Traveller's Guide To: Mexico 2010
It's been 200 years since this alluring nation gained independence from Spain – and a century since the Mexican revolution. So why not join the party?
Saturday 20 February 2010
Why Mexico, why 2010?
Unlike buses, two national anniversaries rarely come along at the same time. However, 2010 marks both the bicentenary of Mexico's independence from Spain and the centenary of its revolution. Year-long celebrations have been planned across the length and breadth of this huge country, focusing attention on the sheer variety of holiday choices it offers.
Throughout the year, in an echo of the Olympics, a bicentennial flame will be carried though Mexico's 31 states, most of which will be bringing their own ideas to the party. These include Nayarit's beach volleyball championship and a graffiti competition in Chiapas, while Tamaulipas is hosting a potato festival. More lasting contributions will come in the form of a port for cruise ships being built in Manzanillo on the Pacific coast and the inauguration of a new, bicentennial metro line in Mexico City.
In an attempt to bring to life the battles and dramatic journeys that underpinned the two historical events, the Mexican government is creating six heritage routes. These will allow visitors to follow in the footsteps of the main protagonists of the revolution and struggle for independence. Roadside panels will provide historical information along the way. Download maps of the routes from the website bicentenario.gob.mx.
Since it's an ill wind that doesn't benefit someone, last year's annus horribilis for the Mexican tourism industry (a combination of swine flu, the global recession and drug-related violence) has led to some extremely good deals for this year's visitor.
Where do I start?
Mega-capital Mexico City is an underrated destination that has begun to win the battle against its legendary pollution. Art galleries are springing up in the chic neighbourhoods of Roma and Condesa, while the restaurant scene is particularly vibrant in Polanco. A recent, classy addition is Astrid & Gastón (Tennyson 117; 00 52 55 5282 2666; astridygaston.com ), a growing chain whose Peruvian cuisine has made waves across Latin America. Expect to spend 405-510 pesos (£20-25) per person and make sure you have the starter of marinated fish (ceviche).
To enjoy the centenary/bicentenary celebrations you should visit on or after 15 September. On Mexico City's elegant main avenue, el Paseo de la Reforma, a monumental bicentennial arch is being built in steel and quartz. It will be inaugurated on Independence Day on 15 September, ushering in the most intense period of the celebrations, which will last until 20 November, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the revolution. Expect spectacular firework displays and much partying to go alongside the inevitable military parades and patriotic speeches.
Among the city's classic experiences are a walk round the huge central square, the Zócalo; a visit to the stunning Anthropological Museum (Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec; mna.inah.gob.mx; open 9am-7pm Tuesday-Sunday; admission 51 pesos/£2.50); and a trip to the borough of Xochimilco, where you can cruise the Aztec water gardens in a brightly painted boat (160 pesos/£8 an hour).
A reliable and economical place to stay is the three-star Hotel Mariá Cristina at Río Lerma 31 (00 52 5703 1212 y 5566 9688; hotelmariacristina.com.mx ), where doubles start at 775 pesos (£37.50), room only. A shining addition to the city's luxury hotels is the St Regis, which opened in August last year in the stylish, ultra-modern Torre Libertad at Paseo de la Reforma 439 (00 52 5228 1818; starwoodhotels.com/stregis ). Doubles start at US$250 (£167), room only. And the latest boutique offering is Las Alcobas (00 52 55 3300 3900; lasalcobas.com ), which opened last month with smart doubles in the Polanco district starting at US$307 (£205), with breakfast.
Some colonial colour?
Nearly 300 years of Spanish domination left Mexico with a wealth of civic and religious architecture. The city of San Cristóbal de las Casas is in a remote location surrounded by high forests in the southernmost state of Chiapas. It combines a Mayan atmosphere with striking colonial buildings, among which the 16th-century cathedral with its ochre-coloured exterior stands out. In 1994, after a surprise guerrilla uprising, this was the venue for peace talks between Mexican government officials and the Zapatista National Liberation Army led by the enigmatic, pipe-smoking poet Subcomandante Marcos.
Equally striking is Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name 600km to the west; its turquoise and pink painted houses are wreathed in bougainvillea and the Plaza Principal, surrounded by galleried houses can claim to be Mexico's most attractive square.
More centrally located colonial cities are Taxco, once Mexico's silver capital, Zacatecas and, above all, Guanajuato. Its narrow lanes and small squares are enhanced by a picturesque setting in a steep canyon. The home of the city's most famous son, the muralist, Diego Rivera, has been turned into a museum at Calle Pocitos 47 (00 52 477 732 1197) with a fine collection of his works. It opens Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 6.30pm, Sunday 10am to 3pm; admission 15 pesos (75p). Guanajuato is famous as the cradle of the independence movement, in celebration of which a Bicentennial Expo Park will be opened in July, just outside the city. Its pavilions will house cultural, historical, artistic, musical and ecological exhibits as well as featuring folkloric events and gourmet tastings, all around the theme of Mexico's heritage (expobicentenario.mx, only in Spanish). Guanajuato is five hours from Mexico City on a luxury bus (several daily); the nearest Airport is Bajío International, 40km away.
You say you want a revolution?
The two guerrilla leaders who emerged as legends from the 1910 uprising against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz were Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. The Ruta de Zapata, a route marked with blue signs, links the villages near Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City where Zapata's "Southern Army" operated. It takes you through the huge sugar estates whose land the moustachioed hero aimed to redistribute to peasant farmers. In Tlaltizapán, where he had his military headquarters, is a small but evocative Museo de la Revolució*del Sur at Avenida Vicente Guerrero 1 (00 52 734 345 0027; institutodeculturademorelos.gob.mx ). Among the exhibits are the clothes Zapata was wearing when he was treacherously shot in the back and killed. It opens Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm, admission 25 pesos (£1.25), free on Sundays.
Larger than life Pancho Villa led the Northern Division. Though he and his army roamed far and wide (he even invaded the US) the city most associated with him is Chihuahua in the north. The Historical Museum of the Revolution at Calle 10a Norte 3014 (00 52 416 2958) is housed in Villa's former 50-room mansion. It opens Tuesday-Saturday 9am to 7pm, Sundays 9am to 4pm; admission 10 pesos (50p). On display are his furniture, weapons and saddles, although the ghoulish main attraction of the collection is the bullet-ridden car in which he was assassinated in 1923.
Chihuahua is the gateway to one of the world's most spectacular railway journeys, the Chihuahua al Pacific (00 52 614 439 7212; chepe.com.mx ), which crosses the Sierra Madre mountains en route to the Pacific. Stop off at Divisadero to enjoy views down into Copper Canyon. The tourist express leaves Chihuahaua at 6am daily. A single to Divisadero is 1,089 pesos (£54). Visitors to Chihuahua should be aware of the security situation in the state: last year nearly a third of the country's deaths occurred here, mostly linked to the drug trade and attempts to control it. Although the vast majority of these occurred in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, it is worth sticking to Chihuahua City's main tourist areas, particularly after dark.
Oaxaca State has some of the finest beaches on the Pacific coast – and in the whole of Mexico – but until this year access has involved a seven-hour road journey from Oaxaca City. A dramatic new Coast Highway is scheduled for completion later this year which will cut the trip to idyllic Puerto Angel to just two dramatic hours. In the meantime, fly to Huatulco international airport, an hour's drive along the coast road. The protected bays and coral reef of this little fishing port make for relaxing swimming and snorkelling. Accommodation in Puerto Angel includes the recently opened boutique hotel Casa Bichu, Bahía de Estacahuite (00 52 958 584 3489; casabichu.com ) where doubles start at US$290 (£193) room only. More economical is La Cabaña de Puerto Angel (00 52 958 504 3105; lacabanapuertoangel.com ), which has doubles from US$34 (£23) room only.
Troncones, further up the Pacific coast in the state of Guerrero is half an hour north of the new resort of Ixtapa. With its miles of sandy beaches, flocks of pelicans and a handful of hotels and guesthouses, this can still justify the description "sleepy". The nearest airport is Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa. Get a flavour at troncones.net.
Can I fly and flop?
The simplest way to do this is to go to Cancún on the Caribbean coast, whose airport is served by charters run by several tour operators. This year Cancún is celebrating its own 40th birthday, and has V C invested in a facelift for the beach hotels that were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The first phase of an underwater sculpture park has also been completed: 400 sculptures by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor are being sunk off the coast in the Caribbean waters of the National Park West Coast of Isla Mujeres Puerta Cancú*and Puerta Nizuc, to create an artificial reef and spectacular diving opportunities. The human-scale concrete sculptures will be grouped by theme, from Mayan warriors to dream catchers ( www.bit.ly/divecancun ).
As alternatives to staying in the mega resort itself, try looking further down the so-called Riviera Maya to lower rise and smaller scale hotels in Playa del Carmen (also known as Playacar). Thomson (0871 231 5595; thomson.co.uk ) offers a week at Easter, all-inclusive, at the Ríu Yucatán hotel at Playacar, from £734 per person. Recently completed on this stretch of the Riviera Maya is the upscale Mayakoba Resort ( mayakoba.com ). The exclusive cluster of remote but sprawling beachfront hotels includes a Banyan Tree, Rosewood, Viceroy, Fairmont and Mandarin Oriental.
If you'd really like to chill, and stay within easy reach of Cancún airport, you could do worse than investigate Tulum, an hour's drive south, which apart from its spectacular Mayan site and unspectacular town centre, boasts a string of beachside cabins, ranging from basic with a sand floor to luxury mini-villas with air con. Prices begin at around 810 pesos (£40) a night for two people ( tulum.com ).
Back to the ancients?
The Yucatán Peninsula boasts the remains of many cities built during the Mayan empire. The world-famous sites such as Chichen Itzá, Uxmal and Tulum are on the excursion agendas of the big hotels on the Riviera Maya but recent road improvements have made it possible to reach the more remote sites in an ordinary hire car. Kohunlich, with its striking Temple of the Masks (open daily 8am-5pm, admission 20 pesos/£1) is an hour's drive west of the city of Chetumal on Highway 186, which also takes you on towards Calakmul – a vast complex complete with howler monkeys – and finally to Palenque, wreathed magically in jungle. Stay overnight in the town of Palenque to enjoy the ruins when they open at 8am, as do the other sites.
Should you tire of monuments, another unique Mexican experience is to take a dip in one of the cenotes, the freshwater lagoons which dot the limestone plateau of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Cenote Azul near the town of Bacalar is particularly refreshing.
There's more to pre-Columbian Mexico than the Mayans. On a flat-topped hill just outside Oaxaca is the site of Monte Albán, built around 600BC by the Zapotecs, while 50km north of Mexico City is the monumental site of Teotihuacán. It's not known for sure who built it, but if you're going to climb just one building in Mexico, it should be the magnificent Temple of the Sun (open Tuesday-Sunday 9am to 5pm, admission 51 pesos/ £2.50).
Back to nature: Baja California
Baja California, which dangles appendix-like from the western side of Mexico's frontier with the US, is an unrivalled place to see whales, particularly the Grey Whale, which migrates here to breed between December and March. A number of operators run daily boat trips from the Marina at Cabo San Lucas with prices ranging from US$39-60 (£26-£40) per person. Alternatively Aero Calafia (00 52 624 143 4302; aerocalafia.com.mx ) will fly you from Cabo San Lucas to the shallow bays where the whales mate and give birth. A day-trip, including food, costs US$421 (£281) per person. Accommodation can be expensive but bijou Los Milagros Hotel at Matamoros 116, Cabo San Lucas (00 52 624 143 4566; losmilagros.com.mx ), has doubles from US$95 (£63), room only.
The country's most characteristic and fragile landscapes have been designated Biosphere Reserves. Visits, camping and sometimes adventure sports are possible within their boundaries. Michoacán's Monarch Butterfly Reserve in central Mexico is the most visited. From November to March, visitors can follow trails amongst oak and pine which are completely covered by the hibernating butterflies. Details from glocaltravel.net/ destinations.
Travel essentials: Mexico
* There are three direct flights a week to Mexico City from Heathrow with BA (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com ), while Mexicana flies there four times a week from Gatwick (0808 10 17 600; mexicana.com ). The only direct flights to Cancún from the UK are by charter airline: Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; flights. thomson.co.uk ), Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com ) and Monarch Airlines (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk ).
* Tailor-made trips are provided by Journey Latin America (020-8622 8469; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ), which organises, for instance, a 13-day self-drive tour of "Colonial Cities and the Pacific Coast" for £1,809 per person, while Mexico Travel Plan (01273 322 046; mexicotravelplan.co.uk ) offer short modules, including travel by bus, which you can add in to your holiday or stitch together as an itinerary. Cathy Matos Mexican Tours (020-8492 0000; cathymatosmexico.co.uk ) is a long-established and reliable British operator.
* Apart from the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway and a few other tourist lines, rail travel in Mexico has been virtually abandoned. But buses provide an efficient and economical service. Second-class buses are enjoyable for local trips, but for intercity journeys choose first class or the comfortable executive or luxury buses. Journeys can be very long: Cancú*to Palenque, for example, a distance of 870km, takes 13 hours and costs 700 pesos (£35) on a first-class bus. Mexperience.com has a comprehensive website on bus travel.
* The country is vast, so the internal airlines are an important feature of the transport infrastructure. Aeroméxico (00 52 51 33 40 00; aeromexico.com ) and Mexicana have the most extensive networks of routes. Information on the various fares and itineraries available with a Mexicana Visit Mexico multi-pass is available through the One World alliance ( oneworld.com ).
* If you want to get off the beaten track it is worth hiring a car, though if you've booked it from the UK, be prepared for some hefty local charges. Holidayautos. co.uk lists rentals from £175 per week, with unlimited mileage.
* Once on the road, beware of the mountainous speed bumps at the entrance to towns and villages and avoid driving at night and any brushes with local police, whose actions can be unpredictable.
* There's a vast array of places to stay, ranging from mammoth resort complexes to thatched beach cabins by way of chic boutique hotels. Prices vary proportionately.
* Some of the best deals can be found by searching for a privately owned beach house to rent. Steer clear of the Riviera Maya and look for the spots that the locals would choose. In Sayulita, for example, 35km north of Puerto Vallarta, you can find a three-bed house near the beach from $520 (£347) a week ( vacationhomerentals.com ) and a similar amount will rent you a house for eight right on the beach at Chuburna Puerto near the port of Progreso on the less-developed north coast of the Yucatán.
* The Foreign Office website ( fco.gov.uk ) draws travellers' attention to the hurricane season in Mexico, which runs from June to November and can affect both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. It also advises being alert when withdrawing money and "when dealing with real or purported policemen". The drug-related violence which erupted in the border regions with the US, particularly Ciudad Juárez, has also claimed victims during 2008 and 2009 in the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and some Pacific states. The advice is to keep abreast of local information.
* Mexican Tourist Board: 020-7488 9392; visitmexico.com .
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