From sunny Caribbean shores in the Sea of Cortez to quaint mountain villages in Oaxaca, Mexico offers destinations for nearly every interest. There are some tips you should know before solidifying your Mexico travel plans, though.
Read on for advice on visas, safety, and money. You’ll also gain insight into preventing embarrassing tourist moments, like walking into the wrong bathroom.
16 Useful Mexico Travel Tips
1. Know How Many Days You’ll Stay
It’s no longer a given that tourists can breeze through Mexican immigration by getting a 180-day tourist stamp on their passports. Immigration officers may ask how many days you’ll stay in Mexico, and they might want to see travel documents, like a flight or bus departure ticket, as proof.
You also may receive a Multiple Immigration Form (FMM). The FMM is a paper immigration form. If you receive one, you must hold onto it for the duration of your trip and present it upon departing Mexico to avoid a fee.
2. Keep Tabs on the DOS Travel Advisory
Although Mexico is generally a safe place to travel, drug cartels are the reason for tens of thousands of senseless deaths in the country each year. Certain areas of Mexico are safer than others. The U.S. Department of State’s (DOS) travel advisory site is an excellent resource for understanding destination-specific safety statuses.
For example, the DOS states that no one should travel to Sinaloa, Colima, and Guerrero states due to crime and kidnappings. Meanwhile, Yucatan and Campeche states have the DOS’ stamp of approval. Safety in Puerto Vallarta and other popular tourist sites is also generally good, thanks to a high police presence.
3. Don’t Overlook Buses in Mexico
Mexico is the largest country in Central America and the thirteenth biggest country in the world by area. So, there are many times when it’ll make more sense to fly rather than drive between destinations.
Nevertheless, taking a bus saves money, and Mexico often surprises tourists with the quality of its luxury long-distance buses. The ADO bus company is a stand-out option for travelers. It operates many popular routes in the Yucatan Peninsula and serves destinations like Mexico City and Puebla.
4. Uber Doesn’t Work Everywhere
Uber and rideshare apps like Cabify and Didi work in certain parts of Mexico, like Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos. They’re an excellent option to receive a fair price on taxi services and for access to safety measures that the apps provide.
However, Uber and other rideshare apps don’t operate in tourist hot spots like Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Furthermore, although Uber can technically operate in Cancun, it’s illegal for drivers to pick up passengers from the Cancun airport.
5. Bathrooms Marked With “M” Are for Women
In Spanish, ‘mujer’ is the word for woman, and ‘hombre’ is the word for man. ‘Caballero’ is another word for man, so bathrooms for men usually have either a “C” or “H.”
It’s natural for men from English-speaking countries to make a beeline for bathroom doors with an “M” in Mexico, thinking they’re for them. So, if you’re a man, do your due diligence to remember this rule during your Mexico trip.
6. Stick To Bottled Water
The advice “don’t drink the water in Mexico” is spot-on. Many Mexicans don’t even drink water straight from the tap—they boil or filter it first. Luckily, finding safe drinking water isn’t hard when making your Mexico travel plans.
Bottled water is abundant and cheap at tiendas (small shops). You can also find bottled water at streetside vendor stands and supermarkets. When ordering drinks at non-touristy restaurants, double-check that they make ice using boiled, filtered, or bottled water. Of course, you can always wash down your tacos with tequila instead.
7. Don’t Flush Toilet Paper
No one enjoys a plugged toilet, but that’s likely what you’ll get if you try flushing toilet paper in Mexico. Instead, you’ll need to toss your toilet paper in a trash can. You can assume that’s the case for all destinations, including all-inclusive luxury resorts in Cabo San Lucas.
You can’t flush toilet paper in Mexico because their sewage system isn’t designed to handle it. The paper can get stuck in pipes, and it will build up faster in septic tanks, given that the tanks in Mexico are smaller than those in countries like the United States.
8. Shop Around for Exchange Houses
XE is a tool you can use to determine the value of the Mexican peso in your country’s currency. Mexican airports are typically the worst places to exchange money for pesos since they charge high commission fees.
You’re better off waiting to exchange your money until you arrive at your destination. That way, you can shop around the local exchange houses, comparing rates. While most businesses in Mexico accept USD, you’re better off paying in Mexican pesos to avoid a low exchange rate in the change given back to you.
9. Don’t Rely on Credit Cards
Many Mexican brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants in tourist areas accept credit cards. However, that doesn’t mean the credit card machines will work. So, it’s always best to carry pesos on you as a backup, whether you want to visit Chichen Itza archaeological ruins or take a snorkeling tour in Cozumel.
Furthermore, streetside vendors rarely accept credit cards. Having some pesos to buy water or that adorable souvenir for your nephew will come in handy. If you use a credit card, pick one without foreign transaction fees to avoid added expenses.
10. You May Need To Pack Layers
If Mexico travel brings thoughts of sunshine and warm weather, you could be in for a shock, depending on the destination and time of year you visit. Mexico can get downright cold in mountainous regions like San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, where evening temperatures dip into the low 40s during winter.
However, these same destinations warm up into the 70s during the day; packing clothes you can layer will maximize your comfort. In more tropical coastal regions of Mexico, the need for layers often looks different, with t-shirts and rain jackets.
11. Practice a Flexible Mindset
Mexicans operate on “la hora Latina,” meaning “Latino time” in English. It’s perfectly normal for a Mexican to tell you they’ll meet you at 2:00 pm and arrive at 2:30 pm or later. Tour agencies are generally better about punctuality, especially if you’ve arranged an airport transfer.
However, it’s always best to overcompensate for how long it’ll take you to get somewhere in Mexico. Of course, you could always join the Mexican culture and arrive late to parties and other events, making you fit right in. Nightlife in areas like Sayulita lasts until daylight hours, allowing adventurous souls to make the most of a beachfront fiesta.
12. Seaweed Season is Real
Sargassum is a brown alga that has caused major issues across the Caribbean coast for several years, including in Riviera Maya. The largest amount of sargassum arrives on Mexico’s shores from about May to October.
During those months, seaweed can pile up multiple feet high on sandy beaches in the Yucatan. In certain areas, like Cancun and Akumal Beach, the locals try to control the sargassum by carting it out in wheelbarrows or with bulldozers. However, the water usually remains unpleasant for swimming.
13. Download Google Translate
If you plan to only stay in major tourist destinations in Mexico, language won’t be a huge barrier for you, as many Mexicans in these areas have decent English skills. But if you want to adventure to more local districts to scope out some off-the-beaten-path Mayan ruins like Uxmal and don’t speak Spanish, it’s best to have help.
Google Translate is a useful app to keep on your phone. You can type or speak whatever you want to say into your phone in English, and it’ll give you written and audio Spanish translations.
14. Barter at Mexican Markets
Mexico travel typically doesn’t involve as much bartering as, say, a trip to Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, when you’re at a market or want to purchase a tour from a vendor without a price tag, the expectation is that you should barter.
Generally speaking, it’s best to start your barter at about half the price they tell you and work up from there. Alternatively, you can walk away after they give you the initial price. The vendor will often shout out a lower price to get you to come back without you having to say a word.
15. Choose Your Remote Work City Carefully
Mexico can be a great place for digital nomads to work remotely. It can also be a nightmare if you choose a destination with unreliable WiFi.
Mexico City, Playa del Carmen, and San Miguel de Allende are all popular cities for remote work, thanks to their usually strong internet connection. You can also stay at Selina, a boutique hostel chain that offers coworking spaces with speedy WiFi.
16. Plan Around Hurricane Season
Mexico sits within the hurricane zone, which can throw a major curveball in your travel plans. According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricane season on the east coast is from June 1st to November 30th. It starts slightly earlier on the Pacific Coast, on May 15th.
Purchasing travel insurance is wise if your Mexico travel plans fall within these dates. That way, you can file a claim should you experience hurricane-related delays or cancellations.
Pack Your Sombrero
There’s a reason millions of tourists visit Mexico each year. Its friendly people, diverse geography, and delicious food draw visitors in and keep them returning. So, pack your bags and take what you learned here to enjoy a more stress-free trip.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks. Photo Credit: [@jkraft5/DepositPhotos]
Laura is the co-founder of A Piece of Travel, a blog encouraging self-guided travel, including for wheelchair users. She's spent most of her adult life abroad, starting with a 3-year Peace Corps service in Panama. When Laura isn't crafting her next article, you can find her befriending street dogs while searching for local vegetarian food.