Senior editor Pamela Colloff, writer-at-large Suzy Banks, and others talk about this month's cover story, "Down Mexico Way."
texasmonthly.com: Why a cover story on Mexico travel? Who came up with the idea and why do it for October?
Suzy Banks: I think it was less about why than why not? TM had never done a Mexico issue or anything much at all about Mexico travel. I think it was Skip Hollandsworth who first pitched the idea based on a similar (but, of course, not as fabulous) piece in New York magazine. Then everyone got excited about the prospect of getting to leave the state.
Joe Nick Patoski: Because we’re Texas, and it’s Mexico. Anytime is a good time. October is a pretty good time to think about going because it gets cold in Texas and Mexico is the one sure place close by where you know you can find hot sun from November through March.
Patricia Sharpe: Evan Smith came up with the idea, as far as I know. October is just a perfect month for travel to almost any country, so that was a no-brainer.
texasmonthly.com: Once it was decided to do a feature, how did you end up with your particular assignment?
SB: Senior editor Quita McMath pushed hard for me to cover Morelia and the craft towns surrounding it.
JNP: There are lots of off-the-beaten-path places I’ve found over the years, and just as many places like that that I’ve only heard about and haven’t checked out. I suggested several of those places, including some in Chiapas, some in the less-explored stretches of the Yucatan, and some within a two- or three-hour drive of the border. We weeded it down to somewhere on the Pacific with jet service nearby, meaning you could get there nonstop from a Texas city and not waste a whole day of a three- or four-day weekend changing planes in Mexico City. I talked to a lot of my fellow Mexico-philes and I surfed the Internet. I first heard about Yelapa twenty five years ago when I was reporting on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue for Rolling Stone. The tour had all these interesting characters including T-Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, Kinky Friedman, playwright Sam Shepard, and Bob Neuwirth. Austin was its last date. Afterward, Dylan and some of his pals were headed to Yelapa. Thankfully, the place is still pretty hard to get to. The government hasn’t built a road through the mountains and jungle yet. Otherwise, it’d be overrun.
PS: I asked several chefs and Mexico travel leaders what they considered the best cities in Mexico for eating. The consensus was Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Jalapa—well, also Verazcruz. The agreement was almost unanimous. By process of elimination, Puebla ended up the winner (somebody else was writing on Mexico City, and we had recently covered Oaxaca). Puebla is the birthplace of not just mole poblano but also of chiles en nogada, a dish of stuffed chiles with a fresh walnut sauce. I don’t know of too many other cities that can claim to have invented two dishes that have become part of the national cuisine.
Skip Hollandsworth: As much as I wanted to find some exotic out-of-the-way location for my trip, I also realized that was not the way most people experience Mexico. At Terminal B of DFW International Airport, you can see one jet after another take off for Mexico. They are filled with passengers who are on what is known as a package tour. They call up a travel agent who books them on a tour that takes care of absolutely everything. (The tours are operated by such companies as Adventure Tours and Funjet.) For one price, all the traveler has to do is show up at the airport with his or her passport or birth certificate (the tours also operate out of Houston and Austin), get on a charter jet, fly to a city like Cancun, go through customs, get on a bus provided by the tour company, and be driven straight to a huge resort beach hotel where all food and drinks are free. These are the “all-inclusive” vacations you see advertised in the Sunday travel sections of the newspapers.
texasmonthly.com: Had you ever been to your assigned destination before? If so, when?
JNP: My wife, Kris, and I went to Puerto Vallarta in the mid-eighties. The hotel, beach, and pool were nice, although the vendors were annoying and it was the first time I was exposed to time-share salespeople. I guess it was relaxing, but when we went to the old part of town and saw how much the city had grown, I started wishing we’d been there before Liz Taylor and Richard Burton made Night of the Iguana.
PS: Puebla was new to me. When I found out it was the fourth largest city in Mexico, I was amazed because I had never even considered going there. It is not well known to Americans, even though there are quite a few flights in and out every day. Mexicans vacation there quite a bit, though.
Pamela Colloff: I’m embarrassed to say that I had never been farther south than Mexico’s border towns, so Mexico City was dramatically different for me. I was interested in the melding of colonial and indigenous cultures, which is much more pronounced there in the capital than along the border.
texasmonthly.com: Were you afraid to travel to Mexico? If so, what precautions did you take? If not, why not?
SB: I didn’t have to be afraid; my mom handled that for me. Sure, Mexico has some special crime problems, but the way I figure it, I could be kidnapped in Austin and locked in my trunk and drowned in Town Lake. (How this makes me feel safer I’ll never know.) My destination, Morelia, isn’t overrun by U.S. tourists so there probably isn’t the criminal network set up to pry on visitors that you can find in some other parts of Mexico. I never felt the slightest hint of danger in Morelia, and in fact, felt much safer there than I did on a subsequent visit to Seattle. I am spooked about cooties in the water and some of the food, so I did get the hepatitis shot, although I felt sort of silly doing so.
JNP: No. Pam Colloff sent out an e-mail advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about getting hep vaccinations. I called around and eventually found out the shots wouldn’t be effective for at least three weeks. So we went without.
PS: I’m afraid only of traveling to Mexico City and certain states that have a reputation for drug trafficking. Downtown Puebla is very safe, very clean, very middle-class. Of course, any large city has its seedy, risky neighborhoods, but you just make a point of staying out of those, as you would in this country.
SH: Here’s the thing about one of these “all-inclusive” tours. You do not have to know a word of Spanish. You don’t have to worry about drinking the wrong water. And as long as you stay in the resort, you don’t have to worry about the exchange rate between Mexican and U.S. currency, which can be a relief to first-time visitors. But it’s the kind of trip that can also be rather sterile if you don’t make some effort to get out of the resort and experience Mexico. You could be in Florida, for all you know.
PC: I was definitely wary of going to Mexico City. Several years ago, a long-time Texas Monthly writer was badly injured when he was shot during a botched robbery in Mexico City. He had hailed one of the city’s many green Volkswagen taxis, which is how nearly every scary story I heard about Mexico City began. When we were in Mexico City, we were very careful about getting into authorized taxis only—taxis that our hotel called for us, for example.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story? What type of research did you do?
SB: I probably spent a full week looking for information on the Web, in magazine archives, and in guidebooks, but info was rather limited. Michoacan may be the most ignored area of Mexico, which is so surprising given its incredible beauty.
JNP: I did about two weeks of research before going—more talking to people than reading up on the subject—and spent another week after the trip following-up and writing.
PS: I was in Puebla for almost a week, mainly eating. Before leaving, I visited several Web sites on the city in general. (Just go to google.com, and type in “Puebla Mexico.”) I also talked to people I know. Marilyn Tausend was one; she does culinary trips to Mexico and she can be reached at [email protected] She is also the author of the cookbook Mexico the Beautiful. I bought the Lonely Planet travel guide to Mexico and found it very helpful.
SH: I went on the basic Sunday through Thursday trip that the package-tour companies offer.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to working on this story? Why?
SB: The Spanish language, because I maul it when I try to speak it and I go daft when I try to hear it. I can order a beer like a native, however.
JNP: Not knowing how the place would check out. If it didn’t work, I would have had to either pan it or hustle up or down the coast to check out my backup choices.
PS: I felt like I had fallen down on the job because I only tried about eight different restaurants for mole poblano. If I had been writing a longer story, I would have visited fifteen. Food stories are hard because you can never finish a meal—you’re always saving room for the next one. Sometimes I’ve been so paranoid about overeating that I’ve ended up hungry at the end of the day—this after two lunches and two dinners.
SH: My challenge was to both experience the grand beach life of the resort—the Mexican beaches in the Mayan Riviera area south of Cancun are absolutely stunning—and to get me and my family out of the resort to experience real Mexico. On one hand, there was such a relaxing feel to the resort that we had a tendency to want to hang out there around the gigantic pools and the beach. But as I explain in more detail in the Texas Monthly story itself, by making the effort to rent a car and explore, even though I know a smidgen of Spanish, I had a far more interesting time, seeing old ruins, finding out the way to restaurants and bars. We jumped on a ferry to spend a day in Cozumel, and we hit a Mexican theme park that featured the area’s naturalistic attractions—all very simple stuff to do.
texasmonthly.com: What was the best thing about working on this story? Why?
SB: The best thing was getting to go somewhere I’ve never been before. After having written Texas travel pieces for several years now, I sometimes feel like I’m just penning the same story over and over again. This was a chance to chew on some fresh material.
JNP: Sitting on the beach and getting up every now and then to jump in the water. Looking at that view.
PS: Well, paradoxically, eating so much was the best and worst part. But I just liked walking around the city and drinking in all the wonderful eighteenth-century architecture and tile-covered buildings (the weather was beautiful when I was there). And the people were lovely to us—they are very proud. Everybody wanted to tell us their favorite mole recipe.
texasmonthly.com: What was the worst thing about working on this story? Why?
SB: Limiting my visit to three days and limiting my article to two thousand words. I needed two weeks and the entire magazine to do the place any justice. Other than that, the huge number of dead dogs along mountain roads was heartbreaking.
JNP: Kris getting stung by a jellyfish, followed by my son Jake. That’s no fun.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual happen to you while you were in Mexico? If so, what?
SB: Where should I start? When we were touring the crafts villages, it seemed like the first three or so we visited were in the throes of some saintly festival or another. In Capula, we walked the streets, which were packed with temporary booths selling food and things like kitchen tools and cheesy doodads. The celebration had obviously begun the night before because the place was ankle deep in party garbage. Chickens were being plucked and a pig lay on a table being butchered. In the courtyard of the cathedral, a raucous salsa band was playing while little piles of garbage burned here and there. The inside of the church, however, was pristine and filled with flowers. I found the contrast between the street and the church overwhelmingly sad for some reason.
JNP: The glowing plankton. I’d never seen that before. It was as magical as the northern lights, which I’ve witnessed once in my life.
PS: I thought my friend Gini was lost at one point because we misunderstood each other about when she was coming back from a side trip to Veracruz. I reported her missing to the local police and the American Embassy. I wasn’t sure she was really missing, but I thought that if she was, I didn’t want to be the one to tell her mother I had dillydallied around for a day before calling the authorities. The embassy was extraordinarily efficient and concerned. They have a procedure all worked out for disseminating the name of a missing person to other embassies so that they can be on the alert (Americans must disappear a lot down there).
PC: We caught a case of tourista—not in Mexico City, but from the food on the plane home! Beware.
texasmonthly.com: Would you go back to your assigned destination on your own for vacation? Why or why not?
SB: Yes, I’d love to go back to the area and explore some of the national parks and natural wonders—hot springs, mountain hikes, the butterfly sanctuary. I loved the fact that the place wasn’t overrun by U.S. tourists.
JNP: We’re talking about Christmas, although now that I’ve blown Yelapa’s cover, a room might be tough to book.
PS: I would certainly go back.
SH: I would try a different resort—not because mine was disappointing (it was not), but because there are so many resorts now on the Mayan Riviera south of Cancun, all of which have different feels. Moreover, the more comfortable you feel with Mexico, the less you need a resort that does everything for you. It’s far more adventurous—and cheaper—to start creating your own vacations.
PC: Definitely, especially as Mexico City recovers more and more from the economic problems it has had in the past decade. It’s a world-class city that is regenerating and transforming.
texasmonthly.com: Have you had much experience traveling in Mexico?
SB: I’ve made quite a few trips to Mexico, beginning in the seventies—visiting the Yucatan, Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca; traveling through the Copper Canyon; and wandering border towns.
PS: I have been to Mexico a dozen times or so.
SH: I’ve been to a couple of these types of resorts over the years.
texasmonthly.com: Was Mexico what you expected? Why or why not?
SB: I am always surprised by the country’s huge litter problem.
SH: I never once felt unsafe. I never once felt uncomfortable. Yes, I was in areas that catered to tourists. I never went off the beaten path. But, you know, there are few of us who do take real exotic trips to unknown Mexico. So for those of you like me, come on down, the water’s fine.