Mexico is a country that I would return to again and again. Cancun and the Yucatan region, especially, stole my heart during the 3 weeks that I stayed there. My memories were filled with sunsets, beaches, margaritas, cenotes, and tacos. Lots of tacos. If you are visiting for the first time, I am super excited for you. Here are 17 useful traveling tips for Mexico that you must know before you go.
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1. Keep the slip given to you at Immigration
If you hold a passport that does not require a visa for visiting Mexico, you will be automatically given a Temporary Visa Permit for 180 days when you land at a Mexican airport. The fee for this permit ($25 USD) is typically already included in your airfare’s “fees and taxes”. The thing you need to make sure is to keep the permit until you leave the country. This tiny little piece of paper that the immigration officer slips into your passport can be easily lost. If you cannot present the slip when you exit Mexico, you will have to pay to replace it. It cost about $40 USD. Yes…not cool.
I, by some grace of God, did not throw the permit out. Even though I don’t usually have a habit of keeping receipts…I didn’t remember ever being told that I have to present this slip again. But thankfully, when the officer asked at departure, I managed to find it wedged in my passport pages (After some fumbling and cold sweating).
2. Lottery custom check system
Once you’ve collected your bag at the airport and have to pass through custom, you will be asked to push a big button. It’s a lottery system that determines whether your bag will be searched. If you get green, you are free to go. If you get red, the officer will ask you to open your bag for a quick check.
Visit Mexico’s Entry Requirement page for more information on things you are allowed to bring into the country.
Prior to my trip, I was wondering whether I can bring my drone into Mexico. And I read on forums that people who got red at customs were charged a hefty “import fee” once their drones were found. So I left my toy at home. Really grateful that I did my own research on this subject for I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
3. Get away from the tourist strip
I met people who told me that they never left the hotel zone once during their trip in Cancun. “I actually didn’t learn anything about Mexico.” One guy said. I thought it was such a shame when I heard that. Sure, the resort area, while convenient for accessing the beaches, is the most expensive and unauthentic place for experiencing the country. Everything is created for tourists. The restaurants charge triple the price for food you can get for really cheap in town. There are people trying to sell you things constantly. If you are adventurous enough to get out of this bubble, I promise there are rewards waiting. AKA 3 tacos for 30 pesos.
4. English is not commonly spoken
Hola! ¿Hablas español? While tourism is booming in Mexico, most locals and businesses communicate in Spanish only. I was at a lost on my first day in the convenience store, trying to buy a SIM card. The young man at the counter stared at me in confusion as I attempted to communicate using a combination of English, broken Spanish, and wild gestures. We finally worked it out at the end but it was quite a test. I was totally kicking myself that despite all those years of Spanish lessons in high school, I forgot everything. – Sorry Senora Robalino. Do yourself a favor and learn some basic Spanish phrases. Pick up a Spanish phrase book for traveling and download Google Translate offline. They will come in handy!
Food for thought: As English speakers, we often don’t realize how privileged we are and expect people to speak English to us wherever we go in the world. Like, we are in their country yet we hope they speak our language instead of the other way around. On your next trip, try to learn a bit of the language. At the very least, ask the person if they speak English in their language first before throwing your questions at them. The locals will appreciate it.
5. Mexicans are extremely kind
Mexico is often portrayed in the media as this land full of rapists and drug lords. My own father expressed a lot of concern when I announced that I was going there. Me, being the stereotypes denouncer that I am, told my dad that there are good people and bad people in any country and don’t believe everything seen on TV. My faith in humanity was not disappointed by Mexicans. I found people in Mexico to be incredibly warm. I encountered many random acts of kindness during my days there. From the lady who gave me free toilet paper at a public restroom (see traveling tips for Mexico 16 below), to the man who notified me on the bus that I was about to miss my stop (What happens when you are clueless of the things being said on the PA), these strangers had genuine smiles on their faces and I was touched by their willingness to help.
6. Scams do happen
Having said the point above, it’s important to know that petty crimes do happen. Between my friends and I in Cancun, there had been lost money in the hostel, robbery at the ATM, scam by the taxi driver (that was me), and stolen cell phones. Exercise vigilance while you are in public spaces. Watch your belongings. It’s worthwhile to invest in some theft proof products like a luggage lock and anti-theft backpack.
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The bus network is extensive in Mexico. The local buses run 24/7 in Cancun, and the ADO long haul buses run quite frequently as well. I was able to travel to Chichen Itza, Holbox, Tulum, and many more places, all with public transportation. The buses are convenient, cheap, and yes, safe too. So take full advantage.
8. Take the colectivos
What’s even cheaper than commuting by buses, is by colectivos, AKA “Combis”. Not going to lie, my first impression of these mini-vans, parked next to the road under a bridge, is that they look kind of sketchy. But after an initiation by my Mexican friends, I came to embrace them, and may I say, even adore them a little. The colectivos depart very often. Although it can be a bit packed, there is air conditioning and is comfortable enough. A ride from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen is only 20 pesos. That is just a dollar! Read this guide here for details on the colectivo experience in Mexico.
9. Beware of mosquitos
The truth is, the mosquitos in Mexico are really savage. Especially after the sun goes down. Oh lawd that is when they come out to play. Start practicing your swatting motion now. Better yet, arm yourself with bug sprays or this genius product I discovered recently: mosquito repellant bracelets. These non-toxic waterproof wristbands use plant oil to naturally drive mosquitos away. Apparently, bugs think Lemongrass smell disgusting? Whatever the mechanism is, these bracelets really work! They are also lightweight and cute. I was really happy I found this product.
10. Use reef safe sunscreen
While it’s important to protect yourself with sunscreen in a tropical destination like Mexico, many swimmers/snorklers don’t realize that normal sunscreen products contain harmful chemicals that cause significant damage to coral reefs. I didn’t know this myself until someone educated me about it. Luckily, there are many reef safe sunscreen brands out there. Check out this one that’s All Natural and 100 Biodegradable. So when you are exploring those beautiful cenotes in the Yucatan, make sure slap some on.
11. Get to the beaches early
If you want to get those Instagram worthy shots of you with no one else on the beach, better get your butt out of bed early. By around 11 am, the beaches are packed. Everyone, with their kids, dogs, and grandmothers, are there to party. I mean, it’s not the worst thing in the world to be around people, but it definitely cannot compare to the serenity of facing a quiet ocean at dawn. If you are on the Caribbean coast, for at least one day, watch a sunrise over the water. It’s a spiritual experience.
12. Oxxo is your 7/11
Oxxo is the largest convenient store chain in Mexico. Look out for the red and yellow sign. It will be your saviour when you really need to buy emergency cool aid on a hot day. Here you can also get local SIM card, coffee, potato chips and beer. You know, all the essentials for daily life.
13. Learn to bargain at the markets
When shopping in markets, never accept the first price offered by the shop owner. It’s a test to see whether you are gullible enough to accept it. For most Westerners, the concept of haggling is strange. I was really awkward at it as well. My way now is to state my price at about 60 percent of what they asked, and negotiate back and forth with them from there. Sometimes, I pretend to walk away and see if they call me back with their true final price. Sometimes, I really do walk away and check if I can get a better deal at a different store. Try your hands at bargaining. It’s a psychological game and can be pretty fun. 😛
14. Don’t drink water from the tap
Tap water in Mexico is not safe for consumption. Avoiding getting sick by drinking filtered water. Lifestraw makes the best filter water bottle out there. The fibre membrane inside is said to remove 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria, parasites, and chemical matter. I own the 2-Stage Filtration bottle and loves it. It helps me avoid buying water in stores, which cost more and produce unnecessary plastic waste.
15. Washrooms marked with M are for women
Gentlemen be warned. That “M” on the door doesn’t not stand for “men”. It stands for “mujeres”, women in Spanish. One day, I was washing my hand in a train station restroom, when an American guy stumbled in. When we made eye contact, the shocked expression on his face was priceless. I said “wrong room” and he quickly retreated mumbling “oh sorry”. Again, more reasons to know the local language. 😛
16. Bring your own tissue
Continuing with the restroom/bathroom advice, do bring your own tissue. You will find that the stalls in public places have no toilet paper stocked. So either come with your own supply or be prepared to panic. I ran into a really nice lady in a supermarket restroom once, during my first couple of days in Mexico. She noticed that I walked into a stall and walked out right away. She must have realized that I didn’t have toilet paper. When I was already a foot out the door, I got a tap on the shoulder. When I turned around, I saw the extended hand of this lady, offering me some toilet paper of hers. If this isn’t the truest story of women supporting women, I don’t know what is.
17. Don’t flush paper down the toilet
Last but not least. Do not I repeat, DO NOT flush paper down the toilet. The plumbing system in Mexico is not built for handling even thin toilet paper. You may get away with it once or twice, but shit may blow up in your face eventually (Take that literally). My friends and I rented an Airbnb on Isla Holbox for a couple of days. Being a creature of habit, I threw a piece of tissue down the toilet and it ended up clogging up. The Airbnb owner got really mad at us and made us paid extra for a plumber. Needless to say, I felt terrible being the culprit in the whole drama. Never again did I flush toilet paper in Mexico.
Well that’s it for my 17 practical traveling tips for Mexico. I hope you learned some useful information. For more advice and recommendation on Mexico, check out my Mexico stories on Instagram.
Want a sneak peek of Mexico? Check out my Yucatan Guide on Youtube
Plan your Mexico trip in 4 easy steps
Book A Flight: Find the cheapest flights on Skyscanner, my go-to search engine.
Find A Hotel: Score affordable accommodation on Booking.com. Receive $16 off your first booking with my link here.
Buy insurance: You never know what may happen on the road. Protect your trip & gear with World Nomad, the best travel insurance company ever. Get a quote here.
Read up on the best advice: Love a good old fashion guide book. Suggested reading: Lonely Planet: Cancun, Cozumel & Yucatan.
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