Strategically located between the Americas, Europe and Asia, Mexico is Latin America’s second-largest economy after Brazil, and has established itself as an important manufacturing and export power, particularly since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The country has significant oil, gas and mineral reserves, a young population, public and private universities, and a booming tourism industry that is bolstered by an extensive coastline and a range of landscapes, from beaches and mountains to rainforests and deserts, in addition to a rich cultural heritage.
With a population estimated at 124m in 2017, Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. It also has 68 indigenous languages officially recognised and spoken by 7m people in more than two-thirds of the country’s 32 states.
Mexico City’s greater metropolitan area has a population of 23m, while the second- and third-largest cities are Guadalajara and Monterrey. However, while there is a concentration of wealth in major cities, more than half of the country lives below the poverty line. With many people engaged in the informal economy, a large proportion of the population is unbanked, although bank and credit card usage is rising.
Mexico’s territory totals almost 2m sq km and the country boasts a broad diversity of terrain and climates. It is the third-largest nation in Latin America after Brazil and Argentina, with more than 9300 km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It is traversed by two major mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental. Mexico’s highest mountain, Citlaltépetl, also known as the Pico de Orizaba, straddles the states of Veracruz and Puebla, and is the third-highest peak in North America, at 5636 metres.
Mexico is a country of frequent seismic activity and earthquakes are common, caused by the movement of the Cocos and Pacific tectonic plates. On September 19, 2017 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale hit the state of Puebla, which is near to Mexico City. The earthquake resulted in 369 deaths, 228 of which were in the capital, as well as significant property damage in the Roma, Condesa and Del Valle neighbourhoods. Due to the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes, the capital city is equipped with early-warning sirens that are part of the Mexican Seismic Alert System, though these can only provide up to 60 seconds of warning.
Mexico City is 2240 metres above sea level, providing a more temperate climate than would otherwise be expected at its latitude. Temperatures can reach 30°C in April and May, but cool considerably with the summer rains that run from June to October. July is the rainiest month, with average precipitation of 170 mm. However, the cooling rains often cause flash flooding and traffic jams. The city’s coldest months are between November and February, when night-time temperatures can fall below 0°C and warm clothing is recommended during the day. Because of the city’s climate, air conditioning is not needed in buildings, unlike in the lower and coastal cities, and where business attire tends to be less formal as a result. While coastal cities are warm year-round, the country is cooler inland.
The northern states are drier, and although temperatures can soar to 50°C in the summer, they plummet in the winter, and snow along the northern border and in the highlands of Chihuahua is not uncommon. Guadalajara, at a lower altitude, enjoys a warm climate year-round, but temperatures drop in the evenings from November to March. At sea level, Mérida and the Yucatán Peninsula enjoy year-round tropical weather, while the June-to-November hurricane season often brings tropical storms to the country’s coasts.
As a legacy of the Spanish conquest, Mexico is predominantly Roman Catholic, although the state has been secular since the mid-19th century. Apart from Easter and Christmas, there are no religious public holidays, unlike in some other Spanish-speaking countries. Constitutional changes in 1992 allowed for the recognition of other religions. The capital city’s Polanco neighbourhood has been a Jewish enclave since the 1950s, while Muslim communities have been established in states such as Coahuila and Chiapas. In addition, there are two Mormon colonies in the state of Chihuahua. In addition, many indigenous communities have developed a syncretism that combines pre-Hispanic beliefs with Catholic traditions.
Culture & Heritage
Major pre-Hispanic civilisations flourished in Mexico, and vestiges in the form of ancient cities, temples and ceremonial centres can be found in many states, such as giant stone heads carved by the ancient Olmec culture in Tabasco and Veracruz, the monumental Toltec ceremonial centre at Tula in Hidalgo state, the pyramids at Teotihuacan within Mexico State and the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, the epicentre of the pre-Hispanic capital city, Tenochtitlán, are located adjacent to the city’s Zócalo, or main square. The Maya civilisation flourished in the present-day states of Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo, as well as in the neighbouring countries of Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, and the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Calakmul and Edzná, to name a few, provide evidence of the culture’s sophisticated architectural, astronomical and artistic skills. In Oaxaca, the Zapotec culture built the magnificent cities of Monte Albán and Etla. Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology provides insight into the major pre-Hispanic cultures, their achievements and their cultural development and decline, while the smaller Anthropology Museum in Xalapa showcases the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Gulf coast region. The country has a long and rich history of artistic creation, dating back to pre-Hispanic times, and has produced dozens of painters, sculptors, authors and musicians of note. Music is an integral part of national culture, and mariachi musicians, who would traditionally serenade couples on their wedding day, continue to be a ubiquitous sight, particularly around Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City. There is a thriving music scene, including dancehall, live salsa, merengue and cumbia orchestras, and concerts and festivals featuring local and foreign musical acts are well attended.
Mexicans are keen sports fans, with football being the most-popular sport, and teams playing year-round. Basketball, baseball, American football and lucha libre (wrestling in which masks are worn) are also popular.
Famous worldwide, the country’s cuisine offers a variety of tastes, colours and textures, as well as a fusion of styles that draw upon indigenous recipes and dishes brought by the various cultures that have settled here, from Spanish, Basque and French to Lebanese, Chinese, and Japanese.
The staple food is maize, from which the tortilla is made, although wheat is more widely used to make them in the country’s north. The tortilla is employed in a variety of dishes, while a wide selection of fruit and vegetables are used to create culinary delights that vary extensively from state to state. Rice is another staple crop, grown and consumed in large quantities. Although meat is a major ingredient, particularly chicken, beef and pork, there are many vegetarian dining options, and seafood is abundant along the coasts and in the capital. The ubiquitous chilli is used in many dishes, and despite its reputation, not all varieties are spicy.
As well as being a major beer producer and consumer, Mexico has a burgeoning wine industry, concentrated in the states of Querétaro, Coahuila and Baja California, with vineyards producing wines from a variety of grapes. The most popular spirits are tequila and mezcal, beverages distilled from agave and maguey plants. As of 2016 Mexico was the 11th-largest producer of coffee.
Extended lunches continue to be a tradition, with office workers taking their long lunch, traditionally the largest meal of the day, from 2pm up until 5pm, before returning to the office until 7pm or later.
Mexico’s economy is the second largest in Latin America after Brazil and is ranked 15th in the world in terms of GDP. The IMF forecasts Mexico’s economy will grow by 2.3% in 2018 and 3% in 2019. Mexico is among the top 20 countries in terms of proved crude oil reserves, estimated at around 7.2bn barrels, although production has been in decline since 2014 and is currently at 2.2m barrels per day. The energy sector has seen investment swell significantly as a result of the 2013 reforms, which allowed for private participation in hydrocarbons extraction and electricity generation for the first time since nationalisation in 1938.
Other major sectors are manufacturing, driven by the automotive sector; services; trade; real estate; and construction; as well as transportation and tourism, with the country receiving a record 39m tourists in 2017, a 12% increase on 2016, making it the world’s sixth-most-visited country. Mexico is also a major mining nation, and the industry contributes 4% of GDP. It is the world’s largest silver producer, although many of the country’s mines are under foreign ownership. The country accounts for 1.7% of global mineral and ore output, and is one of the three largest destinations for foreign direct investment in non-ferrous mining in Latin America and among the top six countries worldwide.
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