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How to Have a Budget Holiday in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

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Here’s the thing about resort towns in Mexico: it is very easy to spend money unnecessarily. In Playa del Carmen, stores like Victoria’s Secret and Forever 21 decorate the main street. From a Rolex to a year’s supply of Viagra, everything is available for the eager buyer.

What’s not immediately obvious is that almost everything is available for a discount price. (Unless you’re shopping for a Rolex watch, of course). Do your research if you don’t want to get taken for a ride.

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1. The main street isn’t the main street

In Playa, Fifth Avenue gives its namesake a run for its money. The main street is crowded with tourists eager to spend from about 10 a.m. to almost midnight. It’s lively and exciting to see, but save your pesos for the side streets, where food and drink get less and less expensive the further you get from the tourist strip.

2. Pay in pesos and not in USD

If the sticker price is listed in USD, you’re probably not shopping in the right place. But if you’ve really gotta have it, pay in pesos, even if the price is typically higher after you calculate the exchange. The reason is that Mexicans expect Mexicans to bargain and foreigners to pay full price. And they do, pretty much 100 percent of the time.

3. Bargain and be prepared to walk away

If you don’t come from a culture of bargaining, it can be pretty uncomfortable to wage a price war with a seasoned Mexican. Rest assured, you are the only one who feels uncomfortable. You can often buy Mexican-made goods for half of the advertised price. Start low and be prepared to come up a little. You don’t want to offend anyone by sticking to your super-low first offer without budging.

Walk away if you’re not getting the price you want. Much of what you’ll find on Fifth Avenue is available somewhere else down the street, especially when it comes to bracelets, hammocks and other Mexican souvenirs.

4. Take the Collectivo

The Collective is sort of like a shared taxi service that locals use, a big white van that drives up and down the highway, picking people up and dropping them off at resorts and attractions. You can get to neighbouring towns like Puerto Morelos, Akumal and Tulum easily on the Collectivo for about 35 pesos, the equivalent of about US$3.  Look for the big white vans around 2nd street and 10th avenue. Most of the drivers speak good English and will give you at least some help getting where you want to go. Since they’re route only goes up and down the highway, it’s tough to get lost.

5. Skip the tours

If you’re brave enough to take the Collectivo and hire the occasional taxi (there’s lots of bargaining room on the taxis), you can see a lot for less than half the price of a tour. It’ll also leave you free to drink margaritas on the beach on your own time, and see sights for as long or as short a time as you like. There are lots of cenotes along the highway you can get to without even hiring a taxi. Just ask your Collectivo driver to stop.

You can walk to the ruins in Tulum, which are just off the highway. Grand Cenote – one of the area’s best freshwater caves – is a short taxi ride away, but you can walk it easily if you’ve got good shoes and a willing spirit.

The ADO busses are roomy and air conditioned, and go longer distances: to Chichen Itza for example. They cost a little more than the Collectivo, but they’re always worth it when compared to the cost of a tour.

6. Rent someone else’s condo or timeshare

Unwitting tourists find themselves unexpectedly investing in timeshares all the time in Mexico. Playacar in particular, probably the area’s largest and most illustrious complex, is full of empty condos. You can rent these apartments online for a pretty penny, but you’ll get a much better deal if you just show up in Playa and go hunting with a local property manager. You can go door-knocking yourself, but you’ll find most condo owners don’t live on the premises, or possibly don’t even live in Mexico at all.

7. Count your change

Get familiar with Mexican pesos before you start spending them. Merchants in Mexico have been known to give incorrect change. Tourists get flustered dealing in another language and spending in a different currency, and some salespeople will take advantage of this fact. Even at big American chains like Starbucks, familiar car rental shops or money exchange kiosks, be vigilant. If you’re exchanging money, calculate the rate on your own calculator and count the money yourself, even if the teller already counted it for you.

8. Don’t give a deposit without reading the contract

If renting an apartment or a car, check it out thoroughly if you don’t want to pay for previously existing damages. Get right down on your hands and knees and check the undercarriage of your rental car and make sure any dents and scrapes are already noted on the ticket. In an apartment, check all light fixtures, taps and toilets, chipped paint or furniture and make sure that existing faults are noted in the rental agreement.

Mexicans are friendly, open-hearted people, so make sure you treat them that way. Be a good tourist. A 10 percent tip at restaurants is customary. As with most countries, if you show a culture respect, that culture will probably respect you back. And if you wish to be treated fairly, that’s a pretty good place to start.

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