10 Tips for Adjusting to Life in Mexico
Colorful altar honoring the Virgin Mary in Cozumel.
Whether you’re thinking about taking an extended vacation in sunny Mexico or living here for the rest of your life, a little understanding will go a long way.
The foreigner in Mexico will find Mexicans to be overwhelmingly polite, generous, friendly and good-natured. Indeed, along with incredible landscapes, colorful manifestations of culture, and a spectacular national cuisine, getting to know Mexicans is one of the best reasons to live in this fascinating country.
Mexico has its share of problems, that’s for sure, and if you don’t live in a major tourist area or an expat community, it can be difficult to adapt to living here. Cultural differences may creep up slowly or slap you in the face — there’s simply no avoiding them.
You can do many things to make your time in Mexico more comfortable and fun, but it is most important to meet the locals and learn from them. You’ll have a much better experience if you approach problems and misunderstandings like most Mexicans do, with tolerance and patience. Honestly, the expat who expects everything to be the same as it was back home probably shouldn’t have left in the first place.
So here are 10 tips that will aid your adjustment to life in Mexico. Yes, some things may take some getting used to, cultural and otherwise. Please remember that, while living in Mexico is undoubtedly different from what you experience in the U.S., Canada, and the rest of the English-speaking world, different doesn’t automatically mean bad, but is often good.
1. Learn Spanish
Learn Spanish so you can participate and communicate during sacred ceremonies such as the "Day of the Dead."
An obvious one place to start — the more Spanish you learn, the better time in Mexico you will have. Sure, many Mexicans speak English, such as hotel and restaurant workers in tourist areas, but once you get off the well-traveled routes, speaking and understanding a little Spanish is crucial.
It may take hours upon hours of regular study, but once you become fluent in Spanish, better opportunities for work, travel, and friendships will open to you in countless ways. For instance, I am a teacher, a profession I had for years before moving to Mexico, but now I have as much work from translating, which obviously wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to learn Spanish.
Also, language is more than a means to communication, but a window to culture. Learning not only Spanish, but Mexican Spanish, will give you insight into Mexican culture you could never get by, say, reading a book about Mexican culture in English.
Language creates community, and learning the local form of communication grants you deeper and therefore better access to the community. Understanding the words people use in certain situations and the metaphors they all share will open your cultural understanding in a way that’s impossible if you only speak English.
2. Greet Properly
Always know how to meet and greet local people respectfully, no matter the encounter.
Once you’ve learned some Spanish, you’ll quickly discover that giving the proper greeting to the proper person at the proper time of day is essential to being courteous in Mexico.
Mexicans usually begin any interaction with a greeting according to the time of day: buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), and buenas noches (good night, but not in the sense of going to bed).
At work, in school, or among friends, after this greeting, it’s normal to greet women with a kiss on the cheek and men with a handshake. If you already know the person, male or female, this is often followed by a hug. Men, for example, have a specific routine of a handshake, a hug with some light backslapping, and then another handshake. Watch how they do it so you can get it right.
This brings me to a social custom I still haven’t become used to observing. When Mexicans enter a room, they typically walk around greeting every person. Yes, even people they’ve never met before get a kiss on the cheek or a robust handshake. Watch how parents teach their children to perform the ritual.
Less mandatory but still common is to acknowledge other diners when you enter or leave a restaurant. In this case you don’t have to approach them, but say “Good morning/afternoon/night” or provecho, which means bon appétit! (There really isn’t a concise translation in English.)
3. Understand Lateness
You might not have to wait for a meeting as long as this statue in Toluca, but please be patient and enjoy the more relaxed sense of time.
Mexicans are notorious for having a relaxed sense of time. Unrepentant lateness is prevalent in many situations, including work and school. In cities around 8:50 in the morning, it’s not surprising to see ladies running in high heels trying to get to work before 9:00, because many jobs pay a bonus for arriving on time.
Naturally, lateness causes many problems. It’s a vicious circle — when a group of friends makes plans to meet for a trip, people who would otherwise show up on time come late too because they know the others will be late. Certainly, not all Mexicans are chronically late, but it’s widespread enough that most people seem to accept it. Lateness, for the most part, is both expected and accepted.
And there’s a flip side that’s important to understand — being early or even on time can be rude in social situations. If someone invites you to their party at 2:00 in the afternoon and you show up on time, then the hosts probably aren’t yet ready. You’ll sit there awkwardly for an hour or two until everyone else arrives.
4. Smooth Your Blunt Edges
People in Mexico generally hang out and chat before getting directly to the point, no matter the situation.
People from the United States love getting right to the point. Me too — I’m busy; if I have a meeting with someone, I tell them what I want, we talk about it, and the meeting’s over. If I need to ask a question over instant messaging (WhatsApp, Facebook, whatever), I write them the shortest message possible saying exactly what I want.
But in Mexico, like in many other countries, being overly direct can be considered off-putting. You need that little chat before you can get down to business. You need to begin your emails with those friendly formalities before you can say what you want to say.
I often receive text messages from Mexicans that only say “Hello” or “Good Morning” (in Spanish of course). They’ll never write again to tell me what they really want unless I reply with another “Hello.”
5. Understand That “Yes” May Mean “No”
If you make a request, “Can you play some Alice Cooper?” the reality is more likely a delicate but solid "no" from this cumbia band.
Saying “no” is another thing that I enjoy as an American, but Mexicans may perceive doing so to be quite rude.
In the U.S., for example, if I visit a friend’s house and his mother offers me food, it’s probably better to refuse the first time. Maybe there isn’t enough and she’s just being nice. If she insists, then I’ll stay for dinner. Or, I’m not hungry, I can say so and the matter’s settled.
But in Mexico, when you give that unhesitant “no” to someone’s offer of food, they may be shocked by your rudeness. If someone offers you coffee in the evening, and you don’t want it because you know you won’t be able to get to sleep that night, you better explain in detail instead of just saying “no.” Or, better yet, accept the coffee but don’t drink it.
Someone invited you to a party and you don’t want to go? You better come up with a long excuse, explaining how much you’d like to attend, but maybe another time.
The other option for Mexicans is to just say “yes” and then simply not do it. This means that if you ask someone for a favor and the answer is “yes,” don’t count on it actually happening. If friends accept an invitation to your party, don’t expect them to come. And while this may not be a big deal for your party, it can cause some major trouble on the job.
6. Complain With Care
If you or your kids complain that there are no Superman or Batman masks to the vendor of this stand selling local wrestling masks, don't expect profuse apologies. Besides, their masks are pretty cool and creative.
South African comic Trevor Noah, the host of the Daily Show, told a joke in one of his comedy specials about South Africans that immediately made me think of Mexico. He said that there are two types of people: people who don’t complain, and white people.
The comic's observation made me laugh because the only people I’ve ever seen publicly complain here in Mexico were tourists. For instance, when I was on a long-distance bus with the air conditioning cranked to industrial freezer levels, it was a blonde European wearing shorts and flip flops who walked to the front to ask the driver to turn it down, who ignored him.
The only time I’ve seen people loudly complaining in some crowded office where only one staff member was working and the others were chatting and sipping coffee, it wasn’t at the bank or post office, but at the immigration office, full of foreigners.
In general, Mexicans are highly tolerant of unreasonable situations. Sure, endless complaining goes on behind closed doors or online, but you don’t see people complain on a cramped public bus with a driver who’s smoking, talking on a cell phone, and driving too fast. You don’t see people complain at a bank on Friday afternoon when the line weaves out the front door and half the staff leaves for lunch break. And, unfortunately, you don’t see people complain to their neighbors who leave their dogs outside barking for days on end. In fact, when I point out this last one to my wife (Mexican), she tells me that she hadn’t even noticed.
There’s a reason to avoid complaining — in official situations it usually makes matters worse. When I was stopped by a Mexican immigration officer at a bus station who asked for my passport, she eventually let me go, even though I had no passport or any other identification with me. As I left, she pointed to another American in a suit, saying they were taking him to immigration jail, even though he did have his passport. Why? He gave them a hard time about stopping him. You know the phrase: “You can’t do this to me!”
Remember this while in Mexico. If you get angry and complain, you’ll lose your place in line, a mistake will appear on your document, the bus driver will light another cigarette, or you’ll end up in immigration jail.
7. Don’t Judge
You might think that the electrical wires appear unsafe and could be a bit more organized, but it’s doubtful that pointing this out would do any good.
Try this: Walk through the meat section of any public market in Mexico. Check out the big bloody slabs, the dangling entrails, the grinning pig heads. How do you feel? This works especially well for vegetarians, by the way.
Now, I’m not claiming that you’ll see blood and gore every day you’re in Mexico. But you can count on seeing things that you’re not ready to see, at least not without judgment.
The same necessity to suspend judgment goes for anywhere in the developing world — one of its defining features, I’d say. Mexico is no different.
Consider litter, something that gets me worked up, like a lot of people from more northern regions. I recall taking a local bus with a Canadian friend through a small town populated by an indigenous group. He couldn’t believe the amount of garbage in the fields and on the street — weren’t they native people? Yes, I said, but they were also poor.
People from the developed world often don’t understand that caring about the environment, among other things, is a luxury. When you don’t know what to feed your children next week or if you have enough money to enroll them in school, do you think you’ll be overly concerned with what happens to the food wrappers you drop on the street? Or how the local stray dogs are living? Unfortunately, poverty seems to trump everything else.
Of course, plenty of Mexicans, rich and poor, are environmentally and socially conscious. They are fully aware of the many problems facing Mexico and have no hesitation expressing the situation, often with humor. But they quite reasonably don’t appreciate foreigners coming to their country and prescribing solutions to all their woes.
8. Keep Safety On Your Mind at All Times
The famous Zocalo in Mexico City is quite safe by day and evening, but don't venture out at odd hours alone while drunk and staring at your smartphone and taking selfies. That's just common sense everywhere.
No, Mexico is not as dangerous as the ignorant trolls who write comments on any article about Mexico would like you to believe. Don’t listen to anyone who says that you’ll get kidnapped as soon as you get off the plane, or worse, that anyone who’s the victim of a crime in Mexico deserves it because they shouldn’t have come in the first place.
Sure, there are places where you absolutely shouldn’t go, including some areas near the U.S. border and in the state of Michoacan. Also, like anywhere in the world, Mexican cities have bad neighborhoods you should never enter, such as Tepito or Neza in Mexico City.
The truth is that tourist destinations are perfectly safe when you take the usual precautions that apply to any foreign country — don’t flash money or jewelry, don’t walk with your face buried in a smartphone, don’t wander down dark streets at night. You’ve likely heard such advice before for certain locations at home and abroad.
But, when you get off the tourist track, how do you stay safe in Mexico? Don’t let your guard down, ever. Walk with eyes in the back of your head, think about what you’re carrying and what would happen if you were robbed, and don’t get drunk with strangers. And always — always! — ask locals if the place you plan on visiting or driving through is safe.
9. Embrace the Local Cuisine
Even at the local market, you would be astounded at the meals a great local cook can create for you with minimal but delicious ingredients.
It’s also a mistake to believe that eating in food stalls or small local restaurants is similarly asking for trouble — stomach trouble, in this case.
To the contrary, I eat just about everything I can in Mexico, and I almost never get sick. The best places to get extraordinary food in Mexico aren’t fancy restaurants, but simple diners (fonditas) full of people on their lunch break (between 2 and 4 p.m.), busy food stalls in public markets that offer regional specialties, and portable kitchens set up in fairs or on street corners. Here you’ll encounter authentic Mexican cuisine, and for sure the price will be right.
Ignore peeling paint and mismatched plastic tables — the best way to choose a restaurant is by observing how busy it is. If it’s empty, it may be empty for a reason, but if there’s a line of people waiting for seats, assume that the food is good and the kitchen is clean.
Try some things you never thought were edible, like cooked cactus leaves (nopales), zucchini flower quesadillas (flor de calabaza), or fried larvae (gusanos de maguey).
And when in Mexico don’t miss out on fresh fruit, available practically everywhere and in every season. Trust me, you haven’t had a papaya until you’ve had a tropical papaya picked earlier that day — maybe ground up and mixed with some freshly-squeezed orange juice, and for 20-40 pesos ($1-2 USD) a liter.
You never tasted mangoes and papayas as tasty as these before.
10. Pursue your Interests
From mountain biking to participating in races, the options are endless and a great way to see all aspects of the country.
When I first came to Mexico and saw heavy traffic and some seriously reckless driving, I thought, well I don’t think I’ll do much cycling here.
I was wrong, fortunately. Through a friend I was introduced to a group of hard-core, dedicated cyclists, and with them I’ve taken long rides over hilly highways, through the urban madness of Mexico City, and up extinct volcanoes on mountain bike trails — practically every weekend. Now they’re some of my closest friends.
The point is that whatever you like to do back home, you can do in Mexico, whether it’s cycling, surfing, mountain climbing, scuba diving, gardening, photography, sewing, playing soccer—even playing hockey.
Or you could start a new hobby. Apart from informal groups of friends like my cycling buddies, you can get together with like-minded folks in cultural courses offered by public universities. You can learn an instrument, learn Mexican-style weaving and knitting, learn to cook the secret sauce mole, even learn a native Mexican language like Nahuatl or Otomi.
Besides learning something new, you’ll make friends and practice Spanish. The activity will evolve from just a pastime and become an indispensable step toward escaping the expat bubble and having a lot of fun in a country that knows how to have a good time.
Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, Spanish-English translator, and university teacher living in Mexico. He has written two guidebooks about Mexico, one for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera and another for San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in Chiapas, both also available at Amazon.com. For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.
For more of the many articles written for TransitionsAbroad.com, see his bio page.