Learn About Mexico's Past Through Its Ruins

When travelling through Mexico everywhere you look you will find stories of the quest for human freedom.  They are told in the bold colours of the past-Mexican Revolution murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros.  They are etched in the Zócalos of Colonial cities where the War of Independence was fought.  And they are visible in the pyramid skylines of the ancients, where Mayas, Zapotecs, and Totonacs raised their sights toward harmony with the sun and the moon.  There are 27 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico.  These are places of unique cultural identity and historic importance.  Most of them are in or near the many cities some are close to each other.  When you are next in Mexico give them a look in, because within a short journey you can witness the achievements of thousands of years.

The road from  the airport to San Cristóbal de las Casas is much, much longer than its mileage.  It grants a tour of geologic aeons, from mountain vistas to, with a short detour, the astonishing rock walls of the gorge in Parque Nacional del Carión del Sumidero.  It is good preparation for the pace of changes in San Cristóbal and for a visit to the ruins of Palenque, which will take you back a mere millennium.

San Cristóbal, cradled by a peek-a-boo of mountain tops and mist, was founded by the Spanish in 1528 and later added the name of Father Bartolomé de las Casas in tribute to the clergyman who recognized Maya rights.  The ocher Cathedral, trimmed in sunset hues, faces the Zócalo with straightforward grace.  It is far outshone in Baroque details by the Templo de Santo Domingo, which, in turn, pales beside the Maya crafts arrayed in the informal market around it.  The intense colours of woven blankets and shawls, and blouses and cloths embroidered with gardens as well as the costumes of the vendors, turn the plaza into galleries.

Santo Domingo's  former convent holds a co-op of hundreds of back-strap weavers called Sna Jolobil, or "Weavers' House" in the Tzotzil Maya language, where you can examine the ancestral techniques of diverse villages.  Zinancantán, for example, is known for its weavers' use of a red-purple-navy palette and overlaid embroidery.  On a side strip there you can also stop in San Juan Charmula, famous for pagan church rites that suggest the vagueness of the Conquest imprint.

The Danish archaeologist Franz Blom (1891-1963) and his wife, Gertudis (1901-94), a photographer, spent their lives studying Maya culture.  The mansion they lived in became the Museo Na Bolom, with a trove of Maya artifacts and photographs of the Maya-descended Lacandons, who live in the rain forest of south-eastern Chiapas.

Franz Blom helped excavate Palenque, 120 miles northeast, a Maya city that reached its zenith in the 17th century and overwhelms impressions of more recent architecture.  There are some 22 structures to explore in the ruins, including El Palacio, where Pakal ruled from 615 to 683 A.D., and the Templo de las Inscripciones, where his remains were found 50 years ago.  In the adjoining Templo XIII archaeologist made the rare find of female remains in 1994; called the "Red Queen" for the cinnabar dust that covered her, the woman was probably Pakal's wife or mother.  Some of the extensive heiroglyphs here have been deciphered, but no one knows why the city, a World Heritage Site since 1987, was abandoned to conquest by the jungle about 1000 A.D.

The Painter Rufino Tamayo said of his calling "Theartist is an antenna who picks up the truth of the moment, who is living in his time."   But as a Zapotec Oaxacan who grew up in a village near ancient ruins he must have known that in Oaxaca the moments of truth of more than two thousand years can seem to coexist as one.

The illusion is sustained by the vitality of Zapotec culture, which has been present in Oaxaca at least since 500 B.C., when nearby Monte Albán was built.  Tamayo acknowledge the continuity by introducing the pyramids of his native landscape into his 20t-century abstract figurative paintings.. He gave Oaxaca his riveting collection of sculpture from pre-Conquest Mexico, housed in a Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo, to impress on viewers its enduring aesthetic power.  Some of his own work hangs in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, which was founded by Francisco Toledo, whose own painting, filled with Zapotec symbols, highlight local galleries.

Oaxaco's Colonial masterpiece, Templo de Santo Domingo, with its adjoining Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaco, displays the art of centuries in a breathtaking sweep.  The church's interior, created y native craftsmen  under Dominican direction from 1575 to 1608, lifts your gaze to the ceiling painted with religious figures so vivid they seem to float overhead, and to a huge alter ablaze with gold.  But this splendour is a more than matched by the museum's cases of gold jewellery unearthed from Monte Albán, and the colors dazzle again in contemporary textiles, ceramics, and carving.

Laid out by the Spanish in 1529 and named a World Heritage Site, with Monte Alban, in 1987, Oaxaca invites you to peer into the many galleries and craft co-ops that keeps its Colonial courtyards lively.  But then go into the countryside, to the villages where artisans work.  One route will take you to Teotitlán del Valle, where wool rugs are the speciality, and then to the ruins of Mitla, the last pre-Hispanic Zapotec city, with its mesmerizing stone-patterned walls.  Another road leads to the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec and the lively animal figures, called alebrijes, carved in San Martin Tilcajete. But the shortest path is the six miles to Monte Alban, where every visitor who stands atop the regal pyramids and see the panorama of mountains and valleys they command becomes an antenna of their truth.

The beauty of El Tajin, in both the details of its architecture and the lushness of its tropical setting, invite the imagination to people the ruins - with the noble players sculpted in the walls of its ball courts, the astronomers and mathematicians who may have calculated a calendar in the 365 niches of its seven-story pyramid, and the generations of Totonacs who no doubt gathered to gossip in the sun.   The city flourished from the ninth to twelfth centuries; it was a contemporary of Teotihuacán, about 250 miles west, and displays links in the sloped structural panels and representation of Quetzalcóatl.  It was named a World Heritage Site in 1992.

At noon every day the Voladores from the town of Papantla bring liveliness to the site with their gravity-defying acrobatics.  Four men suspended by ropes spin around an 82-foof-high pole 52 times, while a fifth plays drums and flute at the top.  The ritual pays homage to their ancestors, who are said to have lived by a 52-year solar cycle, rebuilding their temples at the end of each span.

Go to Papantla, eight miles east, and you'll be at the centre of vanilla production, where the orchids that yield the native flavouring wind around orange trees.  Another regional specialty, coffee, draws connoisseurs to Coatepec and Xico, near Xalapa, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south, but longer if you relax en route at the beaches.

In 1906 Diego Rivera, then a student, came to Xalapa, the mountain-perched capital of Veracruz, to ask the governor for a scholarship to study in Europe.  Rivera's painting of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain and the area's scene-stealer, may have helped bring a positive response.  The artist later donated 36 of his works to the state, which built the clean-lined Pinacoteca Diego Rivera to display them.

Far larger is the brightly landscaped Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, which bids examination of some 3000 objects from the three civilizations that occupied pre-Conquest Veracruz.  The most recent are the post-Classic Huastic figures.  The Totonacs are present in spirited ceramic portraits, some of them smiling.  But the biggest smile beams from of the museum's seven colossal stone Olmec heads.  Dating from 1300 B.C. to 400 B.C., they weigh as much as 20 tons, stand as high as eight feet, are thought to personify different rulers, and preside here as kings.

"Vuelve a la vida" it the name of a bountiful shellfish cocktail that is a specialty of Veracruz.  Referring to the fare's restorative effects, the words translate to "return to life," and they could be a motto for the city.  Here Cuban-strong coffee jolts you awake and the beat of the music keeps you there - alive to the rhythms of a distinctly Caribbean-infected port culture.

Life is centered in and around the huge, colonnade-rimmed Plaza de Armas, where two stately rituals play out.  The first is café lechero, or coffee with hot milk, served most famously at the historic competitors Gran Café del Portal, dating to 1824, and the landmark Gran Café de la Parroquia.  At both the choreography is the same: a shot of strong coffee is set before you in a glass and if you tap it a second waiter will come to pour in a hot milk from a kettle held a couple of feet overhead.

You can sit and listen all day to marimba and mariachi bands, serenading guitarists singing <Cuban> trova and son, and drum-accompanied string trios setting off your inner metronome with the local son jarocho-a genre known worldwide for "La Bamba".  But the epitome of seduction is the danzón, a coupling of music and mutual attentiveness played out by dancers of all ages several times weekly around an orchestra in the city's Victorian band shell.  Created in Cuba in 1879, the danzón was quickly adopted here and has not skipped a beat since.

Hernán Cortés first set foot in Mexico near this site on Good Friday (known as a Day of the Cross - thus "Vera Cruz") in 1519, and it then became a trade center with links to New Orleans, Cuba and Spain, and a top target for pirates.

To protect ships, construction of Fuerte de San Juan de Ulúa began in 1535; the fort held the city against Sir Francis Drake's navy in 1568. Today the conflicts that seeped in here like seawater are recalled in ramparts, dungeons, drawbridge, and moat.

Follow the coast south 50 miles to Tlacotalpan, and you'll find yourself in the architectural memory or a Spanish-Caribbean Colonial town that thrived amid sugar plantations and died when bypassed by the railroad.  Named a World Heritage Site in 1998, it famously returns to life during February's Candelaria festival.

On Sunday the center of Mérida becomes a big welcome mat, with streets turned over to pedestrians, and the commanding Colonial structures of the Plaza de la Independencia bowing to the intrigue of food and craft stalls.  There is music and dancing, as there are many nights, with rhythms and melodies affirming both Yucatán cosmopolitanism and Maya heritage.

You can read a timeline in the Plaza's elegant buildings. In 1542 Fransisco de Montejo and his some marked their conquest by laying out Mérida and dismantling the Maya city on the site for building materials.  The salvaged stones were transformed into the Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest in North America, and, next to it, the Montejo family home, with a façade depicting Spanish soldiers standing on the heads of the vanquished Maya.  Neighboring landmarks highlight Mérida's modern culture.  The former seminary next to the Cathedral sheds its courtyard light o the work of Yucatán artists in the Muse de Arte Contemporáneo.  The Palacio de Gobierno, built at the end of the 19th century, displays the monumental drama of the region's history in the 1970s murals of Fernando Castro Pacheco.

In nearby markets and shops Maya crafts address the sultry climate with embroidered cotton shirts and dresses, Panama hats, and hammocks.  The sisal rope of a hammock recalls the fortunes make locally during the henequen boom times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The mansions of Paseo de Montejo are the face of the time. The most extravagant of them, the Palacio Cantón from the 1910s, now holds the Museo Regional del Antropologia, inviting you to examine Maya artefacts in its Italianate rooms.  The haciendas where the henequen was grown and processed have been reborn as spacious inns with lovely gardens on the outskirts of town. The former Hacienda de Yaxcopoil, about 15 miles south of the city, once one of the gradest, is a museum of hacienda life, with everything from chapel and orchards to corrals and henequen factory.

The route to riches led from haciendas to the Gulf ports 30 miles north of Mérida.  Today that direction takes you to the indulgence of beaches and pristine ceviche.  Drive 60 miles west for the flamboyant spring-summer show of flamingos who feast o shrimp in the tidal estuary of the Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

Water frames the great mystery of Uxmal, the ancient Maya city 50 miles south of Mérida and a World Heritage Site since 1996.  Other Maya centers were tied to the lifeline of cenotes, the deep wells and pools that distinguish the subterranean watershed of the Yucatán peninsula.  But Uxmal was founded in rolling countryside where farmers had no such easy access to abundant fresh water.  Here they needed the rain god Chac, whose image is carved exquisitely all over the ruins.  After reaching its height from 600 to 900 A.D., the city was abandoned around 1200.  What seems incomprehensible now is how its elegance was created, how the inch-by-inch details were incised o the 115-foot-high "Pyramid of the Magician" and the monumental Palacio del Gobernador.

Chichén Itzá, 75 miles southeast of Mérida, presents the unimpeachable authority of Maya architecture from 750 to 1200 A.D.  To appreciate its scale, detour to Izamal, about 40 miles east of Mérida, to see the Convento de Izamal.  This is the largest Franciscan monastery in Mexico, built 1549-1562 on the site of a Maya ceremonial center; it embraces a church and many chapels in a atrium second in size only to St. Peter's Plaza in Rome.

A World Heritage Site since 1988, Chichén Itzá was constructed around cenotes, its name translating to "city on the edge of the water-sorcerers' well."   Its building suggest astronomical calculations.  El Castillo, the iconic pyramid of the plumed serpent Kukulcán, the god that represented the sky, in its feathers, joined to the earth, a ground-dwelling snake, is positioned to measure the angle of the sun; during the spring and fall equinoxes the play of light and shadow suggest Kukulcán slithering down the north side of the pyramid to bring fertility to the land.  The four stairways and platform of El Castillo add up 365 paces, like a solar calendar; the windows at the top of the cylindrical El Caracol are aligned with Venus and equinoctial sunsets.  The splendid details absorb you in images ranging from Chac-mool's reclining figure to the sculpted action of warriors.  And El Castillo's steps urges you to climb, as the ancients did, into the sky.