#2 Mexico: Surrealism, skeletons and pyramids

‘It’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters most in the end.’

Ernest Hemingway

Bright striped sarape blankets; men in stocky-heeled cowboy boots, big hats and chunky belts; shiny red chillies; cacti; tequila. The flamboyant murals of Diego Rivera, the vivid colours of Frida Kahlo and her wonderful house. The powerful remains of Mayan, Aztec and pre-Colombian pyramids and cities, with exotic-sounding names: Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tulum, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Uxmal, Coba. Bleached white beaches, lilting hammocks, wafting palm trees and jungle thickets. Cities huddled around their grand plaza mayor (or main square), stylishly colonnaded and crammed with life. The haven of the Bellas Artes museum in Mexico City. Soft ceramic tiles in shades of cream, tan and earth, warmly decorated in designs of blue and green. Spiritual knick-knacks of saints, skulls and skeletons.  And always steeped in a dazzling, slightly surreal atmosphere.

Other than the Netherlands, Mexico is the country in which I’ve spent the most time, outside my home country of the UK. It was my first long-haul destination: my friend Claire and I spent an adventurous six weeks soaking up the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this captivating, unforgettable country during a long university vacation back in the 1980s. We even wrote a joint journal, passing an increasingly tattered and grubby exercise book back and forth between us. Our scribbles were mostly committed to paper during the endless hours we spent on buses traversing first the US (our student budget couldn’t stretch to flying to Mexico, so we flew to New York and then took the Greyhound Bus) and then many of Mexico’s 31 states, from Chihuahua to Chiapas. Unfortunately we lost the notebooks …

In the following decade, I was there for almost a year doing the field research for my geography PhD while I was a postgraduate student at University College London. Based in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, I was investigating the impact of international migration to the US on the households and communities left behind. I spent hours travelling on battered buses from the comfortable middle-class suburb where I was living out to the working-class neighbourhoods (colonias) where I conducted questionnaires and interviews that pushed my Spanish to its shaky limits. The residents were sometimes suspicious or amused initially, but then usually became welcoming, helpful, solicitous. Tramping round the dusty streets, knocking tentatively at closed doors with my clipboard clutched to my chest, I don’t think I appreciated it in the moment, but this was a special time.

When I wasn’t ‘out in the field’ in ‘my’ colonias, I had the use of a kindly-loaned office in a faded colonial building stacking around a central courtyard bedecked cheerfully with lush green plants. I spent much of my time there photocopying questionnaires. At lunchtimes I’d leave the office and eat a spicy sandwich at the local café round the corner. It felt reassuring to build these small routines when I was so far from home. I have fond memories of evenings in La Fuente, a traditional bar with slatted saloon style doors that swung open into a room with paint-peeling walls and a slightly grim décor, but a warm, noisy atmosphere, full of people (mainly men, it has to be said).

On this trip I was there to work, but I took full advantage of the fabulous opportunity to revisit some of my favourite places, discover some new ones and also to venture further afield in Central America. I have a muddled medley of memories. Scrambling up Popocatapetl volcano, ill-equipped, shivering, but determined to make it to the top; blinking astonished at the sudden flurry of a dramatic summer hailstorm in Mexico City on the way to try out a famous taco stall. Streams of rust-coloured Monarch butterflies in a far-flung corner of Michoacan. Hitching a ride with the federal police on a jungle road and posing for photos with their guns. Having wild pigs steal our food supplies while camping on an idyllic Caribbean beach littered with conch shells. Weekend breaks with ‘the girls’ (Lisa and Jenny from my language school) to Puerto Vallarta and a mishap-ridden road trip with the same team across the border to renew Lisa’s visa. My terracotta haven of a home with Helga and Ines in a wealthy neighbourhood of Guadalajara. Corona beer, tequila and margaritas. Shiny pink nylon sheets in a cheap hotel that turned out to be a haunt for guests paying for services others than a room for the night. Wondering how to get safely out of the remote Chiapas when finding ourselves there when the Zapatistas under the infamous Subcomandante Marcos suddenly sprang into action. Scrambling up tiers of stone stairs to reach the summits of improbably built ancient pyramids with views over deserts, plains, jungles. May various trips are all a bit of a melting pot. What I do know is that Mexico is very much responsible for getting me hooked on Latin America. It burrowed into my soul like a friendly tick and will always rest in an especially cherished niche of my heart.


  • Natural highlights: Caribbean beaches; jungles
  • Cultural highlights: archaeological sites of pyramids and the ruins of ancient cities (see link in the list below for recommendations); Frida Kahlo museum; the Bellas Artes museum in Mexico City
  • Food & drink highlights: quesadillas; margaritas; tacos; chilli poblano

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2 thoughts on “#2 Mexico: Surrealism, skeletons and pyramids

    1. Thank you. And I agree. I have been to that beach (at Tulum) and it’s wonderful, but I was there over 20 years ago and don’t have any good quality pics so this is a royalty-free photo I downloaded!All credit to the photographer (and the landscape!). I got it from this site, where you can see more beautiful images http://www.e-perpustakaan.com/tulum-mexico/

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