Mexico lies immediately south of the United States and to the north of the smaller nations of Belize and Guatemala. Regions include Baja California in the west, and the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay of Campeche to the east. The central part of Mexico is a great high plateau that is open to the north, but bounded elsewhere by mountain chains and ocean fronted lowlands.
At least three historic civilizations predated the arrival of the Spanish invaders, including the Mayas, Olmecs, and Toltecs. The country was conquered by the invading Spanish under Hernando Cortes in 1521. This heralded the suppression of the indigenous population and the destruction of their wealth, culture, and most of their heritage. The country won independence from Spain in 1821.
Geography31 Mexican States and one Federal District extend across a land mass of approximately two million square kilometers – which is approximately one fifth of the area of the United States and makes Mexico’s land the eighth largest national territory in the world. The northern area is mainly comprised of two deserts, the 453,000 square kilometer Chihuahuan desert and the 221,000 square kilometer Sonoran Desert.
Central Mexico lies between the eastern and western coastal plains south of these deserts and is divided by a central plateau known as Altiplano Central. Altitudes above sea level in these plateau areas vary from 1,000 meters in the north to over 2,000 meters in the central area. The plateau comprises mainly rolling hills and valleys that provide fine land for agriculture and cattle ranching.
The southern Cordillera Mountain Range extends from east to west across Mexico. It includes the active 5,452-meter Popocatepetl volcano as well as a number of other active volcanoes and similarly high peaks.
The geography of the Pacific lowlands varies considerably according to location. In the southernmost areas they are backed by the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Rio de Grijalva Basin, and the Chiapas Highlands, each of which are tropical rainforest areas that merge into the tropical savanna along the low, flat Yucatan Peninsula. The northern part of the Isthmus is a wide, marshy plain extending from Veracruz to the Yucatan Peninsula, while the Sierra Madre del Sur stretches all the way from Guerrero and Oaxaca to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
ClimateThe Tropic of Cancer bisects Mexico in the vicinity of Ciudad Victoria and Mazatian. To the north are drier areas that are hot in summer but chillier in winter even to near freezing thanks to the north winds. In the inland high areas, the climate is similar with mountain peaks often capped with winter snow.
Things are different south of the Tropic of Cancer. The climate is hot and humid all year round especially along the eastern and western coastal plains. May to October are hot, wet months with most rain falling between June and September. The elevated inland areas are a little cooler.
To the east, rainfall levels are high on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental and on the northern side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. They can reach as high as 80 centimeters or more along the Gulf Coast and the Depression de Balsas, which is considerably less than the 250 centimeters recorded annually in the northeastern Chiapas and along the Gulf coastal plains of Tabasco.
CultureMexico is a culturally diverse country because of its earlier history of invasions and the vast number of immigrants it continues to attract.
The Mestizos, who are by far the largest ethnic group, are of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry and control most of the economy and political power. The smaller balance of the population consists of 56 different indigenous groups that have survived mainly because they have been geographically isolated. However, they are increasingly threatened by agricultural and mining initiatives. The wealth of these people is mainly traditional and spiritual, and their heritage will be lost forever if they become inundated by the dubious attractions of modern civilization. Languages spoken include Spanish and, where applicable, the local patois of the descendants of ancient Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Totanac, and Purepechas civilizations.
Religion continues to occupy centre-stage in Mexican culture. Although the Roman Catholic Church dominates, Indian Christianity is a fusion of western religion and ancient Indian beliefs. Their traditional world imbues everything with a spiritual dimension and everything – wind, rain, sun, trees, animals, rivers, and hills - has its own god. Witchcraft and magic survive in isolated secluded areas. Small numbers of Mexicans practice Jewish and Protestant faiths.
Flora, Fauna and InsectsThe plant life of Mexico is diverse according to geographical area – there are desert plants in the north, forests and grasslands in the central mountains and Antiplano plateau, and jungle-type plants and trees in the south.
Mexico has approximately 640 reptile species, 1,000 bird species, 450 mammals of which 142 are unique to the country, and 330 amphibians. No wonder the country is ranked as the fifth most biologically diverse on earth. There are also hundreds of thousands of different insects, including an estimated 2,500 different butterflies and 2,000 species of bees.
This diversity is explained by the fact that Mexico is on a land bridge between two continents that were once separated by the oceans, and inherited flora, fauna and insects from both worlds.
Most of Mexico’s mammals can be found in the more temperate midland zones. These include mountain lions, jaguars and bobcats, two species of deer, coyotes, foxes, and bears, bighorn sheep, 4 species of rabbits, and 350 types of rodents.
The warmer, tropical areas are home to bats, spiders and howler monkeys, as well as silky anteaters and Baird’s tapir (a nocturnal plant-eating creature that lives mainly in the water). Nearly 30 types of cetaceans live in the ocean. These range from blue whales to tiny porpoises. Peace- loving manatees frequent the warm coastal waters, lagoons, and estuaries.
There is a multitude of fish everywhere – there are about 1,350 ocean species and 384 freshwater types.
Mexican birds are a mix of North American species such as cranes and geese, and South American birds including quetzals and toucans. Of the approximately 9,000 bird species on earth, 769 of them are believed to breed in Mexico and a further 257 migrate to her shores. Around 70% of Mexican birds are found in the tropical areas - these include 19 species of parrots, parakeets, macaws, and toucans that live in forests. In marshy areas, you can expect to see water birds such as kingfishers, herons, and egrets, while various birds of prey, as well humming birds and flycatchers may be observed in the savannahs and northern mountains.
More than 1,000 reptiles have been recorded in Mexico. These include lizards, iguanas, gila monsters, alligators, crocodiles, and caimans, as well as over 100 species of snakes, of which 20 are venomous. Seven of the eight species of sea turtles are also found in Mexico - all are threatened or endangered. These include leatherbacks, kemps green, black, hawksbill, loggerhead, and olive ridley turtles.
Out and About in MexicoThe recent American travel advisory about Mexico has some travelers jittery and troubled border areas should definitely be avoided (they are usually of no interest to tourists, anyway). That said, here are a few tips that are probably just as useful wherever you go:
The Mexican nation is a friendly, wonderful, welcoming one. Approach its people in the same way and you will have a great holiday.
Tourist AttractionsThere is no way that I could mention everything in the space available, so here are just a few places that you should not miss:
Mexico CityThe oldest part of Mexico City known as Centro Historico is built around the Plaza de la Constitucion near where the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan once stood. Highlights include the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and countless fine examples of colonial architecture that line the cobbled streets.
AcapulcoAcapulcon Bay and the nearby city of Acapulco are popular among tourists who flock to the famous beaches. Attractions include water skiing, para sailing, deep-sea diving and fishing, sailing, snorkeling, and excursions to exotic places like Roqueta where you can cruise above the reefs in glass bottom boats.
Maya RivieraThe Maya Riviera is lined by resort towns and boutique hotels. Local highlights include the Belize Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world), a variety of water sports, and opportunities to visit archeological digs at Tulum, Xcaret, and Hel-Ha. Cozumel provide yet another distraction.
Staying HealthyThe following precautions are recommended:
Medical travel insurance is essential.
Mexico is a vast country of many contrasts and enough wonderful tourist attractions to satisfy any appetite. It is also a fascinating blend between western-type cities and rural backwaters where traditions and legends live on.