Category Archives: culture

Driving in Mexico: Everything You Need to Know

There’s no reason for a competent and experienced driver to be intimidated by driving in Mexico. In fact, driving around the country is an excellent option, especially with low prices for rental cars and an abundance of out-of-the-way destinations like colonial towns, national parks, and virgin beaches.

Sure, things are a little different here, but like anything else unfamiliar in Mexico, the main thing you need is patience. And a few tips.

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To Drive or Not?

Your budget is the first factor to consider for whether you drive in Mexico or not. Right now, all over the world, renting a car is super cheap, as low as 10 dollars a day. This means that despite toll highways and somewhat pricy gasoline (compared to the U.S.—it’s still lower than in Europe), renting a car may actually be cheaper than using public transportation, especially if you travel in a group or visit places outside of major cities.

Toll highways can be expensive, however, and navigation can be confusing, so before you rent a car to drive between distant cities, at least take a look at the price of domestic flights. Flights within Mexico can be incredibly cheap, often cheaper than a much-longer first-class bus ride.

Also, if you will confine your trip to only one city, then you can easily use public transportation to get around, which will save hassles like getting lost and finding parking. This is especially true for Mexico City, which has an efficient, inexpensive, and reasonably safe metro (subway) system below ground and incredibly busy and confusing roads above. Other major cities also have comprehensive public transportation systems and an abundance of taxis.

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For longer trips, buses and passenger vans called colectivos travel to nearly every corner of Mexico, usually for cheap, but again I recommend you compare the price of bus tickets to the price of flights for any trip longer than ten hours.

To get an idea of how much your proposed road trip will cost, you can calculate the tolls and gas on this website, which is only in Spanish but easy to use.

Besides your budget, the second factor for deciding whether to drive in Mexico or not is how many people are traveling. If it’s only you, or you and just one other person, then it’s probably better to fly long distances and take public transportation for short distances. But if you have a group of, say, four or five, the price of a car rental, gas, tolls, and parking should be less than the combined total of all those bus and plane tickets.

So, with your budget and the number of your travel companions in mind, the next thing to consider is what kind of places you plan on visiting. Can public transportation get you there efficiently? To explain I’ll give some sample travel itineraries below.

As I mentioned above, regardless of how many are in your group, if you have a week or less to explore Mexico City, don’t rent a car. You can get around just fine on the metro system without the headaches of traffic, parking, and getting lost. You can use taxis late at night when the metro stops running, but remember that waving them down on the street isn’t safe—ask your hotel for the number of a “safe taxi.”

But if you want to visit Mexico City and then take a trip to a nearby colonial town in the mountains, like Taxco or Tepoztlan, renting a car will give you a lot more freedom and access. Although buses do go to these places, they may not take you to the center of town (bus stations are typically outside the city center, especially in larger cities) or to the trailhead below the mountain you want to hike. You’ll need a local bus or taxi for that, and with a car you can go straight there without delays or haggling.

Another example would be if you wanted to visit the city of Querétaro, where the bus station is far from downtown (although you can easily get there by taxi), and having a car makes it easy to visit nearby destinations like the Pena de Bernal.

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If you’re going to Cancun or a nearby town like Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera, and your main object is to hang out on the beach, don’t rent a car. You can take public transportation for day trips to the main nearby destinations like other beaches, cenotes (underground caves and rivers), or the most popular ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza.

But, if you want to visit more distant pyramids or cenotes, then renting a car makes sense because you won’t be at the mercy of rigid bus schedules and indirect bus routes. Also, if you’re in group, that car rental might be cheaper than the combined total of bus tickets.

In sum, renting a car is a good idea if you want the freedom to explore and see the country at your own pace, and it will probably save you money if you’re part of a big group. On the other hand, if you’re traveling alone, will only stay around one area, or are worried about getting lost, you can travel well on public transportation, which provides a different kind of freedom: freedom from hassle.

Renting a Car

If you use a third-party website like expedia.com to rent cars, which often has really low prices, be aware that you’ll still have to buy insurance at the rental counter, which may double or even triple the original quote. Third-party insurance (such as the liability insurance that comes included on Expedia rentals) is not valid in Mexico.

So, to prevent getting shaken down buying pricy insurance at the car rental office, take a look at company websites. The usual suspects are all common in Mexico, like Hertz, Alamo, National, Budget, Thrifty, Europcar, Avis, and Sixt.

Consider all the options for pick-up and drop-off locations, and carefully read all the details about the car (the cheapest ones are usually manual transmission) and about the contract, like insurance and mileage. Usually you’ll pay a smaller deposit when you buy more insurance, so if you don’t want an expensive package, make sure the credit card you use for the deposit has a high limit, like thousands of dollars.

If you only want the car for part of your trip, then you can pick it up at the airport and then drop it off at an office in the city near your hotel. This is also a good option for traveling between distant cities. The rates are calculated by day, so if you pick the car up at 4 p.m., you’ll drop it off at or before 4 p.m.

Or you can pick up the car somewhere in the city in the middle of your trip and later drop it off at the airport when you leave. For example, if you were going to spend a week in Mexico City (where you wouldn’t need the car) and then a week driving to nearby towns, you could take the metro to one of the rental offices in the city to pick up the car and then drop it off at the airport before you fly home.

(Be aware that cars, rentals too, must have a special permission to drive in Mexico City. This is both to reduce traffic and because of environmental concerns. So if Mexico City is your final destination and you’ll be arriving by car, think about dropping off the rental as soon as possible to avoid getting a ticket. If you rent a car in Mexico City, however, it will have that permission.)

Part of the process of renting a car is when the agent walks around inspecting it for previous damage and recording it on a piece of paper. Pay attention during this time—if he fails to notice something, you’ll be charged for it later.

Finally, you don’t need an international driver’s license to drive or rent a car in Mexico if you’re from the U.S., Canada, Europe or many other places.

Driving Across the Border

Yes, you can drive your car into Mexico, though you will be charged $15 for a temporary import permit and must use a credit card (expect this to change). Ask at the border and tell them your destination—if your trip is no farther than 25km from the border, you don’t need this permission, nor do you need it for the Baja Peninsula or the western half of Sonora.

For safety’s sake you should have car insurance that covers you in Mexico, which you can buy online or sometimes in offices outside the border on the U.S. side. Your U.S. (or Canadian, etc.) coverage is not valid in Mexico.

When you come across, after passing immigration where they check your passport, you’ll go through customs next. It’s a simple procedure, just like at the airport: If the light turns green, you’re free to enter, and if it turns red, your car will be searched. The vigorousness of the search seems to be directly related to your patience and politeness with the officers—if you complain or ask them to hurry up, you can be sure that the search will be comprehensive and slow.

A tip: If you’re only going to spend your time in the border town, just walk across. You’ll understand why when you come back and see the huge lines of cars waiting to enter the U.S.

Safety

Aside from some crazy drivers (more on that below), driving in Mexico is generally safe. The worst possible things could be a carjacking in a big city or a robbery at a fake roadblock on a lonely highway.

There’s not much you can do to prevent the first one, other than keeping your windows rolled up at intersections and at night. As for the fake roadblock, it’s a good idea to ask some locals—the friendly person at the front desk of your hotel, if you can’t find anyone else—if the highway you are planning on taking is known to be dangerous.

If you get into a serious accident, wait for the police to come and have your insurance ready. For minor fender-benders, however, Mexicans usually settle up in cash right there on the side of the road. If it’s your fault, offer a few hundred pesos, and if it’s the other person’s fault, it’s up to you if you want to ask for money or call your insurance company.

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Police

Although I would never recommend speeding, you don’t really have to worry about getting pulled over in Mexico. I have never once seen a speed trap on a highway, and very rarely have I heard of people being pulled over for running red lights or other such reckless driving.

(Update, June 2017: A few months after writing this article, I finally saw a speed trap. It was on the highway between Mexico City and Acapulco. But, still, seven years and lots of traveling, and only one speed trap…)

There are two types of police in Mexico, traffic police (transito) and the regular kind, who may be state or federal. The transito police deal with—surprise—all things related to traffic, which typically means directing it rather than actually policing it. You can usually spot them by the orange on their uniforms.

It’s possible to be stopped in a city for running a stop sign you didn’t notice or some similar unclear infraction. In many instances the police are only looking for a bribe, especially if they mention a refresco, which literally means a soda but is slang for a bribe. Yes, it’s common for Mexicans to bribe their way out of tickets, but as a foreigner it could get you in a lot of trouble. Speaking terrible Spanish may help, as they won’t want to deal with you or bother giving you a ticket. The most important thing is to remain calm and polite.

The other police, not transito, have nothing to do with traffic violations. At any rate, both types of police usually drive around with their sirens on all the time, so they won’t be sneaking up on anybody anyway.

Finally, a word on checkpoints and roadblocks, common in cities and highways. In most cases you simply slow down and the police or military will wave you through. Don’t stop unless they tell you to. They’re looking for drug smugglers, not tourists.

In tourist areas, like the Mayan Riviera near Cancun, the checkpoint might actually be a tourist information service. For safety’s sake, of course slow down, but once it’s obvious that they aren’t the police (teenagers in colorful shirts, for example), just keep on rolling.

And as I mentioned earlier, in a big city at night, at the checkpoint the police are probably looking for drunks. If you’ve been drinking and are told to pull over, follow all their instructions with as much politeness as you can muster. You’ll have to show ID and blow into a breathalyzer. The limit is 1.6, and expect this to change. If you blow over the limit, you’ll be taken to jail and your car will be impounded if there’s no one sober enough to drive it for you. You can try bribing the police at your own risk—I am NOT recommending it, but it could get you out of a night in the drunk tank. (Of course, and saying this should be unnecessary, DON’T drink and drive in the first place.)

Gas Stations

In 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil reserves, which means there is only one type of gas station in Mexico: Pemex. The prices are similar nationwide for the two types of gas, magna (which is regular) and premium.

(As I write this, gas prices and the possible privatization of Pemex are big issues. We may be seeing competing gas stations soon. Read an overview of this here.)

You don’t pump your own gas; an attendant does this for you. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to fill the tank, say:

Lleno de magna, por favor.” —Fill it up with regular please.

Notice how the attendant says “ceros” (zeros) before it starts flowing. This is because a common rip-off used to be that there would already be liters of gas marked on the machine, a good way to overcharge the unmindful. I’ve never actually seen this, but it becomes a habit to check the machine to see that it’s blank.

The attendant will wash your windows, check your oil, and check your tire pressure if you ask him to. But even if he only pumps the gas, give him a tip, between 5 and 10 pesos—round up the price of your gas.

At night, keep an eye on your surroundings—dark, lonely gas stations are good places to get robbed.

Navigation

Perhaps the main challenge for driving in Mexico is navigating, both in cities and highways. Unless the route is direct and simple, merely checking it beforehand on a map and then following signs is not enough, as road signs in Mexico are often confusing, incorrect, or simply nonexistent.

If you have a smartphone, then get the app Waze. It will calculate your route and give you alternates when there is bad traffic. Of course, apps like this work best when you compare them with a physical map, especially if you’re off the beaten track. You can find lots of stories on the internet of people following these apps into lakes, rivers, or bad neighborhoods. Apps are super useful, but must be combined with common sense to function properly.

Also, these apps are best used by your friend sitting shotgun. Trying to follow them while driving, especially in the heavy traffic of Mexico City, isn’t only difficult, but exceedingly dangerous.

If you travel with Mexicans, you’ll notice a popular way of navigating—pulling over and asking directions. Do this when necessary and don’t be surprised if the directions you get are wrong. As soon as you feel like you are getting lost, ask again.

I’ll say it again, for the third time now I believe: Avoid driving in Mexico City at all costs. You will get lost. I’ve been driving there for seven years now and still get lost every time. There’s even a song about it by the Argentinean ska band Los Auténticos Decadentes:

Road Rules and Culture

The road rules in Mexico are basically the same as in the U.S., Canada, and other English-speaking countries. One difference I’m still not quite used to is that, at least on busy roads, Mexicans wait for the arrow signal before turning left on a green light, rather than just waiting for the oncoming lane to clear. This also may apply for some right turns. And on country roads, Mexicans sometimes pull onto the shoulder and wait for both lanes to clear to make a left turn—not a safe maneuver by any stretch of the imagination.

Before it turns yellow, you’ll see the green light start flashing, which means it will change soon. And for many drivers, the yellow light doesn’t mean slow down, but speed up, which brings us to driving culture.

People in Toluca joke that at night you drive through the red lights and stop for the green lights, meaning that you should stop for green because of the people running the red lights. Yes, there is a general disrespect for road signs in Mexico, which is so prevalent that on the highway there are actually signs saying “Respect the signs.”

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Now, before I get into driving culture, let me make two comments. First, most drivers in Mexico are perfectly competent and respectful. It’s just easy to notice the bad ones. Second, Toluca (where I live) is particularly famous for bad drivers. So, please remember that the common annoyances I mention below for sure don’t apply to all parts of Mexico, nor to all Mexicans.

Besides running red lights, drivers also commonly run stop signs. At 4-way intersections without a traffic light, people usually don’t alternate, but instead push their way through whenever they can. This also happens when lanes merge—people don’t take turns, which ends up causing a lot more traffic.

Another major cause of bad traffic is that people tend to park anywhere, sometimes blocking an entire lane of a busy road or invading the sidewalk. And if it’s not someone parking in an inconvenient spot, then it’s a taxi driver, either letting someone out or simply waiting for a customer.

Yet another annoyance is that many people don’t use their turn signals. You’ll see drivers making incredible turns in heavy traffic, including U-turns, which are legal as long as there isn’t a sign against it. You’ll also see people taking turns really wide, even on the highway, continually crossing back and forth across the white lines.

Mexicans in general are enthusiastic horn-honkers. I once read that the definition of a moment is the time between a light changing green and the first horn honking in Mexico. Some people honk as they speed through intersections or run red lights, as if this will prevent an accident.

There are so many incompetent drivers in Mexico that there’s even a word for them: cafre. You can often spot a cafre by the terribly beat-up car they drive, but not always. Typical cafre behavior, besides not using turn signals and parking everywhere (even spots reserved for the disabled), includes changing lanes suddenly without checking the blind spot, turning left from the far-right lane (and vice-versa), driving with small children or dogs on their laps, and either driving too fast on residential streets or driving too slow on busy city streets.

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Drunk driving is a serious problem in Mexico, despite all-night breathalyzer checkpoints on major city thoroughfares. It’s such a problem that you’ll see horrible accidents if you drive around after midnight on a Friday or Saturday. So be extra careful on weekend nights and holidays.

Finally, pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. Keep your head up when crossing the street, and don’t be surprised if someone running a red light speeds right at you. And of course—this should go without saying, but I’ve seen many travelers do this—don’t walk in the road, but stay on the sidewalk, no matter how uneven it is.

There’s really only one way to deal with all of these nuisances: Have patience, both in the car and on foot. Try to never be in a hurry and always look both ways.

Topes and Baches

Perhaps the prevalence of aggressive, selfish drivers is why Mexican (and most Latin American) roads are filled with speedbumps, called topes. It’s a philosophical question: Which came first, the tope or the cafre?

Anyone driving in Mexico will have to learn to spot the topes, which are often unmarked and practically impossible to see at night. Hitting them hard will make everyone in the backseat bounce up and hit their heads on the ceiling, or worse, give you a flat tire.

The best way to spot them is to watch the cars in front of you. When you see one slow down and the tail lights bounce, it’s going over a tope. But if there are no other cars, just do your best to spot them, especially on long, straight stretches of road.

Baches are potholes, and though unintentional, they serve the same purpose as topes—slowing you down and possibly giving you a flat tire. So, again, keep an eye open for them at all times.

City Driving

The first challenge to city driving is navigation. In big cities you’ll encounter nightmarish traffic, especially during rush hour and Mexican lunch time (between 2 and 4 p.m.). Add bad road signs and bad driving habits—not letting people in, people parking everywhere, lots of honking—and you could be in for a very frustrating experience.

When you get to a major intersection, your car will be approached by people selling things or offering to wash your windshield. Sometimes they don’t offer but just go at it, immediately spraying it with soap. You can try waving your finger or yelling “no” at them, but it’s usually easier to just give them a peso.

If you drive in a city, you’ll have to park. In the daytime, you can pretty much park anywhere, though for safety’s sake don’t park on an empty street and never leave belongings in view inside the car. The “E” (estacionarse) with the line through it means “no parking,” though you’ll almost always see cars parked under them.

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If it’s a busy street or outside of a big event, like a concert or parade, there will be guys walking around telling you that they’ll watch their car for you. They also may offer to wash it. Ask how much, pay, but don’t give these people your keys.

Unless there is a guy offering to watch your car, don’t park on the street at night. You’ll want to use a parking lot, which fortunately are common in big cities. Be sure to ask what time they close.

You’ll see little parking lots everywhere that charge by the hour. It’s a good option in the daytime too, especially if you have anything in your car like luggage. Usually you’ll have to give them your keys. When you do, they ask if you have anything of value in the car. Put those things in your trunk, and tell them what they are.

Valet parking is common for restaurants and nightclubs. Same thing, tell them if you have any valuables in the car. Before you book a hotel, always make sure it has free parking.

Highway Driving

Driving on the highway is the real pleasure of driving in Mexico. You’ll pass incredible scenery and have the freedom to visit any small town or natural area you want.

Highway driving is safe in most parts of Mexico south of Mexico City. In the north, especially near the border, there are some highways you should not drive on after dark. The best way to find out is to ask locals, for example the person at the front desk of your hotel.

In some dangerous areas, like near the U.S. border or the state of Michoacan, criminal gangs set up fake roadblocks, either disguised as military or openly delinquent. They will stop you, rob you or, if you’re lucky, simply turn you around.

This typically happens on the freeways, not the toll roads. There are two types of highways in Mexico: cuota (toll) roads, and libre, freeways.

Toll roads can be expensive, but they’re nearly always safe at all hours and include insurance. They’re patrolled by mechanics, so if you break down or have an accident they will help you for free. You can check the price of toll roads on this government website, which also calculates the gas. It’s only in Spanish but fairly straightforward.

Often where there’s a toll road there’s also a free road going the same way. It might seem like a good way to save money, but the free roads usually take a lot more time, especially if you get lost. They may have only one lane and you’ll get stuck behind a slow truck. They may pass though a small town and have no signs telling you where to go. So, in general, always take the toll road unless you have reliable information that the free road is direct and safe.

Driving culture is a little different on the highways too. Passing is the most important to understand. As usual, drive on the right and pass on the left. But on many one-lane highways in Mexico, especially on newer toll roads, there’s a wide shoulder on either side divided by a broken white line. When someone wants you pass you, drive about half-way onto the shoulder to let them get by. You’ll see how trucks drive this way, especially when climbing mountains.

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When you see the car in front of you put on a turn signal, it means it’s clear for you to pass. Besides this, there are other strange turn-signal usages that I don’t quite understand. For instance, people stopped on the highway sometimes put on their left signal, which usually means they are stopped, not that they are about to pull out in front of you, although they may do that instead.

People put on their hazard lights when they are slowing down quickly, such as when there is traffic ahead.

There aren’t rest stops on Mexican highways. If you need to use the bathroom, you usually have two options: at a toll booth, usually after you go through it, or at a gas station. In both cases you’ll probably have to pay around 5 pesos for the bathroom, but this payment typically means it will be clean.

If you’re driving at the beginning or end of a major holiday, like on a Sunday night coming into a big city (with everyone returning from their weekend trip) or on a Friday afternoon leaving a big city (with everyone leaving for their weekend trip), you’ll hit heavy traffic, especially approaching toll booths. Avoid driving at these times if possible.

Final Word on Driving

I like to joke that Mexicans are nice people until they start to drive, for all the reasons I wrote above. But the truth is that the lousy drivers are a tiny percentage of the population. Most people are perfectly courteous and law-abiding.

If you get frustrated, remember that you’re the one cruising around having a nice vacation, while every other poor soul on the road is struggling to get to work. Take a deep breath, slow down, and try to enjoy it.

Mexican Slang Master List

100+ words and phrases for speaking and understanding real Mexican Spanish

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It’s been more than five years since I published Top Ten Mexican Slang and its sequel Top 20 Mexican Slang. I’d never change the words on those lists, but 10 words, 20 words, heck, 100 words isn’t enough to cover the enormous amount of slang in Mexico. There are even entire books devoted to Mexican Slang — modismos mexicanos (click the photo for more info):

So here’s my Master List of the most common, useful, and hilarious words and phrases in Mexican Spanish, which goes far beyond the top 10 or 20 (or the other articles online with the same words as my first two lists and obvious rewrites of my descriptions. You know who you are). I sincerely hope that when you hear these words, you’ll remember my examples and laugh.

Everyday Expressions

¿Que Onda?

Along with ¿Qué pasó? and ¿Qué tal?, this is yet another way to say What’s up? A more informal version is ¿Que tranza?, or the vulgar ¿Que pedo?

Ondas are waves, but not waves in the ocean (which are olas), but sound or light waves. So perhaps a better translation for onda would be vibes.

Someone who is buena onda is cool or nice, while someone mala onda is not. Also, agarrar la onda means you understand, or get it.

Ella es buena onda — She’s cool.

¿Aggaraste la onda?Do you get my drift?

¡Que milagro!

Literally What a miracle!, this is how Mexicans say Long time no see.

¿Mande?

Mande is the Mexican way to ask What? when you don’t understand what someone said. It can also be used like Tell me or Go ahead, to encourage someone to speak, often on the telephone. Another way to say this, which is like Huh? (not exactly a real word), is pronounced ei-oh.

¿Neta?

A highly informal Really? or For real?, neta can also mean that something is the best, as in esta fiesta es la neta — this party is the best.

Another common Mexican substitute for Really? (verdad, en serio) is ¿apoco?

¡No manches!

Instead of a question like ¿apoco?, another reaction to surprising information is to say ¡No manches!No way! or Come on! The literal translation, Don’t stain, is ridiculous because it’s simply a euphemism for the vulgar no mames. Head down the list to Bad Words for other vulgar expressions in Mexican slang.

Ni modo

Literally no method, the common expression ni modo means it doesn’t matter, it can’t be helped, or a dismissive whatever.

¡Órale!

can be used for encouragement, like Go for it! or Right on! It can be used to agree: Let’s do it! or Let’s go! Or it can express excitement, like Wow! or My goodness!, similar to its second cousin híjole.

Ahorita

Ahora means now. The -ita or -ito (for feminine or masculine nouns) stem is a diminutive, used to show that something is small or cute. So literally ahorita means little now.

Mexicans might tell you that ahorita means right now, but really it means soon or eventually. If you ask a Mexican to do something and he or she replies with ahorita, then it could happen in five minutes, five hours, or never.

¿Puedes ayudarme con mi tarea? Ahorita. — Can you help me with my homework? Soon.

¿Ya nos vamos? Ahorita.Let’s go now? Soon.

Luego luego

While luego means later, luego luego, unlike ahorita, actually does mean right now.

¡Aguas!

We all know that agua is water. But in slang aguas means careful! or look out!

Aguas con los perros. — Careful with those dogs.

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I was told that this expression comes from when a cleaning lady pours out a bucket of water onto the sidewalk, she warns passersby by yelling ¡Aguas!

Pinche

Not quite vulgar, pinche translates to many words in English, damn for example, but only when used to describe something or someone.

¡Pinche coche! – damn car

Pinche Juan – goddamn Juan (Also a song by Café Tacuba, good Mexican band for learning Mexican slang.)

Chido

Chido means cool, usually objects and situations instead of people, for whom it’s more common to say buena onda. Another word for cool is padre (see Family below).

Cámara

No, not the Nikkon hanging around your neck, although it’s also the word for a camera and the tube inside a tire too. A general translation is chamber. But as an expression, cámara means I agree or it’s a deal. A stronger way to say this is with conste.

No Hay Bronca

This one has a special place in my heart — I named my blog after it. It means no problem and is an alternative to the vulgar No hay pedo. (Look for pedo under Drinking below.)

Words for People

Wey

Wey was #1 on my list of Top Ten Mexican Slang, and I stand by it. The “correct” spelling (of this “incorrect” word) is güey, which is derived from the word buey for an ox.

Ask middle-aged Mexicans, and they’ll tell you that wey didn’t exist when they were kids — at least, not like it does now. Once in the proper circles you’ll hear wey between every other word, like how teenage American girls use like.

¡Simón wey, mira wey, chupamos veinte caguamas wey, no mames wey, estábamos bien pedos wey!

Wey (or güey) means dude, and if you haven’t already heard something like the example above, I hope that when you do you’ll recall this and laugh. (Simón is a slang substitute for , yes.)

When used angrily, however, wey means something like dumbass or idiot. In the north of Mexico, people say vato, which is borderline vulgar. Cabrón, clearly on the vulgar side, can also be used in a friendly way with the right people.

In Baja California, people use the non-vulgar paisa, short for paisano, which means countryman. Compa is a common abreviation for compadre, used with close friends or relatives.

Carnal is used for a very close friend, often someone’s brother. And speaking of brothers, cuate (fraternal twin) is also used for a close friend.

Chavo/chava

In English we say kids, and in Mexico there are many slang words for muchachos. Chavo is perhaps the most common, but others are chamaco and morro. (Remember, end words like this with an -a instead of an -o for females, i.e. chava, chamaca, morra.)

Of course, like chick in English, these can be used for teenagers and up, as always depending on the situation. I have a friend my age who calls his girlfriend his morra.

Peques — short for pequeños — is used for little kids only. An escuincle is a spoiled brat, but it could apply to kids in general.

Ruco

A ruco is an old person, and the word can be used as a noun or an adjective. A chavoruco, therefore, is an old guy who acts (or tries to act) young.

A related word, rabo verde (literally green tail — green in the sense of not ripe), is an old guy who dates young women, or chases young tail.

Naco

Nacos are low-class folks, not necessarily because of their economic situation, but more because of attitude and behavior. The American English equivalent would be redneck (more so than hick), and although nacos and rednecks actually have a lot in common, they would probably hate each other.

Fresa

Literally strawberry, a fresa is a picky, stuck-up person. For a woman it could translate as high maintenance. This can apply to things other than people as well; for example cheesy, lightweight rock is musica fresona, although the usual word for cheesy is cursi.

Another way to say picky, especially for food, is especialspecial.

Chicano

These are Mexicans living in the United States, or Mexican-Americans. The illegal ones are mojados, which means wet, a reference to the unfortunate expression wetback.

Malinchista

A Mexican who doesn’t want to be Mexican, but loves to talk about his trip to the U.S. or Europe, is a malinchista. This comes from Malinche, Hernan Cortés’ indigenous translator (and lover) during the conquest of Mexico, widely regarded as a traitor. So a malinchista is someone who symbolically betrays Mexico.

Chilango

These are people from Mexico City, which incidentally is called D.F. (pronounced “deh-EFF-ei” in Spanish). There’s some debate about whether chilangos are people born there or who moved there later, but for our purpose it’s any of the 9 million residents of this massive metropolis.

Cholo

Cholos are Mexican hip-hop kids — big pants, big chains, and a whole other world of slang. I’m sure Mexican rappers Cartel de Santa would proudly call themselves cholos.

Chairo

Chairos are the left-leaning, save-the-world types who believe in a socialist utopia. I suppose a loose translation to English could be social justice warrior. Yes, it’s an insult to call someone a chairo.

Derechairo

The corresponding insult for people on the right is derechairo. Dere-, as in derecha, get it? Another word is mocho, especially for the overly religious.

¡Pinche mochos y chairos se odian!

Cafre

Cafres are terrible drivers, who often drive a carcacha, a beat-up car. Another word is cacharro, but this may apply to anything busted, not only cars.

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Ñoño

Ñoños are nerds, and as an adjective it means nerdy. Apparently in Spain ñoño means cheesy, though in Mexico cheesy is cursi.

Metiche

A busybody — someone who pokes their nose into everyone’s business — is a metiche. If the person is a gossip, then he or she is chismoso, as chisme is gossip (the noun).

Mandilón

This is a guy whose wife or girlfriend is always bossing him around. It’s not vulgar, even if the English equivalent certainly is: pussy-whipped.

Tocayo

Not an exclusively Mexican word, but interesting because there’s no equivalent in English, a tocayo is someone with the same name as you. You can say somos tocayos or just call the person with the same name as you tocayo, like a nickname (apodo).

Words for Describing People

Unlike folks north of the border, Mexicans can be quite direct when describing people, with words and nicknames like gordito (fat), flaco (thin), and moreno (dark skinned). Though to describe a dark-skinned woman, for example, it is nicer to add the diminutive -ita, as in morenita.

Güera

If you’re a light-skinned woman with blonde or even light brown hair, you’ll for sure be called a güera in Mexico, which means — surprise — a light-skinned woman with blonde or light hair. For men the word is güero, and in both cases there are two little dots above the u.

Codo

Codo means elbow, but in Mexican slang it means stingy, as in a cheap or stingy person. People who are codo doesn’t want to flex their elbows by pulling out money and putting it on the table. The non-slang word for this is tacaño.

No seas codo  – Don’t be cheap.

More expressions use codo, like hablar por los codos, which means talk too much, or romperse los codos, which means work too hard.

Buena

Women with a nice body are buena (hot), bien buena, or the even-more emphatic buenota.

Estas bien buena güera.You are hot (have a nice body), white lady.

Be careful with these, as obviously they can be taken the wrong way. For example, not many women would enjoy being called a gordibuena — a hot fat chick.

Another way to say a person is hot is chula, which can also mean good in a general sense.

Cochino

A pig, in the general, metaphorical sense of the word — dirty, disgusting or rude, whatever applies. It can also be used like an adjective: Tu casa está cochinayour house is dirty. To say it in a nicer way, use cochinito.

Pelón, etc.

A common nickname, used as a noun, this refers to a bald guy, especially those who shave their head. Pelo is hair, so pelón means…well there’s some irony at work here.

This brings us to another topic: the -ón  and -ona suffixes, which you can add to all kinds of adjectives, such as:

Nalgas: butt — nalgona: girl with a big butt. (And slapping someone on the butt is a nalgada)

So, you can add -ón or -ona to any body part to describe someone who has a prominent one. For example:

Nariz: nose — narizón: guy with a big nose

Cejas: eyebrows — cejón: guy with bushy eyebrows

Frente: forehead — frentona: girl with a big forehead

Bigote: mustache — bigotona: girl with a mustache

Culo: ass (vulgar) — culona: girl with a big ass, possibly complimentary (but still vulgar)

Cebolla: onion — cebollón: what my wife calls me when I eat too many onions

You also can do this with jobs: -ero or -era makes a job title.

Obra: work project — obrero: worker

Palomita: popcorn — palomero: popcorn seller, who walks the streets with his cart.

Culo: ass — culero: literally ass seller, but actually more like asshole.

Jeta

A special mention for jeta, which doesn’t have a direct English translation. (These are often the most interesting words.) A jeta is a dirty look, a sour expression on your face. Maybe you’ve heard this newly-minted English expression: resting bitch-face. That’s a jeta. So a woman with a jeta is a jetona.

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Words for Family Members

Jefe/Jefa

Your father is your boss: mi jefe, and your mother too: mi jefa.

Vieja

Your wife or girlfriend is your old lady: mi vieja. Sure, it’s not respectful, but it is common. Old ladies, on the other hand, are usually called viejitas, with the diminutive softening the blow.

Esta viejathis old lady, could refer to any female, usually with a negative connotation. And viejo, old man, can be used among friends like man (if you get sick of using wey, cabrón or carnal, that is).

Mijo

Mothers talking about their sons use this combination of the two words mi hijo — my son.

Padre

Padre (father) means cool or good, not for people but things or situations. Está padre — it’s cool, great. Está padrísimo — it’s awesome.

In Mexican Slang, madre (mother) is much more common than padre, although unlike padre, it’s full-on vulgar. Which brings us to…

Bad Words

Bad language, groserias in Spanish, make up some of the most diverse, prevalent and versatile types of slang in any language. Whole books and websites are devoted to bad language in Spanish — English too. It can make for a lifetime of study, and if you want to get into it, a great website to check out is run by my friend Rodney: “¡Qué boquita!” No seas pelangoche.

In the interest of your Mexican slang education, I’ve included five of the most versatile bad words, which can be twisted into many meanings. They are, in their basest form: madre, mamar, huevos, cabrón, and chingar — of course with a few bonus ones mixed in.

Madre

As I wrote above, in Mexican Slang padre isn’t a bad word, but madre certainly is. Why? Well, as an anonymous commenter wrote on my article Top Ten Mexican Slang, mention mom and the fight is on.

Here are some ways to use madre:

Que pedo con esta madre — What the fuck is wrong with this fucking thing — you can use madre to refer to pretty much anything.

Me vale madres — I don’t give a fuck.

Ni madres — No fucking way.

A toda madre: This means awesome, or when about yourself it means you’re feeling great, ready for action, as in Estoy a toda madre.

Que poca madre: Something bad, wrong, not pleasing for sure. ¿Reprobaste tu clase? Que poca madre. — You failed your class? That sucks.

Desmadre: A mess, or a fucked-up situation, is a desmadre.

Partir la madre: This means kick your ass, as in te voy a partir la madre. A simple verb for this is madrear. And once you get your ass kicked, you will be covered with madrazos, or bruises, also known as putazos.

For example: Voy a madrear todos estos pinches blogueros que copian el contenido de mis artículos.

Hasta la madre: To be sick of something. Ya yo estoy hasta la madre, de que me pongan sombrero (The first line from “Frijolero” by Molotov, a great song full of Mexican slang).

Mamar

Etymologically speaking, mamar is related to mamá (mom). But there’s no good translation for mamar to English, except possibly suckle or breastfeed.

As you can imagine, this is fertile ground for slang. Mamar the verb, therefore, means give a blowjob, and the noun blowjob is a mamada. But mamadas can also mean bullshit, AKA pendejadas (from pendejo, asshole), chingadazos, and many more, including the dinner-table-acceptable tonterías.

If a guy is mamado (an adjective this time), it means he is muscular — implying he breastfed a lot and got big.

Remember fresa above? Another word for picky, stuck-up people is mamón, or mamona for women.

Finally, as mentioned above, the extremely common no manches (Come on! No way!) is actually a euphemism for no mames, literally don’t suck me off. Remember to conjugate your verbs — if you’re talking to a group of guys (don’t use it with women), say no mamen.

Cabrón

When I travel in Central America, in places like Guatemala or Honduras, and I tell people that I live in Mexico, they often say ¡Ah, cabrón! That’s how Mexican this word is, that other Latinos think of it right away when they think about Mexicans.

It comes from cabra, goat, but if used as an insult it translates best to bastard, though not in the sense of someone with unmarried parents. But it can also be said to a friend — a male friend, of course. Like bastard, cabrón isn’t the right thing to say to your boss or girlfriend’s father.

Cabrón can be used in other ways, especially for something difficult — Está carbon. If you say that about a person, it means he’s tough.

If you’re angry, you’re encabronado/a. It can be used like a verb: Me encabrona (or me encabrita) este wey this guy pisses me off.

Está cabrón has a substitute for use in mixed company: está cañon.

Chingar

Much like English’s beloved f-word, chingar has a wide range of uses, from describing something positively: está chingón (it’s fucking awesome), to negatively: está de la chingada (it’s fucked up). The euphemism for this is de la fregada.

If there’s a lot of something, traffic for example, you can say hay un chingo de…, for example hay un chingo de tráfico. The non-vulgar way to say this is un montón de… or un buen de…

In general, you can utilize chingar to express the foulest, rudest, and most aggressive sentiments, such as chinga tu madre (fuck your mother, or simply fuck you) or vete a la chingada (go fuck yourself).

This is a truly Mexican word, and to learn the origins and deep thoughts behind it read The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. (Click the books for info.)

For everyday uses, check out the Chingonario:

Chingar as a verb typically means fuck up rather than have sex. Another good one for fuck up is joder. Estoy jodido — I’m fucked.

For actual sex, expressed vulgarly, use coger, which in other Spanish-speaking countries means grab or hold. Use it like that in Mexico and people will laugh like crazy.

¡Chale!

Here’s a bonus word, similar to chingar: ¡chale! is like shit! or fuck! when something bad happens.

Huevos

We know that huevos are eggs, but all over the Spanish-speaking world, huevos are also balls (testicles).

In Mexican slang, huevos can be used much more widely. When my Spanish was still at a pretty basic level I had a student who said huevos días to me — not a very nice thing to say.

One of my favorites, ¡A huevo! means of course! or hell yeah! — very useful. Another variation is tengo hueva, which means you are feeling lazy, and a lazy person is a huevón. If you say me da hueva, it means something bores you. Que hueva — how boring.

Drinking

Yes, bad language and drinking go together like lime and salt, and likewise words for alcohol and drinking are a source of so much great slang. Think about English: booze, a brew, getting wasted, pissed, hammered, fucked up…

Chela

Chelas are beers, also known as cheves. The word may come from micheladas, a big cup of beer mixed with tomato juice, lime, hot sauce — there’s even a place in Mexico City that puts shrimp and slices of mango in their micheladas. Perhaps an acquired taste.

Caguamas

The best deal for beer drinkers in Mexico are caguamas, big returnable 40-ounce-ish bottles. As a commenter pointed out to me, technically the biggest one is a caguamón, although this is a marketing term I’ve never heard spoken. A caguama is a type of sea turtle, by the way.

Another useful container for beer is a latón (big can), a tall boy in English.

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Pomo

A pomo is a bottle of liquor. I’ve even heard the big one — what we call a half gallon in the U.S. — called an elephant foot: pata de elefante. I like that.

Pisto

This is the vulgar way to say booze, and the verb pistear is the vulgar way to say drink (the verb). You can also say chupar, suck, as in vamos a chuparlet’s drink/get drunk.

Mala copa

A mala copa is a bad drunk, you know — one who loses control, fights and cries. No seas una mala copa.

Crudo

Literally raw, crudo means hungover, as in estoy crudo or tengo cruda (I have a hangover).

Cantina, antro

A cantina is a bar and an antro is a nightclub. A rodeo is a kind of nightclub that specializes in banda music — the cowboy hat-wearing groups with loud drums and big horn sections.

Pedo

I could have put pedo under Bad Words, as it’s versatile, common and oh-so vulgar. Literally a pedo is a fart, but most often it means drunk.

Estoy pedo — I’m drunk.

Therefore un pedote is a boozer, a big drinker, although it could also mean a big fart.

The noun peda is a drinking party or binge, also known as a borrachera or a chupe. The party itself, fiesta, could be called a pachanga or parranda.

Pedo also means problem, as in ni pedo or no hay pedo, the vulgar substitute for no hay bronca, no problem¿Cual es tu pinche pedo?What’s your fucking problem? A pedero is a person who causes problems.

Finally, you can use ¿Que pedo? instead of ¿Que onda? to say What the fuck is up? (in a friendly way), or with an angry tone of voice, What the fuck? The euphemism for these is pex, as in ¿Que pex? or ni pex.

Miscellaneous Useful Mexican Slang

This Mexican Slang Master List is getting a to be a little long, so long that I think I might have to write a sequel with words for crime and punishment, sports, drugs, food, and especially sex. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few good ones, necessary ones, which for sure belong on a comprehensive list of the most important slang from Mexico.

Rola

Songs are rolas, an alternative to the regular Spanish word, canción.

La banda

La banda might be the band, but it could also be a group of friends.

Chamba

A job, often a difficult or shitty job. You can say Tengo que regresar a mi chamba or ask ¿Que chamba tienes? The verb, chambear, means work, and without pride or enthusiasm.

Tengo que chambear mañana.

Changarro

It means a small business, a little store or small restaurant. So, does changarro have anything do with chango, the Mexican word for monkey?

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Chafa

Chafa describes something cheap or low quality. Este coche es chafa.

Varos

Varos (sometimes spelled and always pronounced baros — remember there’s no v sound in Spanish) means money, but not in the general sense like lana (wool, money) or plata (silver, money), but in the numerical sense (pesos), like bucks.

Esta vale cien varos — It’s worth one hundred pesos.

Refresco

A refresco is a soda, like a Coke. But if a policeman asks you for a refresco, he’s asking for a bribe.

Paro

A favor is a paro, as in Hazme un paro — Do me a favor.

Chiste

A chiste is a joke (una broma) and something funny is chistoso. Chiste can also mean the trick, or the way to do something, as in el chiste es hacerlo así — the trick is to do it like this.

Albur

An albur is a vulgar pun. This fascinating aspect of Mexican culture deserves a whole other article. It can also be used as a verb, alburear.

Gacho

This is substitute for feo, ugly, though both words are used in a much wider sense than for physical ugliness. For example: Hueles feo — you smell bad (not ugly).

I originally spelled this incorrectly as gaucho (thanks for the correction), which is an Argentinian cowboy and an excellent Steely Dan album.

Jalada

Jalada means overdone, or ridiculous, as in action movies in which the hero is shot at by 100 foes but not one bullet hits him.

Chorro

Literally spill, it means diarrhea, as in tengo chorro. It can also be used to express that you have a lot of something — not necessarily diarrhea.

Ratero

A ratero, or simply rata (rat) is a thief, a criminal — worse than a rat, if you ask me.

Vocho

Remember the cafres driving their carcahas? Well, the carcacha might be a vocho (pronounced and sometimes spelled bocho), the nickname for Volkswagen Beetles, which are everywhere in Mexico.

Chamarra

In Mexico, don’t call your jacket a chaqueta, because that’s the word for jerking off. Use chamarra instead.

Chanclas

These are sandals, AKA huaraches, an old indigenous word that is also a kind of food (delicious). If you walk around in public with chanclas, you might be called chancludo.

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D.F. and Chilangos

Meaning Federal District, and pronounced “deh-EFF-ei,” this is how most people refer to Mexico City. It may be called simply México, but almost never La Ciudad de México, except on documents or plane tickets, although the government is currently trying to change this. By the way, people from D.F. are chilangos.

Zócalo

An essential word for travel, the zócalo is the main plaza or the central square of a city, otherwise known as the parque central.

Colonia

This means neighborhood, not the English cognate colony. Residents may be called vecinos (which usually means neighbor) or colonos.

Depa

Your depa is your apartment, departamento.

Camión

A camión is a bus, whereas in other parts of Latin America it’s a truck. I remember telling people in Guatemala that I arrived by camión, and they looked at me crazy until I figured it out and explained myself. The official word for a bus in Mexico is autobús, not plain bus, unlike Spain and elsewhere.

Tope

We’ll end this list with a word that’s not just slang, but a big part of any Mexican experience, especially if you drive. Speedbumps are everywhere, often unmarked and totally hidden in the dark night. Aguas when you drive over them, because hitting them hard makes everyone in the backseat bounce up and slam their heads into the roof of the car, or worse, gives you a flat tire.

Speedbumps are topes, and only in Mexico. In other parts of Latin America and some parts of Mexico they are tumolos, reductores — which other words?

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Part 2 is coming soon and will include Mexican slang for food, sports, sex, drugs — all that fun stuff. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments, corrections and complaints.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico: What’s it all about?

In Mexico, a country full of color, tradition and flavor, the Day of the Dead stands out as especially colorful, traditional and flavorful. Rooted in Pre-Hispanic practice and caught up in the trick-or-treat influence of Halloween, the holiday is a chance to honor deceased relatives with an altar in the home, dress up as an elegant skeleton, and sample the best of Mexico’s artesanal candy.

The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2, but it’s celebrated several days or even several weeks before, especially when there’s a long weekend like this year. While it’s one of the most public holidays in Mexico, in many ways it’s also the most personal. Besides costumes and outdoor events (more on those below), perhaps the most interesting part of the holiday is that people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried.

They clean it up, adorn it with flowers, and even may spend the night there, eating, drinking, playing music, and remembering their loved ones.

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“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a guitarist and music teacher. His family decorates their relatives’ graves with candles, photographs, and orange flowers. They sing songs, tell stories, and inform their dead relatives of all that’s new in their lives.

The Ofrenda (Altar)

Another more personal manifestation of the Day of the Dead is an altar that families set up in their homes. Called an ofrenda, in it they place photographs of deceased relatives and some of their favorite foods, including cigarettes and alcohol if the person liked them. It’s as if the relative will come back for a visit and the family wants them to feel welcome again.

Not only families do this, but places all over Mexico. Here’s an ofrenda from the university where I work:

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Day of the Dead Parade

In Spectre, the most recent James Bond movie from 2015, they give a highly stylized view of the Day of the Dead. In the first scenes of the movie, you see a big parade with lots of noise and action and people running around in colorful dresses and skull makeup. Apparently the Mexican government spent a huge amount of money to get the scene included in the movie, and the skeleton character even made it onto the cover:

In an example of life following art (or art following art?), the first Day of the Dead parade, called the Paseo de las Animas, went down the same city streets on Saturday, October 29 in Mexico City. Along with floats of skulls and big colorful monsters called alebrijes, it included 1,000 actors in skeleton costumes and makeup. (The skeleton, called catrina for women and catrin for men, is the iconic figure wearing a suit or a flowing gown).

A big catrin figure in Toluca, State of Mexico:

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Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca

The Mexico City parade might be new, but displays, events and markets selling Day of the Dead specialities occur all over the country leading up to the holiday.

The Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca, the central Mexican city where I live, is a great place to sample all the flavors and soak up the atmosphere. (Alfeñique is a type of sugar candy).

In the Portales, an outdoor mall of arches in the center of town, hundreds of vendors sell all kinds of candies, decorations, and skeleton figures for the Day of the Dead, either to try right there or put in your family altar.

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No altar would be complete without calaveritas, the colorful candy skulls. They represent the dead relative, whose name you can have drawn on the forehead in sugar.

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You can get candied everything, including all kinds of vegetables and fruit, like limes, pumpkin, and nopales (cactus leaves). Here are some tempting bananas:

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I especially enjoy the oficios, little skeletons doing their various jobs.

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Outside the fair, people in elaborate costumes accept money to pose with you for photographs.

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So if you want to experience the Day of the Dead but without the enormous crowds of a parade or the late night in a cemetery, come to Toluca for the Feria del Alfeñique. It’s an easy bus ride from the Observatorio metro stop/bus station in the west of Mexico City. Once you get to the Toluca bus station, take a “safe taxi” (taxi seguro) to centro, downtown.

And look out for this guy:

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