Physically, Mexico resembles a vast horn, curving away south and east from the US border, with its final tip bent right back round to the north. It is an extremely mountainous country: two great ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, run parallel to the coasts, enclosing a high, semi-desert plateau. About halfway down they are crossed by the volcanic highland area in which stand Mexico City and the major centres of population. Beyond, the mountains run together as a single range through the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Only the eastern tip – the Yucatán Peninsula – is consistently low-lying and flat.
In terms of where to go, for most visitors central and southeastern Mexico are the main attractions. Many find the arid and sparsely populated north – a region heavily influenced by the neighbouring US and dominated by industrial cities such as Monterrey – relatively dull. The major exceptions are the shores and wilderness of Baja California, a destination in its own right, and the Copper Canyon, with its spectacular rail journey. And the border cities can provide a bit of (sometimes sleazy) excitement.
It’s in the highlands north of the capital that the first really worthwhile stops come, with the bulk of the historic colonial towns and an enticing spring-like climate year-round. Coming through the Bajío, the heart of the country, you’ll pass the silver-mining towns of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, the historic centres of San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro, and many smaller places with a legacy of superb colonial architecture. Mexico City, though a nightmare of urban sprawl, is totally fascinating, and in every way – artistic, political, cultural – the capital of the nation. Around the city lie the chief relics of the pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico: the massive pyramids of Teotihuacán; the main Toltec site at Tula; and Tenochtitlán, heart of both the Aztec empire and the modern capital. Guadalajara, to the west, is a city on a more human scale, capital of the state of Jalisco and in easy reach of Michoacán: between them, these states share some of the most gently scenic country in Mexico, where the thickly forested hills are studded with lakes and ancient villages. This area also has a reputation for producing some of the finest crafts, glassware and ceramics above all, in a country renowned for them.
South of the capital, the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, home to some of the largest populations of pure indigenous groups, are mountainous and beautiful, too, but in a far wilder way. The city of Oaxaca, especially, is one of the country’s most enticing destinations. It has an extraordinary mix of colonial and indigenous life, superb markets and fascinating archeological sites. Chiapas is still associated with the Zapatista uprising of the mid-1990s, though visitors are little affected these days, and the strength of indigenous traditions in and around the market town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, together with a number of lesser-known yet romantically tumbledown ancient Maya cities, continue to make it a big travellers’ centre. It’s typically the stop before the picturesque ruins of Palenque. East into the Yucatán there is also traditional indigenous life, side-by-side with a tourist industry based around the truly magnificent Maya cities – Chichén Itzá and Uxmal above all – and the burgeoning Caribbean resorts that stretch down the coast from Cancún. The capital of Yucatán state, Mérida, is a particular gem, both cosmopolitan and old-fashioned.
On the Pacific coast, where the surf is wilder and the scenery more rugged than in the Caribbean, Acapulco is just the best known of the beach destinations. Along the ocean to the north, hundreds of miles of relatively empty sand are broken up only by resort cities like Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta; the south is even less developed, and the state of Oaxaca has some equally enticing shores. Few tourists venture over to the Gulf coast, despite the attractions of Veracruz and its mysterious ruins. The scene here is largely dominated by oil, the weather too humid most of the time and the beaches sometimes a disappointment. For music and general bonhomie, however, the city’s central plaza is one of the country’s finest destinations.Read More