The People's Guide To Mexico

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Staying Healthy in Mexico 

By Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
Excerpted from The People's Guide to Mexico

“Take my advice, dear; never eat anything ugly or wrinkled.

Overheard in a Cancun restaurant.

First of all, let me assure you that you don’t have to get sick in Mexico! Thanks to our self-sacrificing research and painful experience with scorpion stings, severe sunburn, sprains and stomach-wrenching diarrhea, we know what it takes to stay healthy. Follow the advice offered here and you’ll have an excellent chance of coming home even healthier than you left.

It is sad but true that gringos sometimes get sick while traveling in Mexico. In fairness, Mexicans may also become ill when visiting the United States. Some people even experience health problems traveling inside their own country. In other words, travel may broaden the mind, but it also tends to upset our stomach.

Why? The short answer is that our body’s naturally occurring bacteria are adapted to our present location. Unfortunately, these bacteria don’t travel well and when we move far away from home, they can’t handle it. Once we arrive in Mexico (or Paris, Missoula, Tokyo, etc.), our body must re-adapt to other, new bacteria. Until we’ve completed this adjustment, we not only don’t feel as healthy as usual, but we have a tendency to become irritable and to blame our queasiness on the local enchiladas and ice cubes. Unfortunately, this process of adaptation seems to span most of the average traveler’s vacation time.

In addition to homesick bacteria, (known medically as “Traveler’s Diarrhea), travel also subjects us to stressful changes in climate, altitude and daily routines. Throw in the anxiety of last-minute travel preparations, white-knuckle cab rides, and long nights in short, lumpy hotel beds, and it’s a wonder the traveler survives at all.

The first step in staying healthy is to recognize that most health problems you’ll encounter in Mexico come from three sources: food, beverages (especially water) and Acts of Nature (sunburn, bug bites, tripping over cobblestones, etc.).

Not surprisingly, food and beverages are the biggest offenders. Next to overeating, the most likely cause of diarrhea suffered by both Mexicans and tourists (once they’ve adjusted to their location) is improper food handling and accidental contamination. No matter how fancy the restaurant or delicious the aroma, if the cook’s hands, knives or dishes are dirty, the food will not be clean.

A very poor Mexican family once invited me to eat dinner with them. I accepted, knowing quite well that they had no real concept of sanitation. Water was scarce and the entire family was very dirty. To my surprise, and perhaps in honor of having a guest present, they used a whole bucket of water to wash with. The sad thing, however, was that they washed only their faces and then after dinner rather than before.

Always attempt to reduce the chances of infection. I say reduce because for the most part it is impossible to completely eliminate the opportunities to eat or drink something that is contaminated.

My invitation to dinner was also an invitation to a stomach-scouring case of diarrhea. I knew this when I accepted, but felt that the possibility of becoming ill meant less to me than offending friends who couldn’t help being a health hazard.

This is one of the risks involved in leaving home. If the risk is too much for you, you’ll have to restrict the range of your traveling and experiences. You should not, however, carry a “come what may” attitude to extremes.


“Your cautious friends and family will probably force you to prepare for your adventurous journey by filling yourself full of typhoid serum... quinine to dose the malaria they are sure you will acquire, and flannel bellybands to protect you from cholera....”
Off To Mexico by Leone and Alice Moats (1935)

Smart travelers are aware of their bodies. “Shall I have just one more taco and another beer?,” “Do I dare lay out on the beach until noon or should I go in now?,” “Am I too tired to tour the ruins and still get back by dinnertime?” Each of these situations requires a decision, one that can mean the difference between a good night’s sleep and indigestion, a tan or a burn and a relaxed day versus a marathon.

Since most of our vacations are all-too short, such decisions become very important. Yes, you can buy a fistful of anti-acid tablets at the local farmacia or smother your back with sunburn ointment, but why suffer the discomfort and inconvenience? It’s much smarter, both for your health and pleasure, to know when to stop and what to avoid. Rather than load up on medicines and remedies, think of prevention as your best protection against health problems.


At the risk of sounding like your conscience, I must tell you that overindulging is the leading cause of tourist's stomach complaints. Every day, visitors ladle chili sauce over mounds of cream-drenched enchiladas, wash it down with a few cold cervezas and a heavy dessert -- and then gripe about the food when their stomach rebels.

On a tour of highland colonial cities, Lorena and I decided to treat our group to a buffet dinner and folkloric dance show. When I inquired about the menu, the manager proudly described a banquet of traditional dishes that included nopal cactus leaves stuffed with sirloin, tamales stuffed with chicken and avocados stuffed with fresh shrimp. An entire roast pig stuffed with
herbed rice would eventually be followed by pastries stuffed with thick cream and tropical fruit.

My anticipation turned to alarm. Clearly, the specialty of the house was more than just "stuffed." In terms of calories and cholesterol, the buffet made a holiday smorgasbord sound like a frozen Weight Watcher's entree.

As a precaution, I gave our group a stirring pre-dinner harangue on the tremendous health benefits of eating in moderation, not overdoing it, etc., etc. Later, however, as we feasted....

“Carl, what’s that dessert you’re eating?” Harvey asked.

I swallowed carefully. “This one?” I answered. “I’m not sure but I think it’s mountain apricots in some kind of guava and honey sauce. It’s good,” I added, “but awfully rich.”

“No,” he persisted, “I mean that dark, cake-like stuff, next to those fried tarts. On the edge of your other plate,” Harvey added dryly. “Behind that large portion of flan....”

It is possible, of course, to be served food that is tainted or slightly ‘off’ wherever you go. However, food, water and ice are easy scapegoats for those of us who don’t always know when to quit.

The manager of a Puerto Vallarta hotel and I were strolling by the pool one morning, studying recent trends in swimming suit design, when we passed a group of guests sprawled on recliner lounges, with dark sunglasses and distinctly queasy expressions on their faces.

“¡Buenos días!” Sergio boomed cheerily. “Did you enjoy the fiesta last night?”

They flinched, then answered in a feeble chorus.

“Too much! Great! What a blast!”

“That’s wonderful!” Sergio cried. “But aren’t you having breakfast? How about a big plate of scrambled eggs with chorizo sausage? Or some refried beans with hot sauce?” They groaned in unison. “Maybe later,” one of them gasped, shielding his eyes with a forearm. Sergio laughed heartily and led me into the restaurant.

“Those folks tried to drink up all my tequila again last night,” he chuckled. “Hey, Sergio!” he mimicked, “there’s something wrong with this ice! Every time I drink six or seven margaritas I get a stomach ache!” There was a note of exasperation in his laughter.

As we took a table, a waiter quickly placed a heaping basket of hot pastries between us. As usual, Sergio beat me to the croissant.

“Carl, tell me something,” he said, reaching for the butter. “If I go to the States and eat and drink everything in sight, and then I get sick, what should I do? Complain about the food?”

“There’s a better way,” I said, savoring my orange juice. “Just blame it on the weather.”

“You will receive all kinds of advice about eating only tinned foods, avoiding lettuce, and drinking nothing but bottled water. Most of it is nonsense.”
Off To Mexico Leone and Alice Moats, 1935.

Health Precautions

• Relax! Take siestas: Your trip should refresh you, not wear you to a frazzle. Do whatever is necessary to relax and truly enjoy yourself, including just lying on your back staring at the sky for days at a time.

• Don’t over do it: “Twenty archaeological sites, 12 museums, six folklorico performances and . . . oh yeah . . . two leg cramps, a backache, scorched nose and 14 blisters.” Take naps and frequent unscheduled stops. Don’t be afraid to turn in while others are forcing themselves to carry on.

• Adjust to the altitude: It takes me a full week to adjust from living near sea level to a change of 7,000 feet (the elevation of Mexico City and much of the central plateau). Going the other way, from high to low, takes less time, but still must be considered. Go very easy on exercise, alcohol, drugs of all types and life in general until you’ve adjusted.

• Avoid sunburn: An extra 15 minutes of hot sun can cause many days of discomfort.

• Don’t wander around with barefeet: Except for beaches, bare feet are not safe. Avoid the hazards of broken glass, rusty metal, infections from animal and human feces (very common), and hookworm. Do as the Mexicans, and at least wear sandals.

• Wash your hands often: Mother was right, washing up before meals is actually good for your health. As you travel, your hands make constant contact with foreign objects, from doorknobs and hand rails to souvenirs and coins. Washing several times a day will help protect you from colds, flu and other hand-to-mouth illnesses.

• Easy does it on alcohol: Some people get over-exuberant and spend their vacation hoisting beer bottles and cocktail glasses. When combined with driving, ruin-hopping, shopping and deep sea fishing, too much drinking can leave you completely exhausted.

• Eat moderately: Avoid both over-eating and eating too little. A vacation isn’t the time for strict dieting or fasting. Avoid greasy foods: If you’re a marginal vegetarian you’ll learn, as I have, that not eating meat in Mexico cuts down dramatically on stomach problems. If those pork ribs are dripping with grease pass them by. Avoid raw dairy products or cook them well. To pasteurize raw (or suspicious) milk, bring it to a boil, then cool for two hours.

Street foods, especially fritangas (tacos and other fried treats), are both tempting and tricky. Vendors may try their best, but studies clearly show that hygienic conditions are very poor in most sidewalk food stands. Meat dishes are commonly held at low temperatures, encouraging microbes.

Be careful with uncooked vegetables in street food. Traditional warnings to avoid all fruits and vegetables that aren’t peeled or cooked are simply out of date. Though well intentioned, such advice exaggerates health risks and frightens travelers. This doesn’t mean, however, that some precautions aren’t in order.

When in doubt, imitate Mexicans: drench raw vegetables with lime juice and sprinkle them with chilie pepper. Raw fruits and vegetables can also be purified with bleach or iodine solutions (see A to Z: Practical Stuff: Water: Vegetable: Purifying.) Peeling fruit and vegetables is always a good idea -- if it’s done with a clean knife.

• Drink purified water. Purified water is widely available in 1/2 liter to gallon plastic bottles. You can also purify water yourself. (See A to Z: Water: Purifying.) My solution to the “What if it’s not purified?” dilemma is to drink plain mineral water, sodas and fruit juices. Yes, you can brush your teeth in Coca Cola.

• Use Pepto Bismol as a diarrhea preventative. (See The People's Guide to Mexico: Remedies & Cures: Diarrhea.)

At first glance, these precautions might seem to rule out everything you enjoy eating. This should not be true—as long as you use discretion when breaking the “rules.”

excerpted from The People's Guide to Mexico

for further advice and information

The People's Guide to Mexico

The Stay Healthy chapter of The People's Guide to Mexico covers the following topics in detail:

What’s the trouble?... Reasonable precautions... Got sick anyway... Doctor or Curandera?... Getting help... Medicinal plants... Pharmacies... Doctors, Hospitals, Dentists, Optometrists... Health/Kit First Aid kit... Prevention & Cure... Secrets of the Mayas revealed!...

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©1972-2011 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens