Frequently Asked Questions About Travel in Mexico
1) When I travel in Mexico how can I avoid food-borne illnesses?
There is no question that it is much easier to find tainted food in Mexico than in the United States. They have not yet developed the rigorous licensing, testing, and enforcement that is practiced by most U.S. health departments, and because of poor maintenance and frequent power outages Mexican refrigerators do not always hold food at the proper temperature. Nevertheless, in over 30 years of travel in Mexico, eating nearly everything I wanted, I have contracted only one serious case of dysentery, and that time I knew better than to use the mayonnaise on the restaurant table that had obviously not seen the inside of a refrigerator for some time.
A few simple rules should suffice to keep you out of serious trouble: 1) Choose restaurants the way you would anywhere: patronizing only those that obviously emphasize cleanliness. Next, choose establishments that come with several recommendations and are popular. 2) Never eat seafood except right on the coast or in a top restaurant, and avoid it when the weather is particularly hot. 3) Never eat mayonnaise or anything else that you suspect has not been refrigerated and that can quickly produce bacteria. 4) Be careful of salads or other raw foods that may not have been properly washed. 5) Some doctors suggest preventative doses of Pepto-bismol and/or antibiotics, so check with your's for a recommendation.
2) I hear a lot of stories about Americans being ripped off in Mexico, often by the police. Are these stories true, and is it safe to travel in Mexico?
It is easy for us in the United States to forget that while Mexico is making remarkable progress in many areas, it remains, in many respects, an economically deprived, third-world country. While this contributes to Mexico's mystique and ambiance in positive ways and makes it a financial bargain, it also creates problems, some of them serious. After the financial crash of 1994, crime in Mexico increased dramatically, most notably in Mexico City. After that, U.S. citizens traveling to the usual seaside tourist destinations, and taking the same precautions they would anywhere could, barring really bad luck, expect to be safe and never be involved with the police except possibly to ask directions. However, those tourists who refused to take reasonable precautions or insisted on "slumming" often got more than they bargained for. And anyone traveling Mexico's interior by private car would, sooner or later, run into a policeman who would take advantage of some law violation, real or imagined, to extract a bribe.
It has also been easy for U.S. citizens to get into trouble because Mexico's Napoleonic justice system, at least until recently, presumes guilt rather than innocence. As a practical matter this means that, for example, after an automobile accident the participants may be jailed and the cars impounded until the whole thing is sorted out.
Tragically, those days, which now seem delightfully innocent, are over at least for the foreseeable future. The Mexican government's efforts to destroy the drug cartels have caused what some call a civil war, where innocent bystanders, including tourists, are often killed. Making the situation worse is the fact that many of Mexico's criminal gangs have added kidnapping to their list of activities. In addition, experts warn that corruption of local police has increased, and they are less and less interested in dealing with things like robbery, rape, and carjackings. This gives more people, including cartel members, an incentive to participate in these activities. Although friends in Mexico City tell me that it is less dangerous there than a few years ago, espcially for tourists, the city is still sometimes referred to as the kidnapping capital of the world
If you do travel to Mexico the following precautions are suggested:
- When in Mexico City use only taxis that have been ordered for you by your hotel or from a reputable agency, or better yet hire a reliable driver for the time you are there.
- Avoid displays of wealth, such as clothing and jewelry.
- When you leave your hotel either leave money, credit cards, and important documents in the hotel safe, or carry those you need in a safe place such as a belt with a secret compartment, calf-wallet, or similar device available at travel stores.
- Always be aware of your surroundings, noting anyone who seems to be following you and anything else that seems suspicious.
- Stay away from the seamy parts of town.
- Criminals prey on the weak, so do not appear nervous or frightened. Instead, project an image of strength and self-confidence.
- Avoid walking at night, especially in Mexico City.
3) What should I do if I am driving and am stopped by a policeman?
First, whenever you drive into the interior of Mexico always purchase Mexican insurance from a reliable source. In case of an accident this may be the only way to avoid going to jail. Also, every situation is different, so the following should be taken as nothing more than a method that has worked when minor infractions have been involved and it became obvious that the policeman wanted nothing more than a little extra money.
Traditionally, Mexican police have been expected to supplement their meager wages by accepting bribes. Therefore, many of them are anxious to create situations where a bribe is the logical outcome. So, do not be surprised if you are stopped under situations that most police in this country would settle with a warning once they found out you were a tourist. Governmental authorities are taking steps to change this situation such as giving only female police officers in some areas the power to issue citations, (presumably under the theory that women are less corruptible than men). But change in this area is still in its infancy. Also, like many Mexicans, police can be resentful of the wealth and what they perceive as the superior attitudes of many U.S. citizens.
So, if you are stopped the first rule is to be polite and respectful. This does not mean that you should grovel or otherwise show weakness, which could actually make matters worse. Try to ignore the fact that you are furious at what you perceive as a violation of your basic human rights. Treat the matter as if you are involved in a straightforward business negotiation, because that is how the policeman probably views it. Also, many visitors from the U.S. make the mistake of assuming that the policeman will be afraid of having his bribery attempt revealed to his supervisors, and call his "bluff." What is more likely is that the supervisors are anticipating a percentage of the bribe and will back the officer to the hilt. Also, the threat of calling the American Consul, for many, has never proved useful. (Although this is one of the first things you should do in any serious situation).
The policeman will normally explain the violation you have committed. To which your response should be that you are terribly sorry, but you are a visitor, and were unaware of the regulation, or were confused etc. He will then probably tell you that your status as a tourist does not matter, that you have still committed the offense and must be punished, and will go on to explain that this involves either having your license plates or entire vehicle impounded until the fine is paid. This is your cue to explain that your schedule does not permit this loss of time, and to ask if he would be kind enough to accept the fine himself on behalf of the court. With any luck this will be the beginning of the negotiation of the price and the end of your problems.
There may come a time in the process, particularly if you have not been able to settle the matter without a trip to the police station, where you realize you are being treated unreasonably, even by the standards of the Mexican authorities. At this time a show of determination, perhaps even a little temper is necessary to let them know that they have indeed gone too far.
4) What if I am injured in Mexico; can I expect first rate medical care?
Mexico has some excellent doctors, especially in major cities, and many of them were trained in the United States. But the high quality is not universal, and if anything serious happens you would do well to have made provisions for medical evacuation. There are reasonably priced insurance alternatives available for this service, so consult your insurance or travel agent. There are also resources available that will identify the best healthcare options in most major cities, so either do your homework on the internet or contact your doctor.
Frequently Asked Questions