Sit down with Intrepid tour guide Balam Ruiz and you’re bound to learn something new. Within minutes of chatting on Skype, I found myself being educated on the native fruit he was eating and the misconceptions tourists have about tacos (apparently crispy shells aren’t a thing in Mexico). Meet him in person and you’re sure to learn even more. After all, Balam expertly leads Real Food Adventure Mexico, a 9-day small group tour just for foodies, plus a bunch of Intrepid’s other Mexico trips.
Passionate about his country and people, he was the obvious go-to for getting an insider’s perspective into all things Mexico (his father was a tour guide, and he’s proudly followed the family tradition). Without further ado, here are his tips for seeing the best of this stunning country:
Though Mexico City is likely where you’ll start your explorations, Oaxaca is somewhere not to be missed. Both a state, and the largest city within it, it’s often considered the cultural capital of Mexico. Balam admits there might be a bias here since it’s also his hometown, but he reassures me that whenever he shows it to a tour group they find it incredibly special, often exclaiming, “Wow, this is the real Mexico!”. Really, this isn’t surprising – the festive colonial city is full of colorful markets and cobbled streets, plus day trip options that range from ruins to mineral springs to mezcal distilleries (more info here).
Known for its cuisine as much as its beaches in the south, Oaxaca is also home to a festival called Guelaguetza. Taking place in July, this is where representatives from the state’s 16 different cultural groups come together to celebrate their diversity and traditions. Upon asking Balam for anecdotes about his years of leading groups, he mentions the festival straight away.
There’s no literal translation for ‘Guelaguetza’ but it basically means ‘share the best of you without expecting payment’. I was explaining to my group that the festival mindset is to not expect anything, but to know that if you do receive something, it’s being shared for the sheer pleasure of it. That same day we visited a village where people were producing artisan textiles. We went into the house of one family where they welcomed us to show us their work, and suddenly the daughters came out of the kitchen with slices of bread and hot chocolate for the whole group. Everyone was so happy and shocked, and we all shared everything and chatted. It really stuck with me. It was so festive, such a memorable Guelaguetza.
For those looking for a break from big cities, Chiapas is pretty much heaven on earth. Mexico’s southernmost state borders Guatemala and is one of Balam’s favorite areas for nature. “The landscapes – from mountains to rivers to rainforests – are just unforgettable”, he explains. Sure enough, it holds host to the largest river in Mexico and an array of natural gorges and canyons. Here, there’s also the highest proportion of indigenous people in the country; all of whom keep their language, costumes and traditions alive.
For a beautiful taster of Chiapas life, it’s worth visiting San Cristobal de las Casas. This small highland town feels very old-world and is brimming with colonial architecture. Visit there with Intrepid and you can explore the nearby villages by mountain bike, or take a day trip to the stunning Sumidero Canyon.
If that isn’t enough nature for you, Balam recommends taking a trip to Bacalar, a small town that sits on a fresh water lake, and is situated on the border with Belize. The coolest thing about this southern gem is the lake itself, often called “Lagoon of Seven Colors”. It has those dreamy white sands and crystal clear waters that are nearly as much a joy to photograph as they are to swim, snorkel or dive in.
“Anything can happen in Mexico City, but that’s part of the charm”. With that fantastic quote, Balam insists that visitors spend at least some time in the country’s buzzing capital. One of the first things he recommends doing is visiting the National Museum of Anthropology (“It’s a must; you cannot go to Mexico City and not go there”). Not only is it the largest and most-visited museum in Mexico, it houses the largest collection of Aztec artifacts in the world.
Balam also advises using the public transport to get a feel for the city, strolling round Reforma Avenue, checking out the cosmopolitan shopping scene, and, of course, sampling some of the city’s nightlife. Where’s best for this? He recommends trying out downtown’s festive Plaza Garibaldi, to see the Mariachi bands belting out ballads. Nearby, you’ll find a ton of bars home to yet more Mariachi music, and all the drinks and dances you could possibly want.
Final thoughts & foodie musts
Like in any country, eating out in Mexico lets you truly experience the local culture. If traveling with a leader like Balam you can be rest assured that wherever you go, even street food stalls, will be safe as they are delicious. As Balam puts it, “I take my groups to places I trust, places I’ve eaten at hundreds of times”. He also makes sure to take travelers to local markets where they can eat and shop like a local.
He puts effort into scoping our places tourists don’t often see – meaning vendors aren’t jaded and really want to interact. “When it comes to times like this” Balam says, “I’m more an interpreter than a guide, I facilitate interactions between travelers and the community”.
He also ensures visitors get to try the country’s national dishes. His favorite? Chiles en nogada – stuffed peppers served with walnut sauce and pomegranates. In explaining the dish, Balam is bursting with enthusiasm. “It’s super delicious” he says, “even meat lovers love it… it’s very special, I really like it”. What more encouragement do you need to check the cuisine out, and more, on a culinary tour of the country? If you’re thinking “none”, you’d be correct.
As enthusiastic as we are about seeing beautiful Mexico? Check out our range of small group tours.
Image Credits: All c/o Intrepid Travel (except Chiapas and Bacalar c/o iStock)