From the air, the terrain of Mexico resembles a papier-mâché map, sliced down the center by the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental—towering mountain ranges rising to higher than 18,000 feet that run parallel to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. It's two days after Christmas, and my husband, Tom, and I are on our way to Mexico's central highlands. Our plan, to explore the country's fabled colonial cities, was born of circling conversations and books read (including eccentric memoirs—stories written by aged conquistadors, tough-minded British freethinkers, and ambassadors' wives) as well as our dedication to visual culture, architectural history, and finding good things to eat.
The colonial era of Mexico, when it was called New Spain, stretched on for 300 years, from the 16th century into the 19th. With the exception of Oaxaca, which is 325 miles southeast of Mexico City, the great colonial towns are all located in the heartland of Mexico. We decided to skip the expat enclave of San Miguel de Allende and focus on Puebla, Querétaro, Morelia, Guanajuato, and Cuernavaca—each a short day-trip from the capital. History in colonial cities accumulates layer by layer: diverse cultures mix and hybridize. We are eager to encounter this past, especially in the towns' historic centers, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In Mexico, we are looking for what a friend had described as "the New World's Old World."
"The streets of Puebla are clean and regular, the houses large, the cathedral magnificent, and the plaza spacious and handsome," wrote Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of Spain's first ambassador to the new republic, in 1840. Calderón de la Barca's voluminous collection of letters was published in 1966 and contains a memorable description of a costume worn by local women: a full embroidered skirt, white petticoat and blouse, a vividly colored rebozo (long scarf), and multiple bracelets and necklaces made of coral and pearls. According to legend, the costume was originally worn by the China Poblana (Chinese Woman of Puebla), an Asian princess captured by pirates and sold into Mexican slavery in 1650. A convert to Christianity, she spent her life caring for the city's sick and poor. After her death, many native poblanas adopted her bold uniform—a showy blend of Occidental, Oriental, and indigenous styles—and wore it in her honor.
The city of Puebla was established in 1532; unlike other colonial cities, it wasn't built atop an existing town. Nestled among volcanoes along the inland route connecting the port cities of Acapulco and Veracruz, it was a stopping point for traders traveling between Europe and Asia. Puebla's deservedly famous Talavera tiles adorn edifices and interiors throughout the city; tabletops are set with exquisite ceramics. Decorated in glazes of intense cobalt blues and radiant yellows, the patterns are a brilliant synthesis of Puebla's many cultural influences: they capture aspects of Islamic, Aztec, and Art Nouveau design.
One morning, at the Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, I take a cooking class with Alonso Hernández, executive chef at the Compañía and its sister hotel, Mesón Sacristía de las Capuchinas. Hernández has devised a menu that is classically Pueblan in its mix of far-ﬂung and indigenous ingredients. In Mexico, pre-Hispanic foods, European imports, and Asian transplants come together to produce this incomparable Mestizo cuisine. In a modern kitchen, Hernández roasts peppers on a comal, an iron griddle used in Mexican cooking for thousands of years, and grinds spices in a traditional molcajete. While preparing the batter for chiles rellenos con queso en caldillo, he whips egg whites into stiff peaks. He studies their consistency for a moment—firm and very dry. Suddenly, he lifts the metal mixing bowl above his head and ﬂips it over: the egg whites do not move. The students applaud, and Hernández cracks an irresistible smile. When I leave, I'm given a folder that includes recipes, the history of Mexican food, and a primer on the varieties of chiles. As Calderón de la Barca observed, the chile is "as necessary an ingredient... as salt."
Baroque and Moorish sensibilities fuse most dramatically in Querétaro. La Casa de la Marquesa is an 18th-century palace realized in high Mudejar style: elaborately stenciled walls, curvaceous stone archways, and massive carved wooden doors worthy of the Alhambra. The city's spectacular cathedral, Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbos, was designed with lavish Mudejar details, as seen in its slender tower and soaring flying buttresses, which, in a sudden Gothic reversion, are topped by irreverent gremlin faces. Inside, the church is Baroque, with painstakingly elaborate marquetry and the requisite extravagant gilding.
In the center of Querétaro, quiet walkways link the city's colonial-era parks and plaza. The Christmas dioramas in the Jardín Zenea extend far beyond the typical crèche to include Bible stories ranging from creation to damnation and salvation. We never expected to see Adam and Eve, but it is the portrayal of Hell—a giant smoke-belching rat with red, burning eyes—that is the real holiday surprise. The Christmas season here starts on December 16th and runs into January; traditionally, children receive their presents on Epiphany, January 6, when the Three Kings gave their gifts to the Christ child. Roaming about Querétaro, we keep running into the Three Kings, costumed men posing in makeshift sets with papier-mâché animals, available for family photo ops. Bordering the lovely Plaza de Armas are shops selling handmade toys, another reminder of the imminent naughty-or-nice accounting.
The Museo Regional de Querétaro, in the Ex Convento de San Francisco, has a wide-ranging collection. Among the objects that stand out the most are an 18th-century painting depicting Querétaro's aqueduct; a pre-Columbian ceramic dog deliriously chasing its own tail; and the Emperor Maximilian's ornate meerschaum pipe. Querétaro is where Maximilian's short, ignoble career ended: he was executed by a firing squad here in 1867. The event was recorded in a series of dramatic paintings by Édouard Manet; in this museum, the day is represented by the table on which the failed emperor lay embalmed and by the plain coffin in which he was carried away. We walk out to Cerro de las Campanas—a park named for the bell-like sound the native stones make when tapped together—where a simple one-room chapel (a gift from the Austrian government) commemorates the execution. From the hill, the city of Querétaro sprawls out to industrial suburbs and a network of highways.
Morelia, a magnificent colonial city, had been called Valladolid by the Spanish and was later renamed in honor of Morelos. The capital of the state of Michoacán, it is located in a high valley (at 6,400 feet), an elegant town with broad boulevards, genial plazas, and expansive views of the countryside. Its harmoniously composed center is reminiscent of Vicenza or Edinburgh's New Town. In the 16th century, King Philip II of Spain issued Las Ordenenzas, a set of urban-planning ordinances regarding the layout of Hispanic American cities. According to these rules, each city should feature a main plaza bordered by four streets (Morelia, unusually, has two main plazas); the buildings facing the plaza should include ground-ﬂoor portals, arched semipublic spaces linking the buildings to the street. Historically, these shaded spaces provided an area for country people to sell their goods in the city; today, the portals are also occupied by cafés, contributing to Morelia's essential air of sociability.
At our hotel—a stylish 17th-century episcopal palace that has recently been renovated by architect Fernando Pérez Córdoba—we confront the basic design dilemma of colonial buildings: a balconied room that faces the plaza is loud; an interior room looking onto the patio is dark. At Los Juaninos, our room is dimly lit, and the windows are fitted with iron bars; we are, however, insulated from street noise and the tinny sound track of Christmas carols broadcast nonstop from the municipal Christmas tree.
The colonial cities are ideal for walking: compact, yet architecturally rich and accentuated with unanticipated blasts of color and imagery. In Morelia, at one of the oldest universities in the Americas, the Colegio de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, there is a dynamic 1929 mural of Michoacán daily life by Marion Greenwood, a young American painter who worked with the graphic artist Pablo O'Higgins, a United Statesborn Mexican citizen and colleague of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. The university lecture halls, conforming to European tradition, are called aulas and named for great philosophers; a miniature wooden sign embossed with gold-leaf lettering indicates the Aula Carlos Marx.
At Museo del Dulce, the candy museum, we fill a basket with handmade tin toys, pumpkin-seed brittle, and dulce de camote, pastel-colored confections made from sweet-potato pastes. Flirtatious teenage girls costumed as nuns sell bottles of Rompope, an eggnog-flavored liqueur. We stop for savory snacks, antojitos (literally "little whims," like the tasty quesadillas stuffed with the corn fungus huitlacoche, and tacos al pastor), in the vaultlike bar at the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, a grand 17th-century palace built for the city's first viceroy. At the edge of town, an impressive 18th-century aqueduct—a graceful arcade of pink stone—merges the countryside with the city streets.
The high plateau that stretches from Morelia to Guanajuato seems to be skimming the surface of the surrounding lakes. The modern road into town descends into a rugged dirt-walled tunnel that forks and finally surfaces at the edge of the Jardín de la Union, Guanajuato's triangular-shaped plaza, a pedestrian precinct bordered by laurel trees and cafés.
With its narrow cobblestoned alleyways, or callejones, and higgledy-piggledy layout, the city is a startling contrast to Morelia: a Cubist landscape encountered after a vision of the rational sublime. Guanajuato is the birthplace of Rivera, and we visit his childhood home, a prim Victorian house built on a rocky outcropping in the Centro Histórico. Its interior is laid out in a crazy-quilt pattern, curiously accommodating the site's irregular terrain.
Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera contains an exceptional array of the artist's work, ranging from staid early portraits to studies for his famous murals. As a young artist in France, in the years just before World War 1, Rivera enjoyed his first wave of success: his quick-witted eye and always confident hand seem to have effortlessly mastered Cubism, the radical vision he was born to.
Guanajuato's regional museum is absorbing and happily does not provoke any flashbacks of school field trips. One of the galleries features an impressive pre-Hispanic collection, assembled with care by the painters Olga Costa and José Chávez Morado. Even the museum's building, Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a tremendous Neoclassical stone structure originally built as a granary, is a reminder of Mexico's complex history. Father Hidalgo and his fellow insurgency leaders Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and Mariano Jimenez were executed here by the Spanish royalists; their decapitated heads were hung from cages outside the Alhóndiga for 10 years.
Guanajuato's historic wealth is evident within its Baroque churches: their exuberant interiors are festooned with multitiered chandeliers, pure-silver embroidery, and an abundance of gold leaf. The Teatro Juárez, inaugurated in 1907 by President Porfirio Díaz (a dictatorial leader who admired all things French), features swags of red velvet, richly upholstered poufs, and plenty of gilding. Every surface is patterned, and the overall effect is a bit like being caught inside a millefiori paperweight.
The Francophilia of that period—derisively summed up as unpatriotic by José Clemente Orozco ("we have our own architecture, we don't need refried châteaux")—extends with greater refinement into the outskirts of town, where streets widen out to boulevards lined with acacias. Many of the area's 19th-century houses were originally built as summer residences; with their shuttered French windows, ample rooms with parquet floors, and unrepentant bourgeois formality, they could easily have drifted up the Rhône and across the Atlantic.
One of these houses is Quinta Las Acacias, where we stay. Built in 1890 by Alberto Malo, engineer for the Teatro Juárez, the Quinta has 14 balconies and hillside terraces overlooking the city. The Mexican breakfasts—slivers of glistening papaya brightened with wedges of lime, freshly squeezed juices, hefty plates of chilaquiles (a casserole of green chile sauce, tortilla strips, sour cream, and often chicken or pork, colloquially called "a broken-up old sombrero")—are, without exception, superb. We are always offered eggs prepared in a variety of ways, including poches, which is translated on the menu as "drowned." Reading this, Tom remarks, with characteristic Scottish concern, "Poor wee things." Each morning, we feel very well looked after.
Cuernavaca, with its nearly flawless weather and lush gardens, has long been a retreat for modern city dwellers. In 1526, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés built a formidable palace for himself, the Palacio deCortés, directly on top of an existing Aztec temple, on a hillside that is now the city center.
We reach Cuernavaca in the early evening; a full moon floats in the mercifully clear sky. At the Casa Colonial, we follow the hotel receptionist—a droll and discreetly helpful man named Nestro—up one staircase, through a loggia, and up a flight of narrower stairs to a large, almost secret room adjoining the roof. Nestro opens the bathroom door. "And here is another garden for you," he announces before he turns to leave. In the enormous skylit bathroom, small palms and flowering vines are growing against lustrous walls of artisanal tiles.
The streets of Cuernavaca snake out from the zócalo, the hectic central plaza filled with urban strollers and sidewalk vendors. The centerpiece of the zócalo is a 19th-century ironwork bandstand, purportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, that resembles an oversized Victorian lampshade. Christmas, of course, is everywhere: a towering tree is decorated with giant medallions emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo, and Mylar piñatas, plump six-pointed stars, are hung between the streetlamps. Throughout town, iron-railed balconies are strewn with pots of blazing red flores de Noche Buena, the ﬂowers of Christmas Eve; a native bloom, the plant was introduced to the United States in 1825 by the first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, and vaingloriously rechristened poinsettia.
The Palacio de Cortés now houses the Museo Regional Cuauhnáhuac, Cuernavaca's museum. Its sprawling collection includes archaeological discoveries; eyewitness accounts (in reproduction) of the meeting between Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, and the conquistadors; and a muscular mural by Diego Rivera recording the city's history. Rivera has featured, in his voluptuous signature style, a portrait of the 19th-century mule skinner turned priest José María Morelos, a hero of the War of Independence. Rivera's Morelos—a robust figure with deep, hooded eyes and an ample double chin—bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the artist himself.
Within the city's restrained, sepulchral Catedral de la Asunción de María, completed in 1552, a fragile mural recounts the crucifixion of the 16th-century Mexican saint Felipe de Jesús, in Japan. Portrayed with 26 fellow martyrs, San Felipe appears to one side, a pale, fragmented wraith adrift in a worn plaster sea. We wander through the Jardín Borda, 18th-century terraced gardens now overgrown and redolent of derelict gentility and enticing melancholy. In the museum here hangs a portrait of Emperor Maximilian with his lover, the gardener's wife, La India Bonita. It was Maximilian who observed that the Mexican climate necessitated a constant intake of "tonics": each day he imbibed 20 glasses of champagne.
One night, we have dinner at Gaia, a Nuevo Mexican restaurant in a colonial house that was once the home of Mario Moreno, the comic film star known as Cantinflas. Gaia has been designed in a pleasing minimalist aesthetic: high-ceilinged spaces flow into one another; the dining areas have whitewashed walls and low, flickering candlelight. At the center of the garden, a lighted swimming pool glows seductively in the darkness. Silhouetted beneath the water is a tiled mosaic of Gaia, the ancient goddess of fertility, created by Diego Rivera. We drink tamarindo and guanábana (soursop) margaritas, inspired marriages of tart fruit and smoky reposada tequila.
In the morning, we take a taxi out to the last studio of the revolutionary muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. An incongruously industrial space in a suburban neighborhood, Siqueiros's studio has remained untouched since his death in 1974: a scaffold is set up at an unfinished mural project; gallons of paint, his own brand of acrylic, are stacked on the steps. We are the only visitors. At the artist's modest house, a woman shows us the desk where Siqueiros's wife wrote him letters during his imprisonment as a conspirator in a plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky.
Long established as a vibrant market town, Oaxaca has always attracted foreign visitors as well as Mexico's own diverse population. In the marketplaces, Mixtec and Zapotec are heard along with Spanish. We stay at Casa Oaxaca, a colonial house given a serene and understated makeover. Set back from the street, the hotel's first enclosed courtyard is a splendid restaurant overseen by executive chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo. Working within the traditions of Oaxacan cuisine—using local ingredients and complex yet carefully calibrated sauces—Ruiz Olmedo creates intense yet fantastically refined dishes: sheer slices of jicama rolled around a subtly flavored eggplant purée, ice cream deliciously infused with almonds and roses.
Oaxaca's covered markets—Benito Juárez, 20th of November, and Abastos—sell everything from tube socks to Day of the Dead dioramas. On Saturdays, the Abastos market is a souk of endless lanes and stalls. On its fringes, tables are set up with pirated DVD's and silk-screened T-shirts; deeper into the tented interior, women glide by carrying flat baskets of flowers on their heads, limes are stacked high into perilous pyramids, braces of live turkeys with their feet tied together writhe about on the ground. Rugs and bags are strung overhead. A young weaver—Gaspar Chavez, who works with his father, Raul—is reading a book about traditional dyes. As he talks about the subject, we notice that his hands are raw and stained from grinding cochineal, a red pigment produced from pulverized indigenous insects that was one of colonial Mexico's most profitable exports.
In the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, a former monastery, the city's extensive history is presented in a grand space: a 16th-century colonial building with vaulted corridors, arched windows, and magnificent staircases. In one of the museum's galleries, there are treasures excavated from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán—the enigmatic ancient city southwest of Oaxaca that was inhabited for 14 centuries. In spotlit vitrines, exquisitely carved objects—made from jaguar and eagle bones, gemstones, and gold—are jewel-like and ominous, hinting at blood-curdling rituals.
Back at Casa Oaxaca is a second, more sheltered courtyard, with an azure-tiled swimming pool and a small clay structure called a temazcal, a wood-fired sweat lodge. The day before our return to Los Angeles, Tom and I make an appointment for a traditional treatment. Don Ignacio, a silver-haired shaman, arrives with gourd rattles and herbs and gets to work preparing the heated stove. In very simple Spanish, he leads us in a round of belly-echoing chants. We step inside the oven-like temazcal, stomp the ground, and emit sounds we don't recognize. Outside, the shaman chants and rattles; occasionally, he opens a slatted window—like a priest's in a confessional—and looks in on us. He calls us out to jump into the cold swimming pool, then sends us back into the heat again. Then he dips a bunch of flowers and herbs into some water and shakes it over our heads. Flooded with cooling fragrance, we leap in and out of the pool once again. The shaman speaks to us slowly and calmly as we stretch out on lawn chairs, swaddled in towels. We must let go of the past and live in the present, we understand. Don Ignacio leaves and we lie spellbound, lost in time, staring up into the azure sky.
Weather The temperate climate of the central highlands—at an altitude of 7,000 feet—is at its best from December through April: sunny and dry, with an average temperature of 70 degrees. getting there American, Aeromexico, United, and Alaska Airlines all offer direct flights from Los Angeles to Mexico City's Benito Juárez airport. All of the towns discussed, with the exception of Oaxaca, are fewer than 250 miles from Mexico City. Oaxaca can also be reached by regular flights to Oaxaca Xoxocotlán Airport, 15 miles from the town's historic center. Tours Driving on your own in Mexico should be approached with caution. Latin Excursions (866/626-3750; www.latinexcursions.com) works with a local company to plan tailor-made trips (car and driver included).
WHERE TO STAY
Mesón SacristÍa de la Compañía
Doubles from $140
6 Sur 304 Callejón de los Sapos, Puebla; 877/278-8018
La Casa de la Marquesa
Doubles from $125
41 Madero, QuerÉtaro; 52-442/212-0092
Doubles from $146
39 Morelos Sur, Col. Centro, Morelia; 52-443/312-0036
Hotel Virrey de Mendoza
Doubles from $155
310 Avda. Madero, Pte. Centro histórico, Morelia; 52-443/ 312-0633
Quinta Las Acacias
Doubles from $185
168 Paseo de la Presa, Guanajuato; 888/497-4129 OR 52-473/731-1517
Doubles from $140
37 Netzahualcoyotl, Col. Centro, Cuernavaca; 52-777/312-7033
A classic hotel with lush gardens and peacocks.
Doubles from $238
107 Ricardo Linares, Col. Centro, Cuernavaca; 888/413-9199 OR 52-777/362-0000
Doubles from $100
407 García Vigil, Oaxaca; 52-951/514-4173
WHERE TO EAT
La Casa del Portal
Traditional Michoacán cuisine—including a fortifying sopa tarasca.
Dinner for two $40
30 Guillermo Prieto, Morelia; 52-443/313-4899
Dinner for two $54
3102 Blvd. Benito Juárez, Col. Centro, Cuernavaca; 52-777/312-3656
Terrace dining in the heart of the city, with international fare.
Dinner for two $50
6 Jardín de Los Niños HÉroes, Col. centro, Cuernavaca 52-777/312-2749
Celebrity chef and owner Iliana de la Vega makes a different mole for each day of the week.
Lunch for Two $45
203 Trujano, Oaxaca; 52-951/514-1878
WHAT TO DO
Museo del Dulce
440 Avda. Madero, pte.
Centro Histórico, Morelia; 52-443/312-8157
Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera
47 Pocitos, Guanajuato; 52-473/732-1197
Alhóndiga de Granaditas
6 Mendizabal, Guanajuato
La Tallera Museo Casa Estudio de David Alfaro Siqueiros
52 venus, Col. Jardines de Cuernavaca; 52-777/315-1115
Museo Regional Cuauhnáhuac
100 Leyba, Cuernavaca; 52-777/312-8171
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
Macedonio Alcala, Oaxaca; 52-951/516-9741