Puerto Vallarta & Area: Tips For Snowbirds
When I was researching moving for the winter to Banderas Bay locales like Puerto Vallarta and Bucerias, I found a lot of information. Unfortunately, lots of it was just wrong – or worse, didn’t even have a date on it so I couldn’t tell if it was relevant for 2010 or advice that only made sense in 1998. I thought I’d share my own experiences, and hopefully provide a little more relevance than some of what I found on the ‘net.
The People & The Language
Generally the people are very friendly and will go out of their way to help you. Which doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t out to bleed you for your tourist dollars, either They are very cheerful about it, but the general attitude is that all Westerners are rich rich rich! so charge as much as the traffic will bear – we can afford it. Which is pretty reasonable from their point of view, as most live at what we would consider poverty line or below. Generally in my experience the people are much more friendly and outgoing than they are in the southwestern US, and about the same as in western Canada. And you’ll definitely score big points if you try to use as much Spanish as possible when talking to them.
While you can get by without knowing any Spanish at all, I would recommend learning at least basic Spanish phrases and words before you go. Your stay will be much more fun – it’s far better to be able to read the signs, order in a restaurant, ask directions, etc for yourself than have to stress out trying to find someone who knows English. In the tourist areas, at least half the people will know “poquito Ingles” (a little English), but as you explore you’ll find at most about 5-10% know even that. Still, I’ve had people go out into the street to haul in strangers who know English to help out in communicating! Like I said, very friendly and helpful
If you know French, you’re halfway fluent in Spanish already. If you can speak French the pronunciation is pretty similar, and the two languages share a lot of words. If you can read French, you shouldn’t have much problem with signs, menus, etc.
Banking & Currency Exchange
You get the best exchange rates when you withdraw from an ATM … so long as you don’t get hit with ATM fees. The Global ATM Alliance is the best way to get around the fees. The member banks have agreements with other banks to use each other machines internationally without fees. There may still be a foreign currency transaction fee, but it’s usually 1% of the amount.
- For USA-Mexico transactions, the partnership is between Bank Of America in the USA and Santander Serfin in Mexico.
- For Canada-Mexico transactions, the partnership is between Scotiabank Canada and Scotiabank Mexico.
- For Canada-USA transactions, the partnership is between Scotiabank Canada and Bank Of America.
It’s worthwhile to open an account at an Alliance bank in your home country just for this feature. If you’re in the USA and don’t want to open an account with BoA, I can recommend Charles Schwab. They have a really good no fee chequing account that has free cheques and refunds fees from any ATM, both stateside and internationally!
If you want to do banking inside of Mexico, Scotiabank Mexico also offers one of the only fee-free chequing accounts in the country. To open a peso-denominated account with Scotiabank Mexico, you need a rental contract or a bill showing your Mexican address and your passport. You should be aware that they due to fraud Mexican banks do not accept Canadian or US cheques, and there are new limits on foreign currency transactions: you can’t deposit more than US$4,000 per month in a foreign currency in your Mexican bank account, or exchange more than US$1,500 per month in a foreign currency at a bank. There is no limit on depositing pesos, on the amount you can charge on a credit card or the amount you can withdraw using a debit card from an ATM.
Other decent places to get your currency exchanged are the ubiquitous Oxxo convenience stores or big chain stores like Mega or Soriana. Probably the worst rates are offered by hotels, currency exchanges and US based restaurants. Surprisingly, street peddlers and Mexican small business owners will generally give you a good rate. Right now with the currency exchange rate for US & Canadian dollars being about 12 to 1, I find it easiest to just drop a zero and subtract 20%. For the less mathematically inclined xe.com has a really nice currency conversion app for Blackberry, iPhone and Android.
Paying For Things & Tipping
I’d recommend against using credit cards or debit cards as much as possible. Card theft is always an issue, plus you get dinged anywhere from 1% to 5% in foreign currency exchange fees and possibly a foreign transaction fee, usually $5 per transaction for credit cards. You should check your latest card holder fees & services sheet for this, as many telephone and banking customer service reps don’t know about it. If you don’t want to carry much cash, I’d recommend going to a bank machine and pulling out the maximum (usually 3,000 to 5,000 pesos), putting what you think you’ll need in your wallet, and leave the rest at home and/or in a safe. That way you won’t be hit with as many fees.
Most chain stores and the majority of small businesses will take credit or debit cards, Pemex gas stations being the notable exception – they may have a card payment machine, but only managers can run them and they usually aren’t there.
Taxis, like buses, are paid for in advance. If you’re staying at a hotel or resort, they’ll have an agreement with a taxi company with reasonable fixed rates. Buses and taxis are both pretty fast and buses are super cheap.
Go ahead and do it with street vendors and small business owners! Everything is way marked up for the tourists, especially by beach vendors. You can usually knock at least 25% off the asking price, and if you hold you ground 50% isn’t too hard to get. Sunglasses are amazingly over priced, don’t pay more than $10 for a pair. Be warned that sun glasses are almost never UVA/B filtering, either.
Also, practically nothing they sell will be unique. Most beach and street vendors are all selling the same basic inventory; unless it’s being made right there in front of you, it’s probably come from a wholesale supplier. You can even find a lot of the same stuff in department stores.
To get the best prices, don’t act overly interested, and feel free to turn away from the peddler or just walk away. Generally they will immediately call out a lower price, and if they don’t you can go back or try another peddler.
Things to watch out for
- Incorrect change. Worst offenders: grocery store checkouts.
- Giving you wrong denomination change, such as 10 peso notes instead of 100 peso notes or 5 centavo coins instead of 5 peso coins. Worst offenders: gas station attendants. This also happens at ATMs when a tech loads in 50s instead of 500s or the like, in which case you are out of luck.
- Not bagging all your items, not handing you all your bags, or putting one bag of items away from the others so that you leave it behind. Worst offenders: grocery store baggers.
People you should tip
- Gas station attendant: 10-20 pesos, always.
- Grocery or convenience store bagger: 5-10 pesos (if they don’t shove everything into a single bag!) These are usually kids or seniors, and they don’t get paid; this is the only money they make.
- Restaurant server: 10-15% of the bill for decent service, 20% for good service.
- Bartender or cocktail server: 10 or 20 pesos per drink. If you want super service and your drinks to be more alcohol than mixer, tip them 100 or 200 pesos right off the bat, with follow ups every few rounds between regular tipping.
- Taxi driver: whatever you feel like from zero up to 100 pesos.
- Street windshield washer: 5 pesos.
Food & Drink
Prepared foods are generally less salty than in the north. Chips noticeably so! Also, don’t expect to find just cheese chips anywhere – they will always have chili flavour too. Unless you can stomach Pringles, ugh.
Mayonnaise only seems to come with lime flavouring. Lime flavouring informs a lot of the local packaged foods and cuisine in general.
Chocolate choices are quite limited, mostly US brands. For bars the most common are Twix, Milky Way and M&Ms. Ferraro Roche is everywhere, which is a stroke of luck for me! There is no dark chocolate, and the local chocolate is either sweet brown wax that tastes more like carob or has nutmeg/cinnamon/chili in it. I haven’t even seen chocolate chips.
Lots of locally produced goods are sweeter than their northern counterparts, especially dairy like yogurt and ice cream, and pastries are plentiful and sweet. The icing on a donut will melt your teeth!
Bonafont makes exceptionally tasty no-sugar, no-dye drinks you can find everywhere. They use stevia, a natural sweetener much better for you than Nutrasweet or Splenda. The strawberry and the hibiscus flavours are my favourites!
Most restaurants will be fine to eat at, but drink bottled water unless the establishment has filtered water (most Western or prosperous looking restaurants will have it). The closer an eatery is to a tourist location like the beach, the higher the prices will be – right at the beach, food will be just as expensive if not more so than in Canada or the US. Liquor may be more expensive as well, except for tequila drinks. Beer is always cheap, though – most Mexican places you can just order a bucket of beers sitting in ice for around three or four bucks.
In the outer tourist areas you can still find good restaurants and the prices will definitely be better. For example, on the outskirts of downtown at my favourite French bistro I can get a stuffed fish dinner with salad, pasta and ratatouille for just 180 pesos ($15). If you decide to leave the tourist areas altogether to find a place to eat, you’ll probably need to know at least a little Spanish. You’ll find the cheapest prices there though, and the most authentic cuisine.
Corn grows everywhere. Drive around and pick some for free! Buy fruits and vegetables from local small groceries to get the best prices. Try to buy locally made packaged foods – imports will cost just as much as they do in the north. If you haven’t got a local grocery, Mega is a good supermarket. There is also Merksbastos, a new sort of farmer’s market chain that is springing up that is pretty good but uncommon as of yet. Make sure you treat fruits and vegetables in Microdyn (iodine) and water to kill off possible parasites.
Cheese, fruits, vegetables, rice, pasta, fish, shrimp, poultry and pork are all cheap. Beef is moderately expensive.
Mexican juice like Jumex and pop is cheap.
Junk food and US brands in general are the same or more expensive. So are prepared frozen foods. If you want to eat an average American diet in Mexico, it will be expensive. Puerto Vallarta even has a Costco and a Sam’s Club, where you’ll pay pretty much the same as you would up north. A good excuse to start eating a more mediterranean diet and getting healthier! Nice to see that healthy eating here is cheap, unlike in the north where it’s crap packaged food that’s cheap and fresh food that’s costly.
Electronics & Appliances
These are expensive here, often two or three times as much as you would pay in the north. Make sure you bring any appliances and electronics you want with you if you can. I haven’t even seen anyplace that sells computer monitors separately from computer bundles. Toaster ovens, air conditioners, microwaves (which are super small!), DVD players, etc – all things you want to avoid buying while you’re here.
Driving styles here are pretty bad, but no worse than a bad US city. In fact, driving in Bucerias and Puerto Vallarta is pretty much the same as driving in Scottsdale or Phoenix, Arizona and better than driving in LA or San Francisco. If you are an aggressive driver, you should have no problems.
The roads are generally:
- sometimes paved and the same as they are in the north,
- often paved and with crater-like potholes up to half a meter deep and a meter across,
- occasionally cobbled and painful to drive across from the rattling around you get,
- frequently cobbled and potholed and incredibly painful to drive across,
- or dirt roads.
Differences in driving conditions:
- Speed bumps! Speed bumps are everywhere, and they have ones here that will wreck your car if you go over them too quickly. They are marked about 75% of the time, but usually at a wildy varying distances from the speed bumps – between 200 and 0 meters. There are three kinds of speed bumps, too: rows of small-ish bumps going across the road (30%), a regular type of speed bump (10%) and topes (50%) that will destroy your suspension even going over them slowly. You’ll find them placed randomly, but school zones, bus stops, just before sharp curves or tunnels, and common crossing areas will have the most.
- Turning left. On many roads, particularly the main roads and highways, there are one way service roads running alongside. Most of the time you don’t turn left from the left hand lane – you get onto a service road and turn left from it’s left hand lane instead. The exits to the service roads aren’t marked. Also, many left turns are from the left hand lane anyway, even on roads that have service roads. You have to keep a sharp eye out.
- Street signs. In fact, most streets don’t have sign posts. They either have small plaques attached to the sides of buildings, or street names are spray painted on the sides of buildings, or they just aren’t there. Also, many of these streets are one-way – keep a sharp eye out for arrows by the street names.
- Parked vehicles. Buses, taxis and delivery vehicles will just park in the road; usually they at least put their flashers on to let you know they are parked and not waiting on other traffic.
- Speed limits. Speed limits are generally ignored by about 70% of drivers. Keep to the right hand lane if you’re not regularly passing the traffic on your right or cars start passing around you. Don’t speed more than about 10-15km above the limit or you might attract the attention of traffic cops looking for people who can actually afford to pay tickets
- Passing. If you’re on a highway or two lane road and you’re stuck behind a slow moving vehicle like a truck, usually he will turn on his left signal when he sees that it’s safe for you to pass.
- Flashing headlights. If someone is tailgating you and flashes their lights, move over into the right hand land – you are driving too slowly!
- Pedestrians. Pedestrians do not have right of way in Mexico. They tend to cross anywhere, and they often just stop between lanes or on meridians waiting for traffic to slow enough for them to keep crossing.
- Roadkill. There is a lot of it, and it’s gross.
- Vendors & beggars. Many vendors will try to sell you things by coming up to your car windows when stopped – food, flowers, newspapers, whatever. Beggars come up to your windows too, more often than they do in the US. Generally I just wave my hand and shake my head at them.
Feel free to post any questions in the comments, I’ll try to answer them for you!