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Travel to Mexico: stunning coasts and ancient ruins

This insatiable country has come so far from its time at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. Navigate the seemingly endless landscapes between archaeological vestiges of pre-Colombian civilisations and beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture - here, distance becomes meaningless.
  • Mexico
    © Tanaonte / 123RF
  • Mexico
    © Sorin Colac / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination Mexico

Central American discovery

Well over 2,000 miles separate Cancun from Tijuana. Mexico is immense in every sense of the word - vast distances, huge populations and sprawling landscapes as diverse as the traditions and cultures which spring from them. From the splendid coasts of the Yucatan peninsula to the raging waves of Baja California, you'll find a whole world of Latin American intrigue.

East-coast activity

Such huge distances evidently present a problem when travelling on a short time scale. The east-coast Yucatan - with its party-crazed beach resorts, its Mayan ruins and its tropical forest - is the most obvious place for a first-timer hoping to scratch the surface of this Central American giant. Relax on the buzzing beaches of Playa del Carmen or wander the relics of ancient civilisations in Tulum, the East Coast has it all.

The capital of capitals

It is only once you land in Mexico City that you realise just how colossal modern human civilisation is. The country's colourful capital spreads its gridded roads and picturesque canals across the wide, central valley, mixing Aztec remains in the surrounding countryside with astounding modern construction in the urban centre. The city itself also offers a shocking juxtaposition of rich and poor - from quiet, colonial neighbourhoods to tumble-down streets and crumbling houses.

Pacific vs Caribbean coast

Stretching out over almost 5,000 miles, the Pacific face of Mexico offers some of the most incredible scenes in the country. From the world-famous seaside resort of Acapulco follow farming villages, beautiful lagoons, grand historic cities and the largely unexplored territory of Baja California. The coast bordering the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico - slightly shorter than its Pacific cousin at just over 2,000 miles long - offers a sublime contrast between the long, trailing beaches of the Riviera Maya and the buzzing ports of Veracruz and Tampico.

Ancient civilisations

Olmecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mayas and Aztecs - they, and many others, have wandered this fertile land, leaving their prints for today's adventurers to follow. From the heights of volcanoes such as Popocatepetl and mountains like Orizaba, through the country's 64 national parks and 34 biosphere reserves, to the shores of the Caribbean, these trails of these civilisations offer a great way to explore the country.

All-inclusive combinations

Even if your preferences lie with an all-inclusive resort on the Yucatan coast, the world of the ancient ruins and civilisations is never far away. Make the easy trip down to Tulum's incredible coastal ruins, or to the impressive heights of Chichen Itzá and Uxmal - don't worry, you'll be back in plenty of time to enjoy a tequila by the pool!

Mexico : travel tips

For history buffs, Mexico City offers a great place to start - a city buzzing with energy and colour but also massive levels of inequality. From here, it's an easy distance to Puebla, a historical gem and home to several UNESCO world heritage sites. Though they may be large distances apart, the relics of pre-Colombian civilizations at Teotihuacan, Chichen Itzá and Palenque are home to some of the most incredible structures on the planet. For a more recent glance into the country's history, the old colonial towns of San Miguel Allende and Guanajuato have been wonderfully preserved.

For the more adventurous traveller the colonial forests, the cactus-dotted deserts, canyons, volcanoes or the diverse waterscapes all make for an exciting trek. But such a diverse landscape requires a lot of organisation as the long distances can be tiring and made even more difficult by intense heat and humid conditions. If the conditions feel too challenging for you, you'll always find an organised tour to guide you through the easier routes.

For exotic, white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters rich with tropical sea life, head for the Yucatan coast. Across the other side of the country, Acapulco is more energetic with a buzzing nightlife and year-round festivities, although perhaps not the best choice for those who don't like large tourist resorts and big crowds.

In terms of staying safe, our advice is simple: stay within the realms of the main tourist resorts and sightseeing destinations, keep an eye on your personal belongings and at night be sure to use a sitio when calling a taxi - these official ranks might be more expensive but are far safer.

Mexico is a vast country with a varying climate, so check weather forecasts before you travel. In general, avoid the period between June and October as these months are often frequented with unbearably hot temperatures and tropical storms.

Mexico : the key figures

Area : 1967183.0 km2

Population : 106345034 inhabitants

Mexico: about the culture

Fiestas are a constant part of the Mexican calendar. Colourful, exotic, energetic, they represent both the past and present of this diverse country - combining traditions from pre-Columbian societies as much as colonial ones. One of the best times to see the country in full fiesta throttle is during the February carnival celebrations. Wander the resplendent parades in Chiapas and Puebla or celebrate with the locals in tiny villages all over the countryside.

Holy week processions are also the envy of surrounding nations, whilst the spectacular Day of the Dead celebrations mix Catholic and Indian traditions to produce a day of decorated skulls and ritual offerings.

Mexico : what to visit?

Mexico: what to eat?

Forget every assumption and stereotype you have about Mexican food. Fajitas, chili con carne, tacos - the ideas and flavours we so often attach to these dishes come instead from the US. Once you arrive in Mexico itself, mealtime will take on a whole new meaning.

Dishes are brightly coloured and full of flavour, often made with simple ingredients like corn, chilli and frijoles - the Mexican version of the baked bean, accompanied by an endless variety of sauces. In the big cities, try a quesadilla or enchilada from one of the many street vendors - stuffed to the brim with cheese, mushrooms, chicken and as much hot sauce as you can handle!

Other great dishes to have a go at include chicken in mole sauce - a delicious blend of chilli, cocoa and spices. Otherwise, tuck into great bowls of Mexican ceviche - marinated fish and seafood with a lemon sauce - huge helpings of guacamole, green chillies, onions and tomato. To wash it all down, choose from endless types of tequila and mezcal - both made from an agave base and cranked up to full flavour to fuel fiestas big and small. You'll also find great coffee here, grown on plantations around the country and cooked to perfection.

Mexico: what to buy?

Arts and crafts are plentiful in Mexico and are perfect for those who want to take home a little something to remind them of their visit. Amongst handmade treasures, you'll find beautifully-made crockery and tiles from Puebla, Guadalajara or Oaxaca, as well as pottery from surrounding towns and villages.

Markets are the best place for finding these types of keepsakes, like the one in San Miguel de Allende for example. Remember that you might have to haggle to get a good price for your souvenirs. People often come back with various handmade woollen garments, traditional-style hats and wicker baskets. But if you really want an authentic keepsake then get yourself down to Merida to buy a Mexican hammock!

Mexico: discover its regions

  • Mexico Baja California
    Baja California
  • Continental Mexico
    Continental Mexico
  • Yucatan, Mexico, Mexico Yucatan
    Yucatan
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