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What's Your Hurry?

A common phrase among Mexicans is ahorita, which translates loosely to "a little bit of right now." Depending on the context, it can mean either 5 seconds from now, or a quarter to never. This little phrase illustrates that Mexicans have a different concept of time than their English-speaking neighbors to the north, and that life in Mexico often moves at a slower pace. An imperfect appreciation of this difference can lead to misunderstandings and/or unnecessary frustration. If you're staying in the Sonoran desert in summer and your hotel says the air-conditioning will be fixed ahorita, you just might want to pick up a paper fan at the market.

A Sticky Habit

Cigar smoking and gum chewing are two pleasures we have the Maya to thank for. Gum, the more innocuous of the two, comes from the sap of a species of zapote tree that grows in the Yucatán and Guatemala. Chewing releases its natural sugars, producing a mild, agreeable taste. The chewing-gum habit spread from the Maya to other cultures and eventually to the non-Indian population. In the second half of the 19th century, a Mexican (said to have been Gen. Santa Anna) introduced gum to the American Thomas Adams, who realized that it could be sweetened further and given other flavors. He marketed chewing gum in the U.S. with great success. Chemists have since figured out how to synthesize the gum, but the sap is still collected in parts of the Yucatán and Guatemala for making natural chewing gum. Chicle is the Spanish word, originally from the Náhuatl (Aztec) tzictli, and those who live in the forest and collect the sap are chicleros. Because the tree takes so long to produce more sap, there is no way to cultivate it commercially, so it is still collected in the wild.

Geography

Mexico's northern border with the United States runs 3,141km (1,947 miles); the southern border with Guatemala and Belize is less than a third that length, at 1,212km (751 miles). The Pacific Ocean hems in the western and southern coasts, while the Sea of Cortez (or the Gulf of California) is positioned between Baja California and the mainland, forming the world's longest peninsula. In the east, the Gulf of Mexico dominates the north, while the Caribbean Sea flanks the eastern Yucatán Peninsula. In all, the coastline runs 9,330km (5,785 miles).

Northern Mexico is a sprawling, arid region home to two deserts. The larger of the two, el Desierto Chihuahuense, sits between the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, both extensions of mountain ranges in the U.S. El Desierto Sonorense covers most of the Baja peninsula and the northwestern mainland. Baja California's mountains run virtually the entire length of the state, about 1,400km (868 miles).

Southwestern Chihuahua is home to the Copper Canyon, one of the world's most majestic canyon systems, larger and sometimes deeper than the Grand Canyon in the U.S. The six canyons that make up the Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre are located in the Sierra Tarahumara, traditional home of the indigenous Raramuri (Tarahumara).

The Sierra Madre Occidental begins near the U.S. border and continues 1,250km (775 miles) south, where it merges with the Cordillera Neovolcánica. To the east is the Sierra Madre Oriental, stretching 1,350km (837 miles) until also reaching the Cordillera Neovolcánica.

The two Sierra Madre ranges frame Mexico's most dominant geographic feature, the Altiplano. This group of broad central plateaus reaches from the U.S. border to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The southern plateau is home to rolling hills and valleys with some of the best farmland in the country. Mexico City and Guadalajara are both located in this region, as well as the states of Jalisco, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and Morelos.

The Cordillera Neovolcánica extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and includes the active volcanoes Popocatépetl and Volcán de Fuego de Colima, as well as Mexico's other highest peaks: Pico de Orizaba, Iztaccíhuatl, and Paricutín. South of the Cordillera Neovolcánica are other important mountain ranges, including the Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

The country is positioned on top of three tectonic plates, making Mexico one of the most seismologically active places on Earth, where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes rattle the ground. The last significant eruption was El Chichon in Chiapas in 1982. A magnitude-8.1 earthquake hit Mexico City in 1985, causing the deaths of thousands and long-term political consequences.

Although surrounded by the sea, Mexico's freshwater resources are unevenly distributed among its 150 rivers. Five rivers -- the Usumacinta, Grijalva, Papaloapán, Coatzacoalos, and Pánuco -- contain more than half the volume of water in all of the rivers combined. Four of these five rivers are located in southern Mexico, leaving the north, the most populated area, with less than 10% of the country's water resources.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, running through southern Veracruz and Chiapas, marks the smallest distance (200km/124 miles) between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. The northern side of the isthmus is wide and marshy, stretching from Veracruz to the Yucatán. Lush tropical rainforests and dense jungles occupy the Gulf Coastal Plain, Chiapan Highlands, and the southern Yucatán Peninsula. These regions are hot and humid, keeping the region green and teeming with wildlife. Jungle turns to tropical savanna at the end of the peninsula.

Portals to the Underworld -- The Yucatán Peninsula is a flat slab of limestone that millions of years ago absorbed the force of the giant meteor thought to have extinguished the dinosaurs. The impact sent shock waves through the brittle limestone, fracturing it throughout and creating an immense network of fissures that drain rainwater away from the surface. You'll notice no bridges, rivers, or watercourses in northern and central Yucatán. The vast subterranean basin stretching across the peninsula is invisible but for the area's many cenotes -- sinkholes or natural wells that don't exist outside the Yucatán. Many are perfectly round vertical shafts that look like nothing else in nature; others are hidden in caverns that retain a partial roof, often perforated by tree roots. To the Maya, they were passageways to the underworld. Indeed, they look sacred: Quiet, dark, and cool, the opposite of the warm, bright world outside.

Flora & Fauna

Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. It is estimated to have between 20,000 and 50,000 species of plants from the northern deserts to the southern jungles. The highest concentrations of species can be found in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. Mexico also places first in reptile biodiversity, with more than 740 known species; second in mammals, at 526; fourth in amphibians, at 290; and 10th in birds, at 1,150.

Bucking the stereotype of "barren wasteland," Mexico's deserts are some of the planet's most diverse regions. About 6,000 species of desert plants, 90% of them endemic to the deserts of Mexico and the U.S., flourish in the northern deserts. The Chihuahuan Desert sustains around 400 cactus species alone, including prickly pears, hedgehogs, living rocks, cory, whitethorn acacia, creosote, and lechuguilla (a type of agave). The sotol, or desert spoon, is used to make a distilled spirit similar to tequila that has become the state drink of Chihuahua.

Certain mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates call the northern deserts home. White-tailed deer, pronghorn, coyotes, blacktailed jack rabbits, desert tarantulas, whip scorpions, geckos, and a rich display of butterflies and moths are just a few of the local critters. Finally, the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts wouldn't be considered deserts if you couldn't find snakes. King snakes, rat snakes, coral snakes, and many species of rattlesnakes stripe these vast landscapes.

The Sierra Madre mountain ranges support an assortment of trees in Central Mexico. The higher regions of the forests sustain mahogany, zapote, ceiba, oak, cypress, and over 50 different species of pine trees. Within the midrange forests, you will find juniper, piñon (or pinyon) pine, and evergreen oaks. Figs, lianas, orchids, and bromeliads such as the spiny and silvery Hechtia argentea occupy the lowest slopes of the mountains. The central plateaus (altiplano) between the ranges support semidesert grasslands where yucca and barrel cactus grow.

Central Mexico is also home to the famous agave americana, also known as maguey in Mexico, used to make pulque (similar to tequila) and other useful products. Weber blue agave is the official plant used to make tequila and is mostly grown in the state of Jalisco.

Every winter, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies wing south to eastern Michoacán, where the Oyamel fir forest becomes their winter nest.

The tropical rainforests in the south are covered with dense layers of broadleaf evergreen vegetation and massive deciduous trees joined with palms, marshes, and mangroves. Mexico's fauna is most abundant in these southern selvas (jungles). Bats, spider and howler monkeys, the silky anteater, coatimundis, jaguars and jagarundi, the Baird's tapir, numerous species of parrots, macaws, and toucans bring the selvas to life. The quetzal bird is also found in the selvas and is known for its beautiful colors (quetzal comes from the word quetzalli in Náhuatl, meaning "large, brilliant tail feather"), as well as its religious symbology in ancient Maya and Aztec beliefs.

The Yucatán is more like a tropical savanna, supporting thick grasses mixed with evergreens and shrubs, where ferns, epiphytes, and palms are common. Mangrove swamps and lagoons are an important migratory stop for birds on the North American Migration Flyway, providing habitat for flamingos and herons.

Mexico's ample coasts are home to abundant aquatic life. Just off the Yucatán Peninsula is the Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Mexico has about 380 types of freshwater fish and at least 1,300 ocean species. Around 30 different cetaceans live in the seas, from the smallest and most endangered porpoise, the vaquita, to the blue whale, the largest mammal on Earth. Manatees swim in warm coastal waters as well as lagoons. Seven of the world's eight species of sea turtle live in Mexico's waters. Baja California also has an array of marine mammals, including California sea lions, elephant seals, finback whales, humpbacks, blue whales, the California gray whale, and bottle-nosed dolphins.

Despite this abundance, heavy deforestation has endangered many species, including the Mexican bobcat, black howler, jaguar, jagarundi, and quetzal. Both the forests in the north and the rainforests in the south continue to be deforested by logging, farming, and mining. The southern wetlands, in particular, are an important focus of environmental movements in Mexico. Overfishing, poor agricultural practices, infrastructure projects, and salt harvesting threaten reefs and coastal habitats. It's not all bad news: Sea turtle populations, along with other species, are slowly recovering with the help of scientific efforts, grass-roots organizations, and local governments.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.