Photo Of The Day: Cancun Dreamin’

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I know, I know, the song by The Mamas & The Papas is about California, not Cancun. But with the weather turning so-slightly colder in Virginia, seeing photos plastered across Reddit of warmer, tropical climes found my fingers searching YouTube for the 1965 hit.

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Seven Dead In Mexican Resort Town Of Cancun

News of Mexico rebounding from a string of drug-related violence still looks bleak; on Sunday, six people were strangled and one was decapitated in the southern Mexican tourist resort of Cancun.

Police found the bodies of the five men and two women in a shack in the outskirts of town. They believe the slain are independent drug dealers without any links to a specific cartel. The news comes just a month after two men opened fire in a bar in Cancun, killing six and injuring five others. More than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2007.

Set on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Cancun is a favored beach destination for spring breakers (and, of course, those who want to skip the parties, too). Although violence has erupted in several Mexican cities over the past few years, there are still plenty of safe areas to visit. In fact, our own McLean Robbins just visited Cabo San Lucas, and Kyle Ellison seems to have no reservations about recommending Baja as a hotspot for adventure travel this year.

[Photo credit: Getty Images]

The Beach Snob’s Guide To Cancun

So you’re not the Cancun type. That’s no reason to pass up a cheap flight to its airport, a gateway to lots of anti-Cancun destinations. The area has more than 80 miles of white-sand Caribbean beaches, and only a few of those are confined to the cheesy place you’ve been avoiding.

I’m a certified beach snob, and Cancun-area sands are some of the best for the money and the time it takes to fly there from most parts of the United States. The scenery and beach quality rival Turks & Caicos, the most postcard Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen.

The trick is to look beyond Cancun’s strip to the broader area called the Mayan Riviera, and your options expand to include laid-back islands, secluded luxury resorts and yoga retreats that feel like they’re located at the end of the earth. Some destinations are 30 minutes from the airport, some two hours. You can be on the beach with a thatched-roof balcony and your own hammock for around $100 per night – and no Senor Frog’s for miles and miles.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Cancun type. The spas in the hotel zone are underrated, for one. But I like quieter places away from the crowds, and more placid waters than Cancun’s. If you do, too, it’s time to reconsider Cancun airfares. Snap up a deal and trust that you’ll find a place your speed; shoulder season in late April and May (and again in September, October and November) is a great time to go because you avoid high-season hotel rates and the scorching summer weather. Here are a few destinations you might not have heard of:

The Island Vibe: Isla Mujeres
A slice of real Mexico, this small island is the closest Cancun alternative to the airport. Located six miles off the coast of Cancun and reached by ferry (pictured at top), it’s anchored by a lively town that sits right on Playa Norte, a postcard soft-sand beach. The extended shallow water appeals to families with young kids. The most popular mode of transportation is a golf cart, and for such a compact place, there’s an remarkable number of restaurants and places to stay. I like Ixchel Beach Resort for a new condo (via VRBO.com), Playa la Media Luna for a tropical beachfront bargain and Casa el Pio for a cute, cheap, in-town option.

The Luxe Life: Playa Mujeres
Quietly, this upscale area has cropped up just north of Cancun, in the opposite direction of the Mayan Riviera development and therefore totally under the radar. It’s a secluded, almost untouched stretch of coastline (pictured below) with nothing else around, the kind of place where you won’t leave the hotel unless it’s on a boat to go fishing or snorkeling. The resorts are extremely posh and expensive – think marble showers the size of a car wash and in-room Jacuzzis with indoor and outdoor access, like those at Excellence Playa Mujeres.

The Soulful Escape: Tulum
This is the only place where I’ve ever picked up hitchhikers. Bumping along a dirt road lined with small, economical beach hotels south of the well-known Tulum ruins, we passed dozens of budget travelers walking to and from the highway, where they catch a bus to Cancun. We gave a lift to an older German couple with wheeled suitcases. Every year, they said, they fly to the area without hotel reservations and call around once they land.

Tulum is located at the far southern reaches of the Mayan Riviera, a good 90 minutes from Cancun and not far from the Belize border. The beaches here are some of the most pristine on the Yucatan. Traditionally an off-the-grid backpacker’s haven, it’s now attracting vacationers who like the good life but aren’t high maintenance. The New York Times called it the fashion in-crowd’s new Miami last year. There are dozens of small hotels in this area alone, including yoga retreats and chic eco-friendly casitas. Casa de los Olas gets high marks.


[Photo credits: from top, Megan Fernandez; 917Press, Scarlatti2004 and Mr. Theklan via Flickr]

Know Your Spring Break Legal Rights

Spring Breakers, did you know that anyone boarding a plane is covered by a “passenger bill of rights?” Or that in Mexico you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent?

Lawyers.com’s editor in chief, Larry Bodine, has some legal insights that Spring Breakers should digest well before their first Jello shot – particularly the 120,000 students heading to Mexico this year.

What can I do right this instant to be safer on Spring Break?
Sign up for the U.S. government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s free, and in the feds’ own words, “It allows the State Department to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements.”

What’s another thing?
Look up the U.S. consulate or consular agency closest to where you’re staying. At travel.state.gov, check under Country Specific Information for a list of agencies in your destination. Print copies for you and your travel mates and enter the information in your cellphone.

Is there an app for that?
Yes! There’s a Smart Traveler Program app for iPhone and Android.

American laws apply to me everywhere, right?
Wrong. Bodine says many college students think American citizenship grants them immunity from laws in other countries. This isn’t true. If you’re in Mexico or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic or anywhere, you are subject to that country’s laws and punishments. “There are a lot of semi-innocent things we do the U.S. that are crimes in Mexico,” Bodine says. “Walking on the street with an open alcohol container is a crime. Getting off the bus without paying. Taking off your clothes on the beach.”

In another country you can’t count on something like Panama City’s Spring Break Court to minimize the repercussions. “The laws in Mexico are very different,” Bodine says. “If you’re charged with a crime, you are presumed to be guilty, and you have to prove you are innocent. If you are arrested, you’ll be held for 48 hours before you get to make a statement. If they want to charge you, you can be held for a year without bail.”

Check the most recent edition of a reputable guidebook for laws.

How can I find out about open-container laws?
In Mexico, it’s illegal to walk on the street with an open container of alcohol. Costa Rica made it illegal last year. The law varies by country, so ask a bartender, a hotel manager or concierge or a security officer about your destination’s law once you arrive. Ask about public intoxication laws, too. And research them before you go.

Why do the police seem cool with the “anything goes” thing?
Police might let the good times roll – but they often crack down when there’s a car accident, a fight breaks out, someone gets belligerent with the cops or danger otherwise looms, Bodine says. You don’t want to be anywhere near these incidents. Find someone fun and rational to hang out with if you want to make sure to stay out of jail.

I’ve been arrested. Whom should I call?
Bodine says your first call – and only call, if just one is allowed – should be to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the area where you’re staying. Consular officials can provide information on the local legal system and help you find a local attorney, but they can’t get you out of jail.

What will happen if I get caught smoking pot in Mexico?
The U.S. State Department’s website says: “The importation, purchase, possession or use of drugs can incur severe penalties, including imprisonment without bail for up to a year before a case is tried, and imprisonment of several years following a conviction.” Don’t even risk having some in your pocket.

I’m 18 and can drink legally in Mexico. Can I also bring home alcohol?
No. Once you land in the U.S., it’s illegal for you to have it. Chances are it will be confiscated when you go through Customs after you land.

What should I do if I am the victim of a crime?
“Notify the authorities,” Bodine says, “but don’t let the hotel or tour company or restaurant make the report. You should also call the U.S. embassy.”

What rights do I have at the airport?
If you’re bumped from a flight because it is oversold or canceled, the airline is required to give you a paper detailing your rights. The airline employees rarely offer it, but you can ask for one. Bodine says the law requires the airline to rebook you on a different flight, and if that flight isn’t scheduled to arrive within two hours of your original flight, the airline is supposed to pay you 400 percent of the one-way fare for that leg of the trip. But again, don’t expect the airline to be upfront about this. “Ordinarily, they’ll offer you as little as possible,” Bodine says. “They’ll put you up in a hotel and offer you a $300 travel voucher. If you don’t ask for [your full entitlement], they won’t give it to you.”

If your flight is canceled or delayed by weather, the airlines don’t owe passengers any compensation.

Going to Mexico? Read the U.S. State Department’s “Know Before You Go” page for Spring Breakers, and brush up one more time with this video:

[Editor’s note: Got legal questions? This isn’t legal advice. Try reaching out to the folks at Lawyers.com!]

[Photo credits: top, Mnadi via Flickr; bottom, Spengu via Flickr]

8 Strategies For Avoiding The Spring Break Crowds

For the college crowd, spring break typically means one thing: raging parties. For everyone else, however, spring break brings on more of a raging headache.

Those traveling at the same time as the party crowd are faced with a number of dramas, ranging from laying wide awake at night listening to thumping music piercing the paper-thin walls of their hotel room, to having to explain to their seven-year-old why those scantily-clad college kids are puking on the sidewalk. Put up with it long enough and spring break has the ability to break down even the most tolerant traveler.

Is there any hope of avoiding the chaos? Thankfully, the answer is yes – I’ve certainly done it and lived to tell the tale. So, whether you forgot to check the school calendar when making your travel plans or you simply want to take a relaxing family vacation while the little ones are off from school, the good news is there are lots of steps you can take to avoid running into the spring breakers.1. Head to a city. If you still have some flexibility in your travel plans, then pick a destination that’ll allow you to avoid the partygoers. The majority of spring breakers are fleeing the metropolises and heading to sunny, sandy spots, which means now is a great time to visit a city.

2. Steer clear of party beaches. If you’re headed to a seaside destination, beware that certain beaches will be packed with partygoers and plan your stay accordingly. For example, if you go to Miami, you’ll want to avoid South Beach or Miami Beach and pick a quieter spot like Key Biscayne or Mid Beach to base yourself in instead.

3. Choose your hotel wisely. Even if you’re headed to a destination known for attracting spring breakers, you can often avoid the revelry as long as you keep away from party hotels – venues full of college kids there to enjoy the pool parties, live entertainment, and music around the clock. You can figure out which hotels are geared specifically to the party crowd by hunting down the spring break website for that destination. For example, you can see which hotels are set up for the event in Cancun here, and at Daytona Beach here.

4. Arm yourself with noise-canceling devices. No matter how well you research your hotel, you might not be able to prevent a group of noisy merry-makers from setting up camp in the room above you. So to be on the safe side, bring along some earplugs and even a white noise machine to muffle any sound. If you’re a business traveler or need to get work done while you’re in your hotel, noise-canceling headphones can be a lifesaver. It’s also worth asking the hotel to put you in a quiet corner of the hotel, far from any college kids, when checking in.

5. Wake up early. If you want to sightsee and enjoy the destination in peace, get up before the spring break crowd. Most of the partiers stay up late and sleep in the next morning nursing their hangovers, so by getting up earlier you can beat the crowds. Morning is also a good time to enjoy the popular party beaches before the crowds, kegs and DJs invade later in the day.

6. Do activities spring breakers tend to avoid. While many attractions will appeal to spring breakers and ordinary travelers alike, there are still plenty of things you can do where you won’t find a partier for miles. Examples include enjoying a round of golf, a quiet afternoon of fishing, or a private boat ride.

7. Head to the quieter watering holes. The party crowd will be busy hitting up nightclubs and bars offering kegs of beer and mixed drinks by the yard glass, so if you’re looking to sip a quiet drink or two, steer clear of these venues. A much better option is to head to wine bars, intimate cocktail lounges, vineyards and bars attached to restaurants. If you really want to go to one of the popular clubs or bars in town, check their event schedule and those of nearby venues. Depending on where the spring break action is on a given night, some venues can be pulsating and others can become ghost towns – which might be exactly what you’re looking for.

8. Research where the locals hang out. Particularly when it comes to the international destinations, many cities have a main tourist drag that’s lined with resorts and entertainment geared towards travelers (and in the case of spring break, the partiers) and a separate part of the city where the locals tend to congregate. I once visited Cancun, Mexico, during spring break (but not actually for spring break) and was able to avoid the party crowd by spending time at the beaches frequented by the locals and the downtown plazas few tourists ventured into. As an added bonus, these areas had a more authentic vibe, and the food, drinks and accommodation were significantly cheaper.

Have you traveled during spring break? Were you able to escape the party crowds?

[Photo credit: Flickr user BluEyedA73; martinvarsavsky; Fevi Yu; alexbrn]