So you’ve figured out the best things to do in Mexico — but now you want to know what NOT to do in Mexico. Ha! No worries. That’s a very good thing. I’m sure you don’t want to make any major mistakes on your trip!
Mexico is a country I love dearly and one of my favorite places in the world. I try to get there at least once a year, and I’ve spent time living there.
I’ve written guides about what not to do in New York or Croatia. Those have a lot of unusual tips.
Mexico is different, though. So much of what tourists get wrong when they visit Mexico stems from one issue — that Americans are continuously fed media that depicts Mexico as a dangerous place.
Once you get over those fears, you’ll be on your way to a much better trip.
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A red streetcar-style bus parked in front of a white colonial-era church in front of a park, set against a bright blue sky.
No one in Mexico is going to hijack that little red trolley in Campeche.
Don’t assume that Mexico is a dangerous hellhole.
If you judge Mexico based on what is shown on American cable news, I don’t blame you for being terrified. The only stories that get reported are about cartels and violence.
That would be like if other countries only ran news stories about America if they were about gangs and meth labs. Imagine if, say, a Canadian said they were going on vacation to the Grand Canyon and their friend said, “Oh my God, aren’t you worried about gangs?”
Adventurous Kate's Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women
That’s what it sounds like when you keep bringing up cartels in Mexico.
The cartels are a big problem in Mexico. But they are not omnipresent in Mexico. The cartels are concentrated in small pockets of Mexico, mostly in the far north in areas where tourists don’t go. The vast majority of Mexicans are normal people living their lives in peace without having to think twice about cartels, the way you don’t think twice about gangs.
Bringing up the dangers of cartels to people in Mexico is bizarre, insensitive, and a textbook example of what not to do in Mexico.
The vast majority of places in Mexico are just as safe as your hometown — if not safer. Some cities in Mexico, like Mérida, are among the safest cities in North America.
And yes, that goes for women traveling alone as well. I have a lot of experience traveling alone in Mexico, and I feel very safe doing so.
The likeliest you are to get in trouble is if you yourself attempt to buy drugs in Mexico, as many tourists do in beach resort towns like Cancún. Because of this, drug dealers in Mexico (who are not always Mexican) often approach young adults who look like they’re going out to party. And this is a reason why I’m not a huge fan of the Cancún-to-Tulum corridor.
Most of staying safe in Mexico comes down to common sense: don’t walk around the streets blackout drunk. Lock up your valuables in your accommodation. Don’t wear flashy jewelry. Keep in touch with someone at home who knows your itinerary.
So many travelers visit Mexico year after year without leaving the grounds of their resort, terrified of what awaits them on the other side. They’re missing out. Which brings me to my next point…
A street in Valladolid painted in bright colors, with multicolored triangular flags hanging between the buildings.
Valladolíd is just inland from the Mayan Riviera and full of charm.
Don’t spend your whole trip at the beach.
Mexico has some lovely beaches…but there’s SO much more to Mexico than the beach! For the record, if you are crazy stressed out and NEED to go lie on the beach for a week, I totally get that. Go ahead and destress yourself.
But it pains me to see people return to Mexico again and again without going more than half a mile from the coastline.
So much of what makes Mexico great is inland. From the megapolis of Mexico City to the chilled out city center of Oaxaca, from the wild nature of Chiapas to the cenotes of the Yucatán, there is so much to enjoy. Inland is a lot cheaper than beach resort towns, too.
So how do you plan a trip to Mexico if you’ve only gone for beach vacations? Where do you even start? I have some recommendations.
I wrote a two-week Mexico itinerary that does include some beach time — on the wonderful Isla Holbox, as well as some Bacalar time — but it also includes cool cities, ruins, cenotes, and nature. If you want an easy yet well-rounded trip to Mexico, this is a great itinerary.
My other recommendation is to spend a full week in the city of Oaxaca — there is SO much to do there that you’ll have tons to explore without having to put in long journeys.
And if you’d rather join a group for a planned trip, consider a Mexico group tour with G Adventures. Their two-week Classic Mexico Adventure goes to lots of my favorite places!
A motorcycle driving down the street in Bacalar, Mexico
Donde está el baño?
Don’t go to public toilets empty-handed.
Most public toilets in Mexico charge around 10 pesos (about 50 cents) to use the public toilets. You pay that money to the attendant and they give you some toilet paper to take in with you.
Pretty basic. You don’t want to end up in NEED of a toilet without enough money on you to actually be able to use one.
And while you’re at it, don’t throw the toilet paper in the toilet. Most places in Mexico don’t have the strength to flush toilet paper. If that’s the case, there will be a trash can next to the toilet for you to throw your toilet paper into.
It’s a good idea to keep small change on you when in Mexico. Lots of places will ask you for the exact change if possible.
There’s nothing like a chelada on a hot day!
Don’t drink Coronas the whole time.
Corona has done some GREAT marketing over the years — all those ads with two people sitting on a white sand beach, waves gently lapping, two Coronas on a table between them. It’s like they have equated Corona with a Mexican paradise.
Do it once. Post it on Instagram. Get it out of your system. Then try some better Mexican beers.
There are lots of high quality beers in Mexico. Victoria is one of the best common Mexican beers. Pacífico is another great choice. Mexico’s craft beer scene is growing and you’ll see new breweries popping up in different cities.
And Mexicans also enjoy creating concoctions out of beer! You may have heard of a michelada (kind of like a beer-based Bloody Mary with tomato juice and spices), but there’s also the chelada — just beer, ice, lime juice, and salt. There’s nothing better than a chelada on a hot day in Mexico!
Kate swimming in the bright blue Cenote of Noh Mozon
Your regular sunscreen might damage this cenote.
Don’t use regular sunscreen.
If you’re just walking around town for the day, wearing regular sunscreen is fine. But if you’re entering a body of water in Mexico — any body of water — you should use reef safe sunscreen instead.
“Reef safe sunscreen” is a bit of a misnomer — it was invented to protect delicate coral reefs from the harmful ingredients in conventional sunscreen, but it actually protects all kinds of organisms. Because of the name, people assume reef safe sunscreen is only for when you’re swimming in and around coral reefs. But reef safe sunscreen is essential for swimming in any delicate water environment.
And Mexico has a LOT of delicate water environments. Mexicans ask that you use reef safe sunscreen whenever you swim in cenotes, in Lake Bacalar, and in many other bodies of water, from the Hierve el Agua near Oaxaca to the hot springs of Hidalgo.
You can get reef safe sunscreen here. Thank you for being considerate to Mexico’s environment.
White buildings with outlines of windows painted bright red, with red, blue, and green flags hanging between the two buildings under a blue sky.
Anyone can learn a few Spanish phrases.
Don’t only speak English.
Speaking a few words of the local language is something you should do everywhere in the world. Just learning the words for “hello” and “thank you” shows good manners and thanks locals for welcoming you.
You know these words if you were raised on Sesame Street, like so many of us were. Buenos días. Gracias. Pump it up with buenos tardes, buenos noches, sí, no, uno, dos, tres, donde está, habla ingles, and por favor. Dos cervezas, por favor.
And trust me, guys…Spanish is as easy as languages get. I say this as someone who has studied Spanish, French, Italian, and Czech. Spanish is the easiest language by far. Even if you’re terrible at languages, you can learn a few Spanish phrases.
Don’t be one of those tourists who walks up to Mexicans and starts speaking English out of the blue.
Kate standing in front of the gray stone pyramid of Chichen Itza in Mexico. The sky is cloudy and Kate miraculously has no other people in the photo.
Chichen Itzá is not usually this empty.
Don’t feel pressure to visit ruins if they’re not your thing.
One of the most popular day trips from Cancún and the Maya Riviera is to the ruins of Chichen Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some of the most impressive ruins in Mexico. But they’re not the right choice for everyone.
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