Recently, we interviewed The People’s Guide to Mexico authors Carl Franz and Lorena Havens. Today, we’re introducing Felisa Churpa Rosa Rogers, daughter of the original editor of The People’s Guide to Mexico, the late Steve Rogers. She grew up on the back roads of Mexico, under the tutelage of Steve and Tina Rosa, and inherited her father’s legendary affection for good food, hot chiles and offbeat adventure. She now combines these qualities with a delightfully twisted sense of humor and a very serious talent for writing. In addition to an increasing presence in future editions of The People’s Guide, you will find more of Churpa’s writing on The People’s Guide to Mexico website.
1. Tell us a little about your background and experience traveling in Mexico.
My dad, Steve Rogers, traveled around Mexico with Carl Franz and Lorena Havens during the 60s and 70s, and he collaborated with them in the creation of the original People’s Guide to Mexico, which came out in ’72. He appears in many of Carl’s stories and he became something of a beloved cult figure in certain circles—a big bearded guy in a Hawaiian shirt roaring down the back roads with a parrot on his shoulder. He and my mom, Tina Rosa, got together in the mid-70s, and I traveled to Mexico for the first time in 1979, when I was two months old. We headed south in my parents’ old camper and we spent a few months on the road. That was the routine for my childhood—when it started to get cold, we’d hightail it south in our truck or van, and sometimes we wouldn’t make it back home to Oregon until April.
When I was in college, I kept up the family tradition and finagled a way to get credit for spending every winter term living on a beach on the coast of Jalisco. This was great, although sometimes it was a little rough to be reading some dry historical text while everyone else played beach volleyball—but hey, at least I was in a hammock.
As an adult I’ve always chosen jobs or projects that allowed me the flexibility to travel. My husband Rich and I are documenting this year’s trip to Mexico on The People’s Guide blog.
2. Many travelers are concerned about safety in Mexico. Is that a valid concern? What is your advice?
Safety is a valid concern in any country, but it’s important to keep in mind that murder rates in some areas of the US are very high, yet we aren’t generally told to avoid these parts of the country. For perspective, Minneapolis has a higher murder rate than Mexico City. I’m not recommending off-trail hiking in the mountains of Michoacan or setting up camp in Ciudad Juarez, but I think that a prudent, respectful traveler can visit any state in Mexico without serious concern, provided you are not, say, a big time international drug smuggler looking to expand your territory.
3. For people who do not want a typical tourist vacation but only have two weeks, what type of trip would you suggest and where should they go?
I am a lazy traveler in that I really like to hang out in one place for an extended period of time. If you have two weeks, I suggest picking a spot that sounds good and then renting a house or palapa—someplace where you can do some of your own cooking. Shopping for food at local markets and developing a daily routine will give you a neat feel for life in a Mexican community, and you’re much more likely to develop connections with locals. If you’re not fluent, consider hiring a local to tutor you. There are hundreds of great towns and beaches for this type of a stay…I’m a big fan of the the Jalisco Coast, but a small city such as Guanajuato or Zacatecas would also be a good choice.
Another idea would be to stay in Mexico City for two weeks. I know that probably sounds crazy to a lot of people, but it’s actually amazing. You can rent a hotel room in the Centro Historico for about $20 a night, and you’ll never run out of things to do. Whatever your interests, you’ll find plenty to entertain you in the Big Enchilada. If you can’t hack the city for that long, there are a lot of overnight trips you could take, using Distrito Federal as your hub.
4. Describe your best day when traveling in Mexico. What do you like to do?
Food is a big deal to me, so a good day would definitely involve good food. I adore shopping in Mexico, where I actually have time to get the best ingredients from the best place on the day that I am actually cooking, instead of the irritating and mind-numbing experience of shopping for an entire week’s worth of meals in a supermarket. I love the feel of a mercado, where I can squander a whole morning visiting the stands with the best produce, rest at a fonda for a jugo or a plate of chilequiles, buy some cala lillies from a little old lady, and then swing into the carniceria on the way for some choice arrachera to grill for my afternoon meal, followed by a nice long siesta.
Speaking of siestas, I am also a big fan of reclining in a hammock, reading while drinking a cold cerveza.
5. When North Americans think of travel to Mexico, spring break in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta or Cancún often come to mind. What advice can you offer on experiencing authentic Mexico?
I suggest choosing a destination that’s a little more off the beaten path, but if you do end up in a major resort city, all is not lost. Cancun is not my favorite place, but there are definitely authentic and interesting parts of many big tourist destinations, including Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. All those people who work in tourism need to live somewhere, and you can usually find real Mexican neighborhoods just outside the tourist zone. The trick is to get out of the resort and onto the street. Ask a cab driver to take you to his favorite taqueria, or take a city bus and disembark in a cool-looking neighborhood. Make friends with a local and ask for recommendations—just make it clear that you are interested in seeing the part of their town or area that most tourists never see.
6. How did you and your parents explore Mexico when you were growing up? What insight can you offer on how to see the best of the country?
In addition to their travel writing, my parents owned a small importing business, so we spent a lot of time on the hunt for obscure folk art, which meant traveling the off-beat villages of Mexico and Guatemala. In those days some villages were essentially cut off from the mainstream world, and a lot villagers couldn’t have been more surprised to see us if we had descended from outer space. But in no time they’d ushered into someone’s patio and pretty soon we’d be offered caldo, a place to camp, and the opportunity to purchase a mother lode of, say, ceramic armadillos.
We always had a shoe-string budget, and our style of travel as a family was definitely lean—my dad cooked our meals or we ate street food, and we spent a lot of time looking for that mythical perfect free camp spot. My parents were fearless—they were never afraid to strike up conversations or ask questions. I try to follow that example—curious if you can camp somewhere? Just ask. Puzzled by a random street party? Ask. I think many tourists feel disengaged—when you tour something you’re not a part of it, you’re looking, not participating. If you try to think of your trip as an extension of your life, as part of your life, it’s easier to engage and connect with the world around you. It really doesn’t matter if your Spanish is rudimentary—my friend and travel companion Abigail speaks completely ridiculous pigeon Spanish, but she nonetheless manages to strike up friendships wherever she goes. I am a little shyer than either Abigail or my parents, but I do my best to start conversations, ask questions, and investigate that random dirt road that may or may not lead down to the perfect beach.
Photo credit © Churpa Rogers