Before the Spanish colonised Mesoamerica in 1521, several advanced civilisations had already laid roots in what is now Mexico. From the arcane Olmecs and the revered Toltecs, Mayans and Aztecs, the ancient cultures have left intriguing legacies on the over 30 world heritage sites in Mexico, providing clues into the way of life millenniums ago.
Bordering the United States to the north and Belize and Guatemala to the south, Mexico is the 15th largest country in terms of land mass, and 11th most populated nation in the world. The biodiversity found here, many of the plants and animals endemic, earned this region of the world a 'hotspot' status by Conservation International.
With 22.4 million international visitors, Mexico is the only country – besides USA – from the Americas that ranked in the world's most popular destinations in 2010.
With balneario's – seaside resort towns – such as Cancún and Acapulco well marked on the tourist trail, Mexico recently launched a tourism campaign with the provocative slogan of "The place you thought you knew', no doubt tickling wanderlust feet with promises of a whole lot more destinations worth discovering.
Interesting Facts about Mexico:
- The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Puebla, Mexico is the 3rd largest in the world (some argue the biggest) and the largest outside Egypt and dedicated to the feathered serpent Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl.
- The Aztec Sun God Huitzilopochtli directed the 'Mexicas' to the present site of Mexico City where they would spot an eagle on a cactus eating a snake, the vision of which is depicted on the Mexican coat of arms.
- The word chocolate is derived from xocoatl, the Mayan word meaning bitter water. Cocoa beans are known to have been cultivated as far back as 1,500 BC by the Olmec Indians, the predecessors of the Mayans in Mexico.
- Mesomerica is 1 of the 5 places in the world where writing developed independently in man's history – a 3,000 year old inscribed stone slab found in Meracruz Mexico is the oldest evidence found in the Western hemisphere.
- Mexican business tycoon Carlos Slim was ranked Forbes richest person on earth, the first time in 16 years the crown went to a non-US citizen and the first from an emerging economy to ever top the list.
The first place to start scratching the surface has to be Mexico City, a pulsating metropolis of over 19 million inhabitants, making it one of the most populated cities the world over.
Similar to other big cities such as New York, suspiciously dark alleyways might lead you to the belly of the beast, but the vast majority of visitors never encounter issues by taking safety precautions and sticking to tourist areas.
One of the best place to start is where it all began – the Centro Histórico, built on the ruins of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The UNESCO world heritage city centre is a good place to acclimatise to the country, with its distinctly colonial architecture. The Plaza del la Constitución is impressive, and boasts nearby attractions including the gargantuan Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace.
The historic city centre also boasts a large number of interesting landmarks, including the Aztec Templo Mayor with an on-site museum. Showcases of art and other archaeological treasures are displayed at the Centro's numerous other museums, either permanently or on rotation.
For shopping, Presidente Masaryk in Polanco caters to the high end shoppers with fancy eateries to match, while Condesa has shops leaning towards the more trendy and unique and a happening nightlife when the stores close down.
Altavista in San Ángel has a decidedly swanky feel to the shops, and every Saturday local artists display their talents at an open air art market in Plaza San Jacinto.
Cancún & Riviera Maya
With 9,330km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the seaside scene in the country is as vibrant as it is picturesque.
Cancún's coat of arms features depictions of sea, sand, and sun, appropriate for a destination nicknamed 'The Glistening City'. Famed for its tropical attractions in the day that melts into a vibrant nightlife, Cancún is a developed beach destination offering world class facilities.
Further down the coastline from Cancún is a stretch of several low-key Caribbean destinations along the Mayan Riviera, including Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Punta Allen.
Puerto Morelos hasn't really shaken off its sleepy village past, perfect for visitors seeking solace from the crowd revelries.
Pristine beach aside, Playa del Carmen offers a host of other activities to entertain its visitors, including the Xcaret eco-archaeological park, an aviary, golf course, and a Fifth Avenue lined back to back with bars, eateries, and shops. 'Playa', as it's called by locals, is also the launch point to the SCUBA dive mecca of Cozumel.
The last Mayan city standing when the Spanish invaded was the cliff-perching Tulum, now a popular destination for beachgoers who seek doses of Mayan ruins and endangered animal encounters, the latter including more archaeological attractions at the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve.
Other Beach Highlights
Mexico's oldest seaside getaway is Acapulco, a retreat favoured by Hollywood stars in the 1950s but now catering mainly to the mainstream, the young and cruise liner guests.
Other sought after balneario resort cities include Pacific-facing Puerto Vallarta, a popular port of call for cruise ships and with a whole nine yards of attractions to cater to all those who disembark, from numerous golf courses, canopy zipline tours, and yoga classes, to a lush botanical garden and all the on-water sports imaginable.
A few kilometres north of Puerto Vallarta is the pristine exclusive enclave of Punta Mita, home to a couple of uber high end resorts. Dotting the coast along the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula are party-hardy Cabo San Lucas and colonial-styled San José del Cabo, linked by the millionaires' mile monikered the corridor del oro.
The Golden Corridor, as it's known, is an idyllic stretch of beach where the rich and the famous hide out to recharge and regroup. Golf courses, a marina, and nightlife activities are just down the beach, but the corridor prides itself in offering its guests coveted privacy in palatial seaside villas.
Visitors to Mexico have the choice of 150 or so archaeological sites, each with stone stelae whispering tales of ancient times.
Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula is the most well known, well deserved fame that garnered the former Mayan capital a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list. The Temple of Kukulkan, or El Castillo, dominates the landscape in the center of the site, with its mysterious light-and-shadow display of the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl slithering down the staircases on the spring and fall equinoxes every year. The sprawling site takes up to a day to explore, but due to its popularity, earlier in the day is the best time to visit.
Also situated in the peninsula that was once the center of the ancient Mayan empire is Uxmal, a site well preserved due to its construction and design. As with most other Mesoamerican ruins, ballgame courts are featured, as well as pyramidical structures. The Adivino – Pyramid of the Magician – is the tallest structure on this site and unique in its rounded corners where the sides meet the base.
Cobá, located about an hour's drive east of Chichén Itzá, is unlike the latter in that visitors can still climb the 120 steps up to the top of main Nohoch Mul pyramid. Cobá had been swallowed by the jungle until about 2 decades ago, so only portions of the site are open to the public.
Whether it's images of the Temple of the Masks at Kohunlich or the added entertainment of a water park at Xelha that inspire, a trip to Mexico would not be complete without a visit to the ancient Mayan architectural wonders.
Villa Holidays in Mexico
Virginal white sandy beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, and vivacious city life are the 3 complementary aspects for an unforgettable Mexican holiday. With the sea a stone's throw away and inland attractions galore, renting a private villa will ensure you enjoy the best of both the ancient world and the comforts of the modern times.
Travel & Transport
There are over 1,800 airports in Mexico, with the capital naturally clocking in the most number of arrivals to its Mexico City International Airport. Cancún International Airport acts as a gateway for visitors to the Mayan Riviera, while Los Cabos and Guadalajara also receives international arrivals to the western coast.
Mexico Top 5 Travel Tips [Bucket List]
1. Mariachi & Tequila
The focal city in Mexico is the capital, but the country boasts several other smaller towns worth visiting. Guadalajara in Jalisco has a picturesque and architecturally stunning city center. Famed as the birthplace of mariachi music, don't miss out on the fun of being serenaded, and take a detour to nearby Tequila, a town attributed to many a forgotten night around the globe.
2. The River Knows
Located near Cancún is the watery underground labyrinth of Río Secreto. Wade, walk, and wallow through the secret river, and stop to amaze at the clarity of the water as well as the delicate stalagmite and stalactite formations in the caverns. With some 500 meters of routes, the cenotes – sinkholes – were sacred to the ancient Mayans as a source of water and a connection to the afterlife.
3. Family Fun Day
For visitors traveling with children, the district of Chapultepec in Mexico City boasts several attractions, including a castle formerly inhabited by a Spanish Viceroy, a verdant park with a sprawling lake, a zoo, and an amusement park. The younger members of the family would most likely (ideally) express their gratitude by not complaining while you drag them around to visit all else on your to-see list.
4. Starman Waiting in the Sky
Read up on the archaeoastronomy features before you visit some of the Mayan sites – for a civilisation so ancient, they sure know more than the modern Joe Smith about the stars. Chichén Itzá's El Caracol has windows and doors aligned with planetary movements, and El Castillo is famed for their equinox showtimes. Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, and other sites also boast evidence of advanced astronomical understanding.
5. Mother Megalith
The mother of all Mesoamerican civilisation is the Olmec, a group with unknown origins and disappearing just as mysteriously into the pages of history. What they left behind, though, are colossal heads and other fascinating sculptures and art, amazing considering how ancient the culture is. There are several archaeological sites to ponder on the lost civilisation – try the 3 Olmec capitals of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes.