Mexico enjoys a cultural blend which is wholly unique. It has experienced an oil-based economic miracle which has created vast modern cities and one of the fastest growing industrial powers on earth. Yet, in places, it can still feel like a forgotten Spanish colony, while more than five hundred years after the Conquest, the influence of indigenous American culture is all-pervasive. You can see different aspects of Mexico’s diversity within a space as small as a few city blocks: traditional markets, barely changed since the Conquest, thrive in the shadow of massive colonial churches and steel-and-glass skyscrapers, while teenagers skateboard to a soundtrack of rock en español past Maya women laying out their handmade wares on colourful blankets.
Occasionally the mix is an uneasy one, but for the most part it works remarkably well. The people of Mexico reflect this variety, too: there are communities of full-blooded indígenas, and there are a few – very few – Mexicans of pure Spanish descent. The great majority of the population, though, is mestizo, combining in themselves both traditions with, to a greater or lesser extent, a veneer of urban sophistication. Add in a multitude of distinct regional identities and you have a thrilling, constantly surprising place to travel.
Despite the inevitable influence of the US, looming to the north, and close links with the rest of the Spanish-speaking world (an avid audience for Mexican soap operas), the country remains resolutely individual. The music that fills the plazas in the evenings, the buildings that circle around them, even the smells emanating from a row of taco carts: they all leave you without any doubt about where you are. The strength of Mexican identity perhaps hits most clearly if you travel overland across the border with the US, as the ubiquitous Popsicle vendors suddenly appear from nowhere, and the pace of life slows perceptibly.
Many first-time visitors are surprised to find that Mexico is far from being a “developing” nation. If you’re the type of traveller who gauges the level of “adventure” in terms of squalor endured, then you may be disappointed: the country has a robust economy, a remarkably thorough and efficient internal transport system and a vibrant contemporary arts and music scene. Adventure comes instead through happening upon a village fiesta, complete with a muddy bullfight and rowdy dancing, or hopping on a rural bus, packed with farmers all carrying machetes half their height and curious about how you’ve wound up going their way.
This is not to say that Mexico is always an easy place to travel around. The power may go off, the water may not be drinkable. Occasionally it can seem that there’s incessant, inescapable noise and dirt. And although the mañana mentality is largely an outsiders’ myth, Mexico is still a country where timetables are not always to be entirely trusted, where anything that can break down will break down (when it’s most needed) and where any attempt to do things in a hurry is liable to be frustrated. You simply have to accept the local temperament: work may be necessary to live but it’s not life’s central focus, minor annoyances really are minor and there’s always something else to do in the meantime. More deeply disturbing are the extremes of ostentatious wealth and grim poverty, most poignant in the big cities, where unemployment is high and living conditions beyond crowded. But for the most part, you’ll find this is a friendly, fabulously varied and enormously enjoyable place in which to travel.Read More
¿Habla usted Náhuatl?
¿Habla usted Náhuatl?
Spanish may be the language of officialdom in Mexico, but it’s not the official language. Rather it’s just one of 63 languages legally recognized in the country. These other languages range from Náhuatl, spoken by more than 1.6 million people descended from the ancient Aztecs, to Kiliwa, kept alive by about fifty people in Baja California. All told, more than ten million people speak an indigenous language – a number second only to Peru. And this isn’t even taking into account the numerous languages spoken by immigrant groups, many of whom have been in Mexico for a century or more: Old Order Mennonites converse in Plautdietsch (Low German), Lebanese families speak Arabic and the village of Chipilo, settled by Italians in 1882, has preserved an obscure Venetian dialect. You’ll have to visit remote villages to hear Rarámuri, Chuj or Paipai, but in Chiapas and the Yucatán Peninsula, radio and TV programs are broadcast in various Maya strains.
The colour and bustle of Mexico’s markets is hard to beat. Even if you’ve no intention of buying, half an hour is always well spent meandering through narrow aisles surrounded by heaps of perfectly ripe fruit and stacks of nopal cactus leaves (though stay away from the meat sections if you’re at all squeamish). In small villages, like those around Oaxaca, inhabitants still recognize one day of the week as the traditional market day, coming from miles around to sell their wares and stock up for the week ahead. The main square comes to life in the early morning, and returns to its dozy ways only when all the day’s transactions have been completed, usually in mid-afternoon. Larger villages may have two or three official market days, but the rest of the week is often so busy it seems that every day is market day. In the cities, each barrio has its own vibrant market: among the best are Guadalajara’s Libertad, Mexico City’s enormous La Merced and Oaxaca’s mercados Abastos and 20 de Noviembre. You’ll soon find that each village or city’s market has its own special character: while they primarily sell food, most will have a section devoted to local handicrafts, and in cities you’ll often find specialist artesanía markets dedicated to goods such as hammocks, tin ornaments, glassware and clothing.