A Book Lover’s Guide to Mexico
For centuries, Mexican nationals, expats, and beguiled visitors alike have immortalized the country in books, making it a true literature lover’s paradise. Make your way through Mexico’s cities and regions—either literally or figuratively—with these 14 novels, memoirs, and nonfiction works.
The alluring landscapes, intriguing history, and rich and varied culture of Mexico have inspired writers from D.H. Lawrence to Laura Esquivel for centuries, and as a result, there is a wealth of great books that can deepen any traveler’s Mexican experience. The following 14 books, each focusing on a different region of the country, are the perfect companions to accompany your travels through Mexico’s diverse landscape and cultures, from the northern border all the way down to the Yucatan peninsula. And if you can’t make a trip just yet, pick up these titles to travel vicariously from your armchair.
Before heading off, grab Katie Hickman’s Travels with a Mexican Circus. The travelogue follows the British author around the country with a national circus troupe and will give you insight into everything from Mexican slang to witchcraft. For the airplane, pack a copy of Sliced Iguana, in which Isabella Tree peels off Mexico’s outer layer and allows you to see underneath the clichés to the heart and reality of the country’s traditions, including long-standing indigenous practices, shamanism, and the Day of the Dead.
As you cross over from the United States into Mexican border towns, immerse yourself in the pages of Luís Alberto Urrea’s contemporary novel Into the Beautiful North. A comic yet insightful tale of the unbreakable connection between Mexico and its northern neighbor, the narrative follows a young woman named Nayeli as she heads to “El Norte” to bring seven men back to save her small Mexican town.
Next, submerge yourself in a world of magical realism with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which tells a story of love, war, food, and family traditions on a ranch close to the U.S. border during the Mexican Revolution. The genre, which defined the Mexican literary landscape until relatively recently, speaks to many people’s experience of the magic and the mundane intertwining effortlessly throughout the country.
Heading south to the pueblo mágico, or “magic town,” of Comala in the state of Colima, continue your journey into magical realism with Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a haunting tale about a man in search of his father in a ghost town where all is not as it first seems.
As you traverse down to San Miguel de Allende, bury your nose in a copy of On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel by Tony Cohan. The picturesque city, which was a ghost town at the beginning of the 20th century, has become home to a large population of American and Canadian expats. Cohan’s book explores his own journey as he starts a new life and learns to live at a slower pace in the colorful town full of fiestas.
To prepare yourself for the bustling mega metropolis that is Mexico City, David Lida’s First Stop in the New World is a must-read. The nonfiction work is an intimate portrait of a city that educates readers on everything from food to religion, sex, and politics in the country’s capital. If you’re staying in the bohemian La Roma neighborhood, pick up Battles in the Desert & Other Short Stories. The short story “Battles in the Desert” by José Emilio Pacheco is a saga of a young boy’s first love set just after World War II when La Roma was a very different place from the trendy, vibrant neighborhood that it is now. Bring yourself a little more up to date with Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives: A Novel, a surreal tale of two 1970s poets who are in search of a Mexican poet from the 1920s. It’s a peek into the city’s art and poetry scene during the ’70s, a scene that continues to be vibrant and innovative today.
Continue down through winding mountain roads and cactus reserves to the colonial city of Oaxaca, known for its rich gastronomy and large indigenous population. Step back in time to the Oaxaca of old with D.H. Lawrence’s book of essays, Mornings in Mexico. Written in 1927, it lacks a cultural understanding and can come off as condescending to the city’s residents, but Mornings in Mexico nevertheless paints a vivid physical picture of areas of Oaxaca that you can still recognize today. Then pick up Sandra Benitez’s 2003 novel Night of the Radishes, and discover the vibrant and unusual fiestas of the city while following one woman’s search for her brother and, ultimately, herself.
Twist around mountainous landscapes on your way into the highlands and jungles of Chiapas accompanied by Rosario Castellanos’s novel Balún Canán, known as The Nine Guardians in English. Told through the eyes of a seven-year-old landowner’s daughter, the novel explores Chiapas’s history of landowners, indigenous workers, and the land reforms that still affect the state today. From the narrator’s innocent perspective, the contradictions of race, religion, and wealth play out in mysterious and honest ways, which will help you better understand the modern-day Chiapas.
Lastly, as you make your way to the archeological sites, white sand beaches, and tropical colonial cities of the Yucatan Peninsula, go back in time with John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. First published in the 1840s, it is an iconic adventure story that explores 44 archeological sites (including the then unexcavated Chichén Itzá) during an era when Cancun was a tiny fishing village and Merida was a sparkling commercial center. Stephens’s descriptions of the Yucatan of the time, traditional dress, customs, and people are focused and self-reflective, making for an informative read.
Once you are happily installed on a sun-lounger next to the sparkling Caribbean, pick up Where the Sky Is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya by Jeanine Kitchel, a memoir that follows her move to the region from buying a beach house on the then virgin sands of Puerto Morelos to settling into Mexican life. Be warned though: The relaxing tone of her descriptions of life in the Yucatan may make you want to cancel your flight home.