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Updated: 16th April 2022
Visit in partnership with the Tourism Recovery Programme
‘¿Más pulque?’ Ericka half-asks, half-orders with a cheeky glint, pouring the fermented Agave milk-like drink into my glass. Raphael, her husband, sits by my side, doting on videos of his wife cooking up various Nopal dishes, as the table starts to overflow with Mole, carnitas, tacos and freshly mashed avocado.
‘This one is her own recipe’, Raphael exclaims with glee as the video’s audio cuts off Alejandro Fernández crooning from the stacked speaker system, photos of their grandchildren perched above.
In the space of a few hours, I’d gone from perhaps the most touristy experience in Mexico City, a sunrise balloon flight above the pyramids of Teotihuacán – the almost unbelievable archaeological complex that far predates the Aztecs – to getting lost down a tiny village side street hunting for ‘the grey door’.
For Karen Steiner, the founder of Trueke Tours, this is the balance she wants to strike for international visitors to Mexico City and the country as a whole.
‘We started Trueke 7 years ago. I was working in an NGO supporting people after natural disasters, and we were talking a lot about how we could make a positive impact in communities – and we thought that Tourism was the perfect way to bring people in to make a positive change through exchange’ she tells me in the leafy shade of Parque Mexico, sharing stories of the 90 different communities they work with across 16 different states.
Like many other tourism businesses I visited during my Mexico trip, Trueke had been supported by The Tourism Recovery Programme, powered by TUI Care Foundation (the charity arm of the tour company), enpact (a Berlin-based organisation supporting entrepreneurs and their ecosystems) was implemented in cooperation with a German development agency (GIZ), under a commission by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Alongside the expert training and support offered, an initial funds boost amounting to €9000 was supplied to over 100 nominated Mexican businesses by GIZ, supporting them to survive, and thrive, post-pandemic, using tourism as a catalyst for change.
Sat in Ericka’s white-walled lounge, with the grey three-piece pushed up against the wall so I could dine at her living room table, I realised just how multi-layered the tourism chain was. While we have heard about countless tour companies collapsing over the past couple of years, most news stories focus on the immediate job losses and economy and rarely factor in the loss of income for people like Ericka and Rafael.
Trueke, tours with an authentic twist
Unlike many of the other day tours in Mexico City I experienced, Trueke, a social enterprise, offers authentic experiences across the country – many of which are presented by Indigenous communities – a testament to the deep-founded connections Karen made during her time working in an NGO.
While all Trueke tours include the top attractions and must-visit sites, they artfully combine these into an itinerary of authentic moments. In the Riviera Maya, more known for its mass-market beach tourism, you can co-exist with a local community while learning how to make the watery melipona honey. Or, in the Sierra Oaxaqueña mountains, the locals will welcome you into rural homes, where you’ll learn to prepare local dishes and jams with the native fruits.
The Trueke website lists countless authentic and community-focused experiences like this. Whether you wish to live with indigenous people in Puebla and see first-hand the thriving cooperative scene in Mexico or say goodbye to electricity and live alongside the remote Menonitas community in the Barrancas del Cobre, Trueke offers these opportunities in the most respectful way.
Sadly, my trip wasn’t long enough to get beyond Mexico City. Still, I’m confident next time I return; I’ll be travelling with Trueke, as this style of travel, with integration into local communities, more than appeals.
‘We have started to make different trips through Mexico, taking in all the beauty and attractions of the country, but adding in these local experiences where people can learn and we can create a more conscious society, more aware of how different people live.
Now we work with about 90 diverse communities across sixteen states in Mexico’ Karen elaborated, listing through the main destinations she has revisited time and time to keep these connections alive.
It’s a delicate balancing act, Karen admits, ensuring that tourism doesn’t damage fragile ecosystems or cause havoc on local communities. While she envisions scaling up Trueke to offer more tours and destinations, she is mindful of ensuring that travel groups remain small and not overwhelm these locales with multiple groups each month.
Pandemic, recovery and re-focussing
Of course, the pandemic has caused havoc on the tourism industry, including in Mexico, which often was inaccurately described as somewhere not affected due to their relaxed travel restrictions when other countries were closing down.
For different parts of the country, the difference in effects was stark. While beach-side private resorts still did okay, many smaller, inner-city businesses collapsed. For some, like the Mononitas community, disconnected from the world, the news of the pandemic took a long time to reach them.
‘Most of our clients are from Mexico, and we’ve been trying to get international visitors into this kind of travel for a while,’ Karen continued as we sought shelter from the sun on a shaded bench, explaining how the pandemic had led them to re-evaluate their business model.
‘We applied to the Tourism Recovery Programme, and thanks to them, we gained a new perspective to the crisis and new ideas for ways to make an income for the communities and us we work with,’ echoing the words many other beneficiaries of this project had said to me.
The programme, powered by TUI Care Foundation (the charity arm of the tour company), enpact (a Berlin-based organisation supporting entrepreneurs and their ecosystems) and with financial support from the German Corporation for International Cooperation, has been actively collaborating with over 100 businesses in Mexico to help them survive, and thrive, post-pandemic, using tourism as a catalyst for change.
While the €9000 cash injection helped migrate the immediate crisis of the pandemic, the training and mentorship support aimed to help the 100 plus businesses it supported in Mexico flourish with new ideas and reach new markets. For Karen and Trueke, that rang even more true, as the programme has invited her to Berlin to attend one of the largest travel trade shows in the world, which will help with their goal to expand to international markets.
‘The Tourism Recovery Programme mentorship has been such a huge opportunity to professionalise and learn how to work with intentional companies and clients and share the authenticity of Mexico with them’, she highlighted, underscoring this point.
A day trip in Mexico City, from Teotihuacán to home-made tacos
My day trip out of Mexico City with Trueke started like countless others. A five AM wake up call from my driver Luis, who would transport me to the ancient Teotihuacán pyramids for sunrise.
Luis was, quite frankly, a legend. We shared stories about our hitchhiking adventures on our travels, with Luis’s story about stolen goods and a missing car trumping my best tales, and I got to understand a little more about local politics during our drive together.
Arriving at what I thought was a nightclub yet to close in the black of the morning light, I quickly realised this was, in fact, the balloon take-off point.
It goes without saying, this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico City, and as such, there are hundreds of people waiting to board the ballots. While some balloons started rising before the sun had crossed the horizon, others, like mine, departed with the sun already well into the golden hour.
Flying right over the top of the pyramids and looking out on the landscapes of hills, fog and cacti was an unbelievable experience. The hour-long flight was the perfect start to the day and a memory I’ll never forget.
Once back down on solid ground, Luis and I headed inside the temple complex, where he turned out to be a very knowledgeable guide. With stories of human battles fighting to eat limbs, sacrifices buried deep inside the temples, and an overview of the history of the complex, where excavation work started in 1905 but is still ongoing, I realised just how much history I had witnessed from high above.
This ‘place of the gods’ as it is now called actually predates the Aztecs, and the original name isn’t known – but it’s often credited as the location modern society began. The exceptionally well-planned city, with its links and myths to astrology, has a fascinating history and I can’t recommend that you visit with a guide highly enough.
After the tour, and the chance to learn about Nopal plants being used as a dye and glaze from local artisans, we set off to one of the small nearby villages in hunt of a promised ‘grey door’.
Arriving at the home of Ericka and Rafael, I was ushered in with a small to the living room. Photos of their grandchildren adorned the wall, and blue beams were set into the low ceiling. A colourful woven cloth of Mayan patterns decorated the table, which would quickly overflow with homemade dishes, as we sat down to enjoy a family-style meal together, sharing conversation with the help of Luis’s translation.
While this was only a snippet of the type of local experiences Trueke offers, it gave me an idea of how personal and intimate a full tour would be. After lunch, I should have headed for a Temazcal – a sort of sweating ceremony in an igloo-shaped lodge with spiritual roots – however, this still wasn’t possible due to Covid at the time of travel.
Temazcal, dating back thousands of years in Mexico, is a unique and spiritual experience that is hard to find within the city limits. While their original purpose was a cleansing experience before war, they are popular with people looking to find inner enlightenment nowadays.
The closest translation to the word is ‘house of heat’, and the small dome-like room where the process takes place is heated to high temperatures by burning rocks, as up to 15-people sit and sweat together. While each ceremony is different, they usually involve a shaman chanting and singing. People’s reasons for visiting a Temazcal are varied; some seek spiritual enlightenment, and others use the heat therapy to remove toxins from the body (and even mentally from the mind).
Regardless, as a new wave of Temazcal tourism has boomed, it’s essential to ensure you book this experience with an expert or tour company such as Trueke and not an unqualified person for safety reasons.
Looking back on my day, though, what has stuck with me most isn’t the sunrise balloon ride or the breathtaking history of these ancient temples. But the grey three-piece pushed against the wall to make space for me as an extra guest. The passion on Ericka’s face as she showed me her new grill in their courtyard and that brief hour when I didn’t feel I was in one of the busiest cities in the world – but simply a guest in an unfamiliar country, yet with familiar faces – sharing jokes and stories as best we could, with laughter our lingua franca.
This is precisely how travel should be – ‘a positive change through exchange’ – as Karen summarised it perfectly.
See all of Trueke’s Mexico Tours and experiences on their website.
My visit to Mexico was in partnership with the Tourism Recovery Programme – you can learn more about how this fund and mentorship is supporting local businesses on the link, and find more information about the partners powering the programme on their websites: TUI Care Foundation and enpact.
about how this fund and mentorship is supporting local businesses on the link, and find more information about the partners about how this fund and mentorship is supporting local businesses on the link, and find more information about the partners powering the programme on their websites: TUI Care Foundation and enpact. the programme on their websites: TUI Care Foundation and enpact.