How to travel Mexico like a Local
- the ultimate guide for those who do not want to look like a tourist
Do you love travelling but hate being recognized as a tourist – or worse, by your nationality? Do you want to have an authentic experience in Mexico and see it through the eyes of locals? Then this guide is for you. Find out how the average Mexican travels and how you can get a truly authentic experience.
Please note that this article includes affiliate links, meaning that if you purchase via those links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This is my way of making a little money from my work but I only link to products I support and am always completely honest in my opinions.
To begin with, if you are travelling through various areas of Mexico, you already have seen more of the country than many Mexicans. My parents-in-law, for example, do not even understand the concept of travel. They only leave their village if they have to run errands in one of the bigger cities. But the younger generation are beginning to explore their country with a lot of pride. There is an increasing number of Mexican travel channels out there. Viajefest, for example, is a very popular youtube channel in Spanish run by a Mexican couple that explore their country in weekend trips.
So how do Mexicans travel their country?
Getting from A to B like a local
If they can afford to, they take the car, rather than the bus. This is more flexible and somewhat safer as you never know what the bus driver or fellow passengers are up to. Keep in mind, though, that travelling by car does not only cost you gasoline, but also the motorway tolls. You calculate the toll fees for your route here. Many Mexicans prefer to take the smaller free roads to avoid tolls. Whether this is worth it, considering the extra petrol and additional time, depends on the route you are travelling. Also keep in mind that old lorries – often without brakes – tend to take the free roads and pose an additional danger to everyone in their way. Unfortunately, quite a lot of accidents happen due to the negligence of lorry drivers.
Flying is also an option if you want to travel a larger distance. Check VivaAerobus and Interjet for low-cost national flights. They might be even cheaper than taking the bus.
For busses, there usually are first- and second-class options. The first-class busses have a toilet on board (which has its advantages and disadvantages), air-conditioning and a set of on-board tvs that show pirated movies during the entire trip. And the busses are newer. Second class busses usually are very run down, but they are often considerably cheaper, and you can avoid the bus driver’s bad taste in movies. ADO is the biggest first class bus line. Second class busses depend on regions.
Dress like a local
A huge difference between locals and tourists is the way they dress. You can spot a tourist (or a member of the Mexican upper class) from miles away. Hot-pants and a fashionable loose shirt worn in the city are a sure-fire sign for a tourist (or someone with a private driver). No “normal” Mexican woman who travels the city by metro and lives in one of the lower middle-class neighbourhoods would dare to dress like that. The reason is quite simple: Sexual harassment and violence against women. It is sad, but it is the truth. Dressing in dark colours and covering up is how most Mexicans women protect themselves when they leave the house. I have adapted to this behaviour to a large degree, simply because I do not feel safe in my pretty outfits.
Another way to spot foreigners by the way they dress is the fashion. Most Mexicans cannot afford to renew their wardrobe regularly. And if they buy clothes, they do so on the local tianguis (market) or a neighbourhood boutique that sells 100% plastic from China. The fashion reminds me of what Europeans wore in the 2000s. If you dress in the latest fashion, you will stick out. So if you are worried about blending in in Mexico, it is totally fine, even recommendable, to take your older clothes.
What I found really strange in the beginning was the Mexican swimwear. Most Mexicans swim in their normal clothes! I thought they had forgotten their swimsuits when I first saw a Mexican family in the sea with their shirts and trousers on. But my husband soon explained to me that they are only trying to protect their skin from the sun. And it makes total sense. The sun burns a lot here, and the water of course magnifies the effect. Instead of buying ridiculously expensive sunscreen, people just use their clothes as a protector. It still feels weird to me to go into the pool with a t-shirt, but it is one of the Mexican customs that I think are definitely worth adopting.
Eat like a local
Locals do not eat in fancy restaurants – unless they have a lot of money, of course. But most people do not, and even just the look of a place can scare them into thinking they could never afford it. While some of the up-scale restaurants I’m sure are worth a visit, oftentimes street food or the food in a small local fonda is even more delicious and so much cheaper. If you want an authentic travel experience in Mexico, I absolutely recommend you eat like the locals.
Food is a hugely important part of Mexican culture, especially street food. If you have never had a taco from a roadside stall, you do not really know Mexico. Here is an introductory guide to Mexican street food for you. And find out in this post what traditional Mexican dishes you should try in a fonda or restaurant.
Snacking is also hugely popular in Mexico, especially with vacationists. Wherever you go, you will find vendors that sell crisps and cheetos (pronounced “tchetoes” by the locals) and Mexicans love to pour a sour-spicy sauce type valentina over them. Other popular snacks are fruit cocktails with chili sauces and roasted seeds and nuts.
Shop like a local
If you want to buy souvenirs on your trip to Mexico, there is one basic rule you need to follow if you do not want to be ripped off: Never accept the first price. You need to haggle. Every Mexican does this automatically, because they know that the first price is not the real asking price. As a foreigner, you probably will still end up paying quite a bit more than a local. But there are several ways to avoid that:
If you get an idea of what something is really worth beforehand, e.g. by shopping around or sending a Mexican friend to ask, you have a much better bargaining position. Next, you need to stay firm. If you feel like you have reached a dead end in the negotiations, simply thank the vendor and leave. This is perfectly acceptable. He might come after you with a better price. If not, so be it. Only pay what you are comfortable paying. If you come from the West, this will probably still be above value.
My husband likes to ask: “What is the lowest price you can give me?” (“Cuante es lo menos?”) This question usually speeds up the haggling process and shows if the vendor is open to negotiations. Also, he never shows himself too interested in a product because that might set the starting price a lot higher right from the beginning. Follow these guidelines and shopping like a local will not be as hard as you might think.
Be safe like a local
Safety is a huge topic in Mexico. While touristic areas usually are among the safest, it never hurts to be on your guard. My husband, just like most Mexicans, has a built-in danger prevention mode. For example, he always takes care to store everything so that the car looks empty before he leaves it. In a city he does not know, he always secures his car with a steering wheel lock. He stores his valuables in different areas so that not all would be stolen at once. He never carries a lot of cash on him. He always is aware of what is going on around him and immediately spots suspiciously parked cars or people following us. And we do not wear any jewellery, or anything that looks expensive, to avoid being robbed.
The credo here is: Do not look like robbing you could be worth it.
It goes without saying that you should also avoid dark alleyways and empty or dodgy areas, especially after dark. Mexicans are very suspicious of everyone they do not know. While this might sometimes be exaggerated, keep in mind that the police does not work very efficiently, so you have to protect yourself. Do not give out any personal information or your travel itinerary to anyone.
If you stick to those basic safety principles, you should be absolutely fine.
Speak like a local
Language matters. If you do not speak Spanish, you of course will be recognized immediately as a foreigner. Things like haggling or ordering food will be a lot trickier since most Mexicans speak only very little English. Mexican Spanish is quite distinct from Castellano and other Latin American accents. If you want to really blend in and sound like a local, get this audio guide to Mexican slang before your trip.
Chatting with the people around you is the polite thing to do here in Mexico. Conversations always stay on a very platonic level and avoid potential danger zones such as personal information or politics. But you can get quite a lot of information about a place by, e.g. chatting to the taxi or uber driver. We got the best restaurant recommendation ever from our taxi driver in Playa del Carmen. Many locals are proud to show off their hometown. Simply listening to them can give you a far greater insight than any guidebook.
Go where the locals go
Do not be afraid to eat in places with plastic chairs and plastic plates. The interior design is no indicator for the quality of the food that is served. Just check that you are okay with the food hygiene. Also, do not be afraid to go to a local tianguis and look around what they sell. I think markets are always a great insight into a country. And you can get some truly delicious, fresh and cheap food there. Go to the city’s zócalo to hang out at the locals’ favourite meeting point.
Many Mexicans also love to take organized adventure tours on their vacation and adventure parks like Xcaret in Quintana Roo are hugely popular. This might not be your thing, but you will surely get a great insight into Mexican family vacation if you go there. Be like a Mexican and shop around for the best package offers.
Stay like a local
Mexicans love airbnb. You will find tons of options in every major tourist city and even some villages have a few Airbnb hosts. The value-for-money is usually excellent. There is no wonder that Airbnb has become the favourite way for younger Mexicans to travel. You can find anything from a basic room in a family home from around € 10 per night to a luxury mansion with a private pool for € 100. Since travelling in Mexico, I am a huge fan of Airbnb. If you want to try it, click my personal invitation link here to get € 32 off your first stay.
These are just a few tips to experience Mexico like a local.
How do locals travel in your country? I would love to hear from you in the comments.