Mexico by the book
From Taxco to Cacaxtla, Oaxaca to Xalapa, Huamantla to the Tuxtlas -- for those who love travel, Mexico offers a virtually endless succession of places to visit, and with sun-splashed beaches, spectacular ruins and colonial splendor, there's something for everyone. No wonder it's one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. The number of international tourists visiting Mexico climbed from 12.3 million in 1986 to over 21 million last year, making Mexico the seventh most popular destination in the world (France was No.1), according to Tourism Secretariat (Secretaría de Turismo, Sectur) statistics.
Tourism revenues grew from US$2.1 billion to US$5.3 billion over the same period. Moreover, tourists are not just lying on the beach. Visits to archaeological sites by foreign travelers more than doubled, rising from 1.4 million to 2.9 million between1993 and 1996. Such travelers want to know something about the country they're visiting, as well as how to manage outside of the context of a package tour.
They are the people who've fueled a surge in Mexico travel book publishing. "The number of guidebooks -- and guidebook publishers --has expanded greatly during the past few decades," says Tom Brosnahan, co-author of Lonely Planet's "Mexico: a Travel Survival Kit." Currently, as many as 120 Mexico guides in English are published each year, including new editions, according to Peter Manston of Travel Books Worldwide, a monthly newsletter devoted to reviewing travel guidebooks. Manston estimates there were less than half as many on the market 10 years ago. A glance at the shelves in, say, Barnes & Noble, presents a daunting set of choices.
There are comprehensive guides for independent travelers, guides to specific regions, cultural and historical guides, and for those with specific interests there are titles like "Sea Kayaking in Baja" and "Cuisines of Hidden Mexico: a Culinary Journey to Guerrero and Michoacán."
There are guidebooks for hikers, sport fishermen and retirees looking to relocate south of the border. Not only are more publishers putting Mexico guides on the shelves, but individual publishers are splitting up their offerings by region. While the "Mexico & Central American Handbook," published by Footprint Handbooks, covers the Rio Grande to the Panama Canal, other series are becoming increasingly specialized.
Lonely Planet, which currently puts out some 150 guidebooks worldwide, publishes guides to Baja California and LaRuta Maya, a region that encompasses the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala and Belize. Moon Travel Handbooks now has guides to the Yucatán, Northern Mexico, Baja, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, the Pacific coast and Puerto Vallarta, in addition to its telephone-book-sized all-Mexico handbook. In addition, Moon has just released "Colonial Mexico," which focuses on a type of location, namely, colonial cities, rather than a region.Providing more complete information on specific areas, these guidebooks are aimed at travelers wanting to make the most of their stay.
"Americans spend a lot of money on vacations, and they don't get a very long vacation, so when they take one, by gosh, they want to know what there is to do!" says Marita Adair, who recently left Frommer's after writing 23 editions of its Mexico guides in the last eight years. "And they want to know all their options, whether or not they finally decide to sit on the beach and do nothing.
"Much of the information included in comprehensive guidebooks is superfluous to those tourists who've flooded into the Yucatán Peninsula and certain other key locations over the last few years. Travel guide reviewer Manston believes over half the tourists from the U.S. are visiting only four Pacific and Caribbean destinations, and books like "Access Guide to Mexico" (Harper Perennial) include "Mexico City and those four towns," he says. "The rest of Mexico doesn't seem to exist."
With the enormous influx of visitors into previously uncharted territory, publishers are compelled to redefine the profile of their audience. "When we started going down to that path on Mexico it was really the adventurer that went down there, it wasn't just anybody," says Chicki Mallan, author of the "Cancun Handbook" and other Moon guides to Mexico. But now Moon is aiming for a more well-heeled group. "We still put in budget information,"says Mallan, "but we're really going in for the medium to upscale traveler."
Lonely Planet, long considered standard gear for backpackers, has embraced those with more to spend as well. "Lonely Planet guides are suitable for all curious, independent travelers, no matter whether they like to spend US$2 dollars per night for a bed or US$200," says Brosnahan. One size fits some British-based Footprint Handbooks, too, which claims to cover the needs of all travelers. "We try to provide information for business travelers as well as the cheapest backpacker," says Ben Box, co-editor of the "Mexico & Central American Handbook. "We do know the books are used by people who work in the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
"Some guides make no claims to completeness, knowing that their readers will have little need for it. "Fodor's Gold Guide," for example, "doesn't try to be a comprehensive guide, "according to Chris Humphrey, a Mexico City-based researcher for Fodor's."It's for people with a bit more money that aren't independent travelers." But the Handbook aims to cover all the bases. "The main thing that guides us is to give people a choice," says Box.
Thus the hardcover guidebook attempts "to provide objective details on all the places you can visit and allow the traveler to make up his or her mind what about he wants to see." The MCAH was split off in 1990 from "The South American Handbook" -- which, with 75 years in print, is the longest running travel guide in English -- when the older book's growing bulk made it too unwieldy. The guide has since become one of Footprint's biggest sellers.
A virtual encyclopedia, it lists 45 hotels and 25 restaurants for Guadalajara in the space of two pages, though its descriptions of these places are necessarily terse --"clean, friendly, courteous," runs a typical entry -- and may require a magnifying glass. At 1,250 pages, the 1998 edition of the Handbook is 115 pages bigger than last year's (though it's actually slimmed down, having switched to thinner paper). But according to Marita Adair, a paper crisis prompted a reduction in the size of many guidebooks just as Mexico was pumping up its tourism facilities in places like Los Cabos,where the number of hotel rooms climbed 38 percent between 1990 and 1996.
The daunting challenge for writers like Adair was to report on the expanded options within a diminishing format. "When you have to start cutting pages in a country that's really growing, you have to start making decisions about what will you cover and how long will you spend doing it, and what will you not cover, what will you do by telephone, what will you do by fax," she says. Moon, too, is streamlining its Mexico Handbook from almost 1,500 pages to a less cumbersome 1,000. "Even so," says Adair, "they will out distance everybody else, because they are committed to covering the country." Moon's Mallan claims her series is the most comprehensive, and indeed the Moon Handbook's sections on the states of Chihuahua and Quintana Roo, among others, are incredibly thorough, loaded with good maps, in-depth cultural background ,and page after page of hotel descriptions.
But Manston finds certain sections of the Moon guides to be more thorough than others. "In the part where the Moon authors liked what they were doing and liked the area, the coverage was far better," he says. "And in other places where they didn't spend as much time and didn't care for it very much, their coverage was inferior."No matter how objective a travel guide claims to be, its view is filtered through the preferences of the authors. "However much a publisher may want you to think it's given from God,' all guidebooks are very personal results," says Manston. Assuming that its readership is sufficiently attuned to its world view, the "Rough Guide to Mexico" makes no attempt to disguise its biases.
So author John Fisher doesn't hesitate to call Ixtapa "one of the most soulless towns imaginable -- to say nothing of being one of the most expensive," and devotes a mere paragraph to the computer-planned resort. While the Rough Guide doesn't aim to be comprehensive, it does contain plenty of well-researched factual information on Mexico, and it's fun to read. Ultimately, consumers may need to consult several sources for complete coverage. "Readers are going to have to buy more than one guidebook in order to get most of what they're looking for," says Adair.
The Quest For Accuracy
A guidebook is sometimes likened to an authoritative friend you come to depend on to lead you through the unknown. Any traveler who's had the experience of arriving in an unknown city past midnight to find a vacant lot where a "clean, comfortable" hotel is supposed to be knows the importance of having up-to-date, reliable information. Faced with an ever-changing tourism landscape, guidebook publishers must remain constantly vigilant to maintain accuracy. The MCAH updates yearly via its correspondents throughout Mexico, but like its counterparts relies heavily on the contributions of its readers, from whom it receives about 1,000 letters a year. Fodor's Gold Guide employs people like Mexico City resident Jennifer Bartlett to keep its entries up-to-date.
Bartlett meticulously checks prices, locations and descriptions of hotels and restaurants listed in the Mexico City section of the guide. She points out, however, that the Gold Guide's offerings tend to be less transitory than those of the budget guides. "With the four-star hotels and restaurants that Fodor's has, they're all going to be good, but you really have to inspect the cheap places because they vary so much," she says. Footprint correspondent John Gibbs suggests it may be counter productive to update thoroughly due to the impermanence of the tourism sector.
Recently returned from a brief vacation in Acapulco, where he trod the beaches to check on hurricane damage, he said, "It's very difficult to know to what degree to update Acapulco. On the one hand, it's easy because you've got about 18 different things which don't change, like the convention center, the fort and so on. You've got about 5,000 things which keep changing, like restaurants, hotels and so on. You try to update the information on those features which are permanent."Rather than rely on correspondents, Lonely Planet sends its authors -- and editors -- back on the road to check developments. "Lonely Planet writers go to every place mentioned," says Brosnahan, adding with horror, "Believe it or not, many guidebooks get most of their info by phone or second-hand sources!"
Nevertheless, the peso prices quoted in Lonely Planet's fifth edition of the Mexico guide -- almost every other guidebook quotes in dollars -- were rendered obsolete by the peso devaluation. "Our book was at the printer's when it happened," Brosnahan laments.
The Mexican government hasn't provided much help, despite the nation's high-profile drive to upgrade the tourism sector. "Sectur doesn't really have the information and their PR firm was terrible," says Ron Mader, author of "Mexico: Adventures in Nature," a guide to environmentally aware travel to be released by John Muir Publications in1998.
Adair concurs: "Mexico still has not reached its full potential in knowing or understanding what tourism help is all about. Most of them fall short of the mark, but many exceed it. You don't know what you can depend on, so you're better off being your own resource."The road less traveled". The first thing a guidebook should do is to help you plan," Adair affirms, and indeed most comprehensive guidebooks to Mexico devote the lion's share of space to details on where to go, how to get there, what to see and where to stay.
But some travelers would rather not be led by the hand; they want to make their own discoveries. They will find "The People's Guide to Mexico," soon to be in its 11th "Silver Anniversary" edition with at least 250,000 copies sold, an invaluable source book. The People's Guide stands apart from others on the market in its unique approach to travel. Organized not by region but by topic area, it includes chapters on "Restaurants and Typical Foods," "Driving in Mexico," "Machismo," "Buying Things" and "Booze and Cantinas."
Comments like, "I find historical monuments only slightly more interesting than bridges and tunnels," are refreshing when every other book is filling your head with historical details. "Rather than give addresses and descriptions of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, the book tries to teach people how to find these things for themselves," says author Carl Franz.
Franz's philosophy, embodied in the guide's subtitle, "Wherever You Go ...There You Are", is rooted in '60s counterculture. The book grew out of his correspondence with friends. "I became very frustrated back in the '60s when I tried to describe how wonderful the people of Mexico are to my friends and family," he says."I realized that Americans judge everyone in terms of haves' and have-nots.' Mexicans were seen as poor, undeveloped and disadvantaged. This was so contrary to my personal experience that I felt compelled to describe Mexico as I had seen it. The guidebook' material was added later, as a way to justify the personal experience and anecdotal portions of the book."
Nevertheless, The People's Guide is packed with practical information, including lists of market days throughout the Republic, categories of police that travelers are likely to encounter and a complete guide to drinking pulque. Engaging anecdotes are interspersed with the practical suggestions, making this a very readable volume.
From white water rafting to cenote-diving, one of the hottest trends in travel is nature-based tourism, and many guidebooks respond by including extensive descriptions of flamingo tours, canyon cruises and sea-turtle habitats.
At the same time, the guides reflect a growing awareness of tourism's impact on the environment. The Rough Guide, for example, has a section on coral reef behavior, with rules like, "Don't use suntan lotion in reef areas, as the oils remain on the surface of the water." The MCAH lists organizations that promote "green" tourism.
Ron Mader says protecting the environment is every traveler's responsibility. "There are real decisions that caring and educated travelers can make either to improve or degrade the delicate environments through which they pass," he writes in the introduction to "Mexico: Adventures in Nature." The forthcoming book provides full coverage of oft-slighted northern destinations like the biosphere reserve in El Cielo, Tamaulipas, a cloud forest of the sort more commonly associated with Central America, and Sonora's Pinacate, a mountain range of volcanic cones situated in the desert region adjacent to the Sea of Cortez.Throughout the guide, Mader recommends tours and accommodations that actively support environmental protection, particularly at sites where ecotourism is linked to the well-being of the neighboring communities.
Still, some guidebook contributors remain ambivalent about the role they play. One researcher who prefers to remain anonymous says he'd rather leave out the choicest destinations, fearing that a recommendation in a guidebook is like the kiss of death. Witnessing the pernicious effect tourism has had on some local communities, he sees such deletions as the most effective way to stem the tide. "What can you do?" he asks. "You've got to try in your introduction to say something about how you should be dealing with these people. But people don't really read those sections, and I don't think they pay attention if they do read them. Now (foreign travel) is so available to everyone in the world, it's like going to a Mets game."
Guide to the Guides
Travel Books Worldwide, edited by Peter Manston, is a periodical that reviews some 5,000 travel publications from around the world each year. "We essentially do for travel books what Consumer Reports does for cars and toothbrushes," says Manston. The following reviews are excerpted from the April and May '97 issues especially focused on Mexico.
Mexico: a Travel Survival Kit (5th edition)
By John Noble et al; Lonely Planet. 970 pages,US$19.95.
The most complete and thorough single-volume coverage of the entire country. Features clear explanations and superior maps. Useful for wide variety of budgets: hotels and restaurants from clean but simple to expensive and elegant. Lots for cultural interests: fine arts, galleries, festivals, handicrafts, manufactured consumer goods. One serious problem: all prices are in pesos, and published just before the peso crisis. Adequate index.
By Joe Cummings and Chicki Mallan; Moon Publications. 1,457pages, US$21.95.
A massive but uneven guidebook. Baja California, Northern Mexico and Yucatán are beautifully covered because they are essentially separate guidebooks that have been fully incorporated into a monster guide; other parts of the country, such as central Mexico, are incomplete and sparsely covered -- León, Mexico's fifth largest city, isn't even mentioned. Dozens of maps (most to scale) but some omit important points. Good index.
Fodor's '97 Mexico
Edited by Edie Jarolim; Fodor's Travel. 554 pages,US$18.50 (new edition for 1998).
Selective, designed for discriminating and well-heeled travelers. Very competent in well-traveled areas: historic cities, beach resorts, border towns. Clear descriptions of areas covered. Virtually useless in the back country or in strictly industrial cities. The author has a particular ability to find interesting and unique restaurants. Careful hotel selection but few discoveries. The top range is well-covered; cheaper establishments aren't. Adequate coverage of shopping, excellent maps.
Frommer's '97 Mexico
Edited by Marita Adair; Frommer's/MacMillan. 694 pages,US$19.95 (new edition for 1998).
Clearly organized, covers the basics thoroughly, best for mid-range travelers. Mainly covers resorts and the central highlands. Unique ability to find small, inexpensive and thoroughly charming hotels; less successful in discovering wonderful restaurants, or shops and galleries. Maps vary in quality and utility; useful appendixes include discussion of telephone and postal systems and menu translator. Admirable, complete index.
Mexico & Central American Handbook (7th edition)
By Sarah Cameron and Ben Box; Footprint Handbooks. 1,135 pages, US$21.95 (new edition for 1998).
Terse yet a real wealth of practical information. Covers all budget ranges. Most large and small cities and towns are included, as well as many off the main tourist path. Each section gives a paragraph or two of the setting, the main attractions and then describes local places of interest. Complete lists of local services and information sources, accommodations, restaurants, markets, transport centers and more. Closely packed, grayish type and narrow margins. Maps are mostly crude and not to scale. Index is barely adequate.
Blue Guide: Mexico
By John Collis and David M. Jones; A&C Black/W.W.Norton. 948 pages, US$25.
The best, most detailed book covering historic and prehistoric monuments and edifices. Careful research and writing, real wealth of detail and meticulously rendered diagrams, plans and maps to inform and enlighten the cultural traveler.Over 100 itineraries cover almost every part of Mexico accessible by road.
Equally careful and thorough with coverage of natural wonders, pre-Conquest, colonial and modern historical sites. The site plans and maps are wonders of detail: geographic contour lines, every building, excavated or unexcavated mound, and watercourses. City maps are all to scale and show every point of interest discussed in text. Strictly culture and history: no hotels, restaurants, shopping locales or transport alternatives in this single-minded work. Extensive and exhaustive index.
Travel Books Worldwide: The Travel Book Review is available by subscription by writing: P.O. Box 162266, Sacramento, California 95816-2266, U.S.A. 10 issues per year: US$36 delivered in U.S., US $48 delivered in Mexico.