11 Things You Need to Know Before Travelling in Mexico
Going backpacking in Mexico? These are the 11 things you need to know before you go!
1. Plan your route
Mexico is huge. That may sound like a fairly obvious statement but travelling across a country the size of Mexico takes some planning! Knowing you want to get from A to B is one thing but in Mexico, that could mean 3 different buses, overnight travel (which is considered less safe in Mexico), varying quality of transportation and 22 hours of your time. You might also miss somewhere you wished you hadn't. Check out AllTheRooms' blog "The Best Places to Go Backpacking in Mexico" to start planning your adventure - Isla Holbox and San Cristóbal get my vote.
2. Research flights
Internal flights can be cheap - we flew from La Paz to Guadalajara for the equivalent of £22 each! But in that same breath, they can be ... not so cheap. Flying from Guadalajara to Cancun was £66 each. Flights from from Puerto Vallarta to Oaxaca City were £75 each. That might not sound like much but when you're making your budget stretch, it can be quite significant. Also each company offer different baggage allowances and costs which can quickly add up if you've got more than just a camera as hand luggage. Do your research to find the best deal and if you've done point 1 correctly, you won't be forced to book something last minute.
3. Learn some Spanish
So maybe again, this seems incredibly obvious, but outside of the main tourist spots, English is not widely spoken. Perhaps I was spoiled by travelling in South East Asia where everyone seemed to speak some English but in Mexico, I often found myself in situations where speaking Spanish was essential. Luckily my highschool Spanish came back to me and Duolingo was a big help. I actually really enjoyed speaking Spanish and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. There are also lots of language schools around the country if you want to stop and spend a few weeks brushing up. Buying bus tickets, eating in locals' restaurants, passing through immigration, shopping in the markets - all prove a difficult undertaking without a basic level of Spanish!
4. Don't be scared
Mexico often gets a bad press. Before we arrived, a lot of people expressed concern that we were heading to Mexico and told us not to go out at night, etc. I started to feel quite paranoid and for the first few days I saw sunset as my cue to get back to our accommodation, pronto! This was unneccessary. The parts of Mexico which are not safe for travellers are well documented. Outside of those areas, as long as you have your wits about you - like you should in any foreign country - it's perfectly safe. The people are friendly, welcoming and kind to travellers - we even hitchhiked and went to the local cemetery for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Being able to speak some Spanish definitely helps though as you can chat with locals, avoid any sticky situations and learn more about Mexico through its people.
5. Set a budget
Mexico was more expensive than I expected. Again, my travels in South East Asia probably have a lot to answer for but I was expecting Mexico to be as cheap as the countries I visited there. This was foolish! Especially in tourist areas in the Yucatan or Baja California - prices can be on a par with North America and Europe. There are ways to ease your budget though such as eating street food, staying in less busy areas, catching Colectivos (local minibuses) instead of taxis. I would advise staying on top of current exchange rates and planning your budget and timeline appropriately. With its vastness and the cost of travel, we were not able to see as much of the country as we'd have liked and we most definitely were travelling on a budget! We cooked for ourselves, slept in hostels, avoided paid excursions, walked A LOT and yet still found it to be more expensive than expected. Budgeting is key.
6. Get an early start
For some of the sightseeing that we did, starting early in the day was essential! Traipsing around ruins in the blaring midday sun is just too much to bare. And, TIP for you: you beat the crowds! We visited the Tulum ruins, Chichén Itzá and Palenque and each time, we made an early start. We were the 3rd and 4th people admitted to Chichén Itzá on the day (at 8am!) and were able to enjoy the ruins, without the crowds and the heat of the midday sun. By the time we were leaving a couple of hours later, the coach buses had descended. An early start is a must!
7. Carry a stainless steel water bottle
Tap water isn't drinkable in Mexico so you'll find yourself buying water by the litre. Having a reusable, stainless steel water bottle is a godsend! My bottle of choice is a S'well which keeps your drink cold for 24hrs and comes in many gorgeous designs. This is an absolute dream when you're out and about in Mexico as the bottle you buy ice cold from the convenience store, quickly heats up before you've had time to drink it. Transfer it to your S'well immediately and you'll be sipping ice cold water for hours. Whilst the reusable bottle isn't quite eliminating the need for plastic in this case, it is helping you stay cool which is vital for a pasty Brit abroad.
8. Avoid the busiest tourist towns
Now this may be personal preference but for me, I can't stand walking down a main 'strip' being hassled every 5 seconds by someone wanting to sell me their menu, drinks offers, souvenirs, tours, drugs, tattoos - really, is that one an impulse purchase? I'm not blaming the locals for trying to earn a living through tourism, I'm just saying I prefer to avoid this. Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cabo San Lucas were the most tourist-heavy areas we visited and as a result, my least favourite. A 2 hour bus + 30 minute boat ride north of Cancun lead us to Isla Holbox; a still relatively quiet island with no cars (only golf carts), empty stretches of white sand beach, street food and lower prices.
9. Join Airbnb
For a couple travelling on a budget, we found private rooms in hostels to often be as expensive as hotels. For us, 4 times out of 5, the cheapest option was Airbnb. If you're not familiar with Airbnb, now is the time to acquaint yourself! It's a fabulous service where you have the chance to rent a room or a whole flat/house from a local. The bonus of renting a room, is the interaction that often comes from the host themselves or in some cases, the other guests; but even if you rent a whole place and don't see the host, you can always message via Airbnb. You can read reviews, see pictures, often have flexibility with check-in/check-out times and ultimately, have the ear of a local - the most invaluable tool.
10. Be savvy about your money
How you travel and access money on-the-go is unique to everyone but I'm a fan of a prepaid Visa/Mastercard. The card is not linked to your bank account and you top up as and when you need it. This usually works great for me as I don't like to carry large amounts of cash. In Mexico, I would recommend always having some cash on you though as not all places take card. I would also make sure you have some for tipping, paying for public toilets, hopping on colectivos, buying shaved coconut on the beach; you know, the essentials! If you are heading to somewhere remote, research ATMs ahead of time and take more cash if it might be a problem. If carrying more cash than normal, split it up amongst your luggage so that if your purse is stolen, you haven't lost everything! Scams are apparently a problem in Mexico and so it's important to be vigilant. For example, don't let a waiter take your card away; ask for the card reader at the table or follow the waiter to the till to pay. Be savvy, employ common sense, a bit of research and you'll be fine!
11. Be prepared for departure tax
When we booked our flight home with TUI, we read a note in our booking email about a tax that would be paid upon leaving. This was news to me! I had the Lonely Planet guide to Mexico which clearly lays out these sorts of fees; I'd read blogs about travelling in Mexico and yet this was the first I'd heard about it. Upon Googling this and speaking to other travellers, I was informed that this was a tourism tax that we would have paid with our initial flight into the country. However at Cancun airport - true to their word, TUI wanted their tax. We tried to argue the point, even showing our original flight details that showed we had paid the tourism tax but we were informed this was a different tax. 1120 pesos per person - the equivalent of £50 in November 2017 was required to be paid. Now I don't know about you, but I try to spend all my foreign currency before I leave a country and don't tend to keep a spare £100 equivalent just in case. Depending on which airport and airline you use to depart Mexico, make sure you know if you have to pay departure tax.
And there you have it, 11 things you need to know before travelling Mexico. Mexico is vast, varied and vibrant! The food, the culture, the people, the landscape, the beaches - they all have the power to capture your heart if you let them! Take the time to explore the country; visit the historic colonial towns, the stunning islands, the bustling cities and do not be put off by the Breaking Bad image of drug cartels and gang violence. Keep your wits about you, do your research ahead of time and you'll see most of Mexico is ready and waiting to be explored. Olé!