Brightly colored and adorned with strange faces, we used to call it 'Monoploy Money' when ours was just plain green. North Americans can avoid getting short changed and over paying by becoming familiar with the different denominations of the Mexican Peso.
Whether you are visiting Mexico or plan to stay longer, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the six major peso notes currently in circulation. Knowing what is the value of the bill you are pulling from your wallet or purse at a glance can save you from being short changed or over-paying.
Baja is thought of as "less sophisticated" than most of mainland Mexico and counterfeiters have found the tourist cities a particularly good place to pass off their work. Dark bars and clubs, strip bars and houses of ill-repute have become a common place to be passed funny money, anywhere where staff is too busy and clients are too focused on having fun to pay attention to the currency they are being passed.
You even need to watch your change at supermarkets and gas stations. Unlike up north, a cashier is responsible for the short falls in their cash drawer and shortages are deducted from their pay. Being left holding the bag, by accepting a bad $500 pesos note can zap as much as 50% of a cashier's weekly check. When they discover their error they may often try to pass the bad note on to the next unsuspecting customer.
If you receive a note which you believe to be counterfeit your best bet is to take a heavy sigh and turn it in for a total loss at a bank, be very clear that you believe this note to be counterfeit and that you are not trying to pass it. And of course, hope that it wasn't a $500 or $1000 pesos note.
Feel and count your change and take a glance at each note. It is common knowledge amongst Mexicans that many North Americans don't count their change, and intentional shorting is not uncommon. In part, I believe it is because gringos don't want to look stupid, pawing through their change and doing the math. It is a crime that is easily covered with a innocent blush and an 'Ooopps!" when discovered. Up north we discount coins as 'penny ante' but in Mexico being a few coins short on change can mean dollars worth of shortfall.
Do not accept damaged notes. Bills with parts missing, tape or even a tear means it is no longer legal tender in Mexico. Damaged notes must be exchanged at a bank.
In transacting in pesos a quick way to think of the value of a note is to move the decimal place one space to the left. This may be a throw-back to my early years in Mexico, when the exchange rate hovered around 10:1 for years. In other words think of $50 pesos as $5 USD and a $500 pesos note worth $50 USD.
This quick exchange calculation is no longer exactly true, $50 pesos are currently worth about $3.62 USD and $500 about $36.25USD , but at least 10:1 allows to you identify quickly the value of the note you pull from your wallet.
When you hand a note to a cashier it is a good idea to state aloud the value of the note, to be clear on what you expect for change. So we have included the correct pronunciation for each peso note.
Denominations of the Mexican Peso
The smallest note in circulation is the $20 pesos note. The face side is Benito Juárez, the first full blooded native born Mexican Indian to become president of Mexico. He is often likened to being the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico. On the note Benito looks rather stiff and presidential. That's OK though, legend has it he wasn't much of a party animal anyway.
The dollar value of the $20 peso note today is about $1.52USD and is enunciated as Veinte (ben-te) pesos.
The$50 peso note has the face of Jose Maria Morelos, who appears to be wearing a large headband and a pirate-esque left side earring. Morelos hadn't gone hippie, but was a priest and an influential force in the 1810 Mexican revolution for independence.
At 13.08:1 today, the note is worth about $3.62USD and is enunciated as Cincuenta (sin-quenta) pesos.
The $100 pesos note has the image of Nezahualcoyotl, who was a pre -Columbian era king. Nezahualcoyotl lived from April 28, 1402 – June 4, 1472 and was a philosopher, warrior, architect, poet and ruler of the city-state of Texcoco in pre-Columbian Mexico. Old Nezahualcoyotl doesn't look very happy on the note, perhaps it is because he knew Columbus would arrive just 20 years after his death and cause the first New World immigration problem. Maybe it is because he only rated a $100 peso note.
The relative value of the $100 peso note is about $7.64USD and is enunciated as Cien (Ce-N) pesos.
With the $200 peso note it becomes a value to try to counterfeit. I mean, if it takes 1000 hours to successfully counterfeit a note and you go to jail for the same amount of time, would you print sheets of $20 or $1000 pesos notes? If you answered "$20 pesos", you'd better keep your day job.
The $200 peso note features the face of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was a nun, writer and scholar that lived in the early colonial period from 1651 to 1695. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain and a Criollo woman (of Spanish blood, but born in the New World) Her works are considered part of both the Spanish and Mexican Golden Age of Literature. Her portrait looks very 'nunly' in her habit on the $200 peso note, but an earlier portrait suggest she was quite a babe! She was also a champion of a woman's right to education. She died at age 44 of the plague.
The $200 pesos note is worth about $15.30USD and is enunciated as Doscientos (doz-see-n-tos) pesos. There was also a 200 Year Commemorative $200 peso note issued in 2010. Most of these are now out of circulation, if you get one I suggest you hang on to it for posterity.
The $500 peso note is the hands down favorite of counterfeiters and suitcases full of them have been confiscated here in Baja. The $500 peso note is the largest note that you can pretty much count on to be accepted anywhere. In smaller shops and early in the morning you might even have trouble passing a $500 peso note.
The old series $500 peso note have the face of Ignacio Zaragoza, who was the General hero of the Battle of Puebla, where the Mexican Army defeated the French on the 5th of May (Cinco de Mayo) The new note (shown above right) features artist and national treasure Diego Rivera. At first I thought this a rather unattractive portrait of some unfortunate looking black lady, but when I went searching for old Diego in Google photos I found it was really quite flattering. I guess you have to remember, his main squeeze, uni-browed Frida Kahlo didn't exactly look like Salma Hayek.
The note has a value of about $36 USD and is enunciated as Quinientos (kin-yen-tos) pesos.
The $1000 peso note is not the largest note in the Mexican monetary system, but the largest of the common use notes. Whenever a $1000 peso note exchanges ownership, enough attention is paid that it makes it hard to pass bad note. But it is also 100% more profitable than the $500 peso note for the risk taking counterfeiter, so they are out there.
The $1000 peso note bears the face of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the spark of the 1810 Revolution and the crier of El Grito. The value of the note is about $76USD and is enunciated as a Mil (mill) pesos.