Mexico

How Do Drug Cartels Get Their Weapons?

How Do Drug Cartels Get Their Weapons? 320 181 Greg Ellifritz
Some facts for the folks who believe the mainstream media narrative that lax American gun laws are the primary way that the Mexican drug cartels get their weapons. The truth is that most of the cartel weapons have been stolen from the police/military, illegally imported from other corrupt Latin American countries, or made by the cartels themselves.

 

Read the article below.  One of the most dangerous cartels has set up numerous gun manufacturing facilities in Mexico. They are building their own AR-15 rifles and selling them on the street for over $5000 US dollars each.

 

CJNG, The Only Cartel To Have Had Its Own Arms Factory

 

I will suggest a slight correction to the title of the article.  The CJNG is the only cartel to have been caught with their own weapons manufacturing facilities.  You can be 100% certain that the other large cartels are doing the same thing.

 

Grocery Baggers in the Developing World

Grocery Baggers in the Developing World 1280 1062 Greg Ellifritz

Have you ever thought about tipping the folks who bag your purchases at the grocery store?  If you are from the USA, probably not.  But things work differently in other countries.

 

When visiting these places, it’s important to notice and abide by the social mores in your host country.  Doing so will avoid any drama or ill will.  It also helps to destroy the “Ugly American” traveler stereotype.

 

Take a look at the photo below.  The people in the Santa hats are bagging groceries at the large supermarket near the condo where I am staying in Mexico.  Most of the baggers in the store are senior (or perhaps “señor”?) citizens.

 

Guess what?  They aren’t being paid by the grocery store.

 

They work entirely for the tips shoppers give them.

 

This type of “working for tips” gig isn’t universal in any country I’m aware of, but I’ve seen it a lot in Mexico, Colombia, and some of the more impoverished South American countries.  I’ve only seen it at the very large chain grocery stores.

 

Failing to tip these aging baggers is a social faux pas.  It’s the foreign equivalent of leaving your shopping cart in the middle of a store’s parking lot instead of in the cart corral.  People simply think you are an asshole.  That’s not cool when visiting a country where you have few local contacts.  If everyone thinks you are rude, you will not have a good travel experience.

 

How do you know whether or not to tip your baggers?  Watch the locals.  Pull your head out of your phone and observe what the people in line ahead of you do.  Follow suit.

 

You may also notice small stacks of coins near the bagger.  That’s another clue.

 

There are no set amounts for the tip.  Most people just give the bagger the coins they received in change after paying for the groceries.  If you are paying with a credit card, give up to a US dollar or so.

 

I always carry some small coins in my pocket when traveling.  They are handy in situations like this where you are expected to give a small tip.  You will also need those coins to pay for access to a public toilet in much of the developing world.

 

 

Skin Problems While Traveling

Skin Problems While Traveling 2016 1512 Greg Ellifritz

Have you considered what happens when you get a strange skin rash while traveling far away from medical care?  I didn’t until I took a trip to Belize in 2005.  My back was itching, so I took off my shirt to find this.

I didn’t know much about wilderness medicine at the time and had no idea it was just a simple heat rash.

 

Many of you might be in a similar position, having a strange rash, but not knowing what caused it.  That’s a common condition in the developing world.

 

A handy solution I carry in my medical kit now is a cream like this one, available over the counter at almost all developing world pharmacies.  I got this one in Mexico and it was about $1.50 US.

 

 

This cream contains a corticosteroid, an antifungal medicine, and an antibiotic.  One of those three drugs should fix almost any dermatological condition you might have

 

I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice.  I’m just sharing something I’ve found handy that is an everyday medical solution in developing countries, but would require a prescription to get in the USA.  It resides in all of my travel medical kits.

 

If you are looking for more information on similar topics, I have an entire section about remote and travel medicine in my book, Choose Adventure.

 

Shut Your Mouth

Shut Your Mouth 375 500 Greg Ellifritz
A reminder to be careful talking to taxi, shuttle, or ride sharing drivers.

 

On my latest trip to Mexico, I rented a condo about an hour drive from the airport. I booked a ride from the airport to my place with a transfer company I’ve used for years.

 

As per my life, of course my flight was delayed. I was tired from the delay and the insanely crowded airports. I didn’t have the mental energy to talk to the driver for an hour. I pretended to be the stereotypical gringo and greeted him in English. Even though I speak passable Spanish, I didn’t speak any Spanish to him. His English was not good.

 

On the drive, he made a phone call in Spanish. I’m listening to the conversation when the driver mentioned his previous customer was unique and worthy to be watched. He said the last customer was a single man in his 40s who was traveling by himself with eight large suitcases.

 

The driver went on to say how the man had told him that he was a wealthy businessman and owned several hotels. The driver pulled up the phone app he was using to track his rides and shared the previous customer’s full name, email address, phone number, and the hotel where he was staying with whomever he was speaking.

 

The driver told his friend that the rich businessman should be watched. For what? I’m not sure, but it can’t be for anything good.

 

I didn’t hear them plotting any nefarious actions, but why would the driver share all that info?

 

Taxi drivers, especially in the developing world are true hustlers. Many do far more than just drive tourists around. They often serve as a connection to get people information, drugs, and prostitutes.

 

Be careful what you tell your driver. If questioned, make up a boring middle class job. If you are alone, you should tell the driver that you are meeting a large group of friends soon. Don’t tell the truth when they ask you about how long you will be staying.

 

Don’t give the drivers any reason to think you have money. Don’t give them information that could later be used to facilitate a scam or a criminal act.

 

Have a believable boring cover story ready before you get in the cab. Hopefully you won’t be “watched” like the passenger with eight suitcases.

 

If you want to dig a little deeper on the topic, read my article about best practices for a safe cab ride.

 

 

Travel Log- Mexico

Travel Log- Mexico 620 349 Greg Ellifritz

I have some travel plans for this coming summer.  I’m worried that the long-Covid I’m still suffering might negatively affect my travel abilities.  I haven’t traveled internationally since I almost died from Covid in Ecuador last year.  Quite honestly, I’ve been avoiding international travel out of fears that I’ll have another near-death experience.

 

Since the Ecuador trip, most of my travel has been to various teaching venues across the country.  While I don’t have any significant problems teaching, the classes and associated travel stress absolutely exhaust me.  When I teach a two-three day class, I generally spend the following day almost bed-ridden with zero energy.

 

If a two day class does that to me, how could I take a two week trip out of the country?  I decided to do a trial run with a solo trip to Cancun last month.  I stayed six days at an all exclusive resort with the goal of minimizing stress and avoiding days of being stuck exhausted in bed.  I’m happy to say the trip was successful.  No exhaustion and no days in bed once I got home.  What follows  are the details from my Mexico trip in late April through early May this year.

 

I flew to Cancun on American Airlines.  I’ve been flying them more frequently since the pandemic began.  They seem to have better routes and fewer cancellations than my previous favorite, Delta.  As I wanted to treat myself for my first international trip in almost a year, I booked business class.  My flight down there had a connection in Dallas.

 

I was surprised when I went to board the plane from Dallas to Cancun.  American is doing a facial recognition boarding pass on that leg now.  I had never seen that before.  Instead of scanning our boarding passes, we stood in front of a computer screen as it scanned our facial features and identified us.

 

I wonder where American is getting the data for this facial recognition technology?  I had never submitted photos for them.  In any event, that seems to be the way of the future.  It worked fine and I walked onto the plane.

 

I was shocked to see that the business class had lay-flat seats within their own individual “pod.”  I’ve flown in these cabins before going on 8+ hour international flights, but I didn’t imagine they’d use them for a 90 minute flight to Cancun.

 

Business class to Mexico usually isn’t this nice.

 

I was also surprised that American is now serving real meals now.  This lunch was a salad with shrimp, cheese, tomato, and street corn.  It was accompanied by some tasty orzo and a small cake.  Not bad.

 

Real meals are back!

 

The flights arrived on time and I didn’t have any difficulty with my luggage.  The wait for immigration in the crowded Cancun airport was only about 10 minutes.  The government has done a lot of work to speed up this process over the years and I greatly appreciate it.

 

I got my bag, and walked out to meet USA Transfers, my favorite transport company at that airport.  I strongly urge you to pre-book your transportation before you arrive in Cancun so that you aren’t mobbed by taxi drivers and transportation company reps as you walk out of the airport.

 

Because this was a short notice trip, none of the hotels I usually frequent in Cancun had any available rooms.  Cancun is now one of the most popular worldwide tourist destinations.   When I was there last month, only 13% of area hotels had ANY available hotel rooms.  All the rest were fully booked.

 

I ended up staying at The Royal Sands All Inclusive Resort & Spa.  The resort got 4.5 stars on Orbitz.  It was OK.  Most certainly a step down in quality from the hotels I preferred, but adequate.  Unfortunately, because things were so busy, I had to pay five-star prices for a three-star hotel.

 

Please keep in mind, I often sleep in jungle hammocks and rent rooms that cost less than $20 a day in third world countries.  I’m used to roughing it.  This was not roughing it by any means, I just hate paying really expensive prices for an experience that is only adequate.

 

Here are a few pictures of the hotel.  It was on a quiet section of the beach near downtown (where I prefer to go out at night).

 

Hotel pools

 

Looking north from my room

 

View from the room balcony

 

There was a long wait at the reception desk to check in.  The hotel (like most places) was severely understaffed since the pandemic.  The front desk clerk informed me that since the hotel was a “time share” hotel, everyone must check out on Friday.  I was staying until Saturday.  The clerk informed me that I would have to check out and get a new room for Friday night.  That was never noted when I booked the room.  What a pain in the ass.  I had to wait in line again and then move my stuff to literally the room right next to my previous room for my final night.

 

I got my keys and the clerk pointed to the building that was farthest from the lobby.  I walked the nearly half mile to my room.  The key didn’t work.  I walked a half mile back to the lobby.  They gave me new keys.  I walked back to the room.  The new keys didn’t work either.  Back to the front desk.

 

The clerk informed me that the battery in the card reader was likely dead and he would be sending a maintenance man up to the room to change it.  I trekked back to the room and waited 20 minutes for the dude to come change the battery.  Not a great hotel experience.  The staff didn’t seem to care.

 

I finally got into the room and found that one of the bed pillows had a blood stain on it.  Nice touch.  At that point I was too tired to care.

 

Bloodstained pillow cases aren’t a good look

 

I had a relaxing stay.  The hotel had a great pool and workout facility.  I read and wrote and worked out.  It was uneventful and nice.  The only downside was that the gym required masks during the entire workout.  Another pain in the ass, but that was the law in Cancun at the time.  Now all mask restrictions are done.

 

For my last night, I decided to go into downtown and eat at one of my favorite Italian restaurants (Rolandi’s Pizzeria).  After eating nothing but Mexican food for a week, I was craving something else.  As I was staying in the Cancun hotel zone, I chose to ride the local chicken bus into downtown to get some good food.

 

The restaurant didn’t disappoint.  I’ve probably eaten there 10 times and always had a great meal.  I started with their beef carpaccio and then had a wood fired pizza.  Everything was excellent.  I highly recommend the spot for anyone who wants to leave the hotel zone.

 

mmm…raw meat

 

Better than pizza in Austin

 

I ate my meal and took a walk around the Parque de las Palapas, a local park that has food vendors, live music, and handicraft artists. It’s always a chill place on a Friday night.

 

Parque de las Palapas

 

Parents rent these little electric cars for their kids to ride through the park as youth groups perform song and dance routines on the stage.

 

I’ve been to Mexico about 25 times over the years and lived down here for a couple months last year. I’ve never seen any kind of violence until this trip.

 

I picked up some gifts for friends and then headed out to the Main Street (Avenida Tulum) to catch the bus back to the hotel.

 

I noticed a dramatic uptick in number of homeless people on this trip as compared to when I last ventured into downtown Cancun about 18 months ago. Lots of beggars pushing shopping carts full of belongings now. In my previous visits, I never saw that.  The pandemic hit the tourist areas very hard.

 

As I was making my way to the bus stop, I heard a crash and a bunch of screaming behind me. I turned around and saw a shirtless homeless dude screaming at people. He had broken off a four-foot section of a wooden parking barrier and was swinging it at everyone walking on the sidewalk. He had a six-inch bladed kitchen knife in his other hand.

 

He was about 50 yards away and closing the distance swinging the wooden club at everyone on the sidewalk. He missed most of his shots, but hit a few of the slower people.  He kept the blade near his waistline and didn’t try to stab anyone.

 

I started thinking about my response options.  His movements were uncoordinated and he appeared to be really drunk or on drugs.  I was reasonably sure I could avoid his wild swings, and he didn’t seem to be doing much damage to the people he hit.

 

I had pepper spray and a folding knife, but wasn’t going to involve myself in that mess in a foreign country.   So long as no one was getting seriously hurt, my motto “Not my people. Not my problem” would be great guidance.

 

If he had started stabbing people I likely would have interfered.  I had my POM pepper spray with a range of about 10 feet.  The least I could do if he began using the knife would be to give him a face full of spicy treats.  I was reasonably certain I could do that without getting stabbed.

 

As the dude closed the distance without using the knife, I decided to get out of the area.  I  changed plans and flagged down a cab in the street. I hopped in and gave the cabbie the name of my hotel. He quickly left the scene saying “Que loco!” If a Mexican cab driver calls a situation crazy, you can bet it is truly crazy.

 

Problem averted. Back to the hotel and unlimited margaritas without interacting with the Mexican police. I’m calling it a win. Nothing about the attack made the local news in the following days.

 

Everyday carry in Cancun. Glad I didn’t have to use some of this stuff.

Be more careful walking around downtown Cancun. It’s more like Portland, Atlanta, or Austin now. Lots of crazies.

 

On a side note, I recently replaced my ASP Street Defender with the POM Unit for everyday carry.  The ASP is great, but only sprays about three to four feet.  I wouldn’t have wanted to get that close to the crazy guy with the knife.  That situation gave me a greater appreciation of the POM’s more extended range, so I began carrying that one.  I’m happy with the change.

 

POM pocket pepper spray

 

 

My flight home was a direct flight to Austin.  It ended up being two hours late (such is the reality of today’s air travel).  It was a more traditional plane and the business class didn’t have the lay-flat seats.  That first flight spoiled me.

 

I had never arrived in Austin from an international flight.  The process was smooth (thank you Global Entry), but the luggage took almost an hour to arrive on the carousel.  Apparently, that isn’t unusual for international flights.  One more facial recognition encounter and I was walking to the parking garage with my bag.

 

The feds were able to recognize me even with this blurry photograph.

 

 

I have a couple more vacations planned for the summer.  I’m heading back to Ohio for a few days to see friends and family in early July.  After that, I’m taking off to Medellin, Colombia for a couple weeks.  Then in early August, I’ll be visiting Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.  I’m looking forward to traveling again.

 

Shark Attacks?

Shark Attacks? 1086 610 Greg Ellifritz

I’ve snorkeled and dived with sharks in lots of international locations.  One of my favorite experiences was visiting Shark Ray Alley off the coast of Belize.  Swimming in chummed water with dozens of sharks was incredibly exhilarating.

Picture from linked article

 

I’ve encountered sharks when snorkeling in Mexico and Egypt as well.  My Egyptian shark encounter was seeing a rare Tiger Shark in the Red Sea.  Despite having contact with these creatures, I never really thought about what I might do if one of these beasts attacked me.

 

That changed with a couple articles I stumbled across last week.  I thought they contained some good information.  If you venture into shark-infested water, you’ll want to check them out.

 

How To Survive A Shark Attack: Without Losing A Limb

 

 

Can You Fight a Shark and Win?

 

 

All-Inclusive Resort Bracelets

All-Inclusive Resort Bracelets 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

If you happen to be vacationing in an all-inclusive resort, you will likely be given a non-removable wrist band that identifies you as a resort guest.  It also identifies you as a “gullible tourist” if you leave the resort grounds. Those wrist bands broadcast information to a lot more folks than just the hotel staff.

 

If you are ever in a local market frequented by tourists, find a place to sit and watch the stall owners interact with the shoppers.  You will notice that the first place they look when evaluating a customer is the customer’s wrist.

 

If they see an all-inclusive resort bracelet, they immediately know the person is not likely a local.  It also means that the tourist probably isn’t as comfortable traveling as someone who might stay at a local hotel and procure his own meals and drinks.

 

The tourists wearing the bracelets will get approached more aggressively and at a more frequent rate. Prices will automatically be at least 20% higher than the prices quoted to a traveler who isn’t wearing a bracelet.

 

The shopkeepers can recognize the bracelet by the color and emblem.  They will instantly know if you are staying in a luxury hotel or a cheaper resort.  If they recognize the bracelet from the five-star resort where you are staying, your price for their goods just doubled.

 

Additionally, there are several scams locals use on tourists with all-inclusive bracelets.  Scam artists use the bracelets as a topic of conversation and a way to approach the traveler.  They use their resort knowledge as a way to build rapport with random travelers.  You’ll see approaches that go something like this:

 

Approach #1– “Oh, I see that you are staying at XXX resort.  That’s a beautiful place!  How do you like it?  I’ve stayed there several times in the past.  Which is your favorite restaurant there?

You know, that hotel is actually my second favorite place to stay.  Why don’t you take a walk with me and I’ll show you my new favorite place.  You’ll be stunned at how much better it is than the  place you are currently staying.”

 
Approach #2- “Hey!  I recognize you guys!  You are staying at the XXX resort.  Do you remember me?  I’m the person who cleaned your room yesterday.  I was disappointed that you didn’t leave a bigger tip.  Didn’t I do a good job?  Are you too rich to care about the local people here? 

Why don’t you make it up to me right now.  I think $20 US would be a good apology gesture for being so greedy and insulting.”

 

 

Approach #3- “Oh, look at that!  You’re staying at XXX resort.  I recognized the bracelet.  I worked as the tour guide coordinator for that resort for 15 years before starting my own guide business.  I know the hotel’s excursion pricing.  I know I can give you a better experience for cheaper.  Would you be interested in booking a tour with me?”

 
If you are staying at a resort that uses bracelets as identifiers, ask them to place the bracelet around your ankle instead.  That way you can cover it with pants or socks if you go into a nearby town.  Some will accommodate that request and some will not.

 

If they refuse to put the bracelet on your ankle, put it on the same arm that you wear your watch.  That way you can at least partially cover the bracelet with your watch band and make it less noticeable.

 

During my Mexican vacation a couple weeks ago,  I stayed in an all-inclusive for convenience.  They required guests wear the bracelet on a wrist.  Take a look at the two photos below to see how I mostly hid the bracelet with my wristwatch whenever I left the resort for any reason.

 

Standard all-inclusive identification bracelet

 

Same bracelet hidden by watch band.

 

Building Floor Confusion

Building Floor Confusion 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

Just a quick note to remind you that in some foreign countries, the floor numbering of multi-story public buildings (like hotels and offices) may not be the same as it is in the USA.

When I was in Mexico last week, I checked into my hotel.  The desk clerk explained (in perfect English) that my room was on the first floor and pointed me towards the building where the room was located.

 

I wandered all around the first floor and couldn’t find my room number.  Then I saw this sign,

 

 

My room was on the first floor…the first floor up from the “ground floor.”  In America, we would have said that my room was on the “second floor.”  I’ve experienced this in several South American and European countries as well.

Drinking Tips from Uncle Greg- Part Two

Drinking Tips from Uncle Greg- Part Two 1024 684 Greg Ellifritz

I’m honestly shocked.  When I looked at my website analytics page, I saw that my article  Drinking Tips from Uncle Greg garnered the most pageviews of any of the articles I’ve written here in the last nine months.

It’s not the vital safety information I convey that brings people to my site.  Posts about day drinking at an all-inclusive resort spark the interests of far more readers.  Noted!

 

To capitalize on what my audience desires, I’m going to add yet another drinking tip for holiday vacations.

 

All inclusive resorts generally serve their guests unlimited alcoholic beverages at their bars.  It’s kind of rare for a guest in one of these resorts to bring their own alcohol since they drink for free at the hotel bars.

 

Consequently, it’s sometimes hard to find a bottle opener if you choose to drink anything but the house draft beer and well drinks.

 

Last week, the free beer started getting old.  Mexican draft Tecate light isn’t a particularly tasty beer.  I soon grew tired of drinking it and wandered down the street to one of Mexico’s ubiquitous OXXO convenience stores.  They had a nice selection of Mexican craft beers.  I bought a few to try them out.

 

My favorite of the Mexican craft beers I tried.

 

I got back to my room and realized even though I had a partial kitchen, there were no bottle openers anywhere in the room. The lack of bottle openers is common at all-exclusives.  Who needs a bottle opener when everyone is drinking free alcohol from the bar?

 

Fortunately, I planned ahead for such contingencies.  I had a bottle opener in the multi-tool I carry whenever I’m in a foreign country, but it was buried in my locked suitcase.  Always have a backup plan, especially when drinking.

 

The bottle opening backup plan I’ve used for the last 15 years ago is utilizing the brilliant Reef Fanning flip-flop.  I took off my flip-flop and used it to open my beer.

 

I’m not normally a flip-flop guy.  I can’t run well in them.  I can’t kick well in them.  It’s far easier to damage your foot or lose your balance and fall in a fight while wearing them.  I reserve flip-flops for the beach, the pool, or communal showers.  As I was staying at a beach resort, I brought my Reef flip-flops.

 

Why are the Reef Fanning flip-flops germane to this conversation?  Because they have bottle openers built into their soles.  Look at the photo below.

 

Reef flip-fops with integrated bottle opener

 

These sandals are exceptionally well padded and quite comfortable to wear.  The bottle opener comes in handy far more than you might think it would.  They are the only flip-flops I’ve traveled with since I bought my first pair in 2007.

 

If you are a serious drinker, you will embrace the concept of tactical redundancy.  You can never have too many bottle openers.  This style of footwear exemplifies the multiple use capability of the gear that makes travelers’ lives easier.
Buy a pair of these.  Take them on your next holiday and you’ll never have to worry about packing a bottle opener in your luggage.

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the above links (from Amazon.com and others) are affiliate links.   As an Amazon associate I earn a small percentage of the sale price from qualifying purchases.

If you would like to further support my work, head over to my Patreon page.

Drinking Tips from Uncle Greg

Drinking Tips from Uncle Greg 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

I don’t often stay in all inclusive resorts, but I wanted an easy travel experience in Mexico so I’m enjoying one right now.

 

One of the things that I hate about all-inclusives that serve free alcohol is that the cups in which they serve the drinks are universally tiny.

Here is the tiny cup containing the margarita I ordered poolside.  It’s difficult to see the scale, but it’s only slightly larger than a urine sample cup you’d get at the doctor’s office.  Suboptimal for a professional drinker like me.

 

Here’s a secret I learned more than a decade ago.  Whenever I go to an all-inclusive, I always bring my own large cup.  I use a large plastic cup I got at a local festival years ago.  Some folks use insulated Yeti-style cups, but I don’t like packing the extra weight in my bag.  The big plastic cup I use weighs next to nothing.

 

 

Much better.  I can get about four of the tiny margaritas into a cup this size.  It makes it easy to stay hydrated (or intoxicated if you prefer) and limits your waiter’s trips to the bar.

 

Speaking of waiters, tip your waiter well and he or she will treat you right.  I find in the developing world $10 a day per person to be a decent tip.  You’ll get your money back with your drinks being constantly refreshed and usually heavier pours.  It’s money well spent and it helps change the perspective of the “Ugly American” who doesn’t tip at all inclusives.

 

As to my drink of choice, I prefer a frozen margarita with extra tequila and a salted rim.  The crushed ice and salt help counteract some of the dehydrating effects of the alcohol.  It’s cool and refreshing in the hot sun as well.

 

I find that when I’m sipping on the beach, I can finish one of these about every 45 minutes.  Out of curiosity, I brought my portable blood alcohol breath tester with me on this trip.  At the one drink every 45 minute pace yesterday afternoon I ended with a blood alcohol concentration of .062.  Perfect.  A pleasant mellow mood without any danger of becoming too intoxicated in a foreign country.

 

Stay hydrated folks.