Top Five Mexican Cities for Hangout Travel

In 1999, when I was 20 years old, I flew into Mexico City with my friend Abigail. Between the two of us, we carried $1000 in cash. Our plan? Travel from Mexico City to the Yucatan, spend a month hitting all the major sites of interest and then return to Mexico City. Our budget was based on very vague calculations on my part: I’d spent the previous winter camping on a beach on the Pacific coast, and it’d cost me $300 a month.

“How much do you think a month in the Yucatan will cost?” Abigail had asked.

“Uh, I don’t know…Maybe $500 or $600?”

In retrospect this is hilarious: I added an extra $200 for hotel rooms and bus fare, not taking into account that instead of renting a palapa and staying put, we’d be traveling and staying in hotels. I also didn’t bother to look into cost differences between the Yucatan and the Pacific Coast, which can be vast.

Needless to say, we burned through our money fast. Instead of the pleasant thatched bungalows and crumbling Colonial hotel rooms I’d imagined, we ended up renting a couple of palm trees in a grove near Tulum. We weren’t equipped to camp, but we made do: we bought hammocks, as well as a tin bucket, which we filled it with ice and buried in the sand for a makeshift beer cooler. We subsided on bolillos, avocados, and the occasional stray taco. I ended up back in Mexico City with exactly enough cash to buy a bus ticket to the Pacific Coast, where I knew I had a (meager) People’s Guide royalty check waiting.

Those days are behind me: our most recent trip was a fairly well-planned 6,500 mile odyssey, and I’m happy to say that we returned home with (a little) money in our pockets. I guess I can say that over the last fifteen years, I’ve learned a thing or two about planning a budget trip.

Our recent trip was amazing, but I missed my usual style of travel, which is sedentary. Although bus travel in Mexico is reasonable, reliable, and comfortable, the cheapest way to get to know the country is to find a good spot and just hang out for awhile. This may seem counter-intuitive: If you’re going to pay for an expensive plane ticket, shouldn’t you see as much of the country as possible? If you have the time and money, sure. But sometimes less is more. If you stay in one spot, you have a better chance of making connections and friendships with locals, which will mean seeing places you’d never see if you were just flitting through town for a few nights. Renting a room for a month  is vastly cheaper than the nightly rates you will pay at hotels, or even hostels.

Here are my top five “extended stay” picks for thrifty bon vivants. I’ve selected these cities because they are historically interesting and attractive, yet their sightseeing and educational potential is bolstered by cool modern culture.

San Miguel de Allende

When it comes to bohemian credibility, San Miguel has an illustrious pedigree (it was a hot spot for Mexican movie stars in the 1930s and a hippie mecca in the 60s and 70s) but these days the colonial jewel is more associated with Texas oil money and gringo retirees. That said, if you know where to look, the town is still highly entertaining and you can find good deals on housing if you don’t insist on living in the town’s historical centro, which is preserved in its colonial glory. As with many Mexican locales, nightlife in San Miguel doesn’t really start to swing until after 10:30 PM. Although mezcal bar El Tinieblo looks like it was decorated by well-heeled Portland hipsters, the mezcal is pretty good and the bartenders are really nice. If classy is not your oeuvre, head over to  the legendary dive bar, La Cucaracha (only open on weekends), or check out Manolo’s, presided over by the excellent Kique and attached to Casa Payo—a quality, if somewhat spendy Argentinean joint. Speaking of food: San Miguel is a great town for eating. Cuisine leans toward the international (I feel sheepish admitting that one of my favorite restaurants in a Mexican city is Italian), but you can find cheap, excellent food at the market and at hole-in-the-wall torta joints such as Torta Mundo and El Tucan. When you’re not eating, lazing about,  or enjoying the people watching at the famous zocalo, there’s plenty to see in the area: hot springs, desert hikes, the botanical gardens, the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and the beautiful Sanctuary of Atotonilco, which, like San Miguel itself, is a World Heritage Site.

the author having an unusually swanky moment at a fancy Mexico City bar

Mexico City

Yes, Mexico City, aka el Monstruo, is intimidating and gigantic—the greater metro area houses about 22 million souls. But that fact alone makes it a perfect choice for an extended stay. It could take years to properly explore the city (you could spend weeks in the world famous museums alone), so you won’t run out things to do in a month. If you’re a shopper, Mexico City is your mecca, from sprawling redolent mercados to entire neighborhoods selling nothing but Italian ankle boots. If you don’t have much of a budget for shopping, most museums are free on Sundays and Chapultapec park is enormous and interesting. Rent can be pricey in the trendier neighborhoods, but you can find deals if you know where to look, and some funkier hotels offer weekly and monthly rates. Food is cheap if your tastes runs toward tacos, jugo, licuados, tortas, and flautas. I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to Mexico City nightlife, but trust me: if you can imagine it, you can find it somewhere in the byzantine mazes of the Distrito Federal.

Hermosillo

Hermosillo is not exactly a famed tourist destination, but for a large rapidly-industrializing city of 780,000 people, it’s remarkably pretty. Located in northern Sonora, the city has a rich history, an attractive historical district, and a surprisingly cool urban culture, which includes dive bars, such as La Verbena, La Bohemia, and Pluma Blanca, where  locals drink cheap beer and talk music and politics, hipster night clubs, and a weekly (Wednesday) critical mass bicycle ride called “Beers and Bikes” that ends  at a different bar each week and a party with (on the night we were there anyway) cheap beer, burlesque-style performance art, surrealistic paintings, and Djs—worth checking out, though the pounding house music drove me crazy. (I’m more of a norteńo kind of girl…)

Guanajuato

Spilling down cartoonishly steep hillsides, the stacked facades of Guanajuato are as colorful and seemingly haphazard as a child’s pile of wooden blocks. Small hoards of foreign Spanish students do not kill the muy Mexicano feel of this busy colonial city. At night, locals gather in basement pubs to listen to rock music and split giant micheladas, but like most Mexican cities, Guanajuato is dotted with tiny squares and other outdoor hangout spots, where the populace lurks for free, studying, gossiping, flirting, and watching the endless parade of life.  If you are a student and curious about studying abroad in Guanajuato, the blog Kelsey in Mexico will give you an idea of daily life for an American student .

Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a no-brainer, and as such you’ll find it has a healthy population of young, hip gringos. But there’s still plenty of funky, authentic flavor, and the city’s hundreds of cool bars and coffee shops feature a healthy mix of local intellectuals and artists and their foreign counterparts. The great feature of an extended stay in Oaxaca is that there’s so much to see in the area: from the mineral springs of Hierve el Agua (don’t forget to stop and check out the mom and pop mezcal distilleries) to the ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, the environs of Ciudad de Oaxaca have got to be one of the most interesting places on earth. And don’t forget to eat at Mercado 20 de Noviembre

 

If you know Mexico, you know this list is just the tip of the iceberg. What are your favorite spots for extended stays in Mexico?

 

photos by Felisa Rogers and Chelsea Mcalister

 

15 Responses to “Top Five Mexican Cities for Hangout Travel”

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  1. Maybemayhem says:

    Excellent. It’s ridiculous that I’ve only hit one out of five of these… but I guess that’s what comes of being a broke student mother. I can’t wait to drag the kids off on a real tour of Mexico in the Van of Doom. My plan is the winter of 2014. Budgeting tips and staying for longer periods in one place are right up my alley.
    Thanks!

  2. Tina Rosa says:

    WHAT is that a picture of, that picture right above the Oaxaca rap? Looks like a peyote-induced vision of a secret entrance into the earth, ringed by what? People? Rocks? Help me out here!
    Just an aside about San Miguel. I’d say Mexicans have taken back their heritage here. I’ll bet the number of wealthy chilangos with weekend homes here out-number the ex-pat retirees. Many weekends the jardin is packed with tourists—-Mexican tourists!
    You made me curious about re-visiting Hermosillo.
    And I agree, staying put for awhile is the best way to enjoy Mexico, especially on a limited budget.

  3. I am a long time resident and promotor of Ensenada, Baja California, as well as owner of some very nice properties in Ensenada. Many of the tourists of the past are not aware that Ensenada is the heart of the wine capital of Mexico, and that it produces 90% of the Mexican wine production. We host many wine and great cuisine festivals, so we were described by Anthony Bourdain as the New Tuscany. Artisan cheese production, as well as many artisan food products are being produced in the nearby valley communities. The accomadations are varied, but renting an apartment can be reasonable, as well as there are many beachside camp grounds. The fish taco, as well as the margarita was invented in Ensenada. If you need any info on Ensenada, please let me know.

    • churpa says:

      Thank you! Very cool about the wine production and cuisine festivals. I haven’t been to baja in years, so I really appreciate the info.

    • churpa says:

      Also, if you would be interested in writing a piece for the blog on Ensanada’s wine industry or one of your culinary festivals, please drop me a line at managing_editor at peoplesguide dot com. We don’t accept pieces that contain direct advertizing, but if you are interested in generally informing people about the area we’d love to run something.

  4. -el codo- says:

    My vast list of favorites would probably fry your server.

    But I’d like to insert two comments. One an endorsement, the second a contribution…

    No question in my mind Ensenada is one of my top 10 cities in México. The name “Bitterlin” conjures up some vague memories of the fabled city, perhaps associated with the reknowned restaurant “El Rey Sol”. Ensenada unfortunately IMHO got tangled up way too heavily with Husong’s Cantina, which to me these days is the Mexican version of a McDonald’s version of a cantina. You have to get the hell away from ave Lopez Marteos to see Mexico Ensenada. Try five streets over. Ave Juarez. Some excellent restaurants there. Follow the transpeninsula highway up past the intersection of Calle Delante for more a Mexican Ensenada. Then on weekends there’s El Taco de Huitzilopochtli, incredibly enough so Mexican (from the state of Mexico) that restaurants in Toluca capitol of the state of Mexico are trying to emulate it! A taxi driver knows the way. I’ve hoarded pesos and dined at El Rey Sol by the way, to the accompaniment of a skilled pianist playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It was memorable!

    Call it heresy. Call it blasphemous, but my pick for favorite city in Mexico is San Cristobal de Las Casas. OK. Sue me. Oaxaca is #2. Where do I begin and where do I end? Xalapa? Valladolid? Puebla? Where do cities “end” and “towns” start? Where does lago de Zirahuen fit in? Or Chacala? That valley halfway between Tepanatepéc and Ocozocuautla? The one looking to the north with pastoral scenes of cows, green grass, sagging whitewashed adobe houses with those fabulous pink and black fired tile roofs? The mountains near Ocosingo? Tall pines, green grass, Oregon 100% until you see Tzeltal indians on their way to market walking on the shoulder in tradition garb, merchandise for sale in baskets on the women’s heads or lashed to a man’s back with a tumpline.

    Just about the time one becomes utterly sated in wonder and bliss, the neighbor’s children show up and grab your hand – you’re going to a wedding replete with mariachi band and tables laden with handmade food and pastries.

    When you see a gringo with a sad face in México it’s a dead giveaway. They are soon homeward bound and do not like it a bit.

    • churpa says:

      I can’t believe I forgot about San Cristobal! I have such visceral memories of the place…the smell of wool and mountain grass, sleeping in the van on nights so cold that condensation from the metal ceiling was perpetually dripping on my face…

      Merida is another good one.

      And thanks for the tips on Ensenada, codo. One of these days I’ll have to check it out again.

      • -el codo- says:

        And the wonderful odor of ocote pitch pine fire-starter bundles. Stalls with staggeringly beautiful candles, some the diameter of my thigh. The heavy perfume of mounds of ripe pineapples.

        I am trying without much success to steel myself for a brief foray to the United States for medical (MediCare) free medications, and official paperwork. The Orwellian structure, frigidity, and lack of emotion in the overall ambiance of the USA is staggering to a person unaccustomed to it.

    • First to el codo, yes on several counts, my family hails from both France and Santa Rosalia. My mother, founder of El Rey Sol, now Mexicos oldest french restaurant, founded in 1947, was born in Santa Rosalia of a French father and Muleje mother. At age ten, family returned to France because 4 of the 8 children died of maleria on the mainland. Mother loved cooking, married my French artist father, and returned to Santa Rosalia. French concession ran out, so they dispersed, but my family moved to Ensenada. Mom started the restaurant with 10 formica tables in a motel hallway. 25 years later, I rebuilt the restaurant to what you see today. Thank-you for your endorsement.
      Dear Churpa, As am not a great writer, would love to pass the essay on Ensenada’s wine and culinary events to any of several friends if possible. Sorry I responded so late, but google search mentioned my last name, so refound my response to last years blog.
      Abrazos and awaiting your response, Jean-Loup

  5. Gabino says:

    Churp –

    The road to or from Ensenada runs through San Clemente, either way ya go. Tina too. Humans welcome.

    Baja hath charms.

    How long has it been since you’ve seen the sun rise from the glassy still waters of Bahia de Concepcion? Or tasted those outrageous Chocolate clams? Or admired the freaky Boojum tree in its home turf? Or seen the Eiffel-designed iron church at Santa Rosalia? It may be true that the fish taco was invented in Ensenada, but it was perfected by a little old fisherman who sells his catch-of-the-day from a cart each morning on the calle leaving San Jose del Cabo, come too late and you get none.

    Time it right and the overnight ferry from Pichilingue (love that word) outside of La Paz to Mazatlan can be a full moon magic carpet. From the early-morning arrival of the ferry in Mazatlan it’s an easy day’s drive to the beach, especially since the coast road bypassed Tepic – you’re there in time to set up camp, easy.

    Yes, you can get there through Texas or Arizona, but why? Baja hath charms.

  6. Jason Martin says:

    I’m surprise to see Hermosillo in this list, I would have never expected to make it, because it’s not so known for it’s rich hangout capabilties, any way, I drive from San Diego using San Ysidro cross path and find myself in an amazing city that actually offers something different.