Wintering in Mexico: Our Month South of the Border

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 We boarded a public bus just outside the airport, fumbling with our newly withdrawn pesos and looking for a seat that wasn’t creaky or broken.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.

Wintering in Mexico: Our Month South of the Border - The Resume Gap

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.

Cruising into PV on the public bus (7 pesos or ~$0.35 US)

Courtyard of our first hotel

First stop: street tacos

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.

Vallarta Botanical Gardens

Our private beach, just a short hike east of the more heavily-trafficked Playa Las Animas

Zip-lining was more fun than I expected!

Colomitos Cove

The most expensive meal of our trip: grilled octopus at the secluded Ocean Grill Vallarta. Still only $11 US!

Gorgeous sunset from Vallarta’s malecón

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.

Every gringo we know recommended the tacos at Pancho’s, and for good reason

Blue corn tlacoyos at a Friday evening food market

Did I mention the tacos? Many of the street vendors press and fry their tortillas to order. Delicious!

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.

Lovely Sayulita

Churros? Claro que sí!

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.

Route of our four-week trip in Mexico, most of which we spent in the state of Jalisco

View from our Mascota hotel

Ignoring the advice to not touch stray animals. Whoops.

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.

“Via Recreativa”

Beautiful architecture in GDL’s city center

Palacio de Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco

Bike-share made for easy exploration of the city

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!)

Torta ahogada, a Guadalajara specialty. Meat or beans with onions drowned (“ahogada”) in chili sauce.

“Hey, mister! You’ve got pigeons!”

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan

Bosque Los Colomos

Catedral de Guadalajara

There’s fantastic public art all over the city

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.

Looking up at “Hombre de Fuego” in the building’s dome

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!

Waiting for sandwiches at Lonches Amparito, a true hole-in-the-wall establishment

Pulque, an ancestor of tequila, made with fruit and fermented agave sap

Elotes, corn covered in cojita and crema

Churros and hot chocolate. Hmm, maybe I should open a restaurant.

More beautiful architecture in the neighboring city of Tlaquepaque

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.

¡Chinga tu madre!

Evening traffic jam

Parque Nacional Barranca de Huentitán

Evening in the city center

Delicious birria, another Guadalajara specialty

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).

View of Guachimontones’ famous circular stepped pyramids

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.

Chapala

Ajijic sunset

Lake Chapala from Ajijic

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).

Blue agave views from our bus to Mazatlán

We need these bright colors to catch on in the dreary Northwest

City views after a quick hike up to Faro Mazatlán

Afternoon at the beach

I took this photo back when I thought seafood for sale on the street was kind of novel (i.e., before we arrived in Asia)

Tuna ceviche

Gorditas for sale at Carnaval

Hasta la vista, México!

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.

Zoomed-out map of our month-long trip. There’s a lot left to see!

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.

18 Comments

  1. The colourful houses look remarkably similar to the ones we have here in the Cape Quarter. Gorgeous pics and super cool to read about Mexico. It’s never been on my list of must visit places, at least, not until now! 🙂

  2. Awesome guys! We’re down in Puerto Vallarta every other year at my in-laws’ timeshare. Really beautiful area, nice beaches and, like you said, can get some super cool meals for very, very cheap compared to U.S. prices.

    We’ve also been to Sayulita, which was a really neat experience. Cool little city. We’d love to spend a lot more time there…we’re going back to PV next January. Hopefully we’re able to hit up Sayulita again.

    Not a bad place to spend a month during the winter! 🙂

    • Very cool! I could easily see making PV a regular destination. Not only did we love it, it’s also so close from the west coast (or especially from where you are!)

      I remembered seeing a photo of you and Courtney in Sayulita under those flags over the street. Came right back to me when I saw them in person!

  3. great post! sounds like yall did A LOT in a month. All the food pictures is making me hungry! Good luck with your next adventure.

    -Stafford

    • Looking back on it, we definitely did and saw a ton, but it never felt rushed — not even for a day. More food pictures to come… 😉

  4. Craving for a taco now…!

    It is a great country to visit. We did a three week public transport trip from Mexico city to Punta Cana. Great food, colours and nice people.

  5. Your photos always leave me speechless (and hungry). What a beautiful place!

  6. A good deal; that’s a hell of a deal! I’ve spent time in PV and loved it. Thanks for sharing the food photos– I always take a bunch while traveling because I love to learn about (and see) various international cuisines.

    • Ha, indeed! We had to pay more fees and taxes than we were expecting, but it was still way cheaper than even the best flight deals I’ve seen. Yep, I’m totally “that guy” taking photos of every meal. But it’s one of the interesting and most fun parts of traveling for us!

  7. Looks like an awesome time! I’d get a little nervous about being in Mexico alone. Which is probably ridiculous since anything can happen anywhere. I even have a basic understanding of Spanish. I guess I’d feel Like I’d stick out as an obvious tourist and an easy target for wrongdoers, whereas in Northern Europe, I’ve been mistaken as a local and been spoken to in languages I don’t understand, lol. It’s a shame Norway and Sweden aren’t budget destinations as I wouldn’t mind spending extended time there, particularly Norway for my heritage. 😀

    The bummer about not staying directly in big cities is the lack of easily accessible street vendors. I loathe the traffic in a huge urban area, but I totally love the street food. 😀

    • Yeah, I think you would find that that fear dissipates with just a few days there. Mexico is one of the easiest places we’ve traveled with some of the friendliest locals. And having a little bit of Spanish knowledge is definitely nice. We stick out as obvious tourists in most places we’ve been, but I wouldn’t let that stop you from exploring. City traffic isn’t a big deal when you can walk, bike, and use public transit. Well worth it for all the culture and food that comes with it 🙂

  8. Looks lovely! I haven’t been to Mexico, but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Living in Australia for half the year and the States for the other half, I definitely get the best of both worlds (2 summers and no winters!)

    • It’s a remarkably easy trip down from the states; highly recommended. Your half-and-half gig sounds pretty ideal to me!

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