The Mexican Way of Life
Travels in Mexico quickly reveal that Mexicans are a vastly diverse bunch, from the industrial workers of Monterrey to the rich sophisticates and bohemian counterculture of Mexico City, and indigenous villagers eking out subsistence in the southern mountains. But certain common threads run through almost everyone here – among them a deep vein of spirituality, the importance of family, and a simultaneous pride and frustration about Mexico itself.
Life, Death & the Family
One thing you can never do with Mexicans is encapsulate them in simple formulas. They’re hospitable, warm and courteous to guests, yet are most truly themselves within their family group. They will laugh at death, but have a profound spiritual awareness. They embrace modernity while remaining traditional in essence.
Many Mexicans, however contemporary and globalized they may appear, still inhabit a world in which omens, coincidences and curious resemblances take on great importance. When sick, some people still prefer to visit a traditional curandero – a kind of cross between a naturopath and a witch doctor – rather than resort to a modern médico.
While most Mexicans are chiefly concerned with earning a living for themselves and their strongly knit families, they also take their leisure time very seriously, be it partying at clubs or fiestas, or relaxing over an extended-family Sunday lunch at a restaurant. Holidays for religious festivals and patriotic anniversaries are essential to the rhythm of life, ensuring that people get a break every few weeks.
Mexicans may despair of their country ever being governed well, but at the same time they are fiercely proud of it. They naturally absorb a certain amount of US culture and consciousness, but they also strongly value what’s different about Mexican life – its more humane pace, its strong sense of community and family, its unique food and drinks, and the thriving, multifaceted national culture.
The Great Divides
Fly into Mexico City and you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of just how little space is not occupied by buildings or roads. Around the edges of the city, streets climb the steep slopes of extinct volcanoes, while the city’s fringes are ringed with shacks made from a few concrete blocks or sheets of tin that ‘house’ the poorest. In the most affluent neighborhoods, imposing detached houses with well-tended gardens sit behind high walls with strong security gates.
One in every two Mexicans now lives in a city or conurbation of more than a million people. A quarter of them live in smaller cities and towns, and another quarter in villages. The number of urban dwellers continues to rise as rural folk are sucked into cities.
Out in the villages and small towns, people still work the land, and members of an extended family typically live in yards with separate small buildings of adobe, wood or concrete, often with earth floors. Inside these homes are few possessions – beds, a cooking area, a table with a few chairs and a few family photos. Few villagers own cars.
Mexico’s eternal wealth gap yawns as wide as ever. The world’s second-richest man, entrepreneur Carlos Slim Helú, is a Mexican. His net worth was estimated at US$77 billion by Forbes magazine in 2015. At the other extreme, the poorest city dwellers barely scrape an existence as street hawkers, buskers or home workers in the ‘informal economy,’ rarely earning more than M$90 (US$5) a day.
While rich kids zoom about in flashy cars and attend private schools (often in the US), and the bohemian urban counterculture enjoys its mezcal bars, state-funded universities and underground dance clubs, economically disadvantaged rural laborers may dance only at local fiestas and often leave school well before they reach 15.
Land of Many Peoples
Mexico's ethnic diversity is one of its most fascinating aspects. The major distinction is between mestizos – people of mixed ancestry (mostly Spanish and indigenous) – and the indígenas, the indigenous descendants of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic inhabitants. Mestizos are the majority that holds most positions of power and influence, but the indígenas, while mostly materially poor, are often culturally rich. Approximately 60 Mexican indigenous peoples survive, each with their own language and, often, unique costumes. Their way of life is still imbued with communal customs, beliefs and rituals bound up with nature. According to the National Comission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, 25.5 million people in Mexico (21.5% of the population) are indigenous. The biggest group is the Nahua, descendants of the ancient Aztecs, over three million of whom are spread around central Mexico. The approximately two million Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula are direct descendants of the ancient Maya, as (probably) are the Tzotziles and Tzeltales of Chiapas (totaling just over one million). Also directly descended from well-known pre-Hispanic peoples are the estimated one million Zapotecs and over 800,000 Mixtecs, mainly in Oaxaca; over 400,000 Totonacs in Veracruz; and over 200,000 Purépecha (Tarascos) in Michoacán.
The Spiritual Dimension
Yoga, the temascal (pre-Hispanic steam bath) and New Age cosmic energies may mean more to some Mexicans today than traditional Roman Catholicism, but a spiritual dimension of some kind or other remains important in most Mexicans' lives.
About 83% of Mexicans profess Roman Catholicism, making this the world’s second-biggest Catholic country after Brazil. Almost half of Mexican Catholics attend church weekly and Catholicism remains very much part of the nation’s established fabric. Most Mexican fiestas are built around local saints’ days, and pilgrimages to important shrines are a big feature of the calendar.
The church’s most binding symbol is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the dark-skinned manifestation of the Virgin Mary. She appeared to an Aztec potter, Juan Diego, in 1531 on Cerro del Tepeyac hill; in what's now northern Mexico City. A crucial link between Catholic and indigenous spirituality, the Virgin of Guadalupe is now the country’s religious patron, an archetypal mother whose blue-cloaked image is ubiquitous and whose name is invoked in political speeches and literature as well as religious ceremonies. December 12, her feast day, sees large-scale celebrations and pilgrimages all over the country, biggest of all in Mexico City.
Though some church figures have supported causes such as indigenous rights, the Mexican Catholic Church is a socially conservative body. It has alienated some sectors of the population by its strong opposition to the legalization of abortion and to gay marriages and civil unions.
The Spanish missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries won indigenous Mexicans over to Catholicism by grafting it onto pre-Hispanic religions. Old gods were renamed as Christian saints, old festivals were melded with Christian feast days. Indigenous Christianity is still fused with ancient beliefs today. Jalisco’s Huichol people have two Christs, but Nakawé, the fertility goddess, is a more important deity. In the church at the Tzotzil Maya village of San Juan Chamula, you may see chanting curanderos (healers) carrying out shamanistic rites. In the traditional indigenous world almost everything has a spiritual dimension – trees, rivers, hills, wind, rain and sun have their own gods or spirits, and illness may be seen as a ‘loss of soul’ resulting from wrongdoing or from the malign influence of someone with magical powers.
Letting off Steam
Mexicans have many ways of releasing their emotional and physical energy. Religion, artistic expression and the countless fiestas are among them. So are sports.
No sport ignites Mexicans’ passions more than fútbol (soccer). Games in the 18-team Liga MX, the national First Division, are played at weekends almost year-round before crowds averaging 25,000 and followed by millions on TV. Attending a game is fun, and rivalry between opposing fans is generally good-humored.
The two most popular teams with large followings everywhere are América, of Mexico City, known as the Águilas (Eagles), and Guadalajara, called Chivas (Goats). Matches between the two, known as Los Clásicos, are the biggest games of the year. Other leading clubs include Cruz Azul and UNAM (Pumas) of Mexico City, Monterrey and UANL (Los Tigres) from Monterrey, Santos Laguna from Torreón, and Toluca.
Bullfighting arouses strong passions in many Mexicans. While it has many fans, there is also a strong antibullfighting movement spearheaded by groups such as Mexican Animal Rights Association (AMEDEA) and AnimaNaturalis. Bullfights are now banned in the states of Sonora, Guerrero and Coahuila.
Bullfights usually take place on Sunday afternoons or during local festivals, chiefly in the larger cities. In northern Mexico the season generally runs from March or April to August or September. In central and southern Mexico, including Mexico City’s Monumental Plaza México, one of the world’s biggest bullrings, the main season is from October to February.
The highly popular lucha libre (wrestling) is more showbiz than sport. Participants give themselves names like Último Guerrero (Last Warrior), Rey Escorpión (Scorpion King) and Blue Panther, then clown around in Day-Glo tights and lurid masks. Mexico City's 17,000-seat Arena México is the big temple of this activity.
Charreadas (rodeos) are popular events, particularly in the northern half of Mexico, during fiestas and at regular venues often called lienzos charros – www.decharros.com has plenty of information.
Feature: Santa Muerte
A challenge to mainstream religion comes from the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) – condemned as blasphemous by the Vatican in 2013 it has, by some estimates, over ten million followers in Mexico. Mexicans disillusioned with the traditional Catholic Trinity and saints now pray and make offerings to a cloaked, scythe-wielding female skeleton, the goddess of death whose origins date to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Criminal gangs are notoriously among the cult's most loyal followers, and there have even been reports of alleged human sacrifices to Santa Muerte, though she is also seen as a protector of LGBT communities and other outcasts from society. The best known Santa Muerte Altar is in Mexico City's crime-ridden Tepito neighborhood.
Feature: Communing With Departed Souls
Few festivals reveal more about Mexican spirituality than Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), the remembrance of departed loved ones at the beginning of November. Muertos originated in colonial times, when the Catholic Church fused indigenous rites honoring and communing with the dead with its own celebrations of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
Today Muertos is a national phenomenon, with people everywhere cleaning graves and decorating them with flowers, holding graveyard vigils, sprinkling the graves with liquor (the dead also like to party!) and building elaborate altars to welcome back their loved ones with their favorite dishes. For the mestizo (mixed ancestry) majority, it’s a popular folk festival and family occasion. The Catholics believe that departed souls are in heaven or in purgatory, not actually back on a visit to earth. Nevertheless, many find comfort in a sense that lost loved ones are somehow more present at this time. Among many indigenous communities, Muertos is still very much a religious and spiritual event. For them, the observance might more appropriately be called Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead), because families actually spend whole nights at the graveyard communing with the dear departed.
Sugar skulls, chocolate coffins and toy skeletons are sold in markets everywhere, both as Muertos gifts for children and graveyard decorations; this tradition derives in great measure from the work of artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), renowned for his satirical figures of a skeletal Death cheerfully engaging in everyday life, working, dancing, courting, drinking and riding horses into battle.
Sidebar: The Labyrinth of Solitude
Nobel Prize–winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz argues in The Labyrinth of Solitude that Mexicans’ love of noise, music and crowds is just a temporary escape from personal isolation and gloom. Make your own judgment.
Sidebar: Woman Who Glows in the Dark
The secrets of physical and spiritual health of a Nahua curandera (literally ‘curer’) are revealed in Woman Who Glows in the Dark by Elena Ávila.
Sidebar: Other Christian Faiths
Around 10% of Mexicans adhere to non-Catholic varieties of Christianity. Some are members of Protestant churches set up by US missionaries in the 19th century. Millions of indigenous rural poor from southeast Mexico have been converted in recent years by a wave of American Pentecostal, Evangelical, Mormon, Seventh-Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries.
Sidebar: Rudo y Cursi
The 2008 film Rudo y Cursi tells the (fictional) tale of two brothers from a poor Mexican village rising to professional playing success in a corrupt Mexican fútbol (soccer) world. It's a comical and lovable movie that stars two of the country's top actors, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.
Mexico has produced many world champions in boxing. The legendary Julio César Chávez won five world titles at three different weights, and achieved an amazing 87 consecutive wins (or 90 unbeaten) after turning pro in 1980.
Mexicans are an obsessively creative people. Wherever you go in their country, you’ll be impressed by the marvelous artistic expression on display. Colorful painting, stunning architecture and beautiful crafts are everywhere; Aztec dancers vibrate in the very heart of Mexico City and musicians strike up on the streets and in bars and buses. This is a country that has given the world some of its finest painting, music, movies and writing.
Mexico’s priceless architectural heritage from pre-Hispanic and colonial times is one of its greatest treasures.
At places like Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Palenque you can still see fairly intact, spectacular pre-Hispanic cities. Their grand ceremonial centers were designed to impress, with great stone pyramids (topped by shrines), palaces and ritual ball courts – all built without metal tools, pack animals or wheels. While the architecture of Teotihuacán, Monte Albán and the Aztecs was intended to awe with its grand scale, the Maya of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Palenque and countless other sites paid more attention to aesthetics, with intricately patterned facades, delicate stone ‘combs’ on temple roofs, and sinuous carvings, producing some of the most beautiful human creations in the Americas.
The technical hallmark of Maya buildings is the corbeled vault, a version of the arch: two stone walls leaning toward one another, nearly meeting at the top and surmounted by a capstone. Teotihuacán architecture is characterized by the talud-tablero style of stepped buildings, in which height is achieved by alternating upright (tablero) sections with sloping (talud) ones.
The Spaniards destroyed indigenous temples and built churches and monasteries in their place, and laid out new towns with handsome plazas and grids of streets lined by fine stone edifices – contributing much to Mexico’s beauty today. Building was in Spanish styles, with some unique local variations. Renaissance style, based on ancient Greek and Roman ideals of harmony and proportion, with shapes such as the square and the circle, dominated in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Mérida’s cathedral and Casa de Montejo are outstanding Renaissance buildings, while Mexico City and Puebla cathedrals mingle Renaissance and baroque styles.
Baroque, which reached Mexico in the early 17th century, layered new dramatic effects – curves, color and increasingly elaborate decoration – onto a Renaissance base. Painting and sculpture were integrated with architecture, notably in ornate, enormous retablos (altarpieces) in churches. Mexico’s finest baroque buildings include Zacatecas cathedral and the churches of Santo Domingo in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Between 1730 and 1780 Mexican baroque reached its final, spectacularly out-of-control form known as Churrigueresque, with riotous ornamentation.
Indigenous artisans added profuse sculpture in stone and colored stucco to many baroque buildings, such as the Rosary Chapels in the Templos de Santo Domingo at Puebla and Oaxaca. Spanish Islamic influence showed in the popularity of azulejos (colored tiles) on the outside of buildings, notably on Mexico City’s Casa de Azulejos and many buildings in Puebla.
Neoclassical style, another return to sober Greek and Roman ideals, dominated from about 1780 to 1830. Outstanding buildings include the Palacio de Minería in Mexico City, designed by Mexico's leading architect of the time, Manuel Tolsá.
19th to 21st Centuries
Independent Mexico in the 19th and early 20th centuries saw revivals of colonial styles and imitations of contemporary French or Italian styles. Mexico City’s semi–art nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the most spectacular buildings from this era.
After the 1910–20 Revolution came 'Toltecism,' an effort to return to pre-Hispanic roots in the search for a national identity. This culminated in the 1950s with the Ciudad Universitaria campus in Mexico City, where many buildings are covered with colorful murals.
The great icon of more recent architecture is Luis Barragán (1902–88), who exhibited a strong Mexican strain in bringing vivid colors and plays of space and light to the typical geometric concrete shapes of the International Modern Movement. His strong influence on Mexican architecture and design is ongoing today. His oeuvre includes a set of wacky colored skyscraper sculptures in Ciudad Satélite, a Mexico City suburb, and his own house in Mexico City, which is on the Unesco World Heritage list. Another modernist, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez (1919–2013), designed three vast public buildings in Mexico City: the Estadio Azteca and Museo Nacional de Antropología in the 1960s and the Basílica de Guadalupe in the '70s. The capital has seen its share of eye-catching, prestigious structures popping up in the last decade or so: undoubtedly the top conversation piece is the Museo Soumaya Plaza Carso which opened in 2011 to house part of the art collection of multi-multi-billionaire Carlos Slim. Designed by Slim's son-in-law Fernando Romero, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it six-story construction that resembles a giant, twisted blacksmith’s anvil covered in 16,000 honeycomb-shaped aluminium plates.
Painting & Sculpture
Since the earliest times Mexicans have exhibited a love of color and form, and an exciting talent for painting and sculpture. The wealth of art in mural form and in Mexico’s many galleries is a highlight of the country.
Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmecs of the Gulf coast, produced remarkable stone sculptures depicting deities, animals and wonderfully lifelike human forms. Most awesome are the huge Olmec heads, which combine the features of human babies and jaguars.
The Classic Maya of southeast Mexico between about AD 250 and 800 were perhaps ancient Mexico’s most artistically gifted people. They left countless beautiful stone sculptures, complicated in design but possessing great delicacy of touch.
Colonial & Independence Eras
Mexican art during Spanish rule was heavily Spanish-influenced and chiefly religious in subject, though portraiture advanced under wealthy patrons. Miguel Cabrera (1695–1768), from Oaxaca, is widely considered the most talented painter of the era.
The years before the 1910 Revolution finally saw a break from European traditions. Mexican slums, brothels and indigenous poverty began to appear on canvases. José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), with his characteristic calavera (skull) motif, satirized the injustices of the Porfiriato period, launching a tradition of political and social subversion in Mexican art.
In the 1920s, immediately following the Mexican Revolution, education minister José Vasconcelos commissioned young artists to paint a series of public murals to spread a sense of Mexican history and culture and of the need for social and technological change. The trio of great muralists – all great painters in smaller scales, too – were Diego Rivera (1886–1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974).
Rivera’s work carried a left-wing message, emphasizing past oppression of indigenous people and peasants. His art, found in many locations in and around Mexico City, pulled Mexico’s indigenous and Spanish roots together in colorful, crowded tableaux depicting historical people and events, with a simple moral message.
Siqueiros, who fought in the Revolution on the Constitutionalist (liberal) side, remained a political activist afterward and his murals convey a clear Marxist message through dramatic, symbolic depictions of the oppressed and grotesque caricatures of the oppressors. Some of his best works are at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Castillo de Chapultepec and Ciudad Universitaria, all in Mexico City.
Orozco, from Jalisco, focused more on the universal human condition than on historical specifics. He conveyed emotion, character and atmosphere. His work was at its peak in Guadalajara between 1936 and 1939, particularly in the 50-odd frescoes in the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas.
Other 20th-Century Artists
Frida Kahlo (1907–54), physically crippled by a road accident and mentally tormented in her tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera, painted anguished self-portraits and grotesque, surreal images that expressed her left-wing views and externalized her inner tumult. Kahlo’s work suddenly seemed to strike an international chord in the 1980s and '90s. She’s now better known worldwide than any other Mexican artist, and her Mexico City home, the Museo Frida Kahlo, is a don’t-miss for any art lover.
Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991) from Oaxaca is sometimes thought of as the fourth major muralist, but he was a great artist at other scales too, absorbed by abstract and mythological images and effects of color. After WWII, the young artists of La Ruptura (the Rupture), led by José Luis Cuevas (b 1934), reacted against the muralist movement, which they saw as too obsessed with mexicanidad (Mexicanness). They opened Mexico up to world trends such as abstract expressionism and pop art. Sculptor Sebastián (b 1947), from Chihuahua, is famed for his large, mathematics-inspired sculptures that adorn cities around the world.
Today, thanks to dynamic artists, galleries and patrons and the globalization of the world art scene, contemporary Mexican art is reaching galleries the world over. Mexico City has become an international art hot spot, while other cities such as Monterrey, Oaxaca, Mazatlán and Guadalajara also have thriving art scenes. Mexican artists attempt to interpret the uncertainties of the 21st century in diverse ways. The pendulum has swung away from abstraction to hyper-representation, photorealism, installations, video and street art. Rocío Maldonado (b 1951), Rafael Cauduro (b 1950) and Roberto Cortázar (b 1962) all paint classically depicted figures against amorphous, bleak backgrounds. Check out Cauduro’s murals on state-sponsored crime in Mexico City’s Suprema Corte de Justicia. Leading contemporary lights such as Minerva Cuevas (b 1975), Miguel Calderón (b 1971), Betsabeé Romero (b 1963) and Gabriel Orozco (b 1962) spread their talents across many media, always challenging the spectator’s preconceptions.
Street Art – the New Muralists
The contemporary art having the most public impact in Mexico – and which you are most likely to set eyes on – is street art, whose direct popular appeal provides a powerful channel for Mexicans to express themselves and reach an audience. Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guadalajara lead the way in truly accomplished street art, often with a powerful political-protest message. Check out Street Art Chilango (www.streetartchilango.com), the psychedelic images with pre-Hispanic motifs created by the Axolotl Collective (www.facebook.com/axolotlcollective); the striking, often monochrome works by internationally renowned Paola Delfin (www.urban-nation.com/artist/paola-delfin); and the kaleidoscopic portrayals of animal by Farid Rueda (www.widewalls.ch/artist/farid-rueda) in Mexico City. Find works by Lapiztola (www.facebook.com/lapiztola.stencil) and Guerilla-art.mx (www.guerilla-art.mx) in Oaxaca.
Today's street artists follow in the footsteps of the 20th-century muralists, with the difference that they tend to be independent and rebellious and do not serve governments. Some do, however, use their art for specific positive social projects – none more so than the Mexico City-based Germen Crew (www.facebook.com/muralismogermen), who in 2015 turned the entire Las Palmitas neighborhood in the city of Pachuca into one big rainbow-colored mural. It's a remarkable work, sponsored by the local city hall, which by all accounts has restored pride and smiles to a formerly sketchy area.
Music is everywhere in Mexico. Live performers range from marimba (wooden xylophone) teams and mariachi bands (trumpeters, violinists, guitarists and a singer, all dressed in smart Wild West–style costumes) to ragged lone buskers with out-of-tune guitars. Mariachi music, perhaps the most ‘typical’ Mexican music, originated in the Guadalajara area but is played nationwide. Marimbas are particularly popular in the southeast and on the Gulf coast.
Rock & Hip-Hop
Mexico can claim to be the most important hub of rock en español. Talented Mexico City bands such as Café Tacuba and Maldita Vecindad emerged in the 1990s and took the genre to new heights and new audiences, mixing influences from rock, hip-hop and ska to traditional Mexican folk music. They're still popular and active today, as is the Monterrey rap-metal band Molotov, who upsets just about everyone with their expletive-laced lyrics, and El Tri, a legendary rock band active since the 1960s. Mexico's 21st-century indie rock wave threw up successful bands such as Zoé from Mexico City, which is popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and Monterrey's Kinky. The Mexico City five-piece Little Jesus has been winning fans with its catchy, dancey brand of pop-rock; the band's most recent album was Río Salvaje (2016).
Mexican rap is the true sound of the streets, and top homegrown talents include Eptos One (or Eptos Uno), from Ciudad Obregón (Sonora), Bocafloja (Mexico City), C Kan from Guadalajara, and Monterrey's Cartel de Santa.
Powerful, colorful Alejandra Guzmán is known as La Reina del Rock (Queen of Rock) and has sold 10 million albums during a two-decade career. The Mexican rock band most famous outside Mexico is undoubtedly Guadalajara’s unashamedly commercial Maná.
Paulina Rubio is Mexico’s answer to Shakira, who has also starred in several Mexican films and TV series. Hot on her heels is 'Queen of Latin Pop', Thalía from Mexico City, who has sold 25 million records worldwide. Natalia Lafourcade, a talented singer-songwriter who mixes pop and bossa nova rhythms, won Record of the Year and several other 2015 Latin Grammies with her album Hasta La Raíz. Another versatile singer-songwriter and diva of the pop world is Julieta Venegas from Tijuana, best known for her 2007 album, Limón y Sal.
Balladeer Luis Miguel is Mexico’s Julio Iglesias and incredibly popular, as was Juan Gabriel, who had sold millions of his own albums and written dozens of hit songs for others before his death in 2016.
Ranchera & Norteño – Mexico's 'Country Music'
Ranchera is Mexico’s urban ‘country music’ – mostly melodramatic stuff with a nostalgia for rural roots, sometimes with a mariachi backing. The hugely popular Vicente Fernández, Juan Gabriel and Alejandro Fernández (Vicente’s son) are leading artists.
Norteño or norteña is country ballad and dance music, originating in northern Mexico over a century ago and now nationwide in popularity. Its roots are in corridos, heroic ballads with the rhythms of European dances such as waltz or polka. Originally the songs were tales of Latino-Anglo strife in the borderlands or themes from the Mexican Revolution. Modern narcocorridos tell of the adventures and exploits of people involved in the drugs trade. Some gangs even commission narcocorridos about themselves.
Norteño groups (conjuntos) go for 10-gallon hats, with instruments centered on the accordion and the bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar), along with bass and drums. Norteño's superstars are Los Tigres del Norte, originally from Sinaloa but now based in California. They play to huge audiences on both sides of the frontier, with some narcocorridos in their repertoire. Other top stars include Los Huracanes del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and accordionist/vocalist Ramón Ayala.
Also very popular, especially in the northwest and along the Pacific coast, is banda – Mexican big-band music, with large brass sections replacing norteño guitars and accordion, and playing a range of styles from ranchera and corridos to tropical cumbia and Mexican pop. Sinaloa's Banda El Recodo have been at the top of the banda tree for decades.
Son – Mexico's Folk Roots
Son (literally ‘sound’) is a broad term covering Mexican country styles that grew out of the fusion of Spanish, indigenous and African music. Guitars or similar instruments (such as the small jarana) lay down a strong rhythm, with harp or violin providing the melody. Son is often played for a foot-stomping dance audience, with witty, sometimes improvised, lyrics. There are several regional variants. The exciting son jarocho, from the Veracruz area, is particularly African-influenced: Grupo Mono Blanco have led a revival of the genre with contemporary lyrics. The famous ‘La Bamba’ is a son jarocho. Son huasteco (or huapango), from the Huasteca area in northeastern Mexico, features falsetto vocals between soaring violin passages. Listen out for top group Los Camperos de Valles.
This popular genre of troubadour-type folk music, typically performed by solo singer-songwriters (cantautores) with a guitar, has roots in 1960s and '70s folk and protest songs. Many trova singers are strongly inspired by Cuban political musician Silvio Rodríguez.
The historical golden age of Mexican movie-making was the 1940s, when the country was creating up to 200 – typically epic, melodramatic – films a year. Then Hollywood reasserted itself, and Mexican cinema struggled for decades, though it has made quite a comeback in the 21st century. Fine, gritty movies by young Mexican directors have won commercial success as well as critical acclaim, and Morelia, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Monterrey, Los Cabos and the Riviera Maya now stage successful annual film festivals.
Twenty-first Century Film
Nuevo Cine Mexicano (New Mexican Cinema) confronts the ugly, tragic and absurd in Mexican life, as well as the beautiful and the comical. The first to really catch the world’s eye was Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch; 2000), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Gael García Bernal, who have since both become international celebrities. Set in contemporary Mexico City, with three plots connected by one traffic accident, it’s a raw, honest movie with its quota of blood, violence and sex as well as ironic humor.
Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too), Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 coming-of-age road trip movie about two privileged Mexico City teenagers (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna), was at the time the biggest grossing Mexican film ever, netting more than US$25 million. Carlos Carrera's El crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro; 2003), again starring Gael García Bernal, painted an ugly picture of church corruption in a small town.
Success has spirited some of these talents away from Mexico. González Iñárritu moved to Hollywood to direct two more great movies with interconnected multiple plots and a theme of death – 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). He followed up with Biutiful (2010), a stunning Mexican-Spanish production starring Javier Bardem in a harrowing ‘down and out in Barcelona’ tale. He then scooped four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, with Birdman (2014), the brilliantly crafted story of an aging Hollywood superhero (Michael Keaton) trying to revive his career on Broadway. Alfonso Cuarón moved on to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and the multi-Oscar-winning (including Best Director) science-fiction epic Gravity (2013), while Guillermo del Toro has scored success with the triple-Oscar Pan's Labyrinth (2006).
Meanwhile, homegrown Mexican films have been raking in awards at Cannes and other festivals. Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar (To the Sea) in 2010 is a gentle, thoughtful exploration of father-son bonding between a Mexican with Mayan roots and his half-Italian son, while Michel Franco's Después de Lucía (After Lucia) is a grim, uncomfortable look at the high school bullying at its worst. Carlos Reygadas took Cannes' 2012 Best Director award for Post tenebras lux, a confusing mix of fantasy and reality about a middle-class family living in the countryside. Amat Escalante was Cannes' 2013 best director with Heli, the story of a young couple caught in Mexico's violent drug wars. Another acclaimed 2013 movie was Diego Quemada-Diez's La jaula de oro (The Golden Cage), about young Central American migrants trying to get to the USA through Mexico. Migrants, this time Mexican, also take center stage in the 2015 thriller Desierto, starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Alfonso Cuarón's son Jonás Cuarón.
Also in the 2015 crop, Gabriel Ripstein's arms-smuggling thriller 600 Miles, starring Tim Roth as a kidnapped US law-enforcement agent, was garlanded at the Berlin and Guadalajara festivals, and became Mexico's candidate for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Tim Roth featured again, this time as a male nurse for terminally ill patients, in the moving Chronic, directed and written by Mexican Michel Franco and named best screenplay at Cannes in 2015. Another 2015 release, Los jefes, digs into the brutal reality of the narco world in Monterrey, an added curiosity being that its lead roles are played by rap musicians Cartel de Santa. In 2017, Ernesto Contreras' Sueño en otro idioma (I Dream in Another Language) is a meditation on the demise of indigenous languages.
On a more commercial note, Gary Alazraki's comical 2013 film addressing Mexican class divisions, Nosotros los nobles (We the Nobles), became the all-time biggest-grossing Mexican film in Mexican cinemas, with 3.3 million viewers. The first Mexican 3D horror movie, Más negro que la noche (Darker than the Night; 2014) directed by Henry Bedwell, also did well, both at the box office and with critics.
Mexicans such as Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz have written some of the great Spanish-language literature.
Fuentes (1928–2012), a prolific novelist and commentator, is probably Mexico’s best-known writer internationally. His most famous novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), takes a critical look at Mexico's postrevolutionary era through the eyes of a dying, corrupted press baron and landowner. Less known is the magical-realist Aura (1962), with a truly stunning ending.
In Mexico, Juan Rulfo (1918–86) is widely regarded as the supreme novelist, even though he only ever published one full-length novel: Pedro Páramo (1955), about a young man’s search for his lost father among ghostlike villages in western Mexico. It's a scary, desolate work with confusing shifts of time – a kind of Mexican Wuthering Heights with a spooky, magical-realist twist.
Octavio Paz (1914–98), poet, essayist and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote a probing, intellectually acrobatic analysis of Mexico’s myths and the national character in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).
The 1960s-born novelists of the movimiento crack take their name from the sound of a limb falling off a tree, representing their desire to break with the past and move on from magical realism. Their work tends to adopt global themes and international settings. Best known is Jorge Volpi, whose In Search of Klingsor (1999) and Season of Ash (2009) weave complicated but exciting plots involving science, love, murder, mysteries and more, with a strong relevance to the state of the world today.
The crack seemed to open the way for a new generation of novelists who are right now putting Mexico back in the vanguard of world literature. These are typically superimaginative, impossible-to-classify writers whose multilayered works leap around between different times, places, voices and perspectives. Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd (2012) and The Story of My Teeth (2015) are, on the surface, respectively about a woman writing a novel and a man who replaces his own teeth with (supposedly) Marilyn Monroe's. Then there's Álvaro Enrigue with Sudden Death (2013), a novel of vast scope set among the many world-changing events of the 16th century in Europe and the Americas, and Yuri Herrera, whose Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009) illluminates small-town and big-city Mexico, the Mexico–US border and the US itself through a young woman sent to retrieve her brother from across the border. Carmen Boullosa's 17 novels range from They're Cows, We're Pigs (1991), examining the world of 17th-century Caribbean pirates, to Texas, the Great Theft (2014), a reimagining of the Tex-Mex borderlands in the 19th century. In Quesadillas (2014), Juan Pablo Villalobos takes a satirical look at poverty and corruption in Mexico.
Mexicans’ skill with their hands and their love of color, fun and tradition find expression everywhere in their wonderful artesanías (handicrafts). Crafts such as weaving, pottery, leatherwork, copperwork, hat-making and basketry still fulfill key functions in daily life as well as yielding souvenirs and collectibles. Many craft techniques and designs in use today have pre-Hispanic origins, and it's Mexico’s indigenous peoples, the direct inheritors of pre-Hispanic culture, who lead the way in artesanías production.
In some of Mexico’s indigenous villages you’ll be stunned by the variety of colorful, intricately decorated attire, differing from area to area and often from village to village. Traditional costume – more widely worn by women than men – serves as a mark of the community to which a person belongs. The woven or embroidered patterns of some garments can take months to complete.
Three main types of women’s garments have been in use since long before the Spanish conquest:
Huipil A long, sleeveless tunic, found mainly in the southern half of the country.
Quechquémitl A shoulder cape with an opening for the head, found mainly in central and northern Mexico.
Enredo A wraparound skirt.
Spanish missionaries introduced blouses, which are now often also embroidered with great care and detail.
The primary materials of indigenous weaving are cotton and wool, though synthetic fibers are also common. Natural dyes have been revived – deep blues from the indigo plant, reds and browns from various woods, and reds and purples from the cochineal insect.
The basic indigenous weavers’ tool, used only by women, is the backstrap loom (telar de cintura) on which the warp (long) threads are stretched between two horizontal bars, one of which is fixed to a post or tree, while the other is attached to a strap around the weaver’s lower back; the weft (cross) threads are then intricately woven in, producing some amazing patterns. Backstrap-loom huipiles from the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas are among Mexico’s most eye-catching garments.
Treadle looms, operated by foot pedals (usually by men) can weave wider cloth than the backstrap loom and tend to be used for rugs, rebozos (shawls), sarapes (blankets with an opening for the head) and skirt material. Mexico’s most famous rug-weaving village is Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.
Many small-scale potters’ workshops turn out everything from plain cooking pots to elaborate works of art. One highly attractive pottery variety is Talavera, made chiefly in Puebla and Dolores Hidalgo and characterized by bright colors (blue and yellow are prominent) and floral designs. The Guadalajara suburbs of Tonalá and Tlaquepaque produce a wide variety of ceramics. In northern Mexico, the villagers of Mata Ortiz make a range of beautiful earthenware, drawing on the techniques and designs of pre-Hispanic Paquimé, similar to some native American pottery in the US southwest. Another distinctive Mexican ceramic form is the árbol de la vida (tree of life). These elaborate, candelabra-like objects are molded by hand and decorated with numerous tiny figures of people, animals, plants and so on. Some of the best are made in Metepec in the state of México, which is also the source of colorful clay suns.
Masks & Beadwork
For millennia Mexicans have worn masks in dances, ceremonies and shamanistic rites: the wearer temporarily becomes the creature, person or deity represented by the mask. You can admire mask artistry at museums in cities such as San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Colima, and at shops and markets around the country. The southern state of Guerrero makes probably the broadest range of fine masks.
Wood is the basic material of most masks, but papier-mâché, clay, wax and leather are also used. Mask-makers often paint or embellish their masks with real teeth, hair, feathers or other adornments. Common masks include animals, birds, Christ, devils, and Europeans with comically pale, wide-eyed features.
The Huichol people of Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas and Nayarit use centuries-old symbols and designs when covering masks and wooden sculptures with psychedelic patterns consisting of colourful beads, attached with wax and resin.
Lacquerware & Woodwork
Gourds, the hard shells of certain squash-type fruits, have been used in Mexico since antiquity as bowls, cups and small storage vessels. The most eye-catching decoration technique is lacquering, in which the gourd is coated with paste or paint and then varnished, producing a nonporous and, to some extent, heat-resistant vessel. Lacquering is also used to decorate wooden boxes, trays and furniture, with a lot of the most appealing ware coming from remote Olinalá in Guerrero, where artisans create patterns using the rayado method of scraping off part of the top coat of paint to expose a different-colored layer below.
The Seri people of Sonora work hard ironwood into dramatic human, animal and sea-creature shapes. Villagers around Oaxaca city produce brightly painted imaginary beasts carved from copal wood, known as alebrijes.
Feature: Música Tropical
Although their origins lie in the Caribbean and South America, several brands of percussion-heavy, infectiously rhythmic música tropical are highly popular throughout the country. Mexico City, in particular, has clubs and large dance halls devoted to this scene, often hosting international bands.
Two kinds of dance music – danzón, originally from Cuba, and cumbia, from Colombia – both took deeper root in Mexico than in their original homelands. The elegant, old-fashioned danzón is strongly associated with the port city of Veracruz but is currently enjoying quite a revival in Mexico City and elsewhere too. The livelier, more flirtatious cumbia has its adopted home in Mexico City. It rests on thumping bass lines with brass, guitars, mandolins and sometimes marimbas. Cumbia has spawned its own subvarieties: cumbia sonidera is basically electronic cumbia played by DJs, while 'psychedelic cumbia' harks back to Peruvian cumbia of the 1970s.
Almost every town in Mexico has some place where you can dance (and often learn) salsa, which originated in New York when jazz met son (folk music), cha-cha and rumba from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Musically, salsa boils down to brass (with trumpet solos), piano, percussion, singer and chorus – the dance is a hot one with a lot of exciting turns. Merengue, mainly from the Dominican Republic, is a blend of cumbia and salsa.
Feature: Lila Downs
Singer Lila Downs has gained international popularity with her passionate and original versions of Mexican folk songs, often with a jazz influence. If you saw the 2002 movie Frida, you heard Lila on the soundtrack. Her best albums include La sandunga (1997), Border (La línea; 2001) and Pecados y milagros (2011).
Sidebar: Mexico City Architecture
Check out the latest (and the future) in Mexico City architecture and planning – from Design Week Mexico installations to plans for a Hyperloop corridor between Mexico City and Guadalajara – at www.dezeen.com/tag/mexico-city.
Sidebar: Mexico’s Biggest Pyramids
- Pirámide Tepanapa (Cholula)
- Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun; Teotihuacán)
- Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon; Teotihuacán)
Sidebar: Churrigueresque Architecture
- Sagrario Metropolitano (Mexico City)
- Santuario de la Virgen de Ocotlán (Tlaxcala)
- Capilla Doméstica (Tepotzotlán)
- Templo de Santa Prisca (Taxco)
Sidebar: Top Art Museums
- Museo Frida Kahlo (Mexico City)
- Museo Jumex (Mexico City)
- Museo Nacional de Arte (Mexico City)
- Museo de Arte de Tlaxcala (Tlaxcala)
- Museo Pedro Coronel (Zacatecas)
Sidebar: Modern Art Websites
- Kurimanzutto (www.kurimanzutto.com)
- LatinAmericanArt (www.latinamericanart.com)
- Museo Colección Andrés Blaisten (www.museoblaisten.com)
- Fundación Jumex (www.fundacionjumex.org)
- National Museum of Mexican Art (www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org)
Sidebar: Yam Paintings
The ‘yarn paintings’ of the indigenous Huichol people – created by pressing strands of yarn onto a wax-covered board – depict scenes resembling visions experienced under the influence of the drug peyote, which is central to Huichol culture.
Diamond shapes on some huipiles from San Andrés Larrainzar, in Chiapas, represent the universe of the villagers’ Maya ancestors, who believed the earth was a cube and the sky had four corners.
Mexconnect (www.mexconnect.com) features a wealth of articles and links on different aspects of Mexican life, from Day of the Dead celebrations and Mexico's pueblos mágicos to the country's thousands of orchid species.
Sidebar: Art Books
- The Art of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller
- Mexican Muralists by Desmond Rochfort
- Mexicolor by Tony Cohan & Masako Takahashi
Sidebar: Frida & Diego Books
- Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Isabel Alcántara and Sandra Egnolff
- The Diary of Frida Kahlo with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes
- Frida by Hayden Herrera
- Rivera by Andrea Kettenmann
Sidebar: Novels Set in Mexico
- The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
- Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
- Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B Traven
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Sidebar: Crafts Books
- The Crafts of Mexico by Margarita de Orellana and Alberto Ruy Sánchez
- Arts and Crafts of Mexico by Chloë Sayer
- Mexican Textiles by Masako Takahashi
Sidebar: Zona Maco
Mexico City’s annual contemporary art fair, Zona Maco (www.zsonamaco.com), held over five days every February, pulls in galleries, dealers and cognoscenti from around the world.
Sidebar: Vive Latino
Vive Latino (www.vivelatino.com.mx), a festival held over a weekend in March or April at Mexico City's Foro Sol, is one of the world's major annual rock en español events. Big electronica events with top Mexican or international DJs are frequent in and around the big cities: www.facebook.com/kinetik.tv and www.trance-it.net/proximos-eventos have details.
Sidebar: Hecho en México
Directed by Duncan Bridgeman, the 2012 documentary Hecho en México is a fascinating, colorful look at contemporary Mexican life and arts, with participation from many of the country's top musicians, actors and writers.
Sidebar: Street Art
For shots of street art in 41 cities all around the country, from San Miguel de Allende and Tijuana to Puebla and León, check out Fatcap's Mexico pages: www.fatcap.com/country/mexico.html.
Landscapes & Wildlife
One of the thrills of travel in Mexico is the incredible, ever-changing scenery. From the cactus-strewn northern deserts and the snowcapped volcanoes of central Mexico to the tropical forests and wildlife-rich lagoons of the south, there’s rarely a dull moment for the eye. Nature lovers will revel in this country which, thanks to its location straddling temperate and tropical regions, is one of the most biologically diverse on earth.
Nearly two million sq km in area, Mexico is the world’s 14th-biggest country. With 10,000km of coastline and half its land above 1000m in elevation, the country has a spectacularly diverse and rugged topography. Almost anywhere you go, except the Yucatán Peninsula, there’ll be a range of mountains in sight, close or distant.
Central Volcanic Belt
The Cordillera Neovolcánica, the spectacular volcanic belt running east–west across the middle of Mexico, includes the classic active cones of Popocatépetl (5452m), 70km southeast of Mexico City, and Volcán de Fuego de Colima (3820m), 30km north of Colima. Popocatépetl's eruptions (at low to intermediate intensity) have been ongoing from 2006; over 30 million people live within the area that could be directly affected should smoking ‘Popo’ erupt in a big way. Both Popocatépetl and Colima have spewed forth clouds of ash in 2017. Also in the volcanic belt, but dormant, are Mexico’s highest peak, Pico de Orizaba (5611m), and the third-highest peak, Popo’s ‘sister’ Iztaccíhuatl (5220m). Mexico’s youngest volcano, and the easiest to get to the top of, is Paricutín (2800m), which popped up in 1943 near the Michoacán village of Angahuan.
The upland valleys between the volcanoes have always been among the most habitable areas of Mexico. It’s in one of these – the Valle de México (a 60km-wide basin at 2200m elevation) – that Mexico City, with its 20 million people, sits ringed by volcanic ranges.
Northern Plains & Sierras
A string of broad plateaus, the Altiplano Central, runs down the middle of the northern half of Mexico, fringed by two long mountain chains – the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and Sierra Madre Oriental in the east. The altiplano and the two sierras madre end where they run into the Cordillera Neovolcánica.
The altiplano is criss-crossed by minor mountain ranges, and rises from an average elevation of about 1000m in the north to more than 2000m toward the center of the country. The sparsely vegetated Desierto Chihuahuense (Chihuahuan Desert) covers most of the northern altiplano and extends north into the US states of Texas and New Mexico. The landscape here is one of long-distance vistas across dusty brown plains to distant mountains, with eagles and vultures circling the skies. The southern altiplano is mostly rolling hills and broad valleys, and includes some of the best Mexican farming and ranching land in the area known as El Bajío, between the cities of Querétaro, Guanajuato and Morelia.
The extremely rugged Sierra Madre Occidental is fissured by many spectacularly deep canyons, including the famous Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) and its 1870m-deep continuation, the Barranca de Urique.
The Sierra Madre Oriental includes peaks as high as 3700m, but has semitropical zones on its lower, eastern slopes.
Baja California, one of the world’s longest peninsulas, runs down Mexico's northwest coast. It is believed to have been separated from the ‘mainland’ about five million years ago by tectonic forces, with the Sea of Cortez (Golfo de California) filling the gap. Baja is 1300km of starkly beautiful deserts, plains and beaches, with a mountainous spine that reaches up to 3100m in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir.
Coastal plains stretch all along Mexico’s Pacific coast and as far south as the Tabasco lowlands on the Gulf coast. Both coasts are strung with hundreds of lagoons, estuaries and wetlands, making them important wildlife habitats.
On the Pacific side, a dry, wide plain stretches south from the US border almost to Tepic, in Nayarit state. As they continue south to the Guatemalan border, the lowlands narrow to a thin strip and become increasingly tropical.
The Gulf coast plain, an extension of a similar plain in Texas, is crossed by many rivers flowing down from the Sierra Madre Oriental. In the northeast, the plain is wide, with good ranchland, but is semimarsh near the coast. It narrows as it nears Veracruz.
Yet another rugged, complicated mountain chain, the Sierra Madre del Sur stretches across the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, roughly paralleling the Cordillera Neovolcánica, from which it’s divided by the broiling hot Río Balsas basin. The Sierra Madre del Sur ends at the low-lying, hot and humid Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrow ‘waist’, which is just 220km wide.
In the southernmost state of Chiapas, the Pacific lowlands are backed by the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Dormant Volcán Tacaná, whose 4110m cone rises on the Mexico–Guatemala border, is the westernmost of a string of volcanoes that stretch across Guatemala. Behind the Chiapas highlands, the land sinks to the lowlands of the Lacandón Jungle and the flat expanses of the huge limestone shelf that is the Yucatán Peninsula. The Yucatán's soft, easily eroded limestone has led to the formation of many underground rivers and more than 6000 sinkholes, known as cenotes, many of which make fantastic swimming holes. Off the Yucatán's Caribbean coast is the world's second-largest barrier reef, known variously as the Great Maya, Mesoamerican or Belize Barrier Reef. It's home to a fantastic variety of colorful marine life that makes it one of the world's top diving and snorkeling destinations.
From the whales, sea lions and giant cacti of Baja California to the big cats, howler monkeys and cloud forests of the southeast, Mexico’s fauna and flora are exotic and fascinating. Getting out among it all is becoming steadily easier as growing numbers of local outfits offer trips to see birds, butterflies, whales, dolphins, sea turtles and more.
Those That Walk
The surviving tropical forests of the southeast are still home to five species of large cat (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay) in isolated pockets, plus spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, anteaters and some mean reptiles, including a few boa constrictors. Small jaguar populations are scattered as far north as the northern Sierra Madre Occidental, just 200km from the US border, and the Sierra Gorda in the Sierra Madre Oriental. You may well see howler monkeys – or at least hear their eerie growls – near the Maya ruins at Palenque and Yaxchilán.
In the north, urban growth, ranching and agriculture have pushed the larger wild beasts – such as the puma (mountain lion), wolf, bobcat, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and coyote – into isolated, often mountainous pockets. Raccoons, armadillos and skunks are still fairly common – the last two in much of the rest of Mexico too.
In all warm parts of Mexico you’ll encounter two harmless, though sometimes surprising, reptiles: the iguana, a lizard that can grow a meter or so long and comes in many different colors; and the gecko, a tiny, usually green lizard that may shoot out from behind a curtain or cupboard when disturbed. Geckos might make you jump, but they’re good news – they eat mosquitoes.
Those That Swim
Baja California is famous for whale-watching in the early months of the year. Gray whales swim 10,000km from the Arctic to calve in its coastal waters. Between Baja and the mainland, the Sea of Cortez hosts more than a third of all the world’s marine mammal species, including sea lions, fur and elephant seals, and four types of whale. Humpback whales follow plankton-bearing currents all the way down Mexico's Pacific coast between December and March, and, like dolphins and sea turtles, are commonly seen on boat trips from coastal towns.
Mexico’s coasts, from Baja to Chiapas and from the northeast to the Yucatán Peninsula, are among the world’s chief nesting grounds for sea turtles. Seven of the world’s eight species frequent Mexican waters. Some female turtles swim unbelievable distances (right across the Pacific Ocean in the case of some loggerhead turtles) to lay eggs on the beaches where they were born. Killing sea turtles or taking their eggs is illegal in Mexico, and there are more than 100 protected nesting beaches – at many of which it's possible to observe the phenomenon known as an arribada, when turtles come ashore in large numbers to nest, and to assist in the release of hatchlings.
Dolphins play along the Pacific and Gulf coasts, while many coastal wetlands, especially in the south of the country, harbor crocodiles. Underwater life is richest of all on the coral reefs off the Yucatán Peninsula’s Caribbean coast, where there’s world-class diving and snorkeling. Near Isla Contoy, off the Yucatán's northeast tip, you can snorkel with whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish.
Those That Fly
All of coastal Mexico is a fantastic bird habitat, especially its estuaries, lagoons and islands. An estimated three billion migrating birds pass by or over the Yucatán Peninsula each year, and Veracruz state is a route of passage for a 'river of raptors' over 4 million strong every fall. Inland Mexico abounds with eagles, hawks and buzzards, and innumerable ducks and geese winter in the northern Sierra Madre Occidental. Tropical species such as trogons, hummingbirds, parrots and tanagers start to appear south of Tampico in the east of the country and from around Mazatlán in the west. The southeastern jungles and cloud forests are home to colorful macaws, toucans, guans and even a few quetzals. Yucatán has spectacular flamingo colonies at Celestún and Río Lagartos. Dozens of local operators around the country, especially along the coasts, offer bird-watching trips.
Mexico’s most unforgettable insect marvel is Michoacán’s Reserva Mariposa Monarca, where the trees and earth turn orange when millions of monarch butterflies arrive every winter.
By most counts, 101 animal species are in danger of disappearing from Mexico. Eighty-one of these are endemic to Mexico. The endangered list includes such wonderful creatures as the jaguar, ocelot, northern tamandua (an anteater), pronghorn, Central American (Baird's) tapir, harpy eagle, resplendent quetzal, scarlet macaw, Cozumel curassow, loggerhead turtle, sea otter, Guadalupe fur seal, four types of parrot, and both spider and howler monkeys. The beautiful little vaquita (harbor porpoise), found only in the northern Sea of Cortez, was down to less than 30 individuals by 2017, prompting a controversial last-ditch campaign by the government and consevartionsts to save them by banning all nets from the coast and compensating fishermen for loss of work. The Margarita Island kangaroo rat and Hubbs freshwater snail may be less glamorous, but their disappearance too will forever affect the other plants and animals around them. Additionally, they’re endemic to Mexico, so once gone from here, they’re gone from the universe. A host of factors contribute to these creatures’ endangered status, including deforestation, the spread of agriculture and urban areas, species trafficking and poaching.
Mexico's main tools for saving endangered species are its network of protected areas such as national parks and biosphere reserves, which covers 13% of the national territory, and a range of specific schemes aimed at conserving certain habitats or species. Government programs are supplemented by the work of local and international conservation groups, but progress is slowed by large gaps in the protected areas network, patchy enforcement and limited funding.
Northern Mexico’s deserts, though sparsely vegetated with cacti, agaves, yucca, scrub and short grasses, are the world’s most biodiverse deserts. Most of the planet’s 2000 or so cactus species are found in Mexico, including more than 400 in the Desierto Chihuahuense alone, and many of them unique to Mexico. Isolated Baja California has a rather specialized and diverse flora, from the 20m-high cardón (the world’s tallest cactus) to the bizarre boojum tree, which looks like an inverted carrot with fluff at the top.
Mexico’s great mountain chains have big expanses of pine (with half the world’s pine species) and, at lower elevations, oak (135 types). In the southern half of the country, mountain pine forests are often covered in clouds, turning them into cloud forests with lush, damp vegetation, many colorful wildflowers, and epiphytes growing on tree branches.
The natural vegetation of the low-lying southeast is predominantly evergreen tropical forest (rainforest in parts). This is dense and diverse, with ferns, epiphytes, palms, tropical hardwoods such as mahogany, and fruit trees such as the mamey and the chicozapote (sapodilla), which yields chicle (natural chewing gum). Despite ongoing destruction, the Selva Lacandona (Lacandón Jungle) in Chiapas is Mexico’s largest remaining tropical forest, containing a significant number of Chiapas’ 10,000 plant species.
The Yucatán Peninsula changes from rainforest in the south to tropical dry forest and savanna in the north, with thorny bushes and small trees (including many acacias).
Parks & Reserves
Mexico has spectacular national parks, biosphere reserves and other protected areas – over 910,000 sq km of its terrestrial and marine territory is under some kind of federal environmental protection. Governments have never had enough money for fully effective protection of these areas, but gradually, with some help from conservation organizations, more ‘paper parks’ are becoming real ones.
Mexico’s 67 terrestrial parques nacionales (national parks) cover 14,320 sq km of territory. Many are tiny (smaller than 10 sq km), and around half of them were created in the 1930s, often for their archaeological, historical or recreational value rather than for ecological reasons. Several recently created parks protect coastal areas, offshore islands or coral reefs. In November 2017, Mexico announced the creation of the biggest marine reserve in North America, Parque Nacional Revillagigedo (150,000 sq km), that will protect the eponymous islands, the 'Galapagos of North America', and the marine species that inhabit the surrounding waters. Despite illegal logging, hunting and grazing, terrestrial national parks have succeeded in protecting big tracts of forest, especially the high, coniferous forests of central Mexico.
Reservas de la biosfera (biosphere reserves) are based on the recognition that it is impracticable to put a complete stop to human exploitation of many ecologically important areas. Instead, these reserves encourage sustainable local economic activities within their territory. Today Mexico has over 50 Unesco-protected and/or national biosphere reserves, covering over 210,000 sq km. The most recent are the largest, with the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve (57,000 sq km) covering virtually the entire coastline of Quintano Roo, and Baja's Pacific Islands Biosphere Reserve (10,926 sq km) encompassing the Coronado Islands near the US border. Biosphere reserves protect some of the country's most beautiful and biologically fascinating areas, focusing on whole ecosystems with genuine biodiversity. Sustainable, community-based tourism is an important source of support for several of them, and successful visitor programs are in place in reserves like Calakmul, Sierra Gorda, Montes Azules, Mariposa Monarca, La Encrucijada and Sian Ka’an.
Nearly 90,000 sq km of Mexican landmass and coastal waters are protected as Wetlands of International Importance, known as Ramsar sites (www.ramsar.org). They are named for the Iranian town where the 1971 Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was signed. Mexico's 142 separate sites include whale calving grounds, turtle nesting beaches, coral reefs, and coastal lagoons and mangrove forests that are of crucial importance for birds and many marine creatures.
Mexico achieved the status of a global standard-bearer on climate change in 2012 when it became only the second country (after the UK) to enshrine carbon-emission commitments into law. The climate-change law committed Mexico, currently the world's 13th biggest carbon emitter, to be producing 35% of its electricity from renewable and nuclear energy by 2024, and to cut its carbon emissions by 50% from previously expected levels by 2050.
In 2015 it became the first non-European country to formally submit its climate-change commitments to the United Nations, with a minimum 25% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions from previously expected levels by 2030. Mexico also set a target of zero deforestation by 2030.
Air pollution and deforestation are among Mexico's own biggest environmental problems, and while the country is one of the world's major exporters of crude oil, it has had to import half of its gasoline because it is short on refineries. Replacing costly imports with home-grown renewable energy makes much sense. Sunny Mexico has plenty of potential for solar power, and already at least 15% of its electricity comes from hydro sources and 5% from wind and geothermal.
How the country can meet its targets is another matter. Enormous offshore discoveries in July 2017 will boost Mexico's oil output significantly starting from 2019, with critics arguing that prospects of reducing the country's oil dependency are slim. Wind power is the only renewable energy source that has generated significantly increased amounts of electricity in recent years.
Water & Forests
President Peña Nieto's six-year national development plan, announced in 2013, prioritized the crucial issue of water sustainability – a key question in a nation where the south has 70% of the water, but the north and center have 75% of the people, and around 9% of the population still lacks access to clean drinking water. The country's water supplies are often badly polluted (which is why Mexicans are the world's leading consumers of bottled water), and sewage is seriously inadequate in many areas. In 2015, the government moved to privatize the water system, or parts of it, on the theory that private companies could provide water cheaper, cleaner and more efficiently than the state. This decision was met with protests across the country, yet partial privatization went ahead regardless.
On another key issue – forest conservation – Mexico has achieved some success. The country has lost about three-quarters of the forests it had in pre-Hispanic times, as all types of forest from cool pine-clad highlands to tropical jungles have been cleared for grazing, logging and farming. Today only about 17% of the land is covered in primary forest, though a further 16% has regenerated or replanted forest. The good news is that, on government figures at least, deforestation rates declined from about 3500 sq km a year in the 1990s to under 1600 sq km a year today. Part of the success story is that around 70% of forests are controlled by local communities, who tend to manage them in a sustainable way.
Mexico City is a high-altitude megalopolis surrounded by a ring of mountains that traps polluted air in the city. The capital consumes over half of Mexico’s electricity and has to pump up about a quarter of its water needs from lowlands far below, then evacuate its waste water back to the lowlands via 11,000km of sewers. Efforts to improve air quality are intensifying. For years, most vehicles have been banned from the roads one day every week. The city's climate action plan for 2014–2020 aims to cut CO₂ emissions by 30% through such means as energy-efficient buses, electric-powered taxis, more bicycle use, and a switch to energy-saving light bulbs.
The capital’s problems of water supply, sewage treatment, overcrowding and air pollution are mirrored on a smaller scale in most of Mexico’s faster-growing cities.
Tourism, a key sector of Mexico’s economy, can bring its own environmental problems with large-scale development. In 2012, then-President Felipe Calderón canceled plans for the large-scale Cabo Cortés tourism development in Baja California, because its developers had failed to show that it would be environmentally sustainable. This delighted campaigners who had argued for years that the project would seriously damage the Cabo Pulmo Marine National Park.
On the Caribbean coast’s Riviera Maya, organizations such as Centro Ecológico Akumal and Mexiconservación (www.mexiconservacion.org) work to limit damage from reckless tourism development to coral reefs, turtle-nesting beaches, mangrove systems and even the water in the area’s famed cenotes (limestone sinkholes). A slowly growing number of hotels and resorts in the region are adopting green policies.
Feature: Cenotes - Sacred Waters
There are over 6000 cenotes (natural sinkholes) around the Yucatán Peninsula and debate continues as to why there are so many in the area. What is generally agreed is that cenotes are formed when the limestone bedrock forming the roof of an underground cavern collapses, exposing the groundwater underneath.
Cenotes are usually connected to the network of underground rivers that runs beneath the entire peninsula. An entire industry has grown around cenote diving and, alongside dinosaur and human remains, divers have discovered many valuable items from Maya times. It’s believed they were cast into cenotes in rituals to appease the gods (most probably the rain god, Chaac). There’s also evidence suggesting that cenotes were used for human sacrifice. Caves had a special meaning as they were believed to be the gateway to Xibalbá, the underworld.
History and geology aside, cenotes also make for fantastic swimming holes. There’s nothing like slipping into those cool, crystal-clear waters in the middle of the jungle on a steamy Yucatán day. However, note that cenotes close to large cities are often polluted.
Feature: Great Diversity
One of the top-five most biologically diverse countries on earth, Mexico is home to 1121 bird species, more than 500 mammals, around 970 amphibians and reptiles (half of them endemic), over 5000 crustaceans, over 2000 butterflies and over 25,000 plants – for each of these groups, that’s about 10% of the total number of species on the planet, on just 1.4% of the earth’s land. The southern state of Chiapas alone, thanks largely to its Lacandón Jungle, has some 10,000 plant species, more than 680 bird species (twice as many as the USA) and 1200 species of butterflies.
Feature: Top Parks & Reserves
|Park/Reserve||Features||Activities||Best time to visit|
|Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cuatrociénegas||Desert; underground streams; pozas (swimming holes); extraordinary biodiversity||Swimming; wildlife-watching; hiking||year-round|
|Parque Nacional Archipiélago Espíritu Santo||Waters around Espíritu Santo & neighboring islands in Sea of Cortez||Kayaking with whale sharks; snorkeling with sea lions; sailing||year-round|
|Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto||Islands, shores & waters of the Sea of Cortez||Snorkeling; kayaking; diving||year-round|
|Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl||Active & dormant volcanic giants on rim of Valle de México||Hiking; climbing||Nov-Feb|
|Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua||Oaxacan coastal lagoons; beach||Boat trips; bird-watching; surfing||year-round|
|Parque Nacional Volcán Nevado de Colima||Active & dormant volcanoes; pumas; coyotes; pine forests||Volcano hiking||late Oct-early Jun|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro||Largest coral atoll in northern hemisphere||Diving; snorkeling||Dec-May|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul||Rainforest with major Maya ruins including Calakmul, Hormiguero and Chicanná||Visiting ruins; wildlife-spotting||year-round|
|Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar||Petrified lava flows, sand dunes, giant craters; one of the driest places on earth||Hiking; wildlife-spotting||year-round|
|Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaíno||Coastal lagoons where gray whales calve; deserts||Whale-watching; hikes to ancient rock art||Dec-Apr|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca||Forests festooned with millions of monarch butterflies||Butterfly observation; hiking||late Oct-Mar|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Montes Azules||Tropical jungle; lakes; rivers||Jungle hikes; canoeing; rafting; bird-watching; boat trips; wildlife-watching||Dec-Aug|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún||Estuary & mangroves with plentiful bird life, incl flamingos||Bird-watching; boat trips||Nov-Mar|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos||Mangrove-lined estuary full of bird-life, incl flamingos||Bird-, crocodile- and turtle-watching||Apr-Sep|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an||Caribbean coastal jungle, wetlands & islands with incredibly diverse wildlife||Bird-watching; snorkeling & nature tours, mostly by boat||year-round|
|Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda||Transition zone from semidesert to cloud forest||Hiking; bird-watching; colonial missions||year-round|
Feature: Community Ecotourism
Environmental awareness has made big leaps in Mexico. The country has no large-scale environmental party or movement, but it does have many smaller organizations working on local issues. One of the highest-profile sectors of grass-roots environmentalism is the community ecotourism movement, which has made huge strides since its beginnings in the 1990s. The theory behind it is that rural communities can gain income and stem population drain by conserving, rather than depleting, their natural resources, and welcoming tourism – a win-win situation for the communities, their visitors and the environment. It is working handsomely in many places all around Mexico, especially in the south.
Successful community ecotourism schemes provide comfortable cabaña accommodation and good local meals, and supply information, guides and infrastructure (such as maintained trails, bikes, horses or boats to rent, and even zip-lines) to enable visitors to enjoy their unspoiled natural surroundings. Urban Mexicans flock to the fresh air and open space, and foreign visitors get a genuine experience of rural Mexico that they might otherwise miss.
Community Ecotourism Top 12
Sidebar: Sierra Madre Occidental
Along its 1400km length, the Sierra Madre Occidental is crossed by only one railway and three paved roads: the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico (Copper Canyon Railway) from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, Hwy 16 (Hermosillo to Chihuahua), and Hwys 40 and 40D (Mazatlán to Durango).
Sidebar: Volcano Watch
- Monitoreo Volcánico Popocatépetl (www.cenapred.unam.mx:8080/monitoreoPopocatepetl)
- Volcán Colima y Más Volcanes (www.facebook.com/volcancolima)
- Webcams de México (www.webcamsdemexico.com/webcam-volcan-de-colima, www.webcamsdemexico.com/webcam-popocatepetl, www.webcamsdemexico.com/webcam-popocatepetl-amecameca)
Sidebar: Bird Books
- Mexican Birds by Roger Tory Peterson and Edward L Chalif
- Birds of Mexico and Central America by Ber van Perlo
- Mexico Birds by James Kavanagh
Sidebar: Spectacular Birds
- Scarlet macaw (Reforma Agraria)
- Resplendent quetzal (Reserva de la Biosfera El Triunfo)
- California condor (Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir)
- Flamingo (Celestún & Río Lagartos)
WWF’s Wildfinder (worldwildlife.org/science/wildfinder) is a database of over 26,000 animal species, searchable by species or place. For each of 23 Mexican eco-regions, it will give a list of hundreds of species with their names in English and Latin, their threatened status, and often pictures.
Sidebar: Parks & Reserves Websites
- Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (www.conanp.gob.mx)
- Unesco biosphere reserves (www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/)
Sidebar: Conservation Organizations
The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org), Conservation International (www.conservation.org) and WWF (wwf.panda.org; www.wwf.org.mx; www.worldwildlife.org) all provide lots of information on the Mexican environment, including on their programs in the country.
Mexico's largest and probably most influential environmental group is Pronatura (www.pronatura.org.mx), which has numerous programs around the country working to protect species, combat climate change, preserve ecosystems, and promote ecotourism, environmental education and sustainable development.
Sidebar: Top Turtle Conservation Projects
- Cuyutlán, Colima
- Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo
- Madre Sal, Chiapas
- Campamento Majahua, Costalegre, Jalisco
- Playa Colola, Michoacán
- Playa Escobilla, Oaxaca
- Puerto Arista, Chiapas
- Tecolutla, Veracruz
By most estimates, since 2007 an average of about 8000 people a year have died in violence in Mexico involving the gangs who traffic some US$19 to US$29 billion worth of illegal drugs into the US each year, with a rise in drug-related executions during the presidency of Peña Nieto. But the great majority of the violence happens in a relatively small number of areas.
- Cities along the US border (from Tijuana to Matamoros) and areas south from the border as far as Culiacán, Torreón and Tampico, have always been among the worst hit in intergang turf wars.
- Further south, the states of Michoacán and Guerrero have seen some of the highest organized-crime-related murder rates. Within each of these regions, violence occurs mostly in certain specific areas.
- While the capital remains mostly immune from narco-related violence for the average visitor, some of it has started to encroach on the exclusive neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa.
- Mexico’s most visited regions, such the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as parts of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Querétaro and Puebla states, see minimal drug-related violence. That said, talking to street pushers in Cancún or Playa del Carmen in the Yucatán is a sure way to find yourself under interrogation by the police or mugged by cartel members.
- In 2017, the US State Department issued a travel warning for Baja California Sur, with La Paz and San José del Cabo the worst hit by drug-related violence and the murder rate spiralling, though tourists haven't been affected.
- Major coastal tourism destinations generally see little violence. Acapulco is the exception, but the vast majority of violent incidents take place between drug gang members and don't target visitors (though tourists have occasionally been caught in the crossfire).
- Durango state and northern Chihuahua are considered unsafe in parts, though Monterrey and Durango cities (particularly Monterrey) are now generally considered safe. It’s essential to take local advice before trekking in remote parts of the Copper Canyon.
- Currently the US government advises against all travel in Michoacán outside Morelia. Most of the violence is confined to the Tierra Caliente.
- The stretch of the Michoacán coast between Las Brisas and Caleta has traditionally been cartel-controlled, though the cartels have never tolerated violence aimed at tourists. There is a very large police and military presence on the roads. Roadblocks are sometimes set up to protest against the government and driving at night is not recommended.
- Tecomán on the Colima coast in Jalisco was Mexico's murder capital at research time due to drug cartel battles.
Government foreign affairs departments and websites of embassies and consulates in Mexico offer information on drug-violence blackspots, though they tend to be overcautious and some of the information is outdated, such as the age-old warning on the US government website regarding San Luis Potosi. Since the drug wars are a shifting phenomenon, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the media and ask local advice as you travel. Two well-informed websites are InSight Crime (www.insightcrime.org) and Justice in Mexico Project (www.justiceinmexico.org).
Kidnapping and extortion, including 'virtual kidnapping', in which the villains attempt to convince victims by telephone that they are under threat and must pay ransoms, are practiced by the drug gangs. Again, tourists are rarely victims.
Sidebar: Drugs Wars Reading
- Narcoland by Anabel Hernández
- El Narco by Ioan Grillo
- Midnight in Mexico by Alfredo Corchado
- A Narco History by Carmen Boullosa & Mike Wallace
- Insight Crime (www.insightcrime.org)
Sidebar: Drug Wars on Screen
- Cartel Land (2015)
- Sicario (2015)
- Heli (2013)
- Narco Cultura (2013)