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Marvelling at a 1300-year-old Maya palace at Palenque as parrots screech and howler monkeys growl in the sweaty emerald jungle around you. This is Mexico. Sliding from a palm-fringed sandy beach into the warm, turquoise waves of the Pacific at Puerto Vallarta. This, too, is Mexico. Dining on salmon enchiladas and chrysanthemum salad at a Mexico City fusion restaurant, dancing through the night at a high-energy Guadalajara nightclub, kayaking at dawn past a colony of Baja California sea lions – all these are unique Mexican experiences. Every visitor goes home with their own unforgettable images. Such a large country, straddling temperate and tropical zones, reaching 5km into the sky and stretching 10,000km along its coasts, with a city of 19 million people at its center and countless tiny pueblos everywhere, can hardly fail to provide a huge variety of options for human adventure.

Mexico is what you make of it. Its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry is adept at satisfying those who like their travel easy. But adventure is what you’ll undoubtedly have if you take a just a few steps off the pre-packaged path. Activity-based tourism, community tourism and genuine ecotourism – the type that actually helps conserve local environments – are developing fast in rural areas. The opportunities for getting out to Mexico’s spectacular wild places and interacting with local communities are greater than ever – from world-class canyoneering near Monterrey or cooking lessons in the Veracruz countryside to hiking the Oaxaca cloud forests and snorkeling the coral reefs of the Yucatán.

Planning your first trip to Mexico? Be ready for more crowds, noise, bustle and poverty than you're accustomed to, especially if it's your first trip outside the developed world. But don't worry – most Mexicans will be only too happy to help you feel at home in their country. Invest a little time before your trip in learning even just a few phrases of Spanish – every word you know will make your trip that little bit easier and more enjoyable.

Travel Alert: The level of drug-related violence throughout Mexico is a major problem, with the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango and northern Baja California the worst affected. Tourists are not specifically targeted, but any travellers visiting these areas, and in particular the cities of Ciudad Juárez, Nogales and Tijuana should exercise extreme caution. Check Safe Travel for current government warnings.

Getting there in mexico


US and Canadian tourists can enter Mexico without a passport if they have official photo identification, such as a driver’s license, plus some proof of their citizenship such as an original birth certificate. But to return to or transit the US by air, a passport or other secure travel document such as a Nexus card is required. To return to or transit the US by land or sea, Americans and Canadians must present either a passport, or other documents proving identity and citizenship (for example driver’s license and birth certificate), or the recently introduced US passport card, or a Nexus or other ‘trusted traveler’ card. Canadians flying back from Mexico to Canada are advised to carry a passport. Further information is available on the websites of the US State Department (, US Customs & Border Protection (, the US Department of Homeland Security ( and Canada’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (

In any case it’s much better to travel to Mexico with a passport because officials of all countries are used to passports and may delay people who have other documents. In Mexico you will often need your passport if you change money and when you check into hotels.

All citizens of countries other than the US and Canada should have a passport that’s valid for at least six months after they arrive in Mexico.

Travelers under 18 who are not accompanied by both their parents may need special documentation.


For those who like to combine snatches of Mexico with a life of ease on the high seas, cruises from the US enable you to enjoy activities and attractions on and near Mexico’s coasts without having to worry about the log¬istics of accommodations, eating or transportation. Mexico is the world’s most popular cruise destination, with over six million cruise passengers a year arriving at Mexican ports. Caribbean Mexico is the most popular cruise destination, usually in combination with other Caribbean stops and/or Key West, Florida, and Isla Cozumel is the single busiest stop. Mexico’s other Caribbean cruise ports are Puerto Morelos and Calica, just south of Playa del Carmen. The Costa Maya terminal at Mahahual was destroyed by Hurricane Dean in 2007 but there are plans to rebuild it.

On the Pacific route (the Mexican Riviera in cruise parlance), the main ports of call are Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco; cruises also call at Manzanillo, Zihuatanejo, Bahías de Huatulco and the new Puerto Chiapas, near Tapachula.

A Caribbean cruise from ports in the southeastern US, or a Mexican Riviera cruise from California, can cost well under US$1000 per person for 10 days.

Following are some of the cruise lines visiting Mexico, with US phone numbers:

Carnival Cruise Lines (888-227-6482; ¬

Celebrity Cruises (800-647-2251; ¬

Crystal Cruises (888-722-0021; ¬

Holland America Line (877-724-5425; ¬

Norwegian Cruise Lines (800-327-7030; ¬

P&O Cruises (415-382-8900;

Princess Cruises (800-774-6237; ¬

Royal Caribbean International (800-398-9813;

Border crossings

There are over 40 official crossing points on the US–Mexico border. There are about 10 between Guatemala and Mexico, and two between Belize and Mexico. Most Mexican border towns are not places where many travelers have much reason to linger.

Car & motorcycle

The rules for taking a vehicle into Mexico change from time to time. You can check with a Mexican consulate, Sanborn’s (800-222-01-58; or, in the US and Canada, the free Mexican tourist information number (800-401-3880).

You may not find gasoline or mechanics available at all Mexico’s road borders: before crossing the border, make sure you have enough fuel to get to the next sizable town inside Mexico.

Vehicle permit

You will need a permiso de importación temporal de vehículos (temporary vehicle import permit) if you want to take a vehicle beyond Baja California, beyond Guaymas in Sonora state, or beyond the border zone that extends 20km to 30km into Mexico along the rest of the US frontier and up to 70km from the Guatemalan and Belize frontiers. Officials at posts of the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM; National Immigration Institute) in the border zones, and at the ferry terminal at La Paz, Baja California, if you are taking a vehicle across from there to mainland Mexico, will want to see your permit. Permits are not needed to take vehicles into Baja California itself, and the state of Sonora does not require them for travel as far south as Guaymas.

The permits are issued at offices at border crossings or (in some cases) at posts a few kilometers into Mexico, at Ensenada port and Pichilingue (La Paz) ferry terminal in Baja California, and by the Mexican consulates in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Denver. Details of all these locations are given at (click on ‘Red de Módulos IITV’). You can also apply for the permit online at the same website (‘Application for Temporary Import Permit for Vehicles’), in which case it will be delivered to you by courier.

The fee for the permit is the peso equivalent of US$29.70 if obtained at or after the border, US$39.60 from a Mexican consulate, or US$49.50 online. You can also pre-register online which speeds up the process of actually obtaining the permit at a consulate or the border.

The person importing the vehicle will need to carry the original and one or two photocopies of each of the following documents (people at the office may make photocopies for a small fee), which as a rule must all be in his/her own name (except that you can bring in your spouse’s, parent’s or child’s vehicle if you can show a marriage or birth certificate proving your relationship) :

- tourist card (FMT) : at the border go to migración before you process your vehicle permit.

- certificate of title or registration certificate for the vehicle (note that you should have both of these if you plan to drive through Mexico into either Guatemala or Belize).

- a Visa, MasterCard or American Express credit card, issued by a an institution outside of Mexico; if you don’t have one you must pay a returnable deposit of between US$200 and US$400 (depending on how old the car is) at the border. Your card details or deposit serve as a guarantee that you’ll take the car out of Mexico before your tourist card (FMT) expires. Note: for online and consulate applications, only Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

- proof of citizenship or residency, such as a passport, birth certificate or voter’s registration card.

- driver’s license.

- if the vehicle is not fully paid for, a credit contract from the financing institution or an invoice letter that is less than three months old.

- for a leased or rented vehicle (though few US rental firms allow their vehicles to be taken into Mexico), the contract, in the name of the person importing the vehicle, and a letter from the rental company authorizing you to take it out of the US.

- for a company car, proof of employment by the company and proof of the com¬pany’s ownership of the vehicle.

One person cannot bring in two vehicles. If you have a motorcycle attached to your car, you’ll need another adult traveling with you to obtain a permit for the motorcycle, and he/she will need to have all the right papers for it.

With the permit you will be given a sticker to be displayed on your windshield.

You have the option to take the vehicle in and out of Mexico for the period shown on your tourist card. Ask for a tarjetón de internación, a document which you will exchange for a comprobante de retorno each time you leave Mexico; when you return to Mexico, you swap the comprobante for another tarjetón. When you leave Mexico the last time, you must have the import permit canceled by the Mexican authorities. An official may do this as you enter the border zone, usually 20km to 30km before the border itself. If not, you’ll have to find the right official at the border crossing. If you leave Mexico without having the permit canceled, the authorities may assume you’ve left the vehicle in the country illegally and decide to keep your deposit, charge a fine to your credit card, or deny you permission to bring a vehicle into the country on your next trip.

Only the owner may take the vehicle out of Mexico. If the vehicle is wrecked completely, you must contact your consulate or a Mexican customs office to make arrangements to leave without it.


Around 18 daily buses run by Novelo’s (in Belize City 227-20-25) travel between Belize City and Chetumal, Mexico (US$10, four hours), calling at the Belizean towns of Orange Walk and Corozal en route.


The road borders at La Mesilla/Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Ciudad Tecún Umán/Ciudad Hidalgo and El Carmen/Talismán are all linked to Guatemala City, and nearby cities within Guatemala and Mexico, by plentiful buses and/or combis. A few daily buses are run all the way between Guatemala City and Tapachula, Chiapas (six hours) via Escuintla and Mazatenango by Trans Galgos Inter (in Guatemala City 2232-3661;; US$25-35), Línea Dorada (in Guatemala City 2232-5506;; US$15) and Tica Bus (in Guatemala City 2366-4038;; US$16).

There are a few daily buses between Flores, Guatemala, and Chetumal (US$28, seven to eight hours), via Belize City, run by Línea Dorada/Mundo Maya (in Flores 7926-0070) and San Juan Travel (in Flores 7926-0041).

For the Río Usumacinta route between Flores and Palenque, Mexico, several daily 2nd-class buses run from Flores to Bethel (US$4, four hours), on the Guatemalan bank of the Usumacinta. The 40-minute boat trip from Bethel to Frontera Corozal, Mexico, costs US$7 to US$13 per person; an alternative is to take a bus from Flores that continues through Bethel to La Técnica (US$6, five to six hours), from which it’s only a US$1.50, five-minute river crossing to Frontera Corozal. Vans run from Frontera Corozal to Palenque (US$6, three hours, 13 daily). Travel agencies in Palenque and Flores offer bus-boat-bus packages between the two places from around US$40, but if you’re traveling this route it’s well worth detouring to the outstanding Maya ruins at Yaxchilán, near Frontera Corozal.



Cross-border bus services, mainly used by Mexicans working in the US, link many US cities with northern Mexican cities. They’re not very well publicized: Spanish-language newspapers in the US have the most ads. The major companies include Autobuses Americanos (, operating to northeast Mexico, central north Mexico and central Mexico from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Chicago and several Texan cities; Tufesa (, linking Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson with northwest Mexico; Crucero (800-531-5332;, operating from California, Nevada and Arizona to northwest Mexico; and Transportes Baldomero Corral (, operating between Arizona and northwest Mexico. Greyhound (800-231-2222; has some cross-border routes: it uses Mexican associate companies to actually carry its passengers on many of them.

You can also, often in little or no extra time, make your way to the border on one bus (or train), cross it on foot or by local bus, and then catch an onward bus on the other side. Greyhound serves many US border cities; to reach others, transfer from Greyhound to a smaller bus line. Greyhound’s one-way fares to El Paso, for example, are US$64 from Los Angeles (16 hours), US$129 to US$141 from Chicago (34 hours) and US$128 from New York (52 hours).


Car & motorcycle

If you’re traveling from Mexico into the US at a busy time of year, have a look at the website of US Customs & Border Protection (, which posts waiting times at entry points (under ‘Travel’).



Though there are no regular passenger trains on the Mexican side of the US–Mexico border, it’s quite possible to reach the US side of the border by rail. Trains can be quicker and cheaper than buses, or slower and more expensive, depending on the route. Amtrak (800-872-7245; serves four US cities from which access to Mexico is easy: San Diego, California (opposite Tijuana); El Paso, Texas (opposite Ciudad Juárez); Del Rio, Texas (opposite Ciudad Acuña) and San Antonio, Texas, which is linked by bus to Eagle Pass (opposite Piedras Negras) and Laredo (opposite Nuevo Laredo).

Entering the destination

Entering the country

Immigration officers won’t generally keep you waiting any longer than it takes them to flick through your passport and enter your length of stay on your tourist card. All you have to do is remain patient and polite, even if procedures are slow. Anyone traveling to Mexico via the US should be sure to check current US visa and passport requirements.


Airports & airlines

The following Mexican airports receive direct international flights. All have flights from the US (some from several US cities, some from only one or two). Only Mexico City and Cancún receive direct scheduled flights from Europe, Canada, Central and South America and Havana, Cuba.

Mexico City, Cancún, Guadalajara and Monterrey have the most international flights.

Acapulco (ACA; 744-466-94-34;

Aguascalientes (AGU; 449-915-28-06; ¬

Bajío (El Bajío, León; BJX; 477-713-64-06; ¬

Cancún (CUN; 998-886-00-47; ¬

Chihuahua (CUU; 614-446-82-33;

Cozumel (CZM; 987-872-20-81;

Durango (DGO; 618-817-88-98;

Guadalajara (GDL; 33-3688-5504; ¬¬¬

Guaymas (GYM; 622-221-05-11; ¬

Hermosillo (HMO; 662-261-00-00; ¬

Huatulco (Bahías de Huatulco; HUX; 958-581-90-04;

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo (ZIH; 755-554-20-70; ¬

La Paz (LAP; 614-124-63-36; ¬

Loreto (LTO; 613-135-04-54;

Los Cabos (SJD; 624-146-50-13; ¬

Manzanillo (Playa de Oro; ZLO; 314-333-11-19;

Mazatlán (MZT; 669-928-04-38;

Mérida (MID; 999-946-15-30;

Mexico City (MEX; 55-2482-2424; ¬

Monterrey (MTY; 81-8030-9090; ¬

Morelia (MLM; 443-317-14-11; ¬

Oaxaca (OAX; 951-511-50-88;

Puebla (PBC; 222-232-00-32; ¬

Puerto Vallarta (PVR; 322-221-12-98; ¬

Querétaro (QRO; 442-192-55-00;

San Luis Potosí (SLP; 444-822-00-95;

Tampico (TAM; 833-224-48-00;

Tijuana (TIJ; 664-683-24-18; ¬

Toluca (TLC; 721-213-15-44; ¬

Torreón (TRC; 871-712-82-39;

Veracruz (VER; 229-934-90-08;

Villahermosa (VSA; 993-356-01-57; ¬

Zacatecas (ZCL; 492-985-02-23;

Mexico’s two flag airlines are Mexicana and Aeroméxico, both formerly state-controlled. Mexicana was bought by Grupo Posadas, Mexico’s biggest hotel company, in 2005, and Aeroméxico was sold to a consortium led by Banamex in 2007. Their safety records are comparable to major US and European airlines.

Airlines flying to & from Mexico

Aero California (code JR; 800-237-62-25;; hub Tijuana)

Aerolíneas Argentinas (code AR; 800-123-85-88;; hub Buenos Aires)

Aeromar (code VW; 800-237-66-27;; hub Mexico City)

Aeroméxico (code AM; 800-021-40-10;; hub Mexico City)

Air Canada (code AC; 800-719-28-27;; hub Toronto)

Air Europa (code UX; 998-898-22-55;; hub Madrid)

Air France (code AF; 800-123-46-60;; hub Paris)

Aladia (code AYD; 800-252-3421;; hub Cancún)

Alaska Airlines (code AS; 800-252-75-22;; hub Seattle)

American Airlines (code AA; 800-904-60-00;; hub Dallas)

America West (code HP; 800-428-43-22;; hub Phoenix)

ATA Airlines (code TZ; 800-435-92-82;; hub Chicago)

Aviacsa (code 6A; 800-284-22-72;; hub Mexico City)

Avianca (code AV; 800-123-31-20;; hub Bogotá)

British Airways (code BA; 55-5387-0321;; hub Heathrow Airport, London)

Click Mexicana (code QA; 800-122-54-25;; hubs Cancún, Mexico City)

Continental Airlines (code CO; 800-900-50-00;; hub Houston)

Copa Airlines (code CM; 800-265-26-72;; hub Panama City)

Cubana (code CU; 52-5250-6355;; hub Havana)

Delta Air Lines (code DL; 800-123-47-10;; hub Atlanta)

Frontier Airlines (code F9; in the US 800-432-1359;; hub Denver)

Iberia (code IB; 55-1101-1515;; hub Madrid)

Interjet (code 4O 800-011-23-45;; hub Toluca)

Japan Airlines (code JL; 55-5242-0150;; hub Tokyo)

KLM (code KL; 55-5279-5390;; hub Amsterdam)

Lan Airlines (code LA; 800-700-67-00;; hub Santiago)

LTU (code LT; 998-887-24-07;; hub Dusseldorf)

Lufthansa (code LH; 55-5230-0000;; hub Frankfurt)

Mexicana (code MX; 800-502-20-00;; hub Mexico City)

Northwest Airlines (code NW; 55-5279-5390;; hubs Detroit, Minneapolis/St Paul, Memphis)

Spirit Airlines (code NK; in the US 800-772-7117;; hub Fort Lauderdale)

Sun Country Airlines (code SY; in the US 800-800-6557;; hub Minneapolis/St Paul)

TACA Airlines (code TA; 800-400-8222;; hub San Salvador)

Ted (code UA; 800-003-07-77;; hub Denver)

United Airlines (code UA; 800-003-07-77;; hub Los Angeles)

US Airways (code US; 800-428-43-22;; hub Philadelphia)

Varig (code RG; 55-5280-9192;; hub São Paulo)

VivaAerobus (code VB; 81-8215-0150;; hub Monterrey)


The cost of flying to Mexico is usually higher around Christmas and New Year, and during July and August. Weekends can be more costly than weekdays. In addition to air-ticket websites and travel agencies, it’s often worth checking airlines’ own websites for special deals. Newspapers, magazines and websites serving Mexican communities in other countries are also good sources.

If Mexico is part of a bigger trip encompassing other countries in Latin America or elsewhere, the best ticket for you may be an open-jaw (where you fly into one place and out of another, covering the intervening distance by land), or a round-the-world ticket (these can cost as little as UK£900 or A$2100), or a Circle Pacific ticket which uses a combination of airlines to travel around the Pacific region. Airtreks ( is one good source for multistop tickets.

International online booking agencies worth a look include CheapTickets ( and, for students and travelers under the age of 26, STA Travel (


You normally have to make a connection in the US or Canada (often Los Angeles, San Francisco or Vancouver), and maybe one in Asia as well. From more westerly Asian points such as Bangkok, routes via Europe are also an option. For online bookings try

Australia & New Zealand

The cheapest routes are usually via the US (normally Los Angeles). You’re normally looking at A$2300 or NZ$2300 or more, round-trip (plus several hundred dollars extra at high season).

For online fares try or from Australia, and or from New Zealand.


Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver all have direct flights to Mexico, though better deals are often available with a change of flight in the US. Round-trip fares from Toronto start at around C$900 to Mexico City, Cancún or Puerto Vallarta. For online bookings try, and

Central & South America & The ¬Caribbean

You can fly direct to Mexico City from at least eight cities in South America, and from Panama City, San José (Costa Rica), San Salvador, Guatemala City, Havana (Cuba) and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). There are also direct flights to Cancún from São Paulo, Panama City, Havana, Guatemala City and Flores (Guatemala). Round-trip fares to Mexico City start at around US$500 from Guatemala City and US$800 to US$1000 from South America. ( is an online source of air tickets from several countries.


There are direct flights from Europe to Mexico City, Cancún and Monterrey. Airlines include Aeroméxico, Air France, Air Madrid, British Airways, Iberia, KLM, LTU, Lufthansa and Air Europa. An alternative is to fly with a US or Canadian airline or alliance partner, changing planes in North America.

Round-trip fares to Mexico City or Cancún normally start at around UK£500 to UK£600 from London, or €600 to €700 from Frankfurt, Paris or Madrid. For online bookings throughout Europe, try or


You can fly to Mexico without changing planes from around 30 US cities. There are one-stop connecting flights from many others. Continental (from Houston), Aeroméxico and Mexicana all offer large numbers of Mexican destinations.

US budget airlines such as ATA, Spirit Air, America West, Frontier Airlines and Ted all offer flights to Mexico, and economical fares are also available on Mexico’s Aero California and Aviacsa. If you’re lucky you can get round-trip fares from the US to Mexico for US$250. If you’re not lucky, ‘budget’ operators can cost as much as other airlines. Low-season discounted round-trip fares are typically in the US$350 to US$500 range. In high season you may have to pay US$100 to US$200 more.

For current bargain offers, check Airfare Watchdog ( Online tickets are offered by,,,, and

Money & costs in Mexico

Contents • Costs • Money


Your dollar, euro or pound will go a long way in Mexico. Assuming the peso’s exchange rate against the US dollar remains fairly stable, you’ll find this is an affordable country to travel in. Midrange travelers can live pretty well in most parts of the country on US$75 to US$125 per person per day. Between US$40 and US$70 will get you a pleasant, clean and comfortable room for two people, with private bathroom and fan or air-conditioning, and you have the rest to pay for food (a full lunch or dinner in a decent restaurant typically costs US$15 to US$25), admission fees, transport, snacks, drinks and incidentals. Budget travelers staying in hostels can easily cover the cost of accommodation and two restaurant meals a day with US$40. Add in other costs and you’ll spend US$60 to US$80.

The main exceptions to this are the Caribbean coast, parts of Baja California and some Pacific resort towns, where rooms can easily cost 50% more than elsewhere.

Extra expenses such as internal airfares, car rentals and shopping push your expenses up, but if you have someone to share expenses with, basic costs per person drop considerably. Double rooms often cost only a few dollars more than singles, and triple or family rooms only a few dollars more than doubles. Rental cars start at around US$50 to US$60 per day, plus fuel, and cost no more for four people than for one.

At the top end of the scale are a few hotels and resorts that charge over US$200 for a room, and restaurants where you can pay US$50 per person. But you can also stay in smaller classy hotels for US$80 to US$120 a double and eat extremely well for US$40 to US$50 per person per day.


Mexico’s currency is the peso, usually denoted by the ‘M$’ sign. Any prices quoted in US dollars will normally be written ‘US$5’ or ‘5 USD’ to avoid misunderstanding. The peso is divided into 100 centavos. Coins come in denominations of 20 and 50 centavos and one, two, five, 10, 20 and 100 pesos. There are notes of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 pesos.

The most convenient form of money in Mexico is a major international credit card or debit card – preferably two if you have them. Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards can be used to obtain cash easily from ATMs in Mexico, and are accepted for payment by most airlines, car-rental companies and travel agents, plus many upper midrange and top-end hotels, and some restaurants and stores. Occasionally there’s a surcharge for paying by card, or a discount for paying cash. Making a purchase by credit card normally gives you a more favorable exchange rate than exchanging money at a bank, and isn’t subject to commission, but you’ll normally have to pay your card issuer a ‘foreign exchange’ transaction fee of around 2.5%.

As a backup to credit or debit cards, it’s a good idea to take a little cash and a few trav¬eler’s checks. US dollars are easily the most exchangeable foreign currency in Mexico. In tourist areas and many Mexican cities along the US border, you can often make some purchases in US dollars, though the exchange rate used will probably not be in your favor. Euros, British pounds and Canadian dollars, in cash or as traveler’s checks, are accepted by most banks and some casas de cambio (exchange houses), but acceptance is less certain if you’re away from main cities and tourist centers. Traveler’s checks should be a major brand, such as American Express or Visa.


ATMs (caja permanente or cajero automático) are plentiful in Mexico, and are the easiest source of cash. You can use major credit cards and some bank cards, such as those on the Cirrus and Plus systems, to withdraw pesos from ATMs. The exchange rate that banks use for ATM withdrawals is normally better than the ‘tourist rate’ for currency exchange, though that advantage may be negated by extra handling fees, interest charges and other methods that banks have of taking your money away from you.

To avoid the risk of ‘card cloning, ’ use ATMs only in secure indoor locations, not those in stand-alone booths. Card cloners obtain your card number and PIN by means of hidden cameras, then make a copy of your card and use it to withdraw cash from your account.

History of Mexico

Mexico’s story is always extraordinary and at times barely credible. How could a 2700-year-long tradition of ancient civilization, involving the Olmecs, the Maya and the Aztecs – all intellectually sophisticated and aesthetically gifted, yet at times astoundingly bloodthirsty – crumble in two short years at the hands of a few hundred adventurers from Spain? How could Mexico’s 11-year War for Independence from Spain lead to three decades of dictatorship by Porfirio Díaz? How could the people’s Revolution that ended that dictatorship yield 80 years of one-party rule? And how was it that, after so many years of turbulent upheavals, one-party rule just laid down and died in Mexico’s first-ever peaceful regime change in 2000?

Travel in Mexico is a fascinating encounter with this unique story and the modern country that it has produced. From the awesome ancient cities to the gorgeous colonial palaces, through the superb museums and the deep-rooted traditions and beliefs of the Mexicans themselves, Mexico’s ever-present past will never fail to enrich your journey.

The ancient civilizations

From nomadic hunter-gatherer beginnings, early Mexicans first developed agriculture, then villages, then cities with advanced civilizations, then great empires. The political map shifted constantly as one city or state sought domination over another, and a sequence of powerful states rose and fell through invasion, internal dissension or environmental disasters. But the diverse cultures of ancient Mexico had much in common, as religion, forms of social organization and economic basics were transmitted from lords to masters and from one generation to the next. Human sacrifice, to appease ferocious gods, was practiced by many societies; observation of the heavens was developed to predict the future and determine propitious times for important events like harvests; society was heavily stratified and dominated by priestly ruling classes; women were restricted to domestic and child-bearing roles; versions of a ritual ball game were played almost everywhere on specially built courts.

Most Mexicans today are, at least in part, descended from the country’s original inhabitants, and varied aspects of modern Mexico – from spirituality and artistry to the country’s continued domination by elites – owe a great deal to the pre-Hispanic heritage.

There are many ways of analyzing the pre-Hispanic eras, but one common (if oversimplified) framework divides into three main periods: Preclassic, before AD 250; Classic, AD 250–900; and Postclassic, AD 900–1521. The Classic period saw the flourishing of some of the most advanced cultures, including the Maya and the empire of Teotihuacán.


It’s accepted that, barring a few Vikings in the north and some possible direct transpacific contact with Southeast Asia, the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia. They came in several migrations during the last ice age, between perhaps 60, 000 and 8000 BC, crossing land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait. The first Mexicans hunted big animal herds in the grasslands of the highland valleys. When temperatures rose at the end of the Ice Age, the valleys became drier, ceasing to support such animal life and forcing the people to derive more food from plants. In central Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley, archaeologists have traced the slow beginnings of agriculture between 7000 and 3000 BC, leading to a sufficiently dependable supply of food for people to be able to settle in fixed villages. Pottery appeared by 2000 BC.

The Olmecs

Mexico’s ‘mother culture’ was the mysterious Olmec civilization, which appeared near the Gulf coast in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco. The name Olmec – ‘People from the Region of Rubber’ – was coined by archaeologists in the 1920s. The evidence of the masterly stone sculptures they left behind indicates that Olmec civilization was well organized and able to support talented artisans, but lived in thrall to fearsome deities. Its best-known artifacts are the awesome ‘Olmec heads, ’ stone sculptures up to 3m high with grim, pug-nosed faces and wearing curious helmets.

Ten Olmec heads were found at the first great Olmec center, San Lorenzo, and at least seven at the second great site, La Venta. The Olmecs were obviously capable of a high degree of social organization, as the stone from which the heads and many other stone monuments were carved was probably dragged, rolled or rafted to San Lorenzo and La Venta from hills 60km to 100km away. They were also involved in trade over large regions. Olmec sites found in central and western Mexico, far from the Gulf coast, may well have been trading posts or garrisons to ensure the supply of jade, obsidian and other luxuries for the Olmec elite.

In the end, both San Lorenzo and La Venta were destroyed violently, but Olmec art, religion and society had a profound influence on later Mexican civilizations. Olmec gods, such as the feathered serpent and their fire and corn deities, persisted right through the pre-Hispanic era.


The first great civilization in central Mexico arose in a valley about 50km northeast of the middle of modern Mexico City. The grid plan of the magnificent city of Teotihuacán was laid out in the 1st century AD. It was a basis for the famous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon as well as avenues, palaces and temples that were added during the next 600 years. At its peak, the city had a population of about 125, 000, and it was the center of probably the biggest pre-Hispanic Mexican empire. Developed after around AD 400, this domain extended all the way south to parts of modern Honduras and El Salvador. It was an empire seemingly geared toward tribute-gathering rather than full-scale occupation, and it helped to spread Teotihuacán’s advanced civilization – including writing and books, a numbering system based on bar-and-dot numerals and a calendar system that included the 260-day ‘sacred year’ composed of 13 periods of 20 days – far from its original heartland.

Within Teotihuacán’s cultural sphere was Cholula, with a pyramid even bigger than the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacán may also have had hegemony over the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, whose capital, Monte Albán, grew into a magnificent city in its own right between AD 300 and 600.

Like all other ancient Mexican civilizations and empires, Teotihuacán’s time in the sun had to end. Probably already weakened by the rise of rival powers in central Mexico, Teotihuacán was burned, plundered and abandoned in the 8th century. But its legacy for Mexico’s later cultures was huge. Many of Teotihuacán’s gods, such as the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl (an all-important symbol of fertility and life, itself inherited from the Olmecs) and Tláloc (the rain and water deity) were still being worshipped by the Aztecs a millennium later. Aztec royalty made pilgrimages to the great pyramids and believed Teotihuacán was the place where the gods had sacrificed themselves to set the sun in motion and inaugurate the world that the Aztecs inhabited. Today, New Age devotees converge on Teotihuacán to imbibe mystical energies at the vernal equinox.

The classic Maya

The Classic Maya, in many experts’ view the most brilliant civilization of pre-Hispanic America, flowered in three areas:

North– Mexico’s low-lying Yucatán Peninsula

Central – the Petén forest of present-day northern Guatemala, and the adjacent lowlands in Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico (to the west) and Belize (to the east)

South – the highlands Guatemala and a small section of Honduras.

It was in the northern and central areas that the Maya blossomed most brilliantly, attaining heights of artistic and architectural expression, and of learning in fields like astronomy, mathematics and astrology, which were not to be surpassed by any other pre-Hispanic civilization.

The Classic Maya were divided among many independent city-states –often at war with each other – but in the first part of the Classic period most of these appear to have been grouped into two loose military alliances, centered on Tikal (Guatemala) and Calakmul in the south of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Maya cities

A typical Maya city functioned as the religious, political and market hub for surrounding farming hamlets. Its ceremonial center focused on plazas surrounded by tall temple pyramids (usually the tombs of deified rulers) and lower buildings – so-called palaces, with warrens of small rooms. Steles (tall standing stones) and altars were carved with dates, histories and elaborate human and divine figures. Stone causeways called sacbeob, probably for ceremonial use, led out from the plazas.

Within Mexico there were four main zones of Classic Maya concentration: one in lowland Chiapas and three on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The chief Chiapas sites are Yaxchilán, Bonampak, Toniná and Palenque. For many people the most beautiful of all Maya sites, Palenque rose to prominence under the 7th-century ruler Pakal, whose treasure-loaded tomb deep inside the fine Templo de las Inscripciones was discovered in 1952.

In the southern Yucatán, the Río Bec and Chenes zones, noted for the lavish monster and serpent carvings on their buildings, are in wild areas where archaeological investigations are relatively unadvanced. The sites here, which include Calakmul, Becán, Xpuhil and Río Bec itself, draw relatively few visitors.

The third concentration of Classic Maya culture on the Yucatán Peninsula was the Puuc zone, the most important city of which was Uxmal, south of Mérida. Puuc ornamentation, which reached its peak on the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, featured intricate stone mosaics, often incorporating faces of the hook-nosed rain god, Chac. The amazing Codz Poop (Palace of Masks) at Kabah is covered with nearly 300 Chac faces. Chichén Itzá, east of Mérida, is another Puuc site, though it owes more to the later Toltec era.

The Toltecs

After the fall of Teotihuacán, control over central Mexico was disputed between a number of cities. One of the most important was Xochicalco, a hilltop site near Cuernavaca, with Maya influences and impressive evidence of a feathered-serpent cult. But it was the Toltec empire, based at Tula, 65km north of Mexico City, that came to exert most influence over the course of Mexican history. The name Toltec (Artificers) was coined by the Aztecs, who looked back to them with awe and considered them as royal ancestors.

It’s hard to disentangle myth from history in the Toltec story, but a widely accepted version is that the Toltecs were one of many semicivilized tribes from the north who moved into central Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacán. Tula became their capital, probably in the 10th century, and grew into a city of about 35, 000. Tula’s ceremonial center is dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl, but annals relate that Quetzalcóatl was displaced by Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), a newcomer god of warriors and sorcery who demanded a regular diet of the hearts of sacrificed warriors. A king identified with Quetzalcóatl, Topiltzin, fled to the Gulf coast and set sail eastward on a raft of snakes, promising one day to return – a legend that was to have extremely fateful consequences centuries later when the Spanish arrived.

Tula seems to have become the capital of a militaristic kingdom that dominated central Mexico. Mass human sacrifice may have started here. Toltec influence spread to the Gulf coast and as far north as Paquimé, and is even suspected in temple mounds and artifacts found in Tennessee and Illinois. But it was in the Yucatán Peninsula that they left their most celebrated imprint. Maya scripts relate that around the end of the 10th century much of the northern Yucatán Peninsula was conquered by one Kukulcán, who bears many similarities to Tula’s banished Quetzalcóatl. The Yucatán site of Chichén Itzá contains many Tula-like features, including gruesome Chac-Mools (reclining stone figures holding dishes for sacrificial human hearts). Tiers of grinning skulls engraved on a massive stone platform suggest sacrifice on a massive scale. And there’s a resemblance that can hardly be coincidental between Tula’s Pyramid B and Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors. Many writers therefore believe that Toltec exiles invaded the Yucatán and created a new, even grander version of Tula at Chichén Itzá.

Tula itself was abandoned around the start of the 13th century, seemingly destroyed by one of the hordes of barbarian raiders from the north known as Chichimecs. But later Mexican peoples revered the Toltec era as a golden age.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs’ legends related that they were the chosen people of their tribal god, the hummingbird deity Huizilopochtli. Originally nomads from somewhere to the west or north, they were led by their priests to the Valle de México, where they settled on islands in the valley’s lakes. By the 15th century the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) had fought their way up to become the most powerful group in the valley, with their capital at Tenochtitlán (on the site of present-day downtown Mexico City). Legend tells that the site was chosen because there the Aztecs witnessed an eagle standing on a cactus and devouring a snake, a sign that they should stop wandering and build a city. The eagle-snake-cactus emblem sits in the middle of the Mexican flag.

The Aztecs formed the Triple Alliance with two other valley states, Texcoco and Tlacopan, to wage war against Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, east of the valley. The prisoners they took formed the diet of sacrificed warriors that voracious Huizilopochtli demanded to keep the sun rising every day.

The Triple Alliance brought most of central Mexico – from the Gulf coast to the Pacific, though not Tlaxcala – under its control. This was an empire of 38 provinces and about five million people, ruled by fear and geared to exacting tribute of resources absent from the heartland. Jade, turquoise, cotton, paper, tobacco, rubber, cacao and precious feathers were needed for the glorification of the Aztec elite, and to support the many nonproductive servants of its war-oriented state.

Economy & society

Tenochtitlán and the adjoining Aztec city of Tlatelolco grew to house more than 200, 000 inhabitants. The Valle de México as a whole had more than a million people. They were supported by a variety of intensive farming methods that used only stone and wooden tools, and involved irrigation, terracing and swamp reclamation.

The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred extended families, who owned land communally. The king held absolute power but delegated important roles, such as priestly duties or tax collecting, to members of the pilli (nobility). Military leaders were usually tecuhtli, elite professional soldiers. Another special group was the pochteca, militarized merchants who helped extend the empire, brought goods to the capital and organized the large markets that were held daily in big towns. At the bottom of society were pawns (paupers who could sell themselves for a specified period), serfs and slaves.

Other postclassic civilizations

On the eve of the Spanish conquest, most Mexican civilizations shared deep similarities. Each was politically centralized and divided into classes, with many people occupied in specialist tasks, including professional priests. Agriculture was productive, despite the lack of draft animals, metal tools and the wheel. Corn tortillas, pozol (corn gruel) and beans were staple foods, and many other crops, such as squash, tomatoes, chilies, avocados, peanuts, papayas and pineapples, were grown in various regions. Luxuries for the elite included turkey, domesticated hairless dog, game and chocolate drinks. War between different cities and empires was widespread, and often connected with the need for prisoners to sacrifice to a variety of gods.

Apart from the Toltecs and Aztecs, several important regional cultures arose in the Postclassic period:

Yucatán Peninsula The city of Mayapán dominated most of the Yucatán after the Toltec phase at Chichén Itzá ended around 1200. Mayapán’s hold dissolved from about 1440, and the Yucatán became a quarreling ground for numerous city-states, with a culture much decayed from Classic Maya glories.

Oaxaca After 1200 the Zapotec settlements, such as Mitla and Yagul, were increasingly dominated by the Mixtecs, who were metalsmiths and potters from the uplands around the Oaxaca–Puebla border. Much of Oaxaca fell to the Aztecs in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Michoacán The Tarascos, skilled artisans and jewelers, ruled Michoacán with their capital at Tzintzuntzan, about 200km west of Mexico City. They were one group which managed to avoid conquest by the Aztecs.

The Spanish arrive

Ancient Mexican civilization, nearly 3000 years old, was shattered in two short years by a tiny group of invaders who destroyed the Aztec empire, brought in a new religion and reduced the native people to second-class citizens and slaves. Rarely in world history has a thriving society undergone such a total transformation so fast. Why the Spanish embarked on this conquest, how they were able to subdue Mexico so easily, and why their arrival had such a devastating effect, are questions whose answers lie partly in the characters of the two societies involved, but also in some pure happenstance and luck. The characters of the leading protagonists – the ruthless, Machiavellian genius of the ambitious Spanish leader, Hernán Cortés, and the superstitious hesitancy of the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin – were of supreme importance to the outcome.

So alien to each other were the newcomers and the indigenous Mexicans that each doubted whether the other was human (Pope Paul III declared indigenous Mexicans to be human in 1537). Yet from their traumatic encounter arose modern Mexico. Most Mexicans are mestizo, of mixed indigenous and European blood, and thus descendants of both cultures. But while Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, is now an official Mexican hero, Cortés, the leader of the Spanish conquerors, is today considered a villain and his indigenous allies as traitors.

The Spanish background

In 1492, with the capture of the city of Granada, Spain’s Christian armies finally completed the 700-year Reconquista (Reconquest), in which they had gradually recovered territories on the Spanish mainland from Islamic rule. Under its Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, Spain was an aggressively expanding state to which it came naturally to seek new avenues of commerce and conquest. With their odd mix of brutality, bravery, gold lust and piety, the Spanish conquistadores of the Americas were the natural successors to the crusading knights of the Reconquista.

The notion that the world was round was already widespread in Europe, and Spain’s Atlantic location placed it perfectly to lead the search for new westward trade routes to the spice-rich Orient. Its explorers, soldiers and colonists landed first in the Caribbean, establishing bases on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba where they quickly put the local populations to work mining gold and raising crops and livestock. Realizing that they had not reached the East Indies, the Spanish began seeking a passage through the land mass to their west, and soon became distracted by tales of gold, silver and a rich empire there.

After the first Spanish expeditions sent west from Cuba had been driven back from Mexico’s Gulf coast, Spain’s governor on the island, Diego Velázquez, asked Hernán Cortés, a colonist there, to lead a new expedition westward. As Cortés gathered ships and men, Velázquez became uneasy about the costs and Cortés’ loyalty, and tried to cancel the expedition. But Cortés, sensing a once-in-history opportunity, ignored him and set sail on February 15, 1519, with 11 ships, 550 men and 16 horses. This tension between Cortés’ individual ambition and the authorities’ efforts to bring him to heel persisted until his death in Spain in 1547.

The conquest

The Cortés expedition landed first at Cozumel island, then sailed around the coast to Tabasco, defeating inhospitable locals in the Battle of Centla in modern-day Frontera, where the enemy fled in terror from Spanish horsemen, thinking horse and rider to be a single fearsome beast. Afterwards Cortés delivered the first of many lectures to Mexicans on the importance of Christianity and King Carlos I of Spain – a constant theme of the conquest – and the locals gave him 20 maidens, among them Doña Marina (La Malinche), who became his indispensable interpreter, aide and lover.

The Spaniards were greatly assisted by the hostility felt toward the Aztecs by other Mexican peoples. Resentful Aztec subject towns on the Gulf coast, such as Zempoala, welcomed them. And as they moved inland toward Tenochtitlán, they made allies of the Aztecs’ long-time enemies, the Tlaxcalans.

Aztec legends and superstitions and the indecisive character of Emperor Moctezuma also worked to the Spaniards’ advantage. As soon as the Spanish ships arrived along the coast, news of ‘towers floating on water, ’ bearing fair-skinned beings, was carried to Moctezuma. According to the Aztec calendar, 1519 would see the legendary Toltec god-king Quetzalcóatl return from the east. Was Cortés actually Quetzalcóatl? Moctezuma could only play a waiting game to find out. Omens proliferated: lightning struck a temple, a comet sailed through the night skies and a bird ‘with a mirror in its head’ was brought to Moctezuma, who saw warriors in it.

The Spaniards, with 6000 indigenous allies, were invited to enter Tenochtitlán, a city bigger than any in Spain, on November 8, 1519. Moctezuma was carried out to meet Cortés on a litter with a canopy of feathers and gold borne by some of his nobles, and the Spaniards were lodged, as befitted gods, in the palace of Moctezuma’s father, Axayácatl.

Though entertained in luxury, the Spaniards were trapped. Unsure of Moctezuma’s intentions, they took him hostage. Believing Cortés a god, Moctezuma told his people he went willingly, but tensions rose in the city, aggravated by the Spaniards’ destruction of Aztec idols. Eventually, after some six or seven months and apparently fearing an attack, some of the Spaniards killed about 200 Aztec nobles in an intended pre-emptive strike. Cortés persuaded Moctezuma to try to pacify his people. According to one version of events, the emperor tried to address the crowds from the roof of Axayácatl’s palace, but was killed by missiles; other versions say the Spaniards killed him.

The Spaniards fled, losing several hundred of their own and thousands of indigenous allies, on what’s known as the Noche Triste (Sad Night). The survivors retreated to Tlaxcala, where they built boats in sections, then carried them across the mountains for a waterborne assault on Tenochtitlán. When the 900 Spaniards re-entered the Valle de México in May, 1521, they were accompanied by some 100, 000 native allies. For the first time, the odds were in their favor. The defenders resisted fiercely, but after three months the city had been razed to the ground and the new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, was captured.

Mexico as a colony

Spain’s policy toward conquered Mexico, as for all its conquests in the Americas, can be summed up in one word: exploitation. The Spanish crown saw the New World as a silver cow to be milked to finance its endless wars in Europe, a life of luxury for its nobility and a deluge of churches, palaces and monasteries that were erected around Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The crown was entitled to a fifth (the quinto real, or royal fifth) of all ¬bullion sent back from the New World. Individual conquistadors and colonists saw the American empire as a chance to get rich, and by the 18th century some of them had amassed huge fortunes in Mexico from mining, commerce or agriculture, and possessed enormous estates (haciendas).

The populations of the conquered peoples of Nueva España (New Spain), as the Spanish named their Mexican colony, declined disastrously, mainly from epidemics of new diseases introduced by the invaders. The indigenous peoples’ only real allies were some of the monks who started arriving in 1523. The monks’ missionary work helped extend Spanish control over Mexico – by 1560 they had converted millions of people and built more than 100 monasteries – but many of them were compassionate and brave men, who protected local people from the colonists’ worst excesses. Indigenous slavery was abolished in the 1550s, but partly replaced by black slavery.

Cortés granted his soldiers encomiendas, which were rights to the labor or tribute of groups of indigenous people. Spain began to exert control by setting up Nueva España’s first audiencia, a high court with government functions, in 1527. Later, authority was vested in viceroys, the Spanish crown’s personal representatives in Mexico.

Northern Mexico remained beyond Spanish control until big finds of silver at Zacatecas, Guanajuato and elsewhere spurred Spanish attempts to subdue it. The northern borders were slowly extended by missionaries and a few settlers, and by the early 19th century Nueva España included (albeit loosely) most of the modern US states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado.

As the decades passed, many Spaniards put down roots in Mexico, and those born and bred in the colony began to develop their own identity and a growing alienation from the mother country. When Mexico came to its next big turning point – the throwing off of the colonial yoke – it was these criollos, people born of Spanish parents in Nueva España, who engineered the separation.

A person’s place in colonial Mexican society was determined by skin color, parentage and birthplace. At the top of the tree, however humble their origins in Spain, were Spanish-born colonists. Known as peninsulares, they were a minuscule part of the population, but were considered nobility in Nueva España.

Next on the ladder were the criollos, some of whom were enormously rich. Not surprisingly, criollos sought political power commensurate with their wealth and grew to resent Spanish authority over the colony.

Below the criollos were the mestizos (people of mixed ancestry), and at the bottom of the pile were the indigenous people and African slaves. Though the poor were paid for their labor by the 18th century, they were paid very little. Many were peones (bonded laborers tied by debt to their employers) and indigenous people still had to pay tribute to the crown.

Social stratification follows similar patterns in Mexico today with, broadly speaking, the ‘pure-blood’ descendants of Spaniards at the top of the tree, the mestizos in the middle, and the indigenous people at the bottom.

Criollo discontent with Spanish rule really began to stir following the expulsion of the Jesuits (many of whom were criollos) from the Spanish empire in 1767. When the crown confiscated church assets in 1804, the church had to call in many debts, which hit criollos hard. The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain, and direct Spanish control over Nueva España evaporated. Rivalry between peninsulares and criollos intensified.

The young republic

The city of Querétaro, north of Mexico City, became a hotbed of intrigue among disaffected criollos plotting rebellion against Spanish rule. The rebellion was finally launched in 1810 by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in his parish of Dolores on September 16 – a date that is still celebrated as a Mexican national holiday. The path to independence was a hard one, involving almost 11 years of fighting between rebels and loyalist forces, and the deaths of Hidalgo and several other rebel leaders. But eventually rebel general Agustín de Iturbide sat down with incoming Spanish viceroy Juan O’Donojú in Córdoba in 1821 and agreed the terms for Mexico’s independence.

The country’s first nine decades as a free nation started with a period of chronic political instability and wound up with a period of stability so repressive that it triggered a social revolution. A consistent theme throughout was the opposition between liberals, who favored a measure of social reform, and conservatives, who didn’t. Of the era’s three major figures, one, Benito Juárez, was a liberal. The other two, Antonio López de Santa Anna and Porfirio Díaz, started out as liberals but ended up as conservatives – a fairly common transition for those who acquire power and one that Mexico’s entire governing party, the PRI, underwent in the 20th century.

Between 1821 and the mid-1860s, the young Mexican nation was invaded by three different countries, lost large chunks of its territory to the US and underwent nearly 50 changes of head of state. No one did much to stir the economy, and corruption became entrenched. The dominant figures were almost all men of Spanish origin, and another consistent theme was the repeated intervention in politics by ambitious soldiers. The paragon of these military opportunists was Santa Anna, who first hit the limelight by deposing independent Mexico’s first head of state, Emperor Agustín I, in 1823. He defeated a small Spanish invasion force at Tampico in 1829 and two years later overthrew the conservative president Anastasio Bustamante. Santa Anna himself was elected president in 1833, the first of his 11 terms in 22 years, during which the presidency changed hands 36 times.

But Santa Anna is most remembered for helping to lose large chunks of Mexican territory to the US. After his 1836 defeat in Texas and his disastrous territorial losses in the Mexican–American War in 1848 (the US has had the upper hand in American–Mexican relations ever since), a Santa Anna government sold Mexico’s last remaining areas of New Mexico and Arizona to the US for US$10 million in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. This precipitated the Revolution of Ayutla that ousted him for good in 1855.

Amazingly, it was an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca who played the lead role in Mexican affairs for almost two tumultuous decades thereafter. Lawyer Benito Juárez was a key member of the new liberal government in 1855, which ushered in the era known as the Reform, in which it set about dismantling the conservative state that had developed in Mexico. Juárez became president in 1861. Come the French Intervention almost immediately afterwards, his government was forced into exile, eventually to regain control in 1866. Juárez immediately set an agenda of economic and educational reform. Schooling was made mandatory, a railway was built between Mexico City and Veracruz, and a rural police force, the rurales, was organized to secure the transportation of cargo through Mexico. Juárez is one of the few Mexican historical figures with a completely unsullied reputation, and his sage maxim, ‘El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz’ (Respect for the rights of others is peace), is widely quoted.

Juárez was succeeded at Mexico’s helm by Porfirio Díaz, who ruled as president for 31 of the 35 years from 1876 to 1911, a period known as the Porfiriato. Díaz brought Mexico into the industrial age, stringing telephone, telegraph and railway lines and launching public works projects throughout the country. He kept Mexico free of the civil wars that had plagued it for more than 60 years – but at a cost. Political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned. Peasants were cheated out of their land by new laws, workers suffered appalling conditions and the country was kept quiet by a ruthless army and the now-feared rurales. Land and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a small minority. All this led, in 1910, to the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican revolution

The revolution was no clear-cut struggle between good and evil, left and right or any other pair of simple opposites. It was a 10-year period of shifting allegiances between forces and leaders of all political stripes. The conservatives were pushed aside fairly early on, but the reformers and revolutionaries who had lined up against them could never agree among themselves. Successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new outbreaks of devastating fighting. The overall outcome was that one in eight Mexicans lost their lives and the country swapped the right-wing dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz for a radical government that later lost its revolutionary verve but kept a grip on power right through the 20th century.

Francisco Madero, a wealthy liberal from Coahuila, would probably have won the presidential election in 1910 if Porfirio Díaz hadn’t jailed him. On his release, Madero called successfully for the nation to revolt, which spread quickly across the country. Díaz resigned in May, 1911, and Madero was elected president six months later. But Madero could not contain the diverse factions that were now fighting for power throughout the country. The basic divide was between liberal reformers like Madero and more radical leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, who was fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants, with the cry ‘¡Tierra y libertad!’ (Land and freedom!). Madero sent federal troops to disband Zapata’s forces, and the Zapatista movement was born.

When Madero’s government was brought down in 1913, it was by one of his own top generals, Victoriano Huerta, who defected to conservative rebels. Madero was executed and Huerta became president – which succeeded only in (temporarily) uniting the revolutionary forces in opposition to him. Three main leaders in the north banded together under the Plan de Guadalupe: Venustiano Carranza, a Madero supporter, in Coahuila; Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa in Chihuahua; and Álvaro Obregón in Sonora. Zapata also fought against Huerta.

But fighting then broke out again between the victorious factions, with Carranza and Obregón (the ‘Constitutionalists, ’ with their capital at Veracruz) pitted against the radical Zapata and the populist Villa. The latter pair, despite a famous meeting in Mexico City in 1915, never formed a serious alliance, and it was Carranza who emerged the victor. The Zapatistas continued to demand reforms in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, but Carranza had Zapata assassinated in 1919. The following year Carranza himself was in turn assassinated on the orders of his former ally Obregón. Pancho Villa was killed in 1923.

The 10 years of violent fighting and upheaval had cost up to two million lives and shattered the economy.

Mexico as a one-party democracy

From 1920 to 2000, Mexico was ruled by the reformists who emerged victorious from the Revolution and their successors in the political party they set up, which since the 1940s has borne the self-contradictory name Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI as it’s universally known. Starting out with some genuinely radical social policies, these governments became steadily more conservative, more corrupt, more repressive and more self-interested as the 20th century wore on. Mexico rode many economic ups and downs, and ended the century with a bigger middle class but still a great wealth disparity between the prosperous few and many poor. Rampant population growth became a critical problem in the mid-20th century but by the end of the century growth rates had slowed sharply.

One of Mexico’s longest-standing and most bitterly resented inequities – land ownership – was addressed by the redistribution of more than 400, 000 sq km from large estates to peasants and small farmers between the 1920s and ’60s. This included most of the country’s arable land, and nearly half the population received land, mainly in the form of ejidos (communal landholdings). However, by the end of the century, small-scale agriculture came under severe pressure from the effects of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which permitted cheaper imports from the US and Canada with which traditional Mexican growers found it hard to compete.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Mexico developed a worrying dependence on its huge oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1970s and ’80s saw the country veer from oil-engendered boom to oil-engendered slump as world oil prices swung rapidly up then just as suddenly down. Today, Mexico has managed to significantly reduce its reliance on oil for both government tax revenue and exports by developing other industries.

The huge government-owned oil company, Pemex, was just one face of a massive state-controlled economic behemoth that developed as the PRI sought control over all important facets of Mexican life. The PRI was born as an institution for bringing together the most important influence sectors in Mexican society and politics – labor, the military, farmers and political groupings. It became effectively a monolithic state party that, while governing in the name, and ostensibly the interests, of the people, inevitably bred corruption, inefficiency and violent intolerance of political opposition.

The PRI’s antipathy to civil liberties first attracted opposition in the 1960s, especially in the 1968 student-led protests in Mexico City, which resulted in the Tlatelolco Massacre, where an estimated 400 protesters were shot dead. Though it has never been revealed who was really responsible, Tlatelolco discredited the PRI forever in the minds of many Mexicans. The party came to depend increasingly on strong-arm tactics and fraud to win elections, especially as rival parties, such as the business-oriented Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and the left-of-center Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD; Party of the Democratic Revolution), gained growing support in the following decades.

Mexicans’ cynicism about their leaders reached a crescendo with the 1988–94 presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who won the presidential election only after a mysterious computer failure had halted vote-tallying at a crucial stage. During Salinas’ term, drug trafficking grew into a huge business in Mexico (many believe he and other PRI high-ups were themselves deeply involved in it), and mysterious assassinations proliferated. Salinas did take steps to liberalize the monolithic state-dominated economy. The apex of his program, Nafta, undoubtedly helped to boost exports and industry, but it was unpopular with farmers and small businesses threatened by inexpensive imports from the US. Shortly before Salinas left office he spent nearly all of Mexico’s foreign-exchange reserves in a futile attempt to support the peso, engendering a slump that he left his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, to deal with.

It was also left to Zedillo to respond to the now almost irresistible clamor for democratic change in Mexico. He established a new, independently supervised electoral system that saw growing numbers of non-PRI mayors and state governors elected during his term, and opened the way for the country’s first-ever peaceful change of regime at the end of his term in 2000.

A major problem for Mexico in the middle of the 20th century was that of population growth. Mexico’s population grew from 20 million in 1940 to 35 million in 1960 and to 67 million in 1980 – more than trebling in 40 years. Many people migrated from the villages to urban areas in search of work, often living in desperate conditions in shanty towns around the edges of cities. Mexico City’s population multiplied 10-fold between the 1940s and 1980s. However, publicity campaigns, education and family planning clinics all helped to slow things down. In 1970, the average Mexican woman gave birth seven times in her lifetime. Today the figure is just 2.4 – and the overall population growth rate has sunk from 3.4% a year to 1.15%. A major safety valve is emigration to the US, something very large numbers of Mexicans, especially men from rural areas, do for at least part of their lives. By some estimates, 15 million Mexicans are now (legally or illegally) in the US, where average wages are six times higher than in Mexico.

Mexico under the pan

The independently run electoral system installed by President Zedillo in the 1990s duly unseated his own party, the PRI, when Vicente Fox of the right-of-center PAN, a son of Basque and German-American immigrants and former chief of Coca-Cola’s operations in Mexico, won the 2000 presidential election.

Fox’s election itself, after 80 years of one-party rule, was really the biggest news about his six-year term. A charismatic, 6ft 5in (nearly 2m) rancher, he entered office with the goodwill of a wide range of Mexicans, who hoped a change of ruling party would bring real change in the country. In the end, his presidency was considered a disappointment by most. He had no magic solutions to the same economic and social problems that previous governments had struggled with. Without the full support of Mexico’s Congress, where the PAN did not enjoy a majority, Fox was unable to push through the reforms that he believed were key to stirring Mexico’s slumbering economy. His government consequently lacked money to improve education, social welfare or roads. At least government had become more transparent, honest and accountable, and Mexicans less cynical about their political system.

Fox was succeeded in late 2006 by another PAN president, the less charismatic but potentially more effective Vicente Calderón. Again, it was the manner of his election that signified most. His victory over the PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was by the narrowest of margins. López Obrador, who had led all the way in the opinion polls, cried ‘fraud’ and his supporters staged several weeks of large protests in Mexico City. But the protestors could find no convincing evidence of foul play by the PAN. The fact that the electoral apparatus had come unscathed through a second election and survived a severe cross-examination was at least as significant for Mexico’s future as the name or party of the winning candidate. It had taken a decade of independence war for Mexico to throw off Spanish rule, and a decade of revolution to throw off the post-colonial elite that entrenched itself after independence. The elite party that entrenched itself after the Revolution had, in the end, given way with barely a shot fired.

mexico. los angeles. pattaya. Mexico news

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