If you’re coming down for a few weeks or even for the entire “high season,” you can convert your funds in three ways. First, you could bring U.S. (or Canadian) cash and trade it in for Mexican pesos at either a bank or a casa de cambio (a money-changing station). Second, you could arrive with a whole stack of travelers’ checks and exchange them for pesos at those same places. The third possibility is coming down armed with a couple of ATM cards. One will do the trick, but keeping a second squirreled away in case you misplace the first or lose it inside a cajero (ATM machine) can provide extra peace of mind while you’re relaxing in paradise.

The frequent traveler who ends up with a Zihua address and spends less and less time north of the border may want to open up a Mexican bank account for convenience, but it really isn’t necessary. Take it from someone who’s lived happily without one for more than a decade.

So, going back to the first three options, which one is best for you? If you’re just not comfortable depending on a piece of plastic, then bring cash or travelers’ checks.

Travelers’ checks used to be the most convenient way to carry money. You could replace them easily if they were lost or stolen as long as you remembered to keep the check numbers safe elsewhere and knew how to get in touch with your financial institution back home to report your bad luck. Now, Zihua and Ixtapa banks often refuse to exchange them unless you bring your passport with you (the original – not a copy!), and some banks restrict the hours when such transactions are done. Additionally, the exchange rate may be a little lower than that given for cash, a small commission is usually charged, and do be sure your counter-signature looks like a carbon copy of your autograph when you bought the checks..

Another blip in the travelers’ check arena is that the American Express office so long a fixture in Ixtapa at the Dorado Pacifico Hotel has closed up shop, and as of this writing, there’s not another one in the area.

American dollars are accepted in many commercial establishments and can be exchanged at area banks, but many banks won’t even let you trade CASH for Mexican pesos without a passport…very frustrating! Canadian dollars are an iffier proposition; some banks will take them and others won’t.

If you elect to use a bank, try to avoid Mondays and Fridays, which tend to be the heaviest business days, and bring along a book or a magazine in case there’s a long line. The 15th and 30th (or 31st) are busy too, but early birds any day are usually in and out quickly. Banamex issues numbers to its customers as they come in the door, but at some of the other banks (Bancomer, Banorte, Santander/Serfin, HSBC), the lines snake back and forth, and it’s not unusual to see locals faced with the prospect of cooling their heels in the cue for half an hour craning their necks to find a pal further up the human chain who might handle their business. I’m a Nervous Nellie when it comes to carrying substantial sums of cash over the border, so you won’t find me waiting in line here. Some banks have Saturday hours, but schedules change frequently, and there’s no uniformity from bank to bank.

The many casas de cambio are open longer hours than the banks but, as mentioned earlier, generally have a slightly lower exchange rate for both cash and travelers’ checks. Banks don’t want foreign coins, and in all my Mexican travels, I’ve only noticed one casa de cambio in Puerto Vallarta that traded American and Canadian coins for about two-thirds of their face value, so it’s better just to leave the pennies, quarters, and dimes at home. If you don’t mind the lower exchange rate, this method is very convenient.

One other option not mentioned as one of the three biggies is hiking over to a business called “Intercam” in Ixtapa (in the shopping center behind Señor Frogs, across the parking lot from Bancomer) to exchange cash. Although you must have an account with them to do other business, they will exchange American or Canadian currency without a passport, and there’s usually not a very long line during their weekday business hours.

That brings us to ATMs, my personal favorite. While the other two options are getting a bit more difficult with the passage of time, this one keeps getting easier. The days when the machines ran out of money every weekend and “ate” inserted cards with horrifying regularity are few and far between, and nearly all cajeros in tourist destinations, which definitely includes Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, have instructions in both English and Spanish.

Many north-of-the-border financial institutions are linked into the Mexican banking system, so you can often get a receipt printing out the number of pesos you withdrew from your account. Sometimes, you’ll even be told your remaining balance, also in pesos. Plus, this way of doing business usually gives you a higher exchange rate than the other two options, and you can transact your business anytime. In Zihua, outside of the banks themselves, both Comercial and Bodega have ATM machines, and there are also a couple of outlets located on the main boulevard in Ixtapa.

As in all things, use common sense. Don’t head for the ATM at midnight or brandish your newly-acquired cash outside the cajero. Also, remember that there are usually fees at both ends for the convenience of getting your money this way, so don’t be stopping every few hours to take out another $20. That could get expensive by the end of a week or two. Oh…and don’t forget you’re doing business in pesos. Asking for “$100” when amount choices are listed on the screen would net you almost $11 USD!

In the increasingly unlikely event that your card does disappear within the innards of a Mexican bank’s ATM machine, go to that bank as soon as possible to report the problem. The more Spanish you know, the better. Sometimes, you’re able to get the card back – sometimes not – which is why it’s good to have a second one on tap. But, to repeat, this DOES NOT happen often, so don’t be scared off by these instructions.

For the first time in more than 11 years, I inserted my ATM card into a machine recently, got no money, but found to my dismay when I checked my U.S. account balance the next day that $400 had been deducted from the total. It turned out the machine had malfunctioned, but the good news was that my credit union contact up north was able to straighten out the mess within a week, without me ever setting foot into my Ixtapa bank. THAT would never have happened back in 1995!

-Originally published in November 2006