Category Archives: Uncategorized

Time out, but have a seat & keep chatting

I haven’t been able to update this blog lately because I’ve been in the middle of getting a new job and home – and moving into a new home and job.

Both major life events are happily bringing me back to San Diego after a two year absence. During that time I was in Los Angeles where I  got a master’s degree at USC, and worked full time at the university. It was a great experience, but I am glad to be returning closer to the border where I am starting a new career as social media director at Tree.com (parent company of LendingTree and a bunch of other loan and home-related sites).

With so much going on, I want to let readers know that I am putting things on hold –  for now. But please continue the interesting conversations that have developed around a number of blog posts, in particular the one about the passports. I will make a point of checking and updating the comments to allow for contined information exchange.

Happy border travels and let me know if you are in the area!

Photo credit: Benches.com

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Results from my survey on police bribery of tourists in Mexico

During my master’s program at the University of Southern California (specialty on online communities), I designed a survey as part of my research practices class on the topic of police bribery in Mexico. It was inspired by a story I wrote once when I was a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune about how the tourist shakedowns were hard to quantify because so few are actually reported.

I finally got around to releasing the survey on SurveyMonkey and collecting the data a few months ago when 113 had filled it out.  

First of all, some context: The majority of the people who completed  the survey (78.7 percent) were between the ages of 31 and 65, with most of these skewing towards the older age range of 46-65. They were predominantly male (85.8 percent), and predominantly white (85.8 percent).  Eighty percent had crossed the border 20 times or more over their lifetimes.

Here are some survey highlights:

Of the total surveyed, 40.2 percent said they had never paid an officer in Mexico a bribe.

However, 46.4 percent said they had paid a bribe at least once or as much as three times.  12.5 percent said they had paid such a bribe between 4-10 times.

for 62 percent of those who paid bribes, the total amount paid was between $1 and $25.

32.4 percent of those who paid bribes paid between $26 and $50.

14.7 percent of those who paid bribes paid between $51 and $100.

Only 4.3 percent of survey respondents said they had ever filed a complaint to report the incident.

When evaluating the perception of bribery as a problem for  tourists in Mexico, 20.2 percent of respondents considered it to be a “huge problem” but 16.5 percent of respondents didn’t consider it to be a problem at all. The majority of respondents – 27.5 percent – considered policy bribery to be a moderate problem.

Thank you to all who participated in the survey. I will release additional highlights in future blog posts.

ICF Survey finds that many U.S. retirees in Mexico live comfortably for less than $1,000 a month

This month, the National City-based International Community Foundation released findings of a survey they conducted of more than 840 senior retirees in coastal areas of Mexico who are over the age of 50. I’m republishing here portions of the Foundation press release that was posted on their web site: 

  • U.S. retirees in Mexico are relatively young and well-educated. Nearly 53% are under 65 years of age (and, in fact, 80% are 69 years or younger), perhaps indicating that Mexico may not be as attractive for older Americans that require additional medical care. In addition, almost two-thirds have at least a college degree, and another 28% had attended at least one-year of college.
  • The respondents chose Mexico for retirement due to its proximity to the United States and its affordability relative to other U.S. retirement destinations.
  • U.S. retirees residing in Mexico continue to maintain strong ties to the U.S.: 50% consider the U.S. their primary country of residency, and almost 22% return to the U.S. on a monthly basis. 85% remain in contact with friends and family in the U.S. through the internet, 64% used the telephone, and 33% used Skype.
  • Retirees living in Mexico are worldly and world-wise. Of those that had considered retirement locations other than Mexico, 41% considered retiring in Central America or the Caribbean; 19% considered other non-U.S. destinations as possible retirement locations. Should quality of life decline in Mexico, those that are financially able could begin to look elsewhere.
  • Mexico may become an alternative for those U.S. retirees facing economic challenges in the future. While survey results and focus group participants clearly express that economic reasons were a major factor in leading them south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the potential is likely greater than is being realized. In 2007, the California Elder Economic Security Standard Index (a financial measure that indicates basic financial needs for seniors in California) ranged from $21,000-$27,500 as the minimum needed for major California cities. The survey results show that nearly 44% of U.S. coastal retirees in Mexico live comfortably on less than $1,000 per month – an amount which underscores the potential demand for retirement options for low and middle income retirees in Mexico.

For more on the survey, go to the ICF website or read this story by San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Sandra Dibble. 

To get an insight into the life of senior citizens retired in Mexicali, go to MexicaliMaryAnn’s blog:  http://www.mexicalimaryann.com/

About the ICF (from their web site):  International Community Foundation is a public charity working to foster lasting philanthropy to benefit under-served communities throughout the Americas and Asia. With over 70% of International Community Foundation’s recent grantmaking benefiting charitable causes along the Baja California peninsula, International Community Foundation is committed to assisting US donors with charitable giving needs from Tijuana to Los Cabos.

At the SXSW conference…

Just a quick note to let readers know I will be out of town through next week at  SXSW (Interactive)  in Austin where I will be immersing myself in all things social media. I will try to promptly update the comments section during this time,  but I may not be able to provide immediate responses. Hopefully, the power of collective intelligence and crowdsourcing will allow you to help each other out with your travel questions.

Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day Ten: The drive back to Tijuana


This is the final of a series of blog posts about a ten-day trip I recently took south of the border through the Mexican state of Sonora and then back up north (after a ferry trip across the Gulf of California) through the Baja Peninsula.

Actual travel date: Jan 3, 2010. Baja California North.

The border road trip was winding to a close. Over the past nine days we had seen and done a lot: Exploring the state of Sonora, crossing the Gulf of California in a ferry – and visiting islands and cave art sites along the Baja peninsula. It was Sunday, and time to head back to the Tijuana border. This would be an all-day drive along the Transpeninsular highway, but fortunately the Baja peninsula landscape is never boring.

We left Guerrero Negro at 8 a.m., which was actually 7 a.m. Tijuana time (the time zone switches once you cross into or out of Guerrero Negro). It was foggy, but eventually the shroud parted to reveal a flat stretch of desert with cactus bent in odd angles. Our second road-kill episode during the trip (after the previous night’s coyote hit) took place when a small bird impaled itself on the car antenna.

By 9:30, we had reached Catavina. We had foolishly forgotten to fill up on gasoline at Guerrero Negro or other places nearby, so this was our only hope for fuel. There isn’t a PEMEX gas station here, but there are other options like this guy on the side of the road who probably earns a pretty decent living from travelers like us.

Catavina is a good place to stretch your legs. It’s a speck along the road with a smattering of hotels and food place. It would be nicer if there weren’t so much graffiti on the rocks, but if you pull off the main road you can immerse yourself in a more authentic desert experience.

We left Catavinia around 10 a.m. and then pushed on to El Rosario, which is about an hour away. We reached the agricultural community of  San Quintin at noon and kept driving along the main road cuts through town, lost in indecision over where to go for lunch. After eating some unmemorable fish tacos, we continued north.
I lost track of the number of military checkpoints we went through during this one day. I think it must have been around eight.


Three hours later, we arrived in  Ensenada from San Quintin. For some reason, I was seized by a sudden urge for donuts. By the time we left Ensenada the sky was starting to darken.

It had been a long day on the road but we made good time. We reached Tijuana at 5 p.m. –  about nine hours after we left Guerrero Negro – and I was back in the LA area a few hours after that. When I look at this map below, I’m somewhat amazed at the ground that we managed to cover in just ten days. Sure, it would have been great to have just gone to one place or region and get to know it really well. A road trip can be somewhat superficial and cursory, especially when you have a limited time frame. But on the other hand, it is also a chance to get the bigger picture of things and to realize how much more there is to get to know.

Dotted lines on map represent north-bound part of trip.

Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day Nine: Hiking through Trinidad Canyon, near Mulege


This is part nine of a series of blog posts about a ten-day trip I recently took south of the border through the Mexican state of Sonora and then back up north (after a ferry trip across the Gulf of California) through the Baja Peninsula.

Actual travel date: Jan 2, 2010, Mulege. Baja California (south).

By Saturday, most of the New Year’s revelers in Mulege had shaken off their hangovers and the village  returned to its normal routine. We left our car at an auto shop (a result of  the previous day’s mountain excursion) and then met up with Salvador Castro, a local guide who would take us to the Trinidad Canyon – a rocky outcrop that is decorated with smatterings of pre-Columbian painted art.

Our travel companions included a German family, and a mother and daughter from Mexico City. We first went to a government office where we obtained permits to hike into the protected area. Then we scrambled into Salvador’s white van. It all was very deja vu. I had done this trip three years go with Salvador as a guide but I don’t think he remembered me.

Along the way, Salvador took us to a citrus orchard where we willingly bought some juicy oranges. Back in the van, the Germans got photo-happy about seeing some vultures spreading their wings on the tips of cactus. Salvador made a stop along the way to talk about the medicinal qualities of certain desert plants.:

After more than an hour we arrived at a house that would be our jumping-off point for the hike. I knew that we would be crossing a pool of water on our way to the caves. I remembered it as being about waist- or chest-high, and that I had used a rope to balance myself as I crossed the slippery rocks.

So I was a little surprised to encounter  – not a manageable pool – but a lake.  We would have to swim. 

After much heming and hawing, we all made it across. It took about 12 seconds to get to the other side, but the water was so cold that I felt like I was hyperventilating when I finally forced myself into the water after much delay. Not far from the water, we encountered the first markings of cave art:

We did more hiking, including wading through some more manageable water patches:

Then we reached another section of cave art:

By then the kids of our group were getting hungry so we scrambled back down to the hiking path. This time, I plunged right into the lake water to hurry things up. Salvador had brought a cooler with food and drinks so we had lunch on a rock slab before heading back to the house where the van was parked at.

Back in Mulege, we picked up our own car and grabbed some dinner around 5 p.m. before heading across the peninsula to Guerrero Negro. The drive took us four hours. It was uneventful except for a couple of stops at military checkpoints and an unfortunate  hit-and-run with a coyote that left a scrape on the car’s front.

TRAVEL TIPS: 

To  make arrangements for the hike, we just went to the Hotel Las Casitas in Mulege and asked how to reach a guide. They dialed up Salvador and put him on the line for us. The trip cost about $180 for the four of us. You leave around 9 a.m. and return by 4 p.m. During the rainy season, ask about the height of the water you will be crossing to visit the caves. It’s a good idea to wear swimming clothes underneath your hiking clothes. Salvador provided a waterproof bag to protect clothes and camera equipment. Salvador’s web site: http://www.mulegetours.com/

Trip from Mulege to Guerrero Negro (see the blue dotted lines on the map below) is roughly four hours.

Dotted lines on this map represent north-bound travels:


Anyone have contacts in Guatemala?

I occasionally scroll through a service called Help A Reporter Out (HARO). Recently, I came upon this query from a film producer called Jesse Zook Mann, who is looking for someone with contacts across the border – in Guatemala – for an upcoming project:

“Looking to document moving stories around Guatemala that make a difference. Mafia resistance, indigenous beauty, modern life, the hope and history of the nation. We want to make a short film including several Guatemalan stories for a short doc for Sundance and other fests. If you have a connection to people down there please be in touch.”

I am assuming he’s looking for someone to work as a ‘fixer’ to get people and places prepped for this kind of thing. I was in Guatemala more than ten years ago. That was back when I was trying to get my Spanish more conversational, and so I enrolled in a language school in Antigua for a very, very good price. In my time off, I got to see a lot of the country, including the famous ruins of Tikal.

But I don’t have any contacts there anymore so I’m posting his appeal here – just in case someone has some leads and is willing to reach out. He looks legit, but I haven’t talked to him myself – so do your own investigations (Update: See comments below for more info. from Jesse) . According to his web site, Zook Mann is “an Emmy Award winning producer and cinematographer from New York City.” Here is his web site: http://zookmann.com/blog and you can find his contact information there.