I just got back from a trip to Mexico a few days ago and I’m starting to gather up pricing info for what will be the 2nd edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. I’ve always felt a tad guilty about including Mexico in that book because many short-jaunt tourists come back from vacation saying that the country isn’t really all that cheap. In a way, they’re right, but it all depends on where you go and which Mexico you are seeing.
If you spend all your time in places that cater to tourists from Canada, the US, and Europe, you will pay prices that are meant for…well, people from Canada, the US, and Europe. It’s pure supply and demand: if the resorts, excursion companies, and restaurant owners in those areas can get planeloads of people to pay prices close to what they would pay at home, that’s going to be the price that is charged. So if you go to a resort in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, or Cancun, you won’t save much over what you would pay to go on vacation at home. You’ll just have a higher staff to guest ratio.
The only way to really get a good room discount at a Mexican tourist resort is to buy a discounted package deal that includes airfare, get an auctioned off package or room from Skyauction.com. You can then shave your costs significantly more by taking local transportation instead of expensive tours and by eating at restaurants where the locals eat instead of where the tourists eat. (As a bonus, the food will be more interesting too.)
If you get away from the resort areas, however, it’s a whole different story. This Mexico, the real Mexico, is far more reasonable and naturally more authentic. In areas such as Merida, Guanajuanto, and Oaxaca, it’s quite easy to find a basic hotel room with air-con for $20US a night, or an interesting inn with lots of local color for less than $50. I have a little beach house on the coast near Merida. When I’m in the city, I stay at Luz en Yucatan hotel, a place brimming with character and charm. It’s $25 to $45 a night for a room, or $45 to $75 for a suite with a kitchen. Some of the suites easily sleep three or four. There are plenty of other places in this same price range, or you can stay in western-style luxury in the best part of town for under $100.
There are similar deals throughout the interior: around $15-25 for a budget place, $25-$60 for a mid-range hotel, and $40-$120 for the equivalent of a 4-star hotel. Compared to bargain basement places in Latin America such as Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador, this may not be a screaming bargain at the shoestring backpacker level, but it is certainly quite a deal for mid-range travelers. As a bonus to those of us seeing our currency shrivel against the Euro, peso/dollar exchange rates are quite stable.
Food, drinks, and transportation are also good values. I’ve found most tourist restaurants and seafood restaurants to be 25% to 50% less than a comparable place would cost in the US. At typical neighborhood restaurants and market stalls, however, you can get a good-sized filling lunch for 20 to 30 pesos-less than $3. You can fill up on snack plates of tostadas, tacos, or panuchos for even less. So for food, you can get a great value as either a budget traveler or someone willing to splurge. Beers are generally around $2 in a bar or restaurant, about 50-60 cents in a store. (And it’s good beer, not watery swill.) US demand has driven up tequila prices, so stick to rum if you’re on a budget.
Buses that travel from city to city aren’t dirt cheap unless it’s the slow local bus, but the express buses are quite comfortable and are definitely a good value. They have ample legroom, air conditioning, and even bathrooms and refreshments at the top end. A first class bus will be $15 to $25 for a trip of three to six hours.
If you shop locally and cook yourself, prices are reasonable, especially if you stick to local goods and what’s in season. For a buck you can get a whole kilo of oranges, two dozen eggs, a kilo of fresh tortillas, a half kilo of avocados, or a half kilo of local cheese. (One kilo equals 2.2 US pounds.) Pork chops are four dollars a kilo and they practically pay you to carry the cilantro away: 2 pesos (less than 20 cents) per bunch.
If you are a backpacker on a bare bones budget, Mexico is not the best choice in the Americas. Offsetting this somewhat is the fact that flights are often cheap. I once hopped a flight from Nashville to Cancun for $189, taxes included, and I’ve seen similar deals pop up lately from other cities. So if money is really tight, hop a cheap flight to Mexico and go overland to Guatemala or fly directly to there or further south. If you are not squeezing your pennies, however, the country offers plenty of deals. Get out of the resort areas and go exploring and you’ll be surprised at how far your money can go.
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