La Ciudad de México – day one of two.

Much-maligned Mexico City is cleaning up its act these days. Revamped public spaces are springing back to life, the culinary scene is exploding and a cultural renaissance is flourishing. On top of all that, by largely managing to distance itself from the drug wars, the nation’s capital remains a safe haven of sorts!

Mexico City can at first appear extremely daunting – it’s enormous. Where to start? You could spend months exploring all the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, archaeological finds, shrines and religious relics that this encyclopedia of a city has to offer – Mexico City shares billing with London for having the most museums of any city in the world. Plan ahead as many museums close on Monday, while most waive their admission fees to residents on Sunday, thus attracting crowds.

Mexico City in Two Days – day one.

Day one dawned and I found myself stepping into a train on the Mexican metro, headed for station ‘Zócalo’. The cost of this journey was 20 pence.

Centro Histórico: Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668-block area defined as the centro histórico was the obvious place to start my explorations. More than 1500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments and it is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Zócalo (plaza): The heart of Mexico City is the Plaza de la Constitución. Residents began calling it the Zócalo, meaning ‘base,’ in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to independence went unrealized, leaving only the pedestal. Measuring 220m from north to south, and 240m from east to west, it’s one of the world’s largest city squares.

Catedral Metropolitana: One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 109m long, 59m wide and 65m high. Started in 1573, it remained a work in progress during the entre colonial period.

Templo Mayor: Before the Spaniards demolished it, the Teocalli of Tenochtitlán covered the site where the cathedral now stands, as well as the blocks to its north and east. It wasn’t until 1978, after electricity workers happened on an eight-tonne stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, that the decision was taken to demolish colonial buildings and excavate the Templo Mayor. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this was, literally, the center of the universe.

The Palacio Nacional is also home to the offices of the president of Mexico and the Federal Treasury. Inside this grandiose colonial palace you’ll see Diego Rivera murals (painted between 1929 and 1951) that depict Mexican civilization from the arrival of Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period. The nine murals covering the north and east walls of the first level above the patio chronicle indigenous life before the Spanish conquest.

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My top ten Mexican friends.

Travelling in Mexico can be amazing but sometimes a little challenging, here are a few friends that can help make the journey just that little bit easier.

1. The people.

Travels in Mexico quickly reveal that Mexicans are a vastly diverse bunch, but certain common threads run through almost everyone here – among them a deep vein of spirituality, the importance of family, and a simultaneous pride and frustration about Mexico itself! However, one thing you can never do with Mexicans is encapsulate them in simple formulas. They’re hospitable, warm and courteous to guests, yet are most truly themselves within their family group. They will laugh at death, but have a profound vein of spirituality. They embrace modernity while remaining traditional in essence. I have found Mexican people to be incredibly helpful and truly welcoming.

2. OXXO.

The closest ‘tienda’ (shop) you can get to a traditional convenience store back home, and pretty much offering everything you will need on a day to day basis – from topping up your Mexican cellular to buying snacks and drinks. You are guaranteed to find one on nearly every street corner in major towns and cities across all of Mexico.

OXXO has over 14,000 stores. It is the largest chain of its kind in Mexico and was founded in 1977. In the first stores, the only products sold were beer, snacks and cigars. The success of the stores was such that the project kept growing and OXXO built new locations rapidly, becoming an ubiquitous presence in Mexican cities and towns.

3. Busses.

Despite an extensive rail freight network, no passenger trains operate in Mexico (apart from a few ‘tourist’ options. Buses are your key to getting from A to B. Thankfully Mexico has a good road network and comfortable, frequent, reasonably priced bus services connect all cities. Most cities and towns have one main bus terminal from which all long-distance buses operate. Normally called ‘Terminal de Autobuses’. Bus stations in major cities tend to be generally clean, safe and highly functional.


De lujo services, primera plus and the even more comfortable ejecutivo (executive) buses run mainly on the busier intercity routes. They are swift and comfortable, with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, air-conditioning, movies on (individual) video screens, few or no stops, toilets on board (sometimes separate ones for men and women) and often drinks, snacks and even wi-fi. They use toll roads wherever available.


Primera (1a) clase buses have a comfortable numbered seat for each passenger. All sizable towns are served by 1st-class buses. Standards of comfort are adequate at the very least. The buses have air-conditioning and a toilet, and they stop infrequently. They show movies on TV screens. They also use toll roads where possible.


Segunda (2a) clase or ‘económico’ buses serve small towns and villages and provide cheaper, slower travel on some intercity routes.

4. A Mexican chip (SIM) for your smartphone. Without one I wouldn’t be able to interact with some of the following.

5. is an amazing app that I first started using in Cuba (google maps does not function in Cuba). It is especially useful for getting your bearings in a town, and most importantly helping you locate your accommodation. This app has saved me a fortune in taxi fares over the past year.

6. Trail Wallet is an easy travel expense tracker for iPhone and iPad. Designed to be fast, it takes the headache out of expense tracking. I have a daily budget and trail wallet helps me keep tabs on how I am doing. It has proved invaluable.

7. Trip Advisor. A great app to help find and book accommodation, as well as helping to find a decent restaurant, and suggestions on what to see and do in places.

8. Google translate. Invariably I get presented with Spanish words that I don’t understand, this is my personal translator. In addition this amazing app has a feature whereby you can take a photo of text and it will instantly translate it – really useful in museums where the context can be somewhat challenging.

9. WhatsApp. Great for keeping in touch with friends – both old and new.

10. Santander ATM’s. Most banks give you a terrible exchange rate, when withdrawing cash here in Mexico. Santander has consistently provided me with the best rates. Note: HSBC were the worst! Thank you also goes to my Halifax Clarity Credit Card – no charges from them either!

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Morelia – Mexico.

The state capital of Michoacán and its most dynamic and beautiful city, Morelia is an increasingly popular destination, and rightly so: the colonial heart of the city is so well preserved that it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991, and its cathedral is not just gorgeous, it’s inspirational.

Elegant 16th and 17th century stone buildings, baroque facades and archways line the narrow downtown streets, and are home to museums, hotels, restaurants, chocolaterías (chocolate shops), sidewalk cafes, a popular university and cheap-and-inviting taquerías (taco stalls).

Morelia’s beautiful cathedral (unforgettable when it’s lit up at night) dominates the city where it sits side-on to (rather than facing) the central plaza. It took more than a century to build (1640−1744), which explains the different architectural styles.

Morelia’s impressively preserved aqueduct runs for several kilometers along Avenida Acueducto and bends around Plaza Villalongín. It was built between 1785 and 1788 to meet the city’s growing water needs. Its 253 arches are stunning when illuminated at night.

Primera Bus: Pátzcuaro to Morelia 1.5 hours, £7.43.

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Pátzcuaro, Mexico.

Terracotta-tiled roofs, warped red-and-white adobe walls and narrow cobblestone streets give the town of Pátzcuaro the air of a large village. Unlike the Spanish-founded cities of Morelia and Guadalajara, Pátzcuaro took root in the 1320s as part of the Tarascan Empire, two centuries before the conquistadors arrived. With its tangible indigenous feel, it remains little affected by modern day interference.

Lago de Pátzcuaro.

About 3km north of central Pátzcuaro you will come over a rise to find a lake so blue that its edge blends seamlessly with the sky. Within it are a few populated islands.

Isla Janitzio.

Isla Janitzio is a popular weekend and holiday destination. It’s heavily devoted to tourism, with lots of low-end souvenir stalls, fish restaurants and drunk college kids on holiday! But it is car-free and threaded with footpaths that eventually wind their way to the top of the island, where you’ll find a 40m-high statue of independence hero José María Morelos. You can climb up inside the statue, via the Museo Morelos where an ascending series of murals depicts Morelos’ life. The last part ingeniously climbs the statue’s raised arm to a lookout with panoramic lake views in the see-through wrist.

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One Tequila, two Tequila, three Tequila……… floor!

Surrounded by a sea of blue agave, sun-baked Tequila is a surprisingly attractive factory town that’s firmly on the tour-bus circuit these days. The eponymous drink – the object of everyone’s longing – is best observed in one of three local distilleries, all of which run tours.

I chose to visit La Rojena, which is a distillery owned by the Cuervo family, makers of the world famous Jose Cuervo line of Tequilas.

Jose Cuervo owns literally thousands of hectares of land where new Blue Agave plants are planted every month. It takes 6 to 8 years before the Agave can be harvested. Agave maybe grown from seeds or offshoots of the mother plant. Growing from seeds can take up to 20 years and so obviously the preferred method is to grow from offshoots.

The offshoots are trimmed and planted at about 4-6 inches deep. No irrigation is required as the plant absorbs moisture from the air through its long leaves or when it rains. It’s a very hardy plant and can go for long periods without water. At 1-2 years, the ‘long’ leaves are trimmed or cut off to stress the plant to make it sweeter. This process is repeated after 1-2 years. In year 4-5 the main central stem is cut off to prevent further plant growth. Soon after the plant is harvested by shearing off all the leaves at the base leaving the central bulb called “Piria” or pineapple. This can weigh between 40-50 kilos! It takes approx. 7 kilos to make 1 litre of Tequila. If this piria is split in half, a central heart shaped structure can be seen. This is used to make a more purer form of Tequila called Ariejo.

The huge blue Agave bulbs, once harvested in the fields, are loaded onto trucks and taken to the distillery where they are washed and steamed for 60 hours. Other ingredients are added for the Agave to release the sweet nectar. At this stage it turns dark brown in color and if chewed tasted very sweet. The blanco is processed in 18, 000 litre wood barrels while the Reposado in barrels similar to wine barrels – only French or Canadian Oak barrels are used.

There are 3 basic types of Tequila. Blanco, which is fresh Tequila and looks like water – it is very potent, and ”harsh’ for the palate. If this is matured for 2 to 3 years it is called Reposado. If matured for 3 to 5 years it becomes very smooth and is called Añejo. If matured from 5 to 7 years it is called extra Añejo. Blended Tequila also produced.

Costs: Return bus to Tequila from Guadalajara £7.00. Two and a half hour tour £15.00, which included a tasting session.

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Guadalajara, Mexico.


Mexico’s second largest metropolis is actually a confederation of three cities – Zapopan, Tlaquepaque and Guadalajara proper – each with its own airs and idiosyncrasies. Together they form a culturally compelling whole, a blended cocktail not unlike one of the locally concocted margaritas – sharp, potent and remarkably well-balanced.

If you’re intimidated by the size and intensity of Mexico City, Guadalajara delivers a less frenetic alternative. Many of the clichéd images recognized as Mexican have roots here: mariachi music, wide-brimmed sombreros, the Mexican hat dance and charreadas (rodeos). But, Guadalajara is as much a vanguard of the new Mexico as it is a guardian of the old. Chapultepec hipsters drive the cultural life forward, fusion chefs have sharpened the edges of an already legendary culinary scene (famed for its tender stews and ‘drowned’ sandwiches), while foresighted local planners are doing their damnedest to tackle the traf- fic and congestion (a bike-sharing scheme is the latest wild card).

Guadalajara’s most comprehensive museum tells the story of the city and the region from prehistory to the revolution. The ground floor houses a natural history collection whose unwitting star is a mightily impressive woolly mammoth skeleton. Other crowd-pleasers include displays about indigenous life and a superb collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics.


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Guanajuato, Mexico.

The extraordinary Unesco World Heritage city of Guanajuato was founded in 1559 due to the region’s rich silver and gold deposits. Opulent colonial buildings, stunning tree filled plazas and brightly colored houses are crammed onto the steep slopes of a ravine. Excellent museums, handsome theaters and a fine marketplace punctuate the cobble- stone streets. The city’s ‘main’ roads twist around the hillsides and plunge into tunnels, formerly rivers.

Guanajuato is just as beautiful and interesting as San Miguel but with more people and more traffic, none the less it is a great place to spend two or three days.

The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, contains a jewel-covered image of the Virgin, patron of Guanajuato. The wooden statue was supposedly hidden from the Moors in a cave in Spain for 800 years. Felipe II of Spain gave it to Guanajuato in thanks for the wealth it provided to the crown.

Museo Regional de Guanajuato: This art and history museum was the site of the first major rebel victory in Mexico’s War of Independence. Built between 1798 and 1808 as a grain store, the Alhóndiga became a fortress in 1810 when 300 Spanish troops and loyalist leaders barricaded themselves inside after 20,000 rebels led by Miguel Hidalgo attempted to take Guanajuato. On September 28, 1810, a miner nicknamed El Pípila tied a stone slab to his back and, protected from Spanish bullets, set the entrance ablaze. The rebels moved in and killed everyone inside!

Museo de las Momias (Museum of the mummies): This famous museum is one of the most bizarre (personally I would say distasteful) sights at the panteón (cemetery). The popular attraction is a quintessential example of Mexico’s acceptance of, celebration of and obsession with death; visitors come from all over to see more than 100 disinterred corpses. While technically these are mummified remains – due to the dry atmosphere in their former crypts – the bodies are not thousands of years old. The first remains were unearthed in 1865 to make room for more bodies in the cemeteries. What the authorities uncovered were not skeletons but flesh mummified (many feature grotesque forms and facial expressions)

Funicular: This incline railway inches up (and down) the slope behind the Teatro Juárez to a terminal near the El Pípila monument. Heading up is fun, but to descend, you can save your pennies by walking down. The views from the top are stunning.

Bocamina de San Ramón silver mine: This mine is part of the famous Valenciana mining district. Silver was discovered here in 1548. At San Ramón you can descend via steps into a mine shaft to a depth of 60m.

Primera Plus bus: 2 hours north west of San Miguel – £5.72 (First Class).

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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Many people say that San Miguel is a bit like a Mexican Disneyland for foreign (mainly American) retirees and visiting chilangos (those from Mexico City). While there is a certain contrived fairy tale feel to the place – and not a colonial brick out of place in its historic center – it is, nevertheless, a beautiful city, with colonial architecture, enchant cobblestone streets and striking light – making it a great place to take photographs.

The town’s cosmopolitan panache is reflected in its excellent restaurants and high class accommodations – sadly not mine – more on this later. Numerous galleries are stocked with quality Mexican artesanías (handicrafts) and cultural activities are a plenty for residents and visitors alike. There are few major sights in the compact centro histórico: San Miguel is the sight. The city – with El Jardín, the principal plaza, and the Parroquia, the large church, at its heart – was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008.

Economically speaking, this is no budget destination, which is why I ended up staying at a very basic £20 a night gaff close to the historic centre. The next cheapest I could find (admittedly it was weekend) was £200 a night! While the foreign influence is pervasive (more than 12,000 foreigners are believed to live or have houses here), on the whole, the population coexists comfortably.

Beneath the smart B&Bs and fancy shops, another Mexico emerges. You only have to laze in the main plaza, visit the food market or interact with the local people to sense a different ambience, color and vibe. Starbucks has already landed here.

The climate is agreeable: cool and clear in winter and warm in summer, I could quite easily make this place my home.

Primera Plus Bus: 1.5 hours north of Querétaro. Cost £5.00 (First Class).

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Querétaro – Mexico.

As far as the silver cities go, Querétaro is sometimes known as the ugly sibling. Indeed, although it’s believed to be one of the fastest growing cities in the northern hemisphere thanks to it being the base for international industries, including the aero- space industry, its rather frantic outskirts can give a misguided first impression. The city’s large, historic heart is characterized by charming pedestrian streets, and very clean ones at that, stunning plazas and interesting churches. The smart restaurants serve up quality cuisine and the museums reflect Querétaro’s important role in Mexican history. Three hours north of Mexico City is the beautiful city of Querétaro, well worth a two day visit, with lots to see and enjoy.

Primera Plus Bus: 3hours north of Mexico City – Terminal Norte. Cost – £12.05 (First Class).

Residencia Sofía: A delightful little hotel, very quiet and very relaxing. The staff are exceptionally polite and helpful. Rooms are very spacious, clean and well appointed. It’s a super location just a 10 minute walk from the historic centre.

Museo del Calendario (calendar museum) is the first of its kind in the world (apparently). This extraordinary museum is the labor of love of its owner Señor Landin, whose family has been producing calendars in Mexico for decades. There are two parts to the museum: 19 exhibition rooms that house the original artworks (including reproductions) that featured in decades of Mexico’s calendars, along with over 400 original retro-style calendars themselves. The second is the building itself, a stunningly renovated mansion, complete with beautiful garden and courtyards.

Just on the edge of the historic centre there’s a fine view of ‘Los Arcos’, Querétaro’s emblematic 1.28km long aqueduct, with 74 towering sandstone arches built between 1726 and 1738.,

Templo de San Francisco: This impressive church fronts Jardín Zenea. Pretty colored tiles on the dome were brought from Spain in 1540, around the time construction of the church began.

Museo Regional. The ground floor of this museum holds interesting exhibits on pre-Hispanic Mexico, archaeological sites, Spanish occupation and the state’s various indigenous groups. The upstairs exhibits reveal Querétaro’s role in the independence movement and post-independence history. The table at which the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, ending the Mexican–American War, is on display, as is the desk of the tribunal that sentenced Emperor Maximilian to death.

Templo y Convento de la Santa Cruz: Ten minutes’ walk east of the center of Querétaro is one of the city’s most interesting sights. The convent was built between 1654 and about 1815 on the site of a battle in which a miraculous appear- ance of Santiago (St James) led the Otomí to surrender to the conquistadors and Christianity. Emperor Maximilian had his headquarters here while under siege in Querétaro from March to May 1867. After his surrender and subsequent death sentence, he was jailed here while awaiting the firing squad!

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Los Pirámides de Teotihuacán (Mexico).

Teotihuacán was Mexico’s biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably Mexico’s largest pre-Hispanic empire. It was a major hub of migration for people from the south, with multi-ethnic groups segregated into neighborhoods. Studies involving DNA tests in 2015 theorize that it was these cultural and class tensions that led to Teo’s downfall.

One hour north of Mexico City (by bus) this complex of awesome pyramids, set amid what was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city, is among the region’s most visited destinations. The sprawling site compares to the ruins of the Yucatán and Chiapas for significance and anyone lucky enough to come here will be inspired by the astonishing technological might of the Teotihuacán (teh-oh-tee-wah-kahn) civilization.

Set 50km northeast of Mexico City, in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México, Teotihuacán is known for its two massive pyramids, the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), which dominate the remains of the metropolis.

Though ancient Teotihuacán covered more than 20 sq km, most of what can be seen today lies along nearly 2km of the Calzada de los Muertos. Buses arrive at a traffic circle by the southwest entrance (gate 1), while four other entrances are reached by the ring road around the site.

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