Put down the phone. Pick up the backpack.
When we venture into the wilderness, it’s never our goal to actually get lost. As soon as we step into our self-appointed nature-scape, be it rugged mountains or vast deserts, the goal becomes finding our way out. But that doesn’t stop us from telling ourselves otherwise. Like, “This is a detox, man. No cell service. Work will be a distant memory once we get lost out here.” We lace up our hiking boots and begin (almost subconsciously) to change our mindsets. We move from being goal-motivated to exploration-motivated. What’s next on your list ceases to matter. The possibility of getting lost in the wild, removed from society and cell reception, helps our minds reach that point.
We don’t think of cities in the same terms. We vacation in urban centers to stimulate, not detox. You can get lost in a city, but odds are your accommodation is an Uber ride away. There are so many ‘things to do’ in a city that it becomes hard to choose. So we’ve created an array of apps to help us save time.
What do we lose by scrolling Google for the best pan-Latin dive with a killer happy hour and outdoor seating? Time wasted aside, what about the conversations we’re not having—with the person next to us, or with the unknown passerby. My challenge to you (and to myself) is to think of your next city adventure the same way you would a trip into the backcountry. Don’t worry about crossing goals off lists. Lace-up your Converse and choose an exploration mindset. One that flows from cool looking bird to gnarled tree, or rather, from stretching mural to an eccentric street vendor.
Almost unknowingly, two friends and I put this into practice on a recent week-long trip to Mexico City:
There was only a moment of hesitation before confirming our reservation.
It was the cheapest flight from PDX to Mexico City we could find. No seat selection, no checked bag, not even a carry-on. Only one personal item: 45 by 35 by 20cm. “This is crazy, that’s tiny.” Silence from Robin and Nathan on the other end of the FaceTime call. Then, “Let’s do it.”
We were headed to Mexico’s capital to visit Ryo, our Japanese friend whom we hadn’t seen since freshman year of college, 8 years ago. Per usual with this group, we didn’t plan a thing. Before arriving in CDMX though, there were two things we needed to figure out.
- The right pack.
To fit a week of adventuring into a bag that’s supposed to fit under an airplane seat, you’ve gotta give up some luxury. You also need a versatile bag.
Our ideal pack would:
- Be frameless, so as to be expandable and compressible as needed
- Have waist/chest straps for long days of exploring
- Include a mix of pockets for things like a rain jacket, passport, tequila, water bottle.
- Be discreet.
- Oh, and could it be comfortable too?
This one was easy. The guys at Six Moon Designs thought they had a pack that would do the trick: the newly released Daybreaker. In short, it killed it. You’ll see photos of it throughout the read.
- The second thing we had to figure out was how to deal with indecision.
Tacos and tequila would be had, but without any sort of itinerary, we worried about wasting precious time. None of us had been to Mexico City before. We didn’t want to get trapped relying on Google, or worse, arguing in our 3-bed hostel room. We only had six days. We didn’t know how to do it, but we vowed not to get bogged down crossing things off a TripAdvisor inspired bucket list. We vowed to ‘get lost’ in the city. Here are some ways we did it.
Jump to Mexico
Ditch Google for a Guide
It was Nathan who set us up for success. Unlike Rob and I, Nate actually did a small amount of reading prior to arrival and scheduled us a free walking tour for our first full day in Ciudad de Mexico. Belen, our guide with Mexico Walking Tour, and Oskar, our guide two days later with Mexico City Greeters, helped jumpstart our exploration. Most importantly, they provided local context with which to understand and appreciate the city.
Like knowing your basic wildflowers, understanding the history of the paved trails we walked enriched our wanderings and inspired more questions. The internet's list of top ten al pastor taco joints could wait. We grabbed our backpacks.
And walked our legs off.
I can’t recommend walking highly enough. Or let us call it hiking, urban hiking. That sounds cooler. It is a supreme way to explore a city. It’s slow, but so is hiking in the wild. That’s sort of the point. Hiking around a city helps encourage an exploration-mindset. Cities can be hectic. The sheer amount of people 'getting stuff done,' running to catch subways, honking, speeding, yelling, these things make us feel like we need to do the same. Walk around a city with no goal other than vague destinations, and you start to ‘get lost’ — that same state of mind we strive for on a backcountry trek.
I had blisters on day three. And of course, I hadn’t thought to bring moleskin- this wasn’t one of my guided backcountry trips. Walking brought Rob, Nate, and I to places that were not on any list. It’s how Rob and I ended up as the two goofy gringos in a street performer's crowded comedy routine at Bosque de Chapultepec. We played the roles well. It’s also how Nathan and I happened upon a massive outdoor music festival promoting "Amor sin Violencia” in Zócalo, Latin America’s largest square and returned late to our hostel soaked by a sudden and incessant deluge. It’s how the three of us, on our last night, found ourselves bamboozled out of too many pesos for entrance to a speak-easy style nightclub that proved disappointing at best and scary at worst. The experience might have been worth the view.
The entire week, we asked a ton of questions.
This one proved harder for Nathan and me, given our sorely lacking Spanish, but from day one we sought answers from people, not phones. Our Uber driver from the airport, with help from his tipsy, English-speaking brother speaking over automated map directions, recommended a taco place that would become our go-to dig. That first night, the waiters giggled at the number of tacos we ordered and laughed harder when we tried to order water but ended up with horchata. We smiled, flushed red, and stuck to Modelo after that.
Asking questions of locals also took us on a haphazard journey into the world of what may be Mexico's most traditional alcohol: pulque. For me especially, pulque gave purpose to wherever we found ourselves in the city. I dragged the others along (willingly, I think) to off-the-beaten-path watering holes where ancient men filled our plastic mugs with the translucent liquid. When we met back up with our guides-turned-friends Belen and Oskar before returning to Oregon, it was pulque that closed the night.
We learned to be okay with downtime.
Even on a three-night backcountry excursion, it’s nice to throw up a hammock and spend a few hours with your boots off. As worried as we were about making the most of our week in Mexico, Rob, Nate, and I each hit a point where we needed to spend an afternoon on a park bench. While laidback vacationing is second nature for some, it took us an awareness that free time is okay. We didn’t go to see Goldlink and Erykah Badu three hours south of the City, because we didn’t want a rushed trip. We didn’t spend the entire week glued to each others’ hips either. Taking a break gives you time to think, recharge, and synthesize your experience.
Let wanderlust take you.
Like the wild, the urban landscape is chock-full of alternate routes and waypoints. Serendipity is right around the corner. You just have to let it find you. Be distracted, ask questions, chase feelings, and see what happens. Our week in the capital could have been spent (waiting in lines) at Mexico City's most popular destinations and restaurants. We could have spent more money, slept in luxury, and come back with nicer gifts. We might have avoided running to the airplane lavatory this way. My guess is that for that kind of vacation we would have spent half the trip with our heads buried in our phones, double-checking, making sure our money was well spent.
Instead, we hiked. We laughed. We saw a Mexico City that only we could have seen. The paths our feet walked are not to be found again.
Ditch the phone, throw on a backpack, and let your sandaled feet take you where they will.
Photos and words by Dan Sizer.