The Basics – Mexico 101
by Lisa Coleman
Mexico, a land of extraordinary contrasts, is filled with mystery and magic. Travelers are able to embrace the depth of its enthralling past, touch the unspoiled beauty of its unique landscapes, and discover the endless variety of choices that lie at the heart of the Mexican experience. There are few places in the world that offer as much diversity and possibility as this remarkable country. So whether it’s history and culture, archeology, golf, adventure, shopping or simple romance, there’s a Mexico for everyone.
A vast 3,000-year history has left an indelible impression and an unforgettable look into human and cultural evolution. A showcase of preserved historical treasures and colonial architecture make up the framework of a thriving modern day lifestyle. From intimate, remote villages to exciting sophisticated cities, Mexico is brimming with intrigue and passion.
In terms of surface area, Mexico is the 13th largest country in the world with an enormous mixture of peoples and traditions. It has the world’s fourth largest number of World Heritage Sites (20). These sites, considered by the United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be “of outstanding universal value,” range from perfectly preserved colonial cities and Mayan ruins to the whale sanctuaries of the Baja and the 16th Century monasteries on the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano. And… Mexico is one of the world’s five richest countries in terms of biological diversity. It is a mosaic of ecosystems consisting of deserts in the north, pine forests and snow-capped mountains in the middle, and tropical jungle in the south. With over 6,000 miles of coastline, it is one of the most varied natural landscapes on earth.
There are now over 18 million acres of ecological preserves, including 44 national parks, 24 biosphere reserves, 111 protected areas, and a substantial number of national marine parks. For nature lovers the options are endless. A few of the standouts are the astonishing Monarch Butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán, the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua (a series on interlocking canyons some deeper than the Grand Canyon!), white-water rafting in Veracruz, and mountain climbing near Mexico City. (* Two towering ranges run through eastern and western Mexico. The central plateau between the two is the third highest populated region in the world behind Bolivia and Tibet. A series of volcanoes stand along this plateau and five of them stand taller than any in the continental United States.)
When you get to know the cities, you’ll find them nothing short of astounding as well. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Mexico was the richest and most prized possession for the Spanish Empire. For 300 years Spain not only ruled Mexico, but also worked diligently to model in the image of its European homeland. The result: a Latin country dominated by European ideas, architecture, monuments and art. The modern day Mexico has more standing legacies to this Spanish colonial era than any other country in the world. (In fact, Spanish Catholics built 12,000 churches in Mexico during that time!) This incredible heritage can be experienced in literally hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. Each is magical, charming and fascinating.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding all Mexico has to offer, but to begin with, let’s take a look at the part of Mexico most Americans find fairly familiar.