Many people’s biggest concern when traveling to Mexico is their health. There are a number of things to consider for your health that are just general to traveling, and some that may be more pertinent for you in Mexico. This walks through the main concerns that I hear from people, and things that we’ve encountered ourselves.
I dare say that this at the top of the list for most people. Traveler’s tummy is no fun, and can range from mild inconvenience to completely derailing your trip. Most of the time it ends up being more on the inconvenience side of things, so if you hydrate and control bathroom visits, you can continue on, just maybe at a slower pace than normal. It’s pretty common around the world, particularly in developing or newly industrialized countries. I won’t go into a long discourse about it, as there are plenty of good sources already out there. Also, that whole myth about locals not getting sick because they are used to the local bacteria is so much bunk. Locals get sick just like tourists. They just probably have better ways of assessing the places they eat. Legal Nomads’ “How to Eat Street Food without Getting Sick” is a nice break down of some guidelines to follow.
Our biggest concession is to make sure we clean our hands every time before we eat. This is especially important because a lot of Mexican food is eaten with your hands (the best way to eat!). We carry hand sanitizer with us (affectionately called “snot”) and use it before each meal. Not all nasties are coming from food or water. You can pick up all kinds of things with your hands through the day and then conveniently put them in your mouth at meal time. Otherwise, for avoiding, we roughly follow the Legal Nomad guidelines.
When we do end up with some tummy trouble, we always have Pepto-Bismol (Bismuth subsalicylate) handy. I remember it from my childhood in the lovely pink liquid form, but they also come in pills and chewable tablets, which are very easy to tuck in your bag or purse. They sell it all over Mexico (and the U.S.) so you can pick it up at any farmacia. Pepto does wonders for minimizing diarrhea and calming the stomach down generally. (On a side note, you can’t find Pepto-Bismol in Europe for whatever reason, so you’ll need to just pick it up once you are in Mexico.) We also have Loperamide (Immodium in the U.S. and Imolope in Denmark) for those times when we really need to just hit a big pause button on traveler’s tummy, like if we are traveling or know we won’t have ready access to a toilet for an extended period. Loperamide is more effective at stopping diarrhea, but it can really stop things up and your body won’t flush things out like it needs to, so we don’t use it as a first-line measure. There is also a new-ish medicine you can get from your doctor that specifically combats E. coli, which is the primary culprit for most people. We have some at home, but we’ve never resorted to using it. You will also need to hydrate a lot. You can read more about that below in the Dehydration section.
In Oaxaca, and generally in the central valleys and mountains of Mexico, you are at high altitude. Oaxaca City sits at 1555 meters/5100 feet, which is about the same as Denver, Colorado. Mexico City is even higher at 2250 meters/7400 feet. If you go into the Sierra Norte around Oaxaca City, you can be at 3180 meters/10,400 feet (Cuajimoloyas). That means the sun is stronger, you will dehydrate more quickly, alcohol will effect you more, and you will be more winded with physical exertion, like climbing up steps or going hiking. You may also notice that your nose may be a little bloody the first few days if you are sensitive to dry air. Take it easy your first couple of days, drink more water than you think you need, and make sure you cover up from the sun.
Thin, dry air tends to dry you out faster. Drink, drink, drink. I have a whole article on delicious beverages to try. If you feel more tired than normal, have any sickness, or can just tell you are dehydrated, you can find Gatorade or similar products at any store or little shop (tienda). The rehydrating, electrolyte class of drinks is called sueros. So if you see any bottle with suero or electrolitos, you’re on the right path. As a note, bear in mind that in Oaxaca City a “suero” is also a beer with lime and salt. This is something local to here, and not true in the rest of Mexico as far as we know. So if you ask for a suero in a store, they’ll probably point you to the electrolytes, and if you ask for one at a place that serves drinks, you’ll get an alcoholic drink. While that is yummy and refreshing, that is not going to help your dehydration as much as a “real” suero.
You’ll notice that most Mexicans wear long pants regardless of the weather and many wear long sleeves too. I do not burn easily and don’t have any issues as long as I have some kind of minimal sun block on (SPF 15-30). If I’m going to be out in direct sun for extended periods though, I will slather on some 50+ lotion and carry something with me to toss over my neck and shoulders if I begin to fry (e.g. a bandana, scarf, or light shirt). We went for a 4-hour horse ride in the valley with no real shade to be found. I had on our regular lotion and a long-sleeve shirt. I still got a mild burn on my forearms from holding the reins all day. The sun ain’t no joke here.
You need to cover up with clothing or have good sun block on. Most farmacias will only sell sun block that is SPF 50 or higher. We have found that Farmacia Similares has SPF 30, which is also a pretty nice consistency and not smelly. You can also find Lubriderm (we get ours at Pitico or one of the big grocery stores), which is a regular lotion that has SPF 15 in it. We generally use that, or something like it, for our regular daily lotion. (The thinner air also makes for drier skin.) Also get a hat you like to shade your face from the sun and make it so you don’t squint your way to a headache.
Finding a doctor
The biggest struggle with finding a doctor in case you do get very sick or need medical attention is that of language. Many doctors do not speak English very well, if at all. That can be confusing and a little scary if you already don’t feel well. We’ve only gone to the doctor once (Camilla had diarrhea for over a week) and we got a recommendation for a gastroenterologist from our landlady, who also went with us. The doctor spoke a fair amount of English and Camilla speaks Spanish so it worked fine. We have heard good reviews of a doctor who speaks English and often sees tourists and U.S. expats, though we’ve never been ourselves to vouch for him. Outside of our specific experience here in Oaxaca, I would recommend asking at a hotel to see if they can find or recommend someone.