America's southern neighbor offers friendly people, vibrant culture, exciting adventure and rich history. Here's some history and fun facts about Mexico.
Mexico and its people have a long and rich history. Its indigenous people were active more than 13 thousand years ago. In that time many civilizations swept over the land we now know as Mexico.
The two most recognizable to Americans were the Mayans and the Aztec civilizations. The Mayans ruled the area of southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. Their civilization peaked between 250 and 650 A.D. Many ruins of the Mayans still exist and make for great sightseeing. The most famous, Chichén Itzá, ranks as a New Seven Wonders of the World site. Definitely a bucket list item!
The Aztecs flourished throughout central Mexico from 1300 and 1521. They were the dominant civilization in Mexico when the Spanish arrived. The Aztecs established city-states. Some of those city-states joined forces to create an Aztec empire that ruled the region. The Aztecs used innovation to create large-scale cities and tools, such as a 365-day solar calendar. They simultaneously used a ritual calendar on a 260-day schedule.
The Spaniards arrived in 1519 before any other European explorers. Spain conquered the Aztecs and the rest of Mexico's indigenous people soon after. The Spanish ruled Mexico for more than three centuries.
They called it New Spain. Mexico declared its independence in 1810. But it took until 1821 before Spain and Mexico signed the Treaty of Cordoba establishing an independent nation. In 1824, Mexicans ratified a constitution.
The Mexican-American War began in 1846. At the time, Mexico’s territory included over 500,000 square miles of land that is now part of the United States. Before this war, Texas and Mexico were at war from 1835 to 1836, which resulted in Texas independence. The Mexican-American War began when the United States annexed the independent Texas nation in 1845. The dispute arose over the border of Texas ending at the Nueces River or the Rio Grande. The United States won the war in 1848. Mexico lost approximately one-third of its territory to the U.S., including almost all of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. The United States paid Mexico 15 million dollars for the land, which became known as the Mexican Cession.
Shortly after the war, Mexico had a period of unrest in which various political groups controlled the government only to lose that control a short time later. In 1861, Benito Juarez became the president of Mexico and announced he was going to suspend payment on all foreign debt for a two-year period. This enraged Spain, France and England, who all came back to Mexico to secure their debt. Spain and England left after a few months, but France stayed.
France took over Mexico City in 1863 and put Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the Mexican throne. This rule lasted until 1867, when a rebellion took back Mexico and executed Maximilian. Benito Juarez reassumed power in 1871 until his death in 1872.
From 1876 to 1911, a dictator ruled Mexico. Porfirio Diaz's 35-year dictatorship brought economic growth. But corruption and political repression reached new heights. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910. Revolutionaries removed Diaz from power in 1911. Mexican leadership then changed regularly. In 1917, a new Mexican constitution was ratified, which has not changed significantly since.
In the late 20th century, Mexico rapidly industrialized. Mexican industry was helped by commercial oil production, which started in 1901. The Mexican government nationalized the oil industry in 1938. With this industrialization, Mexicans moved away from the countryside to cities.
The Green Revolution provided Mexicans a way to provide more food for their growing country. Dr. Norman Borlaug, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, moved to Mexico to develop a new hybrid variety of wheat and maize that would be more resistant to disease and give higher yield. This effort started after World War II and by 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat fields were using the new seeds. The yields were impressive. The 1964 harvest was six times larger than 1944. Mexico turned from a net importer of wheat to a net exporter of wheat. In 1964, it exported more than 500,000 tons of wheat.
By 1960, life expectancy was 55 years. But by 1991, it had risen to 70. Literacy also grew. By 1990, 87% of the population could read.
More than 123 million people live in Mexico, which includes 761 thousand square miles of land. Mexico is divided into 31 states and Mexico City, the capital, which is a special federal entity. Mexico holds 13 major metropolitan cities with more than one million people. Mexico City is the by far the largest city with over 21 million people. Nearly five million people live in Guadalajara and Monterrey. Here are some other fun facts to prepare you for your trip to Mexico.
The economy still was suffering in the late 20th century except for tourism, which was growing. Today, tourism is one of Mexico’s main industries. But tourism isn’t the only growth industry today. With the adoption of NAFTA in 1994, the manufacturing industry in Mexico is growing.
Mexico tourism continues to significantly contribute to the economy. In 2018, Mexico attracted over 40 million tourists. The World Bank said that the tourism industry was the third largest source of foreign exchange in Mexico.
In 2017, the gross domestic product for Mexico was 2.4 trillion dollars. Compared to the United States’ GDP of 17.9 trillion dollars, that seems small. But Canada’s GDP is only 1.6 trillion dollars. And Mexico is growing its GDP at a rate of 2.1 percent, largely with exports. Trade with the United States and Canada has tripled since NAFTA's signing in 1994. Mexico makes and exports more goods than the rest of Latin America combined.
Mexico offers a lot of history for history lovers. There are 35 World Heritage sites, including 27 cultural sites. Mexico has more World Heritage sites than the United States or Canada. It ranks seventh in the world. Ten cities in Mexico are considered World Heritage cities, including Mexico City, Puebla, Campeche, Oaxaca and Teotihuacan.
The Mayan culture and its ruins dot the Mexican landscape. The Mayans introduced many advances in agricultural, particularly related to corn. They also built impressive temples. In addition to Chichén Itzá, many other Mayan ruins dot southeastern Mexico, such as at Palenque. In Mexico City, see the world-renowned Kukulkan Pyramid. Other Mayan ruins can be found in Tulum, Coba, Uxmal and Palenque.
If you enjoy mountains, Mexico has you covered. The impressive Popocatépetl Volcano is in Puebla. At 18,000 feet high, it still erupts (gently) from time to time.
Not to be over shadowed, the Sierra Madre mountain ranges offer popular destinations for tourists who want to experience the more rugged side of Mexico. Just remember what Walter Huston said in the movie, Treasure of Sierra Madre: “We’re going through some mighty rough country tomorrow, you'd better have some beans.” His son, John Huston, directed the film.
Mexico's cities and their surrounding regions offer so much to tourists. History, adventure, shopping, relaxing, it's all here in spades. Here are some of Mexico's most popular recreation spots.
Cancún consistently ranks as the number one tourist destination in Mexico. Cancún offers a lot with world-class beaches, great golf courses and many beach-side hotels and quiet resorts in the surrounding areas. Nearby plenty of smaller towns beckon throughout the state of Quintana Roo. You’ll find Playa Del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Puerto Morelos, Isla Contoy and Holbox.
Hundreds of all-inclusive resorts dot the coastline with pristine beaches and sunny and warm weather. Relax on the beach, snorkel, scuba-dive, parasail or jet ski. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System offers spectacular swimming and diving opportunities. It’s the second longest reef in the world.
Beachgoers can easily see the island of Cozumel from Playa Del Carmen. Ferries cheaply take you for a day trip.
Visit Cozumel for shopping, scuba diving and snorkeling. Jacques Cousteau made the area famous in 1959 when he called it one of the best diving areas in the world. Today, Cozumel is a national marine park that allows it to protect the balance of the coral reef.
Puerto Vallarta, on the west coast of Mexico, is much smaller than Cancún. It’s an older town with charming cobbled streets. The town draws people from the western United States who easily fly short hoppers to the city.
Puerto Vallarta provides beautiful beaches and a majestic coastline. It’s surrounded by mountains. It’s also home to a vibrant art scene.
Acapulco once was the world’s most famous destination for Hollywood movie stars. It was easily accessible from Los Angeles and provided a beautiful, private retreat. Frank Sinatra called Acapulco “perfect for a flying honeymoon” in his song, “Come Fly with Me.” Tourists flocked to the city.
Today, it holds a far less glamorous reputation as Mexico’s murder capital. This reputation has dampened tourism even with law enforcement everywhere in sight. Tourists are not necessarily in danger. But potential travelers frequently see the violence in the news. Most tourists stay safe in all-inclusive resorts and only venture out to go back to the airport in a private car. Acapulco’s famed cliff divers still regularly perform. They’ve been doing it since the 1930s. Today’s divers are professionals. You can watch the divers for a fee. Or you watch and dine at La Perla, a restaurant that offers a great view of the divers.
Los Cabos encompasses the towns of San José del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas and the many resorts in between.
You might visit Los Cabos for golf, sport fishing and beautiful beaches. Los Cabos lies on the southern end of the Baja California peninsula.
Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo
Ixtapa and its neighboring fishing village of Zihuatanejo lie on the Pacific coast. They contrast each other in style.
Ixtapa draws tourists with its beach resorts. Zihuatanejo offers small-town charm on a small bay with shopping and a cozy atmosphere.
The state of Oaxaca is one of the most popular destinations for tourists who want to visit historic Mexico. This UNESCO World Heritage site holds old buildings and history waiting to be explored. Oaxaca also offers renowned mole and mezcal.
You can’t go to Oaxaca without trying the mole sauce. While there are different types of mole, two Mexican states stake their claim to mole: Oaxaca and Puebla. Oaxaca is famous for mole negro, which includes chocolate, chili peppers, onions and garlic. You’ll find different variations, but it’s the signature mole of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca offers good mezcal, too. It’s often confused with tequila. The relationship between mezcal and tequila is confusing. While tequilas are mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. Both are are made from the agave plant. Mezcals can be made anywhere and from any of 30 of agave varieties. Tequila is only made from blue or Weber agave and in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is generally considered “smokier” than tequila, so it is compared more to Scotch.
Near Oaxaca is Monte Alban. Founded around 500 B.C., it’s considered one of the first great cities of Mesoamerica. It played an important role in Zapotec life for more than one thousand years.
Huatulco is situated along the Bays of Oaxaca, about 300 miles south of Acapulco at the edge of the Sierra Madre mountains. It spreads about 20 miles along the shoreline.
Only 50,000 people live Huatulco. But tourists arriving by plane and cruise ship keep the area lively. Those tourists visit Huatulco to see the area's nine bays and thirty-six beaches. La Crucecita is great for exploring with a main square, or zocalo, and many shops and restaurants. Souvenirs abound. Take great photos of the town's church, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which sits in the center of the main square.
All-inclusive in a Big Way
Madeline and I are intrigued with Mayan culture and have learned a lot during our frequent visits to Mexico. To be honest, we weren’t originally drawn to the culture; we wanted an all-inclusive resort experience.
Mexico embraced the idea of all-inclusive in a big way. There now are more than 5,000 all-inclusive resorts. And the list grows significantly every year. Prices for a Mexican vacation are competitive, especially when an all-inclusive resort is considered. Travelers easily can determine their total budget for a trip. Mexican food is delicious. It ranges from traditional Mexican cuisine by region to Tex-Mex favorites to international staples like hamburgers and French toast. Fresh fish is cooked in myriad styles.
The idea of an all-inclusive vacation was popularized by Mexico resorts. Cruise lines and Club Med actually started this trend in the ‘70s. The first all-inclusive resort for families opened in Jamaica. Club Med started the trend, but it was solely for single people. Each Club Med provided a list of services and activities in a single package that included food, lodging, sports activities, games and nightly shows. To control alcohol consumption, the clubs gave out beads to be used as a payment for drinks. When you ran out of beads, you’d need to purchase more. Beads aren’t required anymore. All-inclusive resorts are quite popular and are widely available in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean Islands. Even major hotel chains were initially opposed to the idea but have dipped their proverbial toe in the water beginning in 2013. Hyatt Hotels offers a few options for all-inclusive vacations in Mexico with the debut of the Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara brands.
We’ve frequently traveled to Mexico. We regularly stay at Hacienda Tres Rios in the Playa del Carmen area of Mexico, just south of Cancún. We’ve visited all the local tourist destinations, including day trips to Chichén Itzá. We’ve also spent time in Chihuahua, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tijuana and Huatulco. We keep going back to Hacienda Tres Rios because it’s such a special place—and holds a special place in our hearts. But all of Mexico offers the traveler so many special experiences. The country rates a high place on your bucket list!