There are two ways to live in Mexico: like a local, and like a foreigner. The first will see you enjoying the bounties of a low cost of living and an easy pace of life (throw away your watch!), while the latter will see you getting ripped off at every turn, paying three to four times the actual cost of everything, otherwise known as paying the “gringo tax”.
Thankfully, there’s an easy way to avoid getting nailed by these fees, and it simply requires you to shed your fear of foreign cultures, learn a little bit of Spanish, and dare to cross over to the world of immersion travel.
If you are the typical foreigner who gets into a cab in Mexico and blurts out your destination in English, you will rarely get the actual price quoted to you, or offered upon arrival. In the case of metered taxis, there will often be a switch that they can flip to turn on their “rigged” meter, which has far higher rates per mile/kilometer than they normally charge locals (a common practice in Bulgaria as well, as well as many other countries).
Meanwhile, if you step into the cab and know where you are going right from the get-go and can do so in Spanish, your chances of the driver trying to rip you off go down considerably. After all, he doesn’t know if you are actually a tourist or not (unless you are toting luggage) since you used Spanish.
If you can strike up a conversation with the driver about the local weather, what are some of the best local markets to visit, ask him if he has a business card or a local cell phone number that you can have for future trips…viola. Suddenly you will find yourself receiving the local rate on transportation without dealing with the gringo tax.
One of the most rookie mistakes I see time and time again is the refusal to learn Spanish and then the subsequent bitching of expats and travelers who either live here or continually travel here but yet never bother to learn the lingo and continually find themselves at the whim and mercy of cutthroat merchants trying to overcharge them.
After three years in Cancun, there were plenty of Facebook posts I read by irate expats and travelers who were charged far more than the actual rate on something, or found the locals snubbing them (such as refusing to break a 500 peso note; I’ve been here going on four years in Mexico and not once has someone refused to take my money) because they won’t speak Spanish but expect the locals to speak English instead because “it’s a tourist destination and it’s their responsibility”.
It’s a simple matter of respect. You want them to speak English/German/French/etc. if they come to your country, no? Do them the same courtesy! If not…well, expect to pay a surcharge on everything. Consider it a fee for “dealing with a difficult customer”.
Now granted, not everyone can learn the local lingo at a conversational level before they come to a place. That’s still a relatively simple fix. Ask a local! Or, failing that, take to the CouchSurfing forums, the TravBuddy forums, Facebook, Google+, or other travel blogs and find someone who can tell you what the local rates are for transportation, rent, food, schools and so on and so forth.
When it comes to finding rentals, I’ve already talked about this in a previous episode on how to find an apartment in Cancun. If you can’t do it on your own…find a local who can do it for you, and don’t be a cheapskate. Pay them for their time, because they are saving you literally hundreds of dollars in rent by going out of their way to find you a place for local rates. You wouldn’t be able to do that on your own with your non-existent or limited Spanish and your lack of local, boots-on-the-ground knowledge.
Whatever you do, don’t bother trying to line up accommodations on your own if you don’t speak Spanish unless you are fine paying Western prices. You will get violated on the price 100% of the time simply because you are a foreigner. The only way to avoid the gringo tax in this case is if you speak Spanish OR have a friend/local contact who can find the accommodations and get the paperwork taken care of for you.
As far as restaurants go, prices are usually listed visibly for you to note, but there are some not-so-subtle cheats that you might stumble across…such as making the mistake of asking for an English menu, only to find out after your meal that the prices listed in the English menu are 15% or higher when compared to the normal, Spanish prices on the menu.
At the very least learn some basic Spanish phrases to help you get by. A little respect goes a long, long way in Mexico, and it will avoid you so many issues in the long run.