Cultural Travel in Mexico

Traveling within Mexico can be a delight. Just hitting the beaches or touring within Mexico City is a mere fraction of the experience that taking a more serious approach to sampling all the delights the country has to offer. The sites are stunning, and the people are charming.

Important Sites of Mexico’s Mesoamerican Civilizations

Mexico is a fascinating repository of some of the world’s most interesting civilizations. From 1200 B.C. to 1521 A.D., five major pre-Columbian native civilizations developed their seats of power in the modern country of Mexico.

Olmecatl, the Rubber People

The Olmec peoples lived on the Eastern Gulf Coast where Vera Cruz and Tabasco are today. The Olmec are considered to be the mother culture of Mexico. The Olmec, or the original term Olmecatl, means Rubber People. They were the first to combine latex from trees in today’s Panama to produce rubber.

The Olmec flourished from 1200 B.C. until 400 B.C. The civilization produced the first system of writing in the Americas. Seventeen giant heads, called The Jaguars, were unearthed and can be seen today at Olmec sites at San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros and Tres Zapotes.

Olmec Pyramid at La Venta

© Alfonsobouchot - Olmec Pyramid at La Venta

Teotihuacán, the City of the Gods

The largest of the Mesoamerican civilizations were the Teotihuacán, who held power in the first 700 years A.D. Their seat of authority is known in their Nahuatl language as the City of the Gods. At one time, the city had a population of over 200,000, making it the largest city in the world at that time.

Archeologists have unearthed an amazing complex since its initial discovery in 1884. Don’t miss the Pyramid of the Sun and its companion, the Pyramid of the Moon. The site is 50 km from Mexico City and has plazas, temples, palaces and 2,000 apartment compounds.

Pyramid of the Sun - Teotihuacan

© Sharron McClellan - Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

The Maya, Ancient Culture of Today’s People

Anyone traveling in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala or Honduras will find a still-living Mayan people. From 250 A.D., this culture of the pre-Columbian Classic Period developed a system of highly sophisticated observational astronomy that still flourishes today. There are still working Daykeepers, those who are adept in mathematics and astronomy who act as diviners, rather like Western astrologers.

The Mayans left magnificent stone temples and their surrounding cities. Sites such as Becan and Calakmul in Campeche and Chichen Itza and Chunchucmil in Yucatán are great places to learn more about the culture.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

© David Stanley - El Castillo, Chichen Itza

Toltec, Mesoamerican Classic City-States

The Toltec peoples dominated the culture of the post-classic period, from about 900 to 1168 A.D. The name referred to a collection of city-states, centered around Tollán, near today’s Tula, Hidalgo. In their Nahuatl language, Toltec meant “cultured person”. According to their legend, the people was birthed by Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent.

Tollán dominated the cultures of central Mexico, and their armies were a dominant military force in the region. They captured and inhabited Teotihuacán, but the ruins of their capital at Tula can be toured today.

Toltec Remains at Tula, Hidalgo

© OrniCosa - Toltec Remains at Tula, Hidalgo

Aztec, Nomads to Political Domination

No one is certain where they originated, but it appears that the Aztecs began as a hunter-gatherer tribe in Northern Mexico. They migrated to the area and founded their capital at Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City.

Aztecs controlled many of the areas city-states from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific, dominating in social, religious and commercial areas. Spaniard Hernán Cortés captured the capital in 1521, ending the Aztec civilization. The excavated Templo Mayor, the “Great Temple”, lies in Mexico City and is a popular attraction.

Templo Mayor Remains, Mexico City

© Kent Wang - Templo Mayor Remains, Mexico City

Cultura de Mexico

From the earliest Mesoamerican cultures to today’s hippest art scenes, Mexico is one big arts venue. The people of Mexico are very proud of their arts and traditions and take every opportunity to celebrate them.

No matter where one travels in the country, even a lunch stop in a village plaza can give one a chance to hear traditional music, watch dancers and buy crafts available nowhere else.

The Craftsmen of Riviera Nayarit

Visiting the Riviera Nayarit in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Western Mexico is a cultural experience gained just by walking some of the streets. The Huichol and Coras ethnic groups wear colorful embroidered manta clothing. These are accompanied by hats topped with feathers and crystal bead accessories. The crystals are part of their belief system.

Traditional yarn painting and bead art both represent their traditions and provide them with a living. The Coras are found in the Western part of the state of Nayar. They are known for their ceramic art. Mexicaneros live in the same territory and craft baskets, otate chiquihuites (grass baskets).

North-Western Mexican Yarn Painting

© Lynn - North-Western Mexican Yarn Painting

Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Home

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are the most famous artists Mexico has yet known. Frida was born and grew up in the home, and the couple lived and produced their famous here for many years.

The Casa Azul is in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán. There are personal artifacts, unfinished works, and even Frida’s wheelchair on display. This is less a museum and more an opportunity to understand their world.

Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo Museum

© Eric Titcombe - Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo Museum

Mexico City, Metrópolis de Cultura

Mexico City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital of nearly nine million people who treasure their heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than their enviable collection of nearly 160 museums, 30 concert halls and untold numbers of art galleries.

Mexico City

© Kasper Christensen - Mexico City

Ballet Folklórico, Glorious Company of Mexican Dance

The Ballet Folklórico has represented the best of Mexican folk dance for more than 50 years, touring the world to present their unique art form. The word “ballet” in their name is pronounced with a hard “t” at the end, and the audiences are loud in appreciation.

The troupe performs three nights a week in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, giving a bonus of seeing a most magnificent venue.

Fine Arts Palace, Mexico City

© Derek Bruff - Fine Arts Palace, Mexico City

Museo Nacional de la Muerte, Where the Dead Are Celebrated

Most people know of Mexicans’ fascination with the dead and the afterlife, but who knew there is a fascinating museum dedicated to Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The museum presents the artistic record of the cultural tradition, from toys to works of art and is located in Aguascalientes.

Museo Nacional de la Muerte

© Lemurian Grove - Museo Nacional de la Muerte, Aguascalientes

The Famous Rock Paintings of the Unknown Ancients

The Museo Nacional de Antropología at Sierra de San Francisco in Baja California protects prehistoric rock paintings, petroglyphs of animal and sea creatures, rituals and warfare among Baja’s earliest inhabitants. Because of its importance, UNESCO declared the Sierra de San Francisco a World Heritage Site.


Prehistoric Paintings at Sierra de San Francisco

© Ovedc - Prehistoric Paintings, Mexico


Arquitectura, Architecture Mexican Style

Although most persons planning to visit Mexico equate Mexican architecture with pre-Columbian ruins, that is far from the case today. From Spanish Colonial Baroque styles to today’s ultra-modern glass-and-steel soaring edifices, Mexican architecture is still a vibrant culture of creativity.

In fact, now is the “MeMo”, the Mexican-Moment, a term created by the Mexico City architectural community to explain this explosion of interest in architecture and city planning and the increasing prominence of Mexican architects throughout the world -- starchitects.

Zacatecas Cathedral, Colonial Mexican Baroque at Its Best

Between the 16th and the mid-18th centuries, Baroque architecture was at its height in Europe. The Palace of Versailles, St. Peters Square and Karlskirche in Vienna all represent the finest examples.

Another building on that august list is the Zacatecas Cathedral in the capital city of that state. The architecture is derived from the Spanish version of the Baroque style, called Churrigueresque. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Zacatecas Cathedral, Mexico

© lamazone - Zacatecas Cathedral, Mexico

Hospicio Cabañas, the Most Beautiful Hospital in the Americas

As far as hospitals go, the Hospicio Cabañas is one of the most impressive. This building in Guadalajara, Jalisco, a World Heritage Site, was founded in 1791 by Guadalajara’s Bishop to provide a building that would house the hospital, a workhouse, an almshouse and an orphanage.

The hospital is named for Juan Ruiz de Cabañas, who was appointed in 1796 to the See of Guadalajara in 1796. Manuel Tolsá, a famed Mexico City architect, designed the building in the Classic style like that of Les Invalides in Paris. It served as a hospital until 1980 when it then housed the Cabañas Cultural Institute for the development of arts and crafts education.

Hospicio Cabanas, Guadalajara

© Antonio Zurita - Hospicio Cabanas, Guadalajara

Modern, Eclectic and Show Stopping: Modern Mexican Architecture

Modern Mexican architecture is very, very modern. Iberoamerican University architecture professor José Maria Nava calls many of them vedette buildings, meaning that they are “movie-star” buildings that make no effort to blend with their surroundings.

A perfect example of this new movement is the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City. It houses the art collection of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire.

Soumaya Museum

© Scutter - Soumaya Museum, Mexico City

Mexico’s Food, Loved the World Over

The first thing to understand when traveling in Mexico is that what most people think of as Mexican food is not real Mexican food at all. Just stop along the road to buy tacos from a woman selling them outside her home. She will happily provide the buyer with aluminum foil-wrapped offerings about the size of a cigar. It is so much more than the Tex-Mex food or Baja-inspired fish tacos.

When traveling in Mexico, make an effort to try these dishes, recommended as some of the best.

© Chris Martino - Pozole
  • Pozole, a type of soup first created by the native cultures, there is pork, chicken and vegetarian versions everywhere. The base is made from hominy corn and lots of spice. The soup is cooked for hours and often overnight. The dish is accompanied by lettuce, radish, chili, onion and lime served on top.
© Scott and Emily - Chiles en Nogada
  • Chiles en nogada is a dish for a Mexican patriot since it has the red, white and green colors. Poblano chili is filled with a picadillo, a mix of fruit, spices and chopped meat. Pomegranate seeds and a cream sauce made with walnuts top the mix.
© Alan - Mole Poblano
  • Mole (mol-eh) is a rich and complex sauce from about 20 different ingredients. Every chef, cook and home cook has their version, but they all have to be stirred nearly forever. Try a few versions of the mole polano, a red sauce the accompanies chicken or turkey.
© Jo del Corro - Elote
  • Elote is corn on the cob, and it is usually boiled and served on a stick or in a cup containing the removed kernels. The corn is then spiced with salt, chili powder, butter, lime, cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream. There’s no need for a restaurant, elote is available on every street corner.

Things to Know Before You Go

Some things are quite handy to know before you begin your cultural travel in Mexico. Keep yourself safe. Dress sensibly, don’t flash money or valuables, and keep your wits about you. Here is some other good information to know.

  • Legal, permanent residents of Canada and the U.S. do not need a visa to enter Mexico, part of the NAFTA agreement.
  • If you need any information about attractions, car rental, embassies, immigration issues, hospitals – in short, anything – just dial 078. The information is free.
  • When driving, don’t assume that other drivers will follow the rules. Traffic laws are seldom enforced.
  • Topes (toe-peez) are the Mexican equivalent of speed bumps, except they are a lot higher and are usually not marked. Taking them at speed can cause much damage to the passengers and their car.
  • Do not drive at night, period. Many Mexican drivers, especially bus and truck drivers, believe that using headlights cuts down on their night vision.