México has a history of population dating back as far as 21,000 BC, as evidenced by stone tools found near the remains of campfires in the Valley of México. Eventually, the domestic cultivation of maize and beans facilitated a transition from hunter-gatherer culture to agricultural villages around 7,000 BC.
The earliest complex civilization in México was the Olmec culture, which flourished on the eastern coast around 1,500 BC. Olmec influence in religion and symbolic traditions, art and architecture spread to other regional cultures in Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Valley of México.
The first Mesoamerican writing system was developed in the Olmec and subsequent Zapotec cultures and eventually peaked in the Mayan hieroglyphic script.
The ascension of Teotihuacan at the height of the classic period in central México saw the formation of a military and commercial empire that reached south into the Mayan regions. Teotihuacan contained some of the largest pyramids of the pre-Columbian Americas, and attained a population exceeding 150,000.
During this period, the Nahua peoples migrated southward and gradually became the dominant cultural and political influence. Nahuatl replaced various regional languages as the most prevalent idiom.
During the beginning of the post-classic period, Central México was dominated by the Toltecas and Oaxaca by the Mixtecas. But by the end of that period, the Aztecas had exercised tremendous influence throughout these regions, including large-scale human sacrifices.
In the 16th century, the arrival of the Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés, resulted in the death of more than half of the Aztec population by smallpox. This led to an easy conquest by Cortés and a rapid spread of Christianity in the Americas. The latter was in great part due to the belief by many Aztecs that the Spaniards’ god was stronger than their own.
Thus, México became New Spain, a part of the Spanish Empire, and Cortés rebuilt Tenochtitlan into México City. During this colonial period, much of today’s Mexican culture and architecture was born.
In 1810, a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, declared México’s independence from Spain. He was soon captured and executed, and his place at the head of the rebellion was taken by José María Morelos.
In 1813, the Mexican Declaration of Independence was formalized, and Morelos was executed two years later. A general of the Spanish army, Agustín Iturbide, joined the rebellion at the side of rebel Vicente Guerrero, and by 1821, Spain recognized México as an independent empire.
Unfortunately, Iturbide decided that Emperor of México was his destiny, but by 1823, a new revolution removed him and the United Mexican States was established. Shortly thereafter, in 1824, Guadalupe Victoria became the country’s first president under the new Republican Constitution.
Economic instability, radical reforms and general poverty led to a civil war, loss of territories and border disputes. The Mexican-American War, from 1846-1848, a Mayan uprising in Yucatán and a return to power of General Antonio López de Santa Anna (already a two-time dictator from earlier days) led to yet another constitution, under La Reforma.
The Reform War, which began in 1858, finally ended in 1861, with Benito Juárez ascending to the presidency, but military occupation by France led to the throne of México being given to Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria by Napolean III. By 1867, Benito Juarez had executed Maximilian and pressure from the US convinced France to withdraw.
Porfirio Díaz ruled México from 1876 to 1880 (and again from 1884 to 1911), during a period of great advances in economics, arts and sciences. But it was also a time of great political repression and economic inequality, which eventually touched off the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
Diaz was forced to resign in 1911, and replaced by a newly elected president, Francisco Madero. But Madero was overthrown in a coup 2 years later by Victoriano Huerta, which rekindled the revolution. The Mexican Revolution finally ended in 1917, with yet another constitution, which remains in place today.
The years after the end of the revolution were heavily peppered with assassinations, electoral fraud, nationalization of resources, economic crises and political oppression, sometimes violent.
Nevertheless, these years, sometimes referred to by economists as The Mexican Miracle, resulted in tremendous growth of the nation.
- The oldest university in North America is the National University of México, founded in 1551 by Charles V of Spain.
- México is the country of origin of the poinsettia, which was named after the first American Ambassador to México, Joel Roberts Poinsett.
- México City is sinking approximately 6-8 inches per year, as water is pumped out of the ground for the population.
- At 756,066 square miles, México is nearly three times larger than Texas.
- Only Brazil has a greater number of Roman Catholic citizens than México.
- Mexican women were not granted the right to vote in presidential elections until 1958.
- The Zapotecans, (600 BC to 800 AD) developed the first writing system in the Americas.
- The Mayans often hurled hornet bombs in battle – actual hornet’s nests.
- The Aztecs played a ritualistic ball game in which the losers were sacrificed to the gods.
- Chocolate was first developed in México, and its name comes from the ancient Nahuatl word – chocolatl.
- The Aztecs believed that the universe would end if they didn’t continue to supply sufficient human blood through sacrifices.
- Human sacrifice was a major aspect of Aztec life, usually amounting to between 10,000 and 50,000 victims each year. Montezuma II, however, once sacrificed 12,000 in one day, after a solar eclipse convinced his people that the gods were angry and the world was coming to an end.
- Gifts are not given to Mexican children on Christmas. Instead, they receive gifts on the 6th of January, in celebration of the arrival of the Three Wise Men.
- Acapulco – For gorgeous beaches and a very active night live, Acapulco is a popular tourist site. Be sure to see the cliff divers while you’re there.
- Cancún – The beautiful beaches and vibrant night live of Cancún are world-famous for good reason. Take advantage of the opportunity for some stunning scuba diving at Isla Mujeres while you’re there.
- Zacatecas – Visit the city where the final battle of the Mexican Revolution was won, and enjoy 5-Star accommodations in this beautiful colonial city, the capital of the state with the same name.
- México City – In the heart of the Federal District, the capital city will require many days to see all its wonders. Be sure to visit the Zócalo and the Basílica.
- Guadalajara – This sprawling city has become the heart of much of México’s industry and international business community and is home to a large contingent of foreign residents from all over the world.
- Chichen Itza – Approximately halfway between Mérida and Cancún, these Mayan ruins will leave you breathless and provide many photo opportunities.
- Playa del Carmen – An hour’s drive south of Cancún, this resort beach area is well worth the visit. Take the ferry across to Cozumel for some great shopping, scuba diving or fishing.
- Chiapas – If getting off the beaten path is more your thing, Chiapas may be what you’re looking for. The indigenous people here have suffered greatly at the hands of the government and due to poverty, but they remain friendly and accepting of courteous visitors. Take a guided tour through the jungle to see some amazing animal specimens.
- Oaxaca – Home to one of the earliest civilizations of México, the Olmec people, Oaxaca is a popular tourist stop, with first rate accommodations, food and entertainment easily found.
How to Get Cash
Credit cards are widely accepted at most hotels and upscale restaurants throughout the country, although a few may not accept foreign cards other than Visa, MasterCard or American Express.
Nearly any ATM will accept foreign debit and credit cards, but the associated fees may make it unfavorable.
Any major bank should be willing to help you get cash from either a debit or credit card, but again, there will usually be a commission fee connected with the process, and it may take 30 minutes or so to complete.
Traveler’s Checks are declining in use in México, and you could encounter difficulty in finding a bank that will exchange them. American Express Traveler’s Checks seem to be more preferred than others, however.
There are Western Union affiliates in most large cities, if you need to have emergency funds sent to you. The fees, as always, can be prohibitive.