Accomplished Acapulco shoppers may not need to study all of the tips and precautions below, but it would be a good idea to glance through them anyway. These ten tips are just specific examples of thinking ahead and using good sense.
1. Know where you are going, how you are going to get there, and how to get back. It is normal for visitors to become a bit disoriented in a new place, especially when confronting a big change in the language and culture at the same time. This is particularly true of cruise passengers, who may be on the ground for only a few hours. Write down your hotel or boat address clearly on a piece of paper and keep it with you. Then, if a taxi driver does not understand your accent (and some may not), give them the paper. You may also want to do the same thing for your objective, both to make yourself understood, and also to persuade the driver that you really want to go where you say you want to go. (Some unscrupulous drivers might take you somewhere else, where they receive a commission for bringing in tourists for shopping.) Read about taking taxis, and, if you’re climbing aboard a bus, read the tips here.
2. Currency: Buy a cheap calculator It is really very common for people new to an economy to overpay for things. This is because the local currency disorients visitors about value. Quick: Ask yourself whether 7.5 pesos for a liter of gasoline is a good deal. It's times like this that having a calculator handy (or a good head for figures) can save you from dreaded errors -- of saying “yes” when you should have said “no.” Put the peso-dollar exchange rate into memory, and remember that you’re dividing pesos to find dollars. Bone up on metric equivalents if you need to. And always, always, calculate the cost in terms you can relate to mentally and emotionally. Then you won’t make a shopping goof just because of the peso math. And that gas price question? There are 3.7857 liters in a gallon. At 7.5 pesos/liter, it's 29.06 pesos per gallon, and at 12.5 pesos to the dollar, it comes out to be $2.33 per gallon. Not bad.
3. Bargaining: Know when not to accept the initial price quoted. Sometimes the quoted price is the price you pay, as in super markets and shopping malls. But most small vendors do not start off by quoting you the price they hope to end up with. Depending upon how different you look and talk from the way the vendor looks and talks, this opening price may be only a little bit higher, or it could be double the real price - or even more! This phenomenon also occurs with negotiated fares for taxis. If you don’t like bargaining, find someone who does, and go shopping with that person. Try to avoid becoming attached to things that catch your eye until after the bargaining is done. Being able to walk away from a deal is a strong tool in bargaining for the right price. If the vendor is more eager to sell than you are to buy, the price will come out in your favor. The reverse is also true. Some shoppers ask first for the opening price and then offer 50% back. Perhaps this is a good rule of thumb, but in truth, each sale is different. With some experience, you may be able to guess the wholesale price and then mark it up in your mind by a fair amount and offer that. Sometimes it is a good tactic not to ask for a price, which forces the vendor to size you up first. Rather, you make the opening offer. Either way, a transaction will be started that can end with a sale at a price you consider a bargain. This sort of bargaining requires an investment of time, and sometimes multiple visits to the vendor. If time is scarce, or if there’s little fun left in the haggling, then cut to the chase – make a final offer a fair amount above your notional floor price (to show some respect for the vendor and his or her merchandise), and call it a day. Remember that not everything is subject to this sort of buying and selling, though almost everything can be sold at a discount if you buy several of a single item or otherwise spend a lot of money with the vendor. Some say that shopping is an art, and perhaps it is. But bargaining is mainly a skill, like playing poker. Some people are just better at it than others. The vendor is probably a lot more experienced at it than you are, so do not expect easy victories. On the other hand, the vendors are grateful for the tourists, and normally will not try to hurt or abuse them. And they do expect to engage in a little give and take.
4. Hours of Operation: Check hours of operation in advance. This tip is especially important if the place to be visited is a fair distance away. Acapulco shops follow no particular rules about when they are open. It is safe to assume that shops are open by 10 am and stay open until around 6 pm. But a few shops open earlier, and a good many do not close their doors until 7, 9 or 10 at night. Often the store hours are prolonged slightly on weekends. Be careful not to rely on stores to be open on Sunday. Some may open later or close much earlier on Sunday. This is less true, of course, in the shopping malls and commercial centers than in the more traditional parts of town. As in other countries, the stores that make up a commercial center will usually all follow the same operating schedule. The lesson here is, check the hours if you are hoping to go early, late or on a Sunday.
5. Money: “Paper or Plastic?” Take Enough. Be sure to take enough money, and in the right format, for the shopping you intend to accomplish. Change is sometimes hard to find in Mexico, so the $500 peso note (for example) may prove to be hard to spend. Try to change it for $100 peso notes at a bank or at the hotel desk. Depending upon what sort of shopping is about to take place, decide if paper money (called "efectivo" or "contado") or credit cards will be the means of payment. In some contexts, where bargaining is involved, an offer to pay in cash may gain a small discount, as the vendor avoids the credit card fees and also receives the money on the spot. In some other contexts, paying with plastic is just not even thinkable. Plastic is probably out of the question when browsing the open air markets and "tianguis" for gifts and crafts. Otherwise, plastic works fine in the shopping malls, bodegas and boutiques all along the Costera. Not every credit card is as welcome as every other. Almost all shops will take Visa or MasterCard. More upscale stores may also accept American Express, and perhaps Discover. Traveler’s Checks may be more secure than money or even credit cards, but relatively few places accept them other than hotels, restaurants and the higher-end shops. Personal checks are, well, nearly useless. Security, of course, is an important consideration. It is always a good idea not to set out with a lot of extra cash in your wallet, against the rare occurrence that someone tries to steal it. Figure out how much you think you’ll need, and maybe give your self a small safety margin. But leave the rest of the stash behind.
Just as it is smart not to carry excess cash, it always makes sense to leave the room with only one credit card (one that you know will work) plus a driver’s license to prove your signature. If someone steals your card, you have less trouble because you have to cancel only one of them. (See our Tip on Credit Card Management.)
6. Security: Safeguard your Valuables and Look out for Pickpockets. Acapulco, like any other tourist destination, attracts its share of undesirable types, who try to live at the advantage of tourists. Some are con men, but many are simply thieves, expert at creating a small disturbance and then lifting a wallet out from pocket or purse without detection. Here are three suggestions to help you relax in the face of this problem.
- Get a secure way to carry valuables and leave most of your valuables back at the room. The waist pack (which Americans call "fanny packs" to the sporadic delight of their British cousins) is probably the safest means of all. Mexicans call it a “cangurero,” or kangaroo-pouch, and this is a much more sensible name. Wear it tight around the waist, with the pack in front, where you can protect it -- not in back, where it becomes a target. If wearing such a pack is not an option (some people think they look "geeky"), get a purse that has a sturdy shoulder strap, so a thief can not just grab it away or cut it free. Men may want to use a money belt or keep their funds in a front pants pocket, which thieves have more trouble picking. The ideal shopping tool is really the front-placed waist pack with room for glasses, camera, and other necessary items. Before adding in your cell phone, consider whether you will ever need it on your shopping trip. Before putting on a watch, decide if you need to know the time with much precision. Do not go out with that big, fat wallet. There’s no reason to lose the movie rental cards, the carwash punch card, your family photos, the miscellaneous coupons, and all the other irrelevant stuff you brought along with it. A small zipper purse for the Mexican peso coins and bills is what locals typically use. (It’s called a “monedero”).
- Use the hotel safe for valuables left in the hotel. If the in-room safe is not electronic (permitting you to enter your own security-code as the combination), you should consider using a deposit box at the front desk. Put your passport, tickets home, wallet, and all other valuables in there. The reception desk security is more reliable that any key-operated in-room safes. You will not need your passport on a shopping trip. Stolen passports have a high street value. It is not intelligent to run that risk.
- Divide up the Money. Separate out a little extra cash and put it in a different location or pocket, as a reserve for getting home - even if you overspend or are robbed. If two of you are traveling together, make sure each has enough cash to get back to the hotel if one of you spends or loses all of his or her money.
7. Spanish: Have a Spanish speaker handy, if you can. As strange as it may seem, some English-speaking tourists imagine that everyone in Acapulco speaks English. If they run into trouble, they just speak English more loudly, thinking, apparently, that the locals are just hard of hearing. Most vendors who rely on tourist trade do speak some English, or French, and they will work hard to understand and to make themselves understood. Even so, a review of the numbers in Spanish might help move things along for you. And if your outing is to a place somewhat off the beaten path for tourists (either in terms of where you are headed or what you are buying), take along a Spanish-speaker as company. He or she will surely make the excursion end more quickly and successfully.
8. Beach Vendors: A fact of life on the sand. Consider sales on the beach to be like a transaction in any other open-air market. The city does not control or license ambulatory vendors, so they are everywhere, and sunbathers are on their own. Everything from sculptures, mobiles and jewelry to sunglasses and tattoos are on sale. Tourists will have a chance to have a massage, or put up their hair in cornrow braids, or be serenaded by musicians. An endless parade of food vendors will pass by, offering snacks, quesadillas, tamales, shell fish, drinks and ice cream. A few young kids have learned to beg, and just go up and down the beaches collecting pesos from the kind-hearted. Unless something really sparks your interest, just say "No, gracias" and wag your index finger left and right (like a windshield wiper). This should do the trick. If you would like to check out a vendor's wares, just nod receptively, and the transaction will easily unfold. Though many use only a few words of English, communication does take place. Prices on the beach are usually fully negotiable, so regard it as a bargaining opportunity.
9. Street Vendors: Approach with Caution. A table or booth in an established open-air market is one thing. Someone set up informally on the sidewalk with a table of merchandise is likely to fit in the category of beach vendor. Only the sand is missing. Approach these opportunities to spend money with a little caution. If the wares are food, usually it’s safe to give it a try. The “raspadas” (shaved ice) and “agua de sabor” (fruit flavor drink) are made with water that has been purified. The ice cream is also unlikely to cause problems. Tortillas and anything fully cooked is also in the sage category, like tacos. Some fruits and most vegetables require some discretion. A lot depends on the person, and whether things like lettuce cause problems. In a case of doubt, take a pass. For other kinds of merchandise, be assured that if it has a logo it is not the real thing. If it has a cover on it (like a CD), it is pirated. Knock-offs and pirated goods sometimes cause woes when going through US Customs, so be forewarned. Otherwise, just approach this as any other open-air market bargaining opportunity.
10. Special Case: Sunglasses. Some people can pay a zillion dollars for elegant, designer sunglasses and hold on to them until they wear out (or go out of style). Others, well, are not responsible enough to be the owner of expensive frames. For them, Acapulco has great selection. Whether on the beach or in an open-air market, it is possible to find a wide selection of really cheap sunglasses. And the deals get better if you buy in quantity. Some tourists come every year and take enough pairs home to get them through until next year's vacation. The nice thing about buying the cheap sunglasses is that you can immediately judge how sturdy and effective the merchandise is. Logo merchandise, of course, is not authentic, but the glasses may work well anyway. Even though many locals have put away their sunglasses and have not taken them out for years (they put them in the same place they stashed their watch), visitors should be mindful that the glare can be hard on the eyes. It's a simple and sensible precaution to put on a pair of shades while tooling around Paradise.