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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Mexico.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Mexico.
The only thing more delightful than wending one’s way through the byways of Mexico’s colonial “Pink City” is to sail above it in the only teleférico cable car in the world that traverses an entire city. The effect is heady, since this once highly prosperous silver-mining city is already perched at 8,200 feet above sea level: Is it the altitude or views of the picturesque jumble of Baroque monuments below and the encircling hills beyond?
By the 18th century, the mines of Zacatecas had made it one of the New World’s richest cities. The city’s former wealth is reflected in both the ubiquitous use of pink quarry stone, called cantera rosa, and the extravagantly decorated cathedral, one of Mexico’s most outstanding Baroque buildings, whose silhouette monopolizes the view. Other stunning architectural sites greet travelers around every corner, some of them housing first-rate art collections. Two excellent museums are named for the Coronel brothers, both much-admired Zacatecan artists. Another architectural marvel is arguably Mexico’s most unusual hotel, the Quinta Heal, housed in the oldest bullring in the Americas. Many of the rooms have balconies overlooking the 17th-century plaza de toros (bullring), where echos of ¡Olé! still resonate. Stop by, if only for a drink, in the hotel’s bar, which occupies some of the former bull pens.
This masterfully restored 17th-century hacienda was built on the grounds of a pre-Classic Period Mayan settlement whose 3rd-century ruins can be toured with the hotel’s resident scholarly guides. Its ancient Mayan mystique is apparent even in its name: Katanchel translates to “Where one asks the arc in the sky” – a Mayan reference to the Milky Way, which confirms the site as an ancient astronomical observatory. The hacienda’s 740 acres were abandoned for decades after a cattle-ranch-turned-sisal-plantation reverted to jungle growth.
Today it is a sanctuary for exotic wildlife and a prolific bird population, one of the hacienda’s principal attractions. Katanchel’s strategic location offers more than a dozen different day-trip options to lesser-known Mayan ruins, colonial towns, and natural sites. Accommodations are in former workers’ dwellings scattered about the property, since restored and transformed into luxury pavilions surrounded by fragrant gardens. Most have private plunge pools filled with spring water from a mineral-rich underground source that’s pumped by silent turn-of-the-century windmills.
Traditional Yucatán dishes made from organically grown ingredients are reinterpreted and served in a palatial salon that was once a sisal-processing factory. Katanchel’s dynamic Mexican owners have brought ecotourism to new heights of luxury and excitement here; the hacienda is both their home and showcase.
Maroma is a small jewel of a resort on a fragile coast, 30 miles down the road but light-years away from the pumped-up bulk of its coastal neighbor Cancún. Maroma’s Mexican architect-owner envisioned it as a marriage between development and ecological preservation.
Nestled on its own mile-long strip of wild Caribbean beach near the important Mayan ruins at Tulum, Maroma is a half-Moorish, half-Mayan enclave in 400 private acres covered with mangroves, jungle, and coconut palms. While Cancún continues to grow out of control, Maroma entertains no plans to grow at all. It is the most ambitious (and certainly the most luxurious) small-is-beautiful hotel in the area. From round, breezy, thatched-roof terraces and multicolored hammocks big enough for two, views of the turquoise sea are enough to stop hardened travelers in their tracks. Good food, good wine and margaritas, spa services, and finding the perfect spot on a wide, empty beach make up the average, perfect day. Those looking for glittering nightlife must head for downtown Canctin, but most guests at Maroma are seeking refuge from anything that resembles a crowd.
The most famous, spectacular, and, consequently, most frequently visited of Mexico’s Mayan sites, the magnificent metropolis of Chichén Itzá was the principal ceremonial center of the Yucatán. If you are lucky enough to be here on the spring or autumnal equinox (March 21 or September 21), you will marvel at the mastermind who positioned the temple of El Castillo de Kulkulcán: The play of late-afternoon light and shadow creates a moving serpent (representing the ancient leader-turned-deity Kulkulcán) that, over the course of thirty-four minutes, slithers down 365 steps to the giant’s head at the base of the pyramid’s principal facade before disappearing into the earth.
The 7-square-mile site at Chichén Itzá (2 square miles of jungle have been cleared) was inhabited for about 800 years, beginning as early as A.D. 432 during the Mayan Classic Period and ending with the arrival of the Toltec people. No more than thirty of its buildings have been explored, leaving hundreds untouched.
Beat the bus caravans of day-trippers by staying at the romantic Hotel Mayaland, set in 100 private acres at the edge of the ruins. Many of the rooms have views of the cylindrical El Caracol observatory. The flowering gardens and pools help pass the hottest part of the day; the only way to visit the ruins at night is with tickets for the sound-and-light show (which is a lot more entertaining than one might imagine).
With the mother lode of attractive crafts shops and galleries in this lovely colonial city, any day is a shopper’s field day. Oaxaca has been called the most Mexican city in the republic, but on Saturday – as hundreds of Indian merchants stream in from the surrounding villages in their traditional dress, hawking food and handmade and painted crafts – it becomes Mexico’s largest and most intriguing Indian experience. (Oaxaca has the country’s largest Indian population: Two out of three citizens are Indians, representing sixteen ethnic groups who speak nine languages and fifty-two dialects.)
The Central de Abastos (Supply Center) is the market for handicrafts, with hand-painted pottery’ and forests of polka-dotted wooden cats and comical fantasy animals that must be bargained for, as well as embroidered huipiles (blouses) and rebozos (shawls), whose designs vary with their village of origin.
Oaxaca’s remarkable blend of old-world Spanish affluence (exemplified by the magnificent Baroque Church of Santo Domingo and its gold-ornamented Rosario Chapel) and deep-rooted native tradition are gloriously at play in the 16th-century Convent of Santa Catarina de Siena. One of Mexico’s colonial treasures, with various incarnations as a school, the mayor’s office, and even a city jail, it has recently been converted into Camino Real, one of Mexico’s most attractive hotels. The former convent can be found within an area officially declared a District of National Monuments, comprising twenty-six colonial-era churches – within the historic hotel’s thick, cool walls, guests can enjoy a host of ancient frescoes, hushed flagstone loggias, jasmine-scented patios, and Los Lavaderos, a cupola-covered water fountain surrounded by twelve stone laundry basins. The former refectory has become the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, El Refectorio; sample the distinctive mole sauce, a local specialty found here in numerous interpretations.
Las Mañanitas is considered a standard-bearer for luxury hotels in Mexico, the very definition of indulgence. Few do not know about it, and for good reason: At 5,000 feet above sea level, with a perfect climate the Aztecs called “eternal spring” and a smiling staff of 150 who live to pamper forty privileged guests, what’s not to love?
The atmosphere is sumptuous and relaxed, like the well-heeled city of Cuernavaca itself. Peacocks, cranes, and flamingos roam about the emerald lawns and flowering gardens as if in an open-air zoo, while parrots and rare blue macaws roost overhead. The city’s ancient Aztec name of Cuauhnahuac, the Place of the Whispering Trees, might apply to the gardens here, bursting with flowers and Edenlike in their groomed perfection. Most of the twenty suites open onto the gardens’ cool, tropical glory, and much of life at Las Mañanitas takes place there – tea, cocktails, waiting for dinner, lingering for the joy of lingering, snoozing. If the hotel is full, guest-wannabes are in for a double disappointment if they intend to drop in for lunch or dinner instead. The justifiably acclaimed restaurant plays a key role in the inn’s fame as an ideal getaway, and many weekend guests come for the dining experience alone. Book way in advance for either and cross your fingers.
In an astounding migratory pilgrimage that takes place every autumn, tens of millions of orange-and-black-winged Monarch butterflies from the eastern United States and Canada brave gales and downpours to make the arduous 2,000-mile trip south to winter in Mexico. High-altitude areas (over 8,000 feet) covered with fir trees northwest of Mexico City, which the Monarchs seem to prefer, have been made into natural reserves. By December, as many as 100 million will gather on these slopes, covering every tree in the vicinity. They are so numerous you can hear their wings beating; the combined weight of their tiny bodies clustered in dense layers on top of one another can actually break limbs from the trees. When they fly, the sky appears completely covered with orange and yellow confetti. Exceptionally cold weather in the winter months of 2002 resulted in the death of an enormous number of these wintering beauties, but local officials were surprised to see how quickly the population repropagated and recouped its losses.
Michoacán, wildly beautiful and perhaps the most artistic and culture-rich state in all Mexico, is the land of the indigenous Tarascans, a native people known for their brilliantly colored handicrafts and folk art, music and dance, and for their melodic Purépecha language. On the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro – at 7,250 feet, one of the world’s highest – they founded the picturesque town of Pátzcuaro in 1324. Today the epicenter of Michoacán’s hecho a mano craft culture, this is the best place to start your tour of the area. On Friday, market day, Indian women, many in brilliantly colored traditional dress, stream in from the neighboring villages, each one known for a different craft. Pátzcuaro itself is known for high-quality serapes and handwoven textiles (as well as homemade tamales), nearby Santa Clara del Cobre for hand-hammered copperware. There are also straw-work items and ceramics from Tzintzuntzán, furniture and native embroidery from Erongaricuaro, and exquisite lacquerware from Uruapán (which has a lively Sunday market). It is not by chance that Michoacán is one of Mexico’s principal artisan centers. In the early 1600s a Spanish bishop arrived in the state capital, Morelia, intending to organize the indigenous settlements into a craft collective of sorts and to teach each town a different trade; much of his basic vision remains intact. An easy overview can be had without even leaving Morelia: Its Casa de Artesanías in the Plaza de San Francisco is a state-run showcase for the best regional folk art and craftwork.
The most European of Mexico’s cities, the stately, colonial Morelia is also the perfect backdrop for the Villa Montaña. Set high in the Santa Maria hills amid exuberant foliage and panoramic views of the rose-stone city below, the villa is a regional craft- and antique-filled Mexican hostelry with a polished French veneer (due, no doubt, to its aristocratic European owners). Separate villas, a maze of patios and cobbled walkways create the atmosphere of a small, self-contained village with the original estate building at its core. Here the villa’s sweeping views vie with the acclaimed kitchen for your attention, and every cityscape includes the graceful silhouette of Morelia’s twin-towered cathedral – the second-largest in the Americas and one of the most beautiful in Mexico.
No one knows who built or inhabited Teotihuacán, a monumental city of pyramids, palaces, and temples. It is thought to have been settled around 100 B.C. and to have had more than 100,000 residents (some estimates say twice that) by A.D. 500. For the first six centuries A.D., Teotihuacán was possibly the most influential seat of political, religious, and cultural power in Central America. The Aztecs, who arrived later, believed that the cosmos was created here.
So close to Mexico City and yet so far away, Teotihuacán covers more than 8 square miles and in its time was larger than contemporary Rome, making it then the biggest city in the world. By 700 it was mysteriously abandoned; some scholars believe it may have come to a sudden and violent end, possibly through arson.
A stroll down the pyramid-lined Avenue of the Dead, from the Pyramid of the Sun to the Pyramid of the Moon, underlines the symmetry and majesty of its architecture, all laid out in accordance with celestial movements – a meeting place of the gods, the heavens, the earth, and mankind.
A new state-of-the-art museum on the site helps eliminate much of the ruins’ mystery, although many of the artifacts excavated here are on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. A trip to this museum is guaranteed to bring alive Mesoamerica’s pre-conquest era in all its brilliance and splendor. One of the finest anthropological and archaeological museums anywhere, its collections are housed in an award-winning building reminiscent of the timeless grandeur of an Aztec temple. The Aztec calendar sun stone (the museum’s pièce de résistance), elaborately feathered Aztec headdresses, exquisite pieces of gold or alabaster, and the simple instruments that were used in everyday life can be just as evocative as a crumbling ruin at the end of a jungle trek.
While most of the world can barely spell (or pronounce) Zihuatanejo – let alone locate it on a map – the experienced set long ago designated the colorful, centuries-old fishing village (nicknamed Zihua) one of Mexico’s treasures. Two of its charming and highly distinctive hotels are regarded as among Mexico’s top getaways.
The unbeatable location of the small and romantic Villa del Sol on one of the loveliest beaches in Mexico (with the recent addition of three spacious beach-side suites that feature private terraces, rimless pools, and sunset-perfect views of Zihuatanejo Bay) has long been showered with accolades and awards. Its breezy informality belies the precision of its clockwork service, which owes to the German owner’s labor-of-love involvement. Who’d know from the luxury of its quiet and tropical serenity, disturbed only by birdsong and surf, that it is almost always full? Bright, hand-painted tiles are used throughout the cozy but elegant hotel, and local crafts have been collected on forays throughout the country. Swaths of sheer mosquito netting drape the canopied king-size beds and everywhere is the discreet attention to detail, design, and decor more commonly found in a private home.
Book an equal number of nights at the earth-colored, multilevel La Casa Que Canta (House That Sings), cantilevered on a rocky hillside above the gorgeous Playa La Ropa. Zihuatanejo’s other must-see hotel, the Casa is made from molded adobe to resemble a traditional pueblo, with a mood that is both romantic and relaxed, and owes much to the exquisite taste of the hotel’s French owners (who see to it that your bed is strewn with fresh flower petals every morning). The Casa’s rimless, aptly named “infinity pool,” where the blues of the sky, horizon, and Pacific Ocean all blend together in one magnificent tableau, is something magical at sunset. Each of the sea-view suites, many with open-air living rooms, private pools, and thatched-roof terraces, is named after a popular Mexican ballad (hence the hotel’s whimsical name), each with a mood of its own. An aesthetic and visual extravaganza, filled as it is with brightly painted Michoacán handicrafts and surrounded by stunning views, the hotel became an immediate favorite with the international art-and-film crowd. The hotel’s restaurant features locally caught seafood excellently prepared and served alfresco on a palapa-thatched terrace, with a starry sky served up for dessert.