5 things I wish I’d known about Mexico

Travelling to Mexico? You won't find this first-timer’s advice in a guide book, but it will certainly help your trip go smoothly…

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Sundays are very busy

Mexican citizens can visit museums and archaeological sites for free on Sundays – a great initiative that encourages pride and interest in their country’s rich history, but sometimes the attractions can prove too popular. We visited Teotihuacan on a Sunday, and were unable to climb the Pyramid of the Sun (a highlight) because the queues were so long. That said, it was brilliant to see local people enjoying this ancient wonder.

On any other day of the week, you’ll feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

Teotihuacan on a Sunday

A little Spanish goes a long way

English isn't widely spoken at all, so non-Spanish speakers who are travelling alone will want to invest in a good-quality phrasebook. If you can muster a few Spanish words, you'll be mightily rewarded for your efforts – with smiles, assistance, and maybe even a shot of tequila too.

The food isn't as spicy as you think

If the mere mention of spicy food makes you reach for the Pepto Bismol, you might not think Mexico's for you. Think again! Many of its signature dishes aren't as hot as you suspect – the spice usually comes from the copious salsas and chilis (of all shapes and sizes) that are served on the side. You can easily opt out of these with your head held high – although your Mexican compadres might make a few good-natured jokes at your expense. 

Want to play it really safe? Order the enchiladas Suizas – 'Swiss enchiladas' – which are covered in a mild tomato or cheesy sauce. The food in Mexico is flavourful and wonderfully varied, but if you're expecting chili con carne and fajitas, think again – they're Tex-Mex inventions, found north of the USA border. Food hygiene can be dubious, so you need to be vigilant: pack some ‘just in case’ medication.

It's much, much bigger than you think

If you're planning your own itinerary, check the distances carefully: next to the USA it looks positively tiny, but Mexico covers a whopping 761,600 mi² – that's eight times the size of the UK. Luckily, its cities are well connected with domestic flights.

The highways are also good and there are lots of long-distance buses, but give yourself plenty of time: when heading to the airport for our flight home, the highway was closed because of a teachers' protest – and our driver had plenty of similar stories. Our only alternative route was the old mountain road – an interminable drive along steep winding tracks, with the threat of a missed flight looming on the horizon.

Tipping is essential

If you come from a country where tipping is reserved for top-quality service in restaurants, you’ll need to loosen your purse strings. Tipping is an integral part of Mexican culture – if someone performs a service for you (anything from carrying your bags to performing juggling at the traffic lights), they’ll expect a coin or two. Refusing to tip can cause great offence, so slip them 20 Pesos (roughly 70p / US$1).

You’re not just being targeted because you’re a tourist – tipping is expected from all walks of life. At budget restaurants and cafés, round up the bill – and in pricier places, tip up to 10%.

The author travelled to Mexico in the very safe and reliable hands of Tucan Travel, on their tailor-made Mexico Express trip, which starts in Mexico City and ends in San Cristobel de las Casas – with plenty of colonial towns, ancient ruins and natural wonders along the way. The company provides plenty of pre-trip advice, but these bits and bobs were learned on the road.

Main image: San Cristobal de las Casas (Hazel Plush)

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