With 10 squawking chickens wrapped in a blue shawl and slung upside down over her shoulder, the elderly Otomi woman struggles onto the minibus. Helpful hands guide her into a seat. Her weekly trip to the traditional market is over. For many others, it's just beginning.

A visit to the Friday market at Toluca is one of the most outstanding do-it-yourself day trips possible from Mexico City.All around this giant metropolis lie towns and hamlets echoing with a couple of millenia of glorious but often turbulent history. Carefully planned excursions can offer you an insight into different aspects of Mexico's past and present.

Ancient pyramids rub shoulders with colonial towns that have changed little since Spanish times and indigenous villages where the old ways and beliefs still linger.

While several travel agencies offer organized tours to many of the more popular sites, if you're willing to venture onto the public bus, you'll be surprised at how inexpensive and easy it is to get to those places.

Toluca market

On Fridays, Matlatzinca and Otomi Indians flock to Toluca from the surrounding villages, often walking for miles heavily laden with fruit or vegetables, or crowding the minibuses connecting even the smallest of hamlets.

Express buses from Mexico City for Toluca run every few minutes from the Terminal Poniente bus station. During the 75-minute trip, the road climbs through the fir forests of the Sierra de las Cruces to the Valley of Mexico, offering spectacular views of lakes and settlements prettily poised between the peaks of the Miguel Hidalgo and Desierto de los Leones national parks.

At an elevation of 8,760 feet, Toluca boasts of being the highest city in Mexico.

On Fridays the area around the bus station turns into one of the most attractive markets in the country. Two tall concrete slabs indicate Mercado Juarez, the center of activity, where acre upon acre of open-air and interior stalls are located.

Here, one will encounter crowds, the unfamiliar and the unexpected.

Vendors range from wealthy merchants, their stalls piled high with shoes of every description, to those with only a basketful of flowers or a handful of balloons.

Native women, wearing pinafores and straw hats, carry anything and everything in shawls slung on their backs and tied over the shoulders. A turkey pokes its head out of one shawl, a baby sleeps peacefully in another. A man with wooden bird cages piled high on his back weaves through the crowds.

Ladies fry quesadillas on portable barbecues as families squat, munching platefuls of goodies. Mountains of crimson chilies rise 3 feet high. In one packed corner of the market, a vendor ladles potent, white pulque (fermented juice of the maguey cactus) from an open metal bucket into plastic cups.

The pyramids at Tula

While the pyramids at Teotihuacan are on every tourist's agenda, those at Tula are a lot less crowded.

Tula lies about 36 miles north of Mexico City. Buses run every 15 minutes or so from the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte. As the bus starts for the 85-minute journey, on goes the video - generally in English with Spanish subtitles. The suburb-clad hills recede as the Mexico City-to-Queretaro highway passes through a string-development of shopping malls, Dodge dealers, McDonald's and sidewalk vendors.

The archaeological zone perches on a hill just to the north of Tula. An inexpensive taxi ride saves a 25-minute walk from the bus station.

The Toltec civilization flourished at Tula from 900 to 1150 A.D. Its best-known leader was Quetzalcoatl (the "Feathered Serpent"), who opposed human sacrifice and constant warfare and brought a time of peace and prosperity to his people. He was later forced by his rival Tezcatlipoca to flee to Yucatan. The powerful legend that grew up around the return of Quetzalcoatl was instrumental in the subsequent overthrow of the Aztec empire by Hernando Cortez.

Most impressive is the temple of Quetzalcoatl. This pyramid is crowned by four intricately carved Atlantes - 15 feet tall, basalt columns in the form of Toltec warriors. In one hand each holds an incense bag and in the other an atlatl or spear-thrower. Around its base are murals of prowling coyotes and jaguars, eagles devouring human hearts and rattlesnakes eating human skeletons.

In front of this stretches a vast plaza surrounded by other pyramidlike structures and the largest ball court in central Mexico.

Colonial Tepotzotlan

The colonial town of Tepotzotlan (about 22 miles north of Mexico City) lies about 11/2 miles west of the Mexico City-to-Queretaro highway. It can be visited in the same day as Tula or reached by a bus from Cuatro Caminos Metro station. Get off in the spacious Plaza Hidalgo, which forms the heart of the community.

To one side of the square stands Tepotzotlan's Church of San Francisco Javier, one of Mexico's three best examples of churrigueresque (Mexican baroque) architecture, and the National Viceroy's Museum. In this complex is the Hosteria de Tepotzotlan, an excellent restaurant specializing in traditional dishes.

Tepotzotlan was founded by the Franciscans shortly after the Spanish conquest, but by 1580 it belonged to the Jesuits. They started the first school for Mexican Indian children and a few years later, a seminary for novitiates, the Colegio de San Francisco Javier. Between 1670 and 1682 they built the church, which was lavishly decorated during the mid-18th century.

Today, the monastery has been carefully restored to show what it was like during colonial times and houses the National Viceroy's Museum. One can wander the chapel, kitchens, refectory and gardens of the abbey and marvel at the magnificent collection of religious paintings and sculptures, Oriental carvings, ecclesiastical ornaments and vestments and other colonial treasures.

The church is literally a monument to ornamentation. Inside, the walls are adorned with 10 massive wood-carved altars, gold-encrusted and covered, in the churrigueresque style, with statues, cherubim and paintings.

For those with more time, trips can be made to Puebla, the "City of Tiles," to Taxco, famous for its silver and to Ixto-Popo Volcanos National Park.


Additional Information

If you go

Getting there: Many airlines, including United, operate nonstop or direct flights from cities in North America. Contact your local travel agency for the latest schedules and prices.

Getting around in Mexico City: Getting around by public transportation in Mexico City is easy and very cheap. Buses and minibuses (perseros) run on every major street, but they tend to be very crowded. Several different kinds of taxis are readily available throughout the metro area.

Where to stay: Mexico City has hotels in every price range, although it costs considerably less to stay there than in most European capitals or U.S. cities. The luxury Best Western Hotel Majestic, Avenida Madero 73, on the west side of the Zocalo, offers rooms overlooking this fascinating plaza. Rooms start at $80 for a single or double. For reservations, call 1-800-528-1234. An excellent budget choice near the Zocalo is the Hotel Isabel, 518-1213 at Calle Isabel de la Catolica 63. Rooms run $13 single and $15 double with private bath.

Where to eat: In Toluca there are a number of restaurants along Hidalgo and inside the portales just off the main square. Orange liqueur (moscos), preserved fruits and chorizo (sausage) are local specialties. In Tepotzotlan, the Hosteria de Topotzotlan serves main courses such as pechuga problana, pollo en pibil (chicken breasts cooked in a traditional, stone-lined oven).

For more information: Contact MEXICO TOURISM at 1-800-44-MEXICO.