Visiting Mexico: 8 Things Every Traveler Should Know

Cancun, Mexico, Hotel Fountain and PalmsA view of a hotel fountain and colorful hotel in Cancun, Mexico.
Lunamarina/Dreamstime

Cancun, Mexico, is home to charming, colorful hotels with an old-world vibe.

Mexico is a rich destination for all manner of travelers—from beach bums to posh globetrotters to free-form adventurers. Here’s a look at the essentials for making your visit fun, safe, and inspiring.

Mexico has topped many news feeds lately. But this is not a political story. Rather, it’s a story about the abundant reasons why Mexico should top many travelers’ to-do lists.

For starters, Mexico is vast—its land measures about the same as the western third of the continental U.S. It’s comprised of 32 states (one of which is Mexico City, technically a “federal entity” not a state); and just like each American state, each one has its own character and landmarks. As many visitors already know, Mexico is home to incredible beaches and resorts. But its cities rival those gorgeous recreational hotspots, thanks to rich urban culture, unforgettable gastronomy, iconic architecture, public markets, verdant parks, and more.

Mexico’s diverse landscapes stretch from high plains of the Sierra Madre mountain system, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Sea. Within those terrains is heritage so deep it’s considered one of the world’s five “cradles of civilization,” dating back to 8000 B.C. Over those pre-European millennia, the advanced cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Maya, Aztec, and Teotihuacan, built cities whose pyramids and other marvelous structures still stand today.

The choices for how best to enjoy Mexico’s diverse destinations are plentiful, and entirely up to your travel predilections. But as you plan your visit, here are a few tips to keep in mind for a vacation that’s truly magnifico.

1. Arriving in Mexico

Major airports are usually seamless for international arrivals, and even easier for domestic travel. Generally, customs lines in cities like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta move quickly; while in Mexico City, they’re fast and almost exclusively employ electronic kiosks for foreign arrivals to scan passports (and fingerprints, just like foreign travelers arriving in the U.S.).

The most important thing to know is that, as a visitor, a Mexican customs agent will stamp your passport and return it to you with a thin slip of paper called a “tourist permit.” You won’t need it every day of your stay, but it’s required to exit Mexico. The smart move is to keep it tucked into your passport, which should then be tucked away in your hotel safe or other secure spot, so that it’s ready for your airline to collect prior to boarding your departure flight. If you lose it, expect to pay a fine.

2. Currency

The exchange rate for pesos remains favorable for most currencies, around five U.S. cents for one peso. It’s probably one of the best reasons to visit Mexico. Yet many businesses accept the U.S. dollar. Resist the temptation to pay with dollars either in cash or credit card, since it’s almost certainly a less-favorable exchange rate. Upon arrival in Mexico, just hit a bank’s ATM to withdraw pesos; then traverse the city with only the amount you might need, leaving the rest in your hotel safe. (And FYI, the symbol for pesos is “MXN$”—not a unique peso symbol. Yes it’s confusing, but now you know!)

3. Affordable Mexico

Overall, traveling in Mexico is pleasantly inexpensive for international visitors. There are so many ways to eat well and pay little, from cafés to markets to polished restaurants. Affordability also applies to independent shops selling handmade goods, museums, taxis and transit, and hotels (whether boutique or global chains). On the other hand, there are plenty of worthwhile places to splurge, including world-class restaurants and luxury lodging. The smart move is simply to figure out your total trip budget, then plan how best to divvy up and maximize your peso spending.

4. Travelers’ Safety

dreamstime_m_28694394.jpg?mtime=20190320093624#asset:105216View of Santa Prisca church in Taxco, Mexico (Ulita/Dreamstime)

Sensational news might have you imagining that the whole of Mexico is a dangerous jungle. Such rich storytelling abounds, and it is unfortunate. Because if we’re generalizing, it should be about how wonderfully warm, friendly, and decidedly civilized Mexico and its people are.

In terms of real safety, however, we should wisely apply the same level of caution towards a trip here that we would for any other locale. Stick to the usual safety rules: Be alert; don’t walk around with flashy valuables; carry only the cash and cards you’ll need; politely decline street hawkers; and stick to well-lit, well-traveled areas.

5. Food & Drink

There is one stereotype about Mexico that tends to ring true: Don’t drink the water. Public tap water isn’t filtered to a degree that’s safe for most people to consume. So only drink, cook, wash food, and brush your teeth with bottled water. Avoid salads and street food that’s raw and possibly washed with tap water, and if you’re ordering a delicious juice from a store or vendor, watch closely that if any water is added, it’s from a bottle (preferably one you’ve seen and heard opened), not a pitcher.

The exception is if you’re at a reliable resort or hotel with its own water-filtration system—those are consistently effective and safe. Plus guaranteed-filtered water is a far more eco-friendly way to stay hydrated than overusing little plastic bottles.

As for street food or those other delicious antojitos (aka snacks, which include tacos, tortas, and tostados), don’t be shy—enjoy them, because they’re usually delicioso. Just look for stands that appear popular with diners, avoid consuming anything raw/washed (no lettuce; but squeezable limes and salsas are usually fine), and be sure the meat or veggie filling has been fully grilled.

6. Spanish vs. English

You’ll find that in most hotels and fine restaurants, English is commonly spoken. But it’s worth the smiles you’ll get to practice even basic Spanish with Mexican folks, from taxi drivers and museum clerks; to hotel workers and bartenders. In fact, English isn’t so common that you’ll have a choice—so keep your translation app or Spanish dictionary handy.

7. Traffic

Along with being a huge country geographically, Mexico also has a massive population of about 130 million, making it the world’s 10th-largest nation. And sometimes, when you’re stuck in traffic, you’ll feel like every last one of them is in a vehicle heading the same direction as you. In this situation, remember two things: Traffic here always seems to steadily creep along, and you will get there eventually. So budget extra travel time to ensure punctuality for reservations.

Hot tip: If you’re in a city with Uber (which is increasingly common in Mexico), use it instead of a regular cab. That way you’ll ride at a pre-set rate, rather than on a taxi meter that keeps clicking up even in slow traffic.

8. What to Wear

mexico-playa-del-carmen.jpg?mtime=20190320094138#asset:105217Relax on the beaches in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (Lunamarina/Dreamstime)

While coastal areas are sure to be warm even in winter, on the high plains, you’ll need to pack for the actual season. After all, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, and many other major (non-coastal) cities are thousands of feet high in elevation, making it plenty chilly, especially at night. So wear layers, and don’t forget to pack your jacket.

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