Anyone who has been to Mexico has likely experienced one of these three things — if not all three:
1. Cancún. 2. Tequila shots. 3. Señor Frog’s.
And while these are certainly all things you can do in Mexico, they aren’t necessarily things you should do in Mexico. In fact, you can say that about a lot of things tourists do when they visit or plan a trip to Mexico for the first time.
I’ve traveled to Mexico more than 100 times. In fact, for the last three years, I’ve spent my winters living south of the border, exploring new destinations but also escaping the cold in my favorite spots. And while I’m not a local, I like to think I’ve learned how to blend in, thanks to the many, many mistakes I made in the beginning.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist. That said, on your next trip, leave the giant sombrero at home and try to have a more authentic experience by avoiding these mistakes many travelers make in Mexico.
1. Falling for Mexican Stereotypes
If you’ve eaten at any Mexican restaurant in America, you may be expecting Mariachi music and tequila shots when you land in Mexico. You’re not entirely wrong, but what you’re forgetting is just how big Mexico actually is. Mariachi music is definitely Mexican, but it hails from the state of Jalisco. It’s the traditional folk style of music, and they are proud of it, but it’s become more of a tourist attraction than anything else. Same with sombreros. These large hats were worn by workers to protect their faces from the sun. Today Mexicans wear, um, regular hats.
2. Drinking Fake Tequila
Tequila is delicious, and it’s meant to be savored. The world of tequila is enigmatic and artisanal, much like the world of whiskey. Real tequila can only be produced in five Mexican states, the same way Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from that region of France. Look for bottles with the label 100% Agave, and you’ll know you’re drinking the real deal. And please, please don’t let it be Jose Cuervo Tradicional. Instead, opt for brands like Don Julio, Herradura, Cazadores or Casamigos, among many others available across all price points and flavor profiles. Ask your bartender which ones are better for sipping or for mixing.
3. Believing Everything You See on the News
Part of the reputation Mexico has attained is that it’s a land of lawlessness and chaos (thank you, any movie ever made about Mexico). But make no mistake, Mexico is far from lawless, and the policia are absolutely going to enforce the rules. Especially if you’re a tourist drinking on the streets. And though the news may make it seem like all of Mexico is a war zone, it’s not any different from anywhere else on Earth: There are places that are safe and welcoming, and places that you may want to avoid for the time being. For now, it’s best to skip Acapulco, the coast of Michoacán and certain border towns.
4. Drinking the Tap Water
Don’t drink the water from the tap — always stick to sealed, bottled water instead. Not even the locals drink the tap water. That said, it’s fine to have ice in your drink because the ice at hotels and restaurants is factory-made. Also, if you touch down in Mexico and immediately hit the beach, soak up more sun than you’re used to, ingest nachos, guacamole and spicy chiles, drink tons of tequila and don’t stay hydrated, you’re likely going to get sick. This is not food poisoning. It’s called overdoing it.
5. Only Visiting Cancún
Mexico has 5,800 miles of coastline, 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 67 national parks and more than 100 Magic Towns (a government distinction given to towns that exude a particular Mexican charm). It has one of the tallest mountains in the western hemisphere, Pico de Orizaba, hundreds of archaeological sites, jungles, forests, rivers and waterfalls. It is a big, big country. You should see it sometime.
6. Eating Tex-Mex Instead of Mexican
Going to Mexico and ordering a burrito is like … going to Chipotle and ordering a burrito. And as delicious as Chipotle may be, it’s more in the realm of Tex-Mex than actual Mexican cuisine. Same goes for nachos and fajitas. Instead, pay attention to the country’s incredible street food and save room for the tacos, the mole sauce, the torta ahogada and the elote, or grilled Mexican street corn. You can make a meal from street food for well under $5. And be sure to always look for the street food trucks that are using disposable plates or covering their plates in plastic wrap. That means the plates are not touching water and therefore are clean and safe.
7. Assuming Everyone Speaks English
Just because the top source of tourism in Mexico is Americans doesn’t mean all Mexicans speak English. In the tourist cities, you could get by with English, unless you’re venturing to local spots. But be aware that pulling out even your rusty high school Spanish will be much appreciated and, in some places, necessary.
8. Not Tipping
Mexican service culture is like service culture in the US. It relies heavily on tips. But unlike in the US, 20% is way too much. Standard tipping in Mexico is 10 to 12%, or 15% for stellar service.
9. Taking Unmarked Taxis
In most cities in Mexico, taxis are stationed at stands called sitios. These should be the only taxis you use, unless you’re calling an Uber, which is also perfectly safe. Using unmarked taxis is unregulated, unmetered and you’ll have no recourse later on if things go awry. Stick to Uber, hail an official taxi at a sitio or have your hotel call a car for you instead.
10. Expecting Things to Run on Time
Mexican Time is real. If you’re meeting someone for coffee, dinner or an appointment, do not expect them to show up on time if they are from Mexico. Organized tours are a different story, as they cater to the tourist crowd. But any social appointment will likely not begin when it was scheduled to. Accept this, go with the flow and you’ll be much happier.
11. Ordering Salt and Lime With Your Tequila
Allow me to repeat: You must try tequila. It is Mexico’s native beverage and absolutely delicious. But treat it as you would any fine liquor — don’t cheap out! And don’t order shots with salt and lime. You and the other tourists will be the only ones.
12. Only Having Large Bills in Your Wallet
Mexican ATMs spit out high value bills, so as soon as you’re able to, make an effort to get small change. Many of the smaller markets, taxi drivers and often many restaurants will expect smaller bills and might not be able to make change.
13. Falling for the Airport Welcome Wagon
Upon arrival at most tourist destinations there will be a section at the airport, after baggage claim and before the exit, where transportation companies and tour operators will line the walls beckoning new arrivals to stop by and book a tour or a ride. They may even try to lure you with a margarita. Stay away! This is one giant tourist trap designed to lure tourists to timeshare meetings. They are not real providers. Set up your tours and transportation ahead of time or through your hotel, or pick a taxi from the designated airport pickup station.
14. Going to Señor Frog’s
Please. Just don’t.
Featured image by Jezael Melgoza via Unsplash.