Visiting the Spanish Colonial cities of Mexico is almost like traveling back in time. Narrow cobblestone streets wind between buildings, facades, and stately old mansions that date back three hundred years or more. There are beautiful plazas, parks, and soaring cathedrals, all of similar vintage, and most of it is wonderfully well preserved and maintained, a source of considerable pride for the residents of these historic towns, and, truly, for all of Mexico. The modern infrastructure, and most of the 21st century conveniences that might otherwise spoil the ambiance, all that is tucked into existing spaces, and kept low-key, a discrete form of almost-camouflage:
It would be easy to imagine yourself walking those same streets in the Mexico of the 17th or 18th century, especially through the historic central neighborhoods of these older cities, places that were already well-established and thriving before the Pilgrims so much as set sail on the Mayflower. Easy to imagine that earlier time, I should say, if it wasn’t for the constant stream of cars, trucks, and lumbering buses clogging the mostly one-way streets (streets that were designed for horses and carriages) and tangling the intersections into impassable knots of horn-bleating traffic:
You can’t get away from the modern world simply by walking among old buildings, but these colonial gems have a character and a vitality that most definitely dates to a bygone era. The hard core colonials are the cities whose classic architecture is their predominant feature, and a big part of their civic identity. Several of them, such as San Miguel de Allende and Campeche, are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are literally protected by international treaty. There’s a strong incentive to keep all that going, at least to outward appearances, so from a visual perspective, those places have scarcely changed at all in all the centuries that have passed since their founding. The rest of modern Mexico is just like modern anywhere else: steel and glass, freeways and sprawl, McDonald’s and Subway, Walmart and Home Depot, but of course it’s still very much the third world, so the shiny, new, fancy stuff is generally surrounded by–um–not so fancy stuff.
It helps when they block vehicles from entering the heart of the city center, as they’ve done in this scene from San Miguel de Allende. (Click for an expanded view).
You’ll find examples of the old Mexico in every part of the country–even the most modern, upscale Mexican cities tend to have a historic center, an “old town”–but this article will focus on three in particular, places that I passed through on my recent tour of the Yucatan and southern Mexico. Mérida and Campeche, both on the Yucatan Peninsula, and San Cristobal de Las Casas, high in the mountains of the state of Chiapas. All three of these locations proved to be such an unexpected pleasure, and the photographic opportunities were superb! I mentioned that visiting Mexico’s Colonial cities is like traveling back in time? That went double for me personally. It had been more than forty years since I’d traveled in that very different world lying south of the U.S. border, and I had no idea what to expect. I was afraid that all the charm would be gone–modernized, homogenized, bearing little resemblance to my youthful memories. But I needn’t have worried. Aside from the traffic, which is much worse than it used to be, plus the damned cell phones that virtually every person you see is carrying around, I really could have been back in the Mexico of the 1970’s, rather than today’s Mexico of the ought-teens. In those old colonial cities, pretty much everything else is exactly the same as I remembered it, and they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to keep it that way. I felt instantly reconnected to a whole world that I’d all but forgotten–a world not just of old buildings, but a world that’s filled with music and laughter and bright colors, a world where families stroll, children smile, old men still sing for no reason, and lovers still dance in the streets by the sultry light of the tropical moon. I’m talking Festivals, Fiestas, National Holidays, Local Holidays, Saints Days, along with pretty much any day that ends in the letter Y. Sundown is all the reason anyone seems to need for a celebration, and everywhere we went, there was something going on, pretty much every night of the week, starting in:
Mérida is the largest city in the south of Mexico, and the twelfth largest in the entire country. It’s the capital of the Estado (state) of Yucatan, with a modern day population of close to a million people. The historic center of the city radiates from the Grand Plaza, fronted by the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, built in the 16th century, and still in daily use:
The Catedral de San Ildefonso, oldest in the Americas, completed in 1598
Mérida is not ALL a Spanish Colonial Disneyland. Not the whole place, but it doesn’t miss that mark by much. Known as the White City, Mérida has the third largest historic center in all of the Americas, right behind Havana de Cuba, and Mexico City itself. This is a city of grand old houses, particularly along the broad boulevard known as the Paseo de Montejo:
Traffic circle on the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, the boulevard of the henequen millionaires
In the late 19th century, there were more millionaires in Mérida than any other city in the world, thanks to a boom in “green gold”, which is what they used to call henequen, an extra large variety of the agave plant that grows in abundance in the Yucatan. Before they invented nylon, there was henequen, and the tough fiber produced from those spiny leaves was used for everything from wrapping paper to rope–especially rope. (Prior to the age of the automobile, people apparently went through one whole heck of a lot of rope).
Mérida was founded in 1542, built on the site of an existing Maya settlement known as T’hó. The ceremonial center, with five pyramids and a number of temples, had been abandoned, like all the other Maya temple complexes, long before the Spaniards arrived, but native Mayans were still living among the ruins, leading some to contend that Mérida is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the Americas. In any case, the original Mayan structures were dismantled, and the stones recycled in early construction of the new Spanish town. Some of them can still be seen, most notably in the walls of the main cathedral:
Catredal de San Ildefonso, in Mérida. Click to expand the photo, and note the stones at the corners of the tower, recycled from the Mayan temple that stood here before the church was built.
All of Mérida was a walled city at one point in its history. The Maya in the area weren’t always peaceful, and there were times when the white and creole settlers had to circle the wagons inside the city gates. Most notably, Merida was besieged at various times during the Caste War of the Yucatan, a bloody conflict that pitted native Mayans against non-native settlers and land owners. The fighting lasted, sporadically, for more than 50 years, from 1847 until a truce was finally called in 1901, and at one point, the portion of the Yucatan controlled by the Mayans actually split from the the rest of Mexico and formed their own Republic, just as the Texans had done, and at around the same time. (In fact, the same Mexican General, Antonio López de Santa Anna, led Mexican troops into battle against both of these rebellions) .
One of the old city gates, one of the last vestiges of the defensive wall that once surrounded the city of Mérida
In the Mérida of today, fully 60% of the population is of Mayan descent, making it the logical place to host the “International Festival of Mayan Culture”, a ten day celebration of all things Mayan, featuring everything from scholarly Mayan language seminars to costumed dance routines splashy enough to rival the stage shows in Las Vegas. The festival took place in October, which, by pure coincidence, is when we were visiting. My friend and I had just finished dinner, and we walked right into the middle of the grand finale, with no clue about what was going on. I was suddenly surrounded by beautiful girls in beautiful costumes, dancing their hearts out! And me, with no camera aside from my phone? Ah, well, the experience was something I won’t soon forget, and, truthfully? It was nice to just enjoy the spectacle for a change, without worrying about camera settings and lenses and lighting and all the rest. There was a stage on the Grand Plaza with a variety of performing artists, but the real action was in the streets. It was primal, pounding drums, conga lines of costumed dancers swirling beneath theatrical spotlights set up for the occasion, while onlookers lining both sides of the street joined in, swaying and singing and clapping hands to the beat. There were no strangers in that crowd, no locals, no tourists, everyone was as much a part of the action as everyone else. Mérida doesn’t have a monopoly on that brand of joyous contagion–but you can tell: they’ve had plenty of practice!
The ‘White City’ is a place that’s well worth a visit. There are amazing Mayan ruins nearby–that was the main attraction for me personally–but Mérida itself is a wonderful colonial city to explore, and there are goings on in the plaza almost every night of the year. (Especially on weekends).
If you’re planning to go, and you need recommendations on hotels and restaurants and the like, there’s a brief section at the bottom of this post with some links.
I should also give you some practical advice: When you’re walking around the Grand Plaza, watch out for the hucksters trying to sell you Panama hats and Guayabera shirts, because the big store on the next block that they’re all trying to steer you to overcharges like crazy!
Come to my uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s store! He’s got the best prices on hats/hammocks/hand-rolled cigars!
Campeche was another unexpected pleasure. We passed through it on our way to Mérida, stopping just long enough for lunch, but we made a spur of the moment decision to go back again a week or so later, and we used it as a base to explore some of the ruins that we’d missed on our first pass through the area. That turned out to be one of our better decisions. Like Mérida, Campeche is a colonial charmer. The city was founded in 1540 by Francisco de Montejo, the same busy conquistador who founded Mérida just two years later. Campeche was by far the more important of the two, particularly at first, as it has the distinction of being a port on the Gulf of Mexico. Being a port, this was one of the spots where the Spanish galleons took on cargo, most notably silver from the mines in the interior, and valuable tropical hardwoods. All that made Campeche a prime target for pirate attacks, which occurred with fearsome regularity. Constant threat of piracy prompted the construction of fortifications, in the form of a roughly hexagonal wall surrounding the old city center, more than 2500 meters in length, with eight defensive bastions–stone forts–at the corners, and astride the gates. Most of the wall and all but one of the bastions is still standing, and it’s the historic core of the city within those walls that’s of greatest interest to visitors. That’s the colonial heart of Campeche, officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than a thousand of the original buildings are still standing in Colonial Campeche–well preserved, immaculately maintained, and painted in bright pastels. Charming? Oh, yeah.
This street in the central part of Campeche is closed to automobiles, and the restaurants on either side of the road use the space for open air dining.
Just like in Mérida, they don’t seem to require a lot of provocation for holding a celebration. Our first night in the city, we heard music in the plaza, so we walked down that way, and ran smack into a folk dancing festival. Young people in traditional costume were performing a dance called the Guaranducha, in which beautiful young girls entrance young men with swirling scarves:
Folk dancing in the plaza in Colonial Campeche: La Guaranducha
Followed by a beautiful sunset over the Bay of Campeche
Followed by a light show in the plaza (the faces on the wall are projected portraits of people from the town)
And colored floodlights set the Cathedral of Campeche aglow, every night of the year.
Campeche is greatly underrated as a tourist destination, and receives but a small fraction of the visitors who descend on Cancun each year. There are marvelous old hotels in the area near the old city center. The old fortifications are fascinating, reminiscent of San Juan Puerto Rico, Havana, or Cartagena, one of my favorite cities in the world, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. And the seafood? You’ve never eaten fresh shrimp until you’ve had it in Campeche.
There are some links at the bottom of this post that will steer you to more specific information on what there is to see in Campeche, as well as information on hotels and restaurants.
San Cristobal de Las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas, which was, at one time, the capitol of the state of Chiapas, is widely considered the prettiest of all the Colonial cities in Mexico. In 2010, then Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared it to be “the most magical of Mexico’s magical villages”. The old colonial buildings with their red tile roofs and wrought iron balconies fill the shallow bowl of a high mountain valley, covering low hills like a carpet and spreading up surrounding mountainsides that are cloaked in pine forest at the higher elevations. Narrow, cobblestone streets follow the contours of the land, twisting and turning among centuries old buildings with walls painted pale pink and yellow, burnt orange and pastel blue.
For me, just getting to the town was an adventure, a serious, honest to god adventure. My first destination in Mexico, after driving south from the Texas border, was Palenque, a major Mayan ruin in the state of Chiapas. We’d spent three full days driving from Austin, Texas to Villahermosa, which was quite close to Palenque, less than a hundred miles. Unfortunately, on the day we tried to cover that final two-hour stretch, a rebel group known as the ELZN, the Zapatista Liberation Army, elected to stage a massive protest against the social and environmental policies of the Mexican government. The mechanism of this protest was a blockade of all the highways leading into and through the State of Chiapas, which of course included the road we needed to travel, to get where we wanted to go. I recounted the story in some detail in my post titled Mexican Road Trip: 2015, so this will be more of a bare-bones version: we attempted to skirt the roadblock on the main highway by taking an alternate back road through a tiny town called Salto de Agua, (which means waterfall in Spanish). The road was absolutely terrible–we were warned by local police not to even attempt it–but I was determined, and it takes a lot to stop that Jeep of mine. We never did see the waterfall that gave the town its name. What we did see was another roadblock, this one on that primitive back road. Six young men of Mayan descent, all brandishing machetes, had a chain stretched across the way, blocking us from moving forward. After first threatening to confiscate everything I was carrying in my vehicle, the rebel leader ultimately accepted a bribe of ten Pesos (about sixty cents), and allowed us to pass. We spent a couple of days at Palenque (see my post: Palenque, for that whole story, and some beautiful pictures), and then we decided to check out San Cristobal de Las Casas before continuing on to the Yucatan.
The road between Palenque and San Cristobal de Las Casas is fairly notorious–but of course I didn’t know anything about that at the time. The distance isn’t all that great–just 130 miles, according to my map, so I figured we’d get there in a couple of hours? Ha! That highway had more curves than a sidewinder on amphetamines, and at least half of the traffic was big, lumbering trucks hauling stone and gravel up and down what had to be 15% grades. They couldn’t go much above 6 miles an hour, and passing on blind curves on a mountain road with no shoulders? That was heart-in-mouth kind of stuff–more adrenaline than I probably needed. I’d been driving as fast as I could manage–too fast, really–and after two hours we weren’t even halfway there. That’s when we ran into another Zapatista road block, this one consisting of logging trucks parked sideways across the road and a big crowd milling around. This time, there was no side road. This time, the guys manning the blockade were way too serious about their business to settle for a 60 cent bribe. While we were sitting there, contemplating what to do next, one of the truck drivers who was stopped in front of us (a local, who was likewise stuck), came over and talked to us about the situation, talked to us for quite some time. The Zapatistas grievances are entirely legitimate. It’s their methods–such as these road blocks–that most of the locals don’t agree with. The politicians who are in a position to effect positive change are not affected by the bloqueos. Local people, like this truck driver, are the only people being hurt by it, along with the occasional tourist, like myself, possibly being inconvenienced. In his view (the truck driver), the Zapatistas were giving the rest of the honest citizens of Chiapas a bad name. I commiserated, diplomatically expressed my support for the trucker’s point of view (without overtly denouncing the Zapatistas, which would not have been prudent). Then I turned my Jeep around and drove the two hours back to Palenque.
Two weeks later, after having finished a complete circuit of the Yucatan, we found ourselves back in Palenque yet again. Not to revisit the Palenque ruins–not this time. We were headed to a different Mayan ruin, a place called Bonampak, on the border with Guatemala, and the only practical way to get there was via Palenque. So we did that–took a day trip to Bonampak and back, and then, after first checking road conditions (weather was cloudy, with only a slight chance of Zapatistas), we took another run at San Cristobal de Las Casas. Even knowing what to expect, that road was something else. Between the slow trucks, the hairpin curves, and the topes (dangerously tall speed bumps, not always marked), it was impossible to make time on that stretch. It took forever just to get to the point where we were turned back the first time. There were no Zapatistas in sight–just an ordinary road junction in the middle of nowhere–so we sailed right through, with never a backward glance. I believe it took us a full five hours to travel that 130 miles, and even at such a slow speed, it was no casual cruise. On American highways, particularly the Interstates, you don’t hardly even drive. You can lock in your cruise control, and just steer–the biggest challenge is staying awake. Even our roads that pass through mountains (with some obvious exceptions) are relatively gentle. That road through the mountainous heart of Chiapas? That road was NOT gentle. After five hours of that kind of driving, I felt like I’d just run a marathon, so when we finally rolled into San Cristobal de Las Casas, it was not only much later than I expected, I was buzzing so hard it was tough to appreciate it.
At this point in the trip, we were using the Mexican version of Expedia for all of our hotel rooms, and I was getting pretty good at interpreting the listings, finding some truly outstanding accommodations at incredibly reasonable prices. Our room in San Cristobal was probably by the best of all of them, and there’s no way in the world that we would have even SEEN that place without the website. Finding it, even though we had the address, was another adventure! This hotel is nowhere near any of the other hotels (and there are a LOT of hotels in San Cristobal, which depends quite heavily on tourism). This place was off on what used to be the far edge of the colonial city. It was the main house and outbuildings of what was once an actual working Hacienda, more than 200 years old, with spacious grounds and ancient trees. The area around it has been built up since those old days, but it’s low end, and already fairly old development, very much a working class neighborhood, and not at all the part of town where you’d expect to find an elegant hotel. My friend used the android version of Google’s talking GPS, and it was all so incredibly unlikely–that thing had us driving down one-way alleys and crossing small bridges that barely had room for a car, then we turned right on to an obscure side street, drove through an arch into a long cobblestone driveway, and there it was–the Hotel Hacienda Don Juan. Just amazing:
There are several more pictures of the hotel in the photo gallery that accompanies this post. Needless to say, I was quite taken with the place! At the time, October of 2015, a double room set us back the princely sum of about $45. This is one point where I break my usual rule: this is a place that I can personally recommend, without question–though if you’re there without a car, you’ll need a taxi to take you to and from most anywhere else–it would be a bit too far to walk. The altitude of the town itself is well above 7,000 feet, so San Cristobal is always cool, and the nights can be downright chilly.
On our one night in SCDLC, there was a music festival on the main plaza:
And there were plenty of people milling about the town center:
There are interesting restaurants, trendy shops, and at least a third of the people in the town are colorfully dressed Tzotzil Indians. It’s a marvelous place to walk around, and my only regret is that we didn’t get more time there. As it was, we left first thing the next morning, so this is yet another place that I’ll just have to come back to.
As I mentioned in a previous post, (Mexican Road Trip: 2015), I had fairly good luck with the Mexican version of Expedia, which seemed to have a broader range of hotel choices in Mexican cities and towns than the U.S. based version of that site.
(Note: all of these logos are links).
Warning: this site is en Español!
Trip Advisor is my personal mainstay for advice on tourist attractions–I like the wide range of opinions:
And for hard copy guide books, you can’t go too far wrong with Lonely Planet:
I’ve seen a few moderately negative things published about NC2 Media, the company that recently purchased Lonely Planet from the BBC–but regardless of who owns it, LP is still the world’s largest publisher of travel guides, and they’re moving aggressively into the up and coming world of up to the minute, personalized information, at your fingertips, on the spot, using your smart phone or tablet? Yup, it’s a brave new world out there. Just keep in mind–everything you read, no matter where or how you read it, is really just somebody’s opinion.
And here (surprise!) is a link to some beautiful photographs:
Click the thumbnail (above) to access a gallery of photos from southern colonial Mexico!