We are going to MEXICO! or Righting a Past Travel Wrong

Mexico, Travel Cartoons

“You know son, since 9-11 they don’t let you carry weapons on airplanes anymore.” My dad said this to me in January of 2003, the night before I was to depart to Guatemala. Hitherto this moment, he hadn’t asked about my trip.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“As soon as you get off the plane, you are going to need a gun or knife for protection. It is rough country down there.”

This led to a small argument and some awkward moments at the bon voyage dinner we were having at a Chinese restaurant. Back home, I spread out my giant map of Mexico on the kitchen table. I had booked two weeks of Spanish language instruction in Antigua, Guatemala, and aside from that, didn’t have a real plan; however, I had fantasies of travelling overland from Guatemala back to Oklahoma by bus through Mexico. I had a one-way ticket to Guatemala, I was unemployed, I had a year’s worth of savings in my bank account, I was single and about to be at large in the world. It was a feeling of unimaginable freedom, something I’ve never had since, and will never have again.

“Do you even know where Antigua is?” my dad asked. “Tom Gilliland from work says that Antigua is an island! And Joe from work is from Mexico. He said they don’t even speak Spanish in Guatemala!”

[Cartoon Interlude]

Weapons on airplanes cartoon

Guatemala Airport Security Cartoon

Antigua is an island

Antigua is an island

As I showed my dad the map, my mother was in the front room. “Come look at this,” my dad implored her. “I don’t want to,” she argued.

“Just come look at it to see where he is going!”

“I don’t want to.”

“Just look!”


It was as if not seeing my map and plans made it not real. That way, she wouldn’t have to face the fact that her son was going to the lawless land south of the border.

“I guess if you disappear, I’ll get Joe and come down there looking for you,” my Dad said gravely, after he realized I wasn’t going to be talked out of leaving.

Traveling Across Mexico By Bus

Cinco de Mayo Oaxaca

Cinco de Mayo, Oaxaca. I spent the entire day looking for 2-for-1 tequila shots, Tex-Mex cuisine and endless bowls of chips and salsa, but alas, the Mexicans have no idea how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

On that trip, I lived spontaneously with very little planning. Basically, I did whatever I wanted and it was unexplainably awesome. I ended up studying Spanish for 10 weeks in Guatemala, went to Cuba on a whim and traveled around Honduras. In the end, I still wanted to travel home by bus. Armed with passable Spanish and no gun, I traveled to Tapachula on the Guatemala/Mexico border, one of the great hellholes of the world.

From there, I traveled 2200 miles by bus across Mexico. Here are the highlights.

  • Tapachula – Only got robbed 5 USD and a few pesos at the border
  • Oaxaca – Arrived on Cinco de Mayo, but disappointed not to find any 2 for 1 margarita specials and parties with drunken Americans.
  • Mexico City – Walked out of the bus station, walked right back in and bought a ticket to Guanajuato.
  • Guanajuato – Arguably the most beautiful city in Mexico. Had one great day before suffering an acute gastrointestinal illness that sent me running to the bathroom hourly.
  • Creel – After 20 hours of buses from Guanajuato, arrived to the gateway to the Copper Canyon but was too sick and exhausted to do anything.
  • Juarez – Only got robbed 20 USD at the border
  • El Paso to Weatherford, Oklahoma – The worst leg of the journey. They lost my bag, we were delayed 8 hours in Amarillo, and I shared a seat with a man who was liberally decorated in tats most likely acquired in prison.
Mexico 2003 Trip

My 2003 Trip.

As you can see, I didn’t exactly have a great time in Mexico. After four life-changing months in Central America and Cuba, I was lonely for the first time, sick, tired and ready to be home. However, I feel a certain amount of pretentiousness when it comes to Mexico. I know tons of Americans who have been to Cabo or Cancun, Mazatlan or Puerta Vallarta. While they were enjoying cheap drinks on world-class beaches, I was having a true adventure traveling across the real Mexico. It doesn’t matter that they actually enjoyed their trip and I was lonely and miserable. I merely tell them that I’ve traveled the entire country by bus and this makes me a bad ass.

Doing Mexico Right This Time

Guanajuato in film photos

Guanajuato – a lovely place to get amoebic dysentery.

Last week, I booked tickets to Mexico. On October 7, we have a one-way ticket to Chihuahua, which is a mere three hours of flight time from Oklahoma City. On December 17, we fly home from Cancun, another short travel day. I got both tickets using airline miles, paying a total of $161 in taxes/fees. After flying to Johannesburg, Delhi, Istanbul and Jakarta on our last four trips, this one will be shorter and much cheaper, even if Cancun evokes less exotic mystery than the other locations.

We are flying to Chihuahua in order to explore the Copper Canyon and take the famous train that passes atop the world’s deepest canyon. From the end of the railway line, it is a six-hour ferry ride to La Paz and the stunning islands and beaches of the Baja Peninsula. After a week of hiking and exploring the canyons, some rest will be in order.

From there, we will scale pyramids and explore colonial cities, swim in cenotes and hike in jungles, get mugged in dark alleys and see the infamous Day of the Dead celebrations. Mexico is an amazingly diverse country and it is a shame that so many people only know it for drug trafficking, beach resorts and two-for-one margaritas on Cinco de Mayo.

Hopefully, if my camera doesn’t get stolen, or I don’t get stolen, I will have a collection of photos from some of the less touristy places that will show my millions dozens of readers a different side to this amazing country. Stay tuned.

Tentative Travel Plan, or Plan of the Day

Tentative Travel Plan, or Plan of the Day


Does anyone have Mexico travel tips for me?

Know of any off-the-beaten-path destinations? 



Posted by

Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

33 thoughts on “We are going to MEXICO! or Righting a Past Travel Wrong”

    • Alison, thanks for sharing. Those are some great photos on that post and I’ll definitely check out the market and hike you went on.

  1. It is too bad the 2003 trip didn’t turn out as expected, but I agree, it does make you bad ass! I’ve tried to get my husband to travel to Mexico several times and he refuses. Like you, I want to go to the “real” Mexico. I don’t want to spend my time trapped in the confines of a resort. Have a great trip! Can’t wait to read about your adventures.

  2. Jeff we have had five trips to Mexico. Two in the Mayan Riviera, two in Manzanillo and one in the northern Baja. Not sure I have any great tips as these were all short trips. I look forward to exploring areas we have not been via your adventure!

  3. We have been to Mexico once, but totally as “tourist” in a resort. Looking forward to reading about your adventure off the beaten path! Be safe & hope you are able to source the 2 for 1 margaritas specials this time!

  4. Excited to read about your next Mexico adventures!
    Being a Mexican, this made me laugh: “the Mexicans have no idea how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.”
    and this made me smile: “Mexico is an amazingly diverse country and it is a shame that so many people only know it for drug trafficking, beach resorts and two-for-one margaritas on Cinco de Mayo.”
    I hope you have a great trip. Day of the dead should give you amazing photo-ops! Everything else you said you’re doing too, really.

  5. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    You are both going to die. It’s dangerous down there. Just kidding of course. I’m mulling over returning to Mexico this November. I enjoyed Baja last year so much it’s tempting me again. I’m jealous of your 2 month trips. I don’t know what that is anymore.

  6. that traveling nurse says:

    So it is Mehico! I guessed it alright! 🙂 I’ve been there twice but it wasn’t really off the beaten path hard core traveler stuff for me. Though the second time we went, it was Independence Day and I had a good education on the different kinds of tequilas. Cant wait to hear your stories. Be safe!

  7. So glad to hear you are going back for a better go of it this time. One of the places I didn’t get to on our last trip down was to Holbox, which I so badly wanted to get to. That will be for the next adventure. Have fun, y buen viage.

  8. Kat says:

    Can’t wait to read your stories on Mexico circa 2015! 🙂

  9. What a coincidence! I too am traveling to Chihuahua and Copper Canyon in October. We should totally meet up down there. Maybe we could talk some Alaskan ladies into joining us… Or not. I’m sure we can make safe, healthy decisions on our own. Hasta Luego, Borracho Muchacho!

  10. Pingback: Do You Gain Weight or Lose Weight When You Travel? | Planet Bell

  11. I am looking forward to seeing a different side of Mexico, other than the selection of drinks by the pool:)

    When I went to Guatemala my parents were also worried. My mother had heard from someone at work who knew someone (who knew someone…probably…) who had a daughter that had been in Mexico. One time she went to the washroom there was no toilet paper and she had to use one of her socks and throw it out the window afterwards….hehe:) I thought that was a funny story. Beginners mistake not to carry your own toilet paper with you! Guess that has to be my travel tips to you: Bring your own toilet paper.

  12. Jeff, this looks like a marvelous trip! Just like you, we really loved Guanajuato – what a cool place. I can’t wait to read about your Copper Canyon adventures – it ‘s high on our list. And we too are heading to the Yucatan peninsula in January so I’m really looking forward to your discoveries. We’re on our way to Serbia right now – should be an education given the current Refugee Crisis. ~Terri

    • I was hearing about the crisis on NPR yesterday. I have worked with a lot of students from Serbia who come to Alaska to work for the summer and they are interesting people. Should be a great trip and I’ll be interested to read about it as well. Enjoy!

  13. Hi been living in mexico city for almost 2 years, as in any other big city try to avoid some parts of the city at late hours, and will be skeptical on visiting, Michoacan, and the North of the country, besides that, its amazing country full of things to do. Avoid Cancun, is a horrible tourist trap, if going to Yucatan try going to Playa del Carmen is beautiful and surrounding areas, they have small posadas really nice… Puebla, Queretar, SanMiguel de allende, are all places worth visiting. Mexico city is nice but only for a few days, if interested i have a lot of photography done in Mexico City in my blog, ailukewitsch.wordpress.com.

    Dont be flashy, and if carrying a camera dont hang it from the neck, its quite sure you will be safe 🙂

    • Al, thanks for the tips. I have seen your photos of Mexico City and really liked them. We are going to the Copper Canyon area and I plan to avoid Michoacan for the most part, but I’m intrigued by the butterfly migration. We plan to hit Puebla and the Guanajuato/San Miguel area too.

      Thanks for the tips on photography. I have a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. I plan to use the mirrorless in the streets and urban areas, but I’ll be careful. Any special areas of Mexico City we should look for?

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