Mexico is a traveller's paradise, crammed with a multitude of opposing identities: desert
landscapes, snow-capped volcanoes, ancient ruins, teeming industrialised cities, time-warped
colonial towns, glitzy resorts, lonely beaches and a world-beating collection of flora and fauna.
This mix of modern and traditional, the clichéd and the surreal, is the key to Mexico's charm,
whether your passion is throwing back margaritas, listening to howler monkeys, surfing the
Mexican Pipeline, scrambling over Mayan ruins or expanding your Day of the Dead collection of
One look at this country is enough to remind visitors that there is nothing new about the so-called
New World. Despite the considerable colonial legacy and rampant modernisation, almost 60
distinct indigenous peoples survive, largely thanks to their rural isolation.
Crime in Mexico has reached critical levels, particularly in Mexico City. The incidence of violent
crime and, more specifically, sexual assault in crimes committed against women is on the up.
Other commonly reported crimes involve taxi theft, armed theft, metro theft, pickpocketing, purse
snatching, credit-card fraud and ATM robbery.
Travellers should also be aware of the potential for political unrest in southern Mexico. The
southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas are political hotbeds where travellers should maintain a
high level of personal security awareness.
Full country name: Estados Unidos Méxicanos
Area: 1.95 million sq km
Population: 100.35 million
Capital City: Mexico City
People: Approximately 60% mestizo (mixed European and Amerindian descent) and 30%
Amerindian (indígena - including Nahua, Maya, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Totonacs, and Tarascos or
Purépecha), 10% other
Language: Spanish; Castilian
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic, 6% Protestant, 4% other
Government: federal republic
Head of State: President Vincente Fox Quesada
GDP: US$637.2 billion
GDP per capita: US$5,910
Annual Growth: 7%
Major Industries: Food and beverages, tobacco, chemicals, iron and steel, petroleum, mining,
textiles, clothing, motor vehicles, consumer durables, tourism.
Major Trading Partners: USA, Canada, Japan, Germany
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: Citizens of many countries - including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan,
Argentina, Chile and virtually all western European countries - do not require visas to enter
Mexico as tourists. However, if they are staying longer than 72 hours, or are travelling beyond the
Border Zone or certain exempted areas, they must obtain a 180-day Mexican government tourist
card (tarjeta de turista), available from embassies or at border crossings 18.00.
Health risks: malaria (Transmitted by mosquito bites, the main symptoms are high fevers, chills,
sweats, headache, body aches, weakness, vomiting, or diarrhea. Severe cases may involve the
central nervous system and lead to seizures, confusion, coma and death), Chagas' disease
(Chagas' disease is a parasitic infection transmitted by triatomine insects which inhabit crevices
in the walls and roofs of substandard housing. The triatomine insect lays its feces on human skin
as it bites and the person becomes infected when he or she unknowingly rubs the feces into the
bite wound or any other open sore. It is rare in travellers but if you are staying in a poorly
constructed house, especially one made of mud, adobe or thatch, you should be sure to protect
yourself with a bed net and good insecticide), cholera (Cholera is an intestinal infection acquired
through ingestion of contaminated food or water. The main symptom is profuse, watery diarrhea,
which may be so severe that it causes life-threatening dehydration. The key treatment is drinking
oral rehydration solution but antibiotics are also given), dengue fever (A viral infection found
throughout Central America, Dengue is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which bite
preferentially during the day and are usually found close to human habitations, often indoors.
They breed primarily in water containers such as barrels, cans, plastic containers and discarded
tyres. As a result, Dengue is especially common in densely populated, urban environments.
Dengue usually causes flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle aches, joint pains, headaches,
nausea and vomiting, often followed by a rash. The body aches may be quite uncomfortable, but
most cases resolve uneventfully in a few days), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause
hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness
include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by
loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced
(yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated
food and drinking water. Seek medical advice. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as
hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through
contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact,
unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via
small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the
disease can lead to long-term problems. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as
hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A
and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about
food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are
important preventative measures), rabies (Rabies is a viral infection of the brain and spinal cord
that is almost always fatal. The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected animals and is
typically transmitted through an animal bite, though contamination of any break in the skin with
infected saliva may result in rabies. Most cases in Mexico are related to dog bites, but bats and
other wild species remain important sources of infection. Local health authorities should be
contacted if someone has been bitten, to determine whether or not further treatment is
necessary), typhoid (Typhoid fever is caused by ingesting food or water contaminated by a
species of Salmonella known as Salmonella typhi. Fever occurs in virtually all cases. Other
symptoms may include headache, malaise, muscle aches, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea
and abdominal pain. Either diarrhea or constipation may occur. Possible complications include
intestinal perforation, intestinal bleeding, confusion, delirium or (rarely) coma. Unless you expect
to take all your meals in major hotels and restaurants, a typhoid vaccine is a good idea. It's
usually given orally, but is also available as an injection)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -6 (Most of Mexico is on Central Standard Time in Winter), GMT/UTC -7
(Baja California Sur and several other states in the northwest are on Mountain Time), GMT/UTC -
8 (Baja California Norte is on Pacific Standard Time), GMT/UTC -7 (The North West state of
Sonora is on -7 GMT all year round)
Dialling Code: 52
Electricity: 127V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
Mexico is enjoyable year-round, but October to May is generally the most pleasant time to visit.
The May-September period can be hot and humid, particularly in the south, and inland
temperatures can approach freezing during December-February. Facilities are often heavily
booked during Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and Christmas/New Year, the peak
domestic travel periods.
Mexico's climate has something for everyone: it's hot and humid along the coastal plains, and
drier and more temperate at higher elevations inland (Guadalajara or Mexico City, for example).
Try to avoid Mexico's southern coast between July and September - the resorts are decidedly
soggy and jam-packed, as July-August is also the peak holiday months for foreign visitors.
back to top
Mexico's reputation for full-blooded festive fun is well founded: just about every month sees a
major national holiday or fiesta, and every other day is a local saint's day or town fair celebration.
Carnaval (Carnival), held late February or early March in the week before Ash Wednesday, is the
big bash before the 40-day penance of Lent; it's particularly flagrant in Mazatlán, Veracruz and La
Paz. The country's most characteristic fiesta is the wonderfully macabre Día de los Muertos,
held the day after All Saints' Day on November 2. The souls of the dear departed are believed to
return to earth on this day, and for weeks beforehand the country's markets are awash with the
highly sought-after candy skulls and papier-mâché skeletons that find their way into many a
visitor's souvenir collection. December 12 is another big day on the Mexican calendar, celebrating
the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country's major religious icon.
January 1 - New Year's Day
February 5 - Constitution Day
February 24 - Day of the Flag
March 21 - Anniversary of Benito Juárez's birth
March/April - Good Friday-Easter Sunday
May 1 - Labor Day
May 5 - 1862 victory celebration
September 16 - Día de la Independencia
October 12 - Día de la Raza
November 20 - Día de la Revolución
December 25 - Día de Navidad
Money & Costs
Currency: Mexican New Peso
- Budget: US$2-8
- Mid-range: US$8-20
- High: US$20-50
- Deluxe: US$50+
- Budget: US$10-20
- Mid-range: US$20-70
- High: US$70-200
- Deluxe: US$200+
Baja California, Monterrey and the Yucatán Peninsula's Caribbean coast are pricey, but
elsewhere you can expect to get away with spending around 20.00-35.00 a day, particularly in
rural areas. Throw in a few luxuries like traveling in reasonable comfort, staying at better mid-
range places and eating at more expensive restaurants, and you'll need more like 60.00. Stay at
luxurious hotels and hire a car occasionally, and the sky's the limit.
It's best to bring US-dollar denomination traveler's checks and some US dollars in cash. You can
exchange money in banks or in casas de cambio. Note that bank exchange facilities are often
only open between 9am and 3pm or 4pm. Major credit cards are accepted by airlines, car rental
companies and more expensive hotels and restaurants - but take extra care when using them, as
credit-card fraud and theft is rife in Mexico. In heavily touristed areas such as Acapulco, Cancún
and Cozumel, you can often spend US dollars as easily as pesos at hotels and restaurants
(although the exchange rate will probably be awful). Note that the dollar sign is used to refer to
pesos in Mexico; prices in US dollars are usually marked US$ or USD.
Mexico has a 15% value-added tax (IVA) which by law must be included in quoted prices.
Sometimes - usually in top-end hotels - prices are quoted without this tax. Tipping in restaurants
in resort areas is equivalent to US levels - somewhere between 15% and 20%. Outside these
areas, a tip of 10% is sufficient at mid-range restaurants; in general, staff at smaller, cheaper
places do not expect a tip. Expect to bargain at markets and with drivers of unmetered taxis.
Treat haggling as a form of social discourse rather than a matter of life and death.
ATMs are very common in Mexico, and are the easiest source of cash. You can use major credit
cards and some bank cards, such as those on the Cirrus and Plus systems, to withdraw pesos
from ATMs. The exchange rate that banks use for ATM withdrawals is normally more in your
favour than the 'tourist rate' for currency exchange – though that advantage may be negated by
extra handling fees and interest charges. Should you need money wired to you in Mexico, an
easy and quick method is the Dinero en Minutos (Money in Minutes) service of Western Union
(800 325 6000 in the USA; www.westernunion.com). It's offered by thousands of bank branches
and other businesses around Mexico.
In general, waitstaff in small, cheap cafes don't expect much in the way of tips, but those in
expensive resorts certainly do. Workers in the tourism and hospitality industries often depend on
tips to supplement meagre wages. In tourist hotspots, tipping is up to US levels of 15%;
elsewhere 10% is standard. If you stay a few days in one place, you should leave up to 10% of
your room costs for housekeeping staff.
A porter in a mid-range hotel will be happy with 1.00 a bag. Taxi drivers don't generally expect
tips unless they go out of their way for you. Gas station attendants and car park attendants don't
expect tips but appreciate them if offered (0.25-0.50).
Mexico City is the world's third-largest metropolis (only Tokyo and NYC are bigger). Mexico's best
and worst ingredients are all here: music and noise, brown air and green parks, colonial palaces
and skyscrapers, world-renowned museums and ever-spreading slums.
The city's historic centre is the Plaza de la Constitución, or Zócalo. The plaza was paved in the
1520s by Hernán Cortés, using stones from the temples and palaces of the Aztec city of
Tenochtitlán he'd destroyed, and on which Mexico City was built. Its major sights fan out from
Maybe it's the romantic history of spice ships and pirates; maybe it's the golden beaches, tropical
jungles and lagoons; or perhaps it's the high-rise hotels, glittery nightlife and famous daredevil
cliff-divers that have made Acapulco the first and foremost resort town in Mexico.
The beaches are the big drawcard at Acapulco, and most are content to limit their sightseeing to
a view of the sun slowly traversing the blue yonder. For variety there are musuems, aquariums, a
fun park, and the famous divers of La Quebrada, who plunge into the ocean swell from
With Tijuana as its frontier post, Baja is the epitome of 'south of the border'. The peninsula is
renowned for its long coastline of fine white beaches, peaceful bays and imposing cliffs, sharply
contrasting with the harsh and undeveloped interior. Baja has long been a hideout for
revolutionaries, mercenaries, drinkers and gamblers, but these days visitors are attracted by
more healthy pursuits like horse riding, surfing and whale-watching. Highlights include Loreto,
with its Spanish mission history and offshore national park; the extraordinary pre-Columbian rock-
art sites of Sierra de San Francisco, near San Ignacio; La Paz, the laid-back capital of Baja
California Sur and known for its equally gorgeous beaches and sunsets; and the hiking paradise
of Sierra de la Laguna, a botanical wonderland of coexisting cacti and pines, palms and aspens
set beside granite rockpools.
Mexico's most scenic railway connects Los Mochis on the Pacific coast with Chihuahua in the
country's arid inland. The route takes 14 to 16 hours, and includes several stops in the fabled
Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) - actually a group of 20 canyons, and all up four times
larger than the Grand Canyon. The 655km (406mi) train line passes through 86 tunnels and over
39 bridges as it cuts through the Sierra Tarahumara's sheer canyons, hugging the sides of
towering cliffs and offering dizzying glimpses of river beds far below.
The views are stunning, particularly between Creel and Loreto; they're generally best on the right
side of the carriage when heading inland (east) and on the left when heading to the coast (west).
Stops along the way include the attractive colonial town of El Fuerte; Divisadero, with excellent
views down into the 2300m (7544ft) depths of Copper Canyon; Areponápuchi, teetering right on
the canyon's edge; Creel, a base for hikers and the regional centre for the local Tarahumara
people; and the Mennonite hub of Cuauhtémoc.
Many of the traditions considered characteristically 'Mexican' were created in Guadalajara, the
country's second-largest city. Guadalajara can be held responsible for the mixed blessings of
mariachi music, tequila, the Mexican Hat Dance, broad-brimmed sombrero hats and the Mexican
rodeo. Part of Guadalajara's huge appeal is that it has many of the attractions of Mexico City - a
vibrant culture, fine museums and galleries, handsome historic buildings, exciting nightlife and
good places to stay and eat - but few of the capital's problems. It's a bright, modern, well-
organised and unpolluted place, with enough attractions to please even the pickiest visitor.
Highlights include the giant, twin-towered cathedral and the lovely plazas that surround it, the
Instituto Cultural de Cabañas and its frescoes by José Clemente Orozco, the Plaza de los
Mariachis if you're a masochist, and the twin handicraft-filled suburbs of Tlaquepaque and
This Spanish-built city of narrow streets has a special atmosphere - at once relaxed and
energetic, remote and cosmopolitan. Situated in the rugged southern state of the same name,
Oaxaca has a large indigenous population, flourishing markets and some superb colonial
architecture. Not least of Oaxaca's attractions are the abundant local handicrafts and the
conviviality of the local cafes. Centre of town is the shady, arcaded zócalo and the major
landmark is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the most splendid of Oaxaca's many churches. The
city also has a clutch of worthy museums, exploring Oaxacan culture and the lives of famous
former inhabitants such as Benito Juárez. There are many fascinating places within day-trip
distance of the city, notably the Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán, Mitla, Yagul and Cuilapan.
The Spanish colonial flavour is particularly piquant in the old city of Puebla, 125km (77mi) east of
Mexico City. Despite the ravages of the 1999 earthquake, Puebla is home to more than 70
churches and a thousand other colonial buildings, many of them adorned with the city's famous
hand-painted tiles (azulejos). The town's towering cathedral is considered one of the country's
best proportioned, blending severe Herreresque-Renaissance and early baroque styles. Local
indigenous influences can be seen in the prolific stucco decoration of the Capilla del Rosario in
the Templo de Santo Domingo - a sumptuous baroque proliferation of gilded plaster and carved
stone with angels and cherubim popping out from behind every leaf. Puebla is also known for its
regional cuisine, celebrated and imitated throughout Mexico; try the mole poblano, spicy
chocolate sauce usually served over turkey or chicken.
Not too far from Puebla are two other colonial gems. Some 85km (53mi) south of the capital is
Cuernavaca, a retreat for Mexico City's wealthy and fashionable citizens since colonial times,
thanks to its spring-like climate. Much of the city's elegance is hidden behind high walls and
courtyards, but a number of residences have been transformed into galleries, hotels and
restaurants. Those on a tight budget may find Cuernavaca a bit of a squeeze, but the little
luxuries go down a treat with visitors who stay on to enroll in a Spanish-language course.
The old silver-mining town of Taxco, 180km (112mi) southwest of Mexico City, is one of the most
picturesque and pleasant places in Mexico. The gorgeous colonial antique clings to a steep
hillside, its maze of narrow cobbled streets spooling into leafy plazas lined with engagingly
distressed buildings. The entire town has been declared a national historic monument.
Cobblestoned and whitewashed Puerto Vallarta is one of the central Pacific coast's best-known
beach resorts. Nestled between palm-covered mountains next to a river and an azure bay, the
city boasts a setting as ridiculously picturesque as its white-sand beaches and red-tiled houses of
The city has mutated from a sleepy seaside village into an international resort so quickly that it is
fashionable to deride its spoilt charms, but it's almost impossible to hold a grudge against its lively
beaches, bars, restaurants and galleries.
Pátzcuaro boasts some particularly stately colonial architecture, but the town's major claim to
fame is its candlelit Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2. The local Purépechas'
celebrations have an especially magical quality and notably pre-Hispanic undertones. Graveyards
are lit with candles, decorated with altars of marigolds and filled with traditional dancers and
Pátzcuaro has a handsome core of lovely colonial buildings, churches and fine plazas, its streets
climbing steeply to Our Lady of Good Health in the east of town. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the
city's beautifully proportioned main plaza, is one of the loveliest in Mexico, flanked by trees and
arcaded 17th-century mansions. Several mansions are devoted to the display and sale of the
region's notable handicrafts, including copperware, straw goods, musical instruments, gold-leaf
lacquer ware, hand-painted ceramics and lace. The town's market is also a good place to pick up
local crafts and textiles.
Pátzcuaro is a five-hour bus trip west of Mexico City in the western central highlands. It lies 3.5km
(2mi) from the southeast shore of neighbouring Lago de Pátzcuaro, which is ringed by traditional
artisans' villages and has four island communities. Isla Janitzio in particular comes alive (so to
speak) with its famous Día de los Muertos parade of decorated canoes.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
This handsome colonial town in the pine-clad Valle de Jovel is surrounded by the classic Mayan
villages of the Chiapas highlands. It's a delightful place and a magnet for travellers who want to
learn a little Spanish, absorb the bohemian atmosphere and enjoy the lively bar and music scene.
Since 1994 San Cristóbal has been caught up in the Zapatista struggles. Regional crafts play a
large part in the town's tourism, and dolls depicting the black balaclava'd Zapatista leader
Subcomandante Marcos are as typical a souvenir here as the region's renowned Tzotzil textiles.
San Cristóbal has a fine plaza and a swag of churches, the most beautiful of which is Santo
Domingo with its pink baroque facade and golden interior. Horse riding is popular in the
surrounding hills, and other pursuits include discovering traditional Maya medicine, stocking up at
the local weavers' cooperative, sampling delicious organic coffee at the Coopcafé, visiting the
nearby indigenous villages and drinking in the amazingly clear highland air.
The fabulous archaeological zone Teotihuacán lies in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de
México. Site of the huge Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), it was
Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably the country's largest pre-
Hispanic empire. A day here can be awesome, unless the hawkers get you down.
The site's main drag is the famous Avenue of the Dead, a monumental 2km (1.2mi) thoroughfare
lined with the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. To its south is the pyramid-bedecked La
Ciudadela, believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Enclosed within the
citadel's walls is the Quetzalcóatl Temple, with its striking serpent carvings.
Heading north, the avenue passes the world's third-largest pyramid: the awe-inspiring, 70m
(230ft), 248-stepped Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramid was originally painted a suitably sun-
drenched, bloody red.
The avenue terminates at the Pyramid of the Moon, flanked by the 12 temple platforms of the
Plaza de la Luna. Nearby are the beautifully frescoed Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly, the Jaguar
Palace and the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells. Teotihuacán's most famous mural, the
Paradise of Tláloc, is in the Tepantitla Palace, a priest's residence northeast of the Pyramid of the
Sun. The site has a museum to help make sense of it all; bring a hat, water and your walking
Cross the Río Usumacinta into Yucatán, and you enter the realm of the Maya. Heirs to a glorious
and often violent history, the Maya live today where their ancestors lived a millennium ago.
Yucatán has surprising diversity: archaeological sites galore, colonial cities, tropical forests,
peerless snorkelling, seaside resorts, quiet coastlines and raucous nightlife. The region's famous
Mayan sites are particularly impressive at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, near the Yucatán state
capital, the attractive colonial city of Mérida (home of the hammock). The coastal state of
Quintana Roo attracts plane-loads of sun-loving tourists to its islands and white-sand Caribbean
beaches, particularly Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and, party central, Cancún. The stunning cliff-
top ruins at Tulum, overlooking a palm-fringed beach and turquoise sea, attract their fair share of
This tranquil little town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental has been declared a
national historic monument - for very good reasons. Back in the 18th century Álamos was a silver
boom town of gorgeous mansions and haciendas, but by the 1920s it had declined into a
forgotten backwater. An injection of expat norteamericano funds gave the dilapidated ghost town
a much-needed facelift, and today Álamos' Spanish colonial buildings have been beautifully
restored. Much of the architecture has a Moorish influence, thanks to the Andalusian artisans who
originally built the city.
Álamos' narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colonial mansions, concealing courtyards lush
with bougainvillea. You can get to see inside several of these old mansions too, as they've been
converted into hotels and restaurants. The whole town has a distinctly peaceful, timeless feel.
Sunday evenings in particular are reserved for that traditional pastime of strolling and people-
watching on the Plaza de Armas.
Álamos is on the border of two very different ecosystems of desert and jungle. Hordes of nature-
lovers swoop on the place because of its 450 species of birds and animals (including some
endangered and endemic species), and more than 1000 species of plants. Horse riding, hiking,
swimming and dining in opulent colonial mansions are also on the Álamos menu. The obvious
souvenir to buy while in town is a bag of brincadores, or Mexican jumping beans, as Álamos is
the jumping bean capital of the world. Actually they're seed pods, not beans, and they jump
because they're inhabited by moth larvae.
Off the Beaten Track
Cascada de Basaseachi
The dramatic 246m (806ft) Cascada de Basaseachi are the highest waterfalls in Mexico, and are
especially spectacular in the rainy season - it's worth the bumpy three-hour drive and every
footstep of the five-hour hike to reach the falls and back. If that sounds too daunting, the views of
the falls from up on the rim aren't so bad either.
All those images of romantic Mayan ruins shimmering in the morning mist come true at the lost
jungle city of Palenque, in the northeast of Chiapas state. Surrounded by emerald jungle,
Palenque's setting is superb and its Mayan architecture and decoration are exquisite. Evidence
from pottery fragments indicates that the site was first occupied more than 1500 years ago,
flourishing from 600 to 700 AD when many plazas and buildings were constructed, including the
elaborate Temple of Inscriptions pyramid crypt, the tallest and most prominent of Palenque's
buildings. The best time to visit this sweltering, breezeless complex is in the early morning when
a humid haze wraps the ancient temples in a mysterious mist. Only a handful of the almost 500
extant buildings have been excavated, and all were built without the use of metal tools, pack
animals or the wheel.
The instantly forgettable new town, where most hotels and restaurants are clustered, is about
7km (4mi) from the archaeological zone, and shuttle buses trundle the route every 15 minutes.
Palenque is easily accessible by bus, but keep an eye on your valuables during the trip. There is
a bus and ferry connection from Guatemala's Tikal via the border town of La Palma, linking two of
Central America's most impressive Mayan sites.
Real de Catorce
This reborn ghost town has a touch of magic. High on the fringes of the Sierra Madre Oriental,
and reached by a road tunnel through former mine passages, Real de Catorce was a wealthy
silver-mining town of 40,000 people until early in the 20th century, when it inexplicably went into
decline. The town lies in a high valley with spectacular views looking westward down to the plain
Only a few years ago Real de Catorce was almost deserted, its paved streets lined with
crumbling stone buildings, its mint a ruin and a few hundred people eking out an existence from
old mine workings. Nowadays Real is attracting increasing numbers of trendier residents -
wealthy Mexicans and gringos looking for an unusual retreat. North American and European
expats have been restoring the old buildings and setting them up as hotels, shops and
restaurants. Artists have settled here, and filmmakers use the town and the surrounding hills as
Real de Catorce has a charmingly timeworn, neoclassical parish church - la Parroquia - whose
reputedly miraculous image of St Francis of Assisi attracts pilgrims by the thousands (by the
hundreds of thousands between September 25 and October 12 for the festival of San Francisco -
don't say we didn't warn you!). The town also has more-pagan remnants in the form of a cock-
fighting ring built like a Roman amphitheatre. The Huichol people believe that the deserts around
Real are a spiritual homeland, inhabited by their peyote and maize gods. Every May or June, the
Huichol make a pilgrimage here for rituals involving peyote. Real de Catorce is a 1.5-hour bus
ride from Matehuala, which in turn is seven hours from Mexico City.
Aficionados of industrial archaeology will find Santa Rosalía well worth exploring for the ruins of
its massive copper-smeltering operation. The former French company town lies on the Sea of
Cortez coast of Baja California Sur, some 50km (31mi) east of San Ignacio. The town also has
unusual clapboard residential architecture and a church designed by the famous Alexandre
Gustave Eiffel, of Paris' tower fame. The prefabricated church was originally intended for a
destination in West Africa but somehow ended up being shipped to Mexico. The French left their
legacy in other ways as well: the bakery here sells the best baguettes in Baja.
The locals' general lack of interest in outdoor activities doesn't stop growing numbers of intrepid
gringos from trekking off into what Mexicans probably consider absurdly rough country. Trails
around the Copper Canyon and Baja California are among the most popular and developed.
Sport fishing is especially popular off the Pacific coast and in the Gulf of California. Snorkeling
and diving is wonderful in Mexico, particularly at Caribbean coast resorts like Isla Mujeres, Playa
del Carmen, Cozumel, Punta Allen and Banco Chinchorro. On the Pacific coast, try Puerto
Vallarta, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco and Huatulco. Inland, there are many balnearios, bathing places
with swimming pools, often centered on hot springs in picturesque surroundings. Surfing is
popular on the Pacific coast. Some of the best surf spots are between San José del Cabo and
Cabo San Lucas, Bahía de Matanchén, Ensenada, Mazatlán, Manzanillo and the 'Mexican
Pipeline' at Puerto Escondido. Los Barriles is Baja California's windsurfing capital, and further
south Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo can be good too. Veracruz state is the epicenter of the
country's white-water rafting industry. A number of Mexico City-based organizations conduct
hiking and mountain-climbing trips on Mexico's volcanoes, including Iztaccíhuatl, Pico de
Orizaba, Nevado de Toluca and La Malinche.
It's thought that the first people to inhabit Mexico arrived 20,000 years before Columbus. Their
descendants built a succession of highly developed civilizations that flourished from 1200 BC to
1521 AD. The first ancestral civilization to arise was that of the Olmecs (1200-600 BC), in the
humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. By 300 BC they were joined by the Zapotecs
of Oaxaca, and the temple centre of Izapa (200 BC to 200 AD). By 250 AD the Maya were
building stepped temple pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula. Central Mexico's first great
civilization flourished at Teotihuacán between 250 and 600 AD, to be followed by the Toltecs at
Xochicalco and Tula. The Aztecs were successors to this string of empires, settling at
Tenochtitlán in the early 14th century.
Almost 3000 years of civilization was shattered in just two short years, following the landing by
Hernán Cortés near modern-day Veracruz on April 21, 1519. Primary sources suggest that the
Aztecs were initially accommodating because, according to their calendar, the year 1519
promised the god Quetzalcóatl's return from the east. The Spaniards met their first allies in towns
that resented Aztec domination. With 6000 local recruits, they approached the Aztecs' island
capital of Tenochtitlán - a city bigger than any in Spain. King Moctezuma II invited the party into
his palace and the Spaniards promptly took him hostage. By August 13, 1521, Aztec resistance
had ended. The position of the conquered peoples deteriorated rapidly, not only because of harsh
treatment at the hands of the colonists but also because of introduced diseases. The indigenous
population fell from an estimated 25 million at the time of conquest to one million by 1605.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, a sort of apartheid system existed in Mexico. Spanish-born
colonists were a minuscule part of the population but were considered nobility in New Spain (as
Mexico was then called), however humble their status in their home country. By the 18th century,
criollos (people born of Spanish parents in New Spain) had acquired fortunes in mining,
commerce, ranching and agriculture, and were seeking political power commensurate with their
wealth. Below the criollos were the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous or African slave
ancestry, and at the bottom of the pile were the remaining indigenous people and African slaves.
The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied most of Spain -
direct Spanish control over New Spain suddenly ceased and rivalry between Spanish-born
colonists and criollos intensified. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollo
parish priest, issued his call to rebellion, the Grito de Dolores. In 1821 Spain agreed to Mexican
Twenty-two years of chronic instability followed independence: the presidency changed hands 36
times. In 1845, the US congress voted to annex Texas, leading to the Mexican-American War in
which US troops captured Mexico City. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico
ceded Texas, California, Utah, Colorado and most of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA. The
Maya rose up against their overlords in the late 1840s and almost succeeded in driving them off
the Yucatán Peninsula. By 1862, Mexico was heavily in debt to Britain, France and Spain, who
sent a joint force to Mexico to collect their debts. France decided to go one step further and
colonise Mexico, sparking yet another war. In 1864, France invited the Austrian archduke,
Maximilian of Habsburg, to become emperor of Mexico. His reign was bloodily ended by forces
loyal to the country's former president, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.
With the slogan 'order and progress', dictator Porfirio Díaz (ruled 1878-1911) avoided war and
piloted Mexico into the industrial age. Political opposition, free elections and a free press were
banned, and control was maintained by a ruthless army, leading to strikes that prefigured the
The revolution (1910-20) was a 10-year period of shifting allegiances between a spectrum of
leaders, in which successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new
skirmishes. The basic ideological rift was between liberal reformers and more radical leaders,
such as Emiliano Zapata, who were fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants. The
10 years of violent civil war cost an estimated 1.5 to two million lives - roughly one in eight
Mexicans. After the revolution, political will was focused on rebuilding the national infrastructure.
Precursors of today's Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) took power in 1934,
introducing a program of reform and land redistribution.
Civil unrest next appeared in 1966, when university students in Mexico City expressed their
outrage with the conservative Díaz Ordaz administration. Discontent with single-party rule,
restricted freedom of speech and excessive government spending came to a head in 1968 in the
run-up to the Mexico City Olympic Games, and protesters were massacred by armed troops.
The oil boom of the late 1970s increased Mexico's oil revenues and financed industrial and
agricultural investments, but the oil glut in the mid 1980s deflated petroleum prices and led to
Mexico's worst recession in decades. The economic downturn also saw an increase in organized
political dissent on both the left and right. The massive earthquake of September 1985 caused
more than 4000000000 in damage. At least 10,000 people died, hundreds of buildings in Mexico
City were destroyed and thousands of people were made homeless.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began his term in 1988 after very controversial elections. He
gained popular support by renegotiating Mexico's crippling national debt and bringing rising
inflation under control. A sweeping privatisation program and a burgeoning international finance
market led to Mexico being heralded in the international press as an exemplar of free-market
economics. The apex of Salinas' economic reform was the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA), effective January 1, 1994.
Fears that NAFTA would increase the marginalisation of indigenous Mexicans led to the Zapatista
uprising in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The day NAFTA took effect, a huge army of
unarmed peasants calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN)
shocked Mexico by taking over San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Their demands focused on improved
social and economic justice. The EZLN were driven out of town within a few days, but the uprising
struck a chord among all those who felt that the gap betweeen rich and poor was widening under
Salinas and the NAFTA agreement. Today, the Zapatista movement (and the US government-
sponsored, low-intensity warfare campaign) continues, and the rebels' leader, a balaclava-clad
figure known only as Subcomandante Marcos, is now a national folk hero.
In March 1994, Luis Donaldo Colósio, Salinas' chosen successor, was assassinated. His
replacement, 43-year-old Ernesto Zedillo, was elected with 50% of the vote. Within days of
President Zedillo's taking office, Mexico's currency, the peso, suddenly collapsed, bringing on a
rapid and deep economic recession. Among other things, it led to a huge increase in crime,
intensified discontent with the PRI and caused large-scale Mexican immigration to the US. It's
estimated that by 1997 more than 2.5 million Mexicans a year were entering the US illegally.
Zedillo's policies pulled Mexico gradually out of recession. Despite a hiccup caused by
international economic factors in 1998, by the end of his term in 2000, Mexicans' purchasing
power was again approaching 1994 levels.
In the freest and fairest national election since the Mexican Revolution, National Action Party
(PAN) presidential candidate and former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox beat Zedillo's hand-
picked successor, PRI candidate Francisco Labastida in 2000, ending the PRI's 71-year reign;
however, it remains the chief opposition party. President Fox has sought to emphasize Mexico's
role as a world player, and has strongly supported the US since the events of 9/11; security has
been tightened on the nothern border. Meanwhile, rumours of government corruption are once
again on the increase, the activities of the country's notorious drug cartels continue to make
headlines and the soaring crime rate is tainting Mexico's much-vaunted holiday image.
Deeply rich and colourful, Mexico's vibrant culture is evident wherever you look. It has a spirit that
soaks itself into the art, the architecture, the food and the literature. Mexico is covered with
murals, littered with galleries, carries a deep folk-art tradition and has produced some of the
world's most renowned painters. Its ancient civilizations have produced some of the most
spectacular architecture ever built, while its modern proponents deliver some ground-breaking
examples of contemporary design. And its writers, such as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz,
poetically evoke the Mexican psyche.
Covering almost two million sq km (800,000 sq mi), Mexico follows a northwest to southeast
curve, narrowing to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec then continuing to the Yucatán Peninsula. On the
west and south the country is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, with the Gulf of California lying
between the Baja California peninsula and the mainland. Mexico's east coast is washed by the
Gulf of Mexico, while the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula meets the Caribbean Sea. Mexico
shares borders with the USA (to the north), and Guatemala and Belize (to the southeast).
Bridging temperate and tropical regions, and lying in the latitudes that contain most of the world's
deserts, Mexico has an enormous range of natural environments and vegetation zones. Its
rugged, mountainous topography adds to the variety by creating countless microclimates. Despite
the potential for great ecological diversity, human impact has been enormous. Before the Spanish
conquest, about two-thirds of the country was forested. Today, only one-fifth of the country
remains verdant, mainly in the south and east.
Mexico is a mountainous country with two north-south ranges framing a group of broad central
plateaus known as the Altiplano Central. In the south, the Sierra Madre del Sur stretches across
the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. From the isthmus, a narrow
stretch of lowlands runs along the Pacific coast south to Guatemala. These lowlands are backed
by the Chiapas highlands, which merge into a steamy tropical rainforest area stretching into
northern Guatemala. The flat, low Yucatán Peninsula is tropical savanna to its tip, where there's
an arid, desert-like region.
Mexico has suffered more than its fair share of climatic and environmental disasters, though it
escaped Hurricane Mitch, which devastated several Central American countries in late 1998.
Hurricane Pauline caused 300 deaths and great damage in the Pacific coastal states of Guerrero
and Oaxaca in October 1997. Lower than usual rainfall in the 1997-98 winter (blamed on that
year's strong El Niño current across the Pacific Ocean) brought a drought and thousands of forest
fires around Mexico in the first half of 1998. Tropical storms and torrential rain along most of the
Pacific coast and parts of central Mexico in September 1998 had their worst effects in Chiapas,
where many people perished and the road system was badly damaged. This was Mexico's worst
natural disaster since the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.
Domesticated grazing animals have pushed the larger animals, such as puma, deer and coyote,
into isolated pockets. However, armadillos, rabbits and snakes are common, and the tropical
forests of the south and east still harbor (in places) howler and spider monkeys, jaguars, ocelots,
tapirs, anteaters, peccaries (a type of wild pig), deer, macaws, toucans, parrots and some tropical
reptiles, such as the boa constrictor, though these habitats too are being eroded.