'It's not supposed to be like this'

Surprise ... Mexico is not the dangerous, scary place one expects.
Surprise ... Mexico is not the dangerous, scary place one expects. Photo: Getty Images

The bartender called it his "Mexican Mojito" - just like a normal mojito, only with mescal, the smoky, tequila-like Mexican spirit, substituted for rum. I tried to tell him I was not much of a mescal aficionado (my nice way of saying I hate the stuff) but the bartender insisted.

Turns out, he knew what he was doing. Mescal, plus sugar, plus mint, plus ice, equals something very tasty. Who knew?

I sat there at the rooftop bar of a swanky Mexico City hotel in the gradually dying light of the day, sipping my Mexican Mojito and taking it all in: the stylish cane chairs sitting on the wooden deck; the stylish Mexicans sitting on the cane chairs; the liveried waiters patrolling the area, doling out cocktails and making chit-chat.

Four blocks below us, the tree-lined Condesa street buzzed with cosmopolitan life, people walking dogs, riding bicycles, eating tacos from the street stalls, going about the daily business of life in a big city.

This was not how Mexico City was supposed to be. It was supposed to be gangs and drug violence. It was supposed to be a massive urban sprawl, a concrete jungle of unfinished buildings and mean, dirty streets. It was supposed to be questionable street food and dank, dangerous bars.

And I'm sure it is all of those things. But not where I wound up.

Before I left for Mexico, I used this column to vent my fears about visiting. I'd read the stories in the paper and I'd checked the travel advisories. They were unanimous: Mexico is a Dangerous Place. So, it's nice to be able to use this space to report that actually, it's not.

There's nothing better than a place confounding your expectations, proving your preconceived notions wrong.

China did that to me first time I visited: it's not a country filled with the buttoned-down communist soldiers you expect to find; it's filled with funny, friendly people who greet strangers on the street for no other reason than they're there and that's what they feel like doing.

Bolivia surprised me with its sheer beauty. I had no idea about those soaring mountains around La Paz, or the almost surreal beauty of the salt plains.

Zimbabwe surprised me with its hospitality - the vast percentage of people there wish visitors no harm, they just seem happy you're there at all.

So Mexico surprised me as well - its capital city more than anything. I have barely any photos of Mexico City because for the first few days I was too scared of being mugged to pull my camera out of my bag. Every time someone brushed against me, I expected to be thrown into a white van and driven at knife point to the nearest ATM. Needless to say, it never happened.

In fact, most things I expected never happened.

I expected to stay in a rough hotel, the sort where you could pay your bill with a cheque or a gun. I ended up at a place called the Red Tree House in Condesa, which has to be, peso for peso, one of the best places I've ever stayed. Ernesto, the hotel manager, was as mad as a bag of badgers but shouted the guests wine every night. Can't complain about that.

Having only eaten the Westernised version, I expected Mexican food to be uninspiring at best. Top Gear host James May famously described it as "sick with cheese on it", which wasn't far off what I thought I'd get.

But May and I are idiots. Mexican food in Mexico is inventive, spicy and fresh. One minute you're standing at a street stall eating shrimp tacos with your hands, the next you're ordering tuna sashimi tostadas from an a la carte restaurant.

The nightlife's just as varied. I spent my first night out in a ramshackle old joint eating goat tacos and being serenaded by two mariachi bands roaming the bar-room floor. I spent my second night on the rooftop of that Condesa hotel, drinking mescal mojitos and listening to Latino jazz with Mexico City's well-to-do.

And what about the people? I expected gangsters. Thieves. Lazy farmers asleep under their sombreros. Cab drivers desperate to rip me off.

Instead, I found kind-hearted, bonkers Ernesto and his free wine. I found Gus the chef and his taco recommendations. I found a cab driver down in Oaxaca state who'd apparently never been introduced to the concept of "tourist prices".

I'd been told the trip I was about to take with him should cost between 100 and 120 pesos ($8-$10), so I prepared myself for the inevitable slog of negotiation.

"Cuanto?" I asked as I jumped in.

"Cien pesos," he replied, starting the engine. One hundred pesos. A fair deal. No hard bargaining necessary. I was wrong again.

Have you ever visited a place that completely defied your expectations? Post a comment below.

Read Ben Groundwater's column on Sundays in the Sun-Herald.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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