Tips for Travelling in Mexico and Central America
If you are preparing to travel to Mexico or Central America for the first time, the following are a few things you may want to know.
What to Pack:
- Passport (US citizens may also enter with a driver's license and birth certificate, but a passport makes things much faster and easier.)
- Traveller's cheques (Carrying large sums of cash is not recommended.)
- A copy of your passport and birth certificate with emergency contact info (Useful if your passport is stolen or in an emergency situation.)
- A driver's license or picture ID (Sometimes hotels require leaving a passport as a room deposit. To be safe, it's better to leave some other form of ID.)
- Waist-pack for hiding your money and passport.
- Sensible shoes (Even if you don't plan on hiking, many of the streets may be cobblestone or simple dirt roads - which can turn to sludge during the rainy season.)
- Sunscreen and insect repellent
- Warm clothes if you are going to a mountainous region or traveling during the rainy season. (At least one sweater is recommended if you intend to travel by first-class bus as the air-conditioning is often set full blast.)
- A pair of earplugs if you plan to travel by first-class bus (They can play their music extremely loudly, and often play horrible movies for the duration of the trip - even well into the night.)
What to Wear:You will want to research the areas you plan to go and select your clothing accordingly. Cancun airport, for example, is often sweltering - so if you are traveling from the UK during winter, you may want to leave your coat at home rather than have to schlep it all over the countryside. However, if you plan to travel around in Oaxaca or in Guatemala, you will probably want to have a set of light clothes for the hot afternoons, and warm clothes for the chilly evenings. Always pack long-sleeved shirts and trousers for mosquito protection - the warm beach fronts are often some of the worst places for the bloodsuckers. Keep in mind that summer clothing and sandals are always easy to come by, so when in doubt, leave it out rather than over-pack. In the end, whatever you do pack, make sure it is comfortable. Most restaurants, even four-star ones, are casual about dress, so worrying about bringing any sort of formal wear is unnecessary.
If You Intend to Backpack or Travel Low-Budget:
- If you are a backpacker and on a budget, economizing is essential, but also being prepared. Pack the minimum amount of clothing necessary; many hostels have laundry areas so that you can hand-wash clothing. Make sure you bring a thin towel, though, as many hostels and cheap hotels do not provide them. Also try to bring sample sizes of your hygiene products (such as shampoo); small sizes are not likely to be available and these items can weigh your pack down considerably. If you are a woman who prefers tampons, it is best to bring them as they are not always available.
- A combination padlock for locking up your things in hostels (thievery in such places is rampant).
- A pad and paper for keeping track of important info (you will need a pen on the plane, in any case).
If You Are a Woman Traveling Alone:
- Dress modestly. Women in Mexico and Central America rarely wear skirts that come above the knee or shirts that show the midriff. Unless you are on the beach, keeping covered is one good way of avoiding unwanted attention.
- Women in Mexico and Central America also rarely travel alone; therefore be aware that some men may interpret this as an invitation for male company. Everyone from your taxi driver to the guy sitting behind you on the bus is likely to try to flirt with you. Don't take it too seriously, but also beware of being too friendly - unless you really want to get to know that person. If you give personal information too easily or allow others to do personal favors (such as carrying your bags or escorting you to your hotel) you may be inadvertently leading someone on. Use your discretion. It is highly inadvisable to allow a strange man into your room or go with him to a secluded place. Even a high-traffic beach can be dangerous at night.
- If you are worried about attracting unwanted attention from men, wear a wedding ring (even if you are single) and try to travel with groups.
When in Rome…
- You have probably heard that it is acceptable (and even smart) to haggle in the marketplace. This is true, but there are certain guidelines. The first thing to keep in mind is your appearance. If you look like a wealthy tourist, you are never going to get the bargains that a native would, so don't try too hard. If you are a backpacker, you may be able to do a little better, but in touristy areas, tourists set the standard. Over-zealous haggling will offend the seller and result in a no-deal.
- If you begin haggling over an object, you are expected to have an interest in buying it. Don't haggle if you're just curious about a price - only if you actually desire the goods in question.
- If someone offers you a deal on something you don't need, say, "No thank you" rather than, "I don't like that." It will greatly offend the merchant.
- Often buying more of something will lower the price. A bracelet that costs five pesos but won't sell for three may easily go for ten if you buy three.
- The more courteous you are, the better your chances of getting a deal. Even if you don't speak Spanish, an effort to do so, and some genuine smiles will go a long way toward getting into the seller's good books.
Do's and Don'ts for Traveling in Mexico and Central America:
- Do: Carry your own roll of toilet paper. Many buses do not provide it, and hostels and restaurants often run out during the day.
- Don't: Flush toilet paper. Plumbing in these countries is poor; there will be a small waste basket for used toilet paper.
- Do: Drink lots of water and eat salty foods to avoid dehydration and sun-stroke.
- Don't: Drink un-bottled water or other beverages, including ice cubes.
- Do: Brush your teeth with bottled water, not tap water.
- Don't: Eat street food, un-sanitized fruit or vegetables, undercooked meat, questionable sea food, or food prepared in a restaurant that lacks running water.
- Do: Join up with other travelers when possible.
- Don't: Leave valuables unattended, and keep watch over all of your belongings (even towels and clothing are frequently stolen in youth hostels). Beware of scams, such as someone telling you that your friend has had an accident, but that he will watch your stuff while you go to help them.
- Do: Dress comfortably and casually. The less attention you attract, the better.
- Don't: Wear your most expensive watch and jewellery. Even if nothing is stolen, it will certainly lead to paying higher prices.
- Do: Learn and practice your Spanish, whether beginner's or more advanced. It will be appreciated.
- Don't: Tell Mexican men you are single unless you are inviting them to be your date, and even then be cautious.
- Do: Pack as lightly as possible. If you can fit everything into a back-pack and one carry-on, you can avoid having to wait forever for your bags at the airport.
- Don't: Choose the very back or very front seats when traveling by bus. The back is where the toilets are, and at the front, the drivers often like to play their music at a deafening volume. You will be allowed to reserve your seat ahead of time when you buy the ticket; choose according to whether or not you will want to watch the string of bad movies they put on.
- Do: Have a wonderful time! Traveling through Mexico and Central America can be an unforgettable experience - and the better prepared you are, the more fun it is likely to be!