This vast country can cater for every tourist taste under the sun. While it can take some time to fully explore even just the principal areas of attraction, you will be richly rewarded if you venture off the beaten track. This is made particularly easy by the country’s extensive, sophisticated and reliable network of buses (there are different classes depending upon the level of adventure you’re after as well!).
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Wherever you do go, though, you will encounter the fascinating mix of three cultures that seems to define the place: its indigenous heritage – including spectacular ancient ruins and a wealth of native languages and traditions; the legacy of the Spanish colonial peri- od, including beautifully preserved cities and a very strong sense of the Catholic, reflected in ornate church design; and the modern, bustling, industrialized Mexico, home to one of the world’s megalopolises, and constantly dealing with its complex social and economic interrelationship with its rich northern neighbour. However, throughout its often turbulent political history, Mexico has maintained a strong tra- dition in art and crafts, music, literature and, more recently, film. The country’s beau- ty lies truly in its diversity – not just culturally, but also geographically, biologically (where it is ranked top three in the world) and even climatically (although the wet season, where it does occur, is generally in summer). Whatever you are looking for, Mexico can guarantee to deliver it in spades.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Displacement of Local Peoples & Mass Tourism:
The Mayan communities of the once remote region of Quintana Roo are under increased pressure to participate in the tourism industry, as Mexico’s cultural and environmental attractions are increasingly being exploited, particularly the archaeological pre-Hispanic remains. Local people and resources are often approached as elements which need to be ‘managed’ by planners, as opposed to valued stakeholders, meaning they are often not consulted or listened to and have little to no autonomy over the development of their own towns. Local industries such as farming and fishing are often displaced, the economy is distorted by inflation and the peasantry are marginalised.
This can lead to a loss of a ‘sense of identity’ and the loss of ‘local and cultural traditions’ in order to make room for metropolitan conveniences for tourists, such as supermarkets, bars and souvenir shops. This results in a servile class of local people catering to the needs of foreign visitors. For example, in the early 1970s, Cancun was an isolated fishing village with 426 inhabitants. Today, Ciudad Cancun has around 300,000 inhabitants, most of who provide services for the visitors to its famous hotel strip, working in jobs that are often poorly paid and insecure.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Land displacement:
Child protection & Orphanage Tourism:
Whilst not as prolific as the orphanage tourism industry that is currently thriving in Asia, many Mexican orphanages do offer tourists the opportunity to volunteer or visit orphanages for a day trip.
Orphanage tourism allows people with no police or background check and often with no relevant experience or skills, to enter the homes of these children, invading their privacy and putting them at risk of exploitation. Poor child protection policies leave children open to mistreatment and abuse. Child sex tourism for example, is continuing to grow in Mexico, especially in tourist areas such as Acapulco and Cancun, and northern border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
What’s more, as well as putting their safety in jeopardy, short-term visits to orphanages disrupt the stability and emotional development of these already vulnerable children, as they are abandoned over and over again. We wouldn’t be allowed to walk into an orphanage in our own country without following certain procedures, so why abroad? Instead, try to support initiatives that help young people and their families, providing training or income generating activities. Tourism Concern have carried out various campaigns on Voluntourism and Orphanage tourism, for more information on Orphanage Tourism follow this link: https://tourismconcern.wpengine.com/orphans/.
Package holidays, All-inclusives & Economic leakage:
The way in which the industry is organized means that, for the most part, consumers spend much of their holiday cash in buying the package – before they leave home. Much of that goes into the pockets of foreign owned companies in the host countries: not many nationals of poor countries get to own marble-floored hotels, shopping chains or flashy restaurants serving fusion food.
Statistics vary; but some people argue that what is known as economic ‘leakage’ – the extent to which local economies lose (or never receive) the revenue generated by tourism – is as high as four-fifths the cost of a holiday. Even if it’s not that high, leakage remains a serious problem for most host countries.
As an example, the European Union (EU) has a free trade agreement which restricts the income developing countries receive from tourism. In 2000, the EU signed a free trade agreement with Mexico. This meant that Mexico finds it even harder to protect its own tourist industry. As a result, European companies, mainly Spanish and Italian hotel chains, now control some 90 per cent of tourism services on the Maya Riviera on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Tourists may get sunbaked and tequila-sated; but they are basically paying into the European and not the Mexican economy.
But surely, there is what is known as the ‘trickle-down’ effect: we might expect tourism to generate benefits across the economy. After all, tourists are demanding: they need feeding and watering and entertaining. They need someone to grow the food, make the furniture, bottle the beer and so on. But too often, in poor countries, tourists eat imported food and sleep in rooms where nothing has been made locally.
Tourists demand their cornflakes and steaks, their cheeses and crisps – as if they were at home; and they want imported beers rather than local brands. All of this contributes to leakage. As a result, many tourism earnings are either retained by the tourist-sending countries or repatriated to them in some way. Somehow or other, it ends up with our hosts – not us – picking up much of the bill.
Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned around the impacts of all-inclusives and have published various reports on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on All inclusives:
Traditional ways of life are often commodified and turned into tourist attractions, as local values and norms are gradually diluted or replaced with the culture of the visiting tourist. Local cultures are turned into commodities as religious rituals, traditional ethnic rites and festivals are reduced and sanitized to conform to tourist expectations, resulting in what has been called ‘reconstructed ethnicity’. Similarly, in an attempt to satisfy tourist’s desires for familiar facilities, well known fast food chains and supermarkets result in the standardization of cultural destinations.
Craftspeople in Mexico have also responded to the growing demand for souvenirs, arts, and cultural items by altering the design of their products in order to bring them more in line with foreign tastes. While the interest shown by tourists can help to conserve a cultural tradition, cultural erosion may occur due to the commodification of cultural goods. In order to avoid this, try to shop in local produce shops and local markets as opposed to supermarkets and designated tourist shops, as well as eating in small restaurants instead of familiar chains.
Archeological & Historical sites:
Vandalism, littering and illegal removal of cultural heritage items all contribute to the destruction of Mexico’s historical heritage. Unfortunately, hundreds of Mexico’s archaeological sites remain unregistered and unsupervised (around 160 out of 40,000 are open to the public) leaving them vulnerable to illegal looting and sale of archaeological artefacts. If you are offered to purchase an historical artefact, politely refuse, as this will likely be contributing to the degradation of Mexico’s historical heritage.
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of the friendly people of Mexico is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities. Responsible Photographers tips.
Promoted and viewed by many as a fair fight, the reality is actually a slow and torturous death for the bull. Not naturally aggressive, the bull is often abused over the days leading up to the fight, resulting in a weak and distressed animal entering the ring. Methods used to weaken the bull include blurring his vision by putting Vaseline in his eyes, sticking sharp objects in his genitals, blocking his nostrils and ears and rubbing a strong chemical solution into his legs to impair his balance. What’s more, drugs are often given to the bulls while they are kept in a dark box for a couple of days, in order to disorientate them before the fight.
When the bull is released, he desperately runs out of the box thinking he is freed, only to find himself in a bullring surrounded by hundreds of cheering and jeering crowds. The matador, dressed in traditional costume, then begins a fight comprising of 3 acts. Firstly, sharp spears (picas) are stabbed into the bull’s neck and twisted, so he begins to bleed to death. Taunted by the matador’s cape, the bull is then stabbed with sharp, barbed instruments (bandilleras) six to eight times. Finally, once the bull’s heart and lungs are punctured and he is normally vomiting blood, the matador stabs the bull with his sword, often multiple times, to finally kill him. His ears and tail are then cut off (often before the bull is dead) and his neck broken. His bleeding body is then dragged around the ring by mules to the sound of crowds booing and jeering.
As well as bullfighting, El Embalse de Toros fiesta in Tlacotalpan is an annual festival which involves bulls being force-fed alcohol, dragged across a river and then beaten and stabbed by crowds. The spectacle continues to attract large crowds, including many tourists.
Visitors to Cancun and other resorts are often offered the opportunity to pay to take photographs with young animals such as lions, jaguars and tigers. It is common for tourists to be told that the animals are orphaned and that the money will go towards their care – but this is often far from the truth. The majority of the animals will have been taken away from their mothers at birth and are often subject to drugging, mutilation (removal of teeth and claws) and the stress of being constantly handled and exploited on a daily basis. As Giovanna Costantini, from FAADA Foundation points out, ‘The most outrageous thing in Mexico is that these activities are presented as ‘conservation’ by its organizers, who every year deceive thousands of tourists while seriously threatening the welfare of the animals involved’.
If you are concerned by something you see relating to animal exploitation when travelling, you can report it to the Born Free Traveller’s Animal Alert site: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/zoo-check/travellers-animal-alert/.
Captive marine wildlife:
Swimming with dolphins or watching a dolphin show is popular in coastal locations such as Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, however the reality for the dolphins can be a life of suffering. The living conditions of these marine animals are stressful, boring and often lead to a variety of health problems.
Dolphins are intelligent and sociable animals that would normally travel between 100-200km a day to depths of 600 metres in the wild. In captivity, they are separated from their families and often forced to live in small tanks of chemically treated water. In order to allow tourists to swim with them, the dolphins are often deprived of food over night in order to make them obedient. This, combined with noise pollution and confined conditions often leads to frustration, which in the past has caused dolphins to injure tourists.
Equally, following dolphins in boats can be stressful for the animals and cause them to leave areas completely in order to avoid tourist groups. The best way to see marine life is from the shore or in a boat with an experienced and responsible operator.
Paradoxically, the growth of ecotourism has been responsible for damaging many natural areas and habitats. The crystal clear waters of the cenotes are a particularly popular tourist attraction for snorkelers and scuba divers, however they are rapidly being destroyed by over-development and irresponsible tourism. Already, approximately one third of the cenotes in the Mayan Riviera have been polluted or damaged. Some are deliberately smashed into, in order to open them up for aesthetic purposes. Whilst this is illegal, developers have yet to be prosecuted for this. Golf courses are particularly instrumental in their destruction, as they use around 3000-5000kg of chemicals per 3000 m² in order to run. These chemicals then seep into and pollute river systems, along with rubbish and sewage. What’s more, visitors swimming in cenotes often ignore warnings not to wear sun cream, meaning many of the most popular waters now have a chemical film of sun cream residue floating on them, which is not only polluting the fresh water river systems but is extremely threatening to the 41 species of fauna that reside there, including turtles, fish and bats.
As with many popular tourist destinations, recent arrivals of hoards of tourists has led to rapid changes to infrastructure, including the building of new airports, highways which cut through rainforests and resorts near ecological and historical sites which are already troubled by land conflicts and environmental degradation. This can have a negative impact on the existing ethnic tourism by bringing in crowds of hurried tourists on luxury tours. Luxury coastal tourism is much less beneficial to the local population and environment than it may seem: much of the profit is exported and its environmental costs are staggering. Air-conditioned hotels with facilities such as swimming pools and spas use huge amounts of energy and produce astounding amounts of waste. In the case of Puerto Vallarta, for example, tourism alone accounts for approximately half of the total waste stream.
Careless boating, diving, snorkelling and fishing around delicate areas of the ocean have significantly damaged Mexico’s coral reefs. Touching and trampling on the coral, dropping anchors, stirring up sediment and the collection of coral and shells as souvenirs have all had a detrimental effect on the local environment. Snorkelling providers often feed marine life in order to draw them closer to the boats for tourists to look at, which can be extremely harmful for the animals as often they are fed human food. What’s more, some providers will offer to remove live animals, fish and coral from the water for you in order to take a picture, which is distressing and extremely damaging. Boats running on oil and filled with noisy snorkelers can be very stressful for the marine life and can often lead to their abandoning of an area.
If you are visiting a cenote or a coral reef, you can help protect them in the following ways:
- Don’t wear sun cream. If you have to wear it, make sure it is a biodegradable cream, which is safe for the flora and fauna that inhabit the water.
- Avoid touching. The formations of the cenotes will not regenerate if they are damaged or broken. Touching sea life and coral can be extremely harmful.
- Don’t feed the wildlife.
- Try not to kick up the sand or stand on coral. If you are snorkelling or swimming, try not to disturb the sand as this can suffocate plants and corals.
- Take your litter with you.
The environmental impact of cruise-liners can be high as the industry produces almost a billion tons of sewage and consumes millions of tons of fuel every year. Often sailing across environmentally sensitive areas of the ocean, cruise ships release sewage (often insufficiently treated) into the water, whilst exhaust fumes pollute both the water and air. Idle Exhaust emissions in ports can be significantly damaging to port areas and their local communities. In 2015, Tourism Concern commenced a campaign investigating the issues surrounding the cruise industry and impacts on the environment, workers rights and local destinations. To learn more, check out the following Tourism Concern articles:
Mexico has a tropical climate and enjoys warm temperatures year round. Coasts are generally very hot and humid (March – June are the hottest months) whilst inland at altitude the temperatures more spring-like (around 22 ºC).
- Coasts: Hot and humid; can be subject to hurricanes during hurricane season.
- Inland at Altitude: Warm, Spring like year-round, although it can become cooler during December through to March.
- Hottest Months: The hottest months are April & May in the South, and July to September on Pacific Coast (Including Baja), and extremely hot in the Yucatan May to September.
- Coolest Months: Vary by region, but generally December through to February; the Yucatan can still experience hot weather even in the coolest months.
Wet Season: May – September/October
This is when the rainy season falls, with rains mostly arriving during the late afternoons and evenings. During these months the landscape is lush and green. Temperatures can reach the mid 30s, particularly inland which does not benefit from the coastal breezes. Rain storms usually arrive in the late afternoon accompanied by thunder and lightning, creating torrential downpours before passing and leaving the evenings dry and cooled off.
Hurricane Season: June – November
During these months, as well as rain there is also the possibility of hurricanes, particularly on the Yucatan Peninsula (e.g. Cancun) and the Pacific Coast (e.g. Baja California), so it is wise to check weather forecasts before travelling.
Dry Season: November – April
During the dry season the temperatures are still warm but much cooler (mid-high twenties) with January and February being the coolest with an average of 23 ºC. Humidity can be very high throughout this season (often around 80%), falling drastically as the rainy season begins in May.
Mexico has a host of environmental problems, including significant chemical pollution from factory discharges and waste dumping, but the main threat to its biodiversity probably stems from deforestation and other natural habitat losses. Forest habitat is lost for a number of reasons. The major factor is land use – land is cleared for crop agriculture, cattle grazing, human colonization, and for business development. A rapidly multiplying human population and economic growth propels and constantly increases these uses. The rate of forest loss, one of the highest in the world, is officially estimated at anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000 hectares (740,000 to one million acres) per year, but is actually higher – perhaps double these estimates.
Compounding the on going threat to its forests and other natural habitats is the dawning realization that Mexico is a treasure trove of biodiversity and a centre of endemic species – those that occur only in one place; destroy them in Mexico and they will be extinct. During the 1980s and early 1990s, as an initial, necessary step for conservation, Mexico underwent surveys and censuses of much of its biodiversity. The results are in, and they are stunning. Mexico, it turns out, probably holds more species of plants and animals than any other country on earth but two.
- Don’t wear shorts if you wish to blend in outside of tourist areas. Aside from beaches and resorts, shorts are seldom worn by Mexicans.
- Do dress nicely for business situations. A suit and tie is fine, and women may also wear conservative dresses. In very hot regions, it’s acceptable to wear lighter clothing, but don’t wear overly casual clothing, such as t-shirts or flip-flops.
- Do dress casually for social occasions.
- D0 take off sunglasses and hats if entering a church
- Very short shorts and skirts and skimpy tops are generally frowned upon, although it is quite common to see both locals and foreigners dressed like this in more touristic areas.
How to eat
- Don’t sit until told where to sit.
- Don’t begin eating until the host does.
- Do understand that only men give toasts in Mexican culture.
- Do indicate that you are finished eating by putting your knife and fork across your plate with the prongs going downwards and the handles facing right.
- Do leave a little bit of food on your plate when you are done.
What to tip
- Tip in the same way that you would in the U.S. or Canada (10-15%)
- Note that Petrol station and car park attendants also expect a small tip.
How to meet / greet
Mexicans are very polite and courteous and generally greet strangers with a handshake. Unlike in Spain, Mexican Spanish rarely uses the ‘you’ or ‘tú’ form and so it is better to address people in the formal ‘usted’. Similarly, asking if somebody speaks English rather than assuming every Mexican you meet will speak English is appreciated, even more so if you try to speak some Spanish!
- Shake hands upon meeting someone.
- Follow the lead of who you are greeting. Hugs are often shared among friends, as well as a light kiss on the cheek for women.
- Do be fashionably late! Thirty minutes late is appropriate. Arriving early or even on time is considered rude.
- Do bring flowers or sweets for your host.
- Do understand that “estúpido” is considered a bad word in Mexico, and it means much worse than “stupid.”
- Do say “salud!” when someone sneezes. To not do so is considered rude.
Mexican cuisine is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, elements added after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century. The basic staples remain native foods such as corn, beans and chili peppers, but the Europeans introduced a large number of other foods, the most important of which were meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat and sheep), dairy products (especially cheese) and various herbs and spices.
While the Spanish initially tried to impose their own diet on the country, this was not possible and eventually the foods and cooking techniques began to be mixed, especially in colonial era convents. African and Asian influences were also introduced into the mixture during this era as a result of African slavery in New Spain and the Manila-Acapulco Galleons. Over the centuries, this resulted in various regional cuisines, based on local conditions such as those in Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatán Peninsula. Mexican cuisine is closely tied to the culture, social structure and popular traditions of the country. The most important example of this connection is the use of mole for special occasions and holidays, particularly in the South and Center regions of the country. For this reason and others, Mexican cuisine was inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In regards to common Mexican dishes, Mexican food is typically rich, colourful and spicy. Staple ingredients include corn (generally in the form of a tortilla), meat, chilli, lime, avocado, cheese and spices. Chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, beans, coconuts and tomatoes are all said to have originated in Mexico. Make sure you try some of these:
- Antojitos – literally ‘little cravings’ is the word used for street food in Mexico
- Mole – the generic word for sauce/gravy. Mole can come in many varieties and flavours.
- Tacos – small corn tortillas filled with flavoured meat, spicy salsas, cheese and a squeeze of lime
- Guacamole – crushed avocado flavoured with lime and chilli
- Quesadillas – A Mexican style toasted sandwich of two tortillas, stuffed with a cheese-based filling and grilled.
- Tamales – A Mesoamerican dish made of masa (corn-based dough) stuffed with a selection of meats, cheese or vegetables and steamed or boiled in a leaf.
- Cochinita pibil – pulled pork, orange, red onion and a traditional annatto sauce, slow cooked in an oven below the ground. Often served in tacos.
Several different languages are spoken in Mexico, with a large majority of the population fluent in Spanish while some indigenous Mexicans are monolingual in indigenous languages. Most Mexicans are monolingual Spanish-speakers.
The government of Mexico use Spanish for most official purposes, but in terms of legislation its status is not that of an official language. The Law of Linguistic Rights establishes Spanish as one of the country’s national languages, along with 68 distinct indigenous indigenous languages (from seven different families, and other four isolated languages). The law, promulgated in 2003, requires the state to offer all of its services to its indigenous citizens in their mother tongues, but in practice this is not yet the case. Due to the long history of marginalization of indigenous groups, most indigenous languages are endangered, with some languages expected to become extinct within years or decades, and others simply having populations that grow slower than the national average.
Indigenous languages are spoken by around 6 million citizens in Mexico – the second largest group in the Americas, after Peru. These languages include Nahuatl (1,376,026 speakers), Yucatec Maya (759,000 speakers) Mixteco (423,216 speakers) and Zapoteco (410,9901) to name a few. Here are a couple of Spanish phrases to get you by in Mexico:
- ¡Hola! – Hello!
- ¿Qué tal? – How are you?
- Muy bien, gracias – I am very well, thank you
- Necesito… – I need…
- Gracias – Thank you
- ¿Cómo se llama? – What is your name?
- Me llamo… – My name is …
- Perdón(a) – Excuse me/sorry (add -a if you are female)
- Disculpe – Excuse me (before you ask somebody something)
- No entiendo – I don’t understand
- ¿Habla inglés? – Do you speak English?
- Sí – Yes
- No – No (pronounced ‘noh’)
There is no official religion in Mexico, as the constitution guarantees separation of church and state. However, more than nine-tenths of the population are at least nominally affiliated with Roman Catholicism. The Basilica of Guadalupe, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, is located in Mexico City and is the site of annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them peasants. Throughout Mexico are thousands of Catholic churches, convents, pilgrimage sites, and shrines.
Protestants account for a tiny but rapidly growing segment of the population, and their missionaries have been especially successful in converting the urban poor. A significant proportion of indigenous peoples practice syncretic religions—that is, they retain traditional religious beliefs and practices in addition to adhering to Roman Catholicism. This syncretism is particularly visible in many village fiestas where ancestors, mountain spirits, and other spiritual forces may be honoured alongside Catholic saints. Moreover, the identities of many saints and spirits have been blended together since the early colonial period. At times, however, belief systems still come into conflict. Among the Huichol (Wirraritari) and other Indian groups, for example, a hallucinogenic cactus fruit called peyote is employed in spiritual ceremonies; however, governmental authorities consider peyote to be an illegal narcotic.
Many Indigenous religions were replaced by Roman Catholicism in the 1500s and it has remained the dominant religion ever since. Some Catholics mix Catholicism with elements of Mayan or Aztec religions. Jehovah’s witnesses, Jews, and Muslims also practise in Mexico.
Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe became a national holiday in 1859. On this day, tens of thousands of people from all parts of Mexico make their way to Mexico City where the Virgin appeared to the Mexican people, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. There, they will celebrate Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) with a ceremony and traditional fair, including traditional music, dancing and other attractions. Pilgrims bring presents to the virgin, usually bouquets of flowers while others walk on their knees on the stone street leading to the Basilica, asking for miracles or giving thanks to the virgin.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Celebrated throughout Mexico, family and friends with gather to pray for and remember relatives and friends who have passed away to help them on their spiritual journey. It coincides with the Roman Catholic All Saints Day (October 31st, November 1st or November 2nd). Traditions include building private altars (ofrendas) and placing favourite foods of the deceased, personal belongings, sugar skulls and marigolds. In some towns and cities, there are processions, candlelit vigils and festivities in the streets.