Mexico in the 21st century stands at a crossroads of sorts. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is there such a difference between old and new, between the traditional past and the unpredictable future.
Timeless “Mexican” images still exist, of course. Donkeys amble down dusty paths, and ancient ruins stand silhouetted against the sky. But for every small village where a herd of goats comprises the local traffic, there is a vehicle-choked freeway. And for every local market displaying live chickens, hand-woven baskets and piles of dried chile peppers, there is a glitzy mall offering the latest in upscale merchandise.
The extremes of wealth and poverty here can be shocking. Half an hour away from Cancún’s glittering resorts sit windowless, thatch-roofed huts with dirt floors. In bursting-at-the-seams Mexico City, high fashion and haute cuisine coexist with sprawling shantytowns lacking running water.
But while a Third World way of life is still unfortunately the norm for many Mexicans, visitors benefit from a strong and growing first world of hotels, restaurants and related amenities, as well as a cultural heritage richly expressed through fiestas and national celebrations. This makes Mexico a fascinating country that can be explored rather easily. What are you waiting for?
Historians don't know where Mexico's native peoples originally came from. But somewhere around 5000 B.C., in the valley of Tehuacán southeast of Mexico City, a straggling tribe of seed gatherers figured out how to domesticate maize, a grain plant, becoming corn farmers in the process and establishing permanent villages.
Eventually cities were built. At a time when much of Europe was decidedly primitive, civilizations in the New World were making significant architectural, scientific and artistic advances. The ruins of pyramids, palaces and temples in central and southern Mexico left behind striking evidence of the Olmec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec cultures that flourished, in some cases, more than a thousand years before the arrival of Spanish explorers.
The Maya people were particularly accomplished; they developed the mathematical concept of zero and produced a calendar enabling priests to predict eclipses and track the movements of the solar system. But the Maya also enthusiastically participated in ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice, which they believed helped foster communication with their gods. From about 200 B.C. through the eighth century, the vast Mayan empire spread north from Guatemala to the Yucatán Peninsula.
In the early 1300s the fierce, nomadic Aztecs migrated from place to place in search of a prophetic vision: an eagle perched on a cactus pad, clutching a serpent in its beak. According to legend, that vision was seen on an island in the middle of a lake within the Valley of Mexico. Settling at the site of present-day Mexico City, they built a city that was economically advanced by the beginning of the 16th century. It was the Aztec thirst for ruthless dominance that led to their undoing at the hands of equally ruthless Spanish conquistadores.
The brutal conquest of the Aztecs gave Spain the infamous distinction of wiping out hundreds of years of Indian achievements in Mesoamerica. Spanish reign was insignificant politically but momentous socially. Mexico's colonial cities, its grand cathedrals and most of its historic buildings were constructed during 3 centuries of Spanish rule.
Spain justified its continued presence in Mexico on the basis of converting the natives—considered barbarians—to Christianity. The church thus played a singular role in the colony of New Spain, which consisted of all Spanish possessions in North and Central America. Augustinian, Dominican and Franciscan friars (and later the Jesuits) all journeyed to New Spain to minister and teach, and missions were established in the depths of the wilderness.
Mexico's struggle for independence resulted from two things: the divisiveness bred by a rigid class system, and the continuing exploitation of a vast outpost off which only Spanish colonists profited. Freedom was finally achieved in 1821, but political turmoil was the rule rather than the exception throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th.
Rapid industrial growth and economic improvement came in the mid-20th century. The new Mexican prosperity was put on world view during the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City. A guerrilla uprising, a political assassination and a devastating currency devaluation—all in 1994—threatened the country's leap from developing nation to world player, and in more recent years parts of the nation have been wracked by the violence of warring drug cartels.
Mexico is a geographical transition point from the North American continent's topographic and climatic extremes to the more uniformly tropical features of Central America and the Caribbean basin. Its sun-scorched deserts and jagged mountain ranges are harsh, but they also have an austere beauty. In contrast are verdant valleys, cool highlands and mile after mile of sandy, palm-fringed beaches.
Roughly triangular in shape, Mexico narrows from 1,300 miles across its northern frontier to a mere 140 miles at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Two peninsulas—Baja (Lower) California and the Yucatán Peninsula—are appendages to the mainland. The terrain is mostly hills or mountain ranges broken by level plateaus, with the plateaus carved into many canyons and valleys.
The Sierra Madre comprises three great mountain ranges. The Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental form the eastern and western boundaries of the central plateau region. The Sierra Madre del Sur frames the Pacific coast through the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The height of the mountains is accentuated by deep valleys and canyons, which can plunge more than 1,500 feet below the general level of the plateau. There are hundreds of volcanic peaks in Mexico; in the state of Michoacán alone there are more than 80.
The backbone of the Baja California Peninsula is formed by several westward-sloping mountain ranges. The Yucatán Peninsula, on the other hand, is primarily flat or rolling; its highest point is barely 1,000 feet above sea level. Much of the subsurface rock is limestone, and subterranean erosion creates many cenotes, sinkholes that fill with water and become natural swimming pools.
The Baja California and northwestern mainland coasts are marked by numerous bays and coves. Farther south, Pacific breakers crash against the feet of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre del Sur. The Yucatán Peninsula's eastern coast boasts two outstanding natural features: powdery sand beaches and the clear, aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The Indians, or indígenas, living in Mexico today are direct descendants of the Aztec, Maya and other ancient civilizations. They speak a primary language other than Spanish, and many might express surprise if referred to as “Mexican.” While it may be convenient to lump all Indians together, Mexico's native peoples are characterized by linguistic and cultural differences that can be as distinct as those defining Norwegians and Italians.
Ethnic groups populate different parts of the country. They include the Tarahumara, who dwell in the Copper Canyon region of northwest Mexico; the Yaqui, in the state of Sonora; the Huichol and the Tarasco, near and along the central Pacific coast; the Nahua and the Otomí, in the central plateau region; the Zapotec and the Mixtec, in the state of Oaxaca; the Chamula, Tzeltal and Tzotzil, in the state of Chiapas; the Huastec, along the eastern Gulf of Mexico coast; and the Maya, throughout the Yucatán Peninsula.
The status of indígenas in today's Mexico, unfortunately, is not a whole lot better than it was during the era of Spanish rule. Poverty is a chronic, debilitating fact of life for the majority of the country's Indian communities, including many in economically challenged southern Mexico. Indian rights—particularly the demand for self-rule—has been a thorny issue for the Mexican government, especially since the 1994 uprising in the state of Chiapas that was led by the guerrilla Zapatista group.
The great majority of Mexicans are mestizos of mixed European and Native American descent. They have perhaps the strongest sense of national identity, although occupying various levels of prosperity and social standing. The small percentage of citizens of purely European ancestry, sometimes referred to as the “Thousand Families,” control much of the country's political power and economic wealth, just as the Spanish once did.
Many Mexicans have a strong streak of fatalism. Aztec ceremonies revolved around human sacrifice. The Spanish conquest wiped out entire cities. Post-independence Mexico endured war, revolution, assassinations and civil strife. The people have weathered hurricanes, erupting volcanoes and devastating earthquakes. Thus it's no surprise that death is both honored and mocked in such celebrations as the Day of the Dead, when decorated sugar skulls are sold, costumed children bear mock coffins in street parades and families pay tribute to deceased members in front of lavish home altars.
Priority is given to both family and holidays. On weekends city dwellers exit the concrete jungle en masse for beaches, parks and lakeside resorts. A minor saint's day is reason enough to hold a fiesta, and the birthday of a national hero or the date commemorating an important historical or religious event merits a major celebration.
Archeological sites—some little more than a few earthen mounds or a crumbling platform, others the spectacular remains of cities—offer intriguing clues as to how their creators lived. Mexico's first great architects were the Maya. They constructed ceremonial centers connected by straight, wide roadways of crushed limestone called sacbe (sack-BEH). These ancient roads were marvels of engineering, since the flat land denied builders an elevated vantage point while planning construction through dense, scrubby jungle.
Mayan buildings took three main forms: the pyramid, often with a temple capping the summit; the palace, consisting of a central court surrounded by chambers; and the ball court, a wide, flat area used for playing a mysterious but presumably sacred ball game.
Essentially a religious monument, pyramids frequently had steps built into the sides. Stone, particularly the porous, volcanic rock known as tezontle, was the building material of choice. Exterior carvings not only served as decoration but also depicted historical and mythological events.
Unfortunately, Spanish conquerors destroyed many Indian architectural achievements, and frequently chose razed ground as the spot to erect their own buildings. The Spanish conquest ushered in a 300-year period during which ecclesiastical architecture predominated, often imitating prevailing European trends.
Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit friars built churches throughout Mexico as part of a large-scale attempt to convert the natives to Christianity. These structures, distinguished by thick walls and simple interiors with vaulted ceilings, were impressively fortified to serve as protection against Indian attack. A monastery built around an enclosed patio was usually connected to the church. Decoration also served an educational purpose, as frescoes and stone carvings vividly depicted the symbolic themes of the new religion.
Lavish ornamentation became the rule, and its ultimate expression was a Mexican development known as Churrigueresque. Named after Spanish artisan José de Churriguera, buildings in this style exploded with carved geometric forms, leafy vines, frolicking cherubs, scrolls and other imaginative accents. Churrigueresque interiors were a cornucopia of extravagant embellishment, often executed in gold; the overall intent was literally to knock one's eyes out.
During much of the 19th century Mexico was disrupted by war and political turbulence, and when relative prosperity returned under dictator Porfirio Díaz the new round of public buildings were mostly massive structures that again reflected what was happening in Europe. The Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) in Mexico City was designed and executed by Italian architects following classic blueprints, while wealthy hemp exporters in Mérida gave their ornate mansions a refined Parisian influence.
The early 20th century found Mexican architects struggling for a style to call their own. Attempts at monumentality produced such misguided curiosities as the gigantic statue of José María Morelos, a hero of the Mexican War of Independence, built on an island in Lake Pátzcuaro.
In the last half of the century, however, innovative architecture resulted from the combination of old and new design elements in buildings like the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and those on the campus of the National University of Mexico (UNAM) in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel. Large-scale resorts in Cancún, Los Cabos and Acapulco are striking examples of contemporary architecture, often incorporating ancient motifs in ultra-modern settings.
Music and Dance
Mexico's musical traditions are exceedingly rich and abundantly varied. As with architecture and art, styles tend to originate elsewhere before being assimilated and frequently adapted to suit the national preferences: passion, romance and insistent rhythms. Popular folk and dance music in particular vividly evokes the country's sights, sounds and moods.
Indian musical expression is ceremonial in nature, often linked to religious rituals or village fiestas. But within the mixed mestizo population music has a genuinely mass appeal that is strengthened by a healthy recording industry, ceaseless radio play and impromptu performances that enliven the main plazas of practically every town in the country.
Little is known about what sort of sounds were created by pre-Hispanic civilizations. Music, singing and dancing did, however, play a large role in daily ceremonial life. The mesmerizing beat of the drum was foremost among ancient instruments. Drums were fashioned out of clay, wood, bones and turtle shells. Rattles complemented the beat, and simple reed or clay flutes added a melodic counterpoint. It might well have sounded similar to what is heard in some Indian villages today.
Spanish conquistadores and the missionaries who followed them imported European culture. Folk orchestras began to accommodate new instruments, chief among them various types of guitars. The son (also called huapango), a driving dance rhythm with plenty of instrumental flourishes, is the basic form of mestizo music. Regional styles have different names, but the guitar is usually the lead instrument, sometimes replaced by violin or harp.
Another traditional sound comes from the marimba, a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone. When struck with small rubber mallets, the marimba's hardwood bars produce clear, breezy-sounding tones. Marimba music is most commonly heard in southern Mexico and Guatemala, where town plazas resonate with its lively rhythms on fiesta days.
Popular Mexican songs have long evoked the trials and tribulations of daily life. The corrido, a folk narrative descended from Spanish balladry, emerged during the turbulent period of the 1910 Revolution and served as a news service of sorts in the days before radio. The canción is a slow, unabashedly sentimental ballad. No less dramatic are rancheras, nostalgic paeans to home and country originally sung by Mexican cattlemen.
But the music most associated with Mexico is the sound of the mariachis. The custom of hiring a group of professional musicians to play at weddings, birthdays and other special occasions began in the state of Jalisco. Mariachi bands deck themselves out in the costumes of the charro, or Mexican cowboy: tight-fitting pants, wide-brimmed sombreros and lots of silver spangles. They regale foreign tourists, play to homesick laborers in border towns and serenade the object of a young suitor's desire—all for a fee, of course.
Mariachi bands started out playing guitars, violins and harp, with the brassy sound of trumpets later replacing the harp. The style reached its peak in the 1950s, when Mexican matinee idols in Hollywood films sang love songs to the strains of mariachi music. A mariachi band worth its salt will be able to reel off a variety of songs from long-established classics to customer requests in styles from achingly sad to irresistibly upbeat—and all delivered with undeniable heart and soul.
Cumbia, a seductive, danceable import from the Caribbean, was the most popular music in Mexico in the 1980s; the songs are distinguished by flirtatious lyrics often spiced with double entendres. Equally danceable salsa is popular as well. And concerts given by brass bands fill parks and town halls throughout the country.
Native folk dances are one of Mexico's most enjoyable traditions for visitors. Although Spanish conquistadores initially tried to eradicate what they viewed as simply pagan rites, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries encouraged the continuation of Indian dances and wove these age-old rituals into their ongoing efforts to convert the natives to the Catholic church.
Like music, folk dances vary by region. Around Papantla in the state of Veracruz, Totonac Indians still perform the flying pole dance, originally a ceremony meant to appease the rain gods. In the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, Yaqui and Tarahumara Indians perform the deer dance, a ceremony once meant to impart good luck on the hunt. A dancer in this vivid re-enactment may even wear the stuffed head of a deer.
Los Viejitos, the “Dance of the Little Old Men,” originated in the state of Michoacán. Danced by young boys wearing masks that resemble a much older visage, it begins with them moving slowly in a parody of old age, but by the end the pace enlivens considerably.
Popular traditional dances are based, not surprisingly, on Spanish steps. Everyone knows the jarabe tapatío, or Mexican hat dance. The costumes for this passionate interlude are flamboyant: for men, the silver-embroidered shirt and trousers and wide-brimmed sombrero of the horseman (charro); for women, the national costume, a china poblana dress. It ends with the man's sombrero placed on the floor and the couple snappily parading around it.
Food and Drink
Authentic Mexican dishes have many influences, among them Maya, Aztec, Spanish, French, Moorish and even Chinese. There is much more to the cuisine, however, than the commonly mistaken notion that it is always hot. Many items in use throughout the world originated in Mexico. Corn is the country's greatest contribution to global cookery, but the list also includes tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, squashes, beans, pumpkins, chiles and turkeys (the only bird bred in pre-Hispanic Mexico).
Corn, the centerpiece of the Indian diet, took on an almost magical significance in many cultures, being used in religious rituals and ceremonies. Called teoxintle until the Spaniards renamed it maíz, the different corn varieties enabled native cooks to put this versatile vegetable to assorted uses—grinding kernels to make tortillas, thickening soups, creating beverages.
A thin wrapper made from coarse cornmeal, the tortilla is universally known and appears in many guises. A tortilla wrapped around a filling is a taco, one of the earliest Mexican foods as well as the one most commonly embraced north of the border and around the world.
Flour tortillas are used for northern Mexican grilled meat tacos, replaced by smaller yellow or white corn tortillas in central and southern Mexico. These small, soft tortillas are often doubled to hold a filling and sold in orders of two or three. Tortillas also are rolled around fillings and then fried until the tortilla is crispy, a nod to the hard taco shells popular north of the border.
Chopped onion and cilantro are the classic toppings, augmented by salsas, chopped radishes and cucumbers, grilled green onions (cebollitas) and the juice of lime wedges (limones). Fresh chopped salsa with tomatoes, onions and cilantro is called salsa casera. Cooked red salsas utilize dried chiles, while salsa verde, made with tomatillos—the small, tart-tasting tomato native to Mexico—is green. Another garnish is guacamole, usually a thinner version than the chunky variety used as a dip.
There are numerous versions of the standard street taco, and different regional favorites throughout the country. Around dusk the storefront taquerías open, street vendor carts begin setting up and the air is filled with the tantalizing aroma of grilling meat. In the evening tacos can be the basis for a light supper (cena) and also are a preferred late-night snack.
Tacos al pastor and tacos de carnitas are twin favorites. A Mexican adaptation of Middle Eastern spit-grilled meat, tacos al pastor are made with marinated pork stacked on a vertical spit above a gas flame. As it roasts the meat is shaved off, heaped on a tortilla and topped with grilled onions, cilantro and often pieces of fresh pineapple. In Puebla a variation of tacos al pastor called tacos arabes is wrapped in a thicker tortilla similar to pita bread and served with a spicy, deep-red salsa flavored with chipotle, dried jalapeño chiles.
Tacos dorados, also called taquitos or flautas, are tortillas rolled around a filling, usually cooked chicken or beef, then fried and topped with shredded lettuce, cream (crema) and grated Mexican cheese. In Baja California and along the Pacific coast fish tacos are popular; batter-dipped, fried filets are wrapped in a tortilla along with shredded cabbage, guacamole, salsas and onions marinated in vinegar.
As long as you follow a couple of basic common-sense rules, indulging in street tacos—some of the tastiest food in Mexico—should not result in digestive problems. Trust the judgment of locals and look for a taco stand that has lots of customers, a sure sign the food is good. Pick one that specializes in a certain type of taco rather than offering a wide variety; fewer ingredients mean that they are likely to be fresher.
There are taco variations as well. When covered in tomato sauce and served with melted cheese, soft rolled tacos are called enchiladas. Crisp fried tortillas spread with minced chicken, meat or salad are tostadas. Tortilla dough turnovers filled with cheese are quesadillas; when filled with potato, pork sausage or refried beans and then fried in fat, they become empanadas.
Like tacos, tamales are made from a corn-based dough to which lard is added, creating a mealier texture. A tamale is filled with bits of chicken, pork or such sweets as chocolate, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed. Sopes are flat, thick disks of dough made from ground corn treated with lime juice (masa) that are baked on a griddle. Topped with various combinations of meat and vegetables and garnished with cheese, salsa and cilantro, sopes are best eaten right after they've been made.
Tortas are sandwiches prepared with a small loaf of bread called telera or bolillo and then filled with different meats, lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese and avocado. The cemita, which originated in the city of Puebla, is a sandwich on a soft, sesame-seed egg roll. The meat is usually pork or beef pounded thin and then deep-fried; fillings include onions, sliced avocado and mild white cheese.
Like the taco, two Mexican side dishes are known around the world. Frijoles (beans) are cooked in various ways and served either whole or mashed, or combined with rice, vegetables, chicken livers, plantains or eggs. Guacamole is usually seasoned with onions, hot peppers and chopped tomatoes.
Street food can be as simple as pieces of freshly peeled fruit sold in a plastic cup or threaded on a skewer. A popsicle vendor can be found on almost every city street corner. Churros, sold from carts, are ridged, tube-shaped pieces of fried dough that are dusted with sugar or filled with fruit or chocolate. Corn on the cob (elote) is roasted in the husk, then speared on a stick and spread with condiments like butter or sour cream and sprinkled with cheese or red chili powder. The kernels also are cut off the cob and served in a Styrofoam cup to which the condiments can be added.
A distinctly Mexican concoction is chiles rellenos, or stuffed chiles. A dark green chili pepper—not the sweet bell variety—is stuffed with cheese or ground meat, fried in a coating of egg batter and then simmered in tomato sauce. A variation of this dish is called chile en nogada. Instead of tomato sauce, the chili (stuffed with beef, pork and fruits) is covered with ground fresh walnuts and a pureed white cheese similar to cream cheese. When sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds and garnished with parsley, the dish represents the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag. It is frequently served in conjunction with independence celebrations during the month of September.
At the time of the Spanish arrival, the staple diet of the Indians included such items as grasshoppers, ant eggs, rats, armadillos, monkeys, parrots and rattlesnakes. In Mexico City and Oaxaca you can sample crunchy fried grasshoppers (chapulines) dashed with chili powder and lime juice, ant eggs (escamoles) and worms (gusanos de maguey)—also crisply fried—that live on the maguey plant, from which tequila is made. Huitlacoche is a black, truffle-like fungus that grows on ears of corn; it is often served with crepes. In northern Mexico broiled goat (cabrito) is popular.
In and around Veracruz the specialty is huachinango a la Veracruzana, red snapper broiled in tomato sauce and served with onions, olives and capers. Acapulco and other seaside towns are known for their ceviche (say-VEE-cheh). Pieces of raw fish or shellfish are marinated in lime juice for at least eight hours, “cooking” the fish. Chopped tomatoes and onions, chiles and such herbs as cilantro are then added. It's served chilled, often as an appetizer.
In the Yucatán Peninsula the food has Cuban, Caribbean, European and Asian influences. The fiery habanero chile common in Yucatecan cookery grows nowhere else in Mexico. Achiote, the tiny red seed of the annatto tree, is the primary ingredient of a pungent paste with a distinctive orange-red color that seasons pork, chicken or fish cooked pibil style—a distant relative of American barbecue.
Yucatecan menus offer such authentic dishes as cochinita pibil, pork rubbed with achiote, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an underground oven; frijol con puerco, a pork and black bean stew garnished with cilantro, radishes and onions and served with rice; and huevos motuleños, a filling breakfast dish featuring a tortilla covered with refried black beans, topped with a fried egg and smothered with tomato sauce or chile-spiked salsa, peas, diced ham and crumbled white cheese, usually served with slices of fried banana or plantain.
Pozole, a hearty soup native to the state of Jalisco but popular in many parts of Mexico, incorporates hominy and pork or chicken in a flavorful broth. Shredded lettuce, chopped onions, strips of fried tortilla and splashes of lime juice are frequently tossed in. This stewlike concoction also takes on red or green hues from the addition of ancho chiles or green tomatoes mixed with various greens, respectively. Most Mexican chiles are hot, and some are incendiary, so ask "Es muy picante?" ("Is it very hot?") if in doubt about their firepower.
Cafe de olla is flavored with cinnamon and sugar, although you'll have to ask for cream (which usually turns out to be evaporated milk). Espresso and cappuccino are widely available—and undistinguished instant is frequently served in restaurants—but Mexicans favor cafe con leche, a combination of strong black coffee and hot milk that is often poured into a tall glass. Another favorite is Mexican hot chocolate, which is not as sweet as the American version.
Freshly squeezed fruit juices are inexpensive and refreshing. Ask for a licuado (fruit shake) made with bananas or papayas. Also inexpensive are local soft drinks (refrescos); try Mexican coke, which is sweeter than Coca-Cola. They are not only safe to drink out of the can or bottle but one of the few luxuries that poorer citizens can afford. Tehuacán, in the state of Puebla, is famous for bottled mineral waters made with and without natural fruit flavors.
Cerveza (beer) is ubiquitous, and two Mexican varieties—Corona and Tecate—are sold everywhere; the latter is the country's No. 1 cheap alcoholic beverage. Dos Equis and Bohemia are two quality brews appreciated throughout the world.
Mexico's viticultural history was relatively late in developing. Although pre-Hispanic peoples enjoyed fermented beverages, those derived from the grape were not among them. Spanish colonists introduced the first vine cuttings, and Mexican wines soon began competing with those of the homeland. Today most of the domestic vintages are produced in the state of Baja California. Other major wine-producing areas are in the states of Aguascalientes, Querétaro and Zacatecas.
From the maguey (mah-GAY) plant come several highly intoxicating liquors. Tequila is the quintessential one, traditionally downed from a salt-rimmed glass and immediately followed by a bite into a lime wedge. Bottles of mezcal from the vicinity of Oaxaca sometimes include a worm that lives on the plant.
Pulque, manufactured in central Mexico from the maguey's unfermented juice, has less of a kick and is considered to have both nutritious and medicinal properties. Colonche is prepared in the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco and San Luis Potosí with fermented fruit from the prickly pear cactus. Rompope originated in the state of Puebla as a family beverage for festive occasions. Similar to eggnog, its ingredients include milk, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of rum.
Local specialties can be found in smaller restaurants called cenadurías, taquerías or merenderos, which cater more to Mexican customers than to foreign tourists. In such establishments diners can order carne en su jugo (meat in its juice), tamales and a great variety of antojitos (snacks). The sign “Antojitos Mexicanos” indicates that these and other specialties are on the menu.
For those accustomed to an early breakfast, restaurants are not particularly accommodating; many don't open until around 9 a.m. Markets, however, normally open early and are good places to pick up something for a morning meal. Another tip: Buy croissants or sweet rolls at a bakery the night before and have your own breakfast before starting the day.
If you follow the Mexican schedule for dining, you will have lunch no earlier than 2 p.m., cocktails at 7 p.m. and dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. La comida is the main meal of the day (el almuerzo also means lunch but tends to be a late morning snack eaten on the run). Many restaurants still offer a comida corrida, or lunch special, which usually includes soup, a main course, a dessert and coffee. For those on a budget, making this the big meal of the day is the most economical way to dine.
When you're ready for the check, say “la cuenta, por favor” (“the check, please”). Making scribbling motions on your hand to imply writing is commonly recognized international sign language. Regardless of the establishment, always ask about policies and double check the total amount of the bill. You might assume, for example, that there are free refills for coffee when in actuality you'll be charged for each cup you drink (a free second cup is more common at breakfast).
Some restaurants may compute the tab by adding up the number of glasses and plates on the table. The 15 percent IVA service tax (10 percent in the state of Quintana Roo and the Baja California Peninsula) may be added (sometimes the charge is 17 percent, which includes local tax); again, double check the individual amounts. This does not take the place of a tip, so leave what you think is appropriate, usually 10 to 20 percent of the bill.
From the tiniest villages to the biggest cities, some sort of fiesta takes place practically every day of the year. And there's much to celebrate; in addition to observing national holidays and countrywide festivities like Carnaval and the Day of the Dead, every town salutes its patron saint's day.
Fiestas take on myriad forms, but almost every one includes a parade. The procession is usually in association with a revered religious image but also can be secular in nature, often capped off by fireworks. Music, dancing and an array of local edibles are essential elements. Costumed dancers may portray historical, mythological or imagined happenings to the accompaniment of indigenous instruments.
Regional and folkloric dances represent the area or state; mariachi or harp ensembles are the usual accompaniment. The Yucatán has its evocative jaranas, danced by couples in white costumes to the lilting sound of a band. Yucatecan fiestas, called vaquerías, are particularly joyous and colorful.
Mexico's best-known celebration, one in which both Indian and Catholic traditions blend into a unique expression of love for the deceased, is Los Dias de Muertos, or Days of the Dead, which are celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2. A straightforward approach to the uncomfortable subject of mortality, the holiday—celebrated in Mexico for centuries—mixes mourning with macabre humor and pagan rites with the Catholic observances of All Souls' and All Saints' days.
Families may honor departed loved ones by telling stories, eating candy skulls or even camping all night in the local cemetery while decorating gravesites, praying and sharing memories. The holiday is downplayed by some as superstitious ritual or quaint religious holdover, but that doesn't stop most of the country from celebrating each November with food, drink, flowers (specifically marigolds, the “flower of the dead”) and skeleton figures known as calaveras.
The popular belief that the dead are permitted to visit their living kin provides the latter a chance to prepare culinary offerings, which usually include sweet loaves of pan de muerto (bread of the dead). A lavish home altar (ofrenda) could include candles, mementos, pictures of the departed, a bottle of favorite liquor, dancing skeletons, a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a display of marigolds. Everyone sings, dances and prays, simultaneously sending up and accepting the inevitability of death.
Some of Mexico's loveliest traditions center on Christmas, despite the American influence of Santa Claus and Christmas trees. Foremost are the posadas, which take place for 9 days beginning Dec. 16 and represent the search for an inn (posada) in preparation for the holy birth. Bearing candles and figures of Mary and Joseph, guests circle a house begging for a place to stay, but are refused until the Pilgrims are identified. After that the party begins, with hot punch, sweets and the breaking open of piñatas. More and more, gift giving is on Christmas Day, although in smaller towns presents are still exchanged on the traditional Twelfth Night, or Epiphany (Jan. 6).
Another Christmas season tradition is the presentation of pastorelas in public plazas, schools and theaters. Based on the events immediately before Jesus' birth, they often have a comic touch. Some pastorelas include in their cast of characters such historical figures as Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who take part as if they had lived during that first Nativity.
The Lenten season culminates in Holy Week (Semana Santa) from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, which is marked by solemn pastorelas or a re-enactment of the Passion from Judgment to Resurrection. The young man chosen to portray Jesus undergoes rigorous preparation for his role, which in some places includes being whipped and then tied to a cross. Again, the observance often ends with the burning of a papier-mâché figure, this time Judas. Holy Week celebrations also venerate the Virgin Mary, with processions bearing some form of her image.
Many Mexicans travel during Holy Week and the Christmas holidays, so make hotel reservations in advance if you'll be visiting during those times.
In Mexico you can play golf at world-class courses, many of which are located at the beach resorts. Los Cabos is famed for its immaculately groomed and devilishly challenging courses designed by pros like Jack Nicklaus. Most of the better courses boast stunning backdrops, from Baja's stark desert landscapes to Cancún's gorgeous beaches to Puerto Vallarta's jungle and mountain backdrops.
The majority of golf courses in Mexico are private and can be played by visitors only if they are accompanied by a member. Hotel-owned courses give preference to guests, although the hotel might be able to arrange access to a nearby facility. Fees at the better courses are expensive and comparable to those in the United States. If you don't bring your own clubs, you'll find rental clubs available at virtually all major courses.
The horse was considered a strange, frightening beast to superstitious Aztecs who first laid eyes on the steeds brought over by Hernando Cortés. These fears were overcome, and many Mexicans are enthusiastic riders. Horseback riding is an invigorating way to explore the starkly scenic stretches of northern Mexico, and this part of the country has a number of stables and ranches that rent horses and arrange riding expeditions. You can go for a beachside horseback ride in Baja California and along the Caribbean coast in the Riviera Maya, and at resorts in Acapulco, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta.
There are beautiful beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The major resorts all offer the usual water sports, from water skiing and windsurfing to sailing and parasailing, and any necessary equipment is easily rented. Pay close attention to local warnings regarding surf conditions; many Pacific beaches have dangerous undertows and strong currents.
Snorkeling is excellent around the islands of Isla Mujeres and particularly Cozumel, where there are clear, shallow waters, brilliantly hued fish and intricate coral formations. The Baja California and Pacific coasts are more suitable for scuba diving, although Baja's Pacific waters are quite cold and the diving spots tend to be hard to reach. La Paz, in southern Baja on the Gulf of California, and Guaymas, on the northwestern mainland coast, have warmer waters, equipment rentals and resort facilities.
Other good bases for snorkeling and scuba explorations are Puerto Vallarta, situated amid the coves, rock formations and underwater ledges of the Bay of Banderas; Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, where offshore rock formations create a variety of underwater sites; and Bahías de Huatulco, with nine lovely bays to explore.
If you're taking scuba lessons or have a referral letter from your home training center, check to make sure that the instructor or dive center you choose in Mexico holds U.S.-recognized certification, such as NAUI, PADI or SSI.
Mexico offers some of the best deep-sea fishing in the world, particularly around the southern tip of Baja California, in the Gulf of California, along the Pacific coast and off the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Numerous tournaments are held each year. As part of a movement to protect natural resources, a catch-and-release policy is advocated for sports anglers.
A Mexican fishing license is required to fish in Mexico. The license covers both freshwater and saltwater species and is valid anywhere in the country, including coastal waters.
If you intend to fish in Baja California waters, contact the state tourism offices in Tijuana, Rosartio or Ensenada for fishing permit information. In Baja California Sur, contact the state's fishing permit office; phone (612) 123-3807. You also can obtain a Mexican fishing license at select fishing and tackle supply stores in San Diego.
License fees vary depending on boat size and time spent fishing (1 day to 1 year) and range from about $12 to $43 (U.S.). The cost is the same whether the angler is alone or part of a tour group. Everyone aboard private boats in Mexican waters must have a fishing license regardless of age and whether or not they are fishing. Licenses are not transferable. Skin divers and scuba divers who fish need a license as well. Boat operators normally provide licenses for people on chartered excursions, but double check before you go out on the boat. A license is not required when fishing from land.
The maximum catch per day varies by species. Generally authorized maximums are 10 fish caught per day, but not more than five of the same species. Catches of marlin, sailfish, swordfish and shark are limited to one per day per species; catches of tarpon, roosterfish, dorado and shad are limited to two per day per species. The limit on inland bodies of water is five fish per day, regardless of species.
Major hotels and independent companies at the resorts and in port cities can arrange fishing expeditions or provide boats and gear for hire. All nonresident private boats entering Mexican waters must obtain certification and a temporary boat permit from the Mexican Department of Fisheries in San Diego, a Mexican consulate office or a customs broker.
For those who value relaxation and restoration over physical activity, Mexico's spas offer therapeutic resources used for centuries by indigenous peoples—an immense variety of native plants.
The nopal, a tropical prickly pear cactus, is a source of vitamin C and amino acids; helps the body pull fluids from tissues back into the bloodstream, thus diminishing cellulite and water retention; and is effective in regulating blood sugar for those who are diabetic.
The so-called “magic bark” of the tepezcohuite tree, indigenous to the state of Chiapas, has skin-healing and regenerative properties used to treat sunburn, blisters and blemishes. Mineral-rich volcanic mud stimulates circulation and relieves muscular and arthritic pain.
Hot springs and mineral water bathing resorts operate in Cuautla, Ixtapan de La Sal, Tepoztlán and other towns in central Mexico, but tourists are more likely to visit a spa at an upscale hotel or resort. These facilities are not only luxurious but state of the art. They offer pre-Hispanic treatments like the temazcal, a type of sweat house where hot stones and herbs help to purify the body, as well as aromatic exfoliations, nontraditional plant medicine therapies and sacred healing rituals. And you can cleanse body and mind with the sea or mountains—or both—as a breathtaking natural backdrop.
Area1,964,375 sq km (758,449 sq. mi.).
Highest PointPico de Orizaba, Ver., 5,675 meters (18,619 feet).
Lowest PointSouth of Mexicali, B.C., 10 meters (33 feet) below sea level.
LanguageSpanish; some 50 Indian languages and many more dialects are spoken outside of major cities and towns. English is widely spoken, particularly in larger cities and at resorts.
CurrencyThe exchange rate in December 2021 was about 21 pesos=$1 U.S.; quoted peso-to-dollar equivalents in the guide are based on this conversion rate. Small daily rate fluctuations are standard.
BANK HOURSMost banks are open Mon.-Fri. 9-5 in larger cities; some also open Saturday morning. Banks are closed on all national holidays, and may also be closed on local holidays.
BUSINESS HOURSMany businesses are open Mon.-Sat. 8-7; some, especially smaller establishments, still close from 2 to 4 for the traditional long lunch break. In resort areas stores and shops are often open evenings and on Sunday. Shop hours may not always correspond to what is advertised, though. Shopping malls are generally open daily; many are closed Jan. 1, Good Friday, May 1 (Labor Day) and Christmas.
TaxesMexico levies a 16 percent value-added (Impuesto al Valor Agregado, or IVA) tax on many goods and services, even telephone and internet services. An additional tax on hotel and beverage services means that some items can carry a 17 percent IVA tax. The tax is supposed to be included in the posted price or rate but is not always itemized separately on your bill; inquire if you feel you are being doubly charged.
HolidaysNew Year's Day, Jan. 1; Constitution Day, Feb. (1st Mon.); Birthday of Benito Juárez, Mar. (3rd Mon.); Holy Week (Semana Santa); Good Friday, Mar. 29; Labor Day, May 1; Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), May 5; Independence Day, Sept. 16; Day of the Race (Columbus Day), Oct. 12; Revolution Day, Nov. (3rd Mon.); Christmas, Dec. 25. Banks, government offices and most stores are closed.
MEDIAThe News is an English-language newspaper published in Mexico City on weekdays. Many hotels and resorts provide USA Today for guests. The Sanborns restaurant/drugstore chain carries English-language magazines. Hotels offer free magazines with information about local dining and entertainment; most also offer U.S. TV channels.
ATTRACTION SCHEDULESBefore setting out for a day of sightseeing, check with the front desk at your hotel regarding schedules for local museums, archeological sites or historic buildings. Museums are often closed on Monday; admission fees are usually inexpensive. While free admission days or reduced fees for different age groups technically apply only to Mexican citizens, policies will vary depending on the attraction. The listings in this guide provide hours and admissions where known.
PUBLIC RESTROOMSTake advantage of those in restaurants and museums wherever possible. Restrooms in small towns and out-of-the-way locations, particularly at gas stations, often have primitive plumbing and are definitely not up to the standards of public restrooms in the United States. Away from your hotel, it's a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper and a small bar of soap; either of these necessities might be in short supply depending on circumstances.
POLICEFew tourists ever run into trouble with the law, but you may need to ask police for directions or seek assistance for other reasons. While most officers are helpful, other encounters—mainly those involving alleged traffic violations—can be exasperating or intimidating, especially if you don't speak fluent Spanish. Always cooperate if stopped, but try to resolve the situation right away.
RESOURCESInformation hotlines, manned daily 24 hours by bilingual operators, can provide answers to questions regarding tourist destinations and services. In Mexico City phone (55) 5250-0123; elsewhere within Mexico, phone 01 (800) 008-9090 (toll-free long distance).
Planning Your Trip
Mexican travel planning depends on whether you'll be driving your own vehicle around the country, flying to one destination only, or flying to one destination and then driving a rental car to another. If you drive your own vehicle, specific regulations govern its temporary importation across the border. There's also your day-to-day, on-the-road itinerary to consider. Flying eliminates many of these additional details, particularly if a travel agency or tour operator is handling the logistics.
Expenses will be determined by your agenda. If you want frills or as many of the comforts of home as possible, travel exclusively by air or take a guided package tour, stay at internationally recognized hotels or all-inclusive resorts, and eat and shop at establishments that cater primarily to tourists. This ensures a hassle-free but likely very expensive vacation. But if you're willing to put up with the occasional lumpy bed or cold shower and don't mind giving up an orderly schedule, you'll reduce expenses and also experience Mexico on a much more intimate level.
While not essential, a knowledge of Spanish is helpful. English is spoken widely in large cities and at the major beach resorts. Hotel and restaurant staff and others in the tourism industry usually understand basic English. Small towns, Indian villages and rural areas in the Yucatán Peninsula and southern Mexico are another story, but if you know some words or phrases in the native tongue, Mexicans tend to overlook halting pronunciations and mixed tenses. The “Speaking of Spanish” section in this guide provides a handy list of common questions and needs.
Mexico Travel Regions
There are eight geographic travel regions in this guide: Baja California, Northwestern Mexico, Northeastern Mexico, The Pacific Coast, Central Mexico, Mexico City and Vicinity, Southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula. Each of these regions is color-coded on the Mexico Orientation map. Mexico offers varying levels of visitor amenities and many different things to see and do, so a knowledge of what each region offers can aid in trip planning.
NOTE: The U.S. Department of State website provides information that might affect U.S. citizens traveling abroad; go to travel.state.gov and link to “International Travel.” For updated information regarding Mexico travel and security issues phone (888) 407-4747 (from the United States).
Where To Go
Generally speaking, Mexico's priciest destinations are the big beach resorts like Cancún, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Ixtapa. For the first-time visitor, they offer the exotic lure of a foreign country without too much cultural displacement—you'll find American fast-food joints as well as thatch-roofed seafood shacks—and a greater percentage of locals who speak English. Mexico City, which is not a place for those seeking laid-back relaxation, is also pricey.
Much of Mexico away from the resorts and big cities provides a maximum of local flavor and a minimum of pampering. Getting close to nature at relatively remote and unspoiled areas is a trend that goes hand in hand with the understanding that preserving the environment also benefits tourism. Numerous tour companies offer specialized excursions based around biking, diving, hiking, kayaking and other outdoor activities; consult a travel agency for details. Biosphere reserves like Sian Ka'an in the state of Quintana Roo protect a rich variety of indigenous flora and fauna.
If you like or need a high level of comfort, an ecotour is not a wise choice. But for those who prefer unspoiled environments over AAA Five Diamond accommodations Mexico offers all kinds of options, from backpacking through the Baja desert to ziplining above the Yucatán jungle to mountain biking through the highlands of Oaxaca state.
Combine affordable comfort with the pleasure of experiencing new cultural perspectives by visiting one of the colonial cities. Guanajuato, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Taxco and Zacatecas, built by the Spanish, all have historical and architectural legacies. Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Mérida are more off the beaten path, but each city is fascinating in its own right, and shoppers will find some of the best native handicrafts in Mexico. Guadalajara offers big-city amenities, authentically Mexican atmosphere and Western familiarity due to a large resident population of American retirees.
When To Go
In most of Mexico the dry season—October through May—has the best weather. Rainfall patterns, however, vary greatly. In the highland region of central Mexico afternoon showers are likely at any time from June through September, but over a large portion of northern—and especially northwestern—Mexico, rain is infrequent throughout the year. In Chiapas and the normally wet coastal areas, heavy rains can wash out roads or cause mudslides.
Much of northwestern Mexico and Baja California is uncomfortably hot in the summer; in the coastal regions summer heat is exacerbated by high humidity. Conversely, fall and winter evenings in high-altitude locations can get quite nippy.
December through February or March is the high season at Mexico's beach resorts, and accommodation rates at tourist destinations like Cancún and Puerto Vallarta are at their peak. From April through November rates come down and crowds let up. Each resort has its own timetable; Cancún, for example, is crowded with U.S. spring breakers during March and April.
Easter week is perhaps the most popular time of the year for Mexican families to vacation. Many Mexicans also travel over the Christmas holiday period and during such major national celebrations as the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. For good weather, lower cost and crowd avoidance, a general rule of thumb is to go in the spring or fall.
It's a good idea to obtain advance confirmed reservations for accommodations at beach resorts and in most other Mexican cities during the peak travel seasons—roughly speaking, December through June at the resorts and June through August at the inland cities. Reservations are imperative for the week preceding and following Easter. All things considered, one of the nicest times to visit is in November; temperatures are moderate, summer rains have turned much of the normally brown landscape a more welcoming green, and the busy holiday season is still a month away.
If you're crossing the border in a vehicle you must first clear the Mexican customs checkpoint. After submitting a customs declaration form or oral declarations, you'll pass through an automated “traffic light” system. If the light flashes green there is no further action; if it flashes red your luggage will be inspected, regardless of previous declarations made to customs officials.
The most convenient time to cross is early in the morning on weekdays. Weekends—and especially holiday weekends—are the worst times in terms of potentially long waits. There's also the possibility of exasperating interactions with customs officials or time-consuming additional inspections at customs or immigration substations. But for the most part it's a streamlined process, especially if you're traveling light.
Airline passengers receive a customs declaration form (printed in English) on the flight listing all items that can be brought into Mexico duty-free and without prior authorization. The filled-out form is submitted to customs officials upon arrival at the airport entry point.
Complaints regarding treatment by Mexican customs officials may be registered by contacting the Comptroller General's Office (SECODAM) in Mexico City; phone 01 (800) 001-4800 (toll-free long distance within Mexico).
Money: You may bring up to $10,000 in U.S. currency and traveler's checks (or the equivalent in other currencies); any greater amount must be declared. U.S. traveler's checks, particularly those issued by the most recognized institutions, are normally easy to cash. It may be more difficult to cash Canadian currency and traveler's checks, so many Canadian travelers convert their money into U.S. currency beforehand.
When presented with sufficient identification, major credit cards are accepted provided that the credit card company normally operates in Mexico. Exchange rates are posted at currency exchange offices (casas de cambio) and banks. Banamex and Bancomer are two of the largest Mexican banks; most cities and towns have branches of one or the other.
If you transport or cause to be transported (including by mail or other means) more than $10,000 in currency or negotiable instruments such as traveler's checks into or out of the United States, you must file a copy of Customs Form 4790 with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20229.
Personal items: You may bring duty free clothing, footwear and other personal items. The allowance includes jewelry, perfume, toiletries, books and magazines (in a quantity that does not indicate they are for commercial purposes), and medicines for personal consumption (accompanied by prescriptions as appropriate and in accordance with quantities prescribed).
Unless acceptable proof of prior ownership is presented upon return to the United States, duty may be required on personal articles that are foreign-made. This proof can be a bill of sale, insurance policy, jeweler's appraisal or original receipt of purchase. Items with serial numbers or other permanently affixed identification can be registered with the nearest Bureau of Customs and Border Protection office before departure. The certificate of registration will facilitate re-entry into the United States should any question of prior possession arise.
Photographic equipment: One camera, including the power source (for non-digital cameras, the allowance also includes up to 12 rolls of unused film). One video camera and 12 blank cassettes also are admissible. Foreign-made cameras can be registered at the point of departure to prove that they were not purchased in Mexico. Tripods and flash equipment require special permits for use at archeological sites, museums and monuments.
Weapons: The only way to legally import firearms and ammunition into Mexico is to secure a permit in advance. Tourists are not permitted to bring pistols, revolvers, automatic firearms or weapons of any type. Technically this includes all knives (pocket and Swiss Army knives, as well as switchblades and other knives that could be classified as weapons). Although tourists are not likely to be fined or incarcerated for bringing in knives for camping or personal use, you may want to purchase such a knife while in Mexico.
Drugs: If you require medicines containing habit-forming drugs or narcotics, properly identify all drugs, carry only the necessary quantity and bring a prescription or written statement from a physician. These safeguards will also help to avoid potential customs problems upon return to the United States. Trafficking in and/or possession of illegal drugs is a federal offense under Mexican law, and all such cases are rigorously prosecuted.
Other duty-free items: Also allowed are one tent and camping equipment, one surfboard, two tennis rackets, a pair of skis, a pair of binoculars, one new or used laptop or tablet computer, two cellphones, one portable digital audio player (such as an iPod), one CD player, one portable television set, one DVD player, up to 20 CDs or audiocassettes, up to five DVDs, a musical instrument that can normally be carried by one person, up to five toys (if the tourist is a minor), and personal items that compensate for or aid individuals with a disability.
The duty-free limit for the above items is usually per person or per individual family member. Also admissible are gifts or items up to a total value of $300 (provided none are restricted) if arriving by air or sea, $50 if arriving by land. These duty-free limits apply per each crossing or arrival. There are no restrictions on the containers in which items are imported. Any amount over the duty-free limit is taxed.
Each visitor 21 and over may bring in one liter of alcohol and one case of beer every 30 days; each visitor 18 and over may bring in one carton of cigarettes. Recreational vehicle owners can bring in kitchen, dwelling and/or bedroom furniture or utensils, a videocassette player and a bicycle (with or without motor).
Tourists are not permitted to bring live animals, fresh food products of animal or vegetable origin, or plants, flowers or fruits into Mexico. The following foodstuffs are allowed: dehydrated foods or canned fruit or vegetables, packaged coffee, dried spices, dry herbal medicines, canned or bottled jellies or fruit preserves, canned or bottled nuts and sauces, and U.S.- or Canadian-processed cheeses.
Bring clothes that are comfortable and easy to care for. In Mexico City and other high-altitude areas, a light coat is a good idea during the winter months, a sweater or jacket for other times. Sweaters also can ward off the chill of air conditioning, which can be icy in those establishments that have it. Lightweight summer clothing is all you'll need for the beach resorts. For dining in an upscale restaurant appropriate attire is a sports jacket for men, a dress or pantsuit for women. An umbrella comes in handy for the rainy season (generally June through September).
A pair of sturdy, comfortable walking shoes is essential for exploring archeological ruins or even negotiating the frequently cobblestoned streets of cities and towns. A luggage cart is useful if traveling by bus, and it can save money at airports. If you plan to be on the go much of the time, a securely fastened shoulder bag may be more appropriate than a suitcase.
Take an extra pair of sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen, insect repellent (absolutely necessary in lowland and coastal areas and not always available in Mexico), a vacuum or plastic bottle for drinking water, and eye drops to ease discomfort from wind or glare.
Bring your own prescription drugs as well as useful items like batteries. Toilet paper is often missing from restrooms in out-of-the-way locations; in such situations try to carry a roll with you.
Electrical current in Mexico is 110-volt, 60-cycle AC—the same as in the United States and Canada—which permits the use of small standard appliances like shavers and travel irons. In smaller towns electricity may be weak or even unavailable, so bring a small flashlight and a disposable razor.
Crossing the Border
All U.S. and Canadian citizens entering Mexico by land must stop at the international border to show proof of citizenship and pay a fee to have their tourist permit validated. If you are planning on driving beyond the mainland border zone you also must provide the necessary forms for temporarily bringing a vehicle into the country, which necessitates a stop at a Mexican customs and immigration office. Hours of operation for these offices at major border crossing points are as follows:
Calexico/Mexicali—Daily 24 hours
San Diego/Tijuana—Daily 24 hours
Douglas/Agua Prieta—Daily 24 hours
Lukeville/Sonoyta—Daily 6 a.m.-midnight
Nogales/Nogales—Daily 24 hours
Brownsville/Matamoros—Daily 24 hours
Del Rio/Ciudad Acuña—Daily 24 hours
Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras—Daily 24 hours
El Paso/Ciudad Juárez—Daily 24 hours
Laredo/Nuevo Laredo—Daily 24 hours
McAllen/Reynosa—Daily 24 hours
Travel Advisory: We do not recommend using the Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa border crossing due to the U.S. Department of State’s “Do Not Travel” warning to the state of Tamaulipas. The acute level of crime and violence in this area prohibits AAA inspections.
U.S. and Canadian citizens traveling to Mexico must carry proof of citizenship. A valid (unexpired) passport book is the most convenient, since it ensures problem-free re-entry into the United States, serves as a photo ID and facilitates many transactions, such as cashing traveler's checks.
You can request a passport application form by contacting the National Passport Information Center; phone (877) 487-2778, or TTY (888) 874-7793. The U.S. State Department website has comprehensive passport information and online application forms; link to “passports.”
Keep a record of your passport number. Make three photocopies of your passport identification page and other personal documents before leaving home. Leave one set at home, and carry two sets with you in a separate place from your actual documents.
U.S. citizens who travel across the Mexican border regularly for business reasons can apply for a passport card, a wallet-sized document that will facilitate entry and expedite document processing at official land and sea points of entry. The passport card has the same validity period as the standard passport book: 10 years for adults, 5 years for children under 16. Passport cards cannot be used for air travel.
All U.S. and Canadian citizens traveling between the United States and Mexico by air, regardless of age, are required to show a valid passport. Acceptable forms of identification when entering Mexico by land or sea are a passport or passport card. When leaving Mexico and re-entering the United States by land or sea a passport or passport card, Enhanced Driver's License or Trusted Traveler program card is required. Children under 16 who are U.S. citizens can show the original or a copy of their birth certificate or other proof of citizenship, such as a naturalization certificate or citizenship card.
All U.S. and Canadian citizens over the age of 2 must have a government-issued FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) tourist permit—commonly referred to as a tourist card, but actually a form—in order to travel within Mexico. If you're entering Mexico by land, obtain your tourist permit at a Mexican immigration office at the official point of entry; proof of citizenship (a valid passport or passport card) is required. An immigration office is identified as Instituto Nacional de Migración/INM.
When applying for a tourist permit, minors (under age 18) traveling without their parents—i.e., alone or with friends or relatives—must present proof of citizenship. Minors who are not Mexican citizens are not required to present any other documentation if traveling unaccompanied by one or both parents.
Canadian citizens, including parents, traveling abroad with a minor should be prepared to document their legal custody of that child. If a minor is traveling with a friend or relative, the individual with the minor must have a notarized letter of consent from both parents (including a telephone number) or a custody document. In all cases it is important for the minor to have a valid Canadian passport. Mexican citizens living in the United States must go to the Mexican consulate nearest their place of residence and sign the legal documents granting permission for their child to travel unaccompanied in Mexico.
When departing Mexico your tourist permit must be returned to Mexican immigration; keep it in a safe place with your other important papers so it doesn't get lost. All visitors departing through land points of entry should request that their passport be stamped with an “exit” designation. You can be fined by Mexican immigration officials on your next trip into the country via a land point of entry if your passport does not show the “exit” designation from a prior visit.
For more details about tourist permits see the Border Information section in the back of this guide.
Arriving by Air
International airports in all major Mexican cities and resort areas receive regular nonstop and direct flights from the United States and Canada. Some airports receive charter flights as well. Unlike nonstop service, a direct flight stops at least once (often through Mexico City) and may involve changing planes.
The following airlines provide service from selected cities in the United States and Canada to Mexican destinations:
Aeroméxico, (800) 237-6639 from the United States; aeromexico.com
Alaska Airlines, (800) 252-7522 from the United States; alaskaair.com
American Airlines, (800) 433-7300 from the United States; aa.com
Delta Airlines, (800) 241-4141 from the United States; delta.com
JetBlue, (800) 538-2583 from the United States; jetblue.com
United Airlines, (800) 864-8331 from the United States; united.com
Volaris, (855) 865-2747 from the United States; volaris.com
The major domestic airline is Aeroméxico, with flights linking the resorts and larger cities to Mexico City. The country's second largest domestic airline is Toluca-based, low-cost carrier Volaris, which flies to several mainland destinations, plus cities on the Baja peninsula. Smaller regional airlines, such as Aeromar and Aeroméxico affiliate Aeroméxico Connect, operate in different parts of the country. Traveling between destinations within Mexico often involves changing planes in Mexico City; schedules, fares and routes all are subject to change.
All arriving passengers must present valid proof of citizenship along with a filled-out tourist permit. Tourist permit and customs declaration forms are distributed on the flight (the tourist permit per individual, the customs declaration per individual or family). At the Immigration counter your tourist permit will be stamped with a “fee paid” designation before you proceed to the baggage claim area to retrieve your belongings.
The last stop is Mexican customs; make sure your declaration form is properly filled out. If you are just bringing personal items and have nothing to declare, you'll be directed to push a button. If the light is green you may proceed without inspection. If the light flashes red your luggage will be routinely searched. If you do not declare items over and above the $300 allowance and pay all applicable duties and are caught by a red light, you will be fined.
Airports almost always offer fixed-rate transportation via bus, minivan or taxi to downtown or hotel zone areas. Usually there is a booth at the airport where you can purchase a ticket or voucher. You also may have the option of riding in a private taxi (which costs more) or sharing the ride (and paying less). For safety reasons, never hail an unmarked cab outside the terminal.
There are frequent flights to Mexico from such “gateway” cities as Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami. A bewildering array of fares, vacation packages and promotions also are available, and it often pays to search for a bargain. AAA/CAA members can obtain fare and schedule information and make reservations through AAA Travel Agencies. When making reservations, be sure you confirm all flights at least 72 hours prior to departure—particularly the return leg of a round trip.
Charter flights, while offering low fares, also are subject to the greatest number of restrictions. The charter operation can cancel a flight up to 10 days before it is scheduled to depart; if you cancel, you may not be able to recoup your money. When considering a charter flight, review the refund policy and contract stipulations carefully. Mexico also charges an airport tax on all departing flights; the nominal fee is normally included in the cost of your airline ticket.
U.S. rental cars generally cannot be driven across the border. One exception is Hertz, which permits designated vehicles rented at airport facilities in San Diego, Tucson and Yuma; special paperwork is required.
If you're flying into Mexico but plan on taking a side trip from your main destination, renting a car is an easy way to sidestep dealing with unfamiliar local transportation. AAA members can reserve a rental car through their local club; it is highly recommended that you make all necessary arrangements prior to your departure.
Major U.S. franchises are located in the larger cities. There are numerous Mexican companies as well, but although their rates may be less the vehicles also may be less reliable, and available insurance protection should be carefully reviewed. Overall, the cost of renting a car in Mexico is at least, if not more, expensive than in the United States.
U.S. car rental companies require a credit card. Few if any will accept a cash deposit, and if allowed it will be substantial. A U.S. or Canadian driver's license is acceptable. The usual minimum age limit is 25. With Hertz, renters ages 21-24 will incur an age differential charge, and certain restrictions may apply. Special restrictions also may be placed on drivers above a certain age. Extras such as air conditioning or automatic transmission may incur additional costs.
Also take your itinerary into account when deciding how long to rent. While most companies will allow you to rent in one location and drop off at another, the drop-off charge can be quite steep. Request that a copy of the reservation confirmation be mailed to you; this should reduce the chance of overcharging, since the rate will be printed on the confirmation slip.
Inspect the car carefully before you drive off the lot. Check the windshield for cracks; the windshield wipers; the body and fenders for dents, rust, etc.; the head and taillights; the tires for wear and pressure; and note any missing items, such as the gas cap or floor mats. Seat belts and a fire extinguisher are required by law. A thorough inspection is well worth the time, as you will be charged for anything that is perceived damaged or missing.
Mexican automobile insurance is required; it is provided by the rental company and figured into the total cost of the contract. Standard contracts normally offer both liability coverage and collision coverage after payment of a deductible. Accepting an optional Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) will be an additional charge but means that you won't have to pay the deductible (which can be as much as $5,000) in the event of an accident. Also, if you decline the CDW, some companies will apply an amount equal to 10 percent of the commercial value of the vehicle to your credit card.
It is strongly recommended that if renting a car you check with your personal automobile insurer to confirm that coverage is provided for a rental in Mexico; if not, definitely accept the Loss Damage Waiver option. Driving conditions in some parts of the country make it advisable to have the additional protection provided by the Loss Damage Waiver.
While the extras can add up, they're worth it for peace of mind. In any event, the more coverage you have the better; speed bumps on many Mexican free roads, for example, can cause damage even if negotiated at slow speeds. Look into what your own automobile insurance covers—it might, for example, take care of damages to a rental car.
Keep the rental company's toll-free emergency number handy in case you run into trouble on the road. And when you return the vehicle, remember to fill the gas tank; the refueling charge will be much more expensive than any pump.
Arriving by Car
If you're driving into Mexico, a little advance preparation can prevent crossing the border from becoming a lengthy process. Both a government-issued temporary vehicle importation permit and a promise to return vehicle form are required for travel beyond 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 19 miles, depending on the Mexican state) of the mainland border.
Bring the original and two copies of your current vehicle license/registration receipt to present at the point of entry, as officials may insist on seeing the original. Keep the original in a separate safe place while you are in Mexico and keep the copies with the temporary vehicle importation permit and the promise to return vehicle form. It also isn't a bad idea to bring a copy of the car's title document.
Inspection checkpoints have separate lanes based on what you're bringing into the country. If items do not exceed permitted exemption limits, choose the Nothing to Declare lane; if you're bringing goods worth more than permitted exemption limits, choose the Self Declaration lane. If you have nothing to declare, a red light-green light system is used for random inspection/vehicle searches. If the light flashes green you may proceed; if it flashes red your luggage will be routinely inspected.
The “Only Sonora” temporary vehicle permit program allows visitors to Sonora to drive within the state without obtaining the federal temporary vehicle importation permit. Sonora also has a designated “free zone” (west of Mex. 15 and north of Empalme) that includes the popular tourist destinations of Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), San Carlos and Bahía Kino. A vehicle permit is not needed to drive to these destinations, although proof of citizenship, an FMM tourist permit, a valid driver's license and proof of vehicle ownership are.
If you're driving a leased or company-owned vehicle, a notarized letter of authorization (printed on stationery showing the company's or leasing agency's letterhead) that allows you to take the vehicle out of the United States or Canada and into Mexico is required, and an employee ID card must be presented. If the vehicle is not fully paid for, a notarized letter from the lienholder authorizing use of the vehicle in Mexico for a specified period must be presented.
Rented vehicles require a rental agreement and a notarized affidavit from the rental car company stating the company's permission to bring the car into Mexico. The same name must appear on the rental agreement and on the temporary vehicle importation permit.
When you pay the temporary importation administrative fee a guarantee must be signed on your credit card; this gives the Mexican government authority to track down the owner or driver if the vehicle is left behind. If a fine is incurred, it may be charged against the credit card. Should your vehicle become incapacitated, arrangements to leave without it can be made through the U.S. Embassy or one of its consulates, or through a Mexican customs (Aduana) office.
If you do not have or do not wish to use a major credit card to pay the administrative fee, a bond—based on the value of the vehicle—must be posted with a Mexican bonding firm (Afianzadora) at the point of entry. This is a costly procedure that involves much paperwork; fees range from $200-$400, depending on the vehicle's make and model year.
For the temporary importation of two vehicles at least two persons must travel as tourists, and separate permits must be obtained for each vehicle. For example, one individual will not be allowed with both a car and a motorcycle, even if he or she owns both vehicles. One of the vehicles must be registered to another qualified driver in the same party, or a second person can obtain a permit for the additional vehicle by presenting a notarized affidavit of permission from the owner.
It is not mandatory for a group of people arriving in Mexico in the same vehicle to leave in the same vehicle; however, the individual who obtained and filled out the temporary vehicle importation permit must leave the country in the same vehicle in which he or she arrived. The vehicle may be driven by the importer's spouse or adult children, as long as they have the same immigration status; other persons may drive the vehicle as long as the owner is in it. Drivers regularly crossing and recrossing the border do not need to obtain a new temporary vehicle importation permit with each crossing as long as the initial permit is still valid.
The temporary importation regulations for automobiles also apply to recreational vehicles. Equipment and luggage should be packed to permit easy customs inspection. Vehicles exceeding 3.5 metric tons in weight require a special permit.
Trailers and motor homes can only remain in Mexico 6 months unless they are left in bond at an authorized trailer park. These parks have placed a bond with a Mexican customs office and are responsible for the storage of the recreational vehicle.
The Mexican government does not provide facilities for storing an automobile if you must suddenly leave the country due to emergency. It can, however, be left for up to 10 days after the temporary importation permit expiration date, provided that you apply for a Retorno Seguro permit at a Mexican customs office.
Hacienda (the Mexican Treasury Department) has the authority to confiscate any vehicle that has been illegally imported into the country. Hacienda also has the authority to confiscate a vehicle whose owner (or driver) cannot produce the proper temporary vehicle importation documentation. It also is illegal for a foreigner to sell a motor vehicle in Mexico.
For additional information about temporary vehicle importation procedures .
U.S. automobile insurance is not valid in Mexico. While some American companies may extend their coverage a certain number of miles from the border or number of days in Mexico, only a Mexico tourist automobile insurance policy is acceptable as evidence of financial responsibility if you have an accident in that country.
Arrange for a policy with full coverage issued through a reliable Mexican insurance company with complete adjusting facilities in cities throughout the country. AAA offices in border states, Nevada and Utah can provide Mexico automobile insurance to members.
To obtain Mexico insurance, you will need to provide the following: current vehicle title or registration, a valid U.S. or Canadian driver's license, and proof that you currently have U.S. or Canadian automobile insurance (the policy's declaration sheet lists all coverages). Phone ahead to determine what additional specific information (vehicle identification number, included accessories, etc.) is needed so that the policy can be accurately written.
The Mexican government has no minimum requirement for insurance; the agent will help you obtain the coverage best suiting your needs. If you obtain Mexico insurance through a AAA club office the policy will be written by the day, with a discount for more than 30 days' coverage, and will be issued immediately upon application. Towed vehicles must be identified in the policy; if not, the policy can be declared void.
Select Hertz locations in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas allow customers to drive designated vehicles up to 250 miles south of the U.S./Mexico border. Members planning to drive a Hertz vehicle into Mexico must purchase a Mexico auto insurance policy directly from Hertz.
If the vehicle is leased or not owned by you, a notarized letter from the leasing company or the registered owner giving you permission to take the vehicle into Mexico must be provided, and must include the vehicle identification number and the dates of your entry into and departure from Mexico.
Unlike the prevailing tenet of U.S. and Canadian law, Mexican law is based on the Napoleonic Code, which presumes guilt until innocence is proven. As a result, all parties (operators of vehicles, but in some cases even passengers) involved in an accident in Mexico are detained for assessing responsibility. If the accident involves no personal injury, the drivers may be asked to go with the attending officer to the police station to complete the necessary accident report, and the vehicles will usually be impounded for investigation. Once blame is established, the negligent driver's vehicle will remain impounded until he or she pays the damages.
If the accident causes injury or death, the operators will be jailed until the authorities determine who was at fault. Then only the responsible driver will remain incarcerated until he or she guarantees restitution to the victims and payment of the fine imposed for causing the accident (under Mexican law an automobile accident is a criminal offense).
A Mexican insurance policy is recognized by the authorities as a guarantee of proper payment for damages according to the terms of the policy. When presented, it can significantly reduce red tape and help to bring about an early release. However, a Mexican insurance policy may not prevent a motorist from actually being detained if he or she is involved in an accident that results in injury or death.
If an accident in which a driver is at fault results in damage to government property, such as road signs, safety fences, light or telephone poles, toll stations, street pavement or sidewalks, he or she must pay for the repairs needed even if no other vehicle was involved or no injury or death occurred.
All accidents or claims must be reported before leaving Mexico. If you need assistance with a claim, you should obtain it only from an authorized agent or adjuster of the insurance company that issued the policy. Official release papers should be kept as evidence that the case is closed, especially if the car shows obvious damage from the accident.
Rates are based on the current value of the vehicle; towed vehicles are covered separately on the same policy as the towing vehicle. Policies are written in both English and Spanish. In the event of a disagreement, the Spanish text will prevail. Read your policy carefully before entering Mexico to discern what is and isn't covered. Some companies, for example, do not include lawyer's fees or bail to defend the policyholder against criminal charges, although adjusters in the larger cities may keep lawyers on a retainer who will act on behalf of the insured free of charge.
A separate policy may be required to pay for translating and notarizing a driver's license or other documents. A separate policy also may be required to cover personal accident insurance, baggage insurance and medical coverage.
Ask at your hotel desk or consular office for the name and address of the nearest hospital and English-speaking doctor. Several Mexican and U.S. companies offer medical evacuation service by air; the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City provides a list of these firms. Tourist publications often print names and addresses of local hospitals. Most Mexican cities and towns also have a Red Cross (Cruz Roja) facility.
Assistance often is provided by Tourist Assistance (Protección al Turista). Offices are in Ensenada, Mexicali, Rosarito, San Felipe, Tecate and Tijuana on the Baja California Peninsula and in the capital of each state on the mainland, normally in the same building that houses the State Tourism Office. The U.S. Embassy and Mexican consulate offices in the United States and Canada can provide lists of attorneys who speak English. Federal Consumer Protection Agency (Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor) offices are in all state capitals and other major cities.
If detained or arrested, by international law you have the right to call a consular officer. The long distance access code for the United States and Canada from within Mexico is 95 (station to station). For Mexico from within the country the code is 91. To make a direct international call to the United States or Canada from within Mexico, dial 001 before the area code and phone number; to call long distance from one Mexican destination to another, dial 01 before the area code and phone number.
The U.S. State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Services office deals with such situations as notifying home if you are caught in a natural disaster or political disturbance, locating someone in the event of an emergency, delivering emergency messages, making emergency money transfers and providing emergency loans. The Office of Children's Issues handles international child abduction cases. To reach either office, phone (888) 407-4747 (from the United States) or (202) 501-4444 (within Mexico).
Should you lose your money or other financial resources while in Mexico, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City can help you contact your family, bank or employer to arrange for the transfer of funds. To transfer funds commercially to Mexico, contacts in the United States should go to the nearest Western Union office and have money sent to an “Elektra” store in Mexico. The funds should be sent in care of your name, either Dinero en Minutos (Money in Minutes) or Va a Llamar (Will Call). The embassy's website provides information (link to “Financial Assistance”).
Roads in Mexico are generally not marked as clearly as those in the United States. Signs for turns and route directions sometimes consist of city or town names only. Route numbers are normally posted every 5 kilometers (3 miles) on small roadside markers, but these also can be few and far between.
Each Mexican state is responsible for the maintenance of its roads, and some are better kept than others. Weather conditions, especially heavy rains, as well as mud or rockslides keep some roadways in a constant state of disrepair. Lanes on nontoll roads tend to be narrow, and shoulders are either narrow or nonexistent.
Adventurous travelers who plan to drive little-used or unpaved roads should inquire locally about conditions before heading out. Even a good map may not be accurate regarding the condition of unpaved or ungraded routes; deep sand “roads” can stall even a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and seasonal downpours can render unpaved roads impassable. Put a protective covering over your luggage to keep out dust, and store camera equipment in plastic bags.
Do not expect most free roads in Mexico to compare to the interstate highway system in the United States. Following the dictates of mountainous terrain, these roadways are mostly rolling or winding, although there are many straight and/or level stretches in northern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula. Some of them have a sandpaper texture that affords better traction on curves but is wearing on tires.
Try not to drive after dark if at all possible. Few roads aside from toll highways are equipped with street lights, and night visibility is poor. Vehicles are sometimes driven with no headlights, and potholes become invisible after dark. Bicyclists—on bikes without lights or reflectors—and pedestrians commonly use the roads at night. If you intend to cover a certain distance during any one day, get an early start and estimate your total driving time on the side of caution. Never pull off the road to sleep.
Livestock—mainly cattle, goats and donkeys—may unexpectedly appear on rural roadways at night and even during the day; slow down and give them a wide berth. Animals will be almost invisible on unlighted roads at night, and can cause tremendous damage to your vehicle if they are struck.
Drive defensively and always be alert to road conditions and other motorists. Bus, truck and other drivers who are familiar with local routes will drive faster and negotiate maneuvers more boldly than tourists on roads that are narrow, winding and weathered. Note: Using a cellphone while driving is a traffic violation in Mexico.
Truckers in particular may drive aggressively or inconsiderately. If a truck begins to pass on a two-lane road, be prepared to pull off onto the gravel or graded dirt flanking the road surface if necessary to give the truck adequate room. Exercise caution; along the sides of roadways without shoulders there often is a full or partial covering of brush or undergrowth. Be particularly careful if you are attempting to pass a slow-moving truck—the driver isn't likely to pull over to give you more maneuvering room. Also be on the lookout for vehicles that are temporarily stopped in the roadway, particularly in rural areas.
At intersections with a left-turn lane there usually is a separate left-turn arrow; to turn left legally you must wait for the arrow. If making a left turn off a two-lane roadway where there is no separate left-turn lane, you are expected to pull over to the right as far as possible and wait for traffic to clear before making the turn. A right turn on red is generally not permitted unless there is a sign giving permission to do so; use your best judgment in situations when it is unclear whether you can legally turn right on red.
On two-lane roadways with paved shoulders, a solid white line runs along the right edge of each lane; this is an indication that drivers normally should not cross over to the right of this line onto the shoulder. In many instances, however, that solid line is now a dashed white line, which means that if you see a vehicle approaching you while passing a vehicle in the oncoming lane, you are required to move to the right of the dashed line onto the road shoulder while proceeding, giving the driver of the passing vehicle enough space to complete the maneuver. The driver of the vehicle being passed is supposed to move to his or her right as well. This essentially opens up the center of the roadway for safe passing maneuvers. This system works quite well once you realize why an approaching car appears to be heading straight at you.
Speed bumps (topes) and potholes (baches) constitute perhaps the greatest danger to motorists on Mexican highways. Speed bumps are at the entrance to almost every town, no matter how small, and also can be encountered within towns. Warning signs will say Topes, Vibradores or Reductor de Velocidad (speed reducer) and give the distance in meters. Instead of words, some signs show a picture symbol and the distance in meters. In small towns these signs can appear suddenly, and not just at the entrance to town. Some speed bumps may not be preceded by a warning sign, however.
Topes are raised cobblestone bumps that can damage the underside of a vehicle unless negotiated at a very slow speed. Vibradores are corrugated, both lower and wider than topes. Speed bumps are prohibited on open sections of road and on toll roads, except at the entrance to toll stations.
Potholes are a particular problem along older nontoll roadways and are exacerbated in areas that have a summer rainy season. Short-term maintenance may be nothing more than filling the pothole with sand or dirt, and some can be large enough to swallow a tire.
In the downtown sections of larger cities there are likely to be a number of one-way streets. Instead of signs, small arrows on the side of buildings or on lampposts often indicate traffic direction. Follow the flow; if in doubt as to whether you are driving in the right direction, note which way parked vehicles are facing.
Most newer highways in Mexico are toll roads (autopistas). Comparable in quality to U.S. highways, these roads are safe and often scenic, and some are all but deserted because Mexicans can't afford to drive them.
Toll roads are designated on signs by the word cuota (and also by the letter “D” following the route number), nontoll roads by via libre (free road). There is usually a free alternative route to toll routes. Libramiento indicates a route that bypasses city centers or smaller towns. These bypasses, which sometimes are part of the toll route, save time otherwise spent on negotiating congested areas.
Individual tollbooth (plaza de cobro) fees vary. Most booths near the U.S. border and in the vicinity of popular tourist resorts, such as Cancún and Cabo San Lucas, accept dollars in addition to pesos. To be on the safe side, however, carry more than enough pesos to cover all toll fees regardless of your route. You will receive a receipt in return for payment, which also acts as an insurance certificate to avoid paying road repair charges if you are involved in an accident.
Following are some major toll routes:
Mex. 1-D (Tijuana to Ensenada): Runs about 114 kilometers (71 miles) south from the U.S. border to Ensenada in the state of Baja California.
Mex. 2-D (Tijuana to Mexicali): Runs east-west along the U.S. border in the state of Baja California.
Mex. 15-D (Nogales to Mazatlán): Runs about 1,212 kilometers (727 miles) from the U.S. border south to Mazatlán through the states of Sonora and Sinaloa.
Mex. 15-D (Tepic to Guadalajara): Runs about 228 kilometers (137 miles) southeast through the states of Nayarit and Jalisco.
Mex. 15-D (Guadalajara to Mexico City): Runs about 668 kilometers (401 miles) southeast through the states of Jalisco, Michoacán and México.
Mex. 40-D (Durango to Mazatlán): Runs about 225 kilometers (140 miles) southwest through the states of Durango and Sinaloa.
Mex. 57-D (Mexico City to Querétaro): Runs about 210 kilometers (126 miles) northwest from Mexico City through the states of México and Querétaro.
Mex. 85-D (Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey): Runs about 235 kilometers (141 miles) south from the U.S. border through the state of Nuevo León.
Mex. 55-D/95-D (Mexico City to Acapulco): Runs about 415 kilometers (257 miles) south from Mexico City via Cuernavaca to Acapulco (states of Morelos and Guerrero).
Mex. 180-D (Mérida to Cancún): Runs about 242 kilometers (145 miles) from the junction with Mex. 180 east to the junction with Mex. 307 through the states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo.
Arco Norte: (Querétaro to Puebla): Runs about 223 kilometers (138 miles) from just outside Querétaro to just north of Cholula (near Puebla), bypassing the Mexico City metropolitan area to the east.
In 2016 Mexico's energy markets were opened to foreign competition and investment; privately owned gas stations now operate in Mexico including G5000, Mobil and Shell. In addition, fuel prices are no longer fixed by the government.
All Pemex stations are full service. To avoid being overcharged, a practice that targets foreign motorists in particular, you'll need to be vigilant. Make sure the pump has been turned back to zero before the attendant begins filling your tank, know exactly how many gallons/liters your tank holds, and watch closely until the nozzle is pulled out and replaced on the pump to make certain you are being charged the correct amount. Tipping is customary for additional services like windshield cleaning; a few pesos is fine.
Note: It's best to have the gas attendant run your credit card and get approval for a fixed amount before pumping the gas.
Stations with a “GasoPLUS” sign accept credit cards of the same name for gasoline purchases, but otherwise expect to pay cash. Stations close to the U.S. border and in major tourist areas like the Riviera Maya may accept U.S. dollars, but most charge in Mexican currency. It's a good idea to keep smaller denominations of pesos on hand for change transactions. Although stations on major routes are spaced at adequate intervals, always make sure your gas tank is at least half full.
Most Pemex stations sell two grades of unleaded (sin plomo) gas. “Magna,” dispensed from green pump handles, is the cheaper of the two; the “Premium” grade is dispensed from red pump handles. Pemex stations no longer offer Nova (leaded) gas, although diesel fuel is available.
Fuel quality is comparable to U.S. unleaded grades. Pumps in Mexico register liters, not gallons; 10 liters is equal to about 2.5 gallons. In fall 2021, a liter of regular Magna cost 20-22 pesos; a liter of premium, 22-23 pesos; a liter of diesel, 21-22 pesos. Gas prices in the northern border region are on par with U.S. prices, and there are also regional differences as well as frequent fluctuations in the price. Since unleaded pump nozzles in Mexico are sometimes larger than those in the United States, it's a good idea to keep a funnel in the car.
Service stations and private garages carry oils made in Mexico by foreign companies and by Pemex. Its brand, Brio, comes in several grades indicated by the color of the can; gold, black and blue are the best.
Propane gas is obtainable by vacationers traveling in recreational vehicles more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the U.S. border. This policy ensures that tourists who use propane for their engines, stoves and heaters will have an adequate supply.
If your vehicle requires routine maintenance or major repairs while on the road, automotive repair shops are identified by a sign that says taller mecánico. Fluent Spanish is almost always necessary when negotiating with a mechanic, and it might be difficult finding someone familiar with your car's make and model. If a part must be ordered there could be additional expense and long delays, as permission from Mexican customs is needed to import parts. Also keep in mind that some businesses in Mexico still close from around 2-4 p.m. for the traditional siesta.
Road signs are in Spanish, but there are also signs depicting international picture symbols. Via Corta indicates a short or alternate route. Right turns on red are prohibited unless a sign is marked Continua. Retorno means a U-turn is permitted. Signs often posted at the entrance to small towns show the maximum speed limit or say Poblado Proximo (upcoming town) or Disminuya su Velocidad (reduce your speed).
Common signs along highways include Arbochate el Cinturon (Buckle Your Seat Belt) and No Deje Piedras Sobre el Pavimento (Don't Leave Stones on the Pavement); the latter refers to the common practice of placing rocks in the road to denote a hazard or disabled vehicle. Some intersections without traffic signals have signs that say Ceda el Paso a un Vehiculo (Cede the Right of Way to One Vehicle); they are posted on each intersecting road and indicate that one vehicle at a time may proceed.
Bridges with signs marked Un Solo Carril or Puente Angosto are narrow, one-way bridges. When two cars approach such a bridge from opposite directions, the first driver to flick his or her headlights has the right-of-way. The other should pull to the side of the road, allowing the first driver to cross. Although not a regulation, it is a general practice.
Many traffic lights are positioned horizontally rather than vertically, and on some signals the green light flashes three times before the yellow light appears. Motorists stopped at red lights in cities will often be approached by people attempting to earn money by washing windshields. If you're not interested, mouth the words “no tengo dinero” or shake your head “no” and rub your thumb and index finger together—the international symbol for “I have no money.”
If possible, schedule daily activities so that your car does not have to remain unattended for any length of time. Heed “no parking” signs, which depict a red circle with a diagonal red line across a capital “E.” Illegally parked cars will be towed, or their license plates will be removed. Recovering either item can result in a nightmare of time, expense and frustration. If in doubt, park in a guarded lot rather than on the street. Never leave valuables in plain sight in a parked vehicle.
On a one-way street, make certain your vehicle is parked on the left side, not the right. Parking on the street also likely means being approached by a youngster who will offer to watch your vehicle while you're gone. This often is a good idea, since the couple of pesos you hand over are a small price to pay for peace of mind. If a group of boys appears on your return, however, pay only one.
On main highways the speed limit is generally about 100 km/h (60 mph) or as posted. In many cities the limit is about 40 km/h (25 mph); in some small towns it may be as low as 30 km/h (18-20 mph). Always obey the speed limit; while local police are generally lenient toward tourists who commit minor traffic violations, they make an exception in the case of speeding.
In Mexico City and those parts of the state of Mexico falling within the greater metropolitan area (particularly north and east of the City of Mexico), motorists with foreign license plates may be stopped by police for alleged driving infractions. If you committed a violation and recognize it, accept the boleta de infracción (ticket) without arguing.
If you are stopped and did not do anything wrong, however, do not give in to a demand for graft. Write down the officer's identification number and ask to speak with his jefe (HEH-feh), or boss, or to be taken to the nearest delegación de policía (police station) to explain your side of the situation. In Mexico City, the Secretaría de Turismo (the Ministry of Tourism, or SECTUR) may be able to provide assistance if you feel you have been unfairly accused of a traffic violation; phone (55) 5250-0123. From elsewhere within Mexico, phone 01 (800) 008-9090 (toll-free long distance), or get in touch with the nearest State Tourism Office.
Mexican bus lines offer frequent express service from U.S. border points to most cities, and also between major Mexican cities. Among the major lines are ABC, Autobuses de Oriente (ADO), Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales (ETN), Omnibus de Mexico and Estrella Blanca.
Most of these companies offer “executive class” service that is comparable in quality to first-class U.S. bus service. Amenities and extras include air conditioning, reclining seats, restrooms, movies, free snacks and beverages, and controlled 95 km/h (60 mph) speed. Some also offer Wi-Fi. Executive class buses make few—sometimes no—stops and carry fewer passengers. First-class buses offer similar amenities, although the seating configuration is usually not as commodious.
Seats are usually reserved in advance. For long trips, bring your own food—in case you don't want to eat in the restaurant where the bus stops—drinking water and a roll of toilet paper just in case. Even though executive and first-class buses use toll highways and are thus less likely to encounter incidents of robbery or assault, travel only during the day and avoid overnight trips.
You can hail a second-class bus just about anywhere simply by standing at the side of the road and waving, and they're certainly a great way to experience local life. However, these buses often make a number of stops, are usually not air conditioned, and you may have to share your seat with a pig or chicken. Furthermore, they cost only slightly less than executive or first-class buses, and without the convenience of making advance reservations.
Many Mexican cities have one central bus station (Central Camionera or Central de Autobuses), which may or may not be near the main plaza or center of town. The various bus lines have offices at the central station. In some cities several stations in different locations serve specific companies or destinations. If you're unsure where to go, ask for the estación del autobús and give your destination.
For trips between major cities, purchase a reserved-seat, round-trip ticket from the station in advance; this is imperative for long weekends and around school holidays, holiday seasons and major annual events. You can search for available seats as well as reserve and pay for tickets on bus line websites.
Routes, fares and departure times are always subject to change, and the best way to obtain this information is directly from the station. A knowledge of basic Spanish is essential; it also helps to write down your destination and any other particulars and show the information to the ticketing agent to make certain you're getting on the right bus. Schedules usually indicate whether the bus is local or de paso (which means it is en route from another location). Directo or expresso indicate a nonstop route. Salida means departure; llegada, arrival.
Taxis, although more expensive, are a safer mode of in-town transportation than local buses. Exceptions are buses that travel specifically to tourist attractions; while these may be slow, they allow you to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Greyhound Lines Inc. can ticket passengers to most U.S. border cities; once across the border you need to make arrangements with a Mexican bus line. Often there are buses that shuttle between stations on both sides of the border. From Mexico City, bus trips to destinations throughout the country are easily arranged; the major bus lines operate out of four huge terminals located in the northern, southern, eastern and western sections of the city.
Another option to using buses as your main means of on-the-road transportation is to take a guided motor coach tour. Such U.S. companies as Gray Line Tours offer trans-border bus excursions that last from several hours to several days. Contact a travel agency for details.
Passenger and vehicle ferry service is provided between the Mexican mainland and Baja California, connecting the ports of Santa Rosalía-Guaymas, La Paz-Topolobampo (Los Mochis) and La Paz-Mazatlán. Advance reservations are required and can be made by phone as well as in person at one of the ferry offices. As a knowledge of fluent Spanish is necessary, it's easier to make reservations through a local travel agency at the port of departure. The Baja Ferries website provides fare and schedule information in English.
Fares are one way and per person, sharing the accommodation. Salon seats, the least expensive, are airplane-type seats. Cabina, cabin lodging with restroom facilities, also is available but is more expensive. Children ages 3-11 are charged half the adult fare. If you're prone to seasickness, bring the appropriate medications. Pregnant women are not allowed onboard. If transporting a vehicle, take everything you'll need out of it before the journey begins.
Note: If you plan on transporting a vehicle from Baja California to the Mexican mainland, it is necessary to obtain a temporary vehicle importation permit. To avoid frustration and disrupted travel plans, obtain the permit and have all related temporary vehicle importation documents completed at the border before entering Mexico. When applying for a vehicle permit, proof of citizenship, a copy of the current registration and a notarized letter of permission from the lienholder (if a vehicle is not fully paid for) all must be presented for each vehicle being transported (including motorcycles).
Your vehicle must be weighed before you purchase your ferry ticket. Arrive at the ticket office as soon as possible (check in advance; opening times vary from location to location), and inquire where to park your vehicle for weighing (la balanza). Passenger and vehicle tickets are usually sold in separate lines. Also keep in mind that if you have entered Mexico via Baja California and then cross over to the mainland, you will have to go through customs before boarding the ferry and pay whatever duty fees are assessed.
Health and Safety
Taking reasonable precautions should eliminate serious health risks for almost all foreign visitors. First and foremost: Don't eat anything that you haven't peeled yourself, or that cannot be cooked or boiled. This rule applies primarily to fruits, vegetables and seafood. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products as well. Unless you're used to it, it's best to avoid food sold by street vendors, but at restaurants in cities where tourism is big business, virtually anything on the menu can be enjoyed without fear.
Bottled water in liter or smaller sizes is sold throughout Mexico at gas station convenience stores, grocery stores and shops catering to tourists. Chemical disinfecting tablets also are available from pharmacies and supermarkets.
If the hotel has its own purification system, tap water can be used for brushing your teeth or rinsing contact lenses; ask to make sure, and also ask about the ice dispensed by ice machines. Most hotels routinely provide bottled water for drinking (some may charge for it when you check out). If in doubt about the water in smaller towns, ask for bottled water. Remember that this includes ice cubes. If you're in an area where bottled water is not available, boil water vigorously for one full minute to kill disease-causing organisms.
These precautions should serve to ward off the most common visitor ailment, diarrhea (commonly called turista). Bed rest and a liquid diet—unsweetened tea is best—will cure most cases. If these measures fail, see a doctor; there are physicians, surgeons, specialists, good hospitals and Mexican Red Cross clinics in all major cities and larger towns. In many villages, visitors can go to a clinic or hospital run by the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS), the Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado (ISSSTE) or the Secretaría de Salud.
Many large hotels have an in-house doctor; if not, the manager or local police authorities can help you obtain medical assistance. Keep in mind that it's not a good idea to buy over-the-counter antibiotics.
If you live in or are used to a lower altitude, you may need a short adjustment period when visiting areas at elevations above 1,525 meters (5,000 feet). Don’t push yourself too hard; a light diet and reduced intake of alcoholic beverages are recommended. Go slowly for the first few days. If you experience a headache or nausea, rest until you feel comfortable. Another health consideration at high altitudes is overexposure to the sun; wear a hat and/or apply suntan lotion that has an effective sunscreen agent.
The elderly or those with heart conditions should consult their physician before visiting cities at high elevations. Travelers with specific health concerns should check into recommended immunizations or medications to take with them.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), which can strike at altitudes of 2,450 meters (8,000 feet) or more, is the body's way of coping with reduced oxygen and humidity. Also known as altitude sickness, its symptoms include headaches, double vision, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, insomnia and lethargy. Some people complain of temporary weight gain or swelling in the face, hands and feet. Even those used to high altitudes may feel the effects of AMS. If symptoms strike, stop ascending. A quick descent will alleviate the discomfort.
The negative reaction of your body to changes in altitude is lessened if you're in good physical shape and don't smoke. Ascend gradually, eat light but nutritious meals and drink plenty of bottled water. Alcohol consumption may aggravate AMS symptoms if they occur.
Note: The elevation for city and place descriptions in this guide is included if it is over 762 meters (2,500 feet).
The risk of contracting typhoid or cholera is minimal, despite sporadic cholera outbreaks. Vaccinations will offer protection in areas off the tourist itinerary, where running water and drainage systems frequently are inadequate, but vaccinations should not be considered a substitute for caution when it comes to food and beverages. In the case of cholera or other intestinal ailments, this means avoiding raw or undercooked seafood and cold seafood dishes.
The presence of mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus is dependent on such local conditions as weather, altitude, mosquito control efforts and the overall prevalence of disease. Mosquitoes also can spread dengue fever and malaria. They seldom live at elevations above 6,500 feet; the risk of being bitten is greater in coastal areas. Use mosquito repellent if you plan on visiting beaches or spending time outdoors. Brands containing DEET are the most effective; be sure to read and follow the directions and precautions on the label. Try to avoid being outside between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.
Tourists arriving in Mexico from yellow fever-infected areas must have a yellow fever vaccination certificate; tourists arriving directly from the United States or Canada are not required to have the certificate.
The CDC operates a hotline with international health requirements and recommendations for foreign travelers. Topics include general vaccinations, food and water guidelines and current disease-outbreak reports. Phone (800) 232-4636 for the immunization hotline.
Becoming a victim of crime is unlikely, but the possibility does exist. Cities that are centers of activity for Mexican drug cartels receive most of the negative publicity. Although not directed at tourists, the ongoing violence continues to generate news headlines and adversely affects the daily lives of many Mexicans.
The most hard-hit region is northern Mexico and the northern border cities. Foreign visitors are also vulnerable in the Mexico City metropolitan area, where more than 20 million people are crammed together. Violence occurs regularly in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán, mostly in rural areas where vigilante groups combat the cartels, resulting in more violence and many innocent “collateral” victims. Tourist resorts like Acapulco and Mazatlán are affected as well.
Politically motivated violence, again not directed at foreigners, occurs from time to time, especially in southern Mexico. And tourist hot spots like Cancún and Los Cabos that are considered safe also are not immune from hotel room thefts, purse snatchings and pickpockets.
For visitors on vacation, good old common sense is the key to staying out of harm's way. In particular, it helps to look and act confident rather than bewildered when out in public. Don't flaunt expensive watches, jewelry or clothing; you're more likely to be targeted for robbery or assault if you appear well-off or wealthy.
Avoid putting your wallet in a back pocket or wearing a purse with a shoulder strap that can be grabbed by a passerby. Petty thieves and pickpockets often use a razor to slash pockets or bags, so keep your belongings close to you at all times. Put cameras in briefcases or bags with a chain-reinforced strap.
Always carry credit cards and cash on your person, never in a backpack, and hide money in different places; for example, in extra pockets sewn inside clothing. Keep photocopies of passports, credit cards and other documents in a separate place from the originals. Be very cautious around ATMs. If possible, use one during the day inside a large commercial facility; avoid nighttime transactions at glass-enclosed street machines.
When planning a day of sightseeing, stay informed. Tense local political situations can sometimes result in rowdy demonstrations. Hotel staff, taxi drivers and tour guides are good sources of information in such instances and can offer practical advice should it be necessary to temporarily steer clear of certain parts of town for any reason.
Never leave valuables in plain view in a car; stow possessions out of sight. Use garages or guarded parking lots whenever possible. Legal parking is designated by a sign showing a red circle with a capital “E” inside; no-parking zones have signs with a diagonal red line through the “E.”
Always lock your car, roll up the windows and park in a well-lighted area. Do not drive after dark. To avoid becoming a target for robbery, stick to toll highways wherever possible, and never pull off the road to sleep. If traveling by bus, be especially careful at the station; don't leave your luggage unattended, and lock all items together with a chain or cable if possible.
On free roads you may be stopped at military checkpoints and approached by soldiers, police officers or other official-looking men in uniform who request identification and ask where you are going. This happens primarily if you're headed north toward the U.S. border. Most often these checkpoints are conducting random searches for firearms or drugs.
Be sure to slow down and stop if motioned to do so. Remain calm and polite, cooperate fully and speak as little Spanish as possible (or explain in English that you do not speak Spanish). If asked to hand over your wallet, provide only the proper identification; if necessary, remove all your money first. Get badge numbers and names, and report any irregularities to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the nearest U.S. consular office in Mexico or to a Mexican consulate office upon your return home.
A potentially more dangerous situation involves criminal groups linked to drug cartels that control highways by setting up impromptu checkpoints. They may ask for papers or check trunks, illegally charge motorists to continue passing through their “territory” or, in worst-case scenarios, steal vehicles or abduct passengers. Cartel checkpoints operate along Mex. 2 in the state of Tamaulipas as well as in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Michoacán.
Poorly paid police may intimidate foreign motorists into paying “fines” for minor or alleged infractions. This is particularly true in and around Mexico City, where visitors with non-Mexican license plates may become victims of harassment. You could also be charged with an infraction that you are certain you did not commit.
Such an incident can be both frightening and infuriating, but if it happens, try to remain calm. Ask to be shown documentation of the rule you violated. Request to speak with someone of higher authority if necessary, and beware of “plainclothes policemen”; insist on seeing identification.
Very obviously writing down all the details of the incident—name, badge number, the nature of the alleged violation, the exact location where it occurred—may help defuse the situation. Avoid handing over an original driver's license, car rental contract, vehicle registration or any other document; always carry photocopies.
If resistance provokes further trouble, ask for the ticket, pay it at a bank and claim a receipt. To register a complaint, contact the Secretaría de Turismo (the Ministry of Tourism, or SECTUR).
Ethnic or sexual stereotyping is unfortunate, but it can occur. Female travelers who look obviously foreign, or those with fair skin and hair, may attract unsolicited attention. If this happens, the best response is no response. In many cantinas, bars with a macho, often hard-drinking male clientele, female customers are unwelcome.
The monetary unit is the peso (its symbol is the dollar sign, or $). One peso equals 100 centavos. There are 5-centavo, 10-centavo, 20-centavo and 50-centavo coins; peso coins are in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10 and $100. Banknotes are in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 pesos. All new banknotes issued by Banco de México are made of synthetic polymer, which gives the bills a longer life. The frequently used 20-peso and 50-peso notes have added safety features such as a transparent window.
The 5-, 10- and 20-centavo coins are not often used, but they come in handy as spare change to give to the needy, if you're so inclined. The 50-centavo coin can help facilitate small transactions like bus fares and souvenir purchases at markets. Hang on to smaller denomination banknotes and coins as you accumulate them, or exchange a dollar amount that will yield smaller denominations.
Cash payments for amounts that include centavos are rounded off to the nearest 10 centavos. An item costing 11.52 pesos, therefore, would be rounded off to a cash payment of 11.50 pesos; an item costing 11.56 pesos would be rounded off to a cash payment of 11.60 pesos. Check and credit card payments will show the exact amount and must be paid in that amount. Credit card charges are converted into dollars by the bank issuing the card, usually at a favorable bank rate.
In border cities and some tourist resorts, prices in Mexican currency may carry the abbreviation “m.n.” (moneda nacional); prices in American currency, “dlls.” (dollars). As a general rule, Mexican establishments rendering services to tourists quote and charge in pesos. In many of Mexico's resort areas, though, U.S. dollars are as readily accepted as pesos—and taxi drivers will gladly take dollars almost anywhere in the country. Information sheets showing pictures of Mexican coins and bills are normally available at airports and border crossings, or appear in tourist publications.
Credit cards should cover almost all hotel, restaurant and store charges, as well as airline tickets for flights within Mexico. Gasoline purchases normally cannot be charged unless you have a GasoPLUS credit card—issued only in Mexico—which can be used at Pemex gas stations. Some Pemex stations will accept U.S. credit cards, but have cash on hand just in case.
The best place to exchange dollars for pesos is at a reputable Mexican bank. It pays to find out if your bank has a “sister” bank in Mexico before leaving home (for example, Bank of America partners with Santander Bank in Mexico); you'll avoid service fees entirely or be charged a reduced fee per transaction. The Mexican banks Bancomer and HSBC require you to open an account before any business can be conducted, so inquire about this in advance. Mexican banks also require a copy of your personal identification; some may even ask you to provide the copy yourself.
Another option is to exchange money at home, just in case banks or casas de cambio (currency exchange offices) at airports are closed when you arrive. Wells Fargo Bank offers currency exchange at select branches for a fee.
Traveler's checks denominated in pesos can be purchased at banks and currency exchange offices in the United States and cashed at Mexican banks, hotels and casas de cambio. However, finding an establishment willing to cash them these days can be difficult.
Casas de cambio usually offer a better rate of exchange than banks. They often are located next to big hotels in cities, or in malls in resort areas. Some currency exchange offices may cash checks issued by all three major U.S. credit card companies (American Express, Mastercard and Visa), while others may not. Some also charge a commission on top of a service fee for transactions, so it's worth the time to find one that does not.
Bills that have marks or other blemishes on them may not be taken. And there's always the possibility that you will be ripped off, especially at airports. Always be very specific about telling the clerk (in Spanish if possible) exactly how many dollars you are exchanging for pesos. If you're traveling with someone, have your companion stand with you at the counter as a witness as you count out your money in front of the clerk.
Currency exchange used to be a standard service at hotel front desks before a federal law went into effect prohibiting hotels from exchanging money. For most travelers finding the best rate boils down to a matter of convenience, since differences are normally minimal and the rate can fluctuate daily. If you're shopping around for the best rate or trying to save pennies a pocket calculator will come in handy.
There are automated teller (cajero automático) machines in major cities and resort areas; most ATMs accept the widely honored Cirrus and PLUS cards. Expect peso denominations in return, and to be charged a hefty service fee by your bank for each transaction. Make all transactions during daylight hours, preferably at machines inside commercial establishments. If you'd rather not use an ATM or don't want to carry around lots of cash, consider investing in a pre-paid Visa or Mastercard prior to your trip.
The threat of purse or wallet snatching is ever present in crowded areas or a busy marketplace. Put money and important documents in separate places, and consider keeping extra currency and jewelry in your hotel room safe. When out in public, ignore remarks from strangers such as “What's that on your shoulder?” or someone yelling “Thief!” in a crowded area—both may be setups used by pickpockets or scam artists to distract your attention or trick you into revealing where you carry your money.
The matter of whom, when and how much to tip varies depending on the situation. Waiters, maids, porters and other workers whose wages are low must rely to a great extent on tips for their living. Let your conscience be your guide, and don't hesitate to reward outstanding service or penalize poor service.
Percentages for hotel and restaurant staff are similar to those in the United States and Canada. In restaurants, make sure that a service charge has not already been added onto the bill. Taxi drivers are not usually tipped unless they've performed some special service, such as waiting while a bit of shopping is done. Gas station attendants, however, expect a tip.
Sightseeing tour guides should be tipped. There also are individuals whom you would not normally tip at home but should in Mexico; for example, theater ushers, washroom attendants and parking attendants.
Economic reality makes it necessary for some people to resort to begging as a means of survival. Women or children will ask for coins on the street or outside the town cathedral. Another frequently employed location, particularly in larger cities, is a busy intersection. Here an entire family may gather—washing windshields or even putting on an impromptu performance in costume—in return for small change from motorists stopped at the red light. Whether to give under such circumstances is up to the individual, of course, but considering the very real poverty that is a daily fact of life, any gift will be much appreciated.
Street vendors can be ubiquitous, particularly in the main plazas of towns, at archeological sites and other places where tourists are likely to be, and at beaches where vending is not prohibited. If you do decide to purchase something from a roving vendor, be very discreet; otherwise you will be inundated by insistent hawkers pushing everything from fruit to straw baskets. If you don't intend to buy, firmly communicate your lack of interest.
Young children frequently will offer special services to visitors. Even if it is performed in an unsolicited manner—for example, cleaning your windshield while you're stopped at a red light—compensation is expected. Again, if you are not interested in what a child is offering, whether it be carrying your bags at the airport or promising to guard your car while you shop or see the sights, be very firm about declining.
Youngsters also will charm coins or other gifts out of visitors, and it may be hard to resist these overtures. If you do succumb, hand something directly to a child. Children have been killed running across busy streets to pick up “gifts” tossed from car windows. Better yet, buy some pieces of fruit or other inexpensive foods at the local market. A few clothing items, pencils, pens or simple toys can be packed along with your own personal belongings if you enjoy giving such items to the needy.
All letter mail to Mexico travels by air. First class mail service from Mexico to other countries is by air; parcel post and second class mail is by land. If you want to send mail from Mexico, use post mail only in those cities with airline service. Note: Mail service is notoriously slow, and mail can take up to a month to reach destinations in the United States, even when marked “via air mail.” Do not expect postcards, letters or packages to arrive back home before you do.
Postal codes in Mexican addresses should be placed before the name of the destination town or city, as in the following example: Hotel Imperial, Avenida Guadalupe #210, 45040 Guadalajara, Jal., Mexico.
If you've ever had difficulty hunting down an address in almost any large city in the United States, prepare for the same possibility in Mexico. Street names often change on either side of a town's main square, or capriciously after several blocks. Street signs may be outdated or nonexistent. Addresses frequently do not include numbers. All of this can be frustrating if trying to locate an out-of-the-way shop or restaurant, but there are some general guidelines that can be relied on to aid in the search.
Although used in this guide if known for purposes of clarification, designations such as avenida and calle often are not present on signs, and streets are referred to by name only. That name may include a compass direction—Nte. or Norte, Sur, Pte. or Poniente and Ote. or Oriente for north, south, east and west, respectively.
When an address includes s/n it means there is no number. In numbered addresses, the number follows rather than precedes the name. Addresses on main routes outside of cities or towns will often be stated in terms of the number of kilometers from town; for example, Km. 18 a Mérida.
Sprawling urban areas (Guadalajara and Monterrey, for example) have their own inscrutable logic regarding street names and configurations, and trying to find something outside of well-known tourist areas can turn into an adventure. Mexico City in particular has a bewildering maze of thoroughfares, and existing streets are often renamed.
Streets in smaller cities are usually laid out in a simple grid pattern radiating from the central plaza. Specific locations within the core downtown area can thus be pinpointed relatively easily in terms of the number of blocks north, south, east or west of the plaza.
If you become lost in an unfamiliar city or town, asking a local taxi driver for directions or having him lead you where you want to go can save a lot of headaches. A knowledge of Spanish is helpful in these situations, and agree on a price first if he transports you anywhere.
If you need to ask directions from someone on the street, keep questions brief and to the point, and ask them with a smile; most people will be happy to try and help. Women who were brought up not to talk to strangers may ignore you, and don't bother asking a child, particularly if your Spanish is rusty. Maps are not likely to be understood; pointing is more direct. If you ask how long it will take to reach a specific destination, or what the exact distance is, the answer will more than likely be subjective.
To call Mexico from the United States and Canada, dial 011 (the international access code), then 52 (the country code), then the area code and local phone number. For credit card and operator-assisted calls, dial 0152, then the area code and local phone number.
When calling long distance from one Mexican location to another, dial 01 (the access code), then the three-digit area code (two-digit area code in metropolitan Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey), then the seven-digit local phone number (eight-digit local number in metropolitan Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey). Mexican phone numbers shown in this guide include only the 10-digit format (area code plus the local number), not the access code that also must be dialed if making a long-distance call. Local calls in Mexico do not require dialing the access or area codes.
All Mexican toll-free numbers have an 800 area code. You must first dial the 01 access code, then the 800 prefix and the seven-digit number. Note: Mexican phone numbers with an 800 prefix, such as the tourist information national hotline number 01 (800) 008-9090, will work only if you are in Mexico; the call will not go through if dialed from outside the country.
Phone numbers for hotels, restaurants, attractions, travel agencies and airlines, as well as emergency and general information numbers, often are listed in free tourist publications.
Keep three things in mind regarding phone calls. First, they can be quite expensive if made from a hotel room; some hotels add a charge for local calls made from the room in addition to the hefty surcharge placed on all international calls. Second, do not expect that calls to attractions or tourist offices will always be answered; endless ringing or an endlessly repeating busy signal are two all-too-common occurrences. And third, if you do not speak fluent Spanish local calls to most businesses, police stations and public service agencies will quickly grind to a halt.
Check with your service provider to make sure that your mobile phone will be operable in Mexico. If you only plan to make a few calls and send a few text messages or emails, find out how much it will cost. Depending on the nature of your travel plans, consider purchasing a temporary international calling or data package that can be canceled after you return (as long as there's no minimum length-of-time requirement).
Confirm your provider's policy regarding international roaming charges, which are often expensive. T-Mobile, for one, does not charge for data usage and caps international calling rates. It's also a good idea to turn off automatic usage downloads that deliver emails and other data to your phone while you're away, as they can result in expensive roaming charges. Map, itinerary, flight notification and other apps can be handy additions while traveling, so take time to research, price compare and download any you'll want at your disposal prior to your departure date.
Make sure you bring your charger and plug adapter, and keep them with other essentials like personal identification and medicines. Also check your available storage before you leave and free up additional space by transferring photos and videos to your personal computer and deleting unused apps.
If you want to avoid international roaming charges, obtain a prepaid SIM (subscriber identification module) chip that will provide you with a new local phone number while in Mexico as well as an affordable calling plan. To do this, however, your phone must be “unlocked” from your original carrier's network. You also won't be able to make or receive calls via your regular cellphone number while in Mexico. The chip needs to be activated, which can be done in Mexico at a mobile store, or you can try ordering one in advance and activating it online.
Another option is to purchase a cellphone in Mexico to use for the duration of your trip, although it will be locked to the local provider's network. Inexpensive phones are sold at Walmarts and OXXO convenience stores, and you can purchase plan minutes on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Calls to Mexican cellphone numbers—either locally or long distance within the country—must be prefaced by dialing 044, which replaces the access code 01. The 044 prefix does not need to be dialed if calling a Mexican cellphone number from outside the country, although you will still need to dial the international access number and the appropriate area code. There are no long-distance cellphone charges; calls made to local as well as out-of-area-code cell numbers from a landline are charged as a local call.
Few coin-operated public pay phones remain in Mexico; most public phones are labeled Telmex, the name of the country's largest telephone company, and are part of a system called Ladatel—literally, long distance (lada) telephone. Ladatel phones allow direct dialing without operator assistance and are less expensive than making phone calls from a hotel room. Local calls also can be made from Ladatel phones. Avoid public phones claiming to offer low long-distance rates for calls to the United States and Canada; the cost per minute will be exorbitant.
Most Ladatel pay phones have a slot in which to insert a disposable, chip-embedded Ladatel phone card. These cards come in various peso denominations (typically 30, 50 or 100 pesos) and can be purchased at any convenience store.
To make a call with a Ladatel card, insert it with the computer chip facing up and toward the phone. Dial the access code (if necessary) plus the number you're trying to reach. The card is left in the slot while the call takes place. If the call does not go through, the card is returned. If the call is for less time than the value of the card, it is returned with a credit amount shown (the card does not expire). If the call is still in progress when the card's value has been used up, the phone will beep and another card must be inserted to continue the call. Some phones have a digital display window that monitors the cost of the call.
If you want to connect directly to an international destination toll free and without speaking to an operator, use your calling card and dial 01 (for AT&T) or 001 (for Verizon or Sprint) plus the 800 access number for your long-distance carrier. AT&T's USA DIRECT number is (800) 288-2872; Verizon Wireless, (800) 674-7000; and Sprint, (800) 877-8000.
If you have a problem trying to make a specific local or long-distance call, enlist the aid of an operator; there are few recordings advising callers of phone number or area code changes. To reach a long-distance operator within Mexico, dial 020; for directory assistance, dial 040; for police or emergency assistance, dial 911; for an international operator, dial 010. English will likely not be spoken.
To make an international call to the United States or Canada on a private phone line in Mexico, dial 001, then the area code and phone number. If calling collect, dial 91, then the area code and phone number. If you call collect from your hotel room and the call is not accepted, however, you may still be charged.
Most of Mexico's states are on Central Standard Time. Exceptions are the states of Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Nayarit, Sinaloa and Sonora, which are on Mountain Standard Time; Baja California, which is on Pacific Standard Time; and Quintana Roo, which is on Eastern Standard Time.
Mexico observes daylight saving time (DST, referred to as horario de verano, or “summer time”) from the first weekend in April through the last weekend in October. Ten northern border municipalities (including Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Tijuana) observe daylight saving time in accordance with the U.S., from the second Sunday in March through the first weekend in November. Note: The states of Quintana Roo and Sonora does not observe daylight saving time.
Mexico encompasses some 760,000 square miles and varies in elevation from sea level to more than 18,000 feet above. This wide range of terrain guarantees a correspondingly wide range of climatic conditions. The weather can be oppressively steamy or refreshingly cool, extremely dry or persistently rainy. Because much of the country lies within the tropics, altitude rather than latitude tends to determine the temperature. Two characteristics more or less stand out: a large number of hours of annual sunshine, and distinct wet and dry seasons.
Many of Mexico’s major inland cities, including Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, Guanajuato, Morelia and Querétaro, are at altitudes that give them comfortable temperatures almost year-round. Northwestern cities such as Chihuahua and Hermosillo experience greater seasonal extremes; summers are sizzling, while temperatures during winter can drop below freezing and occasional light snow falls. Cancún, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and other coastal resorts, on the other hand, show little temperature variation from month to month. The nicest weather in these cities is from November through March, when humidity levels are fairly low and little rain falls.
Severe weather and natural disasters are sporadic in nature. Localized heavy rains—particularly in low-lying, tropical coastal areas—can cause flooding, bridge washouts and mud or rock slides that adversely affect travel. Occasional hurricanes hit the eastern Yucatán Peninsula, the lower Gulf of Mexico coast, and the Pacific coast from the southern part of the normally arid Baja California Peninsula south to Acapulco. Earthquakes, however, cause the most catastrophic damage. While they are an ever-present possibility, the great majority of visitors will hopefully never experience one.
NOGALES—Consul General de Mexico, 135 W. Cardwell St., 85621; (520) 287-2521
PHOENIX—Consul General de Mexico, 320 E. McDowell Rd., Suite 105, 85004; (602) 242-7398
TUCSON—Consul de Mexico, 3915 E. Broadway Blvd., 85711; (520) 882-5595
LOS ANGELES—Consul General de Mexico, 2401 W. 6th St., 90057; (213) 351-6800
SACRAMENTO—Consul General de Mexico, 2093 Arena Blvd., 95834; (916) 329-3500
SAN DIEGO—Consul General de Mexico, 1549 India St., 92101; (619) 231-8414
SAN FRANCISCO—Consul General de Mexico, 532 Folsom St., 94105; (415) 354-1700
SAN JOSE—Consul General de Mexico, 302 Enzo Dr., Suite 200, 95138; (408) 294-3414
DENVER—Consul de Mexico, 5350 Leetsdale Dr., Ste. 100, 80246; (303) 331-1110
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Consul de Mexico, 1250 23rd St. N.W., 20037; (202) 736-1000
MIAMI—Consul General de Mexico, 1399 S.W. 1st Ave., 33130; (786) 268-4900
ORLANDO—Consul de Mexico, 2550 Technology Dr., 32804; (407) 422-0514
ATLANTA—Consul General de Mexico, 1700 Chantilly Dr. NE, 30324; (404) 266-2233
CHICAGO—Consul General de Mexico, 204 S. Ashland Ave., 60607; (312) 738-2383
BOSTON—Consul de Mexico, 55 Franklin St., Suite 506, 02110; (617) 426-4181
DETROIT—Consul de Mexico, 1403 E. 12 Mile Rd., Madison Heights, 48071; (248) 336-0320
KANSAS CITY—Consul de Mexico, 1617 Baltimore Ave., 64108; (816) 556-0800
OMAHA—Consul de Mexico, 7444 Farnam St., 68114; (402) 595-1841
ALBUQUERQUE—Consul de Mexico, 1610 4th St. N.W., 87102; (505) 247-2147
RALEIGH—Consul de Mexico, 431 Raliegh View Rd., 27610; (919) 615-3653
PORTLAND—Consul de Mexico, 1305 S.W. 12th Ave., 97201; (503) 274-1442
PHILADELPHIA—Consul de Mexico, 111 S. Independence Mall East (in the Bourse Building), Suite 310, 19106; (215) 922-4262
AUSTIN—Consul General de Mexico, 5202 E. Ben White Blvd., Suite 150, 78741; (512) 478-2866
BROWNSVILLE—Consul de Mexico, 301 Mexico Blvd. Ste. F-2, 78520; (956) 542-4431
DALLAS—Consul General de Mexico, 1210 River Bend Dr., 75247; (214) 932-8670
EL PASO—Consul General de Mexico, 910 E. San Antonio Ave., 79901; (915) 544-9299
HOUSTON—Consul General de Mexico, 4506 Caroline St., 77004; (713) 271-6800
LAREDO—Consul de Mexico, 1612 Farragut St., 78040; (956) 723-0990
SAN ANTONIO—Consul General de Mexico, 127 Navarro St., 78205; (210) 227-9145
SALT LAKE CITY—Consul de Mexico, 660 S. 200 E., Suite 300, 84111; (801) 521-8502
SEATTLE—Consul de Mexico, 807 E. Roy St., 98102; (206) 448-3526
MONTRÉAL—Consul General de Mexico, 2055 Peel St., Suite 1000, Québec H3A 1V4; (514) 288-2502
TORONTO—Consul General de Mexico, 11 King St. W., Ste. 350, Ontario M5H 4C7; (416) 368-2875
VANCOUVER—Consul General de Mexico, 1177 W. Hastings St., Suite 411, British Columbia V6E 2K3; (604) 684-1859
Embassies and Consulates
Note: If calling or faxing from outside Mexico, dial 01152 before the area code and phone number. The U.S. Embassy's fax number is (55) 5525-5040; the website address is mx.usembassy.gov. Office hours vary but are indicated where known. Offices are closed on U.S. and Mexican holidays.
Mexico City, City of Mexico, Paseo de la Reforma #305, Colonia Cuauhtémoc, 06500, (55) 5080-2000; Mon.-Fri. 8:30-4:30
Mexico City, City of Mexico, Calle Schiller #529, Colonia Polanco, 11580, (55) 5724-7900; Mon.-Fri. 8:30-5
Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Paseo de la Victoria #3650, (656) 227-3000; Mon.-Fri. 8-4:45
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Progreso #175 at Avenida López Cotilla, (33) 3268-2100; Mon.-Fri. 8-4
Hermosillo, Sonora, Calle Monterrey #141 Poniente (between calles Rosales and Galeana), (662) 289-3500; Mon.-Fri. 8-4:30
Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Calle Constitución #1, (868) 208-2000; Mon.-Fri. 8-5
Mérida, Yucatán, Calle 60 #338K (near the Hyatt Regency Mérida), (999) 942-5700; Mon.-Fri. 7:30-4:30
Monterrey, Nuevo León, Avenida Alfonso Reyes 150, Poniente, (81) 8047-3100; Mon.-Fri. 8-5
Nogales, Sonora, Calle San José s/n, about 3 miles south of the border and a block west of Avenida Obregón, (631) 311-8150; Mon.-Fri. 8-5
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Calle Allende #3330, Colonia Jardín, (867) 714-0512; Mon.-Fri. 8:30-5
Tijuana, Baja California, Paseo de las Culturas s/n, Mesa de Otay, (664) 977-2000; Mon.-Fri. 7:30-4:15
Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, Las Tiendas de Palmilla, Km marker 27.5 Carretera Transpeninsular, San José del Cabo, (624) 143-3566; Mon.-Fri. 8:30-1
Cancún, Quintana Roo, Boulevard Kukulcán, Km marker 13 (in the Torre la Europea building), (998) 883-0272; Mon.-Fri. 8:30-1:30
Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Avenida Playa Gaviotas #202, Golden Zone (in the Hotel Playa Mazatlán), (800) 681-9374; Mon.-Fri. 9-1
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Calle M. Alcalá #407, Office 20, (558) 526-2561; Mon.-Thurs. 10-3
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Local 33 Carretera Federal Puerto Juarez-Chetumal, Mz. 293 Lt. 1, (999) 316-7168; Mon.-Fri. 9-1
Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Paseo de los Cocoteros #85 Sur in Paradise Plaza, Nuevo Vallarta, (334) 624-2102; Mon.-Thurs. 8:30-12:30
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Libramiento José Manuel Zavala #165, Plaza La Luciernaga, (800) 681-9374; Mon.-Thurs. 9-1
Acapulco, Guerrero, Pasaje Diana, Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán 121, L-16, (55) 5724-9794; Mon.-Fri. 9:30-12:30
Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Plaza San Lucas (Carretera Transpeninsular Km 0.5, Local 82), (55) 5724-9797; Mon.-Fri. 9:30-12:30
Cancún, Quintana Roo, Centro Empresarial Oficina E7 (Boulevard Kukulcán, Km 12), (55) 5724-9795; Mon.-Fri. 9-1
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Avenida Mariano Otero #1249, Piso 8 Torre Pacifico (in World Trade Center), (33) 1818-4210; Mon.-Fri. 9-1 and 2-5
Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Boulevard Marina Mazatlán 2302, Office 41, (55) 5724-9798; Mon.-Fri. 9:30-12:30
Monterrey, Nuevo León, Avenida Gomez Morin 955, Suite 404 (Torre Gomez Morin), (81) 2088-3200; Mon.-Fri. 9:30-1:30 and 2:30-5
Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Boulevard Francisco Medina Ascencio 2484 (Plaza Peninsula, Local Sub F), (55) 5724-9799; Mon.-Fri. 9-1
Tijuana, Baja California, Avenida Germán Gedovius 10411-101, Zona Río, (664) 684-0461; Mon.-Fri. 9:30-12:30
The Maya World
At the same time Europe was stumbling through the Dark Ages, the Maya people were building temples and ceremonial centers that evoke wonder to this day. They also developed an astronomical calendar that predicted both solar and lunar eclipses, created a highly refined hieroglyphic writing system, and were accomplished artists and road builders.
Mayan civilization spread as far south as northern Central America and as far north as the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The earliest settlements date from around 1800 B.C. One important Preclassic site was Dzibilchaltún, north of Mérida. The Classic period, from approximately A.D. 300 to 900, represented the peak of independent Maya city-states.
For unknown reasons—theories range from peasant revolt against the elite to crop failure caused by climate change to an epidemic of disease—major ceremonial centers such as Palenque in the state of Chiapas and Tikal in Guatemala declined by the early 10th century. Habitation then shifted northward to the Yucatán Peninsula and such cities as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.
The Postclassic period, between the 10th and early 16th centuries, witnessed the rise of such sites as Cobá, Edzná, Mayapán and Tulum. After being conquered by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, the surviving Maya peoples retreated to the jungles in the present-day state of Quintana Roo, where fierce revolts continued until Mexico finally won its freedom in 1821. The fighting continued, however, and the Yucatán twice declared its own independence in the 19th century.
The ancient buildings the Maya left behind are all the more notable when one considers they were constructed without benefit of draft animals, wheeled conveyances, metal tools or pulleys. The El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá was designated one of the “new seven wonders of the world” in 2007. The ruins at Uxmal have an intricately detailed beauty. And while Tulum pales in comparison architecturally, its location—on top of a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean—is breathtaking.
Day Without Car Program
In an ongoing effort to control Mexico City's formidable air pollution problem, many personal vehicles are subject to driving restrictions that are based on the last digit of a vehicle's license plate and pertain to days of the week. The “Day Without Car” (Hoy No Circula) restrictions apply throughout the Mexico City metropolitan area, which includes Mexico City and the state of México.
Hybrid and electric cars are exempt from driving restrictions, but must display a sticker designating that status. Cars up to 2 years old are eligible for a double-zero sticker, which permits unlimited driving. Cars from 3 to 8 years old are eligible for a zero sticker, which also permits unlimited driving. Cars from 9 to 15 years old may not be driven one day a week and two Saturdays a month. Cars over 15 years old may not be driven one day a week or on Saturday. The stickers are issued by Verificentro, the agency that conducts automobile emission inspections, and are based on a vehicle passing emissions tests that are required every six months.
Vehicles with foreign tags or tags from all Mexican states outside the metropolitan area (except Hidalgo, Morelos, Puebla and Querétaro) may not be driven Monday through Friday between 5 and 11 a.m. unless they display a valid Verificentro zero or double-zero sticker. Failure to comply will result in vehicle impoundment and a hefty fine.
Restricted driving days for vehicles with Mexican plates are based on the following schedule: Monday—license plates that end with 5 or 6 (yellow plate); Tuesday—license plates that end with 7 or 8 (pink plate); Wednesday—license plates that end with 3 or 4 (red plate); Thursday—license plates that end with 1 or 2 (green plate); Friday—license plates that end with 9 or 0 (blue plate). All vehicles may be driven on Sundays. The restrictions are not enforced between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Physically disabled drivers are not exempted from the regulation. If you're renting a car and driving anywhere in the greater Mexico City metropolitan area, contact the rental car agency in advance and make certain the vehicle can be driven when you wish to use it. If you're driving your own vehicle, also keep in mind that police officers in the greater metropolitan area often stop drivers with foreign plates for alleged violations of driving restrictions in an attempt to extract a bribe in the form of a “fine.”
When pollution is extremely heavy (particularly during the winter months), additional driving restrictions may be mandated for vehicles with Mexican plates. Before any such decision is made, announcements are broadcast on radio and TV specifying the contingency days added to the normal restriction, and those vehicles affected.
Legend of Quetzalcoatl
One of Mexican history's most intriguing mysteries surrounds Quetzalcóatl, a man known for his advocacy of peace and who was believed to have opposed the practice of human sacrifice. Over time fact and myth have become impenetrably tangled, although certain life events are believed to be true. The son of Toltec chieftain Mixcóatl, Quetzalcóatl took the full name Ce Acatl Quetzalcóatl—literally, “One Reed Feathered Serpent.” He is thought to have founded the Toltec city of Tollan (Tula); a plumed serpent motif is noticeably evident at this archeological site. A power struggle ensued, and according to legend Quetzalcóatl's rivals conspired to get him drunk and thereby shame him into exile. A more likely scenario, however, is that the continued invasion of warlike tribes caused a decline in Toltec power.
The king led his followers, it is said, out of Tula and east toward the Gulf coast, where he either sailed off, promising to return in a future era, or burned himself alive and was reincarnated as the morning star. Meanwhile, Quetzalcóatl the myth continued to be invoked, a personage described as light-skinned, blue-eyed and bearded—features different from those of any person the Indians had ever before seen. When Hernando Cortés arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the emperor Moctezuma believed him to be the returning god—a case of mistaken identity the conquistador craftily used to his advantage.
Sugar cane, the main source for the raw sugar that is refined to produce the granulated sweetener known the world over, is a member of the grass family. This plant has tall, thick, fibrous stalks that contain a sap rich in sucrose—a sweetening agent for foods and beverages and also a major ingredient in cakes, soft drinks, alcohol, preservatives and many other products.
Sugar cane is grown in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Along with olive oil, rice and citrus fruits, it was one of the agricultural products introduced to Mexico by Spanish conquistadores. Sugar was a precious commodity during the Spanish colonial era, and sugar haciendas—plantations that were worked by Indian and African slave labor—amassed great wealth for their owners. Sugar cane, which ranks with corn and tomatoes as one of the country's most important cash crops, is grown today in northwestern Mexico with the aid of irrigation, but more commonly in the gulf coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco, where the hot, rainy climate is ideal.
If you're traveling through the fertile farming regions around Veracruz during harvesting season (March and April) you're likely to see—in addition to bananas, cacao trees, and mango and papaya orchards—a waving green sea of sugar cane. Since harvesting cane by machine is difficult, it is still done mainly by hand in centuries-old fashion, which requires a large supply of manual labor.
Generations of caneros—essentially serfs toiling the land—have labored in Mexican cane fields. First the fields are burned, which destroys dead leaves and small thorns but leaves the juicy stalks intact. Then the laborers wrap their hands, ankles and feet in layers of old cloth to protect themselves from the bites of poisonous snakes not flushed out during the burning. They wade into 12-foot-tall forests of prickly, razor-sharp cane, cutting the stalks by hand with long machetes and then loading them high onto trucks. It's backbreaking work done in oppressive heat and humidity.
Churches and cathedrals in Mexico are renowned for their beauty both inside and out; many are a visual feast of finely detailed stone carvings, statues and extravagant ornamentation. A display of retablos, or devotional paintings, is a particularly lovely feature in some churches. Combining centuries-old Catholic iconography, traditional religious beliefs and indigenous artistry, the retablo is a distinctly Mexican form of popular folk art.
Vibrantly colorful and rife with symbolic overtones, these small oil paintings of Catholic saints were created on zinc, wood, copper and tin. Retablos were employed by Spanish priests as part of an effort to convert the Indians to Christianity after Spain's conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century. Tall, multi-paneled structures displaying an array of saints and other religious figures were typically erected behind a church's main altar; the word retablo means “behind the altar.”
Small factories sprang up to mass produce retablos (also called laminas in Mexico). Retableros, artists who were both skilled and unskilled, made their living reproducing the images of many different saints, from venerated individuals like St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and biblical translator St. Jerome (San Jerónimo) to San Ysidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers. Over a lifetime a retablero might end up creating the same image literally thousands of times. At the height of their popularity in the late 19th century retablos—in addition to being placed in churches and at shrines—were sold to devout believers who graced home altars with the likeness of their patron saint.
A similar expression of devotion is the ex-voto, a painting on canvas or a sheet of tin accompanied by a written testimonial. The assistance of a particular saint might be requested to help cure a health problem, or an expression of thanks was offered in return for a perceived benevolent act or answered prayer. In addition to featuring the saint's image, an ex-voto also told a story through pictures, depicting such scenes as a person rising miraculously from a sickbed or a farmer praying for rain for his crops.
Churches with fascinating collections of retablos include the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; the Parish of the Immaculate Conception in Real de Catorce, a former mining town in the state of San Luis Potosí; and the Temple and Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The Church of La Valenciana, outside the city of Guanajuato, features three soaring retablos—one behind the main altar and two in the transepts to either side—adorned with life-size statues of saints and biblical figures and a profusion of ornate gold-leaf decoration.
In Tecoh (tay-KO), a small Yucatán village southeast of Mérida, stands a huge fortress-church and convent that was built in the 17th century atop a Mayan pyramid. Inside this imposing structure is a tall, four-tiered retablo highlighted by four large paintings depicting St. John the Baptist and three archangels. Painstakingly restored and replete with elaborate red-and-gold ornamentation, it is a spectacular example of colonial religious art.
Traveling to Mexico
FOR U.S. AND CANADIAN RESIDENTS TRAVELING TO MEXICO
AAA recommends that travelers consult U.S. State Department travel advisories when planning travel abroad. Find this information online at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/mexico-travel-advisory.html .
Border crossing requirements: Travelers are required to present proper travel documents for travel to Mexico and to return to the United States.
Air travel: U.S. and Canadian citizens traveling between the United States and Mexico by air are required to show a valid passport.
Land or sea travel: A passport or passport card, or other U.S. official ID (not including a state-issued driver's license), is required to enter Mexico by land or sea. U.S. citizens returning to the United States from Mexico by land or sea are required to present proper travel documents according to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Approved documents include a passport or passport card, Enhanced Driver's License or Trusted Traveler program card; for more information refer to the U.S. Department of State website. Canadian citizens should refer to the Canada Border Services Agency website for requirements to re-enter Canada; cbsa-asfc.gc.ca.
Children: Minors under age 18 traveling alone or with someone other than a parent or legal guardian are required to present a notarized letter of consent from at least one absent parent giving permission to travel only if the minor is departing (not entering) Mexico, is traveling by air or sea or is using Mexican documents to travel. However, because airline or Mexican immigration officials may request a notarized letter of consent under other circumstances as well, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City recommends that any minor traveling without both parents carry a notarized consent letter at all times. For more information contact the embassy, a Mexican consulate office or the Mexican National Immigration Institute (INM).
Automobile insurance: Full coverage from a reliable Mexican insurance company is required, including property damage and public liability. AAA offices in border states, Nevada and Utah can provide Mexican automobile insurance to members. U.S. or Canadian automobile insurance is not valid in Mexico.
Tourist permits: When traveling to Mexico as a tourist you must obtain an FMM tourist permit. A valid passport or passport card is required in order to obtain a permit.
Permits are issued online and at Mexican immigration offices at official points of entry. You must have a valid tourist permit if you remain within the border zone—the area within 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 19 miles) of the U.S. border, depending on the Mexican state—for more than 72 hours, or if you travel beyond the border zone. Note: In the state of Baja California the border “free zone” is no longer valid and every visitor must have a tourist permit regardless of the length of his or her stay.
The permit costs 500 pesos (approximately $23.80 U.S.), which must be paid at a Mexican bank (see the list of banks on the back of the permit form) or at a bank window at the border. You are required to show the “Fee Paid” stamp on your tourist permit when leaving Mexico.
If traveling by air, the permit is distributed on the flight and the fee is included in the airline ticket price. If arriving by cruise ship, the fee is collected when disembarking or is included in the cruise fare if the stay is longer than 72 hours.
Tourist permit exemptions:
Visitors traveling by sea, staying less than 72 hours and remaining in the seaport.
Visitors traveling by land to destinations within the border zone (except Baja California) and staying less than 72 hours.
Visitors traveling by land beyond the border zone, staying less than 72 hours and limiting their visit to the following destinations/tourist corridors: Sonoyta to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora; Ciudad Juárez to Paquime, Chihuahua; Piedras Negras to Santa Rosa, Coahuila; and Reynosa to Presa Cuchillo, Nuevo León.
Business travelers with a business visa; students (as defined by Mexican immigration laws) with a student visa (contact a Mexican consulate for business/student visa information).
Tourist permit validity:
The permit is valid for up to 180 days.
A multiple-entry permit allows unlimited visits into and out of Mexico within the 180-day period.
A tourist permit not used within 90 days of issue becomes void.
Visitors should carry their tourist permit with them at all times while in Mexico.
If you lose your permit while in Mexico, a duplicate can be obtained from a local immigration office (write down your tourist permit number and keep it separate from the permit to expedite the paperwork involved).
Permits must be turned in to Mexican immigration officials at the border when you depart the country by land, except in Baja California (following the permit expiration date it can be shredded or discarded). If departing by air, the permit must be turned in to immigration officials at the airport.
If you wish to remain in Mexico beyond the permit validity period an extension must be requested from immigration authorities prior to the expiration date.
Violation of the laws governing tourist permits may result in subsequently being refused entry into Mexico and/or incurring a substantial fine.
Vehicle travel beyond the border zone requires a government-issued temporary vehicle importation permit and a promise to return vehicle form. These two documents are not required in Baja California unless the vehicle is put on a ferry bound for the mainland. They also are not required for travel to the following destinations in the state of Sonora: Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), Guaymas, San Carlos, Bahía Kino and other locations west of Mex. 15, as well as cities along Mex. 15 (Magdalena, Santa Ana, Hermosillo).
An Only Sonora permit is acceptable if driving is confined within the state east of Mex. 15 as well as south of Empalme (about 350 miles south of the U.S. border). The permit can be obtained at Banjercito offices in Agua Prieta (opposite Douglas, Ariz.), Cananea (on Mex. 2 southwest of Agua Prieta) and Empalme (on Mex. 15 at Km marker 98, just south of the Guaymas bypass).
The temporary vehicle importation permit and promise to return vehicle form can be purchased at the Banjercito office at an official point of entry (immigration checkpoint). The vehicle owner must present a valid (unexpired) tourist permit and a current vehicle license/registration receipt (the original and two copies). Information on the application for temporary vehicle importation and on the promise to return form must match; the same requirements apply to both.
An administration fee (approximately $51 U.S.) plus applicable IVA tax must be paid with a major international credit card (American Express, Mastercard or Visa) in order to receive a temporary importation permit windshield sticker. The credit card must be in the vehicle owner's name and issued by a U.S. or Canadian bank or lending institution. Vehicle owners who don't have a major credit card must post a bond ($200 to $400 based on vehicle value) with a Mexican bonding firm (Afianzadora) at the point of entry. Cash, checks, money orders or credit cards issued by a Mexican bank are not accepted.
More about temporary importation permits:
Generally issued for 180 days, the same length as the tourist permit.
Only one permit will be issued per person, for one motorized vehicle at a time.
Carry the permit with you; do not leave it in the vehicle.
Return permit, promise to return vehicle form and windshield sticker to Mexican customs officials at the Banjercito office at the border before or on the expiration date shown on the form, or be subject to a fine.
If the permit or form is lost or stolen, Mexican customs offices can issue replacement documentation provided you obtain a certified document attesting to the loss from your homeland (U.S. or Canada) embassy or consulate.
If you remain in Mexico beyond the authorized time period and without the proper documentation, your car will be immediately confiscated.
Pets: U.S. visitors may bring a dog, cat or bird into Mexico with government approval. A pet health certificate signed not more than 15 days before the animal enters Mexico and a pet vaccination certificate showing proof of treatment for rabies, hepatitis and leptospirosis are required at the border for each animal. A pet permit fee is charged at the time of entry.
FOR U.S. AND CANADIAN RESIDENTS LEAVING MEXICO
When leaving the country:
FMM tourist permits, temporary vehicle importation permits, promise to return vehicle forms and windshield stickers must be returned to Mexican immigration and customs officials at the departure or border checkpoint (or at an interior inspection point).
Those entering Mexico with a motor vehicle must leave the country with the vehicle.
At highway stations near the U.S. border, Mexican agricultural officials will inspect vehicles traveling north that are carrying any fruits, vegetables, houseplants and other plant matter.
You must have an export certificate to take official cultural artifacts (excluding handicrafts) out of the country.
Religious or archeological artifacts may not be taken out of the country.
Returning to the United States or Canada:
U.S. citizens returning from Mexico by land or sea are required to present proper travel documents; refer to the U.S. Department of State website for the most current information. Canadian citizens entering the United States are subject to the rules governing entry to the U.S. by foreign nationals; refer to the Canadian Border Services Agency website for requirements to re-enter Canada.
You may bring back duty-free articles not exceeding $800 in retail value.
The exemption is allowed once every 30 days.
A family (related persons living in the same household) may combine exemptions; i.e., a family of six would be entitled to $1,600 worth of goods duty-free on one declaration, even if the articles claimed by one member exceed that individual's $800 amount.
Duty must be paid on all items in excess of the exemption amount.
Payment of duty is required upon arrival.
Gifts taken across the U.S./Mexico border are considered to be for personal use and are included in the $800 exemption.
Articles purchased and left behind for alterations or other reasons do not qualify for the $800 exemption when shipped at a later date.
The $800 exemption may include no more than 1 liter of alcoholic beverages and no more than 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars.
Restricted or prohibited articles: An agricultural quarantine bans the importation of certain fruits, vegetables, plants, livestock, poultry and meats. All food products brought into the United States must be declared. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also prohibits bringing back any type of pet. Visit the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website or U.S. Customs at cbp.gov for more information.
One foreign-made article carrying a protected U.S. trademark (i.e., camera, binoculars, musical instrument, jewelry or watch) may normally be brought into the United States under your personal exemption, provided it is for your private use and not sold within 1 year of importation.
The following are prohibited: narcotics and dangerous drugs, drug paraphernalia, obscene articles and publications, seditious or treasonable matter, lottery tickets, hazardous items (fireworks, dangerous toys, toxic or poisonous substances) and switchblade knives. Merchandise originating in the embargoed countries of Angola, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Libera and Sudan is prohibited.
If you plan to bring back items made of fur or whalebone, any animal skin other than cowhide leather, or any product manufactured wholly or in part from any type of wildlife, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding regulations; phone (800) 358-210.
Alcoholic beverages: Both federal and state laws apply. If regulations conflict, state laws regarding import limits supersede.
U.S. residents 21 years of age or older may bring into the United States 1 liter of alcohol duty-free once every 30 days. However, if you arrive in a state that permits a lesser amount than what you have legally brought into the United States, state law prevails.
Gifts: Gifts in packages with a total retail value not exceeding $100 may be sent to friends or relatives in the United States free of U.S. customs duty or tax, provided no recipient receives more than one gift shipment per day. Gifts may be sent to more than one person in the same package if they are individually wrapped and labeled with each recipient's name. Perfumes containing alcohol and valued at more than $5 retail, tobacco products or alcoholic beverages may not be included in gift packages, which should be clearly marked with the designation “Unsolicited Gift,” the gift giver's name and the retail value of the contents.
Duties: A flat rate duty of 3 percent is applied to the first $1,000 (fair retail value) worth of merchandise in excess of the $800 customs exemption. A sales receipt constitutes proof of value. Family members residing in one household and traveling together may group articles for application of the flat-duty rate, which may be taken once every 30 days. Articles must accompany you to the U.S. border.
Canadian exemptions: Canadian citizens who have been outside Canada 24 hours or more may bring back duty- and tax-free goods up to $200 (CAN) in retail value, and up to $800 (CAN) in retail value if outside Canada 48 hours or more. Goods must be in the traveler's possession at the time of entry into Canada. Citizens who have been outside Canada 7 days or more also may bring back duty- and tax-free goods up to $800 (CAN) in retail value; goods may be in the traveler's possession and also are permitted to follow entry into Canada via courier, mail or delivery agency (except alcohol and tobacco products).
Items brought into Canada under a personal exemption must be for personal or household use, souvenirs or gifts.
Canadian limitations (on either the $200 or $800 exemption): 50 cigars, 200 cigarettes, 200 tobacco sticks, 200 grams (6.4 ounces) of tobacco, 40 ounces (1.1 liters, or one large standard bottle) of liquor, 53 fluid ounces of wine (two bottles) and 287 ounces (8.5 liters) of beer or ale (equivalent to 24 12-ounce bottles/cans).
All exemptions are individual and may not be combined with that of another person to cover an article valued at more than the maximum exemption. You may be asked to prove the length of your visit outside Canada. Dated sales receipts for goods or services constitute valid proof.
While AAA makes every effort to provide accurate and complete information, AAA makes no warranty, express or implied, and assumes no legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of any information contained herein.
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.