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Explore Mexico: Mexico City and around

The Valley of México has been the country's centre of gravity since earliest prehistory, long before the concept of a Mexican nation existed. Based in this mountain-ringed basin - 100km long, 60km wide and over 2400m high, dotted with great salt- and freshwater lagoons and dominated by the vast snowcapped peaks of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl - were the most powerful civilizations the country has seen. Today the lakes have all but disappeared, and the mountains are shrouded in smog, but it continues to be the heart of the country, its physical centre and the generator of every political, cultural and economic pulse.

At the crossroads of everything sprawls the vibrant, elegant, frenetic and fascinating Mexico City . In population one of the largest cities in the world, with more than twenty million inhabitants, its lure is irresistible. Colonial mansions and excavated pyramids vie for attention with the city's fabulous museums and galleries, while above them tower the concrete and glass of thrusting development. But above all, the city is alive - exciting, sometimes frightening, always bewildering, but boldly alive. You can't avoid it, and if you genuinely want to know anything of Mexico you shouldn't try, even if the attraction does sometimes seem to be the same ghoulish fascination that draws onlookers to the site of a particularly nasty accident.

Round about there's escape and interest in every direction. To the north, and the most obvious destinations for day-trips, are the magnificent pyramid sites of Teotihuacán and Tula, the more dramatic legacies of the region's ancient peoples. The road to Tula passes Tepotzotlán, a weekend retreat from the city centred on a magnificent Baroque complex built by the Jesuits and filled with ornate treasures. To the east lies the small city of Pachuca, capital of Hidalgo state and a springboard for the hill country to the north, notably the attractive mountain village of Real del Monte with its Cornish connections.

East of Mexico City lies the region's second-largest city, the thriving and ultra-colonial Puebla . This city probably only warrants a day or two of your time, but does work as a great base for forays north to Tlaxcala, and west to Cholula with its enormous ruined pyramid. The ancient site here offers one of the best views of central Mexico's twin volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, both currently off limits after Popo's recent eruptions.

Immediately south of the capital you climb over the mountains and descend to Cuernavaca, full of ancient palaces, and handy for the hilltop pyramid sites of Tepoztlán and Xochicalco . An hour further south the silver town of Taxco straggles picturesquely up a hillside making it one of the most appealing destinations hereabouts. Possibly the least-visited quarter of Mexico City's environs is the west, where the city of Toluca offers only modest rewards, acting as a staging post for the lakeside resort town of Valle de Bravo and some small towns to the south, the most interesting being Malinalco, with yet more ancient pyramids.

All these ruins owe their existence to a long succession of pre-Columbian rulers, above all the Aztecs, whose warrior state was crushed by Cortés. But they were relative newcomers, forging their empire by force of arms in less than two centuries and borrowing their culture, science, arts and even language from the Valley societies that had gone before. Teotihuacán, whose mighty pyramids still stand some 50km northeast of the modern city, was the predominant culture of the Classic period and the true forebear of the Aztecs, a city of some 200,000 people whose influence spread throughout the country, south to the Maya lands in the Yucatán and beyond into Guatemala and Central America. Their style, though never as militaristic as later societies, was adopted everywhere: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and Tlaloc, the rain god, were Teotihuacán deities.

For all its pre-eminence, though, Teotihuacán was neither the earliest, nor the only settlement in the Valley: the pyramid at Cuicuilco, now in the south of the city, is probably the oldest stone structure in the country, and there were small agricultural communities all around the lakes. The Aztecs, arriving some five hundred years after the destruction of Teotihuacán, however, didn't acknowledge their debt. They regarded themselves as descendants of the Toltec kingdom, whose capital lay at Tula to the north, and whose influence - as successors to Teotihuacán - was almost as pervasive. The Aztecs consciously took over the Toltec, military-based society, and adopted many of their gods: above all Quetzalcoatl, who assumed an importance equal to that of their own tribal deity, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, who had brought them to power and demanded human sacrifice to keep them there. In taking control of the society while adopting its culture, the Aztecs were following in the footsteps of their Toltec predecessors, who had arrived in central Mexico as a marauding tribe of Chichimeca ("Sons of Dogs") from the north, absorbing the local culture as they came to dominate it.

Explore Mexico

  ?Mexico City and around
  ?Puerto Vallarta
  ?Tijuana and The Baja Peninsula

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