What is Mexico famous for? A haven of amazing food, stunning beaches, and live monuments, Mexico is known for ruins like the temples of Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, resort towns like Cancún and Cabo San Lucas, quaint historic pueblos like San Miguel de Allende, and for its iconic capital, Mexico City.
Mexican culture, which includes a strong indigenous heritage, a fast-paced art scene, and a few quirky gems, is another thing Mexico is famous for.
Come with us for a bunch of interesting facts about Mexico as we paint a portrait of the country’s defining sights and cultural icons.
Mexico is known for its eventful history
Not being Mexican is sort of a bummer, until you picture going to school in Mexico and attending history classes.
1. Indigenous heritage
Although the Mayas and the Aztecs (who called themselves the Mexicas) get all of the credit because they were still there when the Spanish landed on the Mexican shore, at least seven major civilizations developed in Mexico between 1800 BCE and the 1500s.
They impacted everything from food to art, and from place names to architecture.
And I’m not even talking about ruins: the artificial channels and islands the Aztecs built on the lakes that dotted central Mexico have survived as well. The ones in the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City can be crossed on colorful flatboats like the ones above.
2. The flag
The Mexican tricolor has been the country’s undisputed symbol for around 200 years. It perfectly encapsulates Mexican identity and history, not simply due to the design itself, but particularly through the imposing coat of arms Mexico is known for.
The emblem portrays the founding myth of the city-state the Aztecs erected in modern-day Mexico City, which would go on to become the capital of an empire.
Legend has it that while wandering across the desert they saw an eagle sitting on top of a cactus as it ate a snake and figured that signified the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
3. The border
The Mexico-US border is infamous for a non-stopping flow of immigrants and drugs, which makes it a contentious issue in every American election. But the border is special for yet another reason: its past changes are almost as notorious as its current line.
Between 1845 and 1853, following its defeat in the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States. The enormous area would eventually make up six American states (including Texas and California) and parts of four other states.
4. The Revolution
The Mexican Revolution was a series of upheavals and power struggles that swept through the country between 1910 and 1920. It was the biggest event in the history of Mexico ever since its independence.
In the longer run, the main consequence of the Revolution was the de facto single-party system that ruled Mexico from 1929 through 2000 (and then again 2012-2018).
The oddly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) led the so-called “perfect dictatorship”, in which presidents appointed successors who won virtually unopposed.
Mexico’s famous landmarks
Beauty everywhere you look — that’s definitely one of the things Mexico is famous for.
5. Mexico City
While there are a little less than 130 million people in Mexico, Mexico City’s metropolitan area is home to roughly 20% of them; that’s how huge it is. Mexico’s political, cultural, financial, geographic heart and soul was founded as the capital of the Aztec Empire in 1325.
Today, the sprawling metropolis has everything a demanding visitor might want: a hectic culture and exciting nightlife, dazzling architecture and lovely parks, fantastic food, and great shopping options.
6. Pueblos Mágicos
The Mexican government has labeled the most mesmerizing colonial towns in the country as “magical” to promote international tourism.
Now, there are 130+ of them, but that should still help you plan your Mexican vacay — especially considering the states around Mexico City have more than 20 pueblos mágicos.
Marvelous San Miguel de Allende (pictured above) was one of the first towns to be declared a pueblo mágico, yet it’s been too cool for that since 2008: that’s the year it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
7. Age-old ruins
Though the Aztecs lived their heyday a mere couple of centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, Mexico had had complex civilizations since 1500 BCE.
They left behind world wonders like Chichen Itza (seen above), the majestic Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, and the charming towns of Tulum and Palenque. The jungle took over most of these sites for centuries, which contributed to preserving them for so long.
Even Mexico City, built atop two Aztec city-states (Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco) has its own set of ruins.
8. The coast
The coolest thing about the Mexican coast is that it’s made up of two entirely different shorelines.
The Pacific coast, where classic beach destinations like Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, and the Riviera Nayarit are located, is quite jagged. The sea is predominantly deep blue and rough.
The Atlantic, in turn, is home to both the Caribbean (where you’ll find Cancún) and the Gulf of Mexico. Beaches there are longer and whiter, while the sea is calm and turquoise. You can’t go wrong either way.
Chichen Itza and Cancún’s Yucatán Peninsula hides the best-kept (open) secret on the Mexican coast: cenotes, or huge, flooded sinkholes.
Mexico is known for its tantalizing cuisine
(which reminds me there’s no authentic Mexican place near me… *cries in Spanish*)
9. Mexican food
Mexican cuisine is one-of-a-kind in that it’s been based on the same staples indigenous peoples used before the conquest.
Corn, beans, avocado, tomatoes, and chili pepper are all native to present-day Mexico. Then the Spanish brought over dairy, rice, several types of meat, and dinner was served.
Street food options are widely diverse and have become one of the main things Mexico is known for. Tacos and quesadillas are world-famous, but each region has its own mouthwatering dishes too.
Despite not being heavy drinkers on average, Mexicans know their stuff when it comes to booze. Tequila and margarita, the decadent cocktail made with the spirit, are only two of Mexico’s famous drinks.
Yet when you visit, besides those two, you can’t miss either micheladas, prepared with beer, lime juice, and spices, and served in a salt-rimmed glass, or mezcal, tequila’s “rugged” cousin — which usually features a moth larva inside the bottle.
Just don’t get the last shot of mezcal, or you’ll be challenged to swallow the caterpillar with it.
Granted, the Aztecs added chili and spices instead of sugar to what was then almost always a beverage, but Mexican chocolate has come a pretty long way since colonial times.
The chocolate disks manufacture by Ibarra (pictured above) are a special Mexican delicacy that is normally used to make Mexican-style hot chocolate by dissolving a quarter of a disk into a cup of boiling milk.
Mexican culture and traditions
The mix of indigenous and European, modern and conventional, urban and rural that Mexico is known for has given form to the country’s wonderful culture.
At about 80%, Mexico’s population is among the most catholic on the planet. This percentage has been decreasing as Protestantism has been gaining ground in the country.
Ironically, though, the Mexican government historically had a turbulent relationship with the Holy See, and would only re-establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1992, 130 years after having seized the Church’s property nationwide.
Many Mexicans also blend their Catholic beliefs with popular religions, such as the cult of the “Holy Death” (Santa Muerte) and Afro-Caribbean Santería.
13. Day of the Dead
Part of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage since 2003, Día de Muertos takes place between the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1-2).
Whereas its origins are controversial, the majority of historians attribute the celebration to the Mexican indigenous heritage; the first nations living in pre-colonial Mexico honored their dead joyfully year-round.
On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans embellish tombs with flowers and leave gifts to their loved ones that have passed away like favorite foods and drinks. Meanwhile, thousands attend a spooky parade themed after La Calavera Catrina, the “elegant skeleton” that has turned into the most enduring image of the holiday.
Mariachi is a very traditional musical style that mixed together local and European genres as it became more and more urban and detached from its birthplace, the countryside.
Nowadays, bands are commonly hired to play at weddings, birthday parties, and all kinds of events. In Mexico City, they normally gather in a specific downtown square (Plaza Garibaldi), where you can pick your favorite band and hire them on the spot.
15. Mexican hospitality
Going to great lengths to make sure a guest is comfortable and happy is a trait Mexicans share with other Latin American nations.
Yet hardly anywhere else will you find it combined with the colorful, delicious, and festive atmosphere that distinguishes Mexico and captivates every single visitor.
Mexico is known for a vibrant modern culture
Even wrestling in Mexico is filled with history, art, and a mythology of its own.
16. Frida Kahlo
Noted for her dramatic and surrealistic self-portraits, Frida had a turbulent life.
Disabled by polio at 6, she suffered a terrible bus accident at 18, one that left her with severe pain for the rest of her life. Her marriage to muralist painter Diego Rivera was intense and often chaotic too.
Frida managed to channel her hardships into her art and, through her resilience and activism, went on to inspire generations of feminists and the LGBT community starting about 20 years after her passing.
She is arguably the most emblematic artist that Mexico is known for.
17. Lucha libre
An evocative symbol of Mexican pop culture, lucha libre is basically wrestling with masks on, although it also includes spectacular moves as part of the show.
The mask tradition dates back to the Aztec heritage, yet lucha libre as we know it only took shape by the 1930s.
Many fighters keep their masks on whenever they’re seen in public, as a way of creating a myth around their characters.
El Santo, one of Mexico’s legendary luchadores from the golden age of lucha libre, went as far as never flying with his crew, so they wouldn’t get a glimpse of his face when he had to go through customs.
Mexico has one of the most successful movie industries in Latin America in terms of international recognition.
It’s been especially hyped in the last fifteen years, thanks to the work of three brilliant directors in Mexican-American productions: Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González-Iñarritu (above).
Of course they and other talented Mexican filmmakers owe at least a fraction of their accomplishments to a century-old cinematic tradition that has been among the most prolific on the planet for decades.
19. Soap operas
If cinema is the brain of modern Mexican culture, soaps are its big heart. Yet unlike American soaps, Mexican (and Latin American) telenovelas typically have a single season that runs for six months to a year.
Across the region, soaps are primetime television and have helped shape social behavior for decades. Although competition from foreign shows has threatened the reign of telenovelas, the sappy storylines are still a hit in Mexico and are often exported.
Drug trafficking is of course a serious issue that has plagued Mexico for over half a century. But there’s at least one side of it that is fascinating because of its uniqueness: narcoculture.
In some communities, drug lords are naively seen as antiheroes who managed to escape poverty.
This idealization has spawned music that glorifies the ruthlessness of drug traders and has even given birth to a saint of its own; Jesús Malverde, a mythical thug sometimes compared to Robin Hood, is worshipped across northwestern Mexico. More devoted followers have gone as far as building altars in his honor.
Coming up with such a short list of the ultimate things Mexico is known for was no easy task. Hopefully, though, our post can work as a makeshift travel guide as you explore the beautiful land of the Aztecs and the Mayas!
Oh, and while you’re at it, go ahead and step up your Spanish game so you can blend in with Mexicans like a pro!