A QUICK GUIDE TO THE REST OF MEXICO

As the third largest country in Latin America, and by far the most populous Spanish- speaking country anywhere, Mexico's popular image in Europe as a baby brother hiding in the shadow of the United States is highly misleading.

And despite the evident fascinations of the capital (see above), Mexico City offers just a tiny fraction of the total attractions the country has to offer. Under the hot Mexican sun, you'll find not only small men in big hats, but also Aztec monuments, cacti-filled deserts, tropical jungles, colonial towns and beach resorts. Travelling through the country on improbable mountain railways is also recommended (for example the daily train from Chihuahua to Los Mochis). Although the highlight of many Mexican journeys turns out to be something quite random - say, a mangy dog and a crumbling baroque church in the desert scrub - the following are a few of the more obvious attractions:

Guanajuato

North of Mexico City, this is one of the nicest cities in Mexico, with a small population and a decidedly Alpine location at over 2,000 metres. Set in a narrow gorge amid striking scenery, the streets of the town are so steep and narrow that kisses can be exchanged from opposite balconies in certain streets. The city also has an abundance of 17th- and 18-century churches as well as curious subterranean streets.

Oaxaca

This southern, medium-sized town is one of the most strongly Indian in Mexico. Come here for colourful markets and elegant old shopping arcades; the central Zcalo area is a delightful traffic-free zone full of music and dance.

Baja California

Dangling all the way down the west coast of Mexico, this strange finger of land is for the most part a desert wilderness. Nevertheless it is a great refuge from the human-torture chamber of southern California, and the border town of Tijuana claims to be the world's most visited city - with 35 million people crossing the border here annually. Americans come here for cheap dentistry, duty-free bargains and night-clubs, but if you are from Britain you might as well head further south to see the dolphins of Ensenada, the whales of Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or the wild, rugged interior.

Yucatan Peninsula

This great bulge of land projects north out of the southeastern part of Mexico near Belize and is one of the most heavily visited parts of the country. Tourists are tempted here en masse by the much-touted combination of Maya archaeology and beach resorts surrounded by coconut palms. The beach resorts in the Cancn area have been so swamped by tourism that they now have few if any Mexican characteristics left at all. They are also the most expensive parts of the country. To call Cancn the Torremolinos of Mexico would not be a travesty. Rather nicer is the offshore island of Cozumel which offers great snorkelling and scuba-diving, weird endemic wildlife and abundant Maya remains.

Pacific Coast

There is a string of ports and resorts of varying interest down this coast, and Puerto Vallarta is probably the most notable of the resorts. It's touristy but apart from the odd monstrous condominium, you'll find good beaches and a lively strip of bars and restaurants along the shore. Upmarket water-sports such as shark-fishing and parachute-water-skiing are available.

JEREMY ATIYAH

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