Category Archives: Lessons from the Road
I’m pleased to say that I have updated both of my guidebooks (in May 2018): the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary (4th Edition) and Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Mexico 5-Day Itinerary (2nd Edition).
Both guides are published by Unanchor, which means that they are more than guidebooks, but detailed itineraries to each region. You don’t have to follow the itineraries exactly, however–in both I give lots of options: activities that are relaxing or adventurous, beaches that are world famous or barely visited, gourmet restaurants or public markets, and fancy hotels in colonial mansions or rustic bungalows in the jungle.
In sum, the guides are for travelers who want practical, detailed information so they can travel independently and make the most of their trip. Either guide will pay for itself the first time you follow my advice for a restaurant, hotel, museum, or public transportation. I even include inside tips for traveling to other destinations in Mexico by bus, plane, or rental car.
You don’t need a Kindle to read the guidebooks–you can download a free Kindle reader from Amazon. Or you can buy the .pdf version directly from Unanchor.com.
Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary (4th Edition)
Updated May 2018.
Most famous for Cancun, the Mayan Riviera is Mexico’s travel wonderland, a jungle coastline of white-sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, laid-back colonial towns, and cenotes—the crystal-clear, freshwater caves and sinkholes found throughout the flat limestone sponge of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Many visitors stay at a resort in Cancun. These all-inclusive monstrosities can be a good deal. You’ll be right on the beach, have a pool, get unlimited food and drinks, and all-in-all have a fun, relaxing vacation.
But even if the package includes some tours, you won’t get to know Mexico… Read more at Amazon.com (or click the book icon):
Also available here at unanchor.com.
Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Mexico 5-Day Itinerary (2nd Edition)
Updated May 2018.
One of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, colonial San Cristobal de las Casas sits in a wide valley of the forested Central Highlands in the southern state of Chiapas. Founded in 1528, it’s not polished to a museum shine, but not rundown either. Its vibrant international scene blends seamlessly with the local Mayan population, many of whom come from nearby autonomous communities protected by the Zapatista army.
About five hours away is Palenque, an enormous, ancient Mayan city where you can climb tall pyramids and wander down jungle paths while streams bubble and howler monkeys howl.
A visit to Chiapas shows you an exotic side of Mexico full of friendly people and lovely landscapes… Read more at Amazon.com (or click the book icon):
Also available here at unanchor.com.
If you’d like a sample of either guidebook, click the cover of the book in Amazon to see the first ten or so pages. If you’ve already bought an earlier edition, thank you very much! Please write me at nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com and I’ll send you the new edition.
To get an idea of the style and content of both books, please take a look at these articles:
If you have any questions, either about the guidebooks or the places described in them, please leave a comment below.
How to save money and avoid getting ripped off in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum
From Cancun to Tulum, the Mayan Riviera is 90 miles of white-sand beaches, small towns, and big resorts between the deep jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula and the calm turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea.
Fortunately, this paradise can be quite affordable. Sure, staying at one of the fancy resorts can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a night. But search out smaller hotels and eat in local restaurants in Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos, or downtown Cancun, and you may find that a vacation in the Mayan Riviera is cheaper than staying home.
Elsewhere on this blog you can find my article Top Tips for Travelers to Mexico, which lists all the important ways you can minimize your expenses and maximize your fun on a trip to Mexico.
There’s some overlap with the tips on this list, but as the title suggests, these are specific to the Mayan Riviera, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Mexico—perhaps even the world.
1. Stay in a small hotel a block or two from the beach
The huge resorts in Cancun’s hotel zone and in other parts of the Mayan Riviera are a lot of fun, with all-day pool parties, unlimited booze, and all-you-can-eat restaurants.
Similarly, the fancy hotels right on the beach in smaller towns are lovely, that’s for sure. And while they may be cheaper than the big resorts or a similar hotel in your home country, if you are really looking to save money, you can find great value if you search for a hotel away from the beach.
By great value, I’m talking about as low as 200 pesos a night (about $10-12 USD) for a modest but reasonable room, nothing fancy but a decent place to crash. For a little more, say 400-600 pesos (about $20-35 USD) you can get something perfectly good, with a TV, hot water, and air conditioning.
Look for cheaper hotels in downtown Cancun (the beach is a 20-minute ride away on a local bus), two or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen, in Tulum town (which is on the highway, not on the beach), or just off the beach practically anywhere else on the Mayan Riviera.
You can search for hotels online, but the best way to find the cheapest hotels is just by wandering around and looking for them, which is easy to do in low season.
2. Avoid high season
If at all possible, don’t go during high season, which is late December to early January, Semana Santa (the week before Easter), and late July. Besides more crowds, many hotels raise prices during those times.
If you can only visit during a high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just give yourself a little more time to visit popular places like the Mayan ruins of Tulum or Chichen Itza.
3. Don’t pay in U.S. dollars
Use pesos for everything, especially for souvenirs and meals. Although many restaurants and stores accept dollars, the exchange rate they use will be outrageous, automatically adding 10% (or more) to the price.
Exceptions to this are big nightclubs like Coco Bongo and the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha, which have fixed fees in U.S. dollars.
4. Get pesos from an ATM
Exchange rates from bank ATMs are usually good, much better than changing money at the booths in the Cancun airport.
Make sure you use a bank, not a “private” ATM, which charge higher fees. Banks are all over downtown Cancun and in Playa del Carmen, and you can find bank ATMs in bus stations too.
Basically, if you see a machine on the street or in a restaurant with only “ATM” written on it and no bank logo, then you can be sure it’s a private ATM and will charge high fees and perhaps even give a bad exchange rate.
Common banks in Mexico include Bancomer, Banamex, Santander, Banorte, HSBC, and Scotiabank. Look for these to save on fees when withdrawing money.
5. Ignore the “tour guides” on the street
As you walk around Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen (5th Avenue, the long pedestrian street that follows the beach), guides will constantly call out to you, offering nightclub tickets, trips to ecoparks and ruins, trips to Cozumel…pretty much any activity you can imagine.
Sure, talk to these guys and ask them questions, but keep in mind that you don’t need them for anything. Taking public transportation to Tulum or Chichen Itza is easy. For Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, simply go to the ferry terminals. For the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha or Xplor, buy tickets online (more on this below).
It’s possible that these “guide” have discounted tickets for nightclubs, but before buying them, stop by the nightclub (or check online) to find out the regular price.
6. Buy tickets online for ecoparks and shows
If you want to go to one of the heavily-advertized theme parks like Xel-Ha, Xplor, or Rio Secreto, always check the prices online—they all have websites in English. Besides offering inflated prices, the salespeople on the street may pressure you into a package you don’t want or don’t understand.
7. Take public transportation to Chichen Itza and Tulum
If you read this article about Chichen Itza, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of guided tours. For the famous Mayan ruins like Tulum and Chichen Itza, you can just show up in the morning when they open. (Go extra early in high season, however.) Then you can enjoy the site without being part of a big, noisy group. You can stay as long as you want and search out all the hidden corners.
Besides, it’s cheaper to take public transportation. Colectivos (passenger vans) constantly travel along the coast. In the towns they leave from specific places—easy to find, or ask at the front desk of your hotel. On the highway, all you have to do is wave at them. If one has space, it will stop for you.
And by cheap, I mean between $1 and $3 USD. (But pay in pesos, of course.)
For places inland, you can take the modern and safe ADO buses, which leave from bus stations in every town. Check schedules and prices on their website. At the moment it’s only in Spanish, but easy enough to figure out.
8. About resort and timeshare sales pitches
Some resorts offer a free drink and access to their swimming pool if you listen to their sales pitch. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of an afternoon, but go for it if you’re interested.
Ignore anyone offering this outside of the resort itself, or if someone wants to tell you about a timeshare opportunity. Listen if you want, but by no means give them any personal information, such as the name of your hotel.
9. On buying souvenirs
The same souvenirs are available everywhere—in stores, in markets, and from people walking around the beach.
The rule is, basically, the farther away you are from the beach or places with lots of tourists, the better the prices will be. So this means never buy from someone offering you something on the beach. (Unless you want to, of course, but understand that the prices will be higher.)
Don’t buy anything on Cozumel—prices are higher by like 200%. Cruise ships dock in Cozumel, and every day thousands of tourists pour out of them. They have no idea what the peso is worth and get ripped off like crazy.
The same goes for Isla Mujeres—even though there are no cruise ships, the tourists there are a captive audience. It’s an island, after all.
So, for your best deal on a souvenir, head to a place with lots of shops in one place. In Playa del Carmen there are a bunch of small shops just inland from the Cozumel dock, and in downtown Cancun there are several markets like Mercado 28 or Mercado 23 that are full of souvenirs.
10. On buying souvenirs in markets
Probably the best market for souvenirs is Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun, an easy walk from the ADO bus station. Lots of vendors means lots of competition between them, meaning lower prices.
The downside is that the vendors constantly call out to you as you walk around. You may find it annoying, but just ignore them. Don’t get excited about something you like, just calmly ask the price and move on. You’ll almost certainly see the same thing elsewhere—ask the price again, and keep looking until you hear a price you like. Which brings us to…
In markets and souvenir shops, if you don’t see price tags, then get ready to haggle. Expect to be quoted higher prices if you don’t speak Spanish.
Don’t show any emotion when haggling, positive or negative, like saying how nice the product is. Just ask for the price, and then either offer a lower price or ask for a discount. If you don’t like the price, thank them and leave.
When you start leaving, usually they say nothing. In this case, yes you’ve been given the final price. Go look in other shops for the same thing or come back to buy it.
Sometimes, however, when you start to leave they will stop you and give you a lower price. When this happens, the real haggling begins. You can probably get an even lower price than what they offered.
But please don’t do this when buying fruit or some non-souvenir in a regular market. Typically you get the real price when shopping for food, and haggling over nickels and dimes for a bag of oranges or a loaf of bread is a little rude.
12. The Russian Discount
I noticed this first in Moscow, which is why I call it the “Russian Discount.” A big sign in the souvenir shop window says “Everything 50% Off!”
Check the prices—I’ve noticed that, almost always, everything in the shop costs double what other stores charge, so your 50% discount really isn’t a discount at all.
13. Eating in
If you have a hotel that includes free breakfast, you will automatically save money by not going out for breakfast every day. The free hotel breakfast will also save time, especially with a big group—not discussing where to go, waiting for a table, looking at the menu…
If your hotel has a kitchen, you can save even more money by eating in. I’m not talking about cooking a huge feast—it’s your vacation after all, maybe you don’t want to make such an effort—but it’s a good idea to buy some fruit or supplies for sandwiches, which is particularly convenient to bring along on a day trip.
14. Choosing restaurants
Same as with souvenirs—the closer you are to the beach or a place full of tourists, the more expensive the restaurants will be.
But it’s not only price—the Mexican restaurants geared toward tourists are not only more expensive, but also not nearly as good. For authentic Mexican food—obviously much more delicious than the bland stuff made for tourists—look for modest restaurants away from the beach, such as in downtown Cancun or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.
The best way to find these places is to ask a local, but not a cab driver or even the person at the front desk of your hotel, as they will probably send you to their friend’s touristy restaurant.
Whoever you ask, make it clear that you want something real, what the locals eat.
15. Check your bill carefully
Overcharging is common—adding a few more beers to the count, thinking you won’t notice. Make sure you actually ordered everything on your bill.
Tip 10%, but check to see if it was included already.
Pay in cash, not with a credit card. If the wrong person gets hold of your number, they can empty your bank account. Besides, if you use your credit card for every meal, it will be hard to keep track of all the expenses—which ones are correct, which are not.
Bonus Tip: Buy my guidebook
Shameless plug: All these tips and many more are detailed in my guidebook to the region, the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary. It’s for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:
- 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. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.
You can get a free Kindle reader from Amazon to read the guide on your computer, or you can now buy a paperback version.
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guide.
Please leave a comment if you have a question about any of these tips or my guide.
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, which currently have a good exchange rate.
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 the bottom part of the FMT form that you fill out before going through immigration, which is also stamped. Save it with your passport because you’ll need to turn it in when you leave the country. Without it you’ll be charged a fine of 525 pesos, which is about $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. To travel the entire Baja California Peninsula, fly into Tijuana or Ensenada and out of Los Cabos or La Paz (or vice-versa).
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
If you are really trying to save money, go to the city’s 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, cheap buses to Oaxaca near the airport, and cheap buses north (Monterrey and points between) about halfway between the zocalo and Garibaldi Plaza.
These buses usually don’t 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. Or these:
Rent a car, and rent wisely
You can rent cars for cheap in Mexico, and despite some dangers and nuisances, driving is a great way to see the country. 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.