|Chichen Itza. Photo by Jose Granados.|
You won’t find a friendlier, culturally richer or more beautiful place to visit than Mexico. Here are 10 tips make your visit easier and more rewarding.
1. Before You Go: Visas and Inoculations
No vaccinations are required to enter Mexico, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends a Hepatitis A or immune globulin (IG) vaccine, and typhoid vaccinations for travelers going to private homes in small cities or rural areas. Rabies vaccinations might be also be suggested for adventure travelers likely to encounter bats, wildlife and other mammals. U.S. citizens (and those from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, among others) need only a passport and a tourist permit, officially called an FMM, to enter Mexico. You'll have to surrender the permit when leaving, so don’t lose it. The law requiring minor children traveling without one or both parents to have notarized authorization from the absent parent(s) was temporarily lifted this year, but expect it to be reinstated in some form when the suspension expires next January.
2. Safety: Look Beyond the Headlines
Though widespread publicity about the drug-related violence that has rocked Mexico in recent years has made some travelers wary, most of the country remains safe for travel. It’s important to read the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel warning before deciding where to go. Even in the northern states that experience the greatest violence, most incidents are well removed from areas of interest to travelers. In most places, pick-pocketing and petty theft, which tend to increase during the winter high season, are the most serious crimes you have to worry about. The No. 1 cause of death for U.S. travelers in Mexico is traffic accidents, followed by falls from balconies and drowning; most of the latter two involve alcohol.
3. Getting around Mexico
Mexico’s comprehensive, inexpensive and sometimes quite luxurious bus network is usually your best bet for travel within Mexico. In most towns, you can easily get around on foot and with the occasional taxi. Hiring a taxi by the hour or day usually costs less than a rental car. Roads have improved significantly in recent years, but when deciding whether to rent a car, be aware that the insurance, which must be bought in Mexico, will usually double the daily rate. Domestic low-cost airlines, such as Interjet, Volaris and Viva Aerobus, are worth considering to cover large distances.
|Dining in Cozumel. Photo by Miguel Nuñez.|
4. What to Eat
Mexico, which gave the world chocolate, corn, chilies, tomatoes and other staples we couldn’t live without (at least in Texas and California!), has one of the most diverse cuisines in the world, and one of the best. It’s the only country besides France whose cuisine has been named to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Long distances and two formidable mountain ranges produced distinct regional cuisines. Don’t miss Oaxaca’s mole negro, Puebla’s chiles en nogada, the Yucatan’s cochinita pibil, cabrito al pastor throughout the north … the list is almost endless. Even tacos and burritos take on distinctive flavors and amendments depending on where you are.
5. What to Drink
Fresh-squeezed fruit juice is one of Mexico’s greatest pleasures. A dizzying array of aguas frescas made from strawberries, grapefruit, mango or whatever is in season, mixed with water and sweetener, is available all over the country. Tequila, Mexico’s best-known export, has evolved into sophisticated sip-and-swirl spirit. Take advantage of the opportunity to sample the many fine brands that don’t make it across the border. Mescal, tequila’s less-refined cousin, is also coming into its own. And though northern Baja California is Mexico’s best-known wine-producing region, you might encounter vintages from Queretaro, Zacatecas and the Parras Valley, home of the oldest winery in the Americas. Compared to products of cooler climates, Mexico's wines tend to be spicy, full-bodied and ripe.
6. Staying Healthy
Traveler’s diarrhea is less of a problem than it used to be. Nearly all restaurants that serve middle-class Mexicans use filtered water, disinfect their vegetables, and buy ice made from purified water. Street food is less consistent; look for clean, busy places and stick with cooked foods and unpeeled fruit if you have a sensitive stomach, and carry bottled water. Sunburn and heat stroke are also common ailments. Wear a hat, use sunscreen, drink plenty of water and stay away from caffeinated drinks to avoid dehydration. At higher elevations, give yourself time to acclimate before undertaking hikes or other exertions. For more serious problems, healthcare in most tourist destinations meet U.S. standards.
|Photo by Martha Lucia Roque Becerra.|
7. What to Wear
Consider local custom as well as climate when packing for Mexico. Mexicans are relatively tolerant of the way tourists dress, but what passes muster in Cancun could be a faux pas in Mexico City, where shorts and skimpy tops are rarely seen. Beachwear is common in resort areas, but dress conservatively when visiting religious and historical sites. Regardless of what you might see locals wearing, modest dress is also best for small towns and places off the tourist track.
8. Money Matters
Although some resort areas can be pricey, Mexico is generally kind to the wallet. The current exchange rate is just over 12 pesos to the dollar. (The peso symbol is the same as the dollar symbol, so don't panic when a little guesthouse wants to charge you $1,000 a night.) Since Mexico restricted deposits and exchanges of U.S. dollars in 2010 as part of a plan to thwart money launderers, fewer merchants accept dollars, even in major tourist areas. You’ll need a supply of pesos; you can exchange up to 1,500 dollars a month. Small change is maddeningly scarce, so keep some on hand, especially for small stores and markets. Even with the bank fees, you’ll get the best exchange rate by using credit cards (for purchases) and debit cards (for getting pesos from ATMs).
9. Mind Your Manners
Mexicans place a high value social niceties, not all of which are intuitive. In restaurants, it is considered rude to lay the tab on a customer who has not asked for the check, so you may have to intercept a passing waiter with a loud "Pssst!" or pantomime a scribbling motion to a waiter across the room. Arriving at the appointed time for a party in someone’s home is just short of rudeness - 30 minutes to two hours late is more common - but be no more than 30 minutes late for dinner, and be punctual for business appointments and public performances. A “buenos dias” is de rigueur even for strangers passing by, and when meeting a group, greet each individual separately, no matter how long it takes.
|Photo by Martha Lucia Roque Becerra.|
10. The Art of Conversation
Don’t be shy about trying out your rudimentary Spanish. Any attempt, no matter how awkward, will quickly break through any reserve you might encounter. Except with family and close friends, Mexicans use “usted,” the formal "you," rather than “tu,” the informal version common in Europe. Visitors should know who Mexico's president is and have some inkling about the country's history and current issues. And though Mexicans may rail about corrupt government officials, high taxes and low pay, they won’t appreciate criticisms from you.