Take a twirl around one of the world’s most colourful and intoxicating getaways.
“Señor, señorita, this way please”. The waiter wound his way through the colourful crowded restaurant, tables crammed into every nook and cranny and spilling out onto the footpath. Groups of friends chattered wildly, the laughter ringing out as lovers cuddled up in secluded corners, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. A strolling guitarist wandered up to a table and suddenly the whole party burst into song. The heady smell of spicy food permeated the air and the atmosphere was happy with a capital H. We were in Mexico City and this was just the first night of one of our most sensational holidays to date!
Mexico City is a giant megalopolis of some 22 million people, almost the population of Australia. It is the thriving heart of a huge country, which straddles temperate and tropical zones from the borders of Texas and California in the USA to the Central American countries of Guatemala and Belize. Its coastline takes in the mighty Pacific Ocean, the azure waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. To “do” this country in one holiday would literally take months, so we opted to start right at the throbbing heart and work our way east to Cancun. Our wish list was long and we found the best way to maximise the experience was to book an organised tour with Adventure World.
Mexico City has a rich history dating back to the Aztecs and was originally built in 1325 within a huge lake, on an island called Texcoco (the lake eventually dried up). Known then as Tenochtitlan, it was almost completely destroyed in 1521, subsequently rebuilt by the Spanish conquistadors and renamed La Ciudad de México in 1585. Today Mexico City is a wonderful symphony of scenes, with a bubbling street life and abundant cultural offerings.
We strolled the full length of the main Avenida de Reforma, the city’s busiest and most beautiful avenue, inspired by the famous Champs-Élysées in Paris. Dotted with many monuments including those of Christopher Columbus, Diana the Huntress and the golden Angel of Independence, it is also the financial hub of the city with modern buildings, designer shopping, interesting street art and chic restaurants. But it was the Centro Historico of the city that was calling us, and as with most Spanish cities, the heart is the main square, known here as the Zocalo, home of the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral. The Hispanic architecture of the surrounding buildings formed a stunning backdrop to the street vendors selling everything from colourful rugs to intricate jewellery. We sat and enjoyed delicious tamales, purchased from steaming food wagons, as street performers dressed in Mayan and Aztec costumes danced to the beat of rhythmic drums.
On one side of the Zocalo is the Palacio Nacional, featuring the famous mural paintings of Diego Rivera, which tell the story of Mexico’s fascinating history. We were excited at the thought of tasting some of this history first hand in the days to follow.
Our guide Raul set some ground rules. “We are going to show you some of the most beautiful and fascinating things in Mexico, but to be fair to everyone please be punctual. Anyone who is late must buy a bottle of Tequila for the rest of the bus to share!” Our tour group, which was a really good mix of ages and nationalities burst into laughter, and the tone was set for the rest of the week.
The colonial city of Puebla, is known for its ceramics. With 70 churches in the historic centre alone and more than a thousand colonial buildings adorned with the azulejos (painted ceramic tiles), the city is a photographer’s dream. It also has a long culinary history. We lunched at Rosa’s, a gorgeous courtyard restaurant painted in the most vivid shade of pink, and here we had our first taste of moles (pronounced ‘mo-less’) a chicken dish that comes in several different flavours and colours, such as moles negro, made from thirty one ingredients, including chillies, chocolate, spices, ground nuts, cinnamon, bread and pepper – absolutely delicious!
That night we arrived in Oaxaca (‘Wah-hah-kah’), said to be the most beautiful part of Mexico, or at least that is what the Spanish conquistador Cortés decided when Emperor Charles V offered him any part of the colony he desired. The city is home to one of the most stunning central plazas, designed in 1529. There are no cars allowed, just people strolling or sitting on ornate cast iron seats. A raised sandstone area in the centre features a 19th-century Art Nouveau bandstand. The city’s most beautiful church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo adorns the northern side of the square and we sat at one of the many cafes sipping Mexican coffee, watching the local shoeshine boys ply their trade as their clients sat back reading the paper. Oaxaca is a vibrant artistic and cultural centre that sits on a World Heritage site including the city and the impressive archaeological remains of Monte Alban (White Mountain).
Located just a few kilometres from Oaxaca, this extensive archaeological site was the ancient Zapotec political capital. Founded in 500 BC, the site features an extensive plaza, elevated platforms and a series of tombs. Carvings were made between 500-200 BC and nearby hieroglyphs are some of the earliest writings found in Mexico. From here we went on to Mitla, a pre-Hispanic Zapotec religious site. With distinctive ornate stonework, geometric mosaics and the red coloured walls of the buildings, it was believed to be the most important religious centre of the area.
On the way to Mitla is the village of El Tule – home to an enormous Ahuehuete tree. Over 2000 years old, 50 metres in diameter and 40 metres high, it is one of the largest in the world.
It had been a fascinating day and thirsty work, so a visit to a Mezcal distillery was a welcome diversion. Mezcal is a kind of tequila made from the agave cactus. There are many varieties and flavours so tasting was a must. A few shots left us feeling pretty ‘cruisey’ – siesta time!
As much as Mexico is bursting at the seams with beautiful colonial villages and ancient ruins, it is also abundant in natural wonders and the Sumidero Canyon, in the state of Chiapas, with its emerald green waters, gushing waterfalls and towering 1000-metre high canyon walls is awesome! There is an ecological park in the area that can only be reached by boat. It boasts a wildlife sanctuary with some very exotic species of toucans, snakes and jaguars. For adrenalin junkies, there is also kayaking and zip trekking.
If Puebla and Oaxaca were colourful and inviting, then San Cristobal for us was the cream on the coffee! A small city high in the mountains, it is considered to be the cultural capital of Chiapas. The city centre has maintained its Spanish colonial layout, and the architecture with red tile roofs, cobblestone streets and wrought iron balconies adorned with flowers is truly stunning. The facades of the buildings vary from Baroque to Neoclassical and Moorish and are painted in all the colours of the rainbow. The cathedral, the Santo Domingo church with its large open-air craft market is a magnet for locals and tourists. The streets are lined with interesting restaurants, cafes and shops selling everything from ceramics, wrought iron, amber and jade jewelry and beautiful textiles. In 2003 San Cristobal was named Pueblo Magico (Magical Village) which pretty well sums it up. There is a Spanish phrase “vamos a dar un paseo”, meaning “let’s take a stroll”, and every evening in San Cristobal, locals and tourists alike do just that, swaddled in shawls or ponchos because of the cold night air, and stopping off for tapas and mulled wine.
Not far from San Cristobal is the typical Indian village of San Juan Chamula. The indigenous people of this town still follow to this day some archaic pagan religious rites. The elders of the town dress in a strange but interesting black jacket made of furry wool and wear a striking hat called a venteshil which is covered in red, yellow and green ribbons. We were lucky enough to visit the local church and see how the elders of the town gathered to hear confessions from the villagers and then advised what they had to do to repent their sins. Needless to say the crime rate in the town is very low. Chiapas is famous for its textile industry and Zinacantan, is where many of the fabrics are woven. We were also invited into a village home to witness the traditional making of tacos, which were delicious but looked nothing like what we have back home!
Our main reason for visiting Mexico was to see the awesome Mayan archaeological sites that are strewn across the country. Palenque is one of the most inspiring, and its location, in the jungles of Chiapas, is like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Arriving very early, the dark green jungle was swathed in a heavy morning mist. We walked quietly into the main area to the magnificent tomb of King Pakal. Palenque was first occupied around 100 BC but really flourished under the rule of Pakal, who reigned from AD 615 to 683. Incredibly he lived to the ripe old age of 80. Imagine the excitement of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who uncovered the crypt of this great Mayan king back in 1952!
The jungles of Chiapas are hot, but en route to Palenque a little respite from the steamy heat can be taken at a magnificent natural wonder called Agua Azul (Blue Water) Waterfalls. The stunning colour comes from the high mineral content of the surrounding limestone that leaches into the water. As the light from the sun bounces off the bottom of the river it reflects back in the richest shade of turquoise imaginable. We couldn’t wait to jump into one of the blue rock pools to cool off!
Our next stop was the Yucatan Peninsula and the coastal walled city of Campeche. Added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 1999, Campeche is a colonial fairyland of restored pastel buildings, lovely cobbled streets and well-preserved mansions. Home to a bustling market, a quiet waterfront walkway, and old fishing docks, it is also famous for Panama hats!
Uxmal is ranked among the top Mayan archaeological sites. This huge, ornate and very well preserved Mayan city has a sense of harmony about it. The massive structures made of pink-hued limestone cover an enormous area and archaeologists think that Uxmal was some sort of university back in AD600! The massive Guesser Pyramid is here, and also a huge well-preserved Pelota court, the recreational sport of the Mayans.
Sadly we came to the last colonial city on our journey, Merida, the cultural capital of the Yucatan Peninsula and also known as the White City. It’s a town steeped in history, with narrow streets, broad central plazas and some of the best museums in the region. It’s a very cosmopolitan town, full of life and a magnet for tourists. The central plaza is alive every night of the week, with people eating, drinking and dancing. We certainly made the most of our stay there and loved the romantic horse drawn carriage ride back to our hotel at night!
Chichen-Itza is the most famous and well known of the Mayan ruins in Mexico and so it was with great excitement that we arrived at this site. It is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and our guide Raul recommended that we get there very early to try and beat the crowds and we were grateful that we did. Chichen-Itza is home to the famous pyramid El Castillo (The Castle) and to stand in front of this wonderfully preserved Mayan architectural masterpiece was very humbling. The Mayans were great astronomers and the castle is a perfect example of the many mysteries of the Mayan astronomical calendar. So perfectly proportioned are the staircases of the pyramid that at certain times of the year, the morning and afternoon sun produces a light-and-shadow illusion of a serpent ascending and descending the side of El Castillo’s staircase!
The Yucatan Peninsula is steaming hot, with some days reaching over 40°C, and our guide told us he had one last surprise for us – a swim in a deep well, which was part of an underground river! We arrived at Ikil not knowing what to expect but like the rest of our trip, we were greeted with the fabulous sight of a vast blue natural wonder, just yearning for us all to jump in and wash away the heat of the day!
We finished our tour with a few days at the beachside city of Cancún, a complete contrast to what we had experienced. Cancún is party town! Huge hotels and condominiums flank the beach and the clear blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Lying in our hammocks we had time to look back on our Mexican experience and sum it all up in three words: México es fantástico!
THREE FUN PLACES TO KISS: The mystical ruins of Palenque,the magical Agua Azul Waterfalls, the sun drenched white beaches of Cancun.
EVERYDAY THINGS MEXICO HAS GIVEN THE WORLD: chewing gum, tequila, hammocks, chilies, the sombrero, Corona beer, and (most importantly) chocolate!
CURRENCY: Mexican Peso (if taking cash take US Dollars as we did experience some difficulty in exchanging Australian Dollars in the smaller cities).
MORE INFORMATION: Drug-related violence throughout Mexico is widely publicised, however this is mainly in the northern border states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango and Northern Baja California. Tourists are not specifically targeted. We felt completely safe in all the places we visited and found the locals very helpful. Of course normal caution should be taken. Check smartraveller.gov.au for current government travel warnings.