Last updated on December 1st, 2023
My list of the little things that make Mexico so endearing
by Carolyn Ray, Editor, JourneyWoman
I’ve spent four of the past six months living in Mexico. In that time, I’ve found that when you get outside the tourist areas, spend time in the villages and embrace Mexico with an open heart and mind, it captures your soul in a way that makes you want to return over and over.
There are a few ‘myths’ of Mexico that concern me. The first is about safety. On Facebook groups, I read posts of women who have had bad experiences when they leave a drink unattended in Cancun or walk home alone late at night after a night out. I wish negative incidents didn’t happen at all, but I can honestly say I have never experienced one single second of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in any of the places in Mexico I’ve visited over the past four months.
The second myth is about quality. While many consumer products are made in factories in Mexico, the craftmanship that exists here is off the charts. Never before have I seen such beautiful textiles, furniture, jewelry, clothing and pottery. Many things take longer because they are done by hand and made to last. And the food – once you have experienced making your own tortillas, tamales, mole or salsa over an open fire, you will never go back to store-bought, machine made foods. There is a way of doing things here, passed down by generations, that is proufoundly beautiful.
The third myth is about hospitality and friendliness. My observation is that the Mexican people are gracious, warm and welcoming, always seeking to make a stay in their country a beautiful one. On my most recent trip, I had two separate occasions where my accommodation didn’t work out. I simply sent a note to my first airbnb owner and she invited me to stay with her parents, who run a bed and breakfast. This B&B has been one of the loveliest I’ve ever stayed at anywhere in the world.
Things you’ll find different here
During my first stay in San Miguel de Allende, Bacalar, Merida and Puerto Escondido from October to January 2022, I started to take note of the things that are different. Some of them are little, but all are quite precious to me now. I reviewed several of these recently with some Mexican friends in Oaxaca who had quite a giggle. So I thought, why not share these with you?
First of all…
1. Greet all strangers, even those you pass on the street. Mexicans are extraordinarily polite. Say: Buenos dias (mornings) Buenas tardes (afternoons) Buenas noches (evenings) to everyone you meet, even people on the streets. It’s good practice.
2. Speak Spanish even if less articulate than a 5-year-old (like me). This is very much appreciated and everyone will be very eager to help you. If you need to, use Google Translate which records both voice and typing. Better yet, take a Spanish Class! (In Merida, I went to Calle 55 every day for two hours. In Oaxaca, try Becari or Spanish Magic. Most will also help you find lodging.
3. Family matters here. Something that I respect deeply about Mexico – is the commitment to family. Generations of families live and work together, and communities are tightly integrated, something I wish we had more of in North America. Many Mexicans travel abroad for school, but they come home again.
4. Find the local library: In Merida, try the Merida English Library (MEL), which also has a Spanish school next door and offers many events for expats. I got a library card there for $99 pesos a year and loved it. I also suggest the English bookstore Between the Lines run by Juanita, who’s originally from Vancouver. In Oaxaca, go to the Oaxaca Lending Library although their selection of English books isn’t as large as Merida’s.
Cleanliness is really important
5. Wear a mask: Even in Oaxaca in June, people are wearing masks so I am too. Wearing a mask is still practiced and is recognized as a sign of respect for the health and well-being of everyone. If you’re not sure, ask a local what’s appropriate or look around.
When I was in Merida, it became very annoying to see tourists not wearing masks when 99% of the population was. According to the most recent vaccination statistics, 62% of the Mexican population is fully vaccinated. Let’s all do our part to protect each other.
6. Entering a store: Masks are required inside all stores. Most stores still have temperature check machines (just hold your hand up and wait for the beep and green light). Hand sanitizer is always offered or available, and there are often mats to walk across.
At some stores, like the local Chedraui in Huatulco, staff clean off all the carts with sanitizer.
In restaurants and hotels…
7. No toilet paper please: In most places, there are signs asking you not to put toilet paper in the toilets. Instead, put it in the garbage bin provided. This is particularly important in beach communities where there aren’t modern septic systems. I just do it now as a habit, whether I’m asked or not.
8. Conserve drinking water. Water is precious here, particularly in the dry season. You have to ask for it in restaurants, often for a nominal cost. There are two kinds of water: Naturelle (bottled) and sparkling (con gaz). (As an aside, be careful using water in showers, washing your hands, etc)
9. Ask for la cuenta: Waiters will not bring your bill to you unless you ask for it.. Your meal ends only when you ask for the bill, aka “La cuenta por favor”
10. Hang up your bags: The ornamental tree stand at a restaurant table is not decorative. It’s where you hang your purse and shopping bags for safe keeping and security. I’ve also heard putting your bags on the floor is considered poor taste.
11. Learn about Mezcal: Take a Mezcal tasting to learn about how it’s made. The better the mezcal, the higher the percent alcohol, ideally over 40%. If you savor Mezcal, sip with your tongue first. Never mix with ice. Always neat at room temperature. You can buy small sipping cups that will make it even more enjoyable.
12. Tip well: Tips are always optional but 10-15% is an act of appreciation and generosity. Usually, when the bill is presented, the waiter will ask what percentage you want to apply when you pay with a credit card there’s an option of ‘0’, 10, 15 or 20%.
13. Repetition is a beautiful thing! Your order will always be repeated by the server to ensure accuracy, although sometimes it’s fun to see what turns up!
14. Menus are 100% digital now. Most are mostly available using QR codes, so you’ll need wifi before you can order (or a SIM or eSim card).
Understanding the taxi system
15. At the Airport: Taxi rates are fixed based on the zone you’re going to.
When you arrive at any Mexican airport, look for the Taxi sign inside the airport before you walk outside. You’ll need to have your address ready so that you can figure out what price. Get your voucher, then walk outside to the taxi line.
The most expensive taxi I paid for is in Huatulco, where it was a shocking 480 pesos, followed by Puerto Escondido which was more than Mexico City at 250 pesos. Yes, it’s shocking. Sometimes there are taxis waiting outside the airport gates but that’s not always a viable option for a solo traveller, especially if it’s your first time.
Generally speaking, taxi rates are posted. In Huatulco, you could order a taxi and go anywhere for about 60 pesos ($3).
The other option is a ‘collectivo’, which is a shared car or bus with others. Unfortunately, these aren’t always available but the price difference can be significant.
16. Get WhatsApp: Most taxis use WhatsApp – so make sure you download it on your phone before you leave. In Merida, there is Uber, but not in Oaxaca. In SMA you can have your own taxi driver if you record the taxi number and Whatsapp.
In San Miguel, there are no stop signs and very few stop lights, and most streets seem to be one-way which makes it easier to cross. Take care on the street and don’t assume anyone will stop, even with yellow bars on the road. Follow examples set by others. Always wave a thank you!
18. Love those hazard lights: Most drivers use the shoulder while driving, so a two-lane road is actually a four-lane roads including the shoulder. When driving a car at slower speeds, Mexican drivers always use their hazard lights. When a car is trying to pass you, move over to the shoulder and let them pass.
20. Car rental is straightforward: You can rent a car at most large hotels or airports. Try to stick with a well-known brand name, like Budget or Alamo. It’s fairly similar but a slower process. Call in advance to make sure they have cars available, don’t rely on the website.
Note: The VW Bug is alive and thriving in Mexico. I’ve yet to see one the same colour; they are all original creations. Here are some of my favourites! Aren’t they adorable?
21. Currency tricks: To calculate the exchange rate, here’s what I do. If something is 100 pesos, I remove the last ‘0’ and cut the number in half. So 100 pesos = $5.
You will find food significantly less expensive in Mexico than in the US or Canada. Two large Mexican avocados, for example, in Merida, are 20 pesos. That’s roughly .50 each. Cash is used extensively. A small change purse is a recommended accessory, especially when in the mercado.
23. Drink local wine, beer and mezcal: When in the mood, local beer and wine is plentiful in local convenience stores like Oxxo or Six, although they tend to be of the Boone Hill variety that I remember from high school. White wines are hard to find but there are some good Mexican, Chilean and Californian brands. In Merida, your best bet is Walmart, or if you have a car, the Europea. In San Miguel there is a wine store near the zocalo. In Oaxaca, try grocery store Pitico or the Mexican wine store in Centro.
24. Pharmacies are the best place to buy masks, suntan lotion and bug spray. When it comes to feminine products, most have pads so bring a good supply of tampax if that’s your preference. Some pharmacies have items on the shelves, others you have to ask for them behind the counter, like contact lens sanitizer.
25. It’s there, but does it work? Time after time, I ask a question like “are there street lights near your apartment” or “Is there a washing machine?” The answer is a resounding yes but then I forget to ask “does it work?” which invariably results in a no, we’re finding someone to fix it.
26. Fireworks: Fireworks are set off all the time, day and night, at all hours. Fireworks play a central cultural role in religious celebrations and seem to be an everyday occurrence. It’s not cause for concern, you just have to get used to it.
27. Dogs: Dogs are everywhere and you can’t stay in Mexico without lots of barking. Bring your earplugs and enjoy the cacophony.
28. Earthquakes: There are earthquakes quite frequently. Make sure you research the area you’re going to first and look for apps that will give you local notifications. SkyAlert is one I use for earthquakes.
What other tips do you have to share about Mexico, or other places?
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