Friday, June 14, 2024

Primer: new to Mexico? Here’s what to know about finding water

Last week, we talked about all things related to Mexican addresses: how to write them, how to find them, and how to actually get people and packages to them (executive summary: don’t forget the colonia, and remember that there can be lots of streets with the same name in your city).

This week, it’s time for another lesson in practicality: getting water to your home.

The first thing to remember is that you’ll be needing two types of water: the kind that comes out of the faucet and the kind that you drink.

Drinking water is usually obtained from garrafones, those big five-gallon jugs common in offices. It’s not that the water that comes out of your faucets hasn’t been treated; it has. The problem with its cleanliness has more to do with the condition of the pipes that it runs through. 

That said, I’ve found that the water that comes out of faucets is mostly okay: I myself use it to brush my teeth, as well as for tea and coffee, since the water gets boiled. I have never had a problem with it (and it’s been 20 years); if you accidentally swallow a bit, there really is no need to rush to the doctor. Also, if you live in a part of Mexico where they’re drilling very deep for water, your supply may have levels of minerals like fluoride or calcium that aren’t going to hurt you in the short-term but can cause problems in the long-term.  

For gulping down big glasses of water, you’ll want to make sure it’s extra clean. Though there are filtration systems that may come installed in a few of the fancier homes you rent or buy (you could also have them installed if you like), most people rely on the simple garrafón

Where do you get them? There are typically an array of options. Many of the big beverage companies keep them stocked in Oxxos and other convenience stores, as well as in supermarkets. Many smaller mom-and-pop stores (tienditas) have them as well. There are also often smaller “mom and pop” local water purifying companies, which are usually cheaper.

Garrafones are returnable (retornable); this means that when you get a new garrafón, you’ll turn in your newly emptied one. If you’re brand new and don’t already have one in the place you’re living, you’ll need to buy one or two initially; where I am, a new filled garrafón is less than 100 pesos. After that, you simply exchange your empty for a new one and are only charged for the water inside.

If you buy from a major water brand like Ciel or Bonafont, then you’ll only be able to exchange your garrafones for others of the same brand. Major brands shouldn’t be hard to find in most stores, and larger local brands (there’s one called Xallapan where I live, for example) should be available in most places too. 

If you exchange your garrafones at a mom-and-pop water purification place or refill them yourself (there are self-serve places to do so in most cities), then the brand pasted on the container won’t matter. However, if you decide to start using a brand later on, then you’ll need one of that same brand.

Another thing to remember: your garrafones must be clean if you want to exchange them. If you’ve put anything besides water inside of it and it’s obvious by either the looks or the smell of it, they won’t be accepted back and you’ll need to buy a new one. Make sure, too, that when you get new garrafones, they aren’t leaking anywhere, as that can also be grounds for refusal when you try to exchange it (and can mean a big mess).

To get these bottles to your house, you’ve got a couple of different options: you can either go to the store physically to exchange them or you can have them delivered. 

If you’ve just moved to a new place, stick your head out the door when you hear honking outside or someone yelling something — could be some kind of service like water delivery! If you’re in an established neighborhood, there will probably already be some delivery truck or other that’s coming regularly with water (on my street I hear “Agua Cieeeeeeel!” a couple times a week, which is when I go outside with my empty garrafón and 45 pesos).

Since they’re fairly heavy and awkwardly-shaped when filled with water, I prefer to get them delivered. Once in the house, I typically turn mine over into a receptacle for water dispensing (give the bottles a quick wipe-down first — they get dusty easily). There are also other solutions for dispensing your water — the most common are little removable water pumps that simply fit on the top, or little holders for them that can make them easier to tip upside down for serving.

OK, so what about the water that comes out the faucet?  

As in other countries, you’ll need to pay your home’s water bill. Water is typically delivered by pumping it through pipes in the ground, the pressure of which sends it up to what’s called a tinaco, a large container for water that very likely sits on top of your house or building. When you turn on the water faucet, it opens the valve, and gravity causes the water to come down through it.

I give you all these details so that you might understand why you may not have water sometimes — and what you can do about it.

As you probably know, there are certain areas of Mexico where water is scarce. Because of this, some cities, including mine, have tandeos de agua when supplies get low, which means that there are certain days when the city water system does not deliver water to homes (in my own city, different colonias basically take turns going without when needed).

Unless you’re using a ton of water that day, you might not even notice; but if you’ve recently emptied your tinaco or are planning to, say, do a bunch of loads of laundry or fill a big kiddie pool, it might be a problem. But otherwise, most tinacos are big enough for everyone to get their showers in, toilets flushed and dishes done for a couple of days without emptying them.

If your tinaco does turn up empty, some homes have an additional reservoir underground called a cisterna (cistern); if you do, then there should be a bomba — an electrical water pump — that you can turn on (usually a switch inside or outside your home) to pump some of that water up to the tinaco (usually just leaving it on for 20 minutes should do it).

Bear in mind also that some houses don’t have a tinaco and rely on a cisterna alone. Your pump will send the water in the cisterna directly through your house pipes instead of up to the tinaco.

Happy drinking, showering and washing, everyone!

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website,

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