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 $42 USD (or 525 pesos).
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.
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.
Chichén Itzá shot to international fame in 2007 when it was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, along with places like Machu Picchu, the Roman Colosseum, and the Great Wall of China.
About three hours from Cancun, this enormous ancient Mayan city with limestone pyramids, skull carvings, and two cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) will give you a taste of the history of the region that you’d never get if you only stayed on the beach, sipping margaritas and eating bland resort tacos.
But for many travelers in Mexico, Chichén Itzá is like a good rock band that cool people don’t like anymore. It got too popular—a wonder of the world, after all—and there are so many other great ruins to see nearby: Tulum, Cobá, Palenque, Toniná, Tikal in Guatemala, and hundreds more. Some travelers I’ve met, people who were really into ruins, said they wouldn’t even go to Chichén Itzá.
There are big crowds, an inflated price, and aggressive hawkers behind tables stacked with t-shirts, pyramid statuettes, and other kipple. And since a Canadian spent the night on top of the Kukulkan pyramid and then met security in the morning with a big smile, only to be promptly hauled off to jail, none of Chichén Itzá can be climbed or entered, unlike other Mayan ruins.
But, come on! It’s Chichén Itzá. I couldn’t care less about lists, but it appears on one for a reason. It has some of the largest structures and most detailed architecture in the excavated Mayan world. The site is extensive—there’s much more to it than the famous Kukulkan pyramid (aka El Castillo), the top photo opportunity and the place where, on the spring and fall solstices, the setting sun casts strange shadows on the pyramid that resemble a slithering snake. (Expect huge crowds then.)
So, although Chichén Itzá may not be the best Mayan site for a steamy, mystical, Indiana Jones experience (try Palenque for that), it’s not nearly at a tequila museum level of tourist trap gaudiness for you to justify skipping it. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your experience.
1. Don’t take a tour
Most resorts and all travel agencies offer guided tours to Chichén Itzá. Avoid them no matter what.
A proper visit takes three or four hours, at least. Look at the tour schedule—how long do you actually stay at the ruins? Probably much less. And can you walk around and discover the less-visited, out-of-the-way areas in the jungle? It’s doubtful. You’ll spend your time following a guy holding a big umbrella with all the other sheep, going where he wants to go, listening to his recycled jokes and blatant requests for tips.
Yes, it’s good to have an explanation of what you’re looking at, but (as I’ll explain below), it’s easy to hire a guide once you enter the ruins, or you could buy a guidebook at the gift shop.
Next, what time does your tour arrive at the ruins? Because if it’s an hour or more after the 8 AM opening time, the crowds will have already formed by the time you get there, especially if you go in high season (around Christmas, the week before Easter, or late July).
Sure, it’s convenient that most tours pick you up at your hotel, but this doesn’t actually save time. To the contrary—unless you’re the last one to board, you’ll be waiting while the bus picks everyone else up.
And how much does that tour cost? Compare with these prices for doing it on your own:
- Entrance fee: 232 pesos (154 for Mexican nationals)
- Round trip, first class ADO bus tickets from Cancun direct to Chichén Itzá: 320-500 pesos (depending on the schedule and if you buy tickets online)
- Round trip ADO bus tickets from Cancun to Valladolid: 220-450 pesos (depending on the schedule and if you buy tickets online)
- Passenger van from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá: 80 pesos
- Lunch at the overpriced (but good) restaurant at the entrance to the ruins: 150-300 pesos
- Lunch in Valladolid at an excellent restaurant: 100-300 pesos
Check exchange rates for pesos to your currency of choice here: http://coinmill.com
2. Take public transport instead
It’s totally possible to take a public bus from Cancun to Chichén Itzá and still make the 8 AM opening time. You’ll have to transfer in Valladolid (more on this pretty small town below), or wait until later to take the direct bus to the ruins.
The first ADO bus leaves downtown Cancun at 5:30 AM and arrives in Valladolid at 6:30 AM. It’s a two-hour trip, but with the time change between the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan you’ll save an hour. The first bus from Playa del Carmen to Valladolid is similarly early, and with later departures all day.
Then in Valladolid, take a colectivo (passenger van for local travel) to get to the ruins. The colectivo lot is a block from the ADO bus station. They don’t have schedules; you just get on and wait, and once it’s full, it leaves.
Buses from Valladolid back to Cancun or Playa del Carmen leave regularly all afternoon, so perhaps the best plan (other than staying the night in Valladolid) would be to take the ADO bus direct to the ruins, then after your visit take a colectivo to Valladolid, have a late lunch, and then take the bus back to wherever you are staying (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc.).
If you don’t want to deal with transfers, the only direct bus to Chichén Itzá leaves Cancun at 8:45 (thereby arriving around 10:45) and returns to Cancun at 4:30 p.m. (This is bound to change—for this an all other schedules, confirm on the website or at a bus station.)
The bus from Playa del Carmen direct to the ruins leaves at 8 AM and also arrives around 10:45.
Whatever you choose, visit the bus station to confirm schedules and buy your tickets the day before to avoid waiting in line in the morning.
You can also check the schedule on the ADO website, and if you buy tickets online you’ll get a discount. Then you can print them before your trip and just show up. The website is in Spanish but fairly straightforward.
ADO is the first-class public bus company, with buses as nice or better than a private tour bus. The ADO bus terminal is in downtown Cancun, not in the hotel zone by the beach. In Playa del Carmen the bus terminal is just a block from the beach, near the Cozumel dock.
3. Or rent a car
Even if you speak zero Spanish, there’s nothing to worry about when using ADO buses to get to Valladolid or Chichén Itzá. They are modern, clean and comfortable. Besides the cheaper price, the main difference between them and a guided tour is that you can choose your own schedule and visit both places at your own pace.
But if you don’t want to take an early-morning public bus, or if you have a large group of people (say, four or more), think about renting a car. You can rent cars everywhere in the Mayan Riviera, including the airport, which has Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, and all the rest. If you add up the bus tickets of all the people in your group, you may find that the car rental is cheaper.
The highways are good and relatively easy to follow, although be sure to look at a map before you go. After your visit, you can drive into Valladolid to have lunch and look around. It’s a direct drive from the ruins. Near Valladolid there are other ruins and some cenotes that are much easier to visit when you have a car.
Bring cash for the tolls coming from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, at least 300 pesos each way, and don’t forget about the time change between places on the Mayan Riviera and places in the state of Yucatan. When it’s 9:00 AM on the coast, for example, it’s 8:00 inland.
4. Stay in Valladolid the night before
If you have an extra day or two, the ideal way to visit Chichén Itzá is to stay in Valladolid the night before. You’ll have no problem making the 8 AM opening time at the ruins and you can come back whenever you’re ready. Plus, Valladolid is your best chance to get that authentic tourist experience you’ll never find in Cancun, no matter what the cheesy advertisements for restaurants or tourist attractions tell you.
Valladolid was founded in 1543 by Francisco de Montejo, the nephew of the conquerer of the Yucatán, Francisco de Montejo. Originally located elsewhere on the peninsula, it was moved to its present site in 1545, built over ruins of a Mayan city called Zací.
Like nearly every Mexican city, the exact center of Valladolid is the zócalo (central square or park), which is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, banks, government buildings, the cathedral, and the Bazar Municipal food court. And in all directions from the zócalo, Valladolid’s narrow streets have more parks, markets, museums, a cenote, a 16th-century convent—even a Buddhist temple. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days and wander around.
5. Hire a guide inside the park
Maybe there is a downside to not taking a guided tour—you’ll be wandering around the ruins with no idea what you’re looking at. Don’t despair, guides are everywhere.
If you drive to Chichén Itzá, when you start getting close you’re bound to be stopped at some roadblock, where official looking guys with laminated badges will try to get you to hire them as guides. You don’t have to stop at all (unless it’s the police), but if you do, expect these guys to quote higher prices than ones you’ll see later.
The same goes for when you walk toward the entrance—guides galore. If you meet one who gives you a good vibe, by all means hire him, but you’ll find the best prices once you’ve already paid and entered the park. Also, these are the “official” guides, so they may have a better idea of what they are talking about.
Besides price, also establish how long he will stay with you. I can’t give estimates on prices, which seem to change depending on high or low season and your level of Spanish. But I’d guess that anything less than 400 pesos for a few hours is a good deal. In low season, you might get lucky with 200 or less.
6. Or buy a guidebook from the bookstore
For those who are cheap or tour guide averse (both apply to me), just buy a guidebook at the bookstore/souvenir shop at the entrance. Get one with maps (useful for finding the out-of-the-way sections) and concise explanations of each area.
Remember, all knowledge about Chichén Itzá and other Mayan sites is really just speculation by archeologists. No one knows exactly what went on there, just as no one is really sure why the civilization collapsed long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
7. Don’t go on Sunday
Mexican nationals get in free on Sunday, so unless you’re Mexican, avoid Sunday to avoid the crowds.
I mentioned the high travel seasons earlier—a week or two before Christmas and after New Year’s, the week before Easter (called Semana Santa, a big holiday in Mexico), and late July (another time when many Mexicans have time off). If at all possible, avoid traveling to the area during these times, as many hotels increase their prices and places like Chichén Itzá can be quite crowded.
But don’t skip Chichén Itzá because of these crowds. Just get there early. At busy times, tour or no tour, do NOT arrive in the afternoon.
I went once during high season with my family, a few days after Christmas. We rented cars and arrived early, and when we left around 2 PM, the line of tour buses waiting to enter the totally full parking area went on for miles. Because the site closed at 5 PM, these people would spend more time on the bus than they would at the ruins, if they made it in at all. Doesn’t sound like fun to me.
8. Buy my guidebook
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.
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guide.
Tips and practical information for Mexico’s biggest and busiest airport
If you fly to Mexico from abroad, there’s a good chance that you’ll arrive or transfer in Mexico City.
Benito Juarez International is by far the biggest and busiest airport in Mexico. Here you can take a connecting flight on one of Mexico’s discount airlines to practically any other part of the country. Or you can take a short subway or bus ride into Mexico City, where many great adventures begin. After exploring the city, continue onward in a bus or a rental car.
Like any major airport anywhere in the world, Benito Juarez International is big and confusing, but there’s nothing to be worried about. A little knowledge and preparation goes a long way. After a long flight, it’s no fun walking around in circles with your heavy baggage and nowhere to go, no pesos, and no Spanish skills.
At a minimum you should learn about public transportation routes and schedules, how to get money, and procedures for customs and immigration. Figuring these out for my recent trips to Russia and South Africa was enormously helpful, even though it required a lot of online research beforehand.
That research gave me some insight into what it’s like for first-time travelers to Mexico to arrive by plane in Mexico City. So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to know to successfully navigate the Benito Juarez International Airport.
Choose a good arrival time
The first step is to choose your flight carefully so you arrive while public transportation is still running. But if you don’t mind paying for a taxi to your hotel, then it really doesn’t matter what time you arrive. In this case, review the policies of your hotel for the earliest time you can check-in or if you must let them know before arriving late at night.
(I’ll write about getting hotels in Mexico in another post, but for now, if you’re still looking for a place to stay, check out all the options on websites like Booking.com)
If you want to use public transportation, don’t arrive before 6 AM or after 8 PM. Although the metro (subway) and the metrobus (local buses that run on a fixed route) do run later, usually until around 11 PM, it’s not a good idea to walk around Mexico City in the dark while dragging your baggage from the bus or metro stop to your hotel. Sure, downtown is reasonably safe (at least in the daytime), but there’s no need to tempt fate.
Also keep in mind that buses from the airport to other nearby cities stop running around 10 PM, and you may need up to an hour to get through immigration and customs, depending on how busy they are.
If you don’t mind sleeping on the plane, the best time to arrive is between 6 and 7 AM. You can take public transportation and beat Mexico City’s insane rush hour traffic, which really gets heavy after 7. Another good time to arrive is between 10 AM and 1 PM. You’ll miss rush hour when traveling into the city, and you’ll get to your hotel just in time for check-in.
If you arrive in the morning, make sure your hotel doesn’t charge for an early check-in. Check-in for most hotels is around 2 PM, but if the room is ready they’ll probably let you in early. If not, then leave your bags behind the front desk and go out for a long breakfast.
A second consideration when planning your flights is whether you’ll transfer in Mexico City for another destination in Mexico. You’ll clear immigration and also customs there before you fly to your next destination. This could take 10 minutes or an hour—or even longer on a busy Mexican holiday. Make sure you have enough time between flights.
There are two terminals at the Mexico City Airport, and depending on how busy it is, getting from one to the other could take around 30 minutes. They are too far apart to walk—you take a little train between them.
Which terminal your flight arrives at depends on which airline it is. So if both flights are on the same airline, you probably won’t have to change terminals. But if they are different airlines, include extra time when considering your layover.
Save your tourist card
Like for most countries, you’ll get the tourist/immigration and customs cards on the plane. They are in Spanish and English, so filling them out is easy. If you have any questions, ask the flight attendant.
You might find a few typos—for example, at the moment both the top and bottom parts say that it is the arrival card. The bottom part is actually the departure card, so fill in all the information except for the flight number.
Once the plane lands, all the passengers will be herded toward the immigration area, called migración in Mexico. Get in the line for foreigners, not for Mexican citizens.
You’ll give the tourist form to the immigration officer, who will stamp the bottom part, write the amount of time you are granted to be in the country (usually 180 days), and give it back to you. Save this card—you’ll need it to leave Mexico, and if you don’t have it you’ll be fined about $30 USD.
You’ll probably be asked about the purpose of your trip (tourism), how long you plan on staying, and where you’ll be staying (your hotel or other destination), but probably little else. It’s rare that they ask to see your return ticket (which can be common in other countries, like the U.S.), but regardless it’s good to have a printout of your return itinerary just in case.
The customs area is next to the baggage claim in both terminals. After getting your bags and waiting in line, you’ll hand the customs form to the officer and then push a button. Above the button you’ll see either a green or red light. The green light means that you can enter, and the red light means you’ll be searched.
The one time I pushed red I had the maximum allowable amount of liquor (three liters at the time, but this may change) in a duty-free shop bag and three more bottles in my luggage. As eager as I was to get out of the airport, I stood back patiently and answered all of the officer’s questions while she lined up the bottles on the metal counter. She got about halfway through my bag and let me go, no problem.
So take my advice—be as respectful and patient as possible. (This goes for all Mexican authorities.) DO NOT complain or tell them you’re in hurry, which will only annoy them and cause them to give you a hard time.
Terminal 1 or Terminal 2?
As I mentioned above, there are two terminals at the airport, which are far apart on opposite sides of the runways. It won’t be obvious which terminal you are in upon arrival, so if you need to make a connection, ask a flight attendant on the plane or an officer in the baggage claim.
The terminals are not divided by international and domestic; different airlines use different terminals. You can find the list here:
A train called the Autotrain travels between the terminals. Save your boarding pass to use it because they won’t let you on without one.
Exchange rates in airports are typically terrible all over the world, but not so much in Mexico City. Don’t use the ones when you are still inside the baggage claim area, but wait until you clear customs.
At each currency exchange booth you’ll see two different numbers for U.S. dollars and other major currencies: buy and sell. The smaller the difference between them, the better the rate. For example, if “buy” is at 20.54 and “sell” is at 20.40, it’s a good deal. But if “buy” is at 22.00 and “sell” is at 18.00, the rate is worse.
It’s crucial to have an idea of the exchange rate before you arrive so you can compare rates at the different booths with the official rate. Before your trip, check exchange rates online, such as at this website: http://coinmill.com
Make some notes about how much your home currency is worth in pesos, so you aren’t trying to make rushed calculations after a long flight. Make a sheet with notes like this:
- $10 USD = 200 pesos
- $20 USD = 400 pesos
- 100 pesos = $5 USD
- 200 pesos = $10 USD
(These rates are only examples.)
By the way, exchanging money in downtown Mexico City is easy, so if the rates are bad at the airport, only get what you need for transportation and a meal.
Or, for a generally better exchange rate, withdraw from a bank ATM. Many are scattered throughout both terminals, including near the exit for the metrobus in Terminal 2. Look for ATMs with international credit exchange symbols on them, like Cirrus or Interac, and match those symbols to the ones on your card:
For more about managing your money in Mexico and Latin America, please read this article.
Renting a car
Unless you’ll immediately drive to a nearby town or visit an unusual part of the city, I don’t recommend renting a car in Mexico City.
Driving around is a bad idea for three reasons: traffic, parking, and confusing road signs that make getting lost easy. Driving through the wrong neighborhood could get you carjacked or worse. Plus, you can get to all the major tourist spots by bus, metro or metrobus.
But if you want to rent a car, you can do it at the many booths near the taxi stands, although you can often get a better deal online. All the usual international companies are there, like Enterprise, Budget, etc.
If you reserve online, be aware that the insurance offered by third-party websites like expedia.com is not valid in Mexico. When you go to pick up the car, the price will double or even triple when they add insurance. To avoid this, arrange car rentals directly on company websites, and read all that boing fine print.
Picking up a car at a major airport can take a long time. First you get in line at the booth inside the airport and then take a shuttle to the car lot, where you fill out all the paperwork and wait for the car to be ready. Then, once it’s ready, you go around the car inspecting for previous damage, and finally sign the contract.
This means that you shouldn’t expect a fast process when picking up a car at the airport. Plan for the extra time. Fortunately, dropping the car off before departing usually only takes a few minutes.
Besides renting a car, there are three better options to get into downtown Mexico City: a taxi, the metrobus, and the metro (subway).
Taxis take you anywhere; the metrobus is a good option in the daylight hours to get to the zócalo (central square) or elsewhere in the centro historico or nearby neighborhoods like Condesa or Zona Rosa; and the metro goes practically everywhere and is by far the cheapest and most confusing.
Also, if you’ll travel by land to another city in Mexico, many direct buses leave from both terminals.
Using a taxi is the fastest, easiest, and most expensive option. For safety’s sake, do not flag down a taxi outside the terminals, but use a taxi stand inside the airport.
Ignore anyone who approaches you offering a taxi—go right to the stands. Many obvious ones are in both terminals and prices should be similar, if not the same. Confirm that you’ll be in a regular car (a sedan, the word in Spanish and English) and not a big passenger van, which costs more.
At the time of writing, getting downtown (the centro historico) costs about 230 pesos (about $12 USD). If you want to pay with a credit card, look for Mastercard, Visa or American Express stickers on the booth window. Or get some pesos first—don’t pay in U.S. dollars, as the exchange rate will be ridiculous.
The price is determined by neighborhood, so have the full address of your hotel ready. You’ll pay at the stand and then receive a slip of paper to give to a person by the line of taxis waiting outside. Once in the taxi, tell the driver the specific address of where you’re going—again, having it written down is essential, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
The price of a taxi is the same no matter how many people use it, so try to share with any friends you make on your flight who are traveling to the same part of the city as you.
This is a good option if you’re going downtown and don’t mind dragging your luggage around. There’s plenty of space for it on the bus, although the buses tend to get quite crowded soon after leaving the airport.
The metrobus line for the airport is Line 4. Check out the map to find the stop closest to your hotel and if it’s within walking distance.
The metrobus leaves from the ground floor in each terminal, close to where you exit customs. It leaves from Door 7 (Puerta 7) in Terminal 1 and Door 3 (Puerta 3) in Terminal 2. Look for the MB symbol on signs hanging from the ceiling. Once outside, look for MB symbol on a sign—that’s the bus stop—and wait in line for the big red bus. (Or are they green now?)
To pay, buy a card from a machine inside each terminal near the door to the bus stop. The minimum is 40 pesos plus 10 for the card, so that’s 50. The machine accepts 20, 50 and 100 bills, but it doesn’t give change, so buy something from the convenience store OXXO if you only have big bills.
From either terminal it takes about 30 minutes to get downtown. If you don’t have hotel reservations, but plan on walking around looking for a hotel (there are many around the zócalo), get off at Bellas Artes—you can’t miss it.
Metro (the subway)
The Mexico City metro is super cheap at 5 pesos per ride, and although it’s safe enough, it definitely isn’t a good idea for anyone who has never taken a subway before or has a lot of luggage. You need to be able to read the map, be comfortable with transfers, and keep an eye on your bags at all times.
The metro leaves from Terminal 1. Walk outside, turn left, and keep walking until you see the entrance. The name of the stop is Terminal Aérea, and it’s on an out-of-the-way line, so you’ll probably have to transfer at least once. Get a copy of the metro map beforehand and plan your route. Not all stations have maps posted and they aren’t always available when you buy tickets, although you can try asking for one.
Here is a link to a map for the metro: http://mexicometro.org/wp-content/uploads/Mexico-City-Metro-Map-October-2015.pdf
As you can see, the Terminal Aérea stop is on the yellow line (on the far right on the map), which doesn’t go downtown. Only a stop or two away, however, are transfers to the major lines that cross the city, including the pink line through downtown. To look for hotels in the historic center, get off on the Pino Suarez or Isabela la Catolica stops on the pink line, and ask someone to point you in the direction of the zócalo. You’ll pass many discount hotels on the walk there.
Tip: If you plan on frequently traveling by metro during your stay in Mexico City, buy many tickets at once so you don’t have to wait in line each time.
Buses to nearby cities
Buses go from the airport to the nearby cities of Puebla, Cuernavaca, Querétaro, Toluca, and more. Most run between 6-7 AM until 10 PM.
To find the buses in either terminal, once you leave customs follow the signs for transporte foráneo (ground transportation) with a little bus icon next to it.
In Terminal 1, take a left after you leave the customs area and follow the signs. You’ll take another left, go up a motorized ramp to the second floor, pass a food court, go down a hallway, and you’ll see desks for the different destinations.
In Terminal 2, finding the bus station is easier—take a right out of customs and just follow the signs straight on. It’s on the same floor and looks more like a typical bus station than the one in Terminal 1.
Yes, you can buy tickets online beforehand, but I don’t recommend this in case your flight is late. I have never seen a bus sell out, but if this happens the worst thing would be to wait for the next one.
For a summary page of the buses that leave from the Mexico City airport, you can consult this page on the airport website, which may not be up to date. You can check schedules on the bus company websites for four major destinations:
To Puebla: Estrella Roja
To Cuernavaca: Pullman Morelos
To Toluca: Caminante
To Querétaro: Primera Plus
Once you’ve been in Mexico City for a while, you’ll know whether there’s a metrobus or metro stop near your hotel that you can take back to the airport once it’s time to leave. If you want to take a taxi, have the hotel call one for you. Waving down taxis on the street in Mexico City isn’t safe.
Make sure you know which terminal your flight departs from (see above), and follow the standard advice for international flights—arrive at least three hours early.
The good news is that you can buy a beer from a convenience store near the departure gates and drink it in the waiting area for your flight—you don’t have to get overcharged at a restaurant.
Once again, be sure that you have the departure portion of the tourist card that was stamped when you arrived, or be prepared to pay the fine.
A final tip: Don’t buy tequila or other booze (mezcal, Kahlúa, or good Central American rum like Flor de Caña) at the duty free shop. It’s cheaper at an average grocery, liquor or convenience store in the city, but definitely not at a specialty shop in a tourist area. Put the bottles in your checked luggage, and check the requirements of your home country about how much you can bring back.
The same goes for souvenirs. Don’t wait for the airport. The best place for souvenirs in Mexico City, by the way, is the Ciudadela Market.
Finally, take a moment of appreciation for an airport in a major city that’s only 30 minutes from downtown. In fact, a new airport outside the city is already being built.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the prime real estate currently occupied by Benito Juarez International, but one can only hope that at least part of it will become a public park.