Discover more about Mexico on a Saga holiday to the Riviera Maya. Find out more here
Before the Spanish first landed in 1519, Mexico was a place of city states with fluctuating rivalries, including the Maya in Yucatán, the Zapotec in the south and the Aztec of the central interior.
The Spanish conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – site of Mexico City now – in 1521 with the help of several other indigenous peoples hostile to the Aztecs.
The invaders brought diseases such as measles and smallpox that killed millions and it was 1900 before Mexico’s population recovered to pre-Columbian levels.
Spanish rule lasted until an uprising in 1810 turned into a decade-long war. Independence under a short-lived Mexican Empire was declared in 1821.
Strongman General Santa Anna emerged in the 1830s, having made his name by beating a Spanish invasion force in 1829.
He was president when Mexico’s state of Texas revolted in search of its own independence – the time of “Remember the Alamo” – and during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 when Mexico unsuccessful tried to regain the lost territory.
Benito Juarez, president from 1858, broke the link between church and state, and nationalized church property, hoping to distribute half to the landless. Instead the elite bought it up and the country defaulted on its foreign debts in 1861.
In response, France invaded and a major victory by Mexican forces on May 5, 1861, is commemorated by the festival of “Cinco de Mayo”.
France declared an empire with Maximilian I of Austria at its head in 1864. The US, occupied with its own Civil War, did not react until its end, when the French withdrew and Maximilian was executed.
The autocratic rule of President Porfirio Diaz stabilised the economy but led to the Revolution of 1910–1920. Farm confiscation to benefit his cronies had left 95 per cent of rural families landless.
Peasants in the south rallied behind Emilia no Zapata’s call for land, while colourful bandit Pancho Villa inspired those in the north.
The Constitution of 1917 did away with the feudal system that had crippled Mexico for 400 years and a land redistribution programme began in the 1930s. However, the elections of 1997 were hailed as the first to see genuine multiparty democracy after six decades of dominance by the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI).
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Culture and traditions
Every region of Mexico has its own traditional costume, so the idea of a national costume is heavily influenced by that of the Spanish colonisers who took over the whole country.
Men wear a wide sombrero hat, the colourful woven wool shawl-like serape, and an embroidered guayabera shirt. The hat and shirt have their origins with the Spanish but the serape has indigenous roots.
For women, the huipile is the most obvious garment with indigenous origins. This sleepless tunic can be worn in various lengths, as a dress or a sort of waistcoat, and is often heavily embroidered.
It is worn over a skirt and can also be worn with a quechquémitl, the female serape that is also indigenous. It was originally a full body covering but has shrunk in size so as not to conceal the blouse’s ornate designs and is now purely decorative.
As with costume, so it is with many aspects of Mexican culture and tradition. Indigenous languages influence Mexico’s Spanish dialect, and the words for foods such as chocolate, tomato and avocado are direct borrowings.
Music and dance also blend together the two. Perhaps the best known is the Mariachi band, with its indigenous stringed instruments but Spanish “charro” costumes, trumpets and guitar.
Religious traditions are Catholic in origin but feasts such as the Day of the Dead have origins going back to a much earlier time.
The symbol of the skull is found in many Aztec sites, while the marigold flower associated with Dia de los Muertos was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead.
In art, architecture and other art forms, such as cinema, Mexico has successfully mixed old and older to create a new identity for itself.
Its people have also produced a successful mixture: 60 per cent of the population are mixed-race “mestizo” with indigenous, European and African genes.
The best festivals in Mexico and where to enjoy them
Their indigenous people of Mexico consumed a mainly vegetarian diet with staples such as maize, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash and sweet potatoes supplemented by meat from wild turkey, rabbit and deer.
The Spanish Conquistadors brought cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep and goats, new ingredients that were quickly merged into a new cuisine by the Indian women used by the all-male arrivals to cook for them.
Chicken and pork were particular favourites, with beef still not being a major ingredient in Mexican dishes.
Wheat was a less successful sport in the Mexican climate and corn (maize) remains the base of many meals. Even if not an ingredient, it will appear as the flatbread-like tortilla, handmade at home or bought fresh every day from a local tortillería.
The indigenous ingredients generally remain the most popular, and a pot of “refried” beans – frijoles refritos actually means “well-fried beans” – is another constant in many kitchens.
This can be eaten at any meal, even breakfast, perhaps in Huevos rancheros: fried egg, black beans, pico de gallo, and cheese. Pico de gallo is a salsa made from chopped tomato, onion, coriander leaves, fresh serrano chilli, salt, and key lime juice.
The use of chilli, which originated in Mexico before being spread around the world during the 16th century, is another distinct characteristic of its cuisine.
Comida (lunch) is the main meal of the day and is often three courses as is the Spanish style. Soup is followed by meat with rice and tortillas, and dessert could be simply fresh fruit.
Cena (supper) should therefore be a light meal but the habit of going out for a meal in the evening is gradually displacing traditional ways.
Snacking is common at any time of the day. Antojitos (“little whims”) might consist of a taco (tortilla wrap) or a quesadilla (a tortilla sandwich with melted cheese).
Traditional Mexican Cuisine
Mexico is well known for its crafts, among which vivid-coloured embroidery may be the most recognisable. Indigenous people all over the country produce designs unique to their region, covering blouses, shirts, napkins or tablecloths. Wool rugs are similarly great souvenirs of a particular region.
For pottery, you’ll find the blue-and-white Talavera style in tiles with their origins in the Spanish (and beyond them the Moors of North Africa). Red clay makes an earthier base for homely pots and vases, while the polished barro negro (‘black clay”) style of Oaxaca has become purely decorative.
Oaxaca is equally famed for its “alebrijes” – brightly coloured woodcarvings in the form of animals both real and imagined.
Silver jewellery is an equally distinctive Mexican product. In the 18th century, Mexico was the world’s chief producer of silver but pre-Columbian peoples were working it many centuries before that and their motifs are still found today.
The boom time for Mexican silver was the early 1930s – when it first became fashionable with American shoppers – and the art deco style of the time is still also a feature.
Leather is an inevitable by-product of all those beef haciendas. Good quality handbags, jackets and boots are easy to find but it’s worth spending extra time and money on a personalised item. Having your own initials and design on a pair of cowboy boots or a bag, for example, makes for a unique, affordable and long-lasting souvenir.
For something much less permanent, coffee, chocolate and tequila are three products to consider. Mexico gave the world chocolate (the Maya were drinking it at least 2,500 years ago) and it is the world’s largest producer of organic coffee (look for Oaxaca Pluma).
The town of, yes, Tequila is where the drink with an alcohol content of up to 40 per cent made from the blue agave plant. You will see bottles of Añejo (aged for at least three years in oak barrels) for prices that can climb above £300, an indication it’s a very different product to the one you drank that time in a fuzzy salt-and-lemon ritual.
Mexico: History and Culture
Places you should visit
Cancun has eclipsed Acapulco as Mexico’s favourite beach resort since the 1980s but both cities need little introduction. Nightlife, shopping and restaurants keep them lively almost 24 hours a day.
Much calmer are places such as the former fishing village of Huatulco on the Pacific coast, many of whose beaches are in the Bahias de Huatulco National Park. It’s the place to swim, surf or snorkel, or take a tour of a coffee farm.
The Caribbean island of Cozumel on the so-called Riviera Maya is part of the world’s second-longest reef system, offering diving and a series of nature preserves. Also near Cancun is the quiet resort of Playa del Carmen, close to even quieter beaches and a boat ride away from Cozumel.
San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico is at risk of being a victim of its own success but nearby Guanajuato remains a lovely version of the same thing.
Colourful 16th-century churches and colonial houses, cobbled streets, handcraft shops and tree-shaded plazas are a photographer’s delight.
The Festival Cervantino in October is a cultural highlight. Quixotically, the Spanish writer has absolutely no connection to the town.
Maya cities such as Chichén Itzá, Coba, Tulum, Uxmal and are also all destinations in their own right.
Chichén Itzá is a popular day trip from Cancun and can be overcrowded, but nearby Coba offers much of the same without the queues.
Historical Mayan sites to visit in Mexico
Uxmal is south of the “White City” of Mérida, a colonial gem well worth a visit at weekends when its centre is closed to traffic. The capital of Yucatán, it’s big enough to offer a wide choice of things to do as well as being near good beaches.
In complete contrast, Mexico City can overwhelm the visitor with its size and the choice of things to do.
Colonial buildings, the Aztec City of Teotihuacan, and 150 museums are among the cultural highlights of a city that buzzes with life from its nine million inhabitants.
The country’s second city, Guadalajara is famous in song and is the best place to see Mexico’s folk music and dance.
Mariachi music is everywhere, and its colonial buildings well preserved – including the baroque 16th-century cathedral. Guadalajara is also the place to catch a Mexican rodeo, with all the food, drink and spectacle that goes with it.