If you're planning to visit Mexico on a scheduled flight and arrange your own travel once you've arrived, the chances are you'll enter the country via Benito Juarez airport in Mexico City. If so, there are three things you'll do well to bear in mind on arrival:
- Mexico City is in many ways a lovely place1, despite the scare stories some people like to tell you. Just be a little streetwise, like you would in any large city with a lot of poverty - keep your luggage within reach at all times, and don't keep your wallet anywhere that could be easily accessed by not-so-innocent bystanders. If you take a registered taxi (see below) straight to your hotel, you should have no cause to worry whatsoever.
- However, the air quality is on the poor side. Partly because it's on a plateau surrounded by high mountains and volcanos and air can't move very easily, Mexico City is one of the most polluted places in the world.
- Most importantly though, it's one of the highest cities in the world. This means the air is a lot thinner, which is made worse by the pollutants in the atmosphere, and the body has to work a lot harder to do anything.
Bearing in mind that you may well already be jet-lagged when you arrive, becoming used to the high altitude is no picnic. Symptoms of altitude sickness include breathlessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea and loss of appetite, and you may experience these in a mild form. If so, just get some rest and take it easy - the guidebooks recommend that it's best not to linger on arrival unless you're planning on staying in Mexico City for a long time - get yourself to somewhere a little lower and take in the delights of the capital on the way back.
Beware taxis in Mexico City and Guadalajara, particularly if you speak no Spanish. There is a system in place at the airports of both cities where you buy a fixed-price ticket (the city is divided into zones, and the price is fixed by which zone your destination is in) from a kiosk in the arrivals hall. You present your ticket to the official presiding over the queue and are allocated to a registered taxi.
Within Mexico City or Guadalajara, it's safest to phone for a taxi from your hotel or hostel - or better still, ask them to do it on your behalf. Elsewhere, you should be fine - but as in most countries, do check that the taxi's meter is switched on and working. By the way, taxis are generally either green or yellow with a white roof - the green ones run on unleaded fuel.
In Mexico City, there's an excellent French-built Metro system, which serves the airport and all four bus stations. However, you aren't officially allowed to take luggage of any size on it, so it's of limited use to tourists entering or leaving the city. If you are able to make use of it, tickets are available at a very reasonable flat fare for a single journey. Monterrey and Guadalajara also have small metro systems - Monterrey's system also operates a flat-fare ticket system and is much the best way to get around the city, but the Guadalajara metro is only really of use to commuters.
Following the monetarist overhaul of the Mexican economy in the 1990s, the Mexican railways were privatised - and as a result, passenger rail travel has all but died out. The only line in the country still in operation is the Copper Canyon line in the north, which runs from Chihuahua to the coast at Los Mochis, passes through some very spectacular scenery on the way, and is very popular with tourists. Mexico City itself has no rail service whatsoever, which is almost inconceivable considering a population of something like 30 million inhabitants.
There may be very few trains in Mexico, but there are coaches - and lots of them. You can get from almost anywhere in Mexico to anywhere else by coach. Every town of any size will have at least one bus station - different companies often have their own, so it's worth checking how far apart they may be if you plan to change coaches somewhere. The first and second class bus stations in Oaxaca, for example, are on completely different sides of the city.
The setup is a little different in Mexico City - there are four stations at each compass point of the city that are used by all coach companies. It's best to check which station serves your destination before you set out, as it can be a lengthy and expensive process to get from one to another. A registered taxi service is available at each bus station - a similar system operates to that in use at the airport.
First-class coaches are the best ones to go for - generally very comfortable, they tend to go direct to your destination without stopping and are equipped with air-conditioning, toilets and VCRs. Cristobal Colon, ADO and Estrella Blanca are among the more established first-class operators. However, there is no unified timetable available, so you generally have to shop around a little to find which company runs the cheapest or most frequent service. Once you've bought your ticket, it's worth taking a jumper with you in case the air-conditioning is working overtime, and the VCR can be something of a mixed blessing - the films shown often tend to have a somewhat dubious entertainment value, so going equipped with earplugs and/or a personal stereo might be an idea.
Some companies run pullman or deluxe services at a premium rate, but the extra pesos you'll spend on these could probably be better deployed elsewhere. Second-class coaches are potentially a more viable alternative. They don't always have toilets or air-conditioning, and generally take longer to reach their destination as they often make more stops along the way, and you don't save a great deal in terms of the fare you pay. But the seats are usually just as large and comfortable, the services are more frequent and tend to be emptier so you can stretch out, and as long as you don't get stuck anywhere too hot for too long, having the wind in your hair can be a welcome alternative to air-conditioning.
A coach company employee will load your luggage into the hold for you - at the bigger coach stations (certainly in Mexico City) there's an airport-style check-in where you hand your suitcases over the counter, but more usually you take it to the coach yourself and pass it to the stevedore. Make sure you get a receipt for each item - otherwise you'll have great difficulty retrieving your belongings at your destination.
As Mexico is on the large side, and the road network (particularly in the south) isn't in great condition, journeys between major cities tend to take several hours. Taking the overnight coach can be an excellent way of giving yourself an extra day's holiday while saving the cost of a night in a hotel.
Given the distances involved when getting around Mexico, going by air can save you a great deal of time. A flight from Mexico City to Puerto Escondido, for instance, takes just an hour in comparison to half a day on the coach. It's not as expensive as you might think, either - a plane ticket will generally cost you about three or four times the price of the first-class coach fare. Aeromexico and Mexicana are the main two Mexican airlines, and they cover most major destinations along with a number of smaller operators (Aviacsa, Aeromar, Aerocaribe and Aerotucan), and tickets are available from most travel agents.
If you're planning on driving into Mexico, you should ensure that your insurance is valid there and that you'll be able to get whatever type of petrol2 you like putting in your car. Most car insurance in North America stops at the Mexican border, though you can usually buy separate insurance for driving in Mexico.
However, unless you live very near the Mexican border, renting a car on arrival is probably a better option. If you're uncomfortable driving in an unfamiliar neighbourhood in your home country, you probably shouldn't consider renting a car in Mexico. People who are comfortable driving, however, should have no difficulties driving a rented car provided they do a little planning and remember to be careful. Most drivers rarely run into trouble when driving at home; there is no reason their experience should be any different in Mexico. Traffic signs in Mexico follow international standards, so navigation should be no problem even without a knowledge of Spanish. Pemex, the national petroleum company runs all filling stations and they are conveniently located throughout the country. It would be a good idea to obtain maps and guide books from your local Automobile Association so that at least a rough itinerary can be planned before leaving. It is important to remember that most major highways in Mexico charge a toll - although alternative routes on secondary roads are often available without a toll, these routes are often more winding and scenic, but also much longer, than the principal highways. Also, the 'Angels', the roving government auto mechanics who help stranded motorists, are generally only present on the highways. Broken down motorists on secondary routes must generally rely on their own resources or the many private mechanics operating in every small town (just like at home).
Many maps of Mexico City make it appear that Benito Juarez airport is connected to downtown by a major freeway. These maps are deceptive, particularly at night. If one is picking up a rental car at the airport, one must remember that everywhere in Mexico City seems to be downtown. The plethora of routes can be very disorienting for the jet-lagged driver - the traffic system in Mexico City appears to have been designed by a madman on speed3. On top of that, every car in Mexico City is restricted to driving on only six days of every seven. There will be a sticker on every rental car indicating which day driving is not allowed. This restriction forces some forethought on the driver: If staying in Mexico City for a time, alternative transportation must be arranged for the restricted day; and, when returning to Mexico City from outlying areas, the day of arrival must be planned to coincide with a day that driving is allowed.
While there are stories of the nightmarish nature of driving in Mexico, they are, generally, just stories. Having the use of a car for travelling opens up areas no other mode of travel can and it allows a freedom to change plans that is difficult to have any other way. If a driver is careful, obeys the rules of the road, and does a little bit of preparation, there is no reason that motoring around Mexico should be other than a wonderful vacation.
Three final caveats, though. Firstly, drive on the right. Secondly, when Mexican highways pass through even the smallest of towns, they have very large and effective speed humps (signposted 'Tope' or, for the ones with ridges on top, 'Vibrador') to slow you down - ignore them, and you risk breaking you car. Thirdly, don't drive at night. Most Mexican roads are quite twisty and have more than the odd pothole. But there's usually great scenery and you'll miss it at night. And besides, if anyone is going to hold up your car and rob you4, they'll do it under the cover of darkness.
Don't Drink the Water
Mexican water isn't suitable for drinking by those who haven't built up a lifetime resistance to it - if you do, or drink something containing ice made from it, you're likely to be violently sick for a very long time. It's a big enough subject for a guide entry in its own right, and you can find it here. Buying bottled water is a good idea, though you should always make sure that you're the one opening the bottle and that the seal was intact.
Four Vital Things to Carry
- Anti-diarrhoea tablets - even if you successfully avoid drinking the water, there is a strong chance you'll get a mild dose of Montezuma's revenge. This is simply because Mexican bacteria are different to those of your home country, and your body will struggle initally to cope with them.
- Rehydration salts - invaluable for overcoming that 'wounded kitten' feeling when laid low by a bout of Montezuma's.
- Mosquito repellent - essential for use after dusk anywhere in a low-lying or coastal area if you wish to prevent yourself becoming the subject of a feeding frenzy. Wearing long sleeves and trousers in the evening can help a lot, but remember to spray those wrists and ankles!
- After-bite cream - naturally, should any mosquitos penetrate your defences, this will make your life much more bearable. Also, if you manage to avoid scratching the bite and breaking the skin, you'll recover in a much quicker and scar-free manner. Also of use are the little piezo-electric gadgets now sold in chemists and at airports that help stop the itch by administering a very small electric shock to the affected area - four or five clicks generally work a treat.
Like many not-quite-so-developed countries, Mexican plumbing isn't all it might be. This means that little bin next to the toilet isn't just there to keep the bathroom tidy - it's for used toilet paper. This isn't completely desirable, and can take a little getting used to - but it's infinitely better than coping with the consequences of blocking up the pipes and rendering your toilet inoperable.
The guidebooks will tell you to bring US Dollars, as the state of the Mexican economy means the Peso has a tendency to become devalued quite suddenly. This is true. However, they also say that most shops, hotels and so on will accept US Dollars as payment - in the experience of this researcher, if you go beyond the major tourist resorts, that's complete baloney 5. If you're not from the USA and would like to avoid paying commission at the Bureau de Change twice, the best option is to use a bank with an ATM as your source of local currency. But if you're going to be in Mexico for a long time and wish to inflation-proof yourself, it's true that the US Dollar is more easily exchanged than other currencies, and you do get a better rate.
Once you have your pesos, don't keep them all in your wallet - it's pretty standard advice for travellers everywhere but worth remembering. A stash of contingency money kept elsewhere in your luggage can be invaluable if you lose your wallet or have your bag snatched. Travellers' cheques are an excellent idea for emergency use as the issuer will replace them if lost or stolen (NB - but not if they were in your luggage in the hold of an aeroplance or coach at the time), but they can be a pain to cash and you don't get such a good exchange rate.
As a tourist, you tend to withdraw large sums of money at a single time to avoid being done on the minimum commission fee, and the ATMs at the banks issue you with 200 peso notes. This seems all well and good, but the trouble with a 200 peso note is that nobody in Mexico ever has any change. Ever. Particularly in smaller towns or rural areas.
This can get somewhat tiresome, as it invariably puts you in the position of 'annoying tourist' when it's not exactly your fault. After you have found someone willing and able to give you change from your 200 pesos, you try to be nice and pay with the right money and end up spending all your smaller notes and coins. Once they've run out, of course, you're back to square one - the irritating foreigner trying to pay with an unfeasibly high-denomination banknote...
The official language of Mexico is Spanish, but a few words differ in comparison to European Spanish (for example, the word for a postage stamp in Spain is 'sello', but in Mexico you need to ask for an 'estampilla'). Some pronunciations are also slightly different - chiefly the letters 'c', which is always a soft 'c' rather than a dental sibiliant 'th'. If in Spain you learned to say the word for thank you as 'grathias', the locals will warm to you a little more if you say 'grasias' instead. This has a social component: people who think that they are better than they should be pronounce 'c's and 'z's with the European theta/lisp.. Mexicans are very antipathetic towards those who put on airs, and even though you are not intending to, it's what you will seem to be doing.
Some Culinary Advice
Mexican restaurants tend to be pretty good and on the cheap side. However, if you go to a comedor at the local market, you'll be sampling exactly the same fare that locals eat. Comedor translates literally as 'dining room', and in the majority of markets, there will be an entire section devoted to eating and drinking. As well as comedors, there will be a multitude of stalls selling delicious freshly-produced juices (jugos) and milkshakes (licuados). The quality is generally pretty high, and you can save yourself a good few pesos. Just make sure that the stall you select looks clean and hygenic, that's all. Oh, and if you don't like your food too spicy, '¿sin jalapeños, por favor?6' can be quite a useful phrase. That should be pretty universally understood, although strictly speaking 'no tan picante7' or 'suave8' are more accurate.
Researchers opposed to multinational corporations may have a pretty thin time of it in Mexico - Nestle and Coca-Cola are pretty much ubiquitous. However, the Mexican Coke experience may be a little different than what you're used to - Coca-Cola here is made with sugar rather than corn syrup. The Coca Cola Corporation also sells a variety of exciting products you may not have encountered before - there's a brand of water called Ciel, a grapefruit-flavour fizzy drink (Fresca), a lemon one by the name of Squirt9 and a flat, sickly concoction that calls itself Delaware Punch.
If you're from the USA
You might consider yourself an 'americano', but remember that Mexicans are Americans too, gringo... if you're asked where you're from and say 'soy americano', it can occasionally cause offence. It's probably best to opt for 'soy estadosunidense' instead10, which means specifically that you're from the United States.