National Geographic Traveler Mexico
by Jane Onstott.
reviewed by Dave Simmonds
Frequent contributor Jane Onstott has written an outstanding book on Mexico, National Geographic Traveler Mexico. It’s part of the well-known publisher’s series of guides to cities and countries around the world. Although a bit pricey for some travelers (cover price is $27.95), it’s a combo of a travel guide and coffee table book, with some 300 inviting color photos. The images portray Mexico both as a vacation destination and a vibrant country where poverty and problems don’t diminish an inestimable pride. The book’s thick glossy paper (which undoubtedly adds to the cover price) makes the photos even more vibrant.
But don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to read the text itself. Because laced in among the photos there’s some pretty good stuff. In “Mexico Today,” the first essay in the 400-page book, Jane delves into the Mexican psyche and character in addition to describing its geography, cultural traditions, and festivals. Although I already know a lot about the country’s food and drink, I hungrily read the section on Mexican food (pun intended) from start to finish. I agree heartily that by avoiding market kitchens and street-side taco venders you can’t truly experience Mexico. But the writer gives plenty of tips for eating and drinking like the locals without getting ill.
After a chapter on history (where I learned that Benito Juárez wasn’t 100 percent hero, nor was don Porfirio 100 percent perfidious) is a well-researched section describing Mexican art, music and dance, architecture, and even film – all from their roots to their modern manifestations.
The bulk of the book discusses Mexico by region, and is broken up into 11 chapters. Mexico City, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Baja get their own chapters, while the rest of the states are grouped: the Northwest, Central Pacific States, and so on. The introduction to each chapter and to each destination within it make for fascinating reading, and should help anyone contemplating a trip to narrow down the possibilities. As in any guidebook, details about museums, churches, and so on are of most interest to some actually traveling to these places. Rather than being a super comprehensive guide, it’s more selective, recommending the best things to see and do in each place.
When I asked Jane about the writing and the research required, she said she calls it “haiku travel writing,” writing evocative but extremely brief pieces. “I really had to distill each ‘portrait,’ sometimes describing a place in fewer than 350 word – not easy! I tried to convey the essence, and describe the highlights of Mexico’s most important places, without waxing prolific.” In the back of the book, hotels, restaurants, shops, and cultural events are recommended, but again, Jane lamented that she had space to mention only the standouts.
Besides the essays in the front of the book, others are sprinkled throughout. They include the excellent “A Brief History of the Mexica” (Aztecs) and the informative “Maya Calendar,” which describes some of the amazing math and science abilities of the early Maya. One of my favorite destinations, Baja California, rates two features, one about the peninsula’s prehistoric cave paintings, the other on whale species and whale watching.
I recommend this book to adventure travelers and armchair travelers alike. With great personal experience and knowledge, Jane describes Mexico in words that go beyond the standard guidebook lexicon. Often insightful, frequently witty, and always candid, she paints a picture of Mexico as it really is, not just as its boosters want it to be.
Jane Onstott has a BA in Spanish from San Diego State University. She has studied in Spain, lived in Mexico, and worked in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Since 1986 she has written for travel guides covering those and other destinations. A resident of San Diego County, she contributed to San Diego Best Places (Sasquatch Books) and Insider’s Guide to San Diego (Globe Pequot Press). National Geographic Traveler Mexico was published in November 2001. It is available at major bookstores, on www.Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble’s website, www.bn.com .