Traveling to Mexico, or any foreign country can be scary for many if they don’t know much about it. Here are my best Mexico travel tips for first-time visitors.
I’ve written this after many years of living in different parts of Mexico and traveling to about half the states in the country.
1. Don’t Assume You’ll Get 180 Days at Immigration Automatically
For years Mexico would give just about anyone 180 days in the country more or less automatically, which make it a perfect place for snowbirds and digital nomads to stay long-term.
It’s no longer a guarantee, due to Mexico cracking down on
Now at the airports they may ask you for exactly how many days you need and, if it’s longer than a month they might not give you
Can you still get 180 days? Yes, but it seems to be dependent on your port of entry and the mood of the officer. In fact, the last time I had a tourist visa (before getting my permanent residency) they only gave us 29 days and my friends who landed an hour before got 180. Basically, you never know.
What happens if you don’t leave on time? INM has started conducting random checks on the street or bus stations of touristy destinations to check people who appear non-Mexican and find those who overstay their visas.
Some get deported, and some get fined. Technically you’re supposed to always have your passport and FMM on hand.
2. Don’t Lose your FMM Card
While most nationalities don’t need a visa to Mexico upon arrival or even still on the plane you’ll receive one piece of paperwork to fill: the FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple).
You need to hand it to the immigration officer and they’ll keep the top part and give you back the bottom. You must have your FMM on you at all times, as it proves you’re in the country legally (as mentioned in point 1).
Without returning your FMM, you can’t leave the country! They won’t let you fly out and you’ll have to stop by the immigration office and pay your fines to get a new one (and they are closed on weekends for example).
IMPORTANT: Some airports have stopped issuing FMMs and you go through the scanner. This is so far only possible at the Cancun Airport.
3. Toilet Paper Goes in the Trash Bin
Yup, even at the fanciest resorts it still goes in the trash instead of directly into a toilet!
The pipes in Mexico just aren’t built to handle the stuff and your toilet will get clogged instantly. On top of it being basically polluting.
4. Restroom Doors Marked With an “M” Are For the Ladies
The Spanish word for women is “mujeres” and for men respectively “hombres”. If you see a door marked with an “M,” do NOT assume that it is the men’s room. It’s not. H is for the men’s restroom.
If you see the sign “WC” it’s a bathroom for everyone.
5. Learn Some Spanish
This is one of the more important traveling tips for Mexico — practice your Spanish before your Mexico trip. If you’re going to a high tourism area the chances are most people will speak English, but you’ll be surprised that in Mexico City not everyone speaks English at all.
I found out the hard way when I arrived for the first time in 2010 with zero Spanish and had to learn quickly.
I will say that if you’re coming from Spain you might still be surprised by different words because Spanish from Spain is very different from Mexican Spanish.
6. You Might Want to Visit a Doctor or Dentist
Mexico is one of the top destinations for medical tourism. Americans come to Mexico for surgeries, and check-ups. Anything that in the US would cost thousands of dollars is cheaper in Mexico and the care is often more personal and top-notch.
I’ve had a baby in Mexico and received better care than I had in an American hospital and I spent a fraction of the price. I’ve been buying my expensive drugs in Mexico for years and it’s often 1/10 of the price in the US or Europe.
Dentists are fantastic, so if you want to et your teeth cleaned or do a check-up, do it in Mexico. Many doctors speak English in bigger cities, because various had either studied or trained in the US for a bit.
7. Don’t Drink Tap Water
The tap water in Mexico is 100% not ok to drink pretty much anywhere, so you need to buy bottled water everywhere.
I you take the time to boil it, you can then safely consume Mexico water.
Ice cubes are fine, as they’re not made of tap water.
8. Be Ready to Haggle with Taxi Drivers
In most places you need to haggle with taxi drivers to get a rate. If you speak Spanish then most drivers are more likely to give you a local rate, but in touristy towns like Tulum or Playa del Carmen in most cases you just need to know the rates and don’t say anything or ask about the price. Then handle the money at the end of the ride.
Don’t be surprised if they just drive away when you try to haggle with them, so pick your battles.
9. Mexicans Dress Conservatively
If you want to blend in a bit, avoid shorts for men and very obnoxious cutout clothing for women, unless traveling to Cancun, Tulum, Cabo, or Puerto Vallarta.
Jeans and long sleeve shirts or t-shirts are the norm and now that I think about it I don’t think I’ve ever seen a local man in shorts ever anywhere in Mexico.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Long Distance Buses
If you’re not familiar with the Mexican bus system, keep in mind that they’re not like American Greyhounds. Mexican long-distance buses are actually pretty awesome. They’re safe, and comfortable with large seats and AC and often even serve you food.
The most popular bus company is called ADO, but certain areas are operated by Estrella Blanca and Primera Plus. You can book tickets online or just show up at the bus station about 30 minutes before departure.
11. Book a Hotel with a Pool if Traveling to the Yucatan
If you’re traveling to the Caribbean side of the country you’re probably expecting white-sand beaches. And while it’s obviously true (the best beaches of Mexico are in Quintana Roo!), the reality of the situation in many popular Caribbean destinations is that you might be surprised with mounts of seaweed.
Sargassum is especially a problem in Tulum, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen. It’s a risk all year as it comes and goes. If sargasso is happening during your stay you won’t want to enter the ocean, so a pool is a life saver!
12. All Museums are Closed on Mondays in Mexico.
Some of the best things to do in Mexico on a Monday is visit the archeological sites and ruins and if you’re in Mexico City museums of all sorts.
13. Even When Traveling to a Beach Resort, Bring a Sweater and Raincoat
Weather in Mexico can be super unpredictable and it gets cold everywhere. In fact, in certain parts of Mexico it actually snows!
If you’re heading to Cancun or surrounding areas in Riviera Maya and getting ready for sunny beach time, keep in mind that it can be sunny for days and then it can randomly rain for a few hours or days. You won’t find it most weather forecasts, but it’s not uncommon to see people in long pants and sweaters because it gets cold in the evening.
14. Pack a Reusable Shopping Bag
Mexico is like Europe in the sense that they don’t give you single-use plastic bags at grocery stores anymore. They won’t give you paper bags, so if you forgot a bag you’ll be forced to buy a reusable bag on the spot.
I recommend bringing some foldable reusable shopping bag. They fold down small so you can keep it in your purse.
15. Have Mexican Pesos on You Including Change
Mexico is still pretty much cash operated. Some restaurants might still accept cards, but don’t be surprised if they don’t.
Even smaller corner stores (Oxxo or 7-Eleve) often don’t take cards unless you’re buying a lot and naturally street food stands, small restaurants, taxis don’t either. Change is much needed.
While some touristy restaurants might take US dollars, keep in mind that you’ll be overpaying by paying in Dollars. Just take some money from an ATM. The inside ATMS are safe, especially those at banks.
IMPORTANT: Lots of Mexicans gets paid in cash or cheques, so don’t head to the ATM on the 15th of 30th of the month. It’s payday and lines are often enormous because everyone is trying to deposit money.
16. Understand that Street Food is Often Better than Restaurants
Mexico lives on taco stands and other vendors walk around selling elotes, tamales, tortas – you name it. It might be weird for you to eat from a street stall, but don’t worry – it’s almost always good food.
You won’t find tacos as good as on the street at any restaurant.
Find a place that has a line as the best stands often do and watch what people are ordering. That’s the best way to get local and authentic Mexican food for very little money. It’s customary to leave a few pesos tip, even at the street stand (usually 10-15%).
If you’re unsure where to go or you’re not comfortable in venturing to food stands on your own, don’t worry – you might consider taking a food tour!
17. Pueblos Magicos are Must-See!
No matter where you are in Mexico, do yourself a favor and visit one of over 100 pueblos magicos. They’re Magic Towns designated by the Mexican government because of their heritage and significance to the country’s culture.
18. Don’t Be Afraid of Mexico City
Many people are afraid of going to Mexico City, because they’re convinced that it’s dangerous and busy, but while it’s a big busy city it’s a great place for tourists. You’ll be absolutely fine in terms of safety – I used to live there for a few years.
There are plenty of museums, parks, beautiful historic downtown and some of the best restaurants and street stalls in the world.
There’s a lot to do in Mexico City along, but you can also take day trips to Teotihuacan or Puebla. Don’t skip the CDMX!
19. Get Used to a Different Time Concept
Nothing starts on time in Mexico and it’s actually often impolite and incredibly weird to show up on time.
If you are coming to Mexico from a Western country, be aware of it. Mexican concept of time is that if a party or dinner is supposed to start at 7 PM it’s more like 8ish, but some people might show up more like at 9 PM.
Even when it comes to weddings it works that way… I remember my surprise when important events were meant to start at a certain hour and at that hour the hosting family and I were still waiting for a hairdresser to arrive and actual guests started to arrive 2 hours later.
If your tour is running 10 to 15 minutes late or your appointment is late, this is normal.
Mexican people like to use the word “ahorita,” which means right now. But, when someone tells you “ahorita” it doesn’t mean that something will happen this very second. It might mean that you need to wait a bit, especially at restaurants.
If a plumber is coming to fix something at your place, keep in mind that ahorita might mean he’ll be there in a few hours.
20. Plan to Spend a LOT of Time in Mexico
Mexico is a huge and unique country. Many tourists assume that if they hit Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, they know Mexico, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Just like you can spend months road-tripping around the US exploring ranges of mountains, lakes, beaches, deserts, natural wonders, UNESCO sites, and pretty towns and taste different foods, and experience different accents or cultures – it’s the same in Mexico.
There are many unique places to see in Mexico and each spot will surprise you. You can spend months exploring all cenotes in the Yucatan and still not see them all (speaking from experience here). Enjoy Mexico!