While in Mexico for a month earlier this year, I became horribly ill with the worst food poisoning-like symptoms I’ve ever had to endure. We were in the center of Mexico, where no one around us spoke any English at all, and between my husband and I, I was the only one who knew any Spanish. During the several long days, I was extremely sick. I was terrified that I would become so sick that I would require hospitalization, where my husband wouldn’t understand what was going on or how to help me due to the language barrier.
Seeing the person I love most in the world so concerned for my safety as he held my hand and tried to follow my nearly incoherent directions on how to lower my dangerously high fever in our small, rural hotel room was enough to ensure that I would never be lax in my preventative measures again.
In my delirium, I even attempted to write out phrases in Spanish Robin might need if I lost consciousness or couldn’t speak, but I didn’t have the strength to hold a pen for very long. I was having trouble speaking. Understandably, this experience was frightening for both of us, and we have become extremely cautious when traveling to avoid future illnesses.
If you’re unfamiliar with traveler’s illnesses in Mexico, this summary may be helpful for you; otherwise, skip to the next paragraph. Untreated water in other countries, especially in Mexico, has bacteria that differ from what we may have immunity to at home, so even the slightest exposure could spell disaster for the unsuspecting traveler. Being fully vaccinated is not enough to prevent illnesses like the one I contracted from unclean water. Illnesses like this can happen anywhere in the world, even in different parts of the United States.
The term “Montezuma’s Revenge” has become a blanket term people call diseases that one can acquire in Mexico from tap water. There are numerous different maladies one can contract in this region, though I will not go into depths on their names or symptoms here. While what I had was typhoid, an outbreak of which occurred in the Riviera Maya during our visit, this advice applies to avoiding all of those “travelers illnesses.” Just know that drinking or using unclean water will almost always make you sick. It may even cause unpleasant symptoms like high fevers, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, tremors or chills, vertigo, and a slew of other uncomfortable, even dangerous things.
Each year, thousands of travelers are struck down with what is similar to a very violent food poisoning in Mexico. Still, travelers can almost always avoid these illnesses by taking the proper precautions while visiting the beautiful, welcoming nation to the south of us. Despite becoming severely ill during my visit, I really loved our time in Mexico, and I look forward to visiting again one day.
Being sick in an isolated place, far from home, was a scary experience. I learned several valuable lessons from my suffering, and at the very least, I hope you will learn how to prevent what happened to me from befalling you. Learn from my mistakes and prevent yourself from becoming unwell in Mexico by following these simple but not necessarily obvious pieces of advice, and read on to learn what I did wrong that caused me to become so sick we had to cut our trip short.
- Never drink tap water.
- Never eat things washed with tap water (fruits, vegetables, ice made with tap water, etc.)
- Never eat food that has not been cooked thoroughly.
- Avoid raw seafood, undercooked eggs, and any meat that is not completely cooked. If you want to eat fish, order it cooked, or try ceviche, which is a “raw” fish dish that utilizes citric acid to kill bacteria (it’s delicious!)
- Avoid unwashed produce or any produce with visible dirt on it
- Do not eat salads or smoothies made from produce that has not been washed and dried or still wet from being washed.
- Fruits you can peel like bananas, kiwis, and mangos are okay, so long as you are the one peeling them.
- Ask for, and only drink from, sealed bottles of water. Some unsavory establishments may offer you “conveniently pre-opened” bottles of “purified” water, but do not be fooled by their explanation that this is an “extra service.” This saves them money by reusing (usually unwashed) bottles and refilling them with tap water. Refuse opened bottles and insist on “bebidas selladas” [bay-bee-das say-yadas], which is Spanish for “sealed drinks.”
- Do not be afraid to refuse or throw away food that you suspect was made by someone who did not wash their hands properly. We went to a restaurant in Cancún just after landing in the Rivera Maya, and my husband witnessed one of the cooks come out of the bathroom without washing his hands and go directly back to cooking food. We were horrified and left without ordering anything. If I could remember the name of this particular establishment, I would warn against patronizing it, but unfortunately, the name escapes me.
- Do not accept ice in your drinks, as it is likely made with tap water unless you are staying in a high-end resort, but even then, I would recommend avoiding it to be safe. Request your drinks “sin hielo” [seen ee-ay-lo], without ice.
- Do not drink fruit juices unless they are freshly squeezed, as they may have been reconstituted with tap water.
- Avoid street food. It’s very tempting to eat the unique and vibrant dishes you will see prepared by peddlers nearly everywhere you go in Mexico. Since it’s impossible to know how sanitary their cooking and preparation standards are, it’s best to avoid them altogether.
- If you can’t resist trying street food, eat at the stands the locals are lining up for, but keep in mind that their immunity may be different from yours. If no one is eating at a street food stall, there’s likely a reason for this. Be warned; locals will have different immunities than travelers, so you may still get sick if food is not prepared well.
- I hope you always wash your hands before every meal but do be doubly certain to do so in Mexico. You may have touched doors, handles, or chairs that were touched by someone who did not have clean hands, and washing your hands, drying them thoroughly, and then using alcohol-based hand sanitizer can save you from days of misery.
- You should always wash your hands before eating anything, even snacks, avoid buffets for the same reasons. They are not always safe to eat from because people may grab food with unwashed hands or use forks to pick out their food, and many of the buffets we saw in Mexico, even at nicer resorts, did not have “sneeze guards,” meaning sick people could easily contaminate food. Err on the side of caution and stick to reputable restaurants that serve food directly to patrons.
- Speaking of hand washing, it will likely be unavoidable that when washing your hands, you will be forced to use tap water to do so. Always dry your hands thoroughly and follow up with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer afterward as well. Many bathrooms in Mexico may not have any soap and are likely to have faucets that require you to pull and hold a lever while using it, which is likely rarely cleaned, so I cannot stress the importance of following handwashing with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer enough to kill any bacteria that may linger.
- Showering in the water is okay, as long as you don’t get the water in your mouth. I also recommend avoiding getting it in your eyes as well to be safe.
- Only ever use bottled water to brush your teeth.
I became so sick because I absentmindedly brushed my teeth with tap water twice in the same day, rather than using bottled water like I had been the rest of my trip. I was exhausted from an entire month of waking up very early, going to bed very late, traveling and hiking in the heat, and site-seeing under the Caribbean sun. I wasn’t as vigilant as I knew to be about avoiding tap water. I had also had a smoothie at a nice restaurant because I thought it would be safe in such a luxurious restaurant geared towards tourists, which may have caused my illness.
This might not seem like it should be enough to cause such debilitating illness, and I typically have a very strong stomach. However, this is apparently one of the most common ways travelers become sick in Mexico, according to a pharmacist we went to see at the end of my sickness. Although experiencing such an acute illness would never stop me from traveling, I would never wish what I went through upon anyone, so I hope that these tips will help you avoid getting sick and will allow you to enjoy your vacation to the fullest.
If you have any additional information or advice about avoiding getting sick while traveling in Mexico, please share it in the comments below, and I will add useful tips to this post.
Farewell, fellow adventurers!
Mary Linnert says
Oh my goodness. This was so hard to read because I’m so blind to the normal things I’d take for granted. This is such a good read and I will not forget these tips next time we travel outside the country….really anywhere! I’m so sorry you had to endure that. I’m very grateful you shared these tips.
I’m just glad others can learn from my experience, I wouldn’t wish being sick like this on anyone.
Oh no that is awful. We are going to Mexico for the first time here really soon. I’ve been reading alot about safety and the food/water issue and if we had purchased the insurance I would cancel the trip. It seems like it will be hard to enjoy it having to be so cautious on what to eat & drink & what you can & can’t do. I just wanted to relax on the beach & drink pina coladas, ..but they are made with ice so I guess I can’t do that.! And should we not eat salads? Since salads have to be washed and fruit as well? How do you take a shower without getting the water in your eyes or even little in your mouth??? How do so many people go if it is such a hassle and you can’t have what you enjoy???
I hope this post doesn’t discourage you from going to Mexico, it’s such a gorgeous country! I know it sounds like a lot to remember, but once you’re there it will become second nature, it’s just what you have to do to stay healthy. If you’re staying at a resort, call ahead and ask where their water used in cooking, making ice, etc. comes from. Many resorts will use purified water, so you can totally relax! I am a vegetarian, so I ate a lot of salads in Mexico and I didn’t have any issues, same with fruit. I will say that we ate at nicer places, where there were lots of tourists and locals eating, which was our clue that it was a safe and delicious place to eat. When it comes to showering, we just kept our eyes and mouths shut, and tired off right away. After the day or two, we fell in the swing of things, and it was splendid! I hope this puts your mind at ease a bit!
Don’t drink the water!!!
Basically this haha. Don’t drink drinks with ice (including margaritas!), don’t open your mouth in the shower or brush with tap water, and be cautious about trying street foods!
We went to Tulum last month for our honeymoon, and were SO careful about the water. I brushed my teeth once with tap water by accident on our last day, and I almost started crying because I was so nervous I would be sick on the 9 hour flight back to London. Luckily I was okay, but I’ve heard others with similar stories to you. So glad you got better, and thanks for sharing these tips!
Awww! I’m so thankful you didn’t get sick! Isn’t Tulum just STUNNING? It’s such a perfect place for a honeymoon! Congratulations on your wedding Molly!
Aww Im so sorry you got so sick, that is the worst!! Thanks for sharing your tips on preventing this
I hope this helps prevent what happened to me from happening to others! Thank you for reading!
I’m so sorry you got sick! The is such an amazing post though and I’ll be saving it to refer back to for future travel. Thanks girlie!
I’ll never take being healthy for granted, ever! I hope this helps keep you healthy!
I’ve heard a lot of stories about food poising on Mexico, so I’m definitely taking your advice. Thanks for sharing!
The bioflora in their water is just SO different from ours, and some regions sadly don’t have the same sanitation standards we do. We just have to be extra careful!
Mimi Winn says
I wouldn’t have Even thought of most of these. We travel so much outside of the states and I really take clean water for granted. A lot of our visitors in Germany have asked if the water is safe to drink and it always confused me. But now I’m realizing that our water in the states is not normal to the rest of the world. (Germany’s water is fine, but it doesn’t have fluoride!)
I LOVE Germany, although I was worried about the water their too haha. Getting sick while traveling is scary!
Laura || Walking in Memphis in High Heels says
Oh gosh girl I’m so sorry! I’ve always tried to stay away from being sick but it seems like it can be avoided if diligent. These are all great tips.
I definitely let my guard down, and I don’t think I would have had any troubles if I would’ve been more careful. Thanks for reading!
Great tips!! I’ve gone to Mexico many times and it’s always been instilled to never drink the water!!
It’s such good advice! I just wish I would’ve realized how much “Water” I use daily, like in ice, bathing, etc. It seems silly to say but prior to this I’d taken it for granted!
Ugh, it so sucks to get sick while on vacay!! Great tips to avoid the drinking water.
I agree, being sick is bad enough, but it’s especially bad in the middle of nowhere in another country.
Ugh getting sick while traveling is the worst!! Whenever we travel internationally, we always bring a z-pack with us just in case something was to go wrong. These are all such great tips!
After this trip I’m brining half a pharmacy with me when I go abroad haha.
Oh my! I am so sorry you got sick! We were planning a trip out of country and my husband kept insisting Mexico was somewhere we absolutely weren’t going! So many good tips though, thanks for the info!
I wouldn’t let the fear of getting sick keep you from visiting, honestly. Mexico is so gorgeous, and the people were so friendly, the food was amazing, and seeing the jungle and the Caribbean Sea, Mayan ruins and the stars without light pollution was unbelievable. I wouldn’t have gotten sick if I’d been more careful, so it was entirely preventable, although not entirely obvious lol
Being sick in a place not familiar to you is THE WORST!! Thanks for sharing these tips!
I agree, it was way worse than being sick at home. Hopefully these tips help prevent that for others!
wow! This was so insightful. As someone who loves to travel, this was something I found very informative and will reference back to. thank you for sharing!
Thank you so much Steph! I hope it helps you stay healthy on your travels!
SS Carr says
I too have become quite ill while traveling in Mexico. shigella, amoebic too (the cure is almost worse than the illness). I even got round worm from walking barefoot! I love Mexico, so it’s not stopping me from going. I have tried everything you mentioned to no avail… I’m leaving again at the end of the month for a week in one of the all inclusive resorts along the Mayan Rivera with a fun group of women and hope I can get through a week long vacation without illness, I wondered if taking two doses a day of really good probiotics might help. That’s my plan.
we dont have very diferent immunities hahaha XD, although if you live in the US you might not be exposed to what we are here. we mexicans sometimes get sick too from the water or street food, so we have some basic rules: 1 dont drink tap water 2 allways get your food well cooked 3 if it falls to the ground you have 5 seconds to pick it up and you are good to go and extra spicy hahahahha. Just never drink water unless it’s in a clean water bottle, and don’t let them open it for you, because sometimes people will drug and rob tourists or be cheap and give tap water
Lisa Johnston says
I’ve been to Mexico twice and will NEVER go back again. I got sick both times with nausea and bloody diarrhea. It doesn’t matter how careful you are – you can’t know what fruit and vegetables they have washed correctly. It’s a nasty country.
Chad Vanek says
I’ve also been to Mexico City twice and absolutely love it the both times got sick as a dog.. Made it 9 days until accidentally ate lettuce on a sandwich and boom…death water shooting out for a month..
Christina H. says
I’ve never thought about using bottled water for brushing teeth, that’s genius. Thanks for passing on your tips so others can avoid getting sick.
Larissa Page says
I’ve always been worried about traveling to mexico so I’m glad there are ways to avoid being sick! I sounds like it takes a lot of planning though
Jenny whitby says
We were supposed to go to mexico this year but covid happend…hopefully next year and gonna use these tips!
Danielle J says
Always always always bottled water
Renee Fasanella says
Going to Mexico for a wedding! This is so helpful! Thank you!