I haven’t been to Mexico since I was very young – maybe 5 or 6 years old. Growing up in Phoenix, Mexico isn’t exactly far; it is 5.5 hours to the boarder. But even when I had the opportunity to visit, I never went. There has always been a lot of warnings from my parents and even schools, news reporters and government travel advisories against traveling to Mexico, saying it is unsafe citing drug cartels, sex slavery and stealing organs for the black market. I had this weird fear of being kidnapped in Mexico.
This weekend I tackled that “fear” and headed south to Tijuana – the primary city that everyone warned about. What made me decide to go now? What were my experiences? Is it worth the risk?
Wanna go to Mexico!?
I was heading back to the west coast after being on the road with work for a few weeks and I connected with my friend Macy. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time but we were both headed to California. I had the next 7 days off and was contemplating what to do with my time. Macy told me that a group of friends were planning on going to a tequila tasting festival in Mexico and invited me to go. I hesitated at first – asking for more information, but realizing quickly that I just needed to be a “Yes” woman, and so I did.
Strolling Across the Boarder
Have you ever walked across the boarder into Mexico? It is the oddest experience.
Growing up nearby, in Phoenix, Arizona I’ve heard and read so many stories about what people go through to cross the boarder. Many sacrifice their lives for the opportunities that the United States can bring for them and especially their children. And here I was, walking across this threshold, passport in hand. I have been through customs so many times before, but this somehow felt different – more significant.
Cerveza y Comida
The first stop we made in Tijuana was at a place called Super Mario’s. They have 2 for 1 drink specials and super cheap beer. This was a designated meeting spot for our friends and our group grew to about 22 people! I only knew a few of the people I had come with, but being in such a large group made me feel more comfortable. Many of the people in our group were hispanic and a majority were men, which also put me at ease. (Real talk though, the world can be a scary place for women.) Once our group converged we enjoyed a few drinks here and got to know each other a bit better.
We decided the next stop would be for food at a little spot called El Patio Tijuanese. This place was INCREDIBLE. The older guys in our group ordered the food for the whole table while we just relaxed and took it all in. I think that they ordered something that is not on the actual menu, but because this group had come through the year before, they put something special together for us. The street was busy with mariachi performers and vendors at their booths selling clothes and jewelry and toys. Green, red and white flags danced above our heads in the breeze. The plates of food began to appear. Huge mounds of meat and sizzling vegetables filled the air with their fragrance. Baskets of fresh tortillas – corn or flour – made their way around the table and everyone started to dig in. It was a really great experience having a family style meal with these new friends. I ate so much food I could barely move after – chicken, pork, beef, veggies, shrimp, rice, beans, tortillas. I tried everything, including some grilled cactus – which was kind of slimy on the inside but tasted great grilled. (I think it would be really good with a chicken salad actually).
Once we finished, we sat and digested our meal, finishing more drinks and sharing laughs together. I saw that there were a ton of tortillas left and I wrapped some up and put them in my bag for later. A few of my friends giggled at me mentioning that there was food inside the tequila festival, but I joked back that I was just being prepared for the tequila. We called them “Pocket Tacos” – and trust me, these would become very important later in the evening.
One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three tequila
We were finally on our way to the tequila festival. It was $5.50 for entry and had easily over 50 booths for tequila companies that gave you a sample of their product. If you
haven’t tried 50 tequilas in one day, you’re missing out. They had live music and dancers on a stage at the opposite end of the entry with the booths lining the length of the event. The bottles were absolutely stunning – some of them hand painted or hand beaded and all of the products were from Mexico. I had such a great time immersing myself in the culture, trying my best to communicate in Spanish (and usually failing) but having my new friends that spoke Spanish fluently was a great help. I learned that I’m not a huge fan of extra añejo tequila – the most aged tequila with rich oak flavors similar to that of of other dark spirits. I also learned that you can always ask for a better price and sometimes you might even walk away with things you didn’t think you needed (like a hand painted shot glass or two) orrrrr you might walk away with nothing orrrr you might walk away paying for more than what you got.
Lady in Red
My first take home was a beautiful painted bottle of a skeleton woman. Each bottle was hand painted with different colored dresses and hats (which served as a cork). They were curvy bottles embracing the beauty of women. I inquired about the bottle, but at a price of $120. It was also recommended to me by one of the older guys in my group that I negotiate the price down, but the owner of the booth had stepped away for a bit, so I decided to wait and think about it. Because I walked away, the girl that was manning the booth tracked me down and brought me back once he had returned. I asked him for other colors that weren’t on display and he started opening boxes that were hidden away each uniquely painted. He was very friendly and kind and went through each box carefully to make sure I found the perfect one. I commented on how beautiful they were and asked him if he would take $100 instead. He thought about it, then agreed. Then he pulled a skeleton woman in a red dress and I knew it was the one I was going to take home with me. My eyes lit up and the shop owner saw how excited I was about adding this to my collection of alcohols from around the world. He then picks up a hand painted skeleton shot glass and places it in the bag as an extra bonus. I thanked the kind man and hugged him, in awe of his kindness and generosity. The older gentlemen in our group laughed when they watched my negotiations unfold, half in English and half in Spanish. They told me I must be really good at talking people down in price since he hadn’t even countered my offer and even included extra stuff without me asking.
My other negotiations weren’t all winners. Towards the end of the event I found a bottle of a mariachi man. I was definitely a little tipsy by this point but I decided that my lady bottle needed a boyfriend. These bottles were not hand painted and were not unique, and the man at the counter was asking for $65. I negotiated for him to come down to $50. He told me that this bottle was more expensive if you bought it anywhere else. I got sassy with him and told him that “my lady doesn’t need a man! so $50 or Nada!” In most negotiation cases, you have more power if you’re willing to walk away. This was one of the times where that didn’t work in my favor. I walked away with no “man bottle” and a rude goodbye from the guy at the stand.
Don’t be so Extra (Añejo)
The last purchase is a lesson that was learned by my friends. They bought 8 bottles of the same tequila – an extra añejo that had a twisted shaped bottle. They negotiated the price down because they were buying so many and the guys at the booth gave them a box of the tequila they purchased. When we got back to San Diego that evening, they opened the box to find that they were given 8 bottles of the regular añejo (aged significantly less than the extra añejo, and also quite a bit cheaper). Definitely a bummer. Lesson learned – know and double check what you’re buying. We will never know if the switch was an accident or was done with ill intent – I like to hope and think it was the former.
No Man, or Woman Left Behind
The hardest part about a tequila festival is trying to leave with everyone in your group. These two went to the bathroom. The other ones went to buy another bottle of tequila. I’m hungry – OH WAIT I HAVE POCKET TACOS. That’s right. Everyone who made fun of me wrapping tortillas and putting them in my backpack decided that it was actually quite brilliant.
It is very important that you travel with people that you trust not to leave you behind. It was really awesome to be a part of a group that essentially decided – We crossed the boarder together once, and we will do it together again! It was definitely difficult keeping our large group together and headed towards the same goal, but we accomplished getting back to San Diego together (with about 20 bathrooms breaks and photo opportunities, but hey, we made it!).
Overall, my experience in Mexico was really great. I think that the people that you travel with are so crucial to the success of your experience and I am so glad that this was the group that I was with. My friends were people I could trust, who could have fun, and some of them were experienced in traveling in the area, which allowed me to let go and enjoy my time. Remember to enjoy your time traveling and don’t stress too much. Oh, and always pack pocket tacos. I would definitely go again next year. Want to join? We need a new Tequila Festival virgin to sacrifice!