Editorial: I was in Mexico again this winter, four weeks ‘riding the buses’ to what I will loosely describe as ‘cities with historic centres’. A friend said I must really like the country since I go there so often. I don’t go for the ‘sun and sand’, although I know that has its appeal. I go for the culture.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (best known as UNESCO) identifies places around the world that it considers to be “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration”. These range from East Africa’s Serengeti to the Pyramids of Egypt. A site may have been selected because it is a masterpiece of human creative genius; shows an important interchange of human values; is an outstanding example of a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history; is an outstanding example of human interaction with the environment. In other words, a place has to be mighty special to get on the list.
Mexico has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country in the Americas and the sixth most in the world (27 cultural sites and 5 natural sites, with 25 additional properties on the tentative list). They range from pre-historic cities such as Chichen-Itza and Palenque to natural areas such as the Monarch Butterfly Reserves.
Who would not want to go to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, located in the rugged forested mountains northwest of Mexico City, where millions of butterflies return each year, their collective weight so heavy that they bend the branches of trees. How the butterflies find their way back each year is a mystery. UNESCO says that witnessing this unique phenomenon is an exceptional experience of nature.
Understanding why a site is on the UNESCO list informs travel. I recently road the buses around the Popocatepetl volcano in central Mexico where fourteen 16th century monasteries have been designated World Heritage because they collectively serve as models for monasteries and evangelism on the American Continent.
Several Mexican cities made the list because of their historic centres and I visited three of them this trip. The historic centre of Oaxaca City, built on a grid pattern, is a good example of Spanish colonial town planning and the city’s buildings—constructed to adapt to the earthquake-prone region—are considered architectural gems. Outside the city is Monte Alban where over a period of 1,500 years the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs peoples literally carved a pre-historic city out of a mountain.
Puebla, which is the feature this month, is a city where European styles were adapted locally and the resulting religious structures and tile-covered buildings have been preserved.
In the 16th century, the Spanish built Mexico City, the “city of palaces”, on the ruins of the old Aztec capital. Today you can see 5 Aztec temples and a network of canals and artificial islands built by the Aztec people; the largest cathedral on the continent; outstanding public buildings; and the largest number of museums of any city in the world. Mexico City undoubtedly offers “Outstanding Universal Value”. Perhaps this is why on my 5th visit to the city I left with so much yet to see.
When I was in Oaxaca I kept running into foreigners who were there for the International Organ Festival. It seems that there are 72 baroque pipe organs in churches in the city, almost half of which date from the 18th century. The organs may be one of the city’s lesser-known cultural treasures but the fact that musicians and performers come to the festival from around the world is perhaps indicative of the city’s, as well as the country’s, cultural appeal.
That’s why I love Mexico and why I will return again next year. Perhaps it’s time to finally take some Spanish lessons too.
© Riding the buses 2014