Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Mayanists consider Calakmul, which means 'Adjacent Mounds', to be a site of vital archaeological significance, as it was once the seat of a nearly unrivalled superpower. It was even further-reaching in size - and often influence - than Tikal in Guatemala. Lying within the vast, untrammeled Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul on the Yucatán Peninsula, the ruins are surrounded by rain forest, best viewed from the top of one of the several pyramids.
This fabulous archaeological zone lies in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México. Site of the huge Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), Teotihuacán was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably the country's largest pre-Hispanic empire. A day here can be awesome - don't let the hawkers get you down. Bring a hat, water and your walking shoes.
The site's main drag is the famous Avenue of the Dead, a monumental thoroughfare lined with the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. To its south is the pyramid-bedecked La Ciudadela, believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Enclosed within the citadel's walls is the Quetzalcóatl Temple, with its striking serpent carvings.
Heading north, you pass the world's third-largest pyramid: the awe-inspiring, 70m (230ft), 248-stepped Pyramid of the Sun. The avenue terminates at the Pyramid of the Moon, flanked by the 12 temple platforms of the Plaza de la Luna. Nearby are the beautifully frescoed Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly, the Jaguar Palace and the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells. Teotihuacán's most famous mural, the Paradise of Tláloc, is in the Tepantitla Palace, northeast of the Pyramid of the Sun. There's a museum to help make sense of it all.
These ruins give Casas Grandes (Big Houses) its name. The crumbling adobe remnants are from what was the major trading settlement in northern Mexico between AD 900 and 1340. Partially excavated and restored, the networks of eroded walls now resemble roofless mazes. The passageways are chained off to protect the walls from damage.
Your admission fee also covers entrance to the adjoining Museo de las Culturas del Norte.
The existence of cliff dwellings at Cuarenta Casas (Forty Houses) was known to the Spaniards as early as the 16th century. Despite the name of this site, only about a dozen adobe apartments are carved into the west cliffside of a dramatic canyon at La Cueva de las Ventanas (Cave of the Windows). This is the only cave accessible to the public.
Last occupied in the 13th century, Cuarenta Casas is believed to have been an outlying settlement of Paquimé, and perhaps a garrison for defense of commercial routes to the Pacific coast. Though the site is not as well preserved as the dwellings at Casas Grandes, its natural setting and the hike required to get there make it a worthy outdoor excursion.
Popocatépetl & Iztaccíhuatl
Mexico's second and third highest mountains, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, form the eastern rim of the Valle de México. While craterless Iztaccíhuatl is dormant, Popocatépetl in recent years has spouted plumes of gas and ash, supposedly even signalling the arrival of the new Pope. Iztaccíhuatl remains open to climbers and is perhaps all the more fetching because of its neighbor's unpredictable outbursts.
Mexico's reputation for full-blooded festive fun is well founded: just about every month sees a major national holiday or fiesta, and every other day is a local saint's day or town fair celebration. Carnaval, held late February or early March in the week before Ash Wednesday, is the big bash before the 40-day penance of Lent; it's particularly flagrant in Mazatlán, Veracruz and La Paz. The country's most characteristic fiesta is the wonderfully macabre Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), held the day after All Saints' Day on November 2. The souls of the dear departed are believed to return to earth on this day, and for weeks beforehand the country's markets are awash with the highly sought-after candy skulls and papier-mâché skeletons that find their way into many a visitor's souvenir collection. December 12 is another big day on the Mexican calendar, celebrating the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country's major religious icon.
When to go?
Mexico is enjoyable year-round, but October to May is generally the most pleasant time to visit. The May-September period can be hot and humid, particularly in the south, and inland temperatures can approach freezing during December-February. Facilities are often heavily booked during Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and Christmas/New Year, the peak domestic travel periods.
Mexico's climate has something for everyone: it's hot and humid along the coastal plains, and drier and more temperate at higher elevations inland (Guadalajara or Mexico City, for example). Try to avoid the southern coast between July and September - the resorts are decidedly soggy and jam-packed.
Travel Visa Overview
Citizens of many countries - including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina, Chile and virtually all western European countries - do not require visas to enter Mexico as tourists. This list occasionally changes, so it's always wise to check current regulations with your nearest Mexican embassy or consulate.
A Mexican tourist card (tarjeta de turista) is a document that you must fill out and get stamped when you pass through Mexican immigration. You should keep it in your passport until you leave Mexico. This tourist card is free and good for up to 90-180 days, depending on your nationality. Ask for the maximum number of days allowed if you're not sure how long you'll be in the country. You may have to ask for this card if you cross into Mexico via a US border. Land-crossers will also be required to pay a non-immigrant fee (derecho para no inmigrante, or DNI) of around
plug with two parallel flat blades
two parallel flat blades above a large circular grounding pin
A viral infection found throughout Central America, Dengue is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which bite preferentially during the day and are usually found close to human habitations, often indoors. They breed primarily in water containers such as barrels, cans, plastic containers and discarded tyres. As a result, Dengue is especially common in densely populated, urban environments. In Mexico, the risk is greatest along the Gulf Coast, especially from July to September.
Dengue usually causes flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle aches, joint pains, headaches, nausea and vomiting, often followed by a rash. The body aches may be quite uncomfortable, but most cases resolve uneventfully in a few days.
Cholera is an intestinal infection acquired through ingestion of contaminated food or water. The main symptom is profuse, watery diarrhea, which may be so severe that it causes life-threatening dehydration. The key treatment is drinking oral rehydration solution. Antibiotics are also given, usually tetracycline or doxycycline, though quinolone antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin are also effective. Only a handful of cases have been reported in Mexico over the last few years. Cholera vaccine is no longer recommended.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored feces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis:A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution.
Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
Chagas' disease is a parasitic infection transmitted by triatomine insects (reduvid bugs), which inhabit crevices in the walls and roofs of substandard housing in South and Central America. In Mexico, most cases occur in southern and coastal areas. The triatomine insect lays its feces on human skin as it bites, usually at night. A person becomes infected when he or she unknowingly rubs the feces into the bite wound or any other open sore. Chagas' disease is extremely rare in travelers. However, if you sleep in a poorly constructed house, especially one made of mud, adobe or thatch, you should be sure to protect yourself with a bed net and good insecticide.
Malaria occurs in every country in Central America, including parts of Mexico. It's transmitted by mosquito bites, usually between dusk and dawn. The main symptom is high spiking fevers, which may be accompanied by chills, sweats, headache, body aches, weakness, vomiting or diarrhea. Severe cases may involve the central nervous system and lead to seizures, confusion, coma and death.
Taking malaria pills is strongly recommended when visiting rural areas in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guerrero, Tabasco, Quintana Roo and Campeche; for the mountainous northern areas in Jalisco; and for an area between 24° and 28° north latitude, and 106° and 110° west longitude, which includes parts of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango.
For Mexico, the first-choice malaria pill is chloroquine. It's safe, inexpensive and highly effective. Side effects are typically mild and may include nausea, abdominal discomfort, headache, dizziness, blurred vision or itching. Severe reactions are uncommon.
Protecting yourself against mosquito bites is just as important as taking malaria pills, since no pills are 100% effective. If it's possible that you may not have access to medical care while traveling, bring along additional pills for emergency self-treatment, which you should take if you can't reach a doctor and develop symptoms that suggest malaria, such as high spiking fevers. Of course, you should try to see a doctor at the earliest possible opportunity. If you develop a fever after returning home, see a physician, as malaria symptoms may not occur for months.
Malaria pills are not recommended for the major resorts along the Pacific and Gulf Coasts.
Also known as enteric fever, typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease.
The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhea and stomach pains.
You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity.
Seek medical help for any fever (38°C/100°F and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating.
Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
Yellow fever no longer occurs in Central America, but many Central American countries, including Mexico, require yellow fever vaccine before entry if you're arriving from a country in Africa or South America where yellow fever occurs. If you're not arriving from a country with yellow fever, the vaccine is neither required nor recommended. Yellow fever vaccine is given only in approved yellow fever vaccination centers, which provide validated International Certificates of Vaccination ('yellow booklets'). The vaccine should be given at least 10 days before departure and remains effective for approximately 10 years. Reactions to the vaccine are generally mild and may include headaches, muscle aches, low-grade fevers or discomfort at the injection site. Severe, life-threatening reactions have been described but are extremely rare.
Mexico's climate varies according to its topography. It's hot and humid along the coastal plains on both sides of the country, but inland, at higher elevations such as Guadalajara or Mexico City, the climate is much drier and more temperate. The hot, wet season is May to October, with the hottest and wettest months falling between June and September over most of the country. The low-lying coastal areas receive more rainfall than elevated inland regions. December to February are generally the coolest months, when north winds can make inland northern Mexico decidedly chilly, with temperatures sometimes approaching freezing.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
It's thought that the first people to inhabit Mexico arrived 20,000 years before Columbus. Their descendants built a succession of highly developed civilizations that flourished from 1200 BC to 1521 AD. The first to arise was that of the Olmecs (1200-600 BC), in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. By 300 BC they were joined by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, and the temple center of Izapa (200 BC to 200 AD). By 250 AD the Maya were building stepped temple pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula. Central Mexico's first great civilization flourished at Teotihuacán between 250 and 600 AD, to be followed by the Toltecs at Xochicalco and Tula. The Aztecs were successors to this string of empires, settling at Tenochtitlán in the early 14th century.
Almost 3000 years of civilization was shattered in just two short years, following the landing by Hernán Cortés near modern-day Veracruz on April 21, 1519. Primary sources suggest that the Aztecs were initially accommodating because, according to their calendar, the year 1519 promised the god Quetzalcóatl's return from the east. The Spaniards met their first allies in towns that resented Aztec domination. With 6000 local recruits, they approached the Aztecs' island capital of Tenochtitlán - a city bigger than any in Spain. King Moctezuma II invited the party into his palace and the Spaniards promptly took him hostage. By August 13, 1521, Aztec resistance had ended. The position of the conquered peoples deteriorated rapidly, not only because of harsh treatment by the colonists but also because of introduced diseases. The indigenous population fell from an estimated 25 million at the time of conquest to one million by 1605.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, a sort of apartheid system existed in Mexico. Spanish-born colonists were a minuscule part of the population but were considered nobility in New Spain (as Mexico was then called), however humble their status in their home country. By the 18th century, criollos (people born of Spanish parents in New Spain) had acquired fortunes in mining, commerce, ranching and agriculture, and were seeking political power commensurate with their wealth. Below the criollos were the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous or African slave ancestry, and at the bottom of the pile were the remaining indigenous people and African slaves. The catalyst for rebellion came in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied most of Spain - direct Spanish control over New Spain suddenly ceased and rivalry between Spanish-born colonists and criollos intensified. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollo parish priest, issued his call to rebellion, the Grito de Dolores. In 1821 Spain agreed to Mexican independence.
Twenty-two years of chronic instability followed, with the presidency changing hands 36 times. In 1845, the US congress voted to annex Texas, leading to the Mexican-American War in which US troops captured Mexico City. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded Texas, California, Utah, Colorado and most of New Mexico and Arizona to the USA. The Maya rose up against their overlords in the late 1840s and almost succeeded in driving them off the Yucatán Peninsula. By 1862, Mexico was heavily in debt to Britain, France and Spain, who sent a joint force to Mexico to collect their debts. France decided to go one step further and colonize Mexico, sparking yet another war. In 1864, France invited the Austrian archduke, Maximilian of Habsburg, to become emperor of Mexico. His reign was bloodily ended by forces loyal to the country's former president, Benito Juárez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.
With the slogan 'order and progress', dictator Porfirio Díaz (ruled 1878-1911) avoided war and piloted Mexico into the industrial age. Political opposition, free elections and a free press were banned, and control was maintained by a ruthless army, leading to strikes that prefigured the Mexican Revolution.
The revolution (1910-20) was a 10-year period of shifting allegiances between a spectrum of leaders, in which successive attempts to create stable governments were wrecked by new skirmishes. The basic ideological rift was between liberal reformers and more radical leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata, who were fighting for the transfer of hacienda land to the peasants. The 10 years of violent civil war cost an estimated 1.5 to two million lives - roughly one in eight Mexicans. After the revolution, political will was focused on rebuilding the national infrastructure. Precursors of today's Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) took power in 1934, introducing a program of reform and land redistribution.
Civil unrest next appeared in 1966, when university students in Mexico City expressed their outrage with the conservative Díaz Ordaz administration. Discontent with single-party rule, restricted freedom of speech and excessive government spending came to a head in 1968 in the run-up to the Mexico City Olympic Games, and protesters were massacred by armed troops.
The oil boom of the late 1970s increased Mexico's oil revenues and financed industrial and agricultural investments, but the oil glut in the mid-1980s deflated petroleum prices and led to Mexico's worst recession in decades. The economic downturn also saw an increase in organized political dissent on both the left and right. The massive earthquake of September 1985 caused more than four billion US dollars' worth of damage. At least 10,000 people died, hundreds of buildings in Mexico City were destroyed and thousands of people left homeless.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began his term in 1988 after very controversial elections. He gained popular support by renegotiating Mexico's crippling national debt and bringing rising inflation under control. A sweeping privatization program and a burgeoning international finance market led to Mexico being heralded in the international press as an exemplar of free-market economics. The apex of Salinas' economic reform was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), effective January 1, 1994.
Fears that NAFTA would increase the marginalization of indigenous Mexicans led to the Zapatista uprising in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The day NAFTA took effect, a huge army of unarmed peasants calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) shocked Mexico by taking over San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Their demands focused on improved social and economic justice. The EZLN were driven out of town within a few days, but the uprising highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor under Salinas and the NAFTA agreement. Today, the Zapatista movement continues, and the rebels' leader, a balaclava-clad figure known only as Subcomandante Marcos, is now a national folk hero.
In March 1994, Luis Donaldo Colósio, Salinas' chosen successor, was assassinated. His replacement, 43-year-old Ernesto Zedillo, was elected with 50% of the vote. Within days of President Zedillo's taking office, Mexico's currency, the peso, suddenly collapsed, bringing on a deep economic recession. Among other things, it led to a huge increase in crime, intensified discontent with the PRI and caused large-scale Mexican immigration to the US. It's estimated that by 1997 more than 2.5 million Mexicans a year were entering the US illegally. Zedillo's policies pulled Mexico gradually out of recession. By the end of his term in 2000, Mexico's purchasing power was again approaching 1994 levels.
In the freest and fairest national election since the Mexican Revolution, National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate and former Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox ended the PRI's 71-year reign. However, President Fox - despite remaining popular as a figurehead - didn't have enough control in congress to fire up Mexico's economy or reform its infrastructure and social services, as he had promised. He did leave the country in a stable position for PAN candidate Felipe Calderón, who won Mexico's controversial presidential elections in July 2006 by the thinnest of margins, about 0.5% over the populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Conservative Calderón promptly declared war on the country's drug gangs. By 2010, 45,000 troops and federal police were deployed around the coutnry in an anti-drugs campaign, though this didn't stop the death of 14,000 people in drug-related killings, the majority of them in inter-gang turf wars.
In 2009 Mexico also had to cope with the world swine-flu pandemic, which killed over 800 and savaged Mexico's tourism industry.
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