The home of tacos, Aztecs, sombreros and tequila – not to mention Pancho Villa, Salma Hayek and Frida Kahlo – almost everyone on the planet knows something about Mexico. Yet there’s a lot more to this country beyond the stereotypes. One of the world’s great civilizations, Mexico offers a tantalizing blend of Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish traditions and contemporary arts. Its landscapes range from the shimmering blue coastline of Baja California and the iconic cactus-strewn deserts of the north, to the Maya villages and gorgeous palm-smothered beaches of the south. You can climb volcanoes, watch whales and tour agave farms. And sprinkled throughout you’ll find richly adorned colonial churches, giant pyramids and a sophisticated cuisine.
The 122 million people of Mexico reflect this variety, too. Communities of full-blooded indígenas represent around ten percent of the population, with the Nahua, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomí and Totonac the largest groups. There are also a few Mexicans of pure Spanish or European descent, invariably forming the ranks of the mega rich, even if billionaire Carlos Slim is actually of Lebanese ancestry. The great majority of the population (over eighty percent), though, is mestizo, combining in themselves European and indigenous traditions with, to a greater or lesser extent, a veneer of urban sophistication. Add in a multitude of distinct regional identities, from the cowboy culture of the northern deserts to the Mesoamerican traditions of the south, and you have a thrilling, constantly surprising place to travel.
Despite the inevitable influence of the US, looming to the north, and close links with the rest of the Spanish-speaking world (an avid audience for Mexican pop and soap operas), the country remains resolutely individual. The music that fills the plazas in the evenings, the buildings that circle around them, even the smells emanating from a row of taco carts: they all leave you without any doubt about where you are.
Many first-time visitors are surprised to find that Mexico is far from being a “developing” nation: the country has a robust economy, the world’s fifteenth largest, a remarkably thorough and efficient internal transport system and a vibrant contemporary arts and music scene. Indeed, in the last twenty years or so Mexico has finally become a middle-class society, perhaps the country’s greatest achievement since Independence. Mexico has the highest GDP in Latin America after Brazil, reduced inflation, interest rates at record lows and increased per capita income, despite huge inequalities of wealth.
It’s certainly not all suburbs and SUVs quite yet though; adventure can still be found through happening upon a village fiesta, complete with a muddy bullfight and rowdy dancing, or hopping on a rural bus, packed with farmers all carrying machetes half their height and curious about how you’ve wound up going their way. It’s also true that Mexico is not always an easy place to travel around. The power may go off, the water may not be drinkable. Occasionally it can seem that there’s incessant, inescapable noise and dirt. And although the mañana mentality is largely an outsiders’ myth, rural Mexico is still a land where timetables are not always to be entirely trusted, where anything that can break down will break down (when it’s most needed) and where any attempt to do things in a hurry is liable to be frustrated.
More deeply disturbing are the extremes of ostentatious wealth and grim poverty that still exist, most poignantly in the big cities, where unemployment is high and living conditions beyond crowded, as well as the ongoing drug wars that provide a seemingly non-stop stream of sensational, often gruesome, headlines. While the violence is very real in some parts of the country, the danger for tourists is absolutely minimal – for the most part, you’ll find this is a friendly, fabulously varied and enormously enjoyable place in which to travel.