Traveling to another country to see life as they live should be on the list of things you must do. And having a heads-up about where I’m about to visit is even more pleasing.
Mexico is known as the birthplace of tequila, tacos, tortillas, burritos, and chocolate. Moreover, Mexico is well known for Mayan temples, cenotes, mariachi bands, Cancun beaches, and the fiesta known as a day of the dead.
The second-largest city in the world also has an awful reputation on the media for missing women in the metro to drug cartel violence. However, most of these things happen in areas that you’re unlikely to visit.
So I have put together some things you should know as you visit and you will be just fine.
1. It’s A Large Country
By landmass, Mexico is the 14th largest country in the world. That makes it larger than countries like South Africa, Peru, and Egypt. It’s almost ten times the size of the United Kingdom. Thus, one can’t see everything in the country in a single trip, and traveling around can be time-consuming. When traveling by land, please do not underestimate the time it will take to cover these vast distances.
2. Food in Mexico is incredibly diverse (don’t be afraid of street food).
Tacos aren’t the only dish Mexican food can offer. There are limitless variations of Mexican food from region to region. Everywhere you go, tacos are popular, but each comes in a dizzying array of flavors, from pita-like tacos al arabe in Puebla to warm-spice-infused cochinita pibil in the Yucatan.
It is generally safe to eat street food, though if you want to be on the safe side, make sure whatever you eat is piping hot. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, chapulines (roasted crickets) are a popular dish in many local cuisines, and Mercado San Juan in Mexico City can provide you with adventurous dining options. Hung-over? Chilaquiles are the best (trust us).
3. Never Drink the Tap Water
Mexico’s tap water is not safe to drink pretty much anywhere, so never drink it straight from the tap. But Mexico is hot, so you better drink a lot (water … we’re talking about drinking water here). Most tourists end up spending a lot of time trying to find something to drink and often get overcharged by bottled water vendors. The cost of bottled water quickly adds up, and plastic destroys the local environment.
An easy and eco-friendly option is to use a water bottle with a travel-grade filter so you can drink the water with confidence wherever you go. The Lifestraw Filtered Water Bottle is the most popular and trusted name in this space.
4. Restroom Doors Marked With an “M” Are For the Ladies
The Spanish word for women is Mujeres. Therefore, if you see a door marked with an “M,” do not assume it is the men’s room. Search instead for a door with the letter “H” (for “hombres”) or A (for “Adonis”).
This seems like a simple enough tip, but the fact is that going into the restroom marked “M” is almost habitual for most English-speaking men, and so it still trips me up now and then.
5. Visit Some Cenotes
There are places in Mexico, especially the Yucatan peninsula, where the limestone bedrock forms caverns filled with underground water. Cenotes are some of the best swimming holes in the world. Some are above ground, while others will feel as if you are in a cave.
Swimming, snorkeling, and diving are available in these cenotes! Cenote swimming is a uniquely Mexican experience, so if you visit a part of Mexico that has one, you must experience it!
6. Pueblos Magicos, the Magic Towns found in Mexico, is a popular tourist attraction.
Yes, you read that correctly. Even though the name implies otherwise, Magic Towns – or Pueblos Magicos – aren’t as mysterious as they may seem. This is the official designation that the Mexican government gives to small towns and cities with little extra something. No matter whether these towns sit atop stunning landscapes like Tepotzlan, overlook multicolor lagoons like Bacalar, support nests of sea turtles like Mazunte, or feature historical attractions like San Miguel de Allende, each offers a unique perspective on Mexico. If you plan to visit one or more of these towns, I recommend including them in your itinerary. It’s also worth checking out our favorite Magical Pueblos.
7. Go Beyond the Beach Resorts
It’s fine to enjoy popular sites like the beach at Tulum along Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
However, most tourists stick to the highly-touristic coastal areas (for instance, the ruins of Tulum can be overcrowded at times) and may also add in a quick stop in Mexico City.
Consequently, I think they often overlook the best of what Mexico has to offer. One of Mexico’s most important travel tips is to get off the tourist path and explore Mexico’s towns (here is my guide to Valladolid, Mexico, a favorite), mountains, countryside, and quiet fishing villages (I recommend Celestun).
Mexico is a big country, and it offers a lot more than just beaches.
8. Always pay in Pesos, not dollars
When you get to Mexico, take money out of an atm, (never use exchange bureaus) and make sure you always have pesos with you throughout your time. You will get a much better deal paying in pesos because places can choose the exchange rate.
When you wake up in Mexico City – or anywhere in Mexico, for that matter – you may not find your favorite coffee shop or breakfast spot open yet. They generally don’t open until 8 AM on weekdays, and sometimes not until 9 AM on weekends. The bottom line is that Mexico is an amazing vacation destination. It is an enjoyable experience in Mexico, even with a fundamental understanding of Spanish and a first-time visitor. Make sure you don’t try to take on too much on your first visit! You can come back at any time!