Vagabond Tales: How To Pay Off The Police While Traveling

Let’s face it: things happen while you’re traveling. Although many travels go off without a hitch, occasionally there are unforeseen hurdles, which simply need to be navigated. Sometimes this can be as minor as your bag ending up in Hamburg when it’s supposed to be in Berlin, as unlucky as contracting swine flu in Mexico, or as downright scary as ending up in a knife fight in a back alley in Spain (more on those stories another time).

Of all the travel inconveniences I’ve experienced over years of vagabonding, however, the one which happens with undoubtedly the most frequency is being cornered into paying off the police. Sometimes this is my fault, sometimes it’s someone else’s fault, and other times it’s nothing more than rampant corruption. Either way, I’ve paid off the police enough times while traveling to warrant mentioning it with some authority.

One thing I want to set straight, however, is that I have never intentionally bribed the police, because that, I believe, is illegal. In every situation where money has exchanged hands between myself and an officer of the law the idea was proposed to me without my offering it first. I don’t by any means condone corruption because it’s one of the largest social cancers plaguing much of the developing world. Nevertheless, when staring down the barrel of a sticky situation there is often too little time for letting your morals get the better of you.

It’s worthy of mentioning that all of these situations occurred while driving vehicles in Latin America. If the idea of confrontations with police officers doesn’t rank high on your list of travel plans, perhaps my number one rule of advice would be avoid operating vehicles in Latin America.

If your bucket list includes a surf safari across Central America or driving the length of Highway 1, however, I offer this mini-survival guide for navigating an awkward situation in places where the lines of justice and extortion are frequently blurred.Rule #1: Anticipate the scenario.

Just like you shouldn’t travel with any item you don’t fully expect to get stolen or lost, you should never drive in a foreign country and expect everything is going to be ok. One solution is to take a pre-determined amount of money, usually around $20-$40, and stick it in the glove box as a precautionary measure. In Mexico, this is officially known as “la mordida,” (the bite), and on about 50 percent of trips to Mexico I have found myself needing to pay off the police with the money stashed aside for just that reason. If you expect that you’re going to be hassled and plan accordingly you already have the upper hand.

Rule #2: Let them do the talking.

In situations like these, the issue of who is right and who is wrong is completely null and void. Arguing will get you nowhere except into a deeper hole.

Usually, what will happen is the police will lay out a long, difficult series of events, which need to take place in order for you to right your horrendous wrong. This often involves talk of following them to the police station, the arrangement of court dates, the confiscation of your passport, or your inability to leave the country now that you are a roadside criminal. Often times fear tactics are also employed in that they will most likely mention you are going to be arrested and potentially spend some time in jail.

Regardless of how scary the situation gets, however, just keep letting them talk because usually it’s building up to them offering you the easy way out.

Having been pulled over for “speeding” in a rural town in Costa Rica, the policeman even launched into a long-winded dialogue about how proceeds from traffic violations were now going to underprivileged Costa Rican children and how my wife and I would need to drive to the capital of San Jose immediately to pay our $240 fine at a specifically named bank. Then, as expected, the offer was laid out before us.

“Or, we could always just take care of it right here.”

One $20 bill and five minutes later, we were headed towards Playa Samara completely free and clear.

Rule #3: Only leave a small amount of cash in your wallet and hide the rest elsewhere.

In Uruguay, there is a law which mandates headlights must be turned on regardless of whether it’s day or night. Having just made a bathroom stop my wife and I had forgotten to turn the lights back on, and in the twelve seconds it took me to realize the mistake, police at a roadside checkpoint had already seized upon the opportunity.

I again endured the long-winded diatribe about how our passports would be seized, we’d miss our flight, have to appear in court in three weeks in Montevideo, etc. and so on. I was then made to step out of the car and follow the policeman towards the back of his vehicle.

Opening the passenger side door so as to block the line of sight for oncoming traffic, he threw me the much-anticipated olive branch.

“You want to make your flight right?”

“Yes sir.”

“You don’t want your wife to see you go to jail do you?”

“No sir.”

“2,000 Uruguayos.”

The equivalent of $100, I explained that I simply didn’t have that much on me. This, of course, was the truth, because I had only left $40 in my wallet for precisely this reason. The rest was in my backpack sitting safely in the backseat.

“It’s everything I have,” I explained, being sure to dramatically open my wallet and show its empty recesses.

Placing the green and red Uruguayo notes beneath a piece of paper on his clipboard I was allowed to swiftly return to my car and drive away.

Rule #4: Follow directions and you will be fine.

Of all the times I’ve been forced to pay the police, things really were looking pretty dire in Tijuana, Mexico. Having spotted empty beer cans in the front of our truck, a bicycle cop concluded that our sun-bleached pack of surf friends must have been drinking and driving. Though the cans were left over from our lunch in Ensenada, this was a point we had little way of proving. According to the policeman there was nothing we could do and we were all going to jail.

Seeing as the official judicial policy of Mexico is essentially “guilty until proven innocent,” the idea of spending the night in a Tijuana prison was beginning to appear more and more likely.

Then, as quickly as we had been pulled over, we just as quickly were told to leave. Before nervously pulling back into the border line, however, we received some very curious and detailed instructions.

“The cross. It costs $80. You will buy it under the bridge.”

In no mood to ask questions we resumed our spot in the border line more than a little shaken. Though we were back and moving and on the road, however, we couldn’t lose the feeling that this encounter wasn’t over.

Sure enough, a quarter mile up the road, while stopped in gridlock border traffic, a street vendor approached us with a faux-wood crucifix of Jesus. As had been prophesied by the policeman, he approached us while underneath a bridge. Knowing full well what to do, we handed the vendor the aforementioned $80. As a final slap in the face we weren’t even allowed to keep the cross.

I would later find out that in an effort to crack down on police corruption, cameras had been installed to monitor the shady dealings of roadside police. The cameras, as it would happen, are not able to see beneath the bridges.

So does the fact that you can get away with paying your way out of traffic violations mean I recommend reckless irresponsibility while abroad? Of course not. Preying on tourists who have laughably little rights may be a devious way to earn a buck, but unfortunately, with the depressed level of foreign wages and low government pay, it’s a twisted means towards making ends meet.

There are many whom will cry foul and claim that succumbing to “la mordida” is simply like feeding the bears in the woods – if you encourage bad habits they will cease to go away. Whether you choose to do so is ultimately up to you, but should you find yourself in a situation like those described above, may this long-winded log of my own personal bad decisions serve as an illicit road map for procuring your much-deserved freedom.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here.

[Images courtesy of: blmurch,, and tiffa130 on Flickr]

Gallery: A guide to South American cocktails

Margaritas, Cuba libres, piña coladas and mojitos are drinks with Latin American origins that have become staples at bars across America. But what about the drinks being mixed up further south? Whether you want to know what to order up at the bar during your next trip to South America or you are looking for a way to raise the bar at home, these mixed drinks will leave you thirsty for more.


The world’s most ethical tourism destinations

Each year, non-profit organization Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of the world’s developing nations, analyzing their progress toward promoting human rights, preserving their environment, and developing a sustainable tourism industry. The study, run by Ethical Traveler’s all-volunteer staff, factors in country scores from databases like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Bank, then dives into actions that governments have taken to improve circumstances within their countries in the previous year.

The top countries are celebrated in Ethical Traveler’s annual list of the Developing World’s Best Ethical Tourism Destinations, with the hope that increased tourism will help those countries continue to improve. “Travel and tourism are among the planet’s driving economic forces, and every journey we take makes a statement about our priorities and commitment to change,” they say. “Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel is a net positive for the planet. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our role as citizen diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.”

This year’s list includes Argentina, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Mauritius, Palau, Serbia, and Uruguay. Explore these countries more in the slideshow below.


[Flickr image via Lisandro M. Enrique]

Vagabond Tales: Nobody plans to visit a hospital in Uruguay

About the last thing that anyone wants to have happen on their vacation is to end up in the hospital. This much nearly all travelers can agree upon.

What’s even more fun is ending up in a hospital in a country that speaks a foreign language, realizing your vocabulary doesn’t yet include the translations for words such as “syringe”, “infection”, and “spinal tap”.

Luckily for me I found myself in a hospital in a country where I actually do speak the language (Spanish) and I didn’t need any of the aforementioned words listed above. Also, perhaps even luckier is that I wasn’t actually hurt, but instead was simply in search of some prescription drugs.

Allow me to explain.

Punta del Este, Uruguay is a South American beach oasis that’s part South Beach and part Las Vegas. Furthermore, it’s safe to say it’s one of the premier party spots for global jet-setters who may be interested in obtaining some prescription drugs for a big night out.

It also just so happened to be the beach town that my wife and I found ourselves in on our honeymoon when we realized the Xanax she had been packing for the trip home was actually long-expired and completely ineffective, and we had 21 hours of flying coming up before we were safely back home in Hawaii.

It’s been well documented here on Gadling that many people frequently cope with a fear of flying in their own personal ways, and the seriousness of this situation was not to be taken lightly. With the issue of the expired Xanax making itself known, we were really reduced to only two options: buying a used car in Buenos Aires and driving back to California without being kidnapped by FARC rebels in Panama’s Darien Gap, or finding the nearest hospital and getting another prescription whipped up and bottled with our name on it. Stat.Which is how I ended up in the waiting lounge of a Punta del Este hospital attempting to convince the receptionist that two twenty-something year old foreigners who hadn’t even checked into a hotel yet and held no travel insurance really did in fact need some prescription drugs and could only pay in cash.

Yeah. Right.

To be fair, I knew that extracting drugs out of a foreign hospital with no prescription in a second language was going to be a little tricky in the first place, which is why the hospital wasn’t the first place we tried.

Prior to aiming our rental vehicle for the skeptical confines of the Punta del Este hospital we had actually done our best to terrify everyone in an upper-class residential neighborhood on the tip of the doorman at our hotel. Informing him of our immediate need for Xanax, he gave us some rudimentary directions to what was essentially “the house of a guy he knew who could hook us up.” He said the guy was a doctor and ran a home practice, but it was sketchy at best.

Some people go to Punta del Este and lay on the beach or gamble at the casino, while others apparently creep out amongst manicured lawns and spend their day on a mystical hunt for a home-practice doctor who’s mentioned only in hushes and whispers. After having lurked around at least 6 or 7 different yards with the glazed determination of international drug fiends we finally settled upon the hospital as our best bet.

Finally planted in the backroom of the beehive that all hospital’s the world over seem to be modeled after, we actually received a doctor who was very understanding and forthcoming with the goods. No English, but at least forthcoming.

He said he could recognize the genuine nature of my wife’s distress, but we must understand that the number of people who go into doctor’s offices complaining of anxiety to get their hands on some Xanax had taken a disastrous turn in the past few years.

Counting out some little blue pills and securing them in a sterile clear baggie he finally handed over what was literally our ticket back home.

Come to find out later the dosage of drugs such as Xanax in Uruguay is apparently much higher than the legal dosage allowed in the US, which is why to this day my wife on airplane flights can usually be found spilling her drink into my lap with either her chin or eye socket.

Is the hospital in Punta del Este the best way you could plan to spend part of your honeymoon? Absolutely not. But it beats losing all of your money at the casino.

Read more of the Vagabond Tales here

10 best eco-friendly hostels in the world

While you can usually expect an inexpensive stay at a hostel, not all of these accommodations are alike when it comes to being sustainable and green. For your next trip, why not stay somewhere that will not only give you a social experience on a budget, but will also be good for the planet? Check out this list of the 10 best eco-friendly hostels around the world.

Portland Hawthorne Hostel
Portland, Oregon

The Portland Hawthorne Hostel offers a clean, safe accommodation in the Hawthorne District of Portland, Oregon. The hostel has free breakfast, cheap bike rentals, and is a short walk from Mount Tabor and Luarelhurst parks. Not only that, but this hostel does its part in being eco-friendly. One of their biggest draws is their ecoroof, a “green living roof of vegetation and soil”. The project is low-maintenance and self-sustaining and is being encouraged by the city due to its ability to soak up stormwater and return it to a natural water cycle (water that is not soaked up usually becomes full of sewage and dirt and negatively affects aquatic habitats). Along with the ecoroof, the hostel makes use of green cleaning products, recycling and composting, and gives guests arriving by bicycle a discount of $5 per night.Auberge Alternative du Vieux-Montréal
Montreal, Canada

The Auberge Alternative is a boutique hostel for budget travelers. Old-warm charm resides here as the accommodation is actually an 1875 warehouse that was restored and enhanced. Art-lovers will also enjoy it here, as there is a gallery and studio that hosts artists from all over the world. Mix Auberge Alternative’s flair for art and design with their passion for green living, and you have one amazing accommodation. The hostel boasts free fair-trade coffees and teas, an organic and sustainable breakfast buffet, and usage of products made by small, locally run businesses. Moreover, you will not find a single vending machine, soda machine, or TV.

Mellow Eco Hostel Barcelona
Barcelona, Spain

Located in the traditional Horta District, this hostel is surrounded by greenery and away from the pollution and crowds of the city (but, still only fifteen minutes away by metro). There are many amenities and services included in your stay, including free Wi-Fi, free lockers, free linens, and free luggage storage. It is also one of the more social hostels with a shared kitchen and events, such as BBQ’s and dinners, on the terrace. What’s really great about Mellow Eco Hostel Barcelona, however, is its approach to a reduced environmental impact. They use renewable energy, with shower water being heated by solar panels on the roof. Moreover, they make use of recycling facilities, draught tap water, soap dispensers, biodegradable cleaning products, low consumption light bulbs, and only having air-conditioning in the common areas (don’t worry, the rooms were built to be well ventilated).

The Grampians YHA Eco-Hostel
Grampians, Australia

Located in the heart of the Grampians National Park, the Grampians YHA Eco-Hostel provides adventure activities such as rock climbing, hiking, and abseling, as well as the chance to experience the beauty of nature. The hostel also aims to be as green as possible and succeeds in many ways. Not only is the accommodation powered by solar electricity, it also does its part by using solar hot water, recycling, and collecting rainwater to reduce water consumption. Free-range eggs and organically grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs are also offered to guests.

Reykjavík City Hostel
Reykjavík, Iceland

Not only is Reykjavík City Hostel eco-friendly itself, it is also located next to a big geothermal swimming pool, beautiful waterfalls, explosive geysers, and other natural wonders for an even greener experience. Moreover, the hostel practices extensive recycling services, energy monitoring, and erosion control, offers a breakfast of local and organic fare, and sells fair-trade beverages at their cafe. While enjoying free Wi-Fi, a BBQ terrace, lounges, game rooms, and comfortable beds, guests can also take part in educational programs that will offer knowledge on sustainability and green living.

Eco Hostel Palermo
Buenos Aires, Argentina

This green hostel is situated in the trendy Palermo Soho of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Along with free linens, Wi-Fi in every room, a fully equipped kitchen, and 24-hour reception, guests can expect a stay that is friendly to the planet. The Eco Hostel Palermo makes use of solar powered panels, solar collectors, an organic garden, low enery light bulbs, insulated windows, cross-ventilation chambers, and eco-friendly computers with less plastic and low carbon emition. Moreover, almost all of the decoration and furnishing of the hostel is made with recycled and reused materials.

Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge
Konso, Ethiopia

Staying at the Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge, guests will get a feel for the simple life (the accommodation is also a farm) while being surrounded by dusty hills and lush greenery. It is a great budget accommodation if you’re looking to have a culturally-immersed experience as you will be staying in wooden thatched huts with authentic decor and eating locally prepared foods. Not only that, but your stay here will make you feel good about the environment, as it is run on solar power including solar showers and composting toilets.

The Green Hostel
Montevideo, Uruguay

This eco-friendly hostel has a lot to offer in terms of both amenities and sustainability. The Green Hostel features tours, bike rentals, 24-hour reception, a kitchen, a bar, internet, free breakfast and linens, lockers, luggage storage, and laundry services. Not only that, but they clearly have a committment to the environment, with furniture made of reused materials, hot water generated by solar panels, energy efficient light bulbs, a recycling program, and promotion of using bicycles as a way to explore the city.

Gyreum Ecolodge
Sligo, Ireland

Located in the North-West of Ireland, the name Gyreum literally means “round building” in Latin. You will understand why once you see the temple-like roof of the seemingly invisible Gyreum Ecolodge poking from the Earth. The hostel is an Installation Incubator, a place where people can come together to “incubate” new ideas. It is also an ecolodge, using a wind turbine to power geothermal heating, solar panels to heat water, and a traditional toilet that is connected to outside compost. Moreover, rainwater is collected and used for showers and toilets and an organic vegetable garden can be enjoyed by guests.

Enigmata Treehouse Ecolodge
Camiguin Island, Philippines

The Enigmata Treehouse Ecolodge is more than just a hostel, it is a place for travelers, artists, and environmentalists to come together to create positive change. With options of home-stays and dorms, there is also an art gallery on site (the accommodation is run by local artists), as well as a sculpture garden, library cafe, theater, and an open classroom. Along with trying to educate about ecology through art by, for example, decorating with pieces made of recycled products, guests are also invited to attend conservation and biodiversity workshops and seminars. Surrounded by farms and trees, the accommodation is located far away from highways and pollution. An array of ecotours are offered, as well as recycling and energy saving programs.