There’s so much more to Mexico than mariachi and burritos. In a country rich in culture and tradition, there’s ample opportunity to broaden your horizons. In this article, we’ve highlighted some of the most popular things to do on Mexico and a couple of surprises that take you off the beaten track.
Flanked by the Cathedral of Mexico City, the national palace and colonial arcade, the sprawling plaza in the centre of Mexico City has been the town hub since Aztec times. Considered one of the world’s largest city squares, alongside Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Zocalo is a sensory feast and often forms the venue for cultural and political events.
Dancers in feathered headdresses hark back to Mexico’s Aztec past, and vendors sell a plethora of shawls, jumpers, masks, pottery, jewellery and carved figurines. There are plenty of spots to stop and eat while you immerse yourself in the rich history and architecture. Once you’ve taken in all you can, walk to the Palacio de Bellas Artes via the Calle Madero pedestrian thoroughfare.
Lovers of contemporary art will be captivated by the lavish Palacio de Bellas Artes, lit in lilac and pink on the outside. The Home of the famous Diego Rivera’s piece, El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads) the iconic structure is a magnificent white marble palace, known for the fabulous murals that dominate its top floors.
Keeping Rivera’s iconic work company are his four-part Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life), and David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part La nueva democracia (New Democracy). You’ll also find José Clemente Orozco’s La katharsis (Catharsis), depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects.
The Museo Subacuático de Arte, or Museum of Underwater Art is a unique art installation that will ultimately form a huge artificial coral reef that will promote marine life and increase biodiversity in the area. The project is driven by artist Jason deCaires Taylor and overseen by director Jaime Gonzales Cano of the nearby National Park. Once finished, the installation will be comprised of more than 400 life-sized sculptures that depict humans and the effect we have on the environment.
The first three sculptures were installed in 2009, carefully positioned in a location that had been ravaged by hurricanes and tropical storms and was desperately in need of regeneration and redevelopment. Located off the coast of Cancun, the underwater museum is in clear, shallow waters and is easily accessible by glass-bottomed boats, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can snorkel or scuba dive amongst the sculptures.
Inland on the Yucatan Peninsula, the largely flat landscape is dotted with hundreds and hundreds of freshwater sinkholes. The Mayans called them dzonot, which was later translated by the Spanish to cenote. Filled with crystal clear, blue-green water, the Mayans believed that the cenotes were a portal to the afterlife and often dropped valuable objects into them in the hope that beloved passed relatives and ancestors would receive them.
The Cenote Xkeken is set in a limestone cave and is made especially beautiful by the formations that have formed over the water. Although the cavern itself is quite humid, the water is generally cool and refreshing at 25 degrees Celsius all year round and is a popular swimming hole.
Fifty kilometres northeast of Mexico City lies the ancient urban centre of Teotihuacán, which was home to an estimated population of more than 100,000 inhabitants. The city is famous for its three major pyramid complexes, which rival those of the ancient Egyptians. Running from north to south, the city’s main street – now known as the Avenue of the Dead – is more than three kilometres long and connects the pyramids. The Pyramid of the Moon is at the northern end of the avenue and is 46 metres high, with a base of 168 x 149 metres.
Just over a kilometre south of the Pyramid of the Moon is the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. Rising more than 63 metres with a base more than 225m2, this is one of the largest structures of the pre-Columbian New World. Further south is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, also known as La Ciudadela. This third monument is smaller than the others, and features alternating heads, cut in low relief, of Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god, and a Tlaloc, an ancient storm god.
As well as its spectacular pyramids, the city is historically and culturally significant in terms of its social organisation in multi-family residential compounds, and its beautifully preserved murals. For history, culture and anthropology devotees, Teotihuacán is a must-see
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) contains one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of archaeological and anthropological artefacts from pre-Hispanic Mayan civilizations, through to the Spanish conquest. Located between Paseo de la Reforma and Mahatma Gandhi Street within Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, the facility stretches across almost 20 acres with dedicated areas containing artefacts from a particular region or culture, including Teotihuacan, Toltec, Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Olmec, and Maya. The museum’s focal point – the magnificent Aztec sun disk – has previously served as a gladiator’s ring and sacrificial altar in the Templo Mayor, the palace of the Aztec ruler that stood at the centre of Mexico City.
Las Pozas, or ‘The Pools’ is something of an enchanted garden, hidden within an abandoned coffee plantation deep in the Huastecan jungle. A seven-hour drive north of Mexico City near the village of Xilitla in San Luis Potosí, Las Pozas is the creation of eccentric English poet, Edward James. Fleeing a war-torn Europe and a disastrous marriage, James escaped to Mexico in the 1940s and acquired the plantation to indulge his love of exotic plants and animals.
An unprecedented frost in 1962 destroyed many of James’ plants prompting him to turn to his passion for Surrealist art and he begin to create the extraordinary sculptures that are part of the property today. James referred to his garden as his ‘Surrealist Xanadu” and dedicated more and more time, energy and resources to it. The gardens feature more than 30 structures, ranging from plant sculptures to winding staircases to nowhere, and cathedral inspired screens. Some of the sculptures measure up to four stories high — some ornately finished, others seemingly incomplete, an impression which may (or may not) have been intentional.
When in Mexico, exercise a high degree of caution. Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media about possible new safety or security risks. Petty crime is common and pickpockets have been known to target tourists at airports and bus terminals. The cost of travel insurance* can be nominal compared to unforeseen travel costs that can be incurred. Travel insurance may be viewed as an investment as it can protect against loss, damage, theft, delays and other unforeseen expenses.