We didn’t expect to be in Mexico in February. We had been planning on heading to southeast Asia shortly after the holidays. Then Daniel’s brother gave us four free flights on Alaska Airlines – with the catch that they had to be used by the end of March. Hey, we can’t resist a good deal.
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta at the end of January. We boarded a public bus just outside the airport, fumbling with our newly withdrawn pesos and looking for a seat that wasn’t creaky or broken. I couldn’t stop smiling. “This is what we’re supposed to be doing,” I told Daniel, beaming. Traveling in the U.S. is great, but getting out of the country is just the best. We love the new experiences. We love pushing our comfort zones.
Speaking of comfort zones, Puerto Vallarta was the most relaxing place we’ve been all year. In close to twelve months of full-time travel, the two weeks we spent there were the first that actually felt like a vacation. Daniel’s mom joined us for the first four days, and his younger brother stayed with us for just over a week before heading home.
Our days consisted of waking up whenever we pleased, finding street food, lounging on the beach, and maybe having a few beers on the waterfront with our feet in the sand. It’s a pretty damn good way to live.
We made a few half-day trips from the town center, including to the lovely Vallarta Botanical Gardens, a zip-lining course (something that was on Daniel’s mom’s bucket list), and a gorgeous beach near Boca de Tomatlan that practically served as our own private retreat. You can take a taxi, but we found the public bus to be just as easy.
We followed the standard traveler advice to not drink the tap water, opting to buy big jugs at Oxxo, the convenience store that seems to dot every block across the whole country. That said, we did not shy away from street food at all, and something tells me the abuelitas making street tacos aren’t soaking their radishes in agua pura. We didn’t get sick once.
We also made a day trip from PV to Sayulita, the famous tourist and surfer town. Though we tend to prefer the activity level of bigger cities, I’d consider spending a night or two there next time.
We headed east from Puerto Vallarta on an air-conditioned coach toward Guadalajara, choosing to spend one night in the mountain town of Mascota along the way. Our visit there was mostly quiet and uneventful, but we enjoyed the opportunity to see life outside the typical tourist destinations.
We hopped on a bus to Guadalajara the next day. The long-distance buses we rode in Mexico were among the nicest we’ve taken: smooth, spacious, comfortable, and even onboard wi-fi in one instance. Street vendors hop on briefly at most stops, selling fresh fruit, churros, drinks, and chewing gum.
With a metro population of 4.3 million, Guadalajara is the second-largest urban area in the country after Mexico City. It’s also the capital city of Jalisco, the state largely considered to be the heart of traditional Mexican culture. Everything from sombreros to mariachi music to lucha libre wrestling originated in Jalisco. Tequila, by definition, must be made from blue agave plants grown in and around the town of the same name. The quintessential Mexican culture is even evident in the state’s marketing slogan: “Jalisco es México.”
Every Sunday, Guadalajara shuts down most of its arterial streets for the exclusive use of bikes and pedestrians. On our first day in the city, we rented bike-share bikes and enjoyed a leisurely cruise around the area.
Unlike in touristy Puerto Vallarta, where all the locals took one look at us and started speaking English, we heard almost no English in Guadalajara. We’re far from fluent in Spanish, but it was really fun to get some practice with the language. Even with our limited skills, being able to have some short conversations made a huge difference in our travel experience. (I didn’t really appreciate how much we’re actually able to accomplish in Spanish until we arrived in Vietnam, where we can’t say anything!)
One of the highlights of our time in Guadalajara was our visit to Instituto Cultural Cabañas, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the center of the city. Originally part of an orphanage and hospice, the facility’s chapel that now serves as a gallery for the fantastic art of José Clemente Orozco, one of the greatest Mexican muralists of the early 20th century. Practically every surface of the chapel is covered in breathtaking modern murals.
Have I mentioned how much we love Mexican food? It might be my favorite cuisine anywhere, and we absolutely adore the street food culture. Unlike in Eastern Europe, where we did a lot of our own cooking, we ate out for all but one meal during our month in Mexico. The dining out options are just too plentiful, too affordable, and too delicious!
We took the opportunity to get the full Jalisco experience by attending a lucha libre match, which was hilarious and highly entertaining. We were enthralled not just by the impressive acrobatics of the wrestlers but also by the chants of the feuding crowd. The arena is divided by a chain link fence into two sections: seated patrons close the ring (this is where we sat) and a standing-room only section around the perimeter. Throughout the entire match, the two sections yell obscene chants at each other– an amusing feud of sorts between the expensive seats and the cheap seats. It’s apparently still a family-friendly event, though, as long as you don’t mind a little vulgar language. There were lots of kids, and everyone seems to be laughing about it.
We made two day trips from Guadalajara. We took a bus one day to Guachimontones, a prehispanic archaeological site near the Mexican town of Teuchitlán. Though not much is known about the people who inhabited it (the so-called “Teuchitlan tradition”), the city is believed to have been home to as many as 40,000 people as early as 300 BCE. It’s home to the world’s only circular stepped pyramids (with the exception of one smaller site near Mexico City).
We also day-tripped down to the town of Chapala, on the lake of the same name. I first learned about Chapala from Billy and Akaisha Kaderli of Retire Early Lifestyle, and I see why it’s one of their favorite destinations. The pace is relaxed, the weather is perfect, and you’re still just a short bus ride from Guadalajara and an international airport. We also visited Ajijic, about 3 miles (5 km) west of Chapala, which is supposedly home to the largest community of Canadian expats in the world. We had coffee at a cafe in the main square and overheard several conversations about escaping from the winter in Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver.
The last leg of our trip took us back to the Pacific coast, this time to Mazatlán. We found the town to be sleepier than Puerto Vallarta, but we still enjoyed our visit and even caught the first night of Carnaval, a week-long event with parades and music. One unexpected element of Mazatlán’s history that we found interesting is the German influence on the city. Mazatlán was a destination for German emigrants in the 19th century, and they heavily influenced local music (such as banda, a version of Bavarian folk music) and cuisine (most notably, establishing the Pacifico Brewery in 1900).
Does this trip count as “slow travel”? Regardless, it felt great to slow down compared to our trips last year. Even with a whole month, we barely scratched the surface of the country. We’re eager to return this fall to explore Mexico City, Oaxaca, and other regions on our way to Central America.
What a great month! I can’t recommend a winter trip to Mexico enough. The people are friendly, the cost of living is low, and the weather was absolutely perfect the entire month. We’ll be back soon.