Mexico has long been a favourite holiday choice for North Americans, and is now becoming increasingly popular with travellers from all over the world, especially Europe. The country certainly has all the usual attractions in abundance -- endless sunshine, beautiful beaches, amazing scenery, as well as an astonishingly rich history and heritage -- but it's more than this that keeps people coming back. From the moment you arrive, you are gripped by the colourful culture which pervades every aspect of life, a unique mix of indigenous traditions with Spanish colonial influences, showing itself in everything from the country's vibrant dance and music to the amazingly varied culinary creations.
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However, it's impossible to generalise about Mexico -- as well as being one of the most alive and vibrant countries in the world, it's also one of the most diverse. The landscapes range from the mystical, magical coastline of the Baja California peninsula to the vast cactus-strewn deserts of the northern region, from the forested mountains of the central area, studded with lakes and ancient villages, to the sublime palm-lined beaches of the Gulf Coast. In Mexico you can find volcanoes, waterfalls, rivers, and giant prehistoric pyramids, as well as one of the world's biggest canyon systems.
Many visitors to Mexico head to the scenic Pacific coast, attracted by the rocky cliffs and hidden coves, backed by forested mountains to the north, and jungle-fringed lagoons to the south. One of the most popular destinations is the coastal city of Puerto Vallarta, a playground for America's social elite since the 1960s, and now increasingly sought after for its charm and character. As well as the old town, with cobbled streets fanning out from the colonial-style plaza overlooking ocean-front boulevards, there is the thriving Zona Romantica, full of delightful art galleries and upmarket craft boutiques.
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Over on the Gulf side, on a gorgeous stretch of coastline at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, known as the Mayan Riviera, are the famous resort destinations of Playa del Carmen, Cancún, and the island of Cozumel. The abundance of wide beaches, lapped by crystal clear waters, mean that the area never seems overcrowded, despite its popularity, and there are opportunities here for swimming with stingray and dolphins, or snorkelling among the colourful tropical fish around the reefs. One special treat is scuba diving in the world's largest and most famous underwater art gallery, an extraordinary collection of marine sculptures representing a local fishing community.
Apart from its beauty, this area is especially rich in ancient Mayan ruins, with some sites, such as the mysterious Mayan city of El Rey, within walking distance. About three hours' drive away stand the magnificent ruins of Chichén Itzá, one of Mexico's biggest and most visited archaeological sites, its highlights including the colossal stepped Pyramid of Kukulkán, representing the Mayan calendar in stone, the awe-inspiring Caracol, the 1,000-year-old circular observatory, and the Temple of the Warriors. Dotted around the ruins are numerous intriguing statues, many of them the famous Mayan chacmools, reclining male figures holding sacrificial bowls as they protect the temple buildings.
The most dramatic location for a Mayan ruin is the ancient city of Tulum, just a couple of hours south of Cancún, with its Castillo perched right on the edge of the cliff. The city is surrounded by high walls, giving it the feel of a fortress. Just at the foot of the cliff is one of the best and most spectacular beaches in Mexico, which boasts several cenotes, the underground water-filled caverns unique to Mexico, making Tulum one of the country's top destinations.
The Real Mexico
For travellers anxious to be immersed in the culture of the real Mexico, a popular destination is the beautiful southern city of Oaxaca, 5,000 feet up in the spectacular Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The city is largely untouched by modern development, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historic architecture, traditional city centre and vibrant markets. It is very much a cultural hub, attracting crowds of visitors to its numerous colourful events and festivals throughout the year.
At the other end of the country, towards the US border, the state of Chihuahua is home to the Sierra Madre Occidental range, containing the jaw-dropping Copper Canyon, a spectacularly scenic group of deep canyons, much larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the USA, and taking its name from the coppery green colour of the steep canyon walls. You can take a breathtaking ride through the canyons on the renowned Chihuahua Pacific Railway, or explore by bike, on horseback or by zip-line. You can also catch a glimpse of the fascinating and age-old culture of the reclusive indigenous Tarahumara people, who inhabit the area, living in caves in the winter and log cabins in the summer.
It will certainly be hard to decide which of Mexico's fabulous attractions to visit first. There is far too much to see on one visit, or even two or three -- but you can be sure that, wherever you go, the Mexican people will welcome you with their famous warmth and hospitality. And when you come back, as you will, the welcome will be just as warm.