Category Archives: Learning Spanish
100+ words and phrases for speaking and understanding real Mexican Spanish
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.
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?
Literally What a miracle!, this is how Mexicans say Long time no see.
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.
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?
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.
Literally no method, the common expression ni modo means it doesn’t matter, it can’t be helped, or a dismissive whatever.
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.
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.
While luego means later, luego luego, unlike ahorita, actually does mean right now.
We all know that agua is water. But in slang aguas means careful! or look out!
Aguas con los perros. — Careful with those dogs.
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!
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 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).
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 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 sí, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 especial — special.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Ñoños are nerds, and as an adjective it means nerdy. Apparently in Spain ñoño means cheesy, though in Mexico cheesy is cursi.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 cochina — your house is dirty. To say it in a nicer way, use cochinito.
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.
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.
Words for Family Members
Your father is your boss: mi jefe, and your mother too: mi jefa.
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 vieja — this 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).
Mothers talking about their sons use this combination of the two words mi hijo — my son.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a bonus word, similar to chingar: ¡chale! is like shit! or fuck! when something bad happens.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 chupar — let’s drink/get drunk.
A mala copa is a bad drunk, you know — one who loses control, fights and cries. No seas una mala copa.
Literally raw, crudo means hungover, as in estoy crudo or tengo cruda (I have a hangover).
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.
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.
Songs are rolas, an alternative to the regular Spanish word, canción.
La banda might be the band, but it could also be a group of friends.
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.
It means a small business, a little store or small restaurant. So, does changarro have anything do with chango, the Mexican word for monkey?
Chafa describes something cheap or low quality. Este coche es chafa.
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.
A refresco is a soda, like a Coke. But if a policeman asks you for a refresco, he’s asking for a bribe.
A favor is a paro, as in Hazme un paro — Do me a favor.
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.
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.
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 means overdone, or ridiculous, as in action movies in which the hero is shot at by 100 foes but not one bullet hits him.
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.
A ratero, or simply rata (rat) is a thief, a criminal — worse than a rat, if you ask me.
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.
In Mexico, don’t call your jacket a chaqueta, because that’s the word for jerking off. Use chamarra instead.
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.
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.
An essential word for travel, the zócalo is the main plaza or the central square of a city, otherwise known as the parque central.
This means neighborhood, not the English cognate colony. Residents may be called vecinos (which usually means neighbor) or colonos.
Your depa is your apartment, departamento.
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.
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?
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.
You can smell the sea from the Cancun airport. No more stuffy airplane, no more boring job in your cold hometown. Welcome to paradise—the Mayan Riviera. Welcome to Cancun.
The Mayan Riviera is a jungle coastline of white-sand beaches, ancient ruins, enormous aquatic theme parks, traditional colonial towns, and clear-water cenotes, the crystal-clear freshwater sinkholes and caves found throughout the flat limestone sponge of the Yucatan peninsula.
The great Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, are only a few hours from Cancun on good highways. In the other direction, rocky Tulum rivals Chichen Itza with its location on cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.
You can stay at an all-inclusive resort right on the beach in Cancun, take guided tours to the ruins, and drink margaritas by the pool all day. You’ll have a great, relaxing vacation. But you won’t experience the real Mexico. Not even close.
How could you? Why would you venture into downtown Cancun for real tacos when you have a free buffet in your luxury hotel? Why would you travel inland to Valladolid when the beach party starts at 10 a.m. every day?
Independent budget travel in the Mayan Riviera is safe, easy, and cheap—even if you don’t speak Spanish. Here are a few tips to help you plan your trip.
Tip 1: Getting to Cancun from the airport
If you stay in a resort, they may or may not arrange transportation from the airport. If you want to do it on your own, the cheapest way to get from the airport to downtown Cancun is on the ADO bus.
At the time of writing, it leaves every half hour until 11:30 p.m., takes about 30 minutes, and costs 66 pesos.
After you pass immigration, before you exit the airport, look for the ADO booth in the baggage claim among all the booths for rental cars and hotels. Ask for centro (downtown). Then as you leave the airport, take a right and walk toward the bus area.
The bus takes you to the ADO station downtown, and from there you can walk to cheap hotels.
There are also direct buses from the airport to Playa del Carmen. They leave every half hour, take about one hour, and cost 162 pesos.
Tip 2: Choosing a Hotel
Downtown Cancun is a 20-30 minute bus ride from the Hotel Zone, which is the long thing island containing the beach and all the resorts. By staying downtown you can get better prices on everything, including hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs.
Give yourself some time to walk around while looking for a place to stay. Many hotels have the prices posted behind the front desk. If not, you will have to ask, and don’t expect everyone to speak English here, though they should figure out what you want. Bring a pad of paper and a pencil so they can write down prices for you.
It’s a good idea to look at the room. Try out the bed. Check the water pressure. Turn on the air conditioner. Is it too weak, or too loud? Some hotels have kitchens, some have a computer for guests to use, some have tourist information. Compare.
If you want to stay more than four or five days, try asking for a discount.
Outside of high season (around Christmas and New Year’s, the week before Easter, and late July/August), you should be able to get a decent room from as low as 250 pesos to 500 pesos per night.
During high season, everything gets more expensive, and I recommend making reservations beforehand.
Tip 3: Choosing a restaurant with authentic food
In general, you find three kinds of restaurants in the Mayan Riviera: foreign restaurants that serve burgers, pizza, or sushi; Mexican restaurants geared towards foreign tourists; and real Mexican restaurants, geared toward Mexican tourists or locals.
Beware the Mexican food in big, touristy restaurants on the beach. Mexicans tend to think that foreigners don’t like spicy food, so they dumb it down. If a tired basket of nachos sits on every table and the salsa tastes like marinara sauce, then you are in the wrong place.
Seek out real Mexican food in restaurants patronized by locals. Some tip-offs are: the menu painted on the wall or written on a dry-erase board, a big flat grill and the cook up front, bright lighting, very simple décor, plain white walls, and even a little peeling paint or exposed concrete.
But the most important way to know if the food is authentic and clean is to look at how crowded the restaurant is. If it’s packed, it’s probably good. If it’s empty, it’s empty for a reason. The best way to avoid food poisoning is to never eat in an empty restaurant, although be aware that Mexican meal times are a little different, with lunch between 2 and 4 p.m. Therefore plenty of decent restaurants might be empty at noon or 5 p.m.
It’s good to ask for suggestions, like at the front desk of your hotel, but explain that you want something real. Otherwise you will be directed to a restaurant with the “Americanized” Mexican food they think foreigners like.
Some good places to find authentic food are Parque las Palapas in Cancun, the Bazar Municipal in Valladolid, and smaller, “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants two blocks or more from the beach in Playa del Carmen.
Tip 4: Communicating with the locals
Many people speak English in this part of Mexico, especially those who work in tourism. But once you get off the beaten path, you’ll need a little Spanish.
Whether the person speaks English or not, it’s polite to start the conversation in Spanish. Start with one of these at the right time of day:
Buenos días (good morning)
Buenas tardes (good afternoon; used until after sundown)
Buenas noches (good night; a greeting, not a goodbye)
Then say ¿Habla usted inglés? (Do you speak English?) and No hablo español (I don’t speak Spanish).
That’s easy enough, right? Just 5 phrases.
After than, learn more Spanish. Mexicans are friendly and patient, which is good for the foreigner struggling with Spanish.
Tip 5: Visit archeological zones on your own
The two most common forms of public transportation in the Mayan Riviera are buses and colectivos, big white passenger vans.
From the ADO bus station downtown, buses go all over Mexico, including Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Merida, Chetumal, Palenque, and beyond.
Use the website (www.ado.com.mx) to get an idea of prices and routes, and then buy your tickets at the bus station. Most workers at bus stations speak English, but just in case, write down the destination and the time you want.
For example, here is the schedule from the airport to downtown Cancun:
If you are on a budget (and speak Spanish or have a helper), ask at the station for a second-class bus. They can be much cheaper than ADO and go to the same destinations. Be sure to ask how long the trip will take, and compare it to ADO, because the second-class bus could take much longer.
For points south, like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, take a colectivo. The ones for Playa del Carmen leave from just outside the ADO station. They are cheaper and faster and leave more frequently than the bus.
You can take a guided tour to Tulum and Chichen Itza, and though they will explain everything in English, they may rush you through it. Also they typically show up a few hours after the sites open with all the other tour buses. If you can arrive at 8 a.m. when they open, you’ll have a much nicer experience. And inside the archeological zone at Tulum is one of the most beautiful and iconic beaches in Mexico. If you go on your own, you can stay and swim as long as you want.
There are plenty of guides for hire at the ruins, or you can always buy a guidebook in the gift shop.
If you have the time, I recommend staying in Valladolid before going to Chichen Itza. Valladolid is a beautiful colonial town full of local culture. By staying in Valladolid, you can have several hours at Chichen Itza in the morning before all the tour groups from Cancun arrive.
Colectivos go to Chichen Itza from several parking lots a block or two from the ADO station near the central park in Valladolid.
If you don’t stay Valladolid, however, then your best option is to rent a car, so you’ll be there early and have plenty of time to explore.
Tip 6: Safety concerns
The good news is that the Mayan Riviera is one of the safest regions in Mexico. However, it’s a good idea to ask at your hotel what the neighborhood is like, especially if it’s safe to walk at night, and if there are any places to avoid.
Besides that, regular common sense for travel applies: Don’t wear expensive jewelry, don’t pull out large wads of cash in public, keep your wallet in your front pocket, don’t let your purse or camera bag out of your sight, and don’t look at a map in public—take it indoors.
Tip 7: Buy my guide to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera
The guide is for the independent traveler who likes the beach, but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you will:
- Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
- Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
- Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
- Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
- Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture.
- If time permits, explore more places in the region, including Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and Mérida.
The guide’s full appendix includes information on hotels, public transportation, restaurants, culture, and Spanish phrases. You’ll save more than its small price the first time you follow my advice on a bus, restaurant, or cenote.
This part of Mexico may be the most popular, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guidebook.