Mexico likes to think it’s part of North America but is really the gateway to all things Latin for a continent and a half going south.
Mexico is technically part of North America, but feels more like the largest and wealthiest of the countries in Central America, largely due to it’s proximity with the US, with whom it has a love/hate relationship.
That is, Mexicans love to hate it.
Mexico has just about everything the traveller is looking for: you can get high chewing peyote in the deserts to the north or chill on Caribbean beaches in the Yucatan; you can space out at Mayan ruins in the jungle or hit on sultry Latinos in the cities. Whether you like to surf, dance salsa or rot your liver with home made tequila, Mexico has it all.
It’s no longer as cheap as it was though and in places like the Yucatan prices can be as high as in South Europe. In particular you can blow a good part of your budget just taking buses around the country. But it’s still very friendly in most places and, provided you learn some Spanish, it’s not hard to make friends in Mexico.
Many a travel guide to Mexico will reinforce the clichés about ‘Manana senor, ees time for siesta and mariachi song, si? Give me la tequila, cabron!’
Speedy Gonzales has a lot to answer for as the reality of modern Mexico is light years from the prejudices of Hollywood. Mexico is a diverse country of social and racial divides and it takes some time to really get what’s going on.
Many Americans get no further than the border towns of Tijuana or Mexicali and for them Mexico is simply a place to booze and whore for the weekend before rejoining their seats in the First World for the start of the working week.
South of Tijuana stretches the peninsula of Baja California, a bare strip of desert popular for the amazing marine life you can see from the shores. If you can avoid all the crack ghettos and tourist traps then you can find some beaches here with whales, dolphins and manta rays.
A little further down the Yanqui influence continues in towns like Puebla and Monterrey, where the aspirations and ideals often come from north of the border and where many American ex-pats live.
The bush weed rolls through the desert like a peyote dream until you arrive at the outskirts of D.F, Mexico City. This place is one of the world’s most intimidating metropolises – congested, violent and colourful, city lovers might get along well here but it’s not a relaxed place to hang out.
To the West you have Guadalajara, another huge city which is as mestizo, or white skinned as Mexico comes but doesn’t have any of the violence of Mexico City.
The backpacker trail in Mexico really begins once you’re into Oaxaca. Now you’re in indigenous territory and there are as many tribes and languages as there are types of chili. The city of Oaxaca itself has a good deal of character but it’s the beaches of Oaxaca state that really grab attention with surf towns like Puerto Escondido and hippy hangouts like Mazunte.
Across country into Chiapas you have the Zapatista heartland, the state where Subcommandante Marcos (where do they get these names?) took up the indigenous cause and cried “Ya basta!” (enough already!). He and his indigenous troops have been hiding out in the jungle taking on the army for years now in protest against the systematic rape and extortion of Chiapas.
The capital of Chiapas is San Cristobal de las Casas and this is a hill town with colonial architecture and pastel colours, high pavements and wide plazas. The locals come down from the hills to sell their artisania here and the town has a bohemian feel.
The Mayan trail starts in Palenque with spectacular ruins set in the jungle and continues up through the Yucatan peninsula; sites like Chichen Itza draw coach loads of tourists each day to snap photos and gawp at ancient shamans wielding their penises in stone.
The Yucatan is as wealthy and pricey as Mexico gets and in places like Merida the money drips off the haciendas. It’s all a little artificial though and the epitome of this is in Cancun, a city that was built on the basis of American tourism in the space of 30 years. That’s the Caribbean for you and the development continues down the coast at a terrifying speed. Yet in the villages people still live in dusty huts with tin roofs and no windows.