Kaleidoscope of colour: Diversity in culture, history and food under one nation

In addition to being the second-largest economy and second-most-populous country in Latin America, Mexico is geographically and culturally diverse. The country boasts more than 9000 km of coastline and terrain varying from desert to mountains to rainforests, as well as a rich cultural heritage that includes numerous well-preserved ancient indigenous cities. Mexico is also a significant producer of hydrocarbons and minerals and, thanks to its free trade agreement and 3000-km-long border with the US, a prime location for companies looking to export to the world’s largest economy.

In recent years Mexico has attracted attention for less favourable reasons, such as drug-related violence that has led to thousands of deaths. However, the threat is not directed against foreigners – the British Foreign Office describes most visits to Mexico as “trouble-free” – and instead the violence is largely concentrated in a small number of specific areas, mostly in regions along the northern border.


With an area of 1.96m sq km, Mexico is the 15th-largest country in the world. It is divided into three broad regions – northern Mexico, which is largely desert, high plains and prairies; the south and east, which are characterised by rain forest and jungle; and the mountainous west and centre-west. However, these only provide a rough guide to the vast country’s highly varied terrain. The southernmost state of Chiapas alone boasts contrasting humid rainforest lowlands and cool pine forest-covered highlands.

Mexico has 9330 km worth of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and the Gulf of California, giving it the 15th-longest coast of any country in the world. Its borders with the US, Guatemala and Belize stretch a total of 4353 km. The highest mountain is volcano Pico de Orizaba, located in the Eje Volcánico Transversal mountain range, around 120 km from the western coastal city of Veracruz. Other important mountain ranges include the twin Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental ranges, which run south from the US border (both extensions of US mountain ranges to the north) through northern Mexico, and the Sierra Madre del Sur, a 1200-km range that follows the southern coastline.

The capital, Mexico City, is in the Valley of Mexico in the central-south region at an altitude of 2240 metres. With a population across its greater metropolitan area of around 20m, it ranks by some estimates as the second-largest urban area in the world. Its history predates the Spanish conquest, at the time of which its pre-colonial precursor, Tenochtitlán, was already one of the world’s largest cities. Other major cities include Guadalajara in the eastern-central region, with a population of around 4.3m, and Monterrey in the northeast, whose population stands at around 3.8m.


Mexico is a federal democratic republic. Executive power lies with the president, who is elected for a non-renewable six-year term and who can legislate by decree in certain fields. The next presidential elections are scheduled to take place in 2018. The legislature, or Congress, is divided into two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 500 members who are elected every three years, while the Senate has 128 members elected every six years. Elections to both chambers are a mix of direct elections and proportional representation. Consecutive terms have recently been permitted in both houses. The presidency has traditionally been the dominant branch of government. For a long time Congress was dominated by the ruling party, although it is now more politically diverse and has consequently begun to play a more important role.

Mexico is divided into 31 regions, made up of 30 federal states and the federal district, which houses the capital, Mexico City. In turn, the regions are subdivided into 2411 municipalities. State governors and the governor of the federal district are elected by popular vote and serve for terms of six years.


Mexico is the 11th-largest country in the world by population, with just under 114m inhabitants, and the second largest in Latin America (after Brazil). The population, which is growing at an average rate of around 1.1% per year, is heavily urban, with only 22% of Mexicans living in rural areas.

Around 60% of Mexicans are of mixed European and indigenous heritage (known as mestizo), while 30% are largely or entirely of indigenous heritage. Indigenous communities are concentrated mostly in the south of the country in states like Chiapas. Most other Mexicans trace their roots to Europe.

Religion & Language

Mexico’s population is overwhelmingly Christian, with 88% of Mexicans counting themselves as Roman Catholic in the 2000 census, though in many parts of the country Mexican folk Catholicism is heavily marked by syncretic vestiges of indigenous religions. There are also significant evangelical and other Protestant communities, concentrated in the south of the country, as well as Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. There is also a 50,000-strong Jewish community, whose members mostly live in the capital. There are small pockets of Muslims in parts of Mexico as well, such as the city of Torreón. The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion.

Given its vast size and long, varied history, Mexico is rich in religious heritage and architecture. Famous sites include the cathedral in southern city San Cristóbal de las Casas, dating from the 16th century and known for its gold plate interior. There are also numerous pre-colonial indigenous religious structures, including temples from Aztec, Mayan and other Amerindian civilisations.

Most Mexicans speak Spanish, making the country the world’s largest Spanish-speaking nation. Around 6% of the population speak indigenous languages such as Nahuatl as well as Spanish, while just under 1% speak indigenous languages only.

Culture & Heritage

Mexican culture is extremely diverse with significant regional differences. This is especially reflected in its cuisine, though cooking throughout the country is heavily based around beans, corn and a variety of hot peppers. Mexico is also known for its national spirit, tequila, made from cactus.

Important festivals include the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans offer food, drink and gifts to welcome the spirits of deceased relatives back to the world. The tradition is part of a wider “cult of the dead” that heavily marks Mexican culture and is thought to reflect vestiges of indigenous religious beliefs. An important secular celebration is Independence Day on September 16, in honour of which Mexicans hang flags from houses and public buildings throughout the month.

Mexico is an important centre for the arts in Latin America, home of 20th-century giants such as Nobel-prize-winning author Octavio Paz and painter Frida Kahlo de Rivera. Its vibrant film industry has given rise to talents such as Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Mexican-made worldwide hit “Amores Perros”, which featured Mexican-born international star Gael García Bernal. In 2014 the movie “Gravity” was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 7, including Best Director for Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón. Football is the most popular sport. A notable local sport is the Mexican variety of professional wrestling, known as lucha libre (free wrestling), in which wrestlers wear distinctive coloured masks.


Mexico’s climate varies by region, with milder temperatures found inland, in particularly in the central and northern parts of the country. Temperatures in Mexico City, which is in the tropical climactic zone of the country but whose altitude keeps the heat down, do not vary greatly throughout the year, ranging from an average minimum daily temperature of 19°C in December and January to an average daily maximum of 26°C in May. June to October are the wettest months, with average precipitation levels in the capital of 170 mm in the rainiest month of July, compared to just five in the driest month, February.

Natural Resources

With production of around 2.6m barrels per day, Mexico ranked in 2012 as the world’s ninth-largest oil producer, and has 12.3bn barrels of reserves, ranking it 14th highest in the world. Oil exports are the country’s largest source of foreign currency. The principle oil fields are located in the south and east. Mexico is also a significant natural gas producer, with production of 43.2bn cu meters in 2012 – placing it as the 18th-largest producer globally – and reserves of 4trn cu meters.

The country is an important minerals producer as well, with minerals production output representing 2% of the GDP in 2012. Mexico ranks globally as the second-largest producer of silver and bismuth, the third-largest producer of strontium, the sixth-largest producer of zinc ore, graphite and lead, and a leading producer of molybdenum and copper. In addition, gold, silver and copper are the most important non-fuel mineral products by value in Mexico. The state of Sonora is the leading mining region, accounting for 25.89% of non-fuel mineral output by value in 2012.

Foreign Ties

To date, Mexico has signed 10 free trade agreements with 45 countries. Perhaps the most significant is the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed with Canada and the US in 1994. Mexico is an active member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the World Trade Organisation and OECD.

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Cover of The Report: Mexico 2014

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Mexico 2014. Explore other chapters from this report.

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