Since we are planning to travel to Mexico this July for a longer period of time, we have decided to collect some tips for beginners and share with you 10 useful things to know before travelling to Mexico.
- 1 Territory
- 2 Rent a car, take a bus or maybe fly?
- 3 Food
- 4 Tequila or Mezcal?
- 5 Tap water
- 6 Safety
- 7 Always carry Mexican Peso with you!
- 8 Plug / Electricity
- 9 Languages
- 10 Historical heritage
First of all, Mexico is huge, and even though you think you have sufficient time to visit calmly the country, check twice, the distances are long, both in kilometers and in time, and if you don’t want to spend the majority of your holidays in a vehicle, better to plan ahead your transportation.
How big is Mexico?
Mexico, officially the United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), is a country in the southern portion of North America. Yes, it is part of North America and not Central America as most commonly the people are mistaken. It is bordered to the north by the United States of America, to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean, to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea, and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Mexico covers 1,972,550 square kilometers, making it the world’s 13th-largest country by area, with approximately 126,014,024 inhabitants, it is the 10th-most-populous country and has the most Spanish-speakers.
Mexico is organized as a federation comprising 31 states and Mexico City, its capital and largest metropolis. Other major urban areas include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and León.
Rent a car, take a bus or maybe fly?
Rent a car
Renting a car in Mexico is definitely cheaper than in Europe, especially if you have the chance to book your car from a Mexican IP address. Then the prices immediately appear lower, almost half price. But of course, if you search & book from a European IP address, the prices will be more expensive.
Take a bus
Taking a bus can be very cheap in Mexico, but as mentioned, the distances are very long, so it’s your choice if you prefer to spend the night on a bus or break your trip into shorter parts. You can take a look here at the prices of FlixBus, extremely cheap, comparing with European prices.
Overall we can say that internal flights are affordable in Mexico, and the cities are very well connected. If you want to travel quick and not interested in the in-between territories, this is the best choice for you. It is quick & affordable and maybe the safest option as well, in order to avoid secondary roads, suspicious car controls in unpleasant areas. Take a look at the prices here:
About the street food
Mexican street foods include – try to remember and taste all: tacos, tamales, gorditas, quesadillas, empalmes, tostadas, chalupa, elote, tlayudas, cemita, pambazo, empanada, nachos, chilaquiles, fajita and tortas, and soups such as menudo, pozole and pancita.
Seriously, Mexico overall is considered to be a street food heaven, great quality and variety for extremely cheap price. Also good to know, that it’s very easy to eat there meat-free, so for vegetarians as well you can find many options, with tasty avocado, corn, frijoles (beans) and spicy salsas. Not to mention the seafood variants of these dishes.
Dishes to definitely try in Mexico
In Mexican cooking there are 3 ever-present ingredients: chiles, corn and beans. They can all be prepared into a great variety of forms, but what doesn’t change is their importance in the deep history of Mexican cuisine.
- Tacos: This popular, utensil-free Mexican dish comes in many varieties, made up of a corn or wheat tortilla that is folded or rolled around a filling that can include beef, chicken, cheese, pork, seafood and vegetables and topped with avocado, chili pepper, cilantro, guacamole, lettuce, onions, salsa and more.
- Gorditas: Meaning “the small fatty ones”. It is filled sandwich, very similar to Venezuelan Arepas, the only difference is the bread / tortilla they use to fill. Based on your desire it can be filled with many great and delicious things and in the end they grill or fry the Gordita and add a lot of salsa.
- Chilaquiles: The ultimate Mexican breakfast. Made with fried tortilla, on the top of it: eggs, frijoles (beans), cheese and meat (but this can be skipped), and a lot of spicy salsa on top. By the way, did you know that many people in Mexico is having breakfast two times? First a sweet pastry only with coffee, second a bigger salty breakfast with eggs, but the order can be changed, the only rule is to separate sweet from salty.
- Frijoles or Olla de frijoles: The Mexican bean dish. Once believed the beans to have originated in Peru, the common bean is now thought to have been first cultivated in what today is called Central Mexico. From there it spread throughout Central and South America before making its way to Europe via the Spanish. There are many recipes for Frijoles, with different spices and different beans, but you cannot go wrong with any of them. Ask as side dish, on the top of your Taco or simply on a toast.
Fun fact, in Mexico almost no one uses the yellow lemon, even though it is on the market, majority of the people only use lime (the green one), not only to pair your Corona, but for cooking too.
Tequila or Mezcal?
Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila 65 km northwest of Guadalajara, and in the Jaliscan Highlands (Los Altos de Jalisco) of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco. The red volcanic soils in the region of Tequila are well suited for growing the blue agave, and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year. Agave grows differently depending on the region. Blue agaves grown in the highlands Los Altos region are larger and sweeter in aroma and taste. Agaves harvested in the valley region have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavour. Due to its historical and cultural importance, the region near Tequila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, the Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila.
Tequila is commonly served neat in Mexico and as a shot with salt and lime around the world. Tequila must have between 35 and 55 percent alcohol content.
Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Tequila is recognized as a Mexican designation of origin product in more than 40 countries.
Aside from its geographical distinction, tequila is differentiated from mezcal in that it is made only from blue agave and the beverages are prepared in different ways.
Whether distilled drinks were produced in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest is unknown. The Spaniards were introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, made from the maguey plant. Soon, the conquistadors began experimenting with the agave plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash. The result was mezcal. Today, mezcal is still made from the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, in much the same way as it was 200 years ago. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavour. Though other types of mezcal are not as popular as tequila (made specifically from the blue agave in selected regions of the country).
The rule is simple, avoid tap water! Don’t drink it and don’t eat anything that was washed with tap water. Make sure that your ice cubes are made out of agua filtrada (filtered water), and use this kind of water or bottled water once washing your teeth. Not to mention that forget to let the water run into your mouth once taking a shower.
Well, let’s be honest, Mexico has a very bad reputation overall in terms of crime and safety, and if you look for the most dangerous cities in the world, on almost every list you can find multiple Mexican cities. You can hear all the narcos (drug-cartel) stories, suspicious missing people, cars without registration plates, discomforting stories from the night, random road controls, and obviously these things exist. But luckily not everywhere around the country, so it’s worth knowing before your travel which are the safest, the safer, and the not recommended states & cities of Mexico.
Overall these 4 territories are highly recommended to avoid:
But besides that, there are some states that also require some caution, and of course those ones that are with no travel advisories. Worth checking before your trip the latest news and you can find many safety-meter online too, such as this one.
Always carry Mexican Peso with you!
Credit cards are widely accepted in Mexico, but you should always have cash with you, and definitely recommended carry Mexican Pesos instead of US dollars or Euros. Especially on the street, when buying street food be prepared that only Mexican Pesos are accepted.
Plug / Electricity
In Mexico the power plugs and sockets are of type A and B. When living in the United States of America you don’t need a power plug adapter in Mexico. Your power plugs fit. But if you live in Europe, you will definitely need a travel power adapter!
Spanish is the national language spoken by the vast majority of the population, making Mexico the world’s most populous Hispanophone country. English is also widely spoken in Mexico’s tourist areas, but Spanish will definitely help.
Mexican Spanish refers to the varieties of the language spoken in the country, which differ from one region to another in sound, structure, and vocabulary. In general, Mexican Spanish does not make any phonetic distinction among the letters s and z, as well as c when preceding the vowels e and i, as opposed to Peninsular Spanish. The letters b and v have the same pronunciation as well.
The federal government officially recognizes sixty-eight linguistic groups and 364 varieties of indigenous languages. It is estimated that around 8.3 million citizens still speak these languages.
Mexican history began well before any Spanish arrived, and left their footprints all around the country. Well, the complete Mexican history is obviously too long to get into details here, but the good thing is that you can go and observe the very well-preserved remains and ruins throughout the country. Here we list the must-see spots only, otherwise it would be a never-ending list:
- Chichen Itza – close to Valladolid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is the most famous and is a popular day trip from Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.
- Ek’ Balam – also located close to Valladolid. From the Preclassic until the Postclassic period, it was the seat of a Mayan kingdom. The site is noted for the preservation of the plaster on the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tokʼ, a king buried in the side of the largest pyramid.
- Coba – close to Tulum, is an ancient Mayan city. The site is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Mayan world, and it contains many engraved and sculpted stelae that document ceremonial life and important events of the Late Classic Period (AD 600–900) of Mesoamerican civilization.
- Uxmal – close to Merida, Uxmal is an ancient Maya city of the classical period located in present-day Mexico. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Palenque and Chichen Itza.
- Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco. Built in the 16th century by the Spanish on the ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, Mexico City has has five Aztec temples, the largest cathedral on the continent, and some fine 19th and 20th-century public buildings such as the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. Xochimilco is home to chinampas, known as “floating gardens,” the Aztecs’ ingenious form of wetland agriculture.
- Tlatelolco – is an area now within the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City, centered on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of Three Cultures). Its archeological history extends to remains from the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as more recent colonial structures.
- Templo Mayor – In fact, without leaving Mexico City you can see evidence of the region’s indigenous, ancient cultures at the Templo Mayor (atop which the massive Catedral Metropolitana was built).
- Teotihuacan – Rivaling Chichen Itza are the amazing pyramids of Teotihuacan, situated about an hour north of Mexico City. There, you can climb atop the Pyramid of the Sun for amazing views across the landscape all around.
- Cholula Pyramid or The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl (Nahuatl for “made-by-hand mountain”), is a huge complex located in Cholula, Puebla. It is the largest archaeological site of a pyramid (temple) in the New World, as well as the largest pyramid by volume known to exist in the world today. The adobe brick pyramid stands 55 metres above the surrounding plain, far shorter than the 137 metres of the Great Pyramid at Giza, but is much wider, in its final form measuring 450 by 450 metres vs the Giza pyramid at 230 by 230 metres. The pyramid is a temple that traditionally has been viewed as having been dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl.
- Monte Albán archaeological site – Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The present-day state capital Oaxaca City is located approximately 9 km east of Monte Albán. The partially excavated civic ceremonial center of the Monte Albán site is situated atop an artificially leveled ridge. It has an elevation of about 1,940 m above mean sea level and rises some 400 m from the valley floor, in an easily defensible location.
- Yagul – Although Yagul was first settled around 500 – 100 BC, most of the stunning ruins that we see today date to the 1200 – 1500s, which was when the city-state was at the height of its power. Known to locals as ‘Pueblo Viejo’ – the old village – Yagul was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived, although the city was soon abandoned.
- Tonina – the archaeological site of Tonina is fascinating to explore, with lots of crumbling temples, ball courts, and palaces to discover. Although the site dates back to much earlier, the ancient Mayan city flourished between 600 and 900 AD. It was during this epoch that many of its most eye-catching monuments and buildings were built. Despite the wealth of beautifully carved sculptures and stuccoes, surprisingly few tourists visit Tonina.
- Yaxchilan – just reaching the archaeological site of Yaxchilan is a memorable experience in itself. Surrounded by dense jungle and perched atop a hill overlooking the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan is only accessible by boat. Shooting along the river to see its ruined palaces and temples is an incredible feeling which is only magnified by the calls of the howler monkeys as you approach.
- Bonampak – due to its remote location amongst endless swathes of dense jungle, Bonampak was only rediscovered by the outside world in 1946 – and what a discovery it was. With its magnificent murals and frescoes that display epic and eerie scenes of war and human sacrifice, the ancient Mayan archaeological site is fascinating to explore, with lots of well-preserved buildings and temples.
- San Cristobal de las Casas – full of incredible colonial architecture, cobbled streets, and lively street markets, the charming San Cristobal de las Casas is a lovely city to visit. Its beautiful setting in a valley surrounded by hills only adds to its picturesque look and feel.
- Palenque – Home to some of the finest examples of Mayan carvings, sculptures, and architecture, the Palenque archaeological site is mesmerizing to explore, and it is not without reason that it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.