Tips and tricks for your Riviera Maya trip (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum etc)

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There are plenty of great posts about what to expect when you’re traveling to Mexico in general and Riviera Maya in particular. So instead of writing another one let me just list couple lessons learned that hopefully will make your trip to Mexico even more enjoyable.

  • Before going to Mexico go to your bank and buy a block of $1 bills. You will need it for tipping and paying small amounts in various places. Some people suggest getting a block of $2 bills, but that’s optional. Also couple $5 and $20 will be useful if you’re going to pay in USD in restaurants.
  • US dollars are in general accepted everywhere, so you can basically survive here without a peso. Still all change is issued in pesos and it is a good idea to have them in your wallet.
  • In April 2014 the official exchange rate for MXN to USD was 13.07 pesos for 1 dollar. In our hotel it was 12 pesos. In many exchange booths it was also 12 pesos. In most restaurants 11 pesos and in some restaurants at major attractions it was 10 pesos for $1. So your best strategy would be exchanging $100-200 depanding on your spending rate at the ATM (with 3% VISA comission + two bank commissions depending on what card you use) at the airport.
  • If your restaurant tries to charge you at very low rate you can look around – typically there is an exchange booth or ATM nearby with a better rate.
  • Topes (speed bumps on the roads) are as frigging horrible as people describe them. They come in form of concrete hills, huge steel bumps, smaller steel bumps and tiny steel bumps. The first two will destroy your car if you approach them at speed faster than 5-10MPH. Sometimes there is not speed limit reduction sign before them and after strong winds the Tope signes can be blown from the posts. Also frequently they are very difficult to see. So be extra careful.
  • There are tons of scary stories about car rental in Mexico. Most of them dated 2009-2010. Thanks to these stories “proven” online rental from companies like EasyWay is very popular – I called them day before the arrival to Mexico and they had zero cars available. I guess situation improved in the last few years. In 2014 in Cancun airport there were tons of car rental companies, no lines, very reasonable rates comparing to EasyWay. We rented from Hertz (again, the one that had horrible ratings back in 2010), the car was clean, relatively new, the stuff was friendly and overall experience was great. I’m comparing to horrible experience with Hertz I had as a gold member of Hertz in Las Vegas three years ago. BTW, Easyway quote was $406 for one week with all insurance and I’ve rented from Hertz for $280 with basically the same coverage.
  • BTW, April is a low season here, so your situation might be different if you’re coming for Christmas celebration.
  • Still, buy comprehensive CDW and ALI insurance. It is kind of expensive, but much cheaper than your ruined vacation. Do not rely on your credit card insurance. And, BTW, that Amex $25 insurance only gives you CDW, not ALI, and doesn’t provide your with Spanish version of the insurance. Local insurance is so much better to have and totally worth the price. Still I hope you will not test it.
  • If you like saving money and taking risk you can easily rent a car without any insurance and it will be supercheap (from $6/day). The basic insurance required by law is already included in the rental agreement. That CDW and ALI you buy is extra. Still, as I mentioned before, it is well worth purchasing. You don’t want to be one-on-one with locals and the police in case of accident, you need a spanish-speaking local insurance agent and lawyer.
  • The speed limits on 307 (the main highway in Riviera Maya) are very confusing and can go from 100 to 40 in minutes (all speeds are in km/h, not mph). I do not have a good explanation for this, but it seems that the speed limit signs sometimes affect only certain lanes and not the entire road. Also some speed limit signs have “Salida” under them meaning the speed limit posted not for the highway but for the exit. Still very confusing and everyone is just ignoring those speed limits.
  • On the faucets “C” means “Caliente” (HOT), not “Cold”. Be careful, do not burn yourself by accident. “F”, or “Frio” is cold.
  • There is tons of police over here, most armed with assault rifles of different kinds. Also from time to time you will see Humvees with soldiers. Despite all this RM seems like a peaceful friendly place.
  • There are several block posts on 307. Drive slowly and smile. In most cases the police is after big trucks, not small cars.
  • There are radars on the road, I saw at least on mobile unit. There was a sign warning about it 200ft in advance.
  • The cheapest souvenier store in the area is WalMart in PDC. Many other places sell the same T-shirts, toys, crafts etc but 2-3 times more expensive. Some of them sell more unique crafts not available from Walmart too though.
  • Bargaining is a must, unless you’re a millionaire looking for a stupid way to get rid of money. Typically you can get a 30% discount almost immediately. For more expensive items the seller is willing to reduce price by 60-70 percent in 5 minutes. I hate bargaining, but once you turn around and start leaving the store the seller starts offering the better and better prices without any effort from you.
  • EXPLoR is a must see. The park organization and management is outstanding not to mentions it is fun to spend a day in :) Everythign is all-inclusive and well thought. You might think that long walks in the underground caves are way too long, but they are absolutely necessary if you want to keep the park not crowded and relaxing. It is best to arrive at 9am and the park will be close once it reach its capacity of approximately 2000 visitors a day. Bring a bag to conveniently store small items in it. Also bring water shoes if you have them (search for “water shoe” if you don’t know what it is). The ones sold onsite go for $30. The souvenir store onsite is ridiculously overprised, so it is unlikely you will be able to buy from it. For instance National Geographic small backpack is $399.
  • Playa del Carmen is the fastest growing town in the world, fastest growing city in Latin America. The traffic is crazy. If you like night life this is the place to go.
  • If you go to Tulum wear a swim suite. This is the only Mayan archeological place located on the beach and open to public. You will really enjoy swimming there.
  • The small hungry kittens on the streets are actually normal cats. They are just small and thin in Mexico. There are also many stray dogs off the main streets. Restaurants are not allowed to feed them in any way.
  • Tap water is untreated and if you try to drink it your vacation will be ruined. Only drink bottled water or the one provided in reputable restaurants.
  • Even though most scams in car rental seem to be fixed in 2014 the gas stations are still a huge problem. Here are 3 typical scams you most definitely will experience in Mexico, even on government “gasolineras” PEMEX. The root cause of all these scams is the fact you cannot fuel your car yourself, you have to use attendant’s help. So here we go:
    • You come to the gas station and try to pay with a credit card. Maybe you don’t have cash, or just try to use a better rate from your credit card company. The attendant takes your card, goes to his hideaway, returns in a minute saying that the card didn’t work and you need to either give him/her another card or pay in cash. You agree to pay in cash, because you need to get to the airport asap. The trick here is that your card actually worked and you will be paying for your gas twice: by card and in cash. The best way to avoid this scam is to never give your card to the gas station personnel. If possible get always demand the receipt. If you will find that your card was illegally charged contact your bank immediately and initiate dispute.
    • So agree to pay in cash and the attendant starts pumping the gas. The pump works unusually fast and quickly fills the tank. Or does it? Well, approximately 20% of this miraculous pump performance can be actually attributed to the tweaked counter that counts more than actually pumped. Unfortunately there is very little you can do anything with it, so consider it a tax. The other thing is that the attendant conveniently “forgets” to reset the counter after the previous customer, you you will be paying for yourself and the gay who already paid before you. This scam can be avoided if you step out of the car and videotape the pump counter. Now you have the proof and exact amount you’re asked to overpay.
    • When you’re paying in cash the attendant is the guy/gal who defines the USD/MXN rate and it won’t be good for you. Paying by credit card would save you from this scam, but … see the scam described below and consider the ridiculous rate as another special mexican tax.
    • Finally the tank is full, the attendant does his/her ridiculous math and tells you that you owe $42. You take out your wallet and give the attendant two $20 bills and two $1 bills. You smile to each other, say adios, turn around to get into the car and attendant calls you back. Apparently you made a mistake and instead of 2x$20 and 2x$1 you gave him/her 1x$20 and 3x$1, at least this is what he/she keeps in hand and demonstrating you as a proof :) Well, actually you paid correctly, so insist that you gave correct amount. for some reason they do not argue for long and after 1 minute of insisting that you gave the correct amount they will suddenly realize that they miscalculated something and let you go. To avoid this unpleasant discussion it is best to count all the money in front of the attendant, show every bank note, sum up, give to the attendant and if necessary take the picture of him/her taking the money. Sounds ridiculous, right? But isn’t it ridiculous that such a simple transaction as fueling your car an involve so many scam schemes? In fact one time I was buying gas in Mexico all these scenarios were attempted and one succeeded. That was my worst mexican experience, besides that the country is very friendly and beautiful.
  • Even though your car needs to be fully insured it is still a good idea to inspect it before driving off the rental company parking lot. Make sure all defect are correctly recorded. Besides general marks on the bumpers and doors pay close attention to parts of the car typically missed during the inspection: wheel disks and tires, splash guards, spare tire in the trunk (including the bottom side of it which you cannot see unless you unscrew the wheel), interior, windshield and, most importantly, the wipers. Make sure the wipers are undamaged and do their work, otherwise refuse to take the car. Roads in Mexico can be dusty and if your wipers won’t work well you will be blind on a road, that’s not good at all.

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