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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin SIGHTSEEING IN MEXICO

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

July 1, 1962 -- History tells us that when Mexico's first identifiable "tourist," the Spanish conquistador, Herman Cortes, reached the capital city of the Aztec Empire in 1519, he was amazed by the beauty, luxury, orderliness and engineering feats of the Indian civilization. He even found floating gardens. Some 450 years later, Cortes reaction to Tenochitlan (now Mexico City) and the rest of Mexico is shared annually by some 700,000 denizens of the United States who jam the airlanes and the highways to visit our neighbors to the south. Things have changed somewhat in the intervening centuries (we imagine), but you will still find Mexico filled with beauty, scenic wonders, engineering and architectural marvels and a host of other attractions. And like Cortes, you will encounter floating gardens.

Mexico reflects a blending of three civilizations: the various Indian cultures, such as the Mayan, Toltec and Aztec; the Spanish Colonial period, and finally, a creative, individualistic "modern" Mexico. The best way to sample all three during a two- or three-week vacation is to follow an itinerary that features Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Taxco and the famous Pacific resort city of Acapulco. This program will also allow you several days to try the beach, sun and surf at Acapulco, as well as to squeeze in some fishing, boating or hunting, if you're so inclined.

Mexico is worth at least a week, possibly two if you have the extra time for some intriguing single-day excursions in all directions. The Mexican capital, one of the ten largest cities in the world, with a population approaching 5,000,000, is a throbbing, cosmopolitan city that sits in spring-like climate the entire year, some 7,400 feet above sea level. The thermometer usually hovers in the seventies, and even during the rainy season (May to October) the sun usually shines most of the day. The city is crisscrossed by many wide boulevards, including the swank Pasco de la Reforma, with ultra-modern skyscrapers that sport glass fronts and, in some cases, many-hued murals. (Another impression that remains with this visitor is the deep, beautiful colors of the flowers in parks, on floral stands and in the market. The same holds true for Cuernavaca.)

Flowers aside, this is also a city for the man who likes action, especially in the form of spectator sports. Every Sunday afternoon at four-thirty, bullfights (or corridas) are held at either the Plaza Mexico or El Toreo Plaza. Visitors are advised to get seats on the shady side of the arena. Good tickets cost less than one dollar. The well-known, professional matadors appear in the winter months, the apprentice toreadors in the summer. But it makes no difference (unless you're an experienced aficionado) when you go; it's always an exciting spectacle.

The Hipodromo de las Americas, one of the most beautiful tracks in the world with a grandstand on the side of a hill to permit an unobstructed view, offers racing several days a week from mid-October into June, with a minimum bet of ten pesos (about eighty cents). Mexico's other famous race track is Agua Caliente ("Hot Water") in Tijuana, a gaudy border town below California's San Diego. Tijuana, as well as Juarez just across from El Paso in Texas, is not only renowned for its fast track, but also for its fast nightlife.

Where were we? Back in Mexico City, they also play what many experts contend is the world's fastest game, jai alai. Exhibited nightly at seven-thirty at the Fronton Mexico (admission under one dollar), this sport can best be described as a complicated form of handball. Your best bet is to take someone along who is up on the game. Wagering is permissible. (There is also jai alai in Acapulco and Tijuana. The latter city is versatile: It also offers dog races.)

For those interested, there is a cock-fighting ring on the outskirts of Mexico City. Tennis courts, swimming pools and riding stables are also available, as well as four private golf clubs (all with eighteen holes), to which an introduction from a member is required. (Acapulco has one golf club.) Soccer and baseball are popular spectator sports throughout Mexico.

Let's start our sightseeing with those floating gardens. Called Xochimilco, these flower-lined canals are thirty minutes by car from the city. (The gardens no longer float as they did in the days of Cortes. They are firmly anchored.) A seat on one of the boats costs about a dollar-twenty an hour. Another highlight is San Juan Teotihuacan, the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, about an hour's drive from the city. Part of an empire believed to pre-date the Christian era, this huge religious site is an amazing reminder of a mysterious and long-dead civilization.

One the way out to the Pyramids, a stop at Mexico's best-known cathedral, the Shrine of Guadeloupe, is worthwhile. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared here in 1531 to designate the site for the Cathedral. Also outside the city, on the road to Cuernavaca, lies University City, with some of the most spectacular buildings in the world, several with murals on the outside. The library, with many-colored mosaics on four sides, is the most memorable. Chapulttpec Castle, on a hill with superb views of the city and the two snow-thatched, extinct volcanoes that seem to keep watch on the capital, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, was once the home of European royalty. It still has mid-nineteenth-century furnishings, an interesting museum and lovely gardens.

Inside the city proper, the main plaza or Zocalo, is bordered by the impressive National Palace, the office of Mexico's president. Murals by Diego Rivera dealing with the country's history dominate the building's interior. Also on the Zocalo: the Municipal Palace, the National Pawnshop (a smart stop for discriminating shoppers) and the National Cathedral, the largest in North America. The Palace of Fine Arts, built in heavy white Italian marble on the Avenida Juarez, holds Mexico's finest art collection, including murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Its auditorium is used for opera, symphony and ballet, as well as for presidential inaugurals. Nearby is beautiful Alameda Park, site of a market during the Aztec era and today filled with flowers and graceful fountains. (The city's major markets, today very modern and sanitary, are still worth a visit.)

We've only scratched Mexico City's sightseeing surface, but now we have to take a quick look at some of the short out-of-town tours.

Probably the most popular short excursion takes in Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan, the latter a village in a dramatic mountain setting. Others include Toluca and Ixtapan de la Sal, Tula and Tepozotlan, Puebla and Cholula. Vista Hermosa and the Lake of Tequesquitengo, Tlamacas and Popocatepetl (you can drive quite a distance up this majestic volcano) and Metepec. This group includes towns famed for their markets and pottery, typical Indian villages and sacred Toltec cities, a spa and a reconverted Spanish hacienda, a lake with fine fishing and a charming Spanish colonial city, a convent and a city of many beautiful churches.

Headquarters for this sightseeing bonanza, Mexico City, boasts a wide selection of hotel rooms in all price categories, as well as motels and guest houses. Rates for two range from two to twenty-five dollars daily, without meals. You won't have any trouble finding accommodations to suit your taste and budget: Mexico City has well over 6,000 rooms that fall within the "tourist quality" category. Reservations in advance through your travel agent are recommended for the better hotels.

Just a few months ago, Mexico's Balsa Hotels chain open up the swank, 600-room Maria Isabel on the Paseo de la Reforma. The other four Balsa hotels in the capital also belong in the top category: El Presidente, Del Prad, Prado Alffer and Premier. Other deluxe hotels include the Continental Hilton, the Banner, the Reforma, Tecalli (suites only), Alameda, Plaza Vista Hermosa and Monte Cassino. At most of the hotels in the group, a double room is available from about twelve dollars up.

Among the other first-class hotels, with prices beginning at six, eight and ten dollars for two, are the De Cortes, Geneve, Francis, Guadeloupe, Maria Cristina, Majestic, Posada San Angel, Gin, Regis, Delicias, Emporio, Luma, Meurice, Vasco de Quiroga, Ritz, Lincoln, Prince and Montejo. Motels in Mexico City, with rates from eight dollars, include the Shirley Courts, Dawn Motor Hotel, Park Villa, Villa Eldorado, Calri Apartments and Motel Atlauco. Three moderate-priced hotels on the city's outskirts (from five dollars), are the Vermont, Polanco and De L'Escargot. The Cabello Trailer Park just south of the city charges two dollars daily.

Like hotels, restaurants in Mexico City are versatile in both cuisine and price. To name just a few: For Mexican dishes, El Refugio, Fonda Santa Anita and Flor de Lis (from two dollars up); La Jena, Les Ambassadeurs, La Ronda and Focolare serve French and Continental cuisine, from five dollars up; the Mauna Loa for exotic Polynesian dishes (expensive); Swiss dishes at Chalet Suize (moderate); Spanish meals at Rincon de Goya, with flamenco music, (moderate), and many other with Hungarian, German, Italian and United States menus. Many of the hotels have excellent restaurants. The Tecalli Hotel has a penthouse dining room with excellent food and a superb view (expensive). Other rooftop dining spots are Continental Hilton, Bamer and del Paseo. Recommended everywhere is Mexico's famous local beer. Mexican wines are also good and inexpensive.

The city also has many good night spots, including the Capri, Jacaranda, Muralto and Villa Fontana. Best way to sample the nightlife is with a guided tour, which costs about fourteen dollars per person, including dinner, drinks, tips, taxes and transportation. A highlight is music by mariachis, wandering street orchestras.

Getting around in Mexico City is pleasant and inexpensive. Taxis are plentiful and most of them have meters. Charges generally average less than two dollars per hour and tipping is not necessary though a surcharge of four to eight cents is usually added. In all other situations (hotels, restaurants), the traditional fifteen-percent gratuity is expected. The tip for porters and bellhops is about twenty-five cents (two pesos) per bag. The Mexican peso is worth about twelve cents and there are eight-and-half of them in the dollar. Visitors will find that their pesos (as well as travelers' checks and international credit cards) will go a long way when shopping for certain specialties in Mexico. Among the best buys are silver (more on this when we get to Taxco), leather goods (wallets, belts), perfumes (imported from France), pottery (from ornamental to ovenproof) and liquor (tequila, rum and coffee cordial, all about one dollar per bottle). As a tourist from the United States, you may bring home $100 worth (computed at wholesale) of duty-free goods and five bottles of liquor (fifths) per person. You may also send home ten dollars' worth of gifts daily.

There are two recommended ways of getting to Mexico--by car and by air. There are four major highway systems that run into Mexico City from the north. From Laredo, Texas, the Pan American Highway (Route 85) runs 765 miles through rugged, breathtaking scenery. The newest and fastest approach, the Constitution Highway (route 57), runs 818 miles from Eagle Pass, Texas, to the Mexican capital. The Central Highway (route 45) gets underway at the Rio Grande Bridge linking Juarez with El Paso, and travels 1,300 miles to its destination passing through some major cities on the way (Chihuahua Durango). The longest drive, the Pacific Highway (Route 15), moves along the Pacific Ocean for 750 of its 1,500 miles, starting from Nogales on the border, near Tucson, Arizona.

This highway passes through Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. To get your car into Mexico (and out again), you must show a valid driver's license and registration to obtain a ninety-day permit, which is granted without charge. The permit may be renewed once for a similar period. The car may not be sold in Mexico. Highway signs are in Spanish, but charts with translations are available at gasoline stations. Gas runs about twenty-seven cents a gallon for regular, thirty-four for premium. Most major highways have frequent gas stations, restaurants and overnight accommodations, at very modest prices as compared with those in the U.S. (On the road, as in the cities and resorts, stick to bottled water and avoid salads and vegetables.)

There is no dearth of air service into Mexico. Aeronaves de Mexico, with recently acquired jets, flies a daily service from New York. This carrier also offers a wide range of services within Mexico, including as many as twenty flights a day between the capital and Acapulco. Also from New York, regular services are offered by Eastern Air Lines and Air France, nonstop, and by American Airlines via Texas. From other cities, Mexicana Airlines and American fly regularly from Chicago; from the West Coast, Mexicana and Western; from Montreal, KLM; from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canadian Pacific Airlines; from Miami, Guest Airways (nonstop) and Pan American World Airways (via Merida); from New Orleans and various cities in Texas, several of the carriers above and Braniff International Airways.

Typical rates with jet equipment (prop-jet and piston are somewhat lower); round-trip tourist class from New York, $236, from Chicago, $209, and Los Angeles, $186. From noon Mondays through noon Thursdays, Family Fare Plans allow your wife and children to accompany you at a sizeable reduction in the first class only. Jet time from New York to Mexico City is about four and one-half hours. Baggage allowance is forty-four pounds in tourist class, sixty-six pounds in first.

To get into Mexico, you need a tourist card valid for six months, which is issued by your airline, the Mexican Tourist Bureau or the Mexican Consulate upon showing proof of U.S. citizenship and three dollars (per person). A new five-day card is available for fifty cents. To get back into the United States, you need proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate or passport), and a smallpox vaccination certificate validated within the last three years.

Up to now, we've spent most of our time in Mexico City, where the weather is usually spring-like. However, as we head towards Acapulco, the climate becomes more and more tropical. For this reason, it is wise to pack clothes for both areas, including year-round suits and a topcoat for Mexico City, and summer apparel for Acapulco. And don't forget to bring your camera (and paintbrush), since Mexico abounds with pictorial subjects.

Cuernavaca is less than sixty miles from Mexico City, via toll road (Highway 95), a beautiful drive and excellent driving. Several alternates (Old 95 and I90-115) take a little longer, but also offer striking scenery and several interesting villages along the way.

For centuries a resort for Mexico's rulers and wealthy citizens, Cuernavaca is known for its mild climate, lovely surroundings, ultra-modern residences, some well-known Diego Rivera murals, the Cathedral (built in 1592), and the Borda Gardens, a lavish summer palace built in the nineteenth century for Maximilian and Carlotta, short-time Emperor and Empress of Mexico under ill-fated French sponsorship. There are some fifteen recommended hotels in the Cuernavaca area, with rates ranging from four dollars to twenty-four dollars with meals. If you have the time, Cuernavaca is worth at least several days.

Another hour or so by car from Cuernavaca (Highway 95) is Taxco, nestled precipitously like an orange-and-white gem on the side of a steep hill. The approach by highway is probably one of the most dramatic sights you'll ever experience. The town is famous for its silver (there are numerous shops), twisting, cobbled streets, and fine views. There are about a dozen hotels, ranging from four to six dollars for two without meals, and from ten to twenty dollars with meals. This is as good a place as any to mention that the guides you hire should carry accreditation from the Mexican Tourist Office. Also, if you take guides on shopping tours, be prepared to pay a premium on merchandise, since their commission is added on to your costs. A day in Taxco is sufficient.

Four or five hours from Taxco (still on 95) lies the famous Pacific beach resort of Acapulco, today enhanced by a large selection of modern, deluxe hotels. Hot the year-round, Acapulco offers water-skiing, skin-diving, a wide selection of boats, jai lai and golf. A sunset seen from a sailboat (four-eighty per person with refreshments and music) in the Bay of Acapulco, with its subtle golden hues, alone makes an Acapulco visit worthwhile.

Among Acapulco's better-known hotels are the Acapulco Hilton (just opened), Boca Chica, Caleta, Elcano, El Mirador, El Presidente, Las Brisas Hilton, Las Hamaca, Noa Noa, Pierre Marques and Prado Americas. Rates at these hotels range from twenty to forty-eight dollars a day for two, usually with two meals, from January through April, and about thirty percent less the rest of the year. At some of the less expensive hotels, rates start at about seven dollars a day for two, without meals. Acapulco also has some interesting bay-front restaurants and nightclubs.

A word in passing: Hunting in the mountains behind Acapulco and game and river fishing in nearby waters are both excellent. In fact, hunting and fishing throughout Mexico are superior. Big game includes jaguar, puma, bear, crocodiles and boa constrictors. The rivers hold trout, bass, whitefish and carp. Game fish in the Pacific includes marlin, sailfish, dolphin and swordfish. Off the Gulf Coast, you'll find tarpon, sailfish and marlin. Hunting permits may be obtained from the Mexican consul when applying for your tourist card. Adults may bring in one firearm and fifty rounds of ammunition each. Fishing permits are necessary and information may be obtained from the Federal Fisheries Bureau, Jose Azueta 9, Mexico City. There are also many hunting and fishing clubs throughout Mexico that will be glad to supply you with information. (There are so many hunting and fishing areas in Mexico that even a superficial survey would require a separate article.)

Actually, we're still down in Acapulco. The best way to get back to Mexico City is to take a one-hour flight with Aeronaves, fare $12.56 one way.

For additional information on Mexico, consult your travel agent or Mexican Department of Tourism information centers in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Antonio, Washington and San Diego.

Despite the fact that Spanish is the official language in Mexico, you'll feel at home there. Almost everyone you'll come in contact with speaks English, your credit cards will be honored and you'll generally find everything "simpatico." And according to recent reports from south of the border, the nightclubs at night shake to the rhythm of that popular Yankee import, "El Tweest."

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright 1962-2010 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.