There is a lot I can get for $1 USD in Mexico but not everything in this country is cheap. My first 100 pesos (~$8 USD) went to a telephone card at the Cancun airport. Telmex, which has a complete monopoly over telecommunications in Mexico, automatically added 20 pesos to the card as a bonus but a call to a mobile phone cost me 3 pesos (~$0.25 USD), which I didn’t think was very cheap when compared to what I saw in India earlier this year. There are public phones on every street corner in Merida and mobile phones are so easy to get that almost every middle school student has one. From any one of the numerous Telmex kiosks or even at any of the convenient stores in town, you can add more money onto your mobile phone. But what they don’t tell you is that if you don’t use up the money in a few weeks, you lose the balance until you put more money on your account. While it’s not prohibitively expensive, without any real competition in the market Telmex can operate and charge whatever they want to and get away with it. I, for one, didn’t use what I purchased both for my mobile and the telephone card, and will end up helping the richest man in the world get even richer- through his company Telmex/América Móvil, Carlos Slim Helu, whose estimated net worth is $63 Billion according to Forbes (Oct 2011), controls the cellular market, landlines, and majority of the telecommunications infrastructure in Mexico as well as in most of South America.
Most of the Mexicans I met in Merida speak about Carlos Slim with a mixture of mild disgust (he owns everything! Sears, Sanborns, Liverpool, Telmex…, basically Mexico) and pride (the wealthiest man in the world is Mexican! He’s richer than your Bill Gates). But with my host family I’ve been able to hear more about the state of Mexican economy and their feelings about it. I’m really appreciative of Señor Jose Luis, a retired engineer and the head of my host family, for spending the time to talk to me about the problems not just in telecommunications but also in banking, transportation (specifically airlines), retail, and oil industries. The common theme throughout all of them is monopoly or oligopoly, lack of competition.
While it’s ridiculously expensive to fly within Mexico, I think the public buses in Merida are a bargain (6 pesos ~ less than $0.50 USD). What is also inexpensive in Merida/Mexico, is food and anything related to local labor, which come with both the good and the bad. I absolutely love my neighborhood laundry service but I learned that most household help, especially those who come from the indigenous population, get paid about 150 – 200 pesos ($12 – $15 USD) for a day’s work. For breakfast, many Meridanos eat tortas (meat filled sandwiches) or tacos, which cost about 15 pesos ($1.20 USD) and 9 pesos ($0.70 USD) respectively. To accompany these delicious but unhealthy breakfast options is the cheap Coca-cola (20 oz bottle for 8 pesos/$0.60 USD), which I’m sure contributes heavily (pun intended) to Mexico being a very obese country.
I recently read an article in the Economist about how Mexico fell into a steep recession after US’ financial crisis in 2008 and its GDP is now less than half that of Brazil. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with in Mexico is concerned about their economy as well as the level of violence in the country. There is a lot of blame going to the drug cartels, corruption, and to “those in power who are unable to govern” (Señor Jose Luis’ words). With the presidential elections coming up soon, it will be interesting to see what happens to Mexico in the next few years. How or will Mexico secure more foreign investments, facilitate free trade, and invite more competition in the market place?
For an American like me, Mexico still is an inexpensive place to visit and to live. And I can speak from my own experience that it’s a safe place as well. At least in Merida it’s safe as it always has been and with my last days here fast approaching, I’m already thinking about when my next visit to Mexico will be.
How much things cost in Mexico: 13 pesos ~ $1 USD
: 1 liter bottle of water- 8 pesos or $0.60. Lack of clean drinking water is a problem here. I filled up my water bottle with purified water from school and from my house so I never bought a single bottle of water, but I’m guilty of drinking my share of diet coke and adding to the plastic waste in Mexico.
: A loaf of bread (such as Bimbo or Wonder bread)- 15 to 25 pesos ($1.20 – $2)
: 1kg of bananas at a local market- 4 pesos or $0.30
: Beer- at a supermarket a pack of 6 bottles of Sol goes for 70 pesos/~$5.50 USD or 11 pesos or $0.90 USD per bottle. But I’ve paid up to 40 pesos for 1 bottle of beer ($3 USD)
: Lunch at a comida economica with beans, tortillas, main dish, beverage, and perhaps a simple dessert of jello would run you about 50 pesos ~$4 USD, which is cheaper than a combo meal at McDonald’s.
: Entrance fees to Mexican archaeological sites- 31 to 166 pesos for foreigners ($2.40 – $13 USD), 31 to 100 for Mexicans ($2.40 – $7.70 USD)
: First run movie at a modern cinema– 46 to 100 pesos ($3.80 for a matinee – $8 USD for a VIP ticket)