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 significantly differs 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.
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, 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.
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
- 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. Request your drinks “sin hielo” [seen he-yay-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 will 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 when 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.
- For the same reasons, you should always wash your hands before eating anything, even snacks, avoid buffets. They are not 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.
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 that 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 allow you to enjoy your vacation to the fullest.
If you have any additional information or advice about how to avoid 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!