Visiting a foreign country for the first time can be riddled with anxiety. There are so many questions that one needs to ask to rid themselves of the anxiety. Hopefully, this article will assist you with the most commonly asked question, “Can you drink the water in Mexico?” The answer may surprise you.
Note: While this article is written for first time visitors to Mexico, those who have lived here for many years may learn something new.
First, you need to understand that there is no definitive answer to the question. Much of the dilemma in providing an answer depends on your individual digestive system. Since every person is unique, the answer cannot apply to everyone.
One can get sick from drinking bottled water in any country.
Drinking water supplies are treated at the source to be safe. However, in any country (including the USA) drinking water sources can become contaminated, causing sickness and disease from waterborne germs, such as Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Hepatitis A, Giardia intestinalis, and other pathogens. Public drinking water systems use various methods of water treatment to provide safe drinking water for their communities. Today, the most common steps in water treatment used by community water systems (mainly surface water treatment) include:
Coagulation and Flocculation – Coagulation and flocculation are often the first steps in water treatment. Chemicals with a positive charge are added to the water. The positive charge of these chemicals neutralizes the negative charge of dirt and other dissolved particles in the water. When this occurs, the particles bind with the chemicals and form larger particles, called floc.
Sedimentation – During sedimentation, floc settles to the bottom of the water supply, due to its weight. This settling process is called sedimentation.
Filtration – Once the floc has settled to the bottom of the water supply, the clear water on top will pass through filters of varying compositions (sand, gravel, and charcoal) and pore sizes, in order to remove dissolved particles, such as dust, parasites, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals.
Disinfection – After the water has been filtered, a disinfectant (for example, chlorine, chloramine) may be added in order to kill any remaining parasites, bacteria, and viruses, and to protect the water from germs when it is piped to homes and businesses. This is the reason you may smell chorine in your drinking water, which is signifying that the water has been disinfected.
Water may be treated differently in different communities depending on the quality of the water that enters the treatment plant. Typically, surface water requires more treatment and filtration than ground water because lakes, rivers, and streams contain more sediment and pollutants and are more likely to be contaminated than ground water.
Some water supplies may also contain disinfections by-products, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and radionuclides. Specialized methods for controlling formation or removing them can also be part of water treatment.
Household Water Treatment
Even though Mexico regulates and sets standards for public drinking water, many citizens use a home water treatment unit to:
- Remove specific contaminants
- Take extra precautions because a household member has a compromised immune system
- Improve the taste of drinking water
Household water treatment systems are composed of two categories: point-of-use and point-of-entry (NSF). Point-of-entry systems are typically installed after the water meter and treat most of the water entering a residence. Point-of-use systems are systems that treat water in batches and deliver water to a tap, such as a kitchen or bathroom sink or an auxiliary faucet mounted next to a tap.
The most common types of household water treatment systems consist of:
Filtration Systems – A water filter is a device which removes impurities from water by means of a physical barrier, chemical, and/or biological process.
Water Softeners – A water softener is a device that reduces the hardness of the water. A water softener typically uses sodium or potassium ions to replace calcium and magnesium ions, the ions that create “hardness.”
Distillation Systems – Distillation is a process in which impure water is boiled and the steam is collected and condensed in a separate container, leaving many of the solid contaminants behind.
Disinfection – Disinfection is a physical or chemical process in which pathogenic microorganisms are deactivated or killed. Examples of chemical disinfectants are chlorine, chlorine dioxide, and ozone. Examples of physical disinfectants include ultraviolet light, electronic radiation, and heat.
Water Purification Facts
- Water purification is the removal of contaminants from raw water to produce drinking water that is pure enough for human consumption or for industrial use.
- Substances that are removed during the process include parasites (such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium) , bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi, minerals (including toxic metals such as Lead, Copper etc.), and man-made chemical pollutants.
- Many contaminants can be dangerous—but depending on the quality standards, others are removed to improve the water’s smell, taste, and appearance.
- A small amount of disinfectant is usually intentionally left in the water at the end of the treatment process to reduce the risk of re-contamination in the distribution system.
- Many environmental and cost considerations affect the location and design of water purification plants.
- Groundwater is cheaper to treat, but aquifers usually have limited output and can take thousands of years to recharge.
- Surface water sources should be carefully monitored for the presence of unusual types or levels of microbial/disease causing contaminants.
- Artisian well water, whether in Mexico, Canada or the USA has arsenic in it, which is not a problem drinking it because it’s at a very low level and won’t harm you.
- The treatment plant itself must be kept secure from vandalism and terrorism.
- It is not possible to tell whether water is safe to drink just by looking at it.
- Simple procedures such as boiling or the use of a household charcoal filter are not sufficient for treating water from an unknown source.
Even natural spring water – think bottled water sold in convenience stores – considered safe for all practical purposes in the 1800s – must now be tested before determining what kind of treatment is needed.
Location, Location, Location
Mexico is a diverse country, with one of the largest cities — Mexico City — in the world down to remote villages without access to public drinking water. You should always be aware of your enviorment when it comes to the drinking water. If you find yourself standing in line at one the millions of taco stands in the street, and notice that not only are the cook and servers hands dirty, but that the only water present is a 5-gallon bucket with what appears to be oil floating of top of what you hope is water, you might want to reconsider the tacos.
How Mexican Plumbing Works
In modern and most larger cities, public water is piped into homes and stored in a concrete cistern. From there it is normally pumped into a large black, plastic tinaco (pronounced te-nah-ko) on the roof of the house or building for. From the tinaco the water is moved into the home water supply as needed. The tinaco uses a float system to signal to the pump that the water supply is low and needs refilling from the cistern. The cistern has a float system that automatically refills from the city water supply as the volume is lowered.
This system is much like you might see in any USA town with a water tower. The water tower acts in the same manner as the tinaco, and provides for water pressure by the height of the tower.
Now that you understand about how the water system works in Mexico, you should be aware that it is not much different than in most other countries, including the USA, let’s talk about drinking the water.
The idea of not drinking the water in Mexico has been perpetuated by repetition of misinformation. Just like elsewhere, everyone drinks the same water. If you are dining in a restaurant, you will note that the locals are drinking water with ice cubes. This is not because they have built up a tolarence for the water, but that the restaurant only services purified drinking water and the ice cubes are also made from the same purified drinking water. So, no matter what you are told, you do not have to suffer through drinking your refreshment sans ice. You won’t get sick and you can enjoy your drink.
If there were any truth to the misinformation, the tourist industry in Mexico would have dried up long ago. It hasn’t! In fact, Mexico has traditionally been among the most visited countries in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization, and it is the second-most visited country in the Americas, after the USA. In 2017, some 17.9 million people visited Mexico, and the USA was at the top of the list with 10.3 million people visiting Mexico. The USA was followed by visitors from Canada, United Kingdom, Columbia, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Germany, France, Peru, and Asia. Surely, if 17.9 million went home sick from drinking the water, there would have been a massive downturn in tourism by now.
Throughout Mexico, people not only drink the water, but they brush their teeth, and cook with the water. As the owner of a restaurant frequented by both locals and tourists, I only use purified bottled water for cooking and for our coffee. We only use tap water for washing dishes and in the bathroom. Like all restaurants, we have standards that we adhere to to provide the very best for out guests.
Some people do use tap water in their homes to cook certain foods and to make coffee and tea, with the belief that the heat from the cooking will destroy any bacteria. Those that do cook with tap water experience a white film on the pans due to the high mineral content of the water. It is not recommeded that you drink tap water while visiting Mexico, as tap water may have been processed correctly by the city, it will have sat in a concrete cistern and tinaco where it could have become contaminated.
Tap water is very inexpensive in Mexico, at a monthy cost between $100 to $300 pesos ($5 to $15 USD) per month, depending on where you live and how much water you use. My water bill for the house, a garden with lots of plants and a terrace on the roof with more plants runs about $150 pesos ($7.50 USD) per month.
Renting or Buying a Home
If you are consider renting you want to be sure to ask about the water system in use at the rental. There are some homes that use well water versus city water. If they are using water from a well (pozo) you should be aware that they usually have high levels of toxic chemicals that cannot be filtered and are immune to treatments such as iodine, chlorine, or boiling.
Buying Purified Water
Purified drinking water is readily available at a cost of about $26 to $30 pesos (about $1.30 to $1.50 USD) per a 20 liter (676.28 ounces) plastic bottle called a “garrafon.” 20 liters equals about 113 glasses holding 8-ounce of water. The most popular brands are Electropura, bottled by Pepsi, Ciel, bottled by Coca Cola and a Mexican brand – Bonafont, which is preferred by most.
You can purchase the (garrafon) at almost any corner grocery store. When you make your first purchase you will be charged for the plastic bottle, as they are refillable, and the initail cost will $80 pesos ($4 USD). When you need more water, you take the bottle back to the store and are given credit for the return. A word of caution here. There are many different companies selling purified bottle water. The bottle that you return is only discounted for the same brand of water. So if you have a Bonafont bottle, you would have to return it to a store that sells Bonafont brand to get the discount. And, one more thing, normally it will be difficult to get a refund on the empty bottle at the store when you are ready to leave Mexico. Normally, visitors simply leave them behind or give them to a local who uses that brand of water.
If you live nearby, you can probably have someone at the store carry the bottle to your home for you for a slight fee or even for a tip of say $10 to $20 pesos if you are close, but more if they have to carry it some distance.
If you are relocating to Mexico, you may want to take advantage of home delivery, which is avaiable in most cities. You will see large trucks delivering water bottles to the stores in your neighborhood and make a deal for a certain number of bottles per week. They will usually bring the bottles into your home and even put them on the stand for you, which is a plus as the bottles weigh 44 pounds when full. And, they take the empty bottle away in the trade.
Bottle Water Stands
There are basically four types of stands. The first is a plastic counter top stand, with a spout. This stand does take up valuable counter space and it can prove to be difficult to lift the 44-pound bottle of water, turn it upside down and get it into the stand without pouring water on the counter. Practice makes perfect however, and you can eventually get the hang of placing the bottle without spilling. The second stand is a floor model stand that also requires the bottle to be turned upside down, but at a lower height. The third, for those that like their water chilled, is an electric model floor stand that chills the water similar to the traditional office water cooler. The fourth type does not require the bottle to be turned upside down. This stand is metal and allows the bottle to be tipped on a swivel motion to pour into a smaller container. And finally, the fifth model is the bargain method. The bottle does not have to turned upside down and can be sat on the counter top or on the floor. There is an inexpensive pump that fits into the neck of the bottle and the water is removed in a siphon method by pulling the pump and and pressing down to pour the water. While you don’t have to life the bottle, the pump does not last long and will require constant replacement as a cost of perhaps $100 pesos ($5.00 USD).
Secondary Filteration Systems
Most people that can afford it, purchase a secondary, in-line water filtration system for their home that cleans the tap water so that you can cook with it, or even drink it, if you get the right system. These systems can be installed under the kitchen sink or you may want to invest in a whole house system. The most common types are either a carbon filter system or a reverse osmoses system.
Yes, you can drink the water in Mexico, you may want to pass on drinking the tap water until you have been here for a long time or invested in a secondary in-line water filtration system.
Note: All prices in this article were at the time of pubiication and are subject to change.