5 In All/ Mexico

The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Mexico – Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling to Mexico

Mexico is a vast, unique and diverse country with everything under the sun that you could possibly ask for; it’s got beaches, mountains, desert, adventure, relaxation, luxury, hostels, incredible food and a lively, wonderfully friendly population. Sasha and I are fortunate to have spent three months living and traveling around Mexico to escape the winter in Seattle, and experience living and working remotely abroad. It has been a dream of ours ever since we left the country in 2017 to travel abroad for half a year, to be able to live and work remotely from another country, and this was the year we realized our dream!

While living in Mexico, we learned about the customs and cultures, and made friends with locals along the way. We spent two weeks traveling around the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche, two months living in Marina Vallarta (half an hour North of Puerto Vallarta by car), and one month in the small beach town of Bucerias on the Nayarit Coast. Every weekend we rented a car to explore a neighboring village, or flew to a different city to explore somewhere new.

Below I’ll list everything you need to know before traveling to Mexico, including helpful local tips. (If you plan on staying in an all-inclusive resort, this post will not be applicable to you; this is more of a handy guide geared towards travelers who plan on venturing out of their hotel looking to experience the local lifestyle in Mexico.)

If you’ll be traveling to or living in Mexico, be sure to check out my other blog posts:

GENERAL MEXICO:

  1. Everything You Need to Know About (Temporarily) Moving to Mexico
  2. 33 Authentic Traditional Must-Try Dishes in Mexico

JALISCO (PUERTO VALLARTA & GUADALAJARA)

  1. Your Ultimate Guide To Visiting Puerto Vallarta: Top 20 Things To Do In PV
  2. Extreme Adventure – A Must-Do Activity in Puerto Vallarta!
  3. Mole Cooking Class in Puerto Vallarta
  4. Top Restaurants in Puerto Vallarta
  5. Top 15 Things To Do in Guadalajara, Jalisco
  6. San Sebastian Del Oeste is Jalisco’s Hidden Gem

NAYARIT COAST (BUCERIAS, SAYULITA, SAN PANCHO & PUNTA DE MITA)

  1. Why Bucerias is Our Favorite Place To Live And Work Remotely In Mexico
  2. 12 Best Things To Do in Mexico’s Surf Town Sayulita
  3. San Pancho is Your Hippy Dream Come True

OAXACA

  1. 15 Incredible Cultural Things To Do in Oaxaca
  2. 6 Must-Visit Markets in Oaxaca
  3. From Plant To Bottle – A Mezcal Tour in Oaxaca

GUANAJUATO

  1. A Weekend in Guanajuato
  2. How To Spend a Day in San Miguel De Allende

YUCATAN PENINSULA (QUINTANA ROO, TULUM & BACALAR)

  1. The Perfect Two-Week Itinerary For a Yucatan Peninsula Mexico Road Trip
  2. The Controversial and Enchanting Tulum
  3. Bacalar & Kohunlich Ruins

CAMPECHE

  1. Colonial Campeche

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO MEXICO

GETTING TO MEXICO

  • So long as you don’t plan on staying over six (6) months, a visa is not required in Mexico, though you will need your passport
  • You’ll be given a paper slip upon arrival to the airport in Mexico. Don’t lose this, as you’ll need to present it when you depart
  • When you exit the airport, expect an overwhelming barrage of “getters” to try to get you to attend a timeshare presentation or give you a ride in a taxi. I strongly recommend planning your route of attack once you arrive, whether it’s to your car rental agency (look it up on a map so that you don’t appear lost – those are the best targets for the “getters”!), or head directly to your pickup spot for Uber. Be polite but firm when telling them, “no, gracias, estamos bien” (no thank you, we’re fine) and quickly walk past them. Some are very aggressive and will follow you halfway through the airport

LOCAL CUSTOMS & LANGUAGE

  • Mexicans are some of the friendliest people we have ever met during our world travels. In general, Mexicans love to have fun; they don’t take themselves too seriously, they love their (big) families, and they work hard and play hard. The culture is fun, laid back and very jovial. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re around locals! In our observation, Mexico seems to be a very communal country, and everywhere we went, even in large cities, there was a vibe of community where everyone helps each other out
  • If you’ll be traveling in Mexico, whether it’s a few days, a few months, or living here for a few years, please learn at the very least, the basics of the Spanish language. Pimsleur is a good app to start with ($20 per month), or Duolingo (free). Depending on which area of Mexico you travel to, some locals may speak English, but in the more rural areas, don’t expect it. They always appreciate it when you at least try
  • When locals say “yes”, “I agree”, “totally” or “that’s right”, they have a cute little gesture they do with their index finger, by wagging it up and down. Similar to the “come here” motion, but instead, turned upright. It’s kind of like folding your fingers down to wave, only with one finger
  • Mande? means what?, or pardon? – this was a new one for us, as we had not heard this during our travels in Spain and South America, so I believe it’s unique to Mexico. It is considered both casual and polite, so feel free to use it if you didn’t hear someone or would like them to repeat what they just said
  • Beware of holes in sidewalks and streets, tripping hazards everywhere, or electric wires straight up sticking out of the ground or hanging from a rooftop above you. Mexico is not litigious like the U.S.; here you need to look out for yourself
  • Mexico is dusty; many parts of the country do not have proper infrastructure, so dirt roads & old cobblestone streets are still prominent
  • Many food establishments use straws that are biodegradable and made from avocado, but Mexico as a whole is still behind in environmental sustainability awareness, and single-use plastics are unfortunately a part of daily life here. Bring your own reusable straw and bottles to cut down on plastic consumption. We even bring our own reusable Tupperware to restaurants so that we don’t waste a styrofoam box for our leftovers for takeaway. Nobody here finds that strange
  • Carry a reusable shopping bag. Most grocery stores no longer have plastic bags, so you’ll need to either purchase one of theirs or have your own
  • There are a LOT of dogs, both wild and domesticated, and many roam the streets freely; you’ll even see some dogs living on the rooftop of homes. This means you need to watch your step everywhere you go, because often they’ll just leave a present right in the middle of a street, or, even worse, the beach in the sand and it blends in! In Mexico, many dogs are not trained, so they bark constantly…sometimes for over an hour late into the night, and it can become maddening. Unfortunately there’s nothing to be done about this, and it’s just something you have to accept about traveling or living in Mexico
  • Mexico is loud. They love their parties, fireworks, loud music and festivals! It’s a lively and happening place! Especially if you’re staying in a city, whether it be small like Bucerias or large like Puerto Vallarta or Mexico City, expect music, mariachi bands, parties and car noise late into the night. Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. The only area we found to be dead quiet at night to the point where you could hear a pin drop (besides dogs barking), was Marina Vallarta in a residential area
  • You can bargain for just about anything sold on the street. Just don’t go in too low to risk offending the sellers, especially when they are the artist of their wares. Along these same lines, everything is negotiable in Mexico; speeding tickets, massages on the beach, etc.
  • There are signs with large colorful block letters in every town in Mexico. They make for great photo opportunities!
  • Carry cash with you at all times for smaller establishments, as many places still do not accept credit card
  • All the locals (including expats) use WhatsApp as a main platform for communication, including your tour guides if you book an excursion (they’ll use it to confirm details and stay in communication with you), your Airbnb host, or a way to reach you back if you’re trying to make a dinner reservation. Download the app prior to traveling in Mexico
  • Mexico is home to Magic Towns, known as Pueblos Mágicos. There are currently 132 Pueblos Mágicos and new ones will continue to be added. These towns are designated by the government as a place with magical beauty, whether a town is rich in culture or history, showcases indigenous art of the region, or has extraordinary legends
  • In Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo states, the letter “X” is pronounced “shh” like you’re telling somebody to be quiet
  • Semana Santa and Dia De Los Muertos are the two most celebrated holidays in Mexico, and you can expect the prices for airfare and accommodation to be higher with less availability during these weeks

FOOD & BEVERAGE

  • Mexico is foodie heaven. Be prepared to come back home a little heavier than when you arrived. 😉 You may be surprised to find that Mexican food is so much more than burritos, fajitas and guacamole. Mexico’s foodie scene is complex and sophisticated, channeling fusions from all over the world, using local ingredients that grow year-round in Mexico’s diverse climate zones around the vast country. The BEST cuisine we had in Mexico was hands-down in Oaxaca. Check out some of my top restaurants guides in the links at the beginning of this blog post
  • Mexico is the land of the best cocktails in the world. Because of the flavor complexity of the delicious spirits distilled here, such as mezcal, raicilla and tequila, you can expect to try some of the best cocktails of your life. Most likely with a side of chapulines (crickets). Yes it’s a thing here, and yes you should try it!
  • You’ll need to ask for the check at a restaurant; your mesero (server) will not bring it to you without you asking, because it’s considered rude and they don’t want to rush you. If you’ll be paying by credit card, first ask them if they accept it (most places will accept Visa & Mastercard), then tell them in advance so that they can bring over the portable machine. They will not take your credit card in Mexico; they run it at the table right in front of you
  • In a restaurant, you’ll often hear locals calling their server joven – this means “young” and is a perfectly acceptable way to call somebody and not at all considered offensive or demeaning
  • Service for things like coffee and food at a restaurant, typically take longer. Especially if you’re from the U.S. (and even more so from a big city), be patient. They’re usually making things from scratch and chit chatting with their colleagues
  • Sundays are family brunch days for locals – expect restaurants to be packed
  • Carry monedas (coins) to give as tips to traveling musicians at restaurants. The musicians will sometimes ask if you want them to sing, and if you say yes, expect to give them a tip
  • Don’t drink tap water anywhere, ever, BUT please do not purchase single water bottles. Instead…
  • Bring reusable bottles or hydroflasks to minimize the single-use plastic consumption waste in Mexico
  • Instead of purchasing small water bottles throughout your trip, purchase the giant 3-gallon jugs of water and refill your reusable water bottles. You can get these from any OXXO or Kiosko store. One jug lasts us for about three days. They also give you a discount when you return it to buy another jug, so the cost is less than $2 USD for a giant jug
  • Ice in your drink is okay! Every food establishment (should) use ice from a bag, which is delivered to them on a daily basis. Ice cubes are made from purified water
  • Carry electrolytes (such as Nuun) and activated charcoal in case you get diarrhea. There are pharmacies everywhere, but you may be unfamiliar with the language or the products that you’re used to back home, which may upset your stomach even more

RESTROOMS

  • In restrooms (baños), the M stands for mujeres (meaning women in Spanish); it does not stand for men (many people make this mistake, so don’t be too embarrassed if it happens to you – consider it your induction to Mexico) 😉
  • Carry small coins for public washrooms (usually 7 pesos, or .$35 cents)
  • You will often see signs above toilets that ask you to throw toilet paper into the waste bin and not the toilet – this is because of weak plumbing, so even though it may seem gross, please follow this, as it can be costly to the establishment to fix a clogged toilet
  • Depending on your accommodation, you may smell sewer gas from time to time, coming from the bathrooms. This is unfortunately one of the downsides of traveling in Mexico; the sewer smell travels up from the toilets and sinks and can often be very pungent. You can minimize the smell by plugging your sink at night or by putting a cover cap over the shower drain, as the smell tends to intensify during the night

DRIVING & TRANSPORTATION

  • It is common to turn on your hazard lights during slow downs; you’ll see this on the road frequently when it’s raining, when approaching topes (speed humps), if there’s an animal in the road, or approaching a village. If the driver ahead of you turns on their hazard lights, it is customary for you to turn yours on as well, to alert the driver behind you. Do not turn them off until the driver behind you has either sufficiently slowed down, or turned on their flashers to alert the person behind them. This is a communal chain of consideration to keep everyone safe
  • Carry monedas (coins) to tip street performers (you’ll see jugglers, fireknife dancers, drummers, etc.) who wait for the traffic light to turn red, then perform their talent. They know exactly how long the light cycle lasts so that they have enough time to perform and then go up and down the rows collecting pesos
  • Tope = speed hump – you will find these everywhere, all over Mexico, so don’t drive too fast because some of them are really easy to miss until you hit it and go flying. In fact, some don’t even have signs alerting you to expect a bump, and those can really be dangerous. They are usually marked with a yellow sign and a black symbol with two or three humps
  • An “E” with a circle around it stands for estacionar, which means “parking”. If you see a diagonal slash through the E, it means parking is not allowed there
  • You’ll see signs on the street that say, se usa grua – this literally translates to will use a crane, which means it is a towing area and you are not to park there
  • Alta = stop sign
  • In Mexico, you make a left-hand turn from the far right lane. This is so counterintuitive to me, and even after living in Mexico, it still baffles me because it seems so dangerous. All it takes is for one person to run a red light, and they’ll T-bone whomever is making a left-hand turn. If you’ll be driving in Mexico, be prepared to merge into the right lane (look for oncoming cars because you don’t have the right-of-way), and then make your left turn from the far right-hand lane once your arrow turns green
  • Be vigilant about the bill bait and switch when paying at a gas station with efectivo (cash). Some places will try to trick tourists; if you give them a 500 peso bill, they’ll try to claim that you gave them a 50 peso bill. To avoid this scheme, have them repeat the amount back to you and only give it to them and have them hold it in one hand whilst getting your change with the other hand. If paying by credit card, watch the meter closely
  • Most rental car companies will require you to purchase their car insurance, which is very expensive (often it ends up being around double the cost of the car itself, or even higher, which, especially if you’re traveling for a long time in Mexico, can really add up.) Avis was the only rental agency we found who allowed us to decline the coverage and use our own insurance through our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. I’m sure there are others who allow you to decline, so I advise you to do your own research
  • Ubers are not typically fancy cars, and they don’t like longer rides because it’s difficult to find somebody to bring back, and Uber does not pay them enough to even cover their petrol (we had this issue trying to get from Guanajuato to San Miguel De Allende, about a 1.5-hour drive), so we just paid our driver in cash and got his local phone number and called him to come back and pick us up
  • If you’d like an alternative to Uber that better supports the local population (they take 7% instead of 25% of a driver’s earnings), use InDriver, a Mexico app alternative to taxi or Uber. With this app, you can set your own fare, but you have to pay in cash
  • Be aware of the retornos (turnaround points) along the highway. These are used instead of exits with a loop around like you see in countries with more developed and sophisticated infrastructure. This is unfortunately a common way to get into an accident, especially with buses or trucks because they stick out
  • Expect potholes. Don’t drive fast because there’s often no reception in more remote areas if you get a flat tire or break down
  • If you get pulled over by a cop, quickly remove anything you’re wearing that looks valuable, such as rings, watches or sunglasses. One of our local Mexican friends told us that they once got pulled over for speeding, and they didn’t have enough cash to pay the cop directly, so the cop asked for the leather suit jacket they were wearing, literally off their back.  😳 If you get pulled over in Mexico, they can legally take away your drivers license and make you come to the station to pay your fine (they use your license as collateral to ensure you pay), OR you can pay the cop directly in cash (which they pocket.) The amount they ask you to pay is negotiable

TIPPING

  • Be prepared to tip nearly everyone in Mexico. Mexico is a tipping culture, and tips are expected for anybody in the service industry, hospitality (housekeepers, concierge, etc.), salons, massages, tour guides, etc. In Mexico, 10% is considered okay service, 15% is considered good service, and 18% – 20% is considered great. If you have the means, tip more than you normally would back home because it goes a lot further here and really means a lot to the person receiving the tip
  • The minimum wage in Mexico is 142 pesos, which is only $7 USD per day
  • Many employees in the service industry work 6 days a week and only have one día de descanso (day of rest)
  • It is customary to tip the bagger attendant in grocery stores (anything from 10 – 40 pesos is standard, or $.50 cents – $2 USD)
  • Carry small bills when possible – 500 pesos ($25 USD) is considered to be a large bill here – some smaller establishments will look at you as if you’re asking them to break a $100 bill

ATM & CONVERSION RATE

  • Cajero = ATM
  • When withdrawing cash from an ATM, always decline the conversion rate. It will present you with the rate (typically an astronomical amount), and you simply press “decline”. It will still dispense your money, only at whatever the day’s market exchange rate is, rather than their ridiculous markup
  • If you’re coming from the U.S., divide MXN pesos by 20 to figure out USD (for example, $80 pesos is approximately $4 USD) – good mental math
  • When withdrawing cash from an ATM, be sure to cover your pin when you enter it on the keypad

WEATHER & PACKING

  • Bring mosquito repellant. Many areas in Mexico have mosquitoes, especially during the rainy season (typically June – September in most parts of the country)
  • Bring natural mineral sunscreen. You are not meant to wear sunscreen in the cenotes or in Bacalar Lagoon because it kills the stromatolites and sea life. This also helps to protect the reef when swimming in the ocean / sea
  • Buy a sombrero once you get to Mexico – this supports the local vendors, and you will find them literally everywhere #sombrerolife is a thing.
  • There are 32 states in Mexico. Some have border patrol cops, but others do not, and you simply drive through. The security guards and police at checkpoints are generally very friendly, though it is very helpful to speak Spanish
  • Check the temperatures before you visit. Especially during winter, it can get surprisingly chilly, especially if the wind picks up. Towns located in higher elevations (such as San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Guanajuato and Mexico City) are much colder in the early mornings and evenings. We were surprised to find that we needed our puffy jackets in February!

SAFETY

  • Most touristic places are very safe. Mexico’s government is acutely aware that tourism brings in money, so they don’t want to taint tourist’s perception with unsafe behavior. You will see police patrolling residential areas, and military vehicles in fleets of 3, usually with up to 8 soldiers in each, riding both inside and outside the vehicle, some standing up, and all carrying machine guns. It’s a bit of an unsettling sight when you first see it, but know that they are there to protect you. They’re actually very friendly, and if you wave at them, they will smile and wave back

Phew, that was a lot! If you’re still with me and you made it to the end of this post, kudos to you! Now you should be confident in everything you need to know before visiting Mexico. Have a wonderful trip! Buen viaje!

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