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Five day trips from Mexico City

Five places to visit near Mexico City

With a larger population and more traffic than New York, Mexico City can be an assault on the senses. Fortunately, there is peace as well as colour nearby, as Adam Barnes discovers

With a larger population and more traffic than New York, Mexico City can be an assault on the senses. Fortunately, there is peace as well as colour nearby, as Adam Barnes discovers

Adam Barnes | December/January 2019

1 TEOTIHUACÁN
50 MINUTES  
BY CAR OR BUS

This ruined Mesoamerican city is deeply mysterious: we don’t know who built it, why it was abandoned some time around 600AD, or even its original name –Teotihuacán, meaning “birthplace of the gods”, is a later, Aztec designation.

At its peak it was home to around 100,000 people, which may have made it the most populous city in the Americas. The highlight of the site is the 66-metre-high Pyramid of the Sun, a structure whose purpose is still not clear. It is climbable, but the steps are steep, so be prepared to puff. The smaller Pyramid of the Moon has better views, looking over the Avenue of the Dead, which is flanked by smaller pyramids. You will surely have a better experience than the earliest visitors: this was once the site of human sacrifice.

To avoid the crowds, get there early or stay late. Whenever you go, expect to be assailed by hawkers; they’re a nuisance or part of the experience, depending on your frame of mind.

On your way back, stop at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Built on the spot where the Virgin appeared to a local man in the 16th century, it is a popular Catholic shrine. But, as its buildings are spread out, you will still find space for contemplation.

2 TEPOZTLÁN
1.5 HOURS  
BY CAR

The mythical birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec serpent god, the town of Tepoztlán has long had a reputation for spirituality. Surrounded by mountains, it’s a place to sit back, pay too much for a tarot reading and drink a glass of pulque, a local speciality made from fermented agave sap. You can channel your inner shaman on a visit to a temazcal (a sweat lodge) – a kind of stone igloo in which you can spend up to two hours in darkness, cleansing body and mind, listening to shamanic chanting and inhaling vapours. It’s not one for claustrophobes.

If you prefer to work up a sweat in a more-active fashion, the hour-long hike up to the ruins of the Tepozteco temple is well worth the exertion. It’s named after one of the principal Aztec gods of pulque – excuse enough to have another glass at the bottom. Find it at the market opposite the Church of the Nativity – a good source of local handicrafts, drinks and tacos topped with cheese and grasshoppers. If you want to avoid the chilangos (residents of Mexico City), come during the week.

A half-hour drive from Tepoztlán takes you to the city of Cuernavaca, capital of the state of Morelos and beloved of language students. Its mild climate and plentiful vegetation has earned it the moniker “City of Eternal Spring”. Book dinner at Las Mañanitas, where peacocks and flamingos wander past the table as you eat.

3 VALLE DE BRAVO
2 HOURS  
BY CAR

Surrounded by pine forests and filled with white stucco houses, this colonial town on the eastern edge of Lake Avándaro draws in wealthy Mexican weekenders, who come to stay in their holiday homes or on their luxury yachts. Those operating on a smaller budget will still find plenty to amuse themselves – kayaking and windsurfing on the lake, or fossicking in the town’s markets. Keep yourself fuelled with street snacks: esquite (corn served in a cup with lemon, chilli, cheese and mayonnaise) is a regional speciality. You’ll find them on the Callejón del Hambre (“hunger alley”).

One of the joys of Valle de Bravo lies outside town. Swarms of monarch butterflies fly south from Canada each year to spend the winter in their tropical breeding grounds. On a sunny February day at the Piedra Herrada sanctuary, 30km from Valle, you can see them in their millions, flitting round the trees and, if you’re lucky, in your hair. For a bird’s eye view of the spectacular surrounding landscape, hire a guide and horse to take you up into the reserve; at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres you might want something else to do your walking for you.

On your return journey, explore the beautiful Nevado de Toluca National Park. Take the road towards the extinct volcano at the middle of the reserve; you can reach the crater’s summit by taking an hour’s hike from the car park.

4 GRUTAS DE CACAHUAMILPA NATIONAL PARK
2 HOURS  
BY CAR

One of the world’s largest cave systems, the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa comprises 90 connected salones (rooms), the tallest of them around 70 metres high. The caves were “discovered” in the early 19th century, though excavations revealed the presence of earlier pottery, suggesting that they were used in pre-Hispanic ceremonies.

To visit the 20 accessible salons, you need to join a guided group. If you’re tempted to strike out into the dark, the graves of an Englishman and his dog, who died down here, may persuade you against it. With the full tour consisting of a 2km walk into the caves on stones that can get slippery and the same back out – and all in high humidity – this is not a journey for the frail. It is fun, though: you can ride, raft and mess about on a zipline – but it is the rock formations themselves that inspire the most awe.

For something different, try to go to one of the concerts that are held inside the complex as part of the festivals held in nearby Taxco in May and November. Taxco itself, about 40 minutes away, makes an ideal base. The silver on which it built its fortune has now gone, but the town that was left behind remains beguiling. For a room with a wonderful view of the church, try the Hotel Mi Casita, just off the Zócalo.

5 SANTIAGO DE QUERÉTARO
2.5 HOURS  
BY CAR

Many tourists will ignore the city of Santiago de Querétaro, and head an hour farther north to the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. But Querétaro (as the city is often called by the name of the state in which it is situated) is worth exploring. One of the wealthiest cities in the country, it feels like a much smaller, much less chaotic version of Mexico City. It has a colonial-era aqueduct and a good collection of museums, churches and Baroque buildings. Among the best are the elaborate 18th-century Santa Rosa de Viterbo, with its five golden altars, and the tiny Santa Cruz de los Milagros. After a stroll round the centre, grab a lemon-and-red-wine sorbet from Nevería Galy, or while away the hours at the Jardín Zenea, where you might find locals dancing near the bandstand.

There’s a buzz here for history buffs, too: it was just off the leafy Plaza de Armas that Mexico’s independence movement was plotted. Twenty-seven years after the war’s end, the treaty that gave so much of northern Mexico to the United States was also signed in the town.

Then head east to Tequisquiapan, famed for its arts and handicrafts. Keep an eye out for opal, which is mined nearby.