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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. 

 

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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.

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Why you should book a Central Mexico tour

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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.

Popocatepetl

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.

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