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 and the main Toltec site at Tula. 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.
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 is especially enticing, with an extraordinary mix of colonial and indigenous life, superb markets and fascinating archeological sites. Likewise, the strength of indigenous traditions in and around the market town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas continue to make it a big travellers’ centre. It’s typically the stop before the picturesque Maya ruins of Palenque. East into the Yucatán there is also traditional indigenous life, side-by-side with a tourist industry based around truly magnificent Maya cities – Chichén Itzá and Uxmal above all – and the burgeoning Caribbean resorts that stretch down the coast from Cancún.
On the Pacific coast, where the surf is wilder and the scenery more rugged than in the Caribbean, Acapulco is the best known of the beach destinations. Along the ocean to the north, hundreds of kilometres of relatively empty sand are broken up only by resort cities like Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. Few tourists venture over to the Gulf coast, despite the attractions of Veracruz and its mysterious ruins. A pity, as for music and general bonhomie, the city’s central plaza is one of the country’s finest destinations.
Coming through the Bajío, the heart of the country, you’ll pass the beautiful 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. Between here and the US border lie vast deserts and mountain ranges, home to the Copper Canyon, with its spectacular rail journey, the mysterious ruins at Paquimé and the dynamic industrial city of Monterrey. Baja California in the far northwest of Mexico is a major destination in its own right, with world-class whale-watching, untrammelled beaches and crumbling Spanish ruins.