checks, ATM machines or cash
Money and Exchange: A Primer
dont need to take travelers checks, ATMs
are common, safe and reliable, and while pesos and American
cash rule, a VISA card will get you through your trip to Oaxaca.
But there innumerable other tidbits of advice to heed before
heading out the door to the airport, questions youll
have after landing, and issues around money which will arise
in the course of your vacation.
Getting ready for the trip
There are several ATM machines in the downtown core alongside
almost every bank and even inside the odd pharmacy. Similarly
in the suburbs youll find no shortage of machines in
banks and pharmacies, as well as freestanding kiosks, and
even inside large department and grocery stores.
Its best to go into your bank before your trip to confirm
your weekly limit, maximum number of weekly withdrawals and
amount you can withdraw per day, and to have it noted on your
file that you will be using your card in southern Mexico.
Increase your maximums if possible. While it is rare for a
machine to eat ones card, just as it happens
infrequently in your hometown it can happen here, and could
take up to 2 or 3 days for you to get your card back. Accordingly,
to be on the safe side take an extra card with you or make
sure your partner has his card. If you have both an ATM and
credit card from which you can access your account, use the
ATM card so that in the unlikely event of a problem, youll
still have plastic for withdrawals and making purchases.
Most establishments in the city accept credit cards, VISA
being the most widely welcomed. Once again, as part of your
pre-trip planning contact your credit card companies and inquire
and advise regarding the following:
1) make sure it is noted that you will be making purchases
out of the country;
2) check your single purchase dollar limit and increase it
if possible, perhaps for only the period of time you will
be on vacation;
3) ask how exchange rates will be calculated and if there
is a surcharge, so you can make a more informed decision as
to whether its more advantageous to use that credit
card and increase the balance in your points program, or cash;
4) if you intend to rent a car in Oaxaca, ask if your gold
or platinum card will cover the rental cars theft, damage,
liability, and so on, and confirm the answer by reading the
cardholder agreements terms, conditions and restrictions,
all with a view to avoiding having to pay for such extra
charges when you pick up your vehicle.
Remember that not all merchants, especially in the towns and
villages where youll be buying handicrafts, accept credit
cards, and often those who do so will charge a premium of
up to 6% to cover their commission costs. Using a credit card
may reduce your bargaining power significantly. Of course
when dining at a small eatery or making purchases on the street,
youll only be able to use American cash or pesos, and
if you use American cash you wont likely get as good
an exchange rate as you would through a conventional exchange
house (casa de cambio) or bank.
AMERICAN, CANADIAN OR OTHER CASH
In Oaxaca, if youre paying with foreign currency, make
it US dollars. However, Canadians, for example, should not
feel the need to go out and buy yankee greenbacks. Years ago
things were different, and it was difficult if not impossible
to change our Canadian dollars into foreign currency while
out of the country. We felt that the American dollar ruled
the world. Today, here in Mexico pesos are just fine, and
more importantly most of the casas de cambio offer
competitive rates for Canadian dollars and other major currencies.
Theres no need, and its not economically prudent,
to pay to have Canadian changed into American, and then upon
arriving in Oaxaca again pay to exchange into a third currency.
Its true enough that while there are places which exchange
only US dollars, within about 3 blocks of the downtown central
square (the zócalo) at least four casas de
cambio can be found which exchange major foreign currencies.
One word to the wise: do not bring foreign bills which have
any rips, writing on them, or with ink or other stains. The
rule of thumb at a casa de cambio is to reject all
damaged or defaced foreign bills.
A more seasoned readership will recall always using travelers
checks. But that was before the age of ATMs, paypal and the
realization that not everyone in a strange land is out to
rob tourists. And besides, each of us had his trusty money
belt. Many still dont leave home without it,
but often find making such transactions a bit cumbersome.
There may be (but generally is not) a nominal premium charged
for exchange, it takes time to get out that passport and have
the data recorded on each check, and if youre careful
as you should be, the advisability of carrying them is reduced.
Institutions will accept travelers checks, but often
have to pay a commission for having them deposited into their
Mexican peso accounts. They will generally be accepted at
major retail outlets, hotels and B & Bs and in the craft
villages at larger workshops, but there may be a small cost
involved. Having stated this, often the retailer will be prepared
to absorb any fees. Many Oaxacans in the tourism industry
will simply hang onto travelers checks and then deposit
them into US dollar accounts they have in The States.
Paypal has revolutionized small scale, international, commodity
and services purchase and sale transactions. The commission
rate is modest, its an extremely safe and secure means
by which to buy and sell, and it has its own safeguards to
protect both sides of a transaction from the unscrupulous
and the naïve. You may have used paypal to make your
deposit on reserving your accommodations, for a cooking school
class or in arranging an ecotourism trek. You can likely pay
the balance owing once youre in Oaxaca, the same way,
as long as you dont mind the modest charges involved.
The main additional advantage to paypal is that money exchanges
hands instantly. And even in the craft villages there are
proprietors who either accept paypal or have a colleague,
relative or friend ready to assist in facilitating transactions
for the purchase and sale of rugs, alebrijes, etc. (especially
when a custom order is placed). Paypal is simply one additional
payment method which has come of age in Oaxaca.
YOU'RE NOW IN MEXICO
The rate for changing US or Canadian dollars into pesos tends
to be better for consumers at the airport in Mexico City than
in Oaxaca, so do not hesitate to get started exchanging while
awaiting your connecting flight to Oaxaca. In fact, the airport
rates, at least in the past for changing Canadian dollars
to pesos, have been better than when buying much larger quantities
of pesos through one of the well-known US or Canadian money
exchange companies! The ground floor casas de cambio
tend to offer more competitive rates than those on the upper
level, but do your checking to ensure you are getting the
best tipo de cambio.
Once in Oaxaca, remember that often the difference in exchange
rates may be .03 of a peso, so consider the amount you want
to exchange, and figure out if its really worth your
time to spend a half hour to save $1.50. Think about how often
you give a couple of pesos to someone on the street or to
a cabbie when you get confused, or that extra dollar you throw
away for a fancy coffee.
When planning to take a day trip to the villages in which
you might be considering purchasing cotton textiles, painted
clay figures, or other Oaxacan crafts, think about stocking
up on cash the evening before touring. Otherwise, you may
be in the awkward position of wanting to make a purchase and
not relishing or being able to use a credit card, and asking
your tour guide or another couple along with you to loan you
cash until you get back to the hotel. Its uncomfortable
for all involved. Avoid the problem altogether and get your
cash the day before. There are in fact ATMs in towns such
as Etla, Tlacolula, Ocotlán and even el Tule, but do
you really want to spend any time during your day searching
for a machine, when you could be seeing the sights?
Remember youre withdrawing pesos, so when you start
punching in figures at the ATM, dont stop at 500
its not dollars. Add another zero and then confirm
If youll be staying in any of the northern suburbs such
as San Felipe, Reforma, Loma Linda, Volcanes or Guadelupe
Victoria, driving south towards the touring highways and downtown
youll likely pass at least three ATM machines. Downtown
they are all over, along with the banks and casas de cambio.
The latter are located within a couple of minute walk from
the zócalo, on Independencia, Hidalgo, Garcia
Vigil and Valdivieso. The banks, with competitive rates as
well, are also located within a couple of blocks of the square.
If using travelers checks, always have some with you.
After all, the reason youre using them is the protection
they afford. Then you can take advantage of the odd aberration
in exchange rate you may encounter, which may be gone tomorrow.
Similarly take some cash with you wherever you go, for the
same reason or for unexpected purchases.
TAKE REASONABLE CARE
Loss and theft generally occur when youre not careful,
and in circumstances where crowd density is high, such as
lining up at Guelaguetza time, Saturday at the abastos
market, Noche de Rábanos and Christmas eve
in the zócalo, and in the course of parades
and processions. Although its not hard to identify tourists,
still, dont flash large bills or wads, and keep large
expensive cameras in a nylon shopping bag or in a purse
in front of you. A thief is more likely to be attracted
to a purse slung over your shoulder or a backpack trailing
your spine, than to closed or zipped bags in front of you
and cradled with one arm.
Oaxaca is no different than other popular tourist destinations
with respect to safety and security for the traveler. Common
sense and vigilance ensure an uneventful vacation in terms
of avoiding problems regarding money and belongings. Due diligence
in terms of a bit of reading before your trip will never hurt,
and while here simply remember that you are in a foreign land
and that you do in fact stick out like a sore thumb. On the
other hand, in the unlikely event that you encounter any difficulties
of any kind, youll find that even complete strangers
are more than willing to assist you in overcoming adversity,
ranging from figuring out how to assist in facilitating a
purchase or accessing money, to giving a wide variety of advice
concerning other problems you might encounter as well as local
mores and accepted custom.
NOTE: The foregoing is not intended to nor should
it be relied on by the reader as constituting legal, accounting,
financial or commodity or service transaction advice, and
is intended only as a lay opinion based solely upon the personal
experiences of a Canadian who has been involved in small-scale
monetary transactions in Oaxaca since 1991
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