33 Things I Love About Mexico


I spent around nine months in Mexico—a country I know I’ll visit over and over again. I have traveled along the Pacific Coast, done several road trips in the Yucatan, I’ve eaten my way around Mexico City, and visited more Maya ruins than I can remember. I have so much love for Mexico—and I’d like to share some of the things I love about Mexico with you:

things I love about mexico
1. Mexican Food – Mexican food is completely different to what we expected, but it turns out we love almost all of it! From Tlayudas and panuchos to bean quesadillas and potato tacos plus chilaquiles and tortas (filled sandwiches – Mexico City has the biggest ones) it has been amazing to discover the food here!
2. Driving golf carts around the island of Isla Mujeres. This little island in the Caribbean is one of the things I love about Mexico the most—one of my favorite places in the entire country.

isla mujeres mexico

3. Mexicans – Friendliest people on the planet!

4. Markets – Though at times they can be shocking (squealing pigs the minute before their eventual slaughter and large yellow chicken feet spring to mind) the markets in Mexico are amazing to explore. The 20 de Noviembre market in Oaxaca was our favorite for the best selection of food (including the hundreds of mounds of deep-fried grasshoppers!) and mezcal.

5. Huevos motuleños – Yes, yes, we already said we loved the food, but this all day breakfast food quickly became our favorite after we discovered them during a long wait in Palenque for a bus to Merida. Huevos motuleños involve a fried tortilla topped with black beans, fried eggs, sauce and plantains, plus ham for the meat-eaters out there. Heavenly!

6. Cenotes – considering we had never even heard of these underground waterholes, swimming in the cenotes on the Yucatan felt a bit daring and definitely refreshing.

cenote mexico

7. Victoria beer – There, we said it. We love Victoria beer!

8. Mexico City – It’s a magnificent mega-metropolis which requires some patience and understanding, but Mexico City is a hub of creative, forward-thinking groups and individuals with art, markets, and music everywhere you turn. Sure it has its problems, but what city doesn’t? It’s the combination of it all that makes the city so great: Posh areas like Polanco are offset charming bohemian areas like La Condesa and by more run-down parts of the Centro Historico where culture and tradition seep into your soul. How cool to see Mariachis and Mayans catching cabs, Mexican rock bands headbang on a plaza next to a salsa club, sleek and stylish club-goers passing by happy families in the park until the wee hours and openly gay men and women walking hand in hand with their partners more often than in any U.S. city we know of. Frida and Diego (Kahlo and Rivera that is) can be found everywhere, and there are hundred of art museums, exhibitions and co-operations with institutes world wide. Mexico City is chaotic, yet quaint, crazy and creative. We miss you Mexico City!

Mexico City

9. The Caribbean coast, especially Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, where you can walk 40 to 50 meters out into the crystal blue water and it only comes up to your knees… but there are so many beaches along the Caribbean coast that are stunning – including Tulum, Akumal, and our own private beach in Xcalak.. they all deserve their own spot in my list of things I love about Mexico, but I’ll try to keep this short 😉

10. Valladolid – we fell in love with this little Pueblo Magico (magic village) on the Yucatan, but we’d like you to please not visit Valladolid.

11. Mariachi Bands – always fun to listen to, even if they don’t quite hit the notes.

things I love about mexico

12. Agua fresca – We might actually be able to slowly wean ourselves off Diet Coke thanks to these giant one liter drinks of water blended with fruit. We especially like Cantaloupe and Guayaba ‘aguas’.

13. Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul – Stuffed with her art, personal belongings and pictures, it makes you feel like you really get to know her, plus the gardens are gorgeous.

14. The cattle in front of our house in San Luis Beltran, Oaxaca.

15. The colorful traditional clothes worn throughout Mexico, from the many wool variations to be found in Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas to the beautiful long white gowns embroidered with flowers that the woman of the Yucatan wear.  Oh, and real life cowboys!

Sure, we know this continues on from Guatemala down through South America, but there is also something so unifying about how even the non-indigenous men/women will wear very traditional Mexican clothing rather than identifying with global fashion. It seems like for many here, people are Mexican first, class/race/socioeconomic status comes second.

16. Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico City – The murals are so insightful into Mexican history and culture, and you could spend more than a day hunting them all down throughout Mexico City. Diego’s influence as an artist was enormous here.

17. San Cristobal de las Casas – the prettiest colonial town we have seen so far.

san cristobal de las casas

18. The tacos from the taco vendor in Calle Uruguay – Near the bakery Pasteleria Ideal in #74  in Mexico City, you’ll see the large group of people crowded around the vendor – that’s the spot. Try an agua fresca here too – delicious.

19. Lizards galore! Mexico is filled with lizards big and small, from our pet gecko in our apartment in Playa del Carmen (and its subsequent tiny tiny little babies), to the giant iguanas in Tulum, Valladolid, Isla Mujeres and Chichen Itza. Plus we have come within a few feet of countless crocodiles, something we never thought was possible!

20. The historical ruins – The Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico are so majestic! We visited Teotihuacan near Mexico City, Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Palenque in Chiapas, Tulum and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan.

palenque mexico

21. Mexican bakeries  – Even just window-shopping makes our (read: Dani’s) mouths water. Cakes, fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits, cupcakes, sweet breads and freshly baked rolls are all delicious. Special shout-out to Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City!

22. Cheladas and Micheladas –Beer mixed with tomato juice, salt, pepper and hot sauce. This is basically like a Bloody Mary but beer replaces vodka. Genius!

23. The tuk-tuks in Oaxaca.

24. Mexican buses –  The buses in Mexico are top standard, reliable and clean. ADO, OCC and Oriente all provide great service, though ADO’s films and air-conditioning are good for longer trips (more expensive, though).

25. Hostal La Candelaria in Valladolid. The best hostel we stayed at in Mexico. Clean rooms, two kitchens (one outside), a gorgeous garden, and very friendly owners. Plus two of the cutest little Chihuahuas of all time.things i love about mexico

26. Free wi-fi – In any public park or square in even the smallest city/town, at least a dozen people can be found with their laptops, not only using the free wi-fi, but also charging their computers. The parks have outlets for charging! Who needs Starbucks, when you can have free wi-fi in the park!

27. Lucha Libre – Mexican Wrestling rocks. Yes, it’s fake, but the crowd goes crazy and we loved it!

28.  Policemen, on horses, preferably with sombreros.

29.  Fruit in a bag, freshly cut and topped with spices & lime, for $1.00. One of the things I love about Mexico most!

30. Getting our laundry professionally washed – For less than $4, a lady with a brand-new washer and dryer will scrub out stains, wash and dry your clothes and then iron them all down, flat as pancakes, leaving you with a stack of clothes a quarter of the size of the dirty, stinky ball you brought to her.

31. Mexican mannequins. How can you not love ‘em? 😉

things I love about mexico

32. The Beaches on Mexico’s Pacific Coast – the Riviera Nayarit is gorgeous!

33. Road tripping in the YucatanSpanish-colonial villages, fantastic food, beautiful Caribbean beaches, cenotes, Maya ruins galore, lush green jungle – the Yucatan is spectacular, and the roads there are in good condition, which makes it easy to drive there.

What are your favorite  things about Mexico?  Let’s reminisce together in the comments below!

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Our journey through Mexico in pictures


Mexico was  only the second country of our trip, but we (unexpectedly) fell in love with the country and extended our stay there again and again – in the end we spent 88 days there, and traveled more than 3600 kilometers (2370 miles) through the country.

Reminiscing (yes, again), we looked through our thousands of photos of Mexico and decided to take you on a photographic tour of our journey through this fabulous country:

Upon arrival in Mexico City, we were welcomed by Mariachi bands & folklore groups…

We discovered some great street art…

… and enjoyed the fantastic views from the Torre Latinoamericano.

In Xochimilco we enjoyed a ride in one of the famous trajinera boats…

… and in Coyoacan, we not only enjoyed the bohemian flair and the market, we also visited Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul.

photos of Mexico

The archeological site of the Aztec town of Teotihuacan was a Must on our list.

photos of Mexico

Soon after we headed to Puebla where  we were we discovered a town that had, until 2003, manufactured the famous VW Beetles…

… and we admired the many tiled houses throughout the city.

photos of Mexico

We got to Oaxaca in time for its famous Guelaguetza festivities in July…

photos of Mexico

… and spent a  great couple of weeks in this beautiful colonial town, not leaving without having visited the glorious Maya ruins of Monte Alban.

photos of Mexico

Our next stop was the sleepy beach village of Mazunte on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, where we were met with a subtropical climate for the first time on our journey.

After a couple of relaxing days we moved on to neighboring Zipolite, before leaving the coast for our next colonial town: San Cristobal de las Casas.

Mexico photos

In San Cristobal we came across more fantastic street art…

Mexico photos

… and the large presence of Chiapas’ indigenous Maya people was noticeable throughout the entire town.

photos of Mexico

We visited the Mayan villages of Zinacantan and Chamula, where we were shown how the Mayan women weave their clothes and make their tortillas.

We visited Sumidero Canyon where we saw the breathtaking Christmas tree waterfall and dozens of crocodiles…

photos of Mexico

On our way to Merida we stopped at the beautiful waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol Ha:

… and one of our favourite Maya ruins: Palenque, tucked deep into the jungle.

photos of Mexico

In Merida we arrived in time for some heavy rains and floodings…

photos of Mexico

… but the August heat came back quickly and we enjoyed the town’s magnificent churches before…

photos of Mexico

… heading to Cazuma, where we explored our first of the many cenotes (underwater sinkholes) on the Yucatan peninsula.

Our next stop was Valladolid, which turned out to be our favorite town in all of Mexico:

We were intrigued by its friendly people…

Mexico photos

… and the mysterious hold that its charming architecture has over us…

Mexico photos

Chichen Itza was another impressive Maya ruin we visited…

Mexico photos

… and the Cenotes Xkeken and Samula are only a short bike ride from Valladolid.

Mexico photos

We settled for four weeks in Playa del Carmen, just up from the hoards of tourists where we had the beach practically to ourselves…

photos of Mexico

We did not leave Mexico before a visit to Isla Mujeres, a tiny, gorgeous island off the coast of Cancun, which had a great Caribbean feeling to it…

… although the cliffs on the southern end of the island reminded us more of Scotland and Ireland…

… and finally a stop in Tulum, maybe not the most amazing Mayan ruins, but definitely the ones in the most stunning setting, right by the turquoise Caribbean sea.Mexico photos

Our very last stop in Mexico was Chetumal on the border to Belize, where we took off in a speedboat to our next destination: Ambergris Caye, Belize.

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Polaroid of the Week: Sumidero Canyon, Mexico


Sumidero Canyon is located directly between San Cristobal de las Casas and Tuxtla Gutierrez in the state of Chiapas. The Canyon was formed by the river Grijalva and is 35 kilometers long. Sumidero can be accessed in two ways: by taking a boat tour through the bottom or visiting one of the five viewpoints that overlook the canyon by car. We recommend the boat ride through the canyon which offers stunning views of the rock faces which are up to 1000 meters high.

In addition to the amazing canyon, you can see several waterfalls, caves and the wildlife is spectacular is well: Around 400 crocodiles live on the river banks and there are great numbers of pelicans and other birds.

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Sumidero Canyon: The Good, no bad, but some ugly

Polaroid of the week Sumidero Canyon

Located right in the heart of the gringo trail is the beautiful city of San Cristobal, and while the city begs you to drop your bags and just hang out for a few days, make sure to spend a morning at Sumidero Canyon located about 30 miles east of the colonial city.

Sumidero Canyon

Much like the Grand Canyon though obviously smaller in scale, Sumidero can be seen from five viewpoints along the roads at the top if you rent a car. However, also like Grand Canyon, a much better way of experiencing the canyon is from the river that created it. This canyon in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, is much more accessible than its U.S. big brother, with a 35km boat ride and tour leading through to the Chicoasen Dam, which provides a large part of Mexico and neighboring Guatemala with energy.

We highly recommend the boat tour, as there is so much wildlife on the shores of the river that you just can’t see from the top, and the 1 kilometer high steep canyon walls feel much more impressive when you raise your head and look at the peaks of the mountain walls surrounding you.

Sumidero Canyon

sumidero Canyon

Sumidero Canyon is dotted with waterfalls (many of which are not visible from the viewpoints along the road) but Christmas Tree (Arbol de Navidad) is a waterfall unlike any other. The water spills from a hole above into moss-layered, green rocks that are shaped like the branches of a Christmas tree. The picture with the boat shows how big the waterfall actually is.

Sumidero Canyon

For wildlife lovers there are a variety of birds such as herons and pelicans living in the canyon, but what draws the tourists are the four hundred crocodiles that inhabit the waters and the shores of the Grijalva River. These crocodiles are up to six meters long, so try to avoid running your hands along the water as the boats glides along the river or you’ll inadvertently be dangling ‘lunch’ into the water for these crocs!

sumidero canyon crocodilesOdds are you won’t want your hands anywhere near the water of the Grijalva River, unfortunately, as there is an ugly side to the Canyon. A few years ago, Sumidero Canyon received media attention for being polluted, especially during the rainy season when garbage from the surrounding villages washes into the Grijalva River. Most of the river has no trace of this, but there is one bottleneck where Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, drift wood, milk cartons, plastic bags and other non-biodegradable materials all pile up in the middle of the canyon. In fact, it is even hard for the boats to navigate through the scads of garbage.

The sight was honestly shocking, and makes the experience of appreciating the remarkable nature surrounding the river undeniably bittersweet. The amount of plastic bottles alone caused us to make a pact to everything we can to reduce the amount of drinks we buy in bottles, opting instead to mix drinks into re-used bottles as often as possible. If the amount of garbage isn’t enough, there was a time when the state capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, directed their sewage system into the Sabinal River which feeds right into the Grijalva River (apparently this has been changed). This doesn’t mean that you should avoid the trip, but it does mean that there are more lessons to be learned while on the tour about just how serious it is to appreciate the nature around you.sumidero canyon garbage

The canyon was hoping to become one of the ‘New 7 Wonders’, voted next year, and has initiated a massive clean-up program in order to accomplish this goal (unfortunately, it has not made it into the final 28). There are workers cleaning up the river constantly and according to our guide (who had a degree in biology and biodiversity), Chiapas is hoping to have a visibly cleaner river in the near future. This clean-up program can only bring good things to the wildlife in Sumidero Canyon.

Sumidero Canyon

Sumidero Canyon – the details:

The boat tours last two hours and come with a very knowledgeable Spanish-Speaking guide. Tours from dozens of tour operators based in San Cristobal de las Casas cost 250 Pesos (US$ 19.00) and include also a short stop in the charming town of Chiapa del Corzo.


If you happen to know someone with  a car or can rent one, the tour fee itself is only 25 Pesos, but make sure to stop off in Chiapa del Corzo for lunch too, as it’s relatively untouched by tourism compared to San Cristobal.

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Polaroid of the week: Mayan Ruins in the Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico


Tucked deep in the jungle in Chiapas, southern Mexico, the Mayan ruins of Palenque are set in one of the most spectacular surroundings in Mexico. While walking in between the temples and through the dense humidity of this tropical environment, the sound of howler monkeys rings out from trees and you realize that you are in one of the most important pre-hispanic cities of Mesoamerica.  Climb to the top of several temples and the Palace in the site’s center where stunning views extend beyond the site and into the jungle.

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Where to stay in San Cristobal de las Casas? Le Gite del Sol

View over San Cristobal

Welcome to our Where to stay in… series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. In our Where to stay in… series, we share places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week’s edition – Where to stay in San Cristobal de las Casas – brings us to the charming B&B Le Gite Del Sol.

le gite del solAfter a long and hectic night bus ride, all we wanted was to when we arrived at 7am in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico was to check in immediately at Le Gite del Sol, where we had made reservations. Based on previous budget hotel experience, we figured this wasn’t possible and pulled up a park bench to wait a few hours. Had we known how friendly and accommodating the French-Canadian/Mexican owners were, we would have made our way their immediately, as Le Gite del Sol is one of the few budget hotels in Mexico we came across that made us feel like a valued guest in the way a boutique hotel or B&B does.

Eventually we lugged our packs down the 5 hilly blocks to the hotel, whose location is just far enough out for the street to be relatively quiet. Le Gite del Sol, which means Bed & Breakfast of the Sun in a mix of French and Spanish – just like the couple who run it, is more of a split between a B&B in one building and a budget hotel in the second building just four houses up across the street. The main house offers big en-suite rooms, a shared kitchen and a sunny patio space where all guests eat breakfast. The second building, where our room was, has smaller, bare bones budget rooms with shared bathrooms.
where to stay in San Cristobal de las casasWhile the difference in quality was palpable, both buildings of the B&B were spotlessly clean (cleaning staff is on hand all day throughout both properties), and over on our side we had no issue at all with the shared bathrooms. The main house has the beautiful patio, and the single and double en-suite rooms (for $20 and $26 respectively) are certainly a step or two above the other house. The cheaper rooms at Le Gite Del Sol in the second house are basic. Each room has a bed, a desk, a closet and a window which opens to the hallway. The rooms are small, lack good ventilation, but they are cleaned every day by the diligent staff. Doubles cost $16, singles $13. For that price, you get breakfast included (see below in Stand Out Features), a free wi-fi connection that always works, and the kitchen in the second house is big and invites you to cook a meal with fresh ingredients from the market, with 6 tables, a computer with free internet, plenty of space to work, read, cook and hang out. Water is free, as well, and if some sloppy guests don’t clean up, the kitchen is kept clean anyway by staff.
where to stay in San Cristobal de las casasThe Mexican woman owner of Le Gite del Sol is a no-nonsense boss who is friendly and her attention to detail is spot on. She remembers how you like your coffee in the morning and conversations had in passing about where guests have just been and where they are off to next. Her French-Canadian husband and partner is the perfect ying to her yang. He genuinely wants you to enjoy your stay and you get the feeling that he was a long-term traveller himself and wants to make sure that you have the kind of experience at his hotel that is so often lacking on our travels.

Le Gite del Sol is also an authorized booking agent for tours and buses. The prices were exactly the same as in the offices in town, and they gave you honest answers to questions about quality of tours or buses, leaving you feeling well-informed.

Le Gite Del Sol Stand Out Feature: Breakfast

Breakfast is included in the price and served every morning on the patio in the main building. You get a choice of eggs and toast, just toast, or cereal. Although the breakfast doesn’t fill you up until dinner, it is good comfort food and it is great to have so many options, which is not the norm at many budget places in Mexico.

Stand Out Feature: The “above and beyond” factor

We had to catch a very early bus our last morning along with three other hotel guests, and would have missed breakfast, but the owners woke up and served us all breakfast at 6am so that we would leave with full stomachs. They could have easily left us hungry, but offered us this and it was greatly appreciated. This was something we have not had before or since that stay at Le Gite Del Sol. Throughout our stay at Le Gite del Sol we felt this above-and-beyond factor at work, the extra explanations, the ease of booking with them, the little extra tips on what to see and do in town made us feel like special guests.

Room for improvement: The Rooms

The cheaper rooms in the second house at Le Gite Del Sol lack decoration and could have more heart to them. They are definitely small, though not cramped, and need a bit more effort to feel a bit fresher. However, in Mexico for $13 (single) or $16 a double, plus breakfast and that personal touch, it is hard to complain about the rooms.

Le Gite Del Sol: Overall

Le Gite del Sol will make your time in San Cristolbal de las Casas an enjoyable one. Though it is no frills it is equally no frustrations, as this hostel is B&B-minded with their guests at heart.

Location: Francisco I Madero #82, Vicente Guerrero
Price: Private single with bath $20, private single shared bath $13, Private double no bath $16, Private double en suite $26.
LGBT Friendly: not un-friendly
Amenities: Kitchen, free wi-fi, tour agency on-site, breakfast included, hot showers


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Organized Mayan Village Trips: Tourism or Trespassing?

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Two shiny new Ford transporter vans stop along the side of a white cement road and nearly 30 passengers pile out and reformulate into the small groups everyone came with. Dani and I stand off to the side and observe with some shock the other tourists in the group. A group of Brazilians (both female and male) in tank-tops, short-shorts and movie-star sunglasses and several girls in short-ish skirts. Before you start thinking Dani and I to be very prude (standing there in our long pants, closed toe shoes and jackets), we should explain that our tour was taking place in traditional Mayan villages outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. The agency had mentioned that we should wear appropriate clothes out of respect to the villagers – advice apparently very few of us chose to heed.

The tour is one of the most common tours available in San Cristobal, offered by all major tour operators in town. You visit San Juan Chamula, the largest Tzotzil Maya community in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, and the nearby Tzotzil village Zinacantan. In addition to the (apparently optional) modest clothing request, the agency had also made clear that photographs of the Mayans were strictly prohibited without their permission. We strolled through the village at 8.30am, trying to soak up what life must be like in these Mayan villages. Others seemed to have less interest. A well-off Mexican family seemed utterly bored, and the father was attached to his cell phone – rudely working through the entire tour. Several very loud conversations were taking place in Spanish, English German, Portuguese and Dutch and few were engaging in any way with the tour.

Our discomfort with our disrespectful fellow tourists only worsened when it became clear just how much the people of the village, especially the elders, did not really want us there. San Juan Chamula, known locally as Chamula, is essentially a ‘showcase’ village, a designated ‘tourist friendly’ spot with busloads of tourists shuffling through its streets and magnificent church each day, their Canons and Nikons worth a local families’ annual wage dangling carelessly from their necks. We were constantly being Sshhhh-ed away from taking pictures if there was any chance of a family member being photographed.

Following the trail of the ancient Maya

Dani and I were trying to be anything but disrespectful, as we are fascinated with the Maya people and culture, an interest which has grown along the Mayan trail we have been following for some time.

Learning about the Maya, both past and present, has been one of the most interesting aspects of our travels so far. Some of the different groups of Maya people in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador today live a very simple, rural life. Others have adapted to city life while maintaining their culture and language. One method of survival for the hundreds of Mayan groups throughout what this large area known formerly as Mesoamerica is to manufacture and sell their traditional, brightly-colored woven goods to tourists – hand-made blankets, bracelets, shirts and pants, as well as new adaptations such as water bottle holders, wallets, and placemats.

This is often the only side of Mayan life we as visitors have the chance to see, and the conversation with Mayans in places like San Cristobal in Mexico or Antigua and Chichicastenango in Guatemala can easily be limited to the attempted sale and purchase of these goods. This is why we were so eager to take part in the tour in San Cristobal, to learn more and see the indigenous Maya in their ‘authentic’ home environment.

Despite the feeling that we were intruding on the village, we had an excellent guide, Alejandro, who was able to provide a strong introduction into the culture and traditions of the Tzotzil Maya. He especially covered the blending of Mayan and Spanish religions including the background of the Mayan cross and the adoption of Jesus as the main religious figure. He did this in Spanish, then in English, all while shouting out ‘Hellos’ and ‘Good Days’ to the villagers in their native language. A tall, handsome academic, Alejandro obviously commanded a level of respect in the village, the girls followed and giggled with him, the men shook his hands and he made everyone feel at ease.

The highlight of the tour for Dani and I was the trip into the church. A bouncer of sorts at a small wooden door in the front of the church was enforcing a one group in, one group out policy to keep numbers inside low, so we waited for a group of French tourists to exit with their guide before our group of 28 half-naked camera-toting Europeans were allowed inside.

Once inside, we tried to put the discomfort behind us and take in our surroundings. Pine needles were strewn about, completely covering the floor, and walking on them was more like hiking than any organized religious experience. A thick fog of incense smoke filled our noses as we carefully moved around spots where pine needles had been cleared to make way for dozens, even hundreds of thin white candles. Instead of rows of wooden benches, Mayan families sat cross-legged on the floor in front of these patches of candles, chanting, kneeling and praying. The sky outside dark gray and inside some of the windows were closed or covered, so that the church was dark inside, lit primarily by these hundreds of dancing flames on the floor. All the while, several tour guides struggled in raised whispers to explain the scene to the groups of tourists. It was difficult to reconcile the conflicting feelings of taking part of a private, religious Mayan experience and yet being terribly disrespectful intruders.

At the home of Tzotzil Mayas

Later, in Zinacantan, Alejandro took us to the home of Dona Antonia and her family, a ‘showcase house’, for a (manufactured) glimpse of daily Mayan family life: they demonstrate weaving, we watched the girls make tortillas, tasted a fresh tortilla filled with home-made cheese and beans, and peeked into a typical Maya house and bedroom. Then the typical bargaining began, as people bought several handicrafts items. Here we felt more comfortable as Dona Antonia really welcomed visitors into the home, pictures were encouraged and the concept of tourism was understood and welcomed. It was clear that this particular family was reaping the benefits of the tour groups. However, despite being friendly and welcome, it was hard not wonder how much they really like being snapped by hundreds of cameras on a daily basis and having noisy foreigners traipsing through the property seven days a week?

Another way of experiencing Maya culture

While in Mexico, the Maya experience was distanced and pre-packaged, but in Guatemala intermingling with the indigenous Maya groups is part of the everyday experience. Suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of indigenous women, men and children, central parks and city streets bursting with the colors of their traditional clothes. Mayan villages are everywhere, and in areas well on the beaten path, around Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango for example, visitors are welcome any time. Contrary to the Mayans in Mexico, the Mayans in Guatemala seem much more accessible. That church in Chamula, Mexico was the only Mayan church we saw during our 12 weeks in Mexico, and yet in Guatemala we have passed through countless entrances and walked upon pine needles and around the candles on the floor, free of bouncers and tour groups.

As long as they are asked, Guatemala’s indigenous are much more open to having their picture taken, especially if you slip one or two quetzals ($0.10-0.15) in their hands after. Does this mean that the Mayans in Guatemala, with their tourist-friendly markets and openness to photography, are just more open to selling their culture for a profit?Not quite.  Profiting from tourism can hardly be looked down upon in Central America where tourism is a major part of what fuels the national economy. A visit to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a Maya village in the far northern part of Guatemala’s Western Highlands will quickly reassure you that the Mayan way of life is still in full swing far, far away from the tourist trail.  Because there are almost no tourists (save for the famous Day of the Dead horse race on 1 November) we were not surrounded by street vendors asking us to buy (“A table cloth for your mother, come, buy it!”). Instead, the two of us were examined with the same curiosity and interest that we had for them. We had chats with people, felt comfortable just sitting in the park and watching life go by. Walking through nearby villages, just the two of us, brought us to women weaving on their front porches and men harvesting corn. These were not showcase villages, and the moments of everyday life captured in our minds and on camera were as authentic as they come. The villagers didn’t expect us, but greeted us with a smile. If they didn’t want us to take their picture, they politely refused, rather than that embarrassing ‘Sshhing’ we were met with in the supposedly ‘tourist friendly’ village in Mexico.

To take the tour or not take the tour, that is the question. During our time in Todos Santos, we felt authentically immersed and very comfortable, but we realised at that time just how much we learned about the Mayans during our tour with Alejandro. Do we recommend taking an organized tour of Mayan villages? Would we do the tour again if we could do it all over again?

Now that we have been in Guatemala, we would not do the tours in Chiapas. In Guatemala the Maya communities are much more accessible and open, and you can visit with feeling like you are tresspassing on private property. While we did learn a lot from Alejandro on our tour, we would recommend looking for more authentic ways to learn about Mayan culture. The Mayans in Guatemala are very proud of their culture and happy to talk to visitors. For some real fun, have a chat with the child vendors. Though they may not have their facts straight (someone told us about how Hernan Cortes was only recently in Guatemala), these kids are happy to tell you about their culture and their daily lives, innocently and honestly giving you a better glimpse into Mayan life than some tour guides do.

Other ways to learn about the Maya culture:

  1. Go off the beaten path and visit predominantly Mayan villages/towns like Todos Santos in Guatemala.
  2. Take Spanish classes and find a teacher with knowledge of the Mayan community to ask questions and learn. Teachers are always relieved to get off topic, especially when they can justify the conversation as a learning experience. Around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, many of the teachers are Mayans themselves and can give you a great education on their culture.
  3. Homestay – Stay with a Mayan family. Even if you do not wish to sign up for Spanish classes, many schools will book you a homestay with a Mayan family for a very reasonable price (less than $100.00 per week for accommodation including three meals).
  4. Engage. It’s difficult to get many of the Mayan in the tourist centres to have a real conversation with you as selling tends to be their primary objective. But if and when possible, ask and try to learn fro them where you can.

Have you done village tours? How do you feel in these situations? Have you had more ‘authentic’ experiences with Mayans in Mexico? Would you recommend any tours or how about alternatives to a more ‘authentic’ experience? We would love to hear it in the comments below.

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