Mexico Know-How

Some smart advice on how to stay safe and go to some of the wildest parties in the Western Hemisphere.

Nov 16, 2010
Outside Magazine
Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, Isla de Janitzio    Photo: Tom Owen Edmunds/Getty



Spanglish Spoken Here
Throw a rock in almost any city in Mexico and you'll hit a language school. But if you want to become fluent fast, we recommend Cuauhnáhuac, the oldest school in Cuernavaca, less than two hours south of Mexico City. Spend two weeks in their Normal Intensive Language Program. It's heavy on the grammar but also fun, including lots of extracurricular activities. (Salsa and samba lessons, anyone?) Soon you'll be ordering those tricky-sounding mescal drinks for the entire bar. Two weeks of instruction, $530, plus $35 per night for room and board;

Rise Up
Part Catholic and part indigenous, the ancient, nationwide, two-day (November 1–2) Day of the Dead festival is the only time of the year when mortals get to communicate with the souls of the departed. It's also the wildest party in Mexico. Where to celebrate? Make for the 700-year-old city of Patzcuaro and the dozen or so surrounding villages in the state of Michoacan, where thousands of people from all over the world descend to help tantalize the dead by dancing in the streets, parading life-size statuettes, holding all-night vigils at the cemeteries, and decking out altars with sugar skulls, tequila, and pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"). To catch the two-day celebration at the height of its magical realism, visit the old Purhepecha Indian fishing village on Isla de Janitzio, in the middle of Patzcuaro Lake. Take a ferry from the Patzcuaro dock and float to the island among the torch-carrying fishermen. Don't expect a ride home until after sunrise.

Play Safe
Yes, there are danger zones in Mexico. But it's an enormous country—nearly three times the size of Texas—and staying safe is mostly a matter of avoiding certain areas and following a few key guidelines.
1. Avoid the big border cities—Tijuana and Juárez, obviously, but also Monterrey, in the northeast, where carjackings are rampant. Be extra vigilant in Mazatlán and Acapulco, which are seeing rising cartel activity.
2. Don't drive or rent an SUV or full-size pickup truck. These are magnets for carjackers and cartels. In remote areas, such as Copper Canyon or Baja, don't drive at night, and if you're pulled over by a cop, don't stop on a lonely stretch of highway—wait until you reach a gas station. Then be polite. Never offer an unsolicited bribe—doing so is a crime. But if a cop asks for a handout, pay—it may save you legal hassles.
3. When booking a local guide, do so in advance. Always get a referral from experienced friends or reputable outfitters.
4. Register with the U.S. State Department before heading south. The U.S. consulates in Mexico can't provide legal protection, but they can refer you to lawyers and doctors.
5. Credit card fraud is a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar business in Mexico. Don't let your Visa linger with waiters or checkout clerks, who have been known to scan cards with their own handheld readers.

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