Last updated on November 29th, 2022
How taking the first step shifted my perspective
By Carolyn Ray, Editor-in-Chief, JourneyWoman
Three years ago, I made a radical decision – to rid myself of my worldly possessions and travel the world. I became the downsizing queen and slimmed my belongings down from a three-bedroom house in less than six weeks to only a few boxes and my backpack. Finally, I had achieved my dream – to live where and how I wanted, without worrying about a mortgage or car payments. For the first time since I was 24, I was free. I rented a furnished apartment in downtown Toronto and started plotting my travels around the world.
At the onset of the pandemic, I had to rethink my plan. I looked at the economics and decided that it was more cost-effective to buy a small 500-square foot apartment and put my savings to work for me. In summer 2020, I travelled in Ontario, learning to appreciate my own backyard, and was devastated when we went into lockdown last fall. As summer 2021 approached, things started opening up a bit. I was invited on a backcountry horseback riding tour in July, to Prince Edward Island for the Island Walk in September, and then the famed Camino de Santiago in October. These three outings gave me confidence that it was possible for me to travel safely, with the right mindset.
Ten days after returning from Spain, I left for Mexico. I committed to stay there for at least three months. I knew it would be bumpy, messy and full of challenges, but I decided that the risk to my own well-being outweighed all else. I just couldn’t sit another day feeling like I wasn’t living life on my own terms.
Five things I learned as a female traveler in Mexico
1. Set your intention and then roll with it
My travel began with a big intention: To travel the world. However, when I decided to go to Mexico for three months, I did something I had never done before. I didn’t plan the entire time – that felt like too much pressure. Was I uncomfortable with not having a plan? Yes! Was I anxious? Yes. But that first step resulted in another, and another, and before I knew it, the plan unfolded.
Mexico felt like the right place to start living the life of my dreams. I had always wanted to experience Day of the Dead, so in October, I rented a homestay for two weeks in San Miguel de Allende. I didn’t have anything else planned. I decided to see what would happen. When I shared my plan, recommendations poured in from our readers, and Puerto Escondido became the next destination on my list, followed by Merida, where I lived for over two months, doing day trips to nearby Progreso Beach, archaeological sites like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, and a road trip to Quintana Roo in January. I could have never planned this on my own, without all the ideas and suggestions from our readers.
On New Year’s Eve, I witnessed an incredibly dramatic red and orange, almost fire-like sunset on a beach outside Merida. As I stood in the ocean, watching the colours shift from red to blue, was a sign to me that I had made the right decision.
2. Trust your intuition and see where it takes you
Right now, there is no such thing as perfect travel. It is unpredictable, disorganized and messy. But isn’t life that way too? I have always felt like there is a force is watching over me, guiding me, and somehow looking after me. Having faith can make an enormous difference in your life. Just looking for the little things, the small signs that you’re on the right path matter.
Mexico wasn’t a place I had initially considered. It was never on my ‘bucket list.’ Now, I’m embarrassed to admit I thought I ‘knew it’ from trips to Cancun or Playa del Carmen. I chose Mexico for its proximity to Canada and to my daughter, but also because I wanted to learn Spanish. I wonder if the small picture I have on my bedroom wall that once belonged to Evelyn had something to do with it. For the past year, I’ve looked at a joyous cathedral scene in Mexico City. In November, I stood in front of it with my daughter. Who knows how the universe works?
I made a lot of mistakes. Because I’m still learning Spanish, I misunderstood many things. In some cases, I trusted the information found on websites, instead of asking better questions to verify costs, location and experience. I booked a boutique hotel in Bacalar where I could hear every movement of the couple above me through the floors. A last-minute booking in Valladolid resulted in a room next to the kitchen, which I refused to stay in. In most cases, however, I found people flexible. If I asked for a change, I usually received it.
Merida’s colonial history, warm climate, beaches, UNESCO sites, Pueblos Mágicos and Cenotes might entice you to stay in Mexico long term.
3. Invite the world in and leave the TV off
Curiosity is one of the best attributes of a traveller. You can read all the articles you want, but the only way to really find out what’s true or not is to get out there. As a travel writer, I felt an urgency to be on the ground, not just reading about the places I want to visit.
One of the best things I’ve done is to turn off the TV. Other than trying to watch the Mexican news to learn Spanish, I haven’t seen TV news for three months. Instead, I observe, listen and learn from what I see happening here. The media has its own agenda and gives a filtered view. Writers like me are out in the real world. I’m not sitting in a TV studio – I’m in the real world, asking questions, finding out what’s really happening, speaking with locals. My goal isn’t to sell advertising – my own reputation is on the line, so I’m incented to tell the truth, not create jazzy headlines.
There’s simply no replacement for speaking with people on the ground. In my time here, I learned that Mexicans care deeply about family, education, and advancing the next generation. Mexico has a rich culture, with Maya, Spanish and Mexican intertwined. In December, I observed many families on pilgrimages on bikes, cars, and trucks pilgrimages to honour the Virgin of Guadalupe, in long, musical processions to pray at churches around the country. When the iconic singer Vincente Fernandez passed away at age 81, the entire country mourned – his voice could be heard on every street. There’s an abundance of creativity in Mexico – artists, chefs, singers, writers – and pride for their culture. Everything here is made by hand – food, crafts, artisans, homes, clothing.
4. Don’t deny yourself joy
As much as I love my small apartment, it was starting to affect my mental health. I felt isolated and trapped. I couldn’t imagine what the winter would do to my optimism and curiosity. I knew the risks and I was prepared to accept the consequences. I bought travel insurance, covid insurance and had a supply of self-tests with me.
It’s often said that planning a trip can be as exciting as doing it – once I started thinking about this trip, it shifted my perspective. I had a focus, a goal, and my energy levels picked up. I scoured our articles for tips, like using a Scrubba bag for laundry, and packing for long-term travel. I felt invigorated for the first time in months.
Watching that first sunrise in San Miguel from the roof of my homestay made my joy tangible. I felt like I could breathe again. I could see all the colours in the sky, feel the breeze blowing and smell the flowers blooming. Swimming in a turquoise cenote for the first time was otherworldly. I finally felt alive again.
Find the Perfect Longstay!
From my three months in Mexico, I’ve created a list of over 50 questions you can ask when renting a long stay.
5. Act with integrity, even when no one is watching
When we travel, we have to be responsible and respect the local requirements. To me, this means doing the right things as if no one is watching simply because they are the right things to do. In both San MIguel and Merida, there are mask requirements yet I saw many visitors walking around without one on.
Every store has hand sanitizer, an entrance mat and takes your temperature. When I walk out my door on to the street, even when there is no one around, I have a KN95 mask on. Even touring pyramids in the open air, or at the beach. I don’t take it off unless I’m sitting at a restaurant or completely alone. Period. I want others to see I respect them as much as they respect me.
In November, I joined an art walk in San Miguel de Allende, and several people asked if masks were required as we were outside. The tour leader, Waylon, reminded us that we walk through vulnerable neighborhoods. He said this small act is to protect them from you, not you from them. I thought that was courageous of him. Needless to say, everyone wore their mask.
I stayed at 13 homestays, bed and breakfasts and hotels, and three asked if I was vaccinated. One asked for proof, which I happily provided. I was invited to cocktails and Christmas dinner by a family and did a self-test before. No one asked me to. I just did it because it was the right thing to do. I would feel terrible if I brought the virus into their homes, to their children.
Now, when I go to a hair salon, or stay at someone’s home, I ask if they are vaccinated. I tell them that I am. If I sit next to someone on a bus or plane, the same protocol applies. This reduces anxiety for me, and the person I’m close to. I have a choice, and my choice is to control my own personal space.
What I’m taking with me
I will always be grateful for this time, to the people I met and to those who generously and kindly welcomed me into their homes. My faith in people has been restored, their kindness and generosity. I’ve had experiences I never would have had, had I just stayed home – the archaeological sites, the cenotes, eating in outdoor restaurants, and the experience of driving across Yucatan. Day of the Dead with my daughter. Shopping in local markets. Meeting new friends. These are moments that can’t be replicated.
Many have asked me if I felt fearful here and the answer is no. I still feel anxious when people (particularly those who are unmasked) get too close to me, anywhere. I’ve taken several buses, taxis, Ubers, planes and been at several airports, and my observation is that most people act with respect when in confined places. If I feel uncomfortable, I move away or find a space where I can be outside. I don’t eat inside for the most part. And, I have an overabundance of hand sanitizer that comes out before, during and after a meal. I take responsibility for my own actions. I don’t depend on others to do it for me.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable travelling right now, I encourage you to take one step to carry your vision forward. It could be taking a class, starting a journal of your aspirations or doing a mood board with images and ideas. Think about your values – what do you want to experience?
My life is so much richer than it was three months ago. Not only did I learn Spanish, I feel like I discovered the soul of this country, re-asserted my own independence and rediscovered my curiosity. Muchas gracias, Mexico.
Plan Your Trip to Mexico
Get started with resources loved by the JourneyWoman community
Book Your Flights
Use tools like Skyscanner.com to look up the best flight prices. Being flexible with dates can save you even more money.
Find Somewhere to Stay
Looking for an apartment or something more long-term? Check out VRBO.
Insure Your Trip
Travel insurance is more important than ever. Compare plans and policies for the best coverage for your trip using Insure My Trip.
Looking for a Tour?
Head to the Women’s Travel Directory to find a woman-lead tour in Mexico.
Why not brush up on your Spanish before your trip with Babbel.
Don’t forget your JourneyWoman branded accessories while you’re on the go!
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Observations from four months in Mexico to help you enjoy the little differences including etiquette, tipping, driving and shopping.