What so many people don’t know is that Mexico is one of the most scenic and breathtaking countries in the world. The people here are resilient and take their culture very seriously. Part of Mexican culture is to be warm to both family members and guests and treat strangers in town with the kind of warm welcome we only wish we still had in our neighborhoods back home.
This was quite honestly my experience during my latest trip to Guadalajara and the Riviera Nayarit in Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexico is working very hard to rid itself of the reputation as the drug and kidnapping capital of the world. Yes, Mexico has awesome resorts in places like Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, and Playa Del Carmen. However many tourists are sadly afraid to wander out into the areas of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Oaxaca. This is where you find the authentic Mexican food and culture that is hard to come by in California and Texas.
When we first landed in the city of Guadalajara, I was surprised by how relatively calm and small the city is compared to Mexico City. This college town located in the heart of Jalisco is a clean city with some awe-inspiring Spanish architecture right in the center of town. We stayed in Centro Historico where you can easily wander from your hotel or Airbnb through the old streets that are lined with markets and fashion shops. Now and then you will find yourself entering a large plaza that has huge cathedrals and other Spanish mementos towering around it. This is very similar to some European cities and is very common throughout Latin America.
Guadalajara, for a fun fact, is the Mariachi capital of Mexico. Yes, many say that Mariachi music started here before making its way to Mexico and up to the US. During one of our afternoons walking the streets of Guadalajara, we stumbled into Mariachi Square and found a place to drink a couple of Pacificos. While it is sort of fascinating to be in the place where it all started, I assure you Mariachi bands here are just as annoying as the ones who come to perform for you and your date after you get served your plate of enchiladas in the United States.
This is a working city. Working class, college kids and professionals alike don’t spend too much time at the nice restaurants unless it is an event or family gathering. So, during the Monday through Friday grind, Tapatios ( yes that is what you call people from Guadalajara) head for the large indoor markets. At these markets you will find every kind of food available; juice stands, panderias, carnicerias and lots of other shops that sell just about everything. While I was there, I bought some fresh coconut candies that were some of the best I have ever had, and I even found a USB 3 port adapter for about a quarter of the cost that I would have paid on Amazon.
While we wandered around the endless food stands, we found seafood, every type of meat you would want and some awesome Guadalajara style breakfasts. No one in our group spent more than about 70 or 80 pesos ($4 to $5).
After leaving Guadalajara, we drove West on the main highway towards the Riviera Nayarit where we would spend the remainder of our trip. The drive on the federal highway is about four hours through the agave country of Jalisco. On this drive, you see agave plantations everywhere; similar to how you would see vineyards while driving through the coastal hills of California. We even drove through the town of Tequila, where you can sample some of the best tequila and mezcal on earth.
When we finally reached the coast, we drove into the tiny town of Santa Cruz de Miramar. After getting a view from our beachside Airbnb, our local guy introduced us to Restaurant Leo’s; a cool beach front restaurant with some of the freshest seafood you can get anywhere. Under the overhang of the restaurant, our feet sat in the sand, and we could see our food being caught and dragged up the beach in fishing nets to the kitchen. There is even a tortilla lady on site churning out fresh tortillas all evening long. The owner and his friendly staff allowed us to come up to the grill and ask questions about the day’s catch and even gave us tips on where to find fishermen that would take us out to catch our own. At Leo’s you can choose from a full fish to barbecued shrimp, mussels, oysters all served with sweet rice, fried banana, fresh tortillas and homemade salsa. Sounds expensive, right? Even though we were not too far from the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, this meal, with drinks, cost me all of 8 bucks. It tasted like it was worth about $40 or $50.
As our trip started to unwind, we decided to try our hand at catching our food with a 3-hour fishing expedition. This was the first time I had fished in about 12 years, but no matter. We caught one fish, that was somewhat bland but fresh. Our guides were down to earth, and we quickly started talking to them about where we had been, where we were from and received advice about some other parts of Mexico that would be worth our time. One of them was even planning a trip to the US the following week to visit family and friends he had not seen for years. He asked about California, Seattle, and New York. We could see the excitement on his face for the trip he was about to embark on.
After trolling around off the coast of Nayarit and seeing nothing but rising mountains, palm trees and white beaches along the shore, the three of us decided that we needed to wrap up this trip with a beach that very few other people could find. I looked at the shore, looked at Google Maps, back to the shore and back to Google Maps again. Although I could have been wrong, I think I was able to figure out which beach we were looking at from our boat. So I marked it off with a little star on the map and hoped that when we got back to our car that the beach it led us to was the one we were, in fact, looking at from half a mile off shore.
To pull this off, I guess you need to have a decent sense of direction. We followed the little blue dot on Google Maps down the main highway and onto a small country road for a couple of miles. We found our beach, nearly 2 miles long and with no one in sight. Just to give you some perspective, if this beach were located in Hawaii, California or Florida, it would be packed every weekend with not a spot to park for miles. It would probably even show up on one of those “Top 10” articles that you constantly see in your Facebook feed.
To save you the time, in case you are curious about this beach yourself, we named it Limoncito Beach. I am not sure what the actual name of the beach is as we could not find a sign. But there is a cool hotel overlooking the beach called Limoncito Hills, and it is located just off Federal Hwy 16 near a town called Jolotemba. A couple of Google Map searches should help you out.
My bus ride to Puerto Vallarta Airport the next day felt a little strange. I am not going to lie. It felt weird going back to a well-known destination that is swarming with Americans. I had gotten so used to an area where people do not constantly see tourists and don’t live their lives to benefit from tourism. Mexican families from Guadalajara, Mexico City, and other places do come here for the weekend, but that is about it. It was refreshing, and I felt reenergized.
All of the places in Mexico you are familiar with are fun. Lots of Fun! Puerto Vallarta and Playa Del Carmen have awesome beaches and a party scene that is probably illegal in most states in the US. Apparently, Cabo has some great diving and snorkeling. However what you are missing out on is the culture that Mexicans are well known for; a culture of genuine interest in you and your family, of feeding you well and sharing with you all of the things that make Mexico great, and ensuring that you are safe and having a wonderful time. These folks don’t care about the issues facing your country or theirs’. They don’t care about Trump and his stupid wall. If you don’t want to talk about these things, you don’t have to. If you are curious, go ahead and ask; people are willing to discuss these things if that’s what you want to do.
Mexico isn’t that scary. Go ahead and rent a car, or take a bus. Google Maps and Google Navigation work great. Most American cell phone carriers charge a very reasonable rate for voice, data and text roaming throughout the country. Visit family-owned shops and food stands. Buy a bottle of tequila that you have never heard of. Do some basic research to make sure the place you want to visit is, in fact, safe, similar to how tourists to the US would research places that are safe for them to travel. Other than that, feel free to explore and get to know this truly awesome and beautiful country.