Mexico City's Peaceful Escapes

Sometimes you just have to get out of town and take a break from the crowds.

By: Maribeth Mellin

MEXICO CITY Mexico City is one of the world’s most vibrant, exciting capitals. It’s also one of the most overwhelming.

Once you’ve seen the Historic Center’s Zocalo (central square), Metropolitan Cathedral and many museums, the urge to escape the crowds and noise is intense. Fortunately, there are several scenic shelters within the city. Office workers head to the Alameda Central, just a few blocks from the Zocalo, for leisurely breaks amid fountains and trees.

On weekends, city dwellers flock to Chapultepec Park, a 1,600-acre greenbelt with lawns, forests, a lake and the famed national Museum of Anthropology. But the best way to deal with Mexico City’s notorious gray skies, traffic jams and pollution is to emulate savvy locals and head for nearby parks, valleys and small towns.

“Imagine having 20 million people around you all the time,” said Luis Mercado, general manager of Ecco Sports, a Mexico City-based adventure tourism company. “At some point you get overwhelmed by the city and you have to get out. Fortunately, in just one hour even less you can be in the middle of nothing.”

Amazing landscapes lie within easy day-trip distance from the city’s center, and tourists have the advantage of dropping out of the city on weekdays, when everyone else is at work.

“You don’t want to do it on weekends,” Mercado advised. “Even if just 1 percent of the population decides to go where you’re going, it will be a mess.”

Instead, advise your clients to study maps available at information kiosks near all the main attractions and head for an outlying destination. Public buses run to several desirable locales and tour companies offer specialized routes that include archaeological sites and cultural attractions.

The following three locales are particularly alluring and give a glimpse of the many wonders near Mexico City.


One of the most pleasant ways to pass a day in Mexico City is to visit the floating gardens at Xochimilco, located just 13 miles south of the city’s center.

When the Aztecs settled in the Valley of Mexico, the landscape was dominated by two lakes. To create gardens, the Aztecs constructed chinampas, rafts woven from branches. The rafts were covered with soil and planted with vegetables and flowers. Over the years, the roots of the vegetation anchored the rafts to the bottom of the lake, creating a series of islands and canals.

Xochimilco’s canals are now part of the Parque Ecológico Xochimilco, where shallow boats called trajineras glide past floating gardens.

The boats, bedecked with elaborate floral garlands, carry families, lovers and groups of strangers into a fantasyland. Mariachi and marimba bands compete for attention from their own trajineras, decorated like floating bandstands.

A visit to Xochimilco typically starts with a shopping spree at the adjacent open-air market where vendors sell fresh tortillas, carnitas (hunks of roasted pork), salsas, tropical fruits and chilled bottles of soda and beer.

Visitors then choose a boat, climb aboard with their provisions and feast on views of clear skies, shimmering water and dense green gardens.

The trip lasts as long as you wish. City dwellers stop at floating gardens to browse through rows of trees and plants, picking up a few natural ornaments for their homes. Many passengers find themselves lingering after dusk, and some hire guides for specialized tours in the moonlight.


Tours combining adventure and culture are ideal for those longing to stretch their limbs and minds.

Aculco, which lies 80 miles north of Mexico City, is the escape of choice for hikers and rock climbers. Sheer striated rock walls loom over Aculco Canyon, where trails run along a river to groves of ash, eucalyptus and poplar trees.

On weekdays the canyon is virtually empty, and trekkers quickly find themselves surrounded by silence punctuated by sparrow chirps.

Clambering about on boulders through dense underbrush provides just the right amount of exercise to clear the brain. Waterfalls splash over the edge of the canyon in some places, making for perfect picnicking spots.

Cobblestone streets lead into the village of Aculco, just a few miles from the canyon. Founded around 1100 AD by the Otomies, Aculco is a classic small town with a central plaza shaded by magnolia trees. The 16th-century baroque church of San Jeronimo is constructed of rosa cantera, the pink-tinged rock mined in the nearby hillsides.

Whitewashed buildings with terra-cotta-tiled roofs line the side streets of Aculco. A few shops, including Quesos el Artesano near the church, sell the region’s famous fresh cheeses, homemade candies and handcrafted pottery.

Like dozens of towns around Mexico City, Aculco is peaceful, rural and totally removed from the capital’s bustle except on weekends when cars outnumber burros along the narrow streets.


To visit Mexico City and skip the pyramids of Teotihuacan is like visiting Athens sans the Acropolis. The archaeological site 31 miles northeast of Mexico City was one of the largest cities in the world in the 8th century, long before Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors laid the framework for Mexico City.

Serious walking shoes are essential for a complete tour of the site. The Avenida de las Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) between the entryway and the magisterial Pyramid of the Moon is 2½ miles long; the site is best appreciated from atop the 215-foot-high Pyramid of the Sun. (You can get a lot of exercise at Teotihuacan.)

Mystics and psychics are drawn by the site’s history and setting. Scientists aren’t sure who built Teotihuacan’s magnificent palaces and temples.

No one knows the city’s original name. When the Aztecs explored the Valley of Mexico in the early 14th century, the site was deserted. Awed by the ruins of a great city, the Aztecs named the site “Place of the Gods” and moved on to create their own city of Tenochtitlan, the original Mexico City.

It’s best to visit the site in early morning, before the tour buses arrive, or in early evening. There are advantages to taking a standardized group tour to the ruins. Most provide comfortable transportation, educated guides and stops at the Basilica de Guadalupe or the archaeological site of Tula.

If your clients are serious about archaeology or anthropology, recommend an individualized tour. Independent travelers can reach the site by bus from Mexico City’s Central de Autobuses del Norte; the trip takes about one hour.

Licensed guides proffer their services at the entrance to Teotihuacan.