Chances are, you or someone you know has spent time in Mexico before. But if you were asked where the country’s most beautiful beach was, where to get the best seafood tacos, or where you could soak in some beautiful architecture, would you know what to say?
These are just a few of the ideas that permeate this episode of Out Travel the System. Nisreene Atassi learns about a whole host of options for things to do and places to go, thanks to help from Christian Villalva, Sr. Business Development Manager for Expedia in Mexico, and Colby Holiday, a U.S. expat blogging about her life in Mérida, Mexico.
It’s a big area well worth exploring, so listen in to figure out where’s the right place for you to visit in Mexico, when the time is right.
Making The Most Out Of Mexico
Nisreene Atassi: Whenever the weather turns gray, wet, or cold, the thoughts of many people turn to sun, sand, and surf. That in turn leads to a place near and dear to our hearts, Mexico. In this episode, we want to take a deep dive into this destination, getting into the attractions beyond the beach and getting some perspective on going off the beaten path. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel The System.
Mexico has always been a beloved destination for me. I remember going there even as a child with my family and then, of course, the quintessential spring break in Mexico when I was in college, and then even after that, traveling there with friends, family, and my husband. I have always absolutely adored it, and I’m super excited to dig into the destination. Today I’m joined by Christian Villalva, Senior Business Development Manager for Expedia in Mexico. Welcome to the show, Christian.
Christian Villalva: Hola Nissy, very happy to join this podcast.
Nisreene Atassi: I also have with me today Colby Holiday, who not only has the greatest name ever, but she also runs the World of a Wanderer .com blog, and moved to Mexico actually in January of 2019. Hi, Colby.
Colby Holiday: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on. I wish I could say I came up with it just for travel, but that is actually my real birth given name.
Nisreene Atassi: You’re meant to be a travel blogger by birth.
Colby Holiday: Life on a permanent holiday, I’m telling you.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s a tagline.
Colby Holiday: Isn’t that? I should have used that for my blog.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Let’s dig in. Christian, we’re going to start with you. We looked at some of the data and found that the most expensive time of year to go to Mexico naturally coincided with some of the major holidays. More specifically, we found that December, which obviously coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve, and then March, which coincides for spring break, were two of the most expensive months. We also found that the cheapest time to travel was in September, which is around shoulder season time, and you’re catching the tail end of some of the tropical storms. Christian, what is your suggestion for the best time to travel to Mexico?
Christian Villalva: I will say September and October are very good months to visit Mexico, but also May and June. If you are going to the Caribbean in September and October, you’re probably running a little bit of risk because of the hurricane season, which not happens in May and June. I will say those two periods are very good to visit any beach resort destination in Mexico. The most famous beach destinations are Cancun, Riviera Maya, Los Cabos, and Puerto Vallarta. In regards to how to figure out the right feat, I guess, it really depends of the traveler. Many beginner travelers choose to stay in a resort destination because it’s easy and because they want to relax in a top- notch resort and just enjoy the beach.
Nisreene Atassi: Let’s play a little game Christian. I’m going to say a type of traveler and I want you to give me the first destination that comes to your mind within Mexico that you think is the right fit. Beach.
Christian Villalva: Cancun.
Nisreene Atassi: Family- friendly.
Christian Villalva: Puerto Vallarta
Nisreene Atassi: Outdoor adventure.
Christian Villalva: Los Cabos.
Nisreene Atassi: Nightlife and dining.
Christian Villalva: Riviera Maya.
Nisreene Atassi: Then, heritage and culture.
Christian Villalva: Oaxaca.
Nisreene Atassi: Oaxaca. Okay, boy, I can’t wait to dig into these. All right, Colby, your turn. Are you ready?
Colby Holiday: Yes.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Beach.
Colby Holiday: Tulum.
Nisreene Atassi: Family- friendly.
Colby Holiday: Mérida.
Nisreene Atassi: Outdoor adventure.
Colby Holiday: I’m going to say, Sayulita.
Nisreene Atassi: Nightlife and dining.
Colby Holiday: I would also say Tulum for this one.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Heritage and culture.
Colby Holiday: I would go Oaxaca as well.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. I love it. Listen, these are all very new to me. I think that’s why I’m so excited that we’re doing this episode because, I think, myself, along with so many other American travelers, we hear about all of the most popular ones. Everyone’s always going to Cancun and Cabo and Tulum in recent years. It’s exciting to hear about all of these new destinations. For people who are looking for that sort of next experience along those lines, but maybe want to explore a little more of the country, what are some of the other places that you might want to consider?
Christian Villalva: Yeah. If we’re talking about beach destinations, and that is a great question, Acapulco was the first resort destination in Latin America. Dates back to Rat Pack days. Now, it’s more for local destination and about three and a half hours driving from Mexico city. Also in the Pacific, I will recommend Ixtapa and Huatulco there are well noticed nations, and where you can have a nice experience. Let’s say a mix between all- inclusive resort option with the local flavor. I will say that nowadays the hotspots are Tulum, of course, close to Riviera Maya. Sayulita, which is a colorful town. (Location) for surf lessons, and only one hour from downtown Vallarta, and Balandra that is located in South Baja, California, close to La Paz.
Nisreene Atassi: Awesome. All right, Colby, let’s move on to you for a little bit. You’ve lived for extended periods of time in Germany, South Korea, Spain, and now you’re in Mexico. What specifically drew you to the destination?
Colby Holiday: I’d never even been to Mexico before I moved here, but just knowing that it’s so rich with culture, I was like, “That’s a destination that I need to explore more of,” besides just the spring breaks in Cancun that you see about all the time. That was really what drew me here.
Nisreene Atassi: You’re currently living in Mérida, which is in the Yucatan state. Can you describe it for us, because I think it’s probably a city that many of our listeners have never heard of before?
Colby Holiday: Actually, before I moved here, I’d never even heard of it. Funny story, the way that I found out about it, I Googled safest places to live in Mexico.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, wow. Okay.
Colby Holiday: Mérida kept coming up time and time again, it was split between Mérida and Oaxaca, and then ultimately I ended up choosing Mérida. Not a lot of people know about it, but it’s a very laid back, very family- friendly city. We have this saying here, it’s like, “Meredith magic,” because there’s just something truly magical about this place. We don’t know what it is, but it attracts the best people, rather it’s the locals or the expats that have moved here. Even when I moved here last year, there was a very small expat community. There weren’t a lot of people, at least the younger demographic. Now, there’s tons of expats here. There’s something beautiful about this place that’s attracting a lot of people.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. Christian, have you ever been?
Christian Villalva: Yes, indeed. I’ve been in Mérida couple of times, and let me tell you that I love it. It is a capital of Yucatan and is just a few hours from Cancun and Riviera Maya. Mérida has both colonial and Mayan treasures to discover. It’s full of haciendas and beautiful colonial houses. It’s also close to Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and the areas around (inaudible) that goes all the way through the peninsula to Quintana Roo. One of the treasures of Mérida is the food. If you’re a foodie, this is definitely a must. This is your spot. As Colby was mentioned, there is something about Mérida that attract foreign people to live here from famous chefs, to designers, to bloggers.
Nisreene Atassi: It’s amazing how these places can exist and have such a magical flare to them that so many people have never even heard of. Christian, you mentioned cenotes, and if we’re talking about outdoor adventure, I think cenotes is, obviously, a really great thing to do. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Christian Villalva: Yeah. A cenote is a cave full of water. For the Mayan culture it represent a door for going to another place after life. It really means something for them. Actually, I remember that National Geographic was making a bunch of studies from Mérida till Cancun just to find out more about the cenotes. It is something in the region. There are plenty cenotes available where you can swim or dive. It’s just wonderful.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some other parts of Mexico that travelers should consider visiting that might also be a little bit off the beaten path?
Christian Villalva: Sure. There are many places. One I just recently did was a road trip. You can start in Los Cabos, visit Todos Santos town, Balandra beach, and Loretto Bay. If you have enough time, you can drive all the way to the Tijuana and believe me, it’s outstanding views of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific. On the opposite side of the country, and moving back to the Caribbean, close to Cancun, I do recommend Holbox, a secluded island where you can swim or dive with whale sharks. If you’re looking for a foodie beach destination, I will Mazatlán in Sinaloa on the Pacific side as well. Ask for an Aguachile, which is their typical seafood specialty.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow. That sounds amazing. Colby. Have you, so obviously Christian’s talking about doing a road trip. Have you done a road trip in Mexico yet?
Colby Holiday: No, I have not. That was my plan for this year to travel a lot throughout the country, but I haven’t been able to do so much of that.
Nisreene Atassi: Christian, I think a road trip for so many US travelers might seem really daunting. How would you recommend that they go about planning something like that out?
Christian Villalva: I guess it depends of the part of Mexico that you want to visit. For instance, going from Cancun to Mérida is super safe. It’s only four hours driving. You can visit many haciendas and cenotes as well. I will say that could be your first step if you’re looking to make a road trip here in Mexico. The second one, for sure is the the Baja. You can start in San Diego or Tijuana, or vice versa, you can start from Los Cabos and go all the way to the other side of the Baja, but it requires a little bit more time for do that one. In general terms, I will say it’s kind of safe. You can rent a car in any major destination and just leave the car on the other point of your road trips. I really, really recommend that. Actually, there are many tourists in the peninsula, in the Yucatan Peninsula. You can know all these little towns as [foreign language] as well. Of course Tulum, and then spend a couple of days probably in a nice resort at the end of your trip.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that idea, sort of a combination of both. Then, you get a little bit of everything, which could be really fun. Of course, we have to talk about travelers who are looking to get a little bit more out of their experience than just going to the beach. What about people who want to get the flavor of Mexican culture or maybe even more of an urban city life. Christian, where would you recommend people go?
Christian Villalva: Well, definitely Mexico City is a must, one of the largest cities in the world with a variety of museums, restaurants, the scene, lots of options for any interest. Then Guadalajara, the second major city in Mexico where tequila and mariachi came from. Another great urban experience with regional food and very rich in culture. Of course, we cannot miss colonial and the vibrant towns. San Miguel de Allende, that has been selected as one of the best city in the world a few times in the last couple of years. Of course, Oaxaca, which has very rich, colonial architecture. There is so much to see and absorb in those towns. Also, one of my favorite is San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas located at the south part of the country. In the border, actually, with Guatemala. Here, you will see a lot of indigenous presence and get that unique sense in everything. Also, very rich in terms of at activities and nature in general. There is also a program called Pueblos Mágicos or Magical Towns to promote a series of towns around the country because of the cultural, historical, or natural relevance. Many of them are relative close for a major destinations that’s Mexico city or Mérida. It could be a good option for your next visit to Mexico.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. Never even heard of it. That’s amazing. All right. Christian, why do you think there’s been a little bit more of a surge in travelers wanting to visit some of these destinations that aren’t necessarily just exclusively beach and reservoir? Mexico City, I feel like over the last couple of years has really become a very popular destination for a lot of US travelers.
Christian Villalva: I think travelers in general are changing their mindset. Of course, many of them, they want to go to Cancun two times a year, right, but there are travelers that they want to really discover a culture or learn a language or really taste the flavors of the local cuisine. I guess Mexico City because of the museums, because there are plenty options for everyone, that is why some of these city are getting that boost or that momentum. Basically, you can really learn about the culture of a country in every sense of the word.
Nisreene Atassi: Well, I know Mexico city is definitely on my bucket list. That’s for sure. Colby, let’s talk about your bucket list.
Colby Holiday: Absolutely. One of the things that’s on my bucket list is Chihuahua. They have what they call Copper Canyon and apparently it’s bigger or deeper than the Grand Canyon itself. They have these massive canyons that you can wake up to these exquisite views to see. That’s definitely one thing that I want to do. Another thing, Mexico has wine country. There’s either Guadalupe. Going there and having that whole wine experience, that’s one definitely at the top of my list. I mentioned Sayulita earlier. Going there and surfing. Even Mexico city, I haven’t even been there. That’s probably one of the top places on my bucket list.
Nisreene Atassi: I feel like I knew nothing about Mexico apparently. All of the stuff that you both have been sharing is super interesting and also super, super new to me. That’s why I absolutely adore doing this podcast. We’re going to dive into this a little bit more after the break, as well as our favorite regional food specialties and how to decide where to stay when you’re in Mexico.
This is Out Travel the System and I’m your host Nisreene Atassi. This season, we’re exploring tips and tricks to help you stretch your travel budget and sharing sources of inspiration for travel at some point in the future. We’re exploring everything you love from food, what to factor into your trip planning, and how to score the best prices. Catch up on all the episodes that are already live for Out Travel the System, and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you can stay up to date on the latest content. Oh, and don’t forget to catch our latest edition this season, mini- episodes, where we’ll share breaking travel news, as well as the changing conditions for some of our favorite destinations like Hawaii, Mexico, and Japan. Let us know what you’re thinking with a review of the podcast or by messaging us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, or at Expedia. We’re here with Christian Villalva of Expedia, and Colby Holiday, a US expat living in Mexico. All right, Colby, back to you. You’re based in Mérida. What are some of the things you didn’t know about living there that you wished you had known in advance?
Colby Holiday: I am from Georgia. I went to school in South Georgia, so it was extremely hot, extremely humid, but I don’t think… nothing could have prepared me for the heat that’s here. It’s a different kind of heat. It’s the heat plus humidity. That’s one thing I definitely did not know. I read about it. I researched before coming and I was like, “Oh, yeah, it’s hot.” No, it’s really hot. I just wrote a blog post recently and I said, “It feels like someone put you inside an incinerator, reduced you to ash, then lit you on fire again.” It’s pretty hot, but now we are getting into cooler season. I say cooler. It’s like 80 degrees. The evenings are getting cooler. It’s my favorite time of year here. I got here in January of last year. It was pretty nice during that time. Then around April, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is the heat everyone was talking about.”
Nisreene Atassi: What are some things that you would recommend to travelers who are planning or even packing for a trip to Mexico?
Colby Holiday: I would definitely say if you’re coming to Mérida, in particular, I would say bring lightweight clothes. You can leave the blue jeans at home. You don’t need those here. Definitely breathable, lightweight clothes. Also, mosquito repellent or bug repellent, the mosquitoes here are vicious. Definitely make sure you are protected.
Nisreene Atassi: Let’s switch over to my favorite topic, which is local food. I absolutely adore eating local food while I’m traveling. It’s a huge part of every trip that I do. It really makes the travel experience for me. Earlier this season, we did an entire episode on how to be a foodie while traveling. We had Nilou Motamed from Top Chef on the show, which was really great. We talked a lot about it. Colby, why don’t we start with you. What are your favorite regional dishes that you’ve tried so far?
Colby Holiday: Yeah. Here in Mérida they have very specific food. They have Yucatecan dishes, which you typically wouldn’t find in other regions of Mexico. One of my favorite dishes is panuchos and it’s kind of like a fried tortilla and it has stuffed black beans inside it. Then, it’s topped with either, sometimes you can get turkey or you can get another regional dish call it cochinita it’s shredded pork achiote sauce, and is absolutely delicious. They usually serve it with tortillas and pickled red onions. I like them both. I don’t really have a preference over one or the other, but they’re absolutely delicious. Another dish that I just recently tried for Día de Muertos is pepe. That’s also more regional to Mérida that or to the Yucatan. It’s cooked underground for several hours. I know this year because it was raining, they didn’t have a chance to cook it underground. It was actually cooked in an oven, but it was absolutely delicious.
Christian Villalva: My favorite thing about Mexican food is that you can have at least one top specialty per state or region. For example, if you are in Oaxaca, you cannot miss mole, mezcal, tlayudas, and for the most I’ve been through once chapulines, which actually are insects.
Nisreene Atassi: Whoa, what kind of insects?
Christian Villalva: Yeah. Chapulines is like…
Colby Holiday: Crickets.
Christian Villalva: Crickets. That’s the word. In Mérida cochinita pibil is a must, as Colby was saying. Also, salbutes and panuchos. In Mexico city tacos are kind, but there is much more than tacos and guacamole. You have to try esquites, escamoles, chilaquiles. For breakfast, or dinner as well. Chiles en Nogada, which is a very typical dish that it served in September for our holidays. Then on the Pacific, we can try the best fish tacos and lobster. Of course, Valle de Guadalupe is known for their wines. Chocolate dessert is a must. Oh, God. I’m feeling hungry now.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I know me too. I think I’m going to have tacos for dinner tonight. Let’s get into some of the trip planning elements. Talk to me about all- inclusive resorts versus booking, just your standard accommodation. What was your recommend for people who are trying to decide what’s right for them?
Christian Villalva: I do love a good all- inclusive when I’m going to the beach. Unlimited drinks and food, come on. Sometimes, it means you don’t explore as much of the local culture. I definitely recommend to mix both experience if possible in your next trip to Mexico. On Expedia sites, you have many indicators that help you in your booking decision. From a star rating, verified traveler opinions, and a comprehensive image gallery. Some hotels have more than a hundred pictures and thousands of traveler opinions. You can really have a good idea of what are you going to receive. Real value, perks, and location. On top of that, you can use filters to help you to select what are you looking for. Am I interested in a local boutique hotel in downtown, or do I prefer to book my favorite hotel brands? I guess it’s up to the traveler.
Nisreene Atassi: We recently launched Expedia’s travel trends report for 2020, and it showed that vacation homes were growing in popularity for many destinations, partly because of the global pandemic, but I think also just because travelers are changing and they want a little bit more out of their lodging. How is that playing out in Mexico?
Christian Villalva: Alternative lodging is growing popularity. In Mexico, it used to be focused on resort destinations. The family that has a beach condo, and only uses in the winter, and rent it for the rest of the year. Nowadays, the different platforms, including Vrbo, made it more easy. Now we do have alternative options everywhere. Many of them of course are very convenient and super well located in downtowns. It’s also related to a generation behavior, I believe. Although, I do prefer a hotel with amenities and facilities myself.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I do too. Especially, the pools. If you’re going down to Mexico and you’re headed to Puerto Vallarta or somewhere, you want that lovely pool, the beach. I want all of that, all the special amenities for sure. We talked a little bit about transportation when we were talking about road trips, but what are some of the other ways for people to get around?
Colby Holiday: Here in Mérida, I live in central, so everything it’s very near, so I can easily walk to five coffee shops within a 10 minute walking distance from me. Even when I need to go further out, there’s Uber here. I use Uber a lot. When I travel further to Tulum or somewhere else, we generally do rent a car, especially now. They do have an excellent bus system here, the ADO bus, which is amazing. I’ve taken that several times to Cancun to fly in and out of the city. You have a variety of options, and they’re quite affordable as well.
Nisreene Atassi: As an American, how was it driving in Mexico? Is it daunting or is it totally fine?
Colby Holiday: Well, it’s a little daunting. Driving here is a little wild. There are a lot of roundabouts and you just have to go and pray for the best, but as a passenger, I’m more afraid, but actually getting behind the wheel, I’m like, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” You go with the traffic, go with the flow, and you figure it out.
Nisreene Atassi: Christian, what about you? How would you recommend travelers get around? I like the idea of heading to Mexico and maybe doing a couple of different cities in your trip if you’re there for a week. How would you recommend travelers get from one place to another?
Christian Villalva: Yeah. It really depends where you at. I usually book well located hotels so I can walk everywhere, but Mexico cities have a lots of options. As Colby was mentioned, major cities, they do have Uber and very good Uber service. Rental car. Many cities they do have a public biking surveys and of course walking, however, for more secluded destinations may be more comfortable to letting your company to do the driving for tourists and et cetera.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. All right. That’s a good tip. Here’s another really big question that I think comes up every time we talk about international destinations, how important is it to speak Spanish for travelers?
Christian Villalva: In resorts and major cities, lots of English I will say. In other towns might have some problems if you don’t speak Spanish. Nothing that really interferes with your experience to the point of affecting your travel. If you go to a restaurant, even if they don’t speak Spanish, you can get by. Don’t have to learn Spanish, but try to learn a few phrases or something. “Where’s the restaurant?” “Where’s the restroom?” “Where’s the ATM?” “Por favor” “Muchas gracias.” “Not that spicy, please.” “I need another mezcal” important one. In Mexico, people is very willing to help you with what you want. It’s not rude if you don’t speak Spanish. Service, I will say, is top- notch. Some people on traveling trends said that is one of the best hospitality service in Latin America, so you will find.
Nisreene Atassi: I did take Spanish when I was in middle school, and I’m pretty sure the one phrase that has really stuck with me is, “Donde está la biblioteca,” which is probably nothing I would ever use as a traveler.
Christian Villalva: Probably not.
Nisreene Atassi: How do I say, “Make it less spicy, please?”
Christian Villalva: “Poco picante”
Nisreene Atassi: Wait, say that again. One more time.
Christian Villalva: “No picante” or “No picante mucho”
Nisreene Atassi: All right. I feel like that’s an important one to learn. Colby, what have you found on this front since you moved there? Did you speak Spanish before you went?
Colby Holiday: No. I was like you act took a couple of years of Spanish in high school, but other than that, not so much. Moving here, I had a little bit of Spanish under my belt, which is really helpful. Again, the key phrases really helps, and yeah, like Christian said, if you’re not fluent in it, it’s fine. You’ll get by. Especially here. It’s not a very touristy city. There are not a lot of people that speak English. You’ll find like in restaurants and some places you’ll find a lot of people that speak English or Uber drivers, but for the most part, it’s all Spanish, but become a master of mime and a guru of Google translate. I always say that. You figure it out because that’s just what you do. You have to communicate, so you figure it out one way or another, and people are really kind. They’re not going to scoff at you or just turn their back and walk away because they can’t understand you. They’re very willing to help. It makes it very easy.
Nisreene Atassi: Can we talk about tequila really quickly, because I feel like something tells me that Christian has a really strong POV on this one? Christian, what is the best tequila to have while you’re in Mexico?
Christian Villalva: My favorite is Reserva de la Familia, which is a very nice tequila. Probably, you cannot find it in every restaurant or everywhere, but one that I like that it’s very common, it’s Don Julio.
Nisreene Atassi: Yep. We know that one.
Christian Villalva: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Those are my favorites. Then you have the mezcal, which is also from the agave, and it’s getting famous here in Mexico and I will say worldwide as well. I like pretty much the mezcal.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Is there a wrong way and a right way to drink tequila?
Christian Villalva: Yeah. We said that the mezcal [foreign language], meaning that it’s just sipping, not a shot. I guess it depends on the tequila. Yeah, you have to really enjoy a good drink of tequila.
Colby Holiday: I drink mezcal mostly. I haven’t drank too much just the regular tequila, but mezcal, my friends and I, we do drink that. I know Conejos Hoven, it’s 400 rabbits in English. That’s one we really enjoy. We were at a cafe a couple of weeks ago and the waiter, he was actually telling us the story behind this and forgive me if I butcher it, but each one of the rabbits accounts for all of your moods. If you drink this mezcal and you feel sad, then it’s the sad rabbit coming through for you, or if you’re feeling happy while drinking it, then it’s the happy spirits coming through. That’s one of the ones that I drink most often.
Nisreene Atassi: Well, I feel like that is as good a spot as any to wrap it up. My guests today have been Christian Villalva, a Senior Business Development Manager for Expedia in Mexico, and Colby Holiday, a travel blogger with the greatest name of all time and an American expat living in Mérida, Mexico. Thank you both for bringing to life the color and magic of Mexico for this episode. Really, really appreciate having you both on. Thank you.
Colby Holiday: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure being here.
Christian Villalva: Gracias. It was a pleasure as well. Thank you very much.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel the System brought to by Expedia. Join us next time as we uncover the most picture perfect holiday towns in the US and tips for recreating your favorite holiday movie. Until then, happy travels.