// MY NAME IS DANIELAnd after years of dreaming I've sold everything I own and set off on the open road. I've made this site as a sort of photo journal of my travels. The map shows where I've been (red), where I've stayed a month or more (yellow), and where I plan to go (white). And so, armed with little more than a backpack, a camera, and a dream, I now take the road less traveled by. So it goes.
ZACATECAS FREE AND SOVEREIGN STATE OF ZACATECAS I had never heard of Zacatecas before my arrival here. It was simply the cheapest flight I could find into Mexico. I had planned originally to stay only a few days, but after seeing this mountain top colonial gem I immediately fell in love and rented a house here for more than a month. Below you'll notice the handsomely lit cobblestone alleys, grand cathedrals, beautiful plazas, the former bullfighting ring (with an ancient aqueduct built above it, which you can also see cutting across the city center in another photo), and of course, some tasty Mexican food.
EL EDEN MINE FREE AND SOVEREIGN STATE OF ZACATECAS There's a reason for the grandeur of Zacatecas, and that reason is gold and silver. The city was initially founded as a mining camp in 1546. El Eden Mine is one of the oldest mines in the city, and though there are still more minerals to mine there, the mine was closed in 1960 as the entire city sits above the mine (the entrance is literally in the city center) and it was too dangerous to dig out anymore under the city. Instead the mine was converted into a tourist attraction, with a mining museum, some tunnels to explore, and even the world's only disco nightclub located in a mine (you can see the bar and bartender below).
LA QUEMADA FREE AND SOVEREIGN STATE OF ZACATECAS Not far from Zacatecas is another mountain top city, though this one far more ancient. Given its age of 1700 years old, pyramid architecture, and distance from the heart of Mesoamerica, La Quemada (which simply means 'the scorched place') is something of a mysterious anomaly. Some have even proposed this is Chicomostoc, the mythical birth place of the Aztecs. More than likely though, it was simply a major trading post that grew into a well fortified minor city over time. It was already in ruins and abandoned by the time the Europeans arrived, with little records left to tell its story.
JEREZ DE GARCIA SALINAS FREE AND SOVEREIGN STATE OF ZACATECAS I found a list online of "Pueblo Magicos" (magical towns) in Mexico. Other countries I've been to (Quebec and France, for example) have similar lists of their most beautiful and culturally significant small towns. One of those towns was near Zacatecas. Jerez is a small country town of cowboys and beautiful cathedrals. It was founded in 1570 and during the Mexican War of Independence in 1811, forces loyal to Spain took the town and executed anyone suspected of aiding the revolutionaries, an action which helped swing support in the state against the Spanish Crown and ultimately towards Independence.
AGUASCALIENTES AGUASCALIENTES Leaving Zacatecas I headed to the neighboring state of Aguascalientes, specifically its capital... also called Aguascalientes. The original inhabitants here were the Chichimecas and they were able to hold off the Europeans for nearly two centuries. The city sits in a region called The Bajio (the lowlands) which extends all the way to Guadalajara and Guanajuato, both of which you'll see later. The Bajio region is considered to have Mexico's best quality of life, most dynamic economy, and to be the safest part of the country, in fact perhaps the safest and most dynamic part of all of Latin America.
REAL DE CATORCE SAN LUIS POTOSI In the state of San Luis Potosi, I took a bus through a kilometer long mountain tunnel of one way traffic (alternating directions every twenty minutes) to the 'ghost town' of Real De Catorce, a mining town founded in 1779 but abandoned when the mines went dry. It's a religious pilgrimage site for Huichol natives who come to these dry mountains to find the small cactus peyote. In the last four photos you can see my home-stay, one of the most beautiful homes I've ever visited.
SAN LUIS POTOSI SAN LUIS POTOSI Coming down out of the mountains I arrived in San Luis Potosi, the capital of the state of ... San Luis Potosi. It was another handsome city, but really only a stopover on my way to the Huasteca region of Mexico.
XILITLA SAN LUIS POTOSI Xilitla (another 'Pueblo Magico') lies in the heart of the Huasteca region of Mexico, which is a cultural and geographic region, once dominated by the Huasteca people, but also notable for it's more tropical climate and flora. Having just come from the dry arid mountains of north-central Mexico, this certainly was a different world. You can see the orange house I stayed (along with the breathtaking views) in the photo next to the black bird. While here, I also visited some waterfalls, which you can also see below.
LAS POZAS SAN LUIS POTOSI Not far from Xilitla are the Surrealist Gardens of Las Pozas, built by an eccentric artist in the heart of the jungle. Though he worked on it for decades, I believe he died before he could ever finish. Its an amazing place to wander and explore.
CUEVAS DE MANTETZULEL SAN LUIS POTOSI Though most of my travel around Mexico was by bus (and I must say, Mexico has excellent bus service) here in the remote Huasteca region I rented a car. So I went down some rather rocky roads to visit some caves, including this one.
GUANAJUATO GUANAJUATO Leaving the tropical Huasteca region I returned to the arid but prosperous Bajio, to the city of Guanajuato, a truly one of kind city. Built on steep valley hills, it is a tangled web of alley labyrinths and small plazas. One thing to note below are the mummies of Guanajuato. Some date back to Cholera outbreaks in the 1830s. A tax was required to keep the bodies 'perpetually' buried and when the tax wasn't paid, bodies were disinterred and placed in a nearby building. Due to the climate, over time they became naturally mummified and by 1900, locals were paying security guards to let them in to see the mummified bodies, still in their funeral outfits. Eventually this evolved into a musuem, where today 59 (of the hundreds of bodies) are on display.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE GUANAJUATO In my personal opinion, Zacatecas is the most beautiful city in Mexico. But many others would give that honor to San Miguel De Allende and reasonably so. The doors alone are enough. It's also a popular wedding destination, with weddings being held outside in the plazas, complete with giant muppets and donkeys loaded with tequila.
DOLORES HIDALGO GUANAJUATO Not far from San Miguel is Dolores Hidalgo, another 'Pueblo Magico'. The full name of the town is "Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacional" and it was here in 1810 that Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Francisco Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor (you have to love Spanish naming conventions) gave his famous "Cry of Dolores" speech which sparked the Mexican War of Independence. Mexico would ultimately win its freedom but sadly Hidalgo did not survive to see that glorious day, as he was betrayed and executed by the Royalists only a year into the war.
GUADALAJARA JALISCO Traveling further west, I made my way to Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city and the tenth largest in Latin America, both in population and GDP. Mexico's IT industry is here, along with this being the heart of the country's Mariachi music culture. The city was founded in 1542 but was nearly wiped out in 1543 by Tenamaxtli who was able to unify the Caxcan, Portecuex, and Zacateco peoples against Spain's encroachment. That war, known as the Mixton War, only ended when Spain agreed to release its native slaves and give amnesty to the tribes. The residents of Guadalajara attributed their survival to the Archangel Michael, who remains the patron of the city to this day.
AJIJIC JALISCO Not far from Guadalajara is the massive Chapala Lake. While many towns surround the lake, Ajijic in particular has attracted a great many North American and European retirees (who can be seen driving around in golf carts). It's a high quality of life for very little money, surrounded by a beautiful lake, and near enough to Guadalajara for services and flights.
JANITZIO MICHOACAN Leaving Guadalajara, I traveled to Lake Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacan. The towns here were founded in 1324, a century or two before the arrival of the Europeans. The Purépecha natives still live here and try to maintain a more indigenous architectural style. The most famous town is Janitzio, which is built on a small island in the center of the lake, reachable only by boat. The entire island is laced with tiny, hilly alleys selling traditional crafts. At the top of the island hill is a massive statue of José María Morelos, a leader and hero of the Mexican War for Independence. As in the US, the Mexican Revolutionary War has a great many heroes and proud stories associated with it.
MORELIA MICHOACAN On my way to Mexico City, I stopped in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. Another lovely and grand city. Note the ancient aqueduct. You'll also notice something else I like about Mexico... many of the cities have an architectural theme. San Miguel De Allende is all deep pastels. Zacatecas pink marble. And here in Morelia harsh, sandy colored stone.
MEXICO CITY CIUDAD DE MEXICO Ah, Mexico City. I rented an apartment here as well, and stayed more than a month awaiting my sister to join me on some travels further south. With slightly more people than New York, this is the largest city in North America. Founded in 1325 by the Aztecs, this is the oldest capital city in the Americas. Cortes took the city in 1521 and in 1524 the city was renamed from Tenochtitlan to Mexico City. Much like Washington DC, Mexico City is a special federal district (and until recently, much like DC, Mexico City residents lacked many of the same political representations as those living in official states). While I prefer the more colonial cities of Mexico, Mexico City is a fascinating metropolis.
MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY CIUDAD DE MEXICO Every time Indiana Jones yells 'it belongs in a museum!' I assume he's talking about this museum, which I'm convinced is the most beautiful museum in the world.
TEOTIHUACAN ESTADO DE MEXICO Located in the state of Mexico, next to the city of Mexico, in the country of Mexico... is Teotihuacan, which in the first century AD, at its height, was home to perhaps as many as 125,000 people, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch. In fact the city was home to multi-floor apartment compounds. Founded probably around 100 BC the city was sacked and burned six centuries later, around 550 AD. Who built the city or originally lived here is largely speculation. It was already in ruins by the time the Aztecs arrived, though they were so impressed and awe inspired by the pyramids here that it would greatly influence their own culture and eventually they would build their own capital city not far away.
TAXCO GUERRERO Once my sister arrived, we headed south, first to Taxco, which like Zacatecas is another mountain top colonial city made rich and grand by the mines beneath it. Besides the labyrinthine, alley-like streets, one interesting thing to note is the taxi cabs, they're all VW beetles.
TEPOZTLAN MORELOS Continuing south we reached Tepoztlan, another 'Pueblo Magico'. The town itself is in the second half of the photos. First is the ancient temple above the town known as El Tepozteco. Some very cute and curious coatimundi seem to guard the temple which was built to honor the Aztec god Tepoztēcatl, god of pulque, which is an Aztec alcoholic drink made from agave and still served in Mexico City to this day. The cult of Tepoztēcatl was so strong that once upon a time pilgrims came all the way from Guatemala to visit the temple. The final two photos is the house we stayed with a lovely couple.
XOCHICALCO MORELOS Xochicalco was founded in 650 AD by a Mayan band of people known as the Olmeca-Xicallanca. The city was an important religious site and trade center, built on terraced hills and probably home to around 15,000 people. The city was destroyed and burned down around 900 AD. One thing to note below are the ball fields and ball hoops for sports games. These will be quite common among the Mayan cities that I visit later on.
PUEBLA DE ZARAGOZA PUEBLA A handsome stopover on our way south.
CHOLULA PUEBLA Another 'Pueblo Magico'. The town is actually divided into two halves, dating back to before the arrival of the Spanish, when Toltecs living under the authority of the Olmecs pushed the Olmecs to the eastern side of the city in the 1400s. Perhaps to show off, each side built their own grand temples. When the Spanish took the city, the division remained, with Spanish families living on one side and indigenous and mixed families living on the other. The Toltecs built a temple to Quetzalcoatl here, which has the largest base of any temple in the world, thereby making it the largest temple in the world by volume, nearly three times the size of the pyramid at Giza though not as tall. Today it is covered by grass and dirt and looks like an ordinary hill, but you'll notice in the last few photos that it's so big the Spanish were able to built an entire cathedral on it.
OAXACA ESTADO LIBRE DE OAXACA Heading much further south we arrived in Oaxaca. While most of Mexico is mixed race, Oaxaca is home to many indigenous groups still maintaining their culture and language. Sixteen groups are officially recognized, the largest being the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. It is also from here that mezcal is produced. Mezcal is an alcohol made by cooking agave plants under mounds of earth, then crushing them in round pits under stones pulled by donkeys (see below), then collecting the juices and distilling them to later be served with crispy grasshoppers (also see below).
HIERVE DEL AGUA ESTADO LIBRE DE OAXACA Known as a petrified waterfall, just a glimpse into the beauty of Oaxaca.
MONTE ALBAN ESTADO LIBRE DE OAXACA Another ancient city, this one, like Xochicalco, built on terraced hill tops. The site sits at 6400 feet (1940 m) above sea level. This is also one of the oldest major cities in Mesoamerica, founded around 500 BC, it dominated the Oaxaca highlands for a thousand years before being abandoned sometime around 500-700 AD.
SAN JOSE DEL PACIFICO ESTADO LIBRE DE OAXACA My sister had to return to the US, but I continued on towards the Pacific coast, stopping in a small town called San Jose Del Pacifico. You can see the lodge I stayed, and the views, in the first few photos. The town is not a Pueblo "Magico" but the mushrooms sold here definitely are.
MAZUNTE ESTADO LIBRE DE OAXACA A little piece of paradise along the Pacific Coast. Unlike Cancun or Playa Del Carmen, the towns here are protected from ugly, corporate development and really are some of the most relaxing places on earth. You can see the guest room I rented, complete with ocean views, for less than $25 a night in the last two photos.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS CHIAPAS Leaving Oaxaca I continued on to the state of Chiapas, another state home to many indigenous groups. Officially there are 56 languages spoken here, with about 1/3 to 1/4 of the population speaking an indigenous language (and around 300,000 of those unable to speak Spanish at all). Exploitation of the resources and peoples of Chiapas led to an indigenous-based revolutionary movement against the Mexican government in the 1990s, by a group known as the Zapatistas. They even managed to briefly take the city of San Cristobal, seen here, which is one of the prettiest towns in Mexico.
TONINA CHIAPAS Tonina was the first Mayan city I was able to visit. It's also home to one of the tallest pyramids in Mexico. Tonina was in constant war and rivalry with Palenque, a slightly more famous city a few hours north. Like most of the major Mayan cities, it was abandoned for reasons not fully understood in the 900 ADs. You'll notice in the last two photos that the village next to the site is a 'Communidad en Resistencia Civil' which means 'Community in Civil Resistance'. The Zapatistas today have moved away from armed conflict and instead towards a strategy of civil resistance. An old woman in the market in San Cristobal sold me a little handmade Mayan Zapatista doll (who she told me was a girl) so I thought it only right that the doll make its first appearance here.
BONAMPAK CHIAPAS Chiapas is home to many amazing ancient Mayan cities. Another is Bonampak. Bonampak is famous for its well preserved Mayan paintings, which when discovered helped dispel an early European myth that the Mayans were a peaceful people of mystics, as the murals clearly depict human sacrifice and war.
YAXCHILAN CHIAPAS This is probably my favorite archaeological site in Mexico. Hidden deep in the jungles, overgrown, home to troops of monkeys, the only way to reach Yaxchilan is by wooden boats that travel down the Usumacinta River which separates Mexico from Guatemala. Yaxchilan was a major regional power, dominating smaller city-states like Bonampak. The Mayans kept precise histories which show Yaxchilan warred with Palanque to the north in 654 AD. But like most Mayan cities, it was abandoned in the 900s AD and the Mayans fled into the forests to live in thatched-roofed villages, leaving their great cities behind to be swallowed by the jungle. Most cities would be abandoned by the time the Europeans arrived centuries later and even to this day speculations and theories abound as to the reasons for the collapse of the Classic Mayan Civilization.
CANYON DE SUMIDERO CHIAPAS A canyon with walls a kilometer (3,300ft) high and crocodiles. Lots of crocodiles. In the second photo note that the little speck on the river is a tour boat.
CAMPECHE CAMPECHE Leaving Chiapas I took a bus to Campeche, officially marking my overland travel from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast. The architecture of Campeche feels more Caribbean than Mexican; bright pastel colors and fortress walls facing the ocean and armed with cannons. One of the few walled cities in North America, Campeche has very defensive architecture as it was plagued by Caribbean pirates for much of its early history.
UXMAL YUCATAN Leaving Campeche, I headed to the Yucatan Peninsula, specifically to the State of Yucatan. The Mayans reached the peak of their civilization here, building cities like Chichen Itza, Izamal, and Tho, which the Spanish captured and renamed Merida and which is today the capital of Yucatan (and by some accounts is the oldest continually inhabited city in the Americas). I decided to visit Uxmal, another important Mayan city which showcases the architectural styles of the region, including grand rectangular halls and more rounded pyramids.
A MAYAN CENOTE YUCATAN A cenote is a pit or sinkhole that exposes rivers of groundwater underneath, normally created when limestone bedrock collapses. Cenotes are located all over the Yucatan Peninsula and played an important part in Mayan mythology and religion, as the Mayans believed they were passageways into the afterlife. They were also good sources of potable water so many Mayan cities were built near them. Today many are popular for swimming. One must climb through cave holes to reach them, but the water if clear and refreshing. I visited a few, as well as a small Mayan village near one of them, which you can see below.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN QUINTANA ROO Leaving the state of Yucatan I reached my final destination in Mexico, the state of Quintana Roo, home to several popular resort towns like Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa Del Carmen. Having seen the beautiful, tranquil, seemingly untouched beaches in Oaxaca, I have to say I did not like Playa Del Carmen all that much, as I felt it was largely a tourist trap devoid of all the charm and magic that makes Mexico... well... Mexico.
COZUMEL QUINTANA ROO Cozumel is an island. There's some fish there.
COBA QUINTANA ROO Coba was another ancient Mayan city, famous for stone highways connecting it to other sites, though now much of the city has been consumed by the jungle. The views from the top are amazing, an ocean of green jungle expanding all the way to the horizon in every direction. It's a nice site, though by far the most crowded I've visited thus far, given its proximity to Cancun. In the photo below you can see lines of people waiting to climb to the top and take selfies.
BACALAR QUINTANA ROO Bacalar (another Pueblo Magico) sits on an expansive lagoon. Yes that's a lagoon, not the ocean. People come here to cover themselves in the lagoon mud, believing it has whatever properties. There's also an old fort here, as pirates would travel to the lagoon via a river way to plunder the local towns. You can hire locals to take you around on tiny little sail boats.
CHETUMAL QUINTANA ROO Chetumal is not really a tourist town at all, but it's from here that I caught my ferry to Belize. A lot of Mayans live here, and there's a resurgence in protecting Mayan culture and language. In fact, at the book story you can even buy books in Mayan, including WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE! Anyway, after using up 171 days of my 180 day visa, it was sadly time leave Mexico. But rest assured, I'll be back.