From Yucatan

Counterintuitive Travel Tips #7 and #8: Taxis and Sleep

Two final bits of contrariness, both terribly sensible.

Tip #7: Don’t ask the price of a taxi before you get in.

Guidebooks always say “Agree on a price before you get in a taxi.” I think I’ve even written this myself. But nothing marks you as an out-of-towner like asking a cabbie, “How much to…?” This makes the cabbie’s eyeballs flash dollar signs, just like in the cartoons.

So your one job as a visitor is to find out in advance how much a taxi should cost (ask at your hotel, or ask your Airbnb host, or whatever). Then just get in the cab, say hello in at least a loose approximation of the local language and state your destination. Pay the known fare when you get out (or, in known antagonistic-cabbie towns, get out first and hand the money through the window). This is what locals do, and it works!

I don't have any photos of evil cabbies. Instead, enjoy these perfectly sweet triciclo guys in the Yucatan. Maybe taxi drivers only turn bad when they get engines?

Even if you’re in a metered-taxi town, it’s nice to get a ballpark estimate, for peace of mind.

(Why are taxi drivers the world over so prone to unscrupulousness? They are their own strange tribe. May the honest and generous ones multiply!)

Tip #8: Sleep now, not when you’re dead.

A very concrete aspect of Tip #4 (“be lazy”). Again, you’re on vacation – why tire yourself out? Take plenty of naps. Observe the siesta culture, if there is one.

There is nothing more delicious than waking up in a strange place. (Freya Stark, by way of Matthew Teller, says it even better.)

More practically, the better rested you are, the less likely you are to have those little streetcorner meltdowns, where you’re hungry and tired and just can’t make a decision, and suddenly your travel partner is looking like the worst beast on earth, just because he/she is also hungry and tired and can’t make a decision.

One person I know calls this the Death Mope. The Death Mope is easily avoided through adequate rest. (And carrying some peanuts in your bag–another tip of mine. But there’s nothing counterintuitive about not starving.)

Me enjoying Greek culture and avoiding Death Mope. (Not-so-flattering-but-oh-well photo by Peter. I didn't realize till after the trip that my very ugly bra was always visible through the very large sleeves of that dress.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #6: The Water

The first five tips (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) had a lot to do with how to plan your trip (or not plan it). Now we’re getting into the more nitty-gritty on-the-ground stuff.

Drink the water.

I had written a righteous screed about how all guidebooks are just covering their asses when they tell you not to drink the water, and of course you can drink it, if normal middle-class people drink it too.

Then I went to Fes, Morocco, where everyone drinks tap water…and I got sick.

But even so, I believe that tap water is often not so horrible. If people who could afford to buy bottled water drink from the tap, you can certainly brush your teeth with it. You can even swig a bit in the night, when you realize you’ve run out of bottled water. You can have a little ice in your drink.

Peter drinking from the (very large, public) tap in Comitan de Dominguez, Mexico. Later we drank the water in Villahermosa too, sin problemas.

It’s with cumulative exposure that your system freaks out (or mine does; yours may be different–that’s my CYA). I didn’t get sick in Fes until about a week in. My threshold for Cairo tap water is about four days.

Contrary to logic, the worse the water is, the better off you are. If all the restaurants use bottled water, this means your ice is almost certainly made from purified water. Basically, there are very few situations in which you have to do that prissy “no ice, please” thing.

The reason I’m even being so macho about tap water is that plastic bottles are the world’s third-largest evil, after plastic bags and Halliburton, and I feel like a failure every time I buy bottled water. If you’re not feeling like risking it, I really recommend a Steripen. I just got one this summer–it’s fantastic. It has cut down on my water-risk-taking and makes me feel like a magician every time I use it. (But I recommend rechargeable batteries–it was due to battery fail that I was in the unfortunate Fes situation.)

The Mini-Mex Algorithm

On the occasion of a major update to my Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres travel app (for iPhones and now for Android* too!), here’s just a few reasons to love this part of Mexico. If you’re a regular reader, you know I have a soft spot for Cancun. It’s why I wrote the app, to share all the cool things no one knows about it…and Isla Mujeres and Puerto Morelos too.

Oh, so THAT's what that stands for...
Public bench/library in the park in downtown Cancun. Just register to get a key, and check out books as you like.
Coco Bongo promo dudes hiding out from photo-mad tourists in Cancun.
Genuine maid cafe in downtown Cancun. Was just opening--unclear whether staff really dress as maids.
Aw, poor little Chocomilk! Cutest dog name ever.
Genius can with screw-top lid. And always good mango juice.
Ana is ruling the market for haircuts for dogs. She has totally blanketed Isla Mujeres in signs.
Man bites shark.
How you might feel after too many days on Isla Mujeres...
This drug is available even in the Cancun airport pharmacies. Not sure if it causes or cures.
Somehow it's more existential with 'a' at the beginning.
Queens of Carnival on Isla Mujeres, on display at the cultural center
Crazy architecture in Puerto Morelos. Everyone calls the complex in the big photo "the Star Wars building."
Grown man with a Spongebob purse. Reason I Love Mexico #3438

Spring Break Guidebook Giveaway!

You’re never too old for a little spring break… That’s why I’m giving away two copies of the newest edition of The Rough Guide to Cancun & the Yucatan. The book came out last fall, so the info’s quite fresh and includes some great new spots I was excited to discover during research last winter: a cool Maya hut near some of the peninsula’s best cenotes, for instance, and some great restaurants and new hotels in Valladolid.

If you head south now, yes, there’s a little spring-break craziness in Cancun, but even 15 minutes south in Puerto Morelos, the beach scene is pretty mellow. If you head to Mexico during Semana Santa, the week before Easter (April 1-8), you’ll be on vacation with pretty much the entire country. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds–as I discovered a couple of summers ago, Mexicans are really fun tourists, and in some places, like the little church in San Juan Chamula outside San Cristobal de las Casas, it’s nice to be part of a crowd.

Win your copy of the book just by entering a comment below–maybe let me know what kind of Mexican food you’re hankering for. I could go for a cochinita pibil torta right about now…

The contest will be open until next Sunday night, March 25, at midnight EDT. I’ll pick two comments through a random-number generator. Thanks for entering!

Update: I am now starving. A little slow on picking the winning numbers, but here we go…

Oh, what the heck: you’re all winners! After discounting Maria (no offense, but who already has a copy of the book), that’s exactly the number of extra copies I have lying around here. Christine, yours will be coming by courier in May (I’ll explain by email).

Mexico #5: Snack Break!

OK, time for less narrative, more pretty pictures.


Bees swarm the displays of sweets in every market. I always thought people must bring the bees with them, and put them out to show off how sweet their treats are. I mean, where the hell are the bees coming from in the middle of the city? But then I saw a girl with a fly whisk actually trying to brush them away. (I guess every other vendor has just given up.) And then I noticed bees on flowers in someone’s teeny front-almost-all-concrete-patch of a yard. The ancient Maya kept bees and traded honey. Those bees are here to stay.

Here’s another Hanal Pixan specialty, mucbipollo. It’s a big ol’ tamale, studded with black beans and chicken.


We stopped at the market in Oxkutzcab–I’ve never been there early enough to see much action. But in the morning, the whole front area is filled with people selling oranges and flowers wholesale. Inside are snack and craft vendors. And this woman, selling delicate thin disks of chocolate, patted out by hand like tortillas. Her fingerprints were in every one.


The chocolate was completely bitter, and so intense as to be medicinal. Good medicinal.

Just across from her sat a woman shelling xpelon, the little black beans eaten everywhere in the Yucatan:


Not all tradition is good. I see this stuff everywhere too, and it fills me with horror.


I believe it’s white bread slathered with some kind of mayo-y treatment, and studded with canned peas. Hilarious, in an El-Bulli-wait-I-thought-this-was-going-to-be-something-normal mindf**k way.

Here’s some slightly more high-brow junk food:

Best Bar Snack

Poblano pepper stuffed with cream cheese (most beloved cheese of the Yucatan, aka queso Filadelfia) and shrimp, and–yeah, baby–battered and deep-fried. Tastes great even if you’re drinking some healthy green juice instead of your ninth beer of the night.*

And…well…just this:

Refriend Beans

*Wondering where to get the deliciousness? Check Pescaditos, in Cancun. Details in my Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres iPhone app.

*Flickr set from this trip
*Mexico #1: Where the Party at?
* Mexico #2: Partying on…and on
*Mexico #3: Party Favors
* Mexico #4: Howdy, Cowboy
* Mexico #6: Back Roads