From Destinations

Alas, it's not for rent.

Mexico, Supposedly Corrupt Police, and Rental Car Insurance

Tourist police go electric in Playa del Carmen.
Tourist police go electric in Playa del Carmen.
Last weekend, the New York Times published the essay A Maddening Bargain with a Mexican Police Officer. The writer, Jeremy Peters, recounts getting scammed on his car rental, then shaken down by a cop on the highway near Tulum.

It made me sad to read this, because a) that sucks, and b) it was preventable. Oh, and c) the snide of-course-this-happened-it’s-Mexico tone–but on that topic, I drafted a rather huffy letter, which I’ll spare you.

Everyone should know some really basic facts about the law when driving around the Yucatan (and in Mexico as a whole).

tl;dr: Skip to items #4 and #6.

1. Relax. Corruption just isn’t that prevalent.

I can speak only for the Yucatan, Chiapas and Tabasco, but since 2003, I have driven tens of thousands of miles around that area, and nothing bad has happened.

I have had a grand total of two encounters with police, both positive. In one case, they very sweetly alerted me to the fact that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. In the other, I was in a traffic accident that was probably my fault. I didn’t even get a ticket either time, much less get hassled for a cash payout.

Granted, I’m a woman, which I think makes me less of a target in this case (chivalry lives in Mexico). Also, my first instinct is to apologize rather than get angry, and I speak Spanish, if badly.

The one firsthand bad-cop story I have heard (one! in all these years) was from a man, and he got out of it by playing dumb: not speaking Spanish and not taking the cop’s hint to pay up. And he admitted he had been speeding.

2. You don’t have to pay the cop!

If you do happen to get pulled over–whether you did something wrong or not–and the cop is suggesting you can pay the fine to him directly…you don’t have to, of course.

It’s not like he’s going to shoot you or kidnap you or beat you up! He’s a traffic cop, not a cartel boss. The Mexican system is not so bad that you’ll be tossed in jail to rot. There’s a whole, functioning system for collecting traffic fines, just like in the US.

Call the dude’s bluff. Smile and apologize, and say you’d be happy to pay the ticket as required, at the police station or through your rental-car company (see #4).

Betcha anything this cop will decide he has better things to do than write you a ticket.

3. A traffic fine costs about US$50.

That’s just not very much. And maybe you were speeding. So maybe you should pay just take the ticket (if the cop bothers to write it), and pipe down.

You also get a discount if you pay within the first 24 (or maybe 48?) hours, or so I’ve read.

(Can I just note that Waters forked over US$120 in bribe money? Ouch!)

4. And you probably don’t even have to pay that fine either!

Here’s the amazing thing! Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum all have laws on the books granting tourists TWO “courtesy infractions”–official warnings–before being ticketed for anything. (Links go to text of the laws; search for “infracción de cortesía.”)*

Technically, car-rental companies should advise renters of the law and provide them with a leaflet that can be shown to police–though that practice fades in and out, in my experience.

If you do burn through your two warnings and receive a ticket, then you have the option of paying it through your car rental company, when you return the car, for a small extra fee. You never even have to go to the police station.

Simply mentioning the law should deter any cop who’s trying to shake you down. Insist on a written record of the infraction, thank him for his “courtesy,” and be on your way.

5. You really, really shouldn’t pay the cop.

I know, you’re still thinking about it. Why give up any of your vacation time to police stuff? And won’t that little brush with third-world corruption make a good story later? (Jeremy Waters got his published in the NY Times!)

C’mon: corruption takes two people. Every tourist who pays up is paving the way for more cops looking to make a buck. You are part of the problem.

I was about to write “end rant,” but then I remembered: Most of the stories I read about corrupt cop situations, the driver starts by saying, “I was speeding down the highway…” or “My husband was peeing on a bush…” (seriously, that was on TripAdvisor).

Dude, they have traffic laws and laws against peeing in public in Mexico too! If you break them, you get a ticket, just like at home. It’s just douchey to think you can buy your way out of trouble.

OK, really, end rant. On to more info, after the chicken-car break.

Alas, it's not for rent.
Alas, it’s not for rent.

6. The car-rental guys aren’t scamming you, although it can look like it.

Peters complained in his essay that a $20/day rental jumped to $40/day at pickup time. I’m almost certain it wasn’t a scam–just the boring old law. Primary liability insurance is required in Mexico, but unlike in the US, almost all of the rental-car companies pass that cost on to the renter, as a separate fee. It’s about $15/day extra, plus taxes.

Most of the major rental companies note this in fine print on the booking page. Go to, for instance, and run a search for pickup and drop-off in Cancun–you’ll see “Primary Liability Insurance” is an option. But only if you click to read more will you see the explanation of the Mexican law, and the fact that the only way out of paying is with very good on-paper evidence that your home car insurance covers liability.**

If you rent through a third-party site, such as Kayak, it’s worse–you see only a blanket “additional fees, taxes and insurance may be required,” which is so vague, it’s easy to think it doesn’t apply to you.

FWIW, Hertz is an exception–it carries its own liability insurance and includes it in the total rate, so you will not be charged extra. (At least last I checked.)

So yes, it feels like a scam if you’re not forewarned, but the people to blame are the honchos at Alamo/Thrifty/etc. headquarters, not the Mexican guys at the car desk in Cancun.

Why drive when you can ride a triciclo?
Why drive when you can ride a triciclo?
So, that’s it. Honestly, you barely need a car in the Yucatan, because the bus and taxi (and triciclo!) system is so good. But you shouldn’t be afraid of renting a car because you’re afraid of getting shaken down by the police or car-rental companies. If you have this info before you go, you’ll be fine–just watch the speed limit and keep an eye out for topes. Have a great trip!

*Various websites refer to this law as “Article 152,” but the numbers are different for each city, and they change whenever the traffic laws get tweaked anyway. So you can’t say to the cop, “Dude: Article 152″ and expect results.

**I don’t own a car, so I don’t actually know if standard US car insurance will *ever* cover liability on rentals in a foreign country. Does anyone know?

Just to clarify, because it took me a long time to figure this out: Collision insurance is different. This covers the damage you might do to the rental car itself (liability is for damage you do to others), and it is usually covered by your home car insurance and/or a good credit card, issued in the US or Canada. So that extra fee for liability is required in Mexico, but you *can* opt out of collision insurance (refuse the CDW, in the lingo) at the rental counter. Though the agents may try to upsell you–just like they do in the U.S.

I know about insurance firsthand, from that car accident a few years ago. It was a great opportunity to find out how the rental-car-insurance system works.

NM 2014-08-16-2700

“Old Main” Prison Tours in New Mexico

Tip of the hat to the woman I overheard talking on her mobile in the DFW airport this summer:

“And we were, like, going to go on this rilly cool tour of the prison outside Santa Fe? But it was, like, totally sold out?”

After I got over the cognitive dissonance (prisons? tours? upspeak?), I quickly googled and found…yes, the New Mexico Corrections Department runs tours of the “Old Main” prison facility outside Santa Fe. (Go check out that link now: There are two more tour dates this season.)

Which was still a little hard for me to grasp, actually, because that prison, which is no longer in use, was the site of one of the country’s worst prison riots, in 1980. Thirty-three people were killed, many in really grisly ways, and the whole facility was taken over by the prisoners for a while.

I was seven years old then; we lived about 45 minutes down the road. I happened to overhear the grownups talking about what went down, and happened to see photos (a family friend, unfortunately for her, was a paralegal with the state attorney general’s office and had to deal with all the materials). Let’s just say I learned a bit about man’s inhumanity to man, with a blowtorch, at an early age.

So…now it’s a tourist attraction? I was confused, but I booked tickets for Peter and me later in the summer.

Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.
Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.

It was a really good tour. Other sites of trauma and tragedy should be so lucky to have their stories told so well.

A lot may have hinged on our particular guide, a retired guard who started work in the facility in 1981, not too long after the riots.

Our guide in action.
Our guide in action.

His experience kept the tour from seeming morbid or voyeuristic.

The tour itself was done in interesting way, telling the hour-by-hour story of how the riot began and developed. You couldn’t really make up a worse set of unfortunate factors and bad management: recently installed but untested “bulletproof” glass; an unsecured construction site in one cell block (that’s where the blowtorches came from); prison policy that dressed “vulnerable” prisoners (pedophiles, snitches, etc) in different-color jumpsuits, and so on.

Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.
Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.

Woven in were details about how the corrections department learned and changed following the incident.

These details included not just practical things, such as the more secure way they store cell-block keys now, but also “softer” stuff, all the various programs for prisoners and the like.

One goal of these tours, I realized at the end, was perhaps to explain to people why treating prisoners well is a far better idea than treating them poorly. Even my mother, who is a pretty liberal lady, said when we were talking about the tour later, “Well, prison should be terrible.”

Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.
Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.

Actually, no, these tours seem to be saying. If prison is terrible, it makes people do terrible things–and then these brutal people will get out of prison and live right next door to you!

So, yes, please, teach the gang leaders how to decorate cakes that they can give to their kids when they visit. Yes, please, have prisoners grow vegetables and run a printing press and sew boxer shorts for the other inmates.

It seems to be working. The woman who spoke to us at the end of the tour said recidivism in New Mexico is only 48 percent–which sounds not so great, but the national rate is more like 75 percent.

The view out.
The view out.

So, here’s to being soft on crime, or at least on criminals. Thanks, NMCD–I certainly never thought I’d be inside that building and hear the full story I did.


Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

Doing the tourist thing, at the genocide memorial

Kigali Genocide Memorial (and the 9/11 Museum)

A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted this essay–The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction–about the new 9/11 museum (excuse me, National September 11 Memorial Museum) in New York, and it got me thinking.

First, the whole museum seems icky, doesn’t it? Just twelve years after the event. $24 admission–what, it’s like the MoMA now? And a gift shop, for God’s sake. I have no interest in going.

Yet…when I went to Rwanda, one of the “tourist” things I did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Which is also a museum.

(One of the more bizarre moments on that trip was telling our host we’d gone to the memorial, and we’d liked the museum. “Wait, did you go to the memorial, or the museum?” Because of course there’s not just one memorial, or one museum. Our conversation went around in circles, like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell situation.)

Honestly, Peter and I were thinking we would blow it off–we’re not morbid tragedy tourists. Except the people we were visiting said it was good!

It was great. It was somber without being grossly emotional. It was very informative (Herero massacre–what?). It was well lit and professional, but with no multimedia fanciness. And it was free–though of course donations are encouraged. The “gift shop,” in a little wood hut, carried a few books about the genocide, and some crafts.

The whole thing opened in 2004, on the ten-year anniversary of the genocide. Too soon? Not if you want a genuine memorial for people who died, of course not. (Though I would be curious to know how it was discussed at the time.)

The key to the genocide memorial not seeming maudlin or exploitative or generally icky was that when we arrived, a guide greeted us and took us to one of the mass graves. He briefly explained the situation, and the efforts of the memorial center, then we stood for one minute of silence.

After that, we were free to walk around however we wanted, with our audio tour or without.

I don’t envy that guide his job, but I think this human connection made all the difference in how we saw the whole museum/memorial.

Because, honestly, tourists can suck. I’ve yawned or daydreamed at some very serious places, maybe in full view of people who had been affected by the given event. It’s easy to fall out of the moment, if you’re hungry or your traveling companion has raced ahead, or whatever.

But one real, live person, talking directly to you–that’s the key to helping you focus on the place, why it exists, and what you might get out of it.

There’s plenty to learn from Rwanda, but that’s one concrete, small thing, and I’m glad I saw their model. It makes me at least not hate the idea of the 9/11 museum.

Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric