To see one of these Colonial Mexican cities, could be one of the joys of a lifetime. To many US and Canadian visitors, Mexico may be the closest they ever come to walking in cathedrals and cities 500 years old, without travelling across the Atlantic to Europe. That’s right, while the Pilgrims were living in wooden shacks in James Town, Mexico had well established, bustling cities dripping in Spanish and Aztec gold that had been around for a century. These cities have held their architectural roots remarkably well, and we’ve always enjoyed visiting all of the colonial cities of Mexico. Below is a list of some of the more notable ones, but not by any means is it all of them, or even the best.
Founded by Cortes and the Conquistadores way back in 1529, Taxco is a mountain town located on the route from Mexico City to Acapulco. Famous for its silver mines in the past, Taxco is still renowned for its silver jewelry and craftwork, and is a great shopping destination. If youíre not in search of silver, just come for the architectureóthe town is graced with an ornate, Baroque style church, the Parish of Santa Prisca y San Sebastian, which overlooks a sea of red-tile roofed, colonial-era buildings. The streets are narrow, often steep, and lacking sidewalks, so walking tours are recommended but can be strenuous. Taxco is renowned as well for the street signage and murals painted on wallsóthey use the signs of the zodiac to indicate commercial zones, for example, Taurus, the bull, painted on a wall, shows the way to the butchersí district. There are silver mining haciendas, a couple of small museums, noteworthy churches, and plenty of markets and shops offering silver in a thousand different forms, many of them gorgeous, and reasonably priced.
And then there is Holy Week. If you go for religious processions and celebrations, Taxco’s Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) processionals have attained international stature. The ten daily processionals that take place cover about a mile and a half in two hours, with increasingly intense rituals and commemorations taking place as the week moves forward. This is pretty compelling stuff to watch, whatever your religion, with myriad elaborations on the various themes drawn from the Christ story. Infused with the pre-existing animist beliefs that pre-date the Catholic Church in the New World, these rituals are rich, colorful, extraordinary variations on the motifs of Easter.
Taxco has myriad small hotels, B&B’s, and great places to stay, many with wonderful views, this is a hill town! Also do consider an overnighter if you head that way.
This is not a city you want to drive into, unless you know exactly where you are going, for it is encircled by grimy industrial wastelands and truckstops full of noisy monsters. So make sure you plan your way in. Once there, in the cityís historic heart, you’ll discover the quiet charms of this “city of plazas” or “city of gardens”. There are 7 neighborhoods spoking out from the center; 4 main plazas, and dozens of architecturally significant buildings dating all the way back to the 16th century.
The Plaza de Armas is a good place to start, especially for shoppers. The streets around Calle Hidalgo, closed to automobile traffic, offer a fine shopping destination especially for those seeking serapes, shawls, or gold and silver goods, all regional specialties in this town built on the wealth generated by silver mines in the area.
Also of note: for those intrigued by the bloody but still compelling spectacle of bullfighting, San Luis Potosi has three rings, and takes this *sport* very, very seriously. San Luis Potosi even has a museum dedicated to the bull fight. The most famous bullring is Plaza de Toros Fermin Rivera, where fights are held from May to September. There is also a bull fight festival, La Feria Taurino, held in November, with fights every day.
A good day trip will take you eighty miles north of San Luis Potosi to the ex-mining town, now a ghost town, of Real de Catorce. Set high (9000 ft.) on a plateau, Real de Catorce once housed over 30,000 people. Some of the town remnants include an old mint where they minted silver bars and coins, a fairly elaborate church and a cock fighting ring from 1789.
75 miles east of Mexico City, Tlaxcala is a quiet town with a population of 50,000, and is the capital of Mexico’s smallest state, also named Tlaxcala. This town goes way back, having been founded by Hernan Cortes and a group of Franciscan friars in 1520.
Tlaxcala’s main sights are the colonial buildings clustered around the Plaza de la Constitucion. The plaza itself contains a 19th century bandstand and a fountain dating from 1646. Come here on the weekend and join the dance! They hold dances in the plaza every weekend, and they’re very popular with the locals. Be sure and check out the 16th century Palacio de Gobierno, by the plaza, with its beautiful murals on the history of the area, while the Templo de San Francisco houses Tlaxcala’s Regional Museum and the Living Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions.
Regional handicrafts include hand-loomed textiles, Talavera pottery, and hand carved wooden pieces, like masks and canes. The Casa de las Artesanias, three blocks west of the plaza, is a shopping area/museum, with artisan guides so you can meet the men and women who make the goods.
Huamantla, a town 30 miles to the east of Tlaxcala has a fair in August featuring the Huamantlada, Mexico’s version of the Spanish running of the bulls at Pamplona. Not recommended unless you are young and stupid and very, very fast on your feet! If you are, go for it, third Saturday in August, held every year.
This beautiful, elegant city, founded in the year 1531, lies about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City. Reflecting Queretaro’s historic significance as well as its beauty, in 1996 the historic center of Queretaro was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in part because the town is unusual in having retained the geometric street plan of the Spanish conquerors side by side with the twisting alleys of the Indian quarters. Queretaro is also known for its many Baroque monuments from the 17th and 18th centuries. In 2008, National Geographic listed Queretaro as one of the top 15 historic destinations of the world. Not a place that instantly comes to mind when you think Mexico, but an under-visited destination that should not be missed on any tour of Mexico’s colonial past.
You’ll especially not want to miss the city’s main visual event, the Aqueduct! With its seventy five arches, each 65 feet wide and reaching a length of 4200 feet and an average height of 75 feet, this is an awesome piece of engineering. Constructed by the Marquis Juan Antonio de la Urrutia y Arana early in the 18th century, the aqueduct was built at the request of the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent to bring water to the city.
Most of the rest of Queretaro’s notable sites are located in the historic center, a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood overflowing with beautifully maintained colonial architecture. The place is super-clean and totally friendly, with locals and visitors strolling the plazas and walkways and frequenting the many restaurants, cafes and food stands. For those in search of some entertaining historical insights, we recommend the Noche de Leyendas (Night of Legends), mixing interactive theater with story-telling, as a group of actors wander the streets telling tales of the city. And there are many tales to tell.
In case you ever wondered why the Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, here is where and why: On May 5th, 1862, 2000 Mexican troops defeated 6000 French invaders at Fuerte de Loreto, a fort just outside the city of Puebla. Although the French eventually prevailed in that particular war, the battle is always remembered as a major Mexican victory over a larger, better-trained, and better-armed adversary. Hence the party, Cinco de Mayo.
Puebla was founded by Cortes in 1531, on his march to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and to this day is known as one of Mexico’s most photogenic cities. Puebla is also renowned as the home of hand-painted Talavera ceramics–Talavera tiles adorn many of the cityís colonial buildings. Any tour of Puebla should begin in the main plaza, or zocalo, with a visit to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico. Built between 1575 and 1649, the church stands over 200 feet high sky–and legend has it the bell was put in place by an angel. Whatever, it is a beautiful church, and the surrounding blocks are filled with gorgeous colonial-era buildings.
Look for antiques in the shops of Callejon de los Sapos, and then, when night falls, check out the bars in the same barrio, where jazz and blues bands do battle with traditional mariachi music. It’s quite a lively scene.
Next day maybe head out to Cholula, where the hilltop church stands, silhouetted against Vulcan Popocatepetl. But that’s not a hill the church sits on, it’s a 216-foot high pyramid! Though it is shorter than some of the Egyptian pyramids, given its mass and the size of its base, it is said to be the largest pyramid on the planet. Cholula was a major ceremonial site in Precolombian times, and though the site is not as impressive as some, the location of the ruins in and around the delightful town of Cholula makes for a great day trip from Puebla.
One of our favorite Mexican cities, Merida is an exquisite exercise in preservation, a well-kept colonial city with streets that conjure Spain or France. Plus its Yucatan Peninsula location lies within hailing distance of most of Mexico’s most compelling archaeological sites, including Chichen Itza, Mayapan, Uxmal, and many others.
Colonial architecture is everywhere evident in downtown Merida, with elegant government buildings, churches, plazas, mansions and haciendas dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. If you’d like to live like a king for a few days, or a least a really rich guy, find yourself a hacienda and check in: out in the countryside, several haciendas have been turned into elegant guest houses, available for short term rental. With its many nearby sidewalk cafes and shady trees, the plaza rules downtown Merida and local life. Art galleries, museums, and the central market are all nearby, and a generous schedule of concerts, cultural events and exhibitions are scheduled seven days a week. You can also take a day trip to nearby cenotes or the Rio Lagartos, where you’ll find thousands of pink flamingos, plenty of other birds, and even a few crocodiles.
Do you have any stories of other Colonial Mexican Cities that you love? Do you have any questions about these or other Colonial cities? Go ahead, leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you.