Adventures in Wal-Mex (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

(A correction has been made to this article. See end for details.)

I’m a novice at international travel. I didn’t even have a passport until 2010, and I’ve used it exactly three times, most recently to Puerto Vallarta for a business meeting. (Whose great idea was that?)

Hollywood legend has it that Puerto Vallarta was barely a dot on Mexico’s Pacific coast until director John Huston decided it was the perfect place to film “Night of the Iguana” with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. And it might have returned to its former obscurity had Burton not brought Elizabeth Taylor with him, creating an irresistible magnetic draw for the folks we now know as paparazzi. Media hoards discovered PV and the rest is tourism history.

Because Puerto Vallarta is essentially a product of American tourism dollars, I assumed spending U.S. dollars would be as easy as spending pesos — and even more welcome. As with most of my assumptions, I turned out to be wrong.

I got a new carry-on suitcase for Christmas specifically for this adventure, and my husband used the old carry-on that I assumed (wrongly) had at least one more trip in it. When it was opened for inspection at Clinton National Airport, the zipper of the main compartment broke completely. For two flights and a harrowing taxi ride to our hotel — which curiously cost $18 one way and $7 on the return trip — his bag was held together by the strap of a computer backpack and clear packing tape donated by a Good Samaritan working at one of the departure gates. (Dear airport vendors: We would have gladly paid an obscene price for a roll of duct tape.)

In Puerto Vallarta, then, buying a replacement suitcase was a necessity. On our second day there, I headed out with a colleague to find a suitcase for my husband. I spotted a store on the main drag that, to the window shopper, appeared to sell just about everything. But unlike the staff at the Marriott and restaurants where we’d had dinner and lunch, the front-door greeters at this place didn’t seem to speak a word of English. And my college Spanish — well, that was three decades ago.

I used a translation app on my smartphone to ask for maletas and was taken to a shelf with a surprisingly large selection of suitcases — one of each model. It reminded me of something else from about 30 years ago: This place is like Service Merchandise, I concluded smartly.

I studied the price tags for a while. The Mexicans use dollar signs for pesos, which is confusing enough, and these tags had multiple prices on them that made no sense to me at all. But I was desperate for a suitcase, so I gestured to an employee, who helped me take the suitcase of my choice to the back counter, where one like it would be pulled from inventory.

I pulled out my Visa card, and the smile vanished from the clerk’s face. With gestures and one word — “no” — he communicated the fact that I wouldn’t be able to pay with a credit card.

I started pulling out $20 bills – U.S., of course. But no, he couldn’t accept those either. “Pesos,” he said. But I didn’t have enough pesos to buy a suitcase. I hadn’t planned to buy a suitcase, and the things I had planned to buy, I had expected to pay for any way I pleased. It’s Puerto Vallarta, for Pete’s sake.

I had long since figured out that I wasn’t in a store that catered to tourists, but I suddenly realized that another of my assumptions — that this store was simply 30 years behind retailing trends — was wrong. I suddenly understood the multiple prices on the tags. This was a rent-to-own store, and the tags included the full price as well as various payment options. Who rents suitcases?

I left empty-handed. I made a beeline for another store I had spotted from the window of the taxi: Wal-Mart. It was very similar to a supercenter back home — complete with four times as many checkout lanes as there were checkers to man them. I found a mountain of maletas, but only a couple of different models in the carry-on size. There was nothing nearly so appealing as the one I had hoped to buy at the first store, but I was now even more desperate for a suitcase.

I rolled one to the cash register in the electronics department — a trick I sometimes use to avoid the long lines in the front of the Wal-Mart store near my house. There an employee who spoke excellent English offered to convert the price from pesos to U.S. dollars before swiping my Visa, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t leaving without that suitcase.

When my friend and I got back to the hotel, my husband was incredulous.

“We came 1,500 miles for you to go to Wal-Mart?”

I’ll say this for Wal-Mart: It had what I needed, even if the selection was limited. My money was good there. I was served by an employee on my own terms, and, unlike any other purchase I made in PV, I left confident that I hadn’t been overcharged.

It’s not sexy, that’s for sure, but for a novice traveler with a desperate need, Wal-Mart was a godsend.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

(Correction, Feb. 10: The director of "Night of the Iguana" was John Huston, not John Ford, as was incorrectly attributed in the original version of this column.)