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2005-02-02 We fail to find Speedy Gonzales sipping tequila beneath a cactus in Mexico

When I am abroad and tell people where I come from, unbelievably there are still times when it is clear that some of these people believe I hail from a land where we keep pigs in our unelectrified, shamrock-and-shilelagh-wallpapered-kitchens, and we all sit around eating colcannon and drinking poitee­n, while outside, just across the half-door, the Catholics and Protestants can be seen beating the pulp out of each other!

 

People still, in 2005, tend to store in their minds a stereotypical image of certain countries, and I recently discovered I was guilty of it myself when I visited Mexico for the first time - yet, nowhere could I see Speedy Gonzales, beneath a cactus, sipping Tequila in the shade of his sombrero.

 

The vastness of the nation's sprawling, low-skyline capital was the first thing I noticed on arrival. A country of 100 million people, over one fifth live in the densely populated, rather chaotic and high-altitude Ciudad de Mexicano.

 

One of the world's three largest cities, Mexico City has earned a rather unfair reputation as being a city of grime and crime - I had even been warned about the green and white Volkswagen beetle-taxis with their driver-muggers. There was definitely something a little threatening about the place. The hotel was almost beautiful, but like the airport, in need of some essential maintenance.

The following morning we caught a flight to Zihuatanejo on the west coast "Mexican Riviera". The comfortable Mexicana airlines plane carried us across the dramatic, sometimes volcanic Sierra Madre del Sur, above landscape which resembled a scorched Switzerland. Zihautanejo is a rather unspoiled fishing town with a picturesque bay.

 

Cheeky pelicans perch on anchored fishing boats, and fishermen proudly display their catches on the pier. An impressive marlin hung around for photo opportunities the day I was there. A couple of miles away, the modern purpose-built and planned beach resort of Ixtapa is, however, far from quaint.

 

The vast, stunning, crescent-shaped, sundrenched bay of Acapulco has a reputation as being Mexico's St.Tropez - a playground for the rich and famous, with a buzzing nightlife.

 

The city is first mentioned around the time of the 15th century Aztec conquest, but when Mexico achieved independence from Spain in the 19th century, Acapulco was no longer used as a port. With the construction of a motorway from the capital in 1927, the city once again expanded, and now is home to almost a million people. The colourful flea market and street hawkers offer all types of Mexican folk-art, from carved wooden masks to colourful papier-maché bowls to handmade jewellery. The main church in Acapulco, and the religious artefacts shop nextdoor were as gaudy as their surroundings - even the Christ on the crucifix sported a Rock-star wig.

 

But of course Acapulco is most famous for it's death-defying high-divers. Five of us took our lives in our hands and piled into a tiny Volkswagen beetle-taxi for the short seat-belt-free ride to La Quebrada and the El Mirador vantage point.

A small entrance fee allowed us to view the pop-star-status divers from a viewing platform, the price including a free drink. The divers first pray at a cliff-top shrine for the Virgin Mary's intervention before they plunge 150ft across slanted jagged rocks into a narrow shallow channel - their dive timed to coincide with the incoming wave - all most impressive.

 

Aside from a most refreshing pineapple and mint juice drink, my experience of Mexican food was that tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, burritos, quesidallas and refried beans tasted better outside Mexico!

 

Our New Year's Eve open-air concert against the Acapulco skyline, illuminated by fireworks, was however one of the more memorable ways of ringing in the New. Our last stop was in Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of the 1000-mile long Baja Peninsula - a resort surrounded by capes, beaches, rock-arches, golf courses, million-dollar condos, shopping malls, and a base for every kind of water-sport and fishing activity imaginable.

 

Situated just a few miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, Cabo San Lucas is attractive, but expensive, and really just like a Californian extension.

 

Mexico is a country of extremes - vast, sprawling ,often polluted and seedy cities, stunning mountain scenery, fabulous beaches, remnants of Aztec wealth, a unique cultural blend, a faded Spanish colony mixed with native American culture, skyscrapers, colonial churches, flea markets, and a national drink distilled from the heart of the Blue Cactus.