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Mexico is vibrant, colourful and unique. Its varied terrain ranges from cactus-studded deserts to white sandy beaches and blue waters, tropical rainforest and jungle-clad hills to steep rocky canyons and narrow gorges, and from snow-capped volcano peaks to huge, bustling cities. The extraordinary history of the country is visible in the ancient Mayan temples strewn across the jungles, the ruins of Aztec civilisations, rural indigenous villages, Spanish colonial cities, silver mining towns, and traditional Mexican ports.
Since the height of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations, Mexico has suffered the destructive force of the Conquistadors, European colonial rule, civil and territorial wars, rebellions, dictatorships, recessions and earthquakes. Despite all this, Mexico's people are warm and friendly, much of the countryside remains unspoilt by development, and its cities have a unique blend of architecture. Mexican Buildings display a striking combination of colonial and pagan architecture, blending together Art Nouveau, Baroque, Art Deco and Native American design in churches and public structures. The country's culture is a similar blend of the traditional and modern, where pagan meets Christian in a series of festivals, or fiestas, throughout the year.
Mexico also has several hundred miles of coastline extending down through both the Pacific and the Caribbean, home to numerous extremely popular beach resorts. Resort cities such as Acapulco, Cancun and those of the Baja California peninsula are vacation havens. The countryside enclosing these summer retreats is also rich in archaeological treasures with pyramids, ruins of ancient cities and great stone carvings of ancient gods standing as testament to a country once ruled by the Aztecs and Mayans.
Violence linked to the drug cartels is widespread but seldom aimed at tourists. Despite recent reports of drug wars and safety issues, Mexico remains a hugely popular and predominantly safe tourist destination.
Mexico has consistently proven to be one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world and for good reason. With its exotic sandy beaches, blue waters and warm climate, extraordinary history and diverse landscapes, it would take a few months, if not years, to explore and discover all that this magical country has to offer.
Spend a few days wandering round the ancient Mayan and Aztec pyramids and ruins, explore the deserts and swamps, marvel at the rainforests and discover the hundreds of species of orchid along the way, or navigate an eco-tour by mountain bike, jeep, kayak or horseback. There are 67 National Parks conserving indigenous fauna and flora, and the country is a bird-watcher's paradise, with the most species of birds in the whole of North America.
The west coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula is regarded as having some of the best whale watching destinations in the world. The three lagoons on the Pacific Coast that offer the best locations for watching Gray Whales are Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon and Scammon's Lagoon. Humpback Whales and Blue Whales breed in the Sea of Cortez, and Bahia de Los Angeles is the centre for whale watching expeditions in the area.
Beach resort cities such as Acapulco, Cancun and those of the Baja California region are considered to be a slice of heaven. The wonderfully unique architecture and evidence of European colonial rule still exist in the cities, while El Zócalo in Mexico City, the second largest city square in the world, is where it all happens and is the best place to experience some real Mexican flavour.
Mexican cruises mix old world charm with modern amenities, giving a great blend of excitement and serenity to the holiday cruise. Mexican cruises typically only visit the west coast while the beautiful and warm waters on the east are usually included in Caribbean cruise packages.
The Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve, located in the mountains south of La Paz, provides a rugged home for an incredible diversity of animal and plant life. Declared a UNESCO Global Biosphere Reserve in recognition of its distinctive fauna and flora, the reserve is home to mountain lion, coyotes, foxes, kangaroo rats, desert mule deer, gophers and badgers. This ecological treasure house attracts hikers, mountain bikers and naturalists keen to see cacti, palms and pine trees grow side by side and picturesque rock pools form underneath towering granite boulders. The core of the reserve is dominated by scenic oak-pine forests, which although scenic, can make it difficult to spot animals.
The enormous paved Plaza de la Constitucion, or Zocalo, is the second largest city square in the world. Dominated on one side by the magnificent colonial Presidential Palace, and on the other by the great Metropolitan Cathedral with its ornate interior, the square is Mexico City's centre of government and religion. The square itself is always filled with activity, with vendors and buskers, informal traditional Aztec dance performances, family groups, workers on lunch break and passing tourists. Every evening the presidential guards, in a show of great ceremony, lower the national flag from the central flagpole. The square is constantly encircled by the city's ubiquitous green Volkswagen taxis, and is a good starting point for those wanting to explore the city.
Templo Mayor (Great Temple) was the principal temple of the Aztecs, believed to mark the centre of the universe. It was part of the sacred complex of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, and today it has been excavated to show the multiple layers of construction. The temple was first built in 1375, and enlarged several times, each rebuilding accompanied by a frenzied bloody sacrifice of captured warriors to rededicate the sacred area. Within the site is the excellent Museo del Templo Mayor, displaying artifacts from the original site including a great wheel-like stone carving of the Aztec goddess of the moon, Coyilxauhqui. The entrance fee covers admission to both the museum and the archaeological site.
Formerly a separate village, San Angel is one of the more charming of Mexico's suburbs, an exclusive neighbourhood with ancient mansions and colonial houses along cobbled streets. It is famed for its Saturday craft market in the pretty Plaza San Jacinto, which brings colour, crowds and a festive atmosphere to the area, and has excellent art and handicrafts for sale. The suburb is crammed with little restaurants and cafes, several museums exhibiting the works of Frida Kahlo among others, and the lovely El Carmen complex consisting of a triple-domed church, a former monastery, school buildings, and a museum. San Angel is surrounded by a volcanic rock bed called the Pedregal. Parts of this unusual landscape have been declared protected areas where visitors can see the endemic flora and fauna.
The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) is Mexico City's major dining, nightlife and shopping district. It is a compact area crammed with bars, shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels. The district has subtly shifted in its appeal recently. Once a fashionable hub for youth and the upper classes, the Zona Rosa is now also frequented by the city's gay community and tourists. The symbol of Mexico City, a gilded statue of Winged Victory which is the Independence Monument, looms above the district and is one of the city's most photographic features. There is accomodation available in the area, but visitors are advised that it can be noisy at night.
Situated 31 miles (50km) from Mexico City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan is Mexico's largest ancient city, dating from around 300-600 BC. Legend has it the Aztecs found the abandoned city and, recognising signs of its previous magnificence, they named it what it is today: Teotihuacan, 'place of the gods'. The central thoroughfare of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, a 1.3 mile (2km) stretch connecting the three main attractions. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, a huge red painted structure over a cave with spectacular views from the top. The smaller, more graceful Pyramid of the Moon contains an alter believed to have been used for religious dancing. The Citadel is a large square complex that was once the residence of the city's ruler. Within the walls is its main feature, the Templo de Quetzalcoatl.
Chichen Itza, with its famous pyramids and temples, is the Yucatan's most visited ancient Mayan site, set in the jungle and said to have been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. The main attraction at Chichen Itza is the Pyramid of Kukulkan (the plumed serpent god), or El Castillo, a grand pyramid topped by a temple that dominates the site and has been declared one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. Inside the pyramid is a smaller pyramid, the inner sanctum, containing one of the greatest finds on the site, the brilliant red jaguar throne with jade spots, inlaid eyes and real jaguar teeth. Another building of interest is El Caracol (The Giant Conch Snail), an observatory with slits in the dome aligned with certain astronomical appearances at specific dates. Visitors should bring drinking water, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes.
Santo Domingo is the most beautiful of San Cristóbal's churches, with an intricately carved pink Baroque facade that is especially impressive when lit up at night. The interior is richly decorated and shimmers with gold. The ornate pulpit and golden altarpieces are the main focus of this 16th-century architectural monument. Visitors are welcome at services but should prepare to be scolded by local worshippers if they don't show proper respect. The area in front and around the church is filled each day with craft stalls and village traders and is a great place to find Mexican souvenirs like woven blankets and shawls and amber jewellery.
These two highland villages are the home of the Tzotzil people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, and some of Mexico's most traditional indigenous communities. San Juan Chamula is a centre for religious festivals. The main attraction is the church where, every Sunday, men in loose homespun white woollen ponchos and women in embroidered finery congregate for the weekly market. The typical dress of the Zinacantan villagers is a red and white striped poncho decorated with tassels and a flat, round hat decorated with ribbons. The countryside is dotted with crosses and offerings dedicated to their ancestor gods or the Earth Lord. Visitors should respect the local traditions and customs; villagers can be unfriendly and are wary of tourists. The best way to visit the villages is with a local guide. Photography is forbidden.
The setting for this spectacular ancient Mayan city is splendid, a hauntingly beautiful site engulfed in the endless tropical jungle that bristles with the shriek of insects. The architecture is fantastic and for many Palenque is the most remarkable of the major Mayan sites. Early morning is the best time to capture the setting at its most photogenic, when swirling vapours encircle the temples and the jungle. The highlight is the tallest and most important of Palenque's buildings, the magnificent Temple of Inscriptions. Constructed on eight levels, the rear interior wall is decorated with panels of Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the history of Palenque and the temple. There is a museum near the entrance of the site.
Guanajuato is a colonial gem, founded around the rich silver deposits discovered by the Spanish in 1558. The city has an unusual layout, crammed into a narrow valley, with houses and streets forced into irregular positions due to the naturally hilly topography. Brightly painted houses perch on slopes reached by narrow cobbled alleyways, hidden plazas, steep stairways and underground tunnels. The most narrow, and most visited, alley is the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) where the balconies of the leaning houses on either side almost touch each other, a feature in the local romantic legend about furtive lovers exchanging kisses. Every weekend the famous strolling musicians, or callejoneadas, in traditional dress, lead processions through the narrow winding alleyways, strumming, singing and telling stories to the crowds that follow.
The rustic logging town of Creel is the gateway to the Copper Canyon, popular as a starting point for exploring the canyons and Tarahumara Indian country. The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (ChePe) train runs along the main canyon between Chihuahua and Los Mochis. The trip takes about 15 hours, passing through dramatic scenery and several villages and is a popular way to explore the region. Creel is the largest town in the canyon and offers accommodation, restaurants, Tarahumara craft shops, tours and guides. Situated high in a valley, the cool mountain air at 7,677 feet (2,340m) makes a pleasant escape from the humidity on the coast. Travellers should note, however, that there have been incidents of cartel-related violence in the vicinity of the Copper Canyon, and should take all possible safety precautions.
Located just a short ferry ride from the resort, Isla Mujeres is a stunning island with quiet villages and beautiful views that make for a great excursion from Cancun. The calm atmosphere is a relaxing break from the bustle of Cancun's busy beaches, and Isla Mujeres offers some excellent restaurants serving freshly-caught seafood. Hidalgo Street in El Centro is the main dining, shopping and entertainment area. Popular activities on Isla Mujeres include lounging on the pretty beaches, swimming with dolphins, snorkelling and scuba diving, exploring the remarkable Underwater Sculpture Museum, swimming with sharks, deep-sea fishing, and kayaking. The most popular beaches are on the north and west sides of Isla.
Bosque de Chapultepec is a truly immense urban park. Mexico's answer to Central Park spans over 686 hectares (1,695 acres), and on any given day is brimming with people. The park is home to boating lakes, monuments, a zoo, playing fields, and Chapultepec Castle. The castle stands on a hill in the centre of the park, housing the Natural History Museum and offering incredible views of the city. There's plenty to see and do in the park, but most people come to relax on lunch breaks or weekends. Kick back, grab a taco and indulge in some people-watching.
The Wet'n Wild Waterpark in Cancun claims to be the best waterpark in Latin America. The park works in conjunction with a splendid dolphinarium which is a very popular attraction in Cancun. Many resorts offer joint packages to the waterpark and dolphinarium. Attractions at the waterpark include a wave pool, a lazy river, a kiddies pool, bumper boats, and four or five waterslides including the Twister, the Kamikaze and the Bubble Space Bowl. There are also plenty of beach loungers for those who just want to relax in the sun. Tickets are expensive, but include unlimited beverages, ice-cream, snacks and meals. There are lifeguards on duty and medical attention on standby.
Cancun's archaeological museum, the Museo Maya, is new, modern and air-conditioned and a visit can be a welcome relief from the heat outside. The museum consists of three large exhibition halls and houses about 350 Mayan artefacts discovered in the region. Artefacts include carvings, pottery, weapons, tools, ritual objects and burial masks. One of the highlights is the 14,000-year-old skeletal remains found in Tulum's underwater caves, which greet visitors as they enter. The museum is enclosed by lovely landscaped grounds and nestled within are some fascinating Mayan ruins, including a small pyramid. This site, called the San Miguelito Archaeological Site, is possibly the best part of a trip to the museum.
When it comes to watersports, people watching, sun-lounging, clear blue water, beach bars and restaurants, and great tourist facilities, Cancun is unbeatable. Beach resorts and powdery white sand are the order of the day. The northern stretch of Mujeres Bay includes the popular Playa Langostina, Playa Las Perlas and Playa Tortugas, all great for watersports, bars and restaurants. Playa Linda is a launching point for boat and dive tours, while Playa Caracol and Punta Cancun are excellent for family fun. East side beaches are breezier with rouger surf. Chac Mool, Playa Marlin, Gaviota Azul and Playa Ballenas are ideal for parasailing, windsurfing, while Punta Nizuc and Playa Delfines are beautiful beaches perfect for a day of sand and surf. The best dive sites lie between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, at the colourful reefs of El Tunel, Grampin, Chuchos and Largo. The Cancun Underwater Museum (MUSA) is also a fantastic option for divers.
The Tropic of Cancer divides Mexico into a tropical south and temperate north, which means that the northern region experiences cooler winter temperatures, whereas the south is hot all year with little seasonal variation. The coastal plains and Yucatan Peninsula of the south experience average annual temperatures ranging between 75°F and 82°F (24°C and 28°C). The annual average temperatures in the northern lowlands are somewhat lower, ranging between 68°F and 75°F (20°C and 24°C), mainly because there is greater seasonal variation. The whole country tends to be hot and humid between May and August and is pleasantly warm throughout the year. Rainfall varies widely according to region and terrain, but Mexico does have distinct wet and dry seasons: most of the country experiences a rainy season between late May and mid-October, with significantly less rain the rest of the year. February is the driest month and July is the wettest. Hurricanes are possible between June and November.
The best time to visit Mexico is between November and early May. It is best to avoid the peak summer months (June to August), when it is uncomfortably hot, and the Easter holidays (March and April), when it can get unbearably crowded.
Angelopolitano is a very popular restaurant which serves classic Mexican dishes with a modern gourmet twist. The setting is trendy and intimate and the portions are generous and extremely tasty. Downstairs there is a restaurant store selling traditional Mexican preserves and sauces of high quality. They serve lunch and dinner daily. the restaurants open between 10am and 10pm, and stays open a little later on weekends.
For a stylish gastronomical experience in Cancun, Les Cepages is the favourite. The restaurant serves international cuisine, with a French influence, and meals are creatively and beautifully presented. Specialties include lamb chops with mint sauce, duck with honey caramelized apples and roasted quail. There is a good wine selection and the service is superb. This world-class restaurant is slightly off the beaten tourist track in Cancun but well worth seeking out. Les Cepages is open 6pm to 11pm on Monday, 2pm to 10pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and is closed on Sundays.
Café Tacuba has a very colonial atmosphere, dating back to 1912. Its décor features brass lamps, oil paintings and a mural of nuns working in a kitchen. The authentic Mexican menu offers traditional dishes including tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and pozole, and their pastries and hot chocolate are legendary. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
La Opera is a luxurious dining venue with dark wood booths and linen-covered tables. The décor features gilded baroque ceilings and beautiful oil paintings, and an added feature is the bullet hole which revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, supposedly put in the ceiling when he galloped into the restaurant on horseback. The menu offers an array of sumptuous cuisine including Spanish tapas and red snapper with olives and tomatoes. It's open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, and Sunday for lunch. Reservations are recommended.
Open since 1936, many celebrity diners have frequented the classic-European dining room of Restaurant Danubio, in the Centro Histórico. The restaurant's menu offers superb Spanish cuisine prepared on an ancient coal and firewood stove. The seafood at Restaurant Danubio is excellent - be sure to try the (baby crayfish). It's open daily for lunch and dinner, and reservations are recommended.
This small, simple restaurant serves fantastic, authentic Mexican food in a friendly and laid-back setting. Tacun is great value for money - a rare thing in Cancun - and serves yummy food in liberal helpings. Locals and tourists alike consistently rate the spot highly. The restaurant doesn't accept credit cards so be sure to take cash. Tacun is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in Cancun for many years, La Dolce Vita serves fresh seafood, pizza and home-made pasta in the Italian tradition, and has a good selection of international wines. One of their signature dishes is Boquinete Dolce Vita, which is local snapper topped with shrimp and mushrooms, enclosed in puff pastry, and served with lobster sauce. La Dolce Vita is elegant but friendly. The restaurant is open daily from 8am to 11pm.
Mexican currency is the Mexican Peso (MXN), divided into 100 centavos. Credit cards are widely accepted, particularly Visa, MasterCard and American Express. ATMs are available in most cities and towns and are the most convenient way to get money, but for safety reasons should only be used during business hours and vigilance is advised. Although many businesses will accept foreign currency (particularly US Dollars) it is best to use pesos. Foreign currency can be exchanged at one of many casas de cambio (exchange houses), which have longer hours and offer a quicker service than the banks.
Spanish is the official language in Mexico. Some English is spoken in tourist regions.
110-120 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin flat blade attachment plugs are standard.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for holders of British passports endorsed British Citizen, British National (Overseas) or British Subject for stays of up to 180 days.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days. Note that visa exemptions apply to holders of an APEC Business Travel Card, provided that the card is valid for travel to Mexico (i.e. endorsed with "MEX" on its reverse side).
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is required. Passengers with a valid visa issued by Canada, Japan, USA, United Kingdom or a Schengen Member State are visa exempt for a maximum stay of 180 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Mexico. A visa is not required for stays of up to 180 days. Note that visa exemptions apply to holders of an APEC Business Travel Card, provided that the card is valid for travel to Mexico (i.e. endorsed with "MEX" on its reverse side).
All foreign passengers to Mexico must hold a Mexico Visitor's Permit (FMM), which is issued free of charge, and obtainable from airlines, Mexican Consulates, Mexican international airports, and border crossing points. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers transiting through the United States are required to present a passport, or other valid travel document, to enter or re-enter the United States. Foreign passengers to Mexico should ensure that their passports and other travel documents are in good condition - even slightly torn passports will not be accepted. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Those entering Mexico from an infected area require a yellow fever certificate. There are no vaccination requirements for visitors to Mexico, however visitors should take medical advice if travelling outside the major tourist areas. A malaria risk exists in some rural areas, but not on the Pacific and Gulf coasts, and dengue fever is on the increase. Vaccinations are recommended for hepatitis A and typhoid. Travellers who may come into close contact with animals and may be at risk of bites should consider a rabies vaccination.
Sensible precautions regarding food and water should be followed and visitors are advised to be cautious of street food and stick to bottled water. Medical facilities are basic, so comprehensive medical insurance is recommended. As medicines may be in short supply in certain areas travellers should consider taking along prescription medications, in their original packaging, and accompanied by a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what it is and why it is needed.
Note: Zika is still a risk in Mexico. Because Zika infection in a pregnant woman can cause serious birth defects, women who are pregnant should seek advice from healthcare providers before travelling to Mexico.
Tipping is customary in Mexico for almost all services as employees are not paid sufficient hourly wages and often rely on tips. Waiters and bar staff should be tipped 10 to 15 percent if a service charge hasn't already been added to the bill. The American custom of tipping 15 to 20 percent is practiced at international resorts, including those in Los Cabos.
There can be incidents of robberies and muggings in Mexico, especially in the big cities such as Mexico City. Travellers, particularly women on their own, should be vigilant and take care of their belongings, especially on public transport. Only use authorised taxi services, and try to avoid bus travel at night.
Visitors are advised to be wary of people presenting themselves as police officers attempting to fine or arrest them for no apparent reason, leading to theft or assault. If in doubt ask for identification.
Most of the violence related to drug cartel wars in Mexico is concentrated along the border between Mexico and the United States. Tourist zones are generally unaffected, though it is worth checking the news before travelling.
Hurricanes may affect the coastal areas between June and November.
Mexicans are not impatient and do not appreciate impatience in others, so travellers should expect opening hours and public transport times to be flexible and laid back. Mexicans are friendly and hospitable people and courteous behaviour and polite speech in return is greatly appreciated. Travellers should also note that it is common for Mexicans to communicate closer than one arm's length from each other and that it is not an attempt to be forward.
In Mexico, business is ideally conducted face-to-face. Although many Mexican businessmen speak perfect English, Spanish is the official language of business in Mexico - and learning a few choice words and phrases will go a long way toward ingratiating yourself with your new associates.
Business etiquette in Mexico is marked by a combination of formality and friendliness. It is very rare to hear the word 'No' being used in a direct or confrontational way - bald refusals are seen as rude. Use titles ('Señhor' and 'Señhora') until specifically instructed not to do so, but do not shrink away from engaging in personal discussions with your colleagues. Business meetings must be scheduled in advance, and then confirmed a few days before they are due to take place.
The dress code for the Mexican business world is smart and formal. Business hours in Mexico are generally from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (with a 2 or 3 hour siesta in the early afternoon).
The international access code for Mexico is +52. If calling internationally from a phone booth use the official TelMex phone booths, as all others charge very high fees. There is widespread network coverage in Mexico from Telcel, Movistar, and AT&T Mexico. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available.
Travellers to Mexico over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 25 cigars or 200g tobacco; 3 litres spirits or 6 litres wine; other goods to the value of US$500 if arriving by air, or US$300 if arriving by land are premitted without incurring duty fees. Prohibited goods include narcotics, firearms and used clothing that is not part of your personal luggage. The export of archaeological artefacts is strictly forbidden.
Mexico Tourism Board: +52 55 5278 4200 or www.visitmexico.com
Mexican Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 728 1600.
Mexican Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7499 8586.
Mexican Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 233 8988.
Mexican Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6273 3963.
Mexican Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 460 1004.
Mexican Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 667 3105.
Mexican Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 472 0555.
United States Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 5080 2000.
British Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 1670 3200.
Canadian Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 5724 7900.
Australian Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 1101 2200.
South African Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 1100 4970.
Irish Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 5520 5803.
New Zealand Embassy, Mexico City: +52 55 5283 9460.
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