Category Archives: Lessons from the Road
Mexico is one of my favorite countries to travel in, and not just because I live here, but because of its incredibly diverse landscapes, friendly people, excellent food, and low prices—especially for those with U.S. dollars, for which the exchange rate is quite good at the moment.
You can plan any type of trip in Mexico: budget backpacking or high luxury, adrenaline or relaxation, culture or nature, a long-term adventure or a quick weekend—the possibilities are endless. Like for anywhere, a little information and preparation will greatly improve your trip, but knowing what to do may not be obvious, especially the first time around.
With this in mind, here are my top tips for first time travelers so you can plan the fun, safe and economical adventure of your dreams in Mexico.
Choose only one city or one region to explore
In Mexico, long distances separate popular travel destinations like the Mayan Riviera, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta. For example, driving from Tijuana to Los Cabos (on the southern tip of Baja California, known to foreigners as “Cabo”) takes at least 20 hours—so how long do you think the bus will take?
Remember, every day you spend traveling between destinations is a day you miss out on enjoying a destination. So, unless you have plenty of time—like more than two weeks—plan to visit only one place or travel around only one region in Mexico.
If you love culture and big, dynamic cities, go to Mexico City with a day trip to a nearby area. If you love nature, go to Chiapas, or rent a car to explore the Huasteca Potosina.
If you love the beach, you have numerous options—Oaxaca for rustic, low-priced adventure and surfing; areas around Cancun for white sand, clear water, Mayan ruins and a unique ecosystem; Los Cabos for partying, fishing and scuba diving; Nayarit, Mazatlan, the list goes on and on.
Reconsider your resort
Staying at an all-inclusive resort is fun—you can hang at the pool all day, meet other travelers, and eat and drink as much as you want. So if you just want to relax, go for it.
But if you are looking for any culture, skip the resort. If you want adventure—exploring on foot or local transportation—skip the resort. And skip the resort if you are on a budget. The price of staying in a smaller, local hotel and eating at authentic, affordable (and amazing) local restaurants will almost always be cheaper.
Avoid high season
To avoid crowds and save money on hotels, try not to travel during Mexico’s high seasons, which are:
- Mid December to Mid January, especially between Christmas and New Year’s
- The week before Easter, called Semana Santa, when everyone has at least a few days off
- Late July and early August, when many Mexicans have a one- or two-week vacation
Long weekends and holidays can get busy too, such as Mexican Independence Day (September 15-16), the Day of the Dead (the first days of November), and all the “days”—Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, etc. These are bad times to be on the highways, especially on the first and last days of the holiday.
Also, particularly during high season and holidays, try not to check into a resort or a big hotel on Friday afternoon and check out on Sunday morning, because the lines may be really long and slow, as everyone is beginning or ending their weekend trip.
If your only opportunity to travel is during high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just plan on spending a little more money for a hotel, spending a little more time at the airport or getting to a popular tourist destination, and dealing with crowds—but nothing unreasonable.
Don’t be in a hurry
Things can move pretty slowly in Mexico, especially as you travel farther south, where I’ve heard Mexicans from Mexico City complain about slow service, slow walking, slow talking…
Buses may be incredibly indirect, a protest may shut down the highway, the museum you want to visit may be inexplicably closed—you never know what could happen, and you shouldn’t let it ruin your time.
So plan your days with lots of wiggle room. For example, if you think it will take four hours to enjoy the place you want to see, plan for six or more.
Ignore the hustlers
In tourist spots from Cabo to Cancun, hustlers prowl the beaches and promenades offering tours, boat trips, souvenirs, cigars, and meth masquerading as cocaine. They have a specific, time-tested, friendly approach that can be hard to ignore. Yes my friend, whatever you need, they got it.
You only need one word with these people, a firm gracias. Don’t apologize, don’t stop walking, and don’t laugh at their jokes, or you’ll spend your whole trip dodging them. Sure, go ahead and buy from them if you want, but remember that it’s always best to go straight to the source for any activities—the boat dock or park entrance, for instance; souvenirs are always cheaper in markets; and buying drugs is begging to get ripped off.
What’s most important, however, is that these hustlers don’t sour you to the general friendliness of average Mexicans. Just because you’ve had enough of annoying sales pitches doesn’t mean that everyone who tries to make conversation wants to sell you something.
Save your tourist card from immigration
Most tourists are allowed to stay in Mexico for 180 days, which corresponds to about six months. This time is written on a little card that you fill out before going through immigration, which is also stamped. Save it with your passport because you will need to turn it in when you leave the country. Without it you’ll be charged a fine of around 30 USD.
Know how to get out of the airport
The easiest and most expensive way is to go to an authorized taxi stand inside the airport. You pay there and then take the receipt to the driver. The price is determined by where you go, not by how many people use it, so try to find people to share with.
Whatever you do, never simply walk outside the airport and hail a cab—it’s not safe.
If you want to save money—sometimes a lot of money—do some research online to see if a bus goes from the airport to where your hotel is. Most airports in Mexico either have a bus stop outside or a little bus station inside, including Mexico City, Cancun, and San Jose del Cabo. Using a bus means you’ll spend 40 pesos instead of 400.
Get multiple destination flights
If you have the time and are planning a longer adventure in Mexico, fly into one city and fly out of another. For a month-long trip covering the best of the south, you could fly into Cancun and then out of Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas. If you have several weeks and want to explore the colonial cities of Mexico’s central highlands, you could fly into Mexico City and then out of Guadalajara.
This option is called Multiple Destinations on most travel websites, and it can save you a lot of time and money.
Fly long distances, don’t take the bus
A flight between distant cities is typically cheaper than taking a bus, and of course much faster. Mexico has several independent airlines, like Interjet, Volaris, and Vive Aerobus. Always check their prices before you commit to a long-distance bus.
Look for “alternative” bus stations
But if you are really trying to save money, go to the second-class bus station or an independent bus station for the cheapest transportation options. In Mexico City, for example, you can catch cheap buses to Chiapas near the huge Merced market and cheap buses north (Monterrey and points between) about halfway between the zocalo and Garibaldi Plaza.
These buses don’t usually have websites and aren’t listed in Lonely Planet or on Google Maps—you have to ask around for them.
Bring warm clothes and earplugs on the bus
It may be steaming hot when you get on the bus, but once they get going, they tend to crank up the air conditioning and play non-stop movies in Spanish. A jacket and earplugs are crucial.
Rent a car, and rent wisely
You can rent cars for cheap in Mexico, and despite some nuisances and dangers, driving is a great way to see the country. But be aware that the insurance you buy from travel websites is not valid in Mexico. When you get to the counter, the price can double or even triple when they add insurance. You can avoid this by renting directly from car rental company websites and reading all that boring fine print.
Stay in small hotels to save money
On side streets in Mexico City, hidden behind the big international hotels, you can find family-run hotels with decent rooms for as little as 200 or 300 pesos per night (between 10 and 15 USD).
For the same price, you’ll find hotels in Playa del Carmen a block or two from the beach. This goes for nearly anywhere in Mexico—you won’t be right on the beach or on the fanciest street in town, but just around the corner.
You can search Google Maps or booking.com or whichever online travel site you like, which is a good option for your first few nights in the country. But to save big money, you’ll find the cheapest hotels in Mexico by just walking around.
By the way, the hostels listed in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks are not your cheapest option. In most places, you can find a private room in a small hotel for the same price as a bed in a crowded, noisy dorm room in a hostel. Stay in a hostel to meet people, not to save money. (Although in some places it’s possible to find dirty and unsafe hostels that cost less than a tall can of beer.)
If you have a large group, want a kitchen, or will stay somewhere for a long time, take a look at airbnb, which is slowly becoming more popular in Mexico. You don’t need an account to browse the options.
Yes, you can’t drink tap water in Mexico unless you stay at a nice hotel where they specifically tell you it’s ok. In this case, there should be a little sign in the bathroom that says the water is potable. Or there may be a water cooler in the lobby.
The tap water is fine for brushing your teeth, showering, washing vegetables, etc.
Buy large bottles of water
Buying those little bottles of water can add up, so if you will stay in one place for more than a few days, buy a big bottle of water at a convenience store.
You have to pay a deposit for the largest ones (20 liters), so save the receipt so you can return the bottle later.
Don’t obsess over ice
Because of the tap water issue, some travelers have somehow gotten the idea that they have to be constantly vigilant about ice in restaurant drinks. They don’t. Of course restaurants use clean water for drinks—if they didn’t, all the locals would get sick too and the place would go out of business. The idea that Mexicans can drink the water because their bodies are used to it is straight-up wrong.
I cringe when I hear someone asking (usually in English) if the ice was made with filtered water. It’s a pointless question, like asking if the food is good in the restaurant—if it wasn’t, do you think they’d tell you?
If you are really worried, just order your drink with no ice, or ask for a beer.
Don’t stick the whole lime in your beer
Just squeeze the juice into it. And yes, in Mexico they use limes, not lemons.
Beer lovers, buy caguamas
The cheapest way to drink beer in Mexico is a caguama, a big bottle roughly the size of a 40-oz. There’s a deposit on the bottle, so save your receipt so you can return it later.
Yes, Coca-Cola is better in Mexico
Have you heard this before? That Coca-Cola is better in Mexico because they still use cane sugar instead of corn syrup?
I didn’t believe it either until the first time I flew back to the U.S. after my first year of living in Mexico. I rarely drink soda, but I ordered one on the airplane. One sip of the U.S.-produced Coke and I could tell the difference.
Don’t drink from the bottle
Your best Coca-Cola, and of course your best beer, comes from a glass bottle. You’ll notice that the bottle of soda always comes with a straw, and the beer with a glass to pour it into.
I learned this trick in Asia—when you see that the bottle was recycled, take a look under the rim at the top of the neck to see all the dirt that has piled up from multiple recyclings. Because of this nasty residue, don’t drink straight from the bottle unless you wipe it down clean with a napkin first. That’s why your beer or soda will sometimes come with a napkin wrapped around the neck.
Drink fresh juice
It’s cheap and available everywhere, especially juice stands in public markets, where a liter of freshly-squeezed orange juice (or something fancier) usually costs between 20-40 pesos (1.50 to 3 USD).
Avoid touristy restaurants
When you see a fun-looking restaurant full of colorful sombreros and sarapes, Mexican flags, and singing mariachis, but it’s full of foreigners speaking English, don’t eat there. 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’re in the wrong place.
But when you see an open space with concrete-block walls, no decorations, and a handwritten cardboard sign with the menu on it, and it’s full of locals, eat there to experience real Mexican food.
Every town has a taco or seafood restaurant that’s known locally as the best. Find it. Ask locals for advice, but not tour guides or taxi drivers, who will recommend their friend’s restaurant. If all else fails, try 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.
Avoid foreign food outside of tourist areas
In places with lots of tourists, you can get good pizza, good steak, good burgers, good sushi, all kinds of stuff.
But once you are off the beaten path, stick to Mexican food. Much like how Mexican food outside of Mexico is altered according to foreign tastes, foreign food in Mexico is altered according to Mexican tastes. This means sushi covered in melted cheese, steaks and burgers cooked beyond well-done, and pizza with barely any tomato sauce. (My theory is that it doesn’t matter to them because Mexicans drench pizza with hot sauce or ketchup anyway.)
Tip 10% at restaurants
Check your bill to make sure it wasn’t already included. Also watch out for overcharging and pay in Mexican pesos, not with another currency or with a credit card.
If you go to the supermarket, give the person who bags your groceries a peso or two. Give five to ten pesos to the guy who fills your tank at the gas station. At the hotel, give 10-20 pesos to the guy who shows you to your room. If you stay in an all-inclusive resort, leave a 50 or 100 at the bar if you drink a lot.
Mexicans don’t tip taxi drivers, but in tourist areas they seem to expect it from foreigners. So if your driver is friendly or helpful, give him an extra 10 or 20 pesos, but if not, don’t worry about it.
Shop and eat in markets
Markets are one of the best places to visit in Mexico, period. You can stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, browse odd witchcraft supplies, and get some of the best and cheapest local food at small restaurants found in the corner of every market. (Tip: Look for the busiest restaurant and eat there.)
As you wander around, people will constantly call out to you, asking you to buy something. Don’t let them intimidate you, it’s just how they do business. Just like for hustlers, you only need to reply with gracias, which also means “no thank you.”
…but don’t be a cheapskate
I can’t count how many times I’ve visited a market with a world traveler who has social conscience and makes sure you know it. You know this type—some even imply that their mere presence in the foreign country is somehow helping it in some vague way.
Yet I’m always surprised to see these same people haggling with every vendor they see, trying to get a five peso discount. In my opinion, if you really want to do good, don’t bargain with farmers over fruit. They may raise the price a little because of your terrible Spanish, but can you blame them? You have a $500 DSLR camera hanging around your neck! Traveling should never be a competition with strangers to see how little money you can spend.
Sure, it’s necessary to bargain in touristy markets that sell souvenirs, but it’s rarely done for food in markets. If you don’t like the price, thank the vendor and keep looking.
Also, don’t treat markets like a nonstop photo opportunity. You’ll get a better picture if you ask the person first, and you’re more likely to get a yes and a big smile if you buy something before asking.
Pack light, pack right
If you plan on changing destinations a few times, whether by airplane or bus, try to pack as little as possible—carry-on size or small enough to fit between your knees on the bus.
Unless you need it for work or something else important, don’t bring the laptop and all the devices. You’ll not only waste time playing with them, but you’ll worry about them whenever your bag is out of sight, like in the luggage area above or below the bus.
There are some things, however, that you should bring no matter what. You’ll need some warm clothes for high altitudes, late nights, and air-conditioned buses. You’ll need some long pants to blend in away from the beach. (Mexicans don’t wear shorts and flip-flops in the city.) And you’ll need some basics like a raincoat, sunscreen, earplugs (your hotel might be next to a nightclub), and swimming gear, even if you won’t go to the coast, because many hotels have pools.
Check out more detailed packing suggestions here.
Know the exchange rate
A guaranteed way to get overcharged is to have no idea how much pesos are worth in your home currency. Look it up online and make some notes about how much 100, 200, and 500 pesos are worth, and keep the cheat sheet in your pocket.
If you don’t speak Spanish, carry a pen and paper everywhere for people to write prices on for you. Taxis, for instance, don’t have meters, so you must agree on the price beforehand.
Don’t pay in U.S. dollars
This is another good way to get ripped off. When someone says you can pay in U.S. dollars (or some other foreign currency), say no, because the exchange rate they will use will be ridiculous.
Exceptions to this are places with a fixed fee, like nice hotels, some tourist destinations, and even some nightclubs. You can check if using U.S. dollars is the usual way to pay by checking the place’s website.
Another exception to this is Baja California, where you can pay in dollars almost everywhere and the exchange rates are typically good. But be sure to know the rate, of course.
Pay in cash, and get it from an ATM at a bank
Don’t use your debit or credit card to pay at restaurants or bars. (Hotels are probably ok.) If someone steals your number, they can run up lots of charges. Banks usually reimburse you for this, but it’s still a pain in the ass.
Get cash from ATMs, and match the symbols on the back of your card (Cirrus, the Exchange, etc.) to the same symbol on an ATM to minimize fees.
Use ATMs at banks, not private ones on the street that charge higher fees, and always withdraw money in the daytime. Avoid the 15th and last days of every month, when everyone gets paid and the ATM lines can be extraordinarily long.
Also, be sure to inform your bank with a phone call that you will be traveling so they won’t put a hold on your card.
Yes, it’s a bad idea to change money in most airports because of terrible exchange rates, but (for the moment) the rates at the Mexico City airport are surprisingly good, although not inside the baggage claim area. Wait until you clear customs to change money, and as always be sure to know the real rate so you can compare.
Read this for more about managing your money in Mexico.
Carry lots of change
If you’re going to take local buses, shop in a public market, or eat on the street, don’t try to pay with a big bill (200 or 500 pesos), as they probably won’t have change. Save your change every time you buy something so you can use it later.
See a doctor in a pharmacy if you get sick
Most pharmacies have a doctor’s office attached where you can see a doctor for free or really cheap. This is a great option for a bad stomach, insect bites, or any other non-emergency. The doctors typically prescribe lots of medicine, but you only need the crucial ones, like antibiotics.
Go to the dentist
Every office I’ve been to has been fully modern and exceptionally inexpensive (like 10-20 USD for a cleaning).
Don’t flush toilet paper
That little garbage can next to the toilet is for the toilet paper, which you should never flush. Mexican sewage systems can’t handle it. This, like “don’t drink the water,” is true for pretty much everywhere in the developing world.
Don’t get taxis on the street in Mexico City
They aren’t safe. Ask your hotel to call a service for you, or use the metro (subway) system, which will almost definitely go where you want to go.
Keep your eyes on the sidewalk—stepping into an unmarked hole is no fun. Cross the street carefully because pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. For safety’s sake, don’t wander around at night, and even in the daytime, always ask the person at the front desk of the hotel if it’s safe to walk where you want to go. And, wherever you go, don’t walk around with your face in a smartphone or map—it makes you a target for thieves.
Keep your safety on your mind at all times
No, Mexico is not nearly as dangerous as the headlines want you to believe. Most tourist areas are perfectly safe for those who take the right precautions—wallet in the front pocket, head up, no drinks from strangers, the usual advice.
Don’t let your guard down, however. The most important way to stay safe is evade anyone who gives you a bad vibe. People traveling everywhere get into bad situations just because they don’t want to offend a stranger. Your safety is far more important than your pride.
Don’t be discouraged by people who have never visited
Why is it that people who don’t travel so often try to discourage those who do? No, you aren’t asking for trouble just by visiting Mexico, and no, it’s not automatically your fault if you get in trouble. And, yes, go to Mexico—you’ll love it.
Learn a little Spanish
Honestly, this one isn’t even necessary for tourist areas. You’ll find that most hotel and restaurant workers speak English, and after diligently studying Spanish before your trip, you may find yourself frustrated by waiters who answer you in English after hearing your broken Spanish.
But, to be polite, especially off the beaten path, that month or two of light studying will be enormously helpful. At least learn the correct greetings in Spanish and how to ask, “Do you speak English?”
When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do
The best way to have a great trip while saving money is to travel the way Mexicans do. Most of the tips on this list relate to this basic advice. Stay where Mexicans stay, eat where they eat, and visit the places they like to visit. Greet them, chat with them, get to know them. Take their advice and consider their point of view. You’ll find that, more often than not, they will offer you the same courtesy.
Have a great trip, and please ask anything or leave more tips in the comments.
Once again thank you to Transitions Abroad for publishing my article Five Unforgettable Adventures in South Africa.
Sure, this blog is mostly about Mexico. I live here and travel around the country often. But that’s not the only traveling I do—what fun would that be?
Last summer my wife and I spent a month in South Africa. She originally wanted to go for our honeymoon two years ago, but we could only travel for a week and a half—not nearly enough time to do a safari and also see more of the country.
After such a long flight, it would have meant only about a week on the ground. So we decided to wait until we could travel long enough to do more than the obligatory safari, and not only in world-class Cape Town but also everyday Johannesburg. (We ended up honeymooning in Moscow and St. Petersburg, about five days in each and also a long layover in Amsterdam, the perfect quick vacation.)
The article describes how we ultimately spent our trip in South Africa, staying in and around only three places: Johannesburg, Kruger National Park, and Cape Town. Johannesburg was more fun than we though it would be, with top-notch restaurants, friendly people, and neighborhoods rich and poor and everything in between. We took a walking safari in Kruger National Park, easily the highlight of the trip (read about it in the article). And although two weeks was plenty of time to see the city of Cape Town and some surrounding areas, there was so much more on the Cape Peninsula: more vineyards, more beaches, more hiking. Cape Town is a place where you could spend an entire month, six months, a lifetime…
Below are some pictures that didn’t make it in the article (yes I have hundreds, and of every wild animal except the cheetah.)
Johannesburg. This mural of Nelson Mandela was painted by Shepard Fairey (famous for Obama “Hope,” Andre the Giant “Obey”). I took the photo from the Neighborgoods market that goes on every Saturday in Braamfontein, the hip part of downtown, with spicy steaming food, craft beer, and a mellow jazz/hip-hop band.
Alexandra township, where we took a fascinating bike tour. I wrote about it in the article.
An informal settlement in Soweto township, Johannesburg.
Elephant in Kruger National Park.
African Wild Dogs in Kruger National Park.
Lion at night. He had two friends in the bush.
Sunset in Kruger National Park.
Downtown Cape Town. We spent five days downtown and then rented a car and moved to a hotel two blocks from the beach in Camps Bay, the fancy neighborhood on the other side of Table Mountain.
Table Mountain, seen from the Lion’s Head (hike described in the article).
Hiking on Table Mountain. We started this hike from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
African Penguins near Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula. A large colony lives there, with thousands of penguins swimming, walking, and hanging out.
Our last sunset, from the balcony of our hotel in Camps Bay.
Please check out my article Five Unforgettable Adventures in South Africa.