Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

My wife and I recently went on vacation. We chose to go to a place that is often in the news, where reports of wild shootouts between gunmen and law enforcement or even the military take place in broad daylight.

Family on both sides warned us about going there. When they saw we had our minds set on going anyway, they pleaded with us to be careful.

"Just look at what's happening there, it's all on the news," said one of my brothers, who lives in Chicago, a very safe city.

You'd think we were going to vacation in Iraq. We chose to go to...Mexico City and surrounding areas.

We usually fly out of LAX, but I found a better bargain flying out of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and we were pleasantly surprised at how much smoother, quicker and convenient it is to fly out of there than the ridiculously overcrowded LAX, especially on an international flight.

And since our flight was on an early Saturday morning, traffic was not an issue, as we zipped through Los Angeles.

Why hadn't I thought of this before? Wish we could have done it all out of Bakersfield, without paying hundreds of dollars more, but that's another story.

Few cities in the world have such rich --and ancient -- history as Mexico City. Founded in the 14th century by indigenous people, it would later fall to the Europeans in the 16th century when the Spaniards colonized and established Mexico City, nearly 100 years before the Mayflower arrived on U.S. shores.

Today Mexico City is a sprawling megapolis, yet many of its "colonias," or neighborhoods, retain old world charm, culture and beauty.

Coyoacan is one such place. Home to many of the nation's intellectuals and artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Coyoacan preserves and observes the cultural heritage of other regions.

Museums thrive here, not just with paintings and sculptures but music and dance that play an integral part of Mexico's diverse regions. We were not disappointed visiting the National Museum of Popular Cultures in Coyoacan as it was observing the traditional music and dance of the state of Oaxaca, complete with a live ensemble and a very lively audience that would not stand still.

Of course it helped that we had my cousin Chuy as our guide. A transplant from my home state of San Luis Potosi, Chuy knew the ins and outs of the city, but admits that in his 18 or so years living there, there are parts of the city with which he is still not familiar.

Chuy is a cool guy, in his 30s and quite the entrepreneur. Along with his partner, Arturo, this young duo has opened up three branches of Telcel, a national wireless communications company that specializes in cell phones.

Plans call for opening at least two more branches. What's interesting is that Chuy and Arturo chose to open the stores and provide service in some of the city's neediest areas.

So far, business is good. But make no mistake: economic survival is difficult. Minimum wage in Mexico City and other parts of the country is a shockingly low $67.29 pesos a day, equivalent to $5.18 U.S. dollars. In other parts of the country, it's even lower, at $63.77 pesos per day, or $4.91 U.S. dollars.

People often hold two to three jobs to make ends meet. Or better yet, people start their own business -- from selling goods on the street to whatever else they can innovate.

"The future of this country is self-employment," Chuy said.

From Mexico City we headed north on a luxury bus to the city of San Luis Potosi. This was unlike any bus I've ever ridden. It had spacious, comfortable reclining seats with a limited number on board, so crowding was not an issue. Movies and video games were part of the deal and at $45 U.S. dollars per person for a five-hour trip, it was worth the price.

Once you leave Mexico City, you find the pace of life everywhere else is much more tranquil. San Luis Potosi is a city I would visit in my younger years, as I have family and friends still there. Seeing them after 37 years brought back a tide of emotion and memories of good times.

We were showered with so much courtesy, I had forgotten that this is the traditional way guests are usually welcomed. Here, our good friend Juan Jose Macias and his wife, Nicolasa, were our gracious hosts. Though Juan Jose is "retired," the man cannot sit still. He had plans to take us everywhere and was raring to go.

One of the more interesting places I found was the Center for the Arts. The site was once a state penitentiary, built in 1890 and operated as such until 1999.

One of its more notable political prisoners, Francisco Madero, was housed here in 1910 for anti-government activities. Madero went on to become president after his release.

Today this facility is a vibrant place where the cells and halls have been remodeled and are used as classrooms for a variety of classes such as art, dance, music, singing, long-distance education and technical design. Concerts are held in the equally remodeled ex-prison yard. It is teeming with young people.

On to the state of Guanajuato, whose capital city bears the same name. The city is stunningly beautiful. Its architecture is Spanish colonial, and the city's downtown is ideal for walking down cobblestone streets, filled with shops, restaurants and cafes.

A river ran under the city through a series of tunnels, but today those tunnels are used for traffic, as the river was redirected.

If you want to get in the good graces of your significant other, you can stop any number of roaming minstrels on the street and for a small price, have them sing a song to her. You can sing along while she basks in the emotion of it all.

We would go on to the neighboring state of Michoacan, which has its own unique sites and traditions. Before doing so, however, my wife paused and asked me if it was safe to do so. This is the state known for competing drug cartels, where violence has claimed an untold number of innocent lives. Accompanied by another good friend as our guide, our three-day visit there was totally pleasant.

Perhaps someone was watching out for us. But nothing that we had seen or read in the media about "rampant drug trafficking-related violence" ever occurred in our presence. That's not to say it's a myth by any stretch; innocent people do get caught in the middle and kidnappings and people disappearing are real happenings.

The current outrage is over 43 college students who have vanished in the state of Guerrero after clashing with police.

But people here have chosen to go forward with their lives, and not live in fear to the point of being left paralyzed. We plan to visit again.

-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK-TV. The opinions expressed are his own.

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