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Mexico Charms Tourists With New Adventures

March 05, 1989|RICHARD CARROLL | The Carrolls are a nationally known travel journalist/photographer team living in Sunland, Calif.

Mexico, like a vintage Humphrey Bogart movie, frequently fulfills a longing for both adventure and discovery. I know--because it's my beat.

One of the few countries with a comprehensive program to develop tourism in new and existing tourist zones, Mexico offers a selection of learning endeavors in a trend that is here to stay.

East Coast

Visitors can follow the path of intriguing pre-Columbian civilizations to areas that remain curiously unknown.

A timelessness in the state of Veracruz is seen in the rich archeological ruins, cozy open-air restaurants and in Veracruzano music.

From Tampico south to Isla del Carmen via Highway 180, which skirts the coast, people go about their lives as they have for hundreds of years, tending their fields, selling and buying at market and fishing the Gulf of Mexico.

Villages show a pastoral setting that has never failed to charm Mexican poets. Travelers can shoot basketballs with town folks in a plaza that the Mayans might have trod, watch a baseball game where center field is filled with grazing cows, and join a wedding, kiss the bride and feast on local delicacies.

Five miles west of Papantla and 120 miles northwest of Veracruz rise the spectacular 2,500-acre El Tajin ruins, circa AD 600, one of Mexico's most important and least-visited archeological sites.

Surrounding the El Tajin pyramids are vanilla and tobacco plantations and the famed pepper fields that produce the delicious jalapenos used in the Pace Foods picante sauce.

Welcoming Inhabitants

Indians, shy but friendly, wearing classic white straw hats and boots with pointed toes, will shake your hand and smile as they head to market with their crops. In the evening you can eat Chipotle, a smoked and saucy jalapeno, while the rich scent of peppers wafts across the countryside.

In Veracruz, the oldest colonial city in Mexico, far removed from the tourist trail, browse through San Juan de Ulua Spanish fortress/prison, the first built in the Western Hemisphere and one of the best preserved.

Standing in the tower looking at the moats, dungeons, cannons and draw bridges, it's easy to imagine the gold-laden galleons sailing out on their way to Cadiz, Spain.

The zocalo is lined with colonial buildings and a block-long maze of 10 sidewalk cafe/bars, home of exciting marimba musicians and mariachi bands with trumpet players who can rattle the coconuts in the towering palms.

The party, which begins at noon and lasts till the wee hours, rivals the Plaza de los Mariachis in Guadalajara and Garibaldi Square in Mexico City.

Well Known Arts Center

Inland and south, Oaxaca, a crafts center, is proud of its hand-loomed textiles and popular black Coyotepec pottery. On Saturdays the Indians sell serapes and wares at a colorful market that is a traveler's highlight in this part of the world.

Delve into Oaxaca's regional art galleries, the Rufino Tamayo Museum and the spectacular National Museum that houses jewelry and treasures excavated from nearby Monte Alban, a Zapotec city dating to 800 BC.

At Mitla, 24 miles south and one of the few ancient cities occupied at the time of the Spanish conquest, hard-working Indian women still weave with wooden frames and shuttle. The lonely and isolated ruins consist of stone temples, underground chambers and unusual stone wall carvings.

Yucatan Peninsula

At Cancun, one of Mexico's most popular resort destinations, windsurfers skim across the water like roadrunners, and snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing are a way of life.

Lingering sunsets, 240-plus days of sunshine and a countryside laced with palms, thick jungle and ancient ruins have lured tourists to Cancun since its opening in 1974.

Pop over to Cozumel, 30 miles north and 12 miles off the coast to Chancanab Lagoon, Laguna Colombia and the Palancar Reef area at the southern tip of the island--all ideal for diving and snorkeling.

Beneath the sea's blue-green surface you can see a plane wreck, winding canyons, deep ravines, impressive drop-offs, giant turtles and miles of multihued coral embellished with brightly colored fish.

Colonial Architecture

Yucatan is much diversified. Merida, the capital and getaway to the Yucatan peninsula, has great columned estates, many built by the French, and an enchanting Old World ambiance.

Broad tree-lined streets and sidewalk cafes in the Montejo district, reminiscent of Rome, are a contrast to the narrow downtown streets and the oldest house in Merida, Casa Montejo, built in 1594.

The prestigious Museum of Anthropology and History, housed in a stunning palace, is a showplace for the Mayan culture and a solid introduction to the area. From Merida, allow time for exploration to some of Mexico's greatest archeology sites such as Chichen Itza, Kabah, Dzibilchultun and hundreds of little-known temples and pyramids.

The Pacific Coast

Acapulco, on the west coast, is loaded with upscale boutiques and restaurants, glittering discos and fine hotels that have rediscovered the old-fashioned concept of personalized service.

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