Rough Guide: Mandarin trees, mummies and sleepy monarchs

John Fisher and Alex Robinson, co-authors of the 'Rough Guide to Mexico', recall their best and worst finds

Best pre-Columbian ruin

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.

Classiest cafe

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.

Ugliest town

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.

Best guest-house

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.

FACT FILE

mexico

Getting there

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).

Getting around

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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US