Travel with a dietary restriction can be hard, but luckily in Mexico, many places are coming around to the idea that not everyone eats meat, animal products, or gluten. In more cosmopolitan areas, such as Cholula, la zona rosa ‘the pink zone’ and La Condensa of Mexico City, and touristy areas like Isla Holbox just a stone’s throw from Cancun, you can often find restaurants specifically dedicated to the alternative-eaters among us – or at least recognition on the menu. In fact, there was an amazing vegetarian taqueria on my street in Cholula, meaning I was actually able to try soya-based alternatives for the classic dishes I’d been dying to try- like tacos al pastor and tacos árabes.
Nevertheless, vegetarianism and veganism seem to be fairly new concepts in Mexico, and are often quite alien to locals outside of big cities or tourist areas. It’s often a case of adapting a menu, or accepting (as a veggie), that when going to the taqueria, it’s going to be a quesadilla or a quesadilla – which was never an issue for me. As a vegan your choices could be further limited to just a plate of guac in some places, but that’s usually in the more niche destinations.
To sum up, vegetarianism Mexico is totally doable, it just takes a little bit more research sometimes, or accepting limited choices, but I never had to pack food on a trip as I knew I would always find something. A lot of street food was open to me, such as elotes and esquites (corn on the cob or in a cup: with cheese, lime, and mayonnaise), champurrado (mexican hot chocolate with corn), and homemade ice cream in massive flask style containers. If you’re vegan or gluten free however, you will often struggle to find a complete meal unless you are in a dedicated restaurant. The best eating experiences for you would be in fairly touristy and gentrified areas, however don’t let that discourage you from seeing the amazing pueblitos (small towns) and countryside spectacles – just bear in mind that here you will probably only find taquerias, almost exclusively serving meat, cheese and bread.
On Monday the 23rd March I was, much like the rest of the country, sat at home with my family in the UK, hearing for the first time that we would now be in lock down. Just a week prior, I was saying goodbye to my sister as we both boarded flights after an amazing trip around Quintana Roo and neighbouring Islands, hers back to London and mine back to my hometown in Mexico. To say that, at this moment, I was oblivious to the virus and how it could potentially impact my year abroad would have been a lie. As my sister works in the NHS, and was also keeping herself well informed of the government’s measures, we had daily conversations whilst on our trip about the developments in case numbers, testing and travel restrictions. During this week, the global developments and updates concerning the virus appeared to be increasing in number and alarm by the day. When it was the end of our amazing trip, I was then faced with a busy international airport, Cancun, and found myself surrounded by people across the spectrum of concern for the virus: from those wearing masks continually, those with masks around their necks, those waiting in the boarding gate next to theirs which was empty instead of their own crowded one (me), and those who had absolutely no concern and would happily choose to sit right next to someone else even though there were entire banks of free seats (the woman next to me). As I arrived back at my home in Cholula, which although is packed with international students and has a big party scene for them, is an otherwise sleepy town, I felt that surely, I’d be able to see out the rest of the year there.
The Monday I awoke to was frantic. It appeared that, almost overnight, panic had taken over the international student community at UDLAP. Flights to some home countries were being cancelled, borders were being closed, embassies being contacted and mindsets were changing and re-changing, including my own, over and over again. At this moment, the internationals appeared to move in packs: first the Americans, declared they were all leaving, then the Italians, then the French. This wasn’t about nationalism as we were, all in all, a very well-integrated group, but it was a case of people not wanting to be stranded without anyone to travel home with in uncertain conditions, especially when we were starting to hear stories of people going to the airport alone for their flights and having them cancelled, or even worse, have their connecting flight cancelled and become trapped in an unfamiliar country with no visa or rights otherwise to leave the airport. This was one of the most stressful days of my life, most of all because, I couldn’t come to a decision that I was happy with. Leaving Mexico almost 3 months earlier than I had wanted to, and so suddenly, felt too gutting a decision to bear. Yet I was faced with the concern that if I didn’t leave now, with the direct flights to London being cut to only 1 per day and a number of those that week already having been cancelled, I might be unable to come home for a very long time, perhaps until a lot later than I had originally planned. Unfortunately, none of us had any real idea of how long the virus, and the response of governments to it, could shut down international travel.
Although there was a fairly panicked group mentality, I was determined to make up my own mind. Two days may have not seemed long enough to make such a finite decision: in leaving Mexico at that point, I would not be returning to my home where I lived with international friends, as a resident of Mexico, for a long time, maybe not ever. However, I came to the realisation that what made me so happy on my year abroad was the freedom I felt; to travel to some amazing places; the nights out with friends; performing on the cheer team in front of huge crowds at football games, and that- whether I liked it or not- this was being taken from me regardless. My year abroad in Mexico had been the most incredible chapter of my life so far, and I wanted to remember it as that.
I knew that, from the amount of information I had read about the virus, I would feel too guilty to attend parties or travel, where it was still permitted. My classes were all now online and the campus virtually closed, all of the bars and clubs were shut and soon the restaurants would probably follow suit, and, most crucially, so many of my best friends and close housemates were leaving. It came to me that, whether I remained in Mexico or not, the year abroad that I knew and loved, was over. So why fight it. At this point I decided that I would make my last week a great one. With money chipped in from the rest of the housemates, we bought an inflatable pool for the terrace, and we had house pool parties every day, and all ate together each night. I also went for meals with other friends and had a final walk of the campus. Once the day of my flight came, I had already had to say goodbye to a few of my housemates and other close friends. Our house, along with a few other friends who had joined to see us off, did the traditional goodbye route we’d developed in the last few days, of all coming down on to the street and hugging goodbye as the taxi arrived to take us to the airport, and as we drove away I watched my house and my amazing friends, shrink into the distance.
The journey home was smooth and fairly stress free – apart from some shuffling of weight around in our jam-packed suitcases and rucksacks, and then as soon as I knew it, I was home. I was surprised by how normal, jet-lag aside, I felt to be at home. I thought that, alike how I was in uk customs just after landing, I would immediately be translating things I wanted to say into Spanish in my head, or resist drinking water from the tap. But it’s amazingly easy to slip back into the normality of home and, at times, almost feel like you were never away at all. I have actually heard this a lot from other year abroad students, that their life abroad feels like some kind of dream, not quite real. For this I am so glad of the decision I made to leave, because once the experience is over, apart from a few souvenirs and the friends you’ve made, all you are left with are the memories of the experience you had. I didn’t want my memories of Mexico to be distorted by the changes the virus had brought.
So, for me, my year abroad is over. I have been continuing with my UDLAP classes online and still in touch with the friends, but this is part of a new chapter for me now.
Although it may not be a particularly interesting read, made even harder by the comparison with the stories before, with my family now close by, facetimes all the time with friends, and knowing that everyone is going through struggles in some shape or form right now, I think that it’s going to be ok.
Although I am usually more wowed by the breath-taking scenery that Mexico has to offer, in all of the bustle and traffic, there are some, not so hidden, city gems that have really stuck in my memory as amazing places to visit. And seeing as direct flights from the UK usually land in the Benito Juárez International Airport here, why not take a look around…
Museo Nacional de Antropología
Their collection of artefacts spanning the development of different civilisations, be that Aztec, Mayan or Olmec just to name a few, is divided across 23 permanent exhibit halls. If you wanted to look at every piece and read each plaque it would take days to get around. I would recommend having a fairly sweeping walk through the indoor exhibits, taking note of the information plaque for the overall region, and heading to the gardens, where you can find some recreations of relics tucked away amongst the plants. Also, if you have a Mexican university credential, entry is free! Whilst here, I would recommend also visiting the Bosque de Chapultapec right opposite, for a retreat to nature. There are plenty of attractions such as a castle, botanical garden and zoo, however we chose to take peddle boats on the lake.
Slightly further out of the city is Xochimilco. This network of intersecting rivers has become a Venice of its kind, as the waters are filled with the most colourful, if slightly haphazard, barges. In a small group it’s not inexpensive to rent a boat privately, and each boat is priced the same – the seller should wear a government identity card. Don’t worry about bringing any food or drink with you, as once you’re on your way you’ll soon be greeted by waiters who will leap on to your boat to offer refreshments, and soon enough bound back over with a tablecloth, quesadillas, drinks and sides, all freshly prepared on a neighbouring boat. You’ll then be passed by a number of mariachi boats, which will offer to play to your liking, although you would have to pay them for this, along with boats selling clothes and gifts. There will be a number of boats selling flower headbands, and it is customary for men to by them for women, although I think that my friends actually bought them for us because they wanted to try them themselves. You can chose tours of different lengths to visit different parts of the channel network, but we just chose a route that was roughly 2 hours there and back, and during this had the opportunity to stop off at a small petting farm and a replica of the island of the dead dolls, although we politely declined the very kind offer to visit (its legend can be found here http://www.isladelasmunecas.com/). Some visitors will choose to make a party of the occasion and bring their own music, however we found it more immersive to just sit back and take in the unique bubbles of activity that passed us by. I returned to Xochimilco for an evening tour, which lead us to a floating stage for a performance of ‘La Llorona’ (the wailing woman) as part of the Day of the Dead Celebrations. The atmosphere was markedly different in this night-time low-lit tour, and the ending of the show was breath taking as the wailing woman all dressed in white appeared to float over the murky water and then suddenly disappeared on to her back as the lights went out. However, the showmanship was slightly overshadowed by the realisation that our boat was taking on water. Luckily, we had a woman onboard who gallantly downed the rest of her michelada (typical Mexican drink) and started bailing the water whilst still watching the performance – a hero to us all.
North-east of the city, you can transport yourself to another time and visit a vast expanse of what remains of this ancient Mesoamerican city. There are often a number of options to get there and back such as bus transfers and coach tours, however you can often arrange with your hotel or hostel host to order you a taxi for a fixed, and really not expensive, price for the return journey and your driver will just wait in the car for however long you would like. It is the most impressive archaeological site I have ever visited, and its walkable route connects the temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Sun and Moon Pyramids. I would recommend going early in the morning or late afternoon as the site has almost no shade and can become gruelling in the heat. Whatever the weather, any visit is worth it for the views.
Ever since I can remember, my Christmas Day has involved being at my own house or that of a close relative, with lots of my family squeezed around a table, or a couple of different shape and height tables, sat on emergency chairs, stools or even the garden bench, with food filling every possible space and bits of cracker debris in your gravy, dogs barking, everyone talking at once and reading out the joke already heard twice so far, and it being my favourite day of the year. So, it may have sounded like a very privileged problem to have, to feel deflated that I would be spending Christmas day on holiday, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, most likely on a beach, and with 3 amazing friends, but it was how I felt nonetheless.
The preparations for our unconventional Christmas in Cancun had begun a few days before, when on a trip to a nearby town, Valladolid, we had all split up for an hour to scour the markets and shops for our not so secret Santa gifts. The biggest adventure of the evening, however, was having our car locked into the cathedral’s car park. Luckily, we were rescued by an on-site shopkeeper who managed to find a key – a Christmas miracle?
We were then tasked with the compromising of everyone’s ideas for how the festivities were going to be spent. As I was spending this holiday with French friends, this meant we were to be having a traditional Christmas eve dinner cooked by them, and a Christmas day meal, cooked by me. We decided to round it all off with a brunch in between the two, which meant crepes along with, my new found favourite French food, which roughly translates to ‘lost bread’. All of these last minute plans meant we would have to make a trip to the worst place imaginable on Christmas Eve… Walmart. Luckily, we’d split the list and paired off to make the experience more bearable, and had successfully navigated the crowds to find everything we needed apart from the ‘essential’ chocolate spread that was nowhere to be seen. We eventually tracked down the item under lock and key in customer services, it appears that mexico takes its Nutella VERY seriously. With that, the claustrophobia inducing nightmare of a food shop was successfully completed – Christmas miracle number 2, perhaps.
In all of the festivities, my lowest point was Christmas day morning. Due to the time difference, with my family all so busily involved in the Christmas activities back home that we hadn’t been able to facetime. This was made harder by the fact that all my friends, who’s families had their main celebration the night before, were all speaking to their own families at that time, so I was feeling a bit out of the loop – quite inconsiderate of my family really, to be enjoying themselves without me… However after calls from friends back home, the family facetime, and trip to an absolutely packed beach, I was coming round to the idea that I might actually be having a good time. Following this by my cooking almost entirely, of a Christmas dinner that I was really complimented on, including by our airbnb host and her partner, a chef, made my day.
Side note – our Airbnb host was one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met. On arrival at the property she demonstrated, and had us practice, how to open the gate with two hands so as to not ‘strain the lock’. We then found there to be notes all around the property which reinforced the double sided page of house rules – why by the way was typed and laminated, with emboldening, capitalising and highlighting for emphasis – the most interesting of these notes being an actual metal fork taped to the wall by the sink to remind us not to use metal forks in the pans so as not to scratch them. Just as we were finishing our dinner, we received a message from her to kindly turn off the air conditioning, which had been on to cool the house down from all the cooking. At the point of explaining this, we made the snap decision to invite her over, as we had lots of food still hot that we couldn’t bear to throw away when we left the next morning, and also because, even though she was a character, we were unsure if she had company, and we felt that no one should be alone on Christmas. Her and her partner arrived at our door shortly after and we welcomed them in, after which to our horror she swept round the house, throwing all the windows wide open proclaiming ‘let the air in, it’s wonderful’ – inviting in all the mosquitos for dinner as well… However, after sharing some of our meal with them, we found them our hosts to be so endearing, and ended the night not only with gifts of handmade head massagers – which is still the weirdest gift I think I have every received from a near stranger, but more importantly, had got to know the person behind the notes and the rules, as a friend – Christmas miracle number 3.
Once our esteemed guests had left, we exchanged gifts and then gathered by the pool to dip our legs in the water and take in the ‘wonderful air’ of night that had fallen. At this moment, I realised what a nice Christmas it had been, and how, as I did have the rest of my life for beloved family Christmases, missing it just once, really wasn’t so bad after all.
• In the UK: You’ll need to organise this through the Mexican embassy (all information can be found online) and make a trip to London to bring all your documentation. There they will then take your passport and hold on to it for a few days to process all your documents and put a temporary student visa inside.
• On the flight: you will be handed a migration form so just follow the instructions and make sure you fill out the bottom part aswell (which is a repeat of the same information because one of them is your copy)
• Arrival in mexico city: in immigration just hand them the migration form and your passport, they will then give you back one part of it which you MUST KEEP SAFE and hand to UDLAP when required.
• In terms of getting your temporary residence card, udlap will then sort everything. In your induction you’ll be told at what point to bring your immigration form and then don’t worry about how close to the 30 day limit it appears, the student services will sort all the paperwork for you and even drive you to the embassy, just keep an eye on your student email for updates.
• Flying to mexico city is most likely much cheaper (and direct) than flying to the nearest airport, Puebla. You can then get a coach directly to Cholula (more on that in the transport section)
• Aeromexico (is usually the cheapest but skyscanner.com is a really good website to compare flights and is great for internal ones. (P.s. the baggage policy for Aeromexico is confusing but to make the most of it, take a big suitcase in the hold, but also a small one in the cabin as well as a backpack in the cabin).
• The currency is mexican pesos (mxn) and for ease of conversion i always approximate $25 =£1, although obviously this may change
• I would recommend getting either a Monzo or Revolut card while you’re in the UK- they have lower charges for withdrawing cash then most major cards, and the apps are really useful for managing money or instantly seeing the conversion of what you’ve bought/ withdrawn. However, the fact is that for either of these cards you will go over your £200 limit/month of free withdrawals in another currency, however after that limit, the charges are not extortionate and I just consider it as a foreigners tax.
• Once you’re there: try to use BBVM and Santander cashpoints as they seem to charge the least to withdraw and you can also often select if you want to withdraw the pesos in terms of pounds from your account to avoid charges.
The majority of international students live in big shared houses. I would strongly recommend this as it’s super sociable, especially since houses are often linked, and its a great way to meet people from all over the world as well as Mexicans
If you choose to live in halls, you are much more likely to live with all Mexcian students (great for Spanish) however you will be subject to the strict rules such as in terms of having guests in your room, curfews, noise restrictions etc..
Good options for international houses include:
• Casa Roja: my home. Luis the landlord is super sweet amd the rent is really good value (i pay 3800 for a big double room en suite) you can enquire directly from their instagram (casaroja.housingcholula) page, and will most likely be speaking to someone living there currently who will then pass on the whatsapp of Luis.
• Casa Naranja: the landlord Ray is lots of fun and super friendly. He is also the boss of Cholula Capital, a student travel company, and runs a number of trips during the semester https://www.facebook.com/casanaranjahousing/
• Another housing company, which admittedly I am less familiar with, is ‘changapachanga’ and other houses such as casa condor, and casa olimpus, which can be found online. All residences thus far are part of an event called ‘Thirsty Thurs Preocupeo’: the houses take turns to host parties every Thursday which are really popular with international students and open to all students.
• Casa Real houses https://www.facebook.com/Casa-Real-587225684727415/: here you will find a number of houses run by the legendary Oswaldo, owner of a rival travel group, travels life. Most of these houses are all in a little community right by UDLAP. The Casas Reales also have their shares of events, ‘Peda Reales’: ticketed house parties with themed music rooms, organised every month or so, and of course which are free for residents to attend.
I would recommend you buy a ‘Telcel’ pay as you go sim once you arrive (a quick search on google maps should show you where your nearest is, often inside corner shops – i would advise buying it once you reach Puebla as otherwise you will have a foreign state’s area code which may make it confusing for when you add Mexican contacts)
You can then choose how you want to top up your phone, and can do this in store but i find it much more convenient to do through this link: pqtmex.telcel.com. You can choose different packets including calls and texts if you wish, but i usually prefer to just pick the ‘internet amigo’ as almost all your communication in mexico will be through whatsapp (‘por whats’), and these packets also mostly include unlimited social medias -although beware this does not include online calls so i try and save these for wifi. I usually by the £300 of 3.5MB for 33 days top up and the internet usually lasts me, as long as i’m careful.
In short, don’t drink it – from the tap. I’ve had absolutely no problems using it to brush my teeth, wash dishes, and for hot drinks or cooking food when fully boiled. For your drinking water, you’ll be buying large tanks of water. If you have a shop super close, as in Casa Roja where we have one downstairs, you can just go and get it as and when. Otherwise, it’s about equal price (35 pesos) to organise a drop off, whereby within a 2 hour selected time frame they will carry the water right to your room. You’ll also want to buy a pump (from Walmart or Bodega) to put in the top because pouring straight from that full bottle is nigh impossible. Whatever form you buy it, make sure to save your empty plastic tank and swap it for your new one with a big discount. You’ll be saving money and the planet.
Coaches: for long distances, i.e. from the airport at cdmx to cholula, i would recommend Estrella Roja or ADO coaches. You can book both of them from your phone or at the desks in airports and bus stations and they will take you safely and comfortably. The only issue mind is that they have a great habit of not shouting out the stops, so its good to keep an eye on google maps if you’re not sure, or as we did in on our coach from the airport to cholula, get off when you realise you’re the only ones still sat on the coach.
Taxis: i would highly recommend uber. It’a super cheap, you have an online trace of where you are and is really convenient. However, as with any countries, you hear one or two stories of people having strange drivers, so best not to travel alone if it can be avoided (although i have always felt super comfortable when alone in ubers here). Didi is a Chinese version of uber which often works out cheaper but requires you to pay in cash, and is useful for areas such as Yucatan (i.e. cancun) where they don’t have uber. Avoid hailing taxis on the street, as a foreigner you will most likely be ripped off and its less secure. If you have to take a taxi from the street, in mexico city only take the official pink taxis, and in other areas try and book a taxi from inside a bus or coach station where you can prepay.
Blahblah: this is an app for sharing a person’s car who is already taking the journey you wish to make. I have had a good experience with it so far, and the driver has to present valid documentation. You can also personalise your profile to include things such as whether you’re comfortable with pets or how talkative you are during journeys – although it appears that our ‘rarely speak’ election was largely ignored by our very talkative driver.
Hire cars: can be very convenient and cost effective when travelling with a group. Just keep in mind that there will be additional charges per day for any driver under 25, and also that the deposit is required on the credit card of a driver, although we have found on one occasion that Monzo, although a debit card, has worked for this purpose.
BUYING THE ESSENTIALS
For fruit and veg there are lots of independent fruterias where you pay based on weight. Then most other essentials bread, milk, simple toiletries etc can be found in little independent corner shops or in oxxo and superroler (small chain stores). For everything and anything else there’s always a walmart, bodega or a soriana not too far away.
To begin, a few photos of the place I can now call home: Cholula. It is truly a beautiful place to live. On every turn there is street-art, brightly coloured buildings and taquerias. However; don’t be fooled by the weather in the photos. It’ll be cool when you wake up, boiling by midday, ominously cloudy late afternoon, stormy in the evening and then the skies may clear by the time you go to bed. What to wear: everything.
Casa Roja: My new home
I am living in a 15- person student house about a half hour walk from uni, and I am so lucky to have such a big ‘mexican’ family here. Although we are actually very international: French, German, Mexican, English and Spanish, so communication can sometimes be a challenge. But it’s nothing that a bit of translating, googling or if it comes to it, mime, can’t solve. We’ve already been on a trip away together to Oaxaca, as we’d had a whole 3 days of uni so we definitely needed a holiday…
A few bumps in the road:
As expected, I experienced some anxiety and homesickness coming up to and during the first few days of living here. Although you could feel very overwhelmed in the first couple of days, it helps to remind yourself that you will settle in, in time, and that everyone feels the same way.
Despite now feeling very settled and content with my life here, I have had other small hurdles to overcome also. Firstly, it takes a few days to not jump out of your skin every time cannons are fired from the churches on the hilltops the multiple times at any hour day or night. But soon that just becomes part of the soundscape of life here, along with the barking of stray dogs and the ‘do you want the gas’ song. Moreover, the fixtures in my bathroom have had to be repaired 4 times. Luckily my landlord has been really prompt, responding instantly and getting my fixtures fixed the same day on every occasion: we love Luis. Also, on our trip to Oaxaca, the bottled water provided in our AirBnB turned out to be contaminated with mosquito larvae, meaning we then had to take medication. But at least I’m trying new things…
There are also some cultural differences to be aware of, for instance tipping in restaurants and toilets seems to be the norm here, student or not. Moreover, I would advise any Spain-Spanish speakers coming to Mexico to look up some of the words and phrases that aren’t the same here, for instance if you ask someone if you could have intimate relations with the bus it might raise a few eyebrows (‘coger’ does not mean ‘to take’ here..).
Overall, I’ve loved my time here so far and am really excited
for the year ahead.