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It has been a long time since my first visit to Mexico, 15 years ago, but I recently had the opportunity to see the culture through fresh eyes when one of my oldest friends came to visit me. If I were a better friend (and a better planner) I would have written this post before her visit so she could have been even more prepared. Instead she got to learn on the go, and help serve as a case study to remind of these important details and cultural differences! Thanks girl!

Not only is Mexico’s culture very different from that of the United States or Canada, but it’s also very different from the many stereotypes floating around out there. My hope is that this post will debunk some of those stereotypes while communicating some of the more mundane, “good-to-knows” that are difficult to anticipate. Hopefully these tips for first timers in Mexico will help your vist go as smoothly as possible!

Keep your FMM Tourist Card

When you enter Mexico, you are required to fill out a customs and immigration form, which an official will then stamp, admitting you into the country. There are two sections to this form (above and below a perforation), and both must be filled out. The top part will be retained by the immigration officials when you enter the country. The bottom section will be stamped with your date of entry and the number of days you’re permitted to remain in the country (usually 180), and then handed back to you. Keep this bottom section of your tourist card somewhere safe because you need to turn it in before you board your plane home.

Fortunately, if you do lose the form it isn’t difficult to replace, but it can be quite time-consuming, and you will have to pay a fee of $533 MXN. Just in case you happen to find yourself in this unfortunate situation, here’s how you can replace your lost immigration form in Mexico.

Keep change on hand

It’s important to always have small change on hand when traveling in Mexico. You’ll need it for tipping, visiting public restrooms (often they charge a 5 peso fee), or making small purchases. Many businesses in Mexico can’t (or won’t) make change for bills larger than 200 pesos, so always be prepared with smaller denominations.

Tipping in Mexico

It’s standard to tip in restaurants in Mexico. The usual amount is 10 – 20% depending on the quality of service. When paying with a credit card your server will ask what percentage of tip you’d like to add to the bill. Usually, the debit machines are not configured to add the tip after payment, as they are in Canada and the US.

You should also plan to tip cleaning staff in your accommodation and any tour guides you travel with.

You may also be interested in this post on practical money tips for Mexico.

Basic Spanish goes a long way

Many people in Mexico speak, or at the very least, understand, a little bit of English, but it’s still a nice gesture to learn some basic Spanish before you visit. Being able to exchange pleasantries with the people you encounter will make all of your interactions go much more smoothly. Mexican culture really appreciates formalities, and small gestures go a long way here.

At the same time, understanding or speaking a little Spanish makes you less vulnerable as a traveler. For example, in tourist areas, it’s not uncommon for taxi drivers to try to overcharge by as much as double the standard rate. Knowing this, I have a strict “no English in taxis” rule. I figure if they know that I speak Spanish they’ll be more reluctant to try to stick me with the “tourist price.” So far this rule has paid off. Literally.

For a quick cheat-sheet of Spanish phrases for visiting Mexico, check out Simple Spanish Phrases For Mexico.

Tap water isn’t drinkable

The tap water in Mexico isn’t safe to drink… mostly. Interestingly, the government rules that the water actually is sanitized and safe to drink. However, the containers that people use to store the water are rarely (if ever) cleaned, rendering it once-again, unsafe to drink. Some homes have water filtration systems installed which enable you to drink water straight from the tap, but this is not the norm.

While it’s generally safe to use the tap water for cooking and brushing your teeth if you have a sensitive stomach you may prefer to brush your teeth with bottled water. I always use tap water and haven’t had any issues.

With that in mind, repeatedly buying single-use plastic water bottles while traveling isn’t an ideal solution. It’s terrible for the environment and hard on your wallet. You can save yourself the trouble by packing a LifeStraw water bottle, which filters bacteria and protozoa from water sources, making it safe to drink. Refill this bottle from the tap in your hotel or Airbnb, and you’ll be all set!

DON’T skip the street food

I often hear travelers who are (seemingly) unfamiliar with Mexico advising others not to eat street food when visiting this culinary wonderland. This is a huge mistake!!

Street vendors have sold me some of the tastiest food I’ve experienced (and some of the cheapest)! It may sound dramatic, but my local taco lady literally changed my life. She feeds me the most delicious tacos I’ve ever tasted for the low, low price of 12 pesos each. With that in mind, I really think you’ll be missing out if you neglect to try street food in Mexico.

I understand why there is concern about the cleanliness of the street carts, but there are a few different indicators you can look for to help you judge whether it’s safe or not.

  • Crowds are always a good indication that a cart is safe to eat from. Once someone finds a tasty, sanitary street cart, they’ll come back over and over again. If they get sick, they’ll be long gone. If you spot a street cart with a group of people around it all chatting jovially, it’s safe to assume they all eat there regularly.
  • Watch how they handle the food and the money. At a trustworthy street cart, such as that of my taco lady, the person who handles the food never handles the money. As a result, she’s had a healthy crowd of patrons surrounding her cart since I first came across it 8 years ago.

It’s not hot everywhere

For many people, mentioning Mexico conjures images of nothing but palm trees and beaches. While this landscape is typical in many parts of the country, Mexico has a diverse geography, and in some areas, it can actually be quite cold. Even the beach destinations have months cool enough to warrant wearing jeans. Wherever you’re headed in Mexico, be sure to research the climate before you finalize your packing list.

Remember your manners

As easy-going as Mexicans are, manners are important to them. You’ll make a better impression if you exercise extra politeness. It felt strange at first to me, as a Canadian, to say “buenos dias” and “buenas tardes” to every person I encountered, but I’m becoming more extroverted in that way. Whenever you visit a shop or restaurant be prepared to greet the salespeople when you enter and say goodbye when you leave.

Additionally, when in restaurants you may notice that people say “Provecho” when you’re eating — even strangers just passing on the street will do this. This is a polite gesture, which people use to wish you a good meal. You will earn extra karmic brownie points for using the phrase. When you enter a restaurant and pass by a table of people eating just say “provecho.”

Museums are often closed on Mondays

This tip is pretty straightforward. Museums throughout the country are typically closed on Mondays. This is because the weekends are usually when they receive the most visitors, and therefore they must remain open. Instead of giving employees a day off on Sundays (a day which usually offers free admission to Mexican nationals), they close on Monday which is often a slower day. There may be the occasional exception to this rule, but generally, it’s best to plan museum visits for other days of the week.

Kleenex is a life saver

Public restrooms in Mexico can be hit or miss when it comes to toilet paper, soap, running water, and even toilet seats. With this in mind, it’s wise always to carry a packet of tissue in your purse in case you find yourself in a pinch. I’d also suggest carrying hand sanitizer or wet wipes because often there is no soap to wash your hands.

Salad isn’t a death sentence

There’s a lot of superstition floating around on the internet about what you should or shouldn’t eat in Mexico. Salad (namely lettuce) is usually one of the foods that is blacklisted. The concern is that vegetables are washed with tap water, which isn’t safe to drink, therefore rendering the veggies contaminated as well.

Usually, this isn’t true. The majority of locals wash their vegetables with soap or a vegetable cleaning solution that neutralizes any bacteria or microbes that will make you sick. After all, locals don’t drink the tap water either. They don’t want to get sick any more than you do.

However, from time to time, you may have bad luck. There’s no tried and true way to ensure you don’t eat contaminated veggies, but my philosophy around it is as follows:

  • If I’m eating in a nice restaurant (rather than a taco stand or antojito restaurant), I don’t sweat eating salad. I figure if I’m in a nice restaurant their food safety standards are well defined and I have nothing to worry about.
  • If I’m eating in a restaurant that serves lots of fruit and vegetable dishes (a vegetarian or vegan restaurant for instance), I don’t sweat it. Veggies are their speciality, and they can’t afford to make anyone sick.
  • If I’m eating in a taco stand, or a type of establishment that likely doesn’t take salad very seriously, I skip it. It’s still probably fine, but I don’t want to risk it, plus, salad in these places is typically pretty basic and not particularly delicious.

Overall, if there are plenty of people eating in a restaurant, it’s safe to assume that none of the food is contaminated. Nobody is going to return to a restaurant that made them sick.

Be prepared to adjust your schedule

Depending on where you’re visiting from, you might struggle with the fact that schedules in Mexico are different from what you’re used to. For instance, typically everything happens later (and more slowly) in Mexico than you’re likely accustomed to. Breakfast hour is usually around 8:30 or 9 am, lunch is between 2 and 4, and dinner is around 9 pm. Because breakfast is so late in the morning (at least by the Canadian/American standard that I was used to), most businesses don’t open until 9 or 10. This can be difficult to accept when you’re a Type A traveler who is accustomed to getting an early start (*ahem* Dad *ahem*).

It can be difficult to shift your schedule, especially on a short trip, but you’ll risk missing out on the full Mexican experience if you’re the early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. Not only is the energy in the streets is entirely different in the evening when most people are off work, but also many restaurants cater to the traditional Mexican schedule. Some may not be able to accommodate diners who want to eat at different hours.

I highly recommend trying to shift your schedule to the Mexican one, but be sure to carry snacks in case you can’t find a restaurant that’s open at your preferred meal time.

Don’t flaunt your valuables

This is especially important in cities and crowded areas, but it’s a good rule of thumb everywhere. It’s always best to remain relatively inconspicuous as a tourist, as we can be easy targets for theft. This is typically due to being distracted or overwhelmed by everything we’re trying to do or see. Petty theft isn’t exactly uncommon in Mexico, and while I’d say you’re unlikely to have a violent confrontation, there are many savvy pickpockets.

Avoid drawing attention to yourself by keeping flashy jewelry to a minimum. Try to keep your valuables (phone, camera, wallet) concealed as much as possible and close to your body.

I try to limit the amount of cash I carry to exactly what I’ll need for the day, plus possibly my credit or debit card and a piece of ID. I leave everything else at home and use a small zipped pouch as a wallet. It sinks quickly to the bottom of my purse, which I keep zipped and close to my body. If I need to use my phone, I do, but as soon as I’m finished, I tuck it back in my purse and zip it closed.

There’s no need to be overly paranoid about the possibility of theft, but it’s always good to be cautious, especially in big cities or crowded areas.

Don’t Be Afraid To See A Doctor (If You Need One)

After living in the US for 5 years, the idea of seeing a doctor usually fills me with dread because no matter how much insurance I paid for, a simple visit always seemed to cost a fortune + parking (Canada, why did I leave you?!). In Mexico, things are different. If you feel the need to see a doctor for any reason during your visit, it’s really easy to do to.

Many of the major pharmacies, like Farmacia del Ahorro, or Farmacia de Guadalajara have their own walk-in clinics called consultorios. All you have to do is show up, take a seat, and wait for the doctor to see you. Once inside, describe your symptoms and the doctor will offer a diagnosis and a list of medications to help you feel better. Obviously you’re expected to buy the meds from the adjoining pharmacy. 😬

If you’re suffering from an illness or ailment that may benefit from medical attention, just know that this process is simple and affordable. You don’t pay for the consultation, just the medications, which, by the way, are much cheaper than they are back home. All this to say, if you’re sick during your trip, there’s no need to suffer until you get home to your primary care physician. These consultorios can likely fix you up and have you back to your regular self in no-time, without cutting in to your margarita fund!

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