By: Susan Gerle
Whether it’s discovering the ruins, diving and snorkeling, visiting major cities, or studying cultural differences, Mexico has it all! Whatever the tourist is looking for, they can find it in this country.
1 – Discover The Ruins
The Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico are really worth seeing. Three of the most popular sites are Chichen Itza and Tulum on the Yucatan Penninsula, and Tenochtitlan in Mexico City.
Chichen Itza and Tulum are side trips available to anyone visiting the Mayan Riviera or Cancun. It is well worth taking in both to get an understanding of the Mayan culture. El Castillo is the highest pyramid on the site at Chichen Itza. The structure was built for the Mayan astronomers and during the spring and fall equinox in the mid-afternoon, the sunlight hits the balustrade’s main stairway. This causes a series of triangles to form imitating the body of a serpent that creeps downwards until it joins the serpent’s head carved in stone the bottom of the stairway.
Tenochtitlan, located on the perimeter of Mexico City, was originally built on an island in the middle of a lake in the 1300s. It housed a population of around 200,000. The Aztec civilization was similar in many ways to the Mayans but it is worthwhile comparing the two. With the arrival of Cortez in 1519, the population was wiped out, mainly as a result of smallpox.
There are also many other ruins that are much quieter and more spectacular. Palenque in the Mexican state of Chiapas located near the Guatemalan border, is something that shouldn’t be missed. The peaceful ruins, situated in the jungle, are massive. It is easy to imagine a whole civilization existing within the site hundreds of years before. It’s about a 5 hour bus trip from the closest city of San Cristobel but it is well worth the journey. There are plenty of small posadas to stay in overnight in the town of Palenque.
There are also smaller ruins to visit near the city of Merida in the state of Campeche. Uxmal, Kabah, and Sayil are located a few kilometers outside of the city. Be prepared to make a full day of it because transporation can be an issue.
2 – Go Diving Or Snorkeling
The best scuba diving in Mexico is located around the Island of Cozumel and off Puerto Morelos on the Mayan Riviera. The warm, clear, calm turquoise waters make the whole area a diver’s paradise. The coral reefs are protected and therefore support many fish varieties.
Cozumel was recognized as one of the top 10 diving sites in the world by Jacques Cousteau a half a century ago. There are many reefs off the island that can be discovered through local tours.
Puerto Morelos has it’s own protective reef 600 meters offshore and is great for scuba divers and snorklers. Locals offer diving lessons and beginners can get their PADI Certification, which is recognized worldwide.
There is also another type of diving that is very popular on the Yucatan Penninsula. Cenotes, or underwater caves, are located throughout the Yucatan. They are part of the Mayan underground river system. Even though scuba diving is the only way to experience some of the cenotes, a few are good for snorkelers.
One of the most interesting places for snorkeling is Xel-Ha (pronounced shellha) on the Mayan Riviera. It is easily accessible by bus from Playa Del Carmen. In the protected lagoon, the cenotes are easily maneuvered through. Be prepared to hold your breath in a couple of places though. It is a very large lagoon with walking trails for those who don’t want to experience swimming in the natural aquarium.
3 – Explore The Major Cities
Exploring parts of Mexico City is like traveling through Europe. Italian architecture and even monuments are direct copies of the originals. The city is huge but well worth exploring. It takes at least 3 hours to travel from one end to the other by car, if the traffic is light that day. No wonder Mexicans tend to run on Mexican time! That is the way it is in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world.
The National Museum of Anthropology is probably the best way to understand Mexican culture. You need at least 3 hours to absorb all the information. It is also worth taking a visit to the Basilica and visiting the site of the Virgin de Guadalupe.
Guanajuato is a city of hills and narrow crooked streets. It is situated in the northeast part of Mexico and was one of the richest silver areas during the 18th century. The beautiful baroque facades on many of the city buildings are a reminder of the opulence of the period.
Even though the mine is no longer in production it is possible to revisit the past through its subterranean streets and the Boca del Inferno, a shaft that plunges 600 meters
Guadalajara has the most fantastic shopping in the country! Artisans from all over bring their wares to sell at the huge markets. The old city dates back to the 1600s. The main zocolo (square) is surrounded by buildings from the same era.
A nice way to spend an evening is listening to the music or taking a horse drawn carriage ride around the city. Allow at least 2 hours.
4 – Study And Understand The Cultural Differences Within Mexico
San Cristobel de Las Casas is located in the state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. It is a mixture of Maya, Zapatistas, and traditional Indians. The people of this region fought hard to keep their cultures. Even now the Shamans and Catholic priests share space during religious ceremonies in the highlands during carnival every year. The Festival of San Sebastian takes place in the city of Chamula. It is an unbelievable procession of native tribes, in their traditional garb making the trek to give thanks to their Gods.
In order to be a part of these traditions, a local guide, who is allowed into the celebrations, must escort outsiders. The people are extremely poor and this is a major festival where they can sell their handmade wares. The weaving is extremely fine.
Puerto Vallarta, although a fairly new city by Mexican standards, began centuries ago as a small fishing village. One of the most interesting cultural events in the city takes place during the Christmas season. Beginning in December, people from surrounding cities and villages start arriving in Puerto Vallarta to celebrate the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Each night, the streets are closed and food vendors supply traditional dishes. More and more celebrations take place until December 12th.
On that day all the people, whether they are indigenous and believe in pagan gods, or Catholics, celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance in the 1500s. They pass through the largest Catholic church in Puerto Vallarta, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and leave their offerings and flowers.
It is a national holiday that is celebrated throughout Mexico with the largest being in Mexico City at the Basilica.
The walled city of Campeche often gets bypassed by tourists. The city was built by the Spaniards in 1540 and became very profitable as a port city. Because of it’s wealth it attracted pirates and so the walls with it’s bastions were built in the 1600s. The buildings within the walls are mostly colonial and one gets a sense of what life was like 500 years before.
The people of Campeche are a mix of Maya and Spanish. They speak a much faster dialect and many of them are bilingual with Mayan being their second language. In the surrounding villages, Mayan is often the first language spoken.
The Copper Canyon in Northwest Mexico is home to one of the most peaceful tribes in the country. The Tamahumara Indians have lived in the depths of Copper Canyon for hundreds of years. They live very simple lifestyles and produce some magnificent pottery.
The Tamahumara have remained very unaffected by the outside world because of their isolation. A rail line runs from Los Mochis to Chihuahua City in Northern Mexico and there is access into their villages from the Creel stop. The roads into the canyon are very rough though and the drop is deeper than that of the Grand Canyon. Even though groups of tourists do have the opportunity to visit, many prefer not to make the trip.
Mexico is such a diverse country and has much to offer the traveler.
About the author:
Susan Gerle has driven and bussed throughout Mexico. She also lived in the country for a year recently. She has been writing and publishing articles since 1998.