Mexico is feared, revered, maligned and eulogized, depending on who you speak to. Throughout it’s 758,400 sq. miles there are certain enclaves and cities that have quite the well-worn travellers path. Typically these are places of natural beauty whose original lure has been built upon to accommodate all that we humans and ultimately us travellers expect.
The Usual Suspects
The Yucatan offers mystical ruins and cenotes, with colonial cities catering to all modern tastes after a day of intrepid exploring in the jungle. These cities such as Mérida, Valladolid and Izamal are all very deserving of the tourist industry accolades bestowed upon them. Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Isla Cozumel offer a variety of sun soaked Caribbean beach holidays to package tourists, cruise-ship passengers, elite jet-setters and everyone in between.
It has definitely come to my attention though that the same locations appear to be on everyone’s “Top Places in Mexico” lists. Guanajuato, Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca, Campeche, Palenque are all frequent contenders. There is nothing wrong with this and as I have stated many are deservedly on these lists of recognition. Not all of these places are in the Yucatan and not all of them deserve the adulations thrust upon them.
When Tourism Takes Over
I am about to upset a lot of folk with my next observation, nay, words of contempt. San Cristóbal de las Casas or “San Christ it’s Hell” as I came to refer to it, was somewhere I had really wanted to visit, until I got there. The surrounding countryside was beautiful but it was like a Mexican Disneyland with the theme of “immersing” yourself in the local Mayan “way of life”. There were gringos everywhere, sipping pinot grigio at über trendy sidewalk cafés wearing locally spun, environmentally sustainable huipiles whilst discussing the days Tzotzil language class! It was all very contrived. From the time you left the confines of your accommodation you were the target of the hawkers who were the most persistent we encountered throughout our travels, they all but surgically attached themselves to you. I am genuinely baffled at the love fest that is San Cristóbal (San Christ it’s Hell).
Right, now that I have exorcised my catharsis on that one, let me introduce you to the places we feel deserve some attention. These places are by no means off the beaten path, far from it. Many are cities whose names you will recognise instantly but you may not have given much thought to as destinations. Others may be a wee bit more obscure but are hidden gems just waiting to be discovered and are easily accessible.
This pleasant little diversion is found in it’s namesake state. It is not even a blip on traveller’s radar, yet it has much to offer for a few days away from the crowds. A mere 3 hour bus-ride from Guadalajara or Guanajuato will transport you to this charming, insightful city.
The Funnier Side of Death
In true Mexican fashion Aguascalientes pays homage to death in it’s own quirky way. The Museo Nacional de la Muerte – 25MX, ($2, Free on Sundays), will have you “thrilled to death” that you stopped by to check it out. It’s displays encompass death from historical/archaeological representations, to papier mâché skulls to bony figurines in all manner of poses, and even some naughty ones! If you find yourself in Aguascalientes, this wee museum comes with a strong Drifter’s recommendation.
A Bone of Contention
Whilst on the topic of death, Aguascalientes lays claim to being the birth place of one of Mexico’s national treasures – José Guadalupe Posada. Naturally the city has done the honours by dedicating a museum to the man and his legacy. The Museo José Guadalupe Posada – 10 MX, (0.75¢, Free on Sundays) is on the north side of Jardín el Encino. Although his name may not be familiar to all, his engravings, specifically his Calavera Catrina have become synonymous with Mexico.
Posada created a stir during the controversial reign of Porfirio Díaz, producing and publishing hundreds if not thousands of satirical political cartoons. These caricatures/etchings spanned all social classes but emphatically parodied the social elite of the time. Being that they were drawings they were accessible to all, not just the literate.
If you are a huge Posada fan and your Spanish is at least fairly good, this is the place for you. If not, you will see plenty of Calavera Catrinas throughout Mexico especially if you find yourself there around Día de Muertos. We felt compelled to visit this museum and although it is very informative it was mostly lost on us due to our lack of Spanish, and there is a ton of reading associated with all of the satirical material. You’ve been warned!
What’s in a Name?
If you’re familiar with us Drifters you’ll know we like our baths, though few and far between they are on the road. As for that name – Aguascalientes, basic Spanish translates it as “hot waters”. Indeed just outside of town can be found “Baños Termales de Ojocaliente” – thermal baths.
For 150MX – ($11) we got a “tanque” for an hour-long soak. The premises are comprised of a main pool and a bunch of private, individual rooms with sunken tiled bath-tubs of varying sizes and prices. Towels can be rented or you can bring your own. There are also bath salts and exfoliants for sale if you really want to indulge. These thermal baths are located at Tecnologico 102, to get there take bus 23 or any bus marked “Penal” from Mateos. You can also walk but it’s a bit of a stroll, you’ll be glad of that soak when you get there.
Although it may not exude the charm of the more defined colonial cities, Aguascalientes proved itself as a worthy stopover of a few days to us. I have only highlighted a handful of the attractions it offers. Grant it for the most part they are museums, but we also found one of our favourite hotels there – “Hotel Maser” and enjoyed the “under the radar” feel of this conspicuous, yet bypassed city.
Why are you not visiting Uruapan? Please don’t say it’s because it is in the state of Michoacán, which you have heard is “very dangerous”. If you are avoiding Michoacán, shame on you, you are missing out on some amazing cities/towns not to mention surrounding countryside and attractions for all.
One of the highlights of our entire year was a daytrip from Uruapan to Volcán Paricutín. Where to even begin trying to describe this bizarre sight that would certainly not look out of place in a futuristic sci-fi flick. The scene being the remnants of a town which has succumbed to Armageddon!
Obviously this was not the case, rather the town succumbed to the nearby force of nature – Volcán Paricutín. As you approach this eerie setting, a lone church bell-tower rises up out of the surrounding jagged, black landscape. Scraps of greenery poke out of the hardened lava as nature’s gentler side grabs a toe-hold in her former fury. Check out the above link for more details. This place is mesmerizing.
To get here from Uruapan take a bus to Angahuan, which is about 22 miles away. These buses depart every 30 minutes. Once in Angahuan it is a pleasant and easily discovered stroll to the lava fields. The volcano itself is more of a haul. We just walked to the lava fields. There are also plenty of guides with horses offering their services.
An Urban Oasis
Right in the city centre, about a half a mile from the central plaza you will find a National Park. “Parque Nacional Barranca del Cupatitzio”, also known as “Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruíz” is a tranquil, natural, sensory overload compared to it’s outlying, bordering neighbour.
The clear blue river Cupatitzio runs through the park from it’s source at the Rodilla del Diablo (the Devil’s Knee), found at the North end of the park. Locals jog, stroll and bask in the welcome shade as they follow the meandering river and it’s accompanying canopy of foliage. Throughout the park the flow is controlled, diverted and channelled through gullies, cascades and features before it is released into it’s natural free-flowing self. You may even get to see some dare-devil divers as they put on an impromptu show in some of the deeper pools, in the hopes of gathering a few pesos from the onlookers.
The ruins of Tingambato may not command the most imposing presence nor demand your attention like other major sites, but they can provide a few hours distraction for a gander. The site itself is quite diminutive making it easy to take it all in, in about an hour or so.
This ceremonial site is surrounded by avocado groves. We visited in late July and the trees were laden with avocados. I still find myself fascinated by seeing fruits or vegetables that I’ve only ever seen on a supermarket shelf, actually growing.
The ruins are located between Uruapan and Pátzcuaro making it a handy half-day trip from either, by car or public transport. You can also take a bus from the main station in Uruapan to Morelia. The bus stops in Tingambato (also known as Tinganio). The site is only around 20 miles from Uruapan.
This cobble-stoned, colonial village is yet another fine offering from the state of Michoacán. Pátzcuaro is neither hidden nor undiscovered. Actually it is one of the venerable villages/towns officially deemed a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Village) by “Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism” (SECTUR). Since 2001 this programme has presented this accolade to towns and villages that exude a charm that is both aesthetic and cultural, typically this is coupled with historical significance and local artists/craftsmen. These Pueblos Mágicos are easily identifiable by their adopted logo (seen below) which is typically emblazoned on the “Welcome to …”, (¡Bienvenidos a …!) sign as you enter the town.
Even though Pátzcuaro sports this badge of honour and it’s Día de Muertos celebrations on Isla Janitzio are legendary, we found the majority of the tourists appeared to be Mexican whilst we were there. We only spent 3 nights here, but it is up there on our lengthy list of places we will return to in Mexico.
Although it was blatantly obvious Pátzcuaro was aimed at the tourist industry, be it foreign or local, there was something unobtrusive and beguiling about it. The cobblestone streets are lined with tiled, adobe houses. In the immediate streets around the main squares it seems it is required that all of these adobe buildings are white-washed complete with a reddish-brown trim. As staid as that may sound it adds to the charm, albeit in a uniform way.
Locals and tourists alike relax in the shade of the beautiful main plazas; Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (Plaza Grande) and Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra (Plaza Chica). Take a stroll down to the lake (Lago de Pátzcuaro) where you can see fishermen cast their traditional “butterfly nets”. By 10:00pm, it is like a ghost-town, everything is pretty much closed down for the day. Pátzcuaro is not party central, except for Día de Muertos when it is inundated with tourists for it’s annual graveyard gatherings.
The town and surrounding area is renowned for it’s craftsmen who have been plying their trade in these parts since the 16th century. The descendants of mask-makers, instrument-makers, potters and artists continue the craft of their fore-bearers from their homes. If you are interested in taking home a quality token of your trip, you may have to seek out the actual address of your desired craftsman.
Hoofing It Up The Stirrup
If you’d like to get a cardiovascular work-out in and you’d like a stunning view as a reward, this is for you. If the work-out doesn’t work out for you, it is also possible to drive up here. The drive will take you to the overlook, if you’re ambitious for a more heady altitude, as we were, you can continue on up 418 steps for the ultimate view, from here you have a commanding view of Lake Pátzcuaro and the town itself.
Cerro del Estribe (Stirrup Hill) is about 3km west of town. Take Ponce de Léon from Plaza Grande in town and you will soon find yourself heading steadily uphill through neighbourhoods and on up through a cypress tree-lined road which will take you to the overlook, which has a pavillion for a well deserved rest.
So Many Day Trips, So Little Time ……
Pátzcuaro and it’s environs offer the reality of a complete tourist brochure in a sedate kind of way. If you’re an adrenalin junkie this may all be a bit tame for you, or it may be a pleasant escape to allow your mind, body and blood pressure to slow down.
There are plenty of short day trips either out to some of the islands on Lake Pátzcuaro or to neighbouring lakeside villages. Pack a picnic and enjoy under the shade of what are refuted to be the oldest olive trees in the Americas, at the Ex-Convento de San Francisco in Tzintzuntzan. Whilst there check out the unique ruins (Las Yácatas) of the nearby archaeological site.
Enjoy the bus ride to Quiroga through the beautiful countryside with the sole intention of sampling some of it’s legendary carnitas. Back in Pátzcuaro munch on some corundas whilst you sit in one of the elegant main squares just watching every day life around you.
We found ourselves completely charmed with this Pueblo Mágico, but 3 days was definitely not enough time to explore all that was on offer. A good excuse to return!
If I haven’t convinced you thus far how beautiful Michoacán is, how about a colonial city that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Morelia not only holds that distinction but it is also the state capital.
The Spanish certainly left their mark here, utilizing the local volcanic stone – trachyte, to build solid, imposing structures reflecting their power and dominance. Thankfully local authorities have recognized the importance of these buildings by implementing an ordinance whereby all new buildings must match the old, keeping a complementary, harmonious balance between the two.
If you are a photographer Morelia can provide a wealth of snap-shot opportunities for you. The trachyte stone which the buildings are constructed from has a natural pinkish tinge to it; therefore depending on the time of day, the play of both natural and artificial light on the buildings can provide an array of results.
Our First Hostel
We spent our few days here happily rambling around with no agenda and no day trips. Of our entire year on the road this is one of only three places where we stayed in a hostel. We stayed at “Hostel Allende” and it was grand though overpriced. We did find accommodation options in Morelia pricier than we had become accustomed to. We had a private room with breakfast included for 280MX ($22.00) at “Hostel Allende”. In the interior courtyard just outside of our room there was a hummingbird’s nest with baby hummingbirds.
If you like Guanajuato, you will love Zacatecas. Just look at the featured image of this post, which is actually a photo from the teleférico to Cerro de la Buffa’s summit in Zacatecas. If you’ve been to Guanajuato and have taken the funicular up to Monumento al Pípila, you can’t deny there is a striking resemblance from this vantage point between these two cities.
Zacatecas is the state capital of it’s namesake state – Zacatecas. The city was built upon the silver mining boom of it’s environs from the sixteenth century until just recently. It is a maze of winding narrow streets where small plazas, fountains and beautiful old buildings can delight not just the locals, but the wanderings of a visitor willing to ramble aimlessly.
Cerro de la Buffa – A Bird’s Eye View
This unique natural rock formation is quite the landmark for Zacatecas. It may be reached with a cardio-intense walk or a leisurely ride in the town’s teleférico. It is also possible to drive up. The cable car departs from Cerro del Grillo; take Genaro Codina to the steep steps of Callejón de García Rojas. Yes, you must climb these steps to take you directly to the cable car. The cars run every 15 minutes. Needless to say if it is extremely windy (60km/hr or more) the rides are “suspended”. Take the cable car up and walk back down, the slower pace affords more photo opportunities.
Once up top, apart from the incredible views, there is also a small chapel dedicated to the patron saint of miners and a museum commemorating a 1914 battle led by Pancho Villa; providing a definable victory for the revolutionaries. There is also memorial to notable Zacatecans from 1841 to present day. This is all dominated by 3 equestrian statues commemorating Pancho Villa and his fellow victors.
Just Try to Mask Your Enthusiasm for This Museum!
The Museo Rafael Coronel – 30MX, ($2.25) is hands down one of my favourite spectacles from our entire year on the road, anywhere. It is simply stunning. Even if you never planned on going to Zacatecas, I would encourage a visit, just to indulge in this one-of-a-kind, lovingly collected and curated display of over 3,000 masks, puppets, dioramas, ceramics and paintings. If that isn’t enough for you, the entire collection is housed in the gorgeous ruins of the 16th century Ex-Convento de San Francisco. I’ll let the photos do the talking.
Our Second Hostel
Zacatecas also saw our second foray into hostel life. Here we stayed at “Hostal Villa Colonial” for 200 MX ($15ish). For this price we got a private room with shared bathroom. One of the greatest things about our room was we actually had natural light. For one of the first times in two months we had a wee balcony with french doors which let in natural light, not only that but the doors opened so we had fresh air! Something most folk take for granted, but our budget thus far had led to many nights spent in windowless boxes.
Not too far from the hostel you will find the answer to all your sweet tooth cravings. I dare you to walk out of “Panificadora Santa Cruz” empty-handed. If you do, you’ve either eaten inside, they were sold out of everything or you had no pesos to spend. This is the site of where much of our daily budget disappeared on sugary, decadent delights. Let yourself be tempted!
Three final honorary mentions which we feel deserve a visit are the markets (Mercado El Laberinto and Mercado Arroyo de la Plata) for cheap eats and “Cantina Las Quince Letras” for a beer with atmosphere.
Our year on the road led us to a realization; often we fell in love with places not because there was so much to do or see there, rather we did nothing or not much of anything. Nothing that is except, eat like champs having found our “go-to” place and, if we were really lucky, this was coupled with the perfect accommodation. Now this was a rare combination. I give you Veracruz………
Veracruz won our hearts and bellies over in a big way. We stayed at “Hotel Amparo” for 190 MX ($14.20) whereby we got our own room and bathroom. Also included in the price was breakfast of coffee and a sweet bread roll. The hotel’s location was fantastic, not just because it was minutes from the zócalo but all of our “essentials” were mere feet away from us.
Our “essentials” are not so much essential, but it’s a massive bloody bonus when they are in the vicinity. They include – a bakery; Mexican bakeries and their goodies are worthy of their own post, and an “Oxxo” – Mexico’s answer to “7-Eleven”; coffee, beer and snack central.
Marimba, Mariscos and Barry White
An unexpected bonus came in the guise of a small seafood restaurant right by our hotel. “Don Juan II” became our nightly haunt for dinner, and it’s open 24 hours if you’re a really late diner.
The food was amazing and the portions were massive. Actually it seemed each night the amount of food that arrived on our table was more than the night prior, and we weren’t ordering anything extra. A fond memory from our trip was the night we played Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” on the jukebox here, at which point the cook came dancing out of the kitchen, spoon in hand. Perhaps this is why we were being killed with kindness with food that we just couldn’t help but polish off completely!
After dinner waddle down to the zócalo, where you can listen to live marimba. The zócalo is surrounded by upscale bars and restaurants, however as is typical in Mexico, this is the heart of socializing for everyone.
The Ultimate View
A short bus ride from downtown will take you to Quiahuiztlán, the most breathtaking and least traversed ruins we have yet encountered. Even if you think you cannot take looking at one more archaeological wonder, this one is different. If real estate is all about “location”, then this final piece of real estate affords the ultimate eternal dwelling.
It is possible to take a bus here from downtown Veracruz. Buses that ply Highway 180 North can drop you off at the turn off for the site. For the return trip it is easy to just flag down a bus heading to Veracruz from the roadway, or stick out your thumb and hitch a lift. The site is about 50 miles from Veracruz, so the bus ride takes about an hour.
It is roughly a 40 minute walk uphill to the site from the roadway, needless to say wear comfy shoes, bring water and wear sunscreen. There are no shops or vendors at this site, bring whatever you think you may need. There are some very primitive loos at the site.
Quiahuiztlán – 40MX, ($2). Like most places of interest in Mexico, the site is closed on Mondays. It is open Sundays 9am-4pm, Tues.-Sat. 9am-5pm. This coastal charnel comes with a strong Drifter’s recommendation.
Hide n’ Seek
Mexico is a massive country with a lot to offer. There are the obvious well touted destinations and then there are the hidden ones, hiding in plain sight. If time is on your side, seek out these lesser-appointed locales, either intentionally or by way of a detour to your destination.