Language Learning on the Road, Guanajuato-Style (Mexico)

And you thought you came here to learn Spanish…

On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.

マジですか (maji desu ka- really?)

Is it that hordes of newlywed Japanese tourists are lining up to consummate their marriage at El Callejón del Beso (aka The Alley of the Kiss)?

違います! (chigaimasu – wrong!)

It’s all about the auto industry.

On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)

GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.

Thus, with the increase in Japanese car firms in the state came the need for Japanese engineers, technicians, and executives, some with families. In 2016, a Japanese consulate opened in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, to serve the thousands of recent expats in Guanajuato and nearby states. Since 2009, more than 80 Japanese companies have been established in Guanajuato alone, hence the need for a consulate.

Now, given that Mexico is also known for coffee, perhaps coffee ramen isn’t too far off?

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

Two years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in México.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where have you tried your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!