Category Archives: Lessons from the Road
(This is my third year winning third place in this contest.)
Ecuador is a fascinating country that lives up to the travel cliche “a land of contrasts” — nice people, colonial cities, and dramatic changes in landscape from high in the mountains to down to the coast. The story is about my attempt to climb a volcano next to the small town of Banos.
Transitions Abroad is an excellent resource for all kinds of information about traveling and living abroad. They also host several contests a year. The next one is the Expatriate Writing Contest — fellow travel writers, check it out!
Traveling to Mexico soon? Good idea. You won’t need to bring much, and the most important things don’t go in your bag: an open-mind, a friendly nature, curiosity about culture, adventurous tastes, and common sense.
But what about that bag, what do you put in it? And which bag do you choose anyway?
I have a special loathing for roller bags. Yes, they are very useful after a trip back home, when it gets stuffed with books or Christmas presents. But on an adventurous trip with several destinations, the wheels get neglected as you end up carrying it like any other bulky, heavy bag.
Backpacks are essential, but there are few sadder sights than the traveler in dirty clothes carrying a $500 backpack and haggling over a bag of fruit in the market. The bigger the backpack, full of expensive electronics and who-knows-what else, the worse the picture becomes.
Good quality, functional backpacks can be cheap. At the time of writing, this one was on sale for $30 USD (click the picture):
Smaller is better. It’s no fun hunching under a heavy bag that towers over your head. Fortunately, in Mexico all you need should fit in a medium-sized backpack (like the one above, maybe a little bigger).
Be sure to bring:
- One sweater or hoodie (chilly nights and overly air-conditioned buses)
- Flip flops — for the beach or the hostel shower (but you can get cheap ones in Mexico)
- Jeans or long pants — to blend in when not on the beach (Mexicans are more formal)
- One nice outfit, for that night out
- Sunscreen (it’s expensive in Mexico)
- Sunglasses (the cheap ones in Mexico don’t have UV protection, bad news)
- Tiger Balm — this stuff cures mosquito bites, trust me. I take it everywhere I go. But don’t buy the “extra strength” red one — it stains.
- Swim suit — even if you aren’t going to the beach, your hotel may have a pool
- Flip flops — for the beach or the hostel shower. Though you can get cheap ones in Mexico, the best are rugged and comfortable Havaianas from Brasil:
- Several ATM cards — they give your best exchange rate, and you need backups
- A money belt or pouch to hide the essentials while you are between hotels on public transportation:
- A small backpacking towel for cheap hotels (Once in Mexico, you can buy a thin blanket for the beach):
- A tiny, cheap, collapsable day pack:
- A packable raincoat if you go in rainy season, which occurs at different times in all over Mexico:
- If you are addicted to coffee and want to save time and money by making it yourself, get a hotel with a kitchen (to boil water), buy a bag of locally-produced coffee in a market, and use one of these pour-through coffee makers:
- Fun things: frisbee (hard to find here), guitar (lots of musicians around), sketchbook, camera, etc. — but consider leaving the smartphone and laptop at home. Keep in touch by email at computer rooms (everywhere), and give a rest to all the rest.
Please see my article How To Pack Light for Independent Travel for more packing tips.
You can survive without a guidebook in Mexico, but they are undeniably useful. If you need one, Lonely Planet is the standard — it covers the whole country and has plenty of maps.
If you are going to Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, then buy my guidebook! I promise you’ll save much more by following my suggestions for hotels, transportation, restaurants, and attractions (click the picture).
I also have a guidebook for nearby Chiapas:
Spanish language books
You don’t need a phrasebook — you can find all the basics online. Plus, phrasebooks don’t really teach you anything. If you want a book that covers all the basics (restaurants, doctor’s office, etc.) but actually explains the language, I recommend this book (click the picture):
If you are serious about learning Spanish, Madrigal’s Magic Key is absolutely the best book for understanding its complicated grammar. You can do a page or two in the morning and then practice on the street that day. It’s only $9 USD and paperback size. (Tip: don’t write in the book — go back and do the exercises again.)
Novels / beach reading
Mexican literature is vast and wonderful. For more suggestions, including books about politics and history, please click here.
Magic is real in Magic Realism, a literary genre strong in Latin America (Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, many more). Like Water for Chocolate is a recent Mexican contribution, also made into a decent movie. As usual, the book is better — and it has recipes!
Written by an gringo who spent 12 years living, traveling and researching in Mexico, Aztec is as epic as epic gets: 1,000 pages of blood, sex, and adventure as good or better than Shogun or Game of Thrones.
An insane tour through time and space in Mexico City and beyond, Where the Air is Clear is complicated, challenging and poetic. If you like Thomas Pynchon or Virginia Woolfe, you’ll love Carlos Fuentes.