In Mexico you will find some of the finest architecture on Earth. Fascinating cathedrals, basilicas, palaces, churches and even haciendas exude the splendor of a bygone age and are every bit as beautiful as those found in Europe. In fact many of the towns and cities that the Spanish conquistadors built in the 16th century look like they could have been transported directly form Spain. The first cities followed a design mapped out by Spanish King Charles V: a rectangular shape with a main square in the center where the church would be located. The square, then as today, is the social center of the city, framed by tree lined walkways. Streets were laid out in a grid pattern and civil buildings such as the government palace, tax office and courthouse were centrally located, gardens and plazas added to the beauty of the landscape and decorated the mansions of the emerging merchant class, who built elaborate homes as they prospered.
The first of the religious orders to venture into New Spain, as this Spanish colony was called, were the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Augustinians. They erected a chain of impressive European-style monasteries, convents and churches as they moved into each new region of the country.
The quest of the conquistadors was mainly focused on precious metals, and when Hernan Cortes received gifts of silver and gold from Aztec Emperor Moctezuma, the country’s fate changed overnight. The discovery of silver mines caused a surge in the country’s development. Enormous veins of silver in the central highlands in Guanajuato at one time produced the world’s largest output of metal, greatly bolstering the coffers of the Spanish King. The men who profited from silver trade built fabulous baroque churches in Taxco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas, adorned with beautiful gold leaf altars. Morelia, in the state of Michoacan, often considered an aristocrat among colonial cities with its 200 colonial monuments, is Mexico at its provincial best with wide boulevards, unique architecture and the center of colonial crafts villages created by the monks.
Trade flourished and immigration grew. Guadalajara, the grand dame of western cities, started out as an outpost along the Camino Real. Now its gardens, wide plazas and distinguished buildings include landmarks like the old Cabanas Orphanage, which has been transformed by the fiery murals by native son, Jose Clemente Orozco. Queretaro, with its lovely aqueduct and government plaza, was famous for playing a decisive role in Mexico’s independence. Durango, a pleasant northern city, is for many the most impressive town on the Tropic of Cancer representing the best of baroque or Porfirian architecture.
By the 19th century, wealth was being generated in the Yucatan Peninsula from the production of sisal fiber used to make rope. Riding on the wave of lucrative exports to all parts of the world, owners of the plantations began building magnificent estate houses or haciendas, richly decorated with European furnishing. Another boom was also underway with the production of chicle, or gum, a sap gleaned from the Yucatan’s chicle trees used in making chewing gum.
Mexico’s colonial period, a fusion of Spanish and indigenous artistic techniques adds layers of complexity to Mexico’s heritage. Then there’s Veracruz City, which has the air of a Cuban city. San Cristobal de las Casas, Oaxaca City and Merida, once important centers of learning are seats of modern –day indigenous cultures. Colonial cities are virtual living museums, monuments to a gracious period of viceroys. The cobblestone streets, elegant quarry-stone buildings and flowered plazas invite travelers to share in their history. Many of them have been designated World Heritage Sites by the Untied Nations.
World Heritage Sites
Mexico accepted the World Heritage Convention in February 1984 and has registered 27 sites to-date, thus becoming the country with the most World Heritage Sites in the Americas, and ranks 7th worldwide. Here is a list of sites in Mexico that have been registered to the World Heritage List:
Ancient Pre-Hispanic Sites
Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque (1987)
Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan (1987)
Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza (1988)
El Tajin, Pre-Hispanic City (1992)
Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco (1993)
Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal (1996)
Archeological Site of Paquimé, Casas Grandes (1998)
Archaeological Monuments Site of Xochicalco (1999)
Ancient Maya City of Calakmul, Campeche (2002)
Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco (1987)
Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán (1987)
Historic Centre of Puebla (1987)
Historic Town of Guanajuato and Adjacent Mines (1988)
Historic Centre of Morelia (1991)
Historic Centre of Zacatecas (1993)
Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl (1994)
Historic Monuments Site of Querétaro (1996)
Historic Monuments Site of Tlacotalpan (1998)
Historic Fortified Town of Campeche (1999)
Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro (2003)
Sian Ka'an Biosphere
Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino (1993)
Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (2005)
Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila (2006)
Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara (1997)
Luis Barragán House and Studio (2004)
Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) (2007)