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By Mike Vondruska
Helpful Things To Know When Visiting The "Real México"
4 IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. You are a Guest in their Home Country
Outside of the advertised beach resort tourist regions (known as the Other 99% of the country) you will discover the Real México.
In your encounters with the local folks during your travels, you will find that most everyone you meet will be friendly and welcoming to foreign visitors.
In many areas of México, the local people don’t have a lot of opportunities to see foreigners. So it is a treat for them to speak with you or interact with you in some way.
You are in their “home” and so of course, you would want to treat them as your “host” while you are visiting.
2. Respect their Cultures, Traditions, and Ways of Doing Things
Remember, your country has your ways of doing things and México has their ways.
Even if what you encounter seems strange or foreign, please remember that YOU are the FOREIGNER, not them.
3. Beware of México’s Uneven Sidewalks
Walking on sidewalks in Mexico’s towns and cities will most likely be the most dangerous thing you will encounter during your exploration of this country.
Sidewalks can have holes in them, telephone poles blocking the way, low hanging branches from trees, and even trees growing right out of some walkways.
Sidewalks might also be blocked by people with tables and make-shift stands selling items. Some sections of sidewalks may be made of smooth tile. When it rains, that tile can be very slippery to walk over.
If you happen to find yourself walking on sidewalks which run alongside streets with minimum vehicle traffic, you may want to do as the locals do. That is, they just walk in the street. In many instances, it is just easier to do that.
4. Yes, There is Cartel Activity Happening in México
It is also happening in most major cities in the US, Canada, Europe, South America, and beyond.
When in México, if you don’t plan to sell drugs or buy drugs, the cartel groups really have no reason to bother you.
That being said, anyone anywhere in the world could happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught up in some conflict between rival bad guy gangs or between the bad guys and the police or army.
That’s just the world we live in today . . . and it does not just happen in México.
11 TOP THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
1. Make Sure Your Passport is Valid
These days it may take weeks or months to obtain a new passport or to renew the one you have. Check your passport’s expiration date. That date should be at least 6 months or more from the date of your departure from México. For more information, go online to your government travel information site.
2. Learn Some Basic Spanish & Then USE THOSE WORDS during Your Trip
If you have been to any of the sun & sand beach resort areas in México, you have found that most of the people working in tourism there know English.
That is not the case in the Other 99% of México.
The local people you encounter will love hearing you try to speak their language. So try even if you only know a few words. Use them. The locals will most likely help you and maybe try to use any limited words they may know in English. It’s always a fun cultural exchange when you try to speak words in their language.
FYI: There are 68 different indigenous languages spoken throughout the country; 69 if you include Spanish. That’s why México does not have an “official” language.
3. Do Some Research in Advance about the Locations You will be Visiting
By studying a little bit about the region or regions of México you will be visiting, it will create a foundation for the additional information you will learn during your visit. Articles, books, blogs, and online videos all are great resources.
4. Figure Out Where to Obtain Mexican Pesos
Unlike being able to pay with US or Canadian dollars at México’s beach resort areas, that is not the case in the rest of México.
That would be like going into a local store in Dayton, Ohio and trying to buy items with Mexican pesos. The cashier will look at you as if you are crazy.
You can ask your hometown bank to order Mexican pesos in advance before you go. You can use ATMs found everywhere in México to get pesos. You can also bring US, Canadian, or Euros into México and then go to one of the exchange places at the airport upon your arrival. You can also find Casas de Cambios (Exchange houses) in most major cities throughout México. Many bigger hotels may exchange a limited amount of your currency for pesos.
The bottom line is this. YOU NEED MEXICO PESOS to buy stuff when traveling in the “REAL MEXICO.”
5. Credit Cards from Non-México Banks are Usually Accepted as a Form of Payment – But Not Always
Because of credit card fraud, there are stores and many gas stations throughout México that will not accept a credit card from a foreign bank. There are some stores that won’t accept a VISA or MASTERCARD but will accept AMERICAN EXPRESS. Most small shops and street vendors only accept cash.
To be on the safe side, plan to have Mexican pesos in your wallet.
Remember – In México . . . CASH (Efectivo) is KING!
6. Leave your Fancy Jewelry and Expensive Watches at Home
This is just a good idea when traveling anywhere as a proactive precaution against temptation.
7. Bring a Good Sturdy Pair of Walking or Hiking Shoes, Boots, or Gym Shoes
México is a big country with so many regions to explore. Walking is always the best way to get to know it cities, towns, villages, and countryside.
8. Consider Traveling with only a Carry-On and a Backpack
Roller bags may not be your “best friend” when it comes to road trip tours. Uneven sidewalks, cobbled streets, curbs, and hotels without elevators will make any rolling luggage more of a challenge to maneuver.
You may want to consider a backpack carry-on bag or a backpack/roller bag combo setup.
FYI: You really do not need to bring a new outfit for every day of your trip. Think, Mix & Match.
A suggestion would be 4 outfits. Then wash and repeat.
There are laundry services all throughout the country where people will wash, dry, and fold your clothes for a few pesos. The turnaround time is usually one day and sometimes even less.
Then also bring a small backpack for day trips. For your flight to México, you can put this bag underneath the seat in front of you.
Of course, you will have to abide by your airline’s company rules as to sizes for your bags and weight.
9. Separate the Cash and Credit Cards You Will be Bringing to Different Locations in your Luggage and on You
It is not really a good idea to keep all your money and credit cards in one place when traveling. A money belt of some kind is useful in keeping most of your cash and cards hidden away.
Another suggestion would be to keep some cash folded up in your socks. Then later if you need that cash, it is quite easy to just reach down and take it out.
FYI: If you do use a money belt or put money in your socks, remember not to do that until after you go through the security check points at your departure airport.
10. How to Make Phone Calls and Use the Internet in México
Almost all hotels in México have WiFi connections from your room or from their lobby. Many restaurants also have connections.
You can check with your phone service provider to find out your options for using your phone when you are in another country.
A good free option to use is to download Whatapp. It’s free to use. If the people you would like to stay in contact with back home also have this app, you can text and call for free while you are in México. You only need a WiFi connection. This is just one app. There are also others which are similar for texting and calling.
11. It May be a Good Idea to Purchase Travel Interruption and Emergency Medical Travel Insurance
Check with your insurance company to see what they recommend. There are insurance companies that specialize in providing this kind of temporary travel insurance.
For a few dollars more, this might be a good investment just in case something happens while you are traveling or if there is some reason you have to change your travel plans.
Mike Vondruska – Mexico City Airport
UPON ARRIVAL – IMMIGRATION & CUSTOMS
Please note that the following information is all subject to change in the procedures listed below. With more advancements in technology, new ways in the future to check you through may be implemented.
Upon arrival at your first entry location in México, you will be required to go through Immigration (Migración) and then Customs (Aduana).
There will be an immigration card which is generally known as a Tourist Visa. You may be required to write out your information by hand or there may be machines upon arrival that asks you to type in your name, destination in Mexico, passport number, etc.
Perhaps in the future (as is already the new system in some countries), you may be required to fill out this form online before arriving at your departure airport.
At Immigration, the officer will give you a small rectangular document which is your Tourist Visa.
DO NOT LOSE IT.
You will need it to exit the country at the end of your stay. Without it, you will not be allowed to leave. If you do lose it, you will be required to purchase another Tourist Visa at your place of departure. Costs can vary and may take some time to get it replaced.
Bottom Line – DON’T LOSE YOUR TOURIST VISA. It usually gives you 6 months (180 days) or less of time to stay in México. If you overstay your time allotted, you may be fined.
3 THINGS TO REMEMBER DURING YOUR VISIT
1. Forgot Something. Need Something. No Problem!
México has pharmacies (farmacias) with over-the-counter medicine, just like back at home.
There are food stores of all sizes from gigantic to small corner markets and stands.
Need a new watch battery, another memory card for your camera, another pair of socks? You can find these common everyday items and more in México.
2. The Electric Outlets in Mexico are the Same as in the US and Canada
There is no need to buy any special types of gadgets like you would need if you were traveling to Europe. México uses 110 volt, 60 cycle electricity, same as the US and Canada.
3. Eating: Food, Drink & Restaurant Information
There is a saying, If you like tacos, you will never go hungry in México. You can find them being made and sold just about any time day or night in small restaurants and from stands on the streets. Hotdogs and hamburgers can also be found late into the evening.
Not all food at restaurants are hot and spicy.
Street food is usually cooked right before you so it is fresh. If it is a fried item in oil, you may want to check to see if the oil looks like it was from yesterday’s cooking. A good idea is to go to places where you see lots of local people eating there.
All restaurants in México have strict standards when it comes to using treated water to wash the fruits, vegetables, and salads they serve. You should be fine eating these items. However, it is your call. If your history is of having a queasy stomach, then maybe skip these items . . . just to be on the safe side.
Drinking the tap water is not advisable. Most hotels supply guests with either complementary bottled drinking water left in their hotel room or a big 5 gallon container of purified water found in the hallway to fill your water bottle. There are also many small stores and convenience stores who sell bottled water.
The ice you get in drinks is usually from reputable ice companies who have strict standards. There should be no problems with having ice in your drink.
Very few restaurants have menus written in English. Your waiter/waitress may speak some English but don’t count on it. Learn how to order your food in Spanish or just point to what you want on the menu.
You will find American franchises in many medium to large cities. Think McDonalds, Starbucks, and the like. Again, their menus will be in Spanish.
The custom at restaurants in México is that once you place your order and the food is brought to your table, the wait staff will not come by and ask if you need anything else while you are eating and they will not automatically leave the bill on your table once you are finished. They may not even clear your plates from the table.
Here is the reason why.
Interrupting your conversations with your friends/relatives while you are eating is considered very rude. If you do need something, just raise your hand and they will then come to your table.
Also, it would be very inconsiderate and rude to place the bill on your table before you ask for it. That would be like the waiter telling you, “Hey, you’re done! Now pay and leave!”
When you are ready to pay the bill, once again raise your hand to get their attention.
La cuenta por favor / The bill please.
Tipping at restaurants is usually between 10-15%. Just because you may be used to tipping more in your country, it is recommended not to do that. Remember, you are a guest in their country and 10-15% is common. That is what Mexican patrons leave as a tip and you should too.
9 WAYS TO GET AROUND MEXICO
Of course, walking is the most common.
Remember – Watch your step when walking on the sidewalks. A good rule of thumb is to “Walk and not Gawk.” In other words, watch where you are stepping.
Another thing to realize is that some stairways may not have handrails.
2. Bicycle Rentals
In some cities, you may find bicycle rental companies where you can rent by the hour, day, or maybe by the week. This is another alternative way to get around a city. Some cities may even have free rental bikes you can borrow.
Taxis can usually be found in most medium to large cities throughout the country. In some cities taxis have meters. However, most do not.
Before entering the taxi, it is best to greet them (Hola, Buenos dias, etc.) and then ask how much – Cuanto cobras a your destination. Translated, “How much do you charge to your destination.”
A good idea is to see if you can find out in advance approximately how much your taxi ride will cost. You can ask someone at the front desk of your hotel or wherever you are staying.
Your taxi driver is not expecting a tip at the end of the ride. Unless they did something extra for you – like helping bring in your packages, luggage, or making a stop along the way for you before your final destination, THERE IS NO NEED TO TIP THEM.
Again, you are a guest in their country. You are not there to change their way of doing things. So fight the urge to give them a tip. Remember, they are not expecting one.
In smaller towns, you may find what they call, taxis colectivo or “shared taxis.” Note that the word “share” does not necessarily mean sharing with one or two other people. It means packing the taxi with 3 in the back and 2 in the front (even if there is only one passenger seat in the front and a stick shift in the middle). These kinds of rides are very inexpensive and fun if you don’t mind being squished in with the locals.
You should know that Uber and other similar transport companies may or may not be available in the city you are visiting. You will not find them in smaller towns.
5. Urban City Buses
The buses you find in the medium to big size cities are usually old and worn out-looking. However, they are reliable. To find the right bus to take you where you want to go can be a bit of an adventure. You might have to ask people waiting at the bus station what bus takes you where you want to go. Each bus usually has the names of the places they go to. However, it can still be confusing knowing which one to get on. A plus is that the cost to ride on these urban buses are very inexpensive.
6. Bus Companies that Ferry People Longer Distances Throughout México
Kudos to México! They have excellent bus companies for traveling around the country.
The first class buses that take you from city to city and state to state are usually very modern and comfortable. The drivers are very professional. All the first class buses do have bathrooms onboard and movies to watch. Some even provide a free drink and snacks to take with you on your journey.
Note: The movies are in Spanish with no English subtitles even though it may be a movie made in the United States.
7. Renting a Car
If renting a car, it is best not to drive at night. The main reasons are that except for the main highways and tollways, smaller roads may have potholes, farm animals that may have gotten loose, and local people who are walking alongside the road in the dark.
You should also note that your car insurance you use in the country you live in will not be valid in México. It would be best to make sure you are fully covered by checking into the full coverage packages the different car rental companies offer in México.
8. In-Country Flights
You can find inexpensive in-country air flights which may be less expensive than taking a cross-country bus trip. Check out companies like Vivaaerobus, Volares, Interjet, Aeromar, TAR, and Aeromexico.
9. Sign up for a Guided Tour
You can eliminate the hassles of having to figure out your own way to get around México and find a guided tour that fits your interests, number of days, and budget.
A good suggestion is to find a tour that limits the number of people to no more than 16 travelers. In a smaller group atmosphere, a van or if it is a very small group, a comfortable car or SUV will make your exploration tour more intimate.
Another plus to signing on to a small guided group tour is that you will have a knowledgeable bilingual host guide.
Note: On all the tours I have created, we only network with professional local Mexico guides. It is always great to get the perspective of what you are seeing from someone who actually grew up in México. Not only will they be able to explain what you are seeing, they will also know more about the history, traditions, and may even have interesting personal stories to share.
7 MORE HELPFUL THINGS TO KNOW
1. Before Attempting to Speak with a Local Person, Always Greet Them First
Smile and say, Hi (Hola) or Good morning (Buenos dias) or Good afternoon (Buenas tardes) or Good evening (Buenas noches). This is a part of the Mexican culture to first recognize the person with a greeting before asking a question or starting a conversation.
2. Keep On-Hand Some Smaller Bills – 20, 50, and 100 peso bills as well as coins
Small stores may not have change if you give them a $500 peso bill. Also, you may want to buy a small item from someone who came up to you on the street to sell you something they made or some candy or . . . something. It may only cost 10 pesos and so coins are good to have in your pocket. If riding on the urban buses, you will need small bills or coins for the fare.
Mexican bills come in these denominations: $20, $50, $100, $200, $500, $1000 pesos.
Mexican coins are .50, 1, 2, 5, 10 pesos.
You can check online for the current exchange rate.
3. Public Bathrooms
Most public bathrooms will cost you 3 to 5 pesos to enter. You will be given some toilet paper as you go in or there may be toilet paper in each stall or there may be a big roll near the entrance where you can grab some before doing your business.
Some public bathrooms and even in bathrooms in smaller restaurants may not have toilet seats. You just have to deal with it.
It is advisable to carry a little ziplock bag with some toilet paper in it because you may encounter bathrooms with no toilet paper.
There may not be soap to wash your hands and paper towels or a dryer to dry them. Bring some hand sanitizer for when this happens.
Throw all used toilet paper in the garbage can next to the toilet. Do not throw it in the toilet bowl. This applies to bathrooms in hotels, restaurants, and in people’s bathrooms in their homes.
Even the restrooms at the big México City Airport have a trash can in each stall to throw your paper in it. The good news is that they also have restroom attendants who constantly dump them on a frequent basis.
México’s sanitation system is not set up for receiving all that paper. Toilets can get clogged up if you dump the paper in the toilet bowl and try to flush it down.
4. México Can Be a Noisy Place
Even in the major cities, you may hear roosters crowing from your room. You may hear dogs barking, traffic noise, and loudspeakers advertising something.
You may hear music playing from homes, speakers from cars riding down the street advertising items, and stores playing music from speakers on the sidewalk to attract shoppers.
Mexicans love their music!
5. Police Patrol With Their Lights Flashing
When you are in México, you may see police cars and trucks driving around town with their lights flashing.
However, don’t worry. They are not rushing to the “scene of a crime.”
They have their lights flashing to show everyone that they are there. They are just doing their rounds; patrolling.
If they were heading to an emergency, then they would be sounding their siren.
6. Taking Photos of People
It is just common curtesy to ask permission from them first, especially if they are an indigenous person. If they say “no” or shy away, then don’t take their photo. Please respect their decision.
If they agree, show them the photo after you take it. Whether they are senior citizens or young kids, they will like seeing their image from your phone or camera.
7. Use Common Sense When Traveling
Always be aware of your surroundings and your property.
Remember: YOU are responsible for YOU!
Enjoy this most interesting country called, MEXICO!