Seriously, What’s the Problem?

I read a terrific CNN blog entry Wednesday about America’s (and the world’s, but mostly America’s) misconceptions about Mexico, their muyyy complicated neighbor to the south. The link is below:

I wanted to digest the article for a day or two before offering my own opinion. I encourage you to read it yourself. It is insightful and generally accurate, although I partially disagree with one of author Ravi Agrawal’s major points. He comments that the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China should make way for four other, less-respected, faster-rising countries: Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and South Korea. A well-intended observation, but he’s being too generous with some of the aforementioned countries – and not generous enough with others.

Take South Korea. This peninsular nation is a long-established global player, with Seoul perhaps being East Asia’s most dynamic city. The fact that South Korea is even mentioned alongside these other seven countries is only because we worry more than we should about what North Korea is going to do. I don’t know if the North’s Kim Jong-un truly is the sexiest man alive (as jokingly proclaimed by The Onion and later taken seriously by China), but surely he knows the futility in attempting any type of military action more aggressive than the occasional Naval training exercise.

Or Turkey. This East-meets-West nation seems a good comparison to Mexico at first, except it doesn’t know what it wants to be – a secular EU member nation or a majority-Islamic crossroads. Indonesia, well…I really don’t know anything about Indonesia, except that it’s the world’s fourth-most-populous country and that it gets ravaged by typhoons quite frequently.

And Mexico itself? Yes, whether called by its full name (for now), the “United Mexican States,” or, simply, “Mexico,” this colorful country is the dictionary definition of emerging market. Home of a growing economy, shrinking birth rates, emigration to the U.S. at NET ZERO, an increasingly-more-educated populace, a pre-existing tourism infrastructure, and the world’s richest man (a statistic that leaves some Mexicans fiercely proud and others remembering the corners cut or the backs stabbed to get him there), Mexico deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Brazil, India, and China. Sorry, Russia, back to the minors.

I am no rocket scientist (I always wanted to write a song with those lyrics), but I am good at deciphering market research, and if you were to assemble a focus group of international travelers and ask them what they thought of inland Mexico and its cities, I guarantee the answers would be identical across the board. Loooooved Mexico City. Guanajuato is simply gorgeous. Oh, how I miss Oaxaca. Taxco! Taxco! Taxco! Border towns are nasty, though. And what about the beaches? Well, they’re nice, but I prefer the cities. And the people? Hard workers. Soooo nice. Kind hearts. Talented artisans. As such, I’m agreeing with Ravi Agrawal of CNN in this regard and am asking a similar question: Aside from Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and Cancún, why doesn’t Mexico have more international travelers? In particular, where are all the Americans? Good God man, what am I saying?!

Mexico is perceived as being unsafe, and that perception is keeping people away. Casualties resulting from the all-out war on the drug cartels of northern Mexico as waged by well-meaning but misguided out-going President Felipe Calderón are splashed across the front pages of major U.S. dailies in bold lettering. As many as 60,000 cops, criminals, and innocent bystanders have lost their lives in this bloody campaign. This campaign will probably be the “legacy” by which Calderón is remembered; sad news considering that the Mexico of 2012 is, in most other ways, a better place than the Mexico of 2006, when he first took office.

Mexico remains, by and large, a safe and hassle-free place to visit. Southern Mexico, Baja California (Tijuana notwithstanding), and the Yucatán Peninsula are, generally, safer than northern Mexico, but this isn’t exactly new information. The “epidemic” of taxi crime, abductions, and pick-pocketing in the capital – for so many years an ugly stain on any tourism brochure – has been scaled down dramatically. Mexico City’s metro – once a hot spot for pick-pocketing and muggings – is now stationed with cameras everywhere and never less than two cops in any station at any time. Many Mexican border towns are shitholes, sure, but so they were in 1960 and so they will be in 2060.

These border cities – Tijuana, Nogales, and Ciudad Juárez among them – are real, breathing cities like any other in Mexico, but their proximity to Gringolandia – not to mention their place in the record books as being among the world’s busiest border crossings – unfortunately attracts a fair share of touts, con artists, coyotes, smugglers, perverts, and general lowlifes (from both sides of the border, dare I say). Frankly, though, border crossings almost anywhere in Latin America – not just the ones abutting the United States – are sleazy places. I once crossed the border from Guatemala into Honduras. Doing so required a police escort, and upon seeing a cavalcade of money changers descend upon our bus like a fallen Catholic priest to a Cub Scout Jamboree, I stashed my money belt in the same place as where Christopher Walken hid Bruce Willis’s gold watch in “Pulp Fiction.”

International tourists are visiting Mexico, don’t get me wrong. But most of them change planes at MEX (Benito Juárez International Airport, Mexico City) en route to the coast, where things are predictably safe and sound. Those with more vacation time might spend two days in the capital, visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacán on Day 1 and taking a city tour on Day 2. I know someone from LA who takes a Mexican Riviera cruise every year.  Such cruises depart from and return to Long Beach (California), with every night spent on the board. Shore excursions usually include Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, and maybe Mazatlán or Puerto Vallarta. These cities are nice – and they’re definitely safe – but they’re also little more than shopping stops when you only get a few hours in each place. Ensenada-proper doesn’t even have any beaches! At least Cancún has beaches and Mayan ruins….

I have met dozens of backpackers making their way south towards Panama, most of them having worked two jobs for six months or more to save every cent of travel money they have. Their most valuable belongings – laptop, camera, journal – are in the rucksack on their back. Few of them speak even a single word of Spanish. Almost none of them are American. But here they are all the same, jetlagged and walking around Mexico City, Lonely Planet in hand, spending cash carefully hidden in a pocket sewn into the inside of their pants, and the first of what will soon be several handmade bracelets around their wrists. It sounds like I’m teasing but I’m actually nostalgic, even proud.

Most of these wide-eyed backpackers began their trip in either Guadalajara or Mexico City, and few of them had any intentions of visiting Cabo, PV, or Cancún. To backpackers, those places are expensive and boring; a beach town worth visiting is some quiet backwater in El Salvador or Oaxaca state. Similarly, I once slept in a cabaña on the beach in Mexico for just $5 USD/night, but it was eight hours by bus from the nearest mega-resort. These backpackers are here because Mexico is cheap (and undervalued, I sometimes think; the CNN article alluded to this reality as well). These backpackers are here for full immersion in a foreign culture; while few of them spoke any Spanish I’d bet they had a solid grasp of the language by the time they reached Panama, or Tierra del Fuego, or wherever they aimed to reach.

It seems hard for anyone – even those who don’t have the travel bug – to argue against the merits of a backpacking trip to Europe. After all, most of us have ancestors – parents, even – from Europe, and it’s the home of so many famous places. Who doesn’t want to see the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben, or the Coliseum? Who doesn’t want to drink liter beer in Germany, taste wine in France, or sample gelato in Italy? These are all experiences worth having, and they all take place in countries that are safe, stable, and where no one ever gets sick (not since the last plague, anyway). But <sarcasm alert> why the hell would someone WANT to visit inland Mexico, with its drug war and America-envying poor? Or Guatemala, which seems plagued by earthquakes and floods every time you turn on the news? Or Nicaragua, home of Sandinista rebels and gangs of knife-wielding thugs? Or Colombia, whose own president wears a bulletproof vest with double reinforced Kevlar over the heart?

I love Europe, where most stand-alone countries have more history than all the North American countries combined. I love Europe, where trains run on time and where everyone gets a seat. I love Europe, where the aforementioned Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Coliseum – cool as they are – barely scratch the surface of what continental tourism has to offer. But I also love Mexico, and Central America as well. Like the imaginary focus group I conjured up 30 or 40 paragraphs ago, I prefer the vibrant colonial cities to the predictability of beachfront mega-resorts. So where is everyone else?

Seriously, what’s the problem? Ignore the newspapers and don’t worry about the drug war. Mexico is a vibrant country with a future that, I really think, is just as vibrant. It is time the rest of the world took notice. ¡Viva Mexico!

I really need to start making these entries shorter.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he close to family and the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

9 thoughts on “Seriously, What’s the Problem?”

    1. Glad to hear that about Nicaragua, Jose. It’s definitely on my list of places to see…and now just a three-hour flight! Stay safe amigo – I hope the Venezuelan government gets its metaphorical shit together.

    2. Safety can be an issue anywhere and it largely comes down to luck. I think that so many people think that it’s unsafe to travel mainly due to two reasons:

      1. In any place, tourists might be more likely targets for petty thieves, pickpockets or certain types of crime than a local; they tend to stand out, they frequent crowded areas, they don’t know local customs and dress, and they walk around with backpacks and valuables.

      2. US State Department (or other country equivalent) warnings tend to make people believe that the whole world is SO VERY UNSAFE and if you go anywhere YOU WILL DIE! Seriously, reading that shit is bad for your health.

      Media coverage is certainly a factor, too. If you watch nothing but CNN, you’d think that places like Israel are total dangerous war zones and you’d avoid them altogether, when nothing could be further from the truth and they tend to be lovely places to travel. But hey, when it comes to the news, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

  1. I love Mexico–Guadalajara and Mexico City especially. Europeans still want to visit Mexico and South America. It’s only Americans who love to get caught up in the drama. Let them stay home. More adventure for the rest of us!

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