There are still places where the mystery of pre-Columbian ruins can be experienced almost alone, and my favourite has to be El Cuajilote, near the ramshackle farming town of Tlapacoyan, in the backlands of Veracruz state. It is not a spectacular site. There are no elaborate bas-reliefs or ornate stelae, and the few discernible temples are only partially excavated. But few tourists come here and the place is all calm and harmony. The buildings, swathed in green and crowned with wild mandarin trees, blend with the misty, forested hills that overlook them and the lush, grassy plaza they embrace. The only sounds are the chorus of the jungle and the rush of the Bobos river nearby. The scattered remains of other buildings, constructed from river stones, lie for miles around, lost in the forest, or standing like tree-covered islands in cattle-ranchers' fields. No one knows who built them, or why, but from their alignment, we can divine their builders' sense of awe at the patterns of the stars and the fertility of the natural world.
Jalapa, not far, as the crow flies, from Tlapacoyan, is a sedate state capital set amid lush mountainsides ideal for growing coffee. Not much Mexican coffee is exported to the UK, probably because they drink it all here. Head for La Parroquia, just off the main square, where local society gathers and waiters circulate constantly with battered kettles, one for coffee, another for scalding milk. You just tap your glass for a refill.
Most macabre museum
The Mexican fascination with death reaches its apotheosis at the Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato, a beautiful colonial town some 300km north of Mexico City. The "mummies" on display are bodies exhumed from the public cemetery when relatives fail to keep up payments; many are preserved by natural properties of the soil. Gross, but unmissable.
Best wildlife experience
Between November and mid-April, millions of migrating monarch butterflies cover the pine-clad slopes of the Sierra Madre, above the tiny village of Agangueo. Acres of trees are carpeted so thickly with the dark grey of sleeping butterflies that not a single pine needle is visible. As the sun warms the freezing night air, the butterflies slowly begin to awake, unfolding their wings in a profusion of orange and black. Breathing warm air onto them brings them fully to life. By mid-morning, the air is thick with their orange wings fluttering against the blue mountain sky.
Mexico has quite a few contenders for this title, but it would be hard to beat Escrcega in the Yucatan Peninsula. The place is an ugly, dusty crossroad town full of buses, diesel and drunks. The buildings are all cheap concrete and television aerials. In the dimly lit night, vicious stray dogs roam the streets looking for their next meal, and backpackers, en route from Chiapas, search desperately for a bus out.
The Pantera Negra, in an old colonial house near the red-light zone around Merida's bus station, is run by Peter and Fernando, a gay British/Mexican couple. It is an unusual place - particularly in this macho and homophobic country. Themed shuttered rooms with high ceilings (still supported by 19th-century Belgian railway tracks) and terracotta floors are furnished in styles that range from the kitsch to the splendid. Little altar tables from churches serve as bedside tables, and a wardrobe that wouldn't look out of place in a hacienda stands next to a tacky 1950s dresser. Outside is a sheltered courtyard where a breakfast of freshly baked bread and tropical fruits is served with good English tea or thick coffee. A delightful home from home after the bustle of Merida.
John Fisher wrote the 'Rough Guide to Mexico' and Alex Robinson helped to update the fourth edition, just published.
British Airways flies once a week, non-stop, from Heathrow to Mexico City or Cancun, from pounds 440. Continental, Delta and Iberia offer non-direct flights from pounds 400. To book, call Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108).
El Cuajilote is best reached from Tlapacoyan. Buses for the village of Santiago leave from the terminal on the corner of 5 de Mayo and Valdez streets. It is then an hour's dirt-track walk to the site. Tlapacoyan is a three-hour bus journey from Papantla.
What to experience
The best place to see the monarch butterflies is in the El Rosario reserve, where a guide can show you around. The sanctuary is reached from the village of Agangueo, in the valley below. Buses for Agangueo leave hourly from Zitacuaro, which is itself easily reached from either Mexico City or Morelia.
Pantera Negra is at 547B, Calle 57, Merida, Yucatan (tel: 00 52 99 240251).Reuse content