If you're looking for an inexpensive getaway from the United States, Mexico should be right at the top of your list. It's safe, the food is great, the beaches are beautiful, and it's easy to make friends with other travelers while you're there.
The U.S. media, however, likes to perpetuate many myths about Mexico -- mostly that it's dangerous and scary. Don't let this put you off visiting, though, as it's a super-safe destination for student travelers, and I should know -- I've spent eight months traveling in the country.
Let's get on to debunking the top Mexico travel myths.
Mexico Is an Incredibly Cheap Country
Mexico has a reputation for being crazy-cheap, but if you head to some of the most touristy parts of the country, it can be just as expensive as the U.S., if not more.
If you want an affordable vacation to Mexico, look to the Pacific coast or inland, rather than the Caribbean. Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum are all popular (and therefore great for making friends), but also fairly expensive. Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, Guanajuato, and Oaxaca can all be visited for around $500 a month. I rented a basic but clean and quiet apartment in Oaxaca City for a month for just $250 a month.
I'll Get Sick in Mexico
Speaking of getting sick, one of the most common fears of visitors to Mexico is that they'll fall ill to travelers' diarrhea. Fortunately, this is a pretty rare occurrence as long as you take some simple precautions while you're there.
First, you should make sure not to drink water from the tap while you're in Mexico, and that includes brushing your teeth and keeping your mouth closed in the shower. Instead, pick up some cheap bottles of water and use those for everything. If you're going to get sick in Mexico for any reason, it'll most likely be due to the water.
Secondly, street food is king, and you should eat as much of it as possible. You're less likely to get food poisoning eating from stalls than choosing the clean-looking restaurants. Street food stalls have high levels of turnover, high levels of hygiene (which you can see as your food is cooked in front of you), and high levels of deliciousness. Look at where the locals choose to eat: they wouldn't be there if the food wasn't safe.
Mosquitoes aren't a huge problem in Mexico, especially in places at altitude, but you should take precautions while you're on the coast. Dengue can be particularly bad during the rainy season, and zika is beginning to appear, too. Cover up as much as possible, wear insect repellent, and stay informed about the risks in the areas you'll be visiting.
As always, be sure to utilize your common sense while you're in the country. Research dangerous neighborhoods to check you're not putting yourself at risk. Don't accept drinks from strangers unless you're at the bar and can keep an eye on it at all times. Don't wander alone at night if you have no reason to. Just simple steps like this can help drastically reduce the risk of getting hurt in Mexico.
Here's a myth that's not technically true.
In order to enter Mexico, you will need a WHTI-compliant ID document, and also for when you're returning into the U.S. from Mexico by air, land or sea.
If you'll be traveling overland, you don't have to have a passport to return to the U.S. from Mexico, but you do need a similarly official document, like a PASS card instead. You can no longer use the formerly acceptable combination of a birth certificate and driver's license or other state-issued photo ID to visit Mexico, so make sure you have a passport or PASS card if you're planning on visiting.
I'll Have to Share the Bus With Chickens
If you've spent any time in Central America, you've most likely heard of a chicken bus. If you've never heard of a chicken bus before, you'll most likely be surprised to hear that it's exactly what it sounds like: a bus full of chickens.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on what you're looking for on your trips), chicken buses are super-rare in Mexico -- you'll be unlikely to come across them unless you're heading really off the beaten track. In fact, the buses in Mexico are some of the best I've come across in the world.
The buses are safe, comfortable, inexpensive, and clean. And if you ever have to take an overnight bus, you'll be pleased to hear that the VIP buses have fully reclinable seats. One of the best bus rides of my life was in Mexico, and I've yet to find buses as luxurious as these anywhere else in the world.
You can totally drive to Mexico, and in Mexico, too!
To drive your own car into Mexico, you'll just need a temporary vehicle importation permit, which you can easily get at the border. In some tourist border areas, you don't need this permit or a tourist card. For instance, I needed neither of these when driving to Puerto Penasco, a tourist destination on the Gulf about 70 miles from the Arizona border. Just ask at the border. You should also buy Mexico car insurance online before you arrive.
...and I'll Have a Wreck Because People Drive Like Maniacs in Mexico
The country's laid-back attitude is evident in the locals' casual driving habits and Mexican driving patterns are extremely logical -- the residents have devised ways to keep traffic moving that would be illegal in the U.S., but make perfect sense once you learn them.
Wear a seat belt and drive defensively -- in short, follow the safety rules you would at home -- and learn the Mexico road rules; you'll be fine if you keep your cool and move slow.
Crime is Rampant and I'll Have to Bribe Cops
Yes, there are drug gangs in border towns.
If you're going to Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Cancun, Guadalajara, or just about anywhere else in Mexico, you won't see it. Use basic travel precautions in Mexico and the same common sense you'd use in a U.S. city and you'll be perfectly safe. I've now visited over 70 countries and I'd say Mexico ranks as one of the top places I've felt most safe in.
Do read a little about taxi safety to avoid scams or worse. And the whole cop-bribing thing is going away in Mexico -- the situation will probably never come up. Ask to see the jefe (chief) if you think a cop wants a bribe, and chances are it ends then and there. Over eight months of travel, I've never even heard of anyone been bribed in the country.
This is both true and false.
Some prescription drugs in the U.S. are readily available over the counter in Mexico without you needing to provide a prescription. You can also easily buy birth control pills and antibiotics from a pharmacy without having to see a doctor -- and they're very affordable, too -- around $15 a month. If in doubt, head to a pharmacy and ask what they have on offer for your ailment -- they'll likely have just what you need without you having to visit a doctor.
Some drugs like Xanax and Vicodin, though, will require your U.S. prescription in order for you to get your hands on them.
As always when you travel, remember to carry any prescription medicine in its drugstore-labeled bottle bearing your name, and your life will be easier if you are searched at customs.
I Will Love Mexico
Oh, wait -- this isn't a myth!
Mexico is a fantastic destination for student travelers and I highly recommend visiting. It's cheap to visit, it's safe, it's beautiful, its cultural heritage runs deep and the locals are friendly and welcoming. There's a reason why I've spent eight months of the past six years traveling around the country. Mexico is incredible and I'm confident you'll fall as hard for it as I have.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.