Colonial Mexico

Leave the beach parties behind, and immerse yourselves in the authentic charm of the fascinating land south of the border.
By: 
Julia Clerk

Almost everything considered traditionally Mexican—mariachi music and the romantic hat dance, mission churches and high-class haciendas, bullfighting and tequila—has roots in the country’s colorful colonial past. During that time, which lasted roughly from the mid-1500s to 1821, the Spanish colonized the region, blending European traditions with the indigenous cultures of the Aztec, Maya and other Indian ethnicities to create the distinctive culture for which Mexico is known today.

San Luis Potosí

Westin
The interior of the Westin San Luis Potosi are gilded and decadent.

On the high plains about 300 miles north of Mexico City sits San Luis Potosí, the very epitome of a Mexican colonial town. Founded by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century, the town went from backwater to boomtown overnight when silver was found in the nearby hills. By the end of the 1500s, not only was San Luis Potosí one of the richest cities in Mexico, but it was also the capital of a vast region that included what is now Texas and Louisiana.

Locals call San Luis Potosí the City of Gardens, because all of its seven original neighborhoods were built around landscaped plazas. In the historic city center, Baroque domes and steeples still outnumber high-rises. The bustling Plaza de Armas (Jardín Hidalgo) was the hub of colonial politics and religion. Be sure to stop at the 300-year-old cathedral, the state capitol, city hall and the venerable Casa de la Virreina, a home once inhabited by the only female viceroy in Mexican colonial history. Two blocks to the east is a gorgeous green space called the Plaza del Carmen, which takes its name from 18th-century Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen church. Also overlooking this square are the National Museum of Masks, displaying hundreds of whimsical, mystical and sometimes frightening masks from around the country, and the elegant Teatro de la Paz, which offers performances of classical and folkloric music, dance and drama all year-round.

Some of the smaller colonial towns near San Luis Potosí make for great day trips: Try Real de Catorce, a silver-mining ghost town, and Santa María del Río, known for weaving and its traditional rebozo shawls. There are spectacular waterfalls in the area, including the 150-foot-high Cascada de Minas Viejas, which plunges into a deep turquoise swimming hole.



Where To Stay:

The Westin San Luis Potosí blends a romantic colonial facade and furnishings with the latest high-tech amenities. The formal dining room resembles an old colonial chapel, while the lobby could easily pass for the sitting room of a grand Spanish castle. The food is equally spectacular: Try local dishes like Sierra Madre trout stuffed with nopalito (cactus fruit) and smoked pork with a green mole sauce paired with a selection from the resort’s large tequila menu (starwoodhotels.com/westin).

Acapulco

Las Brisas
Suite with a view at Las Brisas Acapulco

The town where Bill and Hillary honeymooned, Johnny Depp got up to no good, and a bare-chested Elvis crooned along the cliffs may seem to be more about popular history. But as the place where the merchant ships from Manila (the Philippine islands were a Spanish colony) docked after their long voyage across the Pacific, Acapulco (officially called Acapulco de Juárez) is actually one of Mexico’s oldest colonial towns. Beginning in 1550, these Spanish ships brought spices, silk, ivory and other luxury items across the ocean from the Philippines. Most of the cargo was bound for Spain, but some of it was sold on the beach in Acapulco. Once pirates got wind of the treasures arriving here, the colonial authorities built the star-shaped El Fuerte San Diego to protect the town. Today, the 17th-century hilltop fort is the city’s most outstanding colonial relic, with a museum that displays both native and Spanish artifacts.

Right below the fort sit the remains of colonial Acapulco. Most of these structures hug the Zócalo (Plaza Alvarez) in the middle of the old town. Flanking the central square are small, inexpensive bars and outdoor cafés. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Soledad, with its sky-blue bell towers, hovers over the leafy plaza. Another old-town landmark is the Museo de Dolores Olmeda, where the artist Diego Rivera spent the last two years of his life creating the “Mural of the Feathered Serpent,” an extraordinary Aztec-inspired work, fashioned of stone, shell and mosaic tile, which covers the building’s exterior.

Where To Stay:

Las Brisas Acapulco, located on a mountaintop, is one of the most romantic hotels in Mexico. The resort offers more than 200 casitas and suites, all with private pools and large terraces overlooking the bay. You can have breakfast delivered to your room in the morning and enjoy private candlelit dinners on your sea-view veranda at night. Lounge around your rose-petal-filled private pool then hop on a pink-and-white Jeep to visit the resort’s beach club and water sports center set on Acapulco Bay. Later, unwind with a massage in the intimate spa or just sit on your deck and watch the sunset paint the sky pink (lasbrisas.com.mx).

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Cathedral
The Cathedral de San Cristobal de las Casas

Tucked in the southern state of Chiapas is San Cristóbal, one of the oldest Spanish settlements in all of the Americas. The pueblo has retained much of its colonial charm, and although it’s been a longtime favorite with European visitors, the town has only recently been discovered by norte americanos in search of an authentic and old-world Mexican experience.

Like many colonial towns, life here revolves around the Plaza de Armas, a cobblestone central plaza surrounded by elegant colonial structures. Foremost among them is the cathedral (its white-trimmed ocher facade makes it look a lot like a wedding cake!). There’s always something happening in the square: balloon vendors and ice cream sellers hawk their wares, while teenagers flirt and children chase pigeons. The town’s most romantic church is the early-16th-century Santo Domingo. Its gray walls are illuminated by candlelight and its aisles filled with the scent of copal incense. Right outside the large wooden doors, a colorful market unfolds each day—the best place in San Cristóbal to buy traditional handicrafts, including embroidery, blankets and dolls.

The streets of the old town, many of which are still paved in cobblestone, are flanked by hundreds of pastel-colored colonial buildings that have been transformed into shops and cafés in modern times. San Cristóbal’s top tacos are stuffed at Emiliano’s Moustache, but the best ambience is found at El Fogón de Jovel, where the mariachis and marimba music complement typical Chiapas dishes like chicken mole, pork tamales and creamy maize soup.


Where To Stay:

There are lots of cool places to settle into, most of them in old colonial villas like the Casa Mexicana, where the large central courtyard has been transformed into a combination water garden and open-air gallery of local folk art. Guest rooms flank long corridors and small, romantic courtyards; room furnishings are a mix of vibrant Indian textiles and hand-carved wooden furniture. In addition to a cozy bar and a restaurant that features international dishes, the casa also boasts a small spa with sauna and massage (hotelcasamexicana.com).

Cuernavaca

Mision
The classic architecture of Mision del Sol Resort & Spa ignites romance.

Just an hour’s drive south of Mexico City, this pleasant highland town has provided an easy escape from the big city since the days of the Aztecs and the conquistadors. From tribal leader Cuauhtémoc and explorer Hernán Cortés to the Emperor Maximilian, many historical icons have kept second homes here. And while it has grown into a bustling city, Cuernavaca continues to flaunt that old-school magic.

The castle that Cortés constructed in the 1520s is today one of the city’s most important sights. It houses the Historical Museum of Cuauhnahuac, which displays pre-Columbian relics and colonial artifacts as well as awesome Diego Rivera murals that depict the country’s history. For a different kind of treat, visit the Emperor Maximilian’s country manse, which has been transformed into a wonderful little herbolaria (holistic herb shop), dedicated to Indian folk remedies.

Another 16-century artifact is Cuernavaca Cathedral. One of Mexico’s oldest churches, the fortress-like structure was built to withstand Indian attack. The church’s unusual Asian-style murals (which were not rediscovered until the 1960s) depict the persecution of Christian martyrs in Japan. Behind the cathedral stands the marvelous Robert Brady Museum, with its collection of more than 1,500 works by such leading Mexican artists as Frida Kahlo.

Mision pool


The classic architecture of Mision del Sol Resort & Spa ignites romance.

Well-known for its mild climate, Cuernavaca is also a great place for outdoor activities. The city boasts several excellent golf courses, a number of natural hot springs and sprawling green spaces like the Jardín Borda, where you can rent a boat for a row around the lake, listen to outdoor concerts or browse the weekend craft stalls.


Where To Stay:

Completely unwind at the Mision del Sol Resort & Spa, which emphasizes relaxation and renewal in sumptuous surroundings. The hotel’s spacious suites and villas are furnished in all-natural, retro-colonial furnishings and feature their own meditation areas and patios that open onto a garden or stream. Organic ingredients from the Cuernavaca region form the mainstay of the on-site restaurant’s menu; likewise, spa treatments take advantage of the area’s natural springs (misiondelsol.com.mx).