Monday, June 11, 2012
I would be rich if if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me “.. but is Mexico safe?” “What about all the people who die there? Shootings, stabbings and worse …?” “Isn’t it a dangerous place?”
Well, guess what? Most ordinary Mexicans feel terrible about the criminal activities of the drug cartels too. They are horrified by the murders and torture and the shocking power that the drug cartels wield. Their concern is for the families and friends of those brutally murdered. Their concern is also for their country and it’s reputation around the world.
People’s fear of Mexico around the world results most noticeably in there being less visitors to their country, with the consequent results of less foreign money coming in through tourism. This in turn has a huge impact on so many industries – hotels and hospitality, transport, restaurants, cafes and food vendors, the retail sector generally, then all of the ancillary areas that keep tourism going – reception and waiting staff, cleaners, delivery people, ticket sellers at train stations, drivers … the list goes on.
Actually, the real dangers are confined to specific areas in the north, near the US border and in the south, in the jungle, and the battles are between rival gangs. Of course you wouldn’t want to get caught in the crossfire, but this is unlikely if you chose carefully the places to visit. There’s about 95% of Mexico that you can visit without too much worry – except for the usual vigilance you should have when traveling anywhere.
So, what’s the attraction?
Mexico is a colourful and beautiful place, with dramatic contrasts in its natural landscape, from deserts and scrublands to tropical rain forests, from active volcanos to beautiful beaches on the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean, from mangrove swamps and coastal lagoons to mountains (more than half the country is over 1000 meters above sea level). Its history is rich – with many different civilisations from the pre-Hispanic period and the multicultural mix that has arisen from Spanish colonial times to the present.
Human habitation in Mexico dates back some 20,000 years. The pre-Hispanic era, which covers about 3,000 years, includes many different major indigenous groups. These included are the Olmecs, who occupied the Gulf area around Veracruz from 1200 to 900 BC; then from around 300 BC the Zapotecs, followed by the Mixtecs, occupied the valley of Oaxaca, including Monte Alban: the Iztapa, whose temple centre was on the Pacific coast near Chiapas appeared around 200 BC; the Mayans, who were found mainly in the south-east of Mexico, in Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula and Central North America, flourished from about 250 AD to 900 AD; the Toltecs dominated the areas of Tula and Hidalgo from around 900 AD to 1100 AD; and the Aztecs, admired by many Mixtecs, occupied Central Mexico from 1400 AD to 1600 AD.
Outside of Mexico, perhaps the Aztecs are among the best known, through popular culture and legend. Interestingly, in Mexico, these people were not known as Aztec, but rather Mexica (pronounced Meshika) and we can recognise that the country and its capital city take their names from them.
Their capital was Tenochtitlan and Mexico City is built on its ruins. Tenochtitlan was built on one of several islands that surrounded a lake which the Spanish filled in to form what they thought was a firm surface. The funny thing is that because the ground remains soft because of the subterranean water, ancient Mexico, including Aztec artefacts and buildings, continues to rise up to ground level! So the culture that the Spaniards vanquished is still present and powerful. The fact that Mexico City sits on a lake also explains the constant construction and preservation work that goes on there, pretty much continually, to stabilise the otherwise higgledy piggledy historic buildings, such as the Cathedral in the Zocolo.
It is easy to see on the faces of Mexican people the underlying indigenous features, even if blended with Spanish and other European genes. For instance people with Olmec heritage tend to be rounder, more compact people. Those with a Mayan background tend to be taller, slimmer with quite dramatic angular faces and longer noses.
So, what will Adventures in the World cover about Mexico in the next weeks?
Architecture and sculpture
The ancient architecture is fascinating. The Mayan and Aztec temples and pyramids are dramatic and bold; the huge Olmec sculptures of heads, carved out of massive granite blocks are stunning. Mystery surrounds just how these ancient peoples accomplished building such places and objects. For instance, the builders of the enormous structures at Teotihuacan remain unknown to us. History tells us that the Myans found the place and occupied it for a few hundred years, but its existence pre-dates them.
Equally, the modern architecture shows imaginative flair with a mix of straight lines and sensuous curves. The use of colour is also striking in building decoration whether it's a large public structure or a private home. This is a consistent feature from ancient times to the present.
People and street life
Family is central to the Mexican life, closely followed by the church for many. Sunday is a big family day in Mexico City – home to about 25 million people – and many of the main museums have free admission on that day. Consequently, most of the cultural venues have large crowds throughout the day. Chapultapec park, and enormous public park situated on a hill at the end of Paseo de la Reforma ( a huge, wide boulevard) is packed with families of a Sunday – all generations out together, enjoying the environment and, it would seem, each others company.
Landscapes, gardens and courtyards
The landscape is varied, as I have already pointed out, so the textures and colours are strikingly different. Gardens are important – even if your place is in a fairly barren and harsh landscape, chances are you’ll have a brilliantly coloured bouganvellia trailing over a pergola or shed! Then there are specially planted gardens, conserving and displaying indigenous plants, such as The Indigenous Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca. Probably one of the most photographed thing in Mexico is the traditional Mexican courtyard, ablaze with plants and painted tiles. They are at once inviting and cooling – a place of refuge.
The use of colour, contrasting and even clashing shades, permeates so much of Mexican life. From furnishings, tiles, paint on buildings, people’s clothes, household objects to public building and sculpture – COLOUR dominates.
Useful links for Mexico
I have drawn on some of the following materials in compiling this piece on Mexico.
Wikipedia is a good, quick source of information. It shows you clearly where their research may need further expansion or verification. Of course, if you are more of a serious scholar, then there are many references for Mexican istory.
Here are some very useful pieces from Wikipedia giving an overview of indigenous peoples of Mexico:
There are also separate references for particular groups of people, such as Mixtecs, Aztecs and Toltecs
DK travel guides are wonderfully presented and easy to follow. They cater for people who like to have ‘a book” as well as helpful websites. The link for their Mexican guides is:
Lonely Planet possibly caters to a younger audience, again in book or web form. Their link for a selection on Mexico is: