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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.

Mexico's climate varies according to its topography. It's hot and humid along the coastal plains on both sides of the country, but inland, at higher elevations such as Guadalajara or Mexico City, the climate is much drier and more temperate. The hot, wet season is May to October, with the hottest and wettest months falling between June and September over most of the country. The low-lying coastal areas receive more rainfall than elevated inland regions. December to February are generally the coolest months, when north winds can make inland northern Mexico decidedly chilly, with temperatures sometimes approaching freezing.


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.


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 independence.

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 Mexican Revolution.


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.


The bursting megalopolis of Mexico City is a one-hour flight from the tropical rainforests and Mayan villages of Chiapas. Up along the northern border, Mexico's tumult of heritages merges with the air-conditioned cultures of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Most visitors to Mexico arrive by air. Around 30 Mexican cities receive direct flights from North America and Canada, and there are relatively cheap connections to the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America. From Europe you can fly to Mexico City and Cancún. Aeroméxico and Mexicana are the largest Mexican airlines. There's a departure tax of approximately 17.00.

Travellers can cross into Mexico by road from the USA at one of the 40 official crossing points. Most cross-border bus services travel from Texas. There are 10 border crossings between Mexico and Guatemala, and fairly frequent bus services between border points and Guatemalan towns. Frequent buses also run between Belize City and Chetumal. Trains run from San Diego to Tijuana, El Paso to Ciudad Juárez and Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña.

The more adventurous might like to travel between the great Mayan ruins at Palenque and Tikal (Guatemala) by the jungle routes, via riverboat and back-country bus. The busiest and easiest route is via a short boat ride on the Río Usumacinta between Frontera Corozal (Chiapas) and Bethel (Guatemala); this route also squeezes in a visit to Yaxachilán and Bonampak. The other routes link Benemérito de las Américas (Chiapas) and Sayaxché (Guatemala), and La Palma (Tabasco) and El Naranjo (Guatemala). Travellers should check the security situation in Chiapas with their embassy before attempting these crossings.

Flying still represents good value for money in Mexico, especially considering the long, hot bus trip that may be the only alternative. In recent years, the large airlines have left many of the domestic routes to smaller carriers. However, these start-up airlines and their timetables are particularly volatile; new ones are founded and older ones flounder at an alarming rate. The majority of domestic air connections go through Mexico City.

Buses are the most common mode of public transport and bus routes are extensive. Long-distance buses are fairly comfortable, air-conditioned (bring a jumper!) and acceptably fast. Local rural buses tend to be ancient, decaying, suspensionless models grinding out their dying years on dirt tracks. Combis, colectivos and peseros are minibuses used for local transport. Note that highway robbery is a real risk in Mexico, especially at night on isolated stretches of highway.

Driving in Mexico is certainly not for everyone: you should know some Spanish, have basic mechanical aptitude, large reserves of patience and access to cash for emergencies. However, it can be just about the only way to get to some of the most beautiful and isolated towns and villages, although you need to be forgiving of road conditions.

Car and passenger ferries connect Baja California with the Mexican mainland; ferries also run between the mainland and the Caribbean islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. Thanks to the government's privatization of Mexico's railways, most of the country now lacks a passenger train service. The exceptions are special tourist-oriented lines such as the Copper Canyon line from Chihuahua to Los Mochis and the Tequila Express from Guadalajara to Tequila.

(All information courtesy of Lonely Planet)