From Mexico

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 alamo.com, 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.

Mexico City: Plaza Garibaldi

Another major hot spot we just didn’t manage to get to on our first trip was Plaza Garibaldi, where all the mariachis gather. The symbol on the signs for the metro stop is a guitar.

The plaza had a reputation for seediness, and it’s now being spruced up in that slightly heavy-handed way city planners use when they want to get rid of blight. Lots of LED lights and green glass, and a museum. Presto!

The actual open area was a bit too tidy and unfocused for our tastes, so we hightailed it to Bar Tenampa, which is famous as apparently the first bar on Plaza Garibaldi. Inside, it feels like the party has indeed been going nonstop for the better part of a century.

It’s a big barn of the place with high ceilings and huge murals of great singers, and bright lighting.

Those are jarocho guys, with the harp. Mariachis lurk in every other corner.
Those are jarocho guys, with the harp. Mariachis lurk in every other corner.

Mere words and photos can’t describe the atmosphere of the place. Let’s try a little multimedia experiment instead.

First, pour yourself a drink. We were fond of palomas–tequila and Squirt (say it ‘Esquirt’), with salt around the rim. I can also recommend a ponche de granada, which Tenampa seemed to specialize in, and of which I had never heard. It’s booze and pomegranate juice, aged for a bit, and served with crumbled pecans floating on top. Seriously, dangerously drinkable–good thing I only got around to ordering one on the last round.

What really makes it is the dainty glass!
What really makes it is the dainty glass!

Now, all settled in with your drink? Start this video playing.

That’s just for background, really. What we really care about is the next song. The lyrics are painted on the wall:

Que borracho!
Que borracho!

Maybe best to click on that and open it in another tab, to see the words.

Got that? Now start this next video. Yes, at the same time as the other one.

WHAT?! YOU CAN’T HEAR ME? THAT’S OK. THAT’S NORMAL! JUST RAISE YOUR GLASS AND SING ALONG!!! THAT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE AT THE OTHER TABLES ARE DOING!

If you’re still not feeling the cacophonous, drunken magic, go stick your finger in a light socket.

Because, as an added attraction, in addition to the three separate mariachi groups in the bar, and the jarochos, there are guys walking around selling electric shocks. With, like, jumper cables. Apparently this is a thing in Tijuana and Juarez, and I guess wherever vast amounts of tequila are drunk; I never knew how sheltered I was.

Near the end of the night, one of our party said, “I’m exactly three shots away from doing that.” It seemed like a fair assessment. He’d already done quite a few.

My magic camera that captured the evening just as I saw it.
My magic camera that captured the evening just as I saw it.

Hiring a band (M$120 per song; M$50 for the puny jarochos) was a way of coping, of creating a wall of sound that screened out the others. The bathroom attendant, for her part, wore noise-canceling headphones.

In a way, the noise was so solid that it made everything like a silent film. Far down the end of the room, I watched a small, brief melodrama unfold: two tall, jocky American bros guzzled shots, stood up and jumped around and posed for pictures and danced. I glanced away, then glanced back, and they were already back in their seats, bent over, heads on the table.

I would totally go again. I just want to learn some lyrics first.

Mexico City: Beyond the Palacio Nacional

Peter and I went to Mexico City two years ago. It happened to be the week before Easter, when the city runs at half-speed because everyone’s on vacation. We were too, so we just didn’t wind up doing very much sightseeing.

Oh, why am I making excuses? We never do much sightseeing. It’s just too tedious to make big plans and maps and timetables, and get your heart set on any one thing. (Precise opposite: friend of a friend who planned her family’s trip to Disney World with a spreadsheet, down to the minute.)

Awe-some. Like, really, awe.
Awe-some. Like, really, awe.

The other problem with planning too much is it’s basically admitting you’re never going back to a place. If you have a big checklist, and you check off all the sights, well, then why would you come back?

I know, the world is a big place and we have a limited amount of time here, so I see why people are strategic (especially with only two weeks of vacation a year; the American workplace is savage). But let me dream, OK? I would much rather leave a place with a pang of regret–which may be strong enough to make me go back–than some kind of bucket-list satisfaction.

This is all a very roundabout justification for my own laziness and the fact that, on our first visit, we didn’t even manage to see the Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional. They were, what, five blocks from our hotel?

This time, we were three blocks closer. No excuse.

I could load you up with photos, but I’d seen the photos before, and I didn’t understand how powerful the murals are. While we were in Puebla, Peter and I were in awe of the buildings–like, how was it the Spanish were building such amazing things just 40 years after they discovered the place, and the English couldn’t even keep a colony of settlers alive?

The answer is in the last of the murals.

If you answered 'slave labor,' you win a prize.
If you answered ‘slave labor,’ you win a prize.

After that, we cheered ourselves up with ice cream.

Colors of the Mexican flag, no coincidence.
Colors of the Mexican flag, no coincidence.

And some tacos–grilled beef and cactus.

Gorgeous.
Gorgeous.

That were grilled in this contraption:

See that? Next trend in food trucks. Mark my words.
See that? Next trend in food trucks. Mark my words.

Not sightseeing rewarded us with those tacos, and several other neat things.

Crazy bottles of booze.
Crazy bottles of booze.
The pinafore store--for all your street-vendor-uniform needs.
The pinafore store–for all your street-vendor-uniform needs.
The Mercado de Dulces...which really was the candy market.
The Mercado de Dulces…which really was the candy market.
Funny fonts. It's like they saw the 'circ' and thought 'circus'.
Funny fonts. It’s like they saw the ‘circ’ and thought ‘circus’.
Shrimp 'cocktel'.
Shrimp ‘cocktel’.
A perfectly nice art deco warehouse.
A perfectly nice art deco warehouse.

Wait, you’re saying, that’s just not interesting at all. No–look closer!

Hello, plaintains, ripening like hams in the Alpujarras!
Hello, plaintains, ripening like hams in the Alpujarras!

The most trivial thing we did in our post-Palacio walk was stop for many long minutes to watch a street vendor make a perfectly round pancake, without the aid of a mold. While we were sitting, playing it cool, waiting for him to pour the batter, I realized why you can’t always travel like this, planless.

People! Other people! What a pain they are.

No, seriously, we love our friends we went to Mexico City with, and we would have happily spent all of our time with them. But they’d gone off to Trotsky’s house, which is amazing, but we weren’t sure we needed to see again.

Practically speaking, you can’t stop a group of four or six people and say, “Hey, guys, check out that pancake maker. Let’s watch him for a while.” At least not if you want to make it through the day alive.

Hell, you can’t even do this with one other person, if that other person isn’t totally on your travel wavelength.

I feel incredibly lucky that Peter is. Sure, sometimes I wish he’d wake up maybe a little earlier, but he’s totally open to the ‘Wait, stop, let’s…’ and ‘Take a pic of that weird thing’ (most of the photos here are his, at my prodding) and ‘[Chortling at some incredibly immature thing]’.

The fundamental similarity that makes it all possible, though, is that we don’t care if we miss some big sights. We get so many little ones instead.

Puebla #3: Miscellany

We were only in Puebla two and a half days, which really isn’t fair to Mexico’s fourth-largest city. (Did you know that? I did not. After DF, Guadalajara and Monterrey.)

We were pretty fried on Sunday, our first day out, and overwhelmed because it was Palm Sunday. The streets were packed with people.

Getcher palm doodads here!
Getcher palm doodads here!

We wandered around pretty aimlessly and happened across equally random treats, such as this hot dog situation:

What the heck?
I don’t know what that is in the foreground. We’re talking about the thing in the guy’s hand.

It was, as far as I could make out, a hot dog dipped in molten cheese then wrapped in an eggroll wrapper, and then wrapped in bacon, and then deep-fried.

That's just rank.
Peter swore it was one of the best things he ate on our trip. And he wasn’t even high.

Please don’t extrapolate about Puebla cuisine from this; I think it’s a one-off invention of the guy who runs the stand.

Not far away was weirdness of another sort, a veritable garden of kiddie rides:

Photo by Peter. Actually, let's just say all of these are.
Photo by Peter. Actually, let’s just say all of these are.

We stopped at the railroad museum (doesn’t everyone make that their first stop in a new city?) and cried over the oh-so-recent death of Mexico’s passenger rail. (Our friend Jim took the train from Texas to San Miguel de Allende for a high school trip in the 80s! Argh!)

This is the style of travel to which I am accustomed, thankyouverymuch.
This is the style of travel to which I am accustomed, thankyouverymuch.

Later that day, we met up with some real live poblanos, who were kind enough to make sure we saw the Rosary Chapel, one of the city’s major attractions. Which we almost certainly would have missed otherwise, because it’s off the side in one of the churches that was mobbed with Palm-Sunday-enjoyers.

Click to enlarge. Really. It’s worth it.

We also went to the Museo Amparo, recently reopened after a big renovation. In fact, it’s still not totally finished. But the rooftop cafe was a great place to get up close and personal with all the church domes in the city.

Modern museum on the right; colonial city on the left.
Modern museum on the right; colonial city on the left.

Aaaand then, back to our regularly scheduled aimless wandering.

Park life
This park was so committed to its jacarandas that all the benches and trash cans and everything were painted purple.
Emo bus driver. As Peter pointed out, there's a lot of heart-ripping-out imagery in a country that historically did heart-ripping-out.
With all the heart-ripping-out imagery, are emos just updated Aztecs?
Jesus loves neon, this we know.
Jesus loves neon, this we know.

Finally, to end this post on an educational note, did you know Chia Pets are, like, a real thing? Here, look:

An 'altar of sorrows,' commemorating the Virgin Mary's loss of her son.
An ‘altar of sorrows,’ commemorating the Virgin Mary’s loss of her son.
This time I did the zooming for you. Check it!
This time I did the zooming for you. Check it!

As a display at the Museo Amparo helpfully explained, sprouts and wheatgrass are placed on the altar, to represent rebirth. And little hollow clay turtles and sheep, covered in chia seeds, are a way of doing that. It was hard to tell from the phrasing whether this is something that’s been going on for centuries, or if Mexicans just like Chia Pets, and incorporated them into the altar? Chia Pets were originally made in Mexico, says-Wikipedia-so-it-must-be-true, which suggests the former.

Cool, right? Who knows what I’ll learn on my next (hopefully longer!) visit to Puebla…