Updated: Dec 28, 2020
The largest Spanish speaking country in the world, Mexico is an economic and cultural powerhouse.
Located in Monte Alban, this was a court for the classic ball game
All too often, tourism to Mexico is relegated to all-inclusive beach resorts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does overlook a country replete with history, diversity, colour and fun.
Over the years I have visited many parts of Mexico. Finally, it was time to lead a tour, tying together so many of the elements that contribute to the Mexican mosaic: huge population centres, pyramids, mountain passes, mezcal (tequila), food (and spice), corruption and, of course, beaches and marine life.
As a point of reflection, it was fun to design this tour and it ran almost exactly to plan. Mexico’s size cannot be understated, so any comprehensive trip will miss as much as it will include. For this journey I focused on major cultural destinations, with some enticing landscapes thrown in.
The tour and the sites felt perfectly safe. We were far removed from the ‘narco violence’ that does disrupt certain areas of the country and certainly damages Mexico’s reputation (somewhat deservedly).
We travelled from Mexico City, through Puebla and down to the State of Oaxaca. All cultural zones and cities, where one feels perfectly comfortable to walk at night. All the same, advice about travelling anywhere applies; but it is important to stress the sense of safety when walking around.
Mexico City’s iconic Central Plaza
This mega-city should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is no longer the largest city on earth, but close to it. Google will tell you there are 21 million residents. Locals put the number up to about 28 million, and the broader zone could be well over 30 million.
For years, it was referred to as a Federal District (like Washington, DC, or Canberra, ACT), but has morphed into a city-state and a regional state (hence the debate over population).
Regardless of arbitrary boundaries, it is massive, interesting and extremely polluted. On every trip, I have limited my time in the capital to three full days as I react to the poor air.
The city is located in a high altitude bowl (2,200 metres / 7,300 feet) that was once filled by Lake Texcoco and was home to the Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlan. This was an island city with intricate waterways and an abundance of food.
As the Spanish conquest destroyed the Aztec city, gradually pyramids were converted to cathedrals and colonial buildings. With a little digging, there remains an indigenous population, and pyramids can be visited on the edge of the city.
Over the centuries, Mexico City has shaken with major earthquakes; and as the lake has been drained, the city has gradually sunk. Buildings look as though they were built on waves. It is a wonder the city still has water (tap water is still not potable).
There is a certain sameness to all colonial Spanish cities, but at least they made a point of building large open plazas (Zocalo in Mexico) and nice, treed parks.
From Mexico’s vibrant city centre, the Alameda Park is an easy walk. Also the museum district – home to the Anthropological Museum (one of the best anywhere) – is a green, treed area.
If it were not for the air quality, I could happily imagine a week in the city. Warm, sunny days and cool, comfortable evenings. This climate defines almost all the high-altitude cities throughout Latin America and it is understandable why such locations were chosen for settlement in both pre- and post-Columbian times.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mexico City is home to the taco. This iconic Mexican food has global appeal. Mexicans love spice – so take care with different sauces. I would also avoid street food. Between cooking at altitude, spices and hygiene, many, many visitors to Mexico can experience gut problems – usually defined as a day on the porcelain altar.
The most visited religious site in the Catholic world
Any visit to Mexico City simply must include the archaeological site of Teotihuacan. It is only 40km from the city centre (nothing by Mexican standards) and is home to the sun and moon pyramids. There is little shade at the site and a lot of steps, but it is well worth the visit and best done with a guide to bring it to life.
On the way back to the city, we visited the Basilica of our Lady of Guadeloupe – arguably the most visited religious site in the Christian world. Much of its meaning is lost on me, but it includes a visit from the Virgin Mary and a cloak containing her image.
Mexico in general remains an extremely religious (principally Catholic) and superstitious country. I do tire of ABC tours (Another Bloody Church) but to ignore the powerful religious presence throughout the country is to miss much of the cultural and artistic history and the current culture.
To this end, any visitor to Mexico quickly notes the ubiquity of skulls and skull-like images associated with the Day of the Dead. This incredible celebration now correlates somewhat with Halloween further north and predates European contact. It is a time when the living and dead walk together.
Mezcal / Tequila
This mezcal cocktail came with a distinctive spiced chili powder
A classic treatment for stomach complaints, mezcal is Mexico’s iconic drink. Made from the agave plant, this distilled liquor is loved by many, hated by some and remembered by all who have ventured there. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila … floor!
‘Tequila’ is mezcal, just from some specific regions of the country. I do not think there is any exaggeration in drawing parallels between the diversity of tequilas and that of whiskys. Mezcal can vary from 30% alcohol to well above 50% and may be sipped, shot or indeed mixed.
Oaxaca is the most significant mezcal producer of any state, but the plants grow all over the country. Unless you are a complete teetotaler, skipping mezcal means missing a component of the Mexican culinary experience.
Beer is also widespread – typically the light lagers (famously Corona) are ubiquitous, but a microbrew culture is following the global trend. My personal favourite Mexican beer is Victoria.
Mexico does not really have a wine culture; most wine is imported.
Cholula and Puebla
Mighty, active Popocatepetl volcano standing guard over Puebla’s valley
The city of Puebla is less than two hours south-east from the capital (and the state much closer). It is historically very conservative, very Catholic and quite wealthy.
Driving out of Mexico City, the roads are good and rise above 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), before descending into Puebla. The high, clean air is very refreshing and the border between the states is defined by the perennially active Popocatepetl volcano.
Cholula (effectively part of greater Puebla) is a must-visit as it is home to the world’s largest pyramid – as measured by girth. When approaching, it looks like a green, treed hill with a church on top. Some folk stories suggest the hill’s human-made origins were forgotten and rediscovered.
There is a small museum, and the tunnels through the structure are excavated and easy to walk through. The church on top offers spectacular views and a small chapel behind the altar for curing illnesses – if that is your belief system.
As a note, there is increasing debate regarding human migrations into the Americas, but there seems no doubt that pyramid construction, much like farming, occurred independently. One could spend generations studying ancient Mexico, but never does a legitimate academic suggest a link with Egypt.
Hard to believe that hill was built (or stated) 2000 years ago
Puebla itself is a very attractive city. It feels wealthy by Mexican standards and has a rich culinary tradition. Economically, Puebla is the centre of automobile production. Definitely worth a visit on the way south.
Salads in Oaxaca are seasoned with chapulines – dried (salty / yummy) bugs
The state of Oaxaca (Wa-HA-ka) defines the southern bend in Mexico and is wonderful: it is a state I have visited many times.
This mountainous region boasts the greatest variety of agave plants in the country and wonderfully diverse eco-systems due to distinct elevation and climatic zones.
The region has a large indigenous population (principally Mixtec and Zapotec) and boasts the archeological site of Monte Alban – the first planned city of the Americas. I consider this site to be as historically important as Machu Picchu – albeit significantly more accessible.
In addition to culture and drink, Oaxaca may be the most significant culinary centre in Mexico and home to mole (a remarkable mix of flavours, including chilli and chocolate – Mexico’s gift to the world), which is used in a great variety of sauces and on meat. *It must be noted Puebla also lays claim to Mole.
The main city is walkable, friendly and safe. Warm, sunny days (in the dry season) give way to cool, clear nights – all without the air pollution of the capital. It is no wonder that Oaxaca has been ‘discovered’ and boasts a large ex-pat community and numerous language schools (happily, Oaxaca does not feel ‘overrun’ by tourism, despite its popularity.)
A word about corruption: on our way to Puebla (about 5 hours of beautiful driving), our driver was stopped by a police officer for no offence whatsoever. The officer was given 200 pesos for lunch and we carried on. This sort of corruption rots a society from within.
The city of Oaxaca itself is a UNESCO site, and its architecture has survived many earthquakes. When sharing a drink in the city, patrons enjoy dried bugs (really crickets) rather than nuts: an excellent source of protein. These chapulines also festoon salads and local meals. Yum!
Oaxaca deserves days and days to enjoy walking the streets, dining and visiting markets. It is on my list of places to live and, indeed, my dad spent several winters there, studying Spanish and discovering sauces.
Obviously Monte Alban was our first visit from the city. The third day was an absolute highlight learning to cook and drink (I was better at the later) with Chef Oscar at Casa Crespo. This is a highly recommended event – honestly 10 / 10 – contact me if you want some recipes!
Oaxaca offers one of my favourite day trips – the Mezcal Route. Leaving the city, the valley opens up and is full of sights including archaeological centres, markets, geological formations and the world’s largest tree (by volume). If you need more ideas in the region, I have plenty!
I would also like to offer my compliments to Los Pilares Hotel in Oaxaca. This colonial property is close to the centre, has beautiful room. Excellent staff and delicious food – they offered a different, custom breakfast everyday.
Mexico is so much more than beaches… but the beaches can be perfect, too
From the city of Oaxaca, we drove up, over, around, down, up again and down again to the coastal resort area of Huatulco. I had previously taken this route 20 years ago and it was a 12+ hours event. Now the route is only 5+ hours! Absolutely beautiful, with diverse ecosystems and stunning scenery – but winding enough to to upset a few stomachs.
I loved the drive – and a little mezcal always helps 🙂
It is quite a shock to arrive at a huge, all-inclusive resort after colonial hotels and authentic cities, but once settled in, the hot Pacific Ocean is delicious when reached from over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).
After so much exploring, a day at the beach was simply fun. Suddenly, mass-tourism Mexico was all around us (mostly Canadians), but so were iguanas and interesting bird life. The waters around Huatulco are clean and the region is not busy like other resort areas.
On our second day at the resort we went out on a private boat. Within 15 minutes we enjoyed seeing humpback whales. We then snorkelled, ate, drank and met sea turtles. Perfect.
And back again
Finally, we flew back up to giant Mexico City – best viewed from the air. From there, it would seem that we all flew back home into quarantine in our respective countries.
As a final note about Mexico, there is so much to learn and discover. Corruption is rampant and poverty – while not universal – is present. It is a complicated country with a very complicated history. They even once had a German Emperor installed by the French!
Obviously the relationship with the United States is a mixed one, but so too is Mexico’s role in Latin America. Its current president has all the trappings of other left-wing (and right-wing) populists. Police corruption is so ingrained, the army is replacing state law.
Yet the Mexican people are almost universally lovely. The society is warm, family-oriented and kind. While I personally struggle with some of the food, Mexico should stand as one of the world’s great culinary destinations.
In terms of landscapes and nature, Mexico – with its mountains, volcanoes, forests, deserts and beaches – offers just about everything to everyone (and often at a very good value). Next time I may plan a trip to swim with whale sharks …