All booked up: Guidebooks enhance the Mexican travel experience
"Mexico is an endless journey," the Tourism Secretariat boasts. Most visitors will need a roadmap. Fortunately, a plethora of guidebooks are available purporting to show you the way. New editions of classic Mexico guides as well as new guides on nature and food-based travel promise to steer you in the right direction.
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Along with Moon Publications' Mexico Handbook and Footprint Guides' Mexico and Central America Handbook, Lonely Planet's Mexico is one of the premier comprehensive guidebooks to Mexico. Encyclopedic in scope, the guide details much-visited and little-known places alike. The new sixth edition (1998, Lonely Planet, US$19.95) has been fully updated and expanded by a roving staff of writers and editors. "Lonely Planet writers go to every place mentioned in the guide, inspect establishments in person, and gather all their info first hand," says co-author Tom Brosnahan. Such diligent research has repeatedly proven its value to this reviewer, for one. Changes in the new version have been designed to improve upon the guide's already-superior orientation for the traveler. Over 150 maps--there are seven maps of Mexico City alone-have been cross referenced for easy use. Users of the guide can consult a full-color map of Mexico, with flags pointing out special destinations and their corresponding page numbers. Each regional introduction in turn shows a more detailed map with page references and lists highlights within the region. Within each section there are town maps and mini-regional maps, such as the myriad beaches along the Bay of Manzanillo. City maps are similarly user-friendly, pointing out locations of hotels and sights described in the text-the map of Oaxaca, for example, shows 121 points of interest, hotels and restaurants, but somehow remains uncluttered.
Though once considered the budget traveler's bible, mandatory equipment for every backpacker, Lonely Planet's Mexico now covers the full range of accommodations from the Hotel Capri in Tampico at US$6 a night up to higher-end hotels like the Hotel Presidente Inter-Continental in Mexico City at US$325 a night. Whereas previous editions quoted prices in pesos, rendering most prices in the last edition useless almost immediately after its 1994 publication, the new edition quotes prices in dollars. Perhaps catering to a growing U.S. audience, the Australian-based publisher has also changed British English and spelling to U.S. standards.
Integrated with the travel details, illustrated sidebars covering topics as diverse as hammocks, Oaxacan cuisine and the Tarahumara Indians make compelling reading. Among the new entries are descriptions of sea turtles, tequila, Mexico City's air and the lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo including a list of the places where their works can be seen. The guide has also beefed up its "ecotourism" coverage, with more information on visiting environmentally protected areas.
Lonely Planet has also added a Mexico City guide (1998, Lonely Planet, US$14.95) to its roster of Mexican regional guides which includes Baja California and La Ruta Maya. Written by John Noble, it borrows liberally from the all-Mexico guide he co-authored (the excursions chapter duplicates sections from the all-Mexico edition) but will be useful to those limiting their travels to the capital and surrounding areas. Taking into account Mexico City's role as the nation's commercial hub, the guide includes an extensive section on doing business in the capital, including an explanation of the ways of Mexican business culture, lists of useful organizations in Mexico City and visa requirements for business travelers.
Taking a completely different approach, The People's Guide to Mexico (1998, John Muir Publications, US$22.95) lists no hotels, restaurants or sights. From its humble beginnings in 1972 as an alternative travel book for a Berkeley audience to the just-published 25th anniversary edition, more than 250,000 copies later, the guide has attempted to orient Mexico visitors by pointing out the actual situations they may confront and to lessen the unfamiliarity of it all so they may appreciate what Mexico has to offer. As stated in the introduction, "One of the main purposes of this book is to show the traveler how to accept, as calmly as possible, the sights and experiences of a strange place."
Written in highly opinionated, often humorous prose, based on the hard-traveling experience of author Carl Franz and his editors and traveling companions Lorena Havens and Steve Rogers, The People's Guide makes no pretense of objectivity. "Sleeping in second class (trains) is difficult to impossible," Franz writes in the "Getting Around" chapter. "The lights are left on all night and there's usually an assortment of wailing children, loud drunks or bragging soldiers to contend with." The guide is packed with such anecdotal material, from short incidents to full-blown novel chapters, that brings the experience of traveling in Mexico to life as no other format manages to. Through the often exasperated tales emerges a sense of the unlimited adventure that travel in Mexico affords.
While the style remains unchanged, the new edition contains more information than ever. Having reduced the font size, squeezed the margins and added 32 more pages, the authors have managed to cram in a lot more material than the last edition contained. Since The People's Guide contains little "perishable" info, such as recommended hotels, restaurants and sights, updating is a different task than for the Lonely Planet guide or other comprehensive guidebooks. A new chapter on retiring and living in Mexico has been added in response to the demands of an aging audience. "Lots of baby boomers are nearing retirement and many of them are looking toward Mexico as an alternative," says editor Havens. In addition to a discussion of the viability of the option, Franz suggests a procedure for settling in Mexico, and profiles actual retirees who've made the move.
Though the guide has until now scrupulously avoided directing readers to specific destinations, instead encouraging them "to explore Mexico for themselves," Franz has responded to countless requests for trip-planning material by adding a new chapter entitled the "Best of Mexico," in which he suggests itineraries to readers based on well-proven journeys, without "trying to hold their hand." There are still no hotel or restaurant listings, but a breakdown of the country by regions -- such as the Yucatan Peninsula, the Colonial Heartland, and Pacific Beaches, each of which covers up to a thousand miles of travel -- should provide visitors with a good sense of the available options.
Another important new chapter, "For More Information," is a veritable treasure chest of recommended books and periodicals, Internet chat groups, and Web-based information, including the location of the chupacabra site. And as before, there is a fascinating grab bag of observations on Mexican customs, bullfighting, booze, road conditions, and food, including the author's own recipes.
While most Mexico guides devote a section to eating, authors Joan and David Peterson see food as an integral part of the journey, the very basis of travel, and their new guide Eat Smart in Mexico (1998, Ginkgo Press, $12.95) reflects that sensibility. One of a series that includes Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, Eat Smart gives a historical survey of Mexican cuisine followed by an overview of each Mexican region, describing its most representative foods, from the North to the Yucatán. We learn, for example, that Michoacan residents eat churipo, a stew made with potatoes and corn and flavored with the sour cactus fruit xoconostle.
A recipe section presents essentials like birria, mole poblano and chiles rellenos, as well as more exotic offerings like cheese-stuffed squash blossoms and mezcal sea bass with black bean sauce. The recipes have been provided by a number of restaurant owners, cookbook authors and culinary experts.
The most useful section of Eat Smart is its extensive glossary, which is broken down into a menu guide and an ingredients guide. The definitions, written with the gusto of those who are passionate about what they eat, should help readers decipher menus just about anywhere in Mexico. It includes obscure items like codillo en chilmole -- "pig's knuckles in a black spice paste made of burned chiles, roasted onion and garlic, and juice from the bitter Seville orange" -- and ayocotes en coloradito -- "large broad beans in a rich, red, complex sauce of ancho and guajillo chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, raisins and chocolate." Browsing this glossary is certain to whet your appetite to seek out these dishes in the places where they're prepared.
Classified as a "megadiversity" country, Mexico features almost every variety of ecological habitat on Earth, making it an excellent destination for nature-based travel. But the nation's eco-tourism infrastructure is limited; individual travelers interested in exploring nature destinations find themselves in serious need of information. Ron Mader's Mexico: Adventures in Nature (1998, John Muir Publications, US$18.95) thus fills a necessary niche in the guidebook market. Think of it as a travel guide to Mexico with a decidedly ecological slant. Mader tells you how to raft the rivers of Veracruz, cycle the Jalisco coast, or go whale watching in Baja.
There are enough excursions and activities to keep nature-oriented travelers busy for quite a few vacations, as well as extensive listings of tour companies and outfitters providing guides and equipment. The book describes lesser-known places like the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in the state of Querétaro and the Cuatro Cienegas Protected Area in Northeast Mexico, as well as classic destinations like the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Copper Canyon. While Mexico City and Cancún may not appear to fall within the scope of an ecotourism guide, the focus is on the environmental highlights of such places: Xochimilco and Chapultepec Park make fine excursions within the capital, and Cancún is recommended as a base for exploring the magnificent Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
Beyond the practical information for travelers, the book raises reader awareness of the environmental issues Mexico encounters as it develops its ecotourism sector. Mader lists his own tenets for "responsible tourism" in Mexico, and warns travelers to be wary of those promoting ecotourism, which may actually harm areas it's supposed to protect, as with the proposed creation of 2,000 hotel rooms in the water-deficient Copper Canyon area or the Xcaret "eco-resort" in Quintana Roo, whose sacred underground river was dynamited to improve lighting. Ecotourism, Mader says, should assist local environmental conservation efforts, include active participation of local communities and be able to pay for itself. The role of local communities is key: With the promotion of ecotourism over environmentally damaging activities, the local inhabitants must be included in the equation. "Ecotourism demands the participation of local communities, which have the most to gain if they conserve their natural resources," Mader writes. Among the destinations that embrace these criteria are the Tourist Yu'u program in Oaxaca's Central Valley and the Lacandón Forest in Chiapas.
Adventures in Nature also keeps readers abreast of the most important environmental dilemmas facing Mexico--such as the proposed expansion of the saltworks project in Baja's San Ignacio Lagoon and its destructive implications for migrating whales and turtles--and details steps being taken to protect environmentally fragile zones and species in danger of extinction. Travelers interested in contributing to conservation efforts can contact the environmental groups listed in the appendix.
The guide falls short in its rather sketchy coverage of accommodations--better pack the Lonely Planet guide for visiting the country's urban centers--and maps often fail to illustrate many of the places discussed. Likewise, getting off the beaten track would be easier if there were maps corresponding to specific regional itineraries.
While Mader acknowledges that travel is meant to be fun, he underlines the seriousness of the choices travelers make as they get around Mexico. His valid mission is to make readers aware of the impact--positive or negative--they can have in a country whose environmental situation is increasingly perilous. As Mader puts it, "As you pass through the wilderness, take only pictures and leave only footprints - but don't leave footprints on the coral."
Lonely Planet's Mexico and Mexico City are sold at Tower Records: (5) 525-4829, Niza A-19, Zona Rosa, Mexico City; or via Lonely Planet's Web page: http://www.lonelyplanet.com.au/prop/order.htm. Eat Smart Mexico can be ordered by writing: Ginkgo Press, Inc., P.O. Box. 5346, Madison, WI 53705, USA, or via Internet: www.ginkgopress.com. The People's Guide to Mexico can be found at Tacolote book store in San Miguel de Allende. Mexico: Adventures in Nature available from Mader's website, Eco Travels in Latin America ( http://www.planeta.com )".
Danny Schecter is the Executive Editor of Business Mexico