Jason Mohess on Backpacking Mexico

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Each week or so I will be bringing in a guest to ask them about their experiences with travel and what it has done for them. Why just take my word for it? Most travel sites and blogs focus on interviewing the “average Joe” that has left everything behind to travel the world. This “average Joe” typically has a travel site of their own and are still out there wandering the globe. Sure I will be tracking down those Joe’s but what about the “average average Joe?” The ones that travel for the sake of traveling. The ones that have no ulterior motives. They are the ones truly experiencing everything out of their trip as they are not tidied to a keyboard, a smartphone, or a deadline.

That’s who I am interested in hearing from.


 

The Average, Average Joe Series:

Jason Mohess on Backpacking in Mexico

Leading up to my recent trip to Mexico I was amazed to hear from Canadians and Americans saying they would never go south of the boarder out of fear for their safety. Family, friends, and complete strangers chimed in – all citing violence as the reason for their concern. Really?? You are talking about a country that lets in over 20 million visitors every year. 20 MILLION. I am not denying that Mexico has high crime rates or that violence happens, I am just saying look at the numbers. You are more likely to run into trouble in Florida than in the tourist parts of Mexico…probably. Its science. Look it up.

To put my family, friends, and readers at ease I turned to Jason Mohess, a seasoned traveler and lover of Mexico – literally, his wife is Mexican. Jason is a college friend who I had lost touch with after we graduated only to randomly run into each other 5 years later…at a hostel… in Latvia. Small world. Since that random encounter he has visited much of the globe however he has a special place in his heart for Mexico and Central America.  I recently caught up with him and asked him about his experiences in this misrepresented part of the world and why it so unique to him.

Brief Bio: Born and raised in Edmonton. I tend to go places for as long as possible, minimum a month if possible. I believe to experience a country or place you have to get out and see lots of it, so you need more than a couple of weeks. As far as Mexico goes, I first went there with a few friends in 1999. It was the first trip without family – just friends. We flew to Cozumel, stayed in a 2 star hotel in town, not in a resort. We traveled the entire island, went to the mainland, and drove to the Town of Bacalar in southern Mexico, about 20 minutes north of the Belize border. We had a great time, and on the way to the airport to come home, I said to my friend Dave, “we’re coming back next year, right?”

 

After college you and a friend dropped everything, bought a shitty car and headed south. Did you have a plan or where you just heading out in search of sun and sand?

We had visions of making it to Brazil, actually, but we got lazy and comfortable once we hit Bacalar, Mexico. As you know, we bought a shitty car at the auction for $250 (including fees and taxes!), loaded it up, and the two of us headed south, with deluded visions of making it to Brazil! We got as far as Bacalar, got too comfortable drinking and learning Spanish (as we spoke no Spanish entering the country), sold the car for $1000 US 2 months into the trip and continued partying and learning Spanish.

I ran out of money 5 months into the trip, and flew home on a ticket bought for me by my sister (after begging her for money), and haven’t kicked the travel bug since! (Dave stayed, eventually started a construction business, married a local girl, and is still there)

I’ve since been back to Mexico 5 or 6 times, and used Bacalar as starting point to see more of Mexico. I’ve traveled to Mexico City, the southern state of Chiapas (home of the Zapatista rebels), and into Guatemala and Belize. I’ve also been to Puebla, a city in central Mexico 3 or 4 times, as it is the hometown of my wife. These (and all my trips) have been backpacking.

The perpetual smoking volcano outside Puebla, Mexico as seen from my in-laws apartment window

You have been to many awesome places around the world, what makes Mexico so special to you?

I’m not sure why Mexico has such a draw for me. I studied the Aztecs in grade 6, that may have something to do with it. It was also my first trip with just friends, no family. I think a lot has to do with the fact that I spent so much time in a smaller town, experiencing real Mexico, hanging with the locals, being invited to the parties. My dad was also in Mexico in 1959, he drove a VW Beetle from Canada as well.

One thing that will stick in my head forever is this: When I returned to Mexico City in 2002, I went to Teotihuacan, an ancient city with huge pyramids outside of Mexico City. I climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, the biggest one, and took a picture looking back at the street lined with smaller pyramids and capped by the smaller, but equally impressive Pyramid of the Moon. When I came home, I showed my dad that picture and he got really excited. He dug out his old slide projector and showed me virtually the same picture from 1959! The smaller pyramids were still uncovered, but I could see the Pyramid of the Moon. It was a pretty cool moment.

TLITs: That is awesome about your father! Interesting that your love of travel runs in the family and that you shared that same experience without initially knowing it!

Xochimilco, Mexico city
Boats left over from Aztec floating islands – Xochimilco, Mexico city.

Many people (myself included) have a stereotype about Mexico in that it is more of a resort destination. What made you break through this and decide to essentially backpack your way across the country?

I never put much thought into resort vs. backpacking. I never traveled alone until I returned to Mexico in 2002. That trip, I hit Belize, Mexico and Guatemala. It was an adventure, to say the least. Since then, I never gave another thought to going to a resort. I can have a lot more fun backpacking, for a lot less money, for a lot longer!

I am not a huge fan of sitting on the beach for a week and have turned down trips to Mexico because of this. Any suggestions to those looking for more than what can be found within a resorts walls in Mexico?

If you’re adventurous enough to be bored on a resort, and don’t think it’s the end of the world if you miss a bus or if you have to go from hostel to hostel to find a room for the night, go the backpacking route. Most places on the “backpackers trail” in Mexico can speak sufficient English to get by. Going to the places and sites worth seeing on tours arranged by the resorts are easy to get to and probably cheaper if you go through a smaller tour operator. A lot of these operators will have other stops at places not included with the resort tours, and are sometimes better than the main attraction. There are some tours that are one way trips as well, so you can end your day in a new location and not waste time getting from point A to B.

There are also lots of chances to see things that most bigger tour operators run by resorts don’t think are worth going to or too difficult to get to. Resorts tend to arrange their tours based on where the most people will go, so if just a few people want to see a place or site, you’re out of luck. Some the best tours I’ve been on have had only 2 or 3 travelers on them. You don’t feel like a kindergarten class being shuffled from place to place.

Backpacking also gives you a chance to experience “real Mexico”, not the sheltered side that most tourists see. Most hostels are in towns where you can interact with locals, eat good authentic food, get cheap booze.

The backpacking way of traveling also allows you to meet people with similar mindset. There are travelers that are beginners at it, and there are some very, very adventurous ones. You will meet people that you can hang out with for a few days, become very good friends, and then go separate ways shortly after. It’s hard to get used to at first, but it’s an amazing way to travel.

Mayan ruins of Palanque in southern Mexico
Mayan ruins of Palanque in southern Mexico

Another stereotype is Mexico is not the safest place for tourists. I’m sure you had an easier time being fluent in Spanish but did you have any bad experiences or encounters with La policía?

As goes in your own city, if you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it. Common sense goes a looooong way. I’ve been robbed twice in Mexico, both in the town of Bacalar. The first time, our car was unlocked (the shitty car’s locks didn’t work) and my sunglasses were stolen. I deserved it, as the glasses were worth more than the car…

The second time, the house I was staying in was broken into when I wasn’t home. They stole a little cash, a pair of shoes, and some socks! Again, staying in a house that was obviously not a locals, and there were no lights on. Wouldn’t have happened if I was as careful as usual while traveling.

I wandered around Mexico City by myself, wearing a hockey jersey and a camera and had no problems.

If you stay away from the well-known danger areas, i.e. the northern border cities, and keep your nose out of trouble, you’ll be fine.

As far as the cops go, if you’re driving, it’s never a bad idea to have some US $20 bills stashed in different places in the car. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BRIBE ANYONE UNLESS IT’S OBVIOUS THAT THEIR LOOKING FOR ONE!!! I was told, in 2000, that it can help if you’re driving across Mexico to have cold soft drinks or water, and American skin mags in the car to be used as “gifts”. Gifts can’t be mistaken for an attempt to bribe an official (if you actually get an honest official, a bribe will get your ass in jail, and NO ONE wants to be in a Mexican jail!!). The cold drinks will help if you have mechanical issues too. We broke down once in the middle of nowhere, and a Mexican road crew cooled our rad down with their drinking water! The cold beer we had to give them was VERY appreciated!

TLITs: Ha! Good to know about the “skin mag” tip. Hopefully your stock didn’t have to get you out of a jam!

Bacalar

Your wife, and soon to be mother of your 1st child (congrats!), is Mexican. Was that a coincidence or fate?

Pure coincidence, my friend! And thanks!

You also seem pretty keen on Central America countries. What draws you in and which is your favorite to visit?

Latin America is so close to home, relatively speaking, but it’s a completely different world! I speak Spanish, so I can get by pretty easily and lots of people think I’m either a local or from somewhere else in Latin America. Each country is different from its neighbor in certain ways. In Central and South America, I’ve been to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Guatemala was my favorite destination in the world, until I went to Bolivia. Bolivia was my favorite until I went to Russia! (But that’s not quite Latin America!)

I visited Guatemala three times, the last one being part of our honeymoon. Yes, we had a backpacking honeymoon, what else!

My single favorite place that I’ve seen is still in Guatemala, called Semuc Champey. Google it! It’s unbelievable! And you won’t believe the hostel there! Wow! You’re gonna have to go see it on your own!

Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala. Also known as the setting of the rebel base in the original Star Wars Ep 4!!

Any parting words for someone on the fence about backpacking or visiting Mexico outside the resort gates?

Don’t let the bad image of such a beautiful country stop you from seeing it! As with every foreign place you go, as long as you remember that you’re not in your own country and you can’t do things like you do here, you’ll be fine. Shit sometimes happens, roll with it!

I avoid the touristy places like Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, the town of Tulum. It’s full of resort tourists thinking that they’re being adventurous getting of the resort and seeing the town. Stay away! I highly recommend the southern parts of Mexico. Chiapas is the poorest state in the country, but one of the most naturally beautiful! But freaking cold at night! Granted, I was there in February, but still. Was not expecting that!

Learn some basic Spanish. Most places I’ve been appreciate the attempt to speak their language, and will be much more willing to help you out. And you can provide some entertainment by butchering another language!

You’re not a first time backpacker, so you know how to take care of yourself. Be smart, and you’ll have a great time!

Quick Questions

Best moment?

Getting married in one of the best settings for a wedding ever! And being able to share the place I lived in with my friends and family.

Worst moment?

Not many bad experiences traveling in general, lucky so far I guess. So far the worst would have to be getting robbed the second time, because they stole my camera…

Best tourist site?

Teotihuacan, Mexico as far as Mexico goes, but in Latin America, or the world in general, it’s still Semuc Champey, Guatemala.

Worst tourist site?

Don’t have any complaints as far as sites go, but Cancun and Playa del Carmen are horrible cites, full of drunk Americans and rip off artists.

Favorite nationality to travel with?

Don’t have a favorite, meet lots of great people from lots of places. Scots are fun, meet some cool people from France. Aussies are everywhere and some are fun to hang out with for a while, don’t like the accent, though.

Best thing you put in your face hole while traveling?

Cochinita pibil, Mexican for roast pig! Fucking amazing!! At one place in particular, in Bacalar, at a little restaurant that’s only open from 6:00 AM until the entire pig is gone, usually by 9:30 AM every morning!

Worst?

As far as the worst, Tacos de lengua (Cow tongue tacos). Literally a cross section of grilled tongue on a tortilla…. Nasty! It felt like it was licking my throat all the way down, and half way back up again!

Best quote from your trip?

As said by Maria’s grandfather, 85 at the time, while she was pouring him a tequila. She put just a little in his glass and tried to give it to him. He took one look at her and said with a dead serious face “If you’re gonna make me a drink, make me a drink!”. He proceeded to pour 2 more ounces into his glass! I strive to be like him at that age!

Another quote that I will never forget, and I tend to live like it. “I will not tip-toe quietly through life in order to arrive safely at death.” I don’t think that I heard that one while traveling, but it’s my favorite quote.

Favorite Country visited?

Russia, hands down favorite!

Best food?

Too many to list, I love the food in every country I’ve been to! There was the BBQ place in Guatemala, a shared platter with another couple. Argentina had the best and cheapest beef and red wine. Russian food is awesome! Bear meat dumplings, reindeer steaks, caviar! Haggis in Scotland. Pretty much everything in Mexico, except tongue tacos. Food is one of the reasons I travel!

Friendliest country?

Russia, hard to find someone that speaks English or smile on the street, but they ones we met bent over backwards to help us, English or not.

Best Hostels?

El Retiro, Lanquin, Guatemala. The hostel for Semuc Champey. More like super cheap paradise!

Best place to take a nap?

The hammock beside the river at the above mentioned hostel.

Party hostel or clean and quiet?

When traveling by myself when I was in Europe and single (and younger), the party hostels, for sure! Now that I am usually traveling with my wife, the quieter ones are better, and we can get a private room instead of dorms.

 


All awesome pictures provided by Jason Mohess

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  • Brandon Parent

    I couldn’t agree more Shaun. Mexico gets a bad reputation from the media. Sure there are incidents but as Jason mentions you can find trouble anywhere. As someone who frequents the Baja for surf trips I have to say I have had nothing but amazing times. Good on you for encouraging a change in the way people think about this wonderful country!

    • shaun_robertson

      Thanks Brandon. I hope to make it to the Baja some day…now that I am a surfing pro 😉

  • Jordan Hall

    Hahaha never would have thought a “skin magazine” could get you out of trouble! Good read!

    • shaun_robertson

      Yah there is a tip I wasn’t expecting!

  • Phil Sampson

    I visit Mexico at least twice a year and have never had any run ins or issues. That is not to say it doesn’t happen, like both you suggest, however with the amount of tourists incidents are very spread out and more likely in the boarder town regions.

    • shaun_robertson

      Exactly Phil. What parts of Mexico do you visit? Favorite spots?

  • Tristan Green

    I love hearing travel stories like how his father was in the same spot years earlier. That is something they will always share.

    • shaun_robertson

      I know so good! It is awesome how travel can bring people together like this!