Don't Drink the Water | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Don't Drink the Water

The first few times we visited Mexico, I wouldn't even brush my teeth in tap water, lest I get Montezuma's Revenge. Every travel guide warned about water-borne disease. Hotels religiously provided bottled water, even while claiming that their piped water was purified. I didn't want to die young, so I was very careful about what I drank.

I got Montezuma's Revenge anyway. But then again, I've gotten Hirihoto's Revenge, and Napoleon's Revenge, and today, when I travel in the U. S., I get Bush's Revenge. Seems like all those emperors have their own particular supply of bugs to punish foreigners for crossing their borders.

Of course, we all know know that a bout of Travelers' Diarrhea is sometimes the price you pay for the rewards of seeing new and exotic places. Local gut bacteria mount an attack on your benign intestinal flora, and until the issue is decided, you suffer collateral damage.

But in developing countries, the water supply really can carry nasty disease organisms. So we have to be careful.

San Miguel de Allende treats its water—chlorinates it. So the water supply should be as safe as it is in, say, Santa Barbara. In fact, there are drinking fountains in San Miguel's parks and schools, unapologetically connected to the municipal water system. The city takes the position that it's safe for our children to drink the water.

Underscoring the presumption of safety, the San Miguel Garden Club installed these drinking fountains four years ago, and you know they wouldn't want to harm children.

So long as they stay on the paths. And don't pick the flowers.


However, almost no one ever uses the fountains in the schools and parks. Almost no one drinks tap water. Why?

Well, one reason is, our tap water tastes bad. It's well water with lots of minerals and strongly tasting of chlorine.

More importantly though, people still believe you can get sick from it. Some of this may be bad memories from the days when the water wasn't treated. But the real threat is from sporadic but very real failures to maintain water purity. In Mexico, stuff works most of the time. But nothing works all of the time. Things break. There are few standards of maintenance, workmanship, and quality control, so accidents do happen.

That's why you don't drink the water.


San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542. (That's only 50 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.) One reason why it was founded at this particular location was because there were springs here.


This one is called Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). People still draw water from it with plastic buckets. Doesn't look very wholesome, does it?

Other springs were brought into service as the community grew.


This one is at the foot of Colonia Atascadero, in an area called Los Arcos.

Today these springs surely are polluted, surrounded as they are by marginal sewage systems. The city now gets water from deep wells.

A couple of hundred years later, water was being piped into the city and distributed via public fountains.


This one is photogenic , but it's no longer functional. On the other hand, the one below works and is still used occasionally. Some time ago I watched a campesino dip his pail into it to water his string of burros.


The burros drank gratefully. But I noticed that the campesino didn't. He must have read the same advice I did. Don't drink the water.


Today, the water supply is not always reliable. It's sometimes inexplicably interrupted, cut off, and in any event, is supplied at low pressure. So every home stores water against supply failures. To solve both the supply problem, as well as the pressure problem, storage tanks, called tinacos, are placed on rooftops.


This photo is of the old-fashioned variety. In his excellent if somewhat dated book, Live Well in Mexico, Ken Luboff tells of climbing through the access port on top of his tinaco to clean it, only to get stuck at the waist when trying to emerge. The access port had been sized for more diminutive Mexican men. His description of the impromptu fiesta that spontaneously formed around his house while people tried to extricate him is hilarious.

Newer tinacos are made of plastic. With bigger access ports. (Mexicans are getting bigger, too.)


If you can't afford a manufactured tinaco, you improvise. This guy used a couple of 55-gallon plastic drums.


Tinacos are ubiquitous. But recently, some gringos, intolerant of trickling low-pressure domestic water, began installing cisterns underneath their houses, with submersible pumps feeding pressure tanks.

Aaahh. At last—a real shower.


Of course, we still don't trust the water purity. The other day, I watched as a backhoe dug through a water main and a sewer line. Fluids from both pipes quickly mixed with one another, filling the hole and running into the downstream end of the water main. Anybody drinking water from taps in that neighborhood was certain to get a surprise. Moreover, any tinacos downstream would be storing diluted sewage for the indefinite future.

Knowing this, some of us have installed water purifiers.


Here's ours. The big blue object is a pressure tank. To its right are two blue sand and silt filters. Above them, two horizontal stainless steel tubes contain intense ultraviolet lights which are suppose to kill bacteria. In addition, we put colloidal silver pellets in our cistern to kill any bacteria harbored there.

Belt and suspenders.

So with all that, our water is safe to drink. I think. But we still don't do it.


Instead the nice Santorini man comes by the house every day or so and brings us a five-gallon bottle of "pure spring water." Restaurants too provide only bottled water. Adults carry water bottles or drink Coke. In fact, Mexicans drink more Coke per capita than any nation on earth.

Schoolkids don't drink from those convenient drinking fountains. They carry water bottles in their backpacks. Or they drink from the Santorini bottles provided in every classroom.

Nobody drinks the water.