These are just a handful of things we have discovered about life in Mexico that we weren’t really aware of before we made the move. Whether you are planning to move to Mexico, or just hope to visit these are some things about Mexico that might take you by surprise!
Lots of Fiestas!
Mexico loves to party, and some times it feels like people here will make any excuse to celebrate. A lot of the fiestas are tied to Catholic holidays, which can vary from region to region, and are celebrated on specific dates. The length and extravagance of the festivities depend on who or what is being celebrated, and how significant it is to the region. Obviously major holidays like Independence Day (September 16) Dia de los Muertos (November 2), and Christmas (usually celebrated December 24 in Mexico) result in huge parties all across the country, and the celebrations can start days (or weeks!) in advance of the actual holiday.
In addition to all the major national holidays, there are innumerable smaller feast days and holy observances that vary regionally across Mexico. Every city in Mexico will have at least one church, and that church will have a patron saint, and that patron saint will have a special day – and on that special day, things will happen. If it is a major church in the city, then expect a MAJOR party – food, fireworks, music, dancing, parades, rides, road closures, street markets. All this will probably be happening for at least a few days leading up to the actual holiday. For smaller churches, or lesser saints the party might only last a few hours, and simply involve a procession of people marching through the streets carrying some kind of likeness of the saint in question.
No matter the size of or cause for the celebration, it seems like there is ALWAYS something being celebrated in Mexico!
Lots of Fiestas!
Mexico loves to party, and some times it feels like people here will make any excuse to celebrate…
If you live near a church (which is likely, because Mexico is littered with churches) and the feast day for the patron saint of that particular church just happens to fall on a random Tuesday – buckle up! The fireworks, music, dancing and road closures do not care if you have to work the next day. If it is a big enough church, you may be looking at many days and nights of fireworks, music, dancing and road closures.
These parties can be HUGE, and obviously it is great to experience the local culture, enjoy delicious street food and take in a nice fireworks display, but sometimes you just aren’t feeling all that festive. Sometimes you would rather be sleeping than watching (or listening to) fireworks. Sometimes it is 3 am, and the music is still playing outside, and you have to get up extra early to go to work because the road you would normally take is closed all week because vendors have set up stalls for blocks, so you will have to take a detour, and you wonder why it seems like everyone else in the city is STILL partying. Despite the size of these celebrations, they are not official holidays – people still go out and resume their normal lives the next day (and the next day, and the next day) after partying ’til the break of dawn. If you are someone who can handle staying out all night, and heading in to work the next day – more power to you! Unfortunately, some of us need a little shuteye to perform well at work, and all night parties can some times feel – a little tiring.
It seems like there is ALWAYS something being celebrated in Mexico…
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Mexico is, obviously, much lower than it is in the United States. We knew that would be the case before we moved, but when we first took teaching jobs in Mexico we were a little nervous because we would be taking a massive pay cut. It was a little scary, but we knew that it wouldn’t be forever and we figured we could just cut out a few of our luxury expenses and it wouldn’t be too bad. As it turns out, despite the massive pay cut, we haven’t had to change our lifestyle very dramatically at all because a lot of things in Mexico are just SO CHEAP (relatively speaking). How cheap, you ask? Here is a list of some of our typical expenses in pesos and the approximate cost in dollars using our rough conversion (1 dollar = 20 pesos).
Cell Phone – 200 pesos / month ($10 / month)
This is for unlimited calling/texting throughout North America, and 3 GB of data, with unlimited data for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. We have WiFi at home and work, so the data cap is almost never an issue.
Groceries – 1000 – 2000 pesos / month ($50 – 100 / month)
This is for two of us, and obviously varies dramatically depending on what we are eating, and how often we are eating out, but it is way less than what we would spend on food in California.
Meal for 2 at a Restaurant – 300-800 pesos ($15-40)
This is a huge range, because it depends on how fancy you want to eat, and if you are planning to drink. If your idea of a night out is tacos, at the local taco stand, you’re looking at 50 or 60 pesos per person. If you want to go somewhere nice, and you split a bottle of wine then the cost is going to be closer to 300 pesos per person, depending on what you are drinking. The bottle of wine can easily end up being 2/3 of your bill. You can still easily find a place to have a really nice bottle of wine, and a great meal, with good service and a classy atmosphere for under 1000 pesos ($50) almost anywhere in Mexico.
Rent – 6000 pesos / month ($300 / month)
This is for a 3 BR/2 BA place with a terrace, however we live in a relatively small city where rent is significantly lower than it would be in a big city like Guadalajara or CDMX. In California we lived a few blocks from the beach and paid nearly $2000 / month for a tiny 1 BR apartment. The place we live now feels like a mansion compared to what we are accustomed to in California, and the best part is that our employer pays the rent for us! This is obviously a major savings for us…
Mexico has an extensive and affordable system of buses that can take you all over the country, for very reasonable prices. A ticket to Mexico City from our home town, which is a journey of almost 200 km, will cost about 250 pesos ($12.50) each way, and takes about 3 hours. From Mexico City you can get a bus almost anywhere, and even far flung destinations will only cost 800-1200 pesos ($40-60), although the travel times can get extremely lengthy.
If you have a little less travel time, or a little more money to spend you can get cheap flights from Mexico City all over the country, typically for less than 2500 pesos ($125). Volaris is our discount airline of choice, and if you keep an eye out for fare sales you can get REALLY cheap tickets for travel within Mexico. If you live somewhere close to the border (Hello San Diego!), you can cross over and fly all over Mexico for a fraction of what you would pay to fly out of the US!
One thing that is NOT very affordable here in Mexico, and probably makes up one of our most significant expenses is GASOLINE. The price of gas doesn’t fluctuate much, and has hovered near 20 pesos per litre for most of the time we have lived here. Translating that into American terms is a little trickier, but it works out to about $3.75 per gallon, which is HIGH even by American standards. Having a fuel efficient car here in Mexico is SUPER important!
This is an expense that may not apply to everyone, but we would be remiss to leave it out. Depending on what your tastes are, you can get some dirt cheap wine in California. The variety of wine available here in Mexico is considerably smaller than what is available in a place like California, but there is still a wide variety in the cost of wine. We live in a “wine region” in Mexico, and short of physically going to the local wineries, it is almost impossible to find good local wine at the store. If you are in Mexico City, you will find a much better selection, but it is still generally going to be much smaller than what you would find at a Total Wine or BevMo in the US. You can get a decent, cheap bottle of wine for 120-200 pesos ($6-10), and a decent bottle of wine at a nice restaurant might run you 400-500 pesos ($20-25)
Mexican bureaucracy is peerless. If you love forms, stamps and stickers, you will love the joys of trying to overcome obstacles in Mexico. The hoops you need to jump through to accomplish things can be simultaneously infuriating, and amusing, completely necessary, and complete nonsense.
There are rules. You can’t do X without Y stamp on Z form, and only person A can stamp the form, but they won’t be here until next Monday. What’s that, your friend has an old form with the required stamp on it? That will work – as long as I can tell my boss I saw a stamp, that’s what counts! The stamps are really important, and very pervasive. This extends way beyond occasional interactions with Mexican government offices and permeates regular every day life.
At Walmart in Mexico, they will stop you on your way out and check your receipt – if everything checks out, they will pull out their big rubber stamp of approval and send you on your way. Some businesses go even further! We have been to multiple different places where shopping experience goes something like this:
Wander the aisles choosing the items that you want, and bring them all to a specific counter. The person working at the counter takes your items, scans them, and gives you a receipt. You take your receipt and head to a second counter somewhere else in the store, and the person working at that counter will take your receipt, scan it, and then ask you for payment. Once you have paid the person, they will pull out their special stamp and give your receipt a good stamping. With stamped receipt in hand, you now proceed to a third, different counter where a third, different person will check your stamped receipt, and hand over the items you selected, which have been delivered to the third counter by the person at the first counter while you were busy at the second counter. Why are there three different counters? Why has your simple shopping outing turned into a storewide scavenger hunt? We will never know.
Outside of the private sector, things are just as confusing. The second most important piece of documentation after stamps, are stickers. If you have traveled in Mexico, you may have noticed car windows covered in stickers. These stickers have a number on them that matches the license plate of the car, and a new sticker is needed every year or so I guess, which is why older cars in particular tend to be covered in stickers. The purpose of the stickers is to try and keep people from stealing your license plate, as it won’t do them any good without a matching sticker on their car. A more extreme version of this idea was introduced for motorcycles, where every rider needed to have a sticker on their helmet that matched their license plate. If you had more than one helmet, you needed more than one sticker. If you had more than one motorcycle, you needed more than one sticker. Once again the idea was to prevent theft, because people wouldn’t be inclined to steal your motorcycle if they didn’t have a helmet with the matching stickers. The main issue here is that the vast majority of people in Mexico ride motorcycles without any kind of helmet, and the helmet wearing people of Mexico pointed out that if someone were inclined to steal your motorcycle, all the law really did was encourage people to steal it from you, while you were on it, and take your helmet as well! The stickers are no longer required, but you will still see them on the back helmets now and then as a testament to the love Mexico has for stickers.
My car also has a sticker – it was a requirement for bringing it across the border. No cars allowed in Mexico without stickers. In order to get the sticker I first needed a visa, and the visa needed a stamp. Once I had the stamp, I could get the sticker, and once I had the sticker I was clear to drive in Mexico. When we get stopped by authorities in Mexico, they do always check the sticker – then they ask to see the paper that the sticker was attached to. What is the purpose of the sticker? Is it simply to indicate that I have paperwork in my glovebox?
The most confusing part of Mexican bureaucracy is when it is completely absent from places and situations you would most expect to find it. We recently had a problem paying our electric bill, because no one was quite sure which bill we were supposed to pay. Electricity in Mexico is supplied by a federal agency. I know they love stamps and stickers. I thought for sure there must be some system of stamps and stickers to keep track of which meter belongs to who, but evidently I was mistaken. There are 5 meters at the end of our street for all the houses on the block. They each have a number on them, but it isn’t an address, it is just a number. If you take the numbers to the electric company, they can tell you the address of the account connected to the number. We came with all 5 numbers, and none of them matched our address. Our landlord couldn’t tell us which one was ours. The bill hadn’t been paid in almost 3 months, and we were concerned about them cutting our power. The man at the electric company said, “I guess that’s possible” but he didn’t seem to know if or when it might actually happen – partly because he wasn’t sure which account was ours. In the end we paid an account that was not connected to our address, that our landlord claimed was ours. We still have power, but I have no idea for how long, or whether we would continue receiving power without ever having paid any bills. I am not sure anyone knows. The proper stamps haven’t been put in place.
Lots of History
Mexico oozes history. It is home to some of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the Americas, and you can find evidence of these ancient cultures all across Mexico. It is home to 35 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other country in the Americas. There are archaeological sites and ruins to be explored within a short trip of many major cities in Mexico, and many of them are accessible through tour operators who will transport you from the city to the sites, and explain some of the history to you. Many of these ruins, like Teotihuacan and Palenque, are world-renown tourist destinations attracting people from all over the globe.
Visiting these famous sites is extremely worthwhile, but if you get a chance to explore the smaller and less well-known sites, they can be just as rewarding. Visiting sites large and small across the country really helps to develop an appreciation for how far, both in distance and in time, the reach of these empires was. It is fascinating to see the clashing and crumbling of empires, laid out before you in stone, marking the rise and fall of their now abandoned cities. Some ruins are thousands of years old, while others are mere hundreds. Some ruins, like Monte Alban in Oaxaca, highlight the struggles of competing pre-Hispanic cultures as they battled for power in the region, while other ruins, like Plaza Mayor in Mexico City highlight how quickly the Spanish were to exert their power over the native population.
Mexico is more than just ancient ruins – it has a rich and complex history that spans thousands of years, and includes pre-Colombian culture clashes, and alliances, Spanish invasion and colonization, and the shared history of Mexico and the US, and their (ongoing) border struggles. There are many excellent museums to be found across Mexico dealing with all these themes – Spanish colonization, Mexican independence, pre-Colombian history of Mexico, and some spanning the entire history of the region. The size and time required to appreciate these museums can vary dramatically – you can spend an entire day in a large museum like the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and still feel rushed, while smaller regional museums can often be enjoyed in an hour or less. If you find yourself in Mexico, take an hour, a day, a week or more to explore the rich history to be found in it’s many plazas, museums, ruins and arcaeological sites. Once you begin to scratch the surface of this history you will find yourself searching the country for more!
This is easily the thing I dislike most about Mexico. Driving in Mexico can be extremely confusing and intimidating – people signal when they want to pass, and when they want you to pass them, but not when they are going to turn or change lanes. People will park anywhere and everywhere if there isn’t a sign explicitly saying not to, and sometimes even then people will park. There aren’t always lines painted on the road, and even when there are they are usually seen as a mere suggestion of where the lanes should be. All stop signs are stoptional. Street lights do not exist outside major urban centers – and even then, if they are historic centers there may not be any lights. There is only one rule of the road that I have found universally enforced across the whole of Mexico – if you are really expected to slow down or stop, you will be greeted by a tope (speed bump).
These topes come in all shapes and sizes, made of anything from concrete, to steel studs, to sand, to old tires or logs. They can be official installations or home made vigilante attempts to control (or impede) the flow of traffic. They can be marked, or camouflaged, signed or unsigned. The only consistent thing about topes is you will encounter them and they will slow you down. People in Mexico will fly through stop signs without giving them a second glance, but you can’t avoid a tope. You can see the places where people have tried to circumvent a tope by driving onto the shoulder or onto some patch of grass or gravel beyond the limits of the normal road, and the response is always a tope that extends beyond the limits of the road, out onto the shoulder, out into a patch of gravel out to the point where no one can drive around it. You can’t avoid the tope. The tope will find you. The tope will stop you.
The town we live in has about half a dozen traffic lights, maybe twice as many stop signs, and about 500 topes. There are stretches of highway in rural parts of Mexico that average 1 or 2 topes every km. People will pile up sand in the highway as it runs through their village, because they want you to slow down – sometimes out of concern for their safety, sometimes because they want you to stop and buy things, always with topes. Considerate people will mark their topes – with caution signs, or arrows, or by painting the tope a different color. The worst topes are the gigantic, unmarked, unsigned, concrete, road-colored, camouflaged topes that you have no hope of seeing until you are already on top of them. Nothing will make you reconsider your speed faster than hitting a 10 inch high pile of concrete going 40 miles an hour and feeling every inch of your car recoil under the impact. If your car is still moving after such an impact, you will definitely be driving a lot more cautiously than you were beforehand – watching the horizon for the next tope.