Greetings, Loyal Reader! If you’ve gotten to this point, you either like top ten lists, as I do, or you’re just trying to appease me. Hoping it’s the former and not the latter, it’s time for another list! (My previous top ten list – Top Ten Mexico City – can be found here.)
There’s so much more to Mexico than just its capital. Of course, Mexico DF is the biggest and best city in the country – and you’d better believe it’ll make my country-wide top ten list – but you’ll also find beaches, ruins, and smaller cities and towns of note. Any Americans reading this blog, take note: many U.S. cities offer direct flights to numerous destinations in Mexico. Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas seem especially well connected. Start packing!
Top Ten Mexico – The Country
1) Mexico City – I’ll try to keep this short, but I’ve basically summarized everything from my last list into my #1 ranking here. The country’s capital and biggest city, Mexico City is correspondingly filled with more museums, parks, vibrant neighborhoods, revolution-era murals, bold contemporary art, historic buildings, political demonstrations, hopping nightlife, infuriating traffic, and all-out bustle than anywhere else in the country – or perhaps on the continent, even. I’d go so far as to say that Mexico City is disproportionately “blessed” with cultural riches – even when compared alongside such similarly-old mega-cities as London, Rome, Cairo, and Beijing. Love it or hate it, there’s certainly no other place like it in the Americas. Surely 20 million people can’t be wrong?
2) Colonial highland towns – Mexico City notwithstanding, nowhere in Mexico is the architectural footprint of Mexico’s Spanish settlers more distinct than in the country’s colonial highland towns. Puebla, Cholula, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Toluca, Querétaro, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende more-or-less surround Mexico City. Today, most of these centuries-old cities and towns have the same sprawl as Mexico City, but their respective centers are bastions of picturesque architecture like something you might find in Seville or Madrid. Shadows cast by Puebla’s enormous cathedral give its streets a claustrophobic feel. Walls of many buildings in this magnificent old city are adorned with traditional azulejos (tiles), still a cottage industry in this otherwise-industrial region. Nearby Cholula boasts the second-largest pyramid in the world – even bigger than the more-famous Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán (see #5 for more information on Teotihuacán), though you would hardly know it, as most of the pyramid is covered by a large grassy hill (which in turn is topped by a Spanish church!). All of the other places merit visits as well, although I’ll save special mention for Guanajuato, city of tunnels, city of mines, and (perhaps despite itself) city of enchantment. Indeed, Guanajuato is probably the easiest city to fall in love with in all of Mexico.
3) Chiapas – Oh, Chiapas. Land of mystery. Of steamy jungle and chilly highland villages. Of Zapatista revolutionaries. Of cascading waterfalls. Of hybrid local religions, part-Catholic and part-Mayan. Of crocodile-filled Cañón del Sumidero. Of locals so shy they sometimes fear that having their picture taken will steal their soul. Of the elusive fer-de-lance, a serpiente muy peligrosa. Of San Cristóbal de las Casas, that impossibly-beautiful crossroads town. Of sacred, cloud-covered Palenque. Oh, Chiapas. You’re worlds away from the capital with its assault on the senses, from the desert hinterlands of the north, from the volcanoes and agave fields of central Mexico, and from the country’s majestic sandy beaches. Still, you are a region all your own, as much as part of Mexico as the next state. My heart belongs in Mexico City, but you, Chiapas, may have possessed my soul.
4) Guadalajara – Guadalajara is commonly referred to as Mexico’s “Second City.” And although it is indeed second fiddle to the capital in terms of population, political influence, and other factors, the label is perhaps unfair. Guadalajara is, after all, the most Mexican of cities. It is in or around Guadalajara that the mariachi was born, that tequila is harvested, that the Mexican Hat Dance was written, that the rodeo came to be, and that the guitar was invented. As such, Guadalajara is a city of tremendous energy, culture, and civic pride. Its museums and government buildings are adorned with jaw-dropping murals, its Cathedral surrounding by four – count ‘em – four lively squares, its pedestrian streets filled with people, its universities among the most prestigious in the country. Don’t be surprised to find yourself staying longer here than you originally expected. Likewise, if you leave unimpressed, check your wrist for a pulse.
5) Teotihuacán – The highlands around of Mexico City are home to several pre-Hispanic archaeological sites. Tula, an excavated Toltec city to the north of the capital, is famous for its Atlantes (enormous stone warrior) figures. Teopanzolco, in Cuernavaca to the south, features a pyramid-within-a-pyramid, one built by the Aztecs and the other by a people that came before them. Tepozteco, atop a sheer cliff in the village of Tepoztlán and famous as the supposed birthplace of Quetzalcóatl, can only be reached by foot. Each site is unique and worth seeing, yet none of them hold a candle to Teotihuacán, less than an hour by bus from el DF’s North Bus Station. Surrounded by mountains and agave fields, Teotihuacán – which pre-dates the Aztec civilizations by several centuries and about whose original occupants little is known – has a spectacular setting. More spectacular are its ruins, including the massive Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the former being the third-largest pyramid on Earth. Teotihuacán’s main thoroughfare, the creepily-named Avenue of the Dead, runs for two kilometers past dozens – hundreds, even – of ruins, and it’s believed that another two kilometers of city remain unexcavated!
6) Quintana Roo – Although I’ve been passionate about geography since childhood, I always thought “Quintana Roo” sounded made-up, or that it was the name of a cartoon kangaroo. It’s very much real, however. Roughly speaking, Quintana Roo is the eastern half of the Yucatan Peninsula, running from Cancún in the north to Chetumal, near the Belize border in the south. Quintana Roo and adjacent Yucatan State comprise one of Mexico’s least-populated areas, yet they are the country’s most-touristed region all the same. Cancún and the Zona Hotelera have their merits, namely white sand beaches, gorgeous hotel pools, potable water, and an annual “Spring Break” cash cow that actually lasts about six weeks. Nothing wrong with that. South, east, and west of Cancún are numerous sites of interest: a trifecta of Mayan sites in well-preserved Chichén Itzá, coast-hugging Tulum, and jungle-shrouded Cobá; inviting cenotes (freshwater limestone caves that you can swim in); family-friendly Xcaret and Xel-Há; and offshore coral reefs near Cozumel, said to be one of the world’s best warm water dive sites.
7) Oaxaca – Though a long drive from the capital (and a long drive from anywhere, frankly), Oaxaca city is pleasantly reminiscent of much, much, much bigger Mexico City for its colonial architecture and surrounding ruins, and blessed with a warmer southern climate. Benito Juárez grew up around here, and Oaxaca’s residents are rightly proud of the fact. As such, they treat their city with pride. The Zócalo is filled with perfectly-pruned trees and its buildings lined with ground-level restaurants. The gold altar of nearby Santo Domingo Church glistens with fresh polish; none of the churches in the capital are so lovely. The low-rise city buildings always seem freshly painted, in that colonial style I’ve alluded to in past blogs (primary colors for the exterior walls, with doorways and window frames typically painted white or gray). Oaxaca has, IMHO, the best street food in all of Mexico, and you’ll be certain to devour it after seeing not only Oaxaca City but also its surrounding attractions – the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla, the carpet-weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, and any number of mezcal distilleries, among other place of interest.
8) Pacific beaches – The title of this entry may seem a bit generic, I’ll grant you, knowing that Mexico’s Pacific coastline stretches for some 3,000 miles. Still, while I generally prefer the country’s inland destinations to its coastal ones, the Pacific coast of Mexico has some wonderful beaches – and not all of them are crowded. A few highlights from north to south: Lover’s Beach, Cabo San Lucas – this much-photographed beach (and the rock arch next to it) has the unique distinction of fronting two bodies of water: the Sea of Cortez on the east, and the Pacific on the west. Swim or snorkel in the former and don’t even think about setting foot in the latter. Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido – P.E. walks a fine line between idyllic beach community and soon-to-be-mega-resort. See it before it crosses over. If you’re a surfer, so much the better. Playa Zipolite, Oaxaca State – this is what Puerto Escondido was just 20 years ago. Fans of Y Tu Mamá También should note that the film’s famed secret beach locale was somewhere around here.
9) Cemeteries – Call me morbid, but I love cemeteries. Spooky yet beautiful, haunted yet peaceful, cemeteries are great places for quiet strolls, thoughtful meditation, and artsy photography. Mexico’s great cemeteries (panteóns) – oft-forgotten behind high walls and wrought-iron gates, are imposing labyrinths of beauty. The best of them – Guadalajara’s Gothic-style Cemetery Belén (caretakers hadn’t gardened in awhile when I visited, and I found the place to be much spookier as a result of the overgrowth), Guanajuato’s claustrophobia-inducing Municipal Cemetery (complete with a très-creepy mummy museum), and Mexico City’s sprawling Civil Cemetery (home to the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons housing the remains of Diego Rivera, Dolores del Rio, and others) – sometimes seem like places you’d expect to find in Eastern Europe, or in New Orleans perhaps. Seek out these places on a cold, cloudy day – and bring your camera, for the fallen leaves, gray skies, and crumbling tombs make for fantastic pictures.
10) Cervezas – It’s no secret that Corona is the #1 imported beer in the U.S., and for good reason. It goes down smooth – even better with a squeeze of lime – and is just flavorful enough to remind drinkers of better times and warmer weather. But to drink just Corona is to barely reach the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As regards Mexican cervezas, you can easily call Mexico the “Germany of the Americas.” Sol, Tecate, Dos Equis, have all penetrated the U.S. market as well – but while eminently drinkable – you’re still missing the best of the best. I’ve become a huge fan of Negra Modelo, especially the obscura (dark) variety. If you can, try a Michelada, which essentially takes any beer (often Negra Modelo but any brand will do) and adds a healthy squeeze of lime, a not-so-healthy sprinkling of salt, and – sometimes – a dash of spicy peppers. If you find yourself in Mexico City around the holidays, look for Noche Buena, a seasonal ale as smooth as it is expensive (by Mexican prices, anyway). A year-round favorite is Indio, frustratingly hard to find outside of the capital. I could keep going but I’ll stop here, as this blog is making me thirsty!
A few pics, for your viewing pleasure:
Above photo: Plaza Santo Domingo, just one of many highlights of a visit to Mexico City. (You may recognize this image; a compressed version acts as my blog’s header photo.)
Below photo: Guanajuato, as seen from above.
Above photo: Chichén Itzá, on a rare cloudy day.
Below photo: Pedestrian street in colonial Oaxaca.
Above photo: Lover’s Beach, Cabo San Lucas. I’m standing with my back to the Pacific and looking towards the Sea of Cortez.
Below photo: Colonnade of tombs, Cemetery Belén, Guadalajara.