Mexico - Attractions
Mexico City is the world's third-largest metropolis (only Tokyo and NYC are bigger). Mexico's best and worst ingredients are all here: music and noise, brown air and green parks, colonial palaces and skyscrapers, world-renowned museums and ever-spreading slums.
The city's historic centre is the Plaza de la Constitución, or Zócalo. The plaza was paved in the 1520s by Hernán Cortés, using stones from the temples and palaces of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán he'd destroyed, and on which Mexico City was built. Its major sights fan out from here.
Maybe it's the romantic history of spice ships and pirates; maybe it's the golden beaches, tropical jungles and lagoons; or perhaps it's the high-rise hotels, glittery nightlife and famous daredevil cliff-divers that have made Acapulco the first and foremost resort town in Mexico.
The beaches are the big drawcard at Acapulco, and most are content to limit their sightseeing to a view of the sun slowly traversing the blue yonder. For variety there are musuems, aquariums, a fun park, and the famous divers of La Quebrada, who plunge into the ocean swell from vertiginous heights.
With Tijuana as its frontier post, Baja is the epitome of 'south of the border'. The peninsula is renowned for its long coastline of fine white beaches, peaceful bays and imposing cliffs, sharply contrasting with the harsh and undeveloped interior. Baja has long been a hideout for revolutionaries, mercenaries, drinkers and gamblers, but these days visitors are attracted by more healthy pursuits like horse riding, surfing and whale-watching. Highlights include Loreto, with its Spanish mission history and offshore national park; the extraordinary pre-Columbian rock-art sites of Sierra de San Francisco, near San Ignacio; La Paz, the laid-back capital of Baja California Sur and known for its equally gorgeous beaches and sunsets; and the hiking paradise of Sierra de la Laguna, a botanical wonderland of coexisting cacti and pines, palms and aspens set beside granite rockpools.
Mexico's most scenic railway connects Los Mochis on the Pacific coast with Chihuahua in the country's arid inland. The route takes 14 to 16 hours, and includes several stops in the fabled Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) - actually a group of 20 canyons, and all up four times larger than the Grand Canyon. The 655km (406mi) train line passes through 86 tunnels and over 39 bridges as it cuts through the Sierra Tarahumara's sheer canyons, hugging the sides of towering cliffs and offering dizzying glimpses of river beds far below.
The views are stunning, particularly between Creel and Loreto; they're generally best on the right side of the carriage when heading inland (east) and on the left when heading to the coast (west). Stops along the way include the attractive colonial town of El Fuerte; Divisadero, with excellent views down into the 2300m (7544ft) depths of Copper Canyon; Areponápuchi, teetering right on the canyon's edge; Creel, a base for hikers and the regional centre for the local Tarahumara people; and the Mennonite hub of Cuauhtémoc.
Many of the traditions considered characteristically 'Mexican' were created in Guadalajara, the country's second-largest city. Guadalajara can be held responsible for the mixed blessings of mariachi music, tequila, the Mexican Hat Dance, broad-brimmed sombrero hats and the Mexican rodeo. Part of Guadalajara's huge appeal is that it has many of the attractions of Mexico City - a vibrant culture, fine museums and galleries, handsome historic buildings, exciting nightlife and good places to stay and eat - but few of the capital's problems. It's a bright, modern, well-organised and unpolluted place, with enough attractions to please even the pickiest visitor. Highlights include the giant, twin-towered cathedral and the lovely plazas that surround it, the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas and its frescoes by José Clemente Orozco, the Plaza de los Mariachis if you're a masochist, and the twin handicraft-filled suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá.
This Spanish-built city of narrow streets has a special atmosphere - at once relaxed and energetic, remote and cosmopolitan. Situated in the rugged southern state of the same name, Oaxaca has a large indigenous population, flourishing markets and some superb colonial architecture. Not least of Oaxaca's attractions are the abundant local handicrafts and the conviviality of the local cafes. Centre of town is the shady, arcaded zócalo and the major landmark is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the most splendid of Oaxaca's many churches. The city also has a clutch of worthy museums, exploring Oaxacan culture and the lives of famous former inhabitants such as Benito Juárez. There are many fascinating places within day-trip distance of the city, notably the Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán, Mitla, Yagul and Cuilapan.
The Spanish colonial flavour is particularly piquant in the old city of Puebla, 125km (77mi) east of Mexico City. Despite the ravages of the 1999 earthquake, Puebla is home to more than 70 churches and a thousand other colonial buildings, many of them adorned with the city's famous hand-painted tiles (azulejos). The town's towering cathedral is considered one of the country's best proportioned, blending severe Herreresque-Renaissance and early baroque styles. Local indigenous influences can be seen in the prolific stucco decoration of the Capilla del Rosario in the Templo de Santo Domingo - a sumptuous baroque proliferation of gilded plaster and carved stone with angels and cherubim popping out from behind every leaf. Puebla is also known for its regional cuisine, celebrated and imitated throughout Mexico; try the mole poblano, spicy chocolate sauce usually served over turkey or chicken.
Not too far from Puebla are two other colonial gems. Some 85km (53mi) south of the capital is Cuernavaca, a retreat for Mexico City's wealthy and fashionable citizens since colonial times, thanks to its spring-like climate. Much of the city's elegance is hidden behind high walls and courtyards, but a number of residences have been transformed into galleries, hotels and restaurants. Those on a tight budget may find Cuernavaca a bit of a squeeze, but the little luxuries go down a treat with visitors who stay on to enroll in a Spanish-language course.
The old silver-mining town of Taxco, 180km (112mi) southwest of Mexico City, is one of the most picturesque and pleasant places in Mexico. The gorgeous colonial antique clings to a steep hillside, its maze of narrow cobbled streets spooling into leafy plazas lined with engagingly distressed buildings. The entire town has been declared a national historic monument.
Cobblestoned and whitewashed Puerto Vallarta is one of the central Pacific coast's best-known beach resorts. Nestled between palm-covered mountains next to a river and an azure bay, the city boasts a setting as ridiculously picturesque as its white-sand beaches and red-tiled houses of white adobe.
The city has mutated from a sleepy seaside village into an international resort so quickly that it is fashionable to deride its spoilt charms, but it's almost impossible to dislike its lively bars, romantic restaurants, mushrooming gallery scene and bustling marine life.
Pátzcuaro boasts some particularly stately colonial architecture, but the town's major claim to fame is its candlelit Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2. The local Purépechas' celebrations have an especially magical quality and notably pre-Hispanic undertones. Graveyards are lit with candles, decorated with altars of marigolds and filled with traditional dancers and musicians.
Pátzcuaro has a handsome core of lovely colonial buildings, churches and fine plazas, its streets climbing steeply to Our Lady of Good Health in the east of town. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the city's beautifully proportioned main plaza, is one of the loveliest in Mexico, flanked by trees and arcaded 17th-century mansions. Several mansions are devoted to the display and sale of the region's notable handicrafts, including copperware, straw goods, musical instruments, gold-leaf lacquer ware, hand-painted ceramics and lace. The town's market is also a good place to pick up local crafts and textiles.
Pátzcuaro is a five-hour bus trip west of Mexico City in the western central highlands. It lies 3.5km (2mi) from the southeast shore of neighbouring Lago de Pátzcuaro, which is ringed by traditional artisans' villages and has four island communities. Isla Janitzio in particular comes alive (so to speak) with its famous Día de los Muertos parade of decorated canoes.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
This handsome colonial town in the pine-clad Valle de Jovel is surrounded by the classic Mayan villages of the Chiapas highlands. It's a delightful place and a magnet for travellers who want to learn a little Spanish, absorb the bohemian atmosphere and enjoy the lively bar and music scene. Since 1994 San Cristóbal has been caught up in the Zapatista struggles. Regional crafts play a large part in the town's tourism, and dolls depicting the black balaclava'd Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos are as typical a souvenir here as the region's renowned Tzotzil textiles.
San Cristóbal has a fine plaza and a swag of churches, the most beautiful of which is Santo Domingo with its pink baroque facade and golden interior. Horse riding is popular in the surrounding hills, and other pursuits include discovering traditional Maya medicine, stocking up at the local weavers' cooperative, sampling delicious organic coffee at the Coopcafé, visiting the nearby indigenous villages and drinking in the amazingly clear highland air.
Some of Mexico's best attractions are only a day trip from Mexico City. If there is any 'must see' in this region it has to be Teotihuacán, just 50km (31mi) northeast of the capital. Teotihuacán was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of the country's largest pre-Hispanic empire, boasting 200,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 6th century. If the hawkers don't get the better of you, a day here can be a mind-blowing experience.
The site's main drag is the famous Avenue of the Dead, a monumental 2km (1.2mi) thoroughfare lined with the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. To its south is the pyramid-bedecked La Ciudadela, believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Enclosed within the citadel's walls is the Quetzalcóatl Temple, with its striking serpent carvings. Heading north, the avenue passes the world's third-largest pyramid: the awe-inspiring, 70m (230ft), 248-stepped Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramid was originally painted a suitably sun-drenched, bloody red. The avenue terminates at the Pyramid of the Moon, flanked by the 12 temple platforms of the Plaza de la Luna. Nearby are the beautifully frescoed Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly, the Jaguar Palace and the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells. Teotihuacán's most famous mural, the Paradise of Tláloc, is in the Tepantitla Palace, a priest's residence northeast of the Pyramid of the Sun. The site has a museum to help make sense of it all; bring a hat, water and your walking shoes.
Cross the Río Usumacinta into Yucatán, and you enter the realm of the Maya. Heirs to a glorious and often violent history, the Maya live today where their ancestors lived a millennium ago. Yucatán has surprising diversity: archaeological sites galore, colonial cities, tropical forests, peerless snorkelling, seaside resorts, quiet coastlines and raucous nightlife. The region's famous Mayan sites are particularly impressive at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, near the Yucatán state capital, the attractive colonial city of Mérida (home of the hammock). The coastal state of Quintana Roo attracts plane-loads of sun-loving tourists to its islands and white-sand Caribbean beaches, particularly Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and, party central, Cancún. The stunning cliff-top ruins at Tulum, overlooking a palm-fringed beach and turquoise sea, attract their fair share of visitors too.
This tranquil little town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental has been declared a national historic monument - for very good reasons. Back in the 18th century Álamos was a silver boom town of gorgeous mansions and haciendas, but by the 1920s it had declined into a forgotten backwater. An injection of expat norteamericano funds gave the dilapidated ghost town a much-needed facelift, and today Álamos' Spanish colonial buildings have been beautifully restored. Much of the architecture has a Moorish influence, thanks to the Andalusian artisans who originally built the city.
Álamos' narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colonial mansions, concealing courtyards lush with bougainvillea. You can get to see inside several of these old mansions too, as they've been converted into hotels and restaurants. The whole town has a distinctly peaceful, timeless feel. Sunday evenings in particular are reserved for that traditional pastime of strolling and people-watching on the Plaza de Armas.
Álamos is on the border of two very different ecosystems of desert and jungle. Hordes of nature-lovers swoop on the place because of its 450 species of birds and animals (including some endangered and endemic species), and more than 1000 species of plants. Horse riding, hiking, swimming and dining in opulent colonial mansions are also on the Álamos menu. The obvious souvenir to buy while in town is a bag of brincadores, or Mexican jumping beans, as Álamos is the jumping bean capital of the world. Actually they're seed pods, not beans, and they jump because they're inhabited by moth larvae.