You don't have to look far in Mexico to see traces of ancient civilizations, the bloody struggle of independence from Spain, invasions, dictatorships and revolution.
The result of that turbulent past is a many-layered culture and a proud people who live in a vast country -- one that's larger than Germany, France, Italy and England combined.
Mexico's coast along the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean -- commonly called the Mexican Riviera by the cruise lines that sail its waters -- showcases much of that history. There are archeological ruins, centuries-old stone churches and charming colonial-era towns that are picture-perfect with stately main squares, whitewashed buildings with red-tiled roofs, bustling markets and a vibrant cultural life.
We've selected the top places, from north to south, along the Mexican Riviera that provide glimpses into the rich history of Mexico.
Spanish monks landed along the Baja California shoreline on the pristine waters of the Sea of Cortez in 1697, starting a string of mission churches that stretch up the 1,000-mile peninsula and beyond, as far as Northern California. The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in the town's quiet main square has undergone many renovations but the stark stone facade and a golden wood-carved altar remain. Nearby is the small but worth-visiting Museum of Jesuit Missions, set in an 18th-century convent, where 300 artifacts show Baja's development. For ancient history, tours take visitors to amazing, primitive rock and cave paintings near Loreto; they're more numerous here than those at world-renowned European sites.
Tip: If you love the simple beauty of the mission churches, make time for San Francisco Javier de Vigge-Biaundo, 21 miles south of Loreto. It's the second California mission, founded in1699. The present church dates to 1758, and olive groves planted by the Jesuits still thrive.
Nearest cruise port: Loreto
San Jose del Cabo
Centuries before the resort area known as Los Cabos was attracting millions to its nightlife and beaches, it was drawing Spanish colonizers and missionaries. The Jesuits built a mission in San Jose del Cabo and the Spanish nearly wiped out indigenous people in their efforts to maintain a spot on the important Pacific trade route. The church in its present position, including simple and spare interior, dates to 1840. The lively plaza in front features a monument called "The Garden of the Illustrious Cabenos." Descriptions under the busts of men and women who are important historic figures describe Baja's tumultuous history.
Tip: The historic core of San Jose del Cabo is home to a trove of art studios and galleries. Each Thursday night from November to June they stay open until 9 p.m. for Art Walk. It's nice if your ship has an overnight; the galleries offer wine and snacks, there's live music in the plaza, and streets are filled with artists, locals and tourists browsing shops and galleries.
Nearest cruise port: Cabo San Lucas
The sun-drenched town of Todos Santos is about an hour's drive north of Cabo San Lucas but a world away from the vibe of the big resort playground. In the last 20 years, Todos Santos has been transformed to an artist colony, its narrow streets lined with studios, shops and galleries. The town was established in 1723 by Spanish missionaries, who built Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Todos Santos church that still overlooks the main square. A center of sugar production in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Todos Santos' colonial-style buildings went up during this prosperous time. But when sugar production fell, the town declined. In the 1990s Americans discovered its laid-back charms and scooped up cheap real estate. Today, rather than a dusty relic, it's a lively art hub. Check out the cultural center for the dramatic murals of Mexican revolutionary heroes, painted in the 1930s and treasured by residents.
Tip: The Hotel California is a big tourist attraction but has no relation to the Eagles song. Still, it's a fine place to soak up funky atmosphere and have a drink. You might want to time your visit to one of Todos Santos' many cultural events, such as the 10-day music festival each January or the annual film festival typically held in February or March.
Nearest cruise port: Cabo San Lucas
Copala and Concordia
Two old mining towns near the port city of Mazatlan are good choices to step back in time and absorb the charm of cobblestone streets, whitewashed houses with red-tile roofs and bougainvillea-draped stone walls. One is Concordia, southeast of Mazatlan, where San Sebastian Church dates from the 17th Century. Concordia also is known for its furniture and pottery; you'll see artisans at work in their shops. Copala is equally as enchanting and equally as old, also from the 17th Century. It lies 44 miles northeast of Mazatlan in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains and has a handsome main square with well-preserved buildings, including the 18th-century Church of San Jose. With wandering donkeys and crowing roosters, the city seems to have stayed mostly the same for the past 400 years. Don't miss sampling local treats such as birria (a spicy meat stew) and banana cream pie.
Tip: If you are squeezed for time and want to experience Old Mexico ambiance, the town of El Quelite is only 23 miles north of Mazatlan. Make sure you set aside an hour or two for a leisurely lunch at El Meson De Los Laureanos, a family-run restaurant that is a local culinary treasure.
Nearest cruise port: Mazatlan
Old Town Mazatlan
Mazatlan is the largest port between the Panama Canal and Los Angeles, and a major city of nearly half a million people, but its quaint historic core seems that of a village. Lots of restoration has brought the old town back to life with sidewalk cafes and restaurants beckoning tourists who would normally stick to beach resorts. Leafy Plaza Machado is lined with elegant 18th-century buildings, while the larger Plaza Revolution is graced by a gazebo and street vendors. The grand Teatro Angela Peralta (which dates from 1881) is an Italian-style historic monument booked solid with musical performances. Mazatlan's impressive Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was begun in 1875; with its mix of Gothic and Baroque styles, it's considered the most beautiful church in northwest Mexico. The historic center is also dotted with cultural centers: a fine arts museum, an archeology museum, the Sinaloa State Museum and a museum devoted to movie star and Mazatlan native Pedro Infante. Don't miss the Pino Suarez open market, set in an early 19th-century building; you'll find piles of fresh produce, fishmongers hawking fresh-caught shrimp and bargains on local souvenirs.
Tip: For a look back very long ago, there's Las Labradas, 40 minutes north of Mazatlan. It's an open-air museum with hundreds of engraved stones depicting human figures and animals, thought to date to prehistoric times.
Nearest cruise port: Mazatlan
Downtown Puerto Vallarta
With its cobblestone streets, art galleries and lush Sierra Madres as the backdrop, it's no wonder that Puerto Vallarta has drawn celebrities and beach-lovers for decades. One of the most interesting ways to spend a day here is to simply stroll along the malecon (seaside promenade) lined with sculptures, and explore the narrow streets of downtown. Stop at Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a beautiful but relatively modern 20th-century church topped with a striking crown that can be seen from all over town. The Mercado Municipal lies along the banks of the Cuale River; its maze of stalls sell all kinds of crafts, textiles and jewelry. Just a bit farther along the river bank you'll come across a statue of director John Huston, who put Puerto Vallarta on the tourist map when he filmed "Night of the Iguana" with Richard Burton in 1963. The steep hillside above is Gringo Gulch, where Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor a house. They later purchased a second house on the other side of the street; an arched passageway connects the two and is a romantic lure for tourists who pose underneath for photos. Also downtown is a small beachfront Navy Museum tracing Mexico's maritime history, and El Cuale, a museum exhibiting ceramics and tools found in the region's ancient tombs.
Tip: The indigenous Huichol people make their home in the Sierra Madre range north of Puerto Vallarta. Their intricate handicrafts, beaded and embroidered in whimsical designs, are said to be inspired by peyote-induced visions. Tours take visitors into Huichol mountain villages, and their handiwork is found in Puerto Vallarta's finer shops.
Nearest cruise port: Puerto Vallarta
Colima and Comala
A short trip inland from Manzanillo and the Pacific coast is a volcano-dotted landscape in the mountains that has drawn explorers for centuries. The top cultural attraction is the Centro Cultural Nogueras, located a mile outside of Comala and 6 miles north of Colima. Set on the grounds of a former sugarcane plantation, the hacienda was the home of Mexican artist Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo, known for paintings and design. Rangel bought the buildings in the late 19th Century and added a museum to display his art, along with antiques and pre-Hispanic artifacts; it's now part of the University of Colima. On Colima's main square, the university also operates the Museum of Popular Arts, a beautiful building showcasing regional art and craftspeople at work. Comala is another a picturesque town just north. It's called "Pueblito Blanco" (White Village) because of its iconic whitewashed buildings,red-tile rooftops and brilliant bougainvillea. There's a quaint main plaza with town hall, a 20th-century parish church and -- best of all -- incredible views of towering twin volcanoes, Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Nevado de Colima.
Tip: Have a drink and tapas-style snacks called sopitos (a local specialty) at one of the casual eateries on the main plaza. Then stroll the cobblestone streets, shopping for folk art including perros cebados (round dogs), artifacts that are a symbol of the state of Colima.
Nearest cruise port: Manzanillo
Old Town Manzanillo
The port of Manzaillo is one of the oldest on the Pacific coast; ships started calling here in 1531. The city overlooks two bays, Manzanilo and Santiago, and is known as a beach and ecotourism destination. Renovation work has kept its historic center in attractive shape, and it's enjoyable to spend a couple of hours exploring the tree-lined main plaza that overlooks the bay, bustling shopping areas and the hubbub of a traditional market with stalls piled with produce, seafood and a variety of bright-colored pinatas, folk art and crafts. Manzanillo has a small-town feel despite being a busy seaport. In the evenings there's often live music and dancing in the square; the lively streets surrounding are pedestrian-only with bars, restaurants and shops. Take time to stroll past small fishing boats and sculptures by local artists along the malecon -- the seaside promenade.
Tip: Thirty minutes south of Manzanillo, in the sleepy beach town of Cuyutlan, a century-old salt-storage barn is today the Museo de Sal (Salt Museum). You'll learn how salt has been used to preserve food and for processing silver. Nearby is the Tortugario Ecological Center, Mexico's largest turtle sanctuary, dedicated to nurturing the endangered species. From August to January, you can help release baby turtles into the ocean.
Nearest cruise port: Manzanillo
It's only 4 miles between the modern resort city of Ixtapa and the port town of Zihuatanejo, but the two seem to lie in different worlds. Ixtapa is a modern resort city planned by the Mexican government. Zihuatanejo is centuries old. Its name (Zee-hua-tan-ney-ho) comes from the language of the indigenous Nahatl people, and means "place of women." Chinese ships with treasures from Asia stopped here on their way to Spain in the 17th Century and were often robbed by pirates. Today, it's a charming beachfront village, with fishermen in small motorboats bringing their catch in each day. At the small Museo Arqueologico de la Costa Grande, you'll learn about pre-colonial times and see stone artifacts and ancient pottery from when the area was known as Cihuatalan.
Tip: Shopping for arts and jewelry in Zihuatanejo is fun; much of the folk art, artisan jewelry and crafts that Mexico is known for can be found in little shops and boutiques in the area around the main plaza. The artisan market on Calle Cinco de Mayo is an excellent place to start.
Nearest cruise port: Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo
For years, Acapulco was synonymous with glitz and glamour as one of the world's premiere beach resorts. It might have been eclipsed by Cancun and Caribbean spots, but it remains impressive for its location on a stunningly beautiful bay and its long history. The Fort of San Diego in the downtown showcases that past. Originally built in 1616, the fort was reconstructed after a big earthquake in 1776. It's in good shape today, with its five turret points and moat that made it successful as the staging area for the Manila Fleet, the Spanish ships that protected the trade route from pirates. Inside is a museum with original rooms and displays on cultural ties with Asia. Nearby, on the side of a home and in easy view for the public, are the Diego Rivera murals, a must for visitors. Rivera painted one of his last works -- a 60-foot-long mural of tiles, seashells and stones -- during the last two years of his life. Also of interest downtown is the stark-white, modern Nuestra Senora de la Soledad Church, distinctive for its blue- and yellow-tiled spires.
Tip: It's the tourist thing to do but no one regrets seeing the La Quebrada cliff divers, who have performed their dazzling 130-foot falls into a small ocean inlet since 1934. The dives are staged several times and day and into the night, when the divers plunge by torchlight.
Nearest cruise port: Acapulco