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Mexico

One of the world's great civilizations, Mexico is a melange of Mesoamerican cultures and modern indigenous tribes, Spanish traditions and a vibrant modern economy, the biggest in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico's landscapes are just as diverse, from the shimmering blue coastline of Baja California and the iconic cactus-strewn deserts of the north, to the Mayan villages and gorgeous palm-smothered beaches of the south. You can climb volcanoes, watch whales, swim underground and tour tequila farms. And sprinkled throughout you'll find richly adorned colonial churches, giant ancient pyramids and a sophisticated cuisine that has little in common with the world of nachos and burritos.

The 114 million people of Mexico reflect this variety, too. Communities of full-blooded indígenas represent around ten percent of the population, with the Nahua, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomí and Totonac the largest groups. There are also a few Mexicans of pure Spanish or European descent, invariably forming the ranks of the mega rich, even if billionaire Carlos Slim is actually of Lebanese ancestry. The great majority of the population (over eighty percent), though, is mestizo, combining in themselves European and indigenous traditions with, to a greater or lesser extent, a veneer of urban sophistication. Add in a multitude of distinct regional identities, from the cowboy culture of the northern deserts to the Mesoamerican traditions of the south, and you have a thrilling, constantly surprising place to travel.

Mexico City, though a nightmare of urban sprawl, is totally fascinating, and in every way – artistic, political, cultural – the capital of the nation. Around the city lie the chief relics of the pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico: the massive pyramids of Teotihuacán and the main Toltec site at Tula.

South of the capital, the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, home to some of the largest populations of pure indigenous groups, are mountainous and beautiful, too, but in a far wilder way. The city of Oaxaca is especially enticing, with an extraordinary mix of colonial and indigenous life, superb markets and fascinating archeological sites. Likewise, the strength of indigenous traditions in and around the market town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas continue to make it a big travellers' centre. It's typically the stop before the picturesque Maya ruins of Palenque. East into the Yucatán there is also traditional indigenous life, side-by-side with a tourist industry based around truly magnificent Maya cities – Chichén Itzá and Uxmal above all – and the burgeoning Caribbean resorts that stretch down the coast from Cancún.