to do cool things, you have to surround yourself with cool people. But more so, you have to recognize that those cool people can make your life better, and shouldn't be targets for your bitter frothy gleek.
If you like this post, you'll also like my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's a fun guide like this, but for your entire existence.
We believe in the outdoor community's ability to produce better people so much that we're dedicating our lives to building it up through our events and podcast. Come out for live interactions with so many cool people you won't be able to stand it, or soak up their wisdom through your headphones.
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Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.