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 posable skeletons.
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 continues to plague travellers, particularly in Mexico City. The incidence of violent crime and, more specifically, sexual crimes 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. In recent times, there has been a spate of kidnappings targetting travellers in the Nuevo Laredo region of northern Mexico.
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: 101 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
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic, 6% Protestant, 4% other
Government: federal republic
GDP: US$637.2 billion
GDP per capita: US$6,260
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
back to top
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 government tourist card (tarjeta de turista) valid up to 180 days, available from embassies or at border crossings. The card is free but brings the responsibility of paying a fee of 20.00 at a bank or border post. For those flying in, the fee is included in the price of the ticket.
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 faeces on human skin as it bites and the person becomes infected when he or she unknowingly rubs the faeces 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 diarrohea 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), yellow fever (Yellow fever no longer occurs in Central America, but many Central American countries, including Mexico, require yellow fever vaccine before entry if you're arriving from a country in Africa or South America where yellow fever occurs. If you're not arriving from a country with yellow fever, the vaccine is neither required nor recommended. Yellow fever vaccine is given only in approved yellow fever vaccination centers, which provide validated International Certificates of Vaccination ('yellow booklets'). The vaccine should be given at least 10 days before departure and remains effective for approximately 10 years. Reactions to the vaccine are generally mild and may include headaches, muscle aches, low-grade fevers or discomfort at the injection site. Severe, life-threatening reactions have been described but are extremely rare)
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
back to top
Currency: Mexican New Peso
Baja California, Monterrey and the Yucatán Peninsula's Caribbean coast are pricey, but elsewhere you can expect to get away with spending around USD20.00-USD35.00 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 USD60.00. 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 USD1.00 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 (USD0.25-USD0.50).
back to top
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.
One could spend many months exploring all the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, historical remnants, archaeological finds, statuary, shrines and religious relics this encyclopedia of a city has to offer.
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 vertiginous heights.
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 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.
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 Tonalá.
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.
The Spanish colonial flavour is particularly piquant in the old city of Puebla, 125km (77mi) east of Mexico City. 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 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 cherubs 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.
Nestled between palm-covered mountains, a river and an azure sea, full of cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses, and sitting in front of a gorgeous sandy beach, Puerto Vallarta is seriously picturesque. There are dolphins in the bay year-round, and humpback whales between November and March.
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. Graveyards are lit with candles, decorated with altars of marigolds and filled with traditional dancers and musicians.
Pátzcuaro has a core of handsome colonial buildings, churches and plazas, its streets climbing steeply to Our Lady of Good Health in the east of town. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the city's main plaza, is one of the loveliest in Mexico, flanked by trees and arcaded 17th-century mansions.
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.
San Cristóbal has a fine plaza and a swag of churches, including the beautiful, pink Santo Domingo. Popular pursuits include stocking up at the local weavers' co-op, sampling delicious organic coffee, horse riding in the hills 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 shoes.
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 of Mérida. 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.
This tranquil little town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental has been declared a national historic monument. 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.
back to top