I have developed a great fascination for authentic Mexican cantinas. I am not referring to bars or cocktail lounges, or upmarket watering holes calling themselves cantinas.
I mean genuine cantinas filled with real Mexican patrons, no gringos and no fruity drinks with tiny umbrellas.
The true cantina is a classic Mexican establishment for drink and conversation which appeared in Mexico during the middle of the 19th century. The halcyon days of the cantina were under President Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911).
They were then patronized by men from the higher classes; women were not allowed access. For decades now, cantinas have been part of everyday life for many Mexicans; however, it is still rare to find a respectable woman in most of them.
At first, a cantina may be seen as simply an establishment solely dedicated to dispensing adult beverages to its mainly Mexican clientele. But a deeper look reveals something more along the lines of a men’s social club, a refuge from both the wife and life.
Cantinas are a world apart from the conventional bar where both men and women can congregate without the social stigma. On a Saturday night, when all is awash in a sea of cerveza and the banda is blasting, the cantina is a multifarious cultural experience that strikes a primal chord within the soul of the Mexican male.
The writer Carlos Monsivais describes cantinas as “variable sanctuaries in which pathetic, comic, tragic, and melodramatic situations are frequent.” That certainly sums up my experiences in such places.
During the last 50 years, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and upscale bars have siphoned the upper-end cliental from the traditional cantinas. So it follows that many of today’s cantinas have become a refuge for the less fortunate male members of modern Mexican society.
During my extensive cantina research over the years, undertaken with rampant bravery and sometimes with nationals but often with brave and trepidacious gringo confreres, I have learned much about these endlessly interesting establishments.
I have found the aspiration of many cantina patrons is simply to get as hammered as their pesos will allow in the company of those with a similar intent. With liter bottles of beer going for 24 to 30 pesos and shots of tequila for 18 to 30 pesos, getting hammered with your cohorts is quite affordable for both nationals and stalwart gringos alike.
For the intrepid gringo who wishes to awaken his inner Mexican, the cantina is the perfect venue. Getting together with a few friends and exploring the wonderful world of authentic Mexican cantinas is a great way to spend an afternoon practicing both Spanish and cultural integration.
So, because I am happy to share my sometimes hard-earned knowledge, I have set out some guidance to facilitate your plunge into this unique form of cultural immersion.
With the first glance, most cantinas look very similar on the outside with no windows and a labyrinthine entrance — so as to conceal the inner workings from the outside world. The interior decor of cantinas can vary wildly from 1890s dirt-floored hovels to spiffy clean locations with usable restrooms and spotless glassware.
The criteria for selecting your first cantina is a critical path that needs to be strictly adhered to by the fledgling cantina aficionado. You should consider the following prior to spending quality time with your new-found group of friends.
As you first enter the premises of your chosen objective, take a deep breath through your nose and mentally analyze the background aroma. The slight smell of stale beer is not necessarily a negative, but if this is combined with the strong odor of a seriously frowzy toilet room, do an about face and exit the building immediately.
Second, notice if your feet stick slightly to the floor as you step past the threshold; this also is not a good sign but maybe not a deal killer, just part of the atmosphere. Brightly colored murals and interesting posters are definitely a plus.
If the place passes preliminary scrutiny, you then need to scan the room and assess the general disposition of the clientele. Two or three seriously drunk patrons are not uncommon and sometimes add to the entertainment value of the place. However, if the majority of the inmates are soused, quickly leave the asylum.
As a gringo or gringos, when you enter the cantina you will be carefully inspected by all the patrons, some boldly, some cautiously. Since most likely you will be the only gringo or gringos in the place, conversation will come to you so seat yourself in a central location and gamely await your cultural encounter.
Even if your Spanish is between rudimentary and nonexistent, you will still be involved in some type of verbal exchange. Cautionary note: the Spanish you learn while swilling beer with the locals in a cantina is unlikely to be appropriate for use in the outside world.
Also, I must warn the novice cantina seeker about the dangers of the cantina jukebox. If you can hear the blaring brass of El Recodo from a block away, enter at your own risk.
The vendors who frequent cantinas are a breed apart from those who ply the beaches, restaurants and tourist bars. My favorite dispenses pain and suffering. He comes through the door carrying a black box with a couple of steel bars wired to it, along with a battery so large it requires a wheeled cart.
People actually pay this merchant of madness for the dubious privilege of grasping the steel handles while he runs 20,000 plus volts through their bodies. The object of this masochistic practice is to see who can hold on the longest as the power is increased.
It usually requires three or more very drunk, very macho, Mexican males to draw the attention of this purveyor of pain; sober people know better. I have seen macho men hold on until their eyes rolled back and they lay twitching on the floor.
Personally, I won’t touch the damn thing. However watching some poor inebriated fool willingly clutch the handles of this third-world torture device is delightfully amusing.
So if the cocktail lounge at the Mayan Palace is just too tame for you, venture into the real Mexican part of your chosen town and try on a cantina. I guarantee it will be a memorable and uniquely Mexican experience.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time on the west coast of Mexico with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at email@example.com.