A few tips for traveling in 2019 Mexico

Nothing earthshaking but maybe one or two will be helpful

We spent just two weeks in three very different cities–Puebla, Taxco, and Mexico City, but picked up a few ideas about what to do/look out for that might help you on your next Mexican journey.

  • Do not fear the buses–once you are on, they are really superior modes of travel. No chickens in the aisle or scary driving, really! However, get some help if you can from your host or hotel in understanding how to reserve and purchase seats. See the earlier post on bus travel for some examples.
  • Street food is great. We ate everything that looked good and had nary a stomach upset. We found no reason for any continued concerns about lettuce or ice cubes.
  • The fruit/juice stands are a bargain and the juice could not be fresher. They seem to open at 8am Monday-Saturday, and in Mexico City they are in steel booths, permanently installed on sidewalks so they are reliable when you need something to drink. An enormous (styrofoam) cup is around 38 pesos. We would buy one on the way back to the hotel from coffee/breakfast, mix it with bottled water, and we carried these with us all day. More nutritious and renewing than plain water and delicious. We were there in the mandarin orange season so could get orange (jugo naranja) or mandarin (jugo mandarino). These stands also sell various kinds of fruit and fruit salads. Ask.
  • We also recommend the agua frescas that are sold in stands all over the place. You may see up to 10 big glass jars of different colors lined up on the counter–do not be shy about asking what they are. We always asked, but so did everyone else, natives and tourists alike. When you see agua fresca on a menu, just ask which kinds. Typical in restaurants, like here, are horchata, tamarindo, and jamaica (ha-my-ee-ka), but they often have others. Because the flavors change often everyone asks, not just dumb tourists.
  • It is tricky at times getting change for large bills, large being anything from 100 pesos and up. While everyone is very gracious about getting you change, it can be a hassle for them so try to plan ahead. Our hotel had change once of the four or five times we asked, so it wasn’t easy but we tried.
  • Uber is safe, reliable and very inexpensive–quite a bit less than taxis. Because of the potential change issue we were wary of taxis (and having to understand the amount quoted and figuring out a tip–though tips are not common in taxis unless there’s a lot of luggage wrangling involved). Uber drivers were unfailingly polite and some were positively delightful, offering ideas for what to see, interested in our reactions to Mexico. None but one spoke any English, so sitting quietly was just fine. We used Uber about 20 times in two weeks including many that were 30+ minutes, and the total we spent, with tips, in Mexico was less than we paid a Lyft driver to take us home from the Oakland airport, a 20 minute ride.
  • Silver jewelry shopping in Taxco is highly recommended. Prices are good but the selection is infinite. If this is a high priority for you, do visit on a Saturday when the weekly market is a riot of vendors, including many buying in bulk to sell elsewhere.
  • Museum gift shops do tend to carry high quality examples of artisan items and at good prices. They seem to curate their inventory pretty carefully, and you often see items that are elsewhere but a step up in quality. They are also well equipped to wrap breakables–street vendors and small shops, such as in La Ciudadela in Mexico City, do not have bubble wrap.
  • YouTube travel and foodie videos are worth the time before you go. We found several places that had been recommended and were very glad we did (e.g., Tia Calla in Taxco). We also stumbled on a very short video explaining how to find the bus ticket counters at the airport (see below) which, being our first day in Mexico was very comforting.
  • If you are flying to Mexico City and going on from there by ground, do not worry about bus connections. The Mexico City Airport has bus ticket counters and very frequent buses to many cities and you can count on walking right up and getting on a bus within the hour, often much less. While there are discounts for old people (65+) and children, they are limited in there are only a certain number available per bus. So you may qualify but they are simply sold out. Bus tickets are so cheap this shouldn’t concern you, but don’t think you’re being scammed if they say there are no child fares or if the ticket seller says she has to check to see if there are any available. The only time we felt something strange was going on was when, two times, our bus was stopped and boarded by officials asking about “discuentas.” They were checking ID to make sure the discounted tickets had been sold appropriately.
  • Random help from strangers was common and we were never steered wrong. If you look confused it’s common someone will come up and try to help. It was always sincere and a few times it made quite a difference. For example, when we walked out of Teotihuacan and were standing at the road looking around for the stop for the bus back to Mexico City, a young guy who was selling something (hats? tour guides?) came over to us and asked if we were looking for the bus back to “Mexico” as they call Mexico City. When I said yes he quickly pointed across the intersection and said (in Spanish) “That’s your bus–hurry!” Don’t be overly suspicious is the tip here.
  • Beggars were somewhat common, always women, older indigenes women or young women with babies. Just say no if so inclined. They can be persistent but never obnoxious. We saw more local people giving money than obvious tourists.
  • This is a very personal piece of advice. I never bargain with street vendors and suggest you do the same. There’s nothing wrong with paying the stated price. You’re not getting taken advantage of. You are not being scammed because you look like a gringo. Get into your head a quick translation of pesos to dollars so you can remember that everything is extremely inexpensive (because they use $ for pesos it takes a day or so). As a visitor with the money to buy a plane ticket and eat in nice restaurants and even hire private tour guides, you can easily afford to pay the price without haggling.
  • A second piece of advice–don’t take photos of people (or of their dogs) without asking. If it is a vendor I ask only after purchasing something–anything. The local people are not there to look picturesque for you, they are trying to make a living. Be respectful, in other words. I was never refused, and just asking makes all the difference. Memorize the sentence “may I take a photo please?” in Spanish and use it.
  • Have fun in Mexico!

Buses in Mexico are wonderful…except…

Bus travel in Mexico is inexpensive—shockingly so at times—and the buses are extremely comfortable and welcoming. For trips longer than an hour you get a drink, sometimes water, sometimes your choice of a soda, often a cookie or other small snack. The seats are reserved, are often memory foam, they recline, there is space for carry-on. Larger luggage is carefully placed in storage under the bus—no tossing of bags or rough handling. It’s so nice.

However, it is ridiculously hard to ascertain schedules or even which bus company goes where. There are myriad bus companies which often have their own terminals and might have more than one in a single city. Sometimes you seem to be able to reserve seats and sometimes not. Sometimes you can buy a ticket online, sometimes not. In smaller cities there may be several terminals each for just one company, while in Mexico City the terminals are akin to airports in the US. Enormous, with arrivals and departures via separate concourses, restaurants and shops just like an airport.

Our only almost disaster was our trip from Puebla to Taxco. First, Abraham the guest services Superman at Meson Sacristia spent one morning unable to find any company that had a route to Taxco. Then, he found the company but was unable to reserve us seats so urged us to get to the terminal early. The second day of his efforts he got us a reservation, via the city of Cuernavaca, told us the time, and instructed us that we would be able to purchase our tickets to Cuernavaca and on to Taxco from the Puebla terminal. When we got to the terminal we attempted to do so, but the young lady, after checking with a co-worker, told us we would be able to buy the ticket when we got to the Cuernavaca terminal. Phew. All on a single company, Estrella Oro.

We arrived in Cuernavaca and went straight to the counter to buy our second leg.

“We don’t go to Taxco. You need to go to the Estrella Blanca terminal.”

Yikes. We hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Estrella Blanca. He asked where we were headed, we answered Taxco, and he started a long and complicated explanation of routes and roads and different bus terminals as he drove through the city. I was finally able to slow him down as he seemed to be saying we wanted the “other” Estrella Oro terminal. This seemed weird, but okay. Then he assured us that there was a 3pm bus on Estrella Oro to Taxco. I am wondering how he would know this, and whether he was trustworthy as we drove on and on through the city—it was around 2:15 so a tiny bit of worry started creeping into my mind. If he was wrong, and we were at the wrong terminal…

He suddenly turned into an Estrella Oro station, saying again he was sure there was a 3pm bus to Taxco. We paid him and, still doubtful entered the station. There were a few people at the counter so as we waited we watched the rolling list of departures on a screen, which kept flipping from alphabetical to time of day order, back and forth. No sign of Taxco. Now we got really worried, aggravated by David’s discovery he had left his pullover sweatshirt in the taxi. I cautiously approached the counter. Could we buy tickets to Taxco?

Of course—the bus left at 3pm. All was wonderful! Why did the young lady at the other Estrella Oro terminal tell us they didn’t go to Taxco? We will never know.

Another thing about traveling in Mexico, there are surprise inspections that can be disconcerting if you are the panicky type. As we lined up to board the bus we were pulled aside by a federal police officer who wanted to check our passports and entry/departure forms. I had stashed the forms in a safe place but we offered our passports to be admonished, in an officious but not unfriendly way, to keep the forms tucked next to a particular page of the passports. He explained “Immigration!” But then he smiled and waved us on the bus. In 90 minutes we were in Taxco, after being stopped again by an official who wanted to inspect ID for anyone who had a discounted ticket. ?? The same man appeared on the bus out of Taxco to Mexico City, for the same purpose.

The next day when leaving Teotihuacan the bus was stopped by police—two men, one of whom video’d every person’s face, the other strode up and down the aisle looking serious. Then they said “have a good trip” and left.

Oh, one more oddity—the buses show movies, and what a hodgepodge! We laughed with our friend Christina, who lives in Mexico City, about the completely random movies that show up. For example, on the way to Taxco the movie was The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal, an indie remake of an Israeli film about a 5 year old poetry prodigy with whom his teacher, Maggie, becomes obsessed. Hardly a mainstream offering. Whatever, the trip was scenic, fast, and we got where we needed to be.

Someone should start a travelocity-type service for bus travel here. It would make so much sense!