Mexico is a beautiful, fun, delicious place to visit, but can seem a bit overwhelming to tourists. If you’re planning a Mexican vacation is our expert list of the top 20 important tips for tourists to Mexico before you go!
We have visited Mexico multiple times in the last few years. It’s easy to get to from the United States, Mexico is an inexpensive country (see an exact travel budget for visiting Mexico), it’s full of nice people, delicious food, and gorgeous towns.
Honestly, what’s not to love?
A few things did take us by surprise when we had our first Mexican vacation. The traffic patterns, scale of major cities, cultural habits, ordering food… As much as we love Mexico, it takes some getting used to!
If you’re planing your first trip to Mexico, here are some important travel tips you should know before you go! Don’t worry, you’ll love it!
Top 20 Travel Tips for Visiting Mexico for the First Time
1. Don’t drink the water…
…or accept ice in your glass.
This is one of the most common and important tips for tourists to Mexico for one simple reason: you don’t want a glass of water to ruin your entire week. The local water has bacteria that tourists’ bodies aren’t used to, and which can make you sick (ever heard of Montezuma’s Revenge?) Only buy sealed bottled water and avoid street drinks that are prepared with water or ice unless it seems to come from a filtered source.
Read: Don’t miss these delicious traditional Mexican dishes!
2. Mind the bins
There are two types of trash bins commonly found around Mexico: ORGANIC and INORGANIC.
Food waste is to go in the ORGANIC bin, non-recyclable trash in INORGANIC. In some public places you’ll find a third option for RECYCLABLE INORGANIC, like wood or plastic.
Why don’t we do this in the United States?!
3. You Pay to Pee
The idea that you pay to use a public restroom is something Americans visiting Mexico for the first time may be surprised about, but most public restrooms charge around 5 pesos to enter.
Usually they are manned by a restroom attendant who will accept your coins and hand you a folded square of toilet paper. Sometimes the restroom is barred by a gate and accepts the coins in a slot before letting you enter.
The exception is when you’re visiting a place you paid to enter, like a museum. Expensive spots have restrooms available for free.
If you need to go on the go, though, just look for “W/C Banos” signs and keep some coins on you. And don’t be scared- because you’re paying for it they are generally in good condition and clean! This is a great way to keep the units clean and also to provide jobs, so don’t be stingy about paying for the service.
Read: Is it safe to travel to Mexico?
4. Don’t Flush Your Paper
Sorry to be graphic, but I feel the need to really spell this out!
There’s a reason for the trash bin beside each toilet, and, women, it’s not just for your monthly needs. The septic system around Mexico generally can’t handle breaking down toilet paper. If you forget and accidentally flush your paper (because throwing it away seems really gross and unnatural, I know!) you can expect to be the first to do so in a long time and hope that it wasn’t enough to back up the system, but be prepared that you may see some paper float back towards you. It’s a gamble, so just remember to toss.
Some hotels foresee forgetful visitors and will have designed their bathrooms to take the paper, but it’s best to be sure and simply ask the hotel concierge if it’s ok to flush. Yes, you’re talking about private matters in public, but it’s better to be honest and careful than ruin their pipes. And they don’t think it’s weird so you shouldn’t, either.
5. It’s Ok to Haggle
One of the most fun things about a vacation to Mexico is interacting with the plethora of street vendors. You’ll find food, drink, souvenir, even coconut vendors with stalls on the street and they could be offering something really perfect for you!
Don’t be afraid to visit their stall, say hello, ask about an item, and offer to pay less. There’s no harm in trying! If you’re a haggle beginner then start by offering 50% of the asking price for what you’re interested in. Expect them to act insulted and counter at 90% or so, and just go back and forth until you’re satisfied.
Yes, street vendors are making a living, but they are also grossly overcharging for these wares so don’t be succored into thinking they won’t be able to eat that day if you don’t pay full price. Stay nice in your negotiations and just walk away if they won’t go to the number you have in mind. Most of the time they’ll chase you down with a closer offer. If they don’t, they didn’t really need your business after all (and don’t worry if you’ve walked away from something you honestly loved, chances are the very next stall will have the same thing.)
That being said, there are two things to keep in mind when shopping with street vendors:
- Many big cities, like Mexico City, or tourist sites, like Teotihuacan, seem to have set prices on goods. The prices may or may not be listed, but many vendors across the city still expect the same price for the same items. You can try to haggle anyway and it could work, but don’t be surprised or offended if it doesn’t work.
- If you can afford to pay the asking price, consider just paying it. It’s super fun to haggle and I don’t want to take that joy away from anyone, but sometimes its just not worth arguing over the equivalent of $.50USD. It’s always nice to be generous!
When it comes to services provided it is customary to add a 10% tip. This includes taxis, waiters, tour guides, etc., just as you do in the United States.
Sometimes a bill may note an “I.A.V. fee”, which is the value added tax, not the waiter’s tip, so include a tip even in those circumstances.
7. Helpful Spanish Phrases:
It’s easier to travel to Mexico if you have a few Spanish phrases under your belt. Here are the most helpful Spanish phrases to know before traveling to Mexico:
- Numbers 1-10 and each 10
- uno (1), dos (2), tres (3), cuatro (4), cinco (5), seis (6), siete (7), ocho (8), nueve (9), diez (10)
- diez (10), veinte (20), treinta (30), cuarenta (40), cincuenta (50), sesenta (60), setenta (70), ochenta (80), noventa (90), cien (100)
- Cuanto cuesta? (How much?)
- Habla ingles? (Do you speak English?)
- No se. (I don’t know.)
- No entiendo. (I don’t understand.)
- Hola (hello)/ Adios (goodbye)
- Gracias (thank you)/ De Nada (You’re welcome)
- Que recomendiendas? (What do you recommend?)
- Cual es el mejor? (Which is the best?)
- Esta bien. (It’s ok/ It’s good.)
- Esta bien? (Is that ok?)
8. Crossing the Street
Travelers from The States are used to strictly following the man or the hand at stoplight crosswalks, but that’s not how Mexicans do it.
Many cities don’t have designated cross walks. Follow the locals to know when to cross, or walk across a street during a lag in traffic or at a speed bump. Drivers are very attentive (they have to be. There seems to be no discernible traffic patterns so cars just weave in and out!) and will be watching for walkers, but they still expect you to be quick!
Read: Going to Cancun? Here’s how to travel Cancun on a budget!
9. Picture Etiquette
I completely understand the impulse to snap a pic of a beautiful Mexican in cultural clothing walking down the street or at a vendor stand. It paints a great picture of Mexico, but ask yourself if you’d like for someone to stand and point a camera at you. Or your child.
Do the right thing and ask permission before taking a picture or video of a local. If they say yes be respectful of their space and time (don’t ask for certain poses, take too long, or ask for a picture if they’re in the middle of talking to someone.) and offer a few coins afterwards. Most people are obliging and nice as long as you are! They want you to enjoy their country, but they don’t want to feel like a side show.
10. Beware Designer Goods!
It may be tempting to buy the t-shirt bearing a designer insignia, but you can bet it is too good to be true. Most designer goods sold in stalls are fakes of varying quality, so be aware of what you’re buying before you get too excited!
You could end up with the real thing, but it’s more likely that the fabric will shrink or the image will peel or fade. It’ll probably last for a little while, but don’t expect much life from these garments.
11. Electronics Are Not As Advertised
Just as you should beware clothing, the same is true for buying electronics.
Battery-operated toys may not last as long as walking down the street, and SD cards aren’t as large as packaging advertises. There’s just a different standard in Mexico and you could end up disappointed. It’s best to save the important items for a trusted store.
Luckily, If you’ve forgotten your camera battery and need to buy a new one you will be able to find a Wal-Mart or most specialty stores if you do a little searching!
12. Uber Exists in Mexico!
If possible, avoid renting a car in Mexico. You probably shouldn’t drive. The driving patterns are almost nonexistent, and it’s just too complicated to spend your vacation trying to figure out.
Additionally, parking isn’t widely available so you spend almost as much time looking for parking as you do at your destination! Instead look to Uber. Uber is widely available in most states of Mexico and is often easier than public transportation and cheaper than a taxi.
Most Uber drivers are very appreciative of tourists and the job opportunity. They are respectful, take great care to keep their cars clean, and may even carry candies or water bottles for customers! We used Uber for many short and long trips around Mexico and only ever had amazing experiences!
13. Respect Religious Buildings
Catholicism reigns supreme in Mexico, and many towns have at least one cathedral which stays open to the public.
They are beautiful buildings which often feature landscaped gardens. You should visit one or two if available, but don’t go crazy there. You’ll probably see worshipers or priests in the pews, so use a quiet voice if you need to talk and take pictures discreetly (and not of people.) Remember that cathedrals are considered a sacred place, even if you don’t happen to be Catholic or even religious.
14. Don’t Be Afraid of Street Food
Eating amazing street food is one of the main reason to travel to Mexico!
There’s always a chance you could get sick from ill-prepared food, but street food carts are monitored for cleanliness. Plus, eating street food is a great way to experience the local culture!
If it seems overwhelming to buy food from a crowded cart simply step back and watch what others do. Then step up to claim your spot, because you could get pushed out of your place if you dawdle. All you really have to do is hold out some money and be able to point to the thing or toppings you want. Food vendors spend hours making the same items every day, so they’re pretty intuitive and way too busy monitoring their customers and their product to try and swindle you out of extra money!
Our favorite Mexican street foods are tacos al pastor, elote (corn on the cob smothered in savory toppings), fried plantains, and, of course, churros!
15. It’s Safer Than You (or your mother) Think
When you told your family and friends you were planning a trip to Mexico at least one person probably warned you of crime, right? You should always be vigilant when traveling, but Mexico is actually safer than people realize.
Big cities, such as Mexico City, have “policia” in blue uniforms posted everywhere. They are meant to control traffic and watch people. It’s almost as if the government is subsidizing the population’s income by accepting as many people as possible to fill these jobs!
Yes, you should be careful and aware of your surroundings, but we’ve never seen violence first-hand on our visits.
16. You’ll See Lots of PDA
Couples often use public places to canoodle. This could possibly be due to the fact that it’s customary to live in your multi-generational home until you’re married.
Since there’s little privacy at home couples take their love to the public, where, ironically, they have even less privacy. For whatever reason, if you’re near a park and that park has a bench you can bet there’ll be a couple snogging on it.
But, hey, hasn’t Mexico always seemed like a romantic place to visit?
17. U.S. Dollars Will Do In A Pinch
If you find yourself short on pesos don’t hesitate to pull out a dollar bill. Mexicans will accept the equivalent of pesos, and think it’s a fun novelty to have other currency.
If you find yourself in a touristy town like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun you may even see prices posted in U.S. dollars. These areas are especially used to the foreign currency, but it’s still best to trade money in for local currency.
18. Be Aware of Political Tensions
Don’t be one of those tourists who acts like your home country is the best in the world.
Chances are many Mexicans think Mexico is the best county in the world, and you don’t want to insult someone on their own turf! You should also be aware of any political tensions between your country and Mexico. Don’t ask a local how they feel about your country/ president/ policy if you aren’t going to be respectful of a potentially negative answer!
Traveling is a great way to gain perspective on your home country and learn about life in other places, so this could be a great opportunity to ask questions for the sake of personal growth. Always be kind and respectful when asking questions, though, and try to stay open minded about what they have to say. You could walk away with a deeper understanding of how global polices affect Mexicans!
19. Bring a Sweater…
…and a swimsuit.
We like to think of Mexico as a tropical climate, and many parts are, but that’s not the whole story. The center of Mexico is roughly 1,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by mountains, so be prepared for it to get a bit chillier than you may have expected. It’s still close to the equator so it probably won’t get seriously cold, but you should be prepared with a light sweater or jacket for early mornings, nights, or mountain activities!
20. You’ll Find a Lot of Familiar Places
Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Little Ceasar’s, Old Navy, Nike, Burger King, McDonald’s, Costco, Starbucks, H&M, Apple, Outback, BCBG, Volvo, Sears, Zara, 7-Eleven … Get the picture?
Don’t fret if you’ve accidentally forgotten your shampoo or flip flops. There are familiar stores in most cities to easily get what you need (or to feel some familiar comforts) as well as local pharmacies and grocery stores for quick errands.
Don’t be limited by familiar places, though. Getting out to local stores is a great way to understand the local culture, and they’ll have the same brands you’re looking for, anyway!
And there you go- our top 20 important tips for tourists to Mexico!
Above all, just try to let go of any judgments before your trip to Mexico and try to enjoy how beautiful, delicious, and laid back this place is! If you do, you’ll be sure to have a vacation you’ll always remember!