The MEXICO Report
By Susie Albin-Najera
Just released (July 5, 2010) “The Rough Guide to Mexico, 2010 Edition”
I have to admit, it’s been a while since I’ve picked up or flipped through a guidebook on Mexico. After all, I did my fair share of traveling to Mexico in the pre-kids era of my life. Then, before most of my trips, I would skim through a guidebook and flag the particular city I was heading to and highlight what the town and surrounding areas had to offer. But these days, it seems most of my research usually starts on Google, late at night, and finishes when my eyes can’t seem to think of a good reason to stay open any longer.
However, recently I was looking for some general guidebooks on Mexico for an upcoming trip and came across The Rough Guide to Mexico, 2010 edition. Sometimes just a simple feature catches my attention, but this cover definitely had me at hello… A panned in shot of 15 or so, bright, silver, owl-shaped buttons, crisscrossed and cascading down the colorful blue pant leg of a Mariachi, leading to a shiny black boot.
Authored by Zora O’Neill, John Fisher, Daniel Jacobs and Stephen Keeling, the robust 2010 Edition of The Rough Guide to Mexico is certainly worth the investment and comes packed with upgrades from previous editions. What’s different about this version is that it starts with Mexico City (instead of the northern states), as the majority of visitors arrive there first, rather than driving over the border from the U.S. But if you’re driving from the U.S., you’ll still find all the necessary information for crossing the border.
As a comprehensive guidebook, The Rough Guide to Mexico includes informative sections on what not to miss, where to go, when to go, the basics, a guide, contexts, language (Mexican Spanish), but it also includes special, colorful sections on ‘A Taste of Mexico’, ‘Festive Mexico’ and ‘Ancient Mexico’.
You will find detailed and practical advice on the best places to stay (including address, phone and website) according to budget, where to sample some of Mexico’s finest eats according to region including northern, central and Yucatán areas and helpful practicalities for each area. I was intrigued by many interesting tidbits and historical facts in each section. The guide also provides essential travel information including passport info, customs, insurance, living and working in Mexico, traveling with seniors or children, detailed maps and city guides, calendar of holidays, fiestas and so much more. Descriptions of music origins and noteworthy recommendations on books about Mexico can also be found, something I haven’t seen before. As with any travel, remember to let common sense and your natural instincts guide you but also remember that these authors are experts in their field. They’ve been there and done that!
And I’ve always been curious about the people who wrote guidebooks. Who were they? Well, now I know.
I had the delight of speaking with New York-based/New Mexico native, author Zora O’Neill, who covered the Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatán Peninsula sections of this book. With an impressive 11 titles already under her belt (including multiple editions) for The Rough Guide, Moon Guides and Lonely Planet, specializing in Mexico (Yucatán), Amsterdam, Egypt, New Mexico, Andalucia, O’Neill also specializes in cuisine and puts the party back in dinner party with her book Forking Fantastic! You can also view her updated blog for the Rough Guide to the Yucatán: www.roughguideyucatan.com.
How did you come across the opportunity for guidebook writing?
I answered an ad–a friend forwarded it to me, saying she thought I’d be interested, because she knew I was trying to get into travel writing. But up until then, I was trying to work with magazines, which wasn’t going so well.I did my first, very small job for Moon Handbooks, writing part of a small-format guide to New York City in 2001. From there, I was able to get more work from Moon, and to approach other publishers. It snowballed, and now it’s basically my full-time job, though I do occasional magazine writing as well.
What is new or different about this version?
This time around, we reorganized the book–it used to be oriented to people driving over the border from the U.S., and so the first chapters were the northern states. Now we start with Mexico City, acknowledging that the majority of visitors arrive there first. But of course, if you’re driving from the U.S., you’ll still find all the necessary information for crossing the border.
The first time I spent any serious time in Mexico, beyond the border cities, was in 2003. I was in the Yucatán, and I was just amazed at the culture and how different it was from the stereotype of Mexico we usually get in the U.S. I’d simply had no idea what an incredibly rich and diverse country Mexico really is, and it had been just over the border from me the whole time. It made me feel a little silly for spending the years before that flying all over the planet.
So broadly, it’s this regional difference and richness I love. There’s always something new to see, even after more than a dozen trips–and I’ve only been as far west as Chiapas! But specifically, I’m really into food when I travel, and Mexico’s culinary tradition is amazing–it’s as rich and varied as anything in Europe. I’m always learning about some new ingredient or technique.
What are three of your favorite places in Mexico?
1. Chiapas: I just visited the Chiapas highlands for the first time last year, and now I see why people talk about this place with such reverence — the traditions here are intense, and the scenery is beautiful. Just in San Cristobal de las Casas, the market is a whole other world.
2: Merida: I love, love, love Merida–such a beautiful city, and I love that there’s a street party every week, to encourage people to hang out downtown. And it’s romantic, and not just for young kids–I always have this vision that when my husband and I are old, we’re going to be sitting on the little benches, looking dreamily at each other, just like all the other older couples.
3. Cancun: I’m also going to say Cancun, because it never gets the love it deserves. Most travelers skip right over it, but there are amazing restaurants here, a very cool subculture and great snacks from all over Mexico. And the beaches are gorgeous. I always tell people that they have to think of Cancun not as a beach destination, but as a city that happens to have great beaches–everyone is disappointed by how built up it is…but of course it is, because it’s a city. And it has all the cool things a good city has.
For those who haven’t been to Mexico, what locations would you recommend?
I’m biased, but I tend to think the Yucatán is a great entry point to Mexico. It’s very mellow, you can cover a lot of ground, and there’s a good mix of nature, culture and city life.
Within that, I’d really recommend Campeche for a first-time visitor — it’s such a surprisingly little gem of a city, beautifully maintained and full of interesting history. And great seafood, and exceptionally gracious people.
For Maya ruins and nature, I recommend Coba–sure, Chichen Itza is amazing, but you don’t get much of a sense of the environment around it. Coba is spread out a little in the forest, so you have a real sense of discovery as you walk around. (Or you can rent a bike to explore–I love that!)
And you can’t skip the Caribbean beaches–Playa del Carmen is a good place to start, if you prefer a lively scene, or you can head to Puerto Morelos if you want a mellow small-town feel that’s still easy to reach. Or head way down the coast to Mahahual—but that’s probably better for your second visit, as it’s a long haul!
Author Zora O’Neill plans on covering even more ground in Mexico this winter with her husband while on vacation (not on assignment) and she is looking forward to using the Rough Guide. (And so am I!)**All photos used with permission from Zora O’Neill.