Oh, so now you’re taking medical advice from a blog called The Partying Traveler? That’s where we’re at at this point of the pandemic, huh?
Jokes. I get it. There are plenty of resources online that will tell you whether or not you should travel to Mexico. However, it is also helpful hearing and reading about real people’s experiences on the ground. I’m a full-time traveler, and I got stuck in the U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic. After going seven months without work, I decided to make a desperation move to Mexico. Partially to save money, partially to feel even a glimpse of the constant adventure I was used to.
I’ve lived here since October 2020, based initially in Tulum, and then San Cristobal de las Casas, followed by Oaxaca. I wouldn’t necessarily call it traveling, since I’ve tried to limit my movements due to the pandemic. I chose Tulum at first for a work opportunity. I ended up living in a secluded cenote community in the jungle for over a month, isolated from the reckless travelers that flocked to Tulum. I decided I needed a break from the hippie way of life and took a trip to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. That quick vacation turned into nearly two months. I finally pried myself away and am now settled in the state Oaxaca for the time being.
While I can’t speak for the north of Mexico, I can speak for my experiences in these diverse Mexican states.
Let’s start off with the main thing you need to know about traveling in Mexico during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Traffic Light System of Mexico (Semaforo de Riesgo)
Mexico operates under a traffic light system for the Coronavirus pandemic. Just like a traffic light, green means go and red means stop. If your state is red, then that means pretty much complete lockdown. You are not recommended to leave unless it is absolutely necessary. Green means that everything can continue as usual, although you’re recommended to take the necessary precautions.
For example, when I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, the state of Chiapas was green for almost the entire time. Everything was operating as usual. That included all restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. You did have to wear masks in most businesses. Even then, that didn’t seem strictly enforced. When Chiapas flipped to yellow towards the end of my time in San Cristobal, I don’t think anything really changed. Oaxaca was yellow during my initial visit there, too, and they seemed to be taking it a little more seriously. Mask-wearing was required from the moment you left your place to when you returned. The majority of Oaxacans followed this. Some businesses were operating at reduced hours, including most restaurants and nightlife venues.
It honestly depends state by state, but if you are looking to travel in Mexico, try and stick to the green and yellow states. Of course, be a responsible traveler and do your best to keep those states green and yellow. If those “safe” states experience an influx of travelers, they might turn for the worse very soon. Green doesn’t always mean go, either. Campeche and Chiapas were green for most of my time in Mexico, but apparently, Campeche was much stricter than Chiapas about everything. Once you touch down in Mexico, try to go by word of mouth from fellow travelers.
Above is the traffic light system. Roughly translated, it says:
Red: Do not leave unless it is absolutely essential.
Orange: If you can, stay home.
Yellow: More activities are open but with precaution.
Green: We can go out but with precaution and prevention.
That’s the quick rundown of it, but if you want the detailed official information, be sure to keep up with the official government website regarding Coronavirus. There, you’ll find the most recent COVID maps and updates.
What Is It Like Traveling in Mexico During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
I’ve been to Mexico seven times before this most recent one. However, I’ve already spent more time in Mexico on this trip than all my other seven trips combined. For the most part, traveling in Mexico has been quite similar to my travels pre-COVID.
Here are the main differences I’ve noticed between traveling in Mexico during and before the pandemic.
Mask Wearing in Mexico
This is an obvious one, so I won’t go into much detail. In most indoor settings, you’re required to wear a mask. The level of enforcement varies wildly, not just from state to state but from business to business. Restaurants hardly enforce this, and bars and nightclubs definitely do not enforce it. However, gas stations, Oxxos, bus stations, banks, and other government buildings require masks and strictly enforce them.
Transportation in Mexico during the COVID pandemic
Another place where masks are generally required are in public transportation. If you take one of the ADO buses, you’ll be asked to wear a mask during your entire time. However, there is literally no one to enforce it and you’ll see locals and travelers alike whipping them off as soon as the bus gets moving.
Buses, flights, colectivos, and everything else operates at full capacity. If you’re taking a popular travel route, you’ll more than likely be shoulder to shoulder with someone. The buses have plastic dividers that I honestly believe do not do anything at all. I guess if you’re sitting next to a stranger, it can provide a bit of comfort and a decent enough barrier. The buses also get sanitized on longer routes. This means you might have to get off the bus for them to clean it. This happened to me twice, once at 10 PM and the other at 2 AM, which was annoying and inconvenient, but fair enough in a pandemic. If that’s the only complaint I have about public transport during a pandemic, then I’ll shut up.
Backpacking in Mexico During the COVID-19 Pandemic
While most of the information here is relevant to all travelers, this is a backpacker blog after all. So here’s a quick section about what it’s like backpacking in Mexico right now. I’ve had a variety of experiences here so far, from living in a secluded hippie commune in Tulum to staying at a popular party hostel long-term in San Cristobal. Personally, I’ve been trying to minimize my movement throughout Mexico. When I visit a place, I try to stay for a few weeks at least, in case I catch something and feel the need to quarantine.
Staying in Hostels in Mexico
So far, I’ve stayed at a few different hostels. I stayed at two in Tulum, three in San Cristobal, and two in Oaxaca. For the most part, everything felt pretty normal. One can imagine that young backpackers who are traveling during a pandemic aren’t exactly the most concerned about COVID. Hardly anyone wore masks inside the hostels. And of course, not even is a pandemic is going to keep backpackers from socializing with each other. Even if a hostel bar or common area was closed, backpackers will find a way to befriend one another.
In Tulum and eventually San Cristobal, the hostel experience was very business as usual. In Oaxaca and other states in Mexico, hostels were operating at half capacity. I stayed at Casa Angel hostel in Oaxaca back in 2018, and even celebrated my birthday there. This time around, the hostel had shut its bar and was operating at half capacity, and requested masks to be worn inside the hostel as well. A few streets down at Iguana Hostel, the bar was open and everything was normal, aside from a few of the dorms being rearranged to be better spaced out.
It varies from state to state and from hostel to hostel. If you’re hoping to go backpacking as usual and make friends with fellow travelers, it shouldn’t be a problem. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more isolated experience, it is also possible. I stayed at private rooms for about half my time in Mexico so far, and found it easy to avoid socializing when I felt like being alone. There are loads of hostels to choose from in Mexico. Take a look on Hostelworld and read the reviews to find the vibe that suits you best.
Getting From Place to Place While Backpacking
I briefly talked about what Mexico’s public transportation is like during the Coronavirus pandemic. For backpackers, getting around usually means night buses or cheap colectivos. There shouldn’t be a problem getting from place to place. There aren’t reduced schedules or reduced capacities as far as I know of. Colectivos are cheaper, but slower, and usually require masks to get on. If you’ve got a group of friends, private taxis and private colectivos are also an option. We rented a whole colectivo to get from Comitan to San Cristobal for about $5 each. It’s a nice way to be able to travel without mixing groups too often and potentially spreading the virus.
Restaurants, Bars, and Nightclubs in Mexico
This is another thing that varies vastly from place to place. In Mexico City, restaurants are outdoor seating and take out only. In Guadalajara, there’s a 10 PM curfew. In Tulum, everything is open as usual, regardless of what the government says. In San Cristobal, everything was pretty open. In Oaxaca, a lot of bars and clubs are shut, but some places are still open until well into the morning. Genuinely, nothing makes sense and it’s hard for me to even try to put into words how random everything is.
Just play it by ear, read the room, and do the responsible thing. I didn’t party at all in Tulum because I felt like it was wildly irresponsible. Tulum had a constant stream of short-term travelers from the U.S. bringing COVID with them and spreading it around. I was content to isolate myself from everyone in my jungle hippie commune. When I first got to San Cristobal, I maintained that attitude, staying in private rooms and staying away from bars and restaurants.
However, Chiapas was a green state, meaning everything was allowed to go back to usual. I played it by ear, paid attention to how the locals were handling it, and decided to relax a little bit. In short, when I saw that the nightclubs were packed on a Saturday night, I figured that if the locals felt safe doing it, then it should be okay. I’ve only gone out a couple of times since arriving in Mexico, and for the most part, stuck to my main group. There was one night in San Cristobal where I found myself on a crowded dance floor towering over the much shorter local people of Mexico and made the decision that it was probably best to leave. The music sucked and the street tacos just outside the club were amazing, so it was a pretty easy decision, in all fairness.
The traffic light system will be your best indicator of how open a city is going to be. The food and nightlife in Mexico are some of the best in the world, so it’s understandable to want to experience as much of it as possible.
The Local Attitude Towards Travelers At This Time
I’ve been in Mexico for three months now and have not had a single negative experience with any locals. At first, I was worried that the local attitude towards travelers would be negative or resentful. It definitely felt that way when I was in Argentina at the start of the pandemic trying to find my way home. However, in Mexico, everyone has been welcoming and friendly. In fact, the lack of travelers has actually made it a more pleasant experience all around.
I would wander through the streets of Oaxaca and would be randomly invited to people’s houses. I’d be roaming in the small villages near Oaxaca and every other car would stop to offer me a ride. Mexican people are some of the friendliest in the world, and that is true even during a pandemic that has sown xenophobia in other parts of the world.
I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with locals in Mexico. That being said, I’m also fluent in Spanish and perhaps one of the most unproblematic people you’ll ever meet. If someone tells me to put on a mask, I will no problem. I won’t make a fuss about anything, like, seriously, confrontation is the absolute last thing I want.
Then, I meet entitled tourists who are the complete opposite. If you are a dick, then you might get what’s coming to you. My best advice to you is to remember that you are in Mexico, a country that is not your own. During a pandemic, a country’s people will obviously be looking out for each other. If you are acting in a way that can harm the locals and get called out for it, then just do the right freakin’ thing.
I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences in Mexico. I’ll meet travelers who say otherwise, then when they explain their situation, it’s almost like… they had it coming? Not to say that anyone deserves bad things, but negative consequences will definitely happen if you bring them upon yourself.
Final Thoughts on Traveling in Mexico During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Okay, let me put it bluntly.
Are you going to Tulum for a weekend of reckless drunken debauchery? Don’t go to Mexico.
Are you planning on staying longer-term, following government guidelines and restrictions, and with the health and safety of the local people in mind?
If yes, then Mexico will welcome you with open arms.
There’s no concrete answer because everyone travels differently, with different intentions, styles, budgets, and mindsets. I’ve met a lot of travelers that I’ve absolutely despised due to their selfish mindsets. It was an internal battle when I decided to make the move to Mexico, but lockdown life in the U.S. was stagnant and I had gone nearly seven months without a source of income.
After weeks of indecision, I just decided to pull the trigger. If Mexico was open to travelers with minimal restrictions, then why not? People can judge the decision all they want, but at the end of the day, the Mexican government knows their country the best and decided it was safe and in the country’s best interests to welcome travelers. Yes, some irresponsible people have taken advantage of the lax borders to go on drunken weekend escapades.
But if you simply follow the government regulations and do the same thing you do back in your home country to quell the spread of the pandemic, then why shouldn’t you be able to travel? For me, Mexico was a saving grace. I was able to move to a more budget-friendly country during a pandemic that has left me mostly devoid of work as a travel blogger. I was able to rekindle my passion for travel, experiencing new things, and meeting new people. For the first time in a year, I actually felt like I was living again, instead of simply being alive.
Don’t spoil it for others. If you come to Mexico, do so with the best intentions for the country and its people. Treat Mexico right and it will do the same for you.