Totonac Voladores performance  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

After four years of living in Chicago, I found myself in the southern Californian city of Palm Springs, which is only 75 miles from the Mexican border, as the crow flies.   Since I didn't know how long I'd be living there, I decided to make a trip south of the border as soon as I could.   People often go to the beaches of Cancun and other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula, but after a lot of reading I settled on Mexico city and the area around it.   The whole area is quite elevated and therefore chilly in winter, so I decided that summer would be the most pleasant time to visit.

Mexico city is of dubious merit.   With 20 million people it has the largest population of any city in the world apart from Tokyo, and it suffers from some of the worst air pollution anywhere because of its position in a valley surrounded by high hills; this is worst in winter, another good reason to visit when I did.   An efficient and very useable underground train system does make travel around the city straightforward and allows you to avoid the nightmarish traffic, which I did drive in once.   With so many people, even the large city parks are more like carnivals than quiet green oasis, with many of the paths lined with stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs, toys and all manner of other goods.

There certainly are pleasures to be had for visitors to the city.   A number of excellent museums are here which not only display archaeological remains from the country's many native civilizations, but also feature cultural performances such as this "Voladores" ritual by a Totonac Indian group.   In addition, there is a variety of interesting architecture, both modern and from the colonial period.   There's even some significant ancient ruins, foremost of which is the Templo Mayor, at the Zocalo right in the center of the city.   This was the ritual center of Mexico during the Aztec period, a large temple built on top of previous smaller temples.   Partially destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s, it was buried and built on before being excavated in the 1970s.   The site and its adjacent museum are well worth visiting.

the city of Taxco Viejo   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

I probably would have gone crazy if I'd spent an entire week in Mexico city - it was worth visiting, but only for 2 or 3 days.   I had my sights set on other attractions, such as the architectural delights of some of the old colonial cities in the surrounding area.   I decided to rent a car and drive in a large semi-circular arc around the eastern side of Mexico city.

The first city I headed to was Puebla, with many architectural treasures of various kinds including its cathedral, which appears on the 500 peso note.   This is one of many attractive churches I visited during my time in the country, my favorite being the colorful Templo de Santo Toribio in the otherwise non-descript town of Xicohtzingo.

The town of Cholula is just west of Puebla, a small detour off the main highway but well worth it to see the town spread out beneath the snow-covered volcano Popocatepetl.   Cholula also has worthwhile archaeological remains, in fact it's the site of what is said to be the second largest pyramid in the world, if measured by volume.

The colonial town I enjoyed most was Taxco (pronounced "Tassko"), or more correctly Old Taxco, a thriving silver mining town perched on steep hills, with narrow winding roads more suited to walking than driving.   The location is very picturesque, and it would be madness not to stop off at one of the scenic lookouts on the road into town, or not to go up the cable car which provides a wonderful view over the city and the surrounding area.

Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

If there had been only modern and colonial architecture on offer, then I almost certainly wouldn't have bothered coming to this part of Mexico.   The main attraction for me was the ancient archaeological remains of the many native peoples who had lived in this area.   Chief among these is the city of Teotihuacan, the largest archaeological site in the country, and just a short drive north of Mexico city.   Teotihuacan is best known for the two huge pyramids which dominate the Calzada del los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, which you can see here.

This is a very large site, and it would be possible to spend several days here, visiting the many large structures in the central area, as well as seeing the few colorful murals which have survived the wet climate here.   Some of these murals are in the smaller structures like the wonderfully named Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly or the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells, and some are in priestly residences a short walk from the main area, such as the playful mural called The Paradise of Tlaloc, which is in the Tepantitla Palace.

Battle Mural at Cacaxtla  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Teotihuacan isn't the only place in the area where you can see ruins and murals.   Between here and Puebla there are two sites on hilltops only about 2 kilometers apart, both of which have amazing relics.

Xochitecatl is interesting for its buildings, which include several medium size pyramids, one of which is circular.   There are also some ritual items such as a huge stone pot and a large stone gateway.

Cacaxtla is not as old and has richer remains, including the Battle Mural you see here, which shows jaguar warriors with round shields defeating invading bird warriors with elaborate head-dresses.   There are other intriguing murals, including one with human heads growing out of the top of maize husks.   The buildings here are protected under a huge roof, allowing you to visit even if the weather isn't very good.   Another good reason to visit even in poor weather is the large museum, which has many artifacts collected from the site.

stone mask  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Teotihuacan, Xochitecatl and Cacaxtla are by no means the only ancient sites to see in this part of Mexico.   As I've already mentioned, there's also Cholula and the Templo Mayor in downtown Mexico city, which has many artifacts in the museums, such as this very expressive stone mask.   Between Taxco and Mexico city is the large site called Xochicalco perched high above a valley and lake, which among many other things has a restored ball court and the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, with elaborate stone reliefs.

It's really eye opening to see how advanced the civilizations in this part of the world were, doing extraordinary mathematics to predict astrological events, and performing feats of architecture which weren't equalled until long after Europeans arrived.   Although they didn't use the wheel as a tool, they did use it for children's pull-along toys, such as a cute as a button wooden deer I saw in one of the major New York museums, which looked for all the world as if it had come straight out of Walt Disney.

Popocatepetl  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Much as I enjoy human achievements, there's just too much of it on display in Mexico.   Under the pressures of human habitation the countryside has been subjugated to such an extent that there's hardly anything wild left anywhere, except in tiny pockets of rainforest in the south, and in the deserts of the north.

The area in the immediately vicinity of Mexico city does have a few worthwhile natural features which have survived the onslaught.   Most obvious of all is the active volcano Popocatepetl, second highest mountain in the country and within striking distance of Mexico city itself.   It's an awesome sight if you're lucky enough to see it without its frequent cloak of clouds.

Another natural feature which should be somewhere on the list for travellers is the massive cave at Cacahuamilpa, north of Taxco.   The guided tour in Spanish might be over the top and cheesy even to someone who doesn't speak the language, but the huge chambers, up to 82 meters high, and the many illuminated formations more than make up for it.

In spite of the damage done to the environment in Mexico, I was determined to see as much of what remained as possible, within the limited timespan I'd allowed myself.   Large wildlife has been pretty much eliminated, and even the birds have been largely crowded out by the destruction of their habitat, but many insects and other small arthropods still manage to make a living along the sides of roads.   Even in the center of Mexico city I was able to photograph butterflies visiting planters full of flowers, as well as other insects ekeing out an existence in the sterile looking plantings along the Paseo de la Reforma.

Many of the ruins were ideal for lizards, which sunbathed on the stones.   I was also lucky enough to see a small snake when I pulled into an otherwise uninteresting rest stop by the side of the road.   It was at least as scared as me as I was of it, but I did manage to get a few photos before it bluffed its way past me.