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Road Scholar Tour Best of Central Mexico-Magical Towns & Bustling Cities, January, 2024

Pre-departure
My husband and I have both been to Mexico several times, but did the more touristy parts like Cozumel, Puerta Vallarta, Mazatlan etc. We wanted to experience the un-touristy side of Mexico and get a better sense of the culture and history. I also thought it's closer and would be easier to get to than Europe (this turned out to be wrong). We also needed a warm weather break in the middle of our long, cold, Alaska winters. Since I usually have several trips being planned simultaneously, I decided to let someone else handle this one's logistics and so we signed up for our first Road Scholar tour.

We watched about 11 lectures on Great Courses about the Aztec empire and MesoAmerica, of which we knew nothing and were very glad we did.

We were supposed to depart on January 17th, to get to Mexico City one day before our tour started. However, our flight was canceled and so we departed on the 17th much later that day and then had to spend the night in Seattle to catch our AeroMexico flight to Mexico City, arriving just in time for the Welcome dinner with our tour group. It was stressful, since we were definitely not sure we would make our Welcome dinner time. This is called a micro group by Road Scholar and our group was 11. 4 couples and 3 solo women travelers. Our guide was Anilu and she grew up in Mexico City, but also lived in Paris for 11 years.

I will cover the following in this trip report; Cities & Sites, Food, Guide, Accommodations, Final Thoughts
Cities & Sites
3 nights Mexico City-North America's largest and most populated city! We rarely saw foreign tourists except when we were at our hotel. The city itself however, is an absolute sea of humanity! Lot's of museums and sites to explore and our two full days barely scratched the surface. We were surprised to see how clean the city is. I barely saw any trash or cigarette butts or dog poop (although Mexican's seem to love dogs)! Actually, when I paid attention, I barely saw anyone smoking. It has a joyful and vibrant air, with people dancing in the parks.

Anthropology museum- Is the top museum to see in Mexico City. It's a fantastic, world class museum. It was fun to see some of the Aztec pieces we had seen in our Great Courses lecture! We spent several hours, but were not able to see it all. I would go back if I find myself in Mexico City again at some point. It was delightfully un-crowded!

Xochimilco Floating Gardens-40 minutes from the center of Mexico City is this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is an extensive lake and canal site where the Mexica's farmed their land on man made islands called Chinampas. You cruise the canals in gondola like boats called Trajineras. We did this early morning on a weekend day as our guide said it can get very crowded. There were so many boats docked, but we were the only ones on the canal when we started out. This is also the only place where the salamander, the Axolotl can be found wild, although their numbers are greatly diminished. This was so interesting to me because we had one as a pet for 6 years (grown in captivity, not wild) and I didn't even know this is where they orginally came from. A fun surprise was the Mariachi band that boarded our boat and sang to us. Yes, this was a fun, touristy thing to do!
Coyoacan Neighborhood-This is a lovely neighborhood in Mexico City. We had some free time to wander and have lunch on our own. This is a neighborhood I could live in. We were here to visit the Freida Kahlo museum.
Freida Kahlo museum-We had watched the Salma Hayek movie Freida before our tour and enjoyed it. It gave us some background on her life. It was an informative and enlightening visit.

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2 nights Morelia in the state of Michoacan-Although the state department has a level 3 advisory for this state, our guide said the un-safe area is on the coast where the drug cartels operate. We certainly felt safe, even when walking around on our own. We saw very few foreign tourists. Morelia is a lovely town with a lively square that attracts the locals with the free entertainment. In fact, all the towns seem to have a square that is the heart of the city and acts almost like the living room for the Mexican people.
Santa Fe de la Laguna/Purpecha Village-We drove to this village that was definitely on the more rural, poor side of things. It is known for it's pottery and we were here to visit a renowned potter's home to hear about his work. I always find it interesting to see how people live and work, but we spent a little too much time here for me.
Patzcuaro-We stopped in this town for lunch and were treated to Danza de los Viejitos (the dance of the old men). The dance was so interesting and unique. The 4 dancers wear a mask and wear shoes that make a click, clack sound. Hard to describe, but his was a definite highlight for me. This town is also considered a Pueblo Magicos, which is a town that is recommended by the tourism sector for "cultural richness, historical relevance, cuisine, art crafts, and great hospitality".

2 nights Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato-Wow, what a beautiful town. I haven't been to the Amalfi coast, but this is what I imagine it would look like without the coast and water and crowds. Very colorful! This town was a joy to explore. When we arrived we took the funicular and were treated to wonderful views of the town. We had some time on our own here to explore. We visited a couple museums and enjoyed wandering.
Callejonada Folkloric event-This was a fun, evening event. We followed a musical group through the narrow alley ways of the town while they told stories and sang songs (in Spanish)!
2 nights Queretaro in the state of Queretaro-On the way to Queretaro, we stopped in San Miguel de Allende and Atotonilco Sanctuary (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The sanctuary is a church that is called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico. It is intricately painted on the inside. San Miguel has a big expat population and a beautiful cathedral. It felt more touristy than the other towns, but it was beautiful and had a European vibe.
Cruz Monastery-We had a guided visit of this and it went on way too long for my liking. The downside of a group tour. Later in the afternoon, we made LeLe dolls which was fun.
Teotihuacan Archeological site-A UNESCO World Heritage site. We love pyramids and ruins, so this was a highlight of our trip. There are always vendors around these sites, but some of the ones here who tooted their loud horns, were annoying. But, I do realize gotta make a living.
2 nights in Puebla in the state of Puebla-A UNESCO World Heritage site and another un-touristy, authentic feeling Mexican town. It's known for its history and unique architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque.
Santa Maria Tonantzintla church & Church of San Francisco Acatepec -we visited these two very unique churches, not like any churches we had seen previously. Known for their elaborate decorations which is called Mexican folk or indigenous Baroque.
Baroque museum-This was an unexpected surprise. This museum is about how Baroque is integrated in music, fashion, design, literature etc. I think it needs a bit more to be a world class museum, but it just opened in 2016. The outside design is very cool.
Biblioteca Palafoxiana library-What a great library! Reminded me of the Long Room library in Dublin. Had very old books, some from the 15th century. It is recognized by UNESCO as being the oldest public library in the Americas. It has more than 45,000 books.

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3 nights Oaxaca in the state of Oaxaca-We had a longer bus drive to Oaxaca, about 5 hours, but drove through this biosphere reserve called Tehuacan-Cuicatlan that had some wonderful cacti, so the scenery was very nice. Oaxaca was another of my favorites on this tour. Again, it felt a bit European. More foreign tourists, but a nice vibe altogether.
After setting into our hotel our guide gave us a walking tour and we stopped at a chocolate factory and learned about the process and of course, samples! We also wandered through the market, a maze of stalls which I'm quite sure we would have gotten lost in without a guide. Very interesting and some of the others on the tour bought some Mole to take home to use.
Monte Alban archeology siteWe spent a good part of the day getting here and exploring and learning about this ancient site that towers over the city of Oaxaca. I really enjoyed this as I'm quite happy to just wander around ruins. Later that afternoon, we had time on our own.
Cooking classI love to eat, but hate to cook, but this was fun. Many hands make light work! We made salsa, avocado soup, tortillas, guacamole, chicken with mole, tamales. Then we got to eat our delicious meal.
Teotitlan del Valle & El Tule tree-We drove just outside Oaxaca and stopped for a visit to the Tule tree. A Montezuma Cypress tree that is said to be between 1,400-1,600 years old. A gigantic tree!

Then on to the Weaver's village of Teotitlan. This whole village makes rugs the very intensive labor way, by collecting the yarn, washing it in the river by hand and then dying it, making the design and then putting the yarn on the loom. I enjoyed this way more than I thought I would. Fascinating! We were in the home of a family of weaver's who have been doing this in their family for many, many years. The kids grow up doing it as it is all around them and they learn to help out at a young age. The gentleman who told us all about it, was part of this family and he was just a neat guy who spoke perfect english. A wonderful day!
Later that afternoon, we went to a local gallery and got to paint our own Alebrijes. This is a mexican folk art tradition painting wooden creatures in all kinds of fantastical forms. I'm no artist, but I definitely have a new appreciation for this art form.
We had our farewell dinner and the tour was over after breakfast the following morning.
Food-I will start off by saying that Mexican cuisine is my least favorite ethnic food and I realize this was not a food tour. I was hoping this trip might change my mind, or that I would lose a few pounds, but neither one really happened. While we had some very good meals, we also had some that were a definite miss. Especially when serving the group at lunch, food which should have been hot, was not. I can't imagine if we were a larger group, how that would have gone. Some of the soups we had were excellent, and tortillas are definitely better when they are made fresh, but I still prefer the tacos I make. Most of the tacos did not come with anything other than the tortilla and meat. I like more on my tacos. Some lettuce, perhaps some cheese and onion. My favorite dish was called Chiles En Nogada, which is made of stuffed poblano peppers with a sweet and savory meat filling and covered in a unique walnut cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds.
Coffee always seems to be an issue when we travel. If there is a coffee maker in the room, we always use it to make coffee as we like it as soon as our eyes open. It's the first thing we do. Two of the hotels did not have coffee makers, so we were sad. The restaurants didn't open till 7am, and we were up by 6am most mornings so getting it delivered to our room also was not an option.
Call us alcoholics, but we like our red wine when we are on vacation. The most common red wine was from a vineyard that was located in Mexico. It actually was not too bad and we had it several times.

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On a couple of occasions we were able to have a different wine from say Argentina, but not often. When we spoke to our guide about the lack of red wine choices, she said that red wine is not really a part of the Mexican culture, but is starting to become more common. One night I deviated from my usual red wine and ordered a Mango Daquiri which I seriously still dream about. Best cocktail of my entire life.
Gelato/ice cream-This is more for my husband than me, but on our trips we will seek out gelato almost daily. We had ice cream a couple of times, but finding a shop was a challenge and the ice cream was not that great. For our group meals, Flan was served for dessert on at least three occasions. I don't care for Flan at all. So overall, I'm going to give the food a C+.
Guide-Anilu grew up in Mexico City and her love for her country is very evident. She has advanced degrees in history and there was not a question she could not answer about her country. For me, there was a bit too much history talk as I will not remember even a third of it. When asked about the lack of homelessness or about the drug cartels, corruption in the government, she said this. "What saves Mexico, is the Mexican family." And it did seem to be true. The Mexican culture is very family oriented. She was a wonderful guide. Rating/A+
Accomodations-All of our hotels had excellent locations. For the most part, they were very nice. We certainly did not spend much time in them. Several of them were in old historic monasteries, so had older hotel issues, but really no complaints. We were provided breakfast at all the hotels and while sometimes service could be slow if it was not a buffet, we never left the hotel hungry. Typically, there was western food and Mexican specialties at breakfast. Rating/A
Final Thoughts-If you want to know more about our neighbors to the south and immerse yourselves in a really wonderful culture than this trip is for you. Also, if you want to avoid crowds, there were very few foreign tourists. It was a bit too heavy on the history aspect, but we also had some wonderful cultural experiences we would not have had on our own and we enjoyed the camaraderie of the other folks on the tour. While we will probably mostly continue to travel independently as long as we are able, we also like the occasional tour and will definitely take another Road Scholar tour.
Here is the photobook I made;
https://photos.app.goo.gl/861yFdWPcaBVTcjS8

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7031 posts

Tammy, it sounds wonderful! I love all the descriptions and the vibrancy and color you spoke of—it makes me want to book a flight to Mexico right now! I would go just to visit the Frida Kahlo museum as I love her art.

Every site just sounds amazing. Mexico has been on my radar for awhile and it's looking better and better. Thanks so much for writing this!

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788 posts

Thanks Tammy! We've only been to Puebla (2 nights) and Mexico City (6 nights with a day trip to Teotihuacan). We really want to see Guanajuato, San Miguel, and Oaxaca so I enjoyed reading about your experiences. We visited the anthropology museum in Mexico City twice (I can only spend about 2-3 hours at a time in a museum), and only managed to see about 60% of it! It's really outstanding. We also walked through most of the park--especially fun on the weekend when it's full of local families enjoying themselves.

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2651 posts

Great review, Tammy!!! And an excellent photo book, you brave grasshopper eater. You KNOW I'd bow out:)

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Every year we put Mexico City on our list but never seem to pull the trigger. I've got to make a commitment. Do you think a full week in just Mexico City plus a day trip to Tenochtitlan would be enough? How long did you spend in Tenochtitlan? Is it easy to just wander or would a guide make it come alive?

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Thanks for this, Tammy -- interesting and entertaining. I'm glad you liked Mexico City, a fascinating overwhelming place with a lot to see and do. And Oaxaca is one of my favorite places, with a cousin living there. Not many people take the long bus ride between them but it's well worth it, at least once. The pictures were great also, what an adventurous group!

On one of our Oaxaca visits we shared our B&B with a group of Alaskans on a tour, all glad to be spending January at 17 degrees latitude. They told us the Fairbanks airport has lockers for winter coats and parkas, so you can leave them when heading to the tropics and pick them up when you return. Great idea!

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Tammy, your most colorful book yet! I'd take the tour just for the amazing colors. And for the Mango Daquiri!! I'm sure I would love it as much as you did because, right now, my favorite drink at home is a sweet and spicy Chili Mango Margarita.

I'm looking forward to perusing your book more because this tour is now "on my list."

So glad you had a great time!

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@Valerie-lol! But, their crunchy like vegetables!
Allan, Mexico City would be easy to do on your own and you would find plenty to do for a week. I don’t think a guide would be necessary if you did a bit of history research before you left. And if you wanted to do 2 weeks, you could fly or take a bus to Oaxaca.
Thank you Dick, Mardee, Barbara and CW!

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10369 posts

Super! Tammy your book i fabulous and you've given up a good description of your trip. So glad you could enjoy the sun in January.

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Great info and photobook! I agree, Guanajuato is beautiful.

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What a terrific report and photo book! My mom took a Road Scholar tour to the Copper Canyon back when it was called ElderHostel. She really loved Road Scholar and took annual tours for about 10 years. Your tour seems like a great way to get an overview of an area.

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Sorry for the last-minute notice but there is a lecture this afternoon that people interested in early encounters in Mexico City may be interested in, pasting here:

History of Art Public Lecture: John F. López
5 p.m.
308A Doe Library

Anonymous, Uppsala Map, c. 1550, watercolor on parchment, 75 x 114 cm.
Anonymous, Uppsala Map, c. 1550, watercolor on parchment, 75 x 114 cm.

History of Art Public Lecture: The Humanist Wonderment of Viceregal Mexico City’s Istoria. By John F. López.

Abstract: Around 1550, an Indigenous mapmaker versed in the theory and methods of Renaissance cartography, painting, and architecture produced a watercolor of viceregal Mexico City that was presented to the Spanish monarch and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That the cartographer was learned in humanism was a laudable accomplishment, but what was the purpose of the city view? The Uppsala Map memorializes the urban transformation that Aztec Tenochtitlan experienced under Spanish rule, resulting in a hybrid settlement that recalled European classicism and the aquatic epistemes of the Aztec. The implications of introducing European urban planning principles and values—civitas, policía, good government, and Christianity—at an island city fraught with environmental risk were far from inconsequential. It placed Renaissance Mexico City in an ecological arena that was empirically new and epistemologically foreign. Such points were no doubt central to viceregal Mexico City’s istoria, but in illustrating Tenochtitlan’s aquatic monuments and epistemes, the cartographer demonstrated how the fledging colonial capital required Aztec hydraulics to mediate the risk that New World nature posed.

Bio: John F. López holds a Ph.D. from the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT. He specializes in the visual, material, and spatial intersections between the ancient New World, colonial Latin America, and early modern Europe. He is author of The Aquatic Metropolis: Urban Aesthetics and Environmental Change at Tenochtitlan-Mexico City (Penn State University Press, forthcoming) and is editor of A Companion to Viceregal Mexico City, 1519–1821 (Brill, 2021). López’s research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council, Society of Architectural Historians, and Mellon Foundation. He is currently writing a book on Francisco Clavijero’s 1780 response to Comte de Buffon’s theory of natural philosophy.

Speaker: John F. López, Assistant Professor of Art History University of California, Davis
Contact Info:
History of Art Department
Phone: 510-642-5511
Email: [email protected]

Access Coordinator:
History of Art Department, [email protected], 510-642-5511

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Tammy, thanks for a wonderful trip report and the link to your scrapbook. Your Egypt scrapbook inspired our trip there and now Mexico will be moved up the list.

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Tammy, I enjoyed reading your report. I've been to many of the places you visited (but definitely not all of them). I was in Pátzcuaro last fall, and there's a very short (5 second) video of the Danza de los Viejitos in my photo album:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/QRd8qKzibEY7RCFi7.

There's a longer clip (about 30 seconds) in my album from my trip to Michoacán in 2020 when I went to see the butterfly migration. We spent two nights in Morelia on that trip.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/9ATej3bWZmvYztz19

I'm currently in Oaxaca taking a Spanish Immersion Program. It's my first time here, and I absolutely love this city! There's music and dancing in the Zócalo ever night, and so many markets and shops featuring local foods and crafts.

I have to take a bit of offense at your comments about Mexican food, though I do understand. The first time I had authentic tacos in Mexico, I thought, Where are all the toppings. But now, I'm completely hooked, and I'll never go back to eating so-called tacos in the US. Taste Atlas lists Mexican food as the #7 best cuisine in the world! (https://www.tasteatlas.com/best/cuisines) The food here in Oaxaca is some of the best I've eaten anywhere in Mexico.

By the way, I've visited 46 of the 177 Pueblos Mágicos in Mexico. In fact the town where I live is a Pueblo Mágico. Sad to say many of them do not deserve the recognition. But many are truly magical. If anyone is interested, I'm compiling a list of my favorites. If you send me a PM, and I'll be happy to share it with you.

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@Lane-I guess we will have to agree to disagree on how tacos should be served. How is the language immersion program? I have a friend going to the one in SMA.

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We are going on the Oaxaca culinary tour so I read with interest your review. Interestingly it sounds like you had much the same trip as we are planning but with less culinary arts. And yes, if you want great meals-RS is probably not the best tour group as the food isn't gourmet-perhaps that's why our tour has several nights free for dinners. And yes, RS is heavy on the history and learning. I love learning about history but I know others where they just want to go on tours and experience with no "lessons". I'm very exciting to see the Coyacan neighborhood too as we are going on a food tour.

I had to laugh about the your taco story because Mexicans always call US tacos unauthentic. Basically in Mexico a taco was something to eat on the go especially for the poor. Most tacos were only meat/veggies and the tortilla-maybe cilantro and some onions. The ones you talk about are the Tex Mex version. Nowadays the two cultures have so mixed that you can find all varieties.

As for smoking, Mexicans very much do smoke but the smoking bans have finally taken effect and there are designated areas. Much like in America. As for the dog poop, I will just say in El Centro the cleaners pick it up. In most neighborhoods it's very much a problem because as you said Mexicans love dogs.

I think most Americans think Mexico will be cheaper than it is. The flights alone are about what we spent going to Europe the year before and the Peso is so strong against the dollar now, that there is rarely anything cheap anymore. Sadly, I think the days of any foreign destination being "cheap" are long since gone.

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Heather, thanks for your comments and I hope you enjoy your culinary tour of Oaxaca. So many different kinds of mole, I would like to try more!

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4353 posts

Ok, I know I am late on reading this but have been saving it as an open tab until I had the right mental space and time. I really like how you say what you did and didn’t like - we are all very different - as well as the details and organization of your report. And of course, I love your photo book. :)

Food? Like you, I like to eat but not cook, so I am glad you enjoyed that experience. As a Texan, Tex-Mex is comfort food I regularly crave. But I think that I would be hitting Mexico with the idea that it is a different cuisine - it wouldn’t replace my Tex-Mex but still be good.

I am definitely NOT a tour person, but I think a tour for this area might be the way to go for me. Who knows…. I may end up branching out from Europe a bit more! Thank you!

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2599 posts

I missed this earlier but really enjoyed reading it. I found what you described both interesting and different than what I expected. I am not sure I would ever feel comfortable traveling around Mexico (I have been scarred by too many tales of crime) so a tour would be the only way I would do it. Thus, it was particularly valuable to have your insights here.

I was super impressed by the book you put together! I am not that talented!

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Tammy, belated thanks for this report. It brought back many happy memories of the Road Scholar trip I took a year before yours. Your photo album is such fun. Like you, I so appreciated the evening vitality of the zocalos in those colonial cities. In February, my husband and I returned for the second time to ASLI, a language school in Cuernavaca. The school took 14 of us to Puebla for three nights, and I was determined to return to the rooftop restaurant Attico 303 (hope your group went there) because I loved the view of the Cathedral and zocalo at night. I made the reservation and talked up the place to a classmate who joined us. The view was as sensational as I remembered, but it turns out the restaurant had introduced a dj on Friday nights. He was located a few feet behind us, and the music was loud, so we could only talk in bits and pieces. Okay, I’m going to look at your photo album AGAIN and lose myself in memories. Pat

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465 posts

Wow--just seeing this now. Thank you! It brought back a lot of memories from my college foreign study program in the 80s! I was at the University of Guadalajara for three months and lived with a host family. While I was there, the program staff took us to Puerto Vallarta, Guanajuato, Teotihuacan and Mexico City. I was really pleased by the Mexico City part of your report--when we went there it did not have a good reputation as a place to visit and safety was top of mind for the staff. Food wise what I remember most were the fresh tortillas too--the slapping sound of the family's cook making them each morning.

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583 posts

Great trip report! I recently began researching Mexico City and thought let’s see what the RS forum has. Very nice report and photo book of your experiences with Roads Scholar. I’m a solo traveler who’s only been on one group tour (RS Tour of Scotland). Your insight has wonderful information to help me decide on how to take my trip. I like the idea of a small group.
I really enjoyed your info on the Frida Kahlo museum. There’s a fantastic recent documentary on Prime Video titled “Frida” about her life in her own words.