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  • Writer's pictureYllara Maia

Mexico Travel Tips - Know Before You Go

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Finally booked that trip to Mexico you've been waiting so long for? If it's your first time visiting this tropical paradise, there are a few things you should know before you go. I've been traveling to the eastern side of Mexico for over 10 years now, so I put together a list of my most helpful tips and recommendations.

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Location: Riu Palace Riviera Maya - Playa Del Carmen

  1. Cancun and Tulum Are Not the Only Places to Visit

If this is your first time traveling to Mexico, you've hopefully already done your research on its geography before booking your stay. If you didn't, I'm here to tell you that there's way more to Mexico than just the touristy areas made famous through Instagram like Tulum and Cancun.

Although those areas are both beautiful and have a lot to offer, Mexico is enormous and you should explore more of it. For first timers, Cancun is typically their first option due to its close proximity to the airport and its lively night scene. However, other parts of Mexico, like Playa Del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel are equally worthy of a visit and are very close by.

For those who chose Mexico as a destination because of the blue Caribbean water, you won't find a better spot than in Isla Mujeres. Isla is a small island located across from Cancun. The ferry dock is only about 1o minutes from downtown Cancun, and the ferry trip to the island itself is about 25-30 minutes long.

Isla Mujeres is a perfect place for a day trip and it's small enough that you can see the entire island in a day. The water surrounding the island is bluer than any other areas of Mexico that I've visited, and they also have some Mayan ruins that you can go check out.

If you like to explore, opt for a full-day guided trip of the Contoy and Mujeres Islands. If jungles and water activities are more your scene, the further south from Cancun that you go, the more vegetation you'll see. As opposed to the long white dunes of Cancun, the beaches in Playa del Carmen tend to have more vegetation such as palm trees and sometimes mangroves.

However, downtown Playa is equally as lively as Cancun and there are many shops and restaurants to visit outside of the resorts. Because this area is less touristy, you will see a lot more locals out on the town.

Also, the resorts around here have more of a relaxing vibe vs a "spring break" scene. Lastly, if you are into wildlife and would like to go snorkeling, the coral reefs off the coast of the island of Cozumel are a part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world. I recommend going snorkeling with a group on a glass water boat.

There will be an guide to help you and you may even make some new friends. Like I said before, Mexico has a lot to offer so if you can, explore more of it.

Location: Isla Mujeres (unfiltered)

2. Book Your Airport Transportation Ahead of Time

I learned this one the hard way. If you're staying at an all-inclusive resort anywhere, most of them will offer transportation to and from the airport. Often times, this is even included in your booking. However, don't make the same mistake I did and just assume that the hotel will know when to pick you up.

The first time that I traveled to Mexico without my parents (who typically took care of all the bookings) I purchased a vacation package for a resort in Playa Del Carmen. It clearly stated in the booking that transportation to and from the airport were included. So, when we arrived at the airport we went to look for our resort's representative right outside in the pick-up area.

After a lot of digging for names and a couple of phone calls, it turned out that our names weren't on the pick-up list because I had not called to confirm with the hotel. Although it was included in our booking, they still required that you booked the time with the resort and confirmed it for your arrival and return dates. I ended up having to pay $100 out of pocket for a cab to Playa Del Carmen, which is about 45 minutes from the airport. So, do yourself a favor and book your transportation ahead of time.

If you aren't sure if it's included in your booking, always check with the hotel/resort first. Even if it's not included, you should still plan your airport transfers ahead of time. I recommend getting either a private or group transfer through Get Your Guide. They offer transportation for a much cheaper price than taking a cab.

3. Use Lots of Sunblock and Hydrate

This one probably goes without saying, but Mexico is hot. Not only is the temperature high all-year-round, but the sun rays are a lot stronger due to its closer proximity to the equator. Even if you live in Miami and say you lay out in the sun every day (hopefully you don't), the Mexican sun will hit you harder.

Trust me, I had a fun experience with the sunshine and the heat on my first ever trip to Cancun. I was 15, arrogant, and thought that because I was Brazilian, I didn't need to apply a lot of sunblock - or any for that matter. I was also very bad at drinking water, and it only took two days of being out in the sun before I passed out of dehydration. The next morning, I woke up with a swollen face and my eyes nearly shut.

I also got sun poisoning, and deservingly so. My parents had to call the resort's doctor, who walked into the room with a very large needle. The injection made the swelling go down, and I eventually had to stay out of the sun for the rest of the trip.

My skin has been sensitive to the sun ever since. Harmful sun exposure is no joke people, and in Mexico it is way stronger. If you happen to go during the warmest months it's helpful to cool down by spending some time in the pool or in the ocean.

You can always look for things to do that wont require you to be out in the sun all day, like going on a food tour or doing an underground river tour. Please be safe, use lots of SPF, and drink water even if you're not thirsty, unless you want to end up like me.

Location: Riu Palace Riviera Maya

4. Check the Seaweed Monitoring Map

Unfortunately, the eastern coast of Mexico has been experiencing some very harsh periods of seaweed infestation in the last couple of years. I have been traveling to Cancun since 2012, and remember when it really wasn't a thing. However, the dead seaweed washing up on the beaches of Mexico has gotten progressively worse.

Although it may not be possible to completely avoid seaweed in the area today, you can plan accordingly so it's not bad enough to ruin your entire trip. According to Google, seaweed season is typically from May to October each year. Visiting from November to April is not only good for avoiding the masses of seaweed, but the temperatures are way more comfortable.

During the summer months, it is very humid and the heat is almost unbearable. The last time we visited was in May of 2022. That was the first and last time that I will visit Mexico during the summer. Most of the time, it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit and there was so much seaweed that the resort couldn't keep up with clearing it completely.

You can see the extent of the problem in the picture below. The hotel had cleaned the beaches in the morning, and by the end of the day they were filled with seaweed again. I really wish I had done my research before booking. I later found out that lots of webpages online have a seaweed tracking map, where they monitor the mats floating on the ocean to predict which areas they are going to end up at.

I highly recommend you doing this the week before you travel and during your trip. I found this seaweed monitoring map online and it seemed pretty legit. If you do decide to come during seaweed season, you may be able to escape it depending of which area of Mexico you stay in. Make sure you check the seaweed map and stay away from the spots that are mainly affected.

Location: Playa Del Carmen

5. Ignore All the Sales People at the Airport Exit

If you fly into Cancun International Airport (which is most likely), you'll soon realize that the place is small enough that everyone exits in the same direction. When you get to the last set of doors leading out to the airport exit, keep walking straight. You will get overwhelmed by a flock of sales people trying to sell you transportation, excursions, and tickets to Coco Bongo.

Do not fall for it and just head towards the exit door. These people are very good at their job, and they know how to intimidate a newbie tourist. They also know how to scam you into buying a trip to Xcaret that would probably cost you $30 less if you booked through the park itself.

This can be a bit too much for first time tourists, but know that it is part of the culture and everyone has to pass through it in order to get outside. Once you've been there a couple of times, you'll become a pro at ignoring the hoards of sales people and learn how to say "no gracias".

If you are interested in some of the excursions they offer you though, be smart and book those for cheaper online. Here are a couple of the excursions that they typically offer at the airport:

Location: Cenote at Xplor

6. Bring Change for Tipping

If you're staying at an all-inclusive resort, odds are you'll be treated like royalty during your stay. From waiters to the cleaning staff and the entertainment crew, everyone is so friendly and helpful at all times. I've traveled a lot, yet I've never received better service and treatment than from the staff at Mexican resorts and hotels.

Once you've traveled to one place often enough, you start to get to know their people a little bit better. My family typically likes to chat and get to know whoever it is that's working during our stay. We usually see the same employees 6 days out of the week, and sometimes even every day.

These people work so hard, yet they make roughly about $300-$400 per month. Now, I know that the dollar is worth way more than the peso. However, several of these employees have families to support and if that was enough to live lavishly, they wouldn't be working 7 days a week.

Although tipping the staff is not expected, I highly encourage it. My family usually brings change in $1 bills to tip the staff that takes really good care of us throughout our stay. A dollar may not seem like much to us, but it's worth about 20 pesos, the Mexican currency. It's a great way to show your appreciation for the kind staff who often go out of their way to always make sure you have the best vacation.

The entertainment staff doesn't always get enough recognition, but they have always been part of the reason why our past trips were so memorable. They spend the whole day with you, setting up activities and making sure you're having a good time. The image below was from my most recent trip to Mexico. We stayed at one of the Riu Palace resorts. Their entertainment staff was awesome, and they definitely knew how to have fun.

Location: Riu Palace Riviera Maya

7. Never Pay Full Price For a Souvenir

I'm not here to give you a lesson on haggling, only to tell you that the Mexicans love to do it. I've never been much of a haggler, but I've learned that nothing in Mexico has a fixed price. If you're planning on buying souvenirs, avoid the big obvious stores typically located near the hotels and go into downtown instead.

Many smaller shops will sell the same stuff than the bigger stores, but for a lower price. In these small markets, you'll also have the chance to haggle with the owner to try to bring the price down. If you buy more than one souvenir, you're more likely to persuade them into giving you a deal.

During a previous trip, my cousin bought a very intricate and handcrafted souvenir for about $30. This is a very high price for a souvenir, but he was so convinced that it was authentic and worth the money that he spent. Three hours later, one of my aunts came back from the downtown market with the same souvenir that my cousin bought.

She paid less than half the price for it and we all had a good laugh. Remember, the salespeople are smart. However you can also be smart and not fall for the tourist trap while shopping for souvenirs.

You can even try to haggle for items that aren't souvenirs. I argued my way into paying less for a nice hat that I found in Isla Mujeres, the one in the picture below. Keep in mind that this doesn't always happen, especially if it's a fancier store.

At souvenir shops and smaller vendors, however, feel free to haggle until you can't anymore. If you don't want to go alone, here are a few tours that you can take which include shopping as an activity and a guide to help you out:

Location: Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

8. It's OK to Go Outside of the Resort

For all the times I've mentioned vacationing in Mexico (which is a lot), I've had at least 5 people ask me if I wasn't scared the entire time that I was there. Like I said before, my family and I have been traveling to the Cancun area for over 10 years, and we've never encountered any crime or felt unsafe.

Truth is, that area of Mexico lives off of tourism. In fact, the workforce would struggle if all of a sudden the tourists stopped coming because they felt unsafe. So, I typically laugh when someone says to me, "Oh, you're going to Mexico? Don't go outside the resorts!" I'm here to tell you that it's okay to go outside the resorts.

In Cancun, as long as you stay within the touristy areas and don't go too deep into town, you shouldn't worry. If you're looking to go to nightclubs and bars during your visit, you're going to have to leave the resort anyways. There's also an outdoor shopping mall called La Isla that I often recommend to people who visit Cancun.

It's a fun activity do to during the day or at night, since they also have some restaurants available. If you're staying in or visiting either Isla Mujeres or Cozumel, you have even less to worry about. These areas are less crowded with people and are generally not as rowdy as Cancun.

My friends and I roamed the streets of Cozumel at night in our teens a few years back, and there was barely anyone out on the streets during the week. We saw lots of families with children taking a stroll, but that was it.

Now, I haven't visited downtown Playa Del Carmen as often as the other locations, so I'm not going to make direct claims about its safety. However, we never had any issues during the few times that we were there. The same goes for Tulum and surrounding areas.

Location: Downtown Playa Del Carmen

9. English Is Not Widely Spoken Outside Touristy Areas

Most of the locals you interact with during your trip will either be working in your hotel, in shops you visit, or in restaurants you eat at. A majority of these people know at lest some basic English, and you should have no problem communicating with them. The further outside of the touristy areas that you travel however, the less are the chances of the locals speaking a decent amount of English or any at all.

I've never had a language issue while traveling to Mexico, but I do speak Portuguese fluently which is quite similar. If you're concerned that the language barrier may be an issue for you, you shouldn't be. There will be people at the airport who speak perfect English, so they will be able to help you with any issues or guidance.

A majority of the people working in transportation know at least some English and you will be fine even if you need to give directions to a cab driver. The resorts and hotels often place their best linguists (a person who knows many languages well) at the front desk, so checking in and out of your accommodation will be a piece of cake.

Basically, you should only be concerned about communication if you venture out into the middle of nowhere. If you want to get a more authentic Mexican experience by going into lesser known locations, don't expect people to speak English. In this case, it would be helpful to know some basic words in Spanish.

Bring a Spanish-English dictionary with you in case your phone has zero service (very common in some areas) and you can't access Google Translate. I recommend getting this one from Amazon for less than $10.

10. Drink Mostly Filtered Water

If you haven't traveled much outside of the country, your stomach probably doesn't have the strength to handle a lot of foreign bacteria. Although the water in Mexico is clean and safe, some people have a hard time simply because their bodies are not used to it. Lucky for you, a majority of hotels and resorts offer free (and unlimited) bottled water.

So, if you happen to be a newbie to the area, you might want to stick to drinking just bottled or filtered water during your stay. You should have no problem with brushing your teeth or having drinks with ice in them. Like I said, the water is clean. Neither me or anyone in my family has gotten sick off the food or water in Mexico.

If you have a weak stomach, however, I highly recommend bringing some Pepto-Bismol. I recommend bringing the chewable ones instead of the liquid bottles. They are easier to carry and you won't have any issues with airport TSA. There is a chance that you may need it and won't be able to find it in Mexican pharmacies. Trust me, you'll thank me later.

That's it! I hope these tips can help you get the best out of your trip to Mexico. Thanks for reading!

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