5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Mexico

Everything you need to know before traveling to Mexico, from mezcal and police corruption to nature and Mexican food.


5 Things Mexico Photo © Getty Images

COVID-19 (coronavirus) update: Though the land border between the US and Mexico is closed to non-essential traffic, Mexico is open to visitors from around the world. Read the latest travel restrictions and how they may affect you. Keep in mind that this article was written before the pandemic, and take appropriate steps to stay safe.

1. The truth about corruption in Mexico

It’s no surprise that the overriding media image of Mexico as a land rife with drug cartels, gun wielding mobsters, and crooked politicians contributes to fear among travelers. Certainly, there’s a questionable cadre that maintain their grip on influential industry and government posts, and collusion between local police and drug cartels is rampant. 

You don’t have to look hard to find extreme examples of corruption in Mexico. But, for travelers, corruption on the whole is not generally a problem (unless you are pulled over while driving a conspicuous black SUV rental car or you find yourself at ground zero of a protest or demonstration). While political involvement in the drug war remains the overriding issue for Mexicans, for most travelers on the ground, Mexico feels no more corrupt than Paraguay, Honduras, Argentina, or even Italy. Bear in mind that no one skips a trip to the Amalfi Coast because they're afraid they are going to wake up with a horse’s head in their bed.

2. Mexico's amazing natural beauty

From the deserts of the north to the tropical forests of the Pacific, the rich marine feeding ground of the Sea of Cortéz, or the pine forests in the Mexican Central Plateau, Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet. With its varied topography and distinct eco systems, Mexico is home to the second highest number of mammal species (540), more than a thousand species of bird, and more reptile species (700) than any other country.

In a vast country that, at times, can be a tough place to get your head around, travelers find transcendence in the country’s exhilarating natural wonders. Few experiences can rival the thrill of watching around 30 billion butterflies float around the tree forests at the eastern perimeter of Michoacán state, the winter haven for Monarch butterflies for over 10,000 years. In the mystical state of Chiapas, a place with more shades of green than you believe conceivable, the vertical walls of the jaw-dropping Cañón del Sumidero plummet to 2,600 feet.

The Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán is where the Mesoamerican Barrier reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, provides a haven for one of the world's largest populations of manatees, mammoth whale sharks, and marine turtles. And on the west coast, the lunar landscapes, surreal rock formations, hirsute cacti, and striking coastline of the Baja peninsula defy hyperbole.

In the heart of the Sierra Madre, the magnificent Copper Canyon is four times the size of the Grand Canyon. Composed by the folds and yawning gorges of over 20 copper-streaked canyons reaching a height of 7,550 feet, this is nature, hardcore. For the faint-hearted, the formidable canyons can be admired from a distance, played out with Technicolor glory on the train windows of the Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad. For the intrepid adventurer, hiking, biking, and horse riding are just some of the recreational pursuits that allow closer encounters with the bastion of biodiversity, and keeps the endorphins flowing.

3. Independence Day: Mexican History 101

Knowing a thing or two about Miguel Hidalgo, the revered 19th-century Mexican priest, freedom fighter, and father to many children (a vocational threesome that was more common than you might think) goes a long way towards making some amigos in your local cantina. Hidalgo, one of the nation’s leaders during the War of Independence, met a grisly end when he was captured and executed on July 30, 1811.

It’s also sound policy to be familiar with the seminal dates on the Mexican festival calendar.

For starters, Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo (a common gaffe), it’s actually September 16. It was on this day, in 1810, in an obscure town called Dolores in the state of Guanajuato, that Hidalgo's fabled Grito de Dolores triggered the war of insurrection (and subsequent independence from Spain).

Few locals can tell you exactly what Hidalgo actually said, but it seems that it was sufficiently arousing to motivate Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish regime.

Wherever you are in Mexico, September 16 embodies the Mexican penchant for living life loudly. The tequila-infused fervor reaches a crescendo with fireworks, parades, marching band competitions, and cars driving endlessly up and down streets with their stereos cranked to concert level.

For reference, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when Mexico defeated the French army (hence, a big celebration in Puebla).

4. Mexico is foodie heaven

With its remarkable fusion of high and low culinary techniques, not to mention its stunning tropical setting, Mexico has become a hot epicurean destination seducing gourmands the world over.

Every foodie seems intent on championing the credentials of Mexican street food. In fact, Mexican cuisine is now deemed so good that UNESCO has put it on the cultural heritage list.

Every stall in every market in Mexico provides a ringing endorsement of Mexico’s culinary heritage, and taste after palette-searing taste will make every Mexican meal (i.e. TexMex) you have ever eaten feel like a cultural atrocity. Where else in the world can you taste a succulent meat dish that has been cooked for five hours in a hole, tuck into chicken draped in fragrant mole sauce—that material expression of the Mexican spirit—served alongside purple corn, and nicely rounded off with a dollop of avocado ice cream?

Mexican foods: Pambazos

While tortas are well-known to veteran travelers in Mexico, the delights of the lesser-known pambazo sandwich have yet to reach the masses. The finest pambazo iterations are found at any village street market. Stale, white bread rolls are marinaded with guajillo chili sauce to soften and imbue the crust with an earthy terra-cotta hue. The chili-bathed bread is then dried, spliced, and loaded with toppings to create an unholy mess of Mexican staples: peppers, onions, potatoes, chorizo, black beans, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, and queso fresco. Certainly not a date meal, a pambazo is one of those explosive dishes that require a fork (for polite eaters at least) at the grand finale.

Mexican foods: Tlacoyos

Unlike your average flat corn patty, tlacoyos are mixed with either requesón (a type of soft Mexican cheese), refried beans, or fava beans before they are grilled. Popular in Oaxaca, tlacoyos – from the Nahuatl word for "snack" – were originally consumed with just a tad of salsa, pronto, before they assumed a leathery consistency. Over recent years, canny abuelas have started to modify their traditional recipes to trump the stiff competition. Ubiquitous and cheap, at stalls throughout most cities, towns, and villages you’ll find loaded versions of the humble tlacoyo reinvented with nopales (sliced cactus), refritos (refried beans), cecina (semi dried pork) and chicken, doused with sour cream, onion and grated cheese.

Mexican foods: Chicharrones

The chicharrón (fried pork rind or crackling) reaches its artery-hardening zenith in Mexico. Made with actual pork skin, chicharrónes are sold in thick sheets on the street or in the market and are generally used to deliver a salty crunch factor to tacos, tortas, or soup. Flour varietals—the Mexican equivalent of a potato chip—are commonly served in traditional cantinas, with lime and hot sauce, when you order a beer.

Mexican foods: Mole

Going to Mexico and not trying mole is like skipping lobster in Maine or a steak in Buenos Aires. Mexico is best tasted through its seven signature moles, a rainbow sauce of bitter chocolate and spice that's frequently invoked as a symbol of the fusion of Mexico’s indigenous and European heritage. Puebla is deemed the birthplace of mole, but Oaxaca and Tlaxcala also jostle for the honor. Classic mole poblano, a dark red or brown sauce served over meat, is the perfect initiation into Mexico’s culinary odyssey that blurs the boundaries of sweet and savory.

5. More than tequila: A guide to Mexican alcohol

Mexican liquor: Pulque

If you take a libation that oozed (allegedly) from the 400 breasts (no less) of an Aztec goddess named Mayahuel, chances are most alcohol fans are keen to take a shot.

Before the fire of tequila and the sultry smokiness of mezcal, there was another beverage in Mexico fermented from agave nectar: pulque.

As legend would have it, Mayahuel introduced the elixir to her godly peers, including 400 rabbit gods whose intemperance was so legendary that a ‘pulque high’ was counted in rabbit units. If you were totally hammered, you attained a score of 400 rabbits, in reference to Mayahuel's copious breasts.

In the middle ages, the Aztecs knew how to live it up. The Aztec royals, resplendent in their gold and jade encrusted costumes (often fashioned from flayed human skins), would have sipped their pulque from gilded goblets. If the common folk (known as macehualtin) were caught imbibing the sacred nectar, they would be flogged. Repeat offenders would be sacrificed to the gods. After the conquest, pulque was consumed by the masses in spit-and-sawdust pulquerías, which led to its brawny image as a poor man’s tipple.

Nowadays, pulque is experiencing something of a renaissance (especially in its more palatable cocktail iteration). Young Mexicans and international travelers revel in the authenticity of pulque’s truly pre-Hispanic qualities, not to mention its healthy profile; evidently it’s loaded with vegetable proteins.

Mexican liquor: Mezcal

When Cortés and his crew arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519 they found the milky substance with a noxious odor known as pulque too weak for their liquor-hardened livers. The conquistadors began experimenting with the maguey plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash with a bit more oomph. The result was mezcal.

Forget the gnarly, gimmicky vision of a worm adrift in palette-searing liquor. This agave-derived spirit has become the darling of mixologists the world over.

In the hip mescalerías of Mexico City, mezcal connoisseurs distinguish mezcal’s varietals with descriptions more common to scotch.

Distilled from the honey sugar solution at the heart of the maguey plant, mezcal is cooked by hand and comes in a wide variety of flavors ranging from campfire smoky to fruit-forward or nutty, depending on the production process and the type of maguey that is distilled. The agave plant is cooked for days over the cinders of an earthen oven (from where it gets its smoky taste).

In its more refined iteration, mezcal is a drink to be sipped (a ritual known as a besitos or little kisses) and savored rather than slammed. Acolytes claim that mezcal is a much purer tipple than tequila and that it goes down smoothly and never betrays you with a hangover the next day. World Nomads in no way advocates that you test this theory.

Mexican liquor: Tequila

While its cool credentials may have been usurped by mezcal, tequila remains Mexico’s most iconic export.

Technically speaking, tequila is a type of mezcal, and that’s where the nomenclature gets tricky: tequila is only tequila if it comes from the blue agave plant, which is unique to the state of Jalisco and its environment.

Fiery younger tequilas are abrasive and best used in margaritas or as a shot washed down with a partner shot of sangrita (little blood), a fruit based drink aimed at balancing out tequila’s acidity. Reposado (barrel aged for under a year) and smooth, textured añejo (aged for between one and three years) are the kind that you can happily let linger on the tongue.

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  • Andrewtcrum said

    that there are some really cheap Japanese guesthouses (hostels) that give you a whole different perspective on traveling mexico! i've got plenty of photos of that trip and more on flickr/photos/myteaone<br>keep these nomadic assistance articles flowing! thx!

  • Enrique said

    1.- Obviously , like any other country exist many people who speaks english, mostly living across States border.<br>2.- Most of the Tequila selled abroad Mexico, or is fake or is the cheapest here. So take care about drinking over doses of it.<br>3.- Nobody is such an stupid (even locals) to see when danger surrounds, not only those people uses fancy trucks. Just be rational in your own as u could be at any other country.<br>4.- The same, water is normal at any right place like everywhere. Differences come when people changes suddenly their feeding manners, condiments. People here uses to cook with fat & spice more than any other regions this is when comes the stomach disorders.<br>5.- U'll drive for rough paths & roads only if u'll come to make drug deals, if not any road is passable on normal conditions, except when is hurricans season when the rain is huge everywhere.<br><br>SO, NOT SUCH A BIG DEAL TO COME HERE, JUST ENJOY MEXICO SMELLING FREEDOM, there are more danger at some other first world countries (I'm sure of it). <br>

  • charlie said

    i've lived here all my life, and i can tell you that all you need to know before coming to mexico is :<br>- a good understanding of spanish<br>-open mind<br>- willing to try new things, meet crazy people( a good crazy way )<br>-have fun and enjoy. <br>- if you dont want to get robbed just dont dress too touristy and act confident. <br><br>:D mexico is beautiful and has so much culture and interestng things.! enjoy!

  • Nannette said

    Mexico has it all. It has culture, it has awesome architecture , colonial as well as modern. The country has a great variety of food that varies from estate to estate unlike other countries where the food varies from region to region therefore giving less to choose from. It is a combination of french, spanish, aztec and in the north there is great chinese food.<br><br>Mexico city has more museums than any other city in the world . The music varies from region to region , again, offering great variety and last but not least, the people are open and friendly.<br><br>In the north more people speak English but it is only right to make an effort and learn some basic pleasantries in Spanish.<br><br>Chiapas is one of the less traveled places . Look it up in the web. Enjoy!

  • Nads said

    If you wanna try mexican food just be cautious It is so delicious that you won't stop eating! Enjoy your travel to that gorgeous country, I love it!!!

  • Dayanna said

    What a RUDE introduction. If you've heard so many things about the "corruption" why would you even bother to go? Mexico is a beautiful place many things to see, feel and do. How would you feel is someone talked down on your country like that?

  • Pineapple Apple pen said

    I agree with Dyanna she is totally right and if we keep saying these things we might never make peace with Mexico????

  • Dee said

    @Dayanna, they DO talk terrible about our country and for GOOD reason!!! Look at our president ????

  • Elliot said

    Hi, we are planning a trip to Mexico City soon, and I just started reading about Pulque. It's been compared to Kombucha also apparently. Anyway, thanks for your advice, we're planning to try some Pulque at Las Duelistas. We also just got back from a trip to Cabo. Can't wait for all the street food! Any personal recommendations in Mexico City?

  • Scott said

    In the first paragraph of section 3 above, Hidalgo is said to have "met a grizzly end." Unless he was killed by a grizzly bear, that word should be "grisly."

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