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Mexico enjoys a cultural blend that is wholly unique: among the fastest growing industrial powers in the world, its vast cities boast modern architecture to rival any in the world, yet it can still feel, in places, like a half-forgotten Spanish colony, while the all-pervading influence of native American culture, five hundred years on from the Conquest, is extraordinary.
Each aspect can be found in isolation, but far more often, throughout the Republic, the three co-exist - indigenous markets, little changed in form since the arrival of the Spanish, thrive alongside elaborate colonial churches in the shadow of the skyscrapers of the Mexican miracle. Occasionally, the marriage is an uneasy one, but for the most part it works unbelievably well. The people of Mexico reflect it, too; there are communities of full-blooded
, and there are a few - a very few - Mexicans of pure
descent. The great majority of the population, though, is
, combining both traditions and, to a greater or lesser extent, a veneer of urban sophistication.
Despite encroaching Americanism, a tide accelerated by the NAFTA free trade agreement, and close links with the rest of the Spanish-speaking world (an avid audience for Mexican soap operas), the country remains resolutely individual. Its music, its look, its sound, its smell rarely leave you in any doubt about where you are, and the thought "only in Mexico" - sometimes in awe, sometimes in exasperation, most often in simple bemusement - is rarely far from a traveller's mind. The strength of Mexican identity perhaps hits most clearly if you travel overland across the border with the United States: this is the only place on earth where a single step will take you from the "First" world to the "Third". It's a small step that really is a giant leap.
You have to be prepared to adapt to travel in any country that is still "developing" and where change has been so dramatically rapid. Although the
mentality is largely an outsiders' myth, Mexico is still a country where timetables are not always to be entirely trusted, where anything that can break down will break down (when it's most needed), and where any attempt to do things in a hurry is liable to be frustrated. You simply have to accept the local temperament - that work may be necessary to live, but it's not life's central focus, that minor annoyances really are minor, and that there's always something else to do in the meantime. At times it can seem that there's incessant, inescapable noise and dirt. More deeply disturbing are the extremes of ostentatious wealth and absolute poverty, most poignant in the big cities where unemployment and austerity measures imposed by the massive foreign debt have bitten hardest. But for the most part, this is an easy, a fabulously varied, and an enormously enjoyable and friendly place in which to travel.
Physically, Mexico resembles a vast horn, curving away south and east from the US border with its final tip bent right back round to the north. It is an extremely mountainous country: two great ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, run down parallel to the coasts, enclosing a high, semi-desert plateau. About halfway down they are crossed by the volcanic highland area in which stand Mexico City (or MA©xico) and the major centres of population. Beyond, the mountains run together as a single range through the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Only the eastern tip - the YucatA?n peninsula - is consistently low-lying and flat
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