Three of Mexico’s native plants are behind three of Linda’s favourite things – chocolate, vanilla and tequila – so she was always going to love the place, but how much surprised even her.
Mad for colour in San Miguel de Allende
Charming San Miguel de Allende, three hours from Mexico City, nestles in a valley surrounded by desert. The city is a bolt of colour with the high adobe walls reflecting the sun-baked colours of the desert and supporting prickly pear and bougainvillea. The orange, ochre and cerise walls paint a brilliant backdrop for vibrant Mexican festivals. In the cobblestone laneways of the historic centre many of the estimated 2000 timber doors lead to private courtyards, filled with lush palms, pomegranates, plumbago, jacaranda and sometimes pools and water fountains.
San Miguel de Allende was a ghost town in the 20th century until visitors discovered it charms, moved in and ensured that the historic baroque and neoclassical architecture was preserved. Now a vibrant arts and crafts community lives here and breathes colour back into the street life. A few minutes drive out of the city is the El Charco garden, a wild, 220-acre botanic garden of cactus and succulents. We saw mesquite, prickly pear, 75 agave species, wildflowers and a charismatic cactus conservatory.
Into the Yucatán
The Yucatán peninsula is home to some of the most remarkable remnants of the Mayan civilisation, which was at its most dominant and innovative between 250 and 900 CE.
The Mayans had a written language, built complex cities, and had advanced understanding of astronomy. This is particularly clear at Chichen Itza, where a giant limestone pyramid is situated according to the sun’s location during the spring and autumn equinoxes. At sunset on these two days, the pyramid casts a shadow on itself that aligns with a carving of the head of the Mayan serpent god. The shadow forms the serpent’s body and as the sun sets the serpent appears to slither into the earth.
As you can imagine Chichien Itza attracts plenty of visitors, so I preferred the relative emptiness of Uxmal (pronounced Ooshmal). Here we climbed pyramids on our own to see the layout of the city and how it worked, and joined the iguanas sunning on the rocks of the city’s ruined walls.
The flat dry expanse of the Yucatan grows a great agave renowned for making rope. It’s called Agave sisalana after Sisal, the port town in Spain where the agave was taken and rope factories established. Agave sisalana powered the Spanish armada of the 16th and 17th centuries and Spanish haciendas still dot the landscape here as a reminder that sisal was a vital resource until it was replaced by plastic fibre rope after World War II.
Two more must-dos in the Yucatán: see the pink flamingos in Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun at the seaside village of Celestún; and jump in a cenote. A cenote is a giant circular limestone sinkhole filled with crystal clear water. For both spiritual and practical reasons Mayan cities were always built near one, and the Yucatan has more that 7000 of them!
Plant-hunting from west to east
We travelled from the Pacific Ocean eastwards to the Caribbean Sea, through tropical forests where tillandsias encrusted the overhanging trees branches, and through dry desert plains interrupted by prickly pear and organ cactus.
In the west, at Vallarta Botanic Gardens we saw the golden ripening pods of cacao and zigzagging vanilla orchids. The perfumed vanilla orchids bloom in late winter and spring and are pollinated by the stingless, and now endangered, Melipona bee. The green pods blacken slowly into what we recognise as vanilla. It’s not just the bee that’s in trouble. I couldn’t count or even name the thousands of orchids (still living on cut branches) laid out on tables for sale in local markets. They’re disappearing quickly from the wild as families with no other way of making a living go bush to make a dollar.
Another horti highlight were the bromeliads. We saw great poinciana trees simply covered in them so they looked like fuzzy Muppets. We spotted tillandsias, the air bromeliads, clinging on granite monoliths, cenote walls and volcanic caves. High on a volcanic peak we saw a rare pink flowering form, living in a family cluster of nine, in full flower.