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Life is a beach. In Mexico, that's often the case. What many folks fail to notice, however, is that this sprawling land of 90 million folks stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific blue is much more than sand, surf and margaritas. The middle of Mexico is an adventure traveler's dream, a rich melange of colonial splendor and Indian motifs. No jungles or rainforests here: cutting a swath through Mexico's heartland is an urban adventure waiting to be savored. Got those walking shoes ready? Let's go!
Begin the adventure in Mexico City, one of the world's largest metropolitan areas. Navigating twenty million-plus people is an adventure in itself! A late afternoon arrival is the best way to ease into the city, with your destination the Hotel Camino Real in the tony Polanco district. Blocks in primary colors are the order of the day at this sleek, low-rise property thanks to well-known architect Ricardo Legorreta. A rush of water greets you up front in the form of a fast-moving fountain. The lobby area to the left of the entrance is dominated by a futuristic Rufino Tamayo mural. To the right is the Lobby Bar, a space big enough to hold a couple hundred happy drinkers. Stop in for a margarita and a light bite and relax to the music of a four-piece combo. If a cocktail or two rejuvenates you, head over to the Bar Jorongo at the Sheraton Maria Isabel. One of the best mariachi shows in Mexico City can be found at this popular club. Standards such as "Guadalajara" and "Mexico Lindo" are delivered in classic foot-stomping, yee-hah-shouting mariachi style. Take a moment and marvel at how these handsome hombres managed to pour themselves into those tight black pants with the shiny silver studs running up the side. The chicken tacos here make for a nice late-night snack before heading back to the Camino Real.
Considering Mexico City's high altitude, a leisurely pace is called for on day two. Start with a late breakfast and a visit to the zocalo, Mexico City's main square. The oldest cathedral in the Americas is to your left as you walk up from Avenida Madero, while the stately Palacio Nacional (parliament) is directly ahead. Soak up the art, architecture and city life before heading back along Avenida Cinco de Mayo. A stop at Dulceria de Celaya is essential, since this is the best candy store in town and is located in a jewel-box of a 19th-century building. Stock up on sweets and continue on to the Museo Franz Mayer, which houses the impressive collection of the late German industrialist Franz Mayer and is also a frequent choice for rotating exhibits (Swedish glassblowers Kosta Boda did a recent show). Once the afternoon siesta hour rolls around, return to the Camino Real for some reading and relaxation near the lovely pool and gardens. You should also ask the valet to press your Sunday best for an elegant dinner at the Hacienda de los Morales. This former hacienda was once home to conqueror Hernan Cortes, who was said to appreciate a good meal. The tradition lives on in the capable hands of chef Roberto Rangel, who will dazzle your palate with a variety of Mexican and International dishes (don't miss the crepas de huitlacoche). The mango flambe for dessert will send you into a restful slumber.
A short hop to Puebla is a great way to start the next day. This very Spanish city, less than two hours southeast of the capital, is easily accessible thanks to a spanking-new fleet of high-speed buses. And what will you find in Puebla? Tilework, for one. Puebla is the home of azulejos, ornate blue and white tilework common to many Spanish cities. The conquerors imported the look which is Puebla's signature; most of the buildings in the city center are covered from top to bottom in gleaming, graceful tiles. Many stores in town sell handmade tiles as well as beautiful plates and vases, with the definitive shopping stop being Talavera Artistica Aguilar, a factory/showroom on the outskirts of town. Brothers Jorge and Gerardo Aguilar run the business started by their grandfather and are ably assisted by their wives, children and other family members. One look at the plates and serving pieces here and you know you're in the right place: the colors, patterns and quality are a definite cut above. They do sell to the public, and will also take orders for larger sets of dinnerware.
Lunch should be at the Fonda de Santa Clara, because in addition to tilework, Puebla is also known for its mole, a creamy, dreamy chocolate-y sauce which is ladled over chicken. Other dishes worth trying at this busy and colorful restaurant are the chiles en nogada (stuffed Poblano chilies) and the chalupas, small tortilla boats stuffed with shredded beef and onion and topped with a red or green sauce. After lunch, stop by the Santa Rosa convent, where local nuns created the first mole sauce centuries ago (their kitchen is still nearly intact). If you're in the mood for more shopping, visit the parian (the local marketplace) or the Callejon de los Sapos, a pedestrian alleyway filled with antique shops and assorted kitsch.
Heading to the colonial heart of Mexico is next on the agenda, and a flight into Zacatecas is the easiest way to get there. And easy it will be once you get here, for Zacatecas is a city made for strolling. Steep, cobbled streets and narrow alleyways wend their way through the city center, a vision of pinkish stone. Cowboys amble by, their sombreros protecting against the strong noonday sun. The pastel palette is in evidence on the churrigueresque Cathedral as well as on a number of public buildings and museums, all of them bringing to mind the Spanish fantasy which is Toledo, Spain. Your first stop should be at the mercado, the local market which meanders along several downtown streets. Vendors will offer you everything from fresh fruit to kitchenware and shoes. By all means, buy some footwear at El Norteno, a boot store which keeps the area's many cowboys well-shod. Ostrich, crocodile and armadillo can caress your feet, and the price is right. Wannabe cowpokes are now ready to get lost in the maze of streets which make up Zacatecas.
One of the best reasons for coming here is the opportunity to spend a night or two at the Hotel Quinta Real. You may have heard of this place: it's the hotel which was built into a bullring. The bulls have moved on, but the stately arches of this circular structure serve as a reminder of what went on not that long ago. Forty-six suites which are the lap of luxury have been seamlessly worked into the old bullring, along with shops, a bar and a tri-level restaurant offering a panoramic view of the property and beyond. Graffiti from the old bullring can still be found on the bar's walls; things are a bit neater in your room, where colorful retablos and silver lamps complement the dark wood antiques. The bathroom is a medley of marble replete with a sunken tub. Relax for a while and then have a quiet dinner at the hotel's restaurant, easily the best table in town. White-gloved waiters will charm you, as will the sopa de hongos silvestres (mushroom soup) and the filete de res "La Bufa" (a beef filet bathed in a creamy tomato sauce). Trust me, you won't want to leave the Quinta Real.
When you do hit the road again, head for Guanajuato, a town screaming "photo opp!" around every corner. Buildings are painted in the brightest of hues (lime green, orange, mustard, sky blue) and many are draped with bougainvillea. The pace is purposeful in Guanajuato, perhaps because this is a thriving university town. A good starting point for your tour is the Jardin de la Union, a lively plaza with open-air cafes along one side. Trees form a virtual canopy overhead, and locals and visitors alike are fond of the wrought-iron benches which line the perimeter of this green space. Lounge over a cool sip, then proceed to acquaint yourself with the town's many picturesque streets and alleys, the best-known being the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). This short alley is so narrow that two lovers standing on the graceful balconies overhead can actually lean over and kiss. Things are set up so that you can try this yourself, which means a photo opp for the enterprising kid at the entrance to the alley, Polaroid camera in hand. The Mercado Hidalgo is also worth a visit, a covered marketplace teeming with foods and crafts of all kinds. Theater and architecture buffs won't want to miss the Teatro Juarez, a turn-of-the-century Moorish confection which is rich in detail and styling. If hunger sets in, prowl the Calle de Sopena, a narrow street where you can choose between the Cafe Capella (excellent coffee drinks), Pasteleria Arnabe (buy a pastry to go and take it back to the aforementioned cafe) and Los Gauchos, which serves Argentinean food in a splendid setting.
A spot of rest can be had at the Parador San Javier, a rustic hotel on the hillside overlooking Guanajuato. The view inside is as nice as out: the lobby is filled with clubby couches and heavy wood chairs watched over by old oils and ornate chandeliers. The hotel's El Pozo Bar is just the place for you to whet your whistle, while the pool provides the opportunity for a refreshing plunge. There are two restaurants at the San Javier, both serving excellent Mexican cuisine. Your room for the night is as colorful and comfortable as the rest of this town, so rest up for the next leg of your journey.
Morelia is another colonial beauty, this one in shades of sand and stone. The capital of the state of Michoacan, Morelia is known as one of the premier centers of arts and crafts in the Mexican Republic. Consequently, your first stop should be at the Casa de Artesanias, a public/private partnership which showcases the art of neighboring towns like Patzcuaro, Uruapan and San Jose de Gracia. Fine blue-glazed pottery and colorful wooden furniture are the highlights, and everything is for sale. Be sure to catch the Indian women from the state of Mexico selling their weavings right outside. They drive a hard bargain, but their handwork is worth every penny. Bargaining is the order of the day in Morelia, since the center of town is one big marketplace. Vendors line the busy streets, selling everything from underwear and shoes to cassettes and fruit. If all of this haggling wears you down, head to the main plaza and visit one of the many cafes nearby. The cafe at the Hotel Casino is an excellent spot at which to read the paper or a book over a chilly ice cream soda.
Next to the wonderful art, the other big draw in Morelia is the opportunity to stay at the Villa Montana, a rambling hostelry perched high on a hill overlooking the city. This one-time private residence was purchased by Frenchman Philippe de Reyset nearly 25 years ago. Forty-one rooms (most of them suites) are spread over several low-slung buildings and surrounded by blooming gardens. An avid collector of art and antiques, de Reyset completely remodels four units every year with new purchases from around his adopted country. Your roomy suite comes with cool tile floors, a seating area next to a wood-burning fireplace and a bed so comfortable you'll never want to get up. Reading is easy in your suite thanks to the many lamps, and the bathroom alone is the size of many hotel rooms (be sure to bundle up in the soft terry-cloth robe). Service is a hallmark of the Villa Montana, where the staff-to-guest ratio is more than generous and in ample evidence at the hotel restaurant. A glass wall along one side of the restaurant offers a view of the bar and the city lights beyond. Begin your meal with the tortilla soup, possibly the best you'll have in Mexico, and continue with the buttery filet mignon. Dessert has to be the caramelized peach with vanilla ice cream, a creation as delectable as the setting. A nightcap at the bar is the crowning touch.
Leaving Morelia is hard to do, but the departure is made a little easier if your next, and final, destination is Oaxaca. The land of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs is still a magical mystery ride for the rest of us, but a pleasant one at that. Prepare to wind down in Oaxaca: there is a certain calm to the town which lends itself to easy strolling, if only to soak up the sights, sounds and smells. Vendors offering colorful baskets or necklaces in bright, shiny colors hold court at most every plaza and green space. The black pottery of nearby San Bartolomeo de Coatepec is easy to find, while intricately-painted wooden animals and delicate silver jewelry are also popular. Take a break and indulge in a cup of fresh fruit or some toasty corn-on-the-cob. You'll do a lot of shopping in Oaxaca, which is half the fun (visit El Copal if you want the finest in crafts and silver), but be sure to leave time for the zocalo, ringed with cafes and restaurants, and a visit to one of the town's many churches (the Church of Santo Domingo is a beauty). A nice stop for lunch is the Cafe La Olla, where a three-course repast will barely pinch your pocket.
The top choice for R&R is a former church: the ex-Convent of Santa Catalina, which is now the Hotel Camino Real. Shades of the former convent are everywhere, from the faded religious artwork to the giant oils which hang regally on the beige-pink walls. Arches and courtyards abound, with lush foliage gracing every curve and corner. Afternoons are a wonderful time at the hotel, since you're likely to find a guitarist serenading guests near the pool. The person on the chaise next to you is probably from Europe or points east, clear evidence that Oaxaca draws a continental crowd. The rooms at the Camino Real are spacious and comfortably-appointed, but you'll want to spend your time here enjoying the grounds or savoring a meal at the hotel restaurant (seating both indoors and out).
A few days in Oaxaca will serve to restore both body and spirit, preparing you for the return home. It's also a great way to end your Mexican sojourn, safe in the knowledge that you will return to this land which is rich in history and natural beauty and filled with a people whose warmth is contagious.
Hotel Camino Real Mexico City
tel. (5) 203-2121
Double rooms from USD $210 to $305; weekend rates available.
Talavera Artistica Aguilar
Puebla 5 Norte 4004 at 40 Poniente
tel. (22) 32-54-53.
Hotel Quinta Real Zacatecas
tel. (492) 291-04
Double rooms from USD $100.
Parador San Javier Guanajuato
tel. (473) 206-26
Double rooms from USD $40.
Hotel Villa Montana Morelia
tel. (43) 14-02-31
Double rooms from USD $90 to $150.
Hotel Camino Real Oaxaca
tel. (951) 606-11
Double rooms from USD $150-$240.