When you’ve traveled in a region before, know something of its language and think nothing of toting a guidebook, it can be tempting to think there’s little to be gained from organised group travel.
‘I don’t need some local representative guiding me around,’ I recall scoffing some years back in plotting a month’s route through Mexico. ‘I know how to catch a bus, order a meal, check in to a hostel. I’m 25 years old, I am…’
On a technical level, all these reckonings of mine were correct. I do know how to board a bus. It is within my skillset to point at a menu and state: ‘Uno’. But did that equate to me having the best time I possibly could have in Mexico? Nope.
For the four weeks that I was there, Mexico’s appeals by and large eluded me. I did, I admit, spend a great deal of time by the beach waiting for elusive epic waves, but nevertheless, I found the food a little monotonous and the nightlife lacklustre. I opined to friends and colleagues on my return that the beaches were nothing to write home about, bus travel was expensive, and the nearby attractions were far too crowded.
‘Are you sure it was Mexico you went to?’ a colleague finally felt compelled to ask, having patiently listened to my railings against the country. ‘Because I thought Mexican food was fantastic, the little towns and villages charming and everyone always up for a good time…’
‘Well, the couple of coastal towns I stayed in weren’t….’
‘What??’ returned she. Didn’t you travel to places like Oaxaca, Puebla or Merida?’
‘Well no… I answered feebly, though still feeling entitled to my criticisms. “Also, if you’re vegetarian, the food’s really limited,’ said I. ‘Just cheese and bean tacos.’
‘You’re joking?’ she looked incredulous. ‘There was a vegetarian guy on our trip and he ate amazingly well. Our trip leader ordered for him.’ She gave me a smug look. ‘Sounds like you could have done with one of them…’
Somehow overcoming my natural urge to throw a silk glove into her face and challenge her to a duel, I asked for culinary specifics. ‘Soups,’ I was answered with. ‘Salads. Stuffed peppers. Cactus flowers. Local variations on lasagnas, pizzas and pastas. Chocolate mole dishes…’ As Anna progressed through the litany of gastronomic goodies that her tour group buddy had supposedly feasted upon, I became progressively sadder – it gradually dawned on me that I had perhaps not traveled Mexico quite as well as I could have. ‘You just need to know where to go,’ I was told in summation ‘and what to ask for. Or, have someone else who does. Like, say, a local…’
Wise words on the whole, as it turned out. For here are three other Mexican travel gaffes I might have been spared under a local leader’s guidance.
Unlike many Central American countries, Mexico isn’t real big on the whole ‘chicken bus’ thing. That is, chicken busses do exist, but as a foreigner, when and where they leave from is something practically impossible to ascertain. The upshot of this is that your only real option becomes Tourist Class busses. Decked out with onboard air-conditioning, back-of-seat TVs, and fully reclining seats, the travel is cushy… but, at approximately $10 per hour of travel, not cheap.
What’s more, not all bus routes run that regularly. So plan your day poorly and you could be in for some long hours of bus terminal loitering – and destination arrival times of 4 am.
How do local leaders fix this?
With minibuses. Half bus, all mini, these snazzy little contraptions excel at getting you from A to B comfortably, conveniently, and with opportunities for interesting stop-offs along the way. Tourist Class busses are used for some legs, but only when they are a better option.
Perceived problem: lack thereof.
Reasons for this: bars close, new ones open, guide books date, my unfashionably early arrival hours.
How can a local leader remedy this? Leaders make it their business to keep in the know on where’s good and when and what time to head there. Had I had this kind of resource on hand, I would have been going to the right places, and, understanding that Mexicans don’t get their partying underway until pretty late, been there for it.
Problem: They were crowded.
As I suspect to be the case with most people, when I visit ancient ruins it’s because I enjoy pretending like it was me who discovered them. Delusional? Yes. But still fun. And fun that’s considerably harder to have when there are throngs of other tourists cluttering up every which way you turn.
How can a local leader feed your capacity for self-delusion? Be the attraction an Aztec temple, metropolitan museum, or underground cave complex, local leaders know when’s the best time to be there – and structure the day’s activities accordingly. This might mean entering before the daily hordes, arriving after them, or visiting during lunch hour. If you’re as haphazard in your planning as me, it might simply mean turning up to a local market on a day that it’s actually on.
There are, of course, plenty of advantages to independent travel. For my part though, having a local leader’s local knowledge on hand could well have resulted in my better appreciating all that Mexico had to offer.
Next time Mexico, next time.
Mexico and expert leaders? That’s kind of our thing. Find out more about our Mexican adventures here.
Feature image c/o Carlos Adampol Galindo, Flickr