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Hievre El Agua. Shutterstock/Svetlana Bykova
VOICES

Travels 'Parts of Mexico are like the Gaeltacht with sunshine and tacos'

As Peter Flanagan travels around Mexico, he feels a nagging guilt about the impact of tourism on local communities.

GLIDING THROUGH MEXICO City after dark, we marvelled at the luxuriant interior of the SUV.

The men in the front were young and well dressed. Tentatively, they shared the details of their lives with us in halting English.

“What do you do for work?” my girlfriend asked the man behind the wheel.

“I used to work” he said after a pause. Then he started to laugh.

They weren’t Uber drivers. The four of us had met a few hours previously in Mexico Arena. As wrestlers in technicolour masks somersaulted through the air under hot lights, the audience teetered on the edge of a mass hysteria.

fourcolorfulmexicanwrestlingmasks Mexican wrestling masks. Shutterstock / Gabriela Trevino Shutterstock / Gabriela Trevino / Gabriela Trevino

Men with white shirts and deep wrinkles in their faces stalked the aisles selling slabs of beer and tortilla chips. Local luchadors took on a team of visiting Americans in the main event. I got completely carried away, my breath tacky with alcohol as I chanted in broken Spanish.

“Are you worried about the police?” my girlfriend ventured from the backseat. There was a police checkpoint ahead. The other man spoke this time, pulling thin fingers through his slicked-back hair. “The police won’t stop this car.” It was midnight and we’d accepted a lift home from two strangers in what some call the kidnap capital of the world.

Mexican adventures

They dropped us off outside our hotel in Condesa. The district is on-trend for the digital nomad set, with cafes and bars charging London prices for coffees and cocktails. Leafy boulevards are lined with bohemian businesses while the local parks teem with jogging hipsters. We were lucky enough to visit while the city’s multitude of jacaranda trees had started to bloom, their leaves lending the cityscape a soft violet hue.

We swapped social media details with our new friends and didn’t ask questions when their names on Instagram were different to how they’d introduced themselves. Like so many of the Mexicans we met on our trip, the men were funny, generous and playful. Whether they worked for a cartel or just landed lucrative tech jobs somewhere, I genuinely couldn’t tell.

A few days later in Oaxaca, the disparity between Mexico’s rich and poor became apparent. The region is famous as a melting pot of indigenous cultures, preserved against colonisation in part due to its parched, mountainous landscape. Think the Gaeltacht with sunshine and tacos. Staggering pre-Columbian pyramids and thriving local craft and culinary traditions celebrate life before the arrival of the Spanish. But as well as being the cultural heartbeat of Mexico, it is also one of its poorest states.

oaxacadejuarezoaxacamexico Oaxaca. Shutterstock / Luc Rousseau Shutterstock / Luc Rousseau / Luc Rousseau

Not that you can tell in the city centre. Dotted along the cobblestone streets are hip mezcalerias and high-end restaurants packed with tourists. The explosion in foreign visitors started in 2020 with the intersection between relaxed Covid rules and social media-friendly attractions. The surge has put an enormous strain on local infrastructure, with higher prices pushing locals away from the baroque churches and artisanal markets of the old town.

‘Awash with dollars’ 

If downtown is an Instagram-fever dream of Mexican life, a short taxi ride into the outer ring reveals the real thing. A 24-hour Mcdonald’s swells with young families, a nearby strip club billboard gleams with lurid light.

Driven out of the safe, clean central neighbourhoods by new Airbnbs and soaring rents, many locals must now navigate the rubble of unpaved streets outside their homes.

They complain that while the city is now awash with dollars, most of the profits end up in the pockets of property owners and politicians. It is as if the economy is broken into silos — between the drug trade, the tourism boom, and the lived experience of ordinary people.

A few days into my trip, I wearily found myself thinking of Mexico as being like Cuba before Castro — a playground for American holidaymakers and organised criminals.
Sixty-five kilometres from Oaxaca City is Hievre El Agua, a naturally occurring infinity pool of spring water overlooking the mountains.

oaxacamexico-november152014youngpeopleposefor Hievre El Agua. Shutterstock / Svetlana Bykova Shutterstock / Svetlana Bykova / Svetlana Bykova

The view is spectacular but is spoiled somewhat by the parade influencers and wannabes jostling for position at its edge, yearning for that perfect, life-affirming shot. What was once a miracle of geology is now gringo soup, its turquoise water turned rancid by sunscreen and sweat. Locals look on from the periphery, selling drinks and snacks from makeshift stalls. Watching a Texan adjust his speedo as he posed at the cliff edge, my heart sank as I considered my own part in the exploitation. Not just a spectator, I was a participant too.

Gentrification

Yet the same resilience which preserved indigenous traditions in the face of colonisation remains as Oaxaca grapples with gentrification. Community-led protests against overdevelopment are increasing. Feminist, pro-Palestinian or anti-American graffiti is not unusual.

Struggling with my own hypocrisy as I strolled wearily through the Zocalo one evening, I stumbled upon a pasayo (clown) organising a reggaeton dance competition.

“Where are you from?” he shouted over a crackling PA. About 100 or so spectators turned to look at me, their faces wet with suspicion.

“Ireland”, I stammered.

“Holland!” the clown screeched in a comic falsetto, his eyes blazing under the whites and blues of his face paint. The people roared their approval as he clasped my wrist and dragged me into the centre of the square, a human sacrifice in the pre-Columbian tradition.

In the shade of the Cathedral of Oaxaca where Rome and Madrid had once projected their power, I danced for my life. Pigeon-like in my movements, my twerking lacked the natural rhythm of the Oaxacans, but my enthusiasm was undeniable.

Under the chalky light of the moon, the people laughed, heckled and cheered until we all felt a bit better about my presence there.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter @peterflanagan and Instagram @peterflanagancomedy.      

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