Next morning, we drive to the National Autonomous University of Mexico campus to meet Cuauhtemoc Medina, congenial chief curator of the university’s contemporary art museum (MUAC), Mexico’s answer to Tate Modern, with art fairs that are now firm fixtures on the international circuit. “The world has realised there’s more to Mexican art than just Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,” he tells me as I experience the work of electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer — two copper conductors that pick up the rhythm of my heartbeat and send it flickering across 300 light bulbs on the ceiling.
Kahlo and Rivera were early collectors of pre-Columbian artefacts. I imagine Diego pop-eyed and portly, Frida as potent as a shot of tequila, wandering the pueblos of the Sierra Madre bartering for pottery, as we head an hour north out of the city to Teotihuacan. Built by an unknown Mesoamerican group in 100BC, and abandoned around 550AD, it is the most mysterious pyramid complex in Mexico.
Vermilion flycatchers dart from nearby pine trees as we blast up in a hot-air balloon, which is the best way to see Teotihuacan’s near-3650ha immensity. Eagles hover parallel to us as Ernesto points out the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun below. “One giant big astrological clock,” he explains, as we descend for an after-hours tour with archaeology professor Ramos. I have a whole Mesoamerican city to myself and watch the dropping sun bathe the volcanic stone in tangerine light. At dusk, we head north again, passing through a ranch rearing fighting bulls, the roadside lined with barrel cactus as straight as carved jade columns. The stars are so close to the earth that Orion appears as if in a yoga pose on the horizon.
We break our journey in San Miguel de Allende, the most immaculate of the preserved colonial silver-mining cities, lined with cobbled streets and oxblood-coloured houses, in the mountainous state of Guanajuato.
It was in San Miguel that the silver barons built their family homes away from the harsh realities of the mines and, in nearby Dolores Hidalgo, that the War of Independence began in 1810. Today, San Miguel is a magnet for an international community of artists, but there are still Mexican gems to be found. At Fabrica La Aurora, a highend art centre in a former textile factory, is the gallery and studio of Fernando M Diaz, who emerges with paintsplattered trainers worthy of a Jackson Pollock. He is 63, but his work comes straight from the heart of the new movement, including a red sculpture in iron and steel incorporating Aztec motifs and another one in blue, featuring two round circles, the sign of rain god Tlaloc.
The latter is also the emblem of Cuna de Tierra, an award-winning boutique eco-vineyard and organic farm that farms freshwater crayfish, near Dolores Hidalgo. With Guanajuato state’s microclimate and fecund vol- Abercrombie & Kent has private journeys in Mexico from five to 14 days, with extensions available. More: abercrombiekent.com.au. Recommended accommodation in Guanajuato is at Villa Maria Cristina, a Relais & Chateaux property close to Museo Casa Diego Rivera. More: relaischateaux.com. In Guadalajara, 37-room Casa Fayette offers eclectic art-deco style and is a member of Design Hotels, which also has four properties in Mexico City, including DOWNTOWN Mexico in a repurposed 17thcentury heritage building with a roof terrace. More: designhotels.com. canic soils in the Sierra Madre, Cuna de Tierra produces world-class wines, has won many contests in Europe and is a leader in the new Mexican wine movement. “We are so proud,” says Paco, Cuna’s quixotic barrels expert. “Mexican wines once had a terrible reputation but that’s changing. It’s like Napa Valley 30 years ago.”
My ears pop as we drive higher into the Sierra Madre towards the state capital of Guanajuato. Cyclists puff up the mountainside to the ruins of La Valenciana mine. Founded in 1558, it produced almost a third of the world’s silver by the 18th century.
Thankfully, my new guide, Alfredo, is driving as the route into the city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, its glory largely undiscovered by the outside world, involves labyrinthine underground tunnels, the legacy of the redirection of a river. I spend the next day photographing Churrigueresque churches, mansions in shades of turquoise, mustard and wild rose, and getting lost in a warren of alleys, peering through lace curtains as housewives mill fresh tortillas. Later, I sit outside the concert hall and the valley’s acoustics act like a giant stone ear to the soprano voices rising into the night sky.
“Jalisco state is land of tequila, mariachi bands and charro riders,” Alfredo tells me as we head three hours west towards the state border next morning. We drive by shiny macho trucks, through ranches where rancheros sway on ambling palominos. Yet Jalisco’s capital, Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, is the epitome of cultured urban chic; it hosts FIL, the biggest book fair in Latin America, and the international film festival FICG.
In Lafayette, the new hipster district, an art deco and modernist design haven, I hire a bike and explore the streets of white and peach bungalows, on which jacaranda blossom rains down. The early work of prize-winning architect Luis Barrigan is here — buildings created before he met Le Corbusier and fused modernist clean lines with Aztec primal colours, creating a blueprint for Mexico’s future generations.
Guadalajaran brothers Alberto and Hector, a delightful comic double act, are to be my guides to the redearthed highlands of Jalisco and its boutique tequila distilleries. As the city disappears, we enter a strange landscape of neat rows of spiky blue agave where harvesters are digging up the giant pineapple-like fruit and hacking off its leaves with machetes.
We drive on into the bone-white midday sun, over bare, dry mountains, their peaks stubbled with an occasional pine. It takes two hours for my ears to decompress as we descend the Sierra Madre and pass through flowering sugarcane plantations. In another hour we are at sea level in the lush Pacific state of Nayarit, driving along the coastal road of the Bay of Banderas, lined with coconut and mango stalls.
We pass the resort towns and head to the boutique retreat Imanta, on about 100ha of privately owned jungle on the exclusive Punta de Mita coast. I spend the next morning on top of the observation tower watching for humpback whales, then the afternoon riding bareback on the beach as my mare throws up powdery sand, and prehistoric-looking chachalaca birds swoop overhead.
Soon time and history sink with the sun, and I am left alone with the primal breath of the Pacific and the fragile immortality of the stars. In so many ways, Mexico has changed. Here, though, it seems as though nothing has.
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Immaculately preserved San Miguel de Allende