Mexico is a country with a fascinating history, evidence of which is all around you throughout your visit.
Mexico is a nation undergoing rapid change. Past characterizations of the country as rural, undemocratic, and protectionist have been replaced in the last decades of the twentieth century by descriptions that refer to Mexico as urban, opening to democracy, and market-oriented. For a country composed mostly of peasants before the Revolution (1910-20), Mexico has undergone broad and rapid urbanisation; Mexico City has emerged as one of the world’s largest cities at the end of the twentieth century. Throughout most of its history, Mexico has been ruled by strongmen or a one-party system; in 1997 pressures for an open democracy are greater than ever. Under the presidencies of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994- ), the economy, long one of the most protectionist and statist of the non-socialist countries, dramatically about-faced, embracing open-market policies and free-trade links with the United States and countries throughout the Americas.
They say that Mexico is a country no one ever leaves. Every year, millions of tourists pass through, and Mexicans jovially warn that a part of them will remain behind forever. Most visitors are vacationing North Americans who wind up on the brilliant beaches of Cancun, Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta. The beaches, of course, are among the world’s best – but those who venture inland are rewarded with the true soul of Mexico, which has always resided firmly in the interior.
And it is a big soul. The Republic of Mexico is vast, comprising nearly two million square miles of coastline, desert, rain forest, mountains, and fertile plains. From the American borderlands of the wide, agriculturally rich north, the country narrows gently as it sweeps south and east. The two main mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental, hug the west and east, finally merging into the volcanically active central highlands and the capital, Mexico City – the most populous city in the world. Further south, the country narrows to only 100 miles, then broadens again before reaching the Guatemalan border. There are two major peninsulas in Mexico that are almost countries themselves. In the west is the poetically barren Baja Peninsula, which seals in the biological riches of the Sea of Cortes; to the east, protruding into the Caribbean like the end of a fish hook, is the Yucatan peninsula, bursting with rain forests, Mayan ruins, and white powder beaches. The population is about 93 million, and the generosity of the Mexican people is unsurpassed. Knowing a few simple sentences in Spanish will win hearts.
While traditional Mexican food is now being served in restaurants all over the world, visitors to the country will be pleasantly surprised when they arrive in the country. In truth, the majority of Mexican cuisine which is cooked outside Mexico differs greatly from the real thing, and not for the best. So, you are in for a culinary treat whenever and wherever you go out to eat during your stay.
Corn was regarded as a sacred food by the pre-Columbian tribes and despite all the various settlers which have made their way into the country, it still remains as the basis for most Mexican dishes to this day. In particular, it is used in the ever-popular tortillas which usually accompany every meal and serve as the basis for tacos, tostadas, fluatas, enchiladas and chalupas all of which are fried and filled with cheese, beans, meat or chicken and a sauce. Of all of these, the enchilada has remained the constant favourite. Translating directly as a tortilla dipped in chilii, the dish began as exactly this. It was then fried in very hot oil and sprinkled with onions and cheese and served with potatoes and carrots. So, if you want to sample an authentic Mexican dish, this is the one you need to try as they still serve them throughout the country.
Another favourite among the natives is pollo con mole which consists of chicken in a sauce which contains garlic, chocolate and numerous spices. Interesting combination. The country is also noted for its pastries, honey and chocolate drinks so be sure to try all of these too. The main thing that you need to remember is that it’s good to experiment. You are now in the home of eighty different types of chilli, you can’t afford to be coy.
In order to ensure that coy is the last thing you are, and although you probably don’t need to be told, the most renowned Mexican drink is tequila. Made from the maguey plant it should be drank in the traditional fashion which most of you are probably familiar with. If you’re not, then you will find out as soon as you get there. The maguey plant is also used as the base for several equally potent Mexican drinks which include aguamiel, mezcal and pulque. Mezcal is the infamous beverage with the worm at the bottom of the glass but don’t worry, if you don’t drink it, lots of people like to fry them for snacks. Enjoy!
The majority of visitors visiting Mexico will probably do so via the US flying into one of the three international ports which serve the country. The Benito Juarez is located 13km outside Mexico city and has buses which travel to and from city centre every thirty five minutes. There is also a metro connection and an efficient taxi service. The Miguel Hidalgo airport is 20km outside Guadalajara and the General Juan Alvarez is situated about 26km outside Acapulco. Coaches and taxis are available from both airports to their respective city centres.
There are also several cruise ports which also serve the country and these are located at Acapulco, Cozumel, Manzanillo, Tampico and Zihuatenejo. Those entering Mexico via these ports are usually travelling from the US, South America or Australia. The country is also served by rail connections with the US and Canada.
Finally anyone entering by road will probably enter by one of the following border crossings Mexicali/San Diego, Nogales/Phoenix, El Paso/Tuscon, Eagle Pass/San Angelo and El Paso, Laredo/Huston and San Antonio, Brownsville/Houston and Galveston. If you are driving yourself try to use one of the smaller crossings as the formalities are usually much easier to deal with than at larger crossings.
Bus – The bus service in Mexico is well developed in most of the country. With the exception of areas like the Baja and Yucatan peninsulas, buses are frequent, efficient and will take you to almost anywhere you wish to travel to in the country. Furthermore they are usually the only way to get to where you want to go. You should try to book your ticket at least one day in advance, particularly for longer journeys or during Mexican holiday periods.
Several companies operate the different bus connections and the class of travel is usually clearly labelled as either deluxe, first (primera) or second (Segunda). While you will pay a few more dollars for the deluxe service, these buses usually offer an express service which is well worth the extra.
Train – Mexico also has a somewhat less developed train service which is usually safer and more enjoyable than taking the bus. It is also a little less expensive than bus service in the country. But, the downside is that the train service is slow, unreliable and infrequent. Some services only have three trains a week on most lines. The only places where you can travel by train in comfort are in the northern and central parts of the country. You should also note that you can only buy your ticket on the day of travel, sometimes only an hour beforehand, and during holiday periods you may well have to queue for most of the day in order to purchase your ticket. In short, if at all possible, it is usually better to avoid rail travel during your stay.
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Widely regarded as one of the world’s most impressive museums, the Museo Nacional is home to artefacts which represent over three thousand years of the country’s past in twenty six exhibit halls. And, not only will the collections themselves leave you in awe, the building itself is also one the country’s finest.
If you are in or near the city, it’s located in the historic Chapultepec Park and you really should make it your business to spend even a couple of hours there.
Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Set in the heart of downtown Mexico City, the Templo Mayor houses an archaeological excavation site and an Aztec museum with over 6,000 pieces on display. The museum itself was built so that it would not compete with the colonial surroundings and it hasn’t. It is a fascinating attraction due to the fact that as well as the museum, you can also see parts of buildings which actually existed during the Aztec period. In fact, because there are still digs taking place you can see pieces of ancient history being uncovered right in front of you. It is a memorable experience as you know that you are among the first people to see ruins which have been buried for thousands of years.
Buried underground until 1952, the ruins at Palenque have now being uncovered to reveal a myriad of historic buildings dating to the seventh century AD. The site itself is situated on a ledge which overlooks the plains that stretch to the Gulf Coast and the view which will leave you breathless is probably what inspired artists and architects all those centuries ago. The most important structures which have been uncovered at Palenque are the Palace and the Temple of Inscriptions but there is a great deal more besides and a great deal remains undiscovered as yet. For a true step back in time, this is where you need to go.
The Copper Canyon
If you get the opportunity to travel to the group of canyons known collectively as the Copper Canyon, jump at the chance. 1.5 times deeper than the Grand Canyon this attraction simply amazes all that visit. And, as well as the canyon you are also in the land of the Tarahumara Indians, the largest indigenous tribe remaining on the North American continent. They still live in caves and hand made log cabins and have an extremely unique culture which is very nature oriented. The whole trip is completely surreal and one that you will never forget.
This is probably the eeriest and most impressive of all the archaeological sites in the country. Located within close proximity to Mexico City in the northeastern part of the Basin of Mexico, Teotihuacan dates all the way back to the fourth century AD. Today you can walk along the Avenue of the Dead where you will see the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela or the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Transport yourself back to a time when the ancient city was at its most magnificent and above all take your bloody camera.
Los Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead)
This is probably one of Mexico’s most traditional events and takes place between October 31st and November 2nd every year. Honouring the dead, it is not a sad festival. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and is used by the natives as a time to remember and rejoice. And when Mexcians rejoice, it’s pretty hard not to get caught up in the festivities. All over the country townspeople dress up as ghosts, mummies and skeletons and parade through their respective towns and villages carrying an open coffin. As the procession makes its way past shops and markets, local vendors throw food, flowers and gifts into the coffin. While it may well sound bizarre, it is a fascinating festival with roots as far back as the days of the Aztecs. There is also traditional music and dance taking place adding to the atmosphere and ensuring that Mexico is an excellent destination to visit during this period.
Taking place from the 22nd to the 28th February every year, Carnaval is the Mexican’s way of indulging before they begin their Lenten fast. Throughout all the major cities in the country huge parades, live concerts and general mayhem take over for at least three days before Ash Wednesday as the locals indulge in earnest. The best places to avail of the festivities are Veracruz, San Miguel and Mazatlan where the goings on strongly resemble the world famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Other cities have adopted a more historical approach where they re-enact ancient battles and the like. But, the one thing that you are guaranteed is that wherever you are, you cannot avoid getting caught up in the revelry of the Carnaval.
St. Michael’s Day, San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende is a town with a penchant for festivals and celebrations so it’s highly likely that on September 29th, the day which marks the town’s patron saint, Saint Michael, the atmosphere in San Miguel will be one that you don’t want to miss. In true Mexican tradition, the town will host bull fighting, cock fighting and bullrunning through the streets. Apparently, it’s customary to spill some blood to help celebrate the day of a patron saint. But, for the animal rights officers or the squeamish among you the good news is that there are parades of locals in traditional garb, live folk concerts and one huge party to help you have a good time.
Cancun Jazz Festival
If Cancun is a destination that you may have in mind then try to make it between May 22nd and 26th when the city’s jazz festival takes place. It now attracts up to 50,000 people every year which is a good indication of just how big this event has become in recent years. Featuring a host of musicians from all over the world and with a multitude of free indoor and outdoor concerts in the picturesque surroundings that the city has to offer, this really is something that you can’t afford to avoid if you are in the area.
If there is one thing that Mexicans certainly know how to do after dark, it’s party. And just one night out in any of the major towns and cities in the country will clarify that for you. From the live music venues set in historic buildings in downtown Mexico City to the Caribbean clubs of Merida and from clubs that don’t close until dawn in Acapulco to the sophisticated jazz and salsa clubs of Guadalajara, going out at night is something both the locals and visitors to the country seem to thrive on. Be warned, however, you will be expected to stay out until after sunrise and drink copious amounts of the native tipple but it’s all part of the fun.
The currency used is the Mexican peso and it is denoted by the symbol N$ which means peso nuevo or new peso. This is the currency which was introduced in the country in 1993. While there are still some old peso notes and coins in circulation, these are becoming increasingly rare. Notes for the new currency are in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 N$ and the coins in use are 1, 2, 5 and 10 N$.
The principal language spoken in Mexico is Spanish and in the more remote areas it can be extremely difficult to find somebody who understands any other language. In regions more accustomed to tourism, however, you will usually be able to find an English speaker.
Mexico has been graced with an unusually temperate climate year-round. The most important thing to remember is that the Mexican summer is also the rainy season, although the rain rarely lasts more than a few hours, and typically arrives in the late afternoon. Extremes are present only in the North and in Baja, both of which have deserts where the temperature leaps above 100F. Mexico City has a year-round temperature in the high 80s, while the coasts usually stay in the mid-90s. Night-time temperatures fall somewhat, but rarely below a comfortable 60F.
The majority of the country observes Central Standard Time which is six hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. Some areas including the west coast states are on Mountain Standard Time which is another hour behind and others still are on Pacific Time which is two hours behind Central Standard Time. It is also worth noting that the entire country observes daylight saving time which means that the clocks go one hour forward between October and March.
As a rule most businesses in the larger cities are open from 9.00am until 7.00pm from Monday to Saturday. In smaller towns and villages they tend to close between 2.00pm and 4.00pm. Most businesses still remain closed on Sundays although some of the bigger stores and those in tourist areas are gradually beginning to move towards Sunday trading. Banks are generally open from 9.00am until 5.00pm from Monday to Friday although many are now also open for a half-day on Saturdays. Finally, the main post offices are open between 9.00am and 6.00pm from Monday to Friday and from 9.00am until midday on Saturdays.
Electricity in Mexico operates on 110V, 60 cycles AC.
There is a value added tax of between ten and fifteen per cent value on goods and services in most of the country. It varies from region to region so you do need to check an area before you travel to clarify what the tax there is. It should always be included in the marked price of a particular item, but again you do need to check to avoid confusion or embarrassment when it comes to payment.
Residents of most western countries excluding France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa to enter Mexico if they are staying for a period of less than thirty days. You will need a valid passport and a tourist card which you can pick up on the plane or from the airline before you leave your home country. If you do intend staying for a period which exceeds ninety days or have any doubts as to whether or not you may need a visa, you should contact the Mexican consulate in your home country.
You really should shop around when looking to exchange money. The best rates are generally found in the official bureaux de change or casa de cambio. If you can’t find any of these use the larger Mexican banks such as Banames or Bancomer. Try to avoid changing cash in your hotel or hostel as the rates are usually extremely poor. Some shops and restaurants will also accept US dollars but again, you should really check the exchange rate beforehand.
All major credit cards are accepted in the bigger hotels, restaurants and shops but in smaller businesses or the more remote areas you may have difficulty using this facility. You can also use bankcards which are members of the bigger international networks such as Plus or Cirrus in the larger towns and cities where the ATM states that they are acceptable.
The country code for Mexico is 52 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 52, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. Area codes for different parts of the country are being changed all the time but you will hear a courtesy recording telling you the correct number if you do not have it already.
Public telephones are usually pretty easy to come by in the larger towns and cities. Most take coins or cards but those that accept coins are becoming increasingly rare. Cards can be purchased in most shops and newsagents as well as in post offices and they come in denominations of $20, $30 or $50. When you travel further afield, however, you will probably have to avail of telephones in shops, hotels, restaurants etc.
To make a call from one city to another you will need to dial 91, followed by the city code and the local number. Most public phones will allow you to make a direct long distance call and to confirm that this is the case, look for the Ladatel symbol. If this facility is not available,however, you can still make a long distance call but you will need to dial through the operator, 02 for calls within the country or 09 for international calls.
Because Mexico is not a particularly rich country, the locals generally expect a tip for their service. You should be aware, however, that ten to fifteen per cent of the bill is sufficient in restaurants, ten per cent for taxi drivers. Another thing that you do need to watch out for are unfamiliar coins in your change. As stated above Mexico did change currency some years ago so keep an eye out for people trying to take advantage of this fact by giving you the old currency instead of the new one because while it is still legal tender, it is worth a great deal less than the new one.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Mexico they take place on January 1st, February 5th, March 21st, Good Friday, May 1st and 5th, September 15th and 16th, October 12th, November 1st, 2nd and 20th and December 12th, 24th, 25th and 31st. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.