Experience Huichol Indian culture with the group Peyote People. // © 2014 Thinkstock
After a visit to Acapulco in 1957, the artist Salvador Dali said, “No way am I returning to Mexico. I can’t stand being in a place more surreal than my paintings.”
While most travelers to Mexico are not seeking the surreal, many do want to experience a side of the destination that’s at least a bit off the beaten track. Local tour operators stand ready to oblige with a variety of cultural, culinary and adventurous programs.
“Instead of sitting back and watching the National Geographic channel, when you travel with us to visit the Huichol Indians you’ll feel as though you’re living a National Geographic experience,” said Kevin Simpson, director of Peyote People.
The Puerto Vallarta-based Peyote People is a fair trade cooperative that also runs excursions to communities of Huichol Indians living in a remote part of Riviera Nayarit. The Huichol Indians of Riviera Nayarit are celebrated for the beauty of their art. Because their communities are in the isolated northern section of the state, it takes a concerted effort to visit them. This keeps them out of the tourism mainstream.
Peyote People excursions bring visitors into the Huichol Indian community of San Andreas Cohamiata. Located atop a mesa with a 3,000-foot drop, the community includes 500 to 1,000 people. Tour participants first board a small airplane (a Cessna 206) in Puerto Vallarta or the town of Tepic. The price varies according to the cost of fuel; flights from Tepic are about 50 percent cheaper.
“Most people opt for a one-day excursion,” said Simpson. “After a full day they are pretty tired, although they also have the option to stay overnight in a cabin.”
Simpson explained that these rustic cabins have no toilets or running water and offer little more than a bed and a mattress. Cost is $60 per night.
During the day, visitors can dine on traditional Huichol fare, learn about herbal healing, see Huichol artisans at work and have their spirit cleansed by a shaman. If the timing is right, visitors could have the opportunity to participate in an authentic Huichol peyote ceremony, which occurs roughly six times a year. Peyote ceremonies are spiritual in nature and a guide helps travelers navigate the etiquette of the event.
“We’re willing to go the extra mile to deliver a unique experience,” said Simpson.
Exploring Maya Traditions
The North American view of the Maya is a dramatic one, focusing on competitions to the death and end-of-the-world predictions. There are also gentler sides to these storied people, including the Maya practices of beekeeping, which are still followed today.
Alltournative, based in Playa del Carmen, offers excursions to a Maya community where travelers can learn about and observe the practices of Maya beekeeping and honey harvesting firsthand. Ceremonies surrounding harvesting include an appeal to Ah-Muzen-Cab (one of the Mayan gods of bees and honey) presided over by an aj kiin (a Maya priest) and featuring flower bedecked altars and traditional songs.
“It’s a full-day excursion that also includes a tour of the archeological site of Coba,” said Marco A. Gasca, expeditions manager of Alltournative. “Guests really enjoy the experience, especially tasting the honey and then receiving a traditional Maya meal.”
Community Tours Sian Ka’an, which describes itself as a community ecotourism enterprise, offers travelers another glimpse into Maya traditions with its tour “The Chewing Gum: A Mayan Legacy.” The program brings travelers into an authentic chewing gum camp in the wetlands of Sian Ka’an, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. After a six-hour drive south of Tulum, participants observe traditional methods used by the Maya to extract sap from native trees to make chewing gum. The tour also includes lunch and a lagoon swim.
Sweating it Out
The Maya sweat lodge and the temazcal ritual have grown in popularity over the years to such an extent that a number of resorts in Mexico now offer a version of the experience. Travelers who want to take it up a notch can participate in a temazcal ritual offered by Dos Palmas Ecotours. The ceremony takes place near Playa Del Carmen in an authentic Maya community and is overseen by a Maya shaman.
Tour participants enter a circular stone hut and sit on benches around a pit of red-hot stones. The opening to the hut is sealed and, over the next hour or so, a shaman tells ancient stories while dousing the hot stones with herb-infused water, resulting in fragrant steam filling the hut. Dos Palmas has added a purifying swim in a freshwater cenote (underground cavern) intended to wash away the impurities sweated out in the temazcal.
Some of Mexico’s more modern cultural traditions will also appeal to visitors who are eager to venture beyond the tried and true. Luche Libre, one of the most over-the-top aspects of Mexico’s popular culture, is a case in point. Luche Libre is a style of professional wrestling. The country has an ongoing love affair with the sport, in which participants wear colorful masks and engage in rapid sequences of holds and high-flying maneuvers.
Vayable, a website featuring unique local experiences around the world, includes a Mexico City excursion to see Luche Libre. The program begins with a dinner of tacos al pastor (meat cut from a spit) at a local taqueria. Then it’s on to a venue to see the in-ring hijinks of the luchadores. Guests can root for the heroes, boo the bad guys and marvel at the antics of the “exoticos” — Luche Libre’s gay wrestlers.
After the wrestling, the group heads to a bar in the hip neighborhood of La Roma Norte where artisanal beers and mescal are sampled before ending the evening dancing at a local nightclub.
Adventures in Eating
There’s an old Mexican proverb: “Todo lo que corre y vuela, a la cazuela” or “Everything that runs and flies, into the pot.”
That aspect of Mexican cuisine is the basis for Cristina Potters’ specialty guided tour company Mexico Cooks. Potters has lived in Mexico for more than 30 years and is the perfect guide for travelers seeking to taste something unusual. For example, her indigenous Purepecha kitchen tours feature pre-Hispanic ingredients and cooking techniques.
“My tours also include tasting visits to local markets, street food stands and high-end restaurants,” Potters said.
Potters can arrange culinary tours in Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende and Guadalajara for any size group.
“My tours are all about customization,” said Potters. “I’ve taken anywhere from one to 60 people on a tour. I make it tailored to the person or group coming to experience Mexico’s cuisine.”
While much of the cuisine in Potters’ tours uses traditional ingredients, adventurous eaters can push the envelope.
“Grasshoppers are usually eaten as a snack, while ant eggs are one of the best things you’ll ever eat,” explained Potters. “We can also sample a salsa featuring ground-up jumil beetles. There’s even a mescal drink — a twist on traditional tequila drinking — that is taken with a slice of orange and a salt made from ground-up worms found in the maguey plant.”
Potters can also combine culinary tours with visits to local artists’ workshops.
“I often find there’s an overlap in interest between sampling Mexico’s cuisine and getting a personal look at artisan workshops,” said Potters.
There are also excursions that offer foodies the opportunity to sample pulque, a little-known traditional alcoholic beverage. The fizzy, milky beverage has been around for over 1,000 years and is sometimes referred to as the “Aztec Drink of the Gods.” The Aztecs believed pulque had health benefits and they encouraged pregnant women to imbibe. Like tequila and mescal, pulque is also made from the maguey plant. It has a low alcohol content akin to beer.
The Vayable website features a Mexico City tour that brings travelers to three historic bars called pulquerias where they can try the beverage and learn about pulque’s history and production techniques.
While Mexico has plenty of sports for the adventurous traveler, from ziplining to desert Hummer tours, there are a couple of new, cutting-edge activities that are literally making a splash.
Daredevils can now try out a new thrill with Cabo Jet Pack, a family-owned company based in Los Cabos.
Visitors put on a jet pack, which is connected by hose to a boat, and propel themselves over the water. The person can hover up to 30 feet over the waves.
Flyboarding is a similarly thrilling activity that involves a supercharged wakeboard that can thrust a rider over the water and up into the air. Flyboarding can be booked through Vallarta Adventures in Puerto Vallarta.
Clients who want an unique Mexico encounter have plenty of options available through local operators. Whether learning about the Maya tradition of beekeeping, participating in a sweat lodge ritual or Huichol Indian peyote ceremony, catching a Luche Libre match or dining on grasshoppers, there are ample opportunities to experience aspects of Mexico’s cultural heritage.