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Mexico. A country I have always been fascinated with. My earliest memory of anything remotely “Mexico” can be traced back to the days I was growing up in India—the FIFA World Cup that used to get us all heated up once every four years. I still remember the way all four of us (my parents and sister, and I) rooted passionately for our soccer playing Mexican boys. It often didn’t matter when the matches rolled well past midnight. On many an occasion, decibels soared in the event of a penalty shoot out. Fiery, frantic, flamboyant. That was then; and now, after more than a couple of decades, thanks to a travel-happy husband, Mexico casts the most bewitching glance at us as our flight descends on to the tarmac.

Soaking in the Heritage
Mayan ruins, Aztec art, Spanish cathedrals—magical, colorful, breathtaking. Present day Mexico is a rich cultural potpourri of heritage, history, and traditions with a bold dash of modernism. Glowing seductively, Mexico invites travelers to explore a country beyond the notorious headlines it is so infamous for.

We first set our eyes on the Three Cultures Square, a confluence of architectural evidence on Mayan, Aztec and Spanish influence.  Frank, our tour advisor, knew his territory and its history too. He gave us a run-through of how this square is so pivotal to understanding the Mexico of today.

We began at the shrine of Guadalupe, which fell en route to Teotihuacán. We were excited to climb up the widely spaced stairway to the shrine. The atmosphere inside was festive, colorful and thrumming with Mariachi sounds, the signature music of the land.

Next stop, the modern Basilica, a green and grand structure. The place teemed with people. Frank told us the story about the Day of the Virgin of the Guadalupe. Legend has it that a man named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary twice in Mexico City, on December 9 and December 12 in 1531. Mary told Juan to ask a bishop to build a church on Tepeyac Hill. However, the bishop needed proof of Juan’s encounter with Mary and asked for a miracle. Juan went back to the hill and found roses in a spot where there were previously cacti. Juan returned with the roses and showed them to the bishop and also revealed an image on his cloak of the Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop was convinced of the miracle and built a church in honor of the event.

Every year a Catholic feast is held from December 9 to December 12 to celebrate this belief—thousands of Catholics partake in the fiesta, from all over the world, in traditional costumes and finery, making it a prominent religious festival. The image of Mary, believed to be authentic, is mounted high on the church wall making it a haven for pilgrims. There lives Virgen Morena, in all her luminous glory.

Land of the Ancient Gods
We got into the car afterward, whizzing past suburban stretches that reminded me of scenes of rural India. We were going to see the mysterious pyramids—Las Pirámides del Sol y la Luna (the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon) located in the spectacular pre-Hispanic ruins of Teotihuacán, 50 km (31 miles) northeast of Mexico City. We were pretty excited. A middle-aged Russian couple joined us on the trip. We traded travel tales.

We stopped at a boutique styled restaurant, where we were amused to discover that Frank had left us in the hands of “Miss America,” who gave us a quick account of the place in a thick Spanish accent. Lying around were some indigenous sculptures and artifacts from the local factory. Miss America explained the origins of the cactus and its extracts. She was a funky host as she entertained us with tequila shots.

Post lunch we arrived at a city built around the 1st century A.D. It was ancient and seemed rooted in the past.

In about 1300 A.D., the Aztecs discovered the abandoned city. They named the place Teotihuacán, or the “place where gods were born.” Walking around a place so enormous in its span and legacy felt strangely nostalgic. It was as if we had all been witness to a historical flashback, one that was built on the premise of surviving through the odds and challenges of subsequent generations.

These pyramids are unlike the ones in Egypt. There are no chambers. They are solid structures, some coming alive with wall paintings. One could still climb to the top of the pyramids, as they did thousands of years ago, to appease the masters of the universe!

Down below, at the roadside, people were selling handicrafts. We bought a bow and an arrow with a few pesos. I went on a quest for a white sombrero. There were a variety of other colors, none that I fancied. I finally picked up a black one. The line of shops on both sides of the entrance looked like an exhibit, a fair of sorts. We walked for miles, and only stopped when our limbs gave up.

Music and Worship
The following morning we started off for Puebla—a two-hour drive from the capital. The blazing sun was overhead when we got down at the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

A fascinating pole flying dance caught our attention as soon as we arrived.Danza de los Voladores—a Mesoamerican ritual, performed as a tribute to the rain gods. Five men climbed a tall pole attached with ropes, and once on top they huddled and played flutes and drums, lending a mystical tone to the surroundings. Slowly they swirled around and made a dancing descent to the ground. The performance was lovely, and photogenic.

From there we stepped our way up to the Our Lady of Remedios, a beautiful church atop a mountain with stunning views. It was probably not a good day to see the distant volcanic fumes, though we went with much anticipation.

Finding God in the Details
Cholula is a city of churches—colonial cathedrals showcasing dazzling baroque. We stepped into a few of them, and found ourselves staring at resplendent designs, elegant sculptures, and magnificent wall paintings. What a way to conceive art as religion! Beautiful, thought provoking.

Puebla couldn’t have been more familiar. It had all the buzz of a town in India. A busy, bustling city with pretty alleys. I fell in love with Talavera pottery—a hugely prominent feature in Puebla. There were many heavily ornate churches around with overwhelming baroque art. We were dazzled by the designs. The church of Santo Domingo, in particular, was considered in its time to be the eighth wonder of the world.

There is so much to discover about Mexico that a trip again, in the future, only seems necessary. Strolling around the Zócalo in Mexico City, we discovered an easy-going lifestyle, and forgot all our fears as we watched people buying, selling, haggling, laughing and making conversation in a language we didn’t quite understand. But we sure did feel the vibe. The vibe that told us so much about the people and the place. Vibrant, stylish, artistic and earthy. No surprise, Frida Kahlo, one of the most beautiful artists of all times, was born here.

Neelanjana Gautam is a passionate writer with experience writing and publishing stories for both print and the web. She loves journeys and enjoys popular culture. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.