If you’ve ever heard the term “Montezuma’s Revenge,” or experienced it yourself, you know it’s no joke. Traveler’s diarrhea is a big problem in developing countries in particular, and Mexico is infamous. There is a host of microbes, parasites, and other unsavory bugs waiting to make your fun holiday absolutely miserable. That said, there are also plenty of steps one can take to keep the gut safe and the vacation care-free, rather than being chained to the hotel bathroom.
Before we begin, a disclaimer: there is a lot of information out there about what you can and can’t do regarding Mexico water. People advise based on their experience, and the person who did get sick is going to be much more cautionary than the person who didn’t. We’re taking the cautionary approach here, because the last thing we want is for all of you to experience a vacation-ruining stomach bug. Stay safe, folks.
Can I drink the water in Mexico?
The chances are good you’ve heard the answer to this one before: No, foreigners cannot and should not drink tap water in Mexico, but we’re talking about tap water specifically. Let’s break down the scenarios:
Tap Water in Mexico
Tap water is basically the source of all of your problems, and not just glasses of tap water, but everything it comes in contact with. Water purification has improved in Mexico over the years, but much of the water is contaminated through distribution, which is not held to the same standards of cleanliness. In addition, regular water filters are typically not enough to solve the problem, as they miss many of the guilty microbes and parasites which cause sickness. All to say that you will definitely want to be leaving that refillable water bottle at home – it will do you no good here.
We’re not looking to spark fear, however – only caution! There are still options for you so you can avoid catching harmful bugs.
Is it safe to drink water in Cancun?
Cancun’s popularity among tourists means the water in Cancun is some of the best in the country. While that is good for locals, the water is still “different” than you’ll be used to, which can cause some issues. While you likely won’t get (too) sick if you drink water in Cancun, it’s best to play it safe and drink bottled water. If you’re at a larger hotel, you can ask about their water (same have their own purification systems), or to cut back on plastic waste, bring a water bottle with a built in filter..
Bottled water and other alternatives:
In general, you will be opting for one of the following for your hydration needs:
- Sealed, bottled water
- Sealed soft drinks, such as carbonated beverages (and beer)
- Water that has been boiled for 5 full minutes.
Bottled water is readily available for purchase pretty much everywhere you go, with the exception of some long highway stretches without shops. When venturing away from your resort for the day, be sure to bring a couple bottles with you so that you can stay happy and hydrated. Also, it’s a good idea to choose local brands of bottled water so that you aren’t overcharged for recognizable, imported brands. The key phrase to remember when ordering: “Un bote de agua pura, por favor” (a bottle of pure water, please).
Most hotels will provide some bottled water each day, but be sure to read the fine print to see how much you can consume (if any) before they start charging you extra. In addition, because hotels tend to jack prices on these needed items, you might be better off purchasing your water off-site to save some dough. Some resorts choose to purify their water on site to give their guests some sense of ease, but be sure to inquire with the hotel staff directly before indulging in a fresh glass.
Ice Cubes in Mexico
Interestingly, ice and whether or not to use it is a divisive subject. This is because you never know whether the ice in question has been made with tap water or not. If it has, then its presence in your refreshing beverage will surely contaminate it and send you straight for the toilet.
The best rule of thumb is to avoid ice altogether while traveling in Mexico. This will guarantee it won’t be a possible source of infection. Some claim that most ice used by resorts and hotels is made with purified water and that the only real risk is at food stalls and market stands. Also, ice which is cylindrical with a hole through the middle has most likely been produced in factories and thus pure. However, you will always be taking your chances, so it’s best to stay away.
Brushing Teeth and Personal Hygiene
Brushing one’s teeth is somehow just as divisive as ice. Some will tell you that it’s okay to use the tap water to brush, just as long as you don’t swallow any of the water during the process. Unfortunately, that is not how contamination works, and it’s best to not take the risk altogether. Keep a bottle of purified water next to the faucet so that you can always remember to use a splash during your normal hygiene routine. By the way, it’s okay to shower with the water, but be sure to keep your mouth closed!
Fruit and Vegetables
Consuming unwashed fruits and vegetables while traveling in developing countries is already a big no-no, but with everything we know about the sketchiness of the tap water, there are even more considerations. A salad whose leaves have been washed in unpurified tap water and still has some of that water in its nooks and crannies when it is served to you poses the same risks to you as the aforementioned notorious ice cube. You would do best to veer away from the salad altogether and go for something cooked, hot, and fresh. With fruit, don’t eat it unless you have washed it thoroughly in potable water, or you were the one to peel it.
There is some good news in all of this though, a get-out-of-jail-free card, if you will: the highly revered “Distintivo H.” This program, created by the Mexican government in 1990 exists, in their words, “with the fundamental purpose of reducing the incidence of foodborne illness in national and foreign tourists and improving the image of Mexico worldwide with regard to food safety.” If you see any restaurant with a seal on its door with the label “Distintivo H,” this means they have passed a rigorous test of food hygiene standards and are recognized by both the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health as being a food-safe establishment, which includes the water they use. You are free to drink the water, chew the ice, eat the salad – all is good in the hood.
Is the food safe in Mexico?
The good news is that rules for food safety in Mexico are much less complicated than the rules for water, and that the cautions you will want to take are not much different from those in any other developing country. The bad news is that there are still cautions to take. We’ll keep it simple: the following list is taken straight from the CDC’s Mexico Traveler View:
- Food that is cooked and served hot
- Hard-cooked eggs
- Fruits and vegetables you have washed in clean water or peeled yourself
- Pasteurized dairy products
- Food served at room temperature
- Food from street vendors
- Raw or soft-cooked (runny) eggs
- Raw or undercooked (rare) meat or fish
- Unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables
- Unpasteurized dairy products
- ”Bushmeat” (monkeys, bats, or other wild game)
Practice while you’re out on the street prowling for that famous street food and ask the following questions: does the food have a high turnover? How long has it been sitting out? Is the stand/restaurant busy (indicating a good track record of quality)? Make sure the food you are eating is always, without fail, hot and fresh, and heed the above warning about fresh vegetables, as they could be washed in tap water. One way to safely wash your fruits and veggies yourself is using an iodine rinse such as Microdyn, to kill germs chemically and safely.
And finally, remember, before eating anything, WASH. YOUR. HANDS.