If you have a keen interest in archaeology or ancient civilizations, Mexico has much to offer you: the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula, the pyramids of Teotihuacan or the pyramid of the Morning Star in Tula.
Are you a colonial history buff? Stroll around time-warped colonial towns such as Taxco (ever popular for its abundance of silver), the valley of Oaxaca dotted with tiny colonial villages or San Miguel de Allende with its charming cobblestone streets and colonial-era mansions, to name just a few.
Or maybe a glitzy resort or lonely beach is more your thing. Mexico's coastline boasts of some of the most beautiful sea & surf destinations: Los Cabos in Baja California on the western peninsula or over at the Yucatan peninsula is Cozumel one of the world's premier dive destinations. And who has not heard of Acapulco, the country's original resort town or Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. You can also opt to throw back some margaritas in the tourist city of Cancun where you might even do some celebrity sight-seeing.
The options are endless! You need at least a couple months to see and enjoy everything. I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity to visit the places that occupied the top two spots on my 'Mexico musts' (must see, must do, must try) list: the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Basilica de Guadalupe.
Katia thoughtfully arranged a day trip for all of us. We met our very amiable Mexican guide, Juan Carlos (right), at the lobby of our hotel from where he led us to the waiting van. As we made our way from the city center to the Basilica de Guadalupe, Juan Carlos pointed out the many landmarks that dotted the landscape and explained their significance in Mexico's history. He regaled us with countless factual tales and amusing legends while patiently answering all our questions.
We drove by two famous plazas. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas which gets its name from the mix of modern, colonial and pre-Columbian architecture that have developed around it. This plaza is the site of the ruins of Tlatelolco, the twin city of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the most imporant commercial center of its time. Further along is Plaza Garibaldi, home of Mariachi music since the 1920s. Musicians can be seen here waiting to be hired (like those pictured below) to play a song or three or more depending on how much you are willing to spend. A mariachi band may be hired per song or per hour and rates vary according to number of musicians and experience.
As we continued towards our destination, Juan Carlos recounted the familiar story of Juan Diego, the humble native Mexican who the Virgin Mary appeared to on Tepeyac Hill during his daily morning walk to what is now Mexico City. She asked him to tell the Bishop that she wanted a church built on the site where she stood. But when Juan Diego told the Bishop about what he saw and of the Virgin Mary's request, the Bishop was skeptical and told Juan that he needed a miraculous sign. When Juan went back to the hill, there he saw Castillian roses never before seen in Mexico.
He quickly gathered these up in his cloak and hurried back to the Bishop. As the flowers fell to the ground, there emblazoned on his cloak was a glowing image of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, who later became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. That was all the Bishop needed to order the construction of the Basilica de Guadalupe, now the second most visited church after St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is now recognized as the patron saint of Mexico. She appeared during a dark time in Mexico's history, during the struggle of the Old World and the New World. Her dark-skinned mestiza image mirrored that of the Mexican people, and her apparition brought them renewed hope and unity. She was immediately given the highest form of reverence. Her magnitude is unmatched even by Jesus Christ. She is the mother of the Mexican people, their queen. Juan Carlos tells us proudly: " the three most important things to a Mexican are Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Flag and Football, in that order." I found that highly amusing. :)
A circular modern church (the New Basilica) was built when the original one started to sink making it unsafe under the weight of the 10 million people who make the pilgrimage to her shrine every year. The Old Basilica is still open to the public. As you enter, you are greeted by a bronze statue of St. Juan Diego whose cloak is engraved with the famous image. Hanging from his left arm and pinned to the red board behind him are rosaries, letters, pictures and prayers of all kinds.
It is in an unassuming hallway of the new church though where you will find hanging the cloak of Juan Diego framed in gold. It was transferred here from the high altar to allow more people to view this sacred image without obstructing the mass. As I stared at it in awe, passing it slowly on the walkalator and almost forgetting to take a picture, I felt the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand. I felt her presence. It easy to understand how this vision has captivated both believers and non-believers alike. I felt unworthy to be in her presence and I was humbled before it.
We piled back into the van and headed northeast towards the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Just 20 minutes later,we arrive at Teotihuacan, the "birthplace of the gods". I couldn't believe I was here. Like the time I saw the Egyptian pyramids or when I made the approach into Venice in a motor boat, I had to literally pinch myself. Yes, this is that amazing!
the Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun on the left
Just to give you a little background... Teotihuacan was a colossal urban center in ancient times that dates back to around 100 BC. It dominated life in the region for 500 years before being destroyed and abandoned around AD 650 and soon after discovered by the Aztecs. What really happened to it though is still shrouded in mystery.
Mooners on the Pyramid of the Moon
This awesome site is dominated by two enormous pyramids which the Aztecs called the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun which are linked by a wide avenue called the Avenue of the Dead. So dubbed because the Aztecs believed that the structures that lined it were royal tombs. The Pyramid of the Moon, although smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun, offers the best view from its peak because it is on higher ground. I read somewhere that the base of the Pyramid of the Sun is similar in size to that of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, though shorter in height.
We entered through the Quetzalpapalotl Palace Complex, a maze of structures and temples built around the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl (bottom left on the collage below), named for the mythological creatures carved into its courtyard pillars that have obsidian eyes.
Those of us brave enough made the obligatory climb up the Pyramid of the Moon. It was tough, a painful reminder of how out of shape I was! (note to self: make a beeline for the treadmill and boxing ring upon landing in Manila!). As I was sucking in huge amounts of air with each step, I scoffed at the website that said: "It's not the going up that's hard, it's coming down from the Pyramids". I remember thinking then as I did now, "yeah right!"
When I got to the first level of this four-tiered structure, I stopped to rest and take in the view. But before I could appreciate the spectacular vision before me, I looked down at the steep incline I had just climbed and ...GASP! I teetered backwards, I could actually feel my eyes bulging out of its sockets, holy crap! It was so steeeeeeep! How the heck was I supposed to make it down there?! I never had issues with height before, I used to climb water tanks in our village when I was a kid and even read while I was up there. How can acrophobia just creep up on you like that?
I decided I wasn't going any higher. The view from here was breathtaking enough so I contentedly sat there and drank it all in. Contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Ok not that deeply, but I was mystified. Who were the original residents of this vast complex? Who destroyed their home? Where did they run off to?
The voice of Juan Carlos shook me out of my reverie. We had to hurry along if we wanted to see the Pyramid of the Sun before the complex closes, he said. This was it, I had to face my fear of going down. I considered my options: crawl down backwards on my hands and knees, go down step by step on my butt and look stupid, descend backwards while gripping the cable that runs down the middle of the steps. I chose the latter. This way, I couldn't see how steep it was and feel like gravity was just going to suck me down. Phew! Good choice. It turned out easier than I thought.
While we waited for the rest in the Plaza of the Moon, we were approached by the requisite locals selling souvenirs and postcards. I was struck by how kind and gentle they were. A world away from the market in Aswan, Egypt where they harassed you to buy stuff with shouts of "I pay you to look!" and "Baksheesh!" (how they ask for 'tips' for any and every reason). The Mexicans have a way about them that was so affable and mellow, from their demeanor to their accents. A demeanor also exhibited by our guide who, I swear, had the patience of an angel. It wasn't easy keeping our group together.
We ran out of time and sadly we never made it to the Temple of Quetzalcoatl on the other end. Yet another reason for me to return. :)
Up next: Xochimilco and Hacienda de los Morales