Traveling to Mexico for the first time? Check out these do’s and don’ts for visiting Mexico!
You’re traveling to Mexico for the first time, and as excited as you are, you’d feel a heck of a lot better if you knew what to expect in Mexico.
Despite being one of the most-visited countries in the world (more than 39 million international tourists in 2018, according to Wikipedia), there’s still a lot people get wrong about traveling in Mexico.
But, not you, my friend!
After reading this post, you’ll know the most important do’s and don’ts for traveling in Mexico. Many of which the guidebooks forget to mention.
From important safety tips and advice for dealing with money to how NOT to get sick while enjoying street food, this post has everything you need to know before traveling to Mexico for the first time.
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What are the do’s and don’ts in Mexico?
Like every destination, there are do’s and don’ts for visiting Mexico.
By knowing what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what NOT to do, you can save yourself a lot of headaches (and stomachaches) while really making the most of your trip to Mexico.
In this post, you’ll find explanations for essential do’s and don’ts in Mexico like:
- Do Buy Tickets in Advance
- Don’t Flush the Toilet Paper
- Do Keep Track of Your FMT
- Don’t Touch Stuff in the Market
- Do Ask for Samples
- Don’t Pay for Bottled Water
- & much much more!
This post is jam-packed with tips and advice I’ve gathered from more than three years of traveling around and living in Mexico. Learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself.
With these tips, you’ll feel confident about traveling to Mexico for the first time.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: Before Your Trip
How you go about preparing for your trip can have a big impact on your experience in Mexico.
Do Some Research
Since this is your first time traveling to Mexico, you might be tempted to plan out your entire itinerary. After all, you want to make the most of those vacation days.
You should definitely do some research, but resist the urge to plan out every single second. In my experience, the best travel moments are the unexpected ones.
You’ll never discover your own hidden gems if you’re only following your guidebook’s recommendations.
Instead of just sticking to the tourist hot spots, make an effort to get off the beaten path and explore some of Mexico’s most underrated destinations.
Ho ho HOPE you’ve started thinking about holiday shopping ? Buying the traveler in your life a gift they’ll ACTUALLY use is easier than ever thanks to this handy roundup of useful travel gifts.
No matter the destination, I always advocate for packing light. Mexico is no exception.
You’ll have a tough time fitting that massive suitcase into the tiny taxi cab trunks, and good luck hauling it up the stairs to your elevator-less Airbnb.
If you haven’t converted yet, this might be the trip to finally try out a backpack. I’m obsessed with the Osprey Porter 46 travel backpack.
Not sure what to bring to Mexico? Check out this complete packing list for Mexico with specific suggestions for what to wear in popular destinations like Mexico City, Tulum, Oaxaca and more!
Do Buy Tickets in Advance
If you have a limited amount of time to spend in Mexico, you should definitely look into buying tickets for the most popular attractions in advance.
For example, if you want to visit Casa Azul (the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City), pick a day and purchase your tickets online. It sells out nearly every day.
In addition to tickets, buy travel insurance before your trip to Mexico. Thanks to World Nomads’ affordable plans, peace of mind is possible on any travel budget.
Don’t Assume Everyone Speaks English
If you’re able to wrap your head around this now, you’re going to enjoy your time in Mexico a whole lot more.
Despite welcoming millions of tourists every year, not everyone in Mexico speaks English. At some point during your trip (the frequency depending on where you are in the country, you’ll likely have communication issues.
Instead of getting frustrated, resolve now to embrace it as part of the experience.
Do Learn Some Basic Spanish
You don’t need to be a fluent Spanish speaker to travel in Mexico, but knowing a few phrases will go a long way.
- Hello – Hola
- Goodbye – Adiós
- Please – Por favor
- Thank you – Gracias
- Cheers – Salud
- With permission (for when you need to get past someone) – Con permiso
- Do you speak English? – ¿Habla inglés?
People will appreciate the fact you’ve made an effort to learn some basic Spanish and, in turn, will be more likely to help you.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: Upon Arrival
The big day is here! You’re finally in Mexico. There are a few things you need to take care of before you can get to the all-important taco tasting.
Do Get a SIM Card
If you don’t have an international phone plan, don’t worry. It’s super easy and super cheap to get a sim card in Mexico.
Before you even leave the airport, pop into an Oxxo or 7-11 and purchase a prepaid plan. Ask the associate working for a “Telcel chip.”
There shouldn’t be any issues as long as your phone is unlocked. Make sure it’s activated before leaving the shop.
For more information about getting a Mexico SIM card, check out this post on Eternal Expat.
Pro Tip: Make sure you download What’s App. It’s the free messaging app that everyone uses to communicate in Mexico.
Don’t Exchange Money at the Airport
It’s crazy to me that in 2020 people still exchange money at the airport considering there’s a cheaper and easier way…
Do Withdraw Pesos from the ATM
That’s how you get money at home, so why not do the same abroad?
Once you’re through customs and baggage claim, you want to make a beeline for the ATM. Because cash is king in Mexico, be sure to get some before you even leave the airport.
If you’re from the U.S., I highly recommend getting the Charles Schwab debit card. Charles Schwab reimburses you for all ATM fees, making it a traveler’s best friend.
Do Have a Plan for Getting to the City Center
So you can hit the ground running, know how you’re going to get from the airport to the city center.
Nothing screams tourist like aimlessly walking around the airport as you desperately try to figure out your next move.
Whenever I’m traveling somewhere new, I message the hostel or Airbnb host to ask how to get from the airport to their location. They can tell you to the cheapest way to get from point A to point B using public transportation.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: Money
Even after you leave the airport, you can continue withdrawing money from ATMs whenever you need it.
How much should you withdraw at a time?
While you don’t want to be carrying around loads of money, you also don’t want to be making a trip to the ATM every other day.
Spending time in villages or beach towns? If it’s high season, just know the ATMs might not be able to keep up with tourist demand.
When I traveled to Tulum in early January, there were long lines at the ATMs every day. Many of them even ran out of cash.
Do Carry Small Bills & Change
When you withdraw a lot of money from an ATM, there’s a good chance it will give you big bills. Try to break any $500 MXN bills as soon as possible.
Familiarize yourself with the coins.
Many U.S. travelers, who are used to just paying with bills, forget about them and end up thinking they need to get more money when actually they have a pocketful of perfectly good pesos.
Don’t Forget to Tip
Just like in the United States, waiters and bartenders rely on tips. It’s good practice to leave between 15-20% of the bill.
You should also leave a tip on the dresser or nightstand for the cleaning staff (think: $50 MXN-$100 MXN per day).
Really, if anyone helps you with something (puts your luggage on the bus, bags your groceries, etc.), you should give them a few pesos.
Don’t Pay in Dollars
Please PLEASE don’t do this.
You might think you’re doing the person you’re paying a favor, but it’s actually just a hassle for them.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: Safety
There’s no denying safety is a major concern for people traveling to Mexico for the first time.
While I won’t go as far as to say all that worry is for nothing (there are places in Mexico you definitely DON’T want to go), let me preface this section with this:
I have lived and traveled in Mexico for three years, and in all that time, I’ve never once felt in danger or, even, uncomfortable.
You shouldn’t throw caution to the wind (you are, after all, in an unfamiliar country), but please don’t let fear hold you back from visiting one of the most amazing countries in the world.
Do Be Aware of Your Surroundings
When bad things happen, nine times out of 10 it’s because you let your guard down.
You should get in the habit of keeping an eye on what’s going on around you. If you’re making an effort to be aware of your surroundings, there should never be a time when you look up and say: Huh, how did I end up here?
Solo travelers: Take care not to overindulge to the point that it dulls your awareness. As tempting as it may be to order another mezcal cocktail, you need to remember you’re the only one looking out for you.
Do Keep Track of Your Migratory Tourist Form
Every traveler that enters Mexico has to fill out a Migratory Tourist Form (FMT). It’s a little piece of paper with a stamp on it that says you’re good to stay in the country for up to 180 days.
Don’t lose this form!
You’ll have to show it again before you can leave Mexico. If you don’t have it, you will have to pay a fine.
Personally, I keep mine tucked into my passport.
Don’t Carry Your Passport With You
Whenever I’m traveling, I always ask myself where the safest place for my passport is at any given time and leave it there.
Generally, the hotel safe or your hostel locker (locked, of course) is a better place than on your person. I’ve also asked the front desk staff to store it for me if the first two options aren’t available.
Keep a color photocopy of the first page in your wallet in case you need identification while you’re out and about.
Before any trip, you should always leave a copy of the main page with someone you trust. It’s also a good idea to scan it in and email it to yourself.
In the event you lose your passport, having a copy can make all the difference in terms of getting a replacement quickly.
Do Confirm Taxi Rates in Advance
Whenever it’s available, I use Uber in Mexico. Before you get in a car, confirm the driver’s name and that the license plate matches the one in the app.
You can also use authorized taxis. In Mexico City, there are specific lines and pickup points.
If you decide to just hail a cab, be sure to confirm how much the fare will be before getting in. Solo travelers should sit in the front seat. If something goes wrong, you don’t want to get locked in the back.
Do Trust Your Gut
Like any tourist destination, Mexico has its fair share of scams.
If something feels like a scam, it probably is.
Don’t worry about being rude. Just walk away.
Don’t Wear Flip Flops
This is about more than trying to dress like a local (although, that’s never a bad idea when you’re traveling abroad).
Mexico’s streets, as charming as the look on your Instagram feed, can be perilous. Watch out for potholes, loose bricks and uneven sidewalks.
If you’re spending time at the beach, flip flops are fine. But, for cities, you’re better off with a closed-toe shoe.
Don’t Pet Stray Dogs
Some street dogs seem really friendly, and perhaps some of them actually are.
They majority of them just want food though, and they have no qualms whatsoever about biting the hand that feeds them.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: While in Mexico
Now that you know how to stay safe in Mexico, here are some more tips for making the most of your first time here.
Do Arrive to Attractions Early
The early bird gets the worm, and by “worm,” I mean photos with no one in the background.
If you’re visiting popular archeological sites like the Tulum ruins and Chichén Itzá, keep in mind that the buses full of day-trippers usually arrive around 10 a.m. It’s worth it to be there when the ruins open so you can have the place mostly to yourself.
Even if you don’t care about snapping people-less pictures, it’s a good idea to plan your trip for early in the morning just to beat the heat.
Do Use Sunscreen
The Mexican sun is no joke, and even if you ~*never*~ burn, you should wear sunscreen.
You obviously want to wear sunscreen at the beach, but remember to apply it for other outings as well. Slather it on before and while visiting archaeological ruins. There’s lots of history but little shade.
Oh, and I’m sure your mom has already told you this a billion times, but let me remind you again: You can even get burnt on an overcast day.
Do Carry Tissues
You know those adorable travel-size tissue packs? Buy a few before your trip and keep them on you.
From mopping up taco drippings to emergency TP (public restrooms almost never have it), you’ll find so many more uses for them than just blowing your nose.
Speaking of TP…
Don’t Flush Your Toilet Paper
It’s weird and different and kind of gross, I KNOW. But, you don’t want to be the tourist who messes up someone’s plumbing.
If there is a trash bin next to the toilet, throw it away in there. If not, feel free to flush.
Do Carry Hand Sanitizer
Travelers often complain that the street food in Mexico made them sick, but usually, it’s the germs they’ve brought with them to the food stand that does them in.
Think about it: You touched handrails, turnstiles, doors, pesos, etc. and THEN your taco?! What did you think was going to happen?
Don’t Touch Stuff Just to Touch It
Especially since this is your first time in Mexico, a trip to (at least) one of the country’s colorful markets is not to be missed.
As you’re wandering among the stalls, I suggest keeping your hands behind you back and not touching anything unless you’re seriously considering buying it.
That goes for handicrafts, fruit, vegetables, whatever.
Even if you do think you’re going to buy something, it’s better to ask first. Eye contact with the person working and a little point should do the trick.
You wouldn’t want to bring the whole display toppling down.
Do Carry a Reusable Shopping Bag
In a very environmentally-conscious move, many states and cities in Mexico have outlawed plastic bags.
When you go to the shop, you better BYOB (bring your own bag) unless you want to carry everything home in your arms which is a lot harder than you might think.
Instead, purchase a foldable shopping tote so you can have it in your pocket when you need it.
Don’t Take Photos of People Without Their Permission
Unless you’re on a shoot for Nat Geo, you really shouldn’t be taking photos of anyone without their permission.
If you’re in the market or see someone selling handicrafts, you should at least buy something first.
Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico: Eating & Drinking
There’s a lot to love about Mexico, but without a doubt, one of the best things about this country is the cuisine. If it’s your first time in Mexico, you have a lot of eating and drinking to do.
These tips will help you go about it the right way.
Don’t Drink Tap Water
Everything you’ve heard is true: Drinking the tap water in Mexico WILL make you sick.
Do Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Save the familiar Tex-Mex for when you’re back at home ordering from Chipotle.
While you’re in Mexico, push yourself to try new things. Here are a few foods that definitely need to be on your to-eat list:
- Tacos al Pastor
- Beef Barbacoa
- Aguas Frescas
Do Eat Street Food
It would be a shame if you came to Mexico and only ate in restaurants.
Whether you’re traveling on a budget or not, experiencing Mexico’s street food culture is a must.
You don’t need a stomach of steel to enjoy the country’s cheapest eats. Just check for these indicators of a good (read: safe) street food stand:
- If there’s a crowd of locals gathered and it’s hard to snag a stool, you know it’s good.
- Cold stuff is cold
- Ice is a very VERY good sign.
- Hot stuff is hot
- When in doubt, order whatever is being made right then.
- Mega bottle of hand sanitizer
- You already have your own, but hand sanitizer means the people working probably use it.
Pro Tip: Unless it’s early in the day, you should probably avoid fruit. I know it looks delicious, but if it’s been sitting out all day, who knows what’s growing on it.
Don’t Just Drink Corona
People tend to gravitate toward what they know. It’s a fact of life.
But, rather than just sticking to Corona, branch out and try some of Mexico’s other and MUCH BETTER domestic beers.
Here are some of my personal faves:
- Modelo Especial
- Carta Blanca
Don’t Pay for Bottled Water
You know you can’t drink the tap water in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean you have to always order bottled water at restaurants.
If you’re on a budget or just don’t believe in paying for drinking water, learn this phrase: ¿Un vaso de agua del garrafón?
This let’s your server know you want a glass of water from the giant drinking jug in the back. Unlike bottled water, this is free.
Don’t Add or Order Salsa Without Trying It First
Trust me: spicy salsa can RUIN your night.
Even if you’re a fan of hot stuff, it’s a good idea to put a little on a chip or even just the side of your plate to try before pouring it all over your food.
In a restaurant, you can always ask for a taste before you commit to ordering a dish: ¿Una prueba, por favor?
Don’t Eat Near Big Tourist Attractions
The restaurants near big tourist attractions are always 1) the most expensive and 2) the least authentic.
I live by the “5-Block Rule” which means, whenever I’m looking for a place to eat or drink, I walk five blocks in any direction to cross the invisible “tourist line.”
Usually, this puts enough distance between you and the main tourist zone so you can more easily find restaurants and bars that cater to locals aka cheaper food and drinks.
Don’t Freak Out Over Ice
Since Mexicans don’t even drink the tap water here, no one is making ice from it.
Go ahead and enjoy that cold drink.
More Posts About Traveling to Mexico for the First Time
- How to Spend 2 Days in Querétaro, Mexico
- Everything You Need to Know About Backpacking Oaxaca
- How to Visit Tulum Even If You’re Broke AF
Final Thoughts on Do’s and Don’ts in Mexico
Whew, that was a lot.
Hopefully, the advice in this post helps to put your mind at ease about traveling to Mexico for the first time.
But, I’d hate for you to get so caught up with the do’s and don’ts in Mexico that you forget to relax and have a good time.
Stuff is going to happen. That’s just the nature of travel. There will be good days and there will be bad ones.
But, if you make the decision to look at your trip to Mexico as an adventure, you’ll be more apt to embrace every experience for what it is.
Got questions about visiting Mexico? Leave a comment below.