If your idea of Mexico is inspired by sombreros, Taco Bell, and a mariachi band, possibly with a shot or two from The Mask of Zorro thrown in for good measure, you need to get in country for a reality check. It’s not that you can’t find the stereotypes if you look for them, but rather that Mexico has an awful lot more to offer.

Let’s start with Mexico City itself, one of the biggest, loudest, and busiest cities in the Americas. It’s a Marmite kind of place, make no doubt about it, and not one you’ll enjoy if you’re averse to crowds, heat, or altitude. But hey! Why not throw yourself in at the deep end? This is, after all, the place which inspired Jack Kerouac to write Mexico City Blues, and where Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera had their passionate, often tempestuous, relationship.

The easiest way to slide yourself into Mexico life is on a tour with a local guide, who knows the best of what’s where and when. West Adventures’ Hello Mexico! takes in the big name sites such as the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, the National Palace, and Casa Azul (home of Frida Kahlo), but also introduces you to the grungier, vernacular culture with a night out at the Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling). Mexicans take this sport exceptionally seriously and the matches are real spectacles, with the masked wrestlers giving energetic, often dramatic, performances. Grab a beer, get your most enthusiastic cheering and booing voice ready, and treat yourself to a ringside seat.

Being a spectator at the Lucha Libre is a great way to build up rapport with your tour mates before you all leave Mexico City behind. Stock up on snacks for the journey: add mole, Mezcal, and grasshoppers to your list!

It’s beyond the cities that you’re going to find Mexico’s best preserved pre-Columbian heritage. Monte Albán is one of the oldest cities in Mesoamerica, founded by the Zapotec civilisation around 2,500 years ago. The vast Main Plaza was accessed via an impressively wide stone staircase, and structures of note include huge stone platforms, ball courts, and monumental mounds. All of these survive. The Danzantes, stone carvings of dancers or writhing prisoners (depending on your interpretation), give vivid insight into the more morbid aspects of Zapotec culture: the men are naked, contorted, with their genitals mutilated. They’d likely been tortured then sacrificed. This is definitely one for Horrible Histories.

You’re probably more familiar with the Maya, whose ancient empire stretches across vast swathes of Latin America. They’re the ones who built Chichen Itza, created a complex astronomical calendar, and also were the first to drink chocolate. I’m particularly delighted they made that discovery. The Maya sacrificed the first Spanish sailors to land in the Yucatán in 1511, which probably wasn’t their smartest move: they made an enemy, and by the end of the 17th century their kingdom was wiped out entirely.

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Visit Chichen Itza: it is after all one of the new Seven Wonders of the World! But if you actually want to see living Mayan culture, not ruins, you need to go as well to the villages of San Juan Chamula and Zincanantan. The Spanish destroyed the empire, but not the Mayan people. Their descendants still speak their own indigenous languages, the Catholic icons in the churches actually represent Mayan gods, and the local medicine man will not only diagnose your ailments but treat them with the aid of melted wax, sugar cane liquor, and perhaps even a live chicken. What he’s going to do with that chicken, I didn’t want to ask.

It is possible to have your fill of culture, which is fine in Mexico because there’s so much else to see and do outdoors. Hike up to the Hierve el Agua, a petrified waterfall where the water deposits have solidified into stalactites. Swim in the natural pools. Head into the jungle around Palenque and you’ll feel like a real explorer. It’s dense, humid, and in places actually quite dark as the leaves cut down how much sunlight filters through. The jungle soundtrack is provided by howler monkeys and toucan; there are jaguar, turtle, ocelot, and flamingo, too.

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One of the coolest sites is the cenotes of Santa Barbara, natural sink holes where the limestone rock has collapsed, opening up water filled caved below. The water’s crystal clear, perfect for swimming, and with the added exhilarating factor of having to take quite a substantial plunge before you hit the water. It’s a fantastic experience, though, and particularly welcome in the heat of the day.

And then of course there are the beaches of Playa del Carmen, where the average temperature high year-round is 30 Celsius. When it’s grey and pouring down in London, this is where you want to escape to. Play golf, take a boat to Cozumel, and generally soak up the sun. If your plan is to laze on the beach by day, then party hard all night until the sun rises again, schedule your trip to coincide with the BPM Festival in January. For 10 days and nights, Playa del Carmen pulses with electronic music, 400 of the world’s best DJs at the decks. Mexico puts on one hell of a party. You want to be on the dance floor.

Words by Mark Lumm

Practical information

Get beyond the margaritas and tacos on West Adventures’ Hello Mexico! tour. The 12-night itinerary starts from CA$1,919 (approx. £1,280), and they have scheduled monthly departures from October 2017 through May 2018.

The tour starts in Mexico City. You can fly direct from London with Aeromexico from £538 return, including taxes.