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Mexico

With a Native American heritage and a distinct Spanish flavour, Mexico is vibrant, colourful and unique. Its varied terrain ranges from cactus-studded deserts to white sandy beaches and blue waters, tropical rainforest and jungle-clad hills to steep rocky canyons and narrow gorges, and from snow-capped volcano peaks to bustling cities.

 

Since the height of Mayan and Aztec civilisations, Mexico has suffered the destructive force of the Conquistadors, European colonial rule, civil and territorial wars, rebellions, dictatorships, recessions and earthquakes. Yet its people remain warm and friendly, much of the countryside remains unspoilt by development, and its cities display a unique style of architecture. The extraordinary history is reflected in the ancient Mayan temples strewn across the jungles and ruins of Aztec civilisations, rural indigenous villages, Spanish colonial cities and silver mining towns, and traditional Mexican ports.

 

Buildings display a unique combination of colonial and pagan architecture, blending together Art Nouveau, Baroque, Art Deco and Native American design into the structure of their churches and public structures. The country's culture displays a similar blend of the traditional and modern, where pagan meets Christian in a series of festivals, or fiestas throughout the year. Despite recent reports of drug wars and safety issues Mexico remains a hugely popular and predominantly safe tourist destination. Violence linked to the drug cartels is not aimed at tourists and does not spill over into the resort areas.

 

Besides a combination of unique culture and fascinating cities, Mexico also boasts several hundred miles of coastline extending down through both the Pacific and the Caribbean, which has branded the country as a popular summer retreat destination. Beach resort cities such as Acapulco, Cancun and those of the Baja California peninsula are accepted vacation havens. The countryside is also rich in archaeological treasures with pyramids, ruins of ancient cities and great stone carvings of ancient gods standing as testament to a country once ruled by the Aztecs and Mayans.



Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve

The mountains south of La Paz provide a rugged home for an incredible diversity of animal and plant life, many of the species endemic. The mountain lion is the largest predator, but more commonly seen are the coyotes and foxes, as well as smaller mammals such as kangaroo rats, desert mule deer, gophers and badgers. This magnificent area was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1994 and is sparsely inhabited, attracting hikers, mountain bikers and naturalists. It is an ecological treasure house where cacti, palms and pine trees grow side by side and rock pools form underneath towering granite boulders. Several well-known hiking trails traverse the mountain range.


 


El Zocalo

In the middle of the city's historic centre is the enormous paved Plaza de la Constitucion, or Zocalo, the second largest city square in the world, and Mexico City's centre of government and religion. The Presidential Palace dominates one side of the square, a magnificent colonial building that was built on the site of the former Aztec Palace, with remarkable interior murals narrating the story of Mexico's history. Dominating an adjacent side of the square is the great Metropolitan Cathedral, displaying a wealth of architectural styles and occupying the site of the once sacred grounds of the Aztec. The ornate interior contains its chief treasure, the King's Chapel and gilded altar. The Cathedral is one of the buildings subsiding into the soft ground on which the city is built and builders are continuously at work to prevent its uneven descent. The square itself is filled with activity, with vendors and buskers, informal traditional Aztec dance performances, family groups, workers on lunch break and passing tourists. It is also the place for demonstrations, government rallies and protest marches, as well as festivals and public holiday events. Every evening the presidential guards, in a show of great ceremony, lower the national flag from the central flagpole. And encircling the square is the continuous buzz of the ubiquitous green Volkswagen taxis.


 


Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor (Great Temple) was the principal temple of the Aztecs, believed to mark the centre of the universe. It was part of the sacred complex of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, and today it has been excavated to show the multiple layers of construction, viewed from a raised walkway with explanatory material available. The temple was first built in 1375, and enlarged several times, each rebuilding accompanied by a frenzied bloody sacrifice of captured warriors to rededicate the sacred area. At the centre is a platform on which stands a sacrificial stone in front of the shrine to the tribal god, Huizilopochtli. Within the site is the excellent Museo del Templo Mayor, a museum displaying artefacts from the original site and providing an overview of Aztec civilisation. The most important display is the first artefact to be discovered on the site, the great wheel-like stone carving of the Aztec goddess of the moon, Coyilxauhqui.


Tel:  +52 55 4040 5600  Email:  difusion.mntm@inah.gob.mx
 


Palacio de Bellas Artes

Situated at one end of the Alameda Central that was once an ancient market place and is now a large park, is the splendid white marble structure of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). A concert hall and an arts centre, it houses some of Mexico's finest murals and the Art Deco interior is worth seeing alone. The Palacio has two museums: the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo de la Arquitectura. The art museum's collection includes over 6,000 paintings, sculptures and engravings from 1650 to 1954 with masterpieces by prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo. One of the highlights of the Palacio is the theatre's stained glass stage curtain, which is lit before performances and for public viewing. The Ballet Folklorico performs here every Wednesday and Sunday.


Tel:  +52 55 5512 2593
 


Bosque de Chapultepec and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Bosque de Chapultepec is Mexico City's largest park, covering an enormous area containing lakes, the zoo and several museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The park attracts thousands of people, especially on weekends when families come to picnic, relax in the woods and visit the museums. The huge National Museum of Anthropology is one of the finest of its kind in the world, housing a fascinating collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts, from the first people in the Americas, to the Teotihuacana Empire, the Aztecs and the Mayans. Highlights include the famous Aztec Sun Stone or Calendar Stone found beneath the Zocalo (main square) in 1790. There are also exhibits illustrating the modern way of life in today's indigenous communities.


Tel:  +52 55 5553 6332/6266
 


San Angel

Formerly a separate village, San Angel is one of the more charming of Mexico's suburbs, an exclusive neighbourhood with ancient mansions and colonial houses along cobbled streets. It is famed for its Saturday craft market in the pretty Plaza San Jacinto, which brings colour, crowds and a festive atmosphere to the area, and has excellent art and handicrafts for sale. It is crammed with little restaurants and cafes, offering the city's best dining experiences, albeit expensive. There are several museums of interest, including the Studio Museum of Mexico's famous pair, the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.


 


Zona Rosa

The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) is the city's major dining, nightlife and shopping district. It is a compact area, a dense knot of streets crammed with bars, shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels. The streets are all named for famous cities such as Londres and Hamburgo and the best activity here is to people watch from a chic sidewalk café, as the endless stream of tourists and a mixture of the city's purposeful middle classes pass by. It is where the symbol of Mexico City stands, a gilded statue of Winged Victory, the Independence Monument.


 


San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan villages

These two highland villages are the home of the Tzotzil people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, and some of Mexico's most traditional indigenous communities. Each village has a distinctive highland dress as well as a weekly market and numerous festivals honouring their patron saint and other special religious days. Visitors should respect the local traditions and customs and be especially sensitive when taking photographs. Villagers can be unfriendly and are wary of tourists - understandably they do not appreciate being regarded as tourist attractions. The best way to visit the villages is with a local guide. San Juan Chamula is the centre for religious festivals. Its main attraction is the church on the plaza where, every Sunday, the village comes alive with streams of villagers, men in loose homespun white woollen ponchos and women in embroidered finery, who pour down the hills into the candle-lit, incense-filled church, and then congregate together for the weekly market. Their religion is a fascinating mixture of Catholic and traditional Mayan rituals. The most colourful fiesta in the region is the Carnival for which Chamula is famous. The typical dress of the Zinacantan villagers is a red and white striped poncho decorated with tassels and a flat, round hat decorated with ribbons. Geranium is a revered plant that is used in ritual offerings and the countryside is dotted with crosses and offerings dedicated to their ancestor gods or the Earth Lord. Photography is forbidden in the village.


 


Palenque

The setting for this spectacular ancient Mayan city is splendid, a hauntingly beautiful site engulfed in the endless tropical jungle that bristles with the shriek of insects. The architecture is fantastic and for many Palenque is the most remarkable of the major Mayan sites. The city was at its peak from 600 to 700 AD, an important ceremonial centre and the provincial capital. The buildings that are visible today form only a small part of what it once was, and only a few of the remaining buildings have been properly excavated. The reason for the city's decline is still a mystery. Early morning is the best time to capture the setting at its most photogenic, when swirling vapours encircle the temples and the jungle. The slippery jungle paths climb steeply past waterfalls and between trees, past ancient settlements scattered around the jungle-clad hillsides, and rewarding views from the temple tops take in the sweeping plains in the distance. The highlight is the tallest and most important of Palenque's buildings, the magnificent Temple of Inscriptions. Constructed on eight levels, there is a steep central stairway of 69 steps leading to the rooms at the top. The rear interior wall is decorated with panels of Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the history of Palenque and the temple. There is a museum near the entrance of the site.


 


Guanajuato

Guanajuato is considered to be one of Mexico's colonial gems, founded around the rich silver deposits discovered by the Spanish in 1558. It is a city of history, where the cry of rebellion against the Spanish was raised and the struggle for Independence began, a history of wealthy silver barons and oppressed Indian miners. The city has an unusual layout, crammed into a narrow valley, with houses and streets forced into irregular positions due to the naturally hilly topography. Brightly painted higgledy-piggledy houses perch on the slopes, reached by narrow crooked alleyways of cobbled stone; hidden plazas, steep irregular stairways, underground tunnels and thoroughfares lend the city much of its charming character. Along with its picturesque setting and unusual beauty, Guanajuato has many historical buildings and magnificent architecture, including several churches and museums, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most narrow, and most visited, alley is the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) where the balconies of the leaning houses on either side almost touch each other, a feature in the local romantic legend about furtive lovers exchanging kisses. Cultural events are an important part of the city, which hosts several festivals during the year. Every weekend the famous strolling musicians, or callejoneadas, in traditional dress, lead processions through the narrow winding alleyways, strumming, singing and telling stories to the crowds that follow.


 


Teotihuacan

Situated 31 miles (50km) from Mexico City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan is the site of Mexico's largest ancient city, constructed by a long forgotten culture, and dating from around 300 to 600 BC. It is believed that after thriving for about 2,000 years, a great fire caused the city to be abandoned and the Aztecs arrived in the region to find a forsaken city. Recognising signs of its previous magnificence they named it what it is today, Teotihuacan, 'place of the gods'. The central thoroughfare is the Avenue of the Dead, a 1.3-mile (2km) stretch lined with the palaces of the elite and connecting the three main site areas, the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon and the Citadel. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, a huge red painted structure built over a cave, found to contain religious artefacts relating to sun worship. From the top of the stairs the views over the ruins are fantastic. The more graceful Pyramid of the Moon is situated at one end of the Avenue with an altar in the plaza believed to have been used for religious dancing. The Citadel at the other end of the Avenue is a large square complex that was the residence of the city's ruler. Within the walls is its main feature, the Templo de Quetzalcoatl, are some striking serpent carvings. The Tepantitla Palace holds Teotihuacan's most famous fresco, the faded 'Paradise of Tlaloc'. There is a museum housing excellent displays of the city's artefacts, models and explanatory diagrams of the site.


Tel:  +52 59 4956 0276/0052
 


Chichen Itza

The Mayan people are most well known for their advanced knowledge and brilliance regarding astrology, as well as for their incredible resilience. The stone remnants of their civilisation can be found spread throughout Mexico and Central America. Chichen Itza, with its famous pyramids and temples, is the Yucatan's most visited ancient Mayan site, set in the jungle and said to have been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. It was the centre of political, economic and military power, and controlled trade in the region. The main attraction is the Pyramid of Kukulkan (the plumed serpent god), or El Castillo, a grand pyramid topped by a temple that dominates the site. Each side has a stairway and the top affords excellent views over the area. Inside the pyramid is a smaller pyramid, the inner sanctum, containing one of the greatest finds on the site, the brilliant red jaguar throne with jade spots, inlaid eyes and real jaguar teeth. During the spring and autumn equinoxes (21 March and 21 September) an exceptional spectacle occurs, lasting for a few hours, that leaves crowds open-mouthed with wonder as the rippling shadows form the illusion of a snake slithering down the staircase. The shadows seem attached to the great serpent's heads at the foot of the main stairway. Another building of interest is El Caracol (The Giant Conch Snail), an observatory with slits in the dome aligned with certain astronomical appearances at specific dates. On the far side of the site, reached by a causeway, is the Sacred Cenote, a huge natural well into which human sacrifices and other offerings were thrown to please the gods. Many other temples, platforms and an impressive ball court, are components of the ancient city, a site of enormous proportions, featuring many columns and intricate carvings, statues and reliefs.


 


Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the most beautiful of San Cristóbal's churches, with a pink Baroque façade that is especially impressive when lit up at night. The interior is richly decorated and shimmers with gold. The ornate pulpit and golden altarpieces are the main focus of this 16th century architectural monument. The area in front and around the church is filled each day with craft stalls and village traders.


 


Creel

The rustic logging town of Creel is a popular tourist centre for visitors to the region and is the gateway to the Copper Canyon, popular as a starting point for exploring the canyons and Tarahumara Indian country. There are several tours offered, or it is possible to hire mountain bikes and hiking equipment to explore the natural attractions nearby, such as the canyons themselves, the Basaseachic Falls, hot springs, Tarahumara villages and cave dwellings. A popular overnight excursion is to the fascinating 18th-century silver mining town at the bottom of the Copper Canyon. Creel is the largest town in the canyon and offers accommodation, restaurants, Tarahumara craft shops, tours and guides. Situated high in a valley, the cool mountain air at 7,669ft (2,340m) makes a pleasant escape from the humidity on the coast.


 


Tijuana

A typical border town, Tijuana is not suited to everyone's taste, with plenty of noise and frenetic activity. Its location on the American border and proximity to San Diego and other Californian cities ensures a steady stream of curious day-trippers and souvenir hunters from up north. Tijuana's notorious 'sin city' image of prostitution and sex shows has now taken a back seat; the sleazy element, the drugs and violence that seems to be the lot of a border town, is still there and the town itself has become more dangerous in recent years, particularly with the drug wars along the American-Mexican border. The town does try to shift the focus away from the drug wars in an effort to clean the town up a bit, and it had become something of a shopper's delight along with the intense nightlife and non-stop entertainment. However tourists are urged to avoid travel to Tijuana until the drug violence has died down. It was a great place to shop, drink and dance the night away; with souvenir stalls, numerous duty-free shopping malls and markets selling goods from all over Mexico, and countless bars, restaurants and dance clubs. Tijuana has some traditional attractions as well, including bullfighting and Jai Alai (a Spanish ball court game), but this is not the classic Mexico that stories are made of. It does however make a good starting point for exploring the Baja California peninsula and the beaches and resorts to the south.


Tel:  +52 66 4973 0430
 


Oaxaca

The heart of chocolate production in Mexico, some say Oaxaca was where the treat was invented centuries ago by the ancient Mesoamericans. Visitors are spoiled for choice with restaurants, cafes and factories all offering mouth-watering options, but the town's specialty is it's hot cocoa, which most locals start every day with. You can also take a chocolate-making class and brew your own! Oaxaca is known for is its festivals, including the large Day of the Dead celebration each October, which lasts for three days; and the Night of the Radishes celebration just before Christmas each year.


 

 


 

 

 

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