Many might know Mexico because of tacos and mariachis, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Latin American country is rich in history, culture, and, of course, Mexican food. Although it would take a whole book to cover every aspect of Mexican places to visit, culture, traditions and symbols, we’ve tried our best to compile some greatest hits for you.
Let’s take a look at some cultural facts about Mexico!
Indigenous Civilizations of Mexico
Aztec. The Aztec civilization was the last to flourish. They rose to power around 1345 as many neighboring states began to fight for dominance. The Aztecs succeeded at conquering a vast amount of land in northern Mesoamerica and were ruled by influential figures such as Motecuhzoma II. Tenochtitlan served as the Aztec capital, which is believed to have been inhabited by over 200,000 people by the early 1500s. Well-versed in agriculture and trade, the Aztec civilization flourished until meeting its demise in 1521 after the arrival of the conquistadores. Today, Mexican culture is still known for its Aztec influence.
Maya. Unlike most other indigenous civilizations around the world, Mayan culture and practices are still alive today through the Mayan descendants. The Chichen Itza is probably the most well-known Mayan city, with many of its buildings still standing since the city’s flourishment in 250-950 CE. The Mayan calendar is infamously known for “having predicted the end of the world” in 2012, but don’t let conspiracy theories fool you! The Mayans were actually quite adept at mathematics, writing, and astronomy, with many of their systems being deeply rooted in the concept of cycles.
Olmec. Blossoming in the Gulf of Mexico from c.1200 BCE to c. 400 BCE, the Olmecs are considered the predecessor to all other Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs and the Mayas. There’s not a lot of information on the Olmecs, but we know they enjoyed drinking chocolate, playing ball games, and building colossal head sculptures. Most of what’s left of their structures and buildings can be found in present-day San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Laguna.
Teotihuacan. A historic city discovered by the Aztecs in the 1400s, Teotihuacan also refers to the civilization who first flourished in these lands close to present-day Mexico City. The Aztec name Teotihuacan means “place of the gods,” which is fitting to describe the mesmerizing UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Toltec. Following in the footsteps of the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Mayan civilizations, the Toltecs flourished in central Mexico from the 10th to the mid-12th centuries CE. The Aztec civilization was proud of their Toltec ancestors, keeping records and documentation of their history still available today. According to the Aztecs, it was the first Toltec ruler, Ce Técpatl Mixcoatl, who first obtained the title of the great feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, a primary deity in Mexican mythology.
Zapotec. The residents of the Valley of Oaxaca from 500 BCE – 900 CE, known as the “Cloud People.” For many years, Monte Albán was their home base, where ancient edifices from this civilization still stand. At least fifteen palaces in the area are attributed to the Zapotecs and sophisticated irrigation are observed in many of their structures. The Zapotecs were also quite advanced in writing, the arts, and engineering.
Did you know Mexico is home to the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Americas? Thanks to Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Zapotecs, Mexico is covered in breathtaking ancient architecture. These sites are among the best places to visit in Mexico.
The most well-known archeological and architectonic sites are Teotihuacán, Palenque and Chichén Itzá. However, Mexico also houses other beautiful locations, including wonders of colonial architecture and Mexican Baroque such as Puebla and Guanajuato.
Modern examples of Mexican architecture speak to the industrial revolution thanks to the use of cast iron technology, but also pays homage to the country’s heritage. In the 20th centuries, multiple Mexican governments expressed their support for retaining a pre-Hispanic aesthetic in the country’s architecture, a sentiment that was carried through to present day.
We all know tacos and guacamole, but Mexican cuisine has a lot more to offer. Whether you’re looking to try making something new at home or are planning out a future trip, the mouthwatering list below is bound to make you hungry for great Mexican food.
Tamales. Originally battle food for the pre-Hispanic civilizations, tamales are corn dough wrapped up in banana leaves or corn husks. They can have sweet or savory fillings such as meats, cheese, and vegetables.
Mole. A sauce containing as many as 20 ingredients, the most popular kind being mole poblano.
Enchiladas. A traditional breakfast option hailing back to the Mayan civilization, enchiladas are stuffed corn tortillas and covered in sauce.
Elote. A Mexican-style corn on the cob, often sold in the streets and drizzled in various toppings such as chili powder, cheese, and sour cream.
Chiles en nogada. A patriotic dish representing the Mexican flag with its colors. Chiles en nogada are made with meat filled Poblano chilies covered in a white walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds for the red.
Tostadas. At their core, tostadas are an open-face taco made with fried tortillas. In practice, tostadas are the perfect way to repurpose tortillas that have gone stale.
Pozole. A soup made with hominy corn, herbs, spices, and topped with onion, radish, chili, and other garnishes.
Chilaquiles. Another breakfast staple, chilaquiles are made with friend corn tortillas, eggs, and other toppings such as cheese, chicken, and refried beans.
Cities in Mexico
With so many places to go and foods to try, you’re probably wondering where to start your journey. Below is a list of places to visit in Mexico, ranging from touristic to urban to historical. Even for locals, it’d probably take a lifetime to explore every inch of this culturally-rich country, but you can’t go wrong with any of these!
Cancun. A city in southeast Mexico, Cancun is known for its Caribbean beaches, a 12km stretch of land and sea that also houses part of the world’s second-largest coral reef. Though great for tourists, Cancun also used to be an ancient Mayan settlement.
Mexico City. Located in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexican capital is the most populous city in North America. An important cultural and financial center, Mexico City is composed of 16 subdivisions. At its center sits the old Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Mexico City is a vibrant mix of Mesoamerican and modern architecture, serving as a backdrop for a cosmopolitan society.
Playa del Carmen. Located in the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is a popular tourist destination and host of the PGA Tour golf tournaments. Although Playa del Carmen started out as a fishing town, connection to the Cozumel ferry began bringing in tourism.
Guadalajara. The capital of Jalisco, Guadalajara is located in central Mexico in the Valley of Atemajac. It’s the second most populous city in Mexico and was the city where Miguel Hidalgo, a priest, proclaimed the abolishment of slavery in the country. Today, Guadalajara is the third most important economic hub in Mexico and is considered the home of mariachi, a type of traditional Mexican folk music.
Puebla. First inhabited around 32,000 years ago, Puebla has lived through many momentous historical events such as the passage of the Mayan, Mexica, Toltec, and Zapotec civilizations, to name a few. Today, Puebla is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites and nine “Magical Towns,” part of Mexico’s “Pueblos Mágicos” program meant to help protect and promote emblematic places across the country.
Oaxaca. A living history book, Oaxaca is home to large populations of indigenous peoples, particularly Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Some credit their survival to Oaxaca’s rugged terrain, which has kept industrialization at bay. Most municipalities in Oaxaca are governed by a system of usos y costumbres (customs and traditions), making it one of the three states in Mexico to provide this level of autonomy to indigenous settlements. And if all of this wasn’t cool enough, Oaxaca is also the third most biologically diverse state in Mexico.
Are you half packed already? Mexico is definitely a wonder of the world. Even if you can’t travel because of restrictions, it’s still worth the while to pick up a book or watch a documentary about this amazing nation. You won’t be disappointed!