What is your professional background?
I've been a travel writer for over 20 years, predominantly writing
guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Before that I worked in newspaper
and magazine journalism in England, where I edited and wrote for
national newspapers for several years. But I always had itchy
feet and eventually took off with a backpack and a couple of freelance
Then I approached Lonely Planet about guidebook work and got
my first assignment with them - updating their Sri Lanka guide
- in 1986. Since then I've written or co-written dozens of Lonely
Planet books covering over 20 countries in five continents. I
still work mainly with Lonely Planet, but I also write on travel
for other book, web and magazine publishers, and I do trip consulting.
Anyone wanting trip-planning help is welcome to contact
How did you get involved in the process of writing the
Lonely Planet guidebook to Mexico?
The company was putting together an all-new version of their
Mexico guide in 1987 and asked me to be part of it. I had long
been fascinated by the country and had already spent several months
traveling in Mexico. There were only three of us to cover the
whole country for that edition, and we all spent about a year
on it. I've participated in every edition of the book since then,
and have been coordinating author of the last six editions. This
means I tie together the contributions of the other authors as
well as writing large parts of the book myself. It's quite an
undertaking now, as we often have 10 or more different authors
each covering different parts of Mexico.
A bigger number of authors enables the book to be produced quicker
and reach travelers' hands sooner. Lonely Planet has a great
pool of Mexico-loving authors, some of whom live in the country
while others travel there frequently.
I think the book has gone from strength to strength. It certainly
remains highly popular with travelers and is consistently one
of Lonely Planet' very best-selling books. One of our strengths
is detailed on-the-ground research that keeps us right on top
of the best things to see and do, the best places to stay and
eat, the best entertainment and so on. We're also constantly searching
out interesting new destinations:
Mexico is such a varied and changing country that there are new
gems to be uncovered almost everywhere you turn. For example in
our recently-published new edition, I've written a much expanded
chapter on the state of Tabasco,
which contains some fascinating pre-Hispanic ruins, dense jungles,
good beaches and a huge wetlands biosphere reserve, the Pantanos
de Centla. Most of this is well off the typical tourist trail
but I hope I've encouraged more people to explore a great area.
We also respond to the kind of evolution that travelers expect
in guidebook style. Recent editions have for example seen us develop
a clearer listings format, punchier reviews, handier background
information and colorful 'Local Voices' sections to give people
an instant feel for the country.
I've heard your book described as a book for backpackers,
but is this accurate? What kind of reader do you try to please
in this book?
Lonely Planet started out in the1970s producing guides for backpackers
but for a long time now has been reaching a much wider audience.
We still provide plenty of information for budget travelers but
today roughly 60% of the listings in country guides are for travelers
on medium budgets - which in Mexico means people who can spend
somewhere between about US$60 and US$120 a day.
What place did you enjoy most during your last visit
The biggest highlight for me was exploring Tabasco, because
so much of it was new to me. I also loved revisiting the Maya
sites in Chiapas
- Palenque, Tonina, Bonampak, Yaxchilan - and staying for the
first time at Las Guacamayas ecolodge set right on the Lacantun
River in the Chiapas jungles.
What other countries do you write about?
In the last few years Guatemala, Belize, Brazil, Spain, Russia,
Georgia and Kazakhstan.
From the perspective of a travel writer, how does Mexico
differ from those countries?
Every country is unique and fascinating in its own way, of course.
There's nowhere in the world that I find dull. I'll never tire
of traveling in Mexico and writing about it because it's so dynamic
and ever-changing and there's never any shortage of new places
to discover. In many ways it's a writer's dream because it has such
a fantastic variety of attractions - gorgeous cities, spectacular
scenery, charming people, fabulous beaches, great music, art and
handicrafts, ethnic variety, marvelous food, fascinating history,
archaeology and traditions and an ever-evolving political and
social scene.(I'm not trying to sound like a tourism ad, by the
For a guidebook writer, who needs masses of detailed facts and
figures and accurate first-hand information, Mexico is neither
too easy nor too hard to research. Tourism is quite a highly developed
industry and the country has plenty of tourist information offices,
which are increasingly professional and tuned in to the information
that travelers (and travel writers) need. The Internet is fairly
well developed in tourism too. So there are some good coordinated
information sources that one can use as a starting point for further
A country like Kazakhstan
(where I was late last year), by contrast, has almost no recognition
of the concept of independent travel and very few reliable published
sources of information. As part of the former Soviet Union, it's
still a country where the authorities are suspicious about public
access to information of any kind. For example, the only way to
find out the cost of a train trip you might want to take is to
go and line up at the station information window - or telephone
it if you can get through and can speak Russian - and specify
the exact train you're thinking of traveling on and the class
of seat you want. A pretty laborious method of research! Still
fun, in a way, though - a different kind of challenge. You depend
much more on personal contact and tips and leads from real people,
which can be refreshing.
On the other hand in a country like Spain where tourism marketing
is highly sophisticated you can almost drown under the weight
of published information before you even leave home. Just sifting
through what comes to you automatically can be very time-consuming.
How have you used the internet in researching your book?
I generally use tourism and business websites as tools to start
finding out about a place, then go and check things out myself
on the ground. Websites of course can make places look and sound
better than they really are, and they're not always up-to-date,
so it's essential to see things with your own eyes if you want
to know what they're really like.
Some independent Mexico sites such as Mexican
Online - and of course Planeta
(!) - have a particularly good sense of what travelers actually
want to know and the most interesting way to present it.
Bulletin boards - including Lonely Planet's own Thorn
Tree - and some blogs such as the Daily
Glyph are also good for some up-to-the-minute tips and news.
Internet access to news media and background cultural and environmental
information is a huge help in researching background sections.
I've found that a lot of travel businesses and state
tourism offices have email, but some rarely use it. Has this been
They're getting better at communicating by email. A few years
ago one of our authors wrote to all hotel email addresses he had
listed in his draft text, just asking for confirmation that he
had the right addresses. Only 10% replied. Today I get a response
from most Mexican businesses I email.
I find it helps if I ask a limited number of specific questions,
making the reply a relatively quick and straightforward task.
Email is a pretty good tool for checking details and specific
facts, but less so for wider-ranging inquiries.
Do you work with the Lonely Planet website
in updating its Mexico coverage?
Yes, when time permits I help with updates of the World Guide
section, which gives introductory and summary information about
countries and cities.
Lonelyplanet.com is growing rapidly at the moment with things
like more feature articles, blogs, and an online accommodation
service. As it happens I've done more of this kind of work on
other countries than Mexico, but writing for the web is an ever
growing part of any travel writer' life today and I expect to
be doing more on Mexico before long.