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Our LIST OF MEXICO LODGING goes well beyond the famous beach resorts. We explore the small captivating towns with their one of a kind Mexico inns as well as the better known Mexico resorts. Our travels throughout Mexico have produced 8 wonderful ITINERARIES exploring the many fascinating towns, rich archaeological sites, remarkable natural wonders, and delightful beach resorts.

Mexico is an incomparable destination, a stunning country that includes such a wealth of wonders that, whatever your interests, you are bound to have your dreams fulfilled. There are marvelous Mexico hotels, archaeological treasures beyond belief, breathtaking beaches, soaring mountains, deep canyons, fascinating 16th-century Colonial towns, cosmopolitan cities, quaint Indian villages, colorful markets, fine golf courses, divine snorkeling, whale excursions, outstanding bird watching, butterfly reserves, tropical forests, dense jungles, superb deep-sea fishing, chic boutiques, cute shops featuring native handicrafts, and, for all of us who love to eat, culinary delights. To add the final touch of perfection, the weather in Mexico is excellent. However, Mexico is not for everyone. If it bothers you when service isn’t instant, if you are upset when everything isn’t totally tidy, if you are disappointed if your hotel doesn’t have internet access, then perhaps you should consider another destination. But the things that may seem like faults to some are, in our estimation, exactly what make Mexico so special. Here you step back into another time where people are not rushed, where friendliness prevails, where cultural differences enrich your travels. We have always loved Mexico. Now, after spending an extended period of time there, we are more captivated than ever by its charms. We know that our readers who are young in heart will share our enthusiasm for this fabulous country with its extraordinarily warm people and amazing culture.




Many major U.S. car rental companies operate in Mexico. It is best to stick to well known companies, as many of the lesser-known franchises are not properly supervised. Rental fees are, in general, higher than in the United States, Canada, and Europe. A compact car will cost about $85 per day and the car will probably not be delivered to you with a full tank of gas. You must return the car only to the office where you rented it or an additional fee will be added. Often during high season there are not enough cars to meet demand, so it is best to make reservations in advance.


The monetary unit is the peso. Please note the rate is subject to daily fluctuations. The peso is the unit of currency in Mexico. The nuevo peso (new peso) was introduced in 1993 and comes in 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 500-, and 1,000-peso notes. The symbol for the peso is the same as the dollar sign used in the USA, which can be a little confusing. In the information given for each hotel, the dollar sign represents U.S. dollars. In our other guides, we show the hotel rate in the currency of the country, but Mexican hotels are so geared to the American tourist that their rates are always quoted in dollars.

ATM MACHINES: It is very quick and easy to get money through one of the ATM machines that are found throughout Mexico, often even in small towns. They are usually located at a bank or on one of the main shopping streets. Try to use ATM machines inside banks and avoid using them at night. Note that some U.S. banks are now charging an exchange fee for obtaining money abroad.

MONEY EXCHANGE: Contrary to the situation in many countries, in Mexico you can usually get a better rate of exchange at a casa de cambio (money-exchange booth) than at a bank. Also, banks are usually crowded and frequently closed, making the money exchange even more user-friendly. Most hotels will also usually exchange your money, but the rate is generally not as competitive.

Many establishments accept one or more credit cards. If possible, pay using your credit card as the exchange rate is usually quite favorable. Paying by credit card reduces the need to carry large sums of cash and thus reduces potential loss in the case of theft. Keep a record of your credit card numbers at home as well as with you separately from your cards in case of loss or theft. Also, it is a good idea to contact your card issuer and inform them of your travel plans.



BORDER CROSSING: Allow at least an hour to cross the border from the United States into Mexico. On your return from Mexico into the United States, it can take even longer, often several hours. Since September 11, the time has increased due to security. Expect delays, especially during peak hours of the day or holidays, when traffic is more intense. If you are driving across the border, be aware that there are several requirements. These are listed below: 1) Proof of Ownership: A visitor bringing a car into Mexico must have proof of ownership (title or registration). If your car is financed, you must have a notarized letter from your financing institution on the company’s letterhead giving you permission to drive into Mexico. You may not take someone else’s car into Mexico. 2) Forms: You need to fill out two forms: a Temporary Vehicle Importation permit, and a Promise to Return Vehicle form. These forms are available at the border or at AAA club offices in Arizona, California, or Texas. 3) Administration Fee: At point of entry, an administration fee of $29 plus tax must be paid with a credit card. The credit card must be in the registered owner’s name and issued by a U.S. or Canadian bank or lending institution. Cash or checks are not accepted. A sticker is applied to your windshield after you pay the administration fee. If you do not have a credit card, you must purchase a bond valid for 6 months (based on the value of your car) from a bonding company at the border. 4) Mexican Insurance: You must have Mexican car insurance. You can buy insurance at the border or in advance from AAA clubs in Arizona, California, or Texas. 5) Additional documents that must be presented at the border: Proof of citizenship Valid driver's license A tourist permit Current vehicle license/registration receipt 6) Children under 18 years of age, if traveling with only one parent, must have a notarized letter from the other parent allowing them to travel. If traveling without either parent, children need a notarized letter from both parents allowing them to travel (see Entry Requirements below). After crossing into Mexico, there are two stops where inspectors will check to be sure you have the proper permits and the stickers. Note that there are certain “free zones” that do not require all the permits listed above. These are generally border towns (within 25 kilometers of the border), the Baja Peninsula, and the state of Sonora. You will encounter checkpoints south of these free zones so do not try to cross without the proper paperwork if you plan to travel farther south. CUOTA: (TOLL HIGHWAY) Mexico has developed an extensive system of new toll highways, designated by the letter “D” following the route number. Although tolls can be expensive (Mexico City to Acapulco is approximately $125 one way), we recommend taking these toll roads whenever possible. They are very fast and efficient with very little traffic (trucks usually take the free roads). Non-toll roads are usually slow two-lane roads, which might not be in good condition. Toll roads also have the added bonus of solar-powered emergency telephones every 2 kilometers. Most toll roads are four-lane, greatly resembling U.S. interstate highways, though sometimes they have only two lanes. (The roads are privately financed and therefore can vary from region to region.) Tolls are calculated by distance and number of axles on the vehicle and usually only cash (pesos and sometimes U.S. dollars) is accepted. You enter through a control gate and are given a ticket then at various points along the highway you come to toll stations where money is collected. Be sure to keep your receipt—it is your insurance against the cost of road repairs if you get into an accident. DRIVER’S LICENSE: You need a valid driver’s license issued by your home country to drive in Mexico. A Mexican driver’s license is not required. DRIVING AND ALCOHOL: Driving under the influence of alcohol is illegal in Mexico. You can be arrested and taken to jail for drunk driving. If you are involved in an accident and found to be under the influence of alcohol, your insurance will become invalid and you will go to jail. EMERGENCIES: If you have an emergency while driving, the equivalent of “911” in Mexico is “060.” You can also call the Green Angels (see below) for help: (01) 800-903-9200. Toll roads have solar-powered emergency phones for your convenience.

Driving Summary:

GASOLINE: Gasoline in Mexico is expensive. There are gas stations along all the highways, but be aware that they rarely accept payment by credit card. Also, many gas stations are closed at certain times of the day or on holidays, so be sure you always have plenty of gas in the tank. Gasoline is sold by the liter. Remember to have the attendant “zero” out the pump (meaning starting from zero) to be sure you are not overcharged. It is customary to give the attendant one or two pesos as tip. You should always tip the attendant who washes your window about two pesos. GREEN ANGELS (Angeles Verdes): These are trained, bilingual mechanics traveling the nation’s highways from 8 am to 8 pm in 275 green trucks to provide emergency service and first aid. They carry car parts and gasoline and charge only for the parts; their service is free, thanks to Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat. Just open your hood all the way and hope one drives by or call their toll-free number (in Mexico only) (01) 800-903-9200 or (01) 55-250-8221, ext. 130. Tips are greatly appreciated. INSURANCE: U.S. insurance is not valid in Mexico—you must obtain insurance from a Mexican insurance company, either on the internet or at the border. Mexican liability insurance is not required by law, but highly recommended. Insurance companies are a wealth of information and can help you with all the paperwork required for crossing the border. Be sure your insurance includes claims adjusters who will come to the scene of the accident and an attorney. Mexican insurance is not valid if you are found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Mexican law follows the Napoleonic Code, which means you are guilty until proven innocent. Also note that theft and vandalism are usually not covered by insurance. NIGHT DRIVING: We recommend that you avoid driving after sunset whenever possible, unless on a toll road. The danger of driving greatly increases at night due to poor street lighting combined with donkeys, dogs, children, potholes, and unknown objects that are commonly in the road. Also, be aware that it is not unusual for cars to have broken tail lights, etc. PARKING: When in cities, it is always safest to leave your car in a parking lot with an attendant or in a parking garage. The cost is reasonable and worth the extra expense for peace of mind. If you are driving, when you make your hotel reservation, ask them if they have parking available and the cost. Many hotels have their own parking lot or, if not, they usually have an arrangement with a nearby garage. RESTRICTED DRIVING DAYS IN MEXICO CITY: In an effort to reduce pollution, vehicular traffic is restricted in Mexico City on certain days of the week. The restriction is based on the last digit of the vehicle license plate (see following page). Since Saturday and Sunday are the only “free” days for access into the city, if you are driving, plan to arrive on a weekend. Note: Our suggestion is not to drive into Mexico City at all—wait until the day you leave before picking up a rental car. You will find a car a nuisance while in the city. The best way to get around is to walk or take a private taxi that is recommended by your hotel. Prohibited Days & Corresponding License Plate Numbers Monday: no driving if license plate ends with 5 or 6 Tuesday: no driving if license plate ends with 7 or 8 Wednesday: no driving if license plate ends with 3 or 4 Thursday: no driving if license plate ends with 1 or 2 Friday: no driving if license plate ends with 9 or 0 Saturday and Sunday: all vehicles may be driven. ROAD SIGNS: Road signs are a mix of international picture symbols and signs in Spanish. Signs on smaller roads are often poorly maintained or absent so it is easy to get lost. Make sure you have a good map. The major roads and toll highways will have good signage displaying the highway number, kilometer marker, and mileage for upcoming cities. SEATBELTS: By law everyone in the car must wear seatbelts.


The standard voltage in Mexico is 110. For those traveling from the United States, no converters or adaptor plugs are needed.


ITEMS TO BUY: Mexican handicrafts are very popular and various regions or towns excel in one or more crafts. These items have often been made for generations and are great gifts to bring home. Woven goods such as ponchos (woolen blankets worn by men), serapes (woolen shawls worn by women), rugs, colorful tapestries, and blankets are easy to find in assorted styles, qualities, and prices. Silver jewelry is sold almost everywhere in Mexico, but Taxco is the most famous town for beautiful designs by skilled craftsmen. Hand-blown glass is made in Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City. Wooden furniture, guitars, and beautiful copper items are commonly found in the Colonial areas. Oaxaca and the Copper Canyon are noted for their woven baskets and leather goods. Pottery is one of Mexico’s biggest craft industries. The most famous is gorgeous Talavera pottery, which principally comes from two places, Puebla near Mexico City and Dolores Hidalgo near San Miguel de Allende. Archaeological artifacts: At some archaeological sites, you may find people selling objects they have supposedly found. Refuse these offers. Mexican law states that it is illegal to export antiques or items that can be described as national treasures.


If you have questions not answered in this guide, or need special guidance for a particular destination, the Mexican National Tourist Offices can assist you. If you have access to the Internet you may want to visit their websites, www.visitmexico.com. The Mexican Tourist Office’s general information line, toll-free from the United States and Canada, is (800) 446-3942. For electronic (print-ready) information, send an email to contact@visitmexico.com. In an emergency, contact the Mexican Ministry of Tourism’s 24-hour hotline: within Mexico, toll-free (91) 800.90.392; from the United States, (800) 482-9832.


Los Angeles: Mexican Tourist Office, 1800 Century Park East, Suite 511, Los Angeles, CA, 90067, USA, tel: (310) 282-9112, ext. 23, fax: (310) 282-9116, email: contact@visitmexico.com.

New York: Mexican Tourist Office, 375 Park Ave., Suite 1905, New York, NY 10152, USA, tel: (212) 308-2110, fax: (212) 308-9060, email: contact@visitmexico.com.

Montreal: Mexican Tourist Office, Place Ville Marie, Suite 1931, Montreal, Quebec H3B 2C3, Canada, tel: (514) 871-1052, fax: (514) 871-3825, email: turimex@cam.org

London: Mexico Government Tourist Office, 41 Trinity Square, Wakefield House, London EC3N 4DJ, tel: (207) 488 93 92 or (207) 265 07 05, fax: (207) 265 07 04, email: visitemexico@over-marketing.com

TOURIST OFFICES IN MEXICO: Almost all towns throughout Mexico have a local tourist office. We strongly recommend that, during your travels, you make a beeline for the closest office for current information on local events. The tourist offices, which are generally located on, or near, the central plaza, usually have maps and information on what to see in the town and the surrounding area.


Spring and fall are lovely times to travel throughout Mexico, but each season has its advantages. At the beach resorts, both on the east and west coasts, the hottest months are September and October. Although the thermometer doesn’t read significantly higher than the rest of the year, the days seem muggier since this is the tail end of the rainy season and the humidity has had time to build up. If you want to miss the crowds (and frequently higher hotel costs), avoid traveling during Mexican holidays: Christmas, Easter, and school vacation (mid-July to mid-August). During these periods hotel space is at a premium and the resort areas crowded. November through June is usually lovely at the beach resorts and summer is very nice there also—although you might have some tropical showers, which commonly happen in the late afternoon. The east coast faces the Caribbean where hurricanes occasionally occur between mid-August through October. If your target is one of the major cities, really any time is a great time to travel.


We have put together itineraries covering Mexico’s many fascinating towns, rich archaeological sites, remarkable natural wonders, and delightful beach resorts. These itineraries tie in with suggestions for romantic places to stay. If possible, try to combine one or more itineraries. As an example, top off a week climbing pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula with several days stretched out on a hammock on one of the unsurpassed beaches of the Riviera Maya. For those who are apprehensive about driving, we begin our selection of itineraries with Colonial Gems: Charming Towns by Car or Bus, designed for those who want to get off the beaten path but prefer not to drive. This itinerary gives two ways to get to each destination: one by car and one by bus. Contrary to the situation in Europe, deluxe or first-class bus transportation is the preferred means of public transportation between towns within Mexico. In addition to Colonial gems, our itineraries cover Mexico City and the surrounding valley, Oaxaca and its nearby archaeological sites, the Yucatán Peninsula with its Mayan ruins, the natural wonders of whale-watching, the Monarch butterfly, and the Copper Canyon. For those whose idea of a holiday is to head for the beach, we also offer itineraries that feature places to play in the sun, including beach resorts on both coasts of Mexico and on the Baja Peninsula.

Icons Description Summary:

Position the cursor over the icon on the bottom of the accomodations pages and the resulting text will tell what the icon symbol represents.

Air ConditioningAir conditioning in rooms,

Beach Nearby Beach nearby,

Breakfast IncludedBreakfast included in room rate,

Children Welcome Children welcome,

Cooking ClassesCooking classes offered,

Credit Cards WelcomeCredit cards accepted,

Direct Dial PhonesDirect-dial telephone in room,

Dogs by Request Dogs by special request,


Exercise RoomExercise room,

Refrigerator in Rooms Mini-refrigerator in rooms,

Some Non-Smoking RoomsSome non-smoking rooms,

Parking Available Parking available,


Spa Spa,

Swimming PoolSwimming pool,

Tennis CourtsTennis,

TVs in RoomsTelevision with English channels,

Wedding Facilities Wedding facilities,

Wheelchair FriendlyWheelchair friendly,

Golf Course NearbyGolf course nearby,

Hiking Trails NearbyHiking trails nearby,

Horseback Riding Nearby Horseback riding nearby,

Skiing Nearby Skiing nearby,

Water Sports Nearby Water sports nearby,

Wineries Nearby Wineries nearby.

Entry Requirements:

Unless you are traveling to one of the free zones within 25 kilometers of the border, everyone (including children) entering Mexico must have valid proof of citizenship (passport or birth certificate), a picture ID (if age 18 or older, driver’s license or passport), and a tourist card. A tourist card is required upon entering and leaving Mexico for those visiting for up to 180 days. Tourist cards are free and can be obtained at border crossings, Mexican consulates, and tourist offices, and through most airlines serving Mexico. Be sure to keep your tourist card in a safe place. You may want to write down the number and keep it separate in case you lose it. If you wish to stay longer than 180 days, contact the Mexican embassy or consulate to obtain a visa. Children under 18 traveling without their parents must have a notarized authorization letter from both parents giving the adult permission to take their child to Mexico. A child traveling with just one parent needs a notarized letter from the absent parent. You will be turned away at the airport or at the border if you do not have the proper paperwork. Make sure you can return to the United States with the proof of citizenship you take with you. Although some countries require only a birth certificate to enter, United States law now requires that you document both your U.S. citizenship (for example, passport or birth certificate) and identity (valid driver’s license or government picture ID) when you re-enter the United States.


Mexicans are gracious, friendly, welcoming hosts. Business is done leisurely and greetings drawn out, so for those used to rushing through the day, things seem to move at a snail’s pace. Probably the reverse seems true to Mexicans: they must wonder why their foreign guests dash about without incorporating the charm of genuine courtesy into their human interplay. So, why not slow down a bit? Savor meeting people. If doing business, don’t launch into practical matters immediately—instead, do as Mexicans do: shake hands, look and speak individually to each person, and ask questions about their family and health. Do the same with informal meetings. Don’t rush. Display the same courtesy the Mexicans show to visitors and friends: it can’t be faulted.

Festivals & Holidays:

Festivals and holidays are a time for celebration in Mexico. Frequently music, colorful costumes, dancing and parades can be enjoyed, especially in smaller villages. On the majority of the holidays, banks and commercial offices are closed.

Año Nuevo (January 1):New Year’s Day.

Día de os Santos Reyes (Day of the Kings, January 6): This day ends the Christmas festivities. Gifts are exchanged, symbolizing the gifts brought to Jesus by the three wise men. There is usually a party with food, drink, and candy-filled piñatas for the children.

Día de La Constitución (February 5): The commemoration of Mexico’s Constitution.

Carnival (February/March): The days preceding the rigors of Lent are celebrated nationally with extravagant parades, floats, confetti, dancing, and the burning of effigies.

Natalicio de Benito Juárez (Birthday of Benito Juárez, March 21): This commemorates the birthday of Benito Juárez, one of Mexico’s national heroes.

Semana Santa (Holy Week, March/April, Good Friday through Easter): A very important time that is celebrated all over Mexico. Many parades and passion plays are performed, especially in the southern states and in the Colonial towns.

Cinco de Mayo (May 5): The commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, a Mexican victory over the invading French army in 1862.

Día de La Independencia (Independence Day, September 16): Father Miguel Hidalgo’s cry to arms to free Mexico of Spanish rule in 1810 is commemorated all over Mexico. Fiestas take place in every town square on the evening of the 15th, including fireworks, music, and the throwing of eggshells filled with confetti. Children wear national costumes or dress as Independence heroes and many parades take place.

Descubrimento de América (Discovery of America by Columbus, October 12): Commemorates Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead, November 1 to 2): Mexico’s most colorful fiesta, celebrating the belief that once a year the dead have permission to return to earth and visit friends and relatives. During the Day of the Dead the living welcome the souls of the departed with special foods, flowers, candles, and incense. This is an occasion for gaiety and parties. To celebrate the day, artists often portray death with humor, making rather gruesome yet whimsical skull and skeleton artifacts.

Día de La Revolución (Day of the Revolution, November 20): This day celebrates the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (December 12): The appearance of Mexico’s patron saint in 1531 on the Cerro del Tepeyac hill is remembered in every town and village. Thousands of pilgrims flock to her shrine in Mexico City. In the rest of the country, Las Mañanitas, an early-morning birthday song, is sung at dawn and special church services are attended.

Las Posadas (Christmas Season): This begins December 16 with the reenactment of Mary and Joseph searching for a place to spend the night while Mary is about to deliver her baby. For nine nights people carry lighted candles and figures of Mary and Joseph as they travel between homes begging for a place to lay their heads. They are greeted at each house with gifts of food.

Navidad (Christmas Day, December 25).

Local Guides:

A local guide is of great value. To select a knowledgeable, reputable guide, we recommend asking at your hotel for recommendations and rates. We particularly recommend that you hire a car with an English-speaking driver/guide when you are in Mexico City, because there is a higher incidence of crime there, some involving cabs. But safety isn’t the only reason: a guide can greatly enhance your sightseeing experience. If you have several people in your group, then a car and driver is frequently less costly than a package bus tour, and much more personal.


WATER: Because some people get sick when drinking any water that is different from what they are used to at home, we suggest you use bottled water. Many of the deluxe hotels purify their water and if so, it is safe to drink. If your accommodations have a kitchenette, you can always boil water before using it. Almost all hotels serve their drinks with ice made from purified water. If in doubt, ask. When driving, it is a good idea to buy some bottled water to drink along the way. When visiting archaeological sites, be sure to carry a few bottles of water with you. It is not always available to buy and you will need a refreshing drink while exploring the ruins and climbing pyramids!

FOOD: Don’t buy food at roadside stands. Although you might be tempted because the aroma is usually bewitching, just remember there is little sanitation available at these stands so it difficult to wash hands or utensils to meet high standards of sanitation. Avoid seafood, fruits, and vegetables that you have not peeled yourself or that cannot be cooked. Also avoid unpasteurized dairy products.


Spanish is the official language in Mexico. In cities or popular resort areas, almost all of the hotels have English-speaking staff available to help you. In some of the more remote areas, you might encounter situations where English is not spoken. Under Vocabulary we have given a few common words to help you get along. However, the best bet is to carry a small pocket-sized dictionary and point to some of the words if you need assistance. There should never be a problem checking into your hotel because the receptionist will have your name if you have a reservation. Carry your confirmation with you to make check-in easier.


OVERSEAS CALLS: Making calls from Mexico is not the hassle it once was, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Most hotels have a phone system, but we advise not charging calls to your room as charges can quickly soar to over $100. This is not because the hotel is trying to take advantage of you, but because long-distance calls are extraordinarily expensive in Mexico. It is more economical to charge your calls to your AT&T, MCI, or SPRINT calling card (you can request one from your telephone company before leaving home). Each of these companies has a local number in Mexico that will connect you to the USA.

AT&T: (01) 800-288-2872 or (001) 800-462-4240;

MCI: (001) 880-674-7000;

SPRINT: (001) 880-877-8000.

Another option is to buy a Ladatel card. Most public phones are labeled Telemex (the national telephone company) and are part of the Ladatel (long-distance) phone system. You can purchase these cards in different peso denominations at most pharmacies and gas stations or vending machines at airports and bus stations. You swipe the card, enter the access number on the card, and place your call. It is very easy and efficient.

CALLING WITHIN MEXICO: Some hotels may charge for local calls, so you should ask before using the phone in your room. Your hotel concierge may be able to place most calls for you from the hotel’s lobby (restaurant reservations, arranging a local tour, etc). Public phones take Ladatel cards for local, as well as long-distance calls. For long-distance calls within Mexico, dial 01 followed by the area code and the number.


TAXES: Mexico levies a 15% value added tax (IVA) on all goods and services (10% in some areas such as Baja and Cancún). The tax is supposed to be included in the posted price.

TIPPING: In Mexico, it is customary to tip waiters, maids, porters, and guides (make sure that a service charge has not already been added to your restaurant bill). Percentages for hotel and restaurant staff are similar to those in the USA and Canada. Taxi drivers are not usually tipped, except if they have performed some special service. Unlike the United States and Canada, theater ushers and gas station, washroom, and parking attendants all expect to be tipped. In general, calculate $1.50 per person for baggage handlers/porters, $1 per day for chambermaids. Tour guides and drivers should be tipped based on the cost of the tour and the quality of the service. Parking lot attendants and valet parking persons should get about 5 pesos.


To visit Mexico without including at least one of its archaeological wonders would be a pity since its history cannot be understood or appreciated without a journey into the past. Mexican archaeology has revealed one of the most fascinating and splendid chapters in all of world prehistory. Mexico has been inhabited for thousands of years, during which time a stunningly sophisticated culture emerged. During the peak of this civilization, awesome cities were constructed, a superb network of roads was built, and massive pyramids emerged in honor of the gods. Today throughout Mexico there are archaeological sites that attest to the profound grandeur of this era. These sites are dotted throughout every part of Mexico and are described in depth in our itineraries. The archaeological and Colonial sites, and various museums recommended here are not in any way a complete inventory. Instead, they are places we consider very special that conveniently blend into our itineraries and are close to excellent accommodations. Note: most museums are closed on Monday.

The archaeological record in Mexico begins thousands of years ago at the end of the last ice age (c.10,000 B.C.) when Paleo-Indian bands hunted now-extinct animals such as bison and mammoth. However, the great civilizations of pre-Hispanic Mexico have their beginnings about 2500 B.C. with the development of a rich agricultural tradition based on a triad of crops: corn, beans, and squash. Interestingly, this change from hunting to village-based agriculture occurred not only in Mexico, but also all over the world. The establishment of a stable food supply allowed for an increase in population, growth of settled communities, and eventually the development of cities and sophisticated cultures.

The first great civilization of Mexico developed on the hot Gulf Coast around 1500 B.C. among a group of people known as the Olmecs. The majority of traditions and traits that characterize the many succeeding Mesoamerican cultures have their origin with these very early people. In fact, one of the most amazing aspects of pre-Hispanic Mexico is the continuity of these cultural traits across time and space. Most of the hallmarks of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica had their beginnings in the Olmec period, but were still present 3,000 years later among the Aztecs, a civilization well-documented for us by the Spanish conquistadors. Some of these clearly recognizable characteristics are: a dependence on the basic crops of corn, beans, and squash; a preference for green jade over all other materials for royal or ceremonial objects; the making of fine ceramics; the creation of specialized architecture such as stone pyramids, palaces, temples, and ball courts; the carving of massive stone sculptures depicting gods and rulers; the use of solid rubber balls for playing a ritual team sport; a large pantheon of gods whose names, but not necessarily their characteristics, changed over time; and the use of human sacrifice to placate these gods. Perhaps the greatest achievement, however, was the construction of great urban centers containing plazas, pyramids, ball courts, roadways, monuments, and massive stone architecture, all carefully finished with cut stone and white plaster. These amazing ancient cities still survive throughout Mexico and today offer visitors a glimpse of the extraordinary world of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

This continued survival of ancient traditions from past into present is one of the most intriguing aspects of a visit to modern Mexico. Travelers to Mexico today become quickly, if unconsciously, aware of this through the food—the basic foods are the same as they were 3,500 years ago. Corn, beans, and squash still form the basic triad of a rural diet and even in sophisticated Mexico City tortillas are preferred to bread. In addition, tomatoes, avocados, chocolate, potatoes, chilies, popcorn, papaya, yams, peanuts, turkeys, and much more are all popular survivors of the pre-Hispanic world. Associated with this are centuries-old agricultural techniques that are still used in rural Mexico. Large-scale agriculture is now more common, but in many small farming communities, fields are still ritually marked out just as they were long ago and a coa, or digging stick, is used to plant the corn kernels—three in each hole: one for the gods, one for the birds and one for human needs.

Another modern continuance from the past can be traced to a ritual pre-Columbian game played with a solid rubber ball by two opposing teams. In fact, the actual concept of playing to win as a team, rather than as an individual, and the use of rubber to form a bouncing ball were unknown in the Old World until the Spanish reached Mexico in 1519. On his first return journey to Spain, Cortés took players and rubber balls to play at the royal court of Charles V. The skillful players and the rubber balls amazed the European spectators. Today, ball games played around the world clearly have their origin in this 3,500-year-old team sport with its colorful rituals, stone courts, specialized equipment, and bouncing rubber balls. Happily, no longer is the losing captain sacrificed to the gods!

Also reflecting their pre-Columbian origin are the colorful, local markets you find in Mexico today. Everything imaginable is laid out in its own section of the vibrant, noisy marketplace and an incredible variety of merchandise can be purchased. Shoppers can wander from vendor to vendor to select the freshest produce, strongest baskets, fine jewelry, and even medicinal herbs and the services of the local healer. Today, as in the past, markets are the heart and pulse of daily life. When Cortés arrived in Mexico, he found that markets flourished throughout the country. Riches such as feathers, gold, and jade from far-flung frontiers of the empire were available for purchase, as well as locally produced agricultural crops and goods such as baskets, pots, clothing, and services of all types. Shoppers strolled through colorful rows of fruits, flowers, and vegetables; listened to merchants hawking their wares, and enjoyed a snack amid the noise, odors, and confusion—a scene still typical of Mexican markets today.

Current religious beliefs and activities also hark back to the past, blending ancient pre-Columbian gods with 16th-century Spanish Catholicism. Indeed, the Spanish Colonial churches and cathedrals were often built on the same sacred spot as the original ancient temples and pyramids that preceded them. Pilgrimages are still made to these hallowed places, and the timeless odor of copal incense rises from the altars as the feasts and rituals of past and present blend in the current church calendar.


To understand Mexico today, it helps to be familiar with one of the most dramatic events in all history: the meeting of the Old and New Worlds in the Americas during the early 16th century. Of these many events, the encounter between the Spaniards, under Cortés, and the Aztecs, under Montezuma, is a most astounding, a tale culminating when Cortés’s forces finally took over the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (now called Mexico City).

The story began on February 18th, 1519, when Hernán Cortés set sail from Cuba to search for gold and glory. He was accompanied by 500 soldiers, 50 sailors, 200 islanders from Cuba, several black servants, and a few Indian women. Also on board his 11 ships were 16 horses, 14 pieces of artillery, supplies of food, and trinkets and clothing for trading. Cortés’s ships sailed along the Gulf coast of Mexico. At stops along the way he heard of the power of the Aztecs and of an empire rich in gold ruled by the feared emperor Montezuma. On Good Friday, April 18, 1519, he and his men landed near the site of the modern city of Veracruz.

Cortés’s arrival in Mexico on the Aztec calendar date ce acatl (one reed) prompted Montezuma to consider that Cortés might actually be the god Quetzalcoatl, returning as promised in legend, to reclaim his kingdom in the year one reed. This coincidence of the date of Cortés’s arrival, coupled with uncertainty produced by the evil omens, left Montezuma perplexed as to Cortés’ identity and purpose. Although originally Montezuma thought Cortés might be a god, it would have been impossible for a few scraggly, Spanish soldiers to have ever been able to defeat the powerful, mighty army of Montezuma without help. Luckily, Cortés had one great windfall—after a successful battle against a Mayan village, the chief presented him with 20 Indian maidens. One of these, La Malinche, was an exceptionally bright, young woman who not only became his mistress, but who also was able to act as translator and advisor. With her aid, Cortés enlisted the assistance of thousands of Tlaxcalan warriors, who were passionate enemies of the Aztecs and joined forces with him.

By the time Cortés crossed the snows of the last great mountain barrier and descended into the rich valley below, his entourage consisted of several thousand well-equipped Tlaxcalan warriors along with his own still surviving 350 Spanish soldiers. His troops entered Tenochtitlán where the final battle was fought in the great marketplace of Tlatelolco. There the Aztec nobles and warriors, assisted even by the women, according to legend, made a valiant last stand for the city, but the forces of the Spanish and their thousands of Indian allies were too powerful. The end came on August 13th, 1521. Of the 300,000 warriors who had defended the city only 60,000 were left. Mexico had fallen; the glorious city of Tenochtitlán was destroyed and neither the New World nor the Old would ever be the same again.

Once the Aztecs surrendered, the quest for gold was on. The Aztecs and their contemporaries were amazed at the Spaniards’ unquenchable thirst for gold. To them objects of rich green jade, with their connotation of rain, water, and fertility, were far more beautiful and valuable than the shiny metal. But the Spanish hungered for the treasure, plundered it, fought over it, and after the fall of Tenochtitlán tortured their captives for information of its whereabouts.

The aesthetic beauty of the gold ornaments created by Aztec artists held little interest for Cortés and his soldiers. Only a handful of the splendid objects described by the chronicles remain today. Most of the magnificent pieces were immediately thrown into the melting pots. Once it was cast into ingots, standardized weights were made to establish the king’s fifth, that rich share of New-World wealth that was conscientiously set aside for the Spanish throne. These bars of gold, along with carefully selected examples of the finest jewelry, were sent by ship to Spain where they were displayed with great pomp at the courts of Charles V. In Seville, Valladolid, Brussels, and Barcelona the undreamed-of splendor of Montezuma’s gifts to Cortés and the plundered golden treasure of the Aztecs dazzled the world of Renaissance Europe.

The search for treasure exploded. Soon adventurers, priests, bureaucrats, and soldiers flocked to New Spain (Mexico) to look for fame, fortune, and the conversion of souls. A few came to make Mexico their home; some to convert the Indians to Christianity; but most came simply to pillage the wealth of the new land. The population was decimated by disease and bondage. For almost 300 years, the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples lay under the colonial yoke of Spain. Finally, revolutions broke the bonds that tied New Spain to Europe and Mexico rose as a new country, a nation that blended the genes and customs of the Old and New Worlds in a new tradition unique to the Americas.