12 Mistakes Most Tourists Make When Visiting Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country. It is widely known for its rich history and for being one of the most influential Latin American cities in terms of culture, tourist sites, and world economy.
Whether you’re visiting Mexico City to experience its wonderful traditions first hand, enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine, visit its historical sites, or to venture on a business or personal project, make sure to avoid the mistakes most tourists make when visiting Mexico City.
Before we delve into the list of the 12 mistakes when visiting Mexico’s capital, let’s review a few of the facts about Mexico City.
Facts About Mexico City
Known as the Aztecs’ Tenochtitlan, it is the oldest capital city of the New World. After their invasion in 1585, the Spanish renamed it Ciudad de México, and designated it as their financial, administrative, and social center.
When Alexander von Humboldt visited Mexico City for the first time, he gave it the name of “The City of Palaces” (La ciudad de los palacios), and wrote a letter where he stated that “it could rival any major city in Europe.”
Mexico City is home to more than 22 million people, and it is the largest and most populated city of the country. It is also one of the megacities of the world, and was once the second most-populated of the planet. Today, it is the fifth after Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai and Sao Paulo.
The weather is very noble and rarely goes to extremes. The average low and high temperature is 43ºF and 80ºF. It is actually a common joke among chilangos—how we call ourselves: people born or residing in Mexico City—that we experience all seasons on the same day.
Chilangos hardly go anywhere without a sweater or jacket “just in case,” and an umbrella if it’s the rainy season.
If you visit from November to June, prepare for warm weather and a lot of sunlight. From July to October you can do all sorts of activities in the morning, but it will likely rain in the afternoon. It is still a great season to visit because everything is green, streets are empty, and there are no torrential rains, so don’t worry.
Now let’s get into the 12 most common mistakes that tourists make when visiting Mexico City!
1. Thinking That It’s Unsafe
Thinking Mexico City is as unsafe as the tabloids say might make you doubt choosing it as your destination. But enough internet research will show that this isn’t true.
Of course there are some neighborhoods that are less safe than others, but they are easy to avoid. I recommend you don’t walk around them looking for a metro station late at night.
Most tourist places are safe and even guarded by local authorities. This happens when the place’s first income is tourism.
In Mexico City, many places are tourist attractions so the odds of getting a bad experience there are extremely low—and especially if you follow the following guidelines:
Don’t flaunt your valuables.
Keep them in a safe at your hotel or with you in a bag or pocket with zippers.
Avoid unsafe neighborhoods.
There is no need to visit them. Some are very interesting and have beautiful attractions, but you should double check each before going—and don’t risk yourself for a picture.
Don’t walk on the street late at night.
Unless it is a place like the Condesa or Polanco neighborhood, which are perfect for restaurant hopping and shopping since they are some of the safest and most modern neighborhoods in Mexico City.
Don’t fall for cheap tricks.
If someone asks you if a wallet full of money is yours and it isn’t, don’t pay attention and keep walking. These tricks aren’t common in Mexico City, but they can still happen.
If you are unsure about where you are going, ask the staff at your hotel for advice and a map.
Yes, even if you have internet access, you never know if your battery will run out that day. In order to understand fully, try to learn a little Spanish before arriving. I am giving you a couple of tips at the end of this post so you can travel easier, don’t miss them!
2. Eating Only In Restaurants
One of the most fun things you can do as a tourist in Mexico City is to eat street food. Depending on the stall, you will find where to sit and they will take care of you almost as if you were in a restaurant—or you will be forced to ask for food competing with 10 other people and you will eat standing up.
How can you eat on the street? It isn’t as unsanitary as it seems. Most of the food that street stalls sell is fried or steamed, so free of viruses or bacteria! But we have standards for this food category too.
Beware of the safety measures the clerks have and take some of my advice into consideration:
Normally one person serves the food and the other one receives the money.
If this is not the case, make sure that the people handling the money are wearing plastic gloves when they do.
Choose a place that isn’t on a busy corner of a main avenue.
Main avenues in Mexico, and especially in Mexico City, are filled with cars driving at full speed. That speed picks up floor dirt and it can get on your food. Pick a place on a more peaceful street, and preferably not at the corner. Also, if your instinct kicks in, follow it! If the place follows all the guidelines but you still feel there’s something wrong about it, go to the next one.
The only potentially risky item to consume is the sauce.
People usually think that the risky thing about eating on the street is the dirty street itself or the dirty hands of the person giving out the food. The truth is, most stalls and their sidewalk areas are super clean, especially recently due to hard-hitting COVID protocols that demand spotless food environments. The risk more likely exists with the sauce (salsa), since they often sit under the sun for long hours and can cultivate bacteria. How to avoid them? Ask the person in charge when they open. If they open at 2 p.m. and it is 3 p.m., you can stop worrying. If the answer is 8 a.m. and there is heavy sunlight, don’t try the sauce, or better yet go to a different stall (because the sauce makes up for half of the dish!).
Use copious amounts of hand sanitizer.
Since COVID, one cannot be careful enough. Take sanitizer with you and put it on the things you touch like the sauce spoon, salt shaker, and cutlery. Take extra measures just to be safe regardless if you are in a fancy restaurant or in a street stall.
COVID protocols in Mexico City indicate that there should be sanitizer available to you at all times.
What’s more, the stall should be protected with soft or hard plastic to avoid people getting too close to what the cook is making. This also protects it from dirt and other pollutants.
If it smells good, it’s probably amazing.
The last thing you have to take into account before choosing a street stall is the smell. Your nose will be the ultimate judge of the place. And once you have all your checklist covered, get ready because you are in for a treat!
3. Thinking in Stereotypes
If this is your first time visiting Mexico, and you think you will find a group of Mexicans eating tacos or burritos sitting on an unpaved street, think again. Mexico is a multicultural country with great technology and top-tier products, services, and experiences.
But also, you should know that some stereotypes do apply. You can find tacos everywhere, and I mean everywhere. You can also find mariachis at any main Mexican restaurant, as well as people singing along with them.
4. Trying To Pay Everything With a Credit Card
If your plan is to bring your credit cards and rely on them, you’re about to find some major setbacks in your trip! Cash and specifically small bills are king when it comes to the Mexican travelling economy.
Many of the products and services you will want to buy don’t accept credit cards as a form of payment. In Mexico City, and Mexico in general, you will find many souvenir stalls and travel guide services on the streets.
Meanwhile, if you plan to buy everything from your hotel, restaurants, and travel agencies, you won’t need cash as much, but eventually you will. Even if it is only for tipping—we tip most of our service providers like waiters and bell boys from 10% to 20% depending on the quality of service. If you add the tip to your credit card bill, the chances are money won’t get to them.
5. Drinking the Tap Water
Beware. Do not drink the tap water! Tap water was once drinkable but it isn’t anymore, as it’s prone to pick up bacteria and chemicals as it courses through the city. You may notice that some locals drink it, but your body isn’t used to certain types of bacteria and you should avoid consuming this water. Most hotels offer free bottles of water in bedrooms and Mexicans drink from recycled jugs (garrafones) that you can get at supermarkets or by delivery.
6. Going to Touristic Places Only in Touristic Transportation
You should go to tourist places in Mexico City, just not exclusively. Of course you have to visit the Tetihuhacán pyramids and Soumaya Museum. But also care to explore hidden gems, where only locals go. Do a little research and choose from the enormous list of what to do in Mexico City, the city that has it all.
If you are interested in literature and art exhibits, you should know that Mexico City is the world’s second city with the most museums around the world. If you are into history, you have to visit downtown and see where our revolution happened. You can also detour and see all the historic colonial buildings that will take your breath away. Some even think Mexico City is the next Paris.
When it comes to transportation, you will not find anything faster, more comfortable and cheaper than the Mexico City metro, you can go from one side of the city to another in a matter of minutes. But take into consideration the following:
- Just like the neighborhoods, there are sketchy metro stations so do a little research on which ones to avoid.
- Do not use it on pico hour or hora pico at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. These are the times of the day where the metro is overflowing with people. It’s full to the brim and requires special abilities to avoid getting into fights with heavy crowds and often leads to your valuables being stolen. Some stations of the Mexico City metro are also crowded at 3 p.m. or lunch time.
If your goal is to get to know Mexican culture beyond touristic experiences, then you’ll love the metro. Did I mention that each ride costs around a quarter?
If you don’t wish to try the Mexico City metro you can use many app transportation services like Uber, Didi, Beat, or cabs. When it comes to taxis, go to a sitio which is a taxi central, don’t just take one on the street.
7. Believing Everything Will Be on Time
Mexican time is a different time from the one on your watch. This is an important part of our culture and you should be aware of it. If a travel guide is supposed to pick you up at 7 a.m. he means around 7. If your food will be ready at 3 p.m. it means from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. If the tour ends at 8 p.m. it can easily mean 8:30 p.m. Sometimes it works against you and sometimes it favors you. Just relax and remember that you are on holiday, don’t try to push the clock around and focus on enjoying Mexico.
An interesting fact that serves as a sneak peak to Mexican culture is the meaning of the word ahorita. It comes from the word ahora which means “now.” The suffix -ita means little or small and the word becomes endearing when we say it. So, ahorita would be “little now.”
When someone tells you ahorita it means he or she will do something whenever between right now and eternity. I am not even exaggerating because sometimes people don’t do the task at all. This will not happen to you while paying for a service of course, but it is a word that we use on a daily basis and basically means “not now” but does not specify when.
While we are on the time subject, do know that we eat breakfast from 8 to 11 a.m. (depending on if we are on holiday, if it is the weekend, or if we have to rush to work), we eat lunch—which is the heaviest food of the day—between 2 and 3 p.m. and dinner between 8 and 10 p.m.
Since Mexico City is cosmopolitan you don’t have to worry about restaurants being closed at other hours, but do know that they will be empty at 1 p.m. or 5 p.m. If you want to rest from the crowds this is a good option for you. On the other hand, if you like being part of the bustle of a Mexican restaurant, be sure to get there at 3 p.m.
8. Not Exploring the True Mexican Culinary World
Not everything is tacos. Yes, they are delicious and have a wide variety of ingredients and flavors. Please try the real ones as soon as you get to Mexico City, you will remember them for life. They are the most representative dish of the culinary world of Mexico, but by eating them exclusively, you will be wasting valuable and wildly diverse experiences.
In the Northern part of Mexico there is the best meat you can find, the way they prepare steaks is unparalleled and delicious. In the southeast seafood is king and there is a unique Lebanese-Mayan-Mexican food fusion.
In the southwest, specifically in Oaxaca, you can find the widest variety of dishes in all of Mexico. And you can find all of these and more in Mexico City. You can have a taste of Oaxaca, Yucatán, Sinaloa, any state really within the limits of Mexico’s capital.
So find what’s more of your taste and try as many dishes as you can, you will not regret it.
9. Going Without a Plan
You will never have enough time to see the most worthy places of Mexico City by coming once. So you can imagine why you can’t come without a plan to one of the most crowded, rushed cities of the world.
Don’t just decide to go to beautiful Bellas Artes at noon when it will most likely be full. Have a schedule and do circuits that make sense and visit the most touristic places at the least touristic times so you can enjoy yourself without pushing yourself. Mexico City is Mexico’s New York and coming without previous research and a defined plan might waste some of your holiday time.
10. Thinking Every Salsa or Chili Is So Hot It’s Inedible
Since Mexico is the hometown of salsa, there are too many to count. The variety is wide in terms of flavors (chilli, cilantro, red tomato, green tomato, pepper) and intensity (this depends on the kind and amount of chilli). It is a myth that all Mexicans can handle their spice, that’s why you can find many salsas that aren’t as hot as others or even not hot at all.
Tree chilli (chile de árbol) or habanero chile (chile habanero) are the most famous for being hot. But the most common one in Mexico City is the tomato based green sauce (salsa verde). The spiciness goes from mild to moderate—for a Mexican—so try it before you pour it all over your tacos.
One of the street foods that are a must is the elote or esquite which is a corn cob on a stick or in a glass. It comes with mayo, salt, lime juice, cheese and chilli powder. While they are preparing yours, they will ask 100% of the time: “With spicy chili or non-spicy chili?” (¿Con chile que pica o que no pica?). For some people the idea of a non-spicy chile is wild and unlikely, but it exists somehow. You can feel sure and comfortable with the latter one or get ready for a flavor ride with the first.
12. Assuming Everyone Speaks English
This is a common mistake. Do not assume everyone speaks English because that only happens in some hotels, famous restaurants, and travel agencies. The best thing you can do to prepare is to learn a little Spanish before your trip. Saying a few things in Spanish will make people around you think of you as a prepared traveller and as someone who cares for Mexican culture and favors connection with locals.
Us Mexicans are world famous for being hospitable and friendly so you will definitely go back home with a few Mexican friends after your trip. This means a little Spanish won’t hurt but quite the opposite, it will strengthen your relationships.
If you’re looking to get to know Mexican culture, the ultimate way of doing it is through its people. I assure you you will fall in love with the language and even want to homestay with a Mexican family.
Learn Spanish and Travel More Easily
By learning Spanish you will not only be getting closer to Mexican and Hispanic culture but also be traveling with more ease to Hispanic countries. You will have no need for translators or intermediaries to negotiate with travel agents or sellers. You will also have a more comfortable experience fully understanding your guides, traveling instructions, and signs.
Forget about the language barriers that always limit your travel experience. Feel free and comfortable learning Spanish with a method focused on improving conversation skills. Here at HSA, we can help you tailor a Spanish package that meets all your travel needs and possible scenarios.
Join our 24,000+ monthly active students who trust our 10 years of expertise. Practice individually with our native Spanish teachers from Guatemala and dramatically improve your traveling experience. Are you ready to make some lifelong Mexican friends? Sign up today for a free class!
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