I grew up in a Mexican household in the heart of American suburbia, one of those kids who spent their childhood ping-ponging across the border. Summers meant Mexico, splitting my time between the north and west, as comfortable on janky city buses as I was body surfing on white capped waves. Adulthood meant more of the same, but instead of summer months, it was entire years, and instead of the north and west, it was the south and east.
All these years later, I’m still awed by Mexico’s vastness and diversity, its showcase of unique landscapes, flavors, music and art. And yet, despite these differences, I see the tendrils that bind Mexico together everywhere: social customs and cultural gems, safety issues and travel trends. Here are a few tips to make navigating Mexico a little easier.
1. Book early and budget extra for the high season
Mexico is a popular destination year round but Christmas, New Year's, spring break and July see an uptick in travelers, both foreign and domestic. Expect higher prices for accommodation, excursions, car rentals and even airfare, sometimes double the norm. Hotels also fill up fast – book early, especially on the coasts where Mexicans tend to vacay.
2. Pack for the climate
Mexico is a vast, multi-climate country with destinations ranging from frosty mornings at 8700ft to balmy nights at sea level. Research your destination’s weather so you know what to expect and how to pack – you may need a bikini or umbrella or winter jacket (or all three!). Remember that Mexico sits squarely in the hurricane belt, with its coasts susceptible to big storms June to November.
3. Bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent
If you’ll need sunscreen or mosquito repellent, bring it from home. While you can find both in Mexico, the options are limited and expensive.
4. Use your ATM card
Though it’s good practice to bring some cash in case of an emergency (say, you lose your wallet), there’s no need to bring cash to exchange – use Mexican ATMs instead. They’re ubiquitous in all but the smallest of towns and are the most economical way to get pesos. But beware of ATM transaction fees! If they’re more than US$5/6 per withdrawal, use a different bank’s machine (BBVA Bancomer and Santander tend to have the lowest fees). Also, if the ATM prompts you to accept a "special" exchange rate, decline it; you’ll still be able to withdraw money, but the bank will apply the official exchange rate, which is always to your advantage.
5. Leave your bling at home
Avoid bringing flashy watches and jewelry to Mexico. If you wear them, you’ll risk standing out and becoming a target for pickpockets and scammers. Likewise, resist renting a luxury car, which is more likely to be broken into or stopped by officials.
6. Embrace long distance bus travel
Unless you need a car, take long distance buses to explore Mexico. Countless bus companies crisscross the country, providing reliable and efficient transport. Always opt for primera clase (first class) service, which is only slightly more expensive than segunda clase (second class), but much faster and vastly more comfortable with cushy reclining seats, individual screens, Wi-Fi and even snacks.
7. Say hello... even to passersby
Mexicans deeply value pleasantries – it’s a sign of respect. Saying "buenos dias" (good morning) or "buenas tardes" (good afternoon) when entering a room or a business is typical. When leaving, a quick "con permiso" (excuse me) is considered polite. And when meeting a person for the first time, a handshake with a "mucho gusto" (a great pleasure) is the go-to; if you 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 most workers in Mexico, from the kid who "watches" your parked car to the concierge who provides specialized services. In general, tip 10% to 15% for waiters and tour guides, US$3 to US$10 per day for hotel housekeepers, US$2 to US$3 per bag for porters and US$0.25 to US$0.75 for parking attendants, grocery baggers and gas station attendants. Taxi drivers don’t expect tips but certainly welcome them!
9. Be a respectful photographer
No one likes a stranger suddenly aiming a camera at their face and taking a photo. Same goes for Mexicans, including (and especially) Indigenous Mexicans, who are too often targeted because of their traditional clothing. Instead of snapping a photo, approach the person and ask permission first. In marketplaces or for street vendors, buy something and then ask – it tends to grease the wheels.
10. Bargain with kindness
Haggling is a part of shopping in Mexico, especially in markets and at streetside stands. Often, prices are slightly inflated with that expectation. But be mindful of how hard you bargain. Those extra few pesos likely mean a lot more to the vendor than to you.
11. Carry small bills and coins
While credit cards are becoming increasingly common, Mexico remains a predominantly cash economy. Be sure to carry pesos in your pocket! The smaller the denomination, the better – despite the use of cash, change is often scarce. You’ll either be left waiting for the vendor to break a bill or, worse, be turned away.
12. Avoid places where things can go wrong fast
With so much news about cartel violence in Mexico, safety is a common concern. Generally, violent crime is cartel-on-cartel – tourists aren’t targets. It’s always possible, though, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To play it safe, steer clear of drugs (either buying, using or being around people who are partaking) and avoid fringe neighborhoods. If you’re traveling in cartel hotbeds (say, Sonora or Michoacán), turn in early, travel by day and take toll roads.
13. Be alert to petty theft
When tourists experience crime in Mexico, it’s typically petty theft. Like most places around the world, it’s just a fact of life. Be aware of your surroundings, especially in crowded places like markets or city buses where pickpockets tend to strike.
Leave your jewelry at home and avoid displaying large sums of cash, too. You’ll risk standing out and becoming a target for pickpockets and scammers. Wearing clothes with deep or zippered pockets also helps. If your hotel room doesn’t have a safe, lock your valuables in your luggage – those little TSA locks are real deterrents. Likewise, resist renting a luxury car, which is more likely to be broken into or stopped by officials.
14. Don’t drink the water
It’s true what they say – don’t drink the water in Mexico or even brush your teeth with it. While tap water is purified at the source, it picks up contaminants traveling through pipes. Instead, use bottled water. And don’t worry about ice at restaurants and bars – it’s made from purified water at commercial factories.
15. Eat street food
Eating street food – sizzling tacos, elote (grilled corn) in a cup, sweet and crunchy marquesitas (sweet crepes) – is one of those Mexican must-dos. Seek out stands with a crowd – they’re a litmus test for safe-to-eat-at spots. But be sure to take a hard pass on the extras like mayo and cream; they often sit in the sun for hours, unrefrigerated and creating a perfect bacteria breeding ground.
16. Opt for rideshares
Mexican taxi drivers are notorious for scamming tourists, known for inflating their rates or rerouting passengers to locales where they can collect commissions. When possible, opt for a rideshare like Uber, which has reliable service at rates that are often cheaper than taxis. If you must use a cab, agree on a price before you step in.
17. Remember your embassy
If you’re a victim of crime, or need medical assistance or legal help, contact your embassy or consulate. Almost 90 countries, including the US and Canada, have representatives in Mexico to help you navigate problems abroad.