The Peso: Down and Up
Overnight in early 1993, the Mexican government shifted its monetary decimal point three places and created the “new” peso (now known simply as the “peso”), which, at this writing, trades at about 11 per U.S. dollar. Since the peso value sometimes changes rapidly, U.S. dollars have become a much more stable indicator of Mexican prices; for this reason they are used in this guide to report prices. You should, nevertheless, always use pesos to pay for everything in Mexico.
Since the introduction of the new peso, the centavo (one-hundredth of a new peso) has reappeared, in coins of 10, 20, and 50 centavos. Incidentally, the dollar sign, “$,” also marks Mexican pesos. Peso coins (monedas) in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 pesos, and bills, in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 pesos, are common. Since banks like to exchange your travelers checks for a few crisp large bills rather than the often-tattered smaller denominations, ask for some of your change in 50- and 100-peso notes. A 500-peso note, while common at the bank, may look awfully big to a small shopkeeper, who might be hard-pressed to change it.
Banks, ATMS, and Money-Exchange Offices
Mexican banks, like their North American counterparts, have lengthened their business hours. Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) maintains the longest hours: as long as Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–7 p.m. Banamex (Banco Nacional de Mexico), generally the most popular with local people, usually posts the best in-town dollar exchange rate in its lobbies; for example: Tipo de cambio: venta 10.799, compra 10.933, which means it will sell pesos to you at the rate of 10.799 per dollar and buy them back for 10.933 per dollar.
ATMs (automated teller machines), or cajeros automáticos (kah-HAY-rohs ahoo-toh-MAH-tee-kohs), have become the money sources of choice in Mexico. Virtually every bank has a 24-hour ATM, accessible (with proper PIN identification code) by a swarm of U.S. and Canadian credit and ATM cards. Note: Some Mexican bank ATMs will “eat” your ATM card if you don’t retrieve it within about 15 seconds of completing your transaction. Retrieve your card immediately after getting your cash.
Although one-time bank charges, typically about $2 per transaction, for ATM cash remain small, the money you can usually get from a single card is limited to about $300 or less per day.
Even without an ATM card, you don’t have to go to the trouble of waiting in long bank service lines. Opt for a less-crowded bank, such as Bancomer, Banco Serfín, HSBC, or a private money-exchange office (casa de cambio). Often most convenient, such offices often offer long hours and faster service than the banks, for a fee (as little as $0.50 or as much as $3 per $100).
Keeping Your Money Safe
Travelers checks, the traditional prescription for safe money abroad, are widely accepted in Oaxaca. Even if you plan to use your ATM card, buy some U.S. dollar travelers checks (a well-known brand such as American Express or Visa) as an emergency reserve. Canadian travelers checks and currency are not as widely accepted as U.S. travelers checks, and European and Asian travelers checks are even less so. Unless you like signing your name or paying lots of per-check commissions, buy denominations of $50 or more.
In Oaxaca as everywhere, thieves circulate among the tourists. Keep valuables in your hotel caja de seguridad (security box). If you don’t particularly trust the desk clerk, carry what you cannot afford to lose in a money belt. Pickpockets love crowded markets, buses, and airport terminals where they can slip a wallet out of a back pocket or dangling purse or a camera from its belt case in a blink. Guard against this by carrying your wallet in your front pocket, your camera in your purse or daypack, and your purse, waist pouch, and daypack (which clever crooks can sometimes slit open) on your front side.
Don’t attract thieves by displaying wads of money or flashy jewelry. Don’t get sloppy drunk; if so, you may become a pushover for a determined thief.
Don’t leave valuables unattended on the beach; share security duties with trustworthy-looking neighbors, or leave a bag with a shopkeeper nearby.
Without their droves of visitors, Mexican people would be even poorer. Deflation of the peso, while it makes prices low for outsiders, makes it rough for Mexican families to get by. The help at your hotel typically get paid only a few dollars a day. They depend on tips to make the difference between dire and bearable poverty. Give the camarista (chambermaid) and floor attendant 20 pesos every day or two. And whenever uncertain of what to tip, it will probably mean a lot to someone—maybe a whole family—if you err on the generous side.
In restaurants and bars, Mexican tipping customs are similar to those in the United States: tip waiters, waitresses, and bartenders about 15 percent for satisfactory service.
Credit cards, such as Visa, MasterCard, and, to a lesser extent, American Express and Discover, are widely honored in the hotels, restaurants, crafts shops, and boutiques that cater to foreign tourists. You will generally get better bargains, however, in shops that depend on local trade and do not so readily accept credit cards. Such shops sometimes offer discounts for cash sales.
Whatever the circumstance, your travel money will usually go much further in Oaxaca than back home. Despite the national 17 percent (“value added” IVA) sales tax, local lodging, food, and transportation prices will often seem like bargains compared to the developed world. Outside of the pricey high-rise beachfront strips, pleasant, palmy hotel room rates often run $50 or less.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition