Is it just me or does it seem like time really passes by quicker each year? Somehow this year flew by and 2018 is rapidly approaching. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind year for me, with getting married and moving from Hawaii to California taking center stage. Due to this, I have not done as much traveling as I usually do. In addition, I have not shared this much but I have been dealing with some medical issues that presented me with unexpected setbacks and challenges. I have never been one to let anything get in the way of living life to its fullest. But 2017 forced me to remember that it’s okay to relax sometimes, and it’s absolutely necessary to listen to my body and practice self-care. (Read more on my end-of-year reflection and goal-setting rituals here.)
Either way, I couldn’t possibly let the year end without traveling to another country. If I had, it would be the first year in a long time where I did not leave the U.S. And for someone with a severe case of wanderlust like myself, this is simply unacceptable.
Luckily for me, I live only a few minutes away from our neighboring country, Mexico, and have the option to hop the border and explore my heart away.
People were always surprised to hear that I had not been to Mexico yet. Most Americans I know have visited tourist places like Cancun or Cabo at least once, and I always knew I would someday too. However, now in the grand scheme of things, I realize it was best that I waited to visit. I am SO glad that my first Mexican experience was not at some beautifully manicured resort in a tourist destination, but rather, seeing the real deal in less popular areas along the U.S. border. I always prefer authentic experiences to really get a true feel for a country and its culture over a resort experience (as I explain in my hotel vs private rental post). And what greater way to get an authentic experience than hopping the border and driving around exploring?
I will admit, it’s a lot more different than hopping our other border to visit Canada, like I have done before. Tensions with Mexico are considerably high at this time due to our current political climate and the potential for a border wall. In addition, border towns like Tijuana are notoriously dangerous and I have always been warned to be careful there. But all in all, I discovered that Mexico is definitely not the scary place it’s made out to be. Unless you’re looking for trouble, it was relatively easy to visit and enjoy without any issues.
My Mexico Experience and Observations:
- I can confirm that Tijuana was a little sketchy just like everyone says it is. When we drove through, we couldn’t help but notice it’s pretty rough like many other inner cities. Wouldn’t really recommend a visit here. However, there are several tourist destinations a little further down the coast that are safer and well worth a visit, such as beach towns like Rosarito and Ensenada. There is also a wine country area called Valle de Guadelupe about 1.5 hours Southeast of the border that is becoming pretty popular and is now called “Mexico’s Napa Valley”. These are just a few examples that SoCal residents rave about and visit frequently.
- For us, Rosarito beach was our main attraction. However, it was a chilly, cloudy day and there was a thick haze that really took away from the views. Normally the beaches can be crowded and offer lots of activities when the weather is nicer, but on this particular day they weren’t too many people out. They’re certainly not the pristine beaches found in tourist destinations further south in Mexico, but they are still nice and relatively clean. Personally I enjoy experiencing all kinds of different beaches because regardless, I appreciate the sand, sea, and coastal views.
- We allowed ourselves to wander and venture out a bit, and were pleasantly surprised when we wound up in the little beach town called Puerto Nuevo. The tourist markets here are jam packed with restaurants and vendors selling yummy treats and really awesome souvenirs. So we shopped a bit and got a few things like a fun poncho hoodie for my husband. Since this area is famous for seafood and not exactly vegetarian friendly, we had some yummy chips and guacamole at a nice place we stumbled upon, which offered some great ocean views while we ate.
- The one word that kept coming to mind throughout our trip was “developing”. It seemed like many things were run down or under construction. It’s almost hard to believe the drastic difference from the highly-developed and populated city of San Diego just a few minutes away. Many of the homes we saw and even the tourist hotels were much older and in need of updating. Despite this, it still did not seem like a super “poor” country compared to other places I’ve been. The infrastructure was good and many people drove nice cars. It was different for sure and still developing in many ways, but not exactly the third world country people make it out to be.
- There isn’t really “culture shock” when in Mexico because most of us Americans are quite familiar with Mexican people and their culture. In fact, it’s so much a part of America and our blended culture, especially in places like California and Texas, that most of us admire it greatly. However, to be completely immersed in it is another thing. It definitely felt like another world, even despite being so close by. But overall, I found it to be very charming and inviting. You would think that Mexican people may judge us Americans by certain insults our leadership has expressed about them. But the only time it came up was in anti-Trump memorabilia at every store. I think that says a lot about our neighbors in Mexico and their character. Had we insulted any other country and its citizens so much, it definitely would not be such a friendly place to visit. Mexicans are much more forgiving. Perhaps because they depend on American tourism. Or perhaps because they know most of us do not share those racist sentiments towards them and appreciate their beautiful culture.
- Everyone we encountered in Mexico, without exception, was incredibly friendly, kind and polite. They would always tell us “que le vaya bien” (I hope things go well for you) but what caught me off guard was they seemed to genuinely mean it each time. They treat you with a lot of respect, which is something I can’t even say for San Diegans from my experiences. Merchants in the markets can be pushy but at the same time, were very grateful when we at least looked at their goods. There is definitely a hustler spirit inherent in them, but in a good and honest way. For example, when looking for a place to park, one guy offered us to stay there for free if we were quick, but then told us there were much cheaper places to park where we could take our time and turned us away. Most people would have tried to scam us out of anything they could get out of us. As I see it, they’re just trying to make money in order to survive and feed their families, but didn’t seem shady whatsoever like I have experienced in other countries and I never once felt unsafe or in danger.
- It was extremely easy to cross the border into Mexico. Almost too easy. We were like, “wait, that’s it? We’re in Mexico just like that?” But coming back to the U.S. was another story. We waited in line in our car to re-cross the border for a whopping four hours. Now normally I am pretty impatient and this would drive me crazy. But it actually wasn’t too bad due to the fact that we were amused the entire time by the overwhelming amount of Mexicans using the border line as a platform to make money by approaching every car they could. Some were entertaining us by singing, playing guitars, even juggling. Some were simply begging. But the majority were selling everything under the sun- from giant Jesus statues, food, blankets, medicine, even puppies (they almost got me with that one). You name it. It made those four hours go by quickly with many laughs and hot fresh churros delivered right to our car. Plus it gave me the chance to hand out my remaining Mexican Pesos to cute little kids so politely asking for cash. At first I was really sad to see people, especially children, in such need. But then I started to realize that most of these people were not extremely poor. In other countries I’ve been to, I have witnessed desperation and overwhelming poverty, and this was not it. When I paid attention, I saw that most of them were well dressed, well fed, and all the little girls had their hair done nicely and little toys to play with. There was no indication of human trafficking or anything of the sort, which I was definitely looking out for because I am sure those things unfortunately do go on here. Instead I came to the conclusion that yes, these people are less fortunate, but ultimately this is just their “hustle” to make a living off of tourism to their country. For some it may be their full-time job and for others it might be a good way to make a few extra bucks. I can’t knock it at all and I definitely don’t look down on them. It’s actually pretty smart to be honest – taking full advantage of the fact that thousands of cars are stuck in line and couldn’t go anywhere. I am sure they make a good amount from those of us departing who want something to eat or drink during our long wait, or souvenirs to take home, maybe even a little puppy.
Traveling is always eye-opening, even when it’s just an hour-long car ride away in this case. I have always been an advocate of immigration and Latin American culture, but this quick trip strongly reinforced that and gave even more respect for Mexico and its incredibly warm and inviting people. There are many threats and worries that we face in this world, but I do not believe our neighbors south of the border are what we Americans should fear. I know that Mexico is known to have its fair share of problems, like corruption and cartels. But no country is perfect, including the U.S. I think one visit to Mexico would surely cause any reasonable person to question all the fear-mongering and scapegoating, and to recognize something that travel never fails to remind us – we’re all more similar than different.
With this awesome experience, my great thirst to explore another country has been temporarily satisfied. For now. Visiting my 21st country has only made me excited to plan other trips for 2018 and also to return again to Mexico someday soon.
Thinking About Border Hopping to Mexico?
I personally think it’s always a great idea and highly recommend. Here are some tips based on my experience:
- Be sure to bring a valid U.S. passport.
- If you’re driving, you absolutely need to get Mexican insurance for your vehicle ahead of time for each day you’re there. I got mine for pretty cheap by calling my insurance company and getting a referral to a company that provides it with a quick phone call. Print the policy and take it with you.
- You will need cash in Mexico because most places do not accept credit cards. It’s probably not a good idea to use cards anyway to avoid international fees or any scams. You don’t necessary need to exchange U.S. dollars to their currency of Pesos, as everyone will gladly accept either one and typically will tell you the price of everything in both currencies. Or, as we did, you can go to an ATM and take out Pesos to make life easier.
- Most people in Mexico seem to speak a few words of broken English so the language barrier isn’t too much of a challenge. Luckily I speak Spanish so communicating was easy and people definitely appreciated me knowing their language. I definitely recommend knowing a few basics in Spanish, which most Americans should know anyway.
- Although it’s right down the road, their water system is different than ours and it is not recommended to drink their water. Be careful with ice cubes and street food, and only drink bottled water. But most things in these areas are catered to American standards so there really isn’t much to worry about.
- Have an open mind. I think you will find that it’s a delightful pace just like I did, rather than something to fear like the negative stereotypes and warnings we always hear. There are many places in the U.S. that were far more scary and dangerous to me. As with anywhere else you travel to, be cautious, alert and diligent. But most of all, enjoy.