I just returned from my first real international travel. I've spent time in Canada which has no cultural difference for me, and Cancun Mexico, which was like Vegas with a beach. This trip took me beyond the culture and lifestyle I'm accustom to.
My traveling companion was Radha, an ex-girlfriend with whom I maintain a great friendship. Radha spent Summers in Mexico with her grandmother as a child, and was an exchange student during high school. She speaks fluent Spanish and knows the culture. She loves the people and they seemed drawn to her, despite the giant gringo she kept in tow.
Mexico City: We landed there and took a cab through an insane rush hour to a bus station. Compared to the US where traffic is very structured and procedural, there traffic is organic and dynamic. Vehicles flow like liquid, filling empty spaces and favoring the path of least resistance. When the flow on the freeway slows or stops, vehicles spill over the curb onto the frontage or side streets. Horn use is frequent and almost as sociable as a wave, usually announcing one's presence rather than displeasure.
Mexico City initially intimidated me. After our last night in Mexico however, which we spent eating one of the best meals of my life, night clubbing, and staying at a very stylish yet inexpensive hotel, I'd love to explore this city further.
Transportation: The transit systems were very effective and inexpensive. I see no reason to rent a car there. First class buses are very comfortable with big reclining seats. Greyhound is a farce by comparison. Taxis are cheap and I found them very entertaining. The front seat is usually offered, they laugh if you put on a seatbelt. 'Combis' or 'micros' are a taxi/bus hybrid, usually a VW bus, that run routes between two towns picking up or dropping off passengers along the way. They stuff them full of passengers. Someone may get on with a container of goods they are taking to market. One woman we rode with was transporting a giant, uncovered serving dish of hominy soup.
Acapulco: It's a resort town. Giant hotels. Tons of tourists. Fortunately we stayed at a small hotel at the other end of town where Mexicans come to vacation. We did venture out to some night clubs and a tourist island where we had heard correctly about a secret cove where we could snorkel.
Petatlan and La Barrita: My favorite place was Petatlan. A small town nearly completely off the tourist radar. We bussed in, checked into 'Hotel California', and went for dinner at a wonderful little restaurant on the town plaza. As we ate the plaza filled with families and teenagers. Radha explained that Sunday evenings are a customary time for social gathering in small towns. Kids were playing soccer in the basketball court, boys and girls were flirting or circling the plaza on motor scooters or farm pickups, boys teasing and mock-wrestling each other, girls holding hands as they walked, parents and seniors strolling around. It was a happy, trusting sense of community, and a surprising good time.
The next day we met Steve, or 'Esteban', an expatriate from Oregon who had been living for 35 years up the road near La Barrita, a tiny resort area with one small hotel and a few restaurants on the beach under palm ramadas. We spent the afternoon there and enjoyed it so much we stopped again and stayed a night during our return trip.
Hotels: We stayed at hotels ranging from about 300 to 700 pesos, which is a little less than $30 to $70 US dollars. The nicest hotel was only $35 in Mexico City; very modern, stylish, and comfortable. The more expensive hotels were the in resort areas. My favorite hotel was the bungalow we got in Zihuatanejo. It was on the beach with a view and $60 was a bargain. Hotels often had some minor problem: No hot water, AC or TV not working, elevator out of order. In one room we lost power and had to move to another.
Zihuatanejo: I loved it. It is touristy, especially coming from Petatlan, but much more pleasant than Acapulco. The sound of surf and the breeze blowing through our bungalow room on the hill above the beach was perfect. Toward town on the beach front was the expected tourist shopping district, but a few blocks inland things quickly felt more authentic. I loved the beach there and caught some pretty big waves body surfing.
We walked into an arcade and I was quickly challenged by a group of local boys to the best arcade game ever: A punching machine. It cost only one peso for four punches. It had a thick pad on a short lever that would sense the force or velocity when you punched it. It was a riot taking turns wailing on this machine, cheering and moaning with these local boys. It took the kid who appeared to be the resident champion a while to beat my high score.
Laguna de Mitla: On the return trip we spent a night at a small hotel near Coyuca with the lush Laguna de Mitla on in back and a beautiful beach in front. We body surfed, kayaked the laguna, lounged...
The vacation aspects, good food, sunny beaches, no worries, all wonderful and effective, but I can have a great vacation here in the US or Utah any time. Meeting such people living so differently was the real thrill and it has changed my perception and perspective.
Check out the photos.