Mexico in the Rainy Season
story and photos by Jane Onstott
What would you think if the wedding invitation you received, printed in elegant calligraphy, said “Rain cancels”?
I recently went to an outdoor wedding reception held in the spacious back yard of a private home. Because my date had to work, we got there several hours after it started, and Jesús, who was starving, expected to find no food. But tray after covered tray contained everything needed for a delicious Mexican banquet. As Jesús chowed down happily, the bride revealed that nearly half the invited guests had been no-shows, scared away by the previous night’s marathon rainstorm.
Although the sky occasionally threatened during the afternoon reception, it was a bright and beautiful day. The garden venue appeared freshly washed and misted, the leaves gleamed, the lawn was well-watered but not wet. In the evening, we toasted the newlyweds in the hot tub under a sky full of stars, discussing how lucky it was that the rain hadn’t ruined the outdoor event. Dining tables ringed the pool of the large back yard; the dance floor was the partially covered patio, and the DJ and bartender both set up in the open air. Rain would have been a disaster, but who expects rain in Southern California in October? No one with an eye for statistics or a front lawn to water.
Your Mexico vacation might not be as important as your wedding day. But a vacation is an important, long-anticipated event that you want to enjoy and make the most of. Maybe that’s why people tend to opt for the predictably dry months – late November through the end of May, when planning trips into Mexico. Rain on your Puerto Vallarta parade? Unthinkable!
Or is it?
Just as rain rinsed the dust from trees and flowers before Liz and Craig’s wedding reception, an afternoon downpour washes a city clean. Even colonial gems like Oaxaca city and San Luis Potosí can experience unpleasant levels of pollution, and a summer shower makes their old historic centers seem positively youthful. Photographers who shudder when they view a flat, gray sky through the viewfinder love the dramatic clouds the rainy season often brings. The clouds and more subdued lighting make an outstanding backdrop for vacation photos.
If a rain shower is a boon in Oaxaca, it’s truly a blessing in smoggy Mexico City. My best trip to the Mexican capital was one August when it rained every afternoon. By about 3 p.m. the rain clouds would begin to bunch in an previously cloudless blue sky. (This was in the late 1980s, and the sky was still sometimes blue.) A slight wind would rise, and by the cocktail hour the heavens would open, dumping several inches of rain in as many hours. My two girlfriends and I would head for the nearest watering hole, shake the rain from our jackets, and duck inside.
Even as we debated packing in one more museum or cultural event before sunset, we remained sensibly glued to our bar stools. As the rain falling outside steamed up the windows, we’d spend a few lazy, unproductive hours chatting and playing dominoes or cards. We gleaned from the bartender and barflies bits of neighborhood trivia. By the time the rain began to let up, we were relaxed, refreshed and – armed with a half-dozen restaurant recommendations – ready to carry on!
Participant Sports Demand a Flexible Itinerary
Another perk of the rainy season are the green, green hills and exuberant vegetation. An emerald backdrop lifts the spirits, while dusty brown hills behind the blue bay of Acapulco and scraggly gray thorn forests outside Mazatlán just seem wrong. During the wet season, corn pushes up through fields of loamy earth, receiving the rain like a gift. Waterfalls and rivers are full and quick, and kayakers and rafters bounce along with bravado.
If your vacation revolves around sports like scuba diving or mountain biking, however, rainy weather can pose more of a challenge. On my recent trip to Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa I took an introductory scuba course. After lessons in the hotel pool about how to breathe underwater and react to various alarming scenarios, I was ready to try my limited skills in the Pacific. A tropical storm off the Colima coast made the ocean rough, however, and despite fair skies in Zihua, visibility was so poor that dive master Miguel insisted I take a rain check.
Missing out on that dive did disappoint me. Another excursion had to be canned because I planned it for the only day that dawned with rain. I wanted to bike to Parque Aztlán, an ecological reserve known for its variety of birds (and ferocious mosquitoes). After that I had plans to snorkel and hike on tiny Ixtapa island, just offshore, and then have lunch at one of a long string of seafood restaurants there. It rained hard all morning, so I could neither bike ride or visit the island. By one o’clock the sun was shining again, but I had appointments scheduled for the afternoon. The average vacationer, however, could have simply done that afternoon what he’d hoped to have done in the morning.
So a flexible attitude and a reasonably open itinerary are big pluses when traveling at this time of year (June through early November). Make the most of sunny days. If the weather is fine when you arrive, or raining lightly or just in the afternoons, don’t put off until later in the week diving, biking, mountain climbing, or an architectural walking tour of the city. On seriously rainy days you can shop, barhop, or visit museums.
Reduced visibility during the rainy season is a problem for divers and snorkelers; however, swimmers will love the warm water temps. On the surface, the ocean in both the Pacific and the Caribbean can reach the 80s in summer and fall, while dipping into the 60s during the coolest, driest months (January and February). High temps make swimming a pleasure, but iffy infrastructure in most coastal cities means that after a heavy rain, significant amounts of sewage finds its ways into the ocean just offshore. For that reason swimming, especially in a closed bay like Zihuatanejo or Acapulco, isn’t recommended then.
You’d think that rainy season and “off season” might be synonymous. But most school kids in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have their vacations June through August, so that’s when many families travel. Rain or no rain, the coastal resorts are full of families escaping the oppressive humidity and heat of Mexico’s inland regions. Europeans typically travel in August, a big month for Mexico’s coastal resorts. Prices go down in September and October, which is hurricane season. And while the probability of getting hit with a hurricane isn’t that great, names like Pauline and Gilbert, and the havoc these storms have unleashed, tend to discourage vacations along the coast then. There are generally fewer, and less severe, hurricanes along the Pacific than the Caribbean.
Like most everything else, traveling in the rainy season has its pros and cons. There are biting bugs, and the discounts aren’t that deep, but crowds are much fewer and locals in resort towns come out of hiding and head for their favorite discos. Edzná and Mexico’s other archaeological sites look fabulous in the rain. Just pray that you’re not standing on the tallest pyramid when the lightning storm strikes.
Traveling in the rainy season can be wonderful, or it can be a pain. Here are a few tips to insure it’s not the latter.
Shoes. Bring an extra pair, and make sure your primary walking shoes can handle getting really wet. (One friend walked around Acapulco for five days with black feet, as the dye in her only good walking shoes ran.) Tevas and strappy natural leather sandals do well when wet, and dry quickly. You can use a blow dryer to speed up drying time.
Mosquitoes. They tend to come out right just as the rain begins. Bring mossie repellant, and use it liberally.
Worst case scenario. Imagine being stuck in your room or your favorite bar or restaurant for hours if it really really pours. Bring travel-size Scrabble, dice, playing cards, or extra books or magazines. (How about all those New Yorker magazines piled on your coffee table? When you're done with each issue, pass it along to one of Mexico’s ubiquitous English students.)
Wet T-shirt contest. Remember that in coastal Mexico, rainy season is still the hottest season, so a lightweight, fast-drying wardrobe is recommended. Jeans take twice as long to dry as a pair of light cotton-blend trousers. At lower elevations, bring the lightest, most breathable raincoat you can find. Places at higher elevations, like San Cristóbal de las Casas, Pátzcuaro, and Mexico City do get chilly when it rains.
Umbrella. Most people find that a telescoping umbrella, which fits in a daypack or oversized purse, is less often left behind.
Travel writing doesn't get much better than this. Morris, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, has also written House Arrest, The Night Sky, and Angels and Aliens: A Journey West.