As I have been talking so much about Mexico, I thought I would take the opportunity discuss the difference between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico. When most Americans think of Mexico, what they picture is Tourist Mexico. Tourist Mexico comprises the many locations such as Cancun, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallerta and others which were developed specifically to entice cold weather visitors from North America and Europe. My family has visited Tourist Mexico many times, as have many Americans. But Tourist Mexico is not Real Mexico. Tourist Mexico is to Real Mexico as Disney World is to the United States. Disney World is a fun place to visit, but if a foreign visitor thought it was America, they would be shocked when they got to Detroit, or Austin, or Peoria.
The place where Judy and I live is not Tourist Mexico. If you lived in those locations (say, Playa del Carmen) your life might be more like tourist Mexico then real Mexico. Let’s see what the differences are:
Mexican cuisine is quite varied, with each region having specialties. Mexican cuisine and French cuisine are the only two cuisines recognized by UNESCO as unique cultural heritages for the entire world. However, when you are in Tourist Mexico, you will most likely find a version of Tex-Mex, the food that passes generically for Mexican food north of the border. It is more Texas than Tejas: heavy on spicy sauces, lots of beef, thick cheese. Burritos on the menu are a dead giveaway. The emphasis is on quantity. Real Mexican cuisine tends more toward beans, queso fresco, fresh vegetables, and homemade tortillas. If there is meat, its often chicken or pork, or whole fish. The emphasis is on quality and freshness. Tourist Mexico may serve up fresh ingredients, too, and if you look beyond the tourist menu, you can find authentic dishes.
Tourist Mexico has some of the best beach weather on the planet. Its real, its tropical, and its magnificent. Warm sun, soft sand: exactly what so many tourists come to experience. Yet Real Mexico has an incredibly varied climate. The Sierra Madre ranges runs the length of the country, providing wonderful vistas and active volcanos! There are extensive deserts, tropical rain forests, a Mediterranean coastal climate, and high temperate plateaus (like the one I live on). If you want the big city, Guadalajara checks in at over 4 million, and Mexico City at a whopping 21 million (biggest in the western hemisphere).
Here is where you will see the least change between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico. What every visitor notices is just how friendly the Mexican people are. Now you would think the Mexican people working in tourist resorts are paid to be friendly, but the amazing thing is they would be that friendly anyway! Real Mexico is a lot like small town America 50 years ago: people greet each other on the street, and if someone needs help, someone else will offer it. Nearly all expats living in Real Mexico have a story of how some Mexican went way out of their way to be helpful.
Depending on where you’re from, you might find Tourist Mexico to be much less expensive than home; even if you come from a less expensive place in the States, you’ll probably notice some deals just because of the dollar-peso exchange rate. Here’s the good news: Real Mexico is way less expensive than Tourist Mexico. In those areas where Tourists frequent, you will be able to use credit cards or dollars for your purchases, but you’ll get a poor exchange rate (consider it a convenience fee). In Real Mexico, many stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards, and cash business is in Pesos only. But the prices are often ridiculously low, especially for the labor involved in any product.
One last, big, area of difference. Tourist Mexico has evolved to handle Gringo culture. Things are done faster, portions are larger, deals are Gigante! Real Mexico is very different: things are slower, and manana culture (“tomorrow, if ever”) prevails. Portions are normal, and while bartering is a possibility, you don’t take advantage of the seller, because they too are making a living.
In Real Mexico:
And in Tourist Mexico:
I am not criticizing Tourist Mexico, just suggesting that if you only know Tourist Mexico, you should give Real Mexico a try. And yes, those are my pale feet on the beach in Tourist Mexico: