Just for a moment, forget your image of Mexico. Close your eyes and imagine past the shimmering shores, the deep blue waters and white sand beaches. Look deeper. Start to envision culture and people, and soon you’ll discover a land of contrasts, a land of diversity. Mexico has countless unique attractions and over the years I have experienced a good number of them,(though it would take many more years to experience them all!) The following are a sample some of my favorite one-of-a-kind cities, towns, attractions, natural wonders and celebrations.
Dating back 3,000 years, the evolvement of Mexico City is one of the world’s crowning human achievements. Steeped in impressive history and layers upon layers of culture, Mexico City is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere. And, at 7,349 feet, it is also the highest city on the North American continent. Mexico City has been a flourishing cosmopolitan center for nine centuries since its founding as the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire. This city is brimming over with activities for the entire family.
The beautiful historic city center is made up of a 30-block area housing the Zócalo (the second largest Town Square in the world surpassed only by Red Square in Moscow). Its wondrous Metropolitan Cathedral took more than 250 years to complete and is the largest church in Latin America.
The Zócalo was once the location of the astonishing Aztec city of Tenochtitlán and the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) still remain preserved here. The site captures the genesis of this ancient Aztec masterpiece and allows visitors to walk the remains of the main ceremonial pyramid. The historic grandeur of the archeology can be found in the Templo Mayor Museum where life-size warriors, dramatically displayed artifacts and large-scale city models bring the culture to life.
Once a hunting ground for the Aztecs, Chapultepec Park has been in existence for more than 500 years. Located in the middle of the city, its 2,100 green, wooded acres are filled with marble statues, playgrounds, and manmade lakes, jogging paths, botanical gardens, an amusement park, a zoo and the grand Chapultepec Castle. Mexico was briefly a monarchy and the castle, 200 feet above the park on a hill, was the former home of Emperor Maximillian who converted it into his palace. It now houses the National Museum of History.
Located five miles west of Puebla, the town of Cholula is known as the “city of churches.” It has been a thriving religious center for two thousand years and is said to have 365 churches, one for every day of the year. Cholula is also home to the world’s largest pyramid. Built during the first 800 years A.D., it reaches 200 feet high and covers 46 acres. Atop this massive structure is the Santuario de los Remedios church built in 1666.
Taxco – Mexico’s Silver City
Vibrant colors, Old World style, ornate architecture, cobblestone streets and distinctly locked in time… this is the mystique of Taxco. An hour from Cuernavaca, this is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque towns in all of Mexico. In the early 1500’s, José de la Borda (a Frenchman living in Spain) heard of rich mineral deposits in the New World and rushed to Mexico to try his luck. He struck it rich in Taxco. Since then the city has been deemed the “Silver City” and is known worldwide for its pure silver jewelry and handicrafts. Borda developed the city and is credited for the construction of the city’s masterpiece – the Santa Prisca church. He imported artisans from France and Spain who created powerful and elaborate examples of 18th century baroque architecture. The interior is astounding with twelve intricately carved and gilded altars arranged according to size and religious content. It will rival most any cathedral in the world.
There are plenty of cozy eateries surrounding the town the square for a relaxing lunch. Not only will it be the best shopping day of your life (over 150 silver shops), but it will also leave you with a lasting sense of Mexican history and charm.
Tepoztlán and Tlayacapan – The Magic of Ancient Civilizations
A short 30 minutes from Cuernavaca is the mystical town of Tepoztlán. The legendary birthplace of Quetzalcóatl (“plumed serpent” of ancient Aztec and Toltec folklore), the area is considered a prominent “energy center.” It very well may be the Sedona of Mexico! The towering vertical cliffs of Tepozteco Mountain frame this inviting Mexican village. Ruins from a 15th century temple can reached after a rather strenuous hike 3,000 feet to the top, but the breathtaking view is well worth the effort. Do some shopping in the marketplace and stop for lunch at Casa Piñón, the food is fantastic, the view wonderful and they usually have live jazz music in the afternoons. (Av. Revolución, No. 42. – your driver should know the way.)
Just up the road (maybe 25 more minutes), you’ll find the enchanting village of Tlayacapan. Lined with colorful shops and filled with local handicrafts, you can spend hours exploring and enjoying the kindness and warm smiles of the local people. In the 15th century, Tlayacapan was a passage way between the capital of the Aztec empire and southern Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they built the San Juan Bautista convent that is still the pride of the community. Incredibly well preserved, with a majestic façade and amazing frescos on the walls, this may very well be one of the more intriguing convents in central Mexico. The marvelous chapel is still in use and the museum inside the convent is fascinating.
The Cervantes Festival
For those who love the performing arts, a trip to the breathtakingly beautiful city of Guanajuato in the fall (October 3-21, 2012) is a must. The almost month-long International Cervantino Festival is named in honor of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote. During this unusual cultural congregation the entire city becomes a stage and features opera singers, soloists, ensembles, strolling minstrels (estudiantinas), jazz musicians, modern and folk dance troupes, as well as traditional and experimental theater from around the world. (www.festivalcervantino.gob.mx)
Dia de Los Muertos
Also known as Day of the Dead or All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos is one of Mexico’s truly captivating celebrations. Held November 1st and 2nd in cities throughout the country (with the some notable celebrations taking place in and around Oaxaca City and Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán), this event is an Indian-Christian tribute to death. The holiday is to honor the memory of the dead by lighting candles in cemeteries, decorating altars and tombstones, and by offering candy (usually shaped in the form of skulls or skeleton) and elaborate food dishes to those who have passed on.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries of Michoacán
Every year (November through March, with the best month being February) millions of black and orange monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico. The monarchs’ annual journey, encompassing more than 2,500 miles, takes the butterflies from Canada and the northeast United States to their winter home in Michoacán, where, in some areas, they can number four million per acre of land. With their four-inch wingspans, the monarchs cloak fir trunks and hang on boughs in clusters of tens of thousands. Up to 250 million monarchs winter in the region pulsating in the trees and creating one of nature’s brilliant displays. A Mexican legend says that the souls of the dead are reborn as monarch butterflies. Organized tours are available from the capital city of Morelia.
Cenotes – The Yucatán’s Underground Magic
Cenotes are difficult to explain, but amazing to see. A cenote (say-no-tay) is like a giant freshwater well and the Yucatán peninsula is covered with them. The peninsula itself is actually a limestone shelf honeycombed with underground rivers, caverns, and sinkholes that create cenotes. Most hotels in the area can make arrangements to get you to these phenomenal natural wonders. To go into them and swim in their crystal clear mineral waters is one of Mexico’s memorable experiences.
Whales of the Baja
Each year, Mexico’s locals and vacationers alike anxiously await another one of nature’s magical occurrences: the arrival of thousands of Pacific gray whales migrating from the Bering Sea to the Baja Peninsula.
During the winter, these ocean giants make their way southward to Baja California, where, just off the peninsula’s southern tip, one of the longest whale migrations known to man transforms the shoreline into a breathtaking whale-gazing stage, leaving even seasoned vacationers exhilarated.
The most common sites are three locations along the Pacific coast of Baja California: Bahia Magdalena, Scammon's Lagoon (Ojo de Liebre) and Laguna San Ignacio. The peak time for whale watching in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is January through late March or early April.
The gentle giants, which can grow up to 45 feet and weigh more than 30 tons, are known to swim up to the pangas (wooden dinghies) -- within touching distance -- for a friendly, once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Led by the pregnant females, the magnificent marine mammals travel an estimated 13,000 miles roundtrip from the cold waters of the Arctic seas to earth’s largest gray whale “delivery roomThe whales arrive in Baja’s protected warm lagoons and nutrient-rich waters to give birth and nurse their offspring.
The Magnificent Sea of Cortez
The Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) is one of the world’s unique ocean environments, and is considered by some to be the most biologically rich body of water on earth. More than 850 species of marine life (including up to a third of the world’s cetacean species, i.e., whales, dolphin, porpoise) are found in these waters. Colonies of sea lions, pods of Humpback, Blue, Sperm, Fin and seasonal migrating Gray whales are a very common sight. The Sea of Cortez has been called an upside-down rainforest because of its vast and varied profusion of life beneath the surface. There are nearly 100 untouched desert islands populating the crystal blue waters off the east coast of the Baja Peninsula, many of which are federally protected. In late December through early March, this is one of the premiere whale watching destinations in the world. Not to mention it’s the only home to the elusive and endangered blue-footed booby birds. (Cruise West offers great trips on the Sea of Cortez in the fall and winter.)
Riding the Rails – A Look at the Copper Canyon
The Mexicans joke that the Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua is what the Grand Canyon wants to be when it grows up. One of the country's many extraordinary natural wonders, this is actually a series of interconnecting canyons —some far deeper than its famous counterpart in Arizona. Mexico’s tallest waterfall (984 feet) can also be found here. It’s best to visit after the rainy season in late summer or early fall when the entire area is lush and green. (Trips can be chilly in winter.) A number of the canyons are only accessible by a train and this one is said to be one of the “world’s most scenic railroads.” The luxury ride through 400 miles of breathtaking scenery is spectacular.
Sea Turtles – Mexico’s Quiet Giants
Seven of the world’s eight sea turtle species nest on Mexican beaches and have for the last 150 million years. The best nesting beaches are found up and down the Pacific coast and Mexico has taken a tremendous stand to keep these giants from extinction. From June to December, tens of thousands sea turtles are born. Escobilla, a beach near Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast (home to the La Escobilla Turtle Camp), receives as many as 20,000 female sea turtles in a single evening! Most hotels in the nesting areas now offer “turtle programs” where the baby turtles are raised and released and travelers are educated about their plight.
Rafting the Rivers
The state of Veracruz has four main rafting rivers – Filo-Bobos, Antigua, Pescados and Actopan. Rivers are rated from class one to class six (depending on difficulty) and all categories can be found here. There are plenty of rapids for beginners and this is a sensational way to mix sightseeing with adventure. There are numerous ecotourism companies that specialize in kayaking and river rafting tours in Veracruz.
Whether its ecotourism, culture, nature or celebration, Mexico is indeed unique.