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.
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.