32 UNESCO Heritage Sites in Mexico

Mexico is one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries, ranking fifth in natural biodiversity. Mexico has 32 UNESCO world heritage sites (first in the Americas and seventh in the world) and an astonishing history. Pre-Columbian Mexico traces its origins to 8,000 BC. It's one of the cradles of civilisation. Maya, Teotihuacan and Aztec settlements, followed by Spanish colonisation. More Spanish speakers than any other country.

It's a major tourist destination: as of 2018, the sixth most-visited country in the world. I was really looking forward to visiting. Frankly, I am underwhelmed. I'm travelling with friend Pat and we're visiting Mexico City and then the Yucatan peninsula.

The Aztec and Mayan sites are interesting, although the guides at the Mayan sites seem very unsure of their facts and, at times, apparently make up explanations of some of the archaeological features we saw. Heads of sacrificed victims used to play with in the ball court? Maybe, but a few supporting details please.…

Endless traffic and the scenery in the Yucatan is relentlessly dull - mile upon mile of low uninspiring rainforest, all the same hue. Perhaps we just went to the wrong bit?

Mexico - in a Nutshell

  • Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States), is the official name of Mexico.
  • Mesoamerica was one of six cradles of civilization worldwide, with the first inhabitants settling over 13,000 years ago. The Mesoamerican area gave rise to a series of cultural developments which included complex societies, agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, writing, and calendrical systems. Agriculture was developing here by 6,000 B.C.
  • Chocolate, chillies and corn were introduced to the world from Mexico.
  • Every year, millions of Monarch butterflies migrate from U.S and Canada to Mexico. (I would love to see this - it's described in Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behaviour)
  • Spanish is the main language spoken in Mexico.

Mexico City

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan became Mexico City, one of the largest, most crowded cities in the world. According to Aztec mythology, a tribe called the Mexica (hence the name Mexico) left their mythological home, called Aztlán (hence the name Aztec), and journeyed in search of new lands. They eventually came to a lake called Lake Texcoco, where they saw an eagle landing on a cactus with a snake in its claws. They took this as a sign from the gods telling them to stop here and build a new city, So they did. And they called it Tenochtitlán, which means ‘place of the cactus rock’. Mexico City is built on the lake, but there isn't much left of the Aztec ruins. The Templo Major has recently been reconstructed in the centre.

Hernán Cortés, led the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early sixteenth century, laying the foundations for New Spain, centred on its new capital, Mexico City. Mexico City has the highest elevation (remember Bob Beamon’s long jump?) and is the oldest city in mainland North America. It was crowded and the traffic snail pace. The must see is the massive main square, the Plaza de la Constitución, (all decorated ready for Christmas - draped in Mexican colours) also known as the Zócalo. Here, is the baroque Catedral Metropolitana de México of the Spanish Conquistadores and the Palacio Nacional,. The palacio houses historic murals by Diego Rivera - they were definitely worth a detour.

There's also the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the north of the city. This is a national shrine of Mexico. The Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin close by in 1790. His cloak, said to represent the image of the Virgin Mary, is housed in the basilica. There are plenty of gaudy souvenirs on sale.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan, 25 miles outside the main city, took an age to get to. This area has been populated since 600 BC, though its origins are said to be 'mysterious'. But it was once one of the largest cities in the world (over 150,000 people), reaching its peak in 450 CE. It was the centre of the powerful Teotihuacan culture, whose influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. and encompassed Tikal.

Relics and colourful animal murals are said to suggest a high-level civilization, The huge stepped Pyramids of the Sun (third largest in the world) to the east and Moon. to the north, provided good exercise and great views. Then the gory stories began. There is a giant pedestal atop the pyramids. This is where the human sacrifice, common in these times. was performed. During this sacrifice, five priests, sometimes with their faces painted with different colours, performed certain rituals. The heart was cut from the live victim, (referred as “precious eagle cactus fruit) and burned on a fire in the temple.

The main monuments of Teotihuacan are connected to each other by a central impressive route called the Avenue of the Dead (Avenida de los Muertos), because it is believed to have been paved with tombs. There are more ramps and miniature pyramids. To the south the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, dedicated to the God in the form of a winged serpent.

Teotihuacan is Mexico's' most visited attraction. It's often advertised as an Aztec site. The Aztecs claimed descendance from the Teotihuacan peoples, but it's not even certain that they ever lived here, though they adopted much of the culture.

The Yucatan

The Mayan sites are further south, mainly on the Yucatan peninsula and we dutifully toured them all, (well it felt like all, we missed a lot of smaller sites out), trying to spot the differences. Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza. The step pyramid at the latter, the Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo) is suggested as one of the Seven Wonders of the World in some lists. It also has the famous Caracol Observatory (named for its snail like staircase). Uxmal, the second most popular site today, after Chichen Itza, has the tallest (and probably steepest) monument - the Pyramid of the Magician.

The roads between viewings were long. The tedium of the jungle was relieved by a stop at Merida - colourful shops crammed full of hammocks. Mexicans don’t use beds. We even visited a hammock making workshop. The Yucatan Peninsula, however, is one of the safest places for travellers in Mexico. This is a poor country and petty crime abounds. Yucatan has one of the lowest rates of homicide in Mexico (10 times lower than the rest of the country!)

Tulum

The highlight of the tour is definitely Tulum - an indescribably beautiful setting on the cliffs above an azure sea. This was one of the last Mayan cities to be constructed (actually a port), on 39 foot cliffs. It survived Spanish rule for some time and is one of the best preserved Mayan sites.

  • The food was also disappointing. Nothing like the ‘Mexican’ offerings in the restaurants at home – on the whole bland and poorly prepared. Maybe we just ate in the wrong places.
  • Cancun – a tourist horror – an utterly gorgeous beach ruined by strings of high rise hotels and tourist tat.
  • A peaceful last few days on the island of Cozumel. Plastic bracelets to be endured in the all-inclusive resort, but more powdery white sand and great snorkelling, surrounded by scores of inquisitive barracuda, drifting on the second longest barrier reef in the world.

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