Some Americans head to Mexico to relax on the beach, while some cross the border to experience the culture, learn about the history, and enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine. Both approaches are perfectly acceptable -- it’s a vacation, not a field trip, so if you’re looking to spend some time on the beach while sipping a cocktail, nobody’s going to judge you.
However, regardless of how you’re spending your vacation in Mexico, you should know how to avoid some common faux pas. Nobody wants to look like a tourist (or, at least, a thoughtless tourist). Here are a few of the most common mistakes that Americans tend to make in Mexico, along with tips for making your trip slightly easier.
1. Splitting Checks At Mexican Restaurants
Mexicans don’t split checks. Typically, one person will insist on paying, and then the other person will insist on paying, and then they’ll go back and forth for a while until one person pays, but they’ll never go Dutch. As such, Mexican restaurants aren’t used to splitting bills, so even if you’re traveling with fellow tourists, you should follow suit -- pay up, then settle with your friends later.
While we’re on the subject, try to pay in cash wherever possible. Larger stores may take credit cards, but smaller stores, restaurants, and mercados (Mexican markets) prefer cash. Tipping is acceptable in Mexico; tip 10 percent for good service and 15 percent for outstanding service.
2. Expecting American Standards Of Punctuality
Generally speaking, Mexicans don’t like to watch the clock. Store hours are unpredictable, especially in smaller towns, and even in major cities, buses rarely run on time. Sit down at a restaurant, and you might wait half an hour to get your food, and you’ll probably wait even longer for your check.
Punctuality simply isn’t a big deal in most circumstances, especially when you’re spending your leisure time. Don’t expect the culture to change on your behalf, and plan your itinerary accordingly, particularly if you’re using public transportation.
3. Paying Full Price For (Some) Items
In Mexico, bartering is commonplace, and smaller stores set their prices fairly high, assuming that patrons will counter with a reasonable offer. If you’re purchasing something at a mercado and you don’t want to get ripped off, you’ll need to do a little bartering. It’s not a difficult process, provided that you understand some basic Spanish; simply ask the price, make an offer, and meet the vendor somewhere in the middle.
Of course, some types of stores don’t barter with their customers, and that’s where tourists sometimes make mistakes. You shouldn’t try to barter at a major department store, with street vendors, or at the local coffee shop. When in doubt, ask a local about the bartering etiquette (or simply pay full price if you’re uncomfortable with this part of Mexican culture).
4. Sticking With “Safe” Mexican Foods
Tacos are wonderful, and authentic Mexican tacos are well worth your hard-earned pesos. However, if you spend your vacation dining on burritos and fajitas, you’ll miss out on Mexico’s incredible culinary culture.
Depending on where you’re traveling, you’ll have access to an incredible variety of foods, from Gulf dishes like huachinango a la veracruzana (Veracruz-style red snapper) to barbacoa (slow-cooked red meat, similar to American barbecue). These will expand your palate considerably, provided that you’re able to go outside of your comfort zone.
Hit the local restaurants and food stalls, and if you can communicate in Spanish, ask the locals for their recommendations. Whatever you do, don’t avoid a tantalizing menu item simply because you’re afraid of mispronouncing it -- you’ll miss out on some incredible gastronomical delights.
5. Worrying Too Much About Safety
You should take security into consideration when planning any trip to a foreign country. Check the Department of State’s travel advisories, avoid showing obvious signs of wealth, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
With that said, millions of American tourists visit Mexico every year without issue. Most major Mexican cities are quite safe for tourists, and as long as you use common sense, you don’t need to spend your vacation worrying about your safety.
6. Not Greeting People On The Streets
If you’re walking the streets at night, don’t be surprised to hear a chorus of buenas noches directed toward you.
Politeness is extremely important in Mexico, and though Mexicans will give you some leeway if you’re a foreigner, you’ll fit in better by learning a few greetings and common sayings. Learn how to say good morning, good evening, and good night (buenos dias, buenas tardes, and buenas noches, respectively), since you’ll use them almost constantly. While you’re at it, learn a few other basic phrases: Disculpe and perdon (“excuse me” and “pardon me”) are essential unless you’re exclusively spending your time at a resort.
Really, the more Spanish you learn, the more comfortable you’ll feel -- and even if you mangle your Spanish, the locals will appreciate your attempt to speak the language.
7. Assuming That They Know Mexico
The first time I visited Mexico, I went to Cancun and stayed at a beach resort. It was wonderful, and I’d recommend that type of vacation to just about anyone. The second time, I visited a small town in Michoacan, where I slept in a room without air conditioning in 90-degree heat. It was wonderful, and I’d recommend that vacation to just about anyone, too.
Mexico is a massive country with hundreds of distinct cultures. You can spend time in the mountains, lounge on a beach, or explore small towns, but don’t assume that any single vacation counts as “seeing Mexico.”
In other words, stay in the moment and let the experiences come to you. Mexico is an incredible travel destination, and the fewer preconceptions you take with you, the more you’ll enjoy yourself.