I spent three months traveling through Mexico on public transport. Here’s a summary of my thoughts, insights and experiences from the overland journey.
Before I arrived in Mexico, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had been on my trip around the world for almost a year and a half, but I had never been to any Latin American countries. I had spent the preceeding months in English speaking destinations, and traveling had become relatively easy.
Several people were warning me about the dangers of Mexico. I shouldn’t walk outside during the night, and many towns were definitely off-limits. They told me Mexico wasn’t like the other destinations I had visited, so I had to be more careful than ever before.
I admit that I got a bit nervous. The fact that I only spoke very limited Spanish didn’t help, either.
My route through Mexico. Click/highlight the dots to view my comments from each place where I stayed.
Mexico – A Land of Strong and Unique Culture
Related reading: A Short Guide to Overland Travel Through Mexico
I was initially a bit worried about traveling through Mexico, but my fears slowly faded as I spent time in the country. I still followed basic safety protocols and chose one of the safest routes through Mexico, but I never felt threatened in any way.
Instead of constant dangers, I found a very beautiful country with rich history and friendly people. Mexico is a huge place, and it definitely has a strong and unique culture. And it’s not just one unified culture, but a cluster of several subcultures and traditions.
For example, I could spend this whole blog post describing all the local foods and beverages I had during my overland journey through Mexico. When people ask me what we eat in Finland, I tell our food culture is an international mix. In Mexico, you eat Mexican food every day.
And it’s not just the food that’s unique to Mexico. There are tons of other things that are just completely and totally Mexicans:
The mariachi bands that wait for customers in the parks. The touristy Frida Kahlo t-shirts. The colorful buildings, the colorful paper cuts and the colorful sugar skulls. Volkswagen Beetles, ancient ruins, large extended families that gather every week.
Yes, there’s tons of unique things to see and experience while traveling through Mexico.
Great Destination, Underdeveloped Marketing
As I slowly traveled across Mexico on public transport, I was constantly surprised by the things I found. Chichen Itza is famous all over the world, but Mexico has hundreds of other impressive ruins spread around the country. And besides Mayas and Aztecs, there have been several other ancient Mexican civilizations that are not mentioned in foreign school books.
Many wonders of Mexico are relatively unknown abroad. For example, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest pyramid in the world by volume – yet very few foreigners know about it. Okay, it’s covered by a hill now, but I still thought it was pretty darn impressive.
As I found more and more amazing sights, I often wondered why they weren’t more famous. Mexico’s dangerous reputation and lack of foreign coverage might be one explanation. At the same time, I believe in another theory: Mexico simply has way too many stunning sights to choose from.
I spent over three months traveling through Mexico on public transport, and I liked to keep my bus rides relatively short. Therefore I stayed in many towns that most other travellers skip. Even Mexicans wondered why I visited these places.
For example, I stayed a few days in the city of Aguascalientes. Many Mexicans called it a small, okay town with little to see. After all, the metropolitan area had “only” a million residents and it definitely didn’t have as many famous sights as many other Mexican cities.
Still, I thought Aguascalientes was very, very impressive. If someone would lift Aguascalientes from the ground and place it in Eastern Europe, it could easily compete against cities like Sofia, Tallinn and Riga.
Colliding with Language and Cultural Barriers
I enjoyed my overland travel experience across Mexico, yet it wasn’t just sunshine and rainbows. Although Mexico has a beautiful culture, I didn’t always feel like I fit in. When you spend over three months traveling through a country, you’re bound to bump into cultural barriers.
I had just spent a lot of time in countries like Australia and the United States. I could easily blend in the crowd in these places. Now I was once again seen as tourist, so taxis would rip me off and I occasionally felt like a walking wallet. This didn’t happen everywhere, though. I mostly got a very warm welcome.
I also had some problems with the unplanned nature of Mexican life. Plans – if they exist – can change or get cancelled at any moment. I was completely fine with most changes, but it made arranging stays with local hosts a bit difficult at times.
Mexico was the first country where I’ve had Couchsurfing hosts cancel their hosting offers. It might have been a smaller issue, but the hosts wouldn’t tell about it. This happened several times. I would contact the host several times until they finally responded a few days later, saying they had been too busy or just forgotten about my arrival.
Still, almost all my Couchsurfing experiences in Mexico were extremely positive. I met lots of absolutely wonderful people who became my friends. I also got to experience some unforgettable things I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
I’m also not blaming the Mexican culture for my challenges. Instead, I think my Finnish personality and background wasn’t always a perfect match for Mexico.
I am a quiet person from a quiet country, and many Mexicans find silence very uncomfortable. If I was quiet or focused on listening, some people would assume the worst, half-joking that I must be thinking something bad about them. It’s not a pleasant feeling when you make people uncomfortable just by being yourself.
I also managed to break a few social taboos. Mexico is a country where conforming to the group and norms can be very important. As I’m used to more direct communication, I sometimes stated my opinions too clearly when I should have kept my mouth shut.
The language barrier made things even harder. Because I only speak Spanish at a basic level, I didn’t always remember to use all the polite forms and expressions. I often sounded more blunt than I intended.
My Overland Travel Experience of Mexico
Although I had some initial worries, my overland trip through Mexico was a very positive experience. I took my time, so I was able to journey slowly and take longer breaks when I felt like it. For example, For example, I volunteered in Mexico City for a month. In total, I spent more time in Mexico than any other country of my 2-year trip around the world.
I don’t know why I decided to spend so much time in Mexico. I guess I just felt like slowing down. I like slow overland travel, and now I had enough time for it. Mexico allows EU citiens to stay in the country for six months without a visa, and I had not promised to be anywhere else in the near future.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad I stayed in Mexico for as long as I did.
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Acknowledgements: Before writing this blog post, I made a 10€ crowdfunding campaign to buy the interactive map template that I used earlier in this post. During my GoFundMe campaign, I promised to draw bad MS Paint portraits of all my donors.
Thanks to two people, my campaign was a success!
My two donors used the nicknames “Tinja Ninja” and “Stimppa Ukko” in GoFundMe. Based on the names, I drew a ninja and Stimppaukko, the logo/mascot of my university’s psychology student organization. Yes, the original thing looks just as weird as my drawing below.
Thank you Tinja Ninja and Stimppa Ukko, you are awesome! 🙂 I also used the same map template for my post “Is Mexico Safe to Travel – An Interactive Travel Warning Map“.