Mexico: Fiesta of Fireworks
Easy to stereotype but harder to comprehend, Mexico is nothing if not diverse. Spanish invaders, European immigrants, and indigenous people from a variety of ethnic traditions have over the centuries created a complex national character and cultural lexicon. From this diversity have emerged folk art and music, paintings and poetry. Intense and passionate, Mexicans hide their emotions under a mask of serenity and indifference.
Marching south from the U.S. border for around 700 miles are the eastern and western ranges of the Sierra Madre (literally, “mother mountain”). In between, the Mexican Plateau cradles a series of lesser ranges and highland valleys, and in the north, the Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortes, the Baja California peninsula is equal parts desert and mountain, with eight main mountain ranges, dozens of islands, and a combined coastline of about 3,000 miles. Mountaineers are inspired by some of the continent’s tallest peaks – including Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccihuatl, and La Malinche.
The capital and the largest metropolis of Mexico, Mexico City is also the most buzzing, buzzing and action-filled city. Berated continuously as a center of crime and a ‘dirty city,’ it is beginning to transform itself in a big way. Mexico City isn’t for everyone. The cantinas, shops, street stalls, and roads are rife with chaos at any moment of the day, but these experiences are exciting, as long as you’re vigilant.
Plaza de Tres Culturas is the most famous square in the city rich with culture and history, representing the amalgamation of pre-Hispanic and Spanish influences. Palacio National, the colonial palace, is the birthplace of many of its policies and laws that have made Mexico what it is today. Stroll through Mercado de la Merced filled with street stalls selling fresh produce, souvenirs, and clothes. If you’re a fan of traditional Mexican mariachi bands, you will love Plaza Garibaldi. In true flamboyant Mexican style, they play hearty tunes with trumpets and guitars, approaching the odd spectator to serenade.
Oaxaca City is the place to visit excellent museums and impressively restored baroque churches, as well as to shop for folk and fine art. Learn about one of Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations at the hilltop archaeological site of Monte Alban. At nearby Mitla, ancient artisans produced exquisite geometric mosaics from the area’s fine limestone.
Squeezed between Oaxaca and Guatemala, Chiapas is an undervalued state. It’s 391 miles east of Oaxaca City to Chiapas’ most popular tourist destination, the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, with beautiful churches, inexpensive hotels, and loads of handicrafts for sale. Visit more highland towns and don’t overlook the magnificent Maya ruins at Palenque.
If you eschew overcrowded Mayan ruins like Tulum and Chichen Itza, seek out Campeche’s fantastic, lesser visited ruins of Calakmul. This, and smaller Maya sites, lie within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, nearly two million acres of tropical forest providing a haven for jaguars, spider monkeys, and howlers.
Though superficially barren and desolate, the Baja California peninsula has long entranced scientists and adventurers. “The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moments,” wrote author John Steinbeck. “A dream hangs over the entire region.” A similar feeling inspires a more modern cadre of adventurers, dedicated to exploring every crevice and cove of Baja.
Seated at the bottom of a C-shaped bay, the sophisticated capital city of La Paz is famous for its streaky vermillion sunsets, observed equally well from a solitary, sandy beach on a turquoise inlet or an open-sided restaurant along the bayfront promenade. Nearby are excellent deep-sea fishing and diving sites.
Lunar-like and otherworldly, the landscape of El Pinacate is as beautiful as it is barren. Huge, craggy craters rise in startling contrast to the flatness of the surrounding desert, and in the western portion of the 1.8-million-acre park, winds build shifting dunes hundreds of feet high. Geologists and photographers are especially drawn to the rich textures and striking hues of the region.
Sonora’s beaches are backed by cliffs ranging from rust to red to gold. The simple fishing villages and unpretentious towns from Puerto Peñasco to Guaymas have long provided fresh seafood and a relaxing atmosphere. Puerto Peñasco is the first seaside town on Sonora’s 600-mile coastline. Sandy beaches, rocky coves, and extreme tidal variation attract shell collectors and lovers of long walks.
Paquime, the most prominent archaeological site in northern Mexico attracts plenty of history buffs. Inhabited since about 700 A.D., this historic site began to blossom after 1150, reaching its apogee in the 15th century before being abandoned.