The South of Mexico: Fast Travel in 21 Photos

I’m normally a huge fan of slow travel: stop, take off your shoes, stay a while, learn a place. It’s how I explored most of Mexico. But when I left Mexico City in July to travel through the country’s south — an area about twice the size of the US state of California — slow travel wasn’t an option. I was tagging along with friends who had flights booked and rooms reserved and lives to get back to. So I jumped on the road and we blitzed through the most visually stunning and culturally authentic parts of Mexico, arriving after about two weeks in the Mayan Riviera.

I don’t think I spent enough time in any one place to really have a right to any big picture observations. I thought Oaxaca City was boring and San Cristóbal de las Casas was magical, although I’m not really sure how I arrived at these conclusions in the just over three days total I spent in the two cities. I saw the famous ruins at Palenque and the tourist resorts in Cancún and Playa del Carmen. But it’s hard to write a post about what a place is like when you’ve spent a day or two there, much less say anything useful about the local culture or language. So instead, I’m sharing my Southern Mexican experience in the form of Globalect’s first photo essay.

These 21 photos (and two short videos) tell the story of my last weeks in Mexico and how I wound down from the country to which I gave most of my year.

Mexico travel photos DF

Leaving Mexico City was full of nostalgia and “see you soon”s shared with the friends I made in my months spent living there. On my last afternoon in the city, we had lunch at my favorite restaurant in the Roma Norte neighborhood, El Manjar. After scarfing down a burger and some sangria there, we passed by Hostel Home, on the same street, where I lived and worked for most of my time in the city, and onto the metro, where the first day of bussing would take us to Oaxaca, the capital city of the state with the same name.

Mexico travel photos Oaxaca church

Mexico travel photos Oaxaca city

Mexico travel photos Oaxaca food

We arrived that night and, having decided that it’d be best for us to just check out some hostels after arriving, found ourselves without a place to stay. We’d bookmarked a particularly promising hostel to look at, but after a fifteen minute walk with our backpacks we found that they didn’t accept new arrivals after 6 p.m. So we hauled our bags and ourselves back to the bus station, next to which stood a sketchy and mostly deserted hostel, where we stayed that night. I’m not sure if it had a name, actually.

Oaxaca reminded me of the cities and towns I’d seen in central states like Querétaro and Puebla. Colonial and peaceful, vibrant, lively. People walked slower there than in the bustling urban streets of the capital. The weather was perfect in Oaxaca, the kind of weather that makes sitting indoors feel oppressive.

I joined my travel mates for the International Mezcal Fair, which serendipitously happened to be taking place that weekend. Forty pesos (a little more than two US dollars) got us entry and unlimited ‘samples’ of Mexico’s favorite liquor. By the time the daily afternoon storm descended on the fair, we’d all had enough mezcal samples to go on sampling without really being bothered by it. Once the storm reached full strength we took shelter under a propped up metal roof cover in front of a stage where an 80’s cover band kept all the mezcal enthusiasts entertained while we weathered out the storm.

We spent the rest of our only full day in Oaxaca mostly in and around the Mezcal Fair, and later that night went out for some disappointing ‘traditional Oaxacan cuisine’ that included a $20 pitcher of disgusting margarita. But we made up for it by landing ourselves three beds in the much-less-prison-like hostel we’d wanted to stay in the first night, Hostal Luz de Luna Nuyoo, where we relaxed in hammocks that night before setting out for more exploring the next day.

Mexico travel photos Oaxaca street

Mexico travel photos Oaxaca street 2

Oaxaca’s entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within Mexico, Oaxaca is known for its cuisine, especially the chapulines, fried grasshoppers. I tried a little bit; the texture isn’t really unpleasant, except for the little bits that stick in your teeth, and the flavor is mostly vaguely citric, like a fried orange peel with some spices. Not a bad mid-afternoon snack while exploring the city.

Our second day in Oaxaca, we left in the late afternoon for what would be the first of two overnight buses that week. That one was probably the less awful of the two. I now consider myself an official sponsor of and spokesperson for Ambien.

The next morning we arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of Chiapas State, as the sun came up.

Mexico travel photos San Cristóbal de las Casas

Mexico travel photos Chiapas

San Cristóbal was my favorite part of the South. It was cooler there, owing to its high elevation, cool enough that sleeping in our three-man room on the hostel’s roof required several blankets apiece.

Hostel Deja Vu is one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed. A friend from Mexico City who passed through San Cristóbal before us told us about it, describing it as “a hostel where the hippie guests smoke weed and drink tea and eat rice ALL THE TIME” (capitals hers), which sort of turned out to be true. But it made for a soothingly laid-back atmosphere rather than one of aggressive hippieness. The hammocks on the roof are directly responsible for my not seeing as much of the city as I should have, but the fact that we only had one day allotted for it didn’t help either.

Mexico travel photos Chiapas street

While exploring the city, we turned the corner behind the man selling hats and trinkets in the photo above, and stumbled onto a small street performance. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as Western tourists influence local communities like these: by stopping and watching, recording a video, and giving her some money, are we encouraging this little girl to perform on the street instead of going to school? I don’t know if there’s a good black-and-white ethical answer here, but it’s certainly something deserving of travelers’ awareness and thought.

After one good night’s sleep in Hostel Deja Vu, we left the next morning appropriately early for an entire day of walking and bussing. The first bus carried us from San Cristóbal over mountains and through the interior jungle to Palenque, where we’d spend the afternoon exploring the ruins in the heat and impossibly heavy humidity of the jungle. I found Palenque more impressive than Teotihuacán (just outside Mexico City), but still not really life-changing.

One sort of disappointing thing I learned about myself in Mexico is that I don’t seem to be much of a ruins kind of guy. Culture fail.

Mexico travel photos Palenque trilingual sign

What I did appreciate, of course, was the trilingual informational signage. Spanish, English, and a modern Yucatán dialect of Mayan narrate the entire walk through the ruins. Many indigenous Mayan people still live in this part of Mexico, although I’d recommend diligent skepticism when the hawkers in and around architectual ruins like Palenque try to sell you ‘authentic’ indigenous crafts. Most of what we saw at Palenque was thinly disguised pipes and bongs and those fucking terrible little noisemaker shits that are at every architectural ruin in Mexico and just sound like a fucking tiny motorcycle crashing into your eardrum.

And these three wise monkeys, which are indeed replicas of authentic (Japanese) cultural artifacts.

Mexico travel photos palenque vendedor

Still, if you’re traveling through this part of Mexico and have the luxury of not having to take overnight buses, I’d say Palenque is worth the stop. For a town almost totally dependent on tourism, prices for food and drinks are surprisingly low. One day of wandering and photo-snapping is probably enough. Do yourself a favor and get out there early before the sun and humidity bake every drop of moisture out of you.

Mexico travel photos Palenque ruins

Mexico travel photos Palenque Chiapas

Mexico travel photos Palenque child

The last leg of the journey took us — on another overnight bus, which I’m positive I didn’t complain about enough while still there — to Playa del Carmen, one of the hubs of a particular brand of tourism that just really puts me off. Wealthy Americans and Canadians (who seem suspiciously young to be able to afford such a vacation…) seem to outnumber the locals here, and prices reflect that in many cases.

The private beaches at the big resorts are nice enough, but even those are nothing special compared to beaches in South Florida or even the Florida Panhandle, I thought. The strips of ‘public’ beach aren’t spectacularly maintained and a lot of the bar and restaurant owners along the beach are persnickety about who is allowed to ‘loiter’ there.

Mexico travel photos Playa del Carmen beach

Mexico travel photos Playa del Carmen pier

If you do end up in Playa del Carmen for one reason or another, you’ll do yourself a favor to avoid Fifth Avenue for anything more than just a stroll. Two blocks further up from the beach everyday items like toothpaste and a loaf of bread closely resemble normal Earth prices, so be sure to check around there before spending $19 USD on a pocket-size bottle of sunblock.

One thing I did like about Playa is that it seems to have found away to hold onto the local culture in bits and pockets. I ate at several different fondas around town and all of them were fantastic, just like what I’d expect in Mexico City or the North. Empenadas are a must here, and at Antojitos Sandra they’re both perfect and a dollar.

Playa del Carmen really didn’t sit with me, so as soon as my two travel companions had flown back to the States, I moved on a little further south to Akumal. There I spent a week on a Workaway helping two online business owners with some random stuff. Ed and Livi lived in the Sirenis Resort, the kind of place that is the polar opposite of everything I enjoy about travel. But I wanted to learn a few things from them, and I’d read that the beaches there were almost completely deserted.

Mexico travel photos Akumal beach

Mexico travel photos Akumal iguana

Which was pretty much true. My Workaway hosts’ apartment was about a twenty minute hike from the beach, but even under the aggressive sun it was worth it. On my first day there I beelined for the beach and planted myself in an oddly comfortable rocky portion under a sign warning against stealing rocks from the beach (¿?), where this iguana showed up to keep me some company. If I hadn’t been so busy chatting him up, maybe I’d have gone and explored some of the undeveloped cenotes another half hour’s walk down the coast.

Akumal was my base for a week while I sorted out my plans. I met a couple of other freelance ‘digital nomad‘ types there who inspired me to head to the rent-free safety of home for a couple months while I regrouped and worked on my own professional aspirations. So, after only five days, I said adios to my new friends in Akumal and headed (grudgingly) back to Playa, since it’s close to the airport. There I’d take some dramatic pondering time down at the beach and enjoy one last Mexican sunset on the rooftop of my hostel.

And the rest is very recent history.

Mexico travel photos Playa del Carmen pier

Mexico travel photos Playa del Carmen sunset

I posted a lot of things about Mexico this year. Some of them were praising, others critical, and I think in some it may have been hard to figure out if I loved or hated the place. Sometimes I struggled to sort that out for myself. But two months later I look back only with love and nostalgia.

My Mexico chapter is over. The 198 days I spent exploring, learning, meeting, going, doing, walking, eating, sleeping, working, traveling, writing, photographing, missing, talking, partying, celebrating, regretting, lamenting, complaining, reflecting, enjoying, wondering, planning, fearing, doubting, stressing, not caring, loving, and living in Mexico are all now part of the bigger equation of who I am, how I think, what I understand about the world around me, and what I want from it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my travel raison d’être, fast or slow.

Gracias por todo, Mexico. Fue muy agradable.

2 comments

  1. Gloria · October 13, 2015

    Jakob, Having lived in Puerto Vallarta 6 yrs. now, I really enjoyed your perspective. I do want to mention about the children entertaining you on the street. Many communities have such a shortage of schools, the children only go 1/2 days, 5 days a week. They start early in the morning to beat the heat, then another group starts at 4 or 5 p.m. till dark. It took me awhile to figure that out when I first moved here. Hope you visit Puerto Vallarta in the future. I am a live-in manager/chef at a B & B….. Hacienda Vallarta Suites…. very affordable and you can make reservations on http://www.airbnb.com. Happy Trails, Jakob. I’ll keep my eye on you….. Gloria

    • Jakob Gibbons · October 13, 2015

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Gloria, and especially for addressing the question about the little girl in San Cristóbal. This is something I’m going to do some research into and think more about in general as I travel through developing countries, but it’s helpful and interesting to know about the school schedule situation. Thanks for that!

      I’m done with Mexico for now, but I still haven’t made it out to the Jalisco side of things, and it’s on my list for the future. I’ll be sure to look up your B&B when I make it out that way!