“Viva Mexico!” (Long live Mexico) / “Viva La Vida !” (Long live life)
These two phrases are synonymous with Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations which take place in September. They sum up the general ambiance of this colourful, vibrant country.
Mexicans love to have fun – you will too! This is a country to explore, enjoy and return to. Its appeal is broad with something for everyone to see, do and rejoice in.
Mexico is the sixth largest country in the Americas – a little over 2,000 miles (3,219 km) in length. To the north, it shares a border with the USA and to the south with Guatemala and Belize. Both the east and west coasts are fringed by beautiful oceans and seas with mile upon mile of sandy beaches.
A large country deserves a large population. And, with over 120 million people, Mexico ranks number eleven among the most populous countries in the world. Much of the population lives in suburbs far from the historic centers and more touristy areas.
Although the country’s big cities are large and densely populated, don’t let that scare you away from cultural visits.
Magical, manic Mexico City – with its 21.2 million inhabitants – is the largest metropolitan area in the western world. But even this megapolis is not too difficult to navigate and walk around – if you’re staying in the right neighbourhoods, that is. Today, its scary reputation of the past has been swept aside and replaced with one as a top-notch foodie destination, top of the culture vulture checklist and a hot number for those who like hip nightlife. And it still holds hidden gems for travelers looking for relatively undiscovered, cool hideaways.
Once outside of Mexico’s urban areas, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of isolated and sparsely-settled towns and villages that are off the radar. The sheer number of coastal villages and beachfront destinations make this country an obvious choice for a beach vacation. You’ll discover magnificent beaches, virgin beaches, beaches for every water sport, windswept beaches, palm-fringed beaches… in fact, any kind of beach you could wish for. You will not be disappointed.
However, do not disregard magnificent Mexico as a seaside destination and nothing more. With high sierra mountains, desert, jungles, diverse topography, ancient historical sites such as Teotihuacán and the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, colourful villages, colonial-era towns, upscale shops, renowned museums and gourmet restaurants – there really is something for everyone in this mystical country.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
If you look at a map of Mexico, the country is visually divided in half by the Tropic of Cancer which also effectively divides the country into temperate and tropical zones.
In the north, expect cooler temperatures in winter and very high ones in summer. You will typically experience a dry climate with sporadic rainfall during the winter months.
Southern lands offer reasonably constant temperatures all year round. During the winter, they range from 20 to 24°C (or 68 to 75°F) with moderate – almost perfect – climatic conditions. Expect more heat and humidity during the summer.
Many large cities in Mexico are located above 2,000 m (6,562 ft). This generally means a temperate climate throughout the year with average temperatures of about 16 to 18°C (60 to 64°F) and cool nights.
The country’s geographic location combined with its high mountain ranges gives Mexico one of the world’s most diverse weather systems.
LANGUAGE, RELIGION AND PEOPLE
Spanish is the official language of Mexico. However, if you are traveling to southern and highland areas, do not be surprised to hear unusual languages that you may not recognize. About 5% of the population still speak indigenous languages. Depending on where you are traveling, you can expect to hear languages such as Nahuatl, Yukatek Maya, Mixtec, Huichol, and Zapotec.
Currently, it is estimated that the indigenous peoples of Mexico comprise about 12-13% of the population. As well as struggling to keep their ancient languages alive, they follow their own religious ceremonies and rituals.
In certain states, it is not uncommon to come across entire festivals or groups of native Indians sporting traditional dress. Now, these may not necessarily be ceremonial clothes – it is very likely that this is the way they dress every day. The majority of these ensembles are incredibly colourful and embellished with intricate details, patterns and designs… they cannot help but create the perfect tourist photo op.
But, respect needs to be implemented in these situations as many native cultures still believe the camera may steal their souls. Consequently, they are frightened to have their photos taken and will often shy away or hide their faces. If you really want a shot, please ask first be prepared to offer a small payment.
FOOD AND DRINK
There is a common belief in Mexico that work is not really a necessity as in most parts of this magnificent country the locals can pick fruit right from the tree and catch fresh fish from the numerous rivers or in the ocean. Look around, natural produce is abundant – in Mexico the corner shop is not that necessary!
Since ancient times vast agricultural civilizations have flourished in Mexico – and they continue to do so to this day. Abundantly-grown squash, beans and maize have been staples for centuries. The ancients also loved their chocolate, as we still do today.
The ever-present chili – in all its guises, disguises and varieties – is considered the backbone of Mexican cuisine. As a general rule, anything you order in a typical Mexican restaurant, cantina or street stall will have some kind of chili infusion. Some are hotter than the Sonora desert, others add a depth of flavor and a characteristic that you’ll learn to associate with this incredible foodie nation.
Typical foods that we recommend you try are: tacos, tamales, moles, carnita, ceviche, aguachile, guacamole, birria, rice, flan, fresh coconut, tequila and – of course – the ever-present tortilla.
The Mexican peso is used throughout the country but in many areas US dollars are also welcome. We recommend you change your local currency for pesos at a bank or currency exchange booth upon arrival as the exchange rate offered in restaurants, shops, and commercial outlets fluctuates dramatically… and generally in the merchant’s favour!
Top Tip …….bring an extra bag!
Mexico offers an incredibly diverse selection of local handmade artifacts, textiles, art, jewelry, crafts,liquor, sweets, ceramics, glass etc. …the list is never ending. Each area of the country has one or more local specialties peculiar to that region. You will find an abundant quantity of heirloom quality products at very reasonable prices – generally sold by the person who made them or a family member. This cottage industry still thrives throughout the nation and, in many cases, relies on tourist curency to sustain it.
Bartering is expected in markets, on the beaches and in the street. But boutiques and commercial shops do not appreciate clients with a marketplace mentality and are not well-disposed towards offers. A general rule of thumb is to offer 1/4 to 1/2 of the street market price; but if the item has a price tag, expect to pay the price.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Mexico is a country to visit all year round. With its diverse climate, you can always find a location or tour of destinations to make the most of the best climatic conditions – no matter what time of year you plan your visit. But be aware that fiestas and festivals will always draw crowds, as will beach resorts during school holidays.