Mexico Profile, published in Money Market
Published in Money Market
Swept along by a fierce, noisy, jostling crowd of more than a hundred thousand people, you really have no choice of where you are going. It's like being in a torrential river of people, pouring along the street and into the central square - the Zocalo - as Mexico's capital celebrates independence day on 15 September with an intensity and passion that you have to witness to understand.
This is just one dramatic moment among many that visitors to Mexico are liable to experience. From the high mountain plains in the centre of the country, to the luscious beach resorts on both coasts, this is a land of vivid colours, tastes, smells and views, challenging visitors to remain unmoved.
This vast megatropolis of more than 16 million people is a phenomenon all by itself. Built close to one of Mexico's most ancient sites, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, dating from around 1,500 BC, modern Mexico City is a riot of noise and colour. As soon as you get into a taxi, you realise that normal rules do not apply here. There appear to be no traffic regulations whatsoever - cars simply rush around the city in a constant game of bluff, cutting in front of one another whenever they chose.
Downtown Mexico City is grouped into four districts, San Sebastian, Santa Maria, San Juan and San Pablo, with the Zocalo at their centre. Here too is the main cathedral, which is worth a visit. For a gentler stroll, try the Alameda park, home to the Palace of Fine Arts, the Santa Veracruz plaza and the Gallery of the Viceroyalty. Look out for the mural painted by Mexico's most noted artist, Diego Rivera, on Dr Mora and Juarez Avenue, showing the struggles of working Mexicans as they fought for independence.
Together with his wife Frida Kahlo, Rivera captured the spirit of Mexicans: proud, strong and fiercely patriotic. Their works can be seen in various galleries in the city, besides the public murals for which Rivera was most famous.
Despite its massive size, walking around Mexico City feels a comfortable and natural thing to do. The Paseo de la Reforma, for example, is a very wide, impressive street fringed by grand old buildings, alongside luxury hotels, art galleries and monuments. As long as you avoid the chaotic traffic, walking along here is a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours.
At the southern end of the Paseo is the Juarez Colonia, including an area known as the Zona Rosa (Pink Zone). Contrary to expectations, this is not the gay district of the city, but has a lively mix of restaurants, clubs, hotels and bars.
A little further out of town is Chapultepec Park, a hilly, forested space with a castle at the top of the hill, along with amusement parks, a zoo and lakes. The city's Museum of Anthropology is here, besides some upmarket hotels and restaurants.
The major day trip for anyone in Mexico City to take is the 30-mile journey to the Teotihuacan pyramids. These are far smaller than the biggest Egyptian pyramids, but there are a great many of them, laid out on both sides of a central avenue, so you get the feeling of being in a deserted ancient city, similar to the atmosphere of Pompeii. Visitors are allowed to clamber onto the structures, so you can get up close to these fragments of a long disappeared civilisation.
Quite a lot of Mexico City disappeared on the 19th September 1985, when it suffered one of the worst earthquakes in history, leaving around 10,000 people dead, 100,000 homeless and destroying 25 square kilometres of the city. In the 22 years since then, the city has rebuilt and revived, though memories of that day are still acutely felt, with memorials standing in public parks.
Ever since the 1960s, Mexico's west coast has attracted the attention of the smart set. Hollywood stars began flocking to the resorts, particularly after John and Jacqueline Kennedy took their honeymoon in Acapulco, giving it the US version of a royal seal of approval.
Today, Acapulco is as glitzy as ever, with a great array of five star palaces spread along its gorgeous sandy beach and on to the headland to the south. Here, the Pacific waves roll up to the shore in a long tumbling surf (rather than one short crash), meaning that you can wallow in the natural jacuzzi of the frothing water as the sun sets over the horizon and the gypsy band music wafts over from the restaurant.
There are plenty of budget hotels to choose from - Acapulco caters for all kinds of visitors - and a range of fun activities. Try parascending for example, where you are attached to a parachute and towed along by a speedboat which lifts you into the air. The arc of Acapulco's bay looks even more magnificent from the air.
Hollywood also had a role in the popularisation of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco. Richard Burton and his on-off wife Elizabeth Taylor filmed The Night of the Iguana here, helping to turn this former sleepy fishing village into a dazzling resort, where loving couples come to eat in the Zona Romantica, or take boats out to see the whales and dolphins that frequent the Bay of Banderas.
This 30-mile bay sits at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range, providing some cliffs at one end of the bay, along with some isolated coves that can only be reach by foot, or by boat. The most popular beach, Los Muertos, is close to the cliffs, while the old town, with its cobbled streets and open-air theatre (called Los Arcos) is close to the beach. A maze of streets lead to the main plaza, or to two small bridges which cross to the small island of Rio Cuale, with its own restaurants and a flea market during the day.
For those with cash, Puerto Vallarta has a wide selection of upmarket spa resorts, including El Tamarindo, with its own 10-mile stretch of private coast. The hotel staff light 1,500 candles each evening to cheer the guests in their private villas.
Elsewhere, Mazatlan enjoys the reputation of being 'the pearl of the Pacific', with its party atmosphere, gourmet dining on fresh seafood and fashionable shops. Most nights there are dance performances on the main beach, with stalls selling Mexican food and margaritas. During the day, look out for the cliff divers swooping from seemingly impossible heights into the sea.
Further south, in the state of Oaxaca, there are two small towns which are well worth exploring - Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. You can fly here from Mexico City or from the state capital, Oaxaca City, on small local planes where you may be sharing cabin space with some chickens.
Escondido (meaning 'hidden') was discovered by Californian surfers in the 1970s and its main beach - Zicatela - has since become famous as one of the best surfing locations in the world. Yet even if you haven't mastered this art, the town is a real delight. Besides the magnificent beaches, there are tropical lagoons and coves all along the coast, with guides taking visitors to spot the crocodiles, turtles and various exotic birds, before feasting on lobster or fish caught just minutes earlier. Then you sink into a hammock strung between two palm trees for a siesta.
There's also plenty of nightlife, as the surfer dudes congregate in the many beachfront bars and tell their tales of heroism and disaster among the huge waves. A chorus of a thousand frogs echoes through the warm night air and the tequila tastes even better than usual.
Puerto Angel has a similar feel, though it's a bit smaller and, being on a sheltered bay, has no surf. But it has a fabulous beach just a few minutes walk through the palm groves, called Zipolite, which has a pleasantly bohemian, even hippy feel to it, with dozens of small thatched houses for rent at low prices. When I visited there were rumours going around that the Beatles had been here in the 1960s, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of this. It was maybe more of a spiritual visit than a real one.
In any case, Puertos Escondido and Angel certainly have the Mexican magic.
Trees were uprooted, boats smashed on the shore, streets were flooded and roofs flew into the air as 215 kmh winds battered the Yucatan peninsula a couple of years ago during a particularly destructive hurricane. Two helicopter pilots died attempting to rescue oil workers from offshore rigs, while thousands of tourists were evacuated from resorts along the coast.
It was all very different to the way things normally are. Old and new, ruined and ravishing, serene and psychedelic: this is the normal promise of a trip to Mexico's Mayan Riviera, a short hop south of Cancun and a magnet for visitors looking for natural beauty with all the facilities of a 21st century luxury destination
The Riviera is home to dozens of ancient Mayan ruins - whole cities indeed - including pyramids and temples, some in amazingly good condition despite these occasional lashings from the elements.
Offshore, the Riviera boasts the second largest coral reef in the world, after Australia's great barrier reef, along with teeming wildlife and the silent wrecks of ships and planes, slowly being populated by coral. This makes for a handy division of entertainment. While he spends an afternoon diving, she explores the ruins. Or vice versa.
Weather permitting, fly in to Cancun International Airport and take highway 307 southwards, driving past Mexican craft stalls and the many resorts. Once at the shoreline, there are cabanas for rent, fishing and diving trip and restaurants with that laid-back ambience, as found elsewhere in the Caribbean, but with a particular Mexican twist. Hammocks are the seating of choice, once the floodwaters have receded.
The main town along the coast is Playa del Carmen, transformed in recent years from a sleepy backwater to a hub of tourist activity, with Italian delicatessens and German guesthouses adding to the cosmopolitan flavour. A sprinkling of archaeological researchers, here for the ruins, provides a touch of academic seriousness, while the watersports fanatics make most of the social running, crowding into the clubs and bars in the centre of town. The centre of the most recent big hurricane passed right over Playa del Carmen, taking out power lines and smashing up properties, so it will have looked like a bigger party than usual had been going on!
A taxi ride from Cancun costs no more than around $40-$50 for the forty-five minute trip. Once there, well-heeled visitors will make for the Royal Hideaway Spa and Resort Playacar, with its two and three-storey villas, pools, rivers and waterfalls tinkling throughout the grounds. From here it is just a five-minute trip into Playa del Carmen, but the beach is magnificent and the hotel is packed with activity.
Taking the water taxi over to Cozumel is one of the best reasons to be in Playa del Carmen, over to the spot identified by Jacques Cousteau in 1961 as one of the world's finest scuba diving locations. Cousteau was especially impressed by the fantastic water clarity - divers can commonly see more than 100 meters - and the abundant marine life, which includes turtles, black groupers, green moray eels and the toadfish, found nowhere else in the world. Of course, when a hurricane strikes, water clarity disappears, but as long as there's not been a storm for a couple of weeks, it should have returned.
There are 20 miles of reef here, with more than 200 species of tropical fish, undersea limestone caves and tunnels and even an aircraft wreck. Rare black coral can also be found. "What divers really go for is the long drift dives you can do along the coast," says Amanda Wayness, dive instructor on Cozumel. "The current carries you along, past these amazing coral formations. It's incredibly relaxing and beautiful."
Most diving happens on the west side of the island, sheltered from the harsher extremes of the Caribbean Sea. To the north, Cozumel is largely uninhabited, while the southern part of the island has the Chankanaab National Park, with some very chic hotels and private houses, together with great beaches. If you're in the mood for adventure, hire a jeep and drive right to the northeast tip of the island to discover the El Real Mayan ruin, overlooking a secluded beach and snorkelling spot.
Discerning visitors head for the Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa, the only five star AAA Four-Diamond award-winner on the Island. It features a long stretch of private sandy beach and overlooks the channel between the island and the mainland, treating guests to beachfront views from their oversized jacuzzis, 'serenity' spa massages and floodlit tennis court.
The Mayan Riviera has a second type of dive experience seldom found anywhere else: the many natural deep pools in the countryside known as 'cenotes' have exquisitely patterned walls, carved by the natural action of underground rivers. Cenote Dos Ojos and the Bat Cave are two of the best known.
Going further south on the mainland are the sprawling ruins of the city of Tulum. It was founded some time around 500 AD but really began to thrive after 1200. Artefacts unearthed in Tulum have included copper jewellery from the Mexican highlands and jade and obsidian from Guatemala, clearly imported to the town at a time when it was a trading centre.
It was only with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors that Tulum collapsed, as the microbiological hurricane of diseases brought by the Europeans wiped out thousands of people. Between the early 16th century and the early 20th century the city was left to crumble, but much of it can still be seen, including the Temple of the Descending God, with the sculpture of a man diving headfirst towards the ground. Nearby is the Temple of the Frescos, where some original mural work can still be seen, while the House of the Columns is a palatial building, with six giant columns supporting the roof.
The hotel Allure Mayan Riviera is nestled in one of the best beaches of the region. Five minutes north of Tulum and thirty minutes south of Playa Del Carmen, it has magnificent colonial architecture, hardwood floors, ancient Mexican art, original paintings and furniture and the nearby ancient ruins can be seen from the hotel beach. Restaurants feature Italian, Mexican and Asian cuisine, including a Sushi Bar.
Nothing better, after a long day under water observing thousands of brightly coloured fish, than returning to the hotel for a big plate of sushi...
Flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to Mexico City can be as low as #350, with British Airways, Northwest Airlines, KLM and Air France all flying there. Internal flights from the capital to Acapulco, Cancun, Oaxaca or Puerto Escondido are relatively cheap.
Accommodation, Mexico City
Four Seasons, Paseo de la Reforma 500, Colonia Juarez, Mexico City 06600
Marco Polo Hotel, Amberes 27, Colonia Juarez, Mexico City 06600
Hotel Catedral, Donceles 95, Mexico City 06600