Rich in legends of the country’s revolutionary past, Mexico’s north has a modern history dominated by its relationship with the United States, just across the Río Bravo. Indeed, though much of the region is harsh, barren and sparsely inhabited, far less visited than the country’s tourist-saturated southern states, cross-border trade – as much about the daily movement of people as goods – means it’s one of the richest and most dynamic parts of Mexico. It’s not all business, though. Rugged and untamed, the north is home to deserts, mountains, seedy frontier towns and modern cities, as well as a proud and hospitable people deeply rooted in ranching culture, perhaps best symbolized by folk hero Pancho Villa.
Archeological remains are also scattered throughout the north, including ancient petroglyphs and ruined Chichimec cities, all of which are thoroughly distinct from the Mesoamerican metropolises of the south. Most notable is the site of Paquimé, where a maze of adobe walls once housed an extensive and highly developed desert civilization.
The north promises urban appeal too. Durango offers a taste of colonial grandeur comparable to Mexico’s heartland, while similarly attractive Chihuahua boasts a wealth of nineteenth-century architecture and stylish contemporary museums. The real draw, however, is Monterrey. Young, energetic and cosmopolitan, this modern city offers a host of cultural and artistic diversions.
Travelling overland from the south of Mexico to the US, there are a couple of obvious routes, with the central corridor via Durango and Chihuahua ending at Ciudad Juárez – a sprawling border town notorious for its squalor and violent drug wars. Further east, a string of smaller, calmer crossings provide rapid (and safer) access to Texas. The very shortest route north follows the Gulf coast. Hot, steamy and uncomfortable, this route is not especially recommended, but it is the fastest from the fine beaches and archeological ruins of Veracruz, and travelling by bus, avoids Mexico City.