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Shopping for (OTC) drugs at Mexico’s farmacias

Before my recent visit to Puerto Vallarta, I’d heard you could buy a lot of medications over the counter there. Like, drugs we need prescriptions for in the United States are OTC in Mexico.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer number of farmacias. In PV’s Zona Romantica, aka tourist party central, there was a white farmacia on every block. Literally. Every. Block.

dog lounging at a pharmacy
A dog naps at one of Yelapa’s pharmacies

And when we boated off to Yelapa, a tiny indigenous village that doesn’t even have cars? I was shocked to count not one, not two, but three pharmacies. (I think. They’re all identical in appearance so it’s possible I counted one twice.)

Most of these Mexican pharmacies are tiny. Like, you walk in and you’re already at the counter. All or most of the medications are kept behind the counter, where you can read the labels on the boxes. And in most of the little farmacias, no prices were listed. At the farmacia inside Soriana, a big Target-style store I visited, prices were listed.

What you can buy at a Mexican drugstore

As you can see from the sign, there are lots of medications available at Mexican pharmacies. You can buy Viagra. You can get Tramadol, an opioid that’s weaker than Vicodin. Flexiril, a muscle relaxant, is apparently popular with some visitors because it can be handy to have around if you have a muscle spasm. You can pick up antibiotics. I saw Ozempic advertised at one farmacia.

What you can’t buy at Mexican pharmacies

I asked for Scopalamine patches, which I use for seasickness, but the pharmacist had never heard of that drug. I also don’t see Vicodin or Oxycontin advertised. Adderal is not supposed to be sold OTC in Mexico, so if you see any for sale, be skeptical.

What I bought at the farmacia

On the advice of my SCUBA instructor, I bought a motion sickness drug called Diphenidol. It’s not sold in the US. I was pleased to see it only cost $1 (16 pesos) for 30 tablets. Unfortunately, Diphenidol didn’t stop me from getting seasick on the SCUBA boat. I later bought a Mexican brand (or generic?) of Dimenhydrinate, aka Dramamine, for $1.60. Name-brand Dramamine, by the way, was really expensive in the Zona Romantica. Like $18 for a small box!

I also bought Tramadol ($5.50 for 10 tablets) because I have tennis elbow from rock climbing. However, I didn’t find it effective against the pain. I felt more relief form the ibuprofen I’d brought from home.

I wish I had bought some Zofran, an anti-nausea drug, because I think that might really help with seasickness. Of course, I can always ask my doctor to prescribe some.

Which pharmacy should you visit?

Most of the farmacias I saw in PV appeared to be the same chain — Farmacia PV. However, I got the impression they sold medications for different prices. Probably the ones in the tourist areas are more expensive. There was also a pharmacy in Costco, with prices posted. I’m guessing Costco had the best prices! There was also a pharmacy with prices posted inside the Soriana store. I’m thinking these pharmacies in big stores are probably better.

Beware of these risks of buying from Mexican pharmacies

Of course, it can be risky to take any prescription drug without consulting a doctor. You wouldn’t catch me personally messing around with the Human Growth Hormone I saw advertised.

But a scarier danger of Mexican OTC drugs, to me, is the fact that some pills sold in legitimate pharmacies in Mexico contain Fentanyl.

Finally, you should know that you could get fined if you try to import medications from Mexican pharmacies into the United States.

The Customs and Border Patrol web site states: “[I]n most cases, it’s illegal for a U.S. citizen to obtain drugs from outside the United States and import for personal use.” You’re supposed to declare any medication you’re carrying when you enter the US, and you could get fined for anything that violates the law.