A review by Latitude traveler Susan Newman- Chicago, IL:
I first visited Mexico in 1978 and have returned at least a dozen times but still have not seen all it has to offer. I was initially attracted to this colorful country by its stunning beaches and enjoyed many of them in Acapulco, Huatulco, Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Xcaret, and Puerta Vallarta, as well as the neighboring islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. Later, as my bikini body matured and my curiosity about other facets of this country grew, I started to appreciate the Spanish colonial cities such as Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende because of their fascinating architecture, art and history.
With approximately 110 million people, Mexico is the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country. In Mexico City, an astonishing 20 million people live within an area of 597 square miles. Migration has shaped Mexico’s population patterns. The desire for job opportunities and improved economic conditions drives external migration to other areas of the world. Internal rural-to-urban migration has greatly changed the population distribution, with approximately 77 percent of the people now living in cities. While many migrants move to cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexico City remains the primary destination for most people who move within the country. Linda Shepro of Latitude Expeditions and I decided it was about time we explored this great city instead of just passing through the airport.
A number of years have gone by since I escaped the cold in Chicago to see our southern neighbor, but my niece’s wedding took me back to Isla Mujeres this month, so I extended my stay from six days to 14 with the addition of Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende and a splendid itinerary arranged by Latitude Expeditions. As a result, my interest in Mexico has been reignited and I was so impressed with the progress everywhere I went. Whatever you think Mexico is, well that’s right and it is so much more. It is absolutely full of contrasts. It is ancient and it is modern and this juxtaposition is apparent everywhere you visit. It is 15thcentury structures and gleaming skyscrapers. It is street food and gourmet dining. It is primitive art and contemporary media. It is colorful old-world markets and high-end fashion boutiques. And it is quiet farming villages and adrenaline inducing cities.
Getting from Cancun to Isla Mujeres used to involve standing on the sand waiting to board a small vessel operated by a young local. That’s not a bad way to go, but today a busy and professionally run dock hosts a fleet of large boats that whisk you to the island in 15 minutes. We walked the eight blocks from the island dock to the hotel reminiscing about the casual sandy streets and golf cart traffic. They are still there, but today there are gorgeous hotels, restaurants, and music filled streets where vendors have moved from the beaches. Isla is still a respite from the world with much to do in flip flops. And the wedding on the beach was spectacularly beautiful and the best dance party ever.
When I next arrived in Mexico City and got off the plane to meet Linda, I was greeted by a large new modern airport. What a nice surprise! The airport I remembered was rather pathetically third world with barely working toilets. Heading out into the city, the contrasts kept coming. Mexico City is a very exciting international destination with hotels and restaurants that rival any large metropolitan city in the U.S.
Our focus in Mexico City was architecture and arts. A highlight of our architectural explorations was the Luis Barragan House and Studio, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Barragan was both an architect and engineer whose work influenced contemporary architects visually and conceptually.
Two artists dominated our attention. Diego Rivera is known for his wall paintings and frescoes done on wet plaster. He used his art to illustrate Mexico’s history and culture and his frescoes are painted inside the National Palace. Another noted Mexican artist is Frida Kahlo, a painter known for her portraits and self-portraits, mixing realism with fantasy. Diego and Frida married each other twice and lived a rather eccentric lifestyle, including becoming communists and continually cheating on each other.
Mexico City is a collection of interesting walkable neighborhoods, but we explored one of them by a colorful boat called a trajinera to learn about the Aztec’s ingenious technique for growing food upon the fertile riverbeds of the prehistoric canals; the chinampas are still in used today, but for growing flowers instead of food crops. This is a fun way to spend an afternoon or to enjoy lunch with family and friends.
We deepened our culinary arts skills with an interactive cooking class and market tour in the Colonia Roma neighborhood and enjoyed our meal on a beautifully landscaped rooftop, sipping a crafted Paloma made with blanco tequila and fresh squeezed pink grapefruit juice. What a day!
I love the climate in February in Mexico City. At an elevation of 7300 feet, we enjoyed bright sunshine and 80 degrees during the day, with jacket weather at night. Walking was the best way to see the many restaurants, hotels and shops and we were able to be outdoors all the time.
We moved on to San Miguel via a three-hour drive on an excellent divided highway with three lanes in each direction--another sign of Mexico’s great progress. Fifteen years have passed since we visited this ancient city with its unmistakable pink gothic church (Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel) at the center of the iconic central plaza landscaped with beautiful laurel trees. The economy is good in San Miguel and 20 percent of its population consists of retired Americans who migrated there to enjoy the art scene, fascinating architecture, and cobbled streets. Living in San Miguel is affordable and it is very safe. The town has more steep hills than I remembered and sturdy walking shoes are a must.
We discovered numerous rooftop restaurants and bars, all situated for viewing the center of the city magically lit at night. We visited art galleries and contemporary art studios, and toured the young Dos Buhos (two owls) Winery, a small batch operation currently producing delicious red wines while cultivating its grapes for a variety of white wines which will be available within two years. At Casa Dragones, we learned the art of sipping very fine tequila which I thoroughly enjoyed because yes, it tastes smoothly delicious, but also because it’s definitely beyond my budget so I savored the moment.
My favorite hotel in San Miguel is the lushly landscaped Rosewood. We spent a warm sunny day by the pool and indulged in a massage at its elegant Senses Spa. What a great way to sit and ponder the wonderful two weeks I enjoyed in this culturally rich country inhabited by warm and friendly people who showed us such gracious hospitality. Mexico has something for everyone. While we focused on architecture and art, sports minded visitors can play golf or take in a lively soccer (futbol) game, which now is their greatest spectator sport since bullfighting has long ago and thankfully fallen by the wayside. Foodies won’t be disappointed either because the culinary options for learning and indulging are endless, including crickets and grasshoppers if you’re so inclined. If you’ve never been to Mexico, or if it’s been awhile, go back and see how much it has to offer. I’m so glad we did!
Susan Newman, Feb 28, 2020