Exploring Mexico

Travel Destinations — By on November 21, 2008 at 5:55 pm

Mexico seems to have caught the attention of the New York Times. In the past week, the newspaper has published two in-depth feature stories about the country. Luckily, this enables us to vicariously explore two distinct regions of that nation.

First, the travel section published a story on travel in Chiapas as part of its Frugal Traveler series.

In Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, green is never simply green. From the air, green rolls over the unending mountains, intense and damp where there are forests and nubbly like rough felt when the trees end. In the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the hill town in the middle of Chiapas’s central plateau, it’s a shiny layer of Kelly spread thickly across the facade of a Spanish colonial home. In the church of San Juan de Chamula, it’s the toasted green of pine needles strewn across the floor, and it’s the thin threads woven almost invisibly into the white wool tunics of indigenous Chamulan men.

Chiapas green is the golden green of fair-trade coffee beans ready for roasting, and the translucent olive drab of banana leaves wrapped around steaming tamales, and a Day-Glo pear growing in a backyard orchard. Nowhere have I seen so many variations of Kermit the Frog’s uneasy color, and yet there was one place in Chiapas, which I visited over 10 days in October, where green served little to no purpose: my wallet.

Yes, Chiapas is cheap — as is much of Mexico, where the exchange rate has, since September, zoomed from 10 to 13 pesos to the dollar. But Chiapas’s affordability is compounded by its relative obscurity. Apart from the packs of post-collegiate backpackers experimenting with Maya mysticism and awkward hairstyles, few American tourists venture there. Perhaps it’s a fear of the Zapatista rebels, whose 1994 seizure of five Chiapas towns gained them worldwide headlines. Or maybe it’s simply the state’s inaccessibility — at least 12 hours by bus from Cancun, Oaxaca or Mexico City, and about the same by air from the New York area.

Either way, the lack of crowds means that, for not much more than $50 a day, mildly adventurous travelers have unfettered access to lovely colonial towns and indigenous cultures (Indians make up a fifth of the state’s 4.3 million people), to the ancient Maya ruins at Palenque, Bonampak and beyond, to lush, isolated rain forests, to good coffee, to quirky and affordable hotels and even to the shadowy Zapatistas themselves.

Then, the Escapes section of the Times published a story on the charming town of San Miguel de Allende, which happens to house a fair number of American expatriates.

It had been four years since I last saw San Miguel de Allende, the 16th-century colonial Mexican hill town that shelters a happy crowd of American retirees and part-time residents. I was curious about what time, trendiness and progress had done to this place beloved for its preserved Spanish colonial architecture and aura of timeless charm. Now, sitting in the jardín — the loud, leafy central plaza — I began to deduce a complex answer.

A few weeks before my recent visit, San Miguel had been named a Unesco World Heritage Site, and at a nearby table, a group of Americans were buzzing about that success. Yet from the park bench where I sat, I could see something else that was new: on the facade of one of the carefully preserved old downtown buildings was the unmistakable logo of Starbucks.

This, in a nutshell, is San Miguel these days: balancing in a moment of almost exquisite equilibrium between new and old…

While my wife and I were in San Miguel, an international short-film festival occupied half a dozen venues, the play “Shimmer” was in town on tour, a new bistro opened and there was a gala for a local charity. There was a time when Americans retired to San Miguel for its glacial pace and tranquillity. These days, it’s more like a high-end summer camp for aging boomers.

“It’s like Berkeley for retired people,” said Sally Osbon, 55, who, with her husband, Jim, 64, lives half the year in San Francisco and half in San Miguel. The Osbons, whose three-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house is at the edge of the centro, enjoy not only the climate and the golf, but also what Ms. Osbon called the town’s “bohemian feel.”

When I first heard about San Miguel in the mid-’90s, the knowledge was shared by a friend as a precious secret. Soon afterward, on our first morning there, my wife and I ambled through the most guileless and sweet-natured place we’d ever seen, authentic right down to the donkey-drawn carts carrying water and firewood. Its appearance of being unaffected by its own beauty gave it a quality that was irresistible.

Lots to explore in Mexico, as even the NY Times has apparently discovered.

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