Mexico

Essentials

Capital: Mexico City

Size: 1,958,201 km²

Population: 94.9m

Currency: Mexican Peso

Language: Spanish

Visas: Not required by British passport holders

Food: Two main ingredients predominate; the chilli pepper, so spicy is the name of the game, and corn or maize. This is used to make the well known antojitos (light snacks) such as tacos, quesadillas, sopes, tostadas and tortillas, mole cocoa beans and sesame seeds. Mole colorado (red), or just coloradito, is also very typical and quite spicy. Almendrado (also red) is milder and slightly sweet. Mole verde (green) is a bit tangy, while mole amarillo (yellow) rounds out Oaxaca’s culinary chromatic spectrum.

Drink: Tequila or you can go for Mezcal with a gusano de maguey (worm in the bottle).

Festivals: Between 31 October and 2 November, in many parts of Mexico, rural cemeteries seem to come alive as villagers set up an all-night vigil to entertain returning souls. These celebrations, known as Day of the Dead and All Saints, are a fascinating spectacle. The ground blazes with candles and orange cempasúchil flowers whilst the air is scented with copal incense.

From the vivid wall paintings at Bonampak to the mighty temples of Chichén Itzá, and from the bizarre Olmec heads in Veracruz to the heart of jungle-swathed Palenque, the sheer variety of archaeological sites in Mexico is astounding. Add to this the brilliance of the Caribbean Sea, huge canyons and dense jungles and you have an invigorating cocktail of culture and landscapes.

Mexico City is one of the largest in the world. Congested, polluted and gloriously manic, the capital was originally founded by the Aztecs, and the remains of Templo Mayor, the pyramid at the heart of their city of Tenochtitlán – ‘place of the prickly pear cactus’ – today lies beside a massive modern plaza, lit by the glow of neon lights.

Beyond the capital, the pace slows. Colonial cities, founded on the wealth of silver mines, rest assuredly on their architectural laurels. Within easy striking distance of Mexico City, the lakes and volcanic hills of Michoacán are another world: people quietly go about their business as they always have, fishing, farming and producing crafts for sale at the local markets. Two hours south of the capital, the town of Taxco has a sterling reputation for refined silverwork and, further afield, there are Indian markets in Oaxaca and around the beautiful town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands.

Adventurers flock to Mexico to climb the volcanic peaks, to descend into the deepest potholes or to spill down the white waters of the Antigua and Pescado rivers. The Caribbean offers superb diving off the Quintana Roo coastline while on the west coast surfers ride the giant rollers beside the beautiful beaches of the wild Pacific and Baja California. Inland, in northern Mexico, the Copper Canyon attracts hardy climbers and is the start of the famous Chihuahua to Pacific Railway, one of the world’s great train rides.

In the far north-west, the Sea of Cortés is one of the planet’s richest marine feeding grounds, where you might spot hammerheads, dolphins and California grey whales. In the far south is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve – a savanna, mangrove and marine habitat hosting hundreds of species including big cats, crocodiles, monkeys and manatees.

And surely no one in their right mind could resist a well-mixed margarita cocktail, could they?

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