Mexico has always been a special place. Anyone who has delved beyond the stereotypical images or been past the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez or the US built playground of Cancun, may understand the wonder of Mexico; the part of Mexico that is irresistible, making leaving a hardship and return a certainty.
Mexico is a diverse country. Within its boundaries there are vast mountain ranges, plains, deserts, forests, tropical rainforests, beaches, and rugged coastlines. True, the depicted dusty arid lands populated with abundant cactus do exist but they are only make up a minute part of the Mexican landscape. The beauty of the forests and the coastlines rival anywhere else in the world and still remain mostly unspoilt thanks in part to the package tourists unexploratory nature.
Mexico is diverse also in its people with the first people thought to have arrived about 20,000 years before Columbus. Its history is filled with great cultures and civilizations. These are most prominent between the years of 1200BC and 1500AD. To fully appreciate Mexico's beauty, the traveller needs to have an understanding of the culture and history alongside the natural wonders. Many books have been written on these aspects and before taking any trip, reading some of these accounts would be highly recommended. For a taste of this, a very brief history is documented below:
20,000BC - First Mexicans arrived through Siberia and hunted animal herds on the grasslands.
1200BC - 900BC - The Olmecs were Mexico's first civilization based in southern Veracuz and Tabasco. The Olmecs were famous for creating statues of great heads up to 3m high. San Lorenzo and La Venta were the two great centers.
650BC - Following the Ice Age when large animal herds could no longer be supported, agriculture began in the Tehuacan valley in Puebla.
300BC - Most of southern Mexico was now settled in villages where people hunted and undertook agriculture. The town of Monte Alban in Oaxaca was a major settlement of the Zapotecs. Stone carvings and hieroglyphs existed.
200BC to 200AD - In Chiapas a large temple centre existed at Izapa. The Izapan culture is the main link between the Olmecs and the next civilization of the Mayas. Pyramids and mythological scenes existed.
250AD - 600AD - Teotihuacan evolved in central Mexico with an estimated population of 200,000. Still present today are the Piramide del Sol (third largest pyramid in the world at 70m high) and Piramide de la Luna.
250AD - 900AD - Mayan Civilization. The Mayans dominated the Yucatan region of Mexico and parts of Chiapas. The Mayan civilization constructed Pyramids, Artworks, a calendar and a writing system with 300 to 500 symbols. Religion was important and based around astrology and the concept of predestination.
600AD - 900AD - Shared cultures in central and northern Veracruz.
Approx. 900AD - Toltecs from the north were thought to have moved into central Mexico. Tula was the capital of around 30,000 to 40,000 people. The civilization was based around sacrifice and war.
1300AD - 1500AD - The Aztecs, capital Tenochtitlan which controlled most of central Mexico, with a total population estimated at 5 million. The Aztecs goal was to find and utilize the resources of this region such as rubber, cacao and tobacco. Society was supported through intensive farming methods and known for its devotion to human sacrifice.
AD - Spanish Invasion of Mexico, destroyed the Aztec empire from which modern Mexico arose. Most Mexicans are now of mixed origin with European and Indian blood.
Source: Lonely Planet Mexico
Today, many of the ruins of ancient civilizations are accessible to travellers and any good guidebook such as the Lonely Planet's guide to Mexico will provide ample information on how to reach such locations.
There are so many spectacular places off the beaten track to visit in Mexico that it is not possible to list them all. For the traveller, it can also be most exciting to stumble upon a fascinating village rich in history and traditions themselves.
However, two of the places that shouldn't be missed off a traveller's list are Palenque and Oaxaca city.
Palenque is a small town situated in the heart of the tropical rainforest in Chiapas. It contains one of the least accessible ruins in Mexico and therefore one of the most pleasant, as stream loads of tourist buses do not often make the trip. Between 600AD to 800AD, Palenque stood as a great Mayan civilization painted bright red in the middle of a lush green rainforest.
Today, only around 40 of the 500 buildings have actually been excavated due to the dense natural vegetation. It is not unusual to come across persons with machetes attempting to locate more of this once great city. Some of the major buildings to explore are the Templo de los Inscripciones, Templo del Jaguar, El Palacio and Grupo de la Cruz.
Palenque can be reached by bus from any of the major cities like Mexico City, Cancun and Oaxaca. The shortest journey is from Cancun, 13 hours away. Don't be put off by the travel time however. The Mexican bus system puts most of the public transport systems in Europe and North America to shame. The first class buses are luxury Mercedes Benz, cost a fraction of what they should and are equipped with highly skilled drivers to manoeuvre some of Mexico's more challenging roads. A top tip for travel if you are doing an overnight trip, is pack yourself a sheet in your bag. Once the trip begins, put your seat back wrap yourself up in your sheet, and enjoy a good night's sleep.
Oaxaca city, in contrast to Palenque, is in central Mexico only 6 hours drive from Mexico City. It is a stylish, vibrant city of approximately 400,000 people. Oaxaca city fizzles with character from the old colonial buildings and cobblestone streets to the bustling plazas and cosmopolitan cafes. As with most Mexican cities, the Zocalo, the central plaza of the city is packed with things going on day and night. There maybe a festival or entertainers or mariachis or markets or bands. Whatever is happening there are plenty of outside cafes surrounding the Zocalo to sit and enjoy the activities, or for the more courageous, there are often invitations to take part.
Moving out of the Zocalo north, visitors can find the spectacular Iglesia de Santa Domingo, Oaxaca's stunning cathedral. Built around the 1600s, the cathedral is definitely worth a visit to view both the intricately carved exterior and the awe-inspiring interior. In the vicinity surrounding the cathedral are lots of artisans selling their work both in shops and on street markets. Products range from Mexican blankets, to famous Oaxacan black pottery, to silver jewellery and rugs. Good-spirited haggling is usually required and look around first to see what the average price to be found is if you don't want to pay too much above the odds. Around the Cathedral at night are some lively bars and restaurants that make a pleasant alternative to the Zocalo region.
Besides the cultural delight of Oaxaca city itself, another great reason to visit is the close proximity of Monte Alban, the Zapotec/Olmec ruins dating back to around 500BC. Just a few kilometers by bus will bring you to the interesting ruins and spectacular hilltop views across the plains at Monte Alban. Unfortunately due to an earthquake some of the ruins which have lasted over 2000 years, were recently damaged in the late 1990s. Repair was taking place but it was slow work. However, visitors are still able to walk around the ruins and climb up some of the structures. Monte Alban provides a marked contrast in style to the Mayan ruin sites and in spite of the damage is a must-do trip.
Although Oaxaca and Palenque are two recommended visits, there are so many other fascinating places that if you are able, venture as much as you possibly can. Mexico is rich; rich in culture, rich in color, in energy, spirit, people and beauty. A traveller is blessed with the ability to enjoy this by simplyng their eyes and mind to Mexico.
Photos courtesy of Photo Reality whose web site will be available shortly.
Lonely Planet Mexico. Lonely Planet Publications. Lonely Planet website
The Rough Guide to Mexico. Rough Guide Publications. Rough Guides website
Cohen, T. On Mexican Time. Anchor.
Smith, M. & Masson, M. Ancient Civilizations of MesoAmerica. Blackwell Publishers.