During high school and university I had a huge picture of Tulum pinned to the wall in front of my desk. To me that was the quintessence of Caribbean beauty, and also a powerful motivational aid about the need to study, in order to make money, in order to be able to go to Tulum. To take the same picture.
It so happened that at the end of 2008 we had some airlines miles that were about to expire, so we decided to put them to use, and to visit Mexico.
We only stayed 3 days, and we clearly got the message that there was so much to be seen, in order to better understand such a long and layered history.
For instance, the huge Catedral Metropolitana sits in the middle of the Zocalo, the square at the heart of Mexico City (a UNESCO heritage site), where the Templo Mayor and the palace of Montezuma were when the city still was Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. It was an intricate net of channels and artificial islands on the lake Texcoco (now dried out).
The Palacio de Bellas Artes hosts the most notable events in music, dance, theatre, opera and literature. It is home to two museums: the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, that takes care of the permanent murals and other artwork in the building as well as arrange important temporary exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography.
I just loved the Art Nouveau/Art Deco style of the building.
Mandatory visit to the famous Museo Nacional de Antropología, a large, impressive collection of archaeological artifacts from Mexico pre-Columbian heritage: giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization, remnants of the Mayan civilization, a replica of the sarcophagal lid from Pacal’s tomb from Palenque, a model of Tenochtitlan, and also an ethnological section on contemporary life in rural areas of Mexico.
I found the museum is fundamental in understanding the timing and the overlapping of the different pre-Columbian settlements in the Valley of Mexico, before conquistadores arrived in the 16th century.
Surely the single most famous piece is the Piedra del Sol, formerly known as the Aztec calendar stone, from the Mexica (=Aztec) collection.
The museum is located inside the Bosque de Chapultepec, an extremely big city park which is an attraction in itself. Especially on Sundays, where the whole population of Mexico City seems to come in.
The following day we took the underground metro system (escorted by the Tourism police) to the bus for Teotihuacan, probably the largest city in pre-Columbian Americas, now the most visited archaeological complex in the region, and a UNESCO heritage site.
The visit follows the Calzada de Los Muertos, 2 km of a 40 meters wide road flanked by the ruins of ancient buildings and pyramids: the Spaniards thought that they were tombs, hence the name “Avenue of the dead”. Today scholars believe they were ceremonial platforms.
At the southern end of the calzada there is the citadel and the Temple of the feathered serpent, the best preserved pyramid of the site. Going further, there’s the Pirámide del Sol, the largest of the site, and the world 3rd largest: you can recognize it because of people standing in line along its perimeter, waiting for their turn to climb it. At the northern end, the calzada opens into a square, Plaza de la Luna: immediately on the left there is the most interesting building of the whole complex, the Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl. Due to the location of the palace and the quality of its art, it is thought to be the home of a high priest. Behind the Quetzalpapálotl, the Palacio de los Jaguares has murals depicting plumed felines holding conch shells and images of a goggled deity (the rain god Tlaloc, according to the Aztec). Below the Quetzalpapálotl, green birds fly on the walls of the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados.
At the very end of the calzada, the Pirámide de la Luna, with a terrific view of the site.
Teotihuacan is some 50 km north-east of Mexico City, so from the bus you can see a lot of the sprawling, poor areas of this 20+ millions inhabitants, distant and different from the city centre and the Zona Rosa and the other places wealthy tourist usually go.
And speaking of poor places, the following day we took a flight to Tuxla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. Chiapas is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, and got in the international spotlight in the 1994 with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and its Subcommandante Marcos.
We wanted to see a natural attraction, el Cañon del Sumidero: a spectacular canyon where it’s possible to see a variety of birds and hopefully some crocodiles.
Boat (lancha) rides along the canyon depart from a little town named Chiapa de Corzo, so there we were staying.
Chiapa de Corzo itself is a nice little colonial town, with a relaxed atmosphere and a lovely brick mudejar-style fountain in the middle of the main square.
We then took a taxi to reach colourful San Cristobal de Las Casas, 2100 mt above sea level.
Here, I first tasted tamales, at the restaurant El Fogon de Jovel, inside a colonial casona (16 de septiembre, No.11). Tamale is the Mexican name for a dish that is known and made throughout Central and Southern America, made of corn dough (or masa) filled with meats and then steamed wrapped into a corn husk or a banana leaf. They are time consuming to make, and delicious to eat.
Next we were on a bus to Palenque, for 6 and a half hours, going down all the way from 2100 mt to just 150 mt above sea level in 220km, and boy, it’s one of the scariest trips ever!
However, Palenque amply repaid us of any car sickness induced by reckless driving on steep slopes, sharp bends and awful topes (speed bumps).
Palenque is one of the most famous Mayan sites of Mexico, entangled in a thick jungle and only partially excavated, it has a very Indiana Jones feeling.
Having been swallowed by the jungle after its decline at the end of the 8th century, Palenque was exceptionally well preserved when it was rediscovered in the 18th century: it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. Probably that’s why it’s a UNESCO heritage site.
The best example is the large carved stone sarcophagus lid of Pakal’s tomb.
This Pakal was the greatest of the Mayan rulers of Palenque, and his tomb was found in the Temple of Inscriptions in 1952: his remains were still lying in his coffin, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces, surrounded by sculptures and stucco reliefs.
When we visited Palenque we could not access the museum where a replica of the tomb is on show, but I am sure it’s great!
Agua Azul is a very popular destination nearby: it is a series of waterfalls and pools of a very turquoise water. It is very popular with the locals too, and you can plunge, if you feel like it… and if you have your swimming gear (we didn’t).
The peninsula comprises the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, and it’s the area of Mexico where most tourist spend lots of their time, because it has an insane concentration of Mayan sites.
We reached San Francisco de Campeche after another 5 and a half hours on a bus. This time, it was an unremarkable ride.
Campeche is a charming city by the sea, with a walled city centre which is a UNESCO heritage site.
I loved it. And we also had amazing food: for lunch camarones al coco with quince jam in the town’s most expensive restaurant (Marganzo, Calle 8 No.267), and the evening I had the best sopa de lima ever in what probably was the cheapest (La parroquia, Calle 55 No.8).
We left Campeche with a rental car, and we headed towards the Puuc sites: the word puuc is derived from the Maya for “hills” and it indicates both a region in Yucatán and the architectural style of ancient Maya sites located in the Puuc hills.
We selected the sites of Kabah, Uxmal and, of course, Chichén Itzá.
Surely the most famous structure at Kabah is the Kodz Pop, a palace whose façade is decorated with hundreds of stone faces of the rain god Chaac, with his characteristic elephant trunk-shaped nose: water is scarce in this part of Yucatán, and rain was very important to Mayas. Yet, the Kodz Pop is unique in this obsessive repetition of one single decoration pattern.
Masks of Chaac abound on other palaces, low stone buildings and step-pyramid temples throughout the site, which was abandoned for several centuries before the Spanish conquest.
Chaac masks abound also in Uxmal, one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, surely the most representative of the Puuc architectural style, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Casa del adivino has a very unusual elliptical shape, and also the rest of the site is remarkable: the Palacio del Gobernador (governor’s palace) and the Quadrangulo de las Monjas (nunnery quadrangle) are also richly decorated with traditional Mayan symbols and lattice, and images of people and animals (snakes mostly: entwined snakes, two-headed snakes on the masks of Chaac, feathered serpents with open fangs…).
We read that the small site of Ek Balam had a well preserved stucco façade, so we went to check.
The following day we dedicated the day to the discovery of Chichén Itzá: the other most famous Mayan site and the second most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, and a UNESCO heritage site as well.
A huge site, the Puuc influence is more visible in the old part.
It’s impossible to find new words to describe a place so famous: el Castillo, the Templo de los Guerreros with the famous Chac Mol, the Templo de las Mil Columnas, the Cenote sagrado, el Osario, the Caracol, the Tzompantli (a curious platform with skulls in relief) and the Gran juego de pelota, measuring 96 x 30 mt and its hoop at 9mt from the ground.
Being just a short drive away, we visited the most famous Maya cave site, Balankanché, with original pottery in the original position.
Finally, we visited the sites of Quintana Roo, the state famous for the Riviera Maya and the seaside resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen.
Cobá is as large a site as Chichén Itzá, but not as polished and well preserved. It contains a group of large temple pyramids, the tallest of which is known as the Nohoch Mul, among the tallest pyramids on the Yucatán peninsula. Here the steepness already resembles the Tikal pyramids in Guatemala.
The site is composed of different groups of buildings located around two lagoons, Lake Coba and Lake Macanxoc. Cobá is so big it has two pelota fields!
But the more interesting feature is a network of elevated pathways, in this case stone pathways (known by the Maya term sacbeob), that start from the centre of the site and connect the other residential areas and stretch to other sites, one as far as 100+ km west! These sacbeob helped the archaeologist understand how Cobá was laid out, how big the site was and where to excavate.
Tulum was not disappointing after being so much anticipated. The only Maya site with a view, Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico.
Not to mention the best possible beach location, just below the Castillo
…no wonder that not one of the famous beaches like Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres or Cozumel made any impression after that!