Navigating Mexico: 17 Essential Tips for a Smooth Trip
Mexico is a country of vastness and diversity, offering unique landscapes, flavors, music, and art. Whether you’re a frequent visitor or exploring for the first time, understanding the intricacies of this vibrant nation can make your trip even more enjoyable. From booking early to embracing local customs, here are 17 essential tips to help you navigate Mexico and make the most of your experience.
1. Book Early and Budget Extra for the High Season
Mexico attracts travelers year-round, but peak seasons like Christmas, New Year’s, spring break, and July experience a surge in both domestic and international visitors. To avoid paying higher prices for accommodation, excursions, car rentals, and airfare, consider booking in advance. This is especially crucial if you plan to visit coastal areas popular among Mexican tourists. Remember, these spots fill up quickly!
2. Pack for the Climate
With its diverse geography, Mexico offers a wide range of climates. From frosty mornings at high altitudes to balmy nights along the coast, it’s essential to research your destination’s weather and pack accordingly. Consider packing items such as a bikini, an umbrella, or a winter jacket to ensure you’re prepared for any conditions. Keep in mind that Mexico is located in the hurricane belt, so coastal areas are susceptible to significant storms from June to November.
3. Bring Sunscreen and Mosquito Repellent
While you can find sunscreen and mosquito repellent in Mexico, the options may be limited and expensive. To save money and ensure you have your preferred brands, it’s advisable to bring these essentials from home. Protecting your skin from the sun’s rays and avoiding mosquito bites are vital for a comfortable and enjoyable trip.
4. Use Your ATM Card
While carrying some cash is always a good idea, there’s no need to bring large amounts of cash to exchange. Mexican ATMs are widely available, even in small towns, and offer the most economical way to obtain pesos. However, be aware of ATM transaction fees. If they exceed US$5-6 per withdrawal, consider using a different bank’s machine. Opting for banks like BBVA Bancomer and Santander often results in lower fees. Additionally, if prompted to accept a “special” exchange rate, decline and let the bank apply the official rate, which is to your advantage.
5. Leave Your Bling at Home
To minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention from pickpockets and scammers, avoid bringing flashy watches and jewelry to Mexico. Wearing such items may make you a target. Similarly, resist the temptation to rent a luxury car, as they are more likely to be broken into or caught the attention of officials.
6. Embrace Long Distance Bus Travel
Unless you require a car for specific reasons, opting for long-distance buses is an excellent way to explore Mexico. The country boasts numerous bus companies that crisscross its diverse regions, providing reliable and efficient transportation. Whenever possible, choose primera clase (first class) service, which offers more comfort, including cushy reclining seats, individual screens, Wi-Fi, and even snacks. While it may be slightly more expensive than segunda clase (second class), the added comfort and convenience are well worth it.
7. Say Hello… Even to Passersby
Mexicans place great value on pleasantries as a sign of respect. When entering a room or a business, it is customary to say “buenos dias” (good morning) or “buenas tardes” (good afternoon). Expressing gratitude with a quick “con permiso” (excuse me) before leaving is also considered polite. When meeting a person for the first time, a handshake accompanied by “mucho gusto” (a great pleasure) is the go-to greeting. If you already know the person, a kiss on the cheek or a hug is expected.
8. Tip (Almost) Everyone
Tipping is an important source of income for many workers in Mexico, from waiters and tour guides to parking attendants and hotel housekeepers. To show your appreciation, consider tipping around 10-15% for waitstaff and tour guides, $3-10 per day for hotel housekeepers, $2-3 per bag for porters, and $0.25-0.75 for parking attendants, grocery baggers, and gas station attendants. While taxi drivers do not typically expect tips, they will certainly appreciate them.
9. Be a Respectful Photographer
When capturing moments in Mexico, it’s crucial to be respectful, especially when photographing Indigenous Mexicans. Instead of abruptly taking a photo, approach the person and ask for permission first. In marketplaces or when interacting with street vendors, consider making a purchase before asking to take a photo. This approach shows respect and often leads to more positive interactions.
10. Bargain with Kindness
Haggling is a common practice when shopping in Mexico, especially in markets and at street-side stands. Vendors often inflate prices with the expectation of negotiation. However, it’s essential to be mindful of the vendor’s livelihood and the importance of a fair price. While it’s encouraged to negotiate, remember that even a few pesos can make a significant difference for the vendor.
11. Carry Small Bills and Coins
Although credit cards are increasingly accepted in Mexico, it remains a predominantly cash-based society. Therefore, it’s advisable to carry pesos in smaller denominations. Change can be scarce, and vendors may have difficulty breaking larger bills, which could result in delays or refusal of service. As a precaution, always carry a variety of small bills and coins.
12. Avoid Places Where Things Can Go Wrong Fast
Safety is a common concern when visiting Mexico, given the news about cartel violence. While violent crime primarily involves criminal organizations targeting one another, it’s essential to exercise caution and make informed choices. To ensure a safer experience, avoid associating with drugs, whether purchasing, using, or being around those who do. Additionally, avoid fringe neighborhoods and, if traveling in areas known for cartel activity, opt for driving during daylight hours, use toll roads, and arrive at your destinations early.
13. Be Alert to Petty Theft
Petty theft, such as pickpocketing, is a risk in many tourist destinations worldwide, and Mexico is no exception. To minimize the chances of falling victim to theft, be aware of your surroundings, particularly in crowded places like markets and city buses. Leaving your valuable items, such as jewelry, at home and avoiding the display of large sums of cash can also deter thieves. When possible, choose clothing with deep or zippered pockets and, if your hotel room lacks a safe, lock your valuables in your luggage using TSA locks.
14. Don’t Drink the Water
One famous piece of advice holds true: avoid drinking tap water in Mexico or even using it to brush your teeth. While tap water is treated at the source, it can acquire contaminants while traveling through pipes. To stay safe, opt for bottled water. When dining out, rest assured that ice cubes are generally made from purified water produced at commercial factories.
15. Eat Street Food
Sampling street food is a must-do experience in Mexico. From sizzling tacos to grilled corn and sweet crepes, these culinary delights are a hallmark of the country’s cuisine. To ensure the safety of the food you enjoy, seek out stalls with a crowd, as they generally indicate popular and safe-to-eat-at options. However, exercise caution with extras like mayo and cream, as these condiments may sit unrefrigerated, potentially fostering bacterial growth and causing stomach troubles.
16. Opt for Rideshares
Taxi drivers in Mexico have gained a reputation for taking advantage of tourists by inflating rates or redirecting passengers to places where they receive commissions. To mitigate this risk, consider using rideshare services like Uber, which often offer reliable transportation at rates that are frequently lower than regular taxis. If you must use a traditional cab, negotiate and agree on the fare before getting in the vehicle.
17. Remember Your Embassy
In the event of crime victimization, medical emergencies, or legal issues, it’s essential to know how to reach your embassy or consulate. Almost 90 countries, including the United States and Canada, have representatives in Mexico to assist their citizens. Familiarize yourself with the contact information and services provided by your embassy before your trip to ensure you have the necessary support if needed.
Mexico’s vastness and diversity make it a captivating destination, offering a plethora of unique experiences. By following these 17 essential tips, you can navigate Mexico with confidence and enhance your overall travel experience. Embrace the country’s rich culture, indulge in its culinary delights, and immerse yourself in the warmth and vibrancy of the Mexican people. Bon voyage!