Before you think about moving to Mexico, whether to one of the big three cities like Guadalajara, Monterrey or Mexico City or a smaller town, there are tons of things to consider – do you speak Spanish? Do you need a visa for Mexico? Will you like the food? What’s the cost of living in Mexico? However, after living here for almost two years now, I can tell you there are plenty of things no one tells you about living in Mexico, that you really should know and consider before you decide to move there. In the spirit of graciously making my fellow Mexico expats’ transitions easier, here’s everything weird, wonderful, quirky and even frustrating about Mexican culture and life that nobody thinks to mention when you tell them you’re moving to Mexico.
ALL THE THINGS NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT LIVING IN MEXICO
1. You can actually buy tampons in Mexico
This is one of the biggest myths of all that I would like to take a second to debunk right now. Before I moved to Mexico, one thing that I kept hearing was that you can’t buy tampons in Mexico. Honestly, I should have packed a suitcase full of the bloody things according to some people. Howeverrrr, you can most definitely buy tampons here and my vagina concurs with that. They’re not cheap (but where are they cheap?!) and you might only be confronted with pads if you run to a corner shop (a la Oxxo or Seven Eleven) in a period-fuelled panic, but they can most definitely be found.
Sidenote: Bear in mind, I’ve lived in two of the biggest cities in Mexico (Mexico City and Guadalajara), so I can’t speak for smaller pueblos. It’s safe to assume that they will likely be trickier to get your hands on there. Even so, just buy more than you need when you do spot them, rather than wasting your luggage allowance on feminine hygiene products.
OK, OK, this is actually something that everyone tells you about living in Mexico, but I think in this post-Trump world it’s worth reiterating that Mexicans are not all drug dealers and bad hombres. In fact, most Mexicans (in my experience) will go out of the way to help you with whatever compromising situation you find yourself in, whether that’s asking for directions or swapping change with you at the bus stop. However, that brings me on to my next point…
3. But they’re incapable of saying no
If you ask for directions and the person you ask has no idea where that place is, rare is the occasion that they’ll straight up tell you that. Instead, they’ll vaguely wave their hand, give a very convoluted response or (and this has actually happened to me) ring their daughter to get the direction from her. In short, Mexicans have a hard time saying no. This also explains the set response of ‘gracias’ rather than ‘no’ that you’ll hear most people say to street side vendors when they offer up their wares, and perhaps sheds light on the ahorita phenomenon of Mexican culture. For reference, ahorita (right now, literally) can mean anywhere from ‘in a sec’ to ‘absolutely never, lol’. So…take care with that one!
4. Renting might prove harder than you first think
This very much depends where you’re going to be living and what you want your living situation in Mexico to look like, but renting in Mexico can prove problematic. If you want to rent a whole flat for yourself, and then sublet the other rooms (or live alone), you’ll need an aval (guarantor) who’ll be responsible for any missed payments on your behalf. Think of it as a back-up for the landlord if you turn out to be a shitty renter. However, your aval has to fulfil certain requirements and be a Mexican citizen, which is where many recently arrived expats find it difficult to get a foot on the rental ladder. There are companies which are basically like rent-an-aval services but these can prove costly, so it’s worth trying to figure out who your aval could be before you arrive.
On the other hand, if you just want to rent a room you should find the process pretty smooth – you’ll probably be asked to give a month’s rent as deposit (the cost of renting in Mexico is generally quite cheap), but there are generally no formal contracts involved in the process. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it, and you need to have a certain level of trust in your subletting landlord or lady. However, for temporary stays, it’s perfect.
Tip: The website compartodepa.com.mx was a lifesaver for me when I was searching for rooms in Guadalajara and it’s free and easy to use. Definitely get yourself signed up!
Is Mexican bureaucracy bad? If you want the short answer, then yes. If you want the long answer, then fuck yes. The Mexican penchant for excessive bureaucracy is well-documented (ha!), so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Either way, as an expat in Mexico, you are going to have to get used to hearing different things from various government officials at different points in the lunar cycle and depending on what they ate for breakfast that morning. I joke, of course, but it can sometimes feel like that when you’re passed from pillar to post and given different information at each stage.
We’ve all been to immigration with the correct (supposedly) documents, only to be told we need another six copies of this, another four of that and a coffee with two sugars from the Oxxo down the road, thank you very much.
Tip: When dealing with Mexican bureaucracy, take more copies in more colours, shapes and sizes than you were told you needed. Check with at least three people RE: what you actually need to bring and make sure you check the opening times for the place you need to be at very carefully, lest you arrive and find it already closed for lunch at two and won’t reopen until next February 30th.
If you’re renting in Mexico, you’ll be expected to pay your landlord cash in hand. Just like it took the US bloody ages to catch on to chip and pin, it has taken Mexico a good old while to start using direct debits. Even so, the insanely dangerous (wandering about the streets after just withdrawing thousands of pesos isn’t my favourite thing to do) and inconvenient act of paying in cash for everything should still be expected in most places.
Tip: When it comes to paying for electric bills, you have to go to the nearest Oxxo and pay there. You (again) can’t pay by card and they’ll charge you a MXN$6.50 handling fee for the pleasure.
7. All banking matters have to be handled in person
This is an annoyance more than anything, and I’m of course speaking from my experiences with Santander only – I don’t know how other banks in Mexico operate. Disclaimer aside, with Santander everything has to be done in person – to set up online banking you have to go in person, to transfer money you have to go in person (and you’ll need the CLABE code of whoever you’re transferring money to too). Basically, it’s all just more time spent waiting to do things that could all be sorted online. (See the previous point).
8. Your home driving licence won’t be accepted as ID
Don’t bother taking your driving licence with you to be used as ID (in official capacities), because it simply won’t be accepted. Instead, you need to use your visa or your passport, and it has to be the real-life original, not a copy.
Tip: You do not have to give your actual passport to any police official if they ask you for it – in situations like that, copies should suffice of whatever form of identification they ask of you, and don’t feel pressured into giving them anything else.
9. Politeness is key
Mexican Spanish is super polite, sometimes in excess, and you’ll quickly get used to hearing words like ‘mande’ instead of ‘qué’. Trust me, once this enters your vocabulary it’s there for good…even when I switch back to English the odd mande slips out from time to time. As far as the language goes in terms of politeness, Mexico also uses the ustedes form exclusively, so you can forget the odious, tricky to pronounce vosotros conjugation the second you step foot on Mexican soil.
Politeness extends into the culture too though. I’ve witnessed about as many people fighting to sit down on the metro as I have fighting to not sit down. Instead, they’ll spend a good 20 seconds in a battle of wills with the other person, offering them the seat, before one of them reluctantly backs down and takes it.
10. There are women and children only areas on public transport
This only applies to the capital, as on Mexico City transportation options (like the Metrobús and Metro) there are women and children only carriages/ sections. They were introduced in an attempt to cut the rate of sexual harassment and assault on public transport, yet there are plenty of men who still regularly flout the rules and hop on them anyway. If you’re a woman (or child) reading this, use them! Similarly, if you’re a man reading this (hi!), don’t be that idiot who uses the women and children’s carriages. They’re there for a reason, so respect that.
11. You can’t find blutack anywhere
Straight up not available. So, if you want to pin posters to your wall, bring a stash from home.
12. Travel can be cheap
This one is a controversial point, as it’s coming from a very Western perspective and concept of what is cheap and what isn’t. First of all, let’s take my three-hour round journey to work in Mexico City – I take four buses and two metros and it costs me a grand total of between MXN$24-30 (~£1-1.20). That, by my standards, is very cheap (and Mexico City actually has some of the cheapest public transport in the country), however for locals who potentially earn very little, it could actually be considered pretty expensive. Even so, compared to Monterrey (where a bus journey can run to MXN$12, rather than CDMX’s price of MXN$2) it is definitely far more affordable.
However, when it comes to long distance bus travel, it can actually be far costlier than you were perhaps led to believe before you move to Mexico…but at least the generally comfortable buses and ample leg room make up for that. Mexico doesn’t really dabble in Megabus type coaches.
13. Buses often have baby shoes hanging from the bars
This one is just worth mentioning because it’s something I’ve yet to figure out and I find it amusing every time I see one just hanging out on the bus. You might also spot the ubiquitous dangling baby shoes in taxis too.
14. PDA is off the charts
When I first moved to Mexico, I had a note on my phone with all the things that were surprising to me about the country and PDA was one of them. Honestly, I’ve never seen as much tongue action in real life as I did when I first started using the metro in Mexico City, and I’ve legit seen partners laid on top of one another in public parks. Couples here are really no holds barred when it comes to PDA, and being a slightly repressed and awkward Brit, I was definitely a bit taken aback by it at first. (It’s worth noting that I no longer find this particular cultural quirk surprising. Often a bit gross, yes, but surprising, no.)
15. Bulk buying is far easier here and super common
Unlike many other countries, the UK for example, where you need a membership or company card to access bulk buy stores like Costco, in Mexico the bulk buy industry is far more informal. It’s not uncommon to see people hauling huge bin bags full of crisps (not exaggerating) on the metro and you can buy boxes of sweets, such as mazapanes de la rosa from tons of stores. However, for Costco you do still sadly need a membership card.
16. Similar stores always seem to cluster together
Want flowers? There’s probably a street for that in the city. Looking for a bridal gown? Go to the top of Chapultepec in Guadalajara. While I still fail to understand how any of these stores make money by clustering around their competitors, it does make shopping easier because everything is handily in one place and I definitely recommend taking a stroll down Calle Donceles in Mexico City, if you’re looking to pick up some used books.
17. Buses follow no rules
As a general rule, you kind of just have to wing it when it comes to bus travel in Mexico. When I first got to Guadalajara, I didn’t understand how anyone ever got anywhere because there were very few ‘official’ looking bus stops and no information on the routes (there actually is a site that can help you with bus routes in Guadalajara – rutasgdl.com – but it’s pretty tricky to get your head around at first). Basically, once you’ve figured out the bus number you need, and the road it should pass down, just stand on a corner and stick your hand out when you see it approaching – with any luck it’ll stop.
Sidenote: The exception to this confusing bus rule is the RTP service in Mexico City (and possibly in other cities too), which is government run. They do in fact have set bus stops and you’ll be able to tell where they are by looking for the RTP sign on the side of the road.
18. Antibiotics are given out like sweets
This is more of a public health warning, if anything, but please don’t always take antibiotics if you’re prescribed them in Mexico. I’ve been to the doctor on a handful of occasions during my time here and I find the attitude to handing out antibiotics is fairly shameful. One time I was given a prescription for them when I had a simple cough and cold. So, don’t always run to the nearest pharmacy and pop them like sweets (even if you’re told to).
Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a doctor and you don’t have to take medical advice from travel bloggers on the internet, but keep the Mexican fascination with antibiotics in mind if you’re planning on moving there. As a sidenote, always ask for the generic brand of whatever you get prescribed as you’ll save a fortune.
19. GPs don’t exist – instead you need to go to the pharmacy
This was something that I found super strange, as a Brit used to the NHS, when I arrived in Mexico. If you get sick, rather than going to the GP or doctor’s office, you instead have to go get a consultation with one of the GPs that have their office attached to the side of a pharmacy. (There are other ways to see a doctor, but this is easily the most common one). They’ll give you an examination (although they aren’t allowed to touch or examine you, so choose the illness you visit them for wisely), and then they’ll write a prescription if necessary. Odd, but you rarely have to wait weeks for an appointment like in the UK, I guess.
20. You will likely be the centre of attention
If you’re tall, black, white, blonde, Asian or redheaded prepare to be stared at a lot. That goes doubly for women. The truth about living in Mexico is that, whether you like it or not, you’ll become the centre of attention in most places, especially buses and metros.
Sidenote: If you want to see some awesome women fighting back against street harassment in Mexico City, check out Las Hijas de Violencia, a female activist duo who sing a song called Sexista Punk and fire confetti guns in their aggressors’ faces.
21. Your snot will be black from the pollution
This one speaks for itself, although I’ve only experienced it in Mexico City. Don’t be alarmed when your snot has a grey tinged hue is basically what I’m saying.
22. You’ll get used to being sweaty
Again, this one is obvious. Even in Mexico City, which is not actually all that hot 365 days a year, the metro will up your sweat tolerance within weeks. When I was studying in Cardiff, I used to find it literally unbearable if the temperature reached 16 and I was a bit sticky from the walk to university. In Mexico, sweaty pits are a way of life. And don’t even get me started on the high-waisted jean waistband dampness dilemma…I’ve already said too much.
23. You can’t drink the tap water
This one is controversial but it’s something that’s worth knowing before you move to Mexico, or even before visiting. While some people do drink the tap water without boiling it off, filtering it or generally faffing with it first, it’s not really advisable. If your stomach is used to it, then you’re unlikely to get sick, but as a newbie it’s best to stick to bottled water. Also, there can be plenty of nasty extras in the tap water in Mexico, ranging from bacteria and parasites to heavy metals, so you’ll probably want to steer clear for reasons going beyond a dicky tummy anyway. Having said all of that, I still drink the tap water as long as I’ve boiled it thoroughly in the kettle first.
Tip: The huge bottles of drinking water you see in homes and offices across Mexico are known as garrafones and cost roughly MXN$35 each.
24. Many bottles are retornables in Mexico
It may seem insignificant, but the number of returnable bottles in Mexico is both impressive and baffling. For example, beer bottles (normal sized ones) can’t be returned, so you can chuck them away at the end of the night, but glass coke bottles should most definitely be taken back.
Large beer bottles (caguamas), on the other hand, always have to be returned – in fact, you have to pay a tax on them of anywhere up to ~MXN$10 which you’ll then be refunded once you take it back to the same store you bought it from. Alternatively, you can swap an empty for a new bottle and avoid paying the tax at all.
Tip: To get your tax back, you have to have the receipt with you which shows you paid it. Also, many stores and food stalls will have a bottle opener hanging on a string which you can use to pop the lid off your Coke/ beer the very second you buy it.
25. You should carry loose change at all times
Honestly, the way I horde loose change you’d think I have a problem, but honestly, it’s such a commodity to have a ton of one and two peso coins kicking around your purse that I get really angsty when I have to spend it. The ubiquitous Oxxos claim to never have change, which I just think is a straight up lie, and you need to pay with exact coins on the RTP buses in Mexico City, although it also helps to have close to the exact change on any other bus too. (Don’t be like me and pay with a MXN$50 note in times of desperation, because the driver will not be your biggest fan). For tipping toilet attendants and bag packers in the supermarket, you want to have a few pesos to hand, which brings me to my next point…
26. There are certain people who should always get tips
It’s common decency, by Mexico standards anyway, to tip roughly MXN$10 to your takeout food delivery driver, around MXN$3 to your bag packer in the supermarket and at least 10% on sit down restaurant bills, whether you ate tacos or a fancy schmancy three course meal. I’ve never tipped taxi drivers, but you should really give something to the ushers who show you to your seats at football games or concerts.
27. You can’t flush your toilet paper
No, really, don’t flush it. Just throw it in to the bin at the side of the toilet and have done with it.
Tip: If you’re planning on living in Mexico and have to invest in a good ol’ toilet paper bin for your bathroom, I highly recommend buying the vanilla scented bin bags that they sell in Soriana, as they’ll make everything smell fresher.
28. No pica is a straight up lie
You’ll learn eventually, but if you’re not good with spice, don’t take anyone’s assurances that ‘no pica’ at face value, because you’re the one who has to deal with the consequences. Equally, get used to being offered the mildest sauce available if you’re white. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been asked if people in the UK like spicy food and whether we eat chili (although now I’m thinking about it, that last one might have been an albur…).
Tip: Dab the potentially potent sauce on your hand first and give it a quick try before slathering it all over your meal.
29. Mexico is filled with heavily armed police and military all the time
I was surprised by the amount of police officers there were around the city and on major highways, literally anytime of the day or night, when I first came to Mexico and I think it is generally quite a shocking thing. I’m not talking just normal, uniformed police officers either, I’m talking heavily armed officers and pick-up trucks full of khaki-wearing military members too.
Sidenote: While some people see this police presence (which is actually 1:100 residents) as reassuring, many people who live in Mexico will tell you that quite often police are the ones involved in a lot of corruption, drugs and kidnapping cases and may see their constant presence in a very different light.
30. The level of makeup application on public transport is bloody impressive
Everywhere I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve seen women applying makeup on public transport, from your bog-standard lick of lipstick to some honestly impressive liquid eyeliner application. Believe me, many women step off the metro looking entirely more refreshed than when they got on (disclaimer: I am not one of them). Actually, I tried to put mascara on on the metro for the first time today and it is so much harder than I ever imagined. Props to all the Mexican women who do that shit daily.
Sidenote: Keep your eyes peeled for the women using spoons as eyelash curlers. Honestly, it’s genius.
31. Seatbelts are optional (kind of)
This is another controversial point, but seatbelt use in Mexico is so much lower (read: usually non-existent) in comparison to seatbelt use in the UK. I wouldn’t dream of not wearing one at home, but when I’m in Mexico it literally never even crosses my mind to wear one. In fact, only once has a taxi driver asked me to put one on (in Mérida, Yucatán) and the only other times I’ve used them are when friends give me lifts.
Sidenote: You can be fined for not wearing a seatbelt though, so even though their usage might not be that common, take care if you decide not to clunk, click with every trip.
32. You’ll be lucky if your care parcel arrives
If you want some treats from home, take them with you, because the Mexican postal service is not all that reliable. I was lucky enough to receive my parcel without problems, albeit it two months late, but other expats I know in Mexico haven’t been so lucky – my housemate had her parcel held by customs and had to pay a sugar tax on the contents (which struck us both as absolute invented bullshit, because my chocolate bar laden box made it through without a hitch), and parcels I sent to my boyfriend when I was in the UK just never arrived.
33. If it rains, you can wave goodbye to efficient transport options
Mexico, contrary to popular belief, does have rain. In fact, it has a very well-established rainy season between the months of April and September and the roads are notoriously bad when it comes to flooding. You know how Brits (in the south) don’t deal with a light dusting of snow that well? You know, they close schools and newspaper headlines scream out at us that it’s snowing as if we can’t see that for ourselves. Well, that’s what happens with rain in Mexico. The metro is slower than ever, buses are packed with people who all smell like wet dog and everyone huddles in stores for shelter rather than just get wet. It’s a disaster.
34. Loose cigarettes are everywhere
Social smoking just becomes that much easier when loose cigarettes are sold by street vendors, from stalls and in bars all across the country. While this is technically not allowed in Mexico, it still happens, so prepare for that temptation if you’re planning on moving to Mexico.
Sidenote: They still sell the clicky menthol cigarettes in Mexico, the type which everyone knows is the gateway cigarette.
35. You won’t want to live anywhere else again
This is perhaps one of the most dangerous things no one tells you about living in Mexico – you’ll never want to leave! If you’re anything like me anyway, you’ll fall head over heels with the country and people (in more ways than one) and probably won’t want to live anywhere else again.
If you want to read more things no one tells you about living in Mexico, click here.