11 things you should know before visiting Mexico
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In early February, before the coronavirus brought the world to a standstill, I visited Mexico for the first time. I had planned to spend around 10 days there.
I ended up spending 23 days.
Why? Because I simply didn't want to leave. It was one of the best countries I have ever visited, with incredible food and drinks, color, music, vibrancy and people. I could have easily spent a month there.
One of the reasons I had only planned 10 days to start with was because I hadn't done that much research about the country before arriving. Here's what you should know before planning your trip to this fantastic destination.
1. It's a huge country
Mexico is the world's 14th largest country by landmass. That makes it larger than the likes of South Africa, Peru and Egypt. It's almost 10 times the size of the United Kingdom. This means it's almost impossible to see a lot of the country in just one trip, as well as potentially being time-consuming to travel around. If you are traveling by land, do not underestimate the time it will take to travel these vast distances.
I would recommend choosing two or three locations in Mexico to do properly, rather than trying to cover the entire country. You can always go back and see more.
Related: 7 top family-friendly resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya
2. The food is out of this world
My favorite thing about Mexico was the cuisine. You're probably familiar with Mexican food and even made it at home yourself. This is more likely to be Tex-Mex, which is an Americanized version, rather than really authentic Mexican food. Forget the heavy sour cream and cheese tacos and burritos -- proper Mexican food is simple, (relatively) light, fresh and delicious.
I ate Mexican food every day for 23 days and never got sick of it.
3. Spicy means really spicy
Wherever you are ordering tacos, you're likely to be offered a large range of different sauces to go with it. Don't be put off by the number of options -- dive in and try them. Be aware though they will range from mild to spicy (picante). Now in Mexico, they are not kidding when they say spicy.
This isn't a mild warmth spice, this makes your eyes water, your tongue numb and you might regret it the next morning spicy. Expect there to be heat in just about everything you eat -- they even put hot sauce on their eggs in the morning. You will get somewhat used to it over time but it can be a shock to the system if you are used to more mild food.
Related: 10 things every tourist must eat (and drink) in Mexico City
4. It didn't feel unsafe
I was a little nervous about personal safety before arriving in Mexico, but the country did not feel any less safe than many other countries I'd visited. I had no qualms walking through the streets by myself at night and quickly learnt to relax and go with the flow.
The only worrying moment was when I was on the subway in Mexico City on my phone and a local elderly man next to me warned me not to have it out in public for safety reasons. This led to me being slightly paranoid for the next few hours as I clutched my phone tightly in my hand while it was in my pocket. There were no issues but remain alert in very crowded areas, and practice typical safety measures like with anywhere you travel.
Related: How to check the safety of your next travel destination
5. You don't need to know much Spanish to get by
I had taken Spanish classes years ago in Australia and tried to brush up on my knowledge quickly in the months before my Mexico trip by using language apps. I became increasingly worried that I would not be able to get by, but this fear was unwarranted. Most locals in tourist areas will speak some English and even where they didn't -- like topping up a local SIM card at a convenience store -- a few words into Google Translate quickly conveyed the key parts of the communication.
I would recommend at least learning numbers in Spanish as this will help when asking how much something costs. You don't want to get ripped off or shortchanged because you didn't understand the number initially.
I found locals to be very helpful even if they didn't speak much English and it was actually quite fun working with them to describe and understand menu items. For example, where they only spoke a little English to my little Spanish, we always got there in the end. You don't need to understand every word they say to understand them.
Yes, if you are going somewhere very remote and you want to do a tour with a local you may not understand what they are saying without strong Spanish language knowledge, but if you are visiting popular tourist areas you do not need to be remotely fluent to enjoy Mexico.
6. If you have even a passing interest in tequila, you must visit Oaxaca
My knowledge of tequila previously was limited to sunset margaritas at the beach, and the odd regrettable nightclub shot. I fell in love with mezcal after visiting the beautiful town of Oaxaca. Mezcal is similar to tequila in that both are made from the agave plant, though mezcal has a signature smoky flavor which comes from being cooked in underground pits which caramelizes the agave plant (tequila in comparison is usually cooked in aboveground ovens).
If you like margaritas, you must try one made with mezcal rather than tequila. The mezcal provides a wonderful smoky, deep flavor and the care that bartenders make when preparing these drinks in Mexico resulted in by far the best margaritas I have ever tasted.
The town of Oaxaca is the home of mezcal in Mexico, and my favorite place I visited in the country. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a result is a beautiful, brightly colored, postcard-perfect historic town. Combine that with mezcal everywhere and you have a wonderful tourist destination.
Related: 9 best points hotels in Mexico
7. Credit card acceptance is excellent
On the points and miles side, I was impressed with how many card machines I saw across the country. While street vendors take cash only, and the same in very rural areas, I was able to use cards to pay for things almost every day of the trip.
Related: What is the best card to use while traveling abroad?
8. Tipping is expected
An unexpected frustration with Mexico is that you are expected to tip, everywhere. I imagine this has developed largely due to Mexico's proximity with the home of tipping, the United States, and the large number of U.S. tourists who are used to tipping. A tip of at least 10% was expected in bars, restaurants, cafes, taxis and tour operators.
While Mexico was still an affordable destination to visit, it meant the advertised price of most things is not the actual price, as you must still tip on top of that.
9. Domestic flights are fantastic value
With a country the size of Mexico, it is a long distance from one side of the country to the other. If you don't like the sound of a 12-plus hour bus ride (though the buses are pretty comfortable as far as buses go), I was very pleasantly surprised by domestic flights in the country. I took several flights on both Interjet and VivaAerobus -- these flights were booked only a day or two in advance and were very affordable -- only around $25 - $50 per flight, with carry-on luggage included.
The flight experiences themselves were also excellent -- new, clean planes, pleasant staff and mostly on-time departures. For the last-minute price paid, it was a very good value experience.
10. Shared taxis are a fun way to get around
There are all sorts of ways to get around in Mexico, and for journeys from one major town to another that were around an hour apart, I tried "collectives" (shared taxis), which I found to be very affordable, surprisingly efficient and great fun. The concept is that a taxi or minivan headed to a town will collect anyone along the way who wants to join them for a small fee (only a few pounds -- a fraction of the cost of a private taxi).
Don't expect someone to load your bags into the boot of the car and thank you for your custom -- these vehicles barely come to a full stop to pick people up. But they are a surprisingly efficient way to move from town to town. The principle is that they don't leave until they are full (or close to it) but if you are leaving from the center they can fill up a minivan in just a few minutes. The drivers then drive at breakneck speed and you just let them know where you want to be dropped off -- they'll set you down almost anywhere along the way.
If you want an authentic Mexican experience and the chance to practice a little Spanish, I recommend giving this a go as a fun way to get around.
If you're not game for this, ride-hailing apps are increasingly popular, especially in Mexico City -- you can take an Uber on a short-ish trip like from the airport to the City Business District for around $6 - $12.
11. You have probably already paid your tourist tax before you arrive
Before you can leave Mexico, regardless of whether it is by land, sea or air you must pay a tourist tax of around $25 per person. You have probably already paid this as part of your airline fees and taxes. It's a good idea to check this before you arrive and print out your airline ticket fee breakdown to show the immigration officer when you depart so that you don't pay twice -- you can read more information about this here.
Related: Viva México! A review of Aeromexico’s business class on the 787-9 from Mexico City to Buenos Aires
Mexico is a fantastic vacation destination. There's probably the best food I've ever had traveling (Vietnam would come a close second), and I've probably never visited anywhere that takes their cocktails as seriously as Mexico does. And those cocktails are less than half the price you would pay in the U.S. It's a vibrant country with a beautiful culture.
I felt completely comfortable in Mexico, even with only very basic Spanish and being a first-time visitor to the country. Don't try and cram too much into your first visit -- you can always return!