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]

Business Fuels Doomsday Prophecies In Mexico

Every other billboard seemed to mention 2012 as I drove along that famously flat stretch of road from Cancun to Playa del Carmen. I was on my way to spend a couple of days relaxing at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, but the easiest way to reach Riviera Maya is via Carretera Federal 307 and 307 is ornamented with billboards, as anyone would expect. Riviera Maya is a popular vacation destination, and popularity and advertising are two peas in the Business Success pod. It wasn’t the billboards themselves that caught my attention, though. What flashed before me memorably every few minutes was a billboard referencing 2012, or the apocalypse, or Doomsday prophecies, or the Maya calendar – and this consistency is what I noticed. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the ads approach and then disappear; marketers, when they’re good, are usually really good.

%Gallery-173831%The billboards along 307 were just bigger, bolder versions of what I’d already been seeing all over Cancun and Merida in the days prior. In Cancun, an employee at the car rental company tried to convince me to go to a tourist trap complete with Maya this and End Of The World that. He was moonlighting as a promotions guy for the place while I signed the forms for my rental car. In Merida, it seemed as though most businesses and individuals who had thought of a way to capitalize off of the December 21 hype had acted on those thoughts. The enterprising women and men behind these ventures, many of them holding shops at the weekly Merida market, sold Doomsday books and guides, Maya calendars, Maya calendars made out of chocolate, apocalypse T-shirts and key-chains. I ate at a restaurant in Merida called 2012 Mayan Spaces and Something Else. The food was very good, as were the drinks, especially for being one of the few vegetarian options in Merida. Nonetheless, the restaurant carried this name and thus, so did the menu. The back wall of the outdoor patio displayed Maya-based art. The hotel I stayed at in Merida offered an impressive selection of Maya-themed tours to guests and “2012” was scribbled in large numerals on their office chalkboard. The crowds at Chichen Itza were insufferable; the long lines buzzed with End Times speculations.

Of course no one else was talking about the world ending on December 21. The only people who seemed to engage in any of these theories in the Yucatan were the people who were in a position to profit from the surprisingly widespread belief. The first man I spoke to in Merida, a man of Maya descent, was quick to discuss the modern Maya and history of the Maya in Merida with me, but he didn’t comment on the 2012 prophecies until 15 minutes into our conversation and he only spoke of the prophecies as a response to my questioning. When I mentioned the lore, his eyes glazed over as if he were remembering something he’d only taken note of in the most distant, peripheral sense. Like asking a non-Christian for their thoughts on the rapture mentioned in the Book of Revelation, locals were aware that others had attached themselves to this prophecy, but they were not believers.

When Pastor John Hinkle made his D-Day declaration for June 9, 1994, my parents nervously anticipated the date. I cuddled with my elementary school friend that night, waiting for fiery claws to rip the skies wide open, and of course it never happened. But it isn’t the truth behind the prediction that matters. What matters is how much publicity the prediction can collect leading up to the date. Hinkle’s ratings for his TBN show were probably skyrocketing from the hoopla before June 9 that year. All of this is to say, the “end of the world” appears to be relevant to the people of the Yucatan in only one way for certain: business.

It’s a good thing December 21 falls on a Friday. All of the opportunistic entrepreneurs out there can take their hype-checks to the bank and have them deposited before Christmas morning.

Read more from my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” here.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

A Taste Of Mayan Cuisine In Playa Del Carmen

mayan cuisine


On Playa del Carmen‘s main drag, you have a world of cuisines at your feet. Falafel? You’ve got it. Bagels? Right around the corner. Cuban bars, French patisseries, Italian pizzerias … the tourist districts of Mexico‘s Mayan Riviera certainly don’t lack for international options.

But authentic Mexican food? Well, that’s a different story.

I arrived in Playa after a multi-hour journey filled with layovers and bus transfers. My body was tired and my stomach was empty. I was hungry, but not just for food; I craved the tastes of Mexico, preferably paired with radish, lime and an ice cold Dos Equis.

Instead, I found Subway and Starbucks. About 20 minutes into the food hunt, I was about to throw in the towel and settle for a slice of pizza. But then, my nose caught a whiff of warmth and spice. There, on the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22, was exactly what I’d been looking for – Yaxche, a small but sophisticated spot promising a “journey into Mayan flavors.”

Before the Spaniards introduced their preferences, the people of the Yucatan peninsula subsisted on a staple diet of maize, squash, beans and chili peppers. Today, it’s rare to find traditional Mayan dishes in the over-touristed resort towns of the peninsula. But a culinary revival is afoot, with Yaxche at the forefront of efforts to rescue and preserve ancient Mayan cuisine.

The restaurant menu looked foreign, and not just because my Spanish was rusty. The majority of dishes are indigenous to the region, with names unfamiliar to my Western eyes and unpronounceable by my Western lips. I was intrigued by a section titled “Grandma’s Favorites,” as grandmothers tend to know their stuff.

I settled on a sampler of her suggestions, which promised a “journey into Mayan flavors.” There was Tsotolbilchay, a Mayan-style tamale filled with a spinach-like green called chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds, wrapped in a plantain leaf and covered in tomato sauce; Pibxcatic, an eye-wateringly spicy dish of grilled Xcatic peppers filled with slow-roasted pork; Papadzul, a type of egg taco covered with pumpkin seed sauce and epazote spice; Shrimp Panucho, another taco contraption, this time with refried black beans, shredded turkey, avocado, onions and perfectly grilled shrimp; and Tsic, a ceviche variation of shrimp and fish marinated in sour orange juice, Xcatic pepper and coriander.

“Mmmmmhh!!” read the menu after the Tsic description. “Mmmmmhh!!” was right. Each mouthful unlocked new, exotic tastes: the burning spice of the Xcatic pepper, the slight bitterness of the chaya leaf, the smoky sweetness of the pumpkin seeds. Yaxche wasn’t the 10-peso fish taco stand I had pictured, but it certainly served my craving for a taste of authenticity in an otherwise manufactured corner of Mexico.

Yaxche is located at the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22 in downtown Playa del Carmen. The “Moloch” sampler costs 205 Mexican Pesos (about US$15).

Visit Playa Del Carmen in Mexico

Renewed Mexico travel warning threatens spring break travel plans

MexicoThe U.S. State Department has issued a new Mexico travel warning, superseding last April’s warning. Apparently, cartel violence stemming from drug trafficking, specifically violent struggles among the criminal organizations for control of trafficking routes, has resulted in a rising number of carjackings, kidnappings and gun battles throughout Mexico.

“U.S. travelers should be aware that the Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter TCOs (Transnational Criminal Organizations) which engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico, says the State Department in the new warning posted on their website today.

Detailing the problem, the State Department says “The TCOs themselves are engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. As a result, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and can occur anywhere. U.S. citizens have fallen victim to TCO activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery.”

Mexico government figures indicate that 47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence between December 1, 2006 and September 30, 2011, the warning states. Most of those killed were members of the criminal organizations.

The big problem: State Department numbers indicate that 120 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico in 2011, up from 35 in 2007, according to the warning.

Bad news for college students, the government says spring break destination Rocky Point is a key area in the international drug and human trafficking trades and can be extremely dangerous.

Arizona college student Juan Pantoja told KVOA.com, “I was there two or three months ago. I go down there often and go to Rocky Point. I have never thought twice about it. It’s always a good time.” University of Arizona student Chase Tsui added, “I would love to go visit my boyfriend’s family, but the problem is getting there. My mom still has this thing about going to Mexico, so she still doesn’t want me to go.”

The updated warning advises against nonessential travel to areas within 16 Mexican states, including Veracruz and the border areas of Aguacalientes and Zacatecas, and Colima and Michoacan says TravelWeekly but notes that no advisories are in effect for the state of Quintana Roo (Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya and Tulum), the Riviera Nayarit, Mexico City, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara and Guanajuato (San Miguel de Allende and Leon).

Travelers are advised to stay within the tourist areas of Acapulco, Ixtapa, Mazatlan, Monterrey and Zihuantanejo.



Severed Heads Left at Mexican School

Flickr photo by scazon

Mexico’s safest destinations

MexicoCrime in Mexico has kept travelers away from some parts of the country that are riddled with the results of drug cartel operations. Everything from murder to mass graves and the acts of brutal drug lords has caused the U.S. Department of State to issue warnings against travel south of the border. Still, there are a number of places deemed safe by a variety of sources that are worth a look if not a trip to visit.

Our first five safe places to visit come from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Five Safest Places in Mexico. At only 1.1 deaths per 100,000, the agricultural state of Tlaxcala is rated as Mexico’s safest state followed by the Yucatán at 1.3 that has a well-developed tourist infrastructure and thousands of archaeological sites.

Up next is Puebla at 1.85 with 2,600 historic buildings, a wealth of archaeological sites, and virtually nonstop festivals originating in five distinct pre-hispanic cultures ahead of the small state of Querétaro with just 2.02 deaths per 100,000. Best-known for its role in ending Spanish rule, the state also claims three of Mexico’s major wineries and maintains a Cheese and Wine Museum.

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Renewed Baja California Sur, sfgate tells us, was the first flash point when President Calderón upset the drug cartels’ equilibrium and has been barely touched by drug violence. Adventure travelers will find hiking, kayaking, surfing and windsurfing, zip-lines, cave paintings and hot springs here.Tapping Lonely Planet for more safe places to visit in Mexico we find Mexico City, now cleaned up to be a ‘Disney version’ of its former gritty self, Todos Santos where “well-heeled New Mexico artists, organic farmers and even some Hollywood types have snapped up property and put down roots” and San Miguel de Allende where regular festivals, fireworks and parades dominate the local scene.

  “If it’s resorts you want,” says Lonely Planet, Huatulco is a rare success story in recent resort development. This former fishing village has become the Oaxacan beach resort of choice lately, benefiting from its gentle development plan that keeps much of the 12 miles of sandy shoreline completely unspoiled and the town under six-stories high.”

Finally, rapidly growing Playa Del Carmen comes in to round out our list of ten safe places to visit in Mexico. More than a day trip for cruise passengers, visitors come from all over the world in what looks to be a very safe destination, just one of the many we found in Mexico.

Flickr photo by RussBowling