During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs. For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
James A. Garza
The history of foreign travel to Mexico has been dependent on the country’s political, economic, and social conditions. Travel restrictions, banditry, the condition of transportation routes and ports, political stability, revolution, and the development of a tourist industry have all played a role in how travelers have written about Mexico. Despite periodic challenges, Mexico has proven to be an alluring destination for foreign travelers since the colonial era. Men and women have journeyed to Mexico for different reasons, some on official business and others for pleasure or to escape their lives back home, and in turn have produced numerous accounts that have served to attract more visitors and have functioned as a valuable source of information on the everyday life of Mexico’s peoples. Still others have traveled to Mexico for conquest, and while their motivations were violent, their journals have served as a guide for those interested in retracing the same routes. Travelers have depicted landscapes, communities, peoples, and practices; offered insight into important historic periods; and depicted Mexico as exotic, bountiful, primitive, or dangerous. This historical topic is divided into three distinct eras: the colonial period, the 19th century, and the 20th century. The Spanish Crown restricted foreign travel to Mexico during the colonial era (1521–1821), resulting in the relative scarcity of accounts from the period. Foreign travelers during this period were conquistadors, clerics, officials, or explorers, all with varying degrees of literacy. During the 19th century, foreign travelers came in three overlapping waves: the early republic era (1821–1840), when most were either investors or diplomats; the middle period (1830–1870), an era dominated by soldiers, travelers, and archeologists; and the Porfiriato (1876–1911), when investors and wealthy tourists flooded Mexico. The 1910 Mexican Revolution marks the beginning of Mexico’s 20th century and two distinct periods of foreign travel, both influenced by state power and violence. The revolutionary and state-building era (1910–1946) saw foreign travelers as primarily war journalists and writers exploring the effects of the revolution’s social and cultural measures. After World War II, foreign travelers encountered the tourism era (1946–1968), a period under the influence of a burgeoning state tourism industry. Despite this challenge, travelers, many of them writers, carved out their own niches.