Is it a vacation treasure or a cheap piece of junk, a great bargain or a royal pain? Whichever describes your feelings about the products and the folks who hawk them on the beach will help determine how you should handle them.
It’s A Foreign Thing
You may not have ever been disturbed on the beaches of Florida or Southern California, but hit the beach in the Caribbean and it’s a whole different story. Beaches in Mexico are technically all open to the public though geography and security at some resorts make it so difficult to access, so the locals don’t bother. On the big popular beaches, hawkers thrive. Other spots in the Caribbean may have private beaches but the big public ones are where the action is.
Haggling is a Sport
Before we get into what and when you should buy, we should mention that haggling is not just acceptable but is expected in most Caribbean countries. It’s a game, a sport and a custom. You don’t have to be a jerk or a cheapskate; just offer a tad less than the vendor first quotes and see what happens. If the price is right and you like it, buy it.
Trash or Treasure?
A lot of the souvenirs hawked on the beach are junk. That doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily want some; everybody buys junk, especially on that first trip, I just mean it’s not the highest quality. I once bought a blanket in Mazatlán, Mexico on the first day of my first adult vacation for 10 bucks. Every vendor on the beach kept after me to buy more blankets, even after showing I already had one. I actually wish I had bought more because I still have and use it all these years later. If it’s something you can’t get at home, then go for it. If it really seems like an original work that you must have, just remember you will see it 20 yards down the beach and in every stall at the market in town as well. That doesn’t mean you should pass; everyone who has ever been to Jamaica probably has a carved wooden plaque of a Red Stripe bottle sitting somewhere at home (I know I do).
Dos and Don’ts to Eye Contact
No one wants to be a jerk but sometimes making eye contact is a big no-no. Usually you can just nod, say no thank you, keep walking and you’re okay. This works best in Mexico where the vendor may not speak English and is easily dissuaded. In Jamaica, where English rules, they will strike up a conversation with every passerby in hopes of making a sale. They will ask, with a big smile, “Hey Mon, where you from?” They all are so friendly down there you are tempted to stop and chat. After a few days, you’ll learn that they do not care where you are from and will hound you incessantly even while walking away. While it is no fun being the rude American, sometimes just pretending to being deaf and ignoring them is your only recourse. Here it is sometimes wise to keep your gaze forward and just keep walking.
Don’t Make Promises
If you say you’ll look in their stall or at their products later, you better mean it. Don’t just say it to blow them off because they will remember you. Once in Jamaica, a woman was working my wife over a piece of art and when the wife said she’d consider it tomorrow when she had cash, the woman claimed she would not be there tomorrow so the sale had to be today. Well, low and behold the next day, there was the woman and she remembered the promise of the next day and cornered my wife. Luckily my wife is a sharp one and reminded the vendor she also lied saying she would not be there the next day. Both women had a laugh, then of course, the vendor started hounding anyway and the wife caved.
In some spots, like on the island of St. Martin, you will find young kids renting umbrellas and chairs for the beach. They are usually very cheap so don’t be a cheapskate yourself and try to go without. This is their territory and how they make their cash so go for it. I once turned some kids down because we weren’t going to stay long; we were just stopping to take a dip. Well, then I felt like a real cheapskate when we left. They don’t charge much and you can afford it, so be a big spender. Even if you’re only going for twenty minutes, rent a couple plastic chairs for an hour and help a local kid out.
I sure wouldn’t buy jewelry on the beach—that is unless you consider leather bracelets and beaded necklaces jewelry. Never buy silver or precious stones from a beach vendor. The silver will possibly turn colors and stain your skin and the stones are, well, stones. If you want a beaded necklace or bracelet, then go for it. Something made of seashells may be fine too, but save the bargains on fine jewelry for the stores in town.
The Bottom Line
Definitely buy souvenirs on your travels. They will remind you of your trip years later and they help the local folks out tremendously. If they are selling something you like or something you’ve never seen, then bargain with them and everyone will go away happy. If vendors approach you or accost you when you’re not interested, just say no thanks, look forward and keep walking. It can get old and sometimes you have to be more forceful than you would like but remember: this is how they make a living and they do know how to sell.