Pre-Hispanic Mexicans

The earliest "Mexicans" might have been Stone Age hunter-gatherers from the north, descendants of a race that crossed the Bering Strait and reached North America around 12,000 B.C. A more recent theory points to an earlier crossing of peoples from Asia to the New World. What we do know is that Mexico was populated by 10,000 B.C. Sometime between 5200 and 1500 B.C., these early people began practicing agriculture and domesticating animals.

The Olmecs & Maya: the Pre-Classic Period (1500 B.C. - A.D. 300) -- Agriculture eventually supported large communities, with enough surplus to free some people from agricultural work. A civilization emerged that we call the Olmec -- an enigmatic people who settled the Tabasco and Veracruz coasts. Anthropologists regard them as Mesoamerica's mother culture because they established a pattern for later civilizations, developing basic calendar, writing, and numbering systems; devising principles of urban architecture; and originating the cult of the jaguar and the sacredness of jade. They likely also bequeathed the sacred ball game found throughout Mesoamerican culture.

A defining feature of the Olmec culture was its colossal carved stone heads, several examples of which reside today in Villahermosa, Tabasco, and Xalapa, Veracruz. These sculptures were immense projects, sculpted from basalt stone mined more than 80km (50 miles) inland and transported to the coast, probably by river rafts. Their rounded, baby-faced look, marked by a peculiar, high-arched lip -- a "jaguar mouth" -- is an identifying mark of Olmec sculpture.

As Olmec cities began declining, other civilizations rose to the south and north. The Maya civilization, developing around 500 B.C. in the late pre-Classic period, perfected the Olmec calendar and developed an ornate system of hieroglyphic writing. North of the Valley of Mexico, a city we know as Teotihuacán also began its long life. In the valley of Oaxaca, construction of the Zapotec city of Monte Albán began. These cultures would shape the next age of Mesoamerica.

It's All in the Game -- The ancient Maya played a ball game of such importance that ball courts appear in virtually every Maya city (Bonampak is a rare exception). They were laid out in an I shape with sloping walls in the center. Similar ball courts have been found as far south as Nicaragua and as far north as Arizona.

What little we know of this sacred game comes from ancient depictions, the Popol Vuh (the Maya "bible"), and early accounts by the Spanish. The ball was heavy and could inflict injury. Wearing thick padding and protective gear, players formed teams of 2 to 10 members, the object being to propel the ball through a stone ring or other goal using mainly the hips.

We also know the game was part sport and part religious ritual affirming cosmological beliefs. It sometimes involved sacrifice, though whether the winners, the losers, or perhaps prisoners of war lost their heads is unclear. In the Popol Vuh, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque challenge the lords of the underworld to a ball game, played in part with the head of one brother. Eventually, the twins win and are allowed to return to the world of the living. The ball game, then, might have been one way to cheat the underworld.

Teotihuacan, Monte Alban & Palenque: The Classic Period (A.D. 300-900) -- The rise and fall of these three centers of civilization defines this period -- the heyday of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture and art. Achievements include the pyramids and palaces in Teotihuacán, the ceremonial center of Monte Albán, and the temple complexes and pyramids of Palenque and Calakmul.

The inhabitants of Teotihuacán (100 B.C.-A.D. 700), near present-day Mexico City, built a well-organized city that is thought to have had 200,000 inhabitants or more, covering 30 sq. km (12 sq. miles) and built on a grid with streams channeled to follow the city's plan. Led by an industrious and literate ruling class, its wide-ranging influence included the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcóatl, which joined the pantheons of the Toltec, Maya, and other cultures.

Farther south, the Zapotec, influenced by the Olmec, raised an impressive civilization in the Oaxaca region. Their principal cities were Monte Albán, inhabited by an elite class of merchants and artisans, and Mitla, reserved for the high priests.

Toltecs & Aztec Invasions: the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1521) -- During this period, cultural and social development were replaced by a trend of violent warfare that begat the growth of an empire. The Toltec of central Mexico established their capital at Tula in the 10th century. They revered a god known as Tezcatlipoca, or "smoking mirror," who later became an Aztec god. Originally one of the barbarous hordes that periodically migrated from the north, they were influenced by remnants of Teotihuacán culture and adopted Quetzalcóatl, who was elevated to a twin god with Tezcatlipoca. The Toltec's large military class was divided into orders symbolized by animals. With as many as 40,000 people at its height, Tula spread its influence across Mesoamerica. But its might was played out by the 13th century, probably because of civil war and battles with northern invaders.

The Aztecs, who first served as mercenaries for established cities in the Valley of Mexico, acquired an unwanted, marshy piece of land in the middle of Lake Texcoco for their settlement. It eventually grew into the island city of Tenochtitlán, which lies today beneath the foundations of Mexico City. Through aggressive diplomacy and military action, the Aztecs conquered central Mexico and extended their rule east to the Gulf Coast and south to the valley of Oaxaca.

During this later period, the Maya civilization flourished in northern Yucatán, especially in cities such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and the more recently discovered Ek Balaam.

All Mesoamerican cultures apparently practiced human sacrifice, but the Aztecs brought it to another level. During the 15th century, an estimated 20,000 to 250,000 sacrifices were carried out each year. The victims had usually been taken prisoner during battle and are believed to have accepted their fate with dignity, as sacrifice was seen as both an honorable way to die and a direct ticket to paradise.

The Return of Quetzalcóatl -- The exact nature of the Toltec influence on the Maya is a subject of debate, but an intriguing myth in central Mexico tells of Quetzalcóatl quarreling with the god Tezcatlipoca and being tricked into leaving Tula. Quetzalcóatl heads east toward the morning star, vowing to return. In the language of myth, this could be a metaphor for a civil war between two factions in Tula, each led by the priesthood of a different god. Might the losing faction have migrated to the Yucatán and later ruled Chichén Itzá? Perhaps. What we do know is that this myth of Quetzalcóatl's eventual return became, in the hands of the Spanish, a devastating weapon of conquest.

Cortez, Moctezuma & the Spanish Conquest

In 1517, the first Spaniards arrived in what is today known as Mexico and skirmished with the Maya off the Yucatán coast. A shipwreck left several Spaniards stranded as prisoners of the Maya. Another Spanish expedition, under Hernán Cortez, landed on Cozumel in February 1519. The coastal Maya were happy to tell Cortez about the gold and riches of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. Disobeying his superior, the governor of Cuba, Cortez promptly sailed with his army into the Gulf of Mexico and landed at what is now Veracruz.

Cortez arrived when the Aztec empire was at the height of its wealth and power. Moctezuma II ruled over the central and southern highlands and extracted tribute from lowland peoples. His greatest temples were plated with gold and encrusted with the blood of sacrificial captives. A fool, a mystic, and something of a coward, Moctezuma dithered in Tenochtitlán while Cortez blustered and negotiated his way into the highlands, cloaking his intentions. Moctezuma, terrified by the Spaniard's military tactics and technology, was convinced that Cortez was the god Quetzalcóatl making his long-awaited return. By the time he arrived in the Aztec capital, Cortez had accumulated 6,000 indigenous allies who resented paying tribute to the Aztecs. In November 1519, he took Moctezuma hostage to try to leverage control of the empire.

In the middle of Cortez's maneuverings, another Spanish expedition arrived with orders to end Cortez's unauthorized mission. Cortez hastened back to the coast, routed the rival force, and persuaded the vanquished to join him on his return to Tenochtitlán. The capital had erupted in his absence, and the Aztecs chased his garrison out of the city. Moctezuma was killed during the attack -- whether by his own men or by the Spaniards is not clear. Cortez laid siege to Tenochtitlán, aided by rival Indians and a devastating smallpox epidemic. When the Aztec capital fell in 1521, all of central Mexico lay at the conquerors' feet, vastly expanding the Spanish empire. The king hastened to legitimize Cortez's victorious pirate expedition after the fact and ordered the forced conversion to Christianity of the new colony, to be called New Spain. By 1540, New Spain included possessions from Vancouver to Panama. In the 2 centuries that followed, Franciscan and Augustinian friars converted millions of Indians to Christianity, and Spanish lords built huge feudal estates with Indian farmers serving as serfs. Cortez's booty of silver and gold made Spain the wealthiest country in Europe.

Malinche: Mexico's First tour Guide -- When Cortez gained control in present-day Tabasco, the cacique, or military chief, presented him with 20 female slaves in an effort to pacify the powerful invader. Among them was Malinche, the beautiful daughter of a fallen Aztec chief, whose mother had sold her off after her younger half brother was born, thus denying her the position of rightful heir. In addition to the Aztec's Náhuatl language, she spoke Yucatec Mayan, and her language skills were a boon to Cortez. One member of his entourage was Franciscan Friar Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had been shipwrecked in the Yucatán peninsula in 1511. Unlike the rest of their shipmates, Aguilar and his companion, Gonzalo Guerrero, managed to escape human sacrifice and ended up in friendlier interior territories, where they picked up the local Yucatec Mayan language.

When Cortez came back through the Yucatán in 1519, Guerrero refused to leave his new life as an important chieftain (a statue outside of Chetumal's Museo de la Cultura Maya honors him as the symbolic father of the mestizos), but Aguilar joined the party. With Aguilar and Malinche's help, Cortez was able to negotiate with Aztec tribes by translating from Náhuatl to Yucatec Mayan, to Spanish, and vice versa. Malinche eventually learned Spanish -- some believe in as little as 3 months -- and Aguilar's services were no longer needed.

Malinche proved to be an invaluable asset to Cortez as he toppled the Aztec empire. Eventually, she also became the mother of two of his children, and ironically, finally achieved the status denied her as a young girl. Though many still consider her to be a traitor to her people, she is also credited with being the mother of the mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) race.

The Rise of Mexico City & Spanish Colonialism

Cortez set about building a new city upon the ruins of the Aztec capital, collecting the tributes, some of them in labor, that the Indians once paid to Moctezuma. This model for building the new colony backfired over the next century, as the workforce perished from diseases imported by the Spaniards.

Over the 3 centuries of colonial rule, 61 viceroys governed Mexico while Spain became the richest country in Europe from New World gold and silver chiseled out by Indian labor. The Spanish elite built lavish homes filled with ornate furniture and draped themselves in imported velvets, satins, and jewels. Under the new class system, those born in Spain (peninsulares) were considered superior to Spaniards born in Mexico (criollos). People of other races and the castas (Spanish-Indian, Spanish-African, or Indian-African mixes) occupied society's bottom rungs.

Criollo resentment of Spanish rule simmered for years over taxes, royal monopolies, bureaucracy, peninsulares' superiority, restrictions on commerce with Spain and other countries, and the 1767 expulsion of the largely criollo Jesuit clergy. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, deposed Charles IV, and crowned his brother Joseph Bonaparte. To many in Mexico, allegiance to France was unthinkable. The next logical step was revolt.

Hidalgo, Juarez & Mexico's Independence

In 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo set off the rebellion with his grito, the fabled cry for independence, from his church in the town of Dolores, Guanajuato. With Ignacio Allende and a citizen army, Hidalgo marched toward Mexico City. Although he ultimately failed and was executed, Hidalgo is honored as "the Father of Mexican Independence." Another priest, José María Morelos, kept the revolt alive with several successful campaigns before he, too, was captured and executed in 1815.

When the Spanish king who replaced Joseph Bonaparte decided to institute social reforms in the colonies, Mexico's conservative powers concluded they didn't need Spain after all. Royalist Agustín de Iturbide defected in 1821 and conspired with the rebels to declare independence from Spain, with himself as emperor. However, internal dissension quickly deposed Iturbide, and Mexico was instead proclaimed a republic.

The young, politically unstable nation ran through 36 presidents in 22 years, during which it lost half its territory in the disastrous Mexican-American War (1846-48). The central figure, Antonio López de Santa Anna, was flexible enough in those volatile days to portray himself variously as a liberal, a conservative, a federalist, and a centralist. He assumed the presidency no fewer than 11 times and just might hold the record for frequency of exile. He was ousted for good in 1855 and finished his days in Venezuela.

Amid continuing political turmoil, conservative forces, with some encouragement from Napoleon III, resolved to bring in a Habsburg to regain control. With French backing, Archduke Maximilian of Austria stepped in as emperor, but ragtag Mexican troops defeated the well-equipped French in a battle near Puebla in 1862 (now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo). A more successful second attempt seated Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph as emperor. Maximilian developed a genuine fondness for the Mexican people and upheld such policies as land reforms, religious freedom, and extending the right to vote beyond the landholding class. But he never overcame the opposition of Mexican extremists or the refusal of many foreign countries, including the United States, to recognize his government. After 3 years of civil war, the French abandoned the emperor, leaving Maximilian to be captured and executed in 1867.

Maximilian's adversary and successor (as president of Mexico) was Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian lawyer and one of Mexico's greatest heroes. Juárez did his best to unify and strengthen his country before dying of a heart attack in 1872; his plans and visions bore fruit for decades.

Zapata, Pancho Villa & the Mexican Revolution

A few years after Juárez's death, one of his generals, Porfirio Díaz, seized power in a coup. He ruled Mexico from 1877 to 1911, a period now called the Porfiriato. He maintained his rule through repression and by courting the favor of powerful nations. Generous in his dealings with foreign investors, Díaz became the archetypal entreguista (one who sells out his country for private gain). With foreign investment came the concentration of great wealth in a few hands, and social conditions worsened.

In 1910, Francisco Madero led an armed rebellion that became the Mexican Revolution ("La Revolución" in Mexico; the revolution against Spain is the "Guerra de Independencia"). Díaz was exiled and is buried in Paris. Madero became president, but Victoriano Huerta, in collusion with U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, betrayed and executed him in 1913. Those who had answered Madero's call rose up again -- in support of the great peasant hero Emiliano Zapata in the south, and the seemingly invincible Pancho Villa in the central north, flanked by Álvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza. They eventually expelled Huerta and began hashing out a new constitution.

For a few years, Carranza, Obregón, and Villa fought among themselves; Zapata did not seek national power, though he fought tenaciously for land for the peasants. Carranza, who was president at the time, betrayed and assassinated Zapata. Obregón finally consolidated power and probably had Carranza assassinated. He, in turn, was assassinated when he tried to break one of the tenets of the revolution -- no re-election. His successor, Plutarco Elias Calles, learned this lesson well, installing one puppet president after another, until Lázaro Cárdenas, elected in 1934, exiled him. At last, the Revolution appeared to have a chance. Cárdenas implemented massive land redistribution, nationalized the oil industry, instituted many other reforms, and gave shape to the ruling political party, which evolved into today's Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI. Cárdenas is practically canonized by most Mexicans.

A New Democracy

The presidents who followed were noted more for graft than for leadership, and the party's reform principles were abandoned. Ten days before the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the government quashed a student demonstration in the Tlatelolco district, killing hundreds of people. Though the PRI maintained its grip on power, it lost its image as a progressive party. Economic progress, particularly in the form of large development projects -- most famously a skinny, unpopulated sandbar called Cancún -- became the PRI's sole basis for legitimacy.

The government weathered several bouts of social unrest caused by periodic devaluations of the peso. But in 1985, the devastating Mexico City earthquake brought down many of the government's new, supposedly earthquake-proof buildings, exposing the widespread corruption that had fostered the shoddy construction and triggering heavy criticism of the government's relief efforts.

A political and military uprising in Chiapas and the occupation of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1994 focused world attention on Mexico's profound social problems. A new political force, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army), skillfully publicized the plight of the peasant.

In the years that followed, opposition political parties gained strength. Facing widespread public discontent at home as well as pressure and scrutiny abroad, the PRI began to concede defeat in state and congressional elections throughout the '90s. Party reformers were able to make changes over the objections of many hard-liners. They instituted a partial system of primary elections to give greater voice to the rank and file. This made for successful campaigns in several states, but in other states the old-style party leaders held on to their right to appoint the official party candidate. Internal strife reached a climax with the 1994 assassination of the party's presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. A quick compromise resulted in the nomination of Ernesto Zedillo for president. Once in power, Zedillo proved to be a reformer. Over his 6-year term, he steadily led the country toward open and fair elections by strengthening the electoral process, gaining the public's confidence, and getting his own party to accept the possibility of losing power.

Vincente Fox -- In 2000, Zedillo shepherded Mexico's first true elections in 70 years of one-party rule. The winner, by a landslide, was PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) candidate Vicente Fox, a former businessman who ran on a platform of economic liberalization and anti-corruption. Many Mexicans voted for him simply to see if their voices would be heard and the PRI would relinquish power.

During Fox's presidency, the three main political parties had to adjust to the new realty of power sharing. The old government party, the PRI, still had a large infrastructure for getting out the vote and still controlled several state governments. Fox's center-right PAN had control of the presidency and most seats in the legislature, while the center-left PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or Democratic Revolution Party) controlled the government of Mexico City and a few southern states. To their credit, they handled the transition better than expected.

But by the end of Fox's term, Mexico's experiment with pluralistic democracy faced a crisis. Fox hadn't proved to be the master politician that the situation required. His efforts to build a coalition with segments of the PRI foundered, and his government failed to pass most of its initiatives. In the off-year elections of 2004, PAN lost many seats in the legislature and several governorships.

The PRI was in an excellent position for the presidential election of 2006, until party leader Roberto Madrazo sought to become the nominee in 2005 without going through primary elections. His power plays won him the nomination but deeply splintered the party; worse, they reminded voters of the old days when their votes counted for little.

The 2006 Election

Meanwhile, Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, for short) was the PRD's clear nominee. He was very popular for creating programs such as a pension for the city's elderly, and he was genuinely interested in helping the poor. Still, there was something unsettling about his habit of taking political opposition personally.

The bitter campaign between AMLO and PAN candidate Felipe Calderón, a social conservative and devout Catholic who believes in privatization and market forces, followed by a historically close election in the summer of 2006, was pure political circus. When the elections tribunal finally declared Calderón the winner more than a month later, AMLO refused to recognize the verdict. He launched a protest in grand Mexico City style that clogged the streets and infuriated commuters for a month. Supporters even took over the legislative chambers in an effort to physically prevent Calderón from taking office.

The contretemps diminished AMLO's popularity, and members of his party saw him as a nuisance best forgotten. However, AMLO still has a large following, and the recession brought new currency to his leftist message. He mustered tens of thousands of supporters in 2009 for a rally in Mexico City's zócalo, and in January 2010, he announced he would make another run for the presidency in 2012, with Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard as his major rival for the PRD nomination.

The Calderón Presidency -- Despite the controversy surrounding his election, Calderón quickly asserted his authority. Just 15 days after his December 2006 swearing-in, Calderón sent thousands of troops to his home state of Michoacán to quell the lucrative drug trade. He also created 150,000 temporary jobs and raised military pay.

After his rocky acquisition of power, won with only 35% of the popular vote, Calderón won over more of the public with his no-nonsense approach. Recognizing the PRD campaign's resonance with the poor, he announced programs to boost employment, alleviate poverty, and stabilize the skyrocketing price of tortillas.

His biggest challenge, however, has proved to be the alarming escalation of drug-related violence -- a conflagration widely attributed to his crackdown on traffickers who ferry contraband through Mexico on its way to the United States. The violence, directed at journalists and government officials as well as rival drug cartels, is concentrated in five counties along the U.S.-Mexico border and parts of northern and central Mexico.

As 2011 began, Calderón could claim a certain success in his war on the cartels: He succeeded in capturing or killing several high-profile drug lords in 2010 and dismantled several cartel networks in the process. Such victories, however, further upset the balance of power as the organizations attempted to preserve their territory and grab turf from their weakened rivals. The result was the bloodiest year in Mexico's history -- more than 11,000 deaths. The gory turf wars have boiled up -- though not with the numbers or intensity as in the border areas -- in formerly quiet states such as Guerrero, Morelos, Mexico, Colima, and Jalisco.

Opposition to Calderón's strategy has steadily mounted, and 2011 brought new tactics. He deployed more highly trained and better-paid (therefore less susceptible to corruption) federal police to Ciudad Juárez and other key areas. Perhaps more significantly, the legislature approved harsher prison sentences for terrorist acts while acknowledging that cartel violence could be classified as terrorism. Simply characterizing the violence as terrorism raises two interesting possibilities. First, it has the potential to spike the level of outrage among the general population, for whom tolerating cartel activity has long been a given; second, it raises the possibility of increased U.S. involvement in the conflict. Calderón is walking a fine line; he doesn't want the U.S. to storm the border in the name of counterterrorism, nor can he be sure that he, rather than the cartels, will bear the brunt of public outrage.

With the July 2012 presidential election approaching, Calderón is boxed in. Since the July 2009 legislative elections ended his PAN party's majority rule, the rival PRI has gained new strength. He has to reduce the body count, and he's running out of both time and resources. He basically has two choices: Accept U.S. intervention, which carries its own political perils, or give the cartels room to return to a clear division of territory and self-policing. As of this writing, Calderón had not tipped his hand as to which path, if either, he might take to preserve his party's political future.

Drugs & Other Border Issues

For years Mexico's drug traffickers operated in secluded mountain passes along abandoned highways, and from within their own transportation and trade network -- much like a hornet's nest, buzzing away in the nation's backyard. As long as politicians and law-enforcement officers stayed out of their way -- or, in some cases, aided in their enterprises -- they remained out of sight and only occasionally stung an outsider.

When Calderón was elected, he poked a stick into that hornet's nest. His first act as president was to send troops to his home state of Michoacán, where lush mountain slopes support a lucrative marijuana business. Soon afterward, he sent the army into five other areas, most of them border states.

Calderón resorted to military takeovers of local and state police forces because the military is less corrupt than Mexico's law enforcement agencies. Investigations have found that as many as half of all of the country's police officers, who earn only about $5,000 a year, have been deemed incompetent or worse. The number was as high as 9 out of 10 in Baja California Norte. Since 1982, the federal law enforcement system has been reorganized five times, and at least four elite forces have been created in an attempt to combat corruption. The president has implemented such extreme measures as confiscating the guns of 2,300 Tijuana police officers while detectives investigate whether they were used in crimes.

But military personnel are not trained for close contact with civilians, and their heavy-handed tactics have brought accusations of human rights-abuse. Well aware that using the military is far from ideal, Calderón instituted federal police reforms in 2008 with a view to reducing the soldiers' role. The first major step came in January 2010, when he shifted control of Joint Operation Chihuahua from the military to the federal police and sent 2,000 police officers to Ciudad Juárez, the country's deadliest drug war zone. Federal police, who are specifically trained to work with civilians, will operate in high-risk urban areas while the military continues to guard the state's vast expanses of rural desert. If the new strategy succeeds, it could be extended to Mexico's other joint operations.

Despite these efforts -- or, some say, because of them -- drug violence has escalated. According to security intelligence analyses, the death toll for 2009 was around 7,500, up from 5,700 in 2008 and 2,500 in 2007.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel, is an example of the kind of mastermind authorities face. While feared by citizens and loathed by authorities, Guzman, known as El Chapo ("Shorty"), is lionized by many in his home state, where he is the subject of many a narco-corrido, or drug-inspired ballad, and has even had Facebook pages created in his honor. Known for rising from a humble farmer to one of the country's most successful and elusive drug dealers, he enhanced his reputation in 2001 by allegedly bribing guards and escaping prison in a laundry cart. Guzmán made no. 701 on Forbes' 2008 list of the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

There are actually two drug wars in Mexico: The battle between the drug lords and the Mexican government, and the fight among competing cartels for lucrative supply routes. It's not that Calderón's efforts have been ineffective; they have taken out some key players, such as Arturo Beltran Leyva, head of the Beltran Leyva Organization operating on the Pacific coast, and his brother Carlos 2 weeks later in December 2009. Such success disrupts the drug runners but in fact spurs more violence as beheaded cartels descend into infighting, other gangs grabs for new territory, and both target journalists and government officials for revenge killings.

Travelers are not likely to see signs of this struggle except in places where the flow of tourists and drugs intersect -- mostly along the border, especially in Tijuana, El Paso, Nuevo Laredo, Nogales, and Matamoros. Violence has surged in Michoacán state in the past 2 years, in areas where tourists rarely venture. Even in the most dangerous spots, it's an unspoken tenant among the narcos that you don't mess with the tourists. Two important exceptions: Well-to-do Monterrey has recently come under siege, and Acapulco has experienced a spate of grisly incidents that, while not directed at tourists, have impinged on popular tourist areas. Breathless headlines about the slaughter of innocent tourists are rarely followed by reports that the victim was buying or selling drugs, which is usually the case. In fact, many places in Mexico's interior experience less drug violence than U.S. cities, nor are beach resorts likely settings for shootouts between the army and the cartels.

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.