Mexico: A natural high

by Oakland Ross

The afternoon sunshine splashes down, and the first-class bus from Auto-transportes de Oriente loops its precarious way along Highway 135, bearing us south toward Oaxaca, in the rugged and lofty hinterland of Mexico.
Outside the bus's windows, the rocky peaks of the Sierra Madre crest against a sky of cobalt blue, their green flanks decorated with thousands of spire-like cacti, while sandy river beds weave through the forested valleys far below. The scenery soon has me fumbling for my camera, and I recall something that a friend of mine once said.
The best of Mexico, he succinctly observed, is not located on a beach - and I have come to agree.
The best of Mexico is located in the sky, in the network of high valleys that wander through the central regions of the country, between the two great chains of mountains - the eastern and western ranges of the Sierra Madre - that define the topography of this ancient and modern land.
This ancient, modern, and elevated land. So much of Mexico is located close to the sun that, at times, you feel almost airborne.
Granted, most foreign visitors to the country stay glued to sea-level, congregating at the coastal resorts of Cancun, Acapulco, Ixtapa, or the latest of Mexico's international seaside paradises, the Bays of Huatulco.
Nothing wrong with that. Mexico boasts some of the finest beaches in the world, sloshed with sunshine and garnished with coco palms.
But give me the mountains - the mountains and their cities.
More than anything else, it is the cities that we have come to explore on this 10-day journey through the central highlands of Mexico. There are plenty of destinations to choose from - fine, old colonial towns that are like urban envoys from another time, from the three long centuries when Mexico was known as New Spain and governed by Madrid.
Beginning with Mexico City itself, it is an easy matter to put together a tour of several among a panoply of antique treasures.
To the north, mostly clustered in a high, fertile region of Mexico known as the Bajio, lie Queretaro, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende - three sun-baked towns, each with its own architectural personality and its particular human charm, all of them blessed by truly glorious weather, especially in winter when daytime temperatures hover around the mid-20s, and the golden light floats incessantly through the dry highland air.
The nights, meanwhile, are clear and clustered with stars - but cool. At times, they are chilly enough that you can see your breath. So bring a sweater and maybe a jacket, too.
Over to the west, Morelia drifts among the blue heights of the state of Michoacan, about halfway between Mexico's capital and the country's second most populous city, Guadalajara.
Farther north, the old silver-mining town of Zacatecas spills across the sandy walls of an arid valley in the Mexican desert.
Each of these cities is splendid in its own way. Each boasts churches, churches, and more churches, not to mention museums, art galleries, theatres, as well as handsome old inns - modestly priced, for the most part - and lovely restaurants tucked away amid the shady porticos of old stone courtyards, where fountains burble and bougainvillea glows.
What's more, every one of these towns is perfectly suited to that simplest and possibly most pleasurable of holiday pastimes: aimless wandering around.
On this trip, however, we are turning our backs on the colonial gems to be found to the north of Mexico City. Instead, we are heading south. But we began with la Capital, the most colossal urban conglomeration in the Americas and among the largest cities in the world.
Who really knows how many people live here? Twenty million? More?
Estimates range all over the place, but it is safe to say that, within the confines of one Mexican city, they have somehow managed to shoe-horn a quantity of humanity equivalent to at least two-thirds the population of Canada.
It's far too many and it would be absurd to suggest that Mexico City does not suffer some very serious problems as a result, including a worrisome amount of crime, much of it violent.
When it comes to Mexico City, there are really two ways of dealing with the place. One, go there. Two, don't go there.
If you do go, be sensible. From the airport, take only official taxis - the white ones with yellow markings that you have to pay for in advance. Don't go bumbling around on foot at night. Don't flag taxis in the street, but instead use only radio-dispatched cabs. Be extremely vigilant when seeking money from automated teller machines. Don't drink alone in bars.
Follow these guidelines, and you should be fine.
There are plenty of reasons to devote at least a couple of days to Mexico City, which, in spite of its blemishes, is among the great metropolises of the Americas.
We stayed at the Hotel Majestic, a venerable Mexico City hostelry that occupies seven floors of history directly overlooking the Plaza de la Constitucion that, like most central plazas in Mexican cities, is better known as the zocalo.
There are few better places to make the plaza's acquaintance than from the Majestic's rooftop restaurant, which is where we repaired directly after dropping our bags in our room. What finer introduction to Mexico City than a cold beer with slivers of lime and a heaped plate of antojitos ( literally, 'little whims')?
Listing a little in the soft subsoil, the huge metropolitan cathedral presides to the west, kitty-corner to the long, stately facades of the National Palace. Meanwhile, an utterly immense Mexican flag - horizontal bands of red, white, and green with the coat of arms in the middle - stirs above the heart of the massive square, merely the largest central plaza in the world, apart from Moscow's Red Square.
You don't have to venture very far from the zocalo to sample some of the capital's greatest attractions.
The second-floor porticos of the National Palace, for example, are decked with dozens of truly sensational murals by perhaps the country's greatest artist, Diego Rivera, depicting the sometimes chaotic glory of Mexican history, from pre-Colombian times to the end of the revolution, in 1930 or so.
Next door, you can explore the famous Templo Mayor, the recently unearthed remains of the most sacred of Aztec temples. Once known as the Teocalli, it stood at the very heart of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec name for what is now Mexico City.
Right next door is the Metropolitan Cathedral, built over a succession of centuries until it became the largest cathedral in the Americas. It still is.
Meanwhile, within easy walking distance of the zocalo is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a sumptuous theatre built during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, whose ouster in 1910 heralded the launch of the long and bloody upheaval known as the Mexican Revolution. It overlooks a handsome park, the Alameda.
Nearby, along Avenida Madero, visitors to the capital can join the many Mexicans enjoying lunch at La Casa de los Azulejos - the House of Tiles - a remarkable dwelling that dates from the late 16th century and now serves as a restaurant, part of Mexico's national Sanborn's chain.
Other attractions in the capital include the world-famous Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Chapultepec Castle, where the Austrian Archduke Maximiliano resided in the 1860s, along with his Belgian consort, the Empress Carlota, during their short-lived and ill-fated reign.
Or take a taxi to Coyoacan, once a sleepy Indian village that lay well outside the capital. This is where Rivera and his fellow painter and wife Frida Kahlo lived during most of their turbulent years together, and their house is now a museum. Although still surprisingly peaceful, Coyoacan was absorbed by the sprawl of Mexico City quite some time ago.
About 50 km. northeast of Mexico City, we explored the remains of Teotihuacan, where the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon soar above the surrounding plain. They are the largest structures in an ancient city that was at its height more than 1,000 years before the upstart Aztecs showed their faces around here.
It was quite a climb to the summit of the Pyramid of the Sun but well worth the view. Hundreds of Mexicans were out in the mid-afternoon sunshine, hauling themselves and their cameras to the heights of their country's past. It felt like an honour to be among them.
Still, Mexico City was not the reason we came to Mexico.
The following morning, we boarded an Estrella Roja bus and headed for Puebla, a two-hour trip to the south, past the shining, snow-covered towers of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, two of Mexico's largest volcanoes.
A lot of people, when they think of buses in Mexico, probably envision hot, clanking vehicles with broken windows and flat tires, in which the chickens and goats very nearly outnumber the humans.
Such quaint modes of transport certainly exist, but they can be avoided. In fact, the best way to see Mexico is quite likely by bus, and there are no end of first-class or GL (for Gran Lujo, or Great Luxury) buses to take you wherever you wish to go, at reasonable cost, relaxing comfort, and reassuring security.
Our bus pulled into the terminal in Puebla exactly on time, and we caught a taxi downtown.
Like most old Mexican cities, Puebla possesses at least two very different personalities, a charming historical centre that is surrounded by a modern and much less prepossessing shell. The shell can be a bit overwhelming - a seemingly endless maze of unfinished concrete-block structures, where vast numbers of people live, work, and scurry about amid a jumble of commercial signs for beer, cigarettes, and muffler-repair shops.
But the centre is pure Mexican gold.
At least it is in Puebla, where a marimba band plays pretty much around the clock beneath the porticos outside the Hotel Royalty, a fine place to enjoy an afternoon cafe expres and watch the good people of the city stroll with their children through the large and shady zocalo. Meanwhile, the lofty twin spires of Puebla's cathedral seem to sway against the deep blue sky.
Visit the Amparo Museum, stroll through the Barrio del Artista and browse the Parian artisans' market. By all means have dinner at Fonda Santa Clara, a beautifully tiled restaurant (actually, there are two) that specializes in Puebla cuisine, including pollo en mole poblano - chicken breast in a rich chocolate sauce - that is among the great Mexican dishes, right up there with grilled beef Tampico-style and red snapper Veracruz-style.
Speaking of Veracruz ...
After a couple of days in Puebla, we broke our own geographic rule (we were supposed to stay at least 1,500 metres above sea level) and made a brief, day-long foray to this boisterous port city on Mexico's Gulf Coast, a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the east, and way, way down.
The oldest Spanish settlement in Mexico, Veracruz is a popular holiday destination for Mexicans and has a rollicking, tropical mood that's a bracing contrast to the more conservative air of the highlands. Granted, the ocean is polluted here and the grey beaches are not appealing. But it's the zocalo that provides Veracruz's most compelling attraction. Each night, as soon as darkness falls, the plaza explodes.
Decked with royal palms and illuminated by electric lights, the central square of Veracruz is a nightly carnival of marimba music, harp music, and ranchera music, as a half dozen bands - at least - vie for the attention of the diners and tipplers crowded among the parade of outdoor cafes and bars that line the northwestern side of the plaza.
Meanwhile, a troupe of white-robed dancers perform a danzon on a raised platform in the middle of the plaza, clowns do acrobatics on tight ropes strung between the trunks of trees, vendors hawk their wares and the stars peer down through the swaying fronds of the palms.
There are other reasons for visiting Veracruz - the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, for example, or the aquarium - but the city's joyous zócalo is sufficien tincentive, all on its own.
We could have stayed longer, but this was supposed to be a highland trip, and so we spent a long day on a pair of buses, one that took us back through the cane fields and mango groves of the coast and up the walls of the eastern sierra to Puebla, where we caught another bus south, this one headed for Oaxaca, our real reason for coming to Mexico.
The four-and-a-half-hour journey south, much of it through the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, winds through a monumental landscape of cathedral mountains and plummeting valleys, a view that had me pressed to the window throughout, my eyes wide. Try to get seats on the right hand side of the bus.
Late that afternoon, we float into Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-HAH-ka), a magical old city in a high, mountain-walled valley. We quickly find a room at a beautifully restored old inn - the Parador San Miguel - located just a block from the cathedral.
We have dinner at La Casa de la Abuela, with a panoramic view of the zocalo, where balloon vendors stroll among the Indian laurel trees and mariachi bands field requests from the patrons in the sidewalk cafes below.
Later, we dance at a club called La Candela. A Mexican band plays salsas, merengues, and cumbias until God knows when.
Sometime between midnight and dawn - a part of the night known in Mexico as la madrugada - we stroll back to our hotel along narrow streets lined with stucco facades painted in the sun-burned colours of the Mexican hinterland.
The stars sparkle down from an ebony sky, and we decide that we are never going home.

The Toronto Star, 18 January, 2003