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Mexican Guide

Mexico enjoys a cultural blend that is unique: among the fastest growing industrial powers in the world, its cities boast modern architecture to rival any in the world, yet it can still feel, in places, like a half-forgotten Spanish colony, while the all-pervading influence of native American culture, five hundred years on from the Conquest, is extraordinary.

Despite encroaching Americanism, a tide accelerated by the NAFTA free trade agreement, and close links with the rest of the Spanish-speaking world (an avid audience for Mexican soap operas), the country remains resolutely individual. Its music, its look, its sound, its smell rarely leave you in any doubt about where you are, and the thought "only in Mexico" - sometimes in awe, sometimes in exasperation, most often in simple bemusement - is rarely far from a traveller's mind. The strength of Mexican identity perhaps hits most clearly if you travel overland across the border with the United States: this is the only place on earth where a single step will take you from the "First" world to the "Third". It's a small step it really is a giant leap.

You have to be prepared to adapt to travel in any country that is still "developing" and where change has been so dramatically rapid. Although the mañana mentality is largely an outsiders' myth, Mexico is still a country where timetables are not always to be entirely trusted, where anything that can break down will break down and where any attempt to do things in a hurry is liable to be frustrated. You simply have to accept the local temperament - that work may be necessary to live, but it's not life's central focus, that minor annoyances really are minor, and that there's always something else to do in the meantime. At times it can seem that there's incessant, inescapable noise and dirt. More deeply disturbing are the extremes of wealth and absolute poverty, most poignant in the big cities where unemployment and austerity measures imposed by the massive foreign debt have bitten hardest. But for the most part, this is an easy, a fabulously varied, and an enormously enjoyable and friendly place in which to travel.

Physically, Mexico destinations guide resembles a vast horn, curving away south and east from the US border with its final tip bent right back round to the north. It is an extremely mountainous country: two great ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, run down parallel to the coasts, enclosing a high, semi-desert plateau. About halfway down they are crossed by the volcanic highland area in which stand Mexico City (or México) and the major centres of population. Beyond, the mountains run together as a single range through the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Only the eastern tip - the Yucatán peninsula - is consistently low-lying and flat

Places to go

Everyone has heard of ACAPULCO , but few people know what to expect. Truth is that, as long as you don't yearn to get away from it all, you'll find almost anything you want here, from magnificent beaches by day to clubs and discos by night. If you want to stay in the heart of all the action, try a local resort. These can range from budget overnight accommodations to luxury resorts like Pueblo Bonito where you can stay for a week or more at a time. You can also choose from pay as you go or all-inclusive. It just depends on your preference.

What Acapulco undoubtedly has going for it, however, is its stunning bay : a sweeping scythe-stroke of yellow sand backed by the white towers of the high-rise hotels and, behind them, the jungly green foothills of the Sierra. And, even though there are hundreds of thousands of people here throughout the year - the town itself has a population approaching one and a half million and even out of season (busiest months are Dec-Feb) most of the big hotels remain nearly full - it rarely seems oppressively crowded. Certainly there's always space to lie somewhere along the beach, partly because of its sheer size, partly because of the number of rival attractions from hotel pools to parasailing and "romantic" cruises.

The Valley of México has been the country's centre of gravity since earliest prehistory, long before the concept of a Mexican nation existed. Based in this mountain-ringed basin - dotted with great salt - and freshwater lagoons and dominated by the vast snowcapped peaks of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl - were the most powerful civilizations the country has seen. Today the lakes have all but disappeared, and the mountains are shrouded in smog, but it continues to be the heart of the country, its physical centre and the generator of every political, cultural and economic pulse.

At the crossroads of everything sprawls the vibrant, elegant, frenetic and fascinating Mexico City . In population one of the largest cities in the world, with more than twenty million inhabitants, its lure is irresistible. Colonial mansions and excavated pyramids vie for attention with the city's fabulous museums and galleries, while above them tower the concrete and glass of thrusting development. But above all, the city is alive - exciting, sometimes frightening, always bewildering, but boldly alive.

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