Mexico as a country fascinates on many levels. Regional food, traditional music, local celebrations and customs all make the list of reasons why a trip to Mexico is so worthwhile. There are also world-class museums, chef-driven fine dining and a lot of high-end shopping to be had. The country is varied to say the least. The original inhabitants of this land had strong social and cultural traditions in place long before the mixture of Spanish colonialism or the influx of millions of tourists a year.
These folks in many ways have held tight to their ancestral ways, despite the fact that no indigenous community has been immune to the forceful march of Mexico’s modernity. That said, visiting some of the country’s more isolated communities can shed much light on the unique cultural fabric that makes Mexico what it is today.
A few rules apply. Respect for the people and natural environments where they live is paramount. In the same way that you wouldn’t visit a mosque without covering your head or asking for beef from those who venerate cows, learning the local communities mores and behaviours is an important part of respecting them as a community. This knowledge can be hard to come by for an outsider which is why we recommend working with a local guide or organization that has a pre-established relationship with the community.
Respecting the natural environment is tantamount for many indigenous Mexican communities which is why you as an outsider should do the same, picking up after yourself, treading lightly. Remember not to assume the indigenous people of Mexico will speak Spanish, many speak one of the other over 100 languages still alive in the country today. Much can be communicated with gestures and smiles so please BE FRIENDLY. Your attitude makes a world of difference.
Always ask permission to take photos and if people agree, let them see them after you have taken them. Remember that these communities aren’t like animals in a zoo and not a mere attraction for your instagram account. Finally, if food or participation in community activities is offered to you, join in! In Mexico, a country built around food, sharing a meal is part of building a relationship and nothing is ruder than refusing your hosts.
When you feel you are ready to get off the beaten track and experience some of Mexico’s deeper history there are several places that are good to go to mix and mingle with the country’s indigenous communities.
For a look at Oaxaca’s ancestral roots, you need go no further than the stunning ruins scattered across the state. But for deeper knowledge of its original peoples, there are several organizations and guides that you can work with to organize a visit with the local Zapoteco people (Oaxaca’s original inhabitants). Companies like Traditions Mexico and Adventure Life tours offer opportunities to visit indigenous artisans, share meals in local homes and visit rural communities to see how they live.
Sumak Travel promotes local community initiatives and ecotourism in the Yucatan peninsula and is a great way to get to know the indigenous Maya of this region. The food has a distinct tropical quality and there are opportunities to interact with the stunning natural surroundings. The Yucatan Travel guide also has all kinds of information about local Maya culture to prepare for any visit.
Chiapas is another Mexican state with a deep indigenous tradition that lives on in the self-sufficient and self-governing communities of the Zapatistas. There all kinds of organizations that will arrange study programs, volunteer trips and visits out to experience this unique indigenous reality in Chiapas. Here’s a good primer on the Zapatista movement in Mexico.
There are lots of other opportunities to experience traditional communities in Mexico, all it takes is a little research and an open mind and heart. We hope you enjoy the trip!