Sarah DeVries
With thoughtful décor and no wet floors, Empress Carlota's bathroom at Chapultepec Castle might do well on the writer's rating system for Mexican bathrooms. With thoughtful décor and no wet floors, Empress Carlota's bathroom at Chapultepec Castle might do well on the writer's rating system for Mexican bathrooms.

When nature calls, the answer you’ll find is not necessarily certain

With public restrooms, location does not guarantee quality

We interrupt today’s regularly scheduled anxiety-fueled opinion piece to pretend like we’re in “old times” and talk about something completely different: not Covid-19 or economics or human rights but bathrooms.

If you’ve lived in Mexico or even visited it for any significant amount of time, you know that the bathrooms can be experiences on their own. As someone who has to pee a lot and often, I like to think of myself as somewhat of a connoisseur at this point. If there’s a bathroom in a place I’ve visited, I’ve for sure been inside it.

Let’s start with home bathrooms. Those of you who’ve come from more-north North America have certainly noticed some major differences. First, most bathrooms here, even in large houses, are pretty tiny. Sitting down might have your knees knocking against the shower door or the cabinet under the sink (if there is one). Standing up could risk you bumping your head against the ceiling, as many half-baths are built under the stairs.

But there’s good news. There will probably be a mirror and toilet paper. There will probably be soap and a towel as well, which is really all you need. If you’re lucky, you might get to feast your eyes on some elaborately embroidered toilet and tank seat covers (they can be seasonal, too!). I’ve seen some great ones, but my favorites by far are Christmas themed.

Don’t expect to find countertops, cabinets or shelves. Such items have been — inexplicably, to me — somehow classified as either luxury or unnecessary items. Why these things have been equated with hanging chandeliers in closets is beyond me, and I work hard to supplement them however I can in nearly every house I’ve rented. I’ve also never found reading materials in anyone’s bathroom here, something I didn’t realize I’d miss until it wasn’t around.

From here, allow us to graduate to bathrooms in cafes and restaurants. As you can imagine, these can run a fairly large gamut, from literal toilets in the middle of a closet complete with swaying lightbulb to incredibly fancy get-ups with soft music and lights that come on automatically when you walk in.

Surprisingly, the fanciness of the establishment is not always indicative of the state of the bathroom. One not-cheap hipster burger-and-beer joint that was elaborately decorated and cared for had a dark bathroom with a sopping wet floor right by the kitchen. The metal door didn’t close all the way, and the toilet flushed by pulling on a string dangling out of a tank. I also had to ask for toilet paper to be put in the bathroom (spoiler alert for those who have bathrooms to stock: if the user has a vagina, they’re going to need toilet paper).

The nicest bathroom I’ve been in — it gets five stars! — was in a tea shop here in Xalapa. The walls were painted a pleasing charcoal with a slight sheen, and there were real plants on real dust-free wooden shelves and a cool, tiny white-tiled floor. Soft paper towels awaited me in a cute basket by the sink. The mirror had a beautiful frame, and it even had fancy scent-matched soap and lotion. The door locked, there was no mold or peeling paint and the light switch was immediately identifiable. 10/10.

A classification of bathrooms that some might not be familiar with are those found in municipal spaces. In parks, for example, bathrooms must be paid for. They are not necessarily nice or clean, but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. So you pay your approximately six pesos, and an attendant hands you about 10 squares of toilet paper and a ticket for your entry. When you’re done, you’ll wash your hands with some kind of mystery soap: sometimes it’s liquid and sometimes it’s powder, but it’s always in a recycled plastic container with no label. My favorite mystery soap so far has been one that left my hands smelling exactly like the grape soda I used to love drinking as a kid.

Bus stations are another adventure. Sometimes there are attendants, but usually you simply put your coins into a turnstile and are mechanically allowed in. The space available in the turnstiles is quite small, and I’ve been known to carry either my bag or my kid over my head in order for us to fit through. Once inside, toilet paper is available in a dispenser on the wall, and you grab however much you think you might need. I’m always torn at this point between not wanting to waste paper and being afraid of not grabbing enough. I usually take a little extra and stick it in my pocket or purse for next time.

When I see stocked toilet paper dispensers inside stalls, I actually send up a little prayer of thanks. What a treat! The toilet seat might not be there but no matter! This is plenty. Thank you.

Back when I first came to Mexico, I used to joke with a friend that we should start a bathroom rating system for public establishments, like Yelp but for bathrooms! This could be done anywhere, of course, but with the variety available in Mexico, it can be an especially fun game.

Behold, the star system:

  • 1 star: It is identifiable as a bathroom. That’s it.
  • 2 stars: It has a door that closes, a light that works and running water.
  • 3 stars: All of the above plus a lock on the door and a mirror. Soap and toilet paper are there without having to ask for them. There’s a toilet seat.
  • 4 stars: All of the above, plus it’s clean: no mold, no sopping wet floors (oddly common here), moderately decorated and an easily findable light switch.
  • 5 stars: All of the above, plus intentionally organized and decorated. A hook to hang your purse, fancy soap and lotion.

So there you have it, folks. It’s a fun game you can play with yourself while you’re out, as you’re pretty much guaranteed a new adventure with each trip. It also gives you something to think about other than the pandemic! Win-win.

I’m thinking of making a calendar next.

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

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