A Gringa’s Guide to Living In Mexico

It has been a bright and warm 76 days living in the flavorful and multicolored country that is México and after my trip to Mazatlán last weekend, I feel in my heart that I’ve officially reached the home stage of culture shock cycle. The culture shock cycle consists of four parts: honeymoon, horror, humor, and home. When you first arrive in a place, you’ll love everything about it because it’s all so new and it feels like vacation or a grand new adventure. Somewhere after that, horror starts to creep in and you might begin to get upset or annoyed by the smallest things of a country– examples include: being woken up every single morning by the ringing of loud church bells or the horn on the piña cart, ordering menudo only to have it contain just cow intestine and no hominy (is my family doing it wrong or is this restaurant?), or the constant cat calls and whistles from the male locals. Eventually you ease into the humor stage. When you realize that you only have 40 days left of waking up in your Mexican apartment, the loud horn on the piña cart doesn’t seem as upsetting. When you’ve had the time to understand a culture more deeply, you can just roll your eyes when the cat calls come in because you’ve realized that’s “just what they do”. Finally, there will be a pivotal changing point where the foreign country you’re living in feels like home. You feel comfortable and at ease with your surroundings and a language that is different from yours. You get a sudden appreciation for the people of the country, their values, and how they live.

That transitional moment from those first three stages of culture shock to the final home stage is small, but significant. In China, my home stage kicked in while I was climbing up the snowy Great Wall of China– I couldn’t have felt more grateful and blessed to have lived there and with five weeks left of the semester after that, imagining leaving was a thought I couldn’t bare. My home moment for Mexico has finally hit. We had gone to the Mazatlán malecón to watch Mexican cliff jumpers make their plunges, but we ended up taking photos of the beautiful, sun-lit ocean instead. From there, the four of us walked down the malecón to grab dinner by the water and Mexican music blasting from a car parked on the road filled our ears and Mexican families that were running around together and taking pictures passed by us. There was nothing especially significant about this moment, but hearing the loud Mexican music and seeing the strong cultural value of family in action provided that shift from the first three stages to home. Mexico has become home and even though I haven’t left yet, I can’t wait to come back to this home of mine (especially Mazatlán)!

With a name like Ilyanna Renee Flores-Alvarez, you might think I was a local here or something. Nah, I’m just an English-speaking Hispanic chica from America who still struggles to hold a basic conversation in Spanish and therefore…. a gringa. I accept it. But because I’ve had the sick opportunity to not just travel here, but really live here like a local and you know… get to know the place, I’ve created a short guide (for gringas and gringos alike), for living in México.

The quick guide includes:

Section I: Food

Section II: Travel and transportation

Section III: Activities

Section IV: Health and safety

Section V: Culture

 

Section I: Food & Drankz 

What’s the best part about this country? Food. Hands down, food. There’s so much more than just these things, but these are my ultimate favorites and “must try’s”!

  • TACOS: Mexico is basically synonymous with tacos. If you’re not regularly over-consuming tacos, you’re doing something wrong. At most street stands, you’ll find them for $7 pesos each (that’s 3 for $1 USD!). You have several meats to choose from, with limes, pico de gallo, and salsas available to spice them up with.
  • Gorditas: I’ve talked about these before in THIS previous blog post, but to get a quick idea of what it is, imagine if a pita pocket and taco had a baby: $15 pesos = $0.72 USD
  • Elote: I’ve also talked about this in a past blog post but this corn on the cob all dappered up in condiments is a heavenly delight: $15 pesos = $0.72 USD
  • Carne Asada: a plate of carne asada, beans, and rice at a restaurant near our schools costs $60 pesos = $3 USD
  • Enchiladas: cheese enchiladas at the same place cost $40 pesos = $2 USD.
  • Empanadas!!: I’ve only had the arrachera (a type of meat) and an arroz con leche (a sweet, dessert empanada), but they were to die for: $20 pesos = $1 USD
  • Beans and rice are pretty good, but they basically taste the same wherever you are– America included.
  • Quesadillas here are bomb: thick melty cheese with carne asada chunks… mmm: $20-90 pesos = $1-4 USD depending on the type and place.
  • Horchata: This cinnamon-y rice drink is a must. Only $8 pesos for a cup = $0.38 USD.
  • Mexican hot cocoa: Enough said. $28-$45 pesos = $1.50-$2.25 USD for a cup depending on where you get it.
  • Seafood: If you’re a seafood fan, eating shrimp, fish and that kind of stuff when you go to the coastal places like Mazatlán, Cancun, or Puerto Vallarta is something you should try since it’s right by the ocean and all. I don’t care for seafood too much but I tried coconut shrimp in Mazatlán and loved it!
  • STAY AWAY FROM MENUDO. We have menudo every Christmas back at home in Arizona and it’s one of my favorite parts about the holidays but the menudo in Mexico is NOT. THE. SAME. Price: not worth it. Even if it’s free.

Along with all of these Mexican food delights, you’ll find many fast-food establishments that you have in America such as: McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, Little Caesars, Subway, Dairy Queen, Krispy Kreme… the list goes on. My suggestion: Eat local as much as you can. Feeding your burger and fries craving every once in a while is totally okay but just remember that you’re not going to be able to find an authentic $0.70 USD gordita when you get back to America so eat the local food often! Lastly: it sounds like common sense but if you’re trying to eat cheap, refrain from eating near the touristy areas of a city and remember that street stands are always significantly cheaper than sit down restaurants.

Section II: Traveling and Transportation

Okay, after food (because priorities, right?) comes traveling. I think that Mexico is severely undervalued and underrated when it comes to traveling. I’ve been blessed to be able to visit so many different cities in my semester here thus far. I have already written a few blog posts about specific cities I’ve visited so you can read those for more detail; but for the sake of time and space here, I’ll just list below the places I’ve been and my recommendation:

  • San Miguel de Allende: YES RECOMMEND because yellow and European-ish
  • Querétaro: YES RECOMMEND, because nutella and strawberry and ice cream topped crepes in the cutest cafe
  • Las Grutas de Tolantongo: YES RECOMMEND because hot springs and zip-lining
  • Puebla: YES RECOMMEND because it’s such a big and beautiful city 
  • Cholula: YES RECOMMEND because of cute “Container City”
  • Xochimilco: YES RECOMMEND because of colorful boat rides on the canal
  • Teotihuacan: YES RECOMMEND because pyramid of the sun and moon
  • Mexico City (& Six Flags): YES RECOMMEND because Six Flags for cheap
  • Mazatlán: YES RECOMMEND!!! BECAUSE HEAVEN ON EARTH!! I’ll come back here for absolute! certainly! positively sure!
  • Leon: NOOO DON’T RECOMMEND because there’s really not much to do here for more than a couple hours

The main mode of transportation here is bus. These aren’t just any old busses though- they’re all fancy and deluxe! Some seats have televisions, but all the seats recline to a very comfortable position that makes it easy to relax or fall fast asleep. It’s tons comfier than an airplane will ever be. While in the cities, we usually use taxis or Uber. Uber tends to be cheaper and I’d totally recommend using that if you have a phone available with international data on it. You can and obviously should take airplanes to the more far places– like from Cancun to Cabo, for example.

Hostels are one of my favorite things about traveling! I know that sleeping on a bunk bed in a room full of seven random people and having a communal bathroom doesn’t seem that glamorous but I absolutely love it. Just this last weekend in Mazatlán when I stayed at the sweetest hostel I’ve ever been in, I met people from Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Scotland, several different U.S. states, and Mexico, of course. There is such a sense of community within hostels and such a friendly and open atmosphere between travelers from all over the globe that I literally get excited butterflies in my tummy. Not everywhere in Mexico has hostels, but the bigger, more touristy and more visited places do. Because we only had day trips to many of the places we’ve visited here, we’ve only stayed in a few hostels but here are the ones we have and my recommendation.

  • Mazatlan: Funky Monkey Hostel: $260 pesos = $13 USD a night. Best hostel I’ve ever stayed at. Taking into account all the hostels I’ve stayed in in China, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. I loved it so much that I’ve made it a personal goal to apply as a volunteer on WorkAway to come back and live here in Mazatlán and work at this hostel for a while. It’s an absolute 1294823092 out of 10.
  • Querétaro: Casa Azul: $200 pesos = $10 USD a night. There aren’t many hostel options for Querétaro, so for the circumstances, yes I recommend because this was cheap, a good location, and I had no complaints.
  • Cholula (Near Puebla): Hostel del Zocalo: $780 pesos = $39 USD/night for a giant room with four beds, a living room, and kitchen, and holds up to five people. This was almost more of a hotel, but the price was the cheapest we’ve ever gotten! It ended up being $16 USD for each of us for the whole weekend.

In Las Grutas de Tolantongo and Teotihuacan, we stayed in hotels. While they were good, hostels will forever be better than hotels in my eyes. Use HostelWorld.com to check if the city you’re traveling to has hostels, and you’ll get tons of info on each one including bunches of reviews and ratings on cleanliness, service, location, etc.

Section III: Activites

There are tons of activities to do here in Mexico, especially in the touristy places who specialize in providing recreational entertainment. If you’re ever headed to Puerto Vallarta, visit http://www.vallarta-adventures.com and you can browse through tons of different activities they have available. This is what we’re planning to use when we go to book our excursions. While we aren’t going to Cancun this semester, Cancun has an excursion site just like Puerto Vallarta’s at http://www.cancun-adventure.com. When we went to Mazatlán, we didn’t go on any tours or excursions, but we did get the chance to go parasailing! You don’t need to book it– you’ll find masses of parasail workers trying to recruit you to parasail on the beach when you go. Some of the activities you can do in Mexico include:

  • Zip-lining: We ziplined at Las Grutas de Tolantongo for $150 pesos = $7.50 USD for 4 different zipline cable rides.
  • Parasailing: Some people in Mazatlan quoted me $40 USD and while I thought that was a good deal compared to what you’d pay for some place in America or a more touristy place, another person came up to me offering a parasail ride for $500 pesos = $25 USD. I was sold.
  • Swim with dolphins: See prices at excursion sites.
  • Soak in hot springs: Admission to Las Grutas de Tolantongo hot springs was $120 pesos/day =$6 USD.
  • Swim in the ocean: FREE!
  • Climb ancient pyramids: Price depends on the pyramid site admission fee.
  • Snorkel: See prices at excursion sites.
  • Ride jetskis: Someone quoted me $900 pesos for a 30 minute rental, but a fun local we made friends with was able to get us a better deal of $700 pesos for 30 minutes. The jetskis can hold two people, so if you go two people you’re both only paying $350 pesos = $17.50 USD for a half hour jet ski rental. Not bad at all! Unfortunately we didn’t do it. Maybe in Puerto Vallarta.
  • Scuba dive: See prices at excursion sites.
  • Jungle hikes: See prices at excursion sites.
  • ATV rides: See prices at excursion sites.
  • Dancing: I LOVE dancing more than anything. Depending on where you go, there may be cover charges and there may not be, so do your research beforehand.
  • Eat: Eating can be super cheap or way expensive like I said before, depending on what you eat, where you go, and what city you’re in.

Section IV: Health and Safety

Mexico has this notorious reputation for being super unsafe. If you are a decent human being and have common sense, you’re probably going to be safe the entire time you’re here. You hear about kidnappings and killings and all that negative jazz, but there is that same kind of stuff happening in America. Since I’ve lived in Mexico, there has not been a single instance where I felt like my life was in danger or that I was in severe trouble. If you’re respectful, mind your own business, don’t make a fool out of yourself or bring unnecessary attention to you, you should be absolutely fine. Just use your common sense and follow your gut feelings– for example, it’s probably best not to wander around a sketchy part of the town at night, but you wouldn’t do that in America either. Health though is a different concern. You’re most likely going to get sick. Everyone in our apartment has been sick at least once, and there was one night I had food poisoning dreadful enough to make me question for a second why I chose to come here and risk a sickness like this to be doomed upon me. My solutions: bring tons of medicine with you from America. They have pharmacies and grocery stores with medicine here but it’s just easier to bring your own and not have to deal with the challenges of a language barrier. My lifesavers have been the basic ibuprofen, stomach medicine, vitamin C pills, and echinacea pills (an immune system booster). After I went through a spout of sickness, I started taking my vitamin C and echinacea pills daily and I haven’t been sick again since.

Section V: Culture

Oh how I love the Mexican culture! Growing up hispanic and in southern Arizona, I have always been exposed to or immersed to the Mexican culture… most especially through my nana’s Mexican food. Food is certainly a vital key in the culture. Religion plays another important component. The most prominent religion in Mexico is Catholicism and you can see it’s influence in the beauty, brilliance, and exquisiteness of the Catholic churches in every city that you go to. Music and dance is another significant sector of the culture that greatly differentiates it from other non-Latin cultures. Family is especially meaningful and the locals are usually warm and friendly. Despite having already been here for almost 3 months, I’m still learning and taking in the behaviors and ways of this culture.

Are you ready to come to Mexico yet? It’s not usually the first place on people’s travel list when other paradises like Greece or Thailand exist; therefore, it’s often overlooked and forgotten about when it really is a gem that deserves to be discovered, understood, and enjoyed. If you don’t have the time to actually live here, still visit. Revel in the blissful tourist areas and all the fun activities they offer, but also make an effort to go deeper into the country and culture and really understand and learn about the people and country you’re in.

 

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