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Country Guide: Mexico
Country guide: Mexico
We’d sum it up like this: Dreamy beaches, big cities and Mayan ruins to explore. Here are some of them:
At times it's pure chaos, and you may never see the city's 5300m snow-capped volcano Popocatepetl, through the smog. But staying around the vibrantly atmospheric Zocalo centre offers an almost sedate introduction to this sprawling city's monumental colonial buildings and museums, such as the 16th century cathedral and Baroque National Palace.
Popocatepetl and Teotihuacan's temples are must-do day excursions, while you've also got to check out Lucha Libre wrestling which is second only in popularity to football. Also make sure you visit the Zócalo municipal square – the world's second largest, after Moscow's Red Square, and a cultural melting pot.
You can also expect to be happily attacked by the city's famous mariachi bands, who play classic Mexican ditties for a bit of loose change, at the Plaza Garibaldi. Marvel at the collection of pre-colonial artefacts in the extraordinary Museo Nacional de Antropología, and take a day trip out to the magnificent pre-Aztec pyramid (the world's third largest, so they claim) site of Teotihuacán.
This World Heritage-listed city is classy. Dating from 1521, it oozes charm, whether you're joining Oaxacans for their evening constitutional in the pretty plazas or sipping Margaritas in stylish bars.
There are many language schools in town and the city is built around a square that's massive, even by Latin American standards, and the wondrous 16th century Spanish architecture has made it a popular stop for travellers.
The Yucatán Peninsula
If you have only two weeks in Mexico, you would be well advised to split your time between the capital and the Yucatán Peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Its collection of dream-like Caribbean beaches and spectacular Mayan ruins takes a lot of beating.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in much of Latin America but it originated in Mexico where it is celebrated with much fervour on November 1 (and usually right through to the next day). Morelia, capital of the rolling, lush Michoacán state, is the perfect place to sample Mexico’s famed Noche de Muerte.
The festival is a ghoulishly surreal carnival of religion and public celebration that epitomises much of what is so intoxicating about the country itself.
Mexico’s party joint instantly brings up a mental image of American students on spring break, but there’s more to it than that. There are plenty of rather nice resorts, which are shielded somewhat from the boozing. Cancun is also the access point to Central America, with many tours leaving from there.
Here are some top itinerary ideas to make the most of your time; even if it’s limited:
Mexico in 2-3 days
You'd be mad to visit Mexico for a couple of days, unless you were merely transiting through Mexico City or ducking over the border from southern California.
If you are coming from San Diego, Tijuana is the main border town but it can be violent and dangerous — car theft and rip-offs are common. However, it does have plenty of nightlife to offer and you'd think every night was a Friday.
Mexico City (see above) is worth exploring in a couple of days. Stay around the Zocalo and take a look at our tips above.
Mexico in a week
If you have only a week in Mexico, you would be well advised to split your time between the capital and the Yucatán Peninsula. Do as much as you can of we’ve described about both above.
Mexico in two weeks +
Follow the above itinerary but see even more of the Yucatan. Tikal, the most spectacular of all Mayan ruins as it stretches high out of the dense rainforest, may be over the border in Guatemala, but is also accessible on a day trip. Tulum, on the east coast, has some relatively modest ruins, but it is more famous for its icing sugar beaches and the see-through sea of the Caribbean. You can rent a beach hut within yards of the gently lapping water and it's a much better option than the more famous resort of Cancun, a few hours north, which is both overly built-up and busy.
Merida shouldn't be missed either, if only to relax in the welcoming plaza for a few hours. The peninsula is also famed for its Cenotes; limestone sinkholes linked to vast cave systems and filled with remarkably transparent freshwater.
Finally, consider flying to the southern, Pacific coast for stunning surfing beaches or making the trek to the Baja Peninsula for a taste of wild, remote and lonely stretches of desert and coastline that you won't find anywhere on the more populated mainland.
The perfect month is November, after the wet season (June to October) but before the peak tourist season. The big resorts are packed out in winter and parts of the south can get uncomfortably humid during mid summer. Generally, however, the climate is dictated more by the landscapes than the seasons, so year-round there's always somewhere ripe to visit.
Literally dozens of major airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to Mexico City.
Mexico has a good network of well-equipped buses, but the distances can be huge. In fact, they're massive! Domestic flights are excellent value (sometimes within a few dollars of the bus price) and well worth considering.
Food and drink
The basis of native Mexican cooking remains the humble corn-made tortilla. Tortillas are flat, circular, savoury pancakes, generally made from corn or wheat flour. They are the most typical of all Mexican food.
There are more than 100 varieties of chillies used in Mexican cooking, ranging in size, shape and flavour strength. They are used to add colour and spice to many dishes, and can take a bit of getting used to if you're not used to fiery dishes.
And no matter how hard you might try, you can’t avoid frijoles – beans, often refried, which come with most dishes.
Mexicans usually eat a light breakfast consisting of coffee or atole (a thick drink made with corn, rice or oats) and some sweet bread or fruit.
A heavier brunch is usually referred to as almuerzo, then between 2 and 4pm comida, the main meal of the day, is taken. It'll usually consist of soup, salad and a guisado, or main dish.
For many Mexicans, the final meal of the day may consist of just a hot drink and some bread.
Tequila is without a doubt Mexico's most famed drop, made from the agave plant, known as maguey in Mexico. Corona is Mexico's best beer and in some cases in available in shops cheaper than bottled water.
And talking of water, the tap water in much of Mexico is of dubious quality and drinking bottled water is always recommended.