I love travelling in Mexico. The people are so friendly. The food is excellent and there is so much to see and do. I especially enjoy those places that offer archaeology, history and unspoiled beauty. This was for me, one of those perfect holidays.
Hernan Cortez arrived on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in 1519 with 650 men. They called their first settlement, La Villa de la Vera Cruz (the village of the true cross). His real mission was to conquer Tenochtitlan, (Mexico City) the powerful and highly civilized Aztec capital, 450 km to the west.
The route Cortez took includes the states of Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Puebla and Mexico, ending in fascinating Mexico City. The journey is full of pleasant surprises, spectacular scenery, phenomenal archeological sites, and delightful cities.
Cortez army, though small in size, had the advantage of superior weapons. However, the Spaniards success was due to the Indian tribes who helped Cortez because they hated the Aztecs. When Tenochitlan fell in 1521, the Aztec nation was destroyed.
Veracuz- The Vacation Choice of Mexicans:
Mexicans vacation in Veracruz because its cool in the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas mountains, the prices are affordable and Veracruz, the capital, is a fun place to be. Every night the zocalo comes alive with countless numbers of marimba bands. Mexicans love to sing and dance and their zest for life is contagious.
The Malechon provides an interesting walk along the harbour and boat tours take passengers close to the huge cargo and pleasure ships docked in the harbour. The Mexican Naval Academy is 30 kilometres south. Handsome young officers in spotless white uniforms, add to the lively night scene where fire-eaters, artists and musicians entertain the happy crowds. Tantalizing aromas tempt the passer-by and vendors sell Panama hats, handmade cigars, crafts, souvenirs and imports from around the world, at bargain prices.
The huge Fort of San Juan de Ulua was built by Cortez to protect the city from pirates. It is a maze of moats, ramparts and drawbridges right in the middle of the busy port. Though it looks impressive, dark and grim, Vercruz was raided time and again by the likes of Drake and Hawkins and fell easily to the French in 1838 and to the Americans in 1846 and 1914.
Shortly after the Spaniards settled in Mexico, the indian population was decimated by disease and war. To meet their labour needs, the Spanish brought in large numbers of African slaves linking Veracruz with the Caribbean as much as with Mexico. In fact, one of the best times to visit is the week before Ash Wednesday when Carnival is celebrated, Mexicos version of Mardi Gras.
The impressive new aquarium, one of the three most important aquariums in the world, houses a marine research centre. The largest of the halls has a circular tank built with massive acrylic windows so visitors are surrounded by some of the seas largest creatures including nurse sharks, manta rays, barracudas and sea turtles. The aquarium is home to 3,000 species of marine life native to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sidewalk cafes are always full. Guests enjoying lechero, a rich espresso made with hot milk. One of the most popular cafes is La Parroquia, founded in 1810. There is a saying, "If you havent had a cup of coffee in La Parroquia, you havent been to Veracruz".
Night life begins around 10 p.m. and peaks after midnight with party types timing their departures to coincide with the sun rising over beautiful Sacrifice Island and the Gulf of Mexico.
This tiny village on the Rio La Antigua (River of the Hummingbird) is 30 km north of Veracruz. Las Delicias Marinas Restaurant serves shrimp cocktail, fresh tortillas, rice and Veracruzana fish (red snapper cooked in tomato sauce) followed by a tray of sweets, baked custard and coffee for 40 pesos ($7.00 CD). Young local couples, in traditional white costumes, entertain with exuberant, folk dancing. What a treat!
The first church in continental America, "The Chapel of the Rosary" was built in 1523. In the churchyard, visitors, guides and Veracruzanos joined hands in a circle in an ancient indian ceremony of lasting friendship. It began with the blowing of a conch shell and sap from the copal tree was burned creating a mystical haze. The service was in Spanish but no interpreter was needed to understand the bonding that occurred beside that historic little church.
Also of interest was a huge, healthy Ceiba tree used by Cortez men to tie up their boats. A 22-room house used by Cortez is still standing. The roof is gone but thick walls remain, supported by profuse clinging vines and the massive roots of the Higvera trees.
Zempoala and the Voladores de Papantla!
The flying dancers were ready to begin. The performance can now be seen throughout Mexico but it originated at El Tajin, a nearby archaeological site. The ceremony pays tribute to the god of sun and rain.
Five Totonaca Indians climbed to the top of a 25-metre pole. All around were the ruins of an ancient civilization, the homeland of the Totonac Indians. The prayer giver, sits on top, playing a flute and beating a drum. The fliers, ankles tied by a rope to the platform, dive off, head first, each making 13 full rotations before they touch the ground. Between them they make 52 rotations, one for each year of the cycle of the Totanac calendar.
Zempoala, the first indian city Cortez saw, housed 30,000 people. The Spanish were literally starving when they were befriended by the Totonacs in this jungle city. Chicomacatl, the chief, welcomed the white men as allies against the Aztecs and presented Cortez with a fat bride, a lady whom Cortez "received with courtesy".
Many buildings can still be seen. It was on the steps of the Great Temple that Cortez had a violent disagreement with Chicmacatl, who protested the destruction of the stone idols on the temple. Cortez held a knife to his throat while soldiers carried out their orders.
Jalapa or Xalapa (pronounced hah-LAH-pa)
The "Flower Garden of Mexico" is perched on the side of a mountain in the Sierra Madre Orientals. Walled gardens, flowers, stone houses and steep cobbled streets create an inviting city. The climate is wonderful, just perfect for growing coffee.
The new Museum of Anthropology unites, for the first time, a complete collection of artifacts of Gulf Coast civilizations. The relics had formerly been stored around the state and many had never before been on display.
There is an air of reverence in this setting where nature, architecture and masterpieces from the past come together. The silent voice of the oldest culture of Mexico and perhaps the mother of civilization can now be heard.
The museum focuses on the Huastec, Totonac and Olmec cultures and houses the best collection of Olmec monumental stone sculptures in Mexico with seven of the 17 mammoth heads that have been found, dramatically displayed.
My guide, a graduate of Honours History, spoke excellent English. His enthusiasm was contagious. Before leaving, I bought a book called," Museum of Xalapa," which is a precious reminder of the museum.
El Tajin, near Papantla, is the crown jewel of Gulf Coast archaeology. Much of the site has been restored but hundreds of structures are still hidden under thick jungle growth. Founded about 200 B.C. it reached its zenith from A.D. 600 to 900, then was abandoned in the 13th century and lay hidden until 1785.
In 1994 the most important archaeological find in Veracruz was announced. El Pital, a seaport 80 km from El Tajin, thrived from 100 to 600 A.D. Excavation has barely begun but it may provide a link between the Olmec and Maya civilizations. The site has a hundred or more pyramid mounds, some reaching 40 m, which were assumed to be natural hills. The area is presently covered with orange and banana trees.
Puebla - "The City of Tiles"
Puebla is 95 km east of Mexico City. Because of its high altitude, the air is unusually clear. Four great volcanoes tower above it- especially Popocatepetl and Izraccihatl which are perpetually covered with snow.
Talavera tiles are an outstanding feature of Pueblas architecture, extensively used on colonial buildings. The adjective poblano is used to describe these brightly coloured buildings.
Scores of shops sell talavera pottery which can vary greatly in quality.
We visited the Uriate factory, operating since 1817. Purchases can be packaged and shipped anywhere for 30% of the buying price.
The area is also important for onyx figures and chess sets. The largest Volkswagen plant in the world is here and the little beetle is the national car of Mexico.
I will never forget Calle de las Dulces (Sweet Street). It is lined with shops selling a tantalizing variety of freshly made candy, neatly displayed. I brought back a large box of Camote for a Mexican friend of mine. She couldnt believe her good fortune and hid them so she wouldnt have to share them and I know exactly how she felt.
Near Puebla is one of the finest zoos I have ever seen, even nicer than the one in San Diego. The Africam Safari Zoo has animals roaming freely in their natural habitat. Visitors can drive through in their own cars or use the Africam buses which provide both guide and commentary.
We saw herds of graceful giraffes, shy gazelles, zebras and inquisitive ostriches. Lions, black leopards and exotic white tigers lazed in the sun. Monkeys, orangutans, elephants and rhinoceros showed mild interest as we drove by.
Near Puebla is the Great Pyramid of Tepanapa, the largest pyramid ever built. One hundred thousand people lived here when the Spanish came. This huge Toltec city is 60 metres high, covers 46 acres and took 800 years to build. Because the buildings are so complex, a guide is a necessity. Excavations have been limited because a church was purposely built on top of the pyramid in 1666.
Tlaxcala, 113 km east of Mexico City, is Mexicos smallest state. It alienated itself from the rest of Mexico by becoming Cortes chief ally in the conquest. The Government Palace, built in 1550 has interior walls covered with vivid murals of the state before the conquest.
The zocalo is surrounded by well-tended gardens and mansions which border the plaza. The profuse, purple jacaranda are a sight to behold.
About 22 km southwest of Tlaxcala is the archaeological site of Cacaxtla, accidentally discovered in 1975. It has been protected from the elements by a huge roof, the second largest in the world. Breathtaking frescoes, dating back to 100 A.D. depict fierce battles between Maya and Central Mexican warriors.
To protect the dyes, flash photos are not allowed.
The Route of Cortez ends with Mexico City, a city brimming with culture, museums and history. The whole journey was a wonderful experience and I felt very sad that it was over. Mexico is a fascinating country.
Doreen Kerby is a well-known travel writer living in Canada.