The southwest of the State of Mexico is dominated by the state capital, Toluca, which is served by extremely frequent buses from Mexico City’s Terminal Poniente. The main artery through the region is Hwy-55, superseded in places by a modern autopista but still used by most of the buses to the small towns. Coming up from Acapulco or Taxco, Hwy-55 passes through the spa town of Ixtapan de la Sal on its way to Toluca, but you’ll need to take a detour to see the charming – and increasingly upmarket – village of Malinalco, with its hilltop temple, and the nearby market town of Tenancingo. West of Toluca, on the way out to Michoacán, the main attraction is the beautiful lakeside town of Valle del Bravo, which is also a good base for visiting parts of the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
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The village of Malinalco, 20km east of Tenancingo, is a lovely little place nestled in a fertile, alluvial valley at 1800m and surrounded by rich villas – many of them, complete with swimming pools, the weekend homes of the capital’s privileged few. The fact that it is noticeably warmer than most of the towns hereabouts makes it a popular retreat in winter. While the village centres on the huge Augustinian church of Santa Mónica and has a vibrant Wednesday morning market, the real reason to come here is to see the exemplary Aztec ruins.
The Malinalco archeological site
The Aztec site of Malinalco sits high on a hill to the west of town (follow Guerrero west from the zócalo) and can be reached after a twenty- to thirty-minute walk up a very steep, stepped path. Having only been started in 1501, it was still incomplete at the time of the Conquest but it is undeniably one of the most evocative sites of its kind, carved in part from the raw rock hillside of the Cerro de los Idolos. Looking back over the village and valley, the ruins may be small, but they are undeniably impressive, the main structures and the stairways up to them partly cut out of the rock and partly constructed from great stone blocks.
The main temple
The most remarkable aspect is the circular inner sanctuary of the main temple or Cuauhcalli (House of the Eagle), hewn entirely from the face of the mountain. You approach up a broad staircase on either side of which sit stone jaguars – in the centre an all but worn-away human statue would have held a flag. This was the setting for the sacred initiation ceremonies in which Aztec youths became members of the warrior elite, and there are images of warriors throughout: to one side of the entrance, a broken eagle warrior sits atop Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent; guarding the other side are the remains of a jaguar warrior, representative of the second Aztec warrior class. The doorway of the sanctuary itself, cut through a natural rock wall, represents the giant mouth of a serpent – the entrance was over its tongue, and around it traces of teeth are still visible. Right in the centre of the floor lies the figure of an eagle, and on the raised horseshoe-shaped bench behind are two more eagles and the pelt of an ocelot, all carved in a single piece from the bedrock. Behind the first eagle is a hole in the ground where the hearts of human sacrificial victims would be placed, supposedly to be eaten while still beating as the final part of the initiation into warriorhood.
The rest of the site
Other structures at the site include a small circular platform by the entrance, unfinished at the time of the Conquest, and a low pyramid directly in front of the main temple. Beyond this lie two larger temples. The first, Edificio III, again has a circular chamber at the centre, and it is believed that here Aztec warriors killed in battle were cremated, their souls rising to the heavens to become stars. Edificio IV was originally a temple of the sun; much of it was used to construct the church in the village. Below the pyramids, visible from about halfway up the steps to the ruins, you can see another pre-Hispanic building nestling among the mountains. It’s still used by local residents as a place of pilgrimage each September 29: formerly a shrine to an Aztec altar-goddess, it is now dedicated to San Miguel.
The capital of the state of México, TOLUCA DE LERDO is today a large and modern industrial centre, sprawling across a wide plain. At an altitude of nearly 2700m, it is the highest city in the country, and is surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, dominated by the white-capped Nevado de Toluca. It is probably not a place you’ll want to linger, but on Fridays it is the site of what is allegedly the largest single market in the country.
Unusually for a Mexican city, Toluca’s centre is marked not by an open plaza, but by a central block surrounded on three sides by the nation’s longest series of arcades, built in the 1830s and known as portales, lined with shops, restaurants and cafés: Portal Madero is to the south along Hidalgo; Portal 20 de Noviembre is to the east along Allende; and Portal Reforma is to the west along Bravo. The fourth side is taken up by the nineteenth-century cathedral and, to its east, the mustard-yellow church of Santa Cruz. Most of the central sights are clustered north of the portales and the cathedral, close to the two massive open plazas: Plaza de los Mártires, north of the cathedral, which is dominated on its north side by the Palacio del Gobierno, and to its east, Plaza Garibay, which is rather prettier, with shrubbery and fountains.
Valle de Bravo
Valle de Bravo
West from Toluca, the road towards Morelia and the state of Michoacán is truly spectacular. Much of this wooded, mountainous area – as far as Zitácuaro – is given over to villas inhabited at weekends by wealthy refugees from the capital, and nowhere more so than the small colonial town of VALLE DE BRAVO, reached by turning off to the left about halfway. Set in a deep, pine-clad valley surrounded by low mountains, the town sits on the eastern shore of an artificial lake, Lago Avandaro. With terracotta-tiled roofs, iron balconies affixed to many of the older buildings and a mass of whitewashed houses all huddled together, it is an immediately appealing place, something that has drawn a coterie of artistic refugees from the big city. They mostly keep to themselves, leaving the water’s edge for weekenders who descend for upmarket relaxation: boat trips, sailing, swimming, waterskiing, riding, paragliding, hiking and golf. If you indulge, it can be an expensive place, but the town itself isn’t that pricey and it does make for a very relaxing break provided you come during the week, when fewer people are about and some of the hotels drop their prices.
The zócalo, ringed with restaurants and centred on a twin-towered church, sits on a rise a fifteen-minute walk from the waterfront, where there’s a wharf (embarcadero) from which you can take boat rides.