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Chapter 4 Geography and tourism in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.


* Highly diverse physical and cultural environment

* Accessible to major market in North America and Europe

* Important colonial influence on the region

* Continued dependency upon plantation agriculture

* Distinct climate zones that reflect topography

* Marked contrast between rich and poor


* The major attraction of the region is sun-sea-sand.

* The region includes major archaeological sites of early American civilizations.

* With the exception of Mexico, tourism is highly seasonal.

* This is the major cruise region of the world.

* Visitors perceive the Caribbean region as a tropical environment but have little specific knowledge of individual islands.


* Capital cities of each county

* Colonial towns

* Resorts of the Caribbean islands

* Archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras

* Beach resorts towns of Cancun, Mazatlan, Acapulco, Ixtapa. Puerto Vallarta

* Border towns on the United States-Mexico border

* Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, United States and British Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic St Maarten


ABC Islands





Border Towns






Central America

Cinder Cones

Colonial Territories


Cruise Ships

Cultural Links






Mayan World Circuit

Mesa Central

Mesa del Norte


Middle America


Playa Lakes


Pain Forest


Tourist Patrol


Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are some of the world's most important tourism destinations, Figure 4-1. The proximity of the region to the two major industrial countries of North America--the United States and Canada--as well as historic colonial ties with Europe, are major factors in the region's ability to attract a high number of visitors. The continued growth in the region is due to its mild climate, clear blue waters, and cultural attractions. However, while the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America are in some ways similar, their respective tourist industries differ markedly in size and income generated. Factors such as location, political stability, and concern for personal safety help explain these differences. The political situation in much of Middle America, for example, has seriously hurt tourism trade to the countries in that part of the region.


The region consists of the countries from Mexico to Panama and the Caribbean, which in this text is considered to be the islands or nations with frontage on the Caribbean Sea plus the Bahamas and Bermuda in the Atlantic just north of the Caribbean Sea. The islands of the Caribbean are sometimes referred to as the West Indies or Antilles. The continental region is less easy to define, typically being referred to as Mexico and Central America. In many regional geographical references, however, Mexico is included as part of North America; but in others it is included in a region called Middle America with the countries from Guatemala to Panama. In this text we will refer to all of the continental countries from the United States border to South America as Mexico and Central America to make it clear Mexico is included.

Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean were the first areas where the Spanish imposed their colonial rule and began the process of developing an exploitative economy. There are major differences in the countries of the region, particularly between Mexico and the other seven countries.

Mexico is the third largest independent state in Latin America and has the second largest population. It receives more tourists than any other country or island in the region and is one of the major generators of tourism receipts. Geographically, Mexico is complex, ranging from the arid and semiarid north to the moderate highland climates of central Mexico (where the majority of the population live) to the tropical southern and eastern lowlands. More than one-half of the population is concentrated in the valleys and basins of central Mexico, particularly around Mexico City proper.

The poorest Mexicans are those who are classified as Indian, not necessarily according to their ethnic background, but according to their culture. Indians speak a native language (even though they may also speak Spanish), emphasize Indian rather than European customs, and are primarily involved in agriculture. Approximately 10 percent of Mexicans remain illiterate, and nearly one-third live in poverty. In rural areas, Indians practice their traditional agriculture on even the steepest slopes in the highland valleys. Production of corn, beans, squash, and other traditional crops remains important for this sector of the agricultural economy.

In the cities, major industries include textiles, steel, automobiles, electrical products, and food processing. The dominant manufacturing center is the Valley of Mexico, where more than 75 percent of the country's industry is concentrated. In the past few years border towns have become the focal point for industries and rapid population growth. Through trade agreements with the United States a large number of assembly plants have located along the border. Imports from these plants (known as maquiladoras) have lower tariffs on their exports to the United States.

Mexico joined the United States and Canada in an economic union called the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) in the early 1990s. NAFTA has resulted in increased economic growth in Mexico and, greater movement of Mexicans to the United States and vice versa.

The concentration of industrial activity in the Valley of Mexico and along the United States border has created urban problems on a scale rivaled in only one or two other cities of the world. Mexico City is the world's largest city, with over 20 million people in the metropolitan area. Urban problems range from lack of housing and jobs to massive air pollution and vast slum areas (barrios) inhabited by migrants from rural areas. Mexico has significant oil reserves, but its tourism industry has developed to such a level that tourism ranks second to oil as a major earner of income for the country.

The seven other countries of Central America consist of the nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This region is the least traveled part of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. In part this results from political instability and conflict such as that in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. Even the stable countries of the region were often perceived as unsafe by potential tourists because of past violence in the others. Although the region was more peaceful in 2000, the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998 severely damaged the infrastructure in several countries.

The seven countries of Central America have many similarities. Their physical geography is dominated by complex mountain systems. The mountains include spectacular volcanic mountains with cinder cones, calderas, and other volcanic features, and sedimentary mountains composed primarily of limestone. The climate is generally tropical or subtropical and is characterized by heavy rains during the hot summers and by decreased rainfall in the winter. But there is no truly dry season anywhere in the region. These seven countries typify the less industrialized regions of Latin America, relying on a few exports, with high illiteracy rates and great disparities between rich and poor. The economies of all these countries rely heavily on tropical agricultural exports, especially bananas and coffee, but they also have been based largely on foreign capital. In general, these countries lack good communication systems, capital for investments to develop more rapidly, and political stability. Several are important transshipment points for the cocaine trade.

The Caribbean, one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, is an arc of islands extending about 1,700 miles from offshore Florida to the coast of South America. The Caribbean was discovered and claimed by Columbus for Spain during his four voyages in search of a route to the riches of the Far East. The most densely populated region of the Americas, the Caribbean, is also one in which there are great differences between the rich and poor. Although it is a region with a low per capita income for many of its people, abject poverty is the exception apart from Haiti. Haiti has little industry or tourism, relies on agriculture that has resulted in erosion and small farms as the population has increased dramatically, and has an unstable government. Some countries are exceptions to the lower standard of living found in some of the Caribbean countries, particularly Puerto Rico (which is a commonwealth of the United States); the British Virgin Islands, a British dependency; and some small islands, such as the United States Virgin Islands, an unincorporated territory of the United States. All three receive high revenues from tourism and economic assistance from Britain or the United States.

The Caribbean region is a tropical, lowland environment with most of its 35 plus million people living at elevations below 1,000 feet. With a diversity of environmental characteristics, it can be divided into three major regions: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Continental Islands.



The Caribbean

The Greater Antilles. The Greater Antilles include the four large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. These four islands have 90 percent of the total land area and population of the Caribbean. They also have a diversity of environmental conditions.

The largest island, Cuba, is 800 miles long. Most of its 4,000 square miles consists of either flat terrain or gently rolling hills, with three small mountainous areas rising to elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The subtropical, rainy climate of Cuba enables the island to be one of the world's major producers of sugar cane.

Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, is far more mountainous than Cuba. It is dominated by four major mountain systems, with the population clustered along the coast and on strips of lowland between the parallel ranges. Climate and vegetation, which vary with altitude and exposure, have created a complex of microenvironments now occupied by the Hispanic and European people of the Dominican Republic and the Black African population of Haiti.

Jamaica, the third largest island in this group, is a heavily dissected limestone plateau, a very marginal land inhabited by peasant farmers. The inward coast and lowland areas have been carved into sugar plantations, and bauxite is mined on a large scale.

Puerto Rico, the smallest and most easterly of the Greater Antilles, is a large dissected plateau like Jamaica, with a mountain core. It, too, has sugar plantations in the wet coastal lowlands.

The Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles are a 700-mile concave band of islands that cross the Caribbean from Puerto Rico in the north to the coast of Venezuela in the south. These islands are the peaks of a double line of submerged volcanoes. They consist of an outer ring of low islands composed of old volcanoes and limestone banks (referred to as the Leeward Islands) and an inner ring of higher volcanic peaks (the Windward Islands). There are two types of islands in the Lesser Antilles: those that are relatively low and include considerable areas of fairly level limestone reefs, such as Anguilla, Barbuda, and Antigua; and those that are more mountainous, and volcanic. Some of the more noted islands within the mountain chain are St. Kitts, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Grenada. The largest of the low-lying Leeward Islands are Guadeloupe and Antigua.

The principal economic activity in the Lesser Antilles is the production of sugar cane on large estates. On the higher or Windward Islands, agriculture is more varied despite their similar terrain and tropical environment. Forested mountain spines of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet with rich volcanic soil, little level land, and abundant rainfall characterize this island group. St. Vincent produces arrowroot, a starchy tuber; Dominica, banana, coconuts, and copra; Anguilla, fishing, banking, and tourism; Grenada, cocoa and nutmeg; Martinique and St. Kitts, sugar; St. Lucia, bananas; and Nevis, cotton. On small islands like Grenada, small landholdings dominate. On Martinique and St. Lucia, much land is taken up by large commercial estates.

The Continental Islands. Near the South American coast, the Lesser Antilles merge with a line of islands defined as "continental" because they have many characteristics of the nearby Latin American continent. The continental islands are similar in surface characteristics and important to tourism. They are a series of over 700 islands generally characterized by low flat patches of porous limestone and coral. The shallowness of the reefs and cays, with rocks close to the water's surface, makes the area an outstanding area for snorkeling and related water activities.

The most important continental islands are Trinidad and Tobago, and two larger islands of the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba and Curacao. Sugar and rum have historically been the major agricultural exports, but Trinidad relies heavily on petroleum production and refining, and Aruba and Curacao are transshipment points for refined petroleum products. Tourism and international banking are important in the economies of the continental islands, with Aruba and Curacao being particularly important destinations.

Mexico and Central America

Diversity best describes the physical characteristics of Mexico and Central America. In short distances, there are great variations in landform, climate, soils, and vegetation. The physical landscape, Figure 4-2, can be divided into the following categories.

The Mexican Plateau. This high plateau of Northern Mexico extends from just south of Mexico City to the United States-Mexico border. The plateau is one of the largest landforms of Middle America and one of the most significant for human settlement in Mexico. The northern half of the plateau, the Mesa del Norte, is extremely dry and is characterized by basins separated by low mountains. The eastern section of these ranges consists of limestone and shale. The western side is volcanic. There is little water in the area, with playa lakes, resulting from interior drainage, containing water only after the rare heavy showers.

The southern half of the plateau, the Mesa Central, is a geologically active volcanic area. The volcanic landscape is characterized by low cinder cones, crater lakes, lava flows, and volcanic craters within the mountainous area. The Mesa Central receives much more precipitation than the northern half. The increased moisture creates rivers and lakes, which combine with the fertile volcanic soils to support a dense population. Mexico obtains much of its food supply from basins in the plateau, including the valleys of Mexico, Huamantla, Puebla, Toluca, Morelia, and Guadalajara.

The steep escarpments that flank the Mexican Plateau on the east, west, and south are spectacular features of the plateau. The eastern edge of the plateau is bordered by the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountain Range, a series of elongated limestone ranges, which are oriented north-south and act as a barrier to the plateau from the coastal lowland. The western edge of the Mexican plateau is the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain Range, which also acts as a barrier to the coastal lowlands, but is made of volcanic rather than limestone materials.


The Balsas Depression. To the south of the Mexican plateau are the high volcanic mountains of Central Mexico, which are interspersed with basins and river floodplains.

Located immediately south of the Mexican Plateau, the Balsas Depression is a low, hot, dry area with low hills bisected by the Balsas River. The Balsas Depression is less densely settled than the basins of the Central Plateau because of the hot climate and limited water supply. The Balsas Depression typifies much of the region south of the Central Plateau.

The High Mountain Range of Southern Mexico and Central America. Extending from Southern Mexico, except for a slight break at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Southern Mexico and Central America are characterized by rugged mountains, escarpments, and hills. This series of ranges is extremely rugged, with high mountains, both volcanic and nonvolcanic, and peaks over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level. Part of the nonvolcanic mountain ranges in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico continue into the Caribbean to form the mountain islands of the Greater Antilles. Further south, the volcanic mountains of Central America extend into the Caribbean, creating the Lesser Antilles. The Pacific side of Central America has a series of volcanoes from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. This is the longest and most spectacular mountain range in Middle America. As in Mexico, the fertile volcanic soils in the tropical highland basins have attracted and support the highest population densities in Central America. The islands closer to South America (Trinidad, Tobago, and the Dutch islands of Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba) are an extension of South American mountain ranges.

Plains of the Yucatan Peninsula. The plains of the Yucatan Peninsula are characterized by karst topography. Karst topography occurs in limestone as water dissolves the rock to create underground passages. The surface lacks surface streams and has related erosional features such as sinkholes, caves, subterranean stream channels, and red terra rosa soils. The southern portion of the Yucatan is divided between Mexico and the Peten of northern Guatemala. It consists of low elongated limestone hills interrupting extensive plains. There are surface streams and some lakes in this southern region.

Coastal Plains. The coastal plains are the widest on the eastern side of Central America and Mexico and relatively narrow on the western side. This eastern side is characterized by low hills, coastal lowlands, and alluvial activity, which in Mexico and Costa Rica has created productive agricultural areas.

Climate Characteristics

Central America and Mexico

The diversity of the climate, Figure 4-3, in Central America and Mexico results from latitudinal location, altitude influence, and land-water relationships. Northern Mexico's climate is controlled by its mid-latitude location, which combines with the high plateau to create an arid environment on the plateau and the western coastal areas of Mexico. The southern two-thirds of Mexico is influenced by tropical location and altitude. Altitude affects climate in the same ways latitude does. An increase in elevation is associated with cooler temperatures. Increased elevation creates altitudinal zones of climate in the mountainous areas of the region. There are three major climate zones recognized in this region. The tierra caliente, or hot land, is the lowest zone, extending up to approximately 3,000 feet (900 meters). This has all the characteristics of a tropical rain forest climate, and population densities are low. The economy is based on plantation agriculture, bananas, sugar cane, rice, cocoa, and nutmeg for export. The second zone is the tierra templada, or temperate land. This zone has a cooler climate with conditions similar to the humid subtropical climates. The Europeans settled here. A major activity is coffee production. The third zone, the tierra fria, or cold climate, is above about 6,000 feet. It is the home of much of the Indian population of Central America, who practice a subsistence agriculture with corn, squash, and small grains as dominant crops. The largest concentration of tierra fria in the region is in Mexico and Guatemala, which are among the most densely populated areas of Middle America.


The eastern shores of Central America and Mexico are influenced by the warm currents of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, creating either a humid subtropical climate along the east coast of Mexico or a true tropical climate southward into South America. Many of the popular tourist locations such as the Yucatan are in an area of tropical savanna, or tropical monsoon-type climate with tropical hurricanes from July through October. The hurricanes in both these locations and the Caribbean make tourism to both regions highly seasonal. During the hurricane season, tourism is dramatically reduced. Hurricanes such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 resulted in significant damage to the tourist infrastructure, affecting visitation for years afterward. Warm ocean currents also affect the western coasts of much of Central America and southern Mexico. However, northern Mexico's west coast is affected by the cold water of the California current, which brings cool, pleasant, year-round temperatures along the coast.


Although they are located in a tropical environment, the Caribbean islands are considered temperate. The islands are swept by the easterly trade winds, which moderate the hot tropical climate. The major attraction of the Caribbean as a tourist area is its beautiful year-round warm temperature. It can be expected that temperatures in the Caribbean will range from daytime highs of up to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit to lows of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not a particularly high temperature, but the feeling of warmth reflects the effect of heat plus relative humidity. Therefore, fluctuations in rainfall are as important as the temperatures in attracting tourists.

There is a tremendous increase in rainfall from early summer into late November. This increases the humidity and adds an additional five to ten degrees to the apparent temperature. Therefore, the atmosphere in the Caribbean from late April until the first part of December seems more muggy and uncomfortable than during the winter and early spring months. The humidity is modified somewhat by the offshore breezes that constantly blow throughout much of the Caribbean, especially at locations near the water. In addition, in some islands (like Haiti with its higher mountains), wind movement up the hills combines with the cooler temperatures at higher elevations to create a much more comfortable environment. The hurricane season is from August through October, which adds to the discomfort during the summer and early fall.

Discomfort caused by high temperatures and increased humidity takes its toll on the tourist industry. The rainy season seriously interferes with enjoyment of the beaches. The best time to travel in the Caribbean is from December through April. The industry tries to stimulate demand in the slow season by offering bargain rates during the months from May through the early part of December.

The Caribbean Tourism Association has called the April through December 15th period "the season of sweet savings." During that period, nearly half of the Caribbean Tourism Association members reduce their rates from 10 to 30 percent on shopping, travel, and lodging. But, of course, the bargain-hunting tourist is gambling on the weather.

The Caribbean has frequent hurricanes, which pose problems on given years for the tourism industry. For example, in 1995 Hurricanes Louise and Marilyn struck St. Thomas and eleven other islands, leaving some 160,000 hotel rooms damaged, air service suspended, and tour companies unable to accept bookings for some of the most affected islands. When service was reestablished, tourists still avoided the region. Other Caribbean islands such as Aruba, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman increased in numbers. The Virgin Islands were just recovering from these hurricanes when they were struck again in July of 1996. Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Hortense in September of 1996, with extensive flooding.

Bargain packages are given catchy titles to lure unwary tourists. For example, the French West Indies have established a package entitled "Fete Francaise Tours," which offers a choice of accommodations on the French islands in a variety of hotels. Haiti's program, called the "Summer Spellbinders," offers three-and seven-day packages at tempting rates.


The cultures of the region, like the physical characteristics, are diverse. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean include a variety of ethnic, social, political, and economic patterns unmatched in the world in an area of comparable size. There are three major languages--Spanish, English, and French--plus numerous Indian tongues. Within these languages, there are a number of complex, local dialects.

The region was an Indian world before the arrival of the Europeans and Africans. The Southern Central Plateau of Mexico, the Yucatan, and the highlands and coastal lowlands of Central America were inhabited by technologically advanced Indians with high population densities, large cities, and an intensive agricultural base. The remnants of these early civilizations, the Mayas of Guatemala and Yucatan and the Aztecs of Central Mexico, have become centers of attraction for a modern tourism industry. In the Caribbean and the arid portions of Mexico, the Indian population was smaller and less technologically advanced. The Caribs and Arawaks, both originally from South America, settled in the Caribbean. They practiced primitive agricultural techniques, hunted, and fished. The Carib, the more warlike and primitive of the two, reportedly practiced cannibalism and relied more on food gathering, hunting, and fishing than agriculture.

The conquest and settlement of Middle America and the Caribbean by the Europeans after the voyage of Columbus changed the cultural map. The Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, and eventually Americans contributed to the present ethnic makeup of the region. Spain was by far the most dominant force in Mexico and Central America, imposing its language, religion, and customs upon the new colonial empire. Colonial activity by English, French, Dutch, and Danes added to the European impact in the Caribbean. Wars and battles changed some of the colonial territories. Jamaica, for example, was seized from the Spanish by the British. The French gained possession of Haiti, and the French, Dutch, and Danes obtained the various islands of the Lesser Antilles. Plantation crops were introduced, requiring additional African slaves, and Africans soon outnumbered their European masters by a wide margin. Indians from India were later imported to some Caribbean islands, further complicating the cultural ways. All of the groups interacted with one another to a greater or lesser extent, creating cultural groups distinct from European, African, Indian, or Asian. The present cultural landscape can be divided into Euro-African, Euro-Asian, Euro-Indian, and Mestizo groups.

Descendants of African, European-African, or Indian-African intermarriages are concentrated in the coastal lowlands of Central America (where plantation agriculture was practiced), Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Netherlands Antilles, British West Indies, Martinique, Guadaloupe, St. Lucia, and Grenada. The appearance of each of these groups varies, reflecting intermarriage with specific groups (such as the French in Haiti, the Spanish in Puerto Rico or Cuba) or specific North European groups (as in British West Indies or the Netherlands Antilles). In each country, there is generally a group that classifies itself as of "pure" European ancestry, but they often reflect only the group with the greatest social or economic prestige rather than a distinct ethnic origin.

The mainland areas of Mexico and Central America are generally inhabited by descendants of Indians and Europeans. Indian influence is most dominant in the southern basins of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, southern Mexico's highlands and Guatemala, and western Honduras and western Nicaragua. Descendants of intermarriage between Europeans and Indian, (mestizos) dominate in Central Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Europeans are concentrated in Costa Rica and northern Mexico, although each area has representatives of all three groups. Asians (Indians from India primarily) are found in Antigua, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, which have the largest concentration of East Asians.

Thus, the cultural groups in Middle America include the remnants of the original Indian inhabitants, the descendants of mixed marriages between Indians and Europeans (mestizos), the black population descended from slaves in the Caribbean or European-African intermixing, and descendants of mixtures of European-mestizo-African combinations.


Tourism to the region is dominated by Mexico and the Caribbean, largely because of their proximity to Canada and the United States. Distances, intervening opportunities represented by Mexico and the Caribbean, and political conditions in the region south of Mexico have led to a smaller travel industry in that region (Figure 4-4a and 4-4b). Mexico and the Caribbean compete with Hawaii for the same market. The average length of stay in Mexico is nine days per visitor, above the eight-day average for the region. The lower averages in the Caribbean result from two factors. First, the Caribbean is a leading cruise region of the world and cruise ships generally stay slightly less than one day per island. Second, the airlines in the past have used an unlimited type of airfare, making it not only easy but desirable to visit several islands during a one- or two-week trip. Today, the inclusive tours concept, which began in Jamaica, has spread through the Caribbean, creating an excellent bargain for North American tourists.






Capital: Mexico City

Government: Federal republic operating under a centralized government

Size: 761,605 square miles (about three times the size of Texas)

Language: Spanish

Ethnic Division: 60% Mestizo, 30% Amerindian, 9% Spanish, 1% other

Religion: 89% Roman Catholic, 6% Protestant

Tourist Season: April through September; Coastal: November through April

Peak Tourist Seasons: March (11%) and December (10%)

Currency: Peso

Population: 99.6 million (2001)

Entry: No requirements for day trips across border. Tourist card
obtained at travel agencies, airlines, and Mexican government
tourism offices. Need proof of citizenship.

Transportation: Excellent air and road connectivity to and from
Mexico. Transportation between cities in Mexico is available by
bus, plane, or good roads. Mexico City has a good subway system and
bus. Public transportation is inexpensive and provides good service
in Mexico City and other tourist destinations. Travel by automobile
is better during the daylight hours. For those driving, automobile
insurance is available at the border and is required.

Health: Some areas require malaria suppressants.

Language: While Spanish is the official language, English is
understood widely in urban areas that have significant numbers of

Shopping: Typical items are silver, copperware, blown glass, onyx,
pottery, handwoven fabrics such as rugs and serapes, embroidery,
and Indian arts. Reproductions of artifacts of ancient
civilizations are available near archaeological sites.


Sixty percent of the people of Mexico are mestizo (mixed Spanish
and Indian). Thirty percent are pure Indian, descendants of the
Mayans and Aztecs. Nine percent are European. While Spanish is the
official language, there are nearly one hundred Indian languages
spoken in parts of Mexico.

Cultural Hints:

* Greet by a soft handshake or a nod of the head.

* Let women make the first move toward the handshake.

* Mexicans stand close when talking to each other.

* Mexicans like to touch others as a sign of friendliness.

* Hand items to another person rather than tossing them.

* Be patient when encountering delays.

* Obscene gestures common in the United States are understood
in Mexico.

* Dress conservatively (no shorts or tank tops) when visiting
religious sites.

* Eating and food:

Call a waiter with a "psst-psst" sound.

To ask for the check, get the waiter's attention and pretend
writing in the palm of your hand.

Keep both hands above the table.

On the street eat food at the stand, rather than eating and

Food basics are corn, beans, and chili. Typical foods are
corn tortillas, frijoles refritos (refried beans), tortas
(hollow roll stuffed with meat or cheese), quesadillas
(tortilla baked with cheese), moles (spicy sauce on
many food items), and tacos (folded tortilla filled with
meat, cheese, and onions). Regional variations exist.

Physical Characteristics

Mexico has mostly high, rugged mountains, many of which are extinct volcanos, with low coastal plains and high plateaus. Much of the north is hot and dry. The central plateau, including Mexico City, is bounded by two mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Oriental on the east and the Sierra Madre Occidental on the west. The climate varies by region from desert in the north to tropical in the south and along some coastal areas.

Tourism Characteristics

The Mexican government is very active in tourism development. Next to oil, tourism is the largest earner of foreign exchange for the country. Although an increasing number of manufacturing assembly plants (maquiladoras) in border towns along the United States-Mexico border have created a booming economy, tourism is important even in these towns.

The government has been involved in large-scale development and planning projects, with economic assistance through Fondo Nacional De Fomento al Turismo (FONATUR), and has also actively pursued attracting more tourists through innovating highly visible policies. One such policy is Mexico's Tourist Patrol service, which provides free emergency assistance to motoring tourists in case of highway problems. It is operated by the Mexican government's Ministry of Tourism, which hires English-speaking men who patrol the heavily traveled tourist routes in green patrol cars with emergency supplies of gas and first-aid equipment. These cars pass check points twice a day every day of the year.

FONATUR has fifteen mega-tourism projects in various stages of development throughout Mexico. Upgrading some of the existing resorts is included. Acapulco underwent a massive upgrading and renovation capped by the construction of a motorway from Mexico City. Two of the new projects are Huatulco and Baja California. The government has been working cooperatively with Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to develop and market jointly a Mayan World Circuit (el Circuito Mundo Maya) tourist itinerary including some of the most impressive archeological sites in the world.

Although Mexico has had a high rate of inflation, the continued devaluation of the peso and partial deregulation of Mexico's airlines have effectively reduced airfares, creating one of the greatest travel bargains in the world. Also, the all-inclusive packages that have become popular from the United States and Europe have generated increasing numbers of visitors to Mexico (Figure 4-5). By 1998 tourism had reached more than 20 million visitors. The United States is the dominant source of tourists who enter Mexico for longer than one day. Nearly 94 percent of the tourists to Mexico are from the United States. Recognizing its high dependency upon the United States, the government has increased advertising and marketing in Europe, emphasizing Germany and Spain. Europe's market share has declined from 2.5 percent in 1989 to 2 percent in 1999. Europeans stay longer and spend more money, and Europe accounts for 7 percent of total tourist receipts.

An additional 65 million day visitors, mostly from along the United States--Mexican border, enter border towns in Mexico for a quick visit. The largest number travel from San Diego to Tijuana. The government has plans for two large Epcot-type theme parks in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez (World Tourism Organization, 2000).


Mexico has a strong tourist trade year-round, although the winter has the largest number of visitors. Coastal areas and the Yucatan have their peak tourist season in the winter months, since the weather is better here at this time of the year and worse in the United States and Canada. Tourism in the inland areas, such as Mexico City and Merida, peaks in the summer during the normal school vacation months of the industrial countries.

Tourist Destinations and Attractions

While tourism is strong throughout Mexico, the dominance of United States trade can be seen in the northwest zone of Guadalajara and the coastal regions of Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, which receive over 30 percent of the visitors to Mexico. The central zone of Guanajuato, Mexico City, and San Miguel Allende receives 23 percent of all visitors to Mexico. The four leading destinations are Cancun, Acapulco, Mexico City, and Guadalajara.

The major tourist regions of Mexico are as follows:

Border Towns. The border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros attract millions of day trippers, mainly for shopping.

Baja California. Ecotourism and the newly developing coastal resorts are important to Baja. Coastal towns include Ensenada on lovely Bahia de Todos los Santos, Bahia de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez, and La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur. Guerrero Negro is one of the better places in the world for whale watching, as the California gray whales head for Scammon's Lagoon from November through February to breed and train their young. The high desert of the Baja in the winter provides a kaleidoscope of desert colors for those interested in ecotourism. The new development taking place in the southern tip of Baja when complete will rival the other west coast resorts and towns of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan. The Los Cabos area in this region is one of the fastest growing destinations in Mexico.

Northwest Region. The northwest region includes Guadalajara and the coastal towns of Mazatlan, Guaymas, and Puerto Vallarta. Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico. It has an impressive town square focused on the Cathedral and Palace de Gobierno (Palace of the Governor). The church of Santa Monica, which is intricately carved in the Churrigueresque style, was completed about 1720. The churches of San Francisco and Aranzazu both face the shady Jardin de San Francisco. The church of San Francisco has a most impressive exterior. The Hospicio Cabanas represents the best work of muralist Orozco, whose paintings decorate the chapel. To provide ease of viewing the ceiling, benches are available to lie on. The State Museum, which is located near the central plaza, contains art galleries and exhibits covering history, zoology, and archaeology. Across the street from the park and the flower market, the State Library exhibits contemporary art, including the great three-dimensional mural by Gabriel Flores on the ceiling of the auditorium dome.

A number of small villages surround Guadalajara. These include Tiaquepaque, noted for its pottery; Ajijic, with its lovely embroidery and hand-loomed cotton and wool fabrics; and Zapopan, which is famous for its Huichoes Indian handicrafts. This region, which includes Lake Chapala, draws many North American retirees visiting to escape the cold, damp North American winter. The coastal resorts centered in Guaymas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta are within easy access of the western United States and provide year-round resorts focused on the Pacific. All of the resorts offer a variety of water sports, such as surfing, deep-sea diving, waterskiing, and some of the best fishing in the world. Puerto Vallarta is the most unspoiled of these west coast resorts. Puerto Vallarta was made famous as the site for the movie The Night of the Iguana, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It is a highly picturesque town with flaming bougainvillea and blue jacaranda bushes hugging stucco walls. An important ecotourism attraction is Copper Canyon. The canyons are located in the Tarahumara Range of the Sierra Madre. This formidable landscape possesses the world's largest proliferation of major canyons confined to a relatively small area. It is deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon in the United States. It is located between Chihuahua and Los Mochis on the coast.

Central Highlands. The central highlands area is centered around Mexico City and the old city of Puebla. Mexico City, Mexico's capital, is the oldest city in North America. Pre-dating European settlement, Mexico City is located on the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, in the Valley of Mexico. It is surrounded by volcanic mountains. It has fourteenth-century Aztec ruins, sixteenth-century colonial buildings, and modern skyscrapers. It is the second largest city in the world. With the tremendous industrial development and heavy migration of people, air pollution and poverty are major problems. Many of its residents live in rather poor conditions, many as squatters on the edge of the city. Nezahualcoyotl, on the east side, is an immense squatter settlement with over two million poor residents. While great effort is made by the government, the size of the population migration to the city overwhelms their efforts.

The city boasts a number of outstanding museums. There are native cultural events, such as concerts with marimbas, mariachis, singers, and dancers, which can be seen in Mexico City and in other Mexican cities and towns. Chapultepec Park is a cultural and recreational center. It is home to one of the most impressive museums in the world. With its 168-ton figure of Tlaloc, the rain god, the National Museum of Anthropology within it is an impressive architectural building in its own right. Its collections and displays are equally as impressive as the building. Three more of the country's finest museums--the Museum of Modern Art, Chapultepec Castle, and the Museum of Natural History--three lakes with boating facilities, a variety of playground equipment, an amusement park, complete with a large roller coaster ride, and a number of flower gardens, fountains, and sculptures are also located in the park.

The seat of government and religion for the country is the Zocalo. Two municipal palaces--the Supreme Court building, the National Palace where the Palace of Montezuma once stood, and the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral--are on the Zocalo, Figure 4-6. Leading away from the Zocalo, the Avenida Madero, renamed to honor the leader of the Revolution of 1910, has a number of excellent reminders of the history of Mexico. The Church of La Profesa was built by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century; the Palace of Iturbide, constructed in 1779, has a private dwelling built by the Count of San Mateo; the Church and Monastery of San Francisco was a dominant force in the spiritual and social life of the people from 1524 until 1850; the House of Tiles was built in 1708 as the town house of the Counts of Orizaba; and the Numismatic Museum has a collection dating back before the European Conquest.


There are many notable attractions within a one hundred-mile radius in Mexico. They include the floating gardens of Xochimilco, including a colorful market and park; Cuernavaca, a Spanish colonial city; Xochicalco, an archaeological site near the Pyramid of Teopanzalso; Taxco, a hillside silver-mining town with cobblestone streets, flower-decked shops, and colorful houses; Tula, the capital of the ancient Toltec civilization; the spectacular Pyramids of Teotihuacan, the once holy site of the Toltec civilization; and Puebla, an ancient colonial city that was founded in 1521.

Central Coastal Resort Towns. The central coastal resort towns include Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, and Ixtapa. Acapulco, the oldest of the towns, has historically been the fashionable resort of Mexico, with its famous cliff divers and a large well-developed tourist infrastructure along its coastal areas, Figure 4-7. Acapulco is set at the base of mountains on a partly enclosed bay. The three resort towns are in a more tropical environment than the northwest coastal areas, thus the waters are much warmer. The town of Zihuatanejo is the support center for the beach resort development of Ixtapa with its sixteen-mile-long white sand beach, which is an excellent example of state planning and development of tourism. It was the first of FONATUR's developments that used modern technology to build a quality tourism environment in an outstanding setting while preserving the Mexican culture.


East Coastal Towns. The main east coastal towns are Tampico and Vera Cruz. These are old colonial towns on the Gulf of Mexico. They exhibit the planning that the Spanish used in establishing their cities in the New World. Both are in the hot tropical coastal zone. Tampico is particularly good for fishing and hunting. Vera Cruz is the main port on the east coast of Mexico. Cortez landed in the harbor and founded the city in 1519. Activity centers on the waterfront with fish and food markets, arcades, and curio shops. Vera Cruz is also excellent for fishing.

The Yucatan. The Yucatan combines outstanding archaeological sites and Caribbean resorts. Palenque features temples in a picturesque setting. Chichen Itza and Uxmal are religious centers of the Mayan culture that are adorned with pyramids, temples, arches, vaults, and beautifully carved friezes, Figure 4-8. Cozumel is one of the top scuba diving areas areas of the world, while Cancun is a planned destination resort and Mexico's most popular coastal resort, Figure 4-9. Cancun was developed by FONATUR using a computer-generated development plan. Although it is an excellent location, the sand had to be brought in to create the white sandy beaches. The crystal-clear Caribbean waters and the abundance of fresh seafood, fruit, and vegetables make both Cancun and Cozumel ideal Caribbean playgrounds that are easily accessible to the United States and Canada. Merida, the capital of Yucatan, combines old colonial buildings and modern homes with thatched Indian huts, presenting a unique setting. In 1988 Merida hosted an ecotourism conference. The region has a number of wildlife reserves, and the karst topography offers a unique physical environment for the visitor. The major attractions in Merida are the fortress-type cathedral; the Montejo mansion, which was built by the Spanish conqueror and founder Francisco de Montejo; and the Museum of Archaeology, which displays Mayan artifacts.


The Southwest. Tourism in the Southwest centers around Oaxaca. Oaxaca represents the Indian culture of Mexico and still has a local periodic market. It is a colorful city where the Indian population still wears clothing that identifies them as being from a specific village. Oaxaca is known for its crafts of pottery, gold and silver jewelry, skirts, blouses, men's shirts, tablecloths, and knives. Near Oaxaca, Monte Alban is an impressive archaeological site high on a mountain. Monte Alban is composed of a huge central plaza and several tombs. Another impressive architectural wonder, the ancient town of Mitia, is also near Oaxaca. Mitia was a Zapotec-Mixtec ceremonial center. Particularly impressive is the intricately carved stone fretwork on the facades of the temples. A number of small Indian villages around Oaxaca are interesting to tourists. These include Azompa, which is known for its pottery; Santo Tomas, which specializes in weaving of sashes using the backstrap loom; Ocotlan, which offers baskets and embroidered and pleated blouses; and Teotitlan del Valle, which produces sarapes found in the markets in the region.


In the Gulf of Tehuantepec at Huatulco, the Mexican government is developing a new coastal resort. Computer models are being used once again to create the resort of the future. The first phase opened in 1988, and it already has the largest Club Mediterranee in the Western Hemisphere and over 1,500 beds. Plans are to have nearly 50,000 beds by 2018, making it one of the largest in all of Mexico.


Physical Characteristics

The terrain is mostly a flat, swampy coastal plain with low mountains in the south. The climate is tropical--very hot and humid. The rainy season extends from May to February.

Tourism Characteristics

Belize is just beginning to be discovered as an excellent ecotourism destination. Although tourist arrivals increased from 94,000 in 1986 to 220,000 in 1990, they fell to 134,000 in 1996. Since then the number of visitors has rebounded, reaching nearly 160,000 by 1999. One factor for the slow growth of visitors to Belize is that many scuba-diving enthusiasts come on specially built and equipped diving ships from Mexico that never land in Belize. The United States is the major market followed by its neighbors Guatemala and Mexico (Figure 4-10). The strong linkage between these three countries and Belize can be seen in the purpose of visit, which indicates that half of the visitors come to visit friends and family. The government does not want to expand too rapidly, but continued managed growth would be beneficial to the country. The joint marketing of the Mayan World Circuit, its ecotourism potential, its long barrier reef, its pristine beaches, and the fact that it is English-speaking should certainly encourage future growth.



Capital: Belmopan

Government: Parliamentary democracy

Size: 8,800 square miles (slightly larger than Massachusetts)

Language: English (official). Spanish, Maya, Marifuna (Carib)

Ethnic Divisions: 30% Creole, 44% Mestizo, 11% Maya, 7%

Garifuna, 2.1% East Indian

Religion: 62% Roman Catholic, 30% Protestant

Peak Tourist Season: December through March

Currency: Belizean dollar

Population: 0.3 million (2001)

Entry: No visa is required for visits of less than thirty days.
Evidence of sufficient funds is required and proof of travel out of

Transportation: Belize is served by one United States and several
Central American airlines with connections to Mexico and the United
States. Buses, taxis, light aircraft, and boats provide internal
transportation. Buses and taxis are available in Belize City, and
shopping areas are close to hotels.

Health: Check for malaria, yellow fever, and cholera before visit.

Shopping: Good buys are wooden handicrafts. Care must be taken
buying Mayan arts and tortoise shell crafts. They may be restricted
or not allowed in the United States.


Belize is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Central
America. Most Belizeans are of multiracial mixture. More than 45
percent are of African ancestry. A little more than 25 percent are
mestizo. Another one-fifth is Carib, Mayan, and other Amerindian
ethnic groups. The remainder includes Europeans, East Indians,
Chinese, and Lebanese. Over the past few years the population has
increased significantly from an inflow of Central American
refugees, mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala.

English is the official language and is spoken by almost all of the
population except recently arrived refugees. Spanish is the native
tongue for about half of the people and is spoken as a second
language by another 20 percent. The various Indian groups still
speak their original language. An English-Creole dialect similar to
that of the English-speaking people of the Caribbean islands is
also used. About half of the people are Roman Catholic, while the
Anglican Church and Protestant Christian groups make up most of the

Cultural Hints:

* Greet with a handshake.

* Most North American gestures are understood.

* Keep hands above table when eating.

* Eating and foods:

The best restaurants are in the hotels. Foods include seafood, beef
and chicken, and rice and beans.

National dishes are rice, beans, and lobsters.

Tourist Destinations and Attractions

The capital was moved from Belize City to Belmopan, a safer upland area than the coastal location of Belize City, which was devastated by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Belize City still remains the major tourist destination. It has the oldest Anglican cathedral in Central America--St. John's Cathedral--built in 1857. The Government House, the residence of the British governor, was built in 1814. The remnants of former slave quarters are still evident along Regent Street. The Supreme Court building, overlooking Central Park, continues elements of the British colonial style.

The coastal area has excellent beaches. A mosaic of islands off the barrier reef, one of the largest in the world, provides outstanding scuba diving and game fishing. Jacques Cousteau explored the waters of Belize in the 1970s. His exploration of a five-hundred-foot-deep karst sinkhole now known as the "Blue Hole" transformed this area into a remarkable recreational paradise for divers. Belize has a wealth of Mayan ruins. Major sites are at Altun Ha, a small rich ruin, 30 miles northwest of Belize City and Xunantunich, 80 miles southwest of Belize City. At Lamanai stand 700 ceremonial structures in which 75,000 Mayans once lived.

The country is developing its ecotourism. The Mountain Pine Ridge is famed for its orchids and wildlife. There are some 450 varieties of birds. The Cayo district contains a jaguar reserve, a baboon sanctuary, numerous wildlife and marine reserves, national parks, and an active Audubon Society.


Physical Characteristics

Guatemala is mountainous with a narrow coastal plain and the Peten, which is a rolling limestone plateau. The lowlands are tropical, hot, humid, and wet. The highlands are cooler with chilly nights.

Tourism Characteristics

Guatemala's tourist industry suffered in the 1980s because of the political instability of the region. It is easily accessible from the southeastern United States, and as the government becomes more stable, tourism will likely increase more rapidly. Tourism totaled half a million visitors by the early 1990s, the same number that visited Guatemala in the early 1970s. However, by the latter part of the 1990s tourism surpassed this number. The United States is the single biggest market for Guatemala, accounting for some 25 percent of all visitors (Figure 4-11). Collectively, Guatemala's neighbors provide most of the visitors. Like other Central American countries the peak tourist season is winter and spring with the low season in September and October due to the hurricane and rainy seasons in the summer and fall.



Capital: Guatemala City

Government: Republic

Size: 42,042 square miles (about the size of Tennessee)

Language: Spanish; 40% speak an Indian dialect, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi

Ethnic Division: 56% Mestizo, 44% Indian

Religion: Predominantly Roman Catholic, some Protestant, traditional Mayan

Tourist Season: Year-round

Peak Tourist Season: None

Currency: Quetzal

Population: 13.0 million (2001)

Entry: Visas or tourist cards are required. Passports must be
carried at all times. Tourist cards can be purchased at the airport
en route to Guatemala.

Transportation: Direct connections from North America are available
to Guatemala City. There is bus service between cities. Roads
between major cities are paved, but the rest are unimproved. Public
transportation in Guatemala City is by bus and is inexpensive. It
is better to use taxis and tour buses.

Caution: At various times, the State Department has advised caution
when traveling in certain areas because of conflict and crime.
Tour-group travel is probably the best option in the country. Check
with the State Department before visiting.

Health: Food should be cooked (no raw meat or fish) and hot. Drink
boiled or bottled water. At times visitors need protection for
malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. Consult with health officials
or your physician before travel.

Shopping: Popular items are Indian handicrafts including antique
embroidery, handwoven fabrics, silver jewelry, handwoven bags,
basketwork, and huipiles (Indian blouses).


Over half of the population are descendants of Maya Indians,
most living in the mountain area. Ladinos--Westernized Mayans
and mestizos (Spanish-Indian)--live in a crescent-shaped area
running from the northern border on the Pacific, along the
coastal plains, and up through Guatemala City to the Caribbean.
The dominant religion is Roman Catholicism, which many Indians
have superimposed onto their traditional forms of worship.
While Spanish is the official language, there are some thirty Indian
dialects. Some Indians do not understand Spanish.

Cultural Hints:

* Greet with a handshake.

* Good eye contact during greetings and talking.

* Ask permission to take photographs of people.

* Making a fist and pushing the thumb between the index
and middle fingers is a very rude gesture.

* North American gestures are understood and should be
avoided, particularly the "OK" signal.

* Eating and food:

Keep arms above the table.

It is polite to finish all the food on your plate.

To attract the waiter, raise your hand.

For the bill, raise your hand and then make a writing motion
on your hand.

Common foods are tortillas, black beans, rice, tamales,
meats (beef, pork, and chicken), and fried platanos (bananas).
Papaya and breadfruit are also common.

Tourist Destinations and Attractions

There are currently five principal destinations of interest to tourists. Guatemala City, the capital, has museums and buildings that remind the visitor of Mayan Indian history and the city's role as a colonial capital. Lake Atitlan, a volcano-surrounded lake, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The lake is ringed by a number of villages, each with its Indian tribe with distinctive colorful costume and periodic markets for the Indians. Chichicastenango and other mountain market towns are another attraction. Chichicastenango has become one of the outstanding Mayan market towns in all of Latin America. In addition to the market, a number of religious ceremonies are performed on the steps and inside the church of Santo Tomas. It is a picturesque mountain village of cobbled streets, redtiled roofs, and whitewashed houses. The colonial city of Antigua was the capital until it was devastated by earthquakes. It has fascinating colonial buildings and ruins. The Tikal Mayan ruins are one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in Latin American or, indeed, the entire world. The mutual marketing of Tikal as part of the Mayan World Circuit would be an additional growth factor for the country. Tikal sits in 222 square miles of dense rain forest. The city sprawls for some 50 square miles. Five imposing temples and thousands of stately structures emit an aura of power. Until recently, most visits were by air for a day trip. However, now there is a new 150-room hotel with plans for further development. One of the advantages of tourism in Guatemala is that all these destinations, with the exception of Tikal, are relatively close to each other and are located in the high elevations with pleasant climates.



Capital: Tegucigalpa

Government: Republic

Size: 32,277 square miles (slightly larger than Tennessee)

Language: Spanish, Indian dialects

Ethnic Division: 90% Mestizo, 7% Indian, 2% Black, 1% European

Religion: 97% Roman Catholic, Protestant minority

Tourist Season: Highland, year-around; Coastal, January through April

Peak Tourist Season: None

Currency: Lempira

Population: 6.7 million (2001)

Entry: Valid passport. No visa required for short stay.

Transportation: Direct flights from North America, Mexico,
and other Central American countries to Tegucigalpa. There
is good road connectivity from Guatemala to Honduras. Major
cities are accessible by airplane. Rural areas are isolated
with poor transportation and communications.

Health: Water must be boiled and filtered. Fruits and vegetables
must be cleaned carefully and meats cooked well. Protection
for malaria, typhoid fever, and cholera is advised. Check
with health officials or physician before travel.

Shopping: Wooden carvings, Panama hats, woven straw
items, and pottery are popular items.


The population of Honduras is 90 percent mestizo with small minorities
of European, African, Oriental, and American Indian ancestry.
Most Hondurans are Roman Catholic. Spanish is the
predominant language, although some English is spoken along
the northern coast and on the Caribbean Bay islands. Native Indian
dialects and Garifuna are also spoken. Honduras is one of
the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Its economy is
rural, exporting bananas, coffee, sugar, cotton, timber, and some

Cultural Hints:

* Greeting is a warm, gentle handshake.

* Hondurans have close personal space, standing near to

* Hondurans recognize North American gestures.

* Waving the index finger is used to say no.

* Touching the finger below the eye warns caution.

* The hand in a fist with the thumb between the index and
middle fingers is an obscene gesture.

* Eating and foods:

Keep both hands above the table.

Foods include beans, corn, tortillas, rice, and fruit. Typical
dishes are tapado (a stew of beef, vegetables, and coconut
milk), mondongo (tripe and beef), and nacatamales

Physical Characteristics

Honduras is mostly mountainous with a narrow coastal plain. The climate is subtropical in the lowlands and temperate in the mountain regions.

Tourism Characteristics

Like the other Central American nations, Honduras feels tourism is important but has not yet developed a substantial tourist infrastructure. Its development was retarded by its position between Guatemala and Nicaragua. Since the end of the civil war in Nicaragua and El Salvador, its tourism industry has grown. It increased from 126,000 in 1986 to 371,000 in 1999. The United States is the largest market, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total visitors (Figure 4-12). Honduras has little market outside of Central and North America. Europe accounts for only 10 percent of its market. Seventy-five percent of visitors are on holiday. Honduras will also benefit from political stability and increased tourism to Guatemala as its major Mayan site is close to the border between the two countries.

Tourist Destinations and Attractions

The most famous attraction in Honduras is Copan, an ancient religious and cultural center for the Mayan Indians. It is considered to be an outstanding example of ancient Mayan civilization and is included in the Mayan World Circuit promotion and marketing with other Central American countries. Structures such as stone temples, courts, and an amphitheater have been restored. Comayaguela, a remarkably well-preserved sixteenth-century town, is a major attraction. The capital, Tegucigalpa, is a picturesque city with winding cobblestone streets. Honduras has sandy beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coastal areas. This combined with the Bay Islands in the Caribbean with their pristine beaches and coves provide a potential base for the development of a tourism industry, but it has yet to be realized.


El Salvador


Capital: San Salvador

Government: Republic

Size: 8,124 square miles (about the same as Massachusetts)

Language: Spanish, Nahua among some Indians

Ethnic Division: 94% Mestizo, 5% Indian, 1% European

Religion: 75% Roman Catholic, balance mainly Protestant

Tourist Season: Year-round

Peak Tourist Season: November (10%) and December (12%)

Currency: Colon

Population: 6.4 million (2001)

Entry: A visa is required and cannot be obtained at the border.

Transportation: Airline access is good from North America,
Mexico, and other Central American countries. Highway access
with neighbors (Guatemala and Honduras). Public
transportation in San Salvador is an inexpensive bus.

Health: Precautions for malaria, yellow fever, and cholera advised.
Check with local health officials before trip.

Caution: Although the war has ended, check with State Department
on present status.

Shopping: Gold, ceramics, wood carvings, dolls, leather
goods, and textiles are popular.


The people of El Salvador are very homogeneous (90 percent
mixed Indian and Spanish). There are a few Indians who have retained
their old customs and traditions, while the vast majority
have adopted the Spanish language and culture.

Cultural Hints:

* Handshake is the common greeting. Some people only

* Eye contact is important.

* It is impolite to point with finger or feet.

* Eating and food:

Men stand when women leave the table.

Food includes black beans, refried beans, tortillas, rice
eggs, meat, and fruit. Food is less spicy than in other
Latin American countries.

Physical Characteristics

El Salvador is mountainous with a narrow coastal plain and a central plateau. The climate is tropical with a rainy season from May to October and a dry season from November to April.

Tourism Characteristics

In the past El Salvador, like Guatemala, had a reasonably strong tourist trade even though it was the smallest country in Central America. It is the most densely populated and most industrialized of the Central American countries.

Because of its political problems, tourism to El Salvador was stagnant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1995 El Salvador has had the fastest growth rate of tourist arrivals in Central America, increasing by 32 percent. Unlike most of the Central American countries the United States is not the dominant market for El Salvador, rather neighboring Guatemala is the largest, providing 30 percent of the total visitors (Figure 4-13). The United States accounts for 18.1 percent of visitors. Among Central American countries, El Salvador does receive the largest percentage of European visitors (18 percent). They have good accommodations accommodations and other tourist facilities that are currently under-used.


Tourism Destinations and Attractions

El Salvador has some very scenic mountains, volcanoes, and lakes. Surrounding the lakes are unique Indian villages where the inhabitants still wear traditional dress and use traditional markets. El Salvador also has excellent beaches along its Pacific coastline. There are a number of pre-Columbian ruins near Taxumal and San Andreas. The capital, San Salvador, is a modern city. The culture and art of the country are expressed in the museums and palaces of San Salvador. One of El Salvador's most impressive sites is Joya de Cerem, a village buried by a volcano 1,400 years ago. Due to the swift eruption, the village was left largely intact and quite well preserved.



Capital: Managua

Government: Republic

Size: 50,193 square miles (about the size of Iowa)

Language: Spanish, English, and Indian-speaking minorities

Ethnic Division: 69% Mestizo, 17% European, 9% Black, 5% Indian

Religion: 95% Roman Catholic

Tourist Season: Year-round

Peak Tourist Season: December and January

Currency: Cordoba

Population: 5.2 million (2001)

Entry: A visa is required and proof of sufficient funds and evidence
of onward transportation.

Transportation: Nicaragua is served by international airlines
with frequent connections to the rest of Central America.
Rental cars, taxis, and an extensive bus service are available in

Health: Precaution advised for malaria, yellow fever, and
cholera. Check with local health officials before travel. Food
and water in better restaurants is generally safe.

Shopping: Brass, leather goods, wood carvings, masks, jewelry,
and handwoven fabrics are common items purchased.


Most Nicaraguans are mestizo. The Indians of the Caribbean
coast remain ethnically distinct and retain tribal customs and dialects.
A large African minority (of Jamaican origin) is concentrated
on the Caribbean coast. Nicaraguan culture follows the
lines of its Ibero-European ancestry with the Spanish influence
prevailing. Roman Catholicism is the major religion, but Evangelical
Protestant sects have increased recently. Spanish is the official
language with English spoken on the Caribbean coast.

Cultural Hints:

* Greet with a warm, friendly handshake.

* Smiles are important.

* Nicaraguans have close personal space, standing closely in

* Eye contact is important.

* Most American gestures are understood and used.

* A fist with the thumb between the index and middle finger
is obscene.

* Eating and food:

Keep both hands above the table.
Food staples are beans and rice. Typical dishes are tortillas,
enchiladas, nacatamales (meat and vegetables), mondongo
(tripe and beef knuckles), and baho.

Physical Characteristics

Extensive coastal plains surround a mountainous region. The climate is tropical in the lowlands and cooler in the highlands.

Tourism Characteristics

Nicaragua's visitors include more politically motivated rather than pleasure travelers than other Central American countries. Its similarity to other Central American countries and its political problems have been factors in its small tourist industry. Nicaragua has a growing industry, expanding from 44,000 tourists in 1986 to 468,000 in 1999. Like El Salvador, Nicaragua's market is not dominated by the United States (Figure 4-14). The other Central American countries are the most important markets for Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government encouraged tourism and tourism-related projects in the 1990s as part of its attempt to restore the country's economy. A luxurious new resort was opened in 1995 on the seaside estate of Anastasio Somoza, with the private airport being converted into an international airport. On Corn Island, sixty miles off Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, additional development is occurring.

Tourism Destinations and Attractions

Nicaragua's attractions include its Indian heritage; ancient Spanish cities such as Grenada, the oldest Spanish city in Nicaragua; Leon, near the scores of excellent sandy beaches that dot the coastline from the Gulf of Fonsceca to the Costa Rican border; beautiful lakes and volcanos; and the old English colonial town of Bluefield, with its houses built on stilts and surrounded by coconut palms. In addition, Nicaragua has coastal resorts on both the Pacific (Masachapa and Pochomil) and the Caribbean, which are undergoing development for tourists. Fifty miles offshore from Bluefield are two small, beautiful, peaceful, unspoiled islands, with white sand beaches bordered by coconut trees and clear turquoise water--the Corn Islands. Development is now taking place to provide access for international visitors to the wonderful snorkeling, horseback riding, and hiking on the islands.


Costa Rica


Capital: San Jose

Government: Democratic republic

Size: 19,730 square miles (just smaller than West Virginia)

Language: Spanish, some Jamaican dialect of English

Ethnic Division: 96% European, 2% Black, 1% Indian, 1% Chinese

Religion: 95% Roman Catholic

Tourist Season: Year-round

Peak Tourist Season: None

Currency: Colon

Population: 3.7 million (2001)

Entry: No visa is required for stays of less than ninety days.
Tourists card issued upon arrival. Also, visitors need evidence
of transportation to leave Costa Rica.

Transportation: Costa Rica has good international connections
between San Jose and North America and other Latin
American countries. Transportation between cities is by bus.
San Jose has excellent bus public transportation.

Health: Some areas have cholera. Check with local health

Shopping: Items include carved wood (mahogany), native
dolls and costumes, leather, and embroidery.


Costa Ricans are largely European (Spanish ancestry), with a few
Africans, descendants of Jamaican immigrant workers. There are
about one percent native American Indians and another one percent
ethnic Chinese. Spanish is the official language, with English
widely understood. Creole English is spoken by the Black
population, and Bribri is spoken by Indians. About 95 percent of
the population is Roman Catholic. Costa Rica has the most politically
stable government in Central America.

Cultural Hints:

* Men smile and shake hands upon greeting.

* People waiting for public transportation line up in an orderly

* Most American gestures are understood.

* A fist with the thumb between the index and middle finger
is obscene.

* Eye contact is important.

* Chewing gum while speaking is impolite.

* Eating and foods:

Keep both hands above the table.

It is impolite to talk with food in your mouth.

Physical Characteristics

Costa Rica has a rugged mountain interior with coastal plains on the Caribbean and the Pacific. The climate is tropical, with the rainy season from May to November and the dry season from December to April.

Tourism Characteristics

Costa Rica is more economically advanced than the other Central American countries, and it is one of the most stable countries of Central America. In 1985, recognizing tourism potential, the government began a tourism-development program that resulted in the development of a number of new hotels and an increase in marketing to the North American market. Although most of its tourists are from other Latin American countries, the United States is a significant and growing market, as it accounts for some 36 percent of all the visitors to Costa Rica (Figure 4-15).


The number of visitors increased from 261,000 in 1986 to over one million by 2000.

Tourism to Costa Rica has become the most dynamic in Central America, largely based on ecotourism. The number of visitors tripled from 261,000 in 1986 to 781,000 in 1996. In an area the size of West Virginia, it has a rain forest, high mountain cloud forests, coral beaches, and 29 parks set aside to protect their natural ecology. The parks contain more than 850 species of birds, 1,200 varieties of orchids, and a number of other fauna and flora. Costa Rica now protects some 20 percent of the country's territory. In 1990, Costa Rica raised the tourism department to a cabinet status and appointed a new minister of tourism, using room and airport tax to provide revenue for this office.

Tourism Destinations and Attractions

The country's most noted attractions are its volcanic scenery, national parks, and oceans. The capital, San Jose, has some excellent museums and is a good representative of Costa Rican culture. The national parks exhibit a variety of flora and fauna with a remarkable collection of birds, flowers, mammals, and fish.

The Central Highlands contain the majority of the population, virtually all of the colonial town's cathedrals, and the majority of the country's most dramatic natural beauties, such as the great steaming volcanoes, the luxuriant misty cloud forests, the rocky gorges, waterfalls, and rushing streams.

A short day's trip from San Jose is Puerto Limon. Puerto Limon is the only deep-water port on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. The coast south of the port is lined with superb beaches. One of the best and most popular in Central America is Cahuita, with its white and black sand beaches, coral reefs, and transparent waters. Great diving, swimming, sunning, and beachcombing are available.

The stability of the government, the moderate climate, and the variety of attractions from beaches to rich national parks provide a resource for expanding its tourism industry (Figure 4-16).




Physical Characteristics

There are steep, rugged mountains and dissected upland plains in the interior. The coastal areas are largely plains and rolling hills. The climate is tropical, hot, and humid during the rainy season from May to January. January to May is a short, dry season.

Capital: Panama City

Government: Centralized republic

Size: 29,762 square miles (a little larger than West Virginia)

Language: 86% Spanish, 14% English, many bilingual

Ethnic Division: 70% Mestizo, 14% West Indian, 10%

European, 6% Indian

Religion: 85% Roman Catholic, 15% Protestant

Tourist Season: Year-round

Peak Tourist Season: January through April

Currency: Balboa

Population: 2.9 million (2001)

Entry: Tourist card with proof of citizenship (a passport is
best) from airline serving Panama. Also, need evidence of
continued transportation out of Panama.

Transportation: Panama is served by several international
airlines from North America and Latin America. It is known
as the bridge of the world. The Inter-American Highway connects
Panama to the other Central American countries and
the United States. Public transportation in Panama City is by
bus service, which is crowded.

Health: Concern for malaria, yellow fever, and cholera.
Check with local health officials before travel.

Shopping: Panama is a duty-free country for goods from
around the world. Local handicrafts such as embroidery
beaded beaded collars, leather, straw, and wooden goods are
typical of the country.


The people of Panama are predominantly Caribbean Spanish. Ethnically,
the majority are mestizo, or mixed Spanish, Indian, and
West Indian. A number of minorities exist such as elements of the
West Indians and indigenous Indian groups. Spanish is the official
language; however, English is a common second language.

Cultural Hints:

* A nod or handshake are common greetings.

* Women should dress conservatively.

* American gestures are known and understood.

* Eye contact is important.

* Eating and food:

Hands should be kept above the table.
Typical foods are kidney beans, rice, plantains, corn, fish,
beef, chicken, pork, and tropical fruits.

Tourist Characteristics

Panama was a relatively stable country until 1988, but tourists traditionally stayed only for a short time. Most of its visitors were in transit, either from cruise ships traveling through the Panama Canal or international flights between South America and North America. The number of visitors has risen slightly, from 308,000 in 1986 to 431,000 in 1998. This is partly due to the United States government, who appropriated $30 million to improve tourist facilities and related employment in Panama. Panama's currency, the balboa, has been tied to the United States dollar, which is attractive to tourists and helps account for the increase of visitors from the United States. The United States is Panama's largest market, accounting for some 24 percent of its visitors (Figure 4-17). Panama's neighbors, Colombia and Costa Rica, account for an additional 30 percent of the total visitors.

Panama's strategic location has allowed the development of a tourist industry. Although the United States and Panama's neighbors are the most important contributors to its tourist industry, Panama attracts tourists from a much greater diversity of nations than do other Central American countries because of ships passing through the Panama Canal.


Tourism Destinations and Attractions

The tourist industry centers on Panama City and its duty-free shopping, nightlife, and treasures from its history of colonialism and piracy. The Altar of Gold in the Church of San Jose is an important attraction. Panama is trying to emphasize other attractions such as its beaches and offshore islands, which offer fishing, watersports, and other resort amenities, in an effort to increase the length of stay of tourists.

Naturally, Panama's single, most important attraction is the Canal and locks, Figure 4-18. For observing the Canal, Cristobal and Colon on the Atlantic and Balboa on the Pacific are major points of interest. A short flight from Panama City, San Blas Island is the home of the Cuna Indians who have maintained their unique language and customs for thousands of years.

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Title Annotation:Part 1: Introduction-Panama
Publication:Geography of Travel & Tourism, 4th ed.
Geographic Code:2BELI
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Chapter 3 Geography and tourism in North America.
Next Article:Chapter 4 Geography and tourism in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

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