Geographically and culturally diverse, Mexico is the second-largest economy and second most populous nation in Latin America. The country boasts more than 11,100 km of coastline and various terrains ranging 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 the North American Free Trade Agreement and 3000-km border with the US, it has established itself as a prime location for companies seeking to export to the world’s largest economy.
With a population estimated at 123.5m people in 2017, Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The main ethnic group accounts for around 60% of the total population and is of mixed European and indigenous heritage – also known as mestizo – while the remaining persons are largely or entirely of indigenous heritage.
The capital, Mexico City, was originally founded around 1300 as Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztec empire. Situated in the Valley of Mexico, the city itself has a population of just under 9m, but the urban area as a whole, which spreads into neighbouring states, has a population of over 20m, making it one of the largest in the world. The country is highly urbanised, with about 70% of the population living in cities.
Mexico is the third-largest nation in Latin America by land area, after Brazil and Argentina. Its national territory totals nearly 2m sq km, making it almost four times the size of Spain. Mexico has a combined 11,122 km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Gulf of California, giving it the 13th-longest coast of any autonomous country in the world. Most of the northern border follows the course of the Río Bravo – referred to as the Río Grande in the US. To the south, it shares land borders with Guatemala (956 km) and Belize (193 km), as well as maritime borders with Cuba and Honduras. Its highest mountain is the volcano Pico de Orizaba, located in the Eje Volcánico Transversal mountains, around 120 km from the western coastal city of Veracruz. Other important mountain ranges include the 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 city is located in the central-south region of the country and sits at an altitude of 2240 metres above sea level. Mexico City suffered a damaging earthquake on September 19, 1985, which resulted in widespread damage to property calculated at $3bn-4bn and an estimated loss of 5000 lives. Mexico experiences approximately 90 tremors a year, caused by movement of the Cocos and Pacific tectonic plates.
Mexico has highly diverse weather patterns that vary by region, with milder temperatures found inland, particularly in the central and northern parts of the country. South of the Tropic of Cancer, in the coastal plains and the Yucatán Peninsula, the median temperature is fairly constant, at between 24°C and 28°C throughout the year. North of the Tropic of Cancer, temperatures are cooler and can vary more during different seasons. Northern parts of the country tend to have a dry climate with only sporadic rainfall, and in the Sonora Desert temperatures can reach upward of 50°C. Both Mexican coasts are vulnerable to strong storms and hurricanes. The wet season runs from June to October, with average precipitation levels in the capital of 170 mm in July, the rainiest month.
Although around 88% of the population describes itself as Catholic, the church and state have been officially separated since the mid-19th century. The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion; there is no official state religion, and religion is not taught in public schools. However in 1992 the government modified the constitution to recognise the presence of various religions in the country, and in recent years the Catholic Church has become more outspoken, expressing generally conservative views on social and political issues.
Outside of the Catholic Church, syncretic vestiges of pre-Hispanic religions and beliefs have influenced local religious practices in a number of indigenous and rural communities. The Jewish community is particularly well represented in Mexico City, and there are some small clusters of Muslims, for example, in the city of Torreón.
Culture & Heritage
Given its vast size and varied history, Mexico is rich in religious heritage and architecture making it highly popular with tourists. There is a strong pre-Hispanic heritage as the country was home to a succession of indigenous civilisations, including the Olmecs, Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs.
There are regional variations in cooking techniques and tastes, but in general Mexican cuisine is built around beans, maize and different varieties of peppers. The country produces and exports indigenous alcoholic drinks such as tequila, which is distilled from the blue agave cactus, and mezcal, which is also derived from cactus. Important festivals include the Day of the Dead, which lasts three days from October 31st to November 2nd, and Independence Day which is celebrated on September 16 (see The Guide).
As an important centre for the arts in Latin America, the country was home to such 20th-century giants as Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz, painter Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera. More recently Mexico has gained fame for excellence in film, including actors like Gael García Bernal and directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón. In 2014 the latter’s film Gravity was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning seven, including for Best Director. Football is the country’s most popular sport, with some light heartedly equating it to the universal religion in Mexico. Another notable local sport is the Mexican variety of professional wrestling, known as lucha libre, as well as US sports such as baseball and American football.
Mexico is the 15th-largest economy in the world by GDP and is classified as an upper-middle-income country by the World Bank. In 1994 it became the first Latin American country to join the OECD. The country is a significant oil and gas producer, and among the world’s largest producers of coffee, sugar, maize, oranges, avocados and lime. Mexico is the world’s fifth-largest producer of beer and, unsurprisingly, the world’s number one producer of tequila.
According to the IMF, GDP per capita in Mexico was estimated at $18,865 on a purchasing power parity basis. The most important economic sectors by share of GDP in 2016 were energy, including industry, which accounted for 31% of GDP, followed by wholesale and retail Trade (16%); real estate and leasing (11%); construction (7%); and transportation and warehousing (6%). About 13% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, with 25% working in industry and 62% in services.
Public expenditure on health care is estimated at roughly 3% of total GDP, and unequal access to health and educational provision, particularly between rural and urban areas, remains a significant issue. While the middle class has expanded in recent years, progress on poverty reduction has been mixed.
According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line in 2014 was 53.2%, slightly higher than the 51.2% registered in 2012, or the 49% of 2008. A related issue is that as much as 58% of the economically active population remains informal, working outside the official tax and benefits system, which poses additional challenges.
Mexico is a federal democratic republic divided into 32 federal entities made up of 31 states and Mexico City, which is home to the capital. Executive power lies with the president, who is elected for a non-renewable six-year term. Congress consists of two chambers, a Chamber of Deputies with 500 members, elected every three years, and a Senate composed of 128 representatives, elected every six years. In both cases, seats are chosen through a mix of direct elections and proportional representation.
Mexico has been ranked as the fourth most biodiverse county in the world, with over 200,000 animal and plant species. It is ranked first in terms of reptiles with 707 known species, second in mammals with 438 known species, and fourth for amphibians with 290 species.
The country has significant hydrocarbons and minerals reserves. According to the BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy 2016”, Mexico had 10.8bn barrels of oil reserves, equivalent to 0.6% of the global total, with a reserves-to-production ratio of 11.5 years. In 2015 total production was 2.59m barrels per day, equivalent to a 2.9% share of global output. Mexico also accounts for 0.2% of world gas reserves and 1.5% of gas production.
The mining sector is among the global top-10 producers of 16 key minerals. It is the biggest producer of silver, the third-largest producer of bismuth, and is a significant producer of strontium and wollastonite. It also has a significant output of gold and copper.
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