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Mexico Travel Guide

17 Things Not Do When Visiting Mexico’s Coastal Towns

Don’t make these 17 mistakes when you head to Mexico for fun in the sun.

There is simply so much to explore in Mexico. The legendary food, enigmatic archaeological sites, rich culture, and jaw-dropping resorts make this a well-rounded destination for fun under the sun. For beach lovers, there are spectacular reefs, electric blue waters with iconic rock formations, and unspoiled, jungle-framed sandy stretches that no picture will do justice. Along Mexico’s 5,797 miles of coastline, you’ll find everything from fishing villages where cacti outnumber people to throbbing party hubs and surfer-friendly paradises. For the very best experience wherever you go, there are some things you’ll do well to avoid like playing into stereotypes, using banned sunscreen, mingling with the wrong crowds, and asking culturally insensitive questions. For a trip that’s safe, pleasurable, and memorable for all the right reasons, don’t make these mistakes. Read on for 17 things you should not do in Mexico’s coastal towns.

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Don’t Scream at People in English

So you’re going to Mexico. It might be worthwhile learning a few words and phrases in Spanish before your trip so you don’t end up being that traveler that screams everything in English and then simply projects louder when people can’t understand you. Knowing a few words in the local language is just good manners and highlights cultural openness and an awareness that not everyone speaks English even though you do.

Being able to say please (“por favor”), thank you (gracias), good morning (“Buenos dias”), where is the bathroom (“¿Dónde está el baño?“), and how much (“¿cuanto cuesta?”) will go a long way and situate you firmly in the good graces of your Mexican hosts. Also, never be caught saying, “I don’t speak Mexican,” as no such language exists.

INSIDER TIPDon’t assume that restroom door signs are in English. When you see “M,” it doesn’t stand for men, it’s for“Mujeres,” which is the Spanish word for women.

2 OF 17

Don’t Fly in With More Than One Laptop

Few people are aware that you can only bring one laptop into Mexico according to the country’s Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria), also known as SAT. If you have two computers—perhaps one for work in addition to your personal one—and fail to declare both of them, you may be fined for withholding this information and also be taxed for having the second machine. You can also only have one tent, one telescope, one pair of binoculars, one video game console, one portable audio recorder, and one blood pressure monitor.

3 OF 17

Don’t Break Laws in Mexico That You Wouldn’t Break at Home

Mexico is no stranger to salacious headlines but read between the lines, and you’ll see that many of the travelers that get into hot water often have excessive alcohol or drugs to blame. Don’t bring, sell, or purchase illicit substances from people you don’t know so as not to get mixed with the wrong crowd and open yourself up to dealings with corrupt officials or crime syndicates. Don’t lose your inhibitions, push the boundaries of legality, or behave in ways that you wouldn’t in your country. Carrying weapons, vandalism, public urination, and public intoxication are no-gos that may result in fines or imprisonment.


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Don’t Ask Locals if They Are Narcos

Drug cartels are an undeniable and unfortunate reality in Mexico, but the majority of Mexicans are law-abiding citizens that also deal with the havoc that drug trafficking wreaks on their communities. This should be fairly obvious, but you should refrain from asking someone in Mexico if they are a drug dealer (narcotraficante). Even if you meet somebody that appears to have immense wealth, it is unwise to assume that drugs are the source of their riches and then ask them about it. Not only is making such an inquiry rude and culturally insensitive, but it can be potentially dangerous if you appear to be snooping or putting unwanted attention on someone’s criminal activity.

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Don’t Forget Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Regular sunscreen won’t cut it in certain places in Mexico. A handful of destinations only allow eco-friendly, reef-safe, biodegradable sunscreen to be used in their waters. This includes marine parks like Garrafon Natural Reef Park, Chankanaab Park, and Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in Baja California Sur. Chemical ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and 4-methyl benzylidene camphor in regular sun lotions are said to decrease fish fertility, damage algae, and sea urchins, accumulate in the tissue of dolphins, and contribute to coral bleaching and even death.

As you may be traveling to different places with full or partial sunscreen bans, it’s best to choose reef-safe products for any trip to Mexico. You can find a sunscreen that protects your skin as well as the environment from brands like Sun Bum, Hawaiian Tropic, All Good, Raw Love, Kokua Sun Care, Pipette, and Suntegrity. 

6 OF 17

Don’t Only Consider Cancún and Cabo

Nightlife-heavy, buzzy, and laden with beautiful beachfront accommodations, Cancún and Los Cabos need no introduction. Beyond these superstar destinations, Mexico has countless coastal towns that are thoroughly deserving of your vacation days. About 42 miles from Cancún, there’s Playa del Carmen which has hip hotels and an enviable rooftop pool and restaurant scene (don’t leave without soaking in sumptuous views at Thompson Playa del Carmen’s Umi Rooftop + Tokyo Kitchen). Also, in the state of Quintana Roo, Akumal is a tranquil oasis where you can swim with dozens of turtles just minutes from the beach.

On Mexico’s Pacific Coast, you’ll be dazzled by Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, and Zihuatanejo. In the Baja California Peninsula, blue sky and azure water gems include La Paz, Todos Santos, and the Magic Town of Loreto, which is pleasantly under the radar with more cactuses than people and a cherished marine park (Bay of Loreto National Marine Park) that has five islands for endless aquatic adventures. Don’t only limit yourself to Mexico’s popular beach towns, as there are numerous little-known sandy spots waiting to steal your heart.

Take any opportunity you can to visit one of Mexico’s 132 “Magic Towns” that are heralded for their beauty and celebrated cultural heritage. Coastal destinations on the list include Bacalar, Isla Mujeres, Mazunte, Sayulita, Todos Santos, and Loreto.


7 OF 17

Don’t Turn Your Nose up at Local Cuisine

You’ll have nowhere to hide your face if you say you went to Mexico and didn’t devour heavenly tacos—preferably on the street. From mole and pozole to tortas and gorditas, there’s so much more to Mexican food than tacos, however. So wonderful, delicious, varied, and cherished, Mexico’s glorious cuisine found its way onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010. Be open to new tastes and textures, and by all means, get involved in the street food action. You might be unaccustomed to dishes garnished with grasshoppers (chapulines) and hearty breakfasts of corn tortillas with lavish drizzles of chili sauce (chilaquiles), but indulging in the culinary traditions is one of the very best ways to explore and celebrate Mexico.

INSIDER TIPWhen deciding where to get street tacos, rely on the wisdom of taxi drivers. If they can feasibly drive anywhere to eat and they choose a certain place, it must be for a reason. Long lines at a particular stand are also a good indication of delectableness.

8 OF 17

Don’t Think That Spring Break Is the Best Time To Visit

Be prepared to embrace a bit of madness if you choose to visit popular party towns like Cabo San Lucas and Cancún during spring break. Think rowdy revelers chugging bottom-shelf booze, “bikini” contests, foam parties, and throbbing, ultra-loud clubs. Prices skyrocket during this popular period as well, so you’ll be paying for the privilege of being in the thick of it. It is better to postpone your visit for May or June when tours and hotels are more affordable, and crowds disperse.

If you time your trip wisely, you might be able to swim with majestic whale sharks in Cancún, Isla Mujeres, or Isla Holbox from mid-May to mid-September or in Baja California Sur between November and May. If baby turtle releases are more your thing, head to Puerto Vallarta between July and December. 

INSIDER TIPWhen planning your vacation, keep in mind that Christmas and New Year are busy periods in Mexico’s highly touristed coastal towns. Also, be aware that strong-smelling sargassum seaweed builds up on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in the sargassum season between May and October.

9 OF 17

Don’t Expect to Pay in Dollars Everywhere

At many of the often-trammeled beach destinations in Mexico, like Tulum and Cancún, restaurants, bars, and shops may accept payment in U.S. dollars. However, you might limit yourself by not having any Mexican pesos to hand as you won’t be able to trade freely at markets, buy juicy street tacos, or eat at locally-loved mom-and-pop restaurants that may not accept foreign currencies or card payments. Even when you do pay with U.S. dollars, your change will be provided in pesos at a potentially unsavory exchange rate. You’ll have the richest experience and be able to say yes to whatever exciting opportunities come your way if you have some of the local currency with you.

INSIDER TIPThe best exchange rate is seldom found at the airport. Get some Mexican pesos before you arrive or withdraw from an ATM once you’re in Mexico. Where ATMs are concerned, always get cash in broad daylight and choose a machine that’s affiliated with a bank.


10 OF 17

Don’t Only Pack Beachwear

Even sun-splashed beach destinations cool down in the evenings. When the sun goes down, you’ll want to have some warmer clothing—like cardigans, jackets, shawls, and long pants—to remain comfortable during those alfresco dinners and starry beach nights that Mexican coastal vacations promise. It’s also important to bring more than just casual beachwear, as many resorts require formal or semi-formal attire at their restaurants. You’ll want to look smart when you venture off the property for special experiences like Puerto Vallarta’s Rhythms of the Night sunset cruise or when dining at one of the stylish farm-to-table eateries in Los Cabos like Acre. If you intend to visit churches and religious landmarks, having modest attire is also a good idea.

11 OF 17

Don’t Forget the Cenotes and Lagoons

You came to Mexico for the sun-kissed, silky soft beaches, but you can have the best of both worlds with sand-free swimming in cenotes and lagoons as well. Cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes. They are prevalent in the Yucatán Peninsula (comprised of the Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, and parts of Belize and Guatemala), where there are reportedly over 6,000 cenotes for your swimming pleasure. You’ll find covered and open cenotes and some with swings, zip lines, and cliffs for jumping. Some popular ones include Gran Cenote, Cristalino, Dos Ojos, and the much-photographed Cenote Suytun.

Of all the lagoons in Mexico to add to your bucket list, don’t miss Bacalar’s Lagoon of Seven Colors (Laguna de Los Siete Colores), close to Mexico’s border with Belize. Laid-back Bacalar is one of the most gorgeous parts of Mexico, which by no means lacks handsome corners, and its spellbinding lagoon shapeshifts from blue to turquoise and green, and altogether paints an otherworldly picture.

12 OF 17

Don’t Drink the Tap Water

Long, scorching days spent on the beach will leave you parched and in need of hydration. Tap water generally isn’t safe for drinking in Mexico so be sure to quench your thirst with bottled or filtered water only. When drinking and eating out, you needn’t resign yourself to room-temperature drinks because you’re avoiding ice cubes, as they are typically made with filtered water. At your hotel or accommodation, a few (glass) bottles of purified drinking water are usually provided in your room or suite, which will also come in handy for brushing your teeth. If you do happen to brush your pearly whites with tap water, rinse your mouth with purified water afterward just to be on the safe side.

13 OF 17

Don’t Drink Your Weight in Tequila

Tequila is not for pounding, slamming, getting inebriated beyond oblivion, and masking with copious amounts of salt. Slow sipping is the preferred mode of consumption to appreciate the notes and flavors of Mexico’s beloved spirit. If you’re drinking the good stuff—made with 100 percent agave—ice cubes, salt, and lime are inessential. Treat your tastebuds to smooth blancos, moderately-aged reposados, and aromatic vanilla-rich añejos for the pure joy of drinking rather than for intoxication.

To bolster your knowledge about the art of tequila drinking, ask your hotel about tastings or seek out a tequila education program. In Puerto Vallarta, Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa has its very own brand of tequila and offers informative tastings with an onsite tequila sommelier. If you find yourself in Nayarit, book Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita’s tequila blending experience, and over in San Jose del Cabo, Clase Azul’s luxurious A Taste of Culture is your best bet.

14 OF 17

Don’t Miss Out on the Meso-American Reef

Also known as the Great Mayan Reef, the Meso-American Reef is the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef and the second largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It stretches over 600 miles along the waters of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and the southeast of Mexico. You can snorkel and dive into the Meso-American Reef on the island of Cozumel, which is a 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. Cozumel also has an international airport.

Due to excellent visibility, snorkelers, as well as new and experienced divers, flock to the island for the chance to spot turtles, blue tangs, eagle rays, school masters, sergeant majors, splendid toadfish, and nurse sharks in warm waters that remain between 78ºF and 82ºF (25ºC to 28ºC) throughout the year.

If you’d like to learn how to dive into the crystal-clear waters of Cozumel, reach out to the friendly faces at Cozumel Adventures, which offers an array of PADI courses.

15 OF 17

Don’t Ignore Beach Warnings

As you bask in the sun on beautiful beaches that just beg to be enjoyed, don’t throw caution to the wind and forget all about safety. Pay attention to the color-coded flags that are placed on beaches to ensure everyone’s safety while swimming, snorkeling, and surfing. A green flag means that it is safe to enjoy the water, yellow signals a need for caution, red warns of highly dangerous conditions, and under no circumstances should you get in the water when a black flag is hoisted. Never ignore beach warnings, particularly on beaches that aren’t lifeguarded. While in the water, always be on the lookout for passing boats and jet skis to prevent any unfortunate incidents.

INSIDER TIPBefore your trip, research your destination to find out about beaches that aren’t swimmable because of jellyfish, steep drops, or riptides.

16 OF 17

Don’t Touch the Coral or Other Sea Life

The first rule of coral etiquette is to look but definitely not touch. Known as the rainforests of the sea, corals provide sanctuary and sustenance for as much as a quarter of all ocean species despite covering not even two percent of the ocean floor. Corals are delicate creatures, and touching them can cause irrevocable damage to their protective layers or even death, which in turn has detrimental ripple effects on entire ecosystems and coastlines. Don’t stand on, move, or kick them, either. When swimming, snorkeling, or diving, admire the corals from a distance and don’t be tempted to disturb or take them home as souvenirs. The same goes for any of the marine species that you encounter in the water.

17 OF 17

Don’t Just Buy Mass-Produced Souvenirs

Sure, having a key chain, shot glass, wooden iguana, mug, or charm bracelet that says Mexico in bold, colorful letters will remind you of the swell times you had. However, in order to support local communities and traditional crafts and techniques, expand your shopping horizons beyond these mass-produced items. Seek out genuine, locally-made keepsakes that have cultural significance and a story to tell about the artisans. Those are the real treasures.

Instead of a t-shirt that says “beer now, gone tomorrow” or “I love tequila,” purchase a craft brew or a tequila bottle from a brand that you won’t easily find back home. In the state of Oaxaca, pick up a specialty bottle of mezcal. In Jalisco and Nayarit, don’t leave without traditional kaleidoscopic artworks made by the Wixárika people (also known as the Huichol). Purchasing mementos like Taxco silver, Talavera pottery, alebrije figurines, obsidian carvings, and amate paintings support traditional craftsmanship that has been passed down through generations.