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I get asked fairly often for advice about Mexico, whether that’s about the places to visit in Jalisco, where to find the best street art in Mexico City, or even the coolest, most colourful towns. Sometimes I have the answers and sometimes I don’t (we’re all human), but most of all it can get boring telling people the same things over and over again. So, in a break in scheduled programming, instead of what to do in Mexico, here’s my rundown – an insider perspective – on what NOT to do in Mexico.
Obviously these insightful, comical and common-sense pieces of Mexico travel advice are principally taken from my own experiences, so they should NOT be taken as gospel nor as applicable to everyone. Take them for what they are – practical, first-hand, pretty fucking funny and useful snippets of wisdom. Anyway, enough cover-my-back-disclaiming, here are 37 pieces of Mexico travel advice that should help you avoid some common tourist mistakes, and perhaps even some not so common ones.
WHAT NOT TO DO IN MEXICO
I will be covering safety advice in far more detail in an upcoming post, so this post is pretty light on the serious stuff.
If you want to steer clear of the whole ignorant tourist vibe a lot of travellers in Mexico have got going on, or if you just want to keep the locals on side, here’s what NOT to say.
Harmless enough, right? Wrong. Everyone in Mexico is American too, dipshit, so don’t brand yourself as ignorant by identifying yourself as ‘American’. Instead, say ‘I’m from the US’, or name a state, but don’t just claim the continent as your own and forget about your southern (and northern) neighbours. Also, everyone hates Trump, so maybe just say you’re from Canada and save yourself the hassle?
OK, OK, I’m being harsh. This is a very common mistake but for a reason. The English word ‘American’, in its most direct Spanish translation (americano), just doesn’t have the same meaning – while we associate it with being from the US, Spanish speakers associate americano with people from the entire continent, which, of course, includes Mexicans. Just stick to estadounidense and you’ll be fine.
“I love South America!”
Cool, but Mexico is in North America. Not South America, not Central America. Come on, guys. You’re probably looking for the term Latin America, which covers all the countries with a predominantly Romance language speaking culture in the region and can therefore include Portuguese speaking Brazil, French speaking French Guiana and Caribbean Cuba.
“I don’t speak Mexican.”
Good, because neither does anyone in Mexico. They speak Spanish. Click here if you want a breakdown of some of the basic phrases every traveller in Mexico needs (COMING SOON).
“I hate Jesus and love abortion.”
Whether true or not, you don’t want to go spouting off to all and sundry about your religious views. Much of Mexico is Catholic and controversial topics surrounding religious debates are best kept for private conversation among close friends. Or not at all. (For the record, abortion is only legal in all circumstances in Mexico City, in case you were wondering.)
“Corona is the best Mexican beer.”
You are wrong, you are objectively wrong. Everyone knows Victoria is the best Mexican beer, unless you’re at the beach and then you’re going to want to plump for a refreshing Pacífico. If you think Tecate is the best beer, then for the love of god, don’t tell anyone (unless you’re in the north where it actually is the best beer, because the only other option is Bud Light). And don’t even talk to me about motherfucking Sol. Jesus.
“PAY-so” instead of “PEH-so”
This is more of a pet peeve of mine, but at least pronounce the name of the currency right when you’re in Mexico. Peh-so, not PAY-so. The current rate of the peso (at time of writing) is a little above MXN$20 to £1 and a little below MXN$20 to the US$1.
“Mexican food is great! I love chimichangas.”
I hate to break it to you, but you love Tex-Mex. A simple way to tell the difference is that Tex-Mex, due to the Texan cattle ranching influence, relies far more on beef products, whereas typical, traditional Mexican dishes contain far more pork. Tex-Mex loves a good cheddar cheese, flour tortilla and dash of cumin, whereas Mexican food prefers white cheese, corn tortillas and spice rather than spices. Basically, Tex-Mex is a supersized, extra greasy version of Mexican food. Still not sure? If you’re in the UK or US and go to a ‘Mexican’ restaurant, pretty much everything on that menu is actually just Tex-Mex. Except Wahaca, that shit is pretty authentic.
“Estúpido” and “Idiota”
A.k.a. ‘Stupid’ and ‘idiot’, except with a far stronger meaning in Mexican Spanish than in English. Stick to the harmless tonto if you want to call someone a bit dim, or just call them a pinche cabrón hijo de su puta madre. OBVIOUSLY DON’T DO THAT LAST ONE. I’m just highlighting the fairly laidback attitude to swearing in Mexico in contrast with the use of estúpido or idiota, which barely seem offensive in English. For the record, I still make this mistake from time to time even though I speak fluent Spanish. Or maybe some of the people I meet actually are idiotas. We’ll never know.
This means ‘catch’ in Spain – as in, catch a bus – but it means ‘fuck’ in Mexico – as in, I want to fuck you. Best to steer clear. In Mexico you can agarrar a bus, but you should never fuck it.
“Le voy al América.”
Telling people you support the most hated team in Mexico is pretty bad wherever you are in the country, but especially bad in Mexico City. If you’re in Guadalajara, the equivalent would be telling people you support the Chivas and in Monterrey, it would be like having no opinion on football whatsoever. They take their football seriously in the north and if you claim to be a fan of no team, you’ll be treated with mild suspicion.
Oh sure, there are plenty of things to do in Mexico, but what should you NOT be doing while you’re there? Here are some of the main activities, rookie errors and mistakes to avoid. Incidentally, you can read about all the rookie errors and mistakes I made when I first moved to Mexico here (COMING SOON).
Visit the overrated tourist attractions
I’m biased, because I live here and I’ve already been to them. Let me make it clear that there are numerous ‘tourist attractions’ that are more than worth visiting, especially if it’s your first time in Mexico City. Think, the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the Torre Latinoamericana’s bar, Xochimilco’s trajineras. I’m on the fence about Frida Kahlo’s house, but it’s still a pretty unmissable experience. However, if you’ve been to Mexico City multiple times, or even just to Mexico, branch out and explore new areas. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – there’s more to the capital than Roma and the historic centre.
Assume everyone speaks English
In very heavily frequented tourist spots, or further north, you can assume that many people have a pretty decent grasp of English, but that doesn’t apply everywhere. At least get the basics down before you go to Mexico, so you can come across as polite not ignorant:
- Hola = Hello
- Buenos días = Good morning
- Buenas tardes/noches = Good afternoon/evening
- Adiós/Ciao/Bye/Hasta luego = Bye
- Por favor = Please
- Gracias = Thanks
- Con permiso = Excuse me
- Salud = Cheers/Bless you
Alternatively, if you’d rather brush up on some specifically Mexican Spanish, invest in a pocket phrasebook.
Trust the first directions you hear
Picture the scene: You ask someone to point you in the direction of a pretty well-known attraction, that you know isn’t far from here. They um and they ah, and eventually send you six blocks to the left, across the bridge and instruct you to turn left at the yellow house. Would you trust them? No. OK, now imagine that everyone gives you those kind of weird instructions when you ask for directions (rather than just, you know, saying they’re not sure where it is) and you’re coming close to what it’s like in Mexico. As a rule of thumb, ask three separate people and draw together their responses to get your route.
Drink in the street
I met someone on holiday in Vallarta at the top of a view point who I’m pretty sure was high or drunk or both, and he was waxing lyrical about the fact drinking in the street was allowed in Mexico for a good while until I told him that, no, in fact, it’s very much illegal. Sure, you’ll get the good old fashioned blind eye turned when you’re in a popular tourist zone and if you’re quite obviously a tourist (places like Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen spring to mind). Step into a small town or a city though, and the police will be on you if you’re caught drinking in the street. Fines are in place, but more often than not you’ll just have to bribe your way out of trouble. Fun story: I was once caught drinking on the street in Monterrey with two Mexicans. They asked to see our wallets and IDs and we were certain they were priming themselves to ask for the inevitable bribe. As it happens, we managed to talk our way out of it and go on with our (albeit beer-less) day. After it happened, one of them said it’s because I was present and if that’s not an example of some of the uncomfortable privilege I get in Mexico as a white European girl then I don’t know what is.
Pay the first price you’re told in a market
Haggling is almost expected in many places, and while you should take into account exactly what MXN$20 means to you financially as well as just what that amount of money means to the vendor, it’s always worth trying to get a bit off the price if you feel you’re paying too much. As someone who lives and works in Mexico, this attitude can’t be maintained constantly though. When I’m truly ‘holidaying’, say, spending pounds from my birthday money stash instead of pesos from my wage, I’m more inclined to spend more but when I’m living off a Mexican wage, it can be infuriating when people assume you have the money for ‘tourist’ prices.
Expect people to turn up on time
One of the things Mexico is best known for is a population to whom time is merely a concept, an imagined notion that is eternally flexible and not at all to be adhered to at any point. Yeah, people are late. As a punctual Brit, it pains me, but I’m permanently primed for aimless hanging around if I agree to meet a Mexican friend at a set time, and you should be too.
Buy or sell drugs
I mean, duh? But also, people still do it, so it needs saying. With the tense drug situation as it is in Mexico at the moment, take a second before you even think about getting involved in it, even in a small way, and then consider whether it’s worth paying the price if you get caught. I’ll help you out – it’s not.
Flush your toilet paper
If there’s a bin (that’s not obviously a sanitary towel bin) in the stall, then it means you can’t flush the toilet paper. If there’s no bin, flush away.
Spend all your change
I can’t reiterate this enough to visitors coming to Mexico. Cling onto your change like it’s the commodity it is, because there are so many places you need either exact change or close to exact change in order to make your purchase. Oxxo, I’m fucking looking at you.
Ask for salt and lime with your tequila
This is widely seen as a trick to make bad tequila taste good and is popular in countries where the tequila shots you’re served are probably cheap, low quality and white rather than reposado tequila. It looks a bit like amateur hour if you demand these citrusy, savoury accompaniments in Mexico though. Just brace yourself and do the shot, dammit.
I know plenty of people will recommend dressing conservatively(ish) if you’re a female visiting Mexico, simply to try and ward off some of the catcalls and leers from locals. While I hesitate to police female clothing so men can feel more comfortable, I definitely recognise that I get less stares in jeans than I do in heels and a skirt. Less but not none, I might add. This is my experience, so I don’t want to advocate that you follow my clothing decisions if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. For that reason, the below what not to do in Mexico advice is based on weather considerations and comfort more than anything else.
Skinny jeans in hot weather
I will persevere in wearing black skinny jeans every day of my life until I die, whether I’m in 40-degree heat in a Monterrey August or 35-degree Puerto Vallarta humidity. Take it from me though, one day you will get thrush, and you will regret all those skinny jean wearing choices for a hot second. Then you’ll buy some Vagisil and continue to wear skinny jeans anyway, because you get mad chub rub if you don’t have material encasing your thighs 24/7.
Shorts and sandals in the city
One, you’ll get really dirty feet. Two, sandals tend to become uncomfortable little bastards the longer you wear them, unless you have a pair of dad sandal style Tevas (which are honestly the best things ever). Plus, shorts just make you look like a tourist, and personally, I prefer to try and blend in as much as possible. I mean, I’m whiter than a pint of milk, so it’s never going to be a seamless effort, but I do what I can.
Common sense, isn’t it? Don’t make yourself a target.
Flesh toned leggings
I just really fucking hate flesh toned leggings. Incidentally, if you do decide to wear them, you’ll actually fit right in with the general Mexican fashion vibe.
Clothes with weird cut out bits
You’ll just get weird sunburn patterns and hate yourself.
I really hate reading posts about Mexico that tell you the food is all unsanitary and dangerous. It’s not. Some of it might be, but the vast majority of it isn’t. However, having said that, there are some things that in my personal experience you should stay away from in Mexico. Take this with as much of a pinch of salt as you would a cheap tequila shot.
Obviously I’m just kidding, come on. But you should take some basic precautions when you plump for a Mexican street food stand to grab a quick taco from. Make sure they seem to have some sources of clean water and preferably an industrial sized bottle of hand gel on the counter. Use the hand gel. Don’t think you’re too good for the gel, because you’re not. Finally, see what the crowd gathered around it looks like – all local looking? Great. What, there is not crowd gathered around it?! GTFO of there, everyone else clearly knows something you don’t.
Fruit without salt and chili
Sounds gross and is kind of gross, until one day it isn’t. It’s one of those things that grows on you, I guess. Having said that, even after two years of living here, I still think my pineapple and mango should be salt, chili and lime free, because fuck that. Coconut totally works with lime and chili though, and the only thing that makes papaya even vaguely palatable for me is a shit ton of lime juice. Incidentally, a lot of the food I LOVE now is stuff I was on the fence about when I first tried it, so never rule anything out unless you’ve given it a real go. (Except pulque, fuck that slimy, viscous devil juice.)
…without trying them first. Don’t lather up your taco in that innocuous looking green sauce because, guess what, it ain’t avocado based. Instead, just drop a tiny bit onto the back of your (clean) hand first and try it out before you commit to spending a few hours on the toilet that night cursing every decision leading up to that moment. I AM SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE.
Let’s just say I had a pretty traumatic experience after a street side watermelon purchase. Make sure it’s freshly cut if you do decide to buy it, that’s all I have to say on this matter.
In all seriousness, try everything and branch out of your comfort zone (even if it does mean trying these unusual Mexican dishes I wrote about for Lia over at Practical Wanderlust, or ticking your way through my Mexican Food Bucket List (COMING SOON)). Getting sick is temporary, but the anecdote lasts forever.
Do you like heavy metals and yellow teeth? If so, then go ahead and drink the tap water. Otherwise, steer clear. Buy garrafones or a water purifier instead. (Sidenote: Tbf, I drink the tap water in Mexico City, once it’s been safely boiled in the kettle that almost trips the electric every time we make a cup of tea.)
See the above beer rant. You’re in Mexico for the love of god, choose a better beer than a boring old Sol.
Unrefined tequila that’s essentially just paint stripper. Sure, you might see how cheap it is and think about grabbing a bottle in the local Oxxo, but don’t or you might end up blind.
There is no blanket answer to the question ‘where should I go in Mexico?’. Except there is, and it’s Guadalajara. Just kidding. Kind of.
However, there are several places you’ll want to think twice about visiting in my experience. Bear in mind this is my opinion, based on experience and anecdote, and you should really check out your respective government travel warning page before you make a decision on where (not) to go in Mexico. Here’s the UK one and here’s the US one.
The border towns and cities are generally pretty uninspiring. Think Ciudad Juárez and it’s horrifying femicide rate.
The states of Tamaulipas, Sonora, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Michoacán and Veracruz are also considered pretty dangerous at the moment too, although I would never advise ruling out entire states entirely. For example, the capital of Michoacán (Morelia) is a safe place to visit, as is Taxco in Guerrero. These are just a few examples. It’s worth keeping in mind that each town and city has its dangerous zones, like anywhere else in the world. Speak to locals before you go and when you arrive to find out where they are.
Don’t forget that you can easily end up getting mugged in supposedly safe destinations too though, so it’s not always a guarantee of safety if you stay on the tourist trail.
Northern Mexico in Summer
It’s too hot and you’ll want to die.
Northern Mexico in Winter
It’s too cold and you’ll want to die.
Sorry, but just go somewhere a bit more interesting, a bit less touristy and a lot cheaper? (This is ~semi~ tongue-in-cheek, please take it with a pinch of salt. And a shot of tequila.)
If you want to read more safety advice for Mexico travel, check out this far more comprehensive post (COMING SOON).
So, there you have it, a local’s insight into what NOT to do in Mexico, whether you’re passing through or setting up home here. Is there anything I missed off? Tell me in the comments! Alternatively, if you found this guide useful, share the pins below or buy me a coffee to say thanks! (This blog runs on sleepless nights and caffeine so you’d really be helping me out.)