MEXICO

Mexico

It is impossible to apply any single definition to Mexico as a country. To the north lie arid deserts fringed by dust-whipped frontier towns, while the south is covered in a dense tropical forest dotted with ancient ruins and mysterious sinkholes. Mountains and gorges, marshlands and lakes punctuate the schizophrenic topography of this melting pot of modern and ancient, reflecting in a native ethnic diversity unparalleled in the western hemisphere. The descendants of Mayans, Aztecs, Mixtecs and a host of others have mixed with Spanish invaders to carve out their existence in colonial towns, sleepy seaside ports and modern cities - leaving long forgotten ruins to the tales of the ancients. To complete the picture, take two coastlines running down the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the country and you can see that Mexico has something different to offer everyone.

Some parts of Mexico are traditional tourist destinations for residents of the US and, as such, you can find many locations offering Ibiza-style club and bar based nightlife in cities such as Cancún. However, a more adventurous traveller willing to get off the beaten track can discover amazing Aztec-style temples, medieval convents, nature reserves and other cultural highlights.

  • Currency: Nuevo Peso (MXN) = 100 cents. Travellers cheques in American Dollars($) are widely accepted.
  • Time Zone: Covers 3 time zones between GMT -6 and GMT -8
  • Language: Spanish, although English is widely spoken.
  • Telephone Services: Country code +52, International Access code 98
  • Emergency Numbers: 08 in Mexico City

Climate

In general a very hot country, the climate mostly varies with altitude - low lying areas are extremely hot and humid whilst higher lying areas are more temperate. Hurricane season starts June 1 and ends in November and can be very destructive. Often resulting in loss of life, destruction of property and severe impairment to transport, particularly in the southern Mexico.

Things to see and do

Mexico City
Built upon the original site of the Aztec capital, Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. Notorious for its choking pollution, gridlock, and high crime levels, it is a formidable but worthwhile challenge for the experienced traveller. The Archaeological Museum is a worthwhile starting point for those in search of ancient culture as you will find Mexico's ruins recreated and many original pieces on display. Head into the Zona Rosa for bustling nightlife with lots of tequila, and for lunch order delicious blue corn tortillas from the street, if you dare.

A couple of hours bus ride from Mexico City, the ancient citadel of Teotihuacan is simply amazing. So old as to be an archaeological mystery even to the Aztecs, its ancient spooky atmosphere is tangible as you walk down the enormous central causeway known as The Avenue of the Dead, feeling dwarfed to the size of an ant by two enormous flanking pyramids - the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun (the second largest pyramid in the world).

Oaxaca
A couple of hours flight or around 8 hours on a bus from Mexico City you will find Oaxaca. A beautiful colonial town set on a mountainside, Oaxaca is famous for its clean air, bright light and inspiring local culture - making it a draw for artists from all over the world. Nearby market towns provide an excellent, colourful day out where you will see local Mixtec people clad in brightly colourful traditional clothing selling their wares.

The nearby Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban are a short bus ride away and well worth a visit. You can mountain bike or hike around this area, which is also good for bird watching.

Oaxaca's coast is a mere 5 hour drive down mountain roads that plunge through dense forest in an impossibly precarious series of curves and switchbacks that make the journey itself an adventure. The ample Pacific coastline provides an opportunity to escape the crowds on the tranquil beach of Mazunte or head to the busy seaside town of Puerto Escondido. Dolphins, turtles and many types of birds can be spotted at various points along the Oaxacan coast.

Palenque
The ancient city of Palenque offers some of the finest Mayan architecture Mexico has to offer. A large, sprawling site including domestic, official and religious buildings that are surrounded by dense tropical forest, Palenque offers an immersive archaeological experience that is only rivalled by nearby Tikal in Guatemala.

The nearby ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak are also worth a visit and can be accessed by a trip down the Usamacinta River. In the same way you may also enter neighbouring Guatemala.

The Yucatan Peninsula
Besides the party beaches of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, by far the most unique thing the far south of Mexico has to offer is its Mayan ruins. Famous sites such as Tulum (the walled city) and the 100ft tall pyramid at Coba are truly national treasures and at least one such site should be on every backpacker's itinerary. If this isn't your scene you could spend some time relaxing on Xpu-Ha beach where you can indulge in scuba diving should your budget stretch to it. Xcaret is another great attraction, with activities such as snorkelling, swimming with dolphins, horse riding and various Mayan-themed demonstrations and shows. You may find this a bit touristy and it is mostly geared towards the American tourist dollar but it is still a worthwhile place to visit.

Baja California
Beautiful Baja California is an animal lover's paradise. From January to March you can see whales, and throughout the year sea lions, dolphins and turtles plus a huge variety of other aquatic life. Sea-kayaking adventures, boat trips and snorkelling are all readily available, and the weather year round is conducive to an excellent holiday.

Access Baja California at the city of La Paz by air, bus or, even better, a glorious 400 mile train ride through the Copper Canyon starting (or ending) in Los Mochis or Chihuahua.

Travel

Buses are largely available and quite affordable considering the vast distances you will be likely to travel. However, the system is dominated by many small companies and there is no central resource for bus information. Buses almost always go from a bus terminal, and there is usually a separate terminal for second class buses (no air conditioning, so not recommended!!!). The best approach is to just turn up at a bus station, there will almost certainly be a bus of some kind going to where you want to go or at least nearby where you can get a connecting bus.

Air travel between major cities in Mexico is provided by a number of national airlines. Many flights connect through Mexico City, often requiring you to take two flights to get to any destination.

Accommodation

Accommodation is cheap and readily available in all cities, however it can be dirty and noisy so check the location and where your rooms face as you may be able to ask for a quieter room at the back of the building. There are higher class hotels in touristy areas but obviously these come at a premium. Youth hostels are quite widespread and most can be booked online before your visit. In colonial towns there are lots of converted old properties, and you can live in the residences of original conquistadores replete with stone fireplaces and sprawling central courtyards.

Land reform in the South has opened up a new class of hotel based in the opulent haciendas of the now extinct super-rich oligarchs; pricey but worth it if you have a few extra hundred pounds left over before your flight back home. On the beaches of Mexico you can find charming beach huts and ecological hotels made from local materials in a traditional style, often at very cheap prices.

Crime

Crime may be encountered in some areas of Mexico and travellers are advised to maintain high levels of personal security. There have been reports of taxi drivers robbing passengers so it is best to use officially regulated taxi's found in taxi ranks. There have also been instances of "express kidnappings", these opportunistic kidnappers require victims, families, partners, etc. to withdraw money from cash machines in exchange for release of the victim.

You may be asked to show identification by the police so you should have several photocopies of your passport available. Leave you actual passport in a hotel safe or another secure place while you are out and about if possible.

Finally, take sensible precautions. Do not carry around large sums of money, try to dress down and conceal any valuables, and avoid walking unaccompanied or in small groups at night. Bear in mind, dressing down does not mean ripped jeans and a messy t-shirt, young Mexicans like to look smart. For the ultimate immersive experience head to the local shopping mall and kit yourself out in national labels only.

Taking these precautions should ensure that you keep yourself safe; most crimes in Mexico are opportunistic, so if you present yourself as a much more difficult target you are unlikely to be bothered.

Health

Tap water is generally considered unsafe and for this reason avoid drinks served with ice. Caution should also be taken when dealing with street vendors serving food. Although the food served by these vendors is a wonderful part of the Mexican experience, make sure you take a discreet look at how the food is prepared before purchasing.

The health service in Mexico is adequate but you will need comprehensive travel insurance. Also, be aware that many Mexican hospitals will not deal directly with your insurer, so normally you will have to pay for medical aid and then seek a refund from your insurer.

You are recommended to obtain Polio and Typhoid vaccinations before travelling to Mexico. Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, is also present in some rural areas so cover up and avoid being bitten. Finally, Rabies and Cholera have not been eradicated, so take precautions to avoid them, for example, by avoiding being bitten by animals. Should you be bitten you are advised to seek medical advice immediately.

Polio and Typhoid shots can be provided by your local GP and will normally cost you about £30 or so, sometimes this is increased by a doctor's consultation fee.

Useful Links

The Mexican Ministry of Tourism can give you travel advice and tourist information before you leave.

Kasbah.com lets you book a wide variety of Mexican hostels online.

Cancun Discounts Useful information about Cancun, including finding the best deals on tours, airfare, and more.

Wikipedia offers reams of information on Palenque and other important Mexican archaeological sites.