Mexico is a traveler's paradise, crammed with a multitude of opposing identities: desert landscapes, snow-capped volcanoes, ancient ruins, teeming industrialized cities, time-warped colonial towns, glitzy resorts, deserted beaches and a world-beating collection of flora and fauna.
This mix of modern and traditional, clichéd and surreal, is the key to Mexico's charm, whether your passion is throwing back margaritas, listening to howler monkeys, surfing the Mexican Pipeline, scrambling over Mayan ruins or expanding your collection of posable Day of the Dead skeletons.
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Covering almost two million sq km (800,000 sq mi), Mexico follows a northwest to southeast curve, narrowing to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec then continuing to the Yucatán Peninsula. On the west and south the country is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, with the Gulf of California lying between the Baja California peninsula and the mainland. Mexico's east coast is washed by the Gulf of Mexico, while the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula meets the Caribbean Sea. Mexico shares borders with the USA (to the north), and Guatemala and Belize (to the southeast).
Bridging temperate and tropical regions, and lying in latitudes that contain most of the world's deserts, Mexico has an enormous range of natural environments and vegetation zones. Its rugged, mountainous topography adds to the variety by creating countless microclimates. Mexico's potential for great ecological diversity, however, has been seriously tempered by human impact. Before the Spanish conquest, about two-thirds of the country was forested. Today, only one-fifth of the country remains verdant, mainly in the south and east.
What To See
Mariachi madness or moody ruins, Mexico has a speed setting for everyone.
Sensuous and seductive, Mexico's rich cultural traditions and raw, untamed natural beauty transcend the ages. Trample through jungles and high-plains deserts, explore ancient rites at mysterious Maya and Aztec ruins, or simply stretch out on a honey-kissed beach until mañana comes...
Museo Nacional de Antropología
This world-class museum stands in an extension of the Bosque de Chapultepec. Its long, rectangular courtyard is surrounded on three sides by two-level display halls. The 12 ground-floor salas (halls) are dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico, while upper-level salas show how Mexico’s indigenous descendants live today, with the contemporary cultures located directly above their ancestral civilizations. Everything is superbly displayed, with much explanatory text translated into English. Audio guides in English are available at the entrance. The vast museum offers more than most people can absorb in a single visit. Here’s a brief guide to the ground-floor halls, proceeding counterclockwise around the courtyard. Culturas Indígenas de México Currently serves as a space for temporary exhibitions.
Introducción a la Antropología introduces visitors to the field of anthropology. Poblamiento de América Demonstrates how the hemisphere’s earliest settlers got here and survived and prospered in their new environment. Preclásico en el Altiplano Central Focuses on the pre-Classic period, treated here as running from approximately 2300 BC to AD 100, and the transition from a nomadic hunting life to a more settled farming life in Mexico’s central highlands. Teotihuacán Displays models and objects from the Americas’ first great and powerful state. Los Toltecas y su Época Covers cultures of central Mexico between about AD 650 and 1250; on display is one of the four basalt warrior columns from Tula’s Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli.
Devoted to the Mexica, aka Aztecs. Come here to see the famous sun stone, unearthed beneath the Zócalo in 1790, and other magnificent sculptures from the pantheon of Aztec deities. Culturas de Oaxaca Displays the fine legacy of Oaxaca’s Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. Culturas de la Costa del Golfo Spotlights the important civilizations along the Gulf of Mexico including the Olmec, Totonac and Huastec. Stone carvings include two Olmec heads weighing in at almost 20 tons. Maya Exhibits findings from southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. A full-scale replica of the tomb of King Pakal, discovered deep in the Templo de las Inscripciones at Palenque, is simply breathtaking.
Culturas del Occidente Profiles cultures of western Mexico.
Culturas del Norte Covers the Casas Grandes (Paquimé) site and other cultures from northern Mexico, and traces their links with indigenous groups of the US southwest. In a clearing about 100m in front of the museum’s entrance, indigenous Totonac people perform their spectacular voladores rite – ‘flying’ from a 20m-high pole – every 30 minutes.
The most famous and best restored of the Yucatán Maya sites, Chichén Itzá, while tremendously overcrowded – every gawker and his or her grandmother is trying to check off the new seven wonders of the world – will still impress even the most jaded visitor. Many mysteries of the Maya astronomical calendar are made clear when one understands the design of the ‘time temples’ here. Other than a few minor passageways, climbing on the structures is not allowed.
This fabulous archaeological zone lies in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México. Site of the huge Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), Teotihuacán was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably the country's largest pre-Hispanic empire. A day here can be awesome - don't let the hawkers get you down. Bring a hat, water and your walking shoes.
The ruins of Tulum preside over a rugged coastline, a strip of brilliant beach and green-and-turquoise waters that'll leave you floored. It’s true the extents and structures are of a modest scale and the late post-Classic design is inferior to those of earlier, more grandiose projects - but wow, those Maya occupants must have felt pretty smug each sunrise.
Divers won’t want to miss the reefs and underwater fantasy worlds of the Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere. Some 45km long and up to 14km wide, Chinchorro’s western edge lies about 30km off the coast, and dozens of ships have fallen victim to its barely submerged ring of coral.