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Mexico Travel - Preliminary Hints
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
THE TIME TO GO TO MEXICO CITY IS THE TIME WHEN IT IS most convenient for you. True, the Mexicans speak of the seasons as wet and dry, but for all practical purposes, you need make no distinction-both seasons are equally pleasant.
During the rainy season, it will probably rain every day, but the shower comes along late in the afternoon, generally at about four or five o'clock, depending upon how warm a day it has been. Almost never, however, will you suffer any serious inconvenience, for at about this time the chances are that you will either be comfortably established in your hotel room after a sightseeing tour or will be en route in a closed car.
Generally the rainy season extends from about the first day of May until about the middle of October, but this is no hard-and-fast rule. You may have an early rainy season, a late one, a long one, or a short one, but it does not matter at all, for invariably the evenings are clear and cool, with the air washed fresh from the afternoon shower.
In the dry season, which lasts throughout the entire winter, there will probably be no rain at all.
In either season, the climate of the great central plateau remains almost constant. You are too far south ever to be cold and too high up in the air ever to be hot. People there live in a perpetual spring.
If you are one of those rare individuals who are extremely sensitive to high altitudes, Mexico City is not the place for you. For the general public, however, this caution does not hold. You may occasionally find yourself suffering from a slight shortness of breath, or a mild headache when you hurry, but that is all.
In any event, I would advise you to go very slowly for the first day or so in Mexico City. After all, it is about a mile and a half up in the air, and it takes a little adjustment. If you feel any discomfort for the first day, just sit down and rest, or lie down.
But there are compensations. You will find, as I did, that you can sleep more soundly here than you have ever slept anywhere before. (This is probably the reason why Mexico City has less night life as such than any other city of over a million inhabitants that I know.)
The formalities for entering Mexico are extremely simple. An American citizen needs nothing but a TOURIST CARD, which can be procured at any Mexican consulate or at the border. The card costs a dollar and is your permit to enter and leave Mexico.
When you apply for a tourist card, you will be asked how long you intend to stay, for the card becomes void after a period of six months. You may also be required to show proof that you have at least 2000 pesos a month for the length of time that you expect to stay.
Tourist cards are issued for pleasure travelers only; if you are going into Mexico on business, you will have to make a deposit. A heavy fine is imposed on persons using a regular tourist card on a business trip.
Chauffeurs or servants must secure special permission to enter and must put up a cash bond, which, at last accounts, was 25 pesos. Since the bond is returnable if you cross the border during banking hours, you should arrange your return trip accordingly.
Visitors who are not citizens of the United States may be required to put up a CASH BOND Of 750 pesos each person. If you prefer, this bond may be arranged by a bonding company at the border, for a fee of about $13 in American money per person.
An American citizen needs no IDENTIFICATION for his return, although it is well to carry some. I find that the most convenient identification is a passport. However, if you don't happen to have one, there is no necessity for getting one for this trip alone. Any paper, such as an electric light or a telephone bill or an automobile license, will be considered sufficient identification by the American authorities at the border on your return. Travelers who are not American citizens returning to the United States must, of course, secure a re-entry permit.
The AUTOMOBILE PERMIT t0 take your car into Mexico is issued at the border at the Mexican customhouse, and costs , pesos, or about 75 cents in American money. It can be extended if you make your application before the expiration of the 18o days for which the permit is issued. The owner of the car should have with him his registration or any other ownership papers which he may have, in addition to his driver's license. The whole procedure is so simple that it is hardly worth discussing, except for this one tip. If anything is stolen from your machine, such as a tire, you should immediately report the loss to the police, or you will have to pay duty on the tire when you leave. This applies to other articles as well, such as cameras and typewriters, which may require special notation on your entry permit.
The customhouses with which I have had the most experience are those at Laredo on the American side and Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican. I found the people in both places pleasant and considerate. The Mexican customs authorities do everything possible to make it easy for you to get in, and the American customs authorities try to make it equally easy for you to get out. At least, that was my experience. I was a little nervous about the American customhouse on the way out, having read an article or two describing the way in which the authorities literally "went through you" when you got there. All I can say is that it didn't happen to me. The more I travel, the more convinced I become that if there is any trouble in a customhouse, the trouble is about 99 per cent the traveler's own fault.
Mexican Customs Allowance
You are permitted to take into Mexico 100 cigars, 1,000 cigarettes, or 1 pound of tobacco. If you are an addict to the Camel, the Chesterfield, or the Lucky, I advise you to take in the limit, as American cigarettes in Mexico cost approximately 3o cents a package. The Mexican cigarette which most closely suits the American taste is the Virginia Extra. It comes in two grades: one in an a11-white package, marked "Virginia Extra Mild," which the Camel addict could smoke complete at one puff without knowing that he had had a smoke; and the other in a white package with five blue bands around it, which is the Virginia Extra, and which gives you a very satisfactory smoke. The Virginia Extra sells for 45 centavos Mexican money.
You are allowed one camera or moving picture camera and the normal amount of film. You may not bring undeveloped film out of the country with you. However, if your movie film is in color, you can turn it over to the American Photo Supply Company, which forwards it to the laboratories in Rochester. Don't take a large supply of film with you-you can buy it in Mexico at American prices.
Firearms cannot be taken into Mexico without special permission. If you are going on a hunting trip, you will probably want to go through the nuisance of getting this permission. If not, you will have no conceivable excuse for having firearms around anyway, so you had better leave them home. Holdups are rare in Mexico, and traveling is probably about as safe there as in any other civilized country.
If you are taking out of the United States foreign cameras of expensive make or costly fur coats or jewelry, it is advisable to register them with the American customs on departure, to avoid any possibility of argument on the return.
The American Customs
Customs formalities on the return to the United States offer no complications. All returning residents, including children, are entitled to a personal exemption from duty on articles up to the value of $ i oo. This exemption is granted only once every thirty days and is not cumulative. If you use up one dollar's worth of it at any one time, you are considered to have used it all, and no further exemption will be granted until your thirty days have expired.
Exemption is granted, not only on articles you may carry with you as luggage, but also on goods shipped direct to your home. If you are shipping goods by freight or express, you will be required to make a written declaration in duplicate at the border. This duplicate is first attested by the customs officials and then sent to your shipping agency, where the goods are cleared through the customs without payment of duty. It is a simple procedure, and the freight department of any of the railroad or express companies will be glad to explain exactly how it operates.
You may include within your exemption cigars, cigarettes, tobacco, foodstuffs, and one wine gallon of alcoholic beverages. The gallon may be composed of various kinds of liquors.
But before you prepare to stock up on liquor, check up on your state law. If you are from Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, or Tennessee, you can not bring back any liquor at all. If you are from Ohio, you must first have secured a permit from that state. Residents of Texas are permitted only one quart, for which they are required to pay the Texas authorities 24 cents. If you are not a resident of Texas, but are merely driving through on your way to your home state, you will still have to pay the Texas authorities 24 cents a quart at the border for the privilege of carrying your own liquor home in your own automobile. As soon as you declare any liquor at the Federal Customhouse, you will immediately be sent to the Texas Revenue Office to pay this amount. Don't make the mistake of repacking your liquor until you have paid the duty, because if you do, you will have to haul it all out again so that the Texas state officials can affix the stamps in person.
Most fruits, vegetables, and plants are either prohibited or are permitted to go in only under a permit from the Department of Agriculture. Parrots are very troublesome, since they are required to go into quarantine, at your own expense, for a period of weeks.
The perfume regulations are detailed and complicated. It is impossible here to give up-to-date information, since the regulations are subject to change without notice at any time. At the time of writing, you are absolutely forbidden to import any of the perfumes of Elizabeth Arden, Fioret, Givienne, Suzanne, Lionel, Weil, Matchabelli, and Ybry-the others are subject to varying regulations. The safest rule to follow is to limit yourself strictly to one bottle of each manufacturer, not trade name.
If you do not bring in more than one bottle of a manufacturer, and either open the bottle or obliterate the trademark, or both, you will probably find that the customs officials will make no fuss. They will know perfectly well that you are not bringing it in for resale. If you plan to bring in several bottles of any brand, I advise you to consult the customhouse as to the latest regulations. Do this before you make any purchases and avoid trouble later.
What to Wear in Mexico
You should take along the CLOTHES that you would wear in either the spring or fall in the States. Summer clothes are necessary only if you are going into the hot country below the 4,000-foot level. In towns like Cdrdoba and Orizaba, around the 4,000- or 5,000-foot level, women wear very light summer dresses, and men sometimes wear white suits, but in Mexico City itself such clothing is uncomfortably cool. A man wearing a white suit there is stared at in the street, or pitied for not having clothes enough to keep warm in. It may be fairly warm in the middle of the day for a few hours, but at any other time the lightweight clothes are inadequate. A man will rarely have any use for a spring overcoat, but a woman may find a light wrap convenient for evenings. In the wet season a raincoat is essential.
You will have little need for EVENING DRESS. A woman will want a few simple dinner gowns, and a man may require a dinner jacket. Space permitting, I would advise a woman's taking one or two dinner dresses and a man's taking a dinner jacket. If room is at a premium, these are the first things I would eliminate.
You will need comfortable walking SHOES. Some of the most interesting things in Mexico can be seen only by short walks on foot, and this is the way you will want to see them. For instance, at Taxco you can drive all the way through town, but you will not want to, because there are too many charming things to see. One of the saddest sights I have ever seen was a woman walking in pin heels on Taxco's antique pavements.
If you are driving down to Mexico City, you can easily acquire, at various points and from guidebooks, long lists of things that you should take along for your comfort, safety, and convenience. You will probably be told to take everything from a gasoline stove to extra blankets. Actually, you will need no more than the ordinary amount of clothing. You are going to a civilized country where you can get anything you need, usually for less than you would pay in the United States. There are good hotels, or if not hotels, tourist camps as good as hotels, practically everywhere, and if you want an extra blanket, all you have to do is ask the chambermaid or the bellboy to get you one.
The amount of LUGGAGE you will require will depend largely on how long you are going to stay and how you are going to travel. Of course, the best rule, in Mexico as well as everywhere else, is keep it small, and remember that a trunk is a nuisance. Two large suitcases will do everything that a trunk will do, and will do it easier and better.
Since you probably won't be so extravagant as to discard all the luggage you happen to have and buy a new outfit for your Mexican trip, you will have to adapt any suggestions of mine to your needs, to the probable length of your stay, and, alas, to your pocketbook. But if you are buying any new luggage, keep it light.
Leather luggage is very beautiful and durable but usually very heavy. Sooner or later, you will be caught somewhere where there is no porter, and then you will have the problem of handling it yourself.
Fiber luggage, or airplane luggage, is by far the best for ease of handling. The type of luggage that has leather binding along the edges is remarkably durable. The very cheapest kind, with unbound corners, is apt to fall apart rather soon.
Soiled linen is the world's biggest packing problem. As soon as you arrive in Mexico, buy a good basket for your soiled clothes. It will give you a comfort that will repay the cost many times.
Naturally, the better the camera, the better the results, i f you are a sufficiently accomplished photographer to work one of those junior machine shops now in fashion without forgetting to do any of the nine things necessary to get a picture out of one.
If you are just an ordinary dub like me, who wanders around getting excellent pictures with a minimum of expense and trouble, a camera of the better Kodak variety with a really good lens (at least an f:4.5) and a fast shutter of the Compur type will give you perfectly satisfactory results. Many of the pictures in this book were taken with such equipment. Some of the street scenes, which had to be taken very fast, were done with a Brownie.
But you must have a haze filter for anything involving distance. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing a snowcapped mountain in the clouds or of losing both the mountain and the clouds. For really good pictures you must have an exposure meter. The light on the central plateau is so unbelievably perfect and the air is so clear, that guessing at an exposure, which is exactly what I do to good effect at home, is almost certain to result in overexposure.
Where to Stop
All over Mexico, at the places that you are most likely to stop, you will find good hotels. The days have gone by when the Mexican hotel was a thing to dread. In Mexico City the hotels compare very favorably with the hotels of other big cities in the world, and in the larger places outside like Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, and Oaxaca, you will find the hotels practically as good as the better ones in Mexico City.
Of course, in the villages or smaller towns, some of the hotels are decidedly primitive, and when I say primitive, I mean primitive. However, these hotels are generally located in places that a short-stop tourist is not likely to reach. At any rate, if you are an enthusiastic enough tourist to make a long stay, or to go way down into some place like the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, you won't mind the primitive hotels for the night or two that you will have to stay in them. In my notes on each city, I have tried to give you a frank opinion of the various hotels there. For some of the larger places, it has naturally not been possible to list them all.
The unit of currency in Mexico is the PESO. Your American dollar will not be generally accepted, particularly in the smaller towns and villages. Before entering Mexico, you should purchase a few pesos, at either Laredo or Nuevo Laredo, just across the bridge. How many pesos you will need will depend, of course, on your scale of living as a traveler, how far you expect to go, and what you expect to do. The only guide I can give you is to tell you to decide approximately how many dollars you would require for your particular trip, and then exchange half that amount for pesos. In this way you will have, not only enough money to fill your requirements, but a balance for extras. The peso has amazing purchasing power in Mexico.
I would avoid carrying cash. By far the simplest way to carry your money is by LETTERS OF CREDIT for large amounts and TRAVELERS' CHECKS for small sums. It is a good idea to purchase travelers' checks in small denominations-ten-dollar or twenty-dollar checks are the most useful. In a country where a really tasteful table d'hote meal at a good hotel costs 2 pesos, or, at the time of writing, about 40 cents in American money, you will find that your travelers' checks go a long way.
In Mexico City proper, prices, of course, are a little higher than they are in the country, but they cannot be called expensive. Sanborn's, which rates as a fairly expensive restaurant, charges for its most elaborate meal 3 pesos, or about 6o cents in American money. These prices may fluctuate according to the exchange, but even so, they never make deep inroads into your bankroll. In June, 1938, three of us drove from Mexico City to Laredo. We took two days for the drive and stopped overnight en route at a place that provided excellent accommodation. When we balanced our books after the trip, we discovered to our amazement that a drive of 762 miles from Mexico City to Laredo, including every conceivable expense-automobile, food, and liquor-had cost $7.28 in American money for each member of the party! And none of us had made the slightest attempt to be economical!
Travelers' checks or letters of credit, particularly for large amounts, should be cashed at a bank, or failing this, at one of the large tourist agencies, which will give you a bank rate of exchange. There are only a few places where travelers' checks cannot be cashed-at a railroad station or a post office, and in some of the smaller towns in the country. If you expect to make purchases from the Indian merchants at the marketplaces, I would suggest that you fortify yourself with currency-the Indians rarely recognize the checks.
There are several good types of travelers' checks, but the ones sold by your local bank or tourist agency will serve your purpose. The two great rivals in travelers' checks are, of course, those of the American Express Company and of Thomas Cook & Son. Both are satisfactory. The American traveling in Mexico is more apt to use checks of the American Express Company, and the European traveling in Mexico (and there is a surprising number of them) is more likely to favor the checks of Thomas Cook & Son. For any sum over $1,000, travelers' checks are apt to be a pretty bulky bundle. A letter of credit will be more convenient.
If you take travelers' checks, make a note of the numbers and carry it in another pocket, so that in case of loss, you may report this fact to the authorities, prevent the checks from being used, and eventually recover your money. The loss of cash can also be reported.
The peso is a silver coin larger than our 5o-cent piece, but not so large as our silver dollar. There are also coins of 50, 25, 10, g, and i centavo. The bank notes you are likely to see will be chiefly the fives and tens, although there are, of course, notes of higher denomination.
Food and Drink
Many people will tell you that before going to Mexico you should have a typhoid inoculation and a vaccination. This advice is sound, not only for Mexico but for anywhere else, but I never bother to follow it, having always found that reasonable care works in exactly the same way. In Mexico I would not drink the water in the small villages, but I believe it to be perfectly safe in the large cities, or in any of the better hotels or tourist camps, whether the place be large or small. If you are doubtful about the quality of the water, you can always content yourself with Coca-Cola, Mexican beer, or Garci-Crespo water, which can be bought almost anywhere in Mexico. It is a light, gassy mineral water, but has a thirst-quenching property that many mineral waters lack.
There are several distinctly national drinks and many local ones. The great national drinks are pulque, tequila, and mescal. PULQUE is decidedly the drink of the common people. It is a milky-white concoction, fermented from the sap of the maguey. Pulquerias can be found on almost every corner, enthusiastically patronized by the Mexican Indian and laborer. Personally, I do not think you will like it any better than I do. It is very much an acquired taste, and to me has a vile flavor and a worse smell.
TEQUILA and MESCAL are both practically pure alcohol distilled from maguey sap or from pulque. They fall in the same category as schnapps, vodka, or other high explosives. Both of them (singly, but not in combination) make a delicious appetizer if taken in place of a cocktail, a good digestive after a meal, and a great comfort at any time. But I warn you not to overindulge yourself. They are so potent that after the first mouthful, you will probably be afraid to light a cigarette for fear of bursting into flame.
The Mexican makes somewhat of a rite of drinking tequila. First he makes sure that he has a saltcellar and a lime handy. In Mexico they always call their limes "lemons," but since the Mexican "lemon" is the same fruit which is sold in the United States as a "lime," I shall call them limes to avoid confusion, even though they are the only lemons you will probably ever see. Having assembled his equipment, the Mexican puts a pinch of salt on his left hand, grasps the glass of tequila in his right, tosses off the tequila, licks the salt, and frantically sucks the lime, holding it with whichever hand happens to be free. The whole performance reminds me a good deal of a custom observed years back in the old Far West, when whisky and whiskbroom were served together in all the unregenerate bars. The ritual required that after the drinker had helped himself to some whisky, he was to grab hold of the whiskbroom, sweep off an ample space on the floor, and then lie down and have a fit.
I really cannot see why they take so much trouble. To me, tequila has a flavor so delicious that I just want to sip it without ceremony.
For those who like the milder drinks, the Mexican beers are said to be excellent. Of this, however, I have no personal knowledge, since beer is a drink I could never enjoy.
Rums, called Habaneros, have long been distilled in Mexico from sugar cane. The great Bacardi Company has also established a distillery there.
For the good of your stomach, you should go rather slow on MEXICAN FOOD until you have become accustomed to it. There are plenty of places where you can get things suited to your sensitive Anglo-Saxon insides, and although the Mexican food is most delicious, I would not advise eating more than one meal a day of it at first. If you have had Cabrito (young kid) at lunch, avoid anything highly seasoned with garlic, such as roast suckling pig, for dinner.
The virtue of Mexican cooking lies, of course, in the preparation of the sauces. Almost always spicy, they rank with the great dishes of the world. The finest is perhaps the MOLE, made of nearly twenty different spices, including the inevitable CHILI, and served usually with turkey. When it finally reaches the table, there is generally enough sauce to make whatever dish you are eating-turkey, pork, or chicken-look as though it were floating around in thick soup.
The breads are delicious. The Indian bread is traditionally the paper-thin TORTILLA, served as a base for many things, or as a bread alone. But the Mexican baker seems to have a genius for every other kind of bread as well. It makes it difficult for those who feel that they ought to reduce.
TAMALES and ENCHILADAS, of course, are well-known Mexican dishes. I might even say that they are more popular in the United States than they are in Mexicol A tamal (tamale is the plural) is corn meal, with beans or almost any kind of meat on the side, wrapped and cooked in a corn husk. An enchilada is a tortilla spread with chopped onions, a dash of garlic, beans, meat, or almost anything you like, and then rolled and baked.
In the markets the Indians prepare a tasteful dish called CHICHARONE. It is a kind of pork fat, fried and fried until all the lard has been drained out, and crisp as a cracker. It is delicious, but unfortunately very fill ing. If it were not so filling, one could eat it for hours, and probably would.
I am not going to elaborate on the perfection of the Mexican foods-you will have much more fun discovering them for yourself. I want only to warn you that they are very highly seasoned, perfectly digestible if taken in reasonable quantities, but likely to have unpleasant repercussions if eaten to excess.
And this is an easy thing to do, for although the Mexican Indian is a light eater, the meals served in the restaurants are Gargantuan. They say that immense meals are still served because the native Spaniard, although living in Mexico, insisted on the same sort of diet to which he had been accustomed at home. And at home, of course, the Spaniard is famous as the biggest eater in all Europe.
Although I was advised not to eat any raw salads, I indulged myself nevertheless with no ill effects. When I told my Mexican friends about it, however, they insisted that it was just beginner's luck-that I was taking a chance. I think this advice is good and pass the warning on.
Raw fruit should not be eaten without first being washed, unless it is a fruit that must be peeled first. Fruits like oranges or bananas, or other fruits sealed by nature, are naturally quite safe. But peeled or unpeeled, don't eat too much tropical fruit until you are well acclimated. Your first experience with a mango or with that delicious thing called a Calavasa will probably inspire you with a desire for a lot more, but be firm and resist.
CHOCOLATE was originally a Mexican drink. It is only since the conquest that its use has spread all over the world. This delicious drink, made by the Aztecs, was enthusiastically mentioned by Cortes in his reports. The Mexicans of today are still very proud of the chocolate they serve. I tried it, and found that apparently my taste had been vitiated by too many years of devotion to the wrong kind. I looked forward to my first cup of Mexican chocolate with great anticipation, had it served correctly whipped to a froth, sipped it, and then, like the moonshiner who got his first drink of really good whisky, I set it down and said, "It may be pure, but I can't drink it."
You probably will not like MEXICAN COFFEE. It is roasted differently, being almost black instead of the brown roast which the American prefers, and it is usually loaded with chicory. Although delicious as black coffee after dinner, it is totally unsuited for drinking with cream in the American fashion. For breakfast it should be taken half and half, with milk. The only two places I found where they served coffee approximating the kind we get at home was at Sanborn's restaurants in Mexico City and Monterrey.
Mexican coffee is perfectly good when you get used to it, but it's a long process. When I was last in Mexico, I was so miserably homesick for some home brew that the first thing I did when I arrived at Laredo was to buy a cup of American coffee. I was surprised to discover that it had no flavor whatever, but only tasted like something hot and weak. It took me four or five days to get used to it all over again.