Mexico

Additional Step to Leave Cancun Starting Today

Additional Step to Leave Cancun Starting Today 683 576 Greg Ellifritz

Starting today, any travelers visiting the Mexican state of Q. Roo (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Tuluum) have to pay an $11 departure tax before leaving.  This tax IS NOT included in your plane ticket like most other taxes.

You can either pay the tax online or at an airport kiosk.  See the article below for more details.

 

Visitors To Cancun Must Pay New Tourist Tax Starting April 1

Geoarbitrage?

Geoarbitrage? 750 500 Greg Ellifritz

Have you ever heard of the term “geoarbitrage?”  It’s a money saving lifestyle where one earns money in American dollars (or some other Western currency) while living in a country with a much cheaper standard of living.  It allows people to enjoy a much higher standard of living than they could enjoy if they stayed in their home country.

My friend Daisy has a great article on the concept.  I’m going to be employing this strategy more and more in my retirement.

 

Is Geoarbitrage a Lifestyle Option for You?

South American Gun Laws

South American Gun Laws 702 501 Greg Ellifritz

Many of my readers are interested in firearms and self defense.  I regularly encounter Americans who believe that citizens of other countries can’t legally own defensive firearms.  That opinion is incorrect.

While gun ownership in countries outside the USA is generally a for more involved process than what is required to buy a gun in the USA, citizens of many other countries can own (and sometimes carry) firearms if they jump through all the right hoops.

I found the article below to be an informative comparison of gun laws in six large Latin American countries.  If you are interested in the gun laws in South America, check it out.

 

Gun Laws in Latin America’s Six Largest Economies

 

You may also enjoy Revolver Guy’s article Guns in Brazil.

 

Assessing Neighborhood Safety- Gang Graffiti

Assessing Neighborhood Safety- Gang Graffiti 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

In my book Choose Adventure- Safe Travel in Dangerous Places I have a section of advice discussing how to assess whether an area is “safe” or not in a foreign country.  I wrote:

 

“Given the massive differences in culture, customs, and income, how can you tell if the neighborhood you are visiting is safe or not?  These guidelines may be pretty basic, but using them will give you a quick assessment of your relative safety in any neighborhood in the world:

            1) Are there lots of armed guards?

2) Do the properties seem to be run down or uncared for?

3) Are people in the area walking in pairs or small groups rather than walking alone?

4) Is there a lot of graffiti present on the walls?

5) Are there obvious security measures (like broken glass embedded atop walls, electric fences, barbed wire, etc.) present?

6) Are there lots of people are aimlessly “hanging out” in the street?

 

If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you may not be in the world’s safest place.  It’s time to move on.

 

Beyond looking at these six factors, take a second and observe your environment to get a subjective “feel” for the location.  Is there more order or disorder?  Broken windows, graffiti, trash, fireworks, and items out of place are all signs of disorder.  Recent criminological studies have shown that there is a corresponding increase in crime as disorder increases.”

 

I’m living in Mexico right now.  I was reminded of this passage as I was walking around my neighborhood.

 

I’m renting a condo in a very nice and secure building in Playa del Carmen.  My neighborhood is fine, but I’m right on the boundary between the “tourist area” and the area where the locals live.

 

I’ve discussed transitional areas before.  One block away from my condo is the transitional area between high dollar tourists and economically disadvantaged locals.  It’s far from a dangerous place, but if you aren’t paying attention, you could quickly find yourself in a bad neighborhood.

 

Yesterday, I was running sprints at a local track that was maybe 10 blocks away from my condo.  As I walked to and from the track, I noticed a lot of graffiti.  As noted above, graffiti is generally a sign of disorder and a likely indicator that you may be in an unsafe area.  But context matters as well.  That’s what inspired this article.  Not all the graffiti I saw was a danger sign.  How does one know the difference?

 

I am far from an expert on gangs.  We didn’t have any gang violence in the town where I worked as a cop for 25 years.  That being said, I’ve always been curious about gang communications and I’ve been to quite a few gang-related police training classes over the years.

 

I’ve read lots of books on deciphering gang graffiti as well.  I’ve concentrated much of my research on the Latin gangs as I spend so much time in South and Central America.  I’ll use some pictures I took along my walk to help you understand some things about graffiti.

 

Here’s the first gang tag I saw on my walk.

 

 

If you can’t read it, it says “Sur 13 Pacas.

 

Sur” indicates “Sureno,” meaning “Southerner” one of the big Mexican gang confederations.  They are rivals with “Nortenos” or “Northerners.”

 

The number 13 indicates the group’s affiliation with the Mexican Mafia gang.  The Mexican Mafia is called “Eme” (the letter M) for short.  M is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

 

“Pacas” is Spanish for “bales” as in bales of marijuana.  I’m only guessing here, but I’ll go ahead and make the assumption that this particular set runs in the neighborhood and that they might be involved in drug dealing.

 

One of the other factors that helps identify gang graffiti from more innocuous “tagging” is the presence of certain stylized words or letters that form a symbol recognized by gang members.  It’s like a secret gang language.  See how the letter P has a dot that looks like an eye?  I don’t know what that means, but I can make a guess.  Turning letters into symbols like an eye, a crown, a star, an arrow, or some other object is indicative of gang graffiti.

 

When the particular neighborhood is jointly claimed by more than one gang, you will often see one gang sign crossed out and overwritten by another gang’s symbol or name.  Nothing like that here.  No other gang names anywhere around and this one appears to have been there awhile without being defaced.  That most likely means that the Sur13Pacas have reasonable control over the territory.

 

I saw a lot more graffiti on my walk.  None of it was gang related and wasn’t indicative of anything other than the fact that the police don’t likely patrol the area a lot at night and the property owners don’t really care about their property.  How can you tell the difference?

 

Take a look at these two photos.

 

 

 

See how these are bigger, more colorful, and more ornate?  Notice how they are individual names or nicknames and not names of a group?  Notice how they are adjacent to one another without being crossed out or defaced?

 

These are most likely not gang graffiti.  This is probably the work of teen graffiti artists known as “taggers.”  Some taggers do artwork for gangs, but many of them are independent street artists.  They are the same kind of people who paint their names on water towers, walls, and train cars in your hometown.  These indicate that a neighborhood doesn’t get much police contact at night, but aren’t necessarily indicative of danger.

 

On the same wall I saw this piece of graffiti.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Any guesses?

 

 

Remember how I stated “context matters?”  The context became clear when I walked the same route home after my run.  Here’s what I saw.

 

That was the normal parking location of the local French Fry truck.  The “gang graffiti” was merely an advertisement painted by the truck owners to stake out their territory and keep other food trucks from parking in the area.  Graffiti may be about territory, but it’s not always about gang territory.

 

More contextual stuff.  What would you think if you saw this?

 

 

Doesn’t look good, does it?

 

But in context, as part of this large mural, do you feel the same way?  Does this look more like disordered and random graffiti or more like a public art project?

 

 

I did some research.  This is a wall surrounding an elementary school playground.

 

 

According to the locals I spoke with, a group of local taggers and artists (represented in the photo above) got together and artistically decorated the walls of the school playground as a public service to make the area more fun for the children and less unsightly for the residents.

 

Spray painting school walls may not be a common thing in America, but different cultures have different ideas about what is appropriate.  This mural had widespread public support and no other tagger would dare deface it.

 

This is a sign of neighborhood cohesion, not neighborhood disorder.

 

Many times graffiti is a sign that bad things are happening in a neighborhood.  Sometimes it’s the exact opposite.  A skillful and informed traveler will understand the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

Health Care in Mexico

Health Care in Mexico 748 420 Greg Ellifritz

Mexico is a prime destination for American expats.

 

My favorite Mexican ex-pat blogger recently posted an incredible resource for people living in or visiting Mexico.

 

Great Site to Find Doctors in Mexico, Check Reviews, Compare Prices and Schedule Appointments

 

This will make finding and booking good medical care much easier for those of you spending time in Mexico.

Latin American Drug Cartels

Latin American Drug Cartels 360 121 Greg Ellifritz

An in-depth analysis of the history and structure of Latin American drug cartels.  This is important for American cops and anyone interested in drug use in the USA.  The Mexican Cartels supply the vast majority of heroin and a significant amount of marijuana used in the states.

 

The Story of Drug Trafficking in Latin America

Marine Animal Bites and Stings

Marine Animal Bites and Stings 768 506 Greg Ellifritz

Adventure travelers often play in the ocean.  Ocean snorkeling, diving, swimming, surfing, and kayaking all expose on to the chance of being bitten or stung by some aquatic critters.

 

Over the years, I’ve experienced many of these envenomations.  Lots of jellyfish stings.  My sea kayaking tour guide got stung by a stingray in Belize.  It laid him up for a couple days.  This can be very serious stuff if you aren’t careful.

 

Even those of you who visit “tame” locations should still be cautious.  Last month I wanted to test my new snorkel mask before taking an ocean excursion.  I waded into the ocean off the beach of our five-star resort in Cancun.  I was in water about three feet deep and dove in.  I was instantly face to face with a pissed off stingray.  I’m amazed I didn’t get stung.

 

This is a compilation of simple first aid tips for handling marine animal bites and stings in the field.

 

Marine Animal Bites and Stings

Ex-Pat Tax Issues

Ex-Pat Tax Issues 739 416 Greg Ellifritz

My favorite Mexican expat travel bloggers at Two Expats Mexico recently published a couple of great articles about tax issues for those of you who live in another country.

 

The first covers tax reporting requirements for US citizens who have foreign bank accounts.

What Americans With Foreign Bank Accounts Should Know About Annual Reporting Requirements

 

The second covers the extremely valuable foreign earned income exclusion.  So long as you are an American citizen living full time in another country (defined by being outside the USA 330 days or more in a calandar year) you are exempt from US income tax on the first $107K of your income.

 

What Americans Working Abroad Should Know About Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

Worried About Kidnapping?

Worried About Kidnapping? 993 330 Greg Ellifritz

In the article below, a former Mexican counter-narcotics agent describes the latest worldwide kidnapping trends.  The article is especially useful for those of you who travel to Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Take the time to give this article a serious read.  If you are a traveler, the information it contains is absolutely vital.

Ed Calderon Sheds Light on Kidnapping & Abduction Trends

 

 

Travel Log- Mexico During a Pandemic

Travel Log- Mexico During a Pandemic 620 827 Greg Ellifritz

I’d been twitching for awhile.

 

I hadn’t been out of the country since February.

 

In a normal year, I travel outside the USA at least four times for a total of about six weeks.  This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t already taken at least three international trips by this time of the year.

 

International travel makes me happy.  I wanted to celebrate my retirement.  My girlfriend hadn’t had a vacation in more than a year.  She wanted to go someplace to relax where she “didn’t have to think.”

 

Relaxing without thinking?  Mexico sounds perfect.  I booked the trip to Cancun.

 

Lots of people criticize Cancun as a destination, but I truly enjoy the city.  I’ve been to Mexico 21 times since 2002.  Most of those trips were to destinations in and around Cancun.  They have a very easy tourist infrastructure.  The people are happy and friendly.  Most tourist industry people speak English.  The beaches are some of the most beautiful on the planet.  It’s as close to a paradise destination as I have found anywhere in the world.

 

I booked a luxury all-inclusive at a five-star hotel.  Due to the pandemic, rates were $300 per night cheaper than the last time I stayed there.  I got first class airline tickets on Delta for $400 each.  Coach is usually a couple hundred dollars more than that fare.

 

When I started telling my friends about my trip, I got some strange responses.  Lots of folks questioned our desire to travel during a pandemic.  I didn’t get it.  I had flown to Arizona for a training class last month and everything went well.  At the time, Arizona had a far higher rate of Covid positive patients than Cancun.

 

Then I learned about the concept of “travel shaming.”  Some folks think it isn’t proper to travel during a pandemic and attempt to shame those who do so.  I’m generally immune to shaming efforts, so I don’t really care.  The concept baffles me.  If someone wants to perform an intelligent risk analysis and decides to travel, why would anyone care?  I guess sometimes I forget that we are in the age of “cancel culture” and anything that departs from the cultural norm is punished.

 

“Two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 Americans surveyed in June by Ketchum Travel, a public relations agency, said they would judge others for traveling before it’s considered “safe.” Half expected to censor their social media posts to avoid being “travel shamed” themselves. Compare that with last year, when about 80 percent of the 1,300 respondents in a Skift Research survey said they posted trip photos on social media.”

 

Having never been one who cared much for cultural norms, I booked the trip.

 

We had a wonderful time and I’ll share my travel narrative and pictures without fearing anyone who wants to target me with their “travel shaming” efforts.  Busybodies who “travel shame” need to get some new hobbies.  If you are worried about being shamed for traveling, you need to start hanging out with a higher class of people.  Travel shaming, like so many other modern indignities is absolutely ridiculous.

 

 

So what has changed in the world of travel as a response to the pandemic?  Quite a lot.

 

There are only a few countries and a couple of Caribbean islands that will accept travelers from the USA.  Most of the other countries are planning to stay in tourist lockdown until November at the earliest.  Don’t book a trip to a country that bans your entry!

 

Each airline has its own Covid procedures.  All of the airlines require you to wear a mask for the entire flight unless you are eating and drinking.  The catch is that most airlines have suspended meal and drink service during the pandemic.  If you don’t bring your own food and water, you won’t be allowed to take of your mask any time during the flight.

 

Traveling in masks was a strange experience.  At least now I can take a selfie without attempting a fake smile.

 

Speaking of food, the airports are like ghost towns with only about 25% of the passengers they had at this time last year.  Because of the light traffic, almost all the airport stores and most of the airport restaurants and bars are closed.  Bring your own food.  It may be a long day if you have tight connections and pass through airports with fewer open restaurants.

 

There were a couple positive changes in the flight procedures.  The first is that as you board the plane, the flight attendant hands you an individually wrapped Lysol disinfectant wipe.  Everyone used the wipes to sanitize their seats, seat belts, tray tables, and computer screens.  I actually advised doing that in my travel book published before all the Covid changes.  It’s a good practice and I hope it continues.

 

The airline I flew also altered boarding procedures.  In order to avoid a line at the gate and a traffic jam in the aisles of the plane, the flight attendant boarded just a few rows at a time, starting with the rear of the plane.  I have no idea why the airlines didn’t do that before.  It just seems incredibly more efficient and avoids keeping passengers jammed together in a close line while boarding.

 

The only other airline change was the fact that they handed out paper Covid-19 questionnaires on the plane.  The questions were the standard ones about feeling ill or having close contact with anyone testing positive for Covid-19.  The flight crew told us to fill the forms out and give them to immigration officers while landing.  No one ever asked for or looked at our forms.  These forms were required by the Mexican government, yet no one ever looked at them.  A stunning example of government inefficiency if I ever saw one.  Welcome to Latin America.

 

Speaking of forms, if you are planning a trip to Mexico, you can now do the immigration tourist card and the customs forms online before you leave for your trip.  That will save you time on the ground and speed up your entry into the country.  Highly recommended because airlines regularly run out of the forms and regularly don’t have enough to provide them to all the travelers on the plane.

 

Once we arrived in Mexico, disembarkation procedures changed as well.  The airlines funneled all arriving passengers through an automated temperature scanner.  Presumably, if you had a fever, you would be sent back home or placed into mandatory quarantine.  The dude monitoring the scanner was dressed in full PPE with a Tyvek suit, respirator, goggles, gloves, and a face shield.

 

Airport employees sprayed a sanitizing solution on all of the bags before they were put on the luggage conveyor belts.  Some of our fellow passengers’ bags were literally soaked in disinfectant.  If you pack valuable clothing, food, or electronics in your checked bag, you may want to put those items in a plastic bag inside your luggage to keep them from getting wet.  Our bags were also hosed down upon arrival at the hotel.  be prepared for a lot of liquid disinfectant spray covering all of your luggage.

 

In Cancun, the primary international arrivals/departures terminal was completely closed down due to the pandemic.  We flew in and out of what had normally been the domestic terminal.  The regular luggage X-ray machine and the “traffic light” customs inspections are no longer in place.  Once you get your checked bag, you are free to walk out without any customs inspections.

 

In general, the Mexicans seem to be doing more to prevent viral transmission that the Americans.  Like here, masks are required indoors in a public place.  They are not required on the beach, but it is mandatory to wear a face covering even while walking around outside in the city.  Everyone was wearing a mask, without exception.

 

All the hotels and most of the businesses had a pool of disinfectant solution that guests were required to walk through before entering  public establishments.  Each hotel, every restaurant in the hotel, and every business had a person with a thermometer gun standing at the entrance.  If your temperature was more than 37 degrees Celsius, you would be denied entry.  As hotel guests, we were forced to have our temperatures checked multiple times a day whenever we ate or entered the hotel from outside.  We were also forced to use hand sanitizer at every hotel, restaurant, or business entrance.

A screen shot of my travel temperature readings.

When checking in to the hotel, we were instructed to download the hotel app to our phones.  The hotel app allowed us to check in and out, see what events were happening, view restaurant hours and menus, book spa reservations, order room service, and report any problems.  That was really very handy and a unique way that the folks in Mexico are trying to remove almost every element of face to face interaction between employees and guests.

 

By law, the Mexican hotels can only book no more than 30% of their previously-allowed guest numbers.  The hotel had guests, but was far less busy than other times I had stayed there.  Take a look at the photo below.  That was the most crowded it ever became at our hotel’s pool and beach.  There was a very noticeable difference between this trip and my previous experiences at the hotel.  On this trip there were far more vacationing Mexicans than any other nationality.  Among the Americans staying at the resort, I would bet 50% of them were African American.  On previous visits, I seldom saw a black guest or a Mexican citizen at the resort.

 

My assumption is that when the hotel is priced at 40% of its usual rate and airfare is half price, it encourages more people to visit.  It makes me happy to see anyone traveling and having fun.  I’m glad that the cheap prices have allowed folks to enjoy an international luxury they may not have previously been able to afford.

 

View of the virtually deserted 5-star resort from our room’s balcony.

 

We had a very relaxing trip.  We spent most of our time enjoying good food, free margaritas, and a beautiful view.  It was a perfect mindless beach vacation.  We did book one excursion and had a blast.  We did a two hour speedboat rental and snorkeling trip through Jungle Tour Cancun.  The excursion allowed us to race speedboats on the lagoon side of the island before taking us out to an underwater national park for snorkeling.  It was a lot of fun for $50 a person.  The snorkeling was much better than I thought it would be.  We saw a sea turtle, a sting ray, a manta ray, and lots of colorful tropical fishes.  If you get a chance to go, I’d highly recommend a the trip.

 

It was her first time piloting a speed boat. I promise I’m not holding on for dear life.

 

Besides our boating/snorkeling excursion, the only other time we left the resort was to have dinner in my favorite Cancun restaurant, La Habichuela.  As usual, the food was amazing.  Unfortunately, we were the only guests dining there on what would have normally been a very busy Friday night.  The tourist industry in Mexico is having massive problems right now.  Lots of restaurants are closing.  Taxi drivers are finding new careers.  The tour industry has been completely decimated.

 

Near the restaurant, there is a large public park that is normally full of locals on every weekend night.  We walked down through the park after dinner.  I would guess that it was at 10% of normal capacity.  It was sad that there were so few people enjoying the nice weather on a summer night.  I’m not sure if the lack of people was caused by fear of the corona virus or the fact that local families didn’t have any money to spend because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

 

My favorite restaurant in Cancun. We were the only diners there during the prime time dinner rush on a Friday night.

 

Today marks the two week mark from the day that I left for Mexico.  I’ve been tracking my temperature daily,  No fever and no respiratory symptoms yet.  It appears that we made it to Cancun and back without getting the ‘Rona.

 

If you are called to travel, I urge you to do so.  Most of the destinations you choose will have a similar or lesser viral infection rate than your home state.  Travel is tremendously cheap right now.  Take advantage of that fact and support the local tourist economies that you enjoy.  They need all the help they can get.

 

 

 

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