The Hidden Delights of Mexico
Towering pyramids, lush tropical jungles, pristine Caribbean beaches and more ancient ruins than you can poke a lens at, are just some of the wonders that should have photographers queuing up at the borders. Combine all that with possibly the best tasting food you could ever imagine, and I think we’ve found one awesome location. Situated below the United States and bordering Guatemala and Belize in Central America, Mexico has long been a getaway for those after a relaxing, relatively cheap holiday spent lazing around the beach. But it’s only once you get away from the tourist traps that you begin to discover the true Mexico in all its beautiful and bizarre glory. Yes it’s true, Mexico has had its troubled times and can seem a little unstable for some travellers. But, like most countries, if you’re careful with your gear and smart about where and when you go to certain places, you’ll have a fun, trouble-free trip and return with some exceptional images.
No doubt the first thing you’ll see in Mexico is Mexico City itself. Since it’s located almost directly in the centre of this huge country, you’ll undoubtedly pass through it a number of times on your travels. Because of its immense size and pollution problems, this may seem like a drag at first – until you realise that there are many fascinating sites in or close to this megalopolis that are perfect for photographing. One such site not to be missed is the ancient city centre of Teotihuacan. This Aztec wonderland is only about an hour by bus from Mexico City and features the world’s third largest pyramid, Piramide del Sol. The second largest is also in Mexico! Because most of the surrounding pyramids and buildings can be climbed, you can use these vantage points for numerous camera angles. Be sure to take plenty of film and arrive early to avoid the large crowds that are bussed in around lunchtime. Speaking of lunch, you’ll also want to check out the amazing La Gruta, a restaurant-cave that has been operating for over 100 years. It’s only a few minutes walk from the pyramids and is a perfect way to satisfy the appetite while also getting some great time-exposures of the cave’s décor.
Once you have your shots of Mexico City and surrounds, I would highly recommend heading up to the less visited areas of Mexico, including the Copper Canyon in the country’s far north. Most tourists tend to head straight for the south-east regions, so you’ll find the places up north to be much more authentic and far less touristy. Some highlights along the way include San Miguel de Allende, a quaint, small town with beautiful weather all year and what the locals assure me is some of the clearest air in the world – in other words, perfect for photography! It was in this town that I found myself with a few spare hours and so headed for the Zocalo, or Town Square.
For great portraits, hang around and photograph the local people going about their daily business. Usually there are so many people that you can photograph almost unnoticed, snapping your image just at the decisive moment – particularly if you’ve brought along a nice 200mm zoom. But a word of caution: it’s in these busy market areas that thieves and bag snatchers like to work their magic, so be especially careful of your gear and be as inconspicuous as possible. As mentioned earlier, La Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, in the country’s north-west is a wonder not to be missed. This incredible group of canyons all blend together to form one giant canyon that’s larger than the Grand Canyon in the USA! And to top it all off, you can take a train through it all, stopping at some truly remote towns and native Mexican villages. You purchase tickets in sections, allowing you to stop at as many places as you like. This gives you a great opportunity to photograph some beautiful desert landscapes and, if you’re lucky, get some portraits of the camera-shy Tarahumara indigenous people. However, out of respect for their culture, it’s best to ask first before taking any pictures. After all that time in the dusty cowboy regions up north, you may want to clean up in the ever popular coastal town of Puerto Vallarta on the country’s central pacific coast. This tourist town still retains much of its Spanish charm, with its cobble-stoned streets adorned with white adobe buildings and red roofs. If the old-fashioned buildings don’t do it for you, then you can grab a few postcard shots of the idyllic white sand beaches. Still not interested? Then head 15 minutes out of town and find yourself in the middle of the jungle, with hidden coves like Boca de Tomatlan and fascinating rock formations such as Los Arcos. It’s almost a certainty that the weather will be perfect for shooting, although the strong Mexican sun can cause contrast problems with slide film. Be careful with your framing and metering so you don’t end up with large areas of pure black shadow in your shots. A polariser will come in very handy. And of course, avoid shooting at midday as the sun and the shadows will be at their strongest.
Even in the tourist-filled areas of Mexico you can still find secluded, pristine sections of landscape. A perfect example can be found 10 minutes out of Puerto Vallarta at a place called Mismaloya. The fantastic beaches here make this a real tourist trap, but sadly, throngs of incandescent American tourists trying to get a tan doesn’t usually make for great shooting. Thus disappointed with this location, I walked away from the crowds and did some old-fashioned Aussie bush bashing until I came upon a completely deserted beach only minutes from the tourist herd. I had this beach totally to myself for well over an hour, watching the sun slowly sink over the horizon and snapping off more film than I care to remember. I learned from this that even when a place seems completely devoid of photographic opportunities, sometimes just walking around the corner can open up a whole new world of possibilities. And best of all, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Heading off to the far east of the country, you’ll find more jungle, beaches and tourists. But not before passing through the beautiful states of Tabasco and Chiapas. These areas are just beyond the standard tourist route for the south-east but contain a wealth of photographic opportunities. Chiapas has some especially unique attractions that will blow your mind – and your film supplies! The main attraction in this state would have to be the jungle-shrouded ruins of ancient Palenque. Many of these ruins are still being discovered and cleared of the thick jungle that covered all traces of the lost city as recently as 200 years ago. But what has been excavated is nothing short of astonishing, as giant stone temples rise out of the jungle floor. Some of these can be climbed, offering many different viewpoints of the city. Even though this is fairly remote, it’s still best to get to the site early to avoid the crowds. As a bonus, the mist that often surrounds the temples earlier in the day can make for some moody images. Be sure to take the time to visit all the ruins in the area (while noting warnings on the more secluded tracks) as the tracks to these places often make interesting locations in themselves.
Going through Tabasco and Chiapas into the Yucatan Peninsula will provide you with more prospects of postcard-perfect shots of the Caribbean. Actually, postcards can provide you with some useful information, such as what each location looks like at different times of the day and the vantage points other photographers have chosen to shoot from. Judging these, you can then determine when you want to shoot and how you can improve upon the postcard shots in your framing, composition and originality.
Once you’re done with them, send them home to your friends to make them jealous! One final piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the culture of the place. Eating Mexican food (including cactus, would you believe), dancing Mexican dances and learning some of the lingo will go a long way to giving you some insight into the culture of the place you’re documenting. Once you have a better understanding of what you’re shooting, your images can begin to take on a different feel, showing more empathy for your subjects and thus resulting in more authentic pictures.
Yes, more than just tequila and sombreros, Mexico really is a photographer’s paradise. The range of possibilities here will have you shooting non-stop. But then again, indulging in a little tequila and buying funny hats isn’t all that bad, either.