There was a time when there was no Mexico-U.S. border. Northern Mexico still has many geographic and cultural continuities with the U.S. border states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and California. Here you'll find the deserts of Baja California and the Sonoran Desert. In between the two is the blue, blue Sea of Cortez, where the sea kayaking is fine. The northeast, where the mountains trap the moist Gulf of Mexico air, tends to be rainy and humid.
The mountains of central Mexico start to rise almost immediately from the ocean. In the interior, Mexico City asserts its central authority. A glance at the GORP map for central Mexico shows a crowding of parks like a regal robe around the capital. It's hard to avoid spending some time in Mexico City, but two or three days should be enough, then you'll want to head for wilder, less polluted spots. As well as the mountains, the Pacific Coast is magnificent, offering exploration and adventure beyond Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.
The tropics dominate southern Mexico. The flat Yucatan peninsula and mountainous Chiapas next door are the stars, but there's plenty of wonderful areas in the other states. Besides Cancun, Quintana Roo is home to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A word about nomenclature. The Mexican Government has an elaborate naming system for its protected public lands. For our purposes, there are two key terms. . .
National Park have strong recreation or historical missions. They range from fairly large, wild places close to the U.S. sense of the word, to small, urban parks more suitable for a Sunday stroll than a hiking trip.
Reserves have been set up primarily for habitat preservation and scientific study. Often, a reserve's caretakers will discourage travellers, fearing it will lead to destructive tourist industry development.
There is no official wilderness designation in Mexico. In fact, there is not an exact translation for the word wilderness; the two closest analogues mean desert and wasteland, respectively. That doesn't make many of the lands we have listed not wilderness.When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, two-thirds of Mexico was forested. Today, one-fifth is. With Mexico's soaring birthrate, habitat destruction is likely to increase. Visit these places with the same reverent, leave-no-trace ethic that you would in a U.S. wilderness.
Compared to the U.S., Mexico is a poor country. And if the U.S. national park budget is tight, Mexico's is non-existent. You will not find the same level of facilities or information that you would at a U.S. national park. Trails probably won't be marked, and maps can be hard to find.
Similarly, other than beach resorts and the like, Mexico does not have a large outdoor recreation industry. So don't count on being able to buy a tent, sleeping bag, or camp stove while you're there. A good exchange rate won't do you any good if they aren't selling what you need. Neither does Mexico have the same breadth of hiking clubs, paddling groups, guidebooks, and interpretation societies. If you really want to explore wilder Mexico, let go of your North American efficiency mindset. Learn some Spanish and be prepared to spend some time in local villages, getting to know the people and from there hiring a knowledgeable, trustworthy guide.
So let's do some exploring! We've put together a list with descriptions of 84 national parks, reserves, and other protected lands in Mexico. Vamos!
Other Internet Resources on Protected Lands in Mexico
Eco Travels in Latin America -- From Ron Mader, a prince of ecotourism. Good articles, good links, and fun, as well as being very HC (high consciousness).
CONABIO is a non-governmental organization focussed on biodiversity of Mexico.Their web site has a wealth of information on protected lands in Mexico. (In Spanish)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication