Mexico //

Travel essentials

Costs

The developed tourist resorts and big cities are invariably more expensive than more remote towns, and certain other areas also have noticeably higher prices – among them the industrialized north. Prices can also be affected by season and many hotels raise their prices during busy times of the year. Summer, Christmas and Easter are the peak times for Mexican tourists and areas like Acapulco and Cancún, which attract large numbers of overseas visitors, put their prices up during the high season. Special events are also likely to be marked by price hikes.

Nonetheless, wherever you go you can probably get by on US$400/£250/€300 a week (you could reduce that if you hardly travel around, stay only on campsites or in hostels, live on basic food and don’t buy any souvenirs, though this requires a lot of discipline); you’d be living well on US$600/£400/€450.

As always, if you’re travelling alone you’ll end up spending more – sharing rooms and food saves a substantial amount. In the larger resorts, you can get apartments for up to six people for even greater savings. If you have an International Student or Youth Card, you might find the occasional reduction on a museum admission price, but don’t go out of your way to obtain one, since most concessions are, at least in theory, only for Mexican students. Cards available include the ISIC card for full-time students and the Go-25 youth card for under-26s, both of which are available from youth travel firms such as STA Travel. Even a university or college photo ID card might work in some places.

Most restaurant bills come with fifteen percent IVA (Impuesto de Valor Añadido, or Valued Added Sales Tax) added; this may not always be included in prices quoted on the menu. Service is hardly ever added to bills, and the amount you tip is entirely up to you – in cheap places, it’s typically 10–15 percent, but more like 15–20 percent in posher venues.

Electricity

Theoretically 110 volts AC, with simple two-flat-pin rectangular plugs – most North American appliances can be used as they are. Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australasia, South Africa and Europe should bring along a converter and a plug adapter. Cuts in service and fluctuations in current sometimes occur.

Gay and lesbian travellers

There are no federal laws governing homosexuality in Mexico, and hence it’s legal. There are, however, laws enforcing “public morality”, which although they are supposed only to apply to prostitution, are often used against gays. 1997 saw the election of Mexico’s first “out” congresswoman, the left-wing PRD’s Patria Jiménez, and in 2003 the federal parliament passed a law against discrimination on various grounds including sexual preference. In 2005, however, a gay man from Tampico successfully claimed political asylum in the US after demonstrating the extent of persecution he faced in his hometown.

Nonetheless, there are a large number of gay groups and publications in Mexico. The lesbian scene is not as visible or as large as the gay scene for men, but it’s there and growing. There are gay bars and clubs in the major resorts and US border towns, and in large cities such as the capital, and also Monterrey, Guadalajara, Veracruz and Oaxaca; elsewhere, private parties are where it all happens, and you’ll need a contact to find them.

As far as popular attitudes are concerned, religion and machismo are the order of the day, and prejudice is rife, but attitudes are changing. Soft-core porn magazines for gay men are sold openly on street stalls and, while you should be careful to avoid upsetting macho sensibilities, you should have few problems if you are discreet. In Juchitán, Oaxaca, on the other hand, gay male transvestites, known as muxes, are accepted as a kind of third sex, and the town even has a transvestite basketball team.

You can check the latest gay rights situation in Mexico on the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission website at
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iglhrc.org, and information on the male gay scene in Mexico (gay bars, meeting places and cruising spots) can be found in the annual Spartacus Gay Guide, available in specialist bookshops at home, or online at wspartacusworld.com.

Insurance

There are no reciprocal health arrangements between Mexico and any other country, so travel insurance is essential. Credit cards (particularly American Express) often have certain levels of medical or other insurance included, and travel insurance may also be included if you use a major credit card to pay for your trip. Some package tours, too, may include insurance.

Internet

Internet cafés are easy to find in all the larger cities and resort destinations, and the level of service is usually excellent. One or two offer cheap VOIP phone calls too. In smaller towns and villages, such facilities are still rare. Depending on where you are, internet access can cost anything from M$8 to M$25 an hour. Major tourist resorts can be the most expensive places, and in these areas it’s best to look for cheaper internet cafés around the town centre and avoid those in the luxury hotel zones. Internet facilities in large cities are usually open from early morning until late at night, but in smaller towns they have shorter opening hours and may not open on Sundays.

Laundry

Lavanderías (laundromats) are ubiquitous in Mexico, as the majority of households don’t own a washing machine. Most lavanderías charge by the kilo, and for a few dollars you’ll get your clothes back clean, pressed and perfectly folded, in less than 24 hours. Many hotels also offer laundry services that, although convenient, tend to charge by the item, adding up to a considerably greater cost.

Living in Mexico

There’s virtually no chance of finding temporary work in Mexico unless you have some very specialized skill and have arranged the position beforehand. Work permits are almost impossible to obtain. The few foreigners who manage to find work do so mostly in language schools. It may be possible, though not legal, to earn money as a private English tutor by advertising in a local newspaper or at a university.

The best way to extend your time in Mexico is on a study programme or volunteer project. A US organization called AmeriSpan selects language schools in countries worldwide, including Mexico, to match the needs and requirements of students, and provides advice and support. For further information, call (US or Canada) t1 800 879 6640 or t1 215 531 8001, or see wamerispan.com.

Volunteers need to apply for a voluntary work visa (FM3), for which you will need to present a letter of invitation from the organization for whom you are volunteering.

Mail

Mexican postal services (correos) can be quite slow and unreliable. Airmail to the capital should arrive within a few days, but it may take a couple of weeks to get anywhere at all remote. Packages frequently go astray. Post offices (generally open Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm, Sat 8am–noon, sometimes longer at the central office in big cities) usually offer a poste restante/general delivery service: letters should be addressed to “Lista de Correos”. Mail is held for two weeks, though you may get around that by sending it to “Poste Restante” with “Favor de retener hasta la llegada” (please hold until arrival) on the envelope. Letters are often filed incorrectly, so you should have staff check under all your initials. To collect, you will need your passport or some other official ID with a photograph. There is no fee.

For personal mail, Mexican addresses begin with the street and house number. The number goes after the street name (Juárez 123 rather than 123 Juárez), and is followed if appropriate by the floor or apartment number (planta baja means ground floor). After that comes the cólonia (the immediate neighbourhood), then the town, then finally the zip code and the state (on one line in that order – in the case of Mexico City, “México DF” is the equivalent of the state).

Sending letters and cards home is also easy enough, if slow. Anything sent abroad by air should have an airmail (por avión) stamp on it or it is liable to go by surface mail. Letters should take around a week to North America, two to Europe or Australasia, but can take much longer (postcards in particular are likely to be slow). Anything at all important should be taken to the post office and preferably registered rather than dropped in a mailbox, although the dedicated airmail boxes in resorts and big cities are supposed to be more reliable than ordinary ones. Postcards or letters up to 20g cost M$11.50 to North America or the Caribbean, M$13.50 to the British Isles, Europe or South America and M$15 to Australasia, Asia, Africa or the Pacific.

The process of sending packages out of the country is drowned in bureaucracy. Regulations about the thickness of brown paper wrapping and the amount of string used vary from state to state, but any package must be checked by customs and have its paperwork stamped by at least three other departments. Take your package (unsealed) to any post office and they’ll set you on your way. Many stores will send your purchases home for you, which is much easier. Within the country, you can send a package by bus if there is someone to collect it at the other end.

Maps

Reliable maps include Mexico road maps published by Globetrotter (1:3,500,000), GeoCenter (1:2,500,000), Hallwag (1:2,500,000) and Freytag & Berndt (1:2,000,000).

In Mexico itself, the best maps are those produced by Guía Roji, who also publish a Mexican road atlas and a Mexico City street guide. Guía Roji maps are widely available – try branches of Sanborn’s or large Pemex stations – and can also be ordered on line at
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tienda.guiaroji.com.mx.

More detailed, large-scale maps – for hiking or climbing – are harder to come by. The most detailed, easily available area maps are produced by International Travel Map Productions (witmb.ca), whose Travellers’ Reference Map series covers various regions of the country. INEGI, the Mexican office of statistics, also produce very good topographic maps on various scales. They have an office in every state capital (addresses on their website at winegi.org.mx – click on “Centros de Información INEGI” under “Productos y servicios”). Unfortunately, stocks can run rather low, so don’t count on being able to buy the ones that you want.

Money

The Mexican peso, usually written $, is made up of 100 centavos (¢, like a US cent). Bills come in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $200, $500 and $1000, with coins of 10¢, 20¢, 50¢, $1, $2, $5 and $10. The use of the dollar symbol for the peso is occasionally confusing; the initials MN (moneda nacional or national coin) are occasionally used to indicate that it’s Mexican, not American money that is being referred to. We have generally quoted prices in Mexican pesos (M$). Note, however, that these will be affected by factors such as inflation and exchange rates.

ATMs

The easiest way to access your money in Mexico is in the form of plastic, though it’s a good idea to also have some cash back-up. Using a Visa, MasterCard, Plus or Cirrus card, you can withdraw cash from ATMs in most towns and tourist resorts. By using these you get trade exchange rates, which are somewhat better than those charged by banks for changing cash, though your card issuer may well add a foreign transaction fee, and these can be as much as five percent, so check with your issuer before leaving home. Local ATM providers may also charge a transaction fee, typically around M$30; generally speaking, rates and fees make it cheaper to use an ATM for more than around $100/£70, but to change cash in a casa de cambio for anything much less than that. If you use a credit card rather than a debit card, note all cash advances and ATM withdrawals obtained are treated as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal. Travellers’ cheques are increasingly difficult to change in Mexico, but it is possible to get a prepaid card, like a form of travellers’ cheques in plastic, which you charge up with funds at home and then use to withdraw money from ATMs – MasterCard, Visa and American Express all issue them. A very few ATMs in big city centres and resorts can issue US dollars as well as pesos.

Banks and exchange
Banks are generally open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm, often with shorter hours for exchange. Commission on currency exchange varies but the exchange rate is fixed daily by the government. Not all banks can change money, and only larger branches of the big banks, plus some in tourist resorts, will change currencies other than dollars – and even then at worse rates than you would get for the dollar equivalent.

Casas de cambio (forex bureaux aka bureaux de change) have varying exchange rates and commission charges, and tend to have shorter queues, less bureaucratic procedures and longer opening hours. The exchange rates are generally better than at banks, but always worth checking, especially for travellers’ cheques. Some casas de cambio will change only US dollars, but others take euros, Canadian dollars, sterling and other currencies. $100 bills usually attract a better rate than small bills. Again, it’s worth shopping around, especially if you intend to change a large sum. Even in a casa de cambio, you’ll need your passport to change money.

Quetzales and Belizean dollars are best got rid of before entering Mexico; otherwise, your best bet for changing them is with tourists heading the other way. It is a good idea to change other currencies into US dollars at home before coming to Mexico, since the difference in the exchange rate more than outweighs the amount you lose in changing your money twice. In some touristy places, such as Acapulco and Tijuana, US dollar bills are almost as easy to spend as pesos. If you’re desperate, hotels, shops and restaurants that are used to tourists may change dollars or accept them as payment, but rates will be very low.

Opening hours

It’s almost impossible to generalize about opening hours in Mexico; even when times are posted at museums, tourist offices and shops, they’re not always adhered to.

The siesta is still around, and many places will close for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, usually from 1pm to 3pm. Where it’s hot – especially on the Gulf coast and in the Yucatán – everything may close for up to four hours in the middle of the day, and then reopen until 8pm or 9pm. In central Mexico, the industrial north and highland areas, hours are more like the standard nine-to-five, and shops do not close for lunch.

Shops tend to keep long hours, say from 9am to 8pm. Museums and galleries open from about 9am or 10am to 5pm or 6pm. Many have reduced entry fees – or are free – on Sunday, and most are closed on Monday. Some museums close for lunch, but archeological sites are open all day.

Phones

Local phone calls in Mexico are cheap, and some hotels will let you call locally for free. Coin-operated public phones exist but internal long-distance calls are best made with a phonecard (sold at newsstands and usable in public phones on almost every street corner). Slightly more expensive, but often less for international calls, are casetas de teléfono, phone offices, mainly found at bus stations and airports. Calling abroad with a phonecard or from a caseta is expensive. Some internet offices offer VOIP international calls, which may be cheaper, but the line will not be as good.

It is also possible to call collect (por cobrar). In theory, you should be able to make an international collect call from any public phone, by dialling the international operator (t090). If you have a calling card from your home phone company, you can use the company’s toll-free number and have the call billed to you at home.

Calling Mexico from abroad, dial the international access code (011 from the US or Canada, 00 from Britain, Ireland or New Zealand, 0011 from Australia, 09 from South Africa), followed by the country code for Mexico, which is 52. Mexican numbers are ten-digit including the area code (lada), which is usually three digits, although Mexico City (55), Guadalajara (33) and Monterrey (81) have two digit area codes. The number itself is usually seven digits, again excepting Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, where phone numbers have eight digits. If dialling from abroad, you dial the area code immediately after the 52 for Mexico. If dialling long-distance within Mexico, or from a mobile, you need to dial 01, then the area code and the number. If dialling from a landline with the same area code, you omit it. The area code for toll-free numbers is 800, always preceded by the 01.

Mobile phones
To use a mobile phone in Mexico is expensive if you simply take your own phone and use it under a roaming agreement. If you are there for any length of time, buy a prepaid phone (around M$500, including a varying amount of call credit). You can buy a Mexican SIM-card to get a Mexican number for your own handset, but this involves registering your identity (so you’ll need a passport, and you may need to go to the phone company’s main office), something that doesn’t always work for a foreigner, so make sure your mobile works before you leave the store. Your phone charger will not work in Mexico if it is designed for a 220–240v electricity supply. Calls from mobiles are pricey and with a SIM-card from abroad you pay to receive as well as make international calls.

Like landlines, Mexican mobile phones have ten-digit numbers of which the first two or three are the area code. Generally speaking, to call a mobile from a landline, first dial 044 if it has the same area code, 045 if not, or the international access code plus 52-1 if calling from abroad, and then the ten-digit number; note, however, that some mobile numbers work in the same way as dialling landline numbers – unfortunately, you cannot tell from the number alone how it will work.

Photography

It’s easy enough to get prints made from a USB-stick in Mexico. Film is also manufactured in the country and, if you buy it from a chain store like Sanborn’s rather than at a tourist store, costs no more than at home. Up to twelve rolls of film can be brought into Mexico, and spare batteries are also a wise precaution. Slide film is hard to come by, and any sort of camera hardware will be expensive.

Senior travellers

Mexico is not a country that offers any special difficulties – or any special advantages – to older travellers, but the same considerations apply here as to anywhere else in the world. If choosing a package tour, consider one run by firms such as Road Scholar (wroadscholar.org) or Saga (wsaga.co.uk), which specialize in holidays for the over-50s.

Do remember that Mexico’s high altitude, desert heat and tropical humidity can tire you out a lot faster than you might otherwise expect. As far as comfort is concerned, first-class buses are generally pretty pleasant, with plenty of legroom. Second-class buses can be rather more boneshaking, and you may not want to take them for too long a journey.

Senior citizens are often entitled to discounts at tourist sights, and on occasion for accommodation and transport, something which it’s always worth asking about.

Time

Four time zones exist in Mexico. Most of the country is on GMT–6 in winter, GMT–5 in summer (first Sun in April till last Sun in Oct), the same as US Central Time. Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Nayarit and Chihuahua are on GMT–7 in winter, GMT–6 in summer (the same as US Mountain Time). Baja California is on GMT–8 in winter, GMT–7 in summer, the same as the US West Coast (Pacific Time); and finally, Sonora is on GMT–7 all year round, and does not observe daylight saving time.

Toilets

Public toilets in Mexico are usually decent enough, but in bars or hole-in-the-wall restaurants, they can be quite basic, and may not have paper. It’s therefore wise to carry toilet paper with you. In bus stations, you usually have to pay to use them. Paper should usually be placed in a bin after use, rather than flushed, as it may otherwise block the plumbing.

Toilets are usually known as baños (literally bathrooms) or as excusados or sanitarios. The most common signs are “Damas” (Ladies) and “Caballeros” (Gentlemen), though you may find the more confusing “Señoras” (Women) and “Señores” (Men) or even symbols of the moon (women) and sun (men).

Tourist information

The first place to head for information, and for free maps of the country and many towns, is the Mexican Government Ministry of Tourism (Secretaría de Turismo, abbreviated to SECTUR; wsectur.gob.mx, with travel information at wvisitmexico.com), which has offices throughout Mexico and abroad.

Once you’re in Mexico, you’ll find tourist offices (sometimes called turismos) in most towns. Each state capital will have one run by SECTUR, but most are run by state and municipal authorities; sometimes there’ll be two or three rival ones in the same town. Most tourist offices are extremely friendly and helpful, with informed staff and free information and leaflets by the cart-load, but some are barely capable of answering the simplest enquiry.

Travellers with disabilities

An estimated five percent of Mexicans suffer from some kind of significant disability, and Mexico has made massive advances in accessibility in recent years, although problems still remain. Ramps and wheelchair accessibility are now the norm in public buildings, and braille is increasingly common on public notices too. The real scandal so far as people with disabilities are concerned is the continued abuse of those confined to residential institutions or living on the street.

Hotels vary, but especially at the top end of the market, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find accommodation and tour operators who can cater for your particular needs. If you stick to beach resorts – Cancún and Acapulco in particular – and upmarket tourist hotels, you should be able to find places that are wheelchair-friendly and used to disabled guests. US chains are very good for this, with Choice, Days Inn, Holiday Inn, Leading Hotels of the World, Marriott, Radisson, Ramada, Sheraton and Westin claiming to have the necessary facilities for at least some disabilities in some of their hotels. Check in advance with tour companies, hotels and airlines that they can accommodate you specifically.

Unless you have your own transport, the best way to travel in Mexico may be by air; buses still rarely cater for disabled people and wheelchairs. Kerb ramps are increasingly common, especially in big cities, but less so in smaller places, where streets and pavements may not be in great nick, and people are not especially more likely to volunteer help than at home. Depending on your disability, you may want to find an able-bodied helper to accompany you.