Pre-Hispanic Civilizations

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 Olmec & 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 from northern Mexico to Central America. The Olmec developed basic calendar, writing, and numbering systems, established principles of urban layout and architecture, and originated the cult of the jaguar and the sacredness of jade. They probably also bequeathed the sacred ball game common to all Mesoamerican culture.

A defining feature of the Olmec culture was its colossal carved stone heads, several of which reside today in the Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa, Tabasco. Their significance remains a mystery, but they were immense projects, sculpted from basalt mined miles 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.

The Maya civilization began developing in the pre-Classic period, around 500 B.C. Understanding of this period is sketchy, but Olmec influences show up everywhere. The Maya perfected the Olmec calendar and developed both their ornate system of hieroglyphic writing and their early architecture. The people of Teotihuacán, north of present-day Mexico City, and the Zapotec of Monte Albán, in the valley of Oaxaca, also emerged around this time.

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 a capital 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.

Though we know little about this sacred game, ancient depictions, early accounts by the Spanish, and the Popol Vuh (the Maya "bible") show that the solid rubber 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 based on the Maya's cosmological beliefs. It sometimes involved sacrifice, though we're not sure whether the winners, the losers, or perhaps prisoners of war were sacrificed. 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. Playing the ball game, then, might have been one way to cheat the underworld.

Teotihuacán, Monte Albán & Palenque: The Classic Period (A.D. 300-900) -- The rise and fall of these three city-states are bookends to the Classic Period, the height of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and culture. Achievements include the pyramids and palaces of Teotihuacán; the ceremonial center of Monte Albán; and the stelae and temples of Palenque, Bonampak, and Calakmul. The Maya also made significant scientific discoveries, including the concept of zero in mathematics and a complex calendar with which priests predicted eclipses and the movements of the stars.

Teotihuacán (100 B.C.-A.D. 700 -- near present-day Mexico City), a well-organized city built on a grid, is thought to have had 100,000 or more inhabitants at its zenith, led by an industrious, literate, and cosmopolitan ruling class. The city exerted tremendous influence as far away as Guatemala and the Yucatán. Its feathered serpent god, Quetzalcóatl, joined the pantheon of many succeeding cultures, including the Toltec, who brought the cult to the Yucatán. Teotihuacán's refined aesthetics, evident in its beautiful, highly stylized sculpture and ceramics, show up in Maya and Zapotec objects. Around the 7th century, the city was abandoned. Who these people were and where they went remains a mystery.

Toltec & Aztec Invasions: The Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1521) -- Warfare became more pervasive during this period, and these later civilizations were less sophisticated than those of the Classic period. The Toltec of central Mexico established their capital at Tula in the 10th century. Originally one of the barbarous hordes that periodically migrated from the north, they were influenced by remnants of Teotihuacán culture at some point and adopted the feathered-serpent god Quetzalcóatl. The Toltec maintained a large military class, and Tula spread its influence across Mesoamerica. But their might was played out by the 13th century, probably because of civil war and battles with invaders from the north.

The Maya of the Yucatán, especially the Xiu and Itzáes, might have departed from the norm with their broad trading networks and multiple influences from the outside world. They built beautiful cities in and around the Yucatán's Puuc hills, south of Mérida, their architecture characterized by elaborate exterior stonework above door frames and extending to the roofline. Impressive examples include the Codz Poop at Kabah and the palaces at Uxmal, Sayil, and Labná. Chichén Itzá, also ruled by Itzáes, was associated with the Puuc cities but shows strong Toltec influence in its architectural style and its cult of Quetzalcóatl, renamed Kukulkán.

The exact nature of the Toltec influence on the Maya is a subject of debate. 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 someday 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. Could 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 Mexico and skirmished with the Maya off the coast of Campeche. 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 to the mainland and embarked on one of history's most bizarre culture clashes.

He landed in Tabasco, established a settlement in Veracruz, and worked his way up the Gulf Coast during the height of the Aztec empire's wealth and power. Moctezuma II ruled 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. The terrified Moctezuma was convinced that Cortez was the returning Quetzalcóatl. By the time Cortez arrived in the Aztec capital, he had accumulated 6,000 indigenous allies who resented paying tribute to the Aztec. In November 1519, he took Moctezuma hostage in an effort 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 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 Aztec chased his garrison out of the city. Moctezuma was killed during the attack -- whether by his own men or the Spaniards is not clear. For a year and a half, 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 the victorious Cortez 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.

The Rise of Mexico City & Spanish Colonialism

Cortez set about building a new city upon the ruins of the Aztec capital, collecting the tributes that the Indians once paid to Moctezuma. Many paid in labor, which became the model for building the new colony.

Over the 3 centuries of the colonial period, 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 considered themselves superior to the criollos, or Spaniards born in Mexico. People of other races and the castas (Spanish-Indian, Spanish-African, or Indian-African mixes) formed society's bottom rungs. Wealthy colonists lived extravagantly despite the Crown's insatiable demand for taxes and contributions.

Criollo resentment of Spanish rule following the 1767 expulsion of the largely criollo Jesuit clergy simmered for years. 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, Juárez & Mexico's Independence

In 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo set off the rebellion in the town of Dolores, Guanajuato, with his grito, the fabled cry for independence. 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 soon deposed Iturbide, and Mexico was instead proclaimed a republic.

The young, politically unstable republic ran through 36 presidents in 22 years, in the midst of which it lost half its territory in the disastrous Mexican-American War (1846-48). The central figure, Antonio López de Santa Anna, 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 after ragtag Mexican troops defeated the well-equipped French force in a battle near Puebla in 1862 (now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo), conservatives resolved to bring in a Habsburg to regain control. With French backing, Archduke Maximilian of Austria became emperor in 1864. After 3 years of civil war, the French finally abandoned Maximilian, leaving him to be captured and executed in 1867. His adversary and successor as president 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, and his plans and visions bore fruit for decades.

Yucatecan Independence & the Caste War

In 1845, in the midst of political turmoil, the Yucatán's landed oligarchy declared independence from Mexico. They armed the populace -- including Indians who had slaved all their lives on the haciendas -- to defend the territory from invasion. The Indians, resentful of their serfdom, realized it didn't much matter whether their oppressors lived in Mexico City or Mérida, and raised their arms against the landowners in what became the War of the Castes. The slaughter would continue, off and on, for 60 years.

The peasants soon controlled most of the countryside, capturing several towns and the city of Valladolid. Mérida, too, was on the verge of surrender just as planting season arrived. Rather than press their advantage and take the capital, the Maya inexplicably laid down their weapons to return to their cornfields. Yucatecan troops quickly regrouped, swore fealty to Mexico and called for a government army. Eventually the Maya rebels were driven back into what is now Quintana Roo, where they were largely left on their own, virtually a nation within a nation, until a Mexican army with modern weaponry finally penetrated the region at the turn of the 20th century.

Díaz, 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," maintaining power through repression and by courting favor with powerful nations. With foreign investment came the concentration of great wealth in few hands, and discontent deepened.

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 -- the great peasant hero Emiliano Zapata in the south, and the seemingly invincible Pancho Villa in the central north, flanked by Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza. They eventually routed Huerta and began hashing out a new constitution.

For the next 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. Not until Lázaro Cárdenas was elected in 1934 did the revolution appear to have a chance. He implemented massive land redistribution, nationalized the oil industry, instituted many 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.

Of Henequén & Haciendas -- Commercial production of henequén, the thorny agave that yields the rope fiber we know as sisal (pictured), began in 1830. Demand reached fever pitch during World War I; with a virtual monopoly on the oro verde ("green gold"), Yucatán blossomed from one of Mexico's poorest states to one of its richest. In addition to their baronial homes along Mérida's Paseo de Montejo, landowners built plantations to meet their every comfort when they traveled to the countryside. Their haciendas were small, self-contained cities supporting hundreds of workers, and each had its own school, infirmary, store, church, cemetery, and even a jail.

Invention of synthetic fibers during World War II devastated the henequén industry; abandoned haciendas became grand derelicts until a new generation of wealthy Mexicans began turning them into hotels in the early 1990s.

Modern Mexico

The presidents who followed were noted more for graft than leadership, and the party's reform principles were abandoned. In 1968, the government quashed a democratic student demonstration in Mexico City, 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, became the PRI's sole basis for legitimacy. In 1974 the government decided to build a new coastal megaresort. To determine the ideal location, data crunchers loaded all the variables into a computer. Out popped Cancún, and Mexico's economy changed forever.

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 new, supposedly earthquake-proof buildings, exposing the widespread corruption that had fostered the shoddy construction, and triggering criticism of the government's relief efforts.

Meanwhile, opposition parties were gaining strength. The two largest were the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) on the left and the PAN (Partido Acción National) on the right. To ensure its candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, would win the 1988 presidential election over the PRD's Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (formerly of the PRI and son of former President Lázaro Cárdenas), the government simply unplugged election computers and declared a system failure.

Under pressure at home and abroad, the government moved to demonstrate a new commitment to democracy and even began to concede electoral defeats for state governorships and legislative seats. Power struggles between reformist factions and hardliners within the party led to several political assassinations, most notably of the PRI's next candidate, Luis Colosio, in 1994.

After the crippling economic crisis the same year, Gortari's successor, Ernesto Zedillo, spent his 6 years in office trying to stabilize the economy and bring transparency to government. In 2000 he shepherded the first true elections in 70 years of one-party rule. The winner was PAN candidate Vicente Fox, a former businessman who ran on a platform of economic liberalization and anti-corruption. Many Mexicans voted for him to see if the PRI would relinquish power more than for any other reason. It did, but Fox didn't prove to be the master politician that the situation required. His efforts to build a coalition with segments of the PRI failed, and he accomplished little during his last 3 years in office.

The whisker-close and bitterly disputed presidential election of 2006 tested Mexico's nascent pluralism. The elections tribunal's ruling, denying the PRD's request for a recount and declaring PAN's Felipe Calderón the winner, was profoundly unpopular. Losing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not take defeat gracefully and provoked a constitutional crisis that only time managed to heal. President Calderón, recognizing the PRD campaign's resonance with the poor, 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 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 six states 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 attempt 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, up from 6,000 in 2009. The gory turf wars have boiled up in formerly quiet states such as Nuevo Leon, 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 the 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 become 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 the majority rule of his PAN party, 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.

Southern Mexico -- particularly Yucatán and Campeche -- remains blessedly removed from the fray, likely because it is undisputed territory. With some of the lowest casualty counts in the country, the region is a safer place to travel than some parts of the United States or Canada. Yet blaring headlines about the drug wars, combined with a tenacious worldwide tourism slump and wariness left over from the 2009 flu scare, have kept travelers away in droves. Mexico's tourism industry, especially around Cancún, showed strong signs of recovery in the winter of 2010 and 2011, but travel costs have increased negligibly and in some cases not at all.

A Tale of Two Hurricanes

By 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert swept through, Cancún had more than 200,000 residents, with more than 12,000 hotel rooms and another 11,000 on the drawing boards. The storm's destruction barely slowed the explosive growth; existing resorts were promptly remodeled and reopened, followed by dozens of new ones. But the decision to slash hotel rates to lure tourists back, combined with the national drinking age of 18, had the unintended effect of making Cancún the spring-break capital of North America. Images of binge-drinking college hordes replaced idyllic scenes of couples and families playing tag with turquoise waves.

Ironically, an even more devastating hurricane turned this image around. On Oct. 18, 2005, Hurricane Wilma parked on top of the region, battering it with 240kmph (150 mph) winds. Bridges linking the island Hotel Zone with the mainland city collapsed, electricity and water were out for 10 days, and the world's most celebrated beaches were scoured down to rock. It was the most destructive natural disaster in Mexican history, surpassing even the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.

The government, insurance companies, and major resort hotel chains mobilized a massive recovery effort. Restoration of more than 11km (6 3/4 miles) of white-powder beach with sand pumped 35km (22 miles) from the ocean bottom (a solution that proved to be temporary and was reprised in 2009 and 2010 to make the repairs more permanent) grabbed the headlines, but a more important transformation was in the works. Within 3 months, 18,000 of the 22,000 hotel rooms were ready for guests. Crews built new roads, installed better street lamps, planted thousands of palms, and installed modern sculptures. In rebuilding, often from the ground up, resorts took pains to distance themselves from the spring-break crowd, going bigger, better, and more luxurious than ever -- with price hikes to match.

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.