The Complete Guide To: Colonial Mexico

From the sierras to the Caribbean coast, the conquistadors left behind a rich architectural heritage. And the clash of cultures old and new is clear even today, says Ben Crichton
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The Independent Travel

WHY COLONIAL MEXICO?

No other former Spanish possession can boast so rich a colonial legacy. Over a period of some 300 years, the conquistadors and missionaries who arrived in Mexico, driven by ruthless personal ambition and religious conviction, constructed an unparalleled heritage in the country they called Nueva España.

The wealth from gold and silver enabled them to create lavish monuments, building 70,000 churches and emulating the beauty of the Andalucian cities they had left behind. The greatest concentration of outstanding colonial cities traces the silver seams in the sierras north of Mexico City, but colonial highlights can be found across the country - even in tiny hamlets.

WHERE DOES THE STORY BEGIN?

At Veracruz on the Caribbean coast, where Hernan Cortes came ashore in 1519 with his first expedition. Veracruz is a colonial city with a tropical atmosphere not unlike Havana: hot and energising, with great music, dance and seafood. You can fly on several airlines via the US - or take a six-hour journey from the capital on a first-class bus.

With gratifying symmetry, the city's fort of San Juan de Ulua (00 52 229 938 5151) was the last vestige of colonial rule before the Spanish were finally expelled from Mexico in 1825. It's a striking example of defensive military architecture. The easiest way to reach it from the city centre is a 10-minute ride in a taxi; it opens 9am-4.30pm daily except Monday, admission 35 pesos (£1.80).

To get straight into the colonial action, though, aim for Mexico City, which occupies the site of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The capital vies with Tokyo for the title of biggest city in the world, with a metropolitan area that is home to somewhere between 20 and 30 million people. It can feel disorienting and intimidating at times, but the Centro Historico at its core provides a superb introduction to Mexico's colonial heritage.

WHERE SHOULD I AIM FOR?

The Zocalo, the vast square in the historic centre of the city where Aztec and European met. This was once the heart of Tenochtitlan. When news of Cortes's landing in Veracruz reached the capital it was thought Cortes was the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who was prophesied to return from the east that year. Cortes and his men were welcomed into the city, but mutual suspicion boiled over in 1520 with the Noche Triste - a bloody Aztec reprisal for Spanish atrocities. The Spanish fled the city and regrouped at Tlaxaca. They returned to Tenochtitlan, having recruited indigenous enemies of the Aztecs, and razed the city to the ground.

In the Zocalo you can see the partially revealed Templo Mayor, once the religious core of Tenochtitlan (00 52 55 5542 0606). It's open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm; the fee of 40 pesos (£2) includes admission to the museum displaying the treasures found during excavations.

The cathedral (open 7am-7pm daily, free) is the largest in Latin America, and a bewildering mix of architectural styles and building work: a repair programme called the Correccion Geometrica is trying to straighten out seismic distortions.

The Presidential Palace occupies the site of Cortes's first house. Above the entrance hangs the church bell rung when the cry for independence came from Father Miguel Hidalgo in 1810. The palace is also the location for Diego Rivera's murals, which depict the conquest. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Sundays, and you need to bring your passport.

You need walk only a short distance north from the Zocalo along Calle Monte de Piedad to leave the crowds behind and find sanctity at the Santo Domingo church, a masterpiece of colonial architecture. Further north, the National Anthropological Museum (00 52 55 5553 6266; www.mna.inah.gob.mx) at Chapultepec Park puts the colonial story in a broader Mexican context, and illuminates the fusion between European and indigenous ways of life. It opens 9am-7pm daily except Mondays (and 10am-6pm on Sundays); admission 38 pesos (£2), free on Sundays.

WHERE NEXT?

Before you leave the capital, explore the suburbs of Coyoacan, San Angel and Xochimilco. Once individual towns, they have been swallowed up by the city's relentless march. Coyoacan, five miles from the centre on metro line 3, served as the first capital of "New Spain" while Tenochtitlan was being rebuilt. It offers the easy pleasures of wandering the cobbled streets and watching life in the Plaza Hidalgo, overlooked by the 16th-century church of San Juan Bautista; it opens 7am-7pm and is well worth visiting for a glimpse at its frescoes. Nearby, at Calle Viena 45, stands the villa where Leon Trotsky was murdered with an ice axe in 1940.

Until the 20th century, San Angel was surrounded by fields. Also five miles from the centre, it still has a village atmosphere with a gentrified air. San Angel Inn, at Diego Rivera 50 (00 52 55 5616 2212; www.sanangelinn.com), was built in 1692 as the Hacienda de los Goycochea; it is now one of the city's classiest restaurants.

Xochimilco, 15 miles south of the city centre, boasts 50 miles of canals - a throwback to Aztec times when Tenochtitlan was built on a network of waterways. Colourful punts or trajinerias can be hired; those run by Don Fausto (00 52 55 5676 2472) cost 160 pesos (£13) an hour from the boarding point at the Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas. Sunday is by far the busiest day, when locals descend on Xochimilco. It's great fun, with floating mariachi bands and vendors plying the water.

IS MEXICO CITY EASY TO REACH?

The only airline with non-stop flights from the UK is British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, but fares tend to be high. The troubled US airline Northwest is selling seats from Gatwick to Mexico City via Detroit for £419 return through Trailfinders (0845 058 5858; www.trailfinders.com). Alternatively, Travelbag (0870 814 4441; www.travelbag.co.uk) has November fares from Heathrow to Mexico City with KLM via Amsterdam for £465; 13 other UK departure points are available at a slightly higher fare.

Mexico City airport is very close to the city centre, and has its own metro station. Given the size of the capital and its traffic problems, it's worth getting to grips with its 11 metro lines. The system is clean and efficient, and the flat fare of 2 pesos (10p) will get you anywhere in the city.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Base yourself in the Centro Historico and absorb the colonial atmosphere at the Hotel de Cortes at Avenida Hidalgo 85 (00 525 5518 2181; www.hoteldecortes.com.mx). It has an attractive courtyard where you can sip a cafe con leche while you plan your day. A double room costs 1,200 pesos (£62), including breakfast. More economical is Casa Gonzalez at Rio Sena 69 (00 52 55 5514 3302). What it lacks in frills, it makes up for in its location and the amiable staff. A double costs 550 pesos (£28.50), excluding breakfast. *

CAN I HAVE A SOFTER LANDING?

Yes. The "colonial heartland" is north-west of Mexico City, and you can see some superb cities in relative solitude. Queretaro, Guanajuato and Zacatecas all enjoy World Heritage status, while San Miguel de Allende and San Luis Potosi have their own charms. All are within a few hours of Mexico City by road. It is possible to visit all of them within a fortnight, but rather than rushing through the "silver cities" it may be more rewarding to choose one or two of them to use as bases. Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has a six-night "Jabali" itinerary, which takes in Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, as well as the sleepy colonial town of Patzcuaro and the elegant colonial city of Morelia. It costs £1,135 (based on two people sharing), including accommodation and surface transport but not flights.

WHICH CITY DO YOU RECOMMEND?

Guanajuato, founded nearly five centuries ago and one of those places where getting lost is all part of the fun. It is also one of the finest colonial cities in Mexico. At its height the mines here were producing one-fifth of the world's silver.

Unlike the ordered grid-planning of other colonial cities, Guanajuato's expansion was dictated by its rugged topography. The result is a city of appealing improvisation: buildings cling to steep valley sides while a wedge of open space acts as the main plaza.

Some of Guanajuato's students dress in 16th-century garb and promenade around, regaling their entourage with traditional songs and tales for a fee. To get involved, hang around the main square at 9pm and join a group. It happens every evening in summer, but only at weekends in winter.

Mexico's biggest arts festival is held in Guanajuato for two weeks every October. The Cervantino is so-called because of the city's association with Don Quixote; this year's festival has just ended, featuring opera from Beijing and theatre from Britain. Contact the festival office in Guanajuato (00 52 473 731 2920; www.festivalcervantino.gob.mx) for information.

To reach Guanajuato, fly to Leon, an international airport less than an hour from the city. Opodo ( www.opodo.co.uk) is selling flights in November from Gatwick with Continental via Houston for £577.

Zacatecas, about four hours on the bus from Guanajuato, is the furthest north of the "silver cities". It is less self-conscious about its beauty than Guanajuato but of equal status. "El Eden" mine at Cerro Grillo (00 52 492 922 3002), which opened in 1586, was the source of much of its wealth. It is now a tourist attraction (open 10am-6pm daily, admission 60 pesos/£3) where you can learn how the indigenous people suffered under the colonialists.

CAN I COMBINE COLONIAL AND INDIGENOUS MEXICO?

Yes. The two top spots are Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas. Oaxaca's size and beauty are all the more remarkable for its remoteness. The skies are startling blue and the adobe brightly coloured. Fifteen indigenous groups live in the area, the largest of which is the Zapotec. The centre of town is testimony to three centuries of colonial construction, with low-rise structures and thick walls to protect against the region's tectonic instability.

At least some time in Oaxaca must be spent browsing markets and sipping hot chocolate in the zocalo, but the mid 16th-century church of Santo Domingo is a must-see. It is on the corner of Gurrion and Alcala; open daily 7am-2pm and 4-11pm, free.

An early-morning visit to the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban above the city gives wonderful views of the Oaxaca valley and is a reminder that advanced civilisation was here long before the Spanish arrived. Take a bus to Teotitlan del Valle and Santa Ana del Valle, both of which have a thriving weaving tradition, while San Bartolo Coyotepec produces elegant black ceramics. Many villages hold market days; for information on when and where contact the tourist office on Calle Independencia (00 52 951 5160123; open 10am-8pm daily).

You can rest at the Hotel Ex-convento de San Pablo at Fiallo 102 (00 52 951 516 4914; www.hotelsan pablo.com), which dates back to 1529. A junior suite costs 2,090 pesos (£109), excluding breakfast.

San Cristobal is more modest than Oaxaca, but equally entrancing: a colonial hill-town brimming with indigenous culture. It has a memorable setting, perched among the green, coffee-growing hills of Chiapas. Most of the indigenous groups wear traditional highland dress and speak Spanish only as a second language, if at all.

San Cristobal and the villages around it are among the best places to see the fusion of Catholic and traditional beliefs; many churches have pagan effigies.

The place to stay here is the Casa Na Bolom (00 52 967 678 1418; www.nabolom.org), former home to European anthropologists. It houses a museum and remains a centre for study of indigenous people; doubles 950 pesos (£50) including breakfast. A guide takes daily tours of the villages, leaving Na Bolom at 10am. San Cristobal is remote.

You can travel by bus from Oaxaca in about 12 hours, or fly to Tuxtla Gutierrez, 90 minutes by road, with Mexicana (020-8492 0000; www.mexicana.com). An interesting option focusing on the Chiapas region is run by Muir Tours (0118 950 2281; www.nkf-mt.org.uk), a company with strong ethical credentials. It organises an 11-night tour visiting villages, based for all but one night in San Cristobal. The price - between £700 and £850 - includes a guide, budget accommodation and ground transport, but not meals or flights.

I WANT TO BE AMAZED

Then stay in one of two attractive colonial cities that serve as excellent bases from which to explore the remarkable Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. You can fly charter to Cancun direct from Gatwick or Manchester. MyTravel (0870 241 5333; www.mytravel.com) has return flights from both UK airports to Cancun for as little as £286, plus an extra US$46 (£26) tax payable on departure from Mexico. Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) has similarly priced flights. Scheduled flights are routed via Spain or the US. In November, ebookers (0870 814 0000; www.ebookers.com) has flights from Heathrow via Madrid to Cancun for £488 with Iberia.

From Cancun, make your way overland to Merida or Campeche. They make excellent bases from which to explore the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula. Campeche was granted World Heritage status in 1999 and has been sprucing itself up ever since. Occupied by the Spanish in 1540, it became their main port in southern Mexico, and was fortified to see off pirates.

Merida is more geared up to tourism. It is vibrant, festive and boasts the oldest cathedral in the Americas (open 6am-noon and 4-7pm daily, admission free). From here, the spectacular Chichen Itza Uxmal and other lesser-known Mayan ruins are within striking distance.

South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) offers a 13-night tour of the Yucatan Peninsula, which includes Merida and Campeche. It costs £2,455, including good accommodation and ground travel, but not international flights. A more economical option is to travel with Footloose Tours (0870 444 8735; www.footloose.com) on a nine-night "Yucatan Highlights" small-group tour. The next available trip leaves on 10 January, and costs £618 including a guide, surface transport and accommodation, but not flights.

COLONIAL PAMPERING?

Many colonial haciendas are being refurbished as hotels. Hacienda Xcanatun (00 52 999 9410213; www.xcanatun.com), close to Merida, is sumptuous; doubles from US$329 (£183) per night. Less opulent is Hacienda San Pedro Noh Pat, just west of Merida on the road to Chichen Itza (00 52 999 988 0542; www.haciendaholidays.com) where the room rate is US$50 (£27), including breakfast. More hacienda options can be found at the same website. Companies such as Cathy Matos Mexico (020-8492 0000; www.cathymatosmexico.co.uk) know the area well and can organise itineraries for you.

HOW SHOULD I GET AROUND?

Car rental can be cheap. Hertz (08705 90 60 90; www.hertz.co.uk) is offering a week's rental of a small car this month, with pick-up and drop-off at Mexico City airport, for under £100, including unlimited mileage. But it is less stressful to use buses ( www.ticketbus.com.mx) for long distances and taxis for short hops.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Mexican Tourist Office, Wakefield House, 41 Trinity Square, London EC3N 4DJ (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com).

NO HABLO ESPAÑOL

Outside the business community and the big resorts, you will find little English spoken in Mexico. The more Spanish you are able to speak, however, the more satisfying your time in the country will be. Information is one of the most precious commodities in Mexico and you will be able to trade.

Spending a week or two, or longer, learning the language can be rewarding in itself and shouldn't be looked upon as a worthy chore. Almost every sizeable colonial town has a language school. For a full list of schools in Mexico go to www.mexonline.com/language-schools.htm.

Another option is to organise a study holiday through a UK company such as Cactus (0845 130 4775; www.cactuslanguage.com), which co-ordinates programmes in Mexico, including the cities of Guanajuato, Cuernavaca and Oaxaca.

San Miguel de Allende is a good place to ease your way into the Mexican way of life. This small town has long been a favourite of North American expatriates and has a flourishing artistic community. Yet it is not overly Westernised or sanitised, and has a vibrant Mexican character.

The town has the respected Instituto Allende ( www.instituto-allende.edu.mx), which offers language as well as creative arts programmes, although the popularity of San Miguel with English speakers may detract from the applied language student's experience.

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