Lexi Quinton's Guide to Mexico

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Lexi Quinton's Guide to Mexico

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Introduction

Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (The United Mexican States) commonly known as Mexico, is a huge country wedged between the USA, Guatemala and Belize. Despite the official national language being Spanish, Mexico is actually part of the North American continent.

Mexico is a friendly and laid back country, with strong traditional family values and welcoming to visitors. It has suffered with a bad reputation for being unsafe but the vast majority of visits are nothing but enjoyable.

Its massive 761,606 sq miles (1,972,550 sq km) makes it the fifth largest country by area in both North and South America combined and the 14th largest in the world! Given the massive size of this country, there are understandably hundreds of things to see and do with white sand beaches, dense jungles, gushing waterfalls, stunning colonial towns, snow-capped mountains, delicious food and ancient ruins. There is truly something for every type of visitor. For sun-worshipers, the beautiful stretches of coastline will not disappoint; for adrenaline junkies, try your hand at via ferrata or kite surfing; for intrepid adventurers, explore the jungles or mountains and uncover the history of the Aztecs!


History and Ancient Cultures

Mexico is ancient, literally. The earliest clues of human inhabitation are fragments of stone tools which date back to around 21,000 BC. Around 2,000 BC evidence shows that the indigenous people had initiated an agricultural revolution which led to the development ofcivilizations such as the Teotihuacan, Maya, Totonac, Toltec and Aztec amongst others. These civilizations thrived for thousands of years and are credited with impressive advancements in architecture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and theology.

Some of the civilisations are more renowned than others, such as the Aztecs whose human sacrifice practices are probably one of things people remember most fromtheir history lessons. Experts believe that thousands of people were sacrificed each year by the Aztecs and the reasons behind such a gruesome tradition are still widely debated.

It wasn’t until 1518 that Hernán Cortés and his mutinous crew of 500 men from Spain landed in Mexico at the Yucatan Peninsula. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably due to a mention in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl where a gold piece was claimed to be ‘Aztec gold’. The story goes that one of 882 identical pieces were delivered in a stone chest to Cortés himself. Blood money paid to stem the slaughter he wreaked upon them with his armies. But the greed of Cortés was insatiable. So the heathen gods placed upon the gold... a terrible curse. It may be disappointing to hear, but there is no cursed gold mentioned in the history books, although Cortés is said to have received lavish gifts of gold from the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, who welcomed Cortés into the core of the Aztec Empire, hoping to get to know the Achilles' heel of the crew so he could use it against them later.

Many smallpox outbreaks, overthrowing of civilizations and invasions later, Hernán Cortés was credited with victory over the Aztec empire and the territory became part of the Spanish Empire.

On 16th September 1810, Mexico was declared independent from Spain and is the date which Independence is celebrated each year throughout the country. Since independence, Mexico has seen many wars such as the Mexican-American war or 1846-1848; the Caste War of Yucatán which saw modern Native American revolts from 1847-1901 and the 1917 Constitution which is estimated to have claimed 900,000 lives out of a 15 million population.


Politics

Mexico is a country whose government is characterised by partially self-governing states or regions that are all united by a central (federal) government. The government itself is a representative democracy, as in the UK, whereby the government is elected by the people. This framework was based on a presidential system outlined in the 1917 Constitution.  The current president (at time of writing) is Felipe Calderón who assumed office on December 1st 2006 for a six-year term.


Weather

Mexico has one of the world’s most diverse weather systems and as such simply cannot be defined into spring, summer, autumn and winter due to the different elevations and landscapes. The Tropic of Cancer essentially slices the country into two climatic zones, temperate and tropical, going in an approximate horizontal line through Cabo San Lucas to Durango to Cuidad Victoria.

North of the Tropic of Cancer, the climate is fairly temperate with conditions being hot and dry in the summer but quite cool in the winter with temperatures often approaching freezing in some areas and mountain peaks often being capped with snow.

South of the Tropic of Cancer, the climate is much more humid and the tropical nature of this region gives way to a wet and dry season. May to October marks the wet season, with the hottest and wettest months falling between June and September for the majority of the country. Low-lying coastal areas tend to be much hotter and wetter than higher elevations, with extreme examples including Plataforma Yucateca and Altiplano which often exceeds temperatures of 38 oC (100F).

August to September also marks the start of hurricane season so if you do plan to travel during this time, make sure you’re aware of what to do in an emergency such as a hurricane and consider registering with the FCO’s ALERT initiative so your Embassy can find you easier in the event of an emergency to offer you assistance.

The dry, hot season coincides with Northern Hemisphere autumn/winter and therefore makes Mexico extremely popular to backpackers during this time.


GAPPER TIP - During the wet season travel can be difficult with risks of landslides and flooding. However, if you have plenty of time to travel and can go with the flow despite possible delays you’ll be rewarded by the fact that the rainy season is low season so you can try to haggle a lower room rate and save some cash to spend on a few cervezas! During the rainy season, you may also experience some unbelievable thunderstorms. When I was in Mexico City in September, there was the most incredible lightning storm I have ever seen. Walking through the Zócalo, there was not a drop of rain but forked lightning was literally coming down all around me! Scary but very memorable!


An example of temperatures / rainfall:

 CANCUN

Jan 

Feb

Mar

Apr

May 

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Temperature

23

23

25

26

27

28

28

28

28

27

25

24

Rainfall (mm)

100

60

40

40

120

180

110

150

230

220

100

110

                         
                         

 MEXICO CITY

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Temperature

13

15

17

18

19

19

18

18

17

17

15

14

Rainfall (mm)

7

5

12

20

48

106

129

121

109

43

15

14

                         
                         

 MONTERREY

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Temperature

15

18

20

24

27

28

29

28

26

22

18

15

Rainfall (mm)

8

10

8

18

20

46

28

71

104

48

13

10

                         
                         

OAXACA

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

Temperature

17

19

21

22

23

22

21

21

20

20

19

17

Rainfall (mm)

2

5

15

38

81

170

88

104

124

50

10

5

Altitude plays a large part in the weather conditions and temperatures you’ll experience. Many large cities are located at altitudes above 2000m, and while you’re unlikely to feel and effects of the altitude on your health, you’ll feel the temperature difference compared to areas on the coast. At high altitude, yearly temperature averages are from 16 to 18 °C with cool night time temperatures. Hostels are well geared up for cooler nights and in my experience always provide warm bedding.


Health Advice

You should always seek medical advice from your own doctor or travel health professional before any trip overseas to ensure all your booster vaccinations are up to date, and discuss any additional immunisations you may wish to consider for the type of trip you’re planning. You should make an appointment between six months and eight weeks prior to your departure to allow plenty of time to ensure you can obtain an accurate consultation.
You can find general health information from reliable sources such as http://www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk or http://www.nathnac.org but you must still seek medical advice from your doctor based on your own medical history.

Malaria is a risk in some parts of the country, so please bring your itinerary along to your GP/travel health consultation to discuss whether malaria prophylaxis will be needed in the areas you’re travelling to. If you’re prescribed anti-malarial medication you should ensure you complete the course as prescribed and practice bite-prevention techniques which are discussed below.

Dengue fever is common to Mexico and can occur throughout the year.  Dengue is a mosquito-borne infection that causes a severe flu-like illness, and sometimes a potentially lethal complication called dengue haemorrhagic fever. Dengue is found mostly in urban and semi-urban areas.  There is no specific treatment for dengue, but appropriate medical care to control the symptoms frequently saves the lives of patients with the more serious dengue haemorrhagic fever.

Medicine in urban areas of Mexico is highly developed and public hospitals are just as good as public hospitals in UK/USA but are almost always full.It’s recommended that you go to private hospitals for a faster service, although check with your travel insurance first to ensure treatment will be covered.

At the beach - Jellyfish stings, stingray stings, sunburn, riptides, tetanus

If you’re stung by a jellyfish or stingray you’re advised to seek medical attention to ensure any toxin is correctly dealt with. A home remedy for reducing the discomfort of jellyfish stings is vinegar (not urine which can actually have negative effects on the stings!) and anti-histamines.


GAPPER TIP - If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.


Sunburn is painful and unsightly and when you look 80-years-old when you’re 40 you’ll wish you’d protected your skin. Sunburn is not cool (although it makes you feel super hot, but not in the good way) and is a common problem with travellers who forget to put sunscreen on, don’t bother to use it, or don’t reapply it regularly enough. Bring a bottle from home as high factor sunscreen can be difficult to find in smaller towns in Mexico.

On the road - Travel sickness, road traffic accidents

Bus journeys can be long and tiring, and sometimes you don’t even have the luxury of an on-board toilet (although sometimes the state of the on-board toilet makes you wish you didn’t have one!). However, whatever the toilet situation is, if you add travel sickness to the mix, this can make a journey go from uncomfortable and tiring to a real life nightmare. (See bus transport tips box for more hints).

Road traffic accidents are the second highest reason that people are hospitalised overseas, after dehydration which is number one. Look both ways when crossing the road, don’t take unnecessary risks, wear a helmet when on a bike or moped (even if you don’t think it’s ‘cool’) and learn which side of the road the traffic drives on. Also, keep a basic first aid kit, or at least some plasters and antiseptic cream in your bag just in case you do get into a minor scrape.

In bed - HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, sexually transmitted infections, public lice

HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B are contracted through blood and bodily fluids. Make sure you use a condom/dental dam when getting down and dirty. Ladies and gents should always take a stash of condoms on their travels, just in case. Like sunburn, STIs aren’t cool (but you might end up with a hot itchy rash). Don’t be a fool, wrap your tool!

At the restaurant - Travellers’ diarrhoea, unsafe tap water, roundworm, Hepatitis A, typhoid

Mexico has quite a reputation for travellers suffering from travellers’ diarrhoea, to the extent where Mexico has its own version of Delhi Belly! Montezuma’s Revenge refers to Moctezuma II, a ruler of the Aztec civilization which was defeated by Hernán Cortés, as we discussed above. It’s certainly an appropriate nickname, as Cortés did indeed crap all over the Aztec civilization at the time.

The reason most people become ill with sickness and diarrhoea in Mexico is largely down to contaminated water supplies in the more remote regions of Mexico or poorly prepared food. Of course, sometimes it can also be due to adjusting to the different types of food and climate.

In fact, only the least wealthy Mexicans actually drink tap water and thus as a traveller you’re advised to stick to bottled or purified water, both of which are widely available and very cheap. Of course, it goes without saying that avoiding ice (unless it has definitely been made from bottled water) is a wise piece of advice. Simply ask for your drink ‘sin hielo’.

If you get travellers’ diarrhoea you’re best to rest, rehydrate and leave it to run its course (if you’ll excuse the pun). If you use a diarrhoea stopper it will prevent the symptoms but it will not clear out the bacteria and nasties your body is trying to remove. If you get worse or it continues for more than a few days, seek medical attention. It’s important to keep hydrated so always carry a bottle of water with you, and use rehydration salts if you feel dehydrated or if you suffer from any bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting.

When choosing restaurants and places to eat (particularly street stalls), be sure to choose a busy and bustling place because it usually means the food is good and if it’s busy, then food will be freshly cooked and not sat around festering while the staff are waiting for customers. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice common food sense. If your meal isn’t hot or cooked all the way through, you could be risking Montezuma’s revenge, or even a rare case of roundworm!

Bugs, insects and animals - Malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, rabies

Along with the risk for malaria and dengue fever, mosquitoes have also been known to carry the West Nile virus. Be sure to bring an effective insect repellent, preferably one that contains DEET. If you’re bitten or scratched by an animal, assume that the animal was carrying rabies and seek medical attention immediately for treatment, even if you have been vaccinated against rabies.

First Aid Kit

It’s worthwhile carrying a basic first aid kit with you on your travels containing the items you feel comfortable using, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, plasters, diarrhoea stopper, rehydration solution and antiseptic cream, along with any of your own prescription medication, malaria medication (if relevant) and other first aid kit items you wish to bring along. If you’re planning on visiting more remote areas you may also wish to bring dressings, bandages and other first aid equipment.

Mosquito bite/malaria prevention tips

  1. Find out if you’re travelling to a malaria endemic area of the country. You can do this by seeing your GP and for general guidance reading Fit for Travel and looking at the malaria maps.
  2. Educate yourself about malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases (such as dengue fever) and how it’s spread so you can learn how to protect yourself and in turn, protect others
  3. Ensure that you take proper malaria prophylaxis if your GP recommends it, and complete the course as instructed by your GP
  4. Use 50% DEET repellent on your skin throughout the day reapplying every four hours if you can. Dengue fever carrying mosquitoes feed from dawn ‘til dusk, and malaria carrying mosquitoes feed from dusk ‘til dawn.
  5. 50% DEET is proven to be the most effective as the 50/50 cut of alcohol to DEET keeps the repellent on your skin for the longest period of time in much the same way a perfume/aftershave does.
  6. Sleep under a permethrin impregnated mosquito net each night while in a malarial area - make sure you tuck it under the mattress.
  7. If you get symptoms of malaria (high temperature, headaches, muscle pains, coughing fits etc), even if you've been doing all of the above, seek urgent medical advice. A simple blood test can tell if you have malaria and the faster it’s treated the less people you’re putting at risk while you have it.
  8. Finally, when you’re budgeting for your trip, anti-malarial medical and mosquito bite protection (net and DEET) should be an essential part of the equation if travelling to an endemic malarial area, not an afterthought.


Visa Advice

British Citizens visiting Mexico as a backpacker don’t need a visa, but do need a tourist card which can be obtained by completing an immigration form (FMT) available at border crossings or onboard flights to Mexico. This will give you 180 days free of charge in Mexico. If you transited the USA to enter Mexico, and intend to return to the USA after visiting Mexico, please read the warning above (travel by plane section) regarding rules around returning to the USA after 90 days under the VWP.

You’re not permitted to undertake voluntary work or any form of paid employment whilst on a tourist visit in Mexico and should you wish to carry out this type of work it’s essential that you obtain the correct visa. Your nearest Mexican Embassy can provide full details on how to apply. Your passport should be valid for at least six months from the intended time of entry, and you may not be permitted to enter otherwise.

You may be asked to prove that you have proof of onward travel from Mexico although I have never heard of this being asked.


Getting There

Here’s some advice on how to get to Mexico:

By plane

You can fly to Mexico from all over the world and therefore it fits nicely into most round the world itineraries. Flights from the UK are often via European hubs such as Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam, or via American hubs such as airports in Texas and Los Angeles. Flying time from Europe is approximately 11 hours plus connection time.

Flights from Australia, New Zealand usually go via Los Angeles.

Please note that if you transit the USA en-route to Mexico you may need a visa, or for British citizens, a USA visa waiver under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)which allows most British passport holders to visit the US for up to 90 days without a visa. You must first get an authorisation via the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) prior to your journey and this can be done at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ for around US$10. Using travel agencies like Flight Centre to arrange your visa waiver will incur a commission charge so it’s cheapest to apply yourself. It’s very simple and quick.

You must bear in mind that the USA considers Mexico as part of the USA as far as visas go and therefore the 90-day allowance you’re given to travel through the USA also includes Mexico (and Canada) under the VWP. This means that if you spend more than 90 days in Mexico after transiting the USA you’ll need to travel further south (such as Guatemala or Belize) in order to return to the USA without any immigration difficulties.

 By train

You can actually take the train from San Diego to the California/Baja California border, where you can then cross the border on foot and jump on a local bus on the other side.

By bus

There are a number of bus companies that will take you into/out of Mexico. The Mexican bus system is usually very efficient, reasonably priced and the buses are of a fairly consistent standard. There are many different independent companies but they all use a central computerised ticketing system. A ticket to a major Mexican city from the south USA can be bought for as little as US$30 one-way, and from Central America north into Mexico the cost on the bus is around US$1 per hour of travel on average. These companies, however, do operate predominantly in Spanish so it’s worth brushing up on your language skills before arrival, or having a phrasebook to hand.

By car

Crossing the borders into Mexico from the USA side can be a very lengthy process and you should expect delays of approximately two to four hours while customs and immigration search vehicles for drugs and other illegal substances and weapons etc.

You must ensure that you have the necessary permits and valid paperwork for your vehicle as well as the appropriate international driving permit (available from the Post Office for around £5). It’s also worthwhile having at least $100 US emergency cash to smooth over any technicalities that may arise, and a valid credit card is also handy to have on you too.

Vehicle insurance is an absolute necessity and tourist policies are fairly easy to get hold of. You should look for insurance which covers liability coverage, theft, accidental damage and legal assistance. Do some research into the options available; one example is http://www.bajabound.com/


Getting Around

By bus

Travelling by bus is by far the most common way to get around Mexico as a backpacker.The quality of the Mexican long distance bus services are as good as many European services and are run efficiently and more often than not, on time. There are a variety of ‘chicken buses’ that take passengers to more remote towns and villages and really go off the beaten track. These are usually crammed to the rafters with passengers and their cargo (often caged chickens and other birds hence the name) and are a fantastic way to meet local people and try out your Spanish.

When travelling long distances it’s very easy to book your bus tickets. Most towns have a central bus station or at least a ticket booth where you can buy a ticket. A basic knowledge of Spanish, or patience and your destination, departure date and time written on a piece of paper will be helpful in buying a ticket as many staff have a limited understanding of English.


GAPPER TIP - To get an idea of prices for bus journeys before you book them and to research departure and arrival times a fantastic resource is http://www.ticketbus.com.mx/wtbkd/index.jsp which represents most of the major bus lines in Mexico. If you have an understanding of Spanish, http://boletotal.mx/index.php is also a good resource which includes details of flight departures and prices too. For buses in the north of Mexico, Omnibus de Mexico is the main service in use: http://www.odm.com.mx/


There are different classes of buses in Mexico and first-class buses generally travel by toll roads which are better maintained and faster than non-toll roads (the toll is included in the ticket price). The first-class buses usually have a small toilet and sink, show movies (sometimes English language movies with Spanish subtitles) and have fairly large seats, and some newer buses even have Wi-Fi! To save time, it’s worth choosing express or direct buses (called directo) as they don’t stop at intermediate stops or stations along the way. Of course, if you want to save some money or don’t have any time restrictions, a second class bus is virtually the same quality as first class but they just make more stops in remote areas.

Bus companies you can look out for include Ado (very comfortable) Estrella de Oro, Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales and Estrella Blanca, Estrella Roja.

Local bus transportation (chicken buses and minivans) are slightly less efficient than the major bus lines. In fact, it could be called chaotic and stressful, but it would certainly be an adventure! Bus routes are usually colour coded and destinations are either shouted out or written on a flimsy piece of paper stuck inside the windscreen. To travel on this type of bus, you’re expected to signal the bus to stop it, and should shout “parar el autobús” for it to stop. Travelling this way is very cheap at just a few pesos and you’ll pay once you’re on your way.


GAPPER TIP - One of the most unpleasant bus journeys I have ever experienced in my entire life was in Mexico. When travelling between San Crisobal de Las Casa to Oaxaca by bus, the journey goes through quite a remote region with countless twists and turns in the road. About an hour into the 9-11 hour journey you’ll start to feel a bit queasy. Two hours into the journey you’ll notice people around you starting to turn green. Two and a half hours into the journey at least one person will have vomited. If they managed to make it to the bathroom, they may have had perfect aim and made it to the toilet; others aren’t so lucky and start losing their lunch at the same time the bus takes another corner. I was one of those unlucky people.

Even if you don’t suffer from travel sickness, I would still strongly recommend you consider taking a good supply of travel sickness tablets because even if the journey doesn’t make you feel bad, the smell of other people’s sick certainly will. Also recommended are a good selection of plastic bags without holes in the bottom which you can share with your fellow passengers as they start to wretch next to you; a pack of baby wipes; a bottle of water and some breath mints (oh, and perhaps a change of clothes, just in case you end up with vomit covered clothing.

All pharmacies sell travel sickness tablets so if you didn’t bring any with you, you can stock up in San Cristobal or Oaxaca.


By car

The best roads to drive on are toll roads, although the tolls can be quite expensive so you need to weigh up your budget against your aversion to potholes and generally badly maintained carreteras. Mexican vehicle insurance is not required but it’s highly recommended, as without it, even the most minor accident could mean a visit to prison, and let’s be honest, you don’t want to be stuck in a Mexican prison.

There is a very handy tool which can help you plan your driving route across Mexico which can be found here: http://www.sectur.gob.mx/wb2/sectur/traza_tu_ruta_carretera

It’s worth being aware that while driving on Mexican roads you’ll probably encounter several checkpoints operated by the Mexican military. Although this might feel quite intimidating, these checkpoints are rarely a problem for people who aren’t carrying illegal weapons and drugs. Be respectful, polite and do what the soldiers ask you to do without question and your experience will go smoothly. Having a bad attitude about being asked to unpack your entire car will only cause stress and the process will take much longer. Turn down your car stereo, remove your sunglasses and wind down your window. You’ll be treated with respect if you show it.  

It’s advised that you avoid driving at night because there is an increased risk of running into bandidos (actually very rare in metropolitan regions, but sometimes around in rural areas). There is also the much higher risk of crashing into animals that wander onto the roads, which are often poorly lit in more remote regions, which could cause damage to your car at the least, and a serious crash at the worst. If you absolutely have to drive at night, make sure you do so cautiously and carefully, using your high beam lights effectively and preferably following another vehicle. Absolutely don’t drink and drive. Take rest breaks when you need them and if you can swap driving with another person, do so to ensure you don’t become fatigued.

Be aware of the driving laws and speed limits on Mexican roads. Speeding tickets are quite common, and you may have your driving licence confiscated if you’re given a ticket to ensure you come to pay the fines.

Pemex is the only brand of petrol station in Mexico and prices are generally the same regardless of location, so there isn’t a great need to shop around. Fuel is fairly cheap in Mexico with unleaded standard fuel being approx US$3 per gallon.

An absolutely fantastic light-hearted guide to driving in Mexico can be found here: http://trans-americas.com/blog/2011/07/driving-in-mexico/

By plane

As Mexico is such a huge country, there is inevitably a variety of airlines which serve major hubs. There’s been a recent increase in the number of low-cost airlines which means that if booked far enough in advance, some absolute bargains can be found, although these are rarely cheaper than taking the bus. If you’re pushed for time and need to get from A-B as quickly as possible and budget isn’t the number one priority, flying is a good option.

By train

Mexico used to have a good train service linking the major cities but unfortunately the government stopped this service a few years ago leaving coach and plane services as the most common way to travel around the country. There are however, some lovely services which still run in certain areas, including the famous 'Copper Canyon' train which is highly recommended if you’re travelling in the north of the country. Most of the remaining trains are geared up for tourism rather than local transportation, although you’ll find local people using the trains too. The Copper Canyon train runs the 390 miles from Chihuahua to Los Mochis and takes around 14 hours from end to end. It costs between £50 and £110 one-way depending on whether you choose the 1st class or Standard train. The views are stunning and you can wonder at the incredible engineering achievements along the way, if that’s what you’re into.

Other train lines include the aptly named ‘Tequila Express’ which passes from Guadalajara to the small town of Tequila, famed for its drink!

Mexico City and Monterrey have a subway service, and the Mexico City Metro is the largest metro system in North America after New York City! There are currently 11 lines and fares are exceptionally cheap at approximately two pesos per one-way journey.  Full details and maps can be found on http://www.metro.df.gob.mx

Hitchhiking

While it’s not recommended, particularly in urban areas, hitchhiking is becoming more common in Mexico due to rising petrol prices. In remote village areas, hitchhiking is a likely possibility and will usually be a pleasant and eye-opening experience. Mexican culture is accepting of hitchhiking, though be prepared to ask for a price before accepting a ride because you may be asked for payment. Please exercise common sense caution if you decide to try hitchhiking.

By tourist bus / overland tour

For the traveller that would like a little extra support or security while travelling in Mexico, there are a wide variety of tour operators which run trips to the main places of interest in Mexico and throughout Central America. These tours are often more expensive on average compared to travelling independently but for the first-time traveller who would like a gentle introduction to independent travel with extra support, this is an excellent option.

Popular tour operators include Intrepid, Tucan , Gap Adventures and Trek America, amongst others. Prices are usually listed as land-only (which means that you must arrange your own transport to the departure point, usually Mexico City) and start at around £600 for 10 days for all transport, accommodation and food.

For the slightly more confident traveller, or someone who prefers the flexibility of independent travel but would like the convenience of transportation geared up for the gap year traveller, there are some fantastic companies out there such as the Bamba Experience and Wayakbus which offers hop on/hop off bus passes on their fleet of minibuses that run through Mexico and many other regions of Central America. Backpackers are offered free activities, scheduled pickup and drop off times, and flexibility to make changes to your schedule as many times as needed. Additionally because the passes are intended for backpackers, you’ll be almost guaranteed to meet likeminded people and make friends along the way.


Events of Interest

September 16th: Independence Day–The entire city goes into party mode with lights and decorations strewn from buildings, vendors selling Mexican flags, stick on moustaches, whistles and sombreros. People become very festive and it’s a chance to enjoy a real Mexican fiesta!

November 2nd: Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)–this interesting tradition is for families to honour and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. Often this celebration takes place at relatives’ grave sites where the family lay on feasts of the favourite food and drink of the deceased, decorate their houses and altars with skulls and skeletons and music is played. It’s a very ancient ritual, going back to the time of the Aztecs and to be invited to join these celebrations is a true honour.

December 12th: Virgin Mary of Guadalupe Day.This is one of the most important Mexican celebrations. On this day people from all over Mexico travel to the chapel Tepayac Hill in Mexico City, where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared before a peasant named Juan Diego. Huge fiestas are held all over Mexico and Central America to honour the day. Many people leave small silver or tin Milagros (meaning miracles) shaped like hearts, arms, or legs to symbolise the giver’s appreciation for a cure. Children enjoy cakes and sweets as well as the bringing paper roses and milagros that they made for their fiesta.


Top Activities

Just some of the many activities you can enjoy in Mexico are as follows:     

  • Snorkelling
  • Scuba diving
  • White Water Rafting
  • Visit a Volcano
  • Copper Canyon Railway
  • Enjoy the beautiful coast line
  • Go horseback riding
  • Visit the archaeological sites
  • Visit ecological parks
  • Climb a mountain

Typical Backpacker Route

Mexico City >> Puebla >> Oaxaca >> San Cristobal de las Casas >> Palenque >> Merida >> Chichen Itza/Playa del Carmen

Mexico City

As a capital city, Mexico City really has it all. Stunning colonial buildings abound, tiny markets, gorgeous parks, huge high-rise buildings, ancient canals and large lakes. If the weather is clear and smog levels are low you can even see the often snow-capped Popocatépetl volcano. Mexico City is referred to by some as the sinking city because the Spanish drained a marsh to build it, and now many buildings are sinking into the ground.

One of the nicest areas of the city in my opinion is the Centro Historico which features the incredible Zócalo, a square that is only third in size to Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. One thing to watch out for (or avert your eyes at) in Mexico City, but can also be found in other cities and villages, is the front page of the local newspapers. I have never ever seen such graphic images of death, torture and destruction in my life – there are no censors at work there so be aware!

Mexico City is a place where you can just wander through the streets for hours and hours, watching the world go by and exploring the abundant courtyards, tiendas, hidden gardens and churches. Mexican people are very proud of their nationality and culture which is displayed in their smart clothes, seemingly endless cleaning of their shops and their friendly and welcoming manner. In my opinion Mexico City is the most surprising place I have visited so far in regards to how much it exceeded my expectations.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is probably the most iconic of the Mexican temple sites. Located on the plains of the northern Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is a collection of impressive temples and monuments which make up part of one of the largest sites cleared from its jungle surrounding. It’s a must-visit for anyone interested in Mexico’s history.

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal is probably one of the more popular destinations in Mexico for backpackers, although a little off the beaten path. This city is located in a small valley and is the quintessential colonial town with colourful buildings, gilded churches, sprawling markets selling Mexican handicrafts, clothing and accessories, as well as fascinating museums. This chilled out city is well worth a visit to recharge your batteries, enjoy some of the incredible cuisine and to soak up the Mexican atmosphere.

Palenque

Palenque is situated deep in the jungle in a chain of hills of the Tumbalá mountains of Chiapas. The panorama of the plains to the north and misty green lush mountain backdrop to the south is breathtaking and makes a journey to Palenque well worth the trip, and some say that this is the most outstanding pre-Columbian site in Mexico. The site itself is very well known, so I would recommend you visit as early in the day as you can to avoid the crowds. However, Palenque is so large you can easily wander through to the less visited temples and have a chance to sit and listen to the sound of the wildlife and take in your surroundings (and perhaps pretend you’re a modern-day Indiana Jones!).

Most people use San Cristobal de Las Casas as their base for visiting Palenque in a day trip. If you book a trip through your hostel, the chances are this will include a visit to Agua Azul waterfalls prior to reaching Palenque to break up the journey. This is a beautiful place to stop and stretch your legs on the five hour road trip from San Cristobal. When I visited in September, however, the azul (blue) waters were fast flowing and dark brown due to it being the rainy season. It’s still worth a visit at any time of year though. If you just want to visit Palenque without the Agua Azul side trip, there are many bus services that go to Palenque directly, just ensure you check the time that they depart.

Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka)

Oaxaca is a feast for all the senses featuring stunning architecture, great markets (which sell delights such as chilli coated crickets), spectacular ruins and amazing food. One of the favourite places for foodies is ‘Chocolate Street’, starting in the area on the corner of Mina Street and 20 de Noviembre. The smell of chocolate production is mouth watering and you can stop in at one of the many chocolate shops for a taste of the freshest chocolate you’ll experience anywhere in the world. Many shops actually produce the chocolate while you sit there and it’s fascinating to watch! There is something for everyone here and visits to the Monte Alban ruins or the Teotitlan del Valle weaving town, where so many of Mexico's amazing hand woven rugs come from, are both highlights.

Baja California

Great area for surfing, sea kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving, whale watching, beautiful beaches and also the famous cave paintings of Baja California!

Tequila

For those who enjoy sampling local specialities, Mexico is home to Santiago de Tequila, the town best known for the birthplace of tequila. If you take a visit to one of the many distilleries in the Jalisco state, central Mexico you can learn about how tequila is produced and have myths and legends about worms and cacti dispelled!


About the Author: Lexi Quinton

Lexi Quinton

Lexi Quinton works for Different Travel, a charity challenge organisation based in the UK and part of her job includes leading charity challenge expeditions overseas.

Lexi is a gapyear.com moderator, and a very experienced traveller. She's visited more than 40 countries since she started travelling in 2000. Lexi's favourite trip to date is her first gap year, aged 18, when she spent three months living and working in Kenya and is where she fell in love with Africa.


Costs

The currency used in Mexico is the peso (MXN), which is made up of 100 centavos. Banknotes come in 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 peso denominations. Quite confusingly, especially for American visitors, pesos are indicated using the ‘$’ sign, so double check if you think a price seems exceptionally expensive or cheap, as it could be that the price is in US$ instead.

It’s always best to use pesos to purchase items although US dollars are widely accepted, especially in touristy areas and for tours arranged at hostels.  

If you’ve brought cash in foreign currency, a good place to change your money is actually at arrivals hall of the major airports, where many bureau de changes are located. You can spend some time comparing exchange rates and you’ll find that the rate offered is very fair (although do ask about commission costs). Of course, it’s usually quite simple to find money exchanges in touristy areas such as near the hotel zones.

Credit and Debit Cards (particularly Maestro, MasterCard and VISA) are widely accepted in Mexico. You can use them at ATMs as well as in most large stores and major restaurants and most petrol stations. It’s always recommended that you carry enough cash with you (in small bills which are easier to change) just in case your card is rejected and an ATM is not nearby, and always ask if cards are accepted prior to making a transaction. Small businesses rarely accept payment by card, and if they do accept cards you may be charged an extra fee for the privilege.

Many ATMs charge a fee for each withdrawal regardless of whom you bank with, but this varies with each ATM.

When haggling, you can often reduce the price of goods by around 50% if you say “this is too expensive, I’m sorry” and walk away. It’s important to remember, however, that haggling for goods which you’ll make payment for in cash will secure a lower price than if you haggle with a card. In very rural areas, small change may be given in the form of sweets or other small items where coins aren’t frequently used.

Try to ensure your bank notes are kept in good condition as some vendors can be reluctant to accept notes which are damaged. If you receive a damaged note, you can reject it, or alternatively, just go into a bank with a damaged bill and have it replaced with a new one!

Prices for hostels, food and drink is very reasonably priced in Mexico, with dorm beds at around £5, a hearty meal for around £3 and entrance to sites of interest from £3 and upwards. Local beers and spirits are much cheaper than imported ones and start at around £1.


Scams

Taxis – Always agree a price with the taxi driver before you have entered the cab or given the driver your luggage. Never wait until you've arrived before asking the price and ensure you know whether the price quoted is in peso or US$!

Bars – A popular scam is to take away your unfinished drink while you’re not paying attention or dancing et. When you go back to find your drink, you realise you’ve finished it and purchase another one. In some bars there will be very persuasive girls selling shots, but the price can be very high and a tip or service charge is often added.

Restaurants – Make sure you check that the bill you have been given is definitely yours and the items listed are correct. If you’re given a piece of paper with a number on it, feel free to ask to see the menu so you can compare the costs. Some restaurants in Mexico include tips on the bill, so again, check this before you pay and leave a further tip.


Phrasebook

If you can't speak any Spanish, you’ll need to take a phrasebook with you as English is less widely spoken than you would think, particularly in the smaller towns off the backpacker trail. Here are a few useful phrases & numbers in Spanish:                          

Hola, como esta/estas? - Hello, how are you?

Muy bien, gracias - I'm very good, thank you

Por favor - Please

Bueno - Good  

Malo - Bad

Permiso - Excuse me                                                                                                        

Muchas gracias - Thanks a lot   

Adios/ chao - Goodbye

Quiero - I want/I would like

No comprendo - I don’t understand

Si - Yes         

No - No

Lo siento mucho - I am very sorry

Quiero ir a… - I want to go to…    

¿Cuanto es? - How much?

Digame, por favor, donde debo bajar para Oaxaca - Please tell me where to get off for Oaxaca

Cafe negro - black coffee

Con crema - with cream

Con azucar - with sugar

Leche - milk

Huevos - eggs

Revueltos - scrambled

Con jamon - with ham

Pescado - fish

Tortilla - tortilla

Arroz - rice

Pollo - chicken

Bistek - steak

Cerveza - beer

Mas por favor - more please  

Autobus estacion central - central bus station

Aeropuerto - airport

Playa - beach

Tabla por surfiando - surfboard 

Surfiar - surfing

Hotel - hotel

¿Tiene…? - do you have...?

Almohada - pillow

Frazada - blanket 

Llave - key 

Papel - paper

¿Abierto? - open?

Ahora - now 

Mas tarde - later

Equipaje - luggage

¿Que hora es? - What time is it?

1 - uno/una, 2 - dos, 3 - tres, 4 - cuatro, 5 - cinco, 6 - seis, 7 - siete, 8 - ocho, 9 - nueve, 10 - diez


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