From llama to cow intestines to ceviche to guinea pig to a LOT of rice and boiled potatoes, Latin America introduced me to a lot of new gastronomical challenges. Some were successes (I love alpaca!), while some left me feeling queasy (spit-roasted guinea pig is not a delicacy for me), but all reminded me that the secret to understanding a culture is through their food. Here is just a taste of what South American cuisine is all about.
Also, for a more detailed look at Peruvian cuisine, don’t forget to check out my post on the most typical Peruvian dishes.
I took this photo on the shores of Isla de las Mujeres in Cancun back in October. I was saving it for the coldest, most miserable week in January, knowing that it would be the perfect mental escape from the bitter Canadian winter.
It seems like this has been the right week for it. Two days ago, I woke up to a wind chill factor of -43 Celsius.
My poor brother had to arrive home from Thailand in this weather, a temperature change of an astounding 80 degrees.
The last couple of days, I’ve trudged through piles of snow, cursed the car that refused to start, and ran as fast as I could from the bus stop to the front door. Yet at that same time, I’ve gone to dance class, to job interviews, and watched everyone around me continue on their normal routine. I even still watched a crowd of smokers huddle outside the library and puff on cigarettes that struggled to stay lit.
When you’re Canadian, you may complain about the cold, but you still live through it. You may desire a break from it all, a chance to jet off to Mexico or Cuba or the Dominican. Maybe you actually will.
One of the items on my travel bucket list that I still need to cross off is a visit to Mexico during Dia de los Muertos, A.K.A. Day of the Dead. Celebrated every year on November 1, Day of the Dead is a holiday during which Mexicans honour the memory of deceased relatives and friends. Some of the more common traditions include visiting graves (normally bringing along the favourite foods and drinks of the deceased), and constructing small altars in one’s home. Skulls, well-dressed skeletons, and marigolds are popular Day of the Dead motifs.
This year I spent September and half of October in Mexico, but I didn’t stick around quite long enough. What I did get to see, however, were some of the Day of the Dead decorations that crowd the streets and shops in Tlaquepaque, a small city on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Tlaquepaque is a popular day trip for Mexicans and tourists alike, as it has a well-preserved colonial centre filled with art galleries, trendy shops, and good restaurants. The name “Tlaquepaque” refers to the city’s history of pottery making, and roughly translates to “hill where the clay comes from.”
So, leaving you with this image below, I wish you all a Happy Halloween, or a memorable Dia de los Muertos, if you’re lucky enough to be in Mexico to celebrate it! As for me, I’ll be spending the holidays at Machu Picchu — I’m making my second trek and visit there this week.
Cancun/Playa del Carmen is a popular resort getaway for North Americans and Europeans, the perfect place to soak up the sun and get rid of those winter goosebumps. Yet there is so much more to the region than just white-sand beaches. While you are there, consider making a day trip to a Mayan ruin sites. Chichen Itza is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, and is well worth the three-hour drive from Cancun.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities from the period between 600 and 1200 A.D. Dominating the site is the 30-meter-high step pyramid, which is known as the Temple of Kukulkan (more commonly referred to as “El Castillo” — “the castle”). Kukulkan was a Mayan god, a feathered serpent who bore some relation to Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec tradition.
The fascinating fact about this pyramid is that its architectural features serve as a visual representation of the Mayan calendar — (yes, that same calendar that claims that we’re all about to die). Also, on the days of the spring and fall equinox, the sun is aligned in such a way that a trail of triangular shadows appears to cascade down the side of the temple. Some people believe this to be another representation of both the Mayan calendar and the deity Kukulkan.
I’m not going to get into all of the details on the site’s history and symbolism here, as I plan to save that for a longer article. Still, I hope you keep Chichen Itza in mind for your next trip to Cancun or the Yucatan Peninsula. You only have two months to see it before the world ends, after all! 😉
Mexico is a topic I touch on a lot. After studying in Guadalajara last summer, I became addicted to Mexican culture, food, music, and people. Because of the shared border between Mexico and the U.S., the country receives a lot of press coverage in Canadian and American news. And most of the news we hear about Mexico ranges from the questionable to the bad to the downright shocking.
But how true are the stories? Do travelers to Mexico really have a lot to worry about?
When I was preparing to leave for Guadalajara last spring, a number of friends and acquaintances were surprised to hear that I would want to go study in inland Mexico. “Be careful; don’t get yourself killed!” Sure, most of these comments were made lightheartedly, but the message behind them was clear: Mexico isn’t safe.
After spending some time in “real” Mexico (not the tourist-dotted resort towns), my perspective on the country shifted. I’m no longer willing to laugh off the comments about getting kidnapped or caught up in Mexico’s drug wars. I find them exaggerated and unfair.
To see what I mean about the negative reputation that Mexico has garnered, take a look at some of the reader comments posted on a typical CBC news article about Mexico’s latest drug-related activity:
“Just another Canadian casualty in Mexico. Why anyone would travel there is beyond comprehension.”
“I think it’s safer to vacation in Afghanistan.”
“Even if it’s free, no way would I go on vacation in Mexico. The last few years it seems there’s always a story about a Canadian being arrested, blown up or beheaded.”
For me, these types of comments are ignorant and infuriating. Yes, problems exist in Mexico — I’ll be the first to admit that. The country’s government and justice system are corrupt and questionable, and there is an incredible amount of drug-related violence in certain areas. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastic, relatively-secure travel destination. I came across an article today that will help put things into perspective:
“Here’s the fact that I feel is most relevant — for travelers — and most often ignored: Mexico is big. It’s the 11th most populous country in the world, with 112 million citizens. It’s roughly the size of the American Midwest.
Given that, is it fair to regard the country as one homogenous war zone? Should travelers be advised to avoid the country as a whole?To me, that’s like telling someone not to visit Mt. Rushmore because Detroit has a problem with violent crime.”
While Mexico does have a lot of violence, most of this is restricted to the Northern border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Granted, recently there has been an increase in violent activity further south. The week before Pam and I traveled to Guadalajara this February, some one set off a grenade in a club in Guadalajara, killing six people. I have to admit, this made me a little uneasy. But last year I went to Jakarta in Indonesia, where, the previous summer, a suicide bomber had set off bombs at two upscale hotels, killing seven tourists. I’ve been to London, where the subways bombings killed 52 people in 2005. Violent acts can happen anywhere. Just look at the gang-related violence that took place a few weeks ago in Kelowna, B.C. If that had taken place in Mexico, people would have used it as another excuse “never to travel to the country.” Yet, I highly doubt that people will stay away from B.C. because it’s “full of gang-violence.”
Mexico is not a first world country, and as such, it has more problems than we are used to in Canada and the United States. But compare it to most other “developing nations” and you will see a similar set of problems. We just happen to hear a lot more about Mexico’s problems because of our proximity (physically, culturally and economically) to it.
My conclusion? Mexico is not a perfect country to live in. But no country is. If you are smart and careful while you’re traveling, you’re no more likely to run into trouble than you are in most other countries.
Here is yet another great article that challenges North Americans’ negative attitude towards Mexican travel. In The Globe and Mail, Marni Jackson, a well-known Canadian non-fiction writer, recounts a tale of survival – her trip to Huatulco, Mexico. This is an amusing, satirical account of the “obstacles” she faced on her trip, which she jots down in a handy list for us:
“All the things that did not happen to us while on vacation in Huatulco:”
I was not murdered on a beach after agreeing to take a midnight ride on a Jet Ski
We were not overcharged or robbed.
We were not mugged or dumped in the trunk of a car.
We did not get sick
We did not feel patronized or resented by the locals.
And, my personal favourite…
I was not decapitated, nor was my severed head used as a bowling ball to send a message to drug lords
She elaborates on each point:
“While it’s fair to say my brain was flatlining from beach torpor and the shock of encountering bright colours after an interminably grey winter, my head remained on my shoulders for the entire week. We also weren’t caught in a hail of bullets while strolling across the zocalo of La Crucecita . . . I see more crack addicts three blocks from my “safe” Toronto neighbourhood, and more homeless people in the heart of our financial district.”
If an article like this doesn’t bring home the message that Mexico is a fantastic place to visit, I’m not sure what will. Sadly, once again, I still find the comment thread filled with “Mexico-haters” complaining about how they will never go near the country. At least each one of them signifies one less tacky tourist that I have to worry about crowding the Mexican beaches. 🙂
To see my previous posts on Mexico, see here and here.