There is an art to buying things in Mexico. Except places like pharmacies and convenience stores almost everything that is sold in a store is open to price negotiation.
The trick is knowing what ever you wish to buy can most assuredly be found at a number of other stores, except some items like jewelry. So what you do while shopping, when you see something pricey you wish to buy, tell the store clerk you are definitely going to make the purchase and what is the lowest price they will give you. Write down the price.This is your starting off point. Now as you walk around you can check this price against other vender’s prices for the same item when you see it.
Once you have found the cheapest price for the item you wish to buy, first make an offer. Make this offer less than the cheapest price you were quoted and start haggling there. Quite often you will find yourself paying half of the first price quoted to you, if you use this system.
Do not be shocked if the vendor offers you some outrageous deal. For example one day I wished to buy an Aztec calendar made from hundreds of pieces of colored wood. I had already got my starting lowest cost from another store. The vendor was, as usual, standing in front of the store with a few other guys calling people into their store. I stopped and spoke to one of the guys and told him I wanted to buy one of those Aztec calendars. He told me his brother owned the store and to come back next week when his brother would be at a fishing derby in Akumal. He said to roll up 300 pesos into a ball and slip this to him outside the store then go in and pay cash for the item and I would get a great deal.
Later that day I was skimming through a local newspaper when I saw a story about a fishing derby to be held the following week in Akumal. So I decided to wait a week. The following week I went into the store and said how much for the calendar. He asked me if I had the 300 pesos. I said yes and he quoted me an amazing price. I said sure so he went and took a big sized calendar [they come in different sizes] off the wall and a mini calendar. He took the price tag off the mini calendar and put it on the big one, which was the one, I was buying. He then took me to the back of the store and showed me some jewelry. There I slipped him the 300 pesos. I then went over to the cash register and paid the clerk what the price tag said, no questions asked. I got a great deal on the calendar and paid less than half the cost at other stores and a quarter of what the original price tag had been.
We have found the further south you go the less expensive things become. Cozumel is the most expensive place to buy anything. Cancun is a close second with Playa del Carmen right behind. Anywhere you have people getting off of cruise ships you have expensive stuff! The same item can be half the cost if you go inland and buy it from a vendor in the jungle.
If you take a tour quite often they will stop somewhere for lunch. Usually there will be an extensive arts and crafts store next to the restaurant. These stores will generally be the same price as Cancun or Cozumel but if you go down the road to the next vender or group of venders the prices fall dramatically for the exact same stuff.
ARTS & CRAFTS
What you will notice is that many stores carry the exact same things however once you start looking around you will find some stores carrying exclusive items that cannot be found in any other stores. Sometimes some stores will carry a limited selection of a particular craft while the main store that deals in that particular craft is elsewhere.
Sometimes a store will only have one item of the craft they are carrying. You have to be prepared to make a decision quickly because if you do not buy the item then and there, you may not see it again or if you return to the store it may be gone.
The best thing to do is have an idea in mind regarding what you wish to buy. Once we needed a new backsplash for our new kitchen, which we designed to look like a modern Maya kitchen. We looked everywhere for the right item until we happened to come across a carving in Cozumel that we thought would work perfectly. The store had only one so we pounced on it. We installed it and it worked perfectly. We paid $14 for this and have had many people remark about its uniqueness.
By in large the majority of vendors you encounter are honest. Their style of conducting business may appear to be slightly unorthodox, however, you are in Mexico. You may however encounter dishonest people who will attempt to sell you fake goods masquerading as authentic items. These can be in the form of new items, antiques and artifacts.
For example the Mayan mask on the left is authentic. Cost $55. The mask on the right is a fake. Cost $7. What’s the difference? The fake is carved in a sweatshop probably in Indonesia or Guatemala. It is made from cheap wood and painted to look authentic.
The real mask is carved from pine bete [tropical pine tree]. Every stage of construction is done according to sacred dictates. The mask has also been used for sacred ceremonies.
Another example is limestone carvings. The quality of the carving is different with every carving. There are good carvings and bad carvings. There are also casts, which are replicas of carvings. The cheap replicas can be sold for the same price as a real carving.
When buying limestone carvings look for the artist. Some shops will have a carver working in the shop. Talk to them and try to arrange a deal with them personally for one of their carvings. If you drive around the countryside you may also encounter artisans working in their cabanas at the side of the road. They will usually have a large carving outside their cabana as a sort of sign. These “shops” are the best place to make your purchase and you can find yourself acquiring a piece for under half of what the vendors want in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
The way you tell the difference between a cast and real limestone is that you can mark the limestone with your fingernail. Casts are harder and you usually cannot mark them.
When buying jewelry or other items made of silver, look for the “.925” stamp. This is an alleged measure of the silver content of the piece and is the standard.
This said, be cautious of buying silver from wandering salesman, even if a stamp is visible. This is because much of the silver-colored jewelry sold by wandering vendors is actually made from alpaca, a lesser quality metal with a heavy copper content.
When buying silver or gold an established store is your best bet.
Believe it or not but you can make fake amber. This is not to say that the practice of selling counterfeit amber in Mexico is the norm, but it can happen.
You can tell fake amber because if you put a flame under real amber it will not burn or melt as plastic fake stuff does. If a wandering vendor shows you a piece of amber with a scorpion in it then it is 100% fake because these pieces of amber are EXTREEMLY rare and some guy wandering the streets or beaches is not going to be carrying a piece of amber like that. Best to buy amber from a store unless you can tell the difference.
Also a vendor will say almost anything to make a sale. If the item in question is green and you ask if it is green jade then they will most likely say yes it is, even though it is green marble.
Some vendors also try selling fake Black Coral. Polished black jade can even pass for Black Coral if you do not know the difference. Black Coral is an endangered species and it is illegal to bring it into the US or Canada.
If you do not want to get ripped off, you more or less have to know what you are doing when it comes to buying silver/gold or precious stones.
ETHICS OF THE GAME
We have purchased items from stall vendors in towns only to be told by friends in the business that we were overcharged, even after haggling down the cost. It is not easy to know what the correct price for something is.
For example: Once I was sitting with a friend in his booth when an American lady stopped and shrieked. She said she just paid $30.00 USD for a sombrero ashtray at her hotel while my friend was selling the exact same ashtray for $5.00, 3 for $10.00. The lady felt cheated by the hotel shop now and was quite agitated. This occurred in Playa del Carmen and this same ashtray is even less expensive in Campeche.
Haggling with vendors is fun. Many vendors like to do it and I have had instances where the vendor actually went off of the agreed price and went to my lower price ONLY after he won the exchange and I agreed to his “higher” offer. I began using this tack in all my exchanges. I find it more fun to haggle down an item cost then surprise the vendor with a gracious tip making up the difference. This works great and makes everybody happy.