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Mexico and Canada Now – Top differences you should know

Mexico and Canada are both North American countries, but they are so different.

Introduction

Canadians come to Mexico to escape the frozen north during the winter months. Mexico has been a popular destination for Canadian snowbirds for decades. Easy entry requirements, welcoming locals, an endless coastline, superb beaches, and cheap margaritas have been attractive to many sun-loving Canadians.

Canada and Mexico are both North American countries, both neighbouring the United States of America. Although they are all geographically close, Mexico is simply a different country than its northern neighbours. Don’t assume that anything will be the same south of the border.

Mexico is a Latin American nation with a large Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic population. Canada is an Anglo-American country with a majority of English-speaking population and with a more balanced mix of religions.

The indigenous village of Chamula, Chapa Mexico on a weekend

My Mexico experience as a Canadian

My first trip to Mexico from Canada was in spring 2020 when I spent two months near a small pueblo close to the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende, in the central Mexican highlands.

The second trip followed in the spring of 2021, but this time with the intention to travel across the rest of this amazing country. For nearly six months I explored Mexico by bus, colectivos (mini-busses), airplanes, and by taking the famous La Chepe (Copper Canyon train) across northern Mexico. Travelling to historic cities, stopping at old mining towns, climbing aged pyramids, swimming in Mexicos’ famous cenotes, hiking to impressive waterfalls, and visiting old Mayan villages are only a small collection of my amazing journey.

Cenotes Mexico
Cenotes and wild beauty off-the-beaten-path

Backcountry travel in Mexico

Even in Mexico I much prefer exploring the backcountry instead of crowded cities and resort. One of my highlights in Mexico was my trip from San Luis Potosi, to the desert town of Estacion Wadley, famous for gold and silver and peyote cactus used by native cultures for thousands of years for ceremonial purposes.

From this off-the-beaten-track town, the adventure continued to Real de Catorce. As a passenger in the back of one of the famous old Willys (off-road vehicles, background of the Jeep) maneuvering across road gaps and along narrow rough roads, crossing semi-desert plains and high elevations made this trip a thrilling experience.

The old ghost town of Real Catorce in the San Luis Potosi mountains revived into an amazing tourist town (Pueblo Magico). Many abandoned buildings remain of times gone by. Hiking into the surrounding hills on old dusty trails takes you across aged ruins of old villages with plenty of donkeys and mules dotting the desert landscape.

Real de Catorce Mexocp
Ghost town Real de Catorce, an old mining town

Visa requirements for Mexico

Thanks to the generous Mexican immigrations laws, many retired Canadians and Americans have spent half of the year residing in Mexico for years. A 180-days tourist visa was guaranteed by entering the country until early 2022. That is when the tourist visa rules changed.

Since then. the 180-days got reduced to whatever the border official decides to give you when entering the country. It seems to be an attempt to attract more people to apply for permanent Mexican residency. Before booking an extended trip to Mexico, check out the government website for the newest entry requirements.

Runins of an old town Mexico
Aged ruins of an old town

Covid travel restrictions

The Mexican borders have been open to tourists during the covid era with no Covid entry requirements at all. A large percentage of the Mexican population is wearing masks, often under their nose.

Apart from banks, large supermarkets, and government buildings mask-wearing never got enforced. No wonder tourism in Mexico is doing well, and no wonder Canadians flock to Mexico in large numbers.

Canada’s never-ending Covid restrictions have been some of the toughest in the world. It’s no surprise that many Canadians escape to Mexico.

Corona Mexico
Corona is all over Mexico

Local bus travel

I love taking local busses in Mexico, especially in small towns. Often the front door of the bus is kept open for fresh air with blaring music coming through the loudspeakers.

To be sure not to miss the bus stop where I want to get off I always try to get a front seat. There I can watch the bus driver texting on his cellphone while maneuvering along the bumpy cobblestone roads.

Parts of Mexican life remind me how life used to be in Canada not that long ago.

Many local Mexican busses are decorated with personal effects and religious symbols like a cross, a rosary, as well as religious pictures.

Having my own vehicle In Canada I never take local busses and I don’t think many people do. This is unless you live in a large city of course.

Mexican Local bus
Local bus in Mexico

Long-distance bus travel

It might surprise you, but long-distance bus travel in Mexico is pretty comfortable if you use one of the major long-distance bus companies. It’s somehow like travelling business class on an airplane. Different companies operate different routes usually by region.

With toilets onboard and personal entertainment centers, I prefer a long bus ride instead of dealing with the hassle of flying. There are many cheaper second-class long-distance busses available but with lots of stopping on the way, with less comfort and a rougher ride.

Long-distance busses are used a lot by the Mexican population. Domestic flights in Mexico are fairly reasonably priced as well.

Living in Canada without a car is pretty unthinkable. Even an average family in Canada owns one or multiple vehicles. It has to do with the long distances and remote areas and a pretty limited public transport system.

Greyhound used to be Canada’s country-wide bus network before they permanently closed their service in Canada in 2021. New bus companies have sprung up offering different routes with a limited network.

As a tourist in Canada, you are best off renting a car to see the country. Check here for other transportation options. Domestic flights in Canada are expensive.

Cactus central highlands Mexico
Central Highlands, Mexico, Cactus blooming

Police presence in Mexico for tourists safety

Especially in Mexico’s larger cities, you often see the municipal police conspicuously driving through the touristy areas fully geared up with the armour and with big rifles posing in the back of a pickup truck.

Canadians come to Mexico to escape winter and to enjoy the beautiful beaches and the good life. Unfortunately, because of the horrific media reports back home, many still have cartel shootouts and roadside horror stories in the back of their mind. Cops armed to the teeth are supposed to make tourists feel a bit safer. Many of us wonder whether a lot of it is a bit of a facade.

In Canada, police presence is less noticeable and more discrete. The RCMP doesn’t drive around with machine guns just for show.

Mexican Police
Mexican Police is ready for action

Hiking trails with a difference

Hiking in Mexico is a totally different experience. You won’t find many marked hiking trails. Therefore, following an old mule or horse trail is often the only option if you’re in doubt what direction to take. It is nearly impossible to find trail descriptions or hiking maps.

Mexico’s varied landscape lacks the lakes and rivers we have in Canada. Instead, you can have a dip in the ocean or explore the many beautiful cenotes and hot springs all around Mexico.

Central and northern Mexico have many desert-like landscapes with huge cactus plants, just what you see in some western movies. When hiking in these areas, cactus spikes tear your shoes and clothes and scratch your legs. Using a pair of tweezers for picking out dorns from your skin is not unusual after a hike.

On these trails, there is nowhere to hold on to when climbing up steep terrain through cactus forests. Cactus spikes are traitorous.

Mexico has volcanos you can climb. Because of extremely high altitude climbing attempts are only suggested for physically fit hikers. Hiring a guide is recommended for these hikes.

Horses, donkeys, mules, cows, and sheep along the trails are part of the Mexican landscape.

Hiking is much more common in Canada.

Nearly every town you come to in Canada has an extensive trail network. Provincial and National parks offer hikes for every fitness level. Most trails are safe without having to hire a guide.

Canadian hiking books and maps are easily available. While in Mexico you can hike without worrying about wild animals, In Canada you have to be bear aware at all times.

A diverse Mexican landscape
Mexico has a diverse landscape – Guanajuato

Exploring Mexican and Canadian cities on foot

Mexican cities and towns seem to be pretty chaotic when you arrive first. Still, they seem to function pretty well.

The busy car, bus, taxi, motorcycle, and ATV traffic maneuvers through narrow cobblestone oneway streets and alleys with ease.

Walking on sidewalks in Mexican is a bit tricky and needs constant attention. While walking on the narrow, and raised concrete cobblestone sidewalk strips you better watch your steps. Open sewer shafts and other holes in the ground are a real hazard in many Mexican towns. Tripping and falling into a hole while looking around marvelling at old Mexican architecture is not a good idea.

Most Mexican cities have a historic centre with the main square, and the major attractions nearby. That makes sightseeing easy on foot.

Keep your eyes open for surprises behind brick and stone walls, where you will find beautiful gardens, cafes, and restaurants.

Most Canadian cities lack a distinctive downtown, are more spread out, and are not passenger-friendly. Blocked-off roads for pedestrians are not common.

Population differences

According to Wikipedia, Mexico is the 10th most populated country. One thing I noticed right away in Mexico was the high numbers of young families and a generally young population.

Looking around me while strolling through Mexican towns I often notice to be one of the older ones in the crowd. That changes when visiting Mexican Expats heavens where the majority of people are retired.

Canada has a much older population. It’s no secret that Canada’s population is rapidly aging as the baby boomers are retiring with predictable consequences. At the same time, Canadians are having fewer children than they did decades ago.

Local businesses and markets

In Mexico, you still can shop for all your needs at small local businesses and markets. Small food stands are located at every corner as well as small family restaurants. OXO shops spread out all over Mexico are similar to the Seveneleven’s in Canada. Only in larger towns, you will find Starbucks and American fast-food chains.

Mexico is famous for its colourful markets. There you will find anything from clothes, household articles to fresh meat and fruit and vegetables at incredibly low prices.

In Canada, most stores and restaurants are franchise businesses. The majority of people shop in big box stores and online and small privately-owned shops are harder to find. If you’re lucky you will come across a privately owned coffee shop or restaurant.

You will find many family-owned, seasonal shops in the fruit-growing areas in Canada where you can stock up for the long winter month. Canada has seasonal outdoor markets on a much smaller scale, but you probably won’t find any bargains there.

Local Mexican market
Mexican markets are colourful and diverse

Different ways of building houses

In Mexico, there are not many wood structures and nearly everything is concrete. Concrete blocks and poured cement is the basic makeup of buildings here.

The most obvious reason for it is the climate, termites, and limited timbers. Typically, concrete walls, often looking like fortresses surround Mexican homes. Behind the wall-facades are houses with courtyards and beautiful gardens. I haven‘t figured out yet whether the wall is for privacy or safety reasons or both.

The stone keeps the houses cool during the hot times of the year, but also uncomfortably cold during the winter months as heating in Mexico is not common.

For someone to have air conditioning in Mexico is pretty rare, apart from some beach resorts or extremely hot areas in the northern part of Mexico.

Canada is the home of log homes, log cabins, and timber-framed houses. Instead of concrete, Canada uses wood for house construction. With Canada’s huge forests and mills and wood export industry, this is no surprise. Homes are cozy and warm and a good heating system is important. Wood stoves and wood heat are common. During the hot summers in the southern regions of Canada, air conditioning units are widespread.

Desert town of Estacion Wadley
Desert town of Estacion Wadley

Climate and environment

Since Mexico’s terrain is extremely varied, so is the weather. Mexico has dry deserts, tropical forests, fertile valleys, and snow-capped mountains

The climate varies according to altitude. On the coast, the temperatures are generally warm all year-round, with a dry and rainy season and little temperature fluctuation from season to season. Mexico City as well as the highlands can have chilly days, and nights that are actually frigid.

Canada’s climate is also varied. Extreme differences in weather on any given day from one part of the country to another are normal.

The southern two-thirds of Canada has very cold winters and short, cool summers. In the central-southern part of the interior plains, there are very cold winters, hot summers, and relatively sparse precipitation amounts.

Sierra Gorda Mexico
Hidden treasures of Sierra Gorda, Mexico

Cash is still king in Mexico

Most of Mexico still relies on cash payments. According to CashEssentials, the country’s cash infrastructure has expanded during the pandemic. Despite sensational media coverage announcing the premature death of cash and the advent of cashless payments in Mexico.

Cash is deeply rooted in Mexico’s culture and in the mentality of the Mexican people.

Therefore, make sure to always have a pocket full of cash when travelling in Mexico. Don’t expect to be able to pay your accommodation or restaurant bill with your Creditcard unless you’re at a resort or tourist place.

Coins become handy to tip your bag carrier or to drop into a street musician’s hat. You also need coins to enter public washrooms and get your stack of toilet paper.

In Canada, I often walk around with no cash at all. Some stores don’t even accept cash anymore. With your card, you can pay for everything from a coffee to your dollar item at a store.

The differences in family culture

Mexicans have huge, well-knit families. Typically, family members treat each other with love and respect. Family is first priority, with children sheltered and given lots of attention.

The women are expected to fulfill the domestic roles. Mexican parents are super strict with their children and that continues even when they are grown up. Most Mexican children don’t even consider leaving their parent’s home before the late twenties to early thirties or until they get married.

Not everyone owns a car in Mexico. Small motorbikes accommodating the whole family are common.

In Canada, the family usually comes second to work. Both parents usually have to go to work to make ends meet. Children are independent at an early age. Generally, young people leave home early. Canadian family members live often in different provinces and territories and don’t see each other for long periods.

Indigenous Mexico

Mexico and Canada eating habits differences

Mexicans usually eat breakfast around 9 am, lunch mid-afternoon, and dinner late from 8 to 9 pm. Meat, especially chicken, as well as homemade corn tortillas and chips, are a big part of most meals. Finding healthy food away from tourist towns can be a challenge.

Head for the local markets where fresh produce and fruit are plentiful and cheap. Especially in the southern parts of Mexico markets are huge and open daily. Do not drink water from the tap in Mexico. Food poisoning is not uncommon.

Canadians eat their meals earlier, especially dinner. Although generally big meat eaters, it is easier to find vegetarian meals and healthy food in stores. During summer most Canadian towns have a weekly outdoor market with fresh produce and local food.

Canadians drink lots of milk, even with a meal, which doesn’t happen in Mexico. Tap water in Canada is generally safe to drink. Most city water is fluoridated and tastes and smells disgusting.

Unless people have their own well and a filtering system, most Canadians buy their drinking water as well.

Other differences between Canada and Mexico

  • In Canada, calling an elder by their first name is common, but that would not be polite in Mexico. There you talk to them in the third person.
  • Dress and grooming are status symbols in Mexico. In Canada, apperance is secondary to performance.
  • In Mexico, truth is often tempered by need for diplomacy and keeping face. In Canada, Yes/No answers are expected and truth is an absolut value.
  • Mexico is a noisy country with fireworks, barking dogs, roosters and loud music possibly keeping you awake at night. In Canada you would get charged with disturbance.
Waterfall in Chapas, Mexico
Waterfall in Chapas

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Do you like this article? Have you experienced life in both countries as well? Please leave a comment below.

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Yrene Dee

Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.

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