The past few years haven't been kind to Mexico's image. The unceasing hum of violence and corruption—of beach and border town shootouts, of high profile kidnappings and murders and bribes—would have been enough to squelch (or spur) those ubiquitous “Mexico” magazine ads. Then swine flu came along.
So I wasn't too surprised when, on a recent month-and-a-half long visit to central Mexico, I saw but a handful of fanny pack-laden red and pink-skinned visitors. The trip, which was a guidebook writing assignment, took my wife and I to all the major tourist spots within a few hours drive of the capital: Puebla, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Tepotzlán, Teotihuacan and many others.
Everywhere, it was the same: not a foreign traveler in sight.
In Puebla, we were harangued repeatedly by Mexican English-language
students who asked—then, later, insisted—that we submit to strange
on-camera interviews (“Do you like Puebla fashion? What is your
favorite kind of shoe? Do you like socks?”). We complained that we'd
already been subjected to multiple interviews and that we really,
honestly, had other places to be. But these students, who hung around
the city's central plaza searching for marks, were desperate: They
told us there were no other foreigners around—that it was either us
or an “F.” In Taxco—one of the most important, most picturesque silver
towns in Central Mexico—the one tourist we encountered was a silver
buyer from the Bay Area down for his annual visit; an ex-pat couple we
met there told us of how Spanish-language schools in the area—which
are some of the popular in the country, and depend on American
students—had seen enrollment plummet. And in Tepotzlán, the
mountain-ringed mythic birthplace of the Aztec serpent god,
Quetzalcoatl, we saw the usual assortment of odoriferous dreadlocked
foreigners—the transplants who, we'd been told, settled in a commune
outside town to better absorb the serpent vibes. But again, not a
traveler in sight.
Which brings me to the point of this essay: None of the above applies
in Puerto Escondido, Land of the Surfer Brah'.
Puerto, of course, is on Mexico's southern Pacific Coast, is world
famous for its torrential wave and thus attracts not the middle
manager-types who attempt scaling the Pyramid of the Sun, but the
young, tan and beautiful, surfboards in tow, swimsuits sagging,
bronzed buttcracks revealed for all the Oaxacan Coast to see.
We arrived for a quick vacation before returning to cold, rainy
Northern California. The transition was nearly as jarring as our
return to the US: Tourists (Aussies, Americans, Italians) were
everywhere—in banks, bars, bodegas and restaurants, on streetcorners
yelling at taxis, waddling along the sidewalk, slouched under the
weight of their enormous backpacks.
This wasn't the Lonely Planet crowd I'd been expecting. The English
speaking tourists asked for their watered-down, two-for-one Margaritas
in English. They paid—or tried to pay—in dollars. They swaggered
around town half naked, swilling beer. Many of the younger gringas—and
there were many—roamed the beach in packs, seemingly poised for a kind
of Girls Gone Wild infamy. The only thing missing were a few strands
of green and purple beads.
The subtext, of course, was that distinctly American storyline about
Mexico—the one usually confined to party-your-ass-off bordertowns and
Spring Break frat parties at mega beach resorts, the one about Mexico
being a slightly dangerous, but all-in-all friendly, version of the
Wild West. A good friend sums it up in a story about a roadtrip he and
a friend took to Puerto Penasco, just across the stateline from
Arizona. As soon as they'd driven across the border, his friend, who
was behind the wheel, popped open a six-pack and started guzzling.
“Fuck it!” he roared. “We're in Mexico!”
But Puerto Escondido isn't Tijuana—it's closer to Guatemala than to
the US border. There are a handful of expensive flights there from the
US and from big Mexican cities, but otherwise, you're taking the 12 to
18 hour overnight bus from Mexico City or the six hour van ride—a van
ride not unlike a go-kart race—from Oaxaca City. Nor does Puerto
appear poised for a mega resort, Cancun-style reinvention. The further
away from town you walk, the more the empty beachside restaurants and
hotels resemble the unmaintained sprawl of an overextended boomtown.
Yet these tourists still come to Puerto—en masse. Which could mean a
couple of things. Either A, they're completely blithe, or B, they've
disregarded the far meaner, far more popular—and grossly
exaggerated—storyline that's come to replace the benign Wild West
narrative. This is the one about Mexico being an actual Wild West, a
warzone of Afghan proportions, a cesspool of narcotraffickers and
kidnappers out to murder, maim and extort every foreigner in sight, a
country where eating or breathing could send you to the grave.
For ignoring this garbage, I applaud the bronzed broskies. Because
yes, there's a war in Mexico, and yes, there are horrible things that
happen every day in Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Baja and Guerrero.
But Puerto is not Juárez. Neither is Cuernavaca. Or Taxco. Or
Puebla—or all the Central Mexican cities devoid of foreign tourists.
And if you're really that worried about the flu, just do what every
restaurant worker in Puebla does: Cross your fingers and prey that
little surgical mask will keep the cooties out.