Mexico travel tips
I live in San Francisco and I haven't been to Mexico that many times, but I have been to Playa de Carmel and to Cabo in sep 2020 (yes, during covid) here are some rapid bullet points to make your trip great. Keep in mind most of these recommendations assume you are visiting for a decent duration (5 days or more). If it's just a two day weekend trip you really won't have time to grab a local SIM card and probably won't wander far from the tourist traps. And if you're staying at a resort... well then you've already spend a lot of money to just swim in a fancy pool, and you might even be too far from the city to enjoy much else.
Tips for your Mexico Trip
- Always Check Conversion Markup: Most tourist traps in Mexico accept US dollars (they might even prefer them), but you have to be careful of markup. As of Oct 2020, the conversion rate from US dollars to Pesos should be 21.2, but most places set it more like 18 to get an extra 15% or more from you, and restaurants often have two different prices. Always check!
- Get Pesos from an ATM: Money exchange places at airport are always a rip off! Assuming you have Visa/Mastercard, you can usually wait till you get to a hotel and you'll probably pretty quickly find an ATM for pesos.
- Break it Into Small Bills: As soon as you get money out, go to anywhere with a cash register and ask them to break at least $50 USD worth down into the smallest denomination (20 pesos = 1 USD) to help with tipping everywhere... the little bills run out fast.
- Don't keep all your money together. Mexico isn't like Barcelona, people are pretty honest and there are fewer pickpockets, but that doesn't mean no theft - you still want to be a little careful. Spread your cash between multiple people and leave some back in your hotel.
- Tipping: Tipping isn't expected in much of Mexico, but in tourist cities 15% to 20% of the bill is still polite (if not already added). You can tip in US dollar or pesos. It varies from place to place, but for Cabo, recommendations are:
- Shared shuttle driver ~ tip $2-3 US each way.
- Taxis ~ only if the driver does something extra - taxis are already expensive enough!
- Bellboy at hotel ~ $2 US.
- Maid ~ $4-5 per day.
- Room Service ~ $3 per delivery
- Hotel Pool Service / Beach Service / Bar ~ $1-2 per round.
- Tours ~ 15% of the value.
- Given how hard covid hit tourist areas you might want to be generous during this time.
Dink Safe and Drink Cheap
- Assume Water isn't Drinkable (but check anyway). Most places, even Cabo, the water is slightly questionable. Locals might drink it directly, but it has minerals your body is not used to... so why take the risk. Unfortunately, buying the little (1 liter or less) bottles of water for $2 each is expensive. The smart thing to do is find a store like Oxxo (Mexico's 711) and they can have huge (as is hard to lift) multiple gallon water container for more like $4. Get two of these to cover you for 4 day (for 2 people) and you just saved yourself $40.
- Bring Reusable Water Bottles: Bring your own reusable water bottles from home - at least two bottles per person! Mexico can get hot, so always have water on you (decanted from your bigger bottle).
- Carry Around Happy Water!: A pro tip is to bring opaque water bottles. Why? Alcohol is often overpriced at bars and so on.... as in a rip off! A Piña colada can hit the spot, but if it's US city markup prices (>$10 !) then they are ripping you off. You can buy a big tequila bottle and a couple of 2 liter soft drink like Fresca from any Oxxo for well under $10... keep that in your fridge and mix them together and it's basically the same cocktail you buy for $10 a glass, but you have enough to last you for 7 days (depending on how happy you want to be). You'll still want a Piña colada at times, but you'll smile knowing you won't double your food and drink costs on booze!
Find Great Authentic Food not Overpriced Food
- Always ask locals for eating recommendations - starting with your first taxi/shuttle driver. A good local will recommend their favorite places, and they usually won't be the expensive tourist places - they will have more authentic food - which is hopefully what you really want. You can eat a crappy $16 cheese burger back in the US whenever you want - you can only get quality $1 tacos in Mexico.
- Walk away from the tourist traps. The further you walk from tourist traps, the more likely you are to find places that are authentic, and suddenly you realize you just ate a huge meal of incredible tacos and all drank beers for less than $8 a person. Score! If you are paying American prices for food, you are not far enough from the tourists.
- Visit A Local Grocery Store. There are the stores where tourists shop, and then there might be a Cosco (or equivalent) where all the locals pay $1 to get on a bus and come back with their weekly supplies. If you have a hotel fridge you might want to ask locals where they shop on the first day, and come back all stocked up. You'll feel baller - even just having a bunch of snacks is pretty handy.
- Book Nothing At An Airport. There are a few scams in Mexico, but it is very city dependent. Really the biggest one isn't about outright theft, it's more like time share presentation scams and people offering you deals straight out of the airpot! Get to your hotel and talk to the staff there before you commit to any adventures! Taxis are also a scam, how much they are. Shop around and ask multiple quotes then negotiate.. never assume the first price is the one you take. The longer you stay in Mexico the cheaper things get because you realize everything can be negotiated down - often to 30% of what was originally offered. It's not so much a scam - it's just the barter culture.
- Avoid Taxi's when you can. So taxi's - especially from the airport, is where they try to rip you off. At Cabo your first offer will probably be $100! If you are lucky your hotel will pick you up, but take time to walk outside onto the street and talk to multiple people to get a better deal. Uber works in much of Mexico and might be 1/4 the price of a taxi. Shuttles are cheaper also of course, it depends on how comfortable you are sharing with others (in a covid time).
- Inquire about Hire Cars. In Cabo we were pleasantly surprised when we asked about a hire car... it was $70 a day and that was full coverage, and a car driven right to our hotel to sign out. Extra drivers were $10 each, but we did an amazing day trip from Cabo to La Pas (and Todos Santos) ... ~3 hours of driving and one of my favorite of 20 days spent in Cabo. For the 4 of us to take the bus would have actually been even more!
- Internet can be spotty so before you go, Download Google Maps Offline for your destination!
- Bring a Spare Phone and Get a Local SIM on your first day (if staying for a while). I actually have failed at this before... I got a SIM and couldn't get it working. My tip is to bring a spare phone... keep your normal SIM In your normal phone and then you can use that for internet and photos... hopefully your second phone is SIM unlocked, so you can go into one of the local phone provider shops (in any mall) and ask them to install something with 4GB internet (should be $5-10 US only) and make sure you set the phone mobile data off whenever you are not using it. Use this phone to call locals and only turn on data/internet when you are in a jam!
- If you have friends you want to meet, one or both of you will probably lose connectivity, so make solid plans for a time and place to meet beforehand. In a pinch, most Mexican's are friendly enough that for a couple of dollars they'd let you borrow their phone a few minutes.
Shopping Guide - Saying No (Gracias)
- A lot of tourist places got desperate for money over covid, and so hawkers / street sellers are more desperate than ever. It's hard for a white person to hide the fact you are a tourist (especially if you don't have a tan yet).... and so you might down a street and have (easily) a dozen people try to sell you trinkets, hats, drugs, food, bracelets, cigarettes, tours and so on. You can tell tour people you are about to leave, but you might see them the next day, so the blanket statement is just to say no thanks firmly but politely in Spanish... so that's "no, gracias". If they follow you and keep up the pressure, just say it again louder..... and that should get you buy. I like to leave all my souvenir shopping till the last day, because by then you know all the prices and won't buy as much useless stuff, and maybe you've seen some examples of people talking the price down to 1/3 of the original... so will be more confident to do that yourself if friends have requested special items like cigars etc.
My Trips to Mexico
- 1st: Jun 2016 > Playa del Carmen. and stayed for free at a friend's place. Thanks Jo! There were a group of us and we checked out Tulum too.
- 2nd: Sep 2020 > Cabo. Went with Siobhain to Cabo for 20 days.... was amazing... stayed at Hotel Tesoro Los Cabos for $65 a night including a breakfast worth at least half that. Great location. Beware time share sharks.
- Traveling to Mexico? 19 Tips You Need to Know - pretty basic.