Travel Tips Mexico for planning and on the go
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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$450/£290/€403 a week (you could reduce that if you hardly travel around, stay 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$650/£418/€582.
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 International Youth Travel Card (IYTC) for for under-31s, both of which are available from youth travel firms such as STA Travel. A university or college photo ID card might even 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 sometimes added to bills; if not, 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 smarter venues.
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, Europe, Australasia and South Africa should bring along a converter and a plug adaptor. Cuts in service and fluctuations in current sometimes occur.
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 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. Wi-fi (generally free) is widespread in hotels, hostels, restaurants, cafés and even town plazas.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Mexico, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as $6 a day.
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. There have been more positive moves recently, though: in June 2015 the Supreme Court issued a “jurisprudential thesis” that changed the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.
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, 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 spartacus.gayguide.travel.
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.
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 amerispan.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.
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.
Reliable options available outside of Mexico 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 online at 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, 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 inegi.org.mx – click on “Productos y Servicios”, then on “Atención a Usuarios” and finally select “Centros de Información INEGI”). Unfortunately, stocks can run rather low, so don’t count on being able to buy the ones that you want.
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. Check an online currency converter such as XE or OANDA for up-to-date rates. Some tour operators and large hotels quote prices in US dollars, and accept payment in that currency.
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. Some ATMs in big city centres and resorts can issue US dollars as well as pesos.
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, pounds 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.
Guatemalan 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 – try weswap.com, a useful website that allows travellers to swap foreign currency with each other. 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.
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.
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 more convenient, 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. Skype is generally the best option.
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.
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.
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. Slide film is hard to come by, and any sort of camera hardware will be expensive.
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.
Five 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. The state of Quintana Roo changed time zones in early 2015, moving to GMT–5 in winter and GMT–4 in summer, bringing it into line with Eastern Standard Time.
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).
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; sectur.gob.mx, with travel information at visitmexico.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. Many 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.
An estimated five percent of Mexicans have 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 high-end 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.
Children under the age of 18 can enter the country either with their own passport or on the passport of a parent with whom they are travelling, but if they are not accompanied by both parents, they will need written consent from whichever parent is not with them (or from both if they are on their own).
Travelling with younger kids is not uncommon – most Mexicans dote on children and they often help to break the ice with strangers. The main problem, especially with small children, is their extra vulnerability. They need protecting from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. Chile peppers in particular may be a problem for kids who are not used to them. Diarrhoea can also be dangerous for younger children: rehydration salts are vital. Ensure that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies and other animal-borne illnesses; keep children away from all animals and consider a rabies shot.
For touring, hiking or walking, child-carrier backpacks are ideal: they can weigh less than 2kg. If the child is small enough, a fold-up buggy is also well worth packing – especially if they will sleep in it while you have a meal or a drink.
The main official public holidays, when virtually everything will be closed, are listed here. Many places also close on January 6 (Twelfth Night/Reyes).
The Mexican media can be very sensationalist, and news is mostly local, and often heavily slanted towards the government, but for Spanish-speakers there is an independent press as well as some interesting programmes on TV.
Few domestic newspapers carry much foreign news, and the majority of international coverage does not extend beyond Latin America. Most papers are lurid scandal sheets, brimming with violent crime depicted in full colour. Each state has its own press, however, and they do vary: while most are little more than government mouthpieces, others are surprisingly independent.
If you read Spanish, you could try Reforma,which has a good reputation for independence and political objectivity, while the more left-wing La Jornada is quite daringly critical of government and organized crime, and its journalists regularly face death threats as a result. The press has gradually been asserting its independence since the mid-1990s, tackling such subjects as human rights, corruption and drug trafficking, though journalists still face danger if they speak out, not only from shady government groups but also from drug traffickers. Reporting on links between the two is particularly dangerous. At least 26 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2009, according to press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders, who rate it as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
You can usually pick up a dozen channels in Mexico without cable or satellite. Four are run by the main TV company, Televisa, and another couple by TV Azteca. Canal 22 tends to show cultural programmes, though they are often rather dry. Canal Once is the most original and independent channel, and frequently has something quite interesting on, especially late in the evening. Cable and satellite are widespread, and even quite budget hotels offer numerous channels, many of them American.
On Mexican TV you can watch any number of US shows dubbed into Spanish, but far and away the most popular programmes are the telenovelas – soap operas that dominate the screens from 6pm to 10pm and pull in millions of viewers. Each episode takes melodrama to new heights, with nonstop action and emotions hammed up to the maximum for riveted fans. Plot lines make national news, and telenovela stars are major celebrities, despite their ludicrously over-the-top acting styles.
Radio stations in the capital and Guadalajara (among others) have programmes in English for a couple of hours each day, and in many places US broadcasts can also be picked up. Reactor (in Mexico City on 105.7MHz FM), plays a mix of music including modern Mexican sounds, and from México state, Radio Chapingo (1610kHz AM) plays the traditional music of indigenous ethnic groups as well as modern Mexican music of various genres. If you have a short-wave radio, you can get the Voice of America and at certain times, Radio Canada.
Most travellers visit Mexico without catching anything more serious than a dose of "Montezuma’s Revenge". You will still want the security of health insurance, but the important thing is to keep your resistance high and to be aware of the health risks linked to poor hygiene, untreated water, mosquito bites and undressed open cuts.
Lack of sanitation in Mexico is much exaggerated, but a degree of caution is wise. Avoid food that looks like it has been on display for a while or not freshly cooked, and always peel fruit before eating it. Avoid raw shellfish, and don’t eat anywhere that is obviously dirty (easily spotted, since most Mexican restaurants are scrupulously clean). Salads are healthy, but think twice before eating them if you have a sensitive stomach. In general, keep an eye out for cleanliness of street stalls – beware of food that has been left out to breed germs rather than food that has been freshly cooked.
There are no required vaccinations for Mexico, but it’s worth visiting your doctor at least four weeks before you leave to check that you are up to date with tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A shots, as well as a rabies shot and anti-malarial pills if you’re going to be in areas where they are recommended.
Diarrhoea ("Montezuma’s Revenge", or simply turista as it’s also known in Mexico) is the medical problem you’re most likely to encounter, and no one, however cautious, seems to avoid it altogether. If you go down with a mild dose unaccompanied by other symptoms, it may simply be due to your body being unfamiliar with the local bacteria, but if your diarrhoea is accompanied by cramps and vomiting, it could be food poisoning of some sort. Either way, it will probably pass of its own accord in 24 to 48 hours without treatment. In the meantime, it’s essential to replace the fluid and salts you’re losing, so drink lots of water. If you have severe diarrhoea, and whenever young children have it, add oral rehydration salts – suero oral (brand names: Dioralyte, Electrosol, Rehidrat). If you can’t get these, dissolve half a teaspoon of salt and three of sugar in a litre of water.
Avoid greasy food, heavy spices, caffeine and most fruit and dairy products; some say bananas, papayas, guavas and prickly pears (tunas) help, while plain yogurt or a broth made from yeast extract (such as Marmite or Vegemite, if you happen to have some with you) can be easily absorbed by your body when you have diarrhoea. Drugs like Lomotil or Imodium plug you up – and thus undermine the body’s efforts to rid itself of infection – but they can be a temporary stop-gap if you have to travel. If symptoms persist for more than three days, or if you have a fever or blood in your stool, seek medical advice.
Malaria, caused by a parasite that lives in the saliva of female Anopheles mosquitoes, is endemic in some parts of Mexico. Areas above 1000m (such as the capital) are malaria-free, as are Cancún, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and all the beach resorts of the Baja and the Pacific coasts. Daytime visits to archeological sites are risk-free, too, but low-lying inland areas can be risky, especially at night. According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the main risk areas are Chihuahua, Chiapas, Durango, Nayarit and Sinaloa, with rare cases in Campeche, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Sonora, Tabasco and the municipality of Othon P. Blanco in the southern part of Quintana Roo, bordering Belize. Chloroquine (brand names: Nivaquin, Resochin, Avloclor, Aralen) is the recommended malaria prophylactic for travellers to Mexico; you need to start taking the pills one week before you arrive and continue for one month after you depart. Chloroquine is unsuitable for sufferers from various complaints such as epilepsy and psoriasis but daily proguanil (brand name Paludrine) can be used in its place. Consult a physician before beginning any course of medication; see wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel for more information on malaria in Mexico.
If you go down with malaria, you’ll probably know. The fever, shivering and headaches are like severe flu and come in waves, usually beginning in the early evening. Malaria is not infectious, but can be dangerous and sometimes even fatal if not treated quickly, so you should seek medical help immediately.
The most important thing, obviously, is to avoid mosquito bites altogether. Though active from dusk till dawn, female Anopheles mosquitoes prefer to bite in the evening. Wear long sleeves, skirts or trousers, avoid dark colours, which attract mosquitoes, and put repellent on all exposed skin, especially feet and ankles, which are their favourite targets. Plenty of good brands are sold locally, though health departments recommend carrying high-DEET brands available from travel clinics at home. An alternative is to burn coils of pyrethrum incense such as Raidolitos (these are readily available and burn all night if whole, but break easily). Sleep under a net if you can – one that hangs from a single point is best if you’re going to buy one (you can usually find a way to tie a string across your room to hang it from). Special mosquito nets for hammocks are available in Mexico.
Another illness spread by mosquito bites is dengue fever, whose symptoms are similar to those of malaria, plus a headache and aching bones. Dengue-carrying mosquitoes are particularly prevalent in urban areas during the rainy season and fly during the day, so wear insect repellent in the daytime if mosquitoes are around. The only treatment is complete rest, with drugs to assuage the fever – and take note that a second infection can be fatal.
Other biting insects can also be a nuisance. These include bed bugs, sometimes found in cheap (and, occasionally, in not so cheap) hotels – look for squashed ones around the bed. Sandflies, often present on beaches, are quite small, but their bites, usually on feet and ankles, itch like hell and last for days. Head or body lice can be picked up from people or bedding, and are best treated with medicated soap or shampoo.
Scorpions are mostly nocturnal and hide during the day under rocks and in crevices, so poking around in such places when in the countryside is generally ill-advised. If sleeping in a place where they might enter (such as a beach cabaña), shake your shoes out before putting them on in the morning, and try not to wander round barefoot. Some scorpion stings are dangerous and medical treatment should always be sought – cold-pack the sting in the meantime. Snakes are unlikely to bite unless accidentally disturbed – walk heavily and they will usually slither away. A fifth or so of Mexico’s snake species are venomous, the most dangerous being rattlesnakes (cascabel, found in the north), coral snakes (coralillo, found particularly in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas), and the nauyacas (found mainly in the south and the Yucatán). If you do get bitten or stung, remember what the snake or scorpion looked like (kill it if you can do so without receiving more bites), try not to move the affected part (tourniquets are not recommended due to dangerous risk of gangrene – if you do use one, it is vital to relieve it for at least ninety seconds every fifteen minutes), and seek medical help: antivenins are available in most hospitals. Black widow spiders also exist in Mexico; tarantulas are more fearsome-looking, but a lot less dangerous.
Two other common causes of health problems in Mexico are altitude and the sun. The solution in both cases is to take it easy. Arriving in Mexico City (2240m), in particular, you may find any activity strenuous, and the thin air is made worse by the high concentration of pollutants. Allow yourself time to acclimatize. If going to higher altitudes (mountain climbing, for example), you may develop symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), such as breathlessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea and appetite loss. More extreme cases may include vomiting, disorientation, loss of balance and coughing up of pink frothy phlegm. A slow descent almost always brings immediate recovery.
Tolerance to the sun, too, takes a while to build up: use a strong sunscreen and, if you’re walking during the day, wear a hat or keep to the shade. Be sure to avoid dehydration by drinking enough (water or fruit juice rather than beer or coffee and aim to drink at least three litres a day), and don’t exert yourself for long periods in the hot sun. Be aware that overheating can cause heatstroke, which is potentially fatal. Signs are a very high body temperature without a feeling of fever, accompanied by headaches, disorientation and even irrational behaviour. Lowering body temperature (a tepid shower, for example) is the first step in treatment.
Less serious is prickly heat, an itchy rash that is in fact an infection of the sweat ducts caused by excessive perspiration that doesn’t dry off. A cool shower, zinc oxide powder and loose cotton clothes should help.
Hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated food and water, or through saliva, and thrives in conditions of poor hygiene. It can lay a victim low for several months with exhaustion, fever and diarrhoea, and can even cause liver damage. The Havrix vaccine has been shown to be extremely effective; with a booster after six months, protection lasts for ten years.
Hepatitis symptoms include a yellowing of the whites of the eyes, general malaise, orange urine (though dehydration can also cause this) and light-coloured stools. If you think you have it and are unable immediately to see a doctor, it is important to get lots of rest, avoid alcohol and do your best not to spread the disease. If medical insurance coverage is an issue, you can go to a pathology lab (most towns have them) to get blood tests before paying a greater amount to see a doctor.
More serious is hepatitis B, which is passed through blood or sexual contact, in the same way as HIV, but more easily. A hepatitis B jab is recommended if you will be in contact with those with weaker immunity systems, for example, working around medical patients or with children. Ideally three doses are given over six months but if time is short, there are other options that take one to two months, with a booster given after a year.
Typhoid and cholera are spread in the same way as hepatitis A. Typhoid produces a persistent high fever with malaise, headaches and abdominal pains, followed by diarrhoea. Vaccination can be by injection or orally, though the oral alternative is less effective, more expensive and only lasts a year, as opposed to three for a shot in the arm. Cholera appears in epidemics rather than isolated cases – if it’s about, you will probably hear about it. Cholera is characterized by sudden attacks of watery diarrhoea with severe cramps and debilitation. The vaccination is no longer given, as it is ineffective.
Immunizations against mumps, measles, TB and rubella are a good idea for anyone who wasn’t vaccinated as a child and hasn’t had the diseases, and it’s worth making sure you are covered for tetanus. You don’t need a shot for yellow fever unless you’re coming from a country where it’s endemic (in which case you need to carry your vaccination certificate).
Rabies exists in Mexico and the rabies vaccine is advised for anyone who will be more than 24 hours away from medical help, for example if going trekking in remote areas. The best advice is simply to give dogs a wide berth, and not to play with animals at all, no matter how cuddly they may look. A bite, a scratch or even a lick from an infected animal could spread the disease – rabies can be fatal, so if you are bitten, assume the worst and get medical help as quickly as possible. While waiting, wash any such wound immediately but gently with soap or detergent and apply alcohol or iodine if possible. If you decide to get the vaccination, you’ll need three shots spread over a four-week period prior to travel.
For minor medical problems, head for a farmacia – look for a green cross and the Farmacia sign. Pharmacists are knowledgeable and helpful, and many speak some English. One word of warning however: in many Mexican pharmacies you can still buy drugs such as Entero-Vioform and Mexaform (both used to treat diarrhoea), which can cause optic nerve damage and have been banned elsewhere; it is not a good idea, therefore, to use local brands unless you know what they are. Note that the purchase of prescription drugs without a Mexican prescription is illegal; a US prescription will not suffice.
For more serious complaints you can get a list of English-speaking doctors from your government’s nearest consulate. Big hotels and tourist offices may also be able to recommend medical services. Every Mexican border town has hundreds of doctors (dentists, too) experienced in treating gringos, since they charge less than their colleagues across the border. Every reasonably sized town should also have a state- or Red Cross-run health centre (centro de salud), where treatment is free. Treatment at health centres should be adequate for minor problems, but for anything involving an overnight stay, go to a private hospital (for which your travel insurance should cover you).
In a hot climate and at high altitudes, it’s essential to increase water intake to prevent dehydration. Most travellers, and most Mexicans if they can, stay off the tap water. A lot of the time it is in fact drinkable, and in practice may be impossible to avoid completely: ice made with it, unasked for, may appear in drinks, utensils are washed in it, and so on.
Most restaurants and licuaderías use purified water (agua purificada), but always check; most hotels have a supply and will often provide bottles of water in your room. Bottled water (generally purified with ozone or ultraviolet) is widely available, but stick with known brands, and always check that the seal on the bottle is intact since refilling empties with tap water for resale is common (carbonated water is generally a safer bet in that respect).
There are various methods of treating water while you are travelling, whether your source is from a tap or a river or stream. Boiling it for a minimum of five minutes is the time-honoured method, but it is not always practical, will not remove unpleasant tastes and is a lot less effective at higher altitudes – including much of central Mexico – where you have to boil it for much longer.
Chemical sterilization, using either chlorine or iodine tablets or a tincture of iodine liquid, is more convenient, but leaves a nasty aftertaste (which can to some extent be masked with lime juice). Chlorine kills bacteria but, unlike iodine, is not effective against amoebic dysentery and giardiasis. Pregnant women or people with thyroid problems should consult their doctor before using iodine sterilizing tablets or iodine-based purifiers. Too many iodine tablets can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Inexpensive iodine removal filters are available and are recommended if treated water is being used continuously for more than a month or is being given to babies.
Purification, involving both filtration and sterilization, gives the most complete treatment. Portable water purifiers range in size from units weighing as little as 60g, which can be slipped into a pocket, up to 800g for carrying in a backpack.
Mexicans are generally very courteous, and in some ways quite formal. It is common, for example, to address people as señor or señora, while being too brusque can give quite a bad impression.
Most Mexicans are also quite religious, and about three-quarters are Roman Catholic; you will often see little altars by the roadside, and many people cross themselves whenever they pass a church. It is wise to avoid open disrespect for religion unless you are sure of your company. While male travellers will find the country very easy-going, women may encounter a few difficulties arising from traditional Latin machismo.
Machismo is engrained in the Mexican mentality and, although it’s softened to some extent by the gentler mores of indigenous culture, most women will find that a degree of harassment is inevitable.
On the whole, most hassles will be limited to comments (piropos, supposedly compliments) in the street, but situations that might be quite routine at home can seem threatening without a clear understanding of the nuances of Mexican Spanish. Avoid eye contact – wearing sunglasses helps. Any provocation is best ignored – Mexican women are rarely slow with a stream of retaliatory abuse, but it’s a dangerous strategy unless you’re very sure of your ground, and coming from a foreigner, it may be taken as racism.
Public transport can be one of the worst places for harassment, especially groping in crowded situations. On the Mexico City Metro, there are separate women’s carriages and passages during rush hours. Otherwise, if you get a seat, you can hide behind a newspaper.
Problems are aggravated in the big tourist spots, where legendarily “easy” tourists attract droves of would-be gigolos. Away from resorts and big cities, though, and especially in indigenous areas, there is rarely any problem – you may as an outsider be treated as an object of curiosity, and usually, such curiosity can also extend to friendliness and hospitality. On the whole, the further from the US border you get, the easier things will become.
The restrictions imposed on drinking are without a doubt irksome: women can now drink in cantinas, but even in so-called “ladies’ bars”, “unescorted” women may be looked at with suspicion. Even in the roughest places, you are unlikely to be refused service nowadays, but whether or not you would feel comfortable drinking there is a different matter.
At expensive restaurants in tourist resorts, waiters and waitresses are used to American tipping levels (15–20 percent), but elsewhere levels are more like those in Europe (10–15 percent). In mid-range and upmarket hotels, you will be expected to tip chambermaids (a few dollars, depending on the standard of the hotel and the length of your stay) and porters (ten to twenty pesos or a dollar is fine). It is not usual to tip taxi drivers, but small tips are expected by petrol-station and car-park attendants and the bagboys at supermarkets (all of these will be happy with a few pesos of small change).
The craft tradition of Mexico, much of it descended directly from arts practised long before the Spanish arrived, is still extremely strong. Regional and highly localized specialities survive, with villages throughout the republic jealously guarding their reputations – especially in the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca and Chiapas, as well as the Yucatán Peninsula. There’s a considerable amount of Guatemalan textiles and embroidery about, too.
To buy crafts, there is no need to visit the place of origin – shops in Mexico City and all the big resorts gather the best and most popular items from around the country. On the other hand, it’s a great deal more enjoyable to see where the articles come from, and certainly the only way to get any real bargains. The good stuff is rarely cheap wherever you buy it, however, and there is an enormous amount of dross produced specifically for tourists.
FONART shops, in major centres throughout Mexico, are run by a government agency devoted to the promotion and preservation of crafts; their wares are always excellent, if expensive, and the shops should be visited to get an idea of what is available. Where no such store exists, you can get a similar idea by looking at the best of the tourist shops.
Among the most popular items are: silver, the best of which is wrought in Taxco, although rarely mined there; pottery, made almost everywhere, with different techniques, designs and patterns in each region; woollen goods, especially blankets, which are again made everywhere, and sarapes from Oaxaca – always check the fibres and go for more expensive natural dyes; leather, especially tyre-tread-soled huaraches (sandals), sold cheaply wherever you go; glass from Jalisco; lacquerware, particularly from Uruapán; and hammocks, the best of which are sold in Mérida.
It is illegal to buy or sell antiquities, and even more criminal to try taking them out of the country (moreover, many items sold as valuable antiquities are little more than worthless fakes) – best to just look.
For bargain hunters, the mercado (market) is the place to head. There’s one in every Mexican town which, on the traditional market day, will be at its busiest with villagers from the surrounding area bringing their produce for sale or barter. Mercados are mainly dedicated to food and everyday necessities, but most have a section devoted to crafts, and in larger towns you may find a separate crafts bazaar.
Unless you’re completely hopeless at bargaining, prices will always be lower in the market than in shops, but shops do have a couple of advantages. First, they exercise a degree of quality control, whereas any old junk can be sold in the market; and second, many established shops will be able to ship purchases home for you, which saves an enormous amount of frustrating bureaucracy.
Bargaining and haggling are very much a matter of personal style, highly dependent on your command of Spanish, aggressiveness and, to some extent, experience. The old tricks (never showing the least sign of interest – let alone enthusiasm, and walking away, will always cut the price dramatically) do still hold true; but make sure you know what you want, its approximate value and how much you are prepared to pay. Never start to haggle for something you definitely don’t intend to buy – it’ll end in bad feelings on both sides. In shops there’s little chance of significantly altering the official price unless you’re buying in bulk, and even in markets most food and simple household goods have a set price (though it may be doubled at the sight of an approaching gringo).