Cozumel and Currency: Which Cash to Have on Hand?

Cozumel and Currency: Which Cash to Have on Hand?

When traveling, it’s nice knowing you have some viable cash in your pocket.  Since so many visitors are from the U.S., it leads many to wonder, do businesses in Cozumel accept U.S. dollars?

If you’re traveling to Cozumel, MX from the United States, you can relax knowing that US dollars (USD) are commonly used here. The American dollar (as opposed to the Canadian) is recognized by nearly everyone and is readily accepted as payment.  However, for reasons explained below, it’s still a better idea once you’re here to use the local currency, the Mexican peso (MXN). With a few security tips, pesos are easy to get from several secure ATMs and will make your time in Cozumel a bit easier, especially on your wallet. 

Whether paying in cash, or using your credit card, try to adapt and use pesos in your vacation transactions.  

The US Dollar Works in Cozumel

As stated above, the US dollar is a pretty common form of currency in Cozumel. 

Visitors from other countries, however, are not so lucky.  This is not the case with other forms of currency, such as the Canadian dollar, nor the euro. 

Frequent use of the USD is likely due to the proximity of the two countries, and even more so the fact that millions of American tourists come to Mexico each year – especially to the beach areas in northern Quintana Roo, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel.  

According to the Mexican Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR), as of 2019, the U.S. made up approximately 50% of all international air arrivals to Mexico, followed by Canada at approximately 21%.  (see 2019 statistics report, here).  

Many hotels, restaurants, diving and excursion operators, even list their prices in both pesos and U.S. dollars to make it easy on the tourists.  People from the U.S. can tip, pay their cab fares, and make most purchases using USD.  

When I buy my groceries at the local supermarket in Cozumel, the cash register automatically rings up items and shows the grand total in pesos and the converted total in dollars.  

Please note: this is not true of every supermarket or business on the island, but very often is at least in the ones that are close to the Ferry and Cruise ports, as well as the busy downtown. 

Surely this is to make it as easy as possible for visitors to relax, but also to spend their money with the greatest of ease.

When in Mexico, Use the Peso

Now to the real point:  Just because you can use your U.S. dollars here in Cozumel, doesn’t mean you should.  

For one thing, many of the local prices are set and posted in pesos – think restaurant menus, food stands, taxi fares.  They do not fluctuate according to the daily exchange rate. In other words, you can plan out your budget and your purchases in advance with greater certainty, because you won’t experience a rise and fall in the daily exchange rate and get charged accordingly.

In addition, if places go to the trouble of printing bi-lingual menus, which many do, the corresponding prices in dollars may have been equivalent at the time, but as markets change, those local prices are often favorable to locals using the peso.

Lots of tourists like to insinuate that this is unfair, and yet think about how you would create a menu with prices.  Or signage? Or price tags? And so on. Store and restaurants don’t re-label everything, every day. But the international exchange rates do change. That’s life. 

It also makes sense that the prices are consistent if you’re taking the trouble to use the local currency.

If there’s one thing I really dislike the longer I live here, is a person coming off the ferry or a plane on to this Mexican Island and immediately demanding that they take their “American money”.  Tip: that’s pretty much “ugly American” 101.  

Many establishments will convert your bill totals on the spot, using a calculator – and they always show you their calculations, to stay on the up and up.  

Be aware, they will post the exchange rate they are using – usually it’s one of the first things you’ll see as you enter, so look for it.  That rate may not be the up-to-the-minute rate you’d find on the live Foreign Exchange Market (Forex), but they are fairly posted for all to see (sometimes, it’s better!).  

Get Pesos from ATMs: Safe and Easy, But Use Common Sense

Don’t let all this worry you.  Acquiring pesos is easier and safer than ever, as you can go to one of many, bank-backed ATMs in the downtown area to withdraw cash, simply using your home ATM card.  

Large and familiar bank names like HSBC, Santander, Banamex (part of Citibank) and others are part of interbank networks you already know, like Cirrus and Plus ATM consortiums.  Just look for the familiar logos.

  Cirrus and Plus ATM logos

 

Pro tip #1: As in any other town in the world, do not use the stand-alone, private and super sketchy looking ATMs you might find on random street corners.  These are far more prone to scams of various kinds. Just avoid them.  

 

 

Pro tip #2: Let your bank and credit card services know where and when you’ll be traveling so that they won’t mistakenly freeze your cards if they start seeing foreign transactions.  This is not as much of a concern these days, as financial institutions usually have ways of confirming with you on the fly. Nevertheless, it’s always a good precaution, especially if you are a nervous traveler.   

An added bonus with direct ATM withdrawals is that you usually get the best exchange rate possible because major bank-owned machines tend to dispense the amount that is close to current exchange rate, calculated in real-time.

Pro tip #3:  Prior to your trip, I’d advise downloading the helpful and respect phone app, called the XE Currency exchange app.  With a few moments of set up, you can always know the current exchange rate, and calculate expenses accordingly (give or take the venue’s posted rate).  

Screen shot of XE Currency mobile app

Now, you may have your own bank fees and withdrawal fees if you don’t have a card that is optimized for foreign travel, but the withdrawal itself is at a good rate.

Cash Exchange Houses 

If you prefer to deal in cash, it is also very easy to find and utilize one of several cash exchange businesses on the island.  

Just ask for a “casa de cambio” (exchange house) and you can exchange currency, by showing a valid passport and paying relatively small transaction fees.  These services are friendly and easy, but unlike ATM withdrawals, you may experience higher fees and a different exchange rate, as there is usually a lag of a day or so.  

Credit Cards and Electronic Payments Common Now

Of course, credit cards have been used for a long time in Cozumel, just as they have everywhere else in the world. 

However, in recent years, credit cards have become even more widely accepted and usable in even the smallest and most remote of businesses.  

As online internet and mobile services dramatically improve, there are more viable “coverage areas” so more and more of the remote beach clubs and restaurants have reliable service.  As the quality and affordability of mobile data and WiFi coverage has increased, the use of cards and other forms of mobile electronic payments has become more common. 

Please be thoughtful, though, and have some back-up cash on hand!  

Sometimes the delight of having a cold beer at an awesomely remote beach-side hideaway very logically requires an equally “unplugged” transaction!

You just kinda never know, here!  Always best to be prepared.  

Cozumel: Strong WiFi and Getting Better 

Many transactions can also now be done via PayPal. I myself make appointments for haircuts and massages using Facebook and PayPal.  Venmo, on the other hand, is not used in Mexico.  

The bottom line is, if you do a little homework before you arrive, and keep some cash on hand, you should have no problem navigating payments in Cozumel.  

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