Set Yourself Apart When You Travel to Mexico: 10 Things You May Not Know About Mexico

With all the bad news coming from Mexico these days, it’s easy to forget that if you choose your destinations with a bit of care, it’s still a beautiful and welcoming place to travel.

Travel to Mexico : Oaxaca Church

Oaxaca Church

When you travel to Mexico you can find spectacular scenery, mind-blowing pre-Colombian ruins, and beautiful colonial cities and towns. Mexico has 32 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List scattered throughout the country. It’s a country full of warm, friendly people who love to laugh, and there’s lots of great food to be had. And of course, there’s tequila. For those who would like to travel to Mexico armed with some knowledge that will set them apart from other turistas (knowing a little of the Spanish language goes a long way too), I’ve compiled a list, in no particular order, of facts and places of interest.

Get ready to travel to Mexico!

  1. We’re not the only United States. Mexico’s official name is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States). The country has 32 States. Unfortunately, 16 of them are currently under U.S. State Department travel advisories, but that still leaves many options for safe travel to Mexico. The list of states that our government recommends avoiding can be found here.
  2. Mexico formally abolished slavery in 1820, 53 years before the U.S.
  3. You can see the oldest olive trees in the Western Hemisphere. The town of Tzintzuntzan, in the state of Michoacán, in addition to having a really cool name, is home to the monastery of San Francisco, where you’ll find olive trees said to have been planted by Vasco de Quiroga in the 1500’s. There’s also a glass coffin housing a wax figure of Christ whose arms and legs, according to the locals, are continually growing – an extension was added to the coffin to accommodate them.
  4. View a volcano that ate two towns (slowly). On February 20, 1943, a farmer and his wife in Michoacán saw ash and stones erupting from a fissure in their field. The eruptions soon grew into a full-blown volcano, which slowly engulfed the villages of Paricutín and San Juan Parangaricutiro.
    Travel to Mexico: Paricutín volcano

    Paricutín volcano

    The residents of the two villages safely relocated to land nearby. The Paricutín volcano continued to erupt until 1952; it was the first time the entire life cycle of a volcano was witnessed by scientists. Today, when you travel to Mexico, you can hike to San Juan Parangaricutiro to see the remains of the town, including the church bell tower and altar, which were left exposed.

  5. There’s no worm in tequila, though sometimes you’ll find one in mezcal, which is made from a different variety of agave. “Tequila” is a controlled appellation: in order to bear that name, the spirit has to be produced in the state of Jalisco or in certain areas of 4 other states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the area surrounding the town of – that’s right: Tequila! Travelers in Mexico interested in learning about tequila’s production and history can take a trip on the José Cuervo Express, a train from Guadalajara to Tequila that allows visitors to tour distilleries, sample and purchase tequilas and other spirits, and return to Guadalajara without having to drive.
  6. Travel through Canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a group of canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental in southwestern Chihuahua. The more remote areas are home to the Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, Indians, renowned for their endurance running. A popular train takes visitors from the city of Chihuahua through the canyons to the West Coast at Los Mochis.
  7. See amazing murals. From the 1920s to the 70s, a large number of murals were painted on public buildings in several cities. The most famous muralists of the era, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, painted many masterpieces filled with social and political messages, which can be seen at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, the Hospicio Cabañas and the Jalisco Governmental Palace, both in Guadalajara, as well as many other sites.
  8. Great reefs for snorkeling & scuba diving can be found on both coasts, including areas in Veracruz and Quintana Roo on the Gulf Coast and Baja California Sur on the West Coast.
  9. Visit beautiful colonial cities. Visitors who find Mexico City a bit overwhelming can enjoy a number of charming smaller cities. San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Mérida, and San Cristóbal de las Casas are a few fine examples.
  10. Indulge in the food, from simple to sophisticated. One of the perks when you travel to Mexico is that you can find great meals for all budgets, from small tacos made with double tortillas to hold their bulging contents, to complex and picturesque dishes such as chiles en nogada and an infinite variety of moles. The adventurous can also try different types of larvae, crickets, and other crawly things! Like many things in Mexico, there’s something for all tastes.

Top 10 Unusual Sites to Visit when you Travel to Italy (Part 2)

In choosing my Top 10 places to see on your travel to Italy I purposely avoided Rome, Florence, and Venice, the cities most visited by tourists on their first travel to Italy.  If you’ve missed Part 1 of my Top 10 places to visit when you travel to Italy, you can check it out here.  Otherwise, let’s continue with the 5 remaining off the beaten path destinations in Italy.

Beyond the Gondolas and the Colosseum: Top 10 Offbeat Sites to See When you Travel to Italy

5. Ravenna and Its Early Christian Monuments
Just a bit further south of Bologna is Ravenna, the old capital of the Byzantine Empire in the west. The Nobel poet Eugenio Montale described Ravenna, saying,
                     And here where ancient life
                     is marked by the sweet
                     anxiety of the Levant.

Ravenna Travel to ItalyRavenna was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then the seat of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and finally the capital of the Byzantine empire in the west. Eventually it became part of the Papal States. In Roman times it had its own port but now it’s a cruise port and the city center is located eight miles from the Adriatic coast.

Ravenna is famous for its early Christian monuments that go back 1500 years. The mausoleum to Empress Galla Placida was built in 426 CE and the Baptistery is from 430 CE. The Basilica of the New Saint Apollinare, Saint Apolinnare in Classe, and Saint Vitale are all from the sixth century CE. All have magnificent preserved mosaics. The basilica of San Vitale probably has the best known. If you ever looked at any college history text, you will have seen a picture of the mosaic from San Vitale depicting the Emperor Justinian and his court and another of the Empress Theodora and her ladies in waiting.

If you thought Dante Alighieri’s tomb was in Florence, you have been misled by the “cenotaph” in the Santa Croce church there. The poet of the Divine Comedy is buried here in Ravenna, as he had been exiled and could not return to Florence under penalty of death.

4. The Valley of the Temples in the Area of Agrigento and Pirandello too
Valley of the Temples Travel to Italy
About Sicily Goethe said: To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. On your travel to Sicily I particularly recommend the temples.

The sixth century BCE Greek Doric Temples are not in a valley, but are lined up on a ridge that climbs to a summit dominated by the Temple of Juno. At the lower end is the Temple of Jupiter and Hercules. (Juno seems to have had more power.) In the middle is the Temple of Concordia, the best-preserved Greek temple. These temples and other archeological remains are in the largest archeological site anywhere in the world. Agrigento’s panorama is visible from the temples. On the way you can stop to visit the house of Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Nobel for Literature and of Six Characters in Search of an Author fame. Nearby His ashes were laid to rest by his favorite pine tree.

3. Palermo and Monreale
The Cathedral of Palermo encompasses the various influences of the various conquerors and periods: Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque. As with most churches, it is an eclectic museum. Kings were crowned here and here are the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry IV of Hohenstaufen and his son Fredrick II, who is credited with creating the first literary language of Italy at his court.Palermo Travel to Italy
The Palatine Chapel is a wonder of different mosaics , both Byzantine and Arab. It was as well the chapel of the Norman Kings.

Monreale – The Monreale Cathedral is on a hill outside Palermo, overlooking the Valley known as the “Conca D’Oro.” It is the church with the most extensive mosaics after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and they are wonderfully preserved. The adjoining Romanesque cloister is also a major attraction.

2. Vicenza and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)
The city of Vicenza is not even on most tourists’ radar when they travel to Italy. Travelers to Italy will go to Venice of course and will stop at Verona, but in between often simply overlook this wonderful city built along the lines of what a humanist thought a city should be. Its chief architect, Andrea Palladio, gave it its distinctive classical look. Vincenza travel to Italy Palladio rediscovered the classical style of the Romans and developed it into a style called Palladian ever since. It spread all over Europe and North America. When you see a neo-classical building, think of Palladio. You cannot turn into a corner in Vicenza and not see another wonder of a building, a villa or palazzo built by Palladio. In all there are over twenty Palladian structures, including The Palazzo Thiene, the Palazzo Barbaran, la Rotonda, and the Teatro Olimpico, and the Villa Malmarana.
This does not mean that Vicenza has nothing to see outside of Palladio. There is an early Christian basilica of Saints Felice and Fortunato which dates back to the 4th century. Although previously destroyed it was rebuilt in the tenth century. Some the earlier structure and artifacts have been preserved.

1. Cinque Terre (Five Lands)
If in your travel to Italy you want to see nature in addition to great structures and monuments, then the Cinque Terre is the place to visit. However it is not just wild nature: in Italy nature is adapted to man by man. Cinque Terre Travel to ItalyThe name Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is from the five small villages on the eastern coast of the region of Liguria that borders with Tuscany. The villages are Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza. They are all built on the rugged coastline without disturbing the natural contours that nature has created. They are all very colorful and take you back to another time since they do not allow cars in the towns. You can park outside two of the villages and take a shuttle. Going by train is recommended. There are many paths and hiking trails that you can go on for long walks–the views are well worth it. Two of the famous paths are La Via dell’Amore (the Road of Love) that goes from Riomaggiore to Manarola, and the Sentiero Azzurro (The Blue Path) that goes from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. Don’t forget to try the local sweet white wine called Sciacchetrà [shaketrA] with your dessert or cheese.

Top 10 Unusual Sites to Visit when you Travel to Italy (Part 1)

When traveling to Italy, choosing any top 10 destinations is a very difficult, almost impossible task because of the embarrassment of riches. Although the much-quoted statement that Italy holds two thirds of the Western cultural heritage is still debated, it is a fact that UNESCO has designated more World Heritage Sites in Italy (49) than in any other country to date and more are currently being considered.

Why so many more sites?

Unlike other European countries, Italy, after the fall of Rome, remained divided for 13 centuries. It maintained its political, cultural, and linguistic divisions, thus creating many capitals of culture. Cities that are now often not even considered by a casual tourist traveling to Italy would rate as major cultural centers in another country. Does that stir your imagination and whet your appetite for travel to Italy?  You won’t be the first.

From the Grand Tour in the seventeenth century on it was a requirement for aristocrats and literary figures to travel to Italy for the culture experience.

“The land where the lemons bloom”

Two famous travelers were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain; both, with some exceptions stayed on the well-traveled routes.  In The Innocents Abroad, which detailed Twain’s  travels to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 15 chapters were dedicated to his travels in Italy, more than any other country. Goethe wrote The Italian Journey after visiting Italy, the land he described as the “land where the lemons bloom.”

Beyond the Gondolas and the Colosseum: Top 10 Offbeat Sites to See When you Travel to Italy

In choosing my Top 10 places to see on your travel to Italy I purposely avoided Rome, Florence, and Venice, the cities most visited by tourists on their first travel to Italy.

10. The “Trulli” of Alberobello and Castel del Monte
Most tourist who travel to Italy don’t venture to an area close to the heel of the Italian booth in the region called Puglia. There are many surprises there, but none more enchanting than the town of Alberobello.

Travel to Italy - The “Trulli” of Alberobello

The “Trulli” of Alberobello

On first sight you would swear you are “not in Italy anymore,” to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. All structures consist of a square base of white walls with conical roofs of grey bricks, split from rocks in the area, stacked in such a way as to end in a point. No mortar is used to hold the coned roofs together. The story goes that, in the 1400s, to avoid paying taxes on structures, the inhabitants built these houses without mortar, thus conveying the idea that they were only temporary. Today the town is still inhabited. The trulli, as these structures are called, can be single or several of them can be connected. The biggest complex connects 15 trulli. The largest trullo in the town, built in the mid 1700s, consists of two stories and serves as a museum. There is even a church in the form of a Greek cross built in the early part of the 20th century

9. Bologna
If you are on the road or on a train between Venice and Florence, you will pass by Bologna.
Don’t just bypass this city on your travels in Italy; it is worth a visit. Bologna is called “La dotta” (the Learned) for having the oldest continuously running University in the world (founded in 1080 CE); “La Grassa” (The Fat) for its great cuisine; and “La Rossa” (The Red) for its famed red roofs. However it is also a great art center. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bologna rivaled Florence and Rome.

Travel to Italy - Arcades in Bologna

Arcades in Bologna

If you want to see a leaning tower, Bologna has two of them that stand as the symbol of the city. There are several great churches, starting with the Cathedral of Saint Petronio on the main square. Don’t let the unfinished façade mislead you. It’s the sixth largest church in Europe. Inside you’ll find a gigantic fresco by the main altar, which is a great example of late Italian Gothic. Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor here and sessions of the church-transforming Council of Trent were held here.

Among the various museums are the National Gallery with paintings by Guido Reni and others from the Bologna School, the Palazzo Fava whose first floor is covered with frescoes by Annibale Caracci, the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Medieval Art, and an Archeological Museum.

Another distinctive feature of Bologna is its arcaded walkways. You can practically walk through the city always protected from the sun or rain. One particular arcade, the “longest arcaded walk in the world,” is almost 4 kilometers long and it leads to the Church of San Luca situated on a hill outside of Bologna.

8. Urbino
As you approach Urbino, in the region of the Marche in Central Italy, you suddenly realize you have gone back in time. The city with its turreted palace and walls has maintained the look and feel of the renaissance structure of its heyday.

Travel to Italy - Ducal palace in Urbino

Ducal palace in Urbino

It had been one of the great Renaissance centers of culture, but it saw its decline when it became part of the Papal States.  Under Federico II da Montefeltro, whose profile was immortalized in the portrait by Piero Della Francesca, the court became a center of humanism with many of the great scholars of the time. Federico built a great library second only to the one in the Vatican. In addition to the imposing Ducal palace, there are churches and piazzas to explore on your visit to this city where the famous Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) was born. His house is still there for you to visit as well.


7. Villa d’Este in Tivoli
and Hadrian’s Villa
Situated in the hills about 20 miles west of Rome, Tivoli offers magical gardens with fountains and walkways and mythical statues and structures. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este after his appointment as Governor of the city. There are fountains everywhere in the gardens.

Travel to Italy - Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Villa d’Este in Tivoli

Since they are on a slope, water from a river is used as the source to feed all the fountains, which then empty again into the river as it follows its path to the Tiber. One of the most visited sites is the Cento Fontane (One Hundred Fountains). The fountains are decorated in bas-reliefs with tales from the Metamorphoses of the Latin poet Ovid. Now they have been overgrown with moss, but the sight is still magnificent. These gardens were used as a model for many parks throughout Europe. Villa D’Este of Tivoli famously inspired the Jardin de Tivoli in Paris, which in turn inspired the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
Originally Villa d’Este itself was inspired by the Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is located just outside Tivoli, so you can enjoy this visit as well

6. 18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta
In the 1700s Naples, known as the city of Kings, was one of the major cities of Europe.

Travel to Italy - Royal Palace in Caserta

Royal Palace in Caserta

Under his reign, the Bourbon King Charles commissioned a Royal Palace in 1751. He wanted the structure to rival Versailles and become the largest of all royal palaces.

He built it away from the sea, for better protection. At the time it was the largest Baroque structure in Europe. It has 1,200 rooms, gardens with many fountains, a park with a waterfall, a huge library, and a theater modeled after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, also commissioned by Charles. The king never resided in the palace, for he later became the King of Spain as Charles III. It was used as the headquarters for the allies during WWII and later the first war crime trials were held there.