This is a list of the things to remember, a list of useful Mexico travel tips. In fact, whenever I plan a travel itinerary, I always ask myself many questions. To answer them, I often need to search on the internet for suggestions and advice. When I was planning my trip to Thailand, for example, I found it very difficult to gather information on how to get to Koh Nang Yuan with a taxi boat.
15 Useful Mexico Travel Tips
My goal with this post is to help you as best as I can by offering you the things to know before travelling to Mexico to put into practice.
If you wish to know something more about my trip to Mexico, please read “Road Trip in Mexico: itinerary from Yucatan to Chiapas“.
Costs and prices
Surely, the first and most expensive things when you decide before you go to Mexico are your plane tickets.
Luckily, once you get to Mexico, you’ll realise how cheap things are there and how little you have to worry about spending too much money. The accommodation (hotels or hostels) can be easily booked before your departure on websites such as booking.com. Here you can check the different options at your disposal and go for the one that suits your needs best.
Travelling to Mexico isn’t therefore very costly. If you are on a budget, bear in mind that the well-known touristic sites are also the most expensive ones. For example, Quintana Roo is much more expensive than the Yucatan peninsula and Chiapas, whilst San Cristobal de las Casas is undoubtedly amongst one of the cheapest areas in Mexico, both in terms of its local products and accommodation.
Where to buy pesos and exchange currency?
In August 2016, the exchange rate of the peso against the euro was 19/20. Do not get the foreign currency you need from the airport as the exchange taxes are much higher. Preferably, only get a few pesos at the beginning of your trip so that you’ll be able to pay for the first basic expenses in loco.
Travelling Mexico by Car
The following suggestions will be essential for you if you’re planning to travel in Mexico with a road trip.
Advice on renting a car
If you decide to rent a car, you have two options either renting your vehicle outside the airport once you’ve landed in Cancun, or renting the car before your departure through one of the many dedicated websites. I use this one -> Rentalcars.com
I rented a Toyota Yaris station wagon from the 8th to 23rd of August with a company called Mex (Fox). Both the car collection and delivery were at Cancun airport. The total price I paid for 15 days was 365 euros.
Note: if the car collection and delivery is in the same place, you won’t have to pay any extra costs. If, instead, you deliver it in a different place, you’ll have to pay for a drop-off tax which normally costs a few hundred dollars.
Note 2: once you get to Cancun, you may find somebody from the rental car company waiting for you at the airport whilst holding a piece of paper with your name written on it. If this doesn’t happen, you’ll then have to call the company you’ve chosen, tell them you have arrived and ask them how and where to collect your car. Either in English or in a bad Spanish, people will understand you.
Other things to remember when travelling to Mexico by car
Driving licence: any driving licence obtained in any country is accepted.
Car boot: it might seem obvious to you, but it’s important to remember to choose a car with a large boot to carry all your baggage. If possible, avoid leaving any piece of luggage or even a small rucksack on the backseat, as it may attract thieves.
Speed limit: on major highways, the speed limit is 110 km/h. In residential areas it’s 50km/h, whilst on urban arterial roads and on major highways inside cities, the speed limits varies from 60km/h to 100km/h.
Automatic or manual? This is one of the most important tips I’m about to give you. Please, do rent a car with an automatic transmission. Mexico, especially in the roads between Palenque and San Cristobal, is full of topes which will force you to break and reduce the speed of the car million times. If you don’t want your feet and legs to hurt from having to keep pushing break, clutch and accelerator, then go for a handy automatic gearbox.
GPS navigation system: if you don’t wish to waste your mobile data connection and you want to avoid buying a Mexican SIM card, then you should use an off-line GPS navigation app. I personally used Sygic on my Android phone and I found it very useful. For Iphone users, check on your AppStore if the same app is available, if not opt for an equivalent.
Road conditions and police
Topes, what are they? You know all those “nice” road bumps that force you to reduce the speed you’re driving at? Well, forget them.
The topes are something much more devilish: they are huge humps made with concrete which, if taken at more than 5Km/h, will literally destroy your car. The topes are surely going to be the worst nightmare when driving, but don’t worry, you will still fall in love with Mexico anyway.
There are different kinds of topes: the worst ones are definitely those built in concrete. On the contrary, the topes built in metal and the smaller bumps are not that bad. In addition to the topes, Mexico is full of vibradores, meaning large bands on the road that make your car shake when you drive on them. Nothing to worry about, they’re just something which warns you to slow down as you are about to enter a pueblo.
Roadblocks: the majority of roadblocks I found were in Yucatan. Here, I was often stopped by the police dressed in military uniform and carrying assault rifles. The policemen may look threatening, but they are there only to do their job and make sure you’re safe. Once they check your car and see that there is nothing wrong, you’re free to go. In Chiapas and Quintana Roo, instead, roadblocks are much less frequent.
Road conditions: rather good. The only time I found a bumpy road was when I was driving from Palenque to San Cristobal. The suburban streets aren’t very well kept especially in Bacalar. You won’t believe the quantity of huge holes I found in the road.
Car parks and driving behavior
Mexican use of hazzard lights: when you’re driving around Mexico, you’ll soon notice how frequently drivers make use of the hazzard lights. In case of an imminent danger, sudden illegal maneuvers, road works or even when entering residential areas, Mexican will always turn on their hazzard lights. What I’m telling you is just not to get too worried if you keep seeing hazzard lights everywhere. Just drive more carefully as the driver in front of you is likely to make an illegal or dangerous maneuvers. And, knowing this, they’re kindly warning you by using the hazzard lights.
Driving in residential areas: Mexican towns are built in large blocks, just like any American city. If we were to look at them from a bird’s eye view, we’d see a chessboard-like shaped town rich in intersections which make driving a nightmare (especially in Merida and San Cristobal). I still remember the loud laugh an Italian guy living in Mexico let out when I asked him how the intersection work there. Basically, there is no answer to my question and there seems to be no rules that regulate intersections in Mexico. Be careful with the traffic lights as well as the one you need to watch in proximity of a stop (called “alto” in Mexico), is that which is located at the opposite end of the crossroad. Basic suggestion: when in Mexico, drive as carefully as you’ve ever driven in your life.
Car parks: in Mexico there are just a few car parks in the city centre. Most of the time, you’ll have to pay along the roads. The few car parks are poorly signaled by white lines. If you’re lucky enough to find a parking area, a round road sign with an “E” (meaning “estacionamento”, which stands for parking in Spanish) on it. When the parking area ends, the “E” is simply crossed out. In larger cities, like Merida, you can also park on a meter and this is definitely the best option to go for if you don’t want to risk being fined or waste hours looking for a place where to park your car.
Food and reccomended restaurants
Food in Mexico is really good, but, after a while, it gets a bit monotonous. I can’t remember eating a dish which blew my mind, but, you know, taste is subjective. Surely, Mexican food is a bit “heavy” on the stomach, with its main traditional dishes like meat, corn tortillas and beans. While, if you wish to eat really good fish, you can do so on the coast.
The customer service in the restaurants is rather quick. What’s more, Mexicans don’t actually like to spend a long time sat at a table eating and often ask for the bill before they’ve even finished their dishes.
The waiters might be a bit too “pressing”, meaning that they will keep asking you if you’d like to eat something else. I think they do it because they’d like to receive a tip: better is the customer service, higher the tip they’ll receive.
As for what concerns the tip (or propina, as Mexicans call it), you just have to know that it is not compulsory but:
- It might have already been added on top of the check, but you can ask them to remove it and leave the reastaurant without tipping the waiter.
- The bill might have “tip not included” written at the end of the receipt. If this is the case, is up to you if you want to leave a propina or not.
If you’re paying by credit card, the POS will ask you if you wish to leave a tip or not.
You can give a 5, 10 or 15% tip. Usually people leave a 10% tip before leaving the restaurant.
Some Mexico travel tips about restaurants
As I’ve already told you, my trip to Mexico was 15 days long. I won’t list all the restaurants I visited, but only the restaurants which stood out for the quality of the food and customer service they offered.
Merida – La Chaya Maya great atmosphere and yucateca cusine. Try the Cochinita Pibil and the sopa de Lima.
Palenque – Hotel Villas Kin Ha where you can eat outside with a pool view. Delicious food at cheap prices.
Tulum – La Parrillada Tulum funny, young and easy-going Italian owner. Unbelievably delicious Mexican meat called Arrachera. This was surely one of the best grilled meat restaurants I’ve ever tried. Nice atmosphere, open kitchen and water served in glass bottles. The prices are a bit higher than average, but really worth it. Highly recommended.
Puerto Morelos – Punta Corcho, high quality food and very cheap prices. An exquisite fish fillet, cooked perfectly, only costs 220 pesos (about 11 euros), whilst a giant filled tacos is 85 pesos (about 4 euros). The waiters are kind and attentive, yet a bit too intrusive. But this might be because I am Italian and thus I’m accustomed to a more “laid-back” kind of customer service. I can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough.
Internet Access and Wi-Fi in Mexico
As I was already telling you in the post on my itinerary in Mexico, the Wi-Fi connection in the hotels I’ve stayed wasn’t that great. This is absolutely one of the things to know before travelling to Mexico. The signal can often be found only in the common areas and, even there, it is not very stable. The best Wi-Fi connection is in restaurants, and some squares, like Bacalars, offer free Wi-Fi zones.
When in Mexico, I decided not to buy a Mexican SIM card, which can be easily purchased in any TelCel centre. My choice was dictated by my wish to “detoxify” myself from the smartphone and Internet which are a constant intoxicating presence in my everyday life.
If you’re still hesitant about travelling without an Internet connection, then I would recommend getting a Mexican SIM card. The signal is very good in the Mayan archaeological sites as well as in the residential areas. Once you move away from the main cities though, even getting a GPS signal becomes almost impossible.
Plugs and sockets in Mexico
Before travelling to Mexico, I’d recommend buying more than one universal adaptor. Given the fact that we are more and more addicted to smartphones, cameras and Ipods, it’s always better to be able to recharge all your devices at once.
As for any kind of trip I organised, I highly recommend signing a travel insurance. This is the best tips I can give you. Given the fact that you’re travelling to Mexico, a Global Travel Insurance is the best option, but also the most expensive one.
I can’t imagine setting off to Mexico without a travel insurance, I personally experienced how important it is when I came down with a bad stomach flu, probably due to food poisoning. I wouldn’t have known what to do without having signed a travel insurance.
Guidebooks and local private guides
For Travelling to Mexico I bought the well-known Lonely Planet Travel Guide, which I can’t recommend highly enough. There are two different travel guides about Mexico:
- Lonely Planet: Yucatán and Chiapas;
- Lonely Planet: Mexico.
These guidebooks will be your best friend during the trip to Mexico, even though they’ll never provide you with as many details as a local tourist guide could do.
In all the archaeological Mayan ruins in Mexico, there are always many tourist guides to choose from. The first suggestion I’d like to give you, is to opt for a professional and certified tourist guide. They can be easily singled out thanks to the visible badge they wear. Many non-official tourists guides will also offer you their service. As for myself, I always go for the best option, so I preferred to choose a knowledgeable and professional guide, even if this meant paying a bit more.
When explained by a tourist guide, the archaeological Mayan site, acquire a deeper meaning. It would be better to visit every single one of them with a guide, but this isn’t great for your pockets, especially if you are on a budget. If I were to choose, the Mayan site which must be visited with a tourist guide is surely Palenque. Book a guided tour in English, Spanish or in any language you want. If you wish to lower its price, find other tourists who are willing to share the tour with you.
Group tour vs do-it-yourself
As you might have already deduced from my previous posts, I like to travel independently.
I admit though, that in some cases a tour guide is strictly necessary (for example, on the trip to the biosphere as well as when swimming with whale sharks). All the visits I inserted in my travel itinerary didn’t include a guided tour, because they mainly focused on walking around cities, towns and Mayan sites autonomously to better immerse myself into the Mexican culture.
The trip to the Sumidero Canyon as well as the one to San Juan Chamula can do without a guided tour if you have rented a car. If not then, you’d have to book for an organised tour from one of the many Mexican travel agencies.
Just to give you an idea, the organised tour to the Sumidero Canyon cost 300 pesos per person. By doing it by ourselves, we spent 60 pesos at the motorway toll, 320 pesos each ticket, 60 pesos in taxes and 80 for the petrol. In total, we spent 520. In conclusion, we didn’t save that much money by deciding to visit the canyon on our own, but we did have much more flexibility than an organised tour would have given us.
Local inhabitants vs photos in Mexico
This is another very important aspect to take into consideration before travelling to Mexico. Both in the Yucatán peninsula as well as Quintana Roo, people have no problems whatsoever when being taken photographs. In other areas, like Chiapas, the inhabitants don’t actually like it very much when they become the subjects of many photos. This is because, according to a popular belief, photographs steal the soul. My suggestion is to be discrete at all times and avoid taking photos if you see people might be feeling ill-at-ease.
Negotiating in Mexico
Compared to Thailand, where any price can be negotiated, in Mexico the negotiation exists, yet it is very much limited. The seller sets a price but they might not always be willing to lower it.If they do accept, it won’t be a major discount.
The problem is that, in the majority of the shops, the prices are not visible. Therefore the seller sets the price based on the type of tourists visiting their shop. A shop owner expressly told me that compared to the price he had set for us, the Americas would have been charged 100 pesos more. I don’t know if to believe it or not, but this makes you understand how variable the prices in Mexico are.
As you might already know, the city of Merida is the leader in the production of hammocks. Here you’ll be able to find and buy any kind of hammocks that suits your taste. The local culture is strictly linked to them, thus many Mexicans don’t actually sleep on mattresses but rather in hammocks as they find it more comfortable. There are king size hammocks as well as those which are used to rock babies to sleep.
If you decide to buy a hammock, you’ll also be given a small book entitled “Amakasutra” which contains images from the well-known Kamasutra, adapted to the hammock.
Where to buy local products in Mexico?
I would not recommend buying any kind of souvenirs in the area of Tulum or on the Rivera Maya as they’re very expensive. The best prices I found were at Chichén Itzà (at closing time) as well as San Cristobal’s market.
How to travel safely in Mexico?
Apart from the basic advice on avoid travelling alone by night, I’d also recommend this last Mexico travel tip. I suggest avoiding driving at night in Chiapas. I’ve never felt in actual danger, maybe only one evening in the area of Merida because my hotel was a bit far away from the city centre.
Bonus: the police are always very present — I’ve actually never seen so many police cars around.
Obviously the same general safety rules you follow in your hometown, are to be applied to Mexico as well. Therefore, try not to attract too much attention by wearing very visible, shiny and expensive jewelry and keep your personal belongings safe at all times.
In conclusion: This post and the other two: Road Trip in Mexico: itinerary from Yucatan to Chiapas and Travelling to Mexico: map, costs and details will surely help you organise the perfect trip to Mexico. If you need any further information, please leave a comment below and I’ll reply to you as soon as possible.