In Oaxaca as everywhere, prevention is the best remedy for illness. For those visitors who confine their travel to the beaten path, a few basic common-sense precautions will ensure vacation enjoyment.
Resist the temptation to dive headlong into Mexico. It’s no wonder that people get sick—broiling in the sun, gobbling peppery food, guzzling beer and margaritas, then discoing half the night—all in their first 24 hours. An alternative is to give your body time to adjust. Travelers often arrive tired and dehydrated from travel and heat. During the first few days, drink plenty of bottled water and juice, and take siestas.
A good physician can recommend the proper preventatives for your Oaxaca trip. If you are going to stay pretty much in town, your doctor will probably suggest little more than updating your basic typhoid, diphtheria-tetanus, hepatitis, and polio shots.
For camping or trekking in remote tropical areas—below 4,000 feet/1,200 meters—doctors often recommend a gamma-globulin shot against hepatitis A and a schedule of chloroquine pills against malaria. While in backcountry areas, use other measures to discourage mosquitoes—and fleas, flies, ticks, no-see-ums, “kissing bugs” (see the Chagas’ Disease and Dengue Fever entry under Health Problems ), and other tropical pesties—from biting you. Common precautions include sleeping under mosquito netting, burning espirales mosquito (mosquito coils), and rubbing on plenty of pure DEET (n,n dimethyl-meta-toluamide) “jungle juice,” mixed in equal parts with rubbing (70 percent isopropyl) alcohol. Although super-effective, 100 percent DEET dries and irritates the skin.
For sunburn protection, use a good sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) rated 15 or more, which will reduce burning rays to one-fifteenth or less of direct sunlight. Better still, take a shady siesta-break from the sun during the most hazardous midday hours. If you do get burned, applying your sunburn lotion (or one of the “caine” creams) after the fact usually decreases the pain and speeds healing.
Although municipalities have made great strides in sanitation, food and water are still potential sources of germs in some parts of Oaxaca. Although it’s probably safe most everywhere, except in a few upcountry localities, it’s still probably best to drink bottled water only. Hotels, whose success depends vitally on their customers’ health, generally provide agua purificada (purified bottled water). If, for any reason, the available water is of doubtful quality, add a water purifier, such as “Potable Aqua” brand (get it at a camping goods stores before departure) or a few drops per quart of water of blanqueador (household chlorine bleach) or yodo (tincture of iodine) from the pharmacy.
Pure bottled water, soft drinks, beer, and fresh fruit juices are so widely available it is easy to avoid tap water, especially in restaurants. Ice and paletas (iced juice-on-a-stick) may be risky, especially in small towns.
Washing hands before eating in a restaurant is a time-honored Mexican ritual that visitors should religiously follow. The humblest Mexican eatery will generally provide a basin to lavar las manos (wash the hands). If it doesn’t, don’t eat there.
Hot, cooked food is generally safe, as are peeled fruits and vegetables. These days milk and cheese in Mexico are generally processed under sanitary conditions and sold pasteurized (ask, “¿Pasteurizado?”) and are typically safe. Mexican ice cream used to be both bad-tasting and of dubious safety, but national brands available in supermarkets are so much improved that it’s no longer necessary to resist ice cream while in town.
In recent years, much cleaner public water and increased hygiene awareness have made salads—once shunned by Mexico travelers— generally safe to eat in tourist-frequented Oaxaca cafés and restaurants. Nevertheless, lettuce and cabbage, particularly in country villages, are more likely to be contaminated than tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onions, and green peppers. In any case, you can try dousing your salad in vinagre (vinegar) or plenty of sliced limón (lime) juice, the acidity of which kills some but not all bacteria.
In the tropics, ordinary cuts and insect bites are more prone to infection and should receive immediate first aid. A first-aid kit with aspirin, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, water-purifying tablets, household chlorine bleach or iodine for water purifying, swabs, bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, Ace bandage, chamomile (manzanilla) tea bags for upset stomachs, Pepto-Bismol, acidophilus tablets, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, mosquito repellent, knife, and good tweezers is a good precaution for any traveler and mandatory for campers.