Just for a moment, put aside your preconceived notion of Mexico. You know the one…beaches, beaches and more beaches, complete with heaping doses of sun, sand and surf. Well, it might be time to expand your cultural horizons and discover the true character of a country steeped in a vast and colorful history.After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Mexico was the richest and most prized possession for the Spanish Empire. For 300 years Spain not only ruled Mexico, but also worked diligently to model it after the mother country. The result: a Latin country dominated by European ideas, architecture, monuments and art. The modern day Mexico has more standing legacies to this Spanish colonial era than any other country in the world. (In fact, Spanish Catholics built 12,000 churches in Mexico during that time!) This incredible heritage can be experienced in literally hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country, and Oaxaca City, Guadalajara, Merida, and Morelia are certainly at the top of the list
Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) City has always been known as one of Mexico’s premier colonial gems. Framed by the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains 5,000 feet above sea level and 340 miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca City is the perfect combination of modern day comforts and a 3,000-year old past. Though it is a city with more than a half million residents, it still has the cozy feel of a traditional village. The immaculate streets of downtown reflect the exquisite, baroque colonial architecture of the 16th century. An astonishing cathedral, perfectly preserved religious and municipal buildings, fine museums, and unique art galleries round out the city’s magic. The archeological ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban are not to be missed. Reflecting the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, these ruins are an interesting change from the Maya remains of the Yucatan.
Guadalajara is another of Mexico’s overlooked treasures. It’s the country’s second largest city and is known as the “city of roses.” Extremely sophisticated and well preserved, Guadalajara is a wonderful mixture of parks, fountains, plazas, rustic churches and tree-lined boulevards. In addition to the museums, galleries and other cultural offerings, the shopping here is unsurpassed. The suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonala are world famous for native crafts, folk art and traditional fine arts of all kinds.
Rolling green hills, mountain lakes, pine trees and wildflowers hardly fit a description of Mexico. But that is exactly how to describe the immense natural beauty of the city of Morelia. Lush and gorgeous, this city defines 17th and 18th century Spanish architecture. The downtown area is home to masterfully restored buildings, most with soft pink-colored stone and delicate facades. The central square is graceful, refined and surrounded by museums and shopping. Morelia feels something like a storybook and the towns and villages on its outskirts are equally impressive.
Mérida is the capital of the state of Yucatan. European in design, yet undeniably Maya, you’ll find horse drawn carriages to carry visitors down tree-lined boulevards past an enchanting mixture of Spanish and French colonial architecture. Elaborate turn-of-the-century mansions still stand as a reminder of the wealth that began here in the 16th century. The main plaza is framed by huge laurel trees, fantastic colorful shops, and lies adjacent to a towering cathedral. Museums and markets bring the captivating Mayan culture to life and some of the world’s most important archeological sites are within a one hundred-mile radius of the city. This is the perfect gateway to delve into the mystery of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and several other famous ruins.
Exploring the this magnificent heritage that lies within Mexico’s interior will forever change your perception of the beauty, grandeur and splendor that is at the colonial heart of Latin America. It will be well worth it to experience the real soul of Mexico through these remarkable cities and many others like them.