This summer I visited Mexico on a research and inspiration gathering trip and received several messages from people via instagram asking about where I went so I thought I'd share my favourite parts and tips, because I will definitely be returning to Mexico and think you should go too!
I visited Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca because I was wanting to hunt out specific crafts that these regions are known for. Transport in Mexico is very easy to navigate (Mexico city has uber, so convenient!) and despite travelling alone I always felt safe. My one regret was not speaking any Spanish, as I felt fairly rude and like a true Brit abroad relying on google translate. I was primarily in Mexico to meet people I could partner with to make products, so had some meetings and trips booked before I arrived but generally the best leads I found were once I was in the country. A lot of the people and businesses I met don't have an online presence, so it really was a case of just wandering round beautiful villages and asking around and knocking on doors. I hired local students and tour guides to be my translator/driver/point of contact for various trips, and this made the process much easier- I would tell them the sort of thing I was looking for and they would ask around and help me find someone who could help. Mexico is just as colourful and patterned as you would imagine - there are a lot of Wes Anderson colour palettes and vibes, and its perfect for a maximalist design lover.
- I stayed in the Roma district (of the Oscar winning Alfonso Cuaròn film fame) and it really was beautiful - leafy, pedestrianised streets, lazy cafe culture vibes and lots of beautiful tiled shop fronts. Neighbouring Condessa is also very lovely, and both areas are full of affordable arty little hotels and centrally located for getting around.
- My very favourite thing I did in Mexico City was visit the witch craft market, known locally as the Mecardo de Senora . Although Mexico is generally a pretty catholic country there are strong held esoteric beliefs around magic and witch craft which run alongside religion within certain sections of society. Senora market is where amulets, voodoo dolls, spells, psychedelic drugs and jesus statues are sold. Its not a spectacle put on for the tourists, this market is the real deal, complete with live animal sacrifices. It was other worldly, and completely fascinating, but I definitely would recommend visiting with a local or a guide who is familiar with the stall holders - some of the goods for sale are illegal (endangered animal skins and teeth and bones, drugs, Santa Muerte statues) and I felt visitors there purely for the spectacle weren't welcome by everyone. However the imagery and rituals were incredible, I love visiting local markets and this was unlike any I'd been to before and completely fascinating; I indulged in a sage cleanse, felt the energy of a Peyote Cactus and enjoyed a glimpse into a totally different magical world.
- Mexico City has more museums and art galleries than any other city in the world! And while I definitely didn't visit them all, my favourite was The Museo de Arte Popular which is the Folk Art Museum. The collection of textiles, artwork and decorative things is just beautiful, and covers all areas of Mexico. Gallery gift shops have become a bit of a specialist subject of mine, and here there were the most amazing selection of Mexican made crafts and artwork. Prices were higher than you may pay at the local markets, but the quality was amazing and the gallery runs as a not for profit organisation with all funds returning to makers that supply the gallery and shop so it's worth splashing out- I brought a rather impressive large painted wooden tiger's head that now sits above my kitchen door (although it didn't fit in the over head lockers so it spent the duration of the flight on my lap..)
- For me no visit to Mexico would be complete without a visit to La Casa Azul , Frida Kahlo's Blue House in the Coyoacàn area of Mexico City. It is really busy but so worth the crowds and queues- you are able to wander freely around Frida Kahlo's home, seeing her studio and paintings, wandering into both her and Diego Riviera's bedrooms and their beautiful gardens. Despite naming my dog after her, I probably wouldn't choose to have Frida Kahlo's artwork on my walls but I love what it represents. She was a revolutionary with her views on gender, sexuality, disability and politics and a highlight of my time in Mexico was definitely visiting her home. Also worth visiting is Anahuacalli Museum , designed by Diego Riviera to house his personal collection of pre-Hispanic artwork and his own sketches- seeing his socialist murals life size was very moving.
- The food is obviously amazing in Mexico, and I ate my body weight in tacos but I was keen to try lesser known local specialties so I spent a morning at the Central Asbastos, the largest market in the world, on a food tour. Each of the market's aisles is over a kilometre long and outside of the stock exchange more money is moved at this market than anywhere else in Mexico. There was many delicious things to try (courgette flower enchilada being a personal favourite) however despite tasting at least five varieties of mole I am resigned to the fact that I just do not like it.
- Oaxaca is a far smaller city than Mexico City, its a series of picturesque cobbled streets and colourful painted buildings and is far more how I envisaged Mexico looking- colourful papel picado and palm trees around every corner. The city is surrounded by hills full of pre-hispanic ruins hidden deep in the jungle. I stayed at Hotel Con Corazon, a social enterprise with hotels across Latin America who invest in education programs for local underprivileged children. Oaxaca is very sleepy compared to Mexico City and I felt safe walking around the city or back to the hotel late at night.
- Oaxaca is a mecca for craft lovers, and centre of Mexico's craft industry. All the surrounding villages have a craft they are known for, and when you're speaking to people someone always knows someone who makes the thing you're after. Shopping for locally made crafts is much easier and more satisfying in Oaxaca than in Mexico city- in most markets in the city you are buying directly from the family who made the item, whereas especially in the main art market in Mexico City a lot of the items looked suspiciously mass produced and imported from China to me. Oaxaca's main art market is a lot smaller but I found the products, especially the textiles, to be much better quality.
- Oaxaca state is the main producer of mezcal, Mexico's national drink. Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the heart of a cactus, similar to tequila but less fussy as any agave cactus can be used. I tried many during my trip, often from different types and ages of cactus, because most people I visited in Oaxaca offered me a glass of their own home distilled version. Mezcal is drunk neat and pretty potent, and I had a great evening in the village of Mitla, about half an hour from Oaxaca, at Mexcalerie Sabor , a cactus farm and distillery producing their own mezcal.
- My favourite market in Oaxaca was the Central de Abastos - similar to Mexico City's main wholesale market but this one was not just food and drink. There were some really beautiful things, many being made or finished at the market including some very jazzy woven plastic baskets, and beautiful otomi embroidery. I first visited the market with a local student who translated for me but returned alone several times and always felt safe (I did manage to get utterly lost once or twice though!) however after speaking to a few locals I was told generally its not recommended to visit the market alone as a visitor. I felt safe and only had positive experiences though, so would recommend it, just keep your wits about you!
- I visited many makers and studios in the villages and towns surrounding Oaxaca - weaving, ceramics, wood carving, embroidery, paper cutting, black smiths, tin decorations... I was looking for makers of specific products so these visits were a mix of fun and business and I took a lot of time and care to find the contacts I made. People often ask how I found the printers and makers I work with in India, and I literally just hired a tuktuk driver and drove around the areas I knew were famous for printing and it was a similar process in Mexico! Mexico relies on its tourist industry, and in my experience people were incredibly generous with their time, showing me their talents and welcoming me into their workspaces. If you don't have lots of time, or want a pre-organised trip, Air B&B have some great experiences arranged to visit artists and crafts people in their studios. Personally I like to support makers if I can, and try and buy things when I visit people's workspace (no great hardship, other than the 65 kilos of luggage I somehow acquired during my trip!)
So that is my Mexican highlights! I tried to be sensible and not take too many risks, but if you didn't ever do anything that scared you then you'd live a pretty boring life. Phone signal was better in most parts of Mexico than it is in a lot of Scotland, so I was able to google map or google translate myself out of most awkward or potentially dodgy situations, and I met lots of friendly people so generally had pals for eating dinner or having drinks with in the evening. In spite of the horror stories I actually felt very safe throughout my trip and would definitely recommend a Mexican holiday to anyone who enjoys art, good food, bright colours, a cold mid afternoon beer, salsa music and tropical storms.