In Mexico, the past features very conspicuously in the present. Remnants of the sophisticated ancient civilisations that shaped the country litter its lush green fields; imposing colonial palaces and cathedrals adorn its cities and a rich tapestry of deeply-rooted beliefs are evident in its colourful festivals and traditions.
Temple of the foliated cross, Palenque, Chiapas
The country's history is manifold and by exploring some of its historic sites you'll enrich your experience and begin to understand a little better why the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs still have such a surprisingly strong impact on Mexican culture and identity today.
An excellent place to begin to gain an understanding of the different Mesoamerican cultures is the capital’s superb Anthropological Museum. It’s easy to get lost here exploring its vast collection of artefacts. The ground floor focuses on the native cultures and societies of Mexico before the Spanish conquest. The famous Aztec sun stone, a cosmological calendar, is only a small part of the fantastic collection of artwork from the indigenous population of Mexico.
Other major highlights include a replica of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feathered headdress (the original is in Vienna); a stelae (a three metre tall column of stone) from Tula, near Mexico City; massive Olmec heads from Veracruz and vivid reproductions of Mayan murals in a reconstructed temple. A visit certainly helps to set the scene and paves the way for a visit to some of the country's many archaeological sites.
The ancient Toltec city of Teotihuacan is reached in little over an hour from Mexico City and shouldn't be missed. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world and after the steep climb up you will be rewarded with a view over the Calle de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) which was originally four kilometres long and flanked by temples, grand palaces and platforms.
You will find well preserved murals in the Palace of the Jaguars and sculptures in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (including a feathered serpent, one of the principal deities featured in religious artwork across ancient Mexico). It’s best to visit early as the site can become extremely crowded by midday.
Monte Albán is an impressive Zapotec site. It was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and thrived for close to a thousand years. It is a large site located about five miles outside of the city of Oaxaca, a city much visited for its colonial architecture, refreshing mountain climate, excellent museums and handicrafts. The main focus of the site is the Gran Plaza, a large open space created by flattening the mountaintop. From here the view of the Oaxaca Valley is stunning and is almost reason enough to visit.
Excavations at Monte Albán have revealed over 170 tombs, numerous ceremonial altars, stelae, pyramids, and palaces. Compared to Teotihuacan, Monte Albán receives relatively few visitors so you can choose what time to visit but we usually favour a morning tour when the views can be clearer.
Map of Mexico
Chiapas, famous for its festivities, traditions, crafts and cuisine, is also home to some stunning scenery. Sumidero Canyon, the Agua Azul waterfalls and the Montebello Lakes, where turquoise waters are surrounded by beautiful forest are all well worth visiting. On top of all this are several fascinating Mayan archaeological zones, including those at Tonina, Bonampak, Yaxchilan and mysterious Palenque, where archaeologists are still uncovering a vast city.
Palenque’s setting, deep in the jungle, makes any visit here really special. On your way in you may see toucans or hear howler monkeys and of all the sites, it is at Palenque where visitors feel most engulfed by a sense of history, timelessness and awe. It is definitely best to visit early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day and the worst of the crowds.
The Yucatán Peninsula is one of Mexico's most popular areas but we prefer to avoid the crowded and built up areas like Cancun. We recommend beach stays on the Mayan Riviera, a stretch of pristine white sand south of Cancun that runs parallel to the world’s second largest barrier reef. Hotels here are smaller and more authentic and apart from the beach and excellent water-based activities, the area is a hot spot for Mayan ruins - the most famous of which is Chichén Itzá. The city of Chichén Itzá was founded around 850 AD and became one of the most cosmopolitan and successful of Mayan capitals, flourishing for three centuries.
The Maya built temples with influences from Puuc, Toltec and Mixtecan architecture, while the art and ceramics found at Chichén Itzá provide evidence of international trade and cultural exchange. Chichén Itzá also boasts the biggest Mayan ball court (the Maya were great sportsmen and built huge ball courts to play their games) in all of Mesoamerica, and has plenty of carvings showing the violent end of play, which included human sacrifice.
Uxmal and Merida
A visit to Chichén Itzá is definitely recommended but for some, the lesser-known site at nearby Uxmal is even more interesting as visitors are still permitted to climb and scramble over the ruins here, unlike at Chichén Itzá. The extremely steep climb up the Pyramid of the Magician, the most central and tallest structure at Uxmal, is a rewarding experience which offers impressive views. There are several accommodation options opposite Uxmal but it is possible to visit this site from Merida, the 'white city', known for its beautiful colonial architecture, cleanliness and Mayan cuisine.