mexico (1)

Mexico City – Some Random Ramblings

Mexico City is such a sprawling city, that each of its districts gives a completely different feel. Join us as we discover Zocalo with Dale of The Maritime Explorer. 

I’ve already written five posts on Mexico City – Templo MayorXochimilcoCoyoacanHacienda Pena Pobre and The National Anthropological Museum and yet I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the myriad attractions of the capitol city. This final post will consist of my random thoughts on various places in the city, most of which are in and around the Centro Histórico which is itself, along with Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Please join me as we ramble around the Zócalo.

The Zócalo – Heart of Mexico City

Zocalo, Mexico City

The Zócalo is the beating heart of Mexico City to which all roads seem to converge. It is the largest plaza in the Americas and third largest in the world after Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen Square in Peking. I visited it on a number of occasions while in Mexico City and got this one photo that makes it look relatively deserted. Trust me, that is not usually the case, especially on weekends and holidays when it is jam packed with families, tourists, church goers, buskers, beggars and umpteen vendors. Believe it or not, when it gets really busy an open space this big can actually feel claustrophobic.

The Day of the Dead festivities were under way in Mexico during my visit (in fact it was planned around that event), and the Zócalo was decorated with these great skeletons just truckin’.

Skeletons on the Zoculo, Mexico City
Skeletons Truckin’ on the Zoculo

That’s one cool dude in the black hat.

Skeletons on the Zocalo, Mexico City
Skeletons on the Zocalo

In addition to all the activities going on there were numerous gathering of Indigenous groups, or at least people dressed like them, who hold smudge ceremonies. For a few pesos you could buy some herbs which are then lit on fire and the smoke used to purify the purchaser. For every person doing it, there were more, like me, taking pictures of them. It looked like a good racket to be in.

Smudge Ceremony

Metropolitan Cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City
Metropolitan Cathedral

Dominating one side of the Zócalo is the immense pile of stone commonly called Metropolitan Cathedral, but more properly titled Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in Heavens. Why there is an ‘s’ on heaven I have no idea. I always assumed there was only one heaven and one hell, but what do I know. It’s only appropriate to have the largest cathedral in Latin America facing the largest plaza, but there is a price to pay for bigness. Since Mexico City is built atop a drained lake with no bedrock foundation, buildings this large literally start to sink and despite the expected protection of God and the Virgin Mary, the Metropolitan Cathedral is headed in the opposite direction of the heavens. Maybe they shouldn’t have used stolen stones from the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war to start building it. Anyway, it is now claimed that nature has been conquered and the structure stabilized.

Metropolitan Cathedral Entrance
Metropolitan Tabernacle Entrance

This is the very ornate entrance to the Tabernacle on the right side of the cathedral done in Latin American Baroque style which out-baroques almost anything the Europeans could come up with.

The interior was badly damaged in a 1967 fire and compared to most other churches we visited in Mexico, actually quite plain and underwhelming, except of course the altars which demonstrate the Catholic Churches’ lust for gold. This is the Altar of Forgiveness where heretics and blasphemers convicted by the Inquisition would be brought to pray for forgiveness before being executed. Unfortunately, it never worked so it really should be called the Altar of Unforgiveness.

Cathedral Interior

Perhaps the most unusual thing inside the cathedral is a Foucault’s Pendulum, similar to the one in the Pantheon in Paris. The purpose is apparently to document the movement of the cathedral, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out how it was doing that.

Cathedral Pendulum, Mexico City
Cathedral Pendulum

Outside the cathedral there were two different things that I thought captured very succinctly, if not deliberately, the contradictory relationship that Mexicans have had with the church and religion in general.  The first is this statue of John Paul II who visited Mexico City four times during his papacy. As papal statues go, this one is pretty good. Mexico is an avowedly secular country that has at times outright banned the Catholic Church. Even today all Catholic churches are property of the state and not the church. However, central Mexico has one of the highest rates of practising Catholics in the world – over 80% claim to follow the Vicar of Christ.

Pope John Pail II, Mexico City
Pope John Pail II

On the other side of the cathedral is this temporary exhibit built, by the congregants of the church, to commemorate the Day of the Dead. Called Muertes Altars, literally almost every church, government institution, private business and many private homes build these in late October and keep them up for weeks. There is clearly something going on here that is almost the antithesis of organized religion. It was the Aztecs, more properly Mexicas, who had the fascination with death and skulls and skeletons long before the first Spaniard set foot in Tenochtitlan. Somehow the more ancient tradition has blended with the usurper religion to create something that is neither. This was to remain an underlying theme during our entire time in Mexico and illustrated no better than the contrast at the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Cathedral Muertes Altar, Mexico City
Cathedral Muertes Altar

This idea of contrasting pre-Columbian and colonial themes can be found all over the Zócalo area if you look for it. This is one of the colonnades that surround portions of the Zócalo.

Colonnade on the Zocalo, Mexico City
Colonnade on the Zocalo

It has a series of tiles that you can see on the right side of the photo, which is not an uncommon thing to see in Mexico or Spain. One of these is the Coat-of-Arms of Mexico which adorns their flag and crops up repeatedly and yet it is a distinctly Mexica symbol that was in existence long before the Spanish arrived. You can see it etched into a large stone at the National Museum of Anthropology.

Mexican Coat-of-Arms Tile on the Colonnade

This represents a vision that the nomadic Mexica people of northern Mexico had of what they would see at the place where they would stop their wanderings and put down roots. It is a golden eagle devouring a rattlesnake that sits on a prickly pear cactus that grows on an island in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains. That’s a lot of things that had to come together at the same time and yet both the Mexicas and many modern Mexicans believed it happened somewhere right around the Zócalo.

Not far from this tile there is modern free-standing set of sculptures depicting the same thing, but also including a group of Mexicas coming to the realization that they have found their homeland. It’s really very well done, and I could see that it also very moving to many of the Mexicans who came to view it. However, the irony that the coat-of-arms of Mexico would come from a people the Spanish decimated and despised as pagans, cannot be lost on most people.

The Mexicas  Discover their Homeland

One thing it is not uncommon to see on saint’s feast days, and there are a ton of those, is people toting large and small replicas of their particular chosen saint. This was October 28, the feast days of St. Simon and St. Jude (not Judas) who were both apostles and evangelized together after Jesus’ death.

Carting a Saint, Mexico City
Carting St. Jude

At first glance you might think this was a statue of Jesus, but the red flames coming out of the head plus the Jesus medallion he carried to cure leprosy, give him away as St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. One can only wonder what lost cause this fellow is hoping to have St. Jude intervene in.

The National Palace, Mexico City

National Palace, Mexico City
National Palace

No visitor to Mexico City should miss the National Palace which abuts the Zócalo on its east side. This is a public domain photo showing the exterior of the palace whose origins go as far back as Moctezuma II, the last Mexica (Aztec) king who had a palace here. Given the Spanish penchant for obliterating pre-Columbian monuments by building over them, it’s no surprise that this is where Cortés built his principal palace. Over the centuries it has been expanded many times with the current facade dating only from the 1920’s. It was the home of the viceregal rulers of New Spain followed by the President after independence. This tradition was stopped in 1884, but recently revived by current Mexican President Andrés Obrador. So it’s once again the Mexican version of the White House.

National Palace

This somewhat cockeyed photo I took shows the balcony from which the President gives the annual Grito de Dolores, an event in Mexican history as important as the Declaration of Independence is to Americans. Above the balcony is a bell from the church in Dolores Hidalgo where the cry for freedom was first uttered by Miguel Hidalgo.

Bell From Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico City
Bell From Dolores Hidalgo

I have to be honest and say that when I first saw these I did not understand their significance, but after visiting many of the places associated with the War for Independence I now, belatedly, do.

The National Palace is actually a huge compound with many interior plazas and open spaces, most of which are off limits. What you are allowed inside to see is far more interesting than just the outer facade.

Entrance is free, but you need to show a passport or other government ID to get in. Once inside you can wander through the inner courtyard to the palace dating back to Cortés.

Courtyard, Palace of Cortes

On the walls of this palace you will find Diego Rivera’s History of Mexico murals, perhaps the most famous in Mexico if not the world, for their sheer size and scope. Completed between 1929 and 1935 they depict the struggle of the Mexican people against foreign oppressors as told from a distinctly Marxist point of view. They are simply stunning and I could not believe how few people were actually here seeing them, considering that the streets outside were thronged. Unfortunately it’s next to impossible to get a good photo of the principal work that stretches across three walls and a ceiling. This is the best I could do. You can see that painting the history of an entire country in one giant painting entails a lot of characters and themes. Again, because I had not yet ventured outside Mexico City to the other places where many of the major events in Mexican history took place, I could not interpret most of what Rivera was portraying. I would like to return now that I have a much better read on Mexico and its past struggles, however, even without knowing what was going on in a lot of the scenes this work was still mesmerizing.

Grand Staircase Mural, National Palace, Mexico City
Grand Staircase Mural

I was able to get a better grasp of some parts of the mural even with my limited knowledge. For example, this is a representation of the return of Quetzalcoatl as predicted by Aztec myth. Note that he is a fair haired white man with a beard which was one of the reasons that Cortés did not immediately get the negative reception he deserved. Some thought he was a returning god. Another form of Quetzalcoatl as the plumed serpent emerges from the volcano.


Tenochtitlan Market

This panel shows the main market in Tenochtitlan before the arrival of the Spanish with the Templo Mayor in the distance, with blood stains dripping down it. Here is a close-up from a public domain photo.

Blood on the Templo Mayor

Rivera did not limit himself to the cultures around Mexico City, but includes panels on the Zapotec, Mixtec, Tarascan and others. This is El Tajin near Veracruz with its Pyramid of the Niches.

El Tajin Leaders

A closeup reveals the ‘flying man game’, which has evolved into the modern day floridores.

Flying Man Game

The last panel in the corridor is also the most gut wrenching. It shows the coming of Cortés and the inhuman treatment unleashed on the people of Mexico, including death, slavery and disease in which not only the conquistadors participated in, but the priests as well.

Coming of the Spanish

After viewing the murals a few minutes should be set aside for visiting the former Chamber of Deputies if only to see the Masonic eye that looked down on the proceedings.

Masonic Eye on the Chamber of Deputies Ceiling

There are lots of other places around the Centro Histórico I could go on about, this post would get just too long. However, there are a couple of iconic modern buildings that are certainly worth travelling to see outside the centre of the city, both in the University district to the south.

Biblioteca Central & Olympic Stadium

Biblioteca Central, Mexico City
Biblioteca Central

Even though it’s not that old, the Biblioteca Central is one of Mexico City’s most recognizable buildings. Continuing the muralist style of documenting Mexican history Irish/Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman tells the story of Mexico in mosaic stones, that also includes references to astronomy, astrology and other themes. It’s quite simply a one of a kind building that sits well away from other buildings so you can get an unobstructed view of all sides.

Biblioteca Central

Nearby is University Stadium, built in 1952 and host of the 1968 Olympic Games. Once again inlaid stones are used to create a wonderful effect, this time by Diego Rivera. The birds are an eagle and a condor and symbolize North and South America – the first games held here were the Panams in 1955. The figures stand atop the feathered serpent, yet another representation of the god Quetzalcoatl.

Olympic Stadium, Mexico City
Olympic Stadium

When I think of how well this stadium has held up over the years, its overall strength of design and its very reasonable cost, I can’t help but think of that colossal unsightly pile of concrete we built for the Olympic games in Montreal in 1976. A monstrosity from the outset, it rapidly became a Canadian national embarrassment and is barely used today.

One prominent event that I remember well happened here in 1968 when American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their fists high and heads low as they gave the Black Panther salute while receiving their medals. I decide to repeat it, but I’m not thinking about racial prejudice, but rather the stupidity that went into building the Big Owe.

Ode to Smith & Carlos

On that low note I’ll conclude my Mexico City mumblings. Next we’re off to Oaxaca and the great archaeological site of Monte Alban.

Many thanks again to Dale, for allowing us to share this post.


Monte Alban – Zapotec Stronghold Above Oaxaca

On a tour to Central Mexico, we were lucky enough to be joined by Dale from The Maritime Explorer. Here he recounts his visit with us to Monte Alban. 

This is my seventh post on a recent almost month long trip to the Central Highlands of Mexico with Canadian tour specialists Adventures Abroad. If you want to know more about Adventures Abroad and why you should consider their Central Mexico with Victor Romagnoli, read this post.  This is also the first post on a destination outside  Mexico City, the amazing centre of the Zapotec civilization, Monte Alban, which sits on a mountain top high above the colonial city of Oaxaca. I hope you’ll read on to find out why this is a must visit site for anyone with an interest in pre-Colombian Meso-America.

Who Are the Zapotecas?

Usually when one refers to an ancient people and their culture it is in the past tense, because they and their descendants are long gone, victims of the inexorable grind of history riven with wars, plagues, famines – you name it. Some people claim there’s some horsemen involved. However, the Zapotec people who have occupied the southern highlands of present day Oaxaca state since at least 700 B.C. are still around today with their own language and culture. Their numbers are relatively small in comparison to the overall population of Mexico; estimated to be around a million. But compare that to the numbers of purely Indigenous peoples of Canada which is also just over one million, but divided into hundreds of distinct tribes or nations, and you realize that the Zapotecas are a pretty significant Indigenous group.

Modern day scholars and archaeologists are in general agreement that the chronology of Meso-America, in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations that have left behind tangible evidence of their cities, religion, economy and in some cases, writings, can be divided into three periods. The first is the Pre-Classic or Formative that dates from 2000 B.C. to around 250 by which time most of the traditions generally associated with Meso-American peoples were well established. These include the building of pyramids, human sacrifice, dependence on corn, the calendar and the ritual of the ‘ball game’. The Classic period lasted from 250 to around 900 and was the heyday of the great city of Teotihuacan near Mexico City and the city we are visiting today – Monte Alban. The Post-Classic period lasted up until the arrival of the Spanish and was dominated in Central Mexico by the rise of the Aztecs and their great city of Tenochtitlan.

Perhaps uniquely among Mexican Indigenous groups the Zapotecas can be found throughout all three periods. While the Olmecs of the first period and the Toltecs and Teotihuacanos of the second are all long gone, the Zapotecas survived as a distinct people. While descendant’s of the Aztecs do survive as the Nahua people they were the new comers to the party arriving only in the Post-Classic period.  To my knowledge, the only other people who could make the same claim as the Zapotecas are the Mayans.

The Rise of Monte Alban

Where present day Oaxaca sprawls for over 30 sq. miles (80 sq. kms.) was once the confluence of three valleys each with their own small distinct societies that initially fought with each other for dominance. In a process not dissimilar to what was happening in ancient Greece around the same time, gradually one group triumphed over the rest and created a larger coalition of peoples who then were able to spread their influence over an even greater area. In the case of the Zapotecs, it appears that the creation of a fortified settlement on what is today Monte Alban that was the turning point that led to the dominance of the people who built it. Like Troy, Mycenae and most famously Rome, Monte Alban was not built in a day and the ruins we we’ll see today represent the final stages of an extensive building program that spanned over five hundred years. By 200 A.D. Monte Alban controlled all of the southern highlands and considerably more territory, expanding all the way to the Pacific Ocean..

Zapotec Empire

At its height, Monte Alban is believed to have had less than 20,000 people occupying the site and surrounding area. Despite these relatively modest numbers it maintained its position as the dominant city in the south highlands for five hundred more years. Interestingly, by around 700 it appears that the Zapotecs were not the rulers of Monte Alban, but rather the Mixtecas, who were reusing Zapotec tombs for some of the most elaborate burials ever found in Mexico. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1520’s Monte Alban had been abandoned for five hundred years, although the Zapotecas were still in the area. So this place has a very, very long history.

Excavating Monte Alban

Map of Monte Alban

This is a map of Monte Alban as it exists today, but that was only after the painstaking work of many different archaeological teams dating back to early 20th century. Given its position in a clearly visible location above Oaxaca it was always known that a major complex once existed on Monte Alban. The most important work took place over an eighteen year period when Alfonso Caso, the Indiana Jones of Mexico, directed the excavation of the site including discovering the incredible Mixtec Tomb 7. We will see some of the artifacts from this tomb on display in the archaeological museum in Oaxaca.

World Heritage Site, Monte Alban
World Heritage Site

Today Monte Alban, along with Oaxaca, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with this description of its importance to mankind.

 Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. The archaeological site is known for its unique dimensions which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The main part of the ceremonial centre which forms a 300 m esplanade running north-south with a platform at either end was constructed during the Monte Albán II (c. 300 BC-AD 100) and the Monte Albán III phases. Phase II corresponds to the urbanization of the site and the domination of the environment by the construction of terraces on the sides of the hills, and the development of a system of dams and conduits. The final phases of Monte Albán IV and V were marked by the transformation of the sacred city into a fortified town. Monte Albán represents a civilization of knowledge, traditions and artistic expressions. Excellent planning is evidenced in the position of the line buildings erected north to south, harmonized with both empty spaces and volumes. It showcases the remarkable architectural design of the site in both Mesoamerica and worldwide urbanism.

So with that rather lengthy, but necessary introduction let’s go visit Monte Alban.

Visiting Monte Alban

I first laid eyes on Monte Alban from my window seat on the short AeroMexico flight to Oaxaca. If know what you are looking for, it is unmistakeable and this is what makes Monte Alban so unique. The builders of the final stage city literally lopped off the top of the mountain named Monte Alban to create a level playing field on which to build their monuments. Although stupidly I didn’t have my camera ready, this photo shows pretty well what I saw as we descended to the Oaxaca airport.

Aerial View of Monte Alban

We boarded a bus after leaving the small Oaxaca airport and travelled through the outskirts of the city to a road that climbed and climbed and climbed until at last we reached the small virtually deserted parking lot. Usually there are vendors and hustlers at all these well known sites, but all there was here were a few old men sitting on a wall and the ever present dogs. It was a good omen for our visit.

After a short walk up hill to the entrance area we had a quick tour of the small museum with the local guide we had picked up along the way. There really is not much to see here as most of the smaller artifacts are either in Oaxaca or Mexico City. What was interesting was to see these two fellows at work on preparing the site’s Day of the Dead altar. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, every business, church, school, tourist site etc. builds one of these in late October. Most of them are real works of art that require painstaking arrangements of flowers, coloured sand and other material.

Working on the Muertes Altar, Monte Alban
Working on the Muertes Altar

We entered the site from the northeast side and since this was our first visit to an archaeological site outside Mexico City the group was naturally curious to ask a lot of questions about the very first ruin we came to, one of those small buildings in the upper right hand corner of the map. I knew we had a limited amount of time here so I didn’t want to spend it hanging around one of the lesser building so Alison and I and a couple of others headed out on our own and spent the next two hours touring Monte Alban on our own. We did come across the main group a few times which was now being led by our tour guide Victor Romagnoli as it was apparent that he knew more about Monte Alban than the local guide – and we could understand him as well.

Alison and I made our way to the North Platform and came to the base of this stone stairway. Note the sign to the left. Monte Alban was quite well signed with most having English as well as Spanish.

North Platform, Monte Alban
North Platform

Parts of Monte Alban are off limits for climbing, but the main structures you are going to want to climb are not. The stairs beckoned and we arrived at the top to see this view. Simply stunning, and where are all the people? Visiting Monte Alban without the huge crowds I knew we would find at Teotihuacan made this, for me, perhaps the most enjoyable of all the archaeological sites we visited on this tour. Plus the fantastic weather and views didn’t hurt either.

Monte Alban from North Platform

Below to the left we could see ongoing work on one of the side structures.

Current Work

The view from the North Platform included the city of Oaxaca far, far below. Standing atop this structure I could understand why the people who lived in the valleys below referred to the residents of Monte Alban as “The Cloud People”.

View of Oaxaca from North Platform

Moving to the west side of the North Platform area you get this view of Monte Alban.

Looking South

The stairs down were a lot steeper than the ones going up and you certainly needed to be careful. Rather than tackle them straight on, sidling down sideways was a lot safer and apparently the way the original constructors intended people to ascend and descend.

Staircase Down from the North Platform

Once in the Central Courtyard, which is immense, you are surrounded on all sides by elevated platforms. This is looking back toward the North Platform.

Looking North from Central Courtyard

There are a number of stelae in the Courtyard at Monte Alban. This is Stela 9, one of the best preserved.

Stela 9, Monte Alban
Stela 9

Monte Alban does not just have its ups, but is downs as well. This El Patio Hundido or the Sunken Patio.

El Patio Hundido, Monte Alban
El Patio Hundido

Victor explained how this stelae, No. 19 actually was a working sun dial.

Stela 18 – The Sundial

Heading towards the South Platform you pass this set of buildings which Caso simply called G,H & I.

Buildings G,H 7 I, Monte Alban
Buildings G,H & I

We finally arrived at the South Platform staircase which is a lot higher and steeper than the North Platform. Alison declined to climb them, but I couldn’t resist. This is the view from the South Platform – another “Wow”. The building with the green canvas is the observatory.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban from the South Platform
Monte Alban from the South Platform 2

Unfortunately, it was time to head back to the entrance, but the good news was that it was lunchtime and Victor ordered up a number of sharing plates at the on site restaurant which has a killer view of Oaxaca and the mountains behind.

View of Oaxaca from Monte Alban Restaurant
Sharing Platter, Monte Alban

Time to head into Oaxaca and participate in the Day of the Dead festivities.

Many thanks again to Dale for allowing us to share this post. 


Xochimilco – Enjoying it Without the Crowds


Without a doubt, we love to get away from the crowds. Luckily, we had one with us that likes to document his experiences well. Learn a little from Dale at The Maritime Explorer what a recent stop at Xochimilco was like, with no crowds to spoil it.



Xochimilco has been on my bucket since long before anyone had a bucket list. I first read about this wondrous, watery, flower strewn oasis on the south side of Mexico City in one my early readers that featured chapters on interesting places around the world. I’m not even going to guess how long ago that was, but I did finally get there on a recent trip to Mexico with Canadian tour specialists Adventures Abroad on a tour led by the inestimable Victor Romagnoli. The tour was the inaugural Central Mexico tour featuring Day of the Dead festivities throughout the area. It was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on and if you want to know why, read this post on nine reasons I thought Adventures Abroad was the way to go. The visit to Xochimilco was but one small part of a much bigger picture, but for me, a very important part.

The History of Xochimilco

So what exactly is Xochimilco (pronounced Zosheemilko) and why is it so famous?  Actually, there are many versions of Xochimilco including the modern borough that encompasses 48 Sq. Mi (125 km²) and has over 400,000 residents, there is the colonial city that grew up around San Bernardino de Siena monastery after the conquest and there is the pre-Hispanic city founded in the 10th century. It is this latter city, all traces of which are long gone, which is of the most interest because its inhabitants did leave behind something truly unique in the world – a system of man made islands (chinampas) and canals which most people now think of when Xochimilco comes to mind. This ecosystem has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and is described thus on the UNESCO website:

The lacustrine landscape of Xochimilco, located 28 km south of the city, constitutes the only reminder of traditional Pre-Hispanic land-use in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin. In the midst of a network of small canals, on the edge of the residual lake of Xochimilco (the southern arm of the great drained lake of Texcoco), some chinampas or ‘floating’ gardens can still be found. Parts of this half-natural, half-artificial landscape are now an ‘ecological reserve’.

Unfortunately it is an eco system under tremendous pressure and the last remnant of the once huge Lake Texcoco. This is a map showing the extent of Lake Texcoco at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. Lake Xochimilco is technically a separate lake, but it was all one connected waterway that stretched for well over 60 miles (90 kms.). Note the city of Tenochtitlan sited on an island which is now the heart of Mexico City, but all the water that surrounds it is long gone, a combination of deliberate drainage and natural evaporation. The result is a city built not on bedrock, but dried mud which explains why earthquakes do more than their fair share of damage when they strike.

Lake Texcoco and Connecting Lakes

Now look at the area around Xochimilco and in particular the green areas which are chinampas, an ingenious type of man made island that was wonderfully fertile and productive. The waters around Xochimilco were quite shallow and the various Mexica peoples around the lake figured out that if they staked out a small rectangular plot and wove a fence around it, they could then fill in the compounded area with soil and vegetation. Thus the invention of the ‘floating island’ with man made canals separating them. Long before the Army Corps off Engineers was screwing up almost every water related project it undertook, the people around Lake Texcoco were successfully using dams, dykes and sluice gates to regulate the water level to ensure that the chinampas did not become too water saturated or too dry. Eventually, roots from vegetation on the islands would grow into the lakebed and become rooted. When the Spanish arrived there were over 9000 hectares (22200 acres) of chinampas providing a great deal of the food for Tenochtitlan and the other cities around Lake Texcoco. While I could not get an accurate figure for the number of hectares of chinampas remaining today, most articles I read made it clear it is a tiny fraction of what there once was.

So that’s the depressing part. Now for the fun part.

Visiting Xochimilco

What little there is left of the original chinampas is well worth traveling to see, so much so that a boat ride on one of flat bottomed trajineras has become a staple of any visit to Mexico City. That does create problems. The canals are not very wide and there are a zillion people who want to ride them so the result can be total chaos. There are any number of reviews on TripAdvisor and other online review platforms decrying the Xochimilco experience as a mad house, a ripoff, a tourist trap etc. etc. First off, Xochimilco is definitely not a tourist trap; just like neither is the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls or the Tower of London. There is a reason these places are so popular and it is this very fact that creates the paradoxical effect of seeming to be something a lot less than it really is. In other words, it’s the way you experience these things that adds or detracts from the potential enjoyment of the experience. For me, the number one criteria for getting the most out of a visit to a place like Xochimilco is to go when other people are doing something else, like working. The vast majority of visitors to Xochimilco are Mexicans who celebrate any number of occasions by renting a trajinera. That means the place will be packed on the weekends and unless you like mayhem, my best advice is DON’T GO ON THE WEEKEND.

Fortunately, Victor knew this and took us to Xochimilco on a Monday when most normal people were back to work and nursing their hangovers.

There are a  number of embarkation points and I have no idea which one we went to, but I do know that the parking lot was immense and we were the only bus in it. As we walked down to dock I could see a seemingly endless line up of trajineras and it was then it dawned on me of just how crazy this place would be if even half of them were out on the water.

Trajineras for Rent, Xochimilco
Trajineras for Rent

The trajineras all rent for a flat hourly fee which I understand is now around 500 pesos or just over $26.00USD. That’s a pretty good deal if you’ve got a larger group, but still not bad if you are just a couple. We saw lots of trajineras with only two or three people in them.

Victor did the negotiations and soon we were boarding the Patricia. That’s my wife Alison being helped aboard. As you can see each trajinera has a row of wooden chairs on each side with a table in between.

Boarding the Patricia, Xochimilco
Boarding the Patricia

Once everyone was aboard we needed to pass under this bridge and somehow make our way through what would appear to be a successful naval blockade.

 Victoria Bridge, Xochimilco
Victoria Bridge

However, Victor, acting as a modern day Moses parting the waters, got us through, miraculously not getting his hands crushed between boats.

Victor Clears the Way

So now we were on one of the main canals and everybody could relax. We stopped to pick up a bucket of refreshments from a vendor who filled it up with beer, water and sodas and just handed it over. It works on the honour system and you pay for what you drink when you give her the bucket back at the end of the trip. So my greatest fear – taking a boat trip without beer, was allayed. Needless to say there were no beers left when we returned her bucket.

The Drink Vendor

The trajineras are propelled by a man at the rear with a pole – that’s it. No oars, no motors and blissfully, no noise. This our Patrician polesman.

Patricia’s Polesman

By now you can see that we’ve made our way to more open water and we can sit back with our beers and just enjoy the bright colours, festive atmosphere and good company. I particularly liked the reflections on the water from the other boats.

Colourful Reflections

What makes a Xochimilco trip even more enjoyable is the constant music from the floating mariachi bands that ply their trade on the water.

Traveling Mariachi Band, Xochimilco
Traveling Mariachi Band

Victor summons one group over and we hear, for about the thousandth time, Cielito Lindo, but who can ever get tired of singing along to “Ay,Ay, Ay, Canto y no flores”. Here is a video I got from YouTube that pretty well is exactly what we experienced that placid Monday morning in Xochimilco, except I think our band was a lot better.

If you don’t like mariachi music, you need to have your pulse checked. Sure it’s a bit corny, but it’s also just plain fun.

Enjoying the Mariachis

The mariachis are not the only game in town or I should say, on the water. After the mariachis we were entertained by this duo of xylophonists and I’m pretty sure the guy on the left was not from Canada. In Mexico these instruments are typically played by two or sometimes even three players which makes for a more complex rhythm than you’d get from just one player. Lionel Hampton they’re not, but still, they get your feet tapping.

Mexican Xylophonists

In addition to the musicians, the water was alive with people offering everything from soup to nuts – really! This guy was selling candied apples among other things and someone wanted to buy one until Victor advised him that the coating was not sugar candy, but rather hot chilis.

Apple Salesman

In this festive atmosphere it was easy to almost think you were on a ride at Disney World or Universal Studios, until you looked around and realized that this was a real place with real people going about their business of daily living like this bargeman taking flowers to the markets that make Xochimilco a popular destination for everyday Mexicans.

 Flower Barge, Xochimilco
Flower Barge

Or that people live on these islands and just like everyone else they need regular services like garbage removal.

Xochimilco Garbageman

Or that busy dogs need to go about their business by crossing from one side of the canal to another.

Out for a Swim

On both sides of the canal there were many greenhouses and just getting a glimpse inside one I could see poinsettias, native to Mexico, which would soon be heading to North American markets and maybe even our house for the Christmas holidays.

Glimpse of Poinsettias

If you like a touch of the outré, Xochimilco has that as well in a small island that has become famous world wide as Islas de las Muñecas or Island of the Dolls. As you glide silently by you see that suddenly one part of the shoreline is bestrewn with dolls – dolls in the trees, dolls hanging from vines, dolls staring sightlessly from the ground, dolls everywhere.

Islas de las Munecas, Xochimilco
Islas de las Munecas

But these are not the type of dolls little children play with. On closer inspection these are creepy dolls in the best tradition of Chucky from the movie Child’s Play. If you follow the link you can get the full story, but the short version is that it all started with a man who found a drowned little girl at this spot and near her a floating doll which he put up in a nearby tree. Since then many more dolls have appeared and apparently the people who live on these islands really do believe that they are somehow possessed and come alive and talk to each other. Needless to say nobody on board demanded that we stop and get a closer look.

There are other on land attractions that you can stop at including this museum dedicated to Xochimilco’s most famous and rarest inhabitant, the axolotl.

Axolotl Museum

The axolotl is one of nature’s most unusual creatures – a giant salamander than never morphs into an air breathing adult like other amphibians. It is unique to the waters around Mexico City and as they have disappeared and become polluted so have the axolotls of which few if any remain in the wild today. Once so common that they were a staple of the Aztec diet they are now found alive only in a few places like this museum.

I don’t want to end this post on a down note, because aside from the sad fate of the axolotls, there was absolutely nothing about this excursion that didn’t have a touch of magic. Yes, Xochimilco is overrun with tourists, pretty campy and somewhat garish, but to me that was more than outweighed by the bright colours, the music, the good feelings I always get just being on the water, the camraderie and chittery chatter of our group and of course, the cold Victoria beer.

Thank you Victor for taking us here. It is a day I will long remember and cherish.

Oh, one last thing, Canada recently legalized marijuana and I was surprised to see that they knew about it already in Mexico as evidenced by this Canadian flag sporting a marijuana bud, instead of the traditional maple leaf.

New Canadian Flag?

Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for sharing his experience with us. 



Welcome to Coyoacan – Mexico City’s Oldest Neighbourhood

Fresh from our Central Mexican adventure,  Dale of The Maritime Explorer shares his thoughts on Coyoacan, Mexico City’s oldest neighbourhood. 

Mexico City with a metropolitan population of over 21 million is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere and the largest Spanish speaking city in the world. Not surprisingly it has dozens of distinct neighbourhoods just like New York City, Toronto or Los Angeles. Many of these neighbourhoods hold little of interest to the average tourist, but others are off the beaten track destinations that are as interesting to visit as the main sites in the Centro Histórico.  One of the best is located well to the south side of the metropolis in what was for centuries an independent small city that was actually the first Spanish capital of New Spain. Here’s why a visit to Coyoacan is well worth at least half a day for anyone interested in seeing something other than just the usual ‘top ten’ sites of Mexico City.

History of Coyoacan

The title of this post is a bit misleading because there were many pre-Columbian villages around the shores of Lake Texcoco surrounding the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan and who is to say which is the oldest. However, there is no doubt that Coyoacan was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the Mexico City area and the base from which Hernán Cortés launched his astonishingly successful and rapid conquest of the Aztec empire.

Coyoacan was originally founded by the Tepanec people who migrated into the Valley of Mexico in the 12th century, displacing earlier Indigenous tribes. They shared a common language, Nahuatl, and common mythology and god pantheon with several other groups also involved in the great migration to the Central Mexican Highlands, including the Mexicas (aka Aztecs). Unfortunately for the Tepanecs, their sister cultures did not act like benign relatives, but more like really bad neighbours who became blood simple. After a period of alliance that helped solidify control of the Lake Texcoco area, the Mexicas turned on the Tepanecs, conquered them and turned them into essentially a New World version of Spartan helots. Taking someone’s children away to be used as human sacrifices naturally creates a desire for revenge – big time. So when Hernán Cortés showed up in 1519 the Tepanecs and other enslaved peoples were more than eager to help them take down the Mexicas.

By 1521 Cortés had completed his conquest of Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital city and almost utterly destroyed it. His intention was to build a Spanish colonial city on the site of Tenochtitlan and this began immediately after the conquest. However, from 1521 to 1523 while Mexico City was being constructed, Cortés made Coyoacan the capital of New Spain and resided there in the first colonial palace in central Mexico.

After the capital was moved northward to Mexico City, Coyoacan remained an independent village with its own central plaza, churches and narrow streets until by the 20th century the farmland and lake waters that separated the two were overrun by urban sprawl. Today it is an enclave of historic buildings and plazas within the much vaster modernity of Mexico City. While it is a very popular place for Mexicans to visit, particularly on weekends, it is still relatively unspoiled by international tourism.

Getting to Coyoacan

Although its only 10 kms. (6.5 miles) from the Zocalo, Mexico City’s huge central plaza, getting to Coyoacan can take an inordinate amount of time based on traffic. There is a Metro stop on Line 3, but it’s a fair ways away from the historic district. However, the hop-on hop-off turista buses do include Coyoacan on their itineraries.

Perhaps because it’s mostly a day trip for most visitors there are few accommodations in Coyoacan so staying right in the historic district is not a likely prospect for most. My recommendation, if you are travelling on your own is simply to take a taxi or Uber and get dropped off at the Jardin Centenerio which is a great location to start your explorations. It is  pretty well in the centre of the map below. Although there are over 600,000 people in the borough of Coyoacan the historic district is fairly small. Here you will find narrow cobble stone streets, a gentrified neighbourhood, many restaurants and shops and some interesting historical sites and one very important museum.

Map of Historic Coyoacan

Exploring Coyoacan

Coyoacan is a Nahautl word meaning ‘place of the coyotes’ and about the first thing you’ll see after getting dropped off at Jardin Centenario is the Coyotes Fountain.

Coyotes Fountain, Coyoacan
Coyotes Fountain

If you are here on a weekend the Jardin will be alive with families and young lovers out enjoying the greenery or sitting in the restaurants and cafes that surround it. Mexico City, for all its size, has a remarkable amount of green space and this is one of the nicest. This is a view looking across to the bandstand and Cortes palace – more on that later.

Jardin Centenerio, Coyoacan
Jardin Centenerio

The coyote motif is everywhere in Coyoacan from rooftops.

Rooftop Coyote, Coyoacan
Rooftop Coyote

To the park benches.

Coyote Park Bench

To the manhole covers beneath your feet.

Just across from Jardin Centenerio is the Church of San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist) and convent, parts of which date as far back as 1522 when Cortés granted land  to build a religious complex on top of what had been an Aztec school. In front of the church is a cross allegedly dating from the foundation of Coyoacan, but I have my doubts.

Coyoacan Cross

The church is definitely worth dropping into just to view its lovely interior, in particular its ceiling. Chances are if you are here on the weekend there will be at least one wedding party and you’ll get a chance to see the absolutely over the top dresses that Mexican bridal parties like to wear.

Interior, San Juan Bautista, Coyoacan
Interior, San Juan Bautista

Mexican depictions of Jesus Christ are very popular and tend to be more realistic than many you might see in a European or North American setting. No blue-eyed blonde haired saviours here, but real black hair from native Mexicans.

Coyoacan Jesus

The Rosario Chapel is the most opulent of seven in the church and a prime example of Mexican baroque workmanship. All I could do was just shake my head.

Rosario Chapel, Coyoacan
Rosario Chapel

Just behind the church is the Coyoacan Mercado where there are a great number of places to sample the everyday foods that most Mexicans enjoy. The day we were here the eating area was so packed we couldn’t find a spot to sit. It’s also a great place to just poke around for Mexican handicrafts or maybe try some marzipan which always looks great, but is cloyingly sweet.

Marzipan for Sale

Also in this immediate area is the often incorrectly named Palace of Cortés, which is actually the Coyoacan municipal building that dates from the 1700’s, two centuries after Cortês lived here. All traces of his original palace are long gone. Still, it’s a nice colonial style building bordering the greenery of the Jardin.

Coyoacan Municipal Building

One final stop in the area around Jardin Centenerio and Plaza Hidalgo is in front of this very interesting collage creation that tells the story of Mexico. Perhaps no country in the world excels Mexico in its visual depictions of its history, particularly in the works of its famous muralists. This work is a continuation of that process.

History of Mexico in Coyoacan

Coyoacan was one of the first places we visited on a recent trip to Mexico with Canadian company Adventures Abroad on a tour that included many of the top pre-Columbiam sites in central Mexico. However, it also included visits to the great colonial cities where many of the most important events in Mexico’s colonial and post colonial period took place. At the time I had this picture taken I could identify maybe a few of the figures depicted in it, but looking at it now I can identify most. For example, that’s Miguel Hidalgo immediately above my left shoulder; easily identified for his flowing grey hair and the broken chain in his hand. Just as gothic cathedrals in Europe told stories from the Bible in stone and wooden sculpture for the masses so at the beginning of this tradition in Mexico the stories were told in bright colour on the sides of buildings. I am glad that the tradition continues today.

After spending the first fews hours in Coyoacan in a very small area, it is time to wander through the narrow streets to the attraction that brings most foreign visitors to the area and the one place you will almost always find line ups – the Frida Kalho Museum.

Lineup at the Frida Kahlo Museum

Frida Kahlo has become an industry in modern Mexico with her picture everywhere and nowhere more so than at the Blue House where she was born and died. Walking to the museum is a very pleasant stroll from the centre of Coyoacan, but whether one wants to brave the line ups is another matter. I didn’t. It’s not that I don’t respect the legacy of Kahlo, although I do think it’s overblown, I just found too many other interesting things to see in the area that I couldn’t spare an hour or more waiting in line to speed through a tiny crowded house. This picture was taken on a Monday when the rest of Coyoacan was completely quiet; imagine what it would be like on a busy day.

Aside from the Frida Kahlo Museum there is also the Leon Trotsky Museum where the ex-pat Russian Bolshevik leader lived in exile and was murdered at Stalin’s behest.

Coyoacan and the Day of the Dead

I visited Coyoacan twice on the trip to Mexico, the first with just myself, my wife Alison and my sister Anne on a Saturday during the height of the Day of the Dead festivals. It was very busy with a festive air that was helped by the music or organ grinders (they’re all over Mexico and even have a union) and mariachi bands. I took this video from the balcony of Sanford’s restaurant overlooking the Jardin Centenerio and then up to the church. Excuse my garbled pronunciation of Coyoacan.

The Day of the Dead takes place not on one day as the name suggests, but over many and is anything but a sombre occasion. Every business in Coyoacan dresses out their building with marigolds and other flowers, skeletons and skulls – here’s just a few of the restaurants.

Los Danzante
Cabo Coyote
Corazon de Maguey

Talk about a long wait for service – I think these two starved to death.

A Long Wait for Service

When I sat down at Sanford’s I had this guy as a lunch companion.

Lunch Companion at Sanford’s

Outside the church near the cross there was a large gathering where this woman was haranguing the crowd about I know not what.

Skull Faced Lecturer

In and around the market there were numerous Katerinas, the satirical put downs of the Spanish bitches who used to travel back to Spain to have their babies so they could be Spanish citizens.

Katerina Bride
Day of the Dead Katerinas

Every business, institution and individual home in Coyoacan had erected a Day of the Dead altar, many of them personalized like this one to honour lost parents.

Day of the Dead Altar

Vendors were doing a great business selling dolls, skulls and all thing related to the Day of the Dead.

Day of the Dead Dolls
Skulls for Sale

Needless to say it was colourful, exciting and unlike anything we had ever seen. If you are in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead time, say from late October through mid-November, be sure to make the trek out to Coyoaca and really get into the spirit of things.

Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for taking the time to write such an excellent recap of this adventure. Stay tuned for more.


Why you should book a Central Mexico tour


Ever wondered what a trip to Mexico, the real Mexico, is like? Lucky for us, Dale of The Maritime Explorer just returned from a Central Mexico tour adventure and has provided nine reasons why you should go. Read on.

Alison and I have just returned from the inaugural Adventures Abroad tour of Central Mexico with veteran tour guide Victor Romagnoli, featuring the Day of the Dead festivities.  All I can say is that it was eye-opening in every sense of the word and although I’ve travelled enough to know that one’s impressions of a country before ever being there are seldom accurate, this was never so apparent as on this trip. Although we had been to Mexico previously we were limited to the Yucatan, while this Central Mexico trip was primarily centred around Mexico City and the great colonial cities that surround it in the Central Mexican Highlands. It is the heartland of the country and home to many of the greatest archaeological sites as well as the places where almost all of the most important events in Mexico’s War of Independence took place. Here are my nine reasons that you should seriously think about booking this trip in 2019.

1. Central Mexico is Safe

Probably the biggest misconception Americans and Canadians have about Mexico is that it is not a safe country in which to travel. Every murder of a tourist seems to receive world wide publicity and yet tourists are the victims of crime every day in countless other destinations, including most notably United States. Yes, Mexico has a horrendous murder rate, but it is overwhelmingly connected to the drug trade and centred near the American border or in coastal cities. Read this article by Lonely Planets U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid and you might be surprised to find that statistically, Americans are safer in Mexico than in Texas and particularly Houston. When former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum blasted President Obama for letting his daughter Malia vacation in the city of Oaxaca, he obviously did not know that Oaxaca has a lower murder rate than his home state. The reality is that Adventures Abroad has been around for decades successfully taking people around the world to many places armchair travellers would consider ‘unsafe’. On this trip we never once felt remotely uneasy or in potential danger. The Mexican people were friendly, welcoming and one could even say at times, deferential.

While this may not happen on future trips, we actually drove past a portion of President Trump’s infamous ‘caravan’ that he decried as such a danger to the United States. They were walking alongside the PanAm Highway just outside Puebla and spread out over many miles. While the majority were young men, there were plenty of women and children as well including many obvious three generational families. Rather than fear them, the Mexicans stopped to offer rides and charities and church groups provided them with food and shelter.

I took this picture from the bus as we sped by so it’s not the clearest, but really, this group is a menace to America? The real menace lives on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Central Mexico Caravan
The Caravan

One final point on safety – the Mexican road system in Central Mexico is excellent and the drivers are not lunatics. I felt far safer driving around Mexico and walking the streets of its cities than I ever did in Greece where the drivers are certifiably insane.

So you can put away the number one excuse for not visiting Mexico, or at least Central Mexico. It’s safe.

2. You Won’t Get Montezuma’s Revenge

The second most popular excuse for avoiding Mexico is that people think they are likely to get food poisoning or Montezuma’s revenge as it was once satirically called. Aside from the fact that the proper spelling is actually Moctezuma, on this tour of Central Mexico you will be introduced to a great variety of regional cuisines, mostly in well run clean restaurants. There will also be the opportunity to try some street food if you are more daring, like me.

This is a nopal taco made from the leaves or pads of what we refer to as the prickly pear cactus. It may have been the best tasting snack I had on the trip.

Nopal (Prickly Pear) Tacos, Cacaxatla
Nopal (Prickly Pear) Tacos

In fairness, to be on the safe side we did drink only bottled water and avoided, to some degree, but not completely, uncooked fruits and vegetables. Not a single person to my knowledge got sick on this tour, although one unfortunate member did get sick when he went on a food tour before joining us, so it does still happen, but if you are careful it shouldn’t.

Now for the positives reasons for going.

3. Victor Romagnoli

Victor has been leading tours for Adventures Abroad for something like twenty-seven years. We first travelled with him to Italy almost twenty years ago and he has developed a legion of loyal followers who have been on many trips with him. The reasons are quite simple. Firstly, Victor is a true polymath. His knowledge of and fluency in languages is unequalled by any guide I have ever travelled with. This language proficiency is equalled by his amazing knowledge of history, archaeology and natural history. One might expect a local guide to know every plant, bird or mammal you might encounter, but Victor guides on six continents and dozens of countries. I was continually amazed by the depth of his knowledge about all things Mexican, often more so than the local guides we used at specific locations.

Secondly, Victor is an incredibly good shepherd of people. He has the patience of Job and doesn’t get flustered or frustrated by the things that often pop up unexpectedly on tours like this. Unlike many guides, he is very flexible and will change the itinerary in a heartbeat if something better comes along.  As an example, we were all seated for dinner in Morelia when Victor noted that there was ceremony taking place outside that was attracting a lot of people. We all got up and marched out to see the annual lighting of the Morelia cathedral which is accompanied by great fanfare and music. It didn’t take long, but it was something I would not want to have missed.

Thirdly, Victor will make sure you eat and drink very well on the tour. His knowledge of local cuisines, regional specialties and various types of alcohol you will never find back home is just as encyclopedic as knowledge of history etc. For many meals Victor would order for the table and other times when ordering from the menu he would offer suggestions. Many Central Mexico restaurants do not have English menus so Victor’s translatory skills were always welcome.

In his own orderly hand Victor drew up two sheets which he handed out to everyone. The first was a Pre-Columbian timeline from 60,000 B.C. to the arrival of Cortes in 1521 and the second was a roughly concurrent timeline of what was happening in the rest of the world. I’m looking at these now as I write this and even though I did my preparation for this tour, these simple tools were a great help in putting things in relative perspective.

In a nutshell, travelling with Victor Romagnoli is a pleasure. Here he is acting as first mate and clearing our way through a seemingly impossible boat jam in Xochimilco.

Victor Clears the Way

4. The Varying Landscapes of Central Mexico

Map of Mexico

If you look at a map of Mexico it really doesn’t seem like we travelled that far in this vast country, the southern limit being Oaxaca and the northern limit Guadalajara, a distance of just under 1,000 kms. (600 miles). However, the variety of landscapes and terrain we encountered along the way was simply amazing. I had expected dry desert like scenes and we did get those in many places including some wondrous saguaro forests. I also expected and anticipated seeing the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl outside Puebla and we did see them although not as clearly as I hoped. This is snow capped Popocatépetl.


I also expected to see plenty of farmland and again, we did. These are corn stalk stukes, a method of storing cut corn I haven’t seen used in Canada for fifty years.

Corn Stalk Stukes

I did not expect to see fragrant scented pine forests, stands of hardwoods that a sawmill owner in Canada would die to cut down or huge mountain ringed lakes. Nor did I expect to see mile after mile of cultivated prickly pears, a plant we view as a bit of a nuisance in North America, but one vital to the very identity of Mexico.

Cultivated Prickly Pears, Central Mexico
Cultivated Prickly Pears

Every day that we travelled the from one city or town to another revealed something new and I was never bored looking out the window of the bus. By contrast, I drove approximately the same distance as we travelled in Mexico from Winnipeg to The Pas the town I grew up in Manitoba earlier this year and was bored as hell. Nothing but the same stunted boreal forest for hour after hour. I had feared Central Mexico might be the same and could not have been more wrong.

5. The Pre-Columbian History of Central Mexico

Pyramid of the Moon , Teotihuacan

As a student of archaeology I have always wanted to visit the great pre-Columbian sites of Central Mexico, most notably Teotihuacan. Most people are aware of the Aztec and Mayan cultures that flourished in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish, but in reality these were but two of many cultures that started with the ‘Mother Culture’ of the Olmecs around 1600 BC. Other civilizations included the Zapotecs of the Oaxaca area, the Toltecs, the builders of Teotihuacan, the Izapas and many others. In preparation for this trip Alison and I listened to a Great Courses lecture series by noted Professor Edwin Barnhart titled Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed and we were very pleasantly surprised to find that the trip Victor had planned included almost every notable site that Professor Barnhart identified in Central Mexico. These included not only Teotihuacan, but also Tenochtitlan in Mexico City, the amazing hilltop city of Monte Alban overlooking Oaxaca, the Atlanteans of Tule, the murals of Cacaxtla, the unique friezes of Mitla and the gigantic buried pyramid of Cholula. In each place we visited Victor had arranged for a local guide to lead us through the site. Some were better than others, but they did add a level of understanding that you would not get by touring on your own.

In preparation for visiting these pre-Columbian sites the very first visit on the trip is to the fabulous National Museum of Anthropology where some of the most important pre-Columbian artifacts like the Aztec Sun Stone are found. If I can make one suggestion to enhance your enjoyment of this trip it is to go to Mexico City a day early just to have the time to really explore this museum as fully as you can. Read my post on the museum for more details.

The reality is that we would have been happy if this trip was just about the pre-Columbian sites and everything else a bonus.

6. The Colonial Era in  Central Mexico

Zocalo Wide Angle, Mexico City
Zocalo Wide Angle

Mexico is famous for having some of the most historically important and beautiful colonial cities in Latin America and a surprising amount of them are in the Central Highlands starting of course with Mexico City and its grand cathedral on the Zocalo atop the ruins of Moctezuma’s Tenochtitlan. After leaving Mexico City there is simply one great city after another, all of which are completely different from each other. One area where I would put Mexico well ahead of Canada and the United States is in the amount of car free zones that you will find in these cities. As we arrived in each city Victor would usually lead a walking tour through these pedestrianized areas and give an overview of the city’s history, its unique culture and cuisine and the type of crafts the area was famous for.

While I was familiar by name with most of the cities we visited, others like Guanajuarto, home of Diego Rivera were not and came as complete and pleasant surprises. By my count we visited at least eleven UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this trip. Just like the visits to the pre-Columbian sites, the visits to the colonial cities of Central Mexico was like a tour within a tour that would have been worth doing just on its own.

7. The War of Independence in Central Mexico

Granary Mural, Guanajuato

Everybody in the United States and Canada is familiar with the American War of Independence in which the colonial settlers threw off the yoke of British rule, achieving independence in 1783. However, few know many details about the longer and much bloodier struggle for Mexican independence that was fought from 1810 to 1821. Spain was a harder taskmaster on its colonies than Britain ever was, at least in North America. The decimation of the Aztec (more properly Mexica) empire and others by the Spanish conquistadores was perhaps unrivalled in its utter completeness in an amazingly short period of time. The Spanish maintained a strict class system that did not recognize the rights of the creoles, the name given to those born in Mexico of European descent. Only those born in Spain had rights in what was then known as New Spain. Below the creoles were a much larger group of mixed blood mestizos and below them, the Indigenous peoples.

By the late 18th century with the French and American Revolutions underway followed by the Napoleonic Wars that saw France take control of Spain and technically its overseas possessions, the desire for independence grew steadily in Mexico, particularly among the creoles. In 1810 outright rebellion broke out in the small city of Dolores led by a priest, Miguel Hidalgo and the rest is history.

Many of the major events of the Mexican War of Independence took place in and around the colonial cities visited on this tour including Guanajuarto, San Miguel Allende, Oaxaca and Puebla. Names like Hidalgo, Allende, Morelos and Guerrero were literally just names to me, until this tour. Victor did a great job of explaining the significance of each of these Mexican patriots and by the end of the tour I felt I knew enough about modern Mexican history to be able to interpret the many murals we encountered in public places throughout Central Mexico.

8. The Food & Accommodations

Courtyard, Quinta Real

Adventures Abroad is not a super high end travel outfit as is reflected in their moderate pricing policy. However, in some countries you get a lot more bang for your buck than others and I really thought this was the case on this tour.  While all of the accommodations were quite acceptable, a couple were really outstanding, especially the Quinta Real in Oaxaca where we spent four nights during the height of the Day of the Dead festivities. Located in an old convent it was quite simply luxurious in all respects. The breakfast buffet was the best on the tour with a great mixture of Mexican breakfast items and what Americans and Canadians would view as traditional buffet fare.

I did not expect to be staying in a hotel of this caliber, especially at what is the busiest time of the year.

Mole, Oaxaca Cooking Class

As far as the food went on this trip I have covered most of it in reason two, but this was really a trip where you could eat as adventurously or as conservatively as you pleased. The Mexican diet is completely different than that of Canada or the United States with far less meat and more vegetable based dishes, especially beans and corn. That being said, you could get a good steak or even farmed salmon if that is your thing. My preference was to stick to Mexican dishes and I believe I lost about five or ten pounds on this trip which was a nice side effect. You don’t get fat eating grasshoppers.

The bottom line is that the cuisine on the Central Mexico tour is a highlight and not an afterthought.

9. The Day of the Dead

With the Katerinas in Oaxaca

I come now to the number one reason Alison and I signed up for this trip – to see the Day of the Dead ceremonies. I have long been fascinated by this combination of pre-Christian and Catholic customs that has been woven together into what is really a celebration of life by banishing the fear of death. Until coming on this tour I naively believed that the Day of the Dead was just that, one day like Christmas or Halloween in which people dressed up as skeletons and danced around.

In fact the Day of the Dead lasted in one form or another the entire time we were in Mexico and has many distinct parts. One is the cult of the Katerinas who were Mexican women of Spanish descent who returned to Spain to have their children so they could have the rights of Spanish citizenry. They were sort of the first uber bitches. These days in Mexico they are in effect mocked by being dressed up in finery, but also are dead. The Katerinas were everywhere we went and some where really outstanding works of art.

Cathedral Muertes Altar

Another part of the Day of the Dead ceremonies is the creation of altars to the dead. Every business, institution and most private homes create these altars and leave them up for weeks. This is the one at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the Zocalo in Mexico City. You really don’t expect something like this to be created by Catholic priests, let alone condoned.

Skeleton Walkers

Then there are the parades and dances and music. It’s almost like half of Mexico is participating in one way or another and the other half is watching. These really are worth travelling to see.

Visiting her Husband

Lastly, there are vigils at the cemeteries that take place over two days, one of which coincides with Halloween, but is actually completely different. This woman is communing with her dead husband who she believes will return to visit from the grave on this night. All over Central Mexico the cemeteries come alive, no pun intended, with colour as almost every grave is festooned with flowers, candles, food, drink and often photographs of the deceased person. This is not a sad, but a joyous night and you won’t find people crying or in obvious mourning as you might expect. I have to confess that I did feel a bit like a voyeur during the visits we made to two cemeteries, but the Mexicans did not seem to mind and several spoke to us about the loved ones they were waiting to return.

The Day of the Dead portion of the trip far exceeded any expectations I had about what I would see and once again could have been a complete tour on its own. The vast majority of spectators at the Day of the Dead ceremonies were not tourists, but locals, However, I fear that with time the number of tourists may grow to the point that they inundate cities like Oaxaca, driving up prices and lessening what is truly a spectacular thing to witness. So go now!

I will be writing detailed posts on each aspect of this tour in the coming months. I hope you will stay tuned.

Many thanks to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for sharing these kind words with our travellers. See his website for more fun travel tales.

Khajuraho Group of Monuments - Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, India

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Mayan Pyramid of the Magician Uxmal Mexico

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