When most foreigners think of Mexico, the modern coastal resorts of Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Cancún come instantly to mind. But for the inquisitive traveler seeking a genuinely authentic and fascinating cultural experience, nothing quite compares with the romantic colonial heartland. Located at around 6,400 feet in the country’s central highlands, Mexico’s colonial cities are strikingly well-preserved. As well as dramatic baroque architecture, they offer visitors a taste of a relaxed and sociable way of life. San Miguel de Allende is rather like a Mexican Santa Fe, with resident artists and numerous vibrant galleries. It also delights visitors with lively cafés, colorful craft shops and excellent restaurants. However, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Puebla and Morelia are all well worth a visit.
We had a sensational visit of the Cuna de Tierra winery outside San Miguel de Allende. The private tour was fascinating, and the wines themselves, which we enjoyed over a Michelin star-quality lunch, were world-class. We especially loved the rich and elegant Cuna de Tierra Vino Tinto, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which had a seductive tobacco note. The winery also has a storefront in central San Miguel.
Puebla’s Templo de Santo Domingo looks impressive as soon as one enters, what with its towering gold reredos behind the altar and elaborately inlaid onyx pulpit. But the church’s real glory is the 17th-century Rosary Chapel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the vaults and dome of which are encrusted in an explosion of interwoven gold filigree. Entering the chapel is about as close as one can get to walking inside a Fabergé egg.
We had a grand time simply ambling around Guanajuato and visiting museums such as the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the birthplace of the famous 20th-century artist; the wonderful Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, dedicated to art inspired by Cervantes’ great novel; and the macabre Museo de las Momias, the final resting place of dozens of Guanajuato citizens mummified in the warm, dry climate.
It is possible to explore the area around Lake Pátzcuaro as a day trip from Morelia, but I highly recommend spending two or three nights at the Hacienda Ucazanaztacua, making excursions to the lake’s islands, the colonial city of Pátzcuaro, the copper center of Santa Clara del Cobre and the ancient pyramids at Tzintzuntzan and Ihuatzio.
Guadalajara makes an excellent place to begin an exploration of colonial Mexico. Much of the city is modern, but the historic center has leafy plazas, intriguing museums and ornate churches. The Tlaquepaque neighborhood has innumerable shops overflowing with colorful furniture and home décor items. Our favorites were the Galería El Dorado, which displays a remarkable collection of art objects and sculptural furnishings, and Sergio Bustamante, for its whimsical and affordable jewelry. In the flower-filled main square, we happened on a troupe performing the ancient and vertigo-inducing Danza de los Voladores (“Dance of the Flyers”).