Here is basic information to help prepare you for the ride across Mexico. If you think of more tips to add, let me know!
According to the US Department of State, if you are a US citizen you do not need a visa to enter Mexico for trips that last less than 180 days. Our bicycle adventure is scheduled to last approximately 80 days, so no visa should be needed. (For our British and Australian adventurers, check entry requirements with your own government.)
You do need a valid passport to enter Mexico. I advise making a photocopy of your passport and keeping it with you in a different place than the passport itself.
Additionally, you must get a tourist card when you enter the country. There is a small fee for these, something like US $20. If you are flying into Mexico you will probably be given this card automatically from your airline when landing. However, if you are entering Mexico by bus or bicycle, there is a very strong chance no one will tell you you need this card. I have entered Mexico by bus and not even had my passport checked. It is up to you to ask a Mexico customs official at the border for your tourist card. Sometimes they speak English; otherwise Necesito una tarjeta de turismo por favor (I need a tourism card, please) should do the trick.
It’s important to get your tourist card because police anywhere in Mexico may ask you for proof that you are in the country legally. The tourist card is your proof. We will likely be stopped by police a number of times during our journey, because a group of cyclists is an unusual sight. Keep your tourist card somewhere safe with your passport.
You will also need to show this card when you leave Mexico, or else risk paying some steep fines.
(And as stated many times elsewhere on this blog, do not bring guns or illegal drugs on this trip! Both will land you in jail in Mexico very, very quickly—and we will be searched.)
I offer an overview of the crime situation in our Safety & Security in Mexico page. Although we have planned our route to avoid as much organized crime as possible, it’s also important to practice day to day street smarts. A few observations from my past visits to Mexico:
- Theft can happen anywhere. I have never had anything stolen in Mexico, but I’m also very careful about keeping hold of my belongings. If you are working on a your laptop at a cafe, take it with you if you leave the table even for a moment. Don’t leave money or valuables laying out in a hotel room.
- Mexico has a reputation for pickpockets, but these are mostly in extremely crowded areas. (The subway system of Mexico City is particularly notorious.) Be aware of your surroundings in crowded public markets and consider keeping your wallet somewhere harder to reach than just a pocket.
- Although I often forget to do this, it’s a good idea to keep some cash in a pocket and your cards and other cash somewhere else. That way if you are robbed you can hand them cash without losing everything.
- Many people have advised me to never let my credit/debit card out of sight, even to a waiter at a restaurant. But when dining at a restaurant in a town where tourists are common I feel safe using my card. If in doubt, pay cash.
- ATMs are everywhere in Mexico. You can take out money in local currency when you need it, and the fee is often lower than a money changer would charge you. I try never to carry more than $2,000-4,000 pesos (US $150 to $300) at any time.
The most important thing to remember safety-wise in Mexico is to stick together and don’t make yourself a target. Let’s be cautious about where we go after dark, and tell each other where we’re going before we split up. Everyone is free to explore on their own but it may be smartest to take a buddy.
In particular, avoid getting drunk. A huge portion of muggings, scams and kidnappings begin in bars or when a tourist is walking home drunk. The same goes for drug use—it’s better off avoided altogether.
Everyone has heard “don’t drink the water in Mexico.” This is true. But many first-time travelers to Mexico don’t realize how minor of an issue this is.
No one in Mexico drinks tap water, not even locals. Bottled water is available anywhere and everywhere. Corner stores sell garrafones (5-gallon jugs) as well as 1-gallon containers. Hotels may have water dispensers for guests, and may or may not ask you to throw some pesos in a jar whenever you use them.
Whenever we roll into a rest stop on our bikes we will likely buy a large jug of water and divide it up into our respective water bottles.
Local water is fine for some uses. I always brush my teeth with tap water, and of course you will bathe/shower in local water as well.
Although many people are wary of ice in Mexico, locals do not generally make ice from tap water. Ice is purchased in bags at the store or delivered in bags to restaurants, and is made from filtered water. I feel comfortable ordering a drink with ice in it in Mexico.
One thing to be wary of is fresh produce. It either comes unwashed or has been washed in tap water. You will need to wash it again yourself, thoroughly, if you plan to eat it raw (as in a salad). I suggest using bottled water for this. I do sometimes order salads at restaurants just because I love greens but this is admittedly a risky proposition in Mexico.
While these precautions will go along, way, almost everyone gets “traveler’s diarrhea” at some point during long trips in Mexico. Expect it will happen once or twice and know that basic treatments, like rest, water & anti-diarrhea medication, will get you through most of the time. I have biked long distances with serious diarrhea and it is possible, although if someone is seriously ill we can take an extra rest day or plan to meet up via bus at the next town.
Food and Culture
In general Mexicans have always been friendly and polite to me. Traveling in Mexico is by and large enjoyable and fun. Sometimes it may be harder for us, especially in smaller towns where tourists are less common. If we are polite and friendly, however, I believe we will see the same in return.
Some things to be aware of:
- Mexican meal times are different than ours. There is a huge mid-afternoon meal sometimes called comida and there is no big dinner later on. Many businesses close in the afternoon during the traditional comida and siesta time. The moral is: if we are invited to stay with a Mexican family, don’t expect a big evening meal. Restaurants re-open in the evening and street food is common at night.
- Street food is amazing in Mexico. Some travelers are afraid to try it, worried that it is somehow dirtier than what’s available in restaurants. The only time I’ve gotten food poisoning in Mexico was from an indoor, sit-down restaurant; it’s really luck of the draw. With street food vendors, look for those that seem to have freshly made food and not food that has just been sitting out forever. Use your own judgment.
- Things move at a slower pace in Mexico. Expect most events or plans to start within 30 minutes of the time they are scheduled to start. Exception: buses. Expect your bus to leave exactly at the moment it is schedule to, even if you are running up to the door as it pulls away. (This prompt departure does not mean they will arrive at their destination on time, however.)
- Yes, Mexican food is spicy. But for most dishes you add the spice yourself, however much or little you want. If you have white skin most restaurants will warn you before serving you anything spicy.
- Many Mexicans speak English and may switch to English with you. This is as much for their benefit (moving things along, and getting a chance to practice with an English speaker) as it is for yours.
Travel costs have risen dramatically in Mexico over the past ten years and it is no longer the land of cheap vacations that many Americans think of it as. It is still generally cheaper than the US, however. Here are some rough estimates of costs:
- The cheapest meal you will likely get will be eating street food. Expect to pay about $40 pesos (US $3) to fill up.
- A typical sit down meal will include bread, a main dish, possibly coffee (breakfast) or soup (lunch) and sometimes a cup of agua fresca (fruit drink). These will be $80-120 pesos (US $6-9).
- It’s hard for me to predict what a hotel will cost, because it depends where we are. I’m not sure we’ll find US $10/night hotels anymore (maybe in smaller towns). I would expect $40/night to be common and in larger cities it may be similar to US prices, up to US $100/night. Cities are also likely to have hostels, however.
- Wi-fi is free in most hotels and restaurants if you have your own computer. Cities have internet cafes where you can pay to use a computer with internet in 10-minute blocks.
- Waiters are only tipped about 10% in Mexico and only if they have done a good job. Tipping is common for many other professions to, however—if someone carries your bags for you or performs any minor service for you, give them 5 pesos.
Have I left anything out?