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A newly hatched turtle crawls across the sand to reach the ocean in Mexico.

5 Things to Expect when Traveling to Mexico for the First Time

Learn about what you’ll encounter and experience in Mexico

By Isabel Silva | 06th July, 2020
Updated on 24th January, 2023

When thinking about Mexico, most people picture beaches, sombreros, tacos, and tequila. But Mexico is more than its stereotypes. In fact, if you haven’t been there yet, forget everything you think you know before traveling to Mexico. Beyond heaped plates of tacos and mariachi bands, the true Mexico is awaiting for you. 

If this is your first time traveling to Mexico, keep reading to get an insight into what it’s really like. We bet that once you’ve experienced Mexico, you won’t want to leave!

1. Time is Relative

A scenic view of a building in Guadalajara, Mexico.

One of the first things you’ll notice in Mexico is that time is relative. Like other Latin American countries, Mexicans are famous for always being late. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, but you should be prepared for punctuality being a very flexible concept! 

In fact, they even have a special word to describe this phenomenon: “ahorita” describes the  time between “right now” and “some time in the future”. What does it mean exactly? It depends! It could be anywhere from ten minutes to two hours or more. 

Just like the people, public transport doesn’t ascribe to a strict schedule. There’s no way to know how long you’ll have to wait for the next bus. But there’s no need to stress. Take a seat and enjoy feeling the warm sunshine on your face while eating a delicious nieve de limón (lemon ice cream) while you wait. It might be challenging at first, but you’ll soon adjust to Mexican time!

And don’t worry - our staff are always on time.

2. Kindness is a National Trait

Volunteers and local Mexican staff work together for the community at a shelter for migrants.

If something can beat Mexico’s penchant for lateness, it’s their kindness. 

It’s a national trait. When you’re with Mexicans, you’re with family. Even if they’ve just met you, they’ll treat you as an old friend, inviting you to their home for a meal (they love showing off their food and cooking skills!) If you’re here as a volunteer, your host mom will call you mijo/mija (my son/daughter), while any new friends you make will invite you everywhere to show you the city. It’s impossible to visit Mexico and not leave without a new family!

Their warm personalities might feel like too much initially, but don’t worry. They’re not trying to get something from you, it's just how they are. Mexicans are invested in solidarity, and it’s important for their people to stand together, both during daily struggles and when facing disasters like the Mexico City earthquakes in 1985 and 2017. They’ll help you to the best of their ability no matter what, always with a smile on their face.

3. A Country of Contrasts

A local man rides a horse in Mexico, accompanied by his dogs.

Mexico is incredibly diverse, and this spreads to every aspect of daily life. More than 50 indigenous groups call Mexico home, and they speak more than 60 native languages. The country was previously colonized by Spain, and the Spanish influence remains today, along with a very strong modern influence from America. 

The contrast is also evident when it comes to economic equality. Around 42% of the population lives below the poverty line. At the same time, one of the wealthiest person's on Earth is Mexican. When you walk around a city like Guadalajara, you’ll walk beautiful cobbled streets, and just around the corner you’ll find a street with garbage sitting on the sidewalk.  

Mexico’s diversity extends to its landscapes. The beaches are famous for clear water and gentle waves, and while sunbathing on the sand, you’re just hours away from a jungle, and a desert from the other side.

Combine all of the above, and you’ll soon understand the variety of Mexican food, different accents, and even its people. Move between the north or the south, and you may think you’re in a completely different country!

4. Mexican Food is More than Tacos

A traditional breakfast of red chilaquiles and beans in Mexico.

I’m sure I don’t need to talk about tacos. They’re hugely popular worldwide, and in Mexico, everything can become a taco; you only need a tortilla!

However, the local cuisine goes far deeper than tacos. In fact, Mexican food is so diverse that it was declared as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010. Every state has a traditional dish, and each one is unique. For example, southern food is heavily influenced by Mayan gastronomy.

Corn, chili, and beans are the basics of Mexican gastronomy. You’ll be amazed to discover how these ingredients can be mixed and transformed into multiple dishes with vibrant flavours that explode in your mouth and warm your heart.

And get ready to feel the heat. Mexicans add spicy sauces and chili powder to everything: fruit, snacks, soup, meat, candy, ice cream… when I say everything, I mean everything! If you prefer milder flavours, be careful and ask if what you’re eating is hot.

Extra Tip: When Mexicans say “this sauce isn’t that spicy”, just remember they’re judging by their own standards, which might be different to what you’re used to! 

5. Is it safe to travel to Mexico?

A group of volunteers in Mexico take a photo together before participating in a feeding programme.

You’ve probably heard about Mexico’s challenges with drug cartels and security. However, if you’re wondering if it’s safe to travel to Mexico, the short answer is yes. 

Touristic zones are safe, and the most problematic areas are usually on the periphery. The best thing you can do is ask locals to be sure the place you want to visit is safe. Just remember to keep alert as you would do in any country you don’t know. 

Our staff are always available to give advice if you’re looking for the safest and best places to travel in Mexico over weekends, or before or after your project. 

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