Monday, December 29, 2008

A Guanajuato, Mexico Vacation Still Makes Sense Even in Scary Economic Times

Though the Worldwide Economic Crisis seems to have the world in a tizzy of worry and despair, Gringos are still coming to Mexico. I remember last year at this time unprecedented numbers of Gringos were walking the streets of my adopted Mexican home of Guanajuato. The city of Guanajuato, that bears the same name as the state, Guanajuato, had swarms of Gringos that extended from late Spring into early Fall even while gloom and doom spread all over the planet.

Statistics for 2008 will be forthcoming in the Spring. But, if subjective observation is to count for anything, it appeared to all the Mexicans and American Expats with whom we spoke that 2008 seemed the year for the most visible tourists in years.

In previous years (2006-2007), the average age of tourists to Guanajuato was under 36 years old. These tourists came to Guanajuato in 2006 in groups of three family members and, in 2007, in pairs. In 2006, 35% of the tourism was Mexican regional tourists, 54% was Mexican national tourists, with a low 11% being foreign.

In 2007, there was only a one or two point increase in national and regional tourists and the foreign tourist percentage stayed the same. About 50% of the international tourism comes from the United States.

I've made this point often in my articles that the city of Guanajuato is not a resort town. It is not like the West and East coast Mexican cities. Nor is it like San Miguel de Allende. These towns have become dependent upon the tourist money and regard the foreigner as a source of income.

How you will be treated in one of these resort towns that has been traditionally dependent upon the foreign tourist's dollars or euros will be radically different from how you will be treated in a town whose tourist income is predominately from Mexican regional and national tourists. To put it in the words of one American woman who actually moved to San Miguel de Allende, "This is like living on a cruise ship. There is something planned to do every moment."

The city of Guanajuato, or the rest of the state for that matter, is not like that at all. In Guanajuato, you will see how real Mexicans live and work in their ordinary everyday lives in a city that has history and culture oozing out of every cobblestone. If you expect to be entertained like in the resort towns, look elsewhere.

However, having said that, Guanajuato is a traveler's dreamland to visit. That, I suppose, largely depends on your motive.

Of those surveyed, 7% to 10% came to Guanajuato in 2007 to visit family; 4% to 7% came for business; 6% to 8% for historical significance; 2% to 6% ventured here for ecotourism; 65% to 78% came just for a little R & R—Rest and Relaxation.

And, let me just say that Rest and Relaxation is what the average Joe and Jane American needs in times like these. If your American life has become something unrecognizable and transformed into something you would rather not even think about, then Guanajuato is the cure for what ails your hectic existence.

Five Steps To Maximize A Guanajuato Vacation

Think creatively: You can't possibly find a much-needed cure for your stress in Guanajuato if you try to have a whirlwind rush through the city and state.

1. Guanajuato is absorbed and not so much seen. Take time to sit and smell the foods cooking in El Jardin; listen to the music, the children playing, the donkeys braying, or the vendors hawking their wares; feel the textures of the serapes, scarves, and whatever else catches your attention.

2. Don't fret over your lodging. Be willing to stay anywhere. Staying in the historical center is not what it is cracked up to be. If you are planning a Restful and Relaxing vacation, staying in the noise-filled El Jardin is not necessarily what you will want. Try to book a hotel outside the historical center and nowhere near churches where you will be serenaded with bell ringing virtually around the clock. An apartment vacation rental is often the better choice.

3. Be willing to limit eating out from one to three meals for your entire vacation. If you find lodging in an apartment or hostel with cooking facilities, it would broaden your cultural horizons immensely to shop in the local markets for fresh foods you can cook on your own. It is a lifesaver on your pocketbook. My wife and I employ this tactic almost always when we travel through the country. Eating out can be a budget killer.

4. To minimize the financial impact on your savings, watch the airfares like your life depends on it. If you become a little pre-vacation obsessed, you can catch a deal on the flight to Mexico. My wife is liable to check three to four times a day when we are planning trips to catch the best prices. Or, consider driving to Mexico if you live within a one or two state's distance from the border. It isn't as hard as you think it might be. We are getting feedback from articles and forums that more and more Americans (and even some Canadians) choose the driving options. (Check the search engines for current restrictions and documents needed to drive into Mexico.)

5. Mexico is still a relative safe place to vacation. You have to put on your best "Big City Safety" thinking caps and play it safe the entire time. For reasons totally unknown, even to God, a lot of Gringos will come to Mexico, and especially Guanajuato, acting as though they've crossed over into the Promised Land of Safety and Virtue. I have not only personally witnessed this behavior in both tourists and American expatriates, but have a friend who is a long-time resident of the city who was robbed. She was not only relieved of her cash but was also beaten up in the process. She thought it was safe and secure to walk home at about three in the morning.

This is a serious issue. I cannot explain why Gringos come to Mexico and commit careless and dangerous behaviors that they would not do back home in Anywhere, America. They would not try walking home in the wee hours of the morning in almost any city in America and yet when they come here, they suddenly think they can do this and get by with it.

Don't walk back to your hotel at hours of the night where you are most likely to be robbed; don't visit ATM machines in the late hours; don't do anything here that you wouldn't do back home. If it feels dangerous it probably is, even in Guanajuato.

And, if you worry about all the news reports of Narco-Traffickers in Mexico, Guanajuato is still relatively safe from that source of organized crime. The point is to play it safe and smart and you will most likely come out smelling like a rose and have good experiences to tell your friends when you get back home.

The Authentic Mexico

Some people bristle at the phrase "authentic Mexico." They often scream at me something akin to, "What is that supposed to mean?"

What it means is a Mexico that has largely resisted the Americanization attempts of the Resort Moguls and has done things and continues doing things its own way.

Recently, Guanajuato has "acquired" a Starbucks. Now, why anyone would want to come to Mexico and drink a four-dollar, or more, specialty coffee from America is beyond me and I am wont for an explanation. But, Americanization is coming to Guanajuato as it has infiltrated the resort areas of Mexico.

Still, Guanajuato is not a resort (yet) and is full of regular Mexicans going about their regular lives trying to eek out a regular living. History, culture, and Mexican life are worth more to me to see and experience than being entertained with a Cruise Ship agenda. Guanajuato can indeed be a dreamland vacation.

Let Guanajuato be the place you spend your next vacation!


Bower's new book, A Walk Through Mexico's Crown Jewel: A Guanajuato Travelogue. Unlimited Publishing, is available now at:

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