Our bicycle trip to Oaxaca, Mexico

My esposa and I spent most of December in Mexico with our bicycles! It was quite an adventure, involving planes, trains, and automobiles, not to mention buses, bicycles, and colectivos. We packed our folding bicycles into Samsonite suitcases (avoiding the oversize baggage fee which would have been $200 per bicycle each way!), drove our Fiat 500 to Berkley CA, took the BART train to San Francisco airport, flew to Mexico City, got on another plane to Puerto Escondido, rode our bicicletas to the bus station, got on a bus 70km to Pochutla, then took a pasajera colectivo (basically a small pickup truck with bench seats in the back and a tarp over the top) 15km to our final destination, Zipolite (and la playa nudista), riding the last kilometre on our bikes from the bus stop to the hostel. Whew!

I’ve been to Mexico before (many times) but this was a completely different adventure. For example, a couple decades ago, I was in El Paso TX and we went across the border into Juarez for the afternoon. At that time, the exchange rate was about 7 pesos for one dollar. Here’s the advice I would have given to tourists: Don’t worry about exchanging your dollars for pesos, just pay for everything with dollars. Don’t worry about not speaking Spanish, nearly everyone will speak English. Expect to haggle over the price of everything, even a bottle of soda from the 7-11. Even if you don’t try to haggle, the vendors will do the haggling for you. You don’t even need a passport, just bring your driver’s license. All that advice got thrown out the window on this trip.

First of all, you can’t just pay for everything with dollars anymore. It used to be true that the Mexican people actually preferred dollars (at least in the border towns) but recently the Mexican government has passed some laws to crack down on money laundering and now the banks won’t let anyone exchange more than 100 USD per day and no more than 1,500 per month. So very few places want to take dollars anymore. The exchange rate is around 13 pesos per dollar, and most banks I saw were giving 12.4 to 12.6 pesos when you give them a dollar, or taking 13.4 to 13.6 when you want dollars back. Expect a worse exchange rate when you’re not dealing with a bank. One hotel offered to give me 200 pesos for 20 dollars. While you’re in Mexico, you’ll pay for everything in pesos. On thing that threw me off at first is that they use the exact same symbol for pesos that we use for dollars: $ . When you see a sign that says “taco $15” they mean 15 pesos, not 15 dollars. Nobody’s asking for dollars. One notable exception is the shops in the Mexico City Airport, where all the prices are in pesos but they will take dollars and give you change in pesos. The exchange rate is posted on the counter and it’s almost as good as the bank rate. I imagine this is also true at the other major airports but not the little ones.

Somebody told me that you can get a good exchange rate by going to Wells Fargo Bank to get pesos before you actually go to Mexico. This turned out to be a really bad idea. It took me six trips to the bank to finally get the 4,000 pesos I asked for, and they still got my order wrong!, plus they charged me a 5 dollar fee because I didn’t have an account with them. Don’t go to Wells Fargo Bank! A much better plan is put your cash into your checking account and take your ATM card with you. When you get to Mexico, find an ATM and make a withdrawal. The machine spits out pesos and gives you the bank exchange rate. No hassle, no paperwork, and the fee is pretty similar to any other ATM fee, 1 dollar plus 1% of the transaction. Ask your bank before you go. We went to the ATM a total of three times. I also tried exchanging cash at a Mexican bank (not too bad, much less hassle than Wells Fargo) and I tried paying for things directly with the card (but my card charged me a 99 cent foreign transaction fee each time) but honestly the ATM is the easiest and you get a consistently good deal. The only problem is that the ATM only gives you 200 peso bills and in a small town you may have trouble finding someone who can break the bill. I tried to buy a yogurt (8 pesos, about 70 cents) from a bodega and they wouldn’t take a 200 peso bill (roughly 15 dollars). In the USA, it’s hard to imagine a convenience store refusing a 20 dollar bill to purchase a 79 cent item, but that’s essentially what happened. Hang on to those 50 peso and 20 peso bills when you get them. If your lunch costs 45 pesos and you have a 100 in your pocket and a 50, pay for it with the 100 and get cambio (change). Only use the 50 if they refuse the 100.

Second, don’t expect anyone to speak English. We must have met a hundred Mexicans and I think maybe five of them spoke English. Study some Spanish before you go. At least learn some basic words. Most Mexican people will cut you some slack and give you credit for trying, even if your Spanish is as bad as mine. If anyone asks you ?Habla Espanol?, resist the urge to say No; say un poquito, and give it your best shot. You can also get along pretty well just by pointing at what you want and handing them money. 😉

Third, I saw very little haggling in the state of Oaxaca. Maybe they still haggle in the border towns but there was very little haggling in Puerto Escondido. You ask ?cuanto? and whatever price they tell you is the price you pay. The only difference I saw was that if you pay cash you get a slightly better price on a hotel room. One place advertised 800 pesos per night with a credit card and offered it to me for 600 pesos cash. I counter offered 500 and they stuck firm at 600. So much for haggling. One exception to this might be handcrafts being sold in open-air markets, but then you’d expect a little haggling there in any country, not just Mexico. By the way, in the US you’re probably used to seeing prices which don’t include sales tax (VAT, as the rest of the world calls it). If the menu says $7.99 for a sandwich, when the bill comes your total is something like $8.53 . But in Mexico, the menu will say $40 and when you get la cuenta, your total is 40 pesos. Tax is included in the price. But then you should add another 10% or so for la propina (the tip). My perspective is that the price covers the food and the tip pays for washing the dishes. If it’s a taco from a street vendor, there are no dishes to wash, hence no tip.

Fourth, you can’t just take your driver’s license. You need a passport to travel to and from Mexico now. Also expect to fill out customs and immigrations forms if you’re traveling by plane. It looked to me like they didn’t actually read the forms, just stamped it and filed it away, but you better have it ready. If you’re driving your own car into Mexico, you have to fill out a temporary import permit and pay a fee. Try to limit your souvenir purchases to less than 800 dollars so you can avoid paying import duty when you return to the US. If you plan on buying lots of merchandise, save your receipts and you can get a refund of the sales tax. Read up on this stuff before you go, it may change at any time.

Finally, I read all kinds of horror stories about people being robbed, beaten up, kidnapped, or killed in Mexico. But the truth is that visiting Mexico is no more dangerous than visiting Chicago. You probably should find out where the bad neighborhoods are. The vast majority of murders in Mexico are drug-related. The US state department said the Mexican state of Oaxaca was relatively safe, and I felt very comfortable there. The only time I felt nervous is when we locked our bicycles outside the grocery store and I couldn’t see the bikes from inside the store. But that’s exactly how I’d feel if I locked my bicycle in front of K-Mart here in the US, so it’s no big deal. I realized that the people in Mexico know that tourism is a big part of their economy so it would be against their own interest to alienate the tourists. Why bite the hand that feeds you? Why kill the goose that lays golden juevos? I looked into buying hidden money belts and I ended up stashing money in several different pockets of different clothing but looking back on it that was overly cautious. Still, it’s a good idea to make photocopies of your passport and credit cards and email the photos to yourself in case your wallet gets lost. Common sense stuff really. No need to get paranoid.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about what to pack in your suitcase and how much money you need. I also want to talk about how much we enjoyed our trip, including delicious food, great scenery, warm weather, and walking naked on the beach.

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