Facts for visitors to Mexico: Essential things to know before your trip

LANGUAGE: Spanish is the official language and is spoken throughout the country. However, there are as many as 62 dialects, the most widely spoken being Nahuatl, Maya and Mixteco. Though English is spoken in many places, especially among government officials and high-ranking executives, it is advisable to learn some basic Spanish before arrival.

WATER: Tap water, though potable, is not recommended for drinking, especially for newcomers as it contains microbes to which visitors need to become accustomed over a long period to avoid health problems. Also worth noting is that Mexico is the world’s largest consumer of bottled water per head. By drinking tap water one risks contracting the infamous “Montezuma’s revenge”, or traveller’s diarrhoea.

ALCOHOL: Mexico’s legal drinking age is 18, three years lower than that of the US, making it a popular destination for American youth. In most states it is legal to sell alcohol 24 hours a day. It is technically illegal to drink alcohol in the street, and though the law is not always enforced, public display of drunkenness is frowned upon. The most popular alcoholic beverage in Mexico is beer, of which there is a wide variety. Other favourites are tequila and mezcal, a smoky-flavoured liquor distilled from agave.

ELECTRICITY: Electrical outlets are standard 110 V, with the same parallel, flat, two-pin system used in the US. It is advisable to bring adaptors, and most modern electronics are compatible with electric currents of both 110 V and 220 V. In some areas, it is wise to bring electrical stabilisers for important electronics such as laptop computers.

VISA: Citizens from 65 countries are not required to obtain a visa before entering Mexico and can stay up to 180 days for both tourism and business. These countries include the US, the UK, all countries in the Schengen area of the EU and most of those in Latin America. Citizens from other countries should apply for a visa, obtainable at any Mexican consulate. These too permit a maximum stay of 180 days.

TRANSPORT: There are a total of 85 airports in Mexico, 59 of them international. Due to the vast distances there are to travel within a country of nearly 2m sq km, flying is one of the most common ways to travel. Some domestic airlines offer frequent internal flights, but they are not cheap: from Mexico City to Cancún costs about MXN3000 ($233) year-round.

The most common means of transportation is by bus, with close to 1bn tickets sold a year. Passenger trains are currently underdeveloped, though the government is looking to boost rail services. Vehicle traffic, which is heavy throughout the whole of Mexico, is especially so in the big cities. Mexico City, with its population of more than 20m (the third-largest metropolitan area in the world), grinds to a halt during rush hour. Taxis in Mexico are ubiquitous and very affordable. For their safety and security measures, taxis de sitio (vehicles from a taxi base) are recommended. The metro is very popular among locals, but is not a first choice for tourists.

ETIQUETTE: A handshake for men and one kiss on the cheek for women is usually the first introduction in a business setting and is used as both a greeting and farewell. Standard business attire is the same as that worn in Europe or the US.

CURRENCY: The local currency is the peso, with banknotes coming in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 pesos, and coins from 50 cents up to 10 pesos. Most ATMs accept international bank cards. There are many money exchange offices but it is advisable to change less common currencies into pesos, euros or dollars before arrival. Many shops and businesses do not accept credit cards, so you should keep cash on hand. As of mid-May 2014, the exchange rate is $1 to 12.91 pesos.

TIPPING: Before tipping in restaurants, check that gratuity has not already been included in the bill. Taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped but it is common to round up to the next five or 10 pesos. If you have agreed on a fare there is no need to give extra.

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