Have you watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre? If you did, I believe you had been enthralled by the epic opening sequence that depicts the fascinating Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade in Mexico City. Although staged, the scene was so spectacular that it really deserves credit for making the parade looks real and impressive. I was so lucky that this year I had the opportunity to observe this amazing festival myself. It was an honour to experience one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity first-hand.
This is an opening shot that tracks Bond through The Day of the Dead in Centro Historico, into a hotel, up an elevator, into a room, onto the roof of said hotel, and to a vantage point for a good old fashioned shootout that leads to Zocalo area. Classic Bond, probably the best moment in the film, and quite possibly the single greatest shot in the series. Great work from Sam Mendes, Hoyte Van Hoytema and smart mask cuts by Editor Lee Smith.
I arrived in Federal District of Mexico City with the misperception that Mexico is a dangerous Latin cowboy country, more like the modern day Wild Wild West. That generalisation was not baseless since we were fed with news and movies that give us such impression. However, during my journey around Mexico, I realise that such misperception has blinded us from the real beauty of this amazing country that possesses so many cultures, colourful traditions, beautiful people, amazing nature and intriguing ancient civilisations.
Mexico has gone through so many transitions throughout the ages, from the rule of splendorous civilisations of the Aztecs, Zapotecans and Mayans to the invasion of the Spaniards. Despite its dramatic and turbulent past, Mexico now has grown to become a contemporary and progressive society with a robust economy.
My journey in Mexico brought me from the Federal District of Mexico City to the south, where I discovered Puebla, Oaxaca and ended in Yucatan Peninsula. It was really an eye-opening experience, whereby I stopped by at Chiapas, Palenque, Merida, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, along the way culminating in Cancun.
The capital city of Mexico is officially known as Mexico City Distrito Federal (The Federal District of Mexico City), where the federal government of the union states sits in power. Mexico City is a federal entity and not part of any one of the 31 Mexican states. It is the largest city in Mexico and an important hub for political, cultural, education and financial activities.
Right now, the Greater Mexico City has a population of 21 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.
The historic centre of Mexico City, known as Centro Historico, is the central neighbourhood in the city, alongside Zocalo, Latin America’s largest central plaza that spans a number of blocks on all directions. Centro Historico contains so many historical sites and museums that it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and officially named as the Historic Centre of Mexico City. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, located 40 minutes’ drive away from Centro Historico, is Xochimilco with its canals and artificial islands called chinampas, which allude to the pre-Hispanic times.
Although my time in Mexico City was short, I tried not to miss visiting many historical sites considered as the main landmarks of the city such as The National Palace, The Cathedral, the ruins of the Templo Mayor and the largest second hand shops in the world called Nacional Monte de Piedad that has been established since 1774. Due to the tight schedule, I did not get to visit the following places but I do recommend that readers visit Torre Latinoamericana, Museo Nacional de Arte, Palacio de Correos, Palacio de Bellas Artes and Mexico City’s Chinatown called Barrio Chino.
During my last days in Mexico City, I found my way to National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) located within the Coyoacan borough, located in the Southern part of Mexico City. Although founded in 1910, the original institution can be traced back to as early as 1551. There are many points of interest within the university, especially the Central Library of UNAM, Palacio de Minera and Museum of San Ildefonso located at the main campus, also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage City since June 2007.
The day after, Hafiz Jalil – one of the Malaysian diplomats who currently resides in Mexico City to encourage trade – drove me to an incredible archaeological site located about an hour outside the city. To my pleasant surprise, it was The Great Pyramid of Teotihuacan! I have been reading a lot about Mexico’s ancient civilisations and their vestiges, but this is the first time that I personally witnessed one. As a matter of fact, this is my very first pyramid and ancient ruin that I have ever visited!
The Teotihuacan Archaeological Site is so grand that it covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometres. There are two large pyramids that are still standing strong on the archaeological site of Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of The Sun (the third largest pyramid in the world) and The Pyramid of the Moon. Then there is also the Avenue of the Dead, one of the important sites according to history. Each has its own fascinating legacy that left me in awe for days.
Teotihuacan was an ancient Mesoamerican city. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and officially named as the Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan.
Puebla – The Magical Town
I arrived in Puebla the next day, which is a three-hour bus ride from Mexico City. When I arrived in this charming city a little late in the evening, I was welcomed by its residents preparing for the Dia de Los Muertos. A parade just ended but the people are still dressed in macabre costumes and makeup representing death. I personally find the celebration amusing and entertaining. I swear I would have leapt in joy and join the masses celebrating and singing, drinking and toasting, if not for my heavy backpack.
Puebla is formally known as Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza, one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico. The city was founded in 1531 in an area called Cuetlaxcoapan, which means “where serpents change their skin”, in between two of the main indigenous settlements of that time, Tlaxcala and Cholula.
Puebla got me exploring since it has many historical sites located in its Centro Historico, ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque such as Cathedral of Puebla, Amparo Museum, Palafoxiana Library, Fort Loreto, Fort Guadalupe, Teatro Principal de Puebla and the 500-year old tunnel system under the city to The Great Pyramid of Cholula. As expected, with such rich history and vestiges, this magical town also earns the title as a UNESCO Word Heritage Site since 1987.
Speaking of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, it is located around 20 minutes’ bus ride away from the city centre. I believe I am among the few Malaysians who get to see the Great Pyramid of Cholula, which according to the Guinness World Book of Records, is the world’s largest pyramid, also known as Tlachihualtepetl (“artificial mountain” in Nahuatl language). It is so large that when you see it from afar, it looks like a natural hill topped by a church.
This pyramid is linked closely to Teotihuacan in Mexico City. The pyramid consists of six superimposed structures, one for each ethnic group that dominated it. However, only three have been studied in depth.
In the next morning, I took a three-hour bus ride to Cantona Archaeological Site that contains interesting Mesoamerican artefacts and remains. According to the friendly staff who manned the ticketing counter, I would only be seeing 10% of the site, whereby the other 90% is yet to be unearthed by archaeologists.
The site comprises a road network with over 500 cobblestone causeways, more than 3,000 individual patios, residences, 24 ball courts and an elaborate acropolis with multiple ceremonial buildings and temples.
After three days in Puebla, I hopped onto an eight-hour bus ride to the biggest state in Mexico – Oaxaca, best known for its indigenous people and cultures, especially the Zapotecs and The Mixtecs. These cultures have survived better than elsewhere in Mexico since the communities there have somehow been hidden away by mountains and hills. The mountains are mostly formed by the convergence of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and the Sierra Atravesada into what is called the Oaxaca Complex.
Oaxaca is formally known as Oaxaca Juarez. The city of Oaxaca is also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1987 and officially named as the Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán. There have been Zapotec and Mixtec settlements in the valley of Oaxaca for thousands of years, especially in connection to the important ancient centres of Monte Albán and Mitla, which are close to the modern Oaxaca City.
Similar to Mexico City and Puebla, the Centro Historico in Oaxaca has many historical sites and museums such as Plaza de la Constitución or Zócalo, Benito Juárez Market, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.
During the 30-minute bus ride to the central section of the Valley of Oaxaca, I witnessed the Monte Albán Archaeological Site, which is a large pre-Columbian archaeological excavation. Monte Albán serves as the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic hub for almost a thousand years. There is evidence that shows this Mesoamerican civilisation had interacted with other Mesoamerican regional societies such as Teotihuacan.
I found that Monte Albán Archaeological Site is admirably visitor-friendly since it has facilities for disabled people, with pathways for wheelchair and railings for support.
While I was in Oaxaca, I did not miss the opportunity to check out the great wonders of Mexico like The Ahuehuete Tree, considered as the widest tree in the world; Mezcal Factory that produces tequila-like alcoholic drink, brewed and produced traditionally; Hierve el Agua that has rock formations similar to a frozen waterfall and soaked in a pool enriched with natural minerals; the magnificent sight of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the mountain range in southern Mexico that extends 1,000 kilometres from the Southern Michoacan to Isthmus of Tehuantepec in eastern Oaxaca.
My adventure in Mexico did not stop in Oaxaca. In the next two issues of Gaya Travel Magazine, I will mention about my journey to Chiapas, where I stayed a night in the cultural capital city called San Cristobal de Las Casas. I would then proceed to Palenque, Merida, Chichen Itza, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun. I also explored the beautiful island of Isla Mujeres where I stumbled upon Mayan ruins that celebrate the goddess of childbirth and medicine.
Choose to continue reading: PART II – PART III
This article is included in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 11.1. Read the magazine HERE.
Gaya Travel Magazine extends our heartfelt gratitude to The Embassy of Mexico in Kuala Lumpur for turning the writer’s trip to Mexico into reality.