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

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.

Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day five: Taking the ferry across the Gulf of California

This is part 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: Dec. 29, 2009-Dec. 30, 2009

I have never been on a Carnival cruise, but I have traveled by reed boat along Peru’s Lake Titicaca, jetted in a motor panga through rivers in Nicaragua and once took a very long trip to the Corn Islands sitting on the the boat’s deck, squished between other people, animals and sacks of grains.

Boat trips, to me, are about exploring new places and setting off on adventures – not so much about lounge chairs and martinis. The idea of crossing the Gulf of California by boat was alluring to me, in part because I didn’t know anyone else who had taken the 8-10 hour ferry trip between Guaymas, Sonora and the Baja peninsula.

Taking the ferry, it turned out,  also requires a zen state of mind. Technically, it leaves at 8 p.m. on four designated days a week from Guaymas. But  nature is what actually  dictates  the boat’s schedule. We had arrived here Sunday and by Tuesday morning we still weren’t exactly sure when it would leave – or if it would leave before the end of 2009.  

As we were lounging at the Guaymas hotel pool in travel limbo, we got a call from the ferry office asking us to hurry over and pay for our tickets because the ferry would be leaving…at 4 p.m.

There were still a few things I wanted to check out in Guaymas.  I had learned there was a some sort of a dolphin facility in Guaymas/San Carlos, and I had also seen signs for a pearl farm. Instead, we ended up stocking up a cooler with food and drinks for the trip and making a few other travel-related purchases before rushing to line up our car for  pre-boarding inspection by soldiers and a drug-sniffing dog. 

We joined about 80 other people waiting to board the ferry, including a platoon of gun-toting soldiers heading for an assignment in Baja. Other ferry travelers included some French guys, members of  a band traveling to Baja to perform over New Year’s and a chatty Chinese student called “Arnold” who had a visa problem and was waiting out his U.S. appointment in Mexico.

We left as the sun was setting over the horizon, so I was able to enjoy the view as we pulled away from Guaymas. The sunset stroked violet and orange colors on the horizon as we headed west out of the bay.

Soon the sorbet canvas above us was replaced by the sparkle of stars and the inky smudge of sky and sea.

Most of the people on board – except for the soldiers in first-class – had bought the ferry’s basic ticket. This got you a seat in a room that was set up like a very wide plane. Two large television sets provided nominal entertainment and a snack bar immediately in front of the passengers sold overpriced popcorn and other foods. It was hot here, and didn’t look very comfortable. As the evening wore on, the people in the front seats ended up curled on the ground.

I was glad we had gotten a cabin. This had cost an extra $75 for the four of us, but it gave us our own space with four bunk beds, a small sink and shelf –  and our own porthole. We kept the porthole slightly open to provide air circulation. We had  left most of our luggage in the car, but brought with us the cooler with drinks and snacks from Guaymas. 

There were a lot of doors inside the ferry and lots of curious – or lost  – people. At one point duirng the trip, all four of us  were sitting in the cabin when the door swung open and a disoriented soldier stared at us. “Ay, perdon…me equivoque.” (Oh, Sorry! I made a mistake).  This scenario kept on repeating itself in bad comedic style. We finally just  locked the cabin door.

I spent much of my time clambering up and down the ferry’s three levels or standing outside, chatting with the other ferry travelers and watching the waves churn below us. At one point, the ferry captain and his assistant let us visit the navigation room.

The sea was calm and the ride was smooth. I asked about the “worst ever” ferry trip and was told that there had been one particularly-rough trip that took 24 hours and that practically inspired mutiny except that the sick passengers were too busy heaving into bags. 

Around midnight I went into the cabin to doze a bit. At 3:30 a.m. I went outside where about a dozen passengers were hanging out in the darkness.  We could see the lights of Santa Rosalia sparkling off the Baja peninsula. It was almost 10 hours since we had left. The lights grew brighter and soon I could make out the forms of buildings and the dock.

We arrived around 4 a.m. and had to check in with Mexican authorities to give our names, show our identifications, and to have our photos taken. The car got another sniff-over by the crime-fighting dog and soldiers, and then we were back on the road.

4 a.m. was too early for breakfast, and too late to go to sleep. We ended up driving about an hour south to Mulege, but it was still too early to do anything and so we checked into a hotel just outside of Mulege to rest for a few hours before continuing our journey.

TRAVEL FACTOIDS:

As of this blog post, the ferry leaves from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Its scheduled departure time is 8 p.m., but that may  not always be the case. Reservations are recommended, or check in person a day or two ahead of when you want to actually leave. One-way tickets for an adult cost between $55 and $65. Most cars cost about $250 for a one-way trip. A ship cabin cost us an additional $75, with sleeping space for four. For more information, visit here or here (for more detailed prices)

On Vacation


Just a quick note to wish visitors and readers of this blog a wonderful holiday season and a happy New Year!

I am leaving Christmas Day on a nine-day road trip south of the border to to explore some new places and revisit a few favorites (picture above is from previous trip along the Baja peninsula). The plan is to drive south along the Sonora coast, take the ferry across the Gulf of California to the Baja peninsula – and make our way back north to Tijuana. I will be traveling with my partner in crime, two kids – and quite possibly a sock puppet.

It should be fun, and I plan on documenting it with my video camera and come back with some travel entries for this blog, which will resume publishing in January. Until then…cheers!

p.s. If you are feeling inspired to hit the road in Baja, you can check out the travelogue I put together from my 2006-2007 Baja trip.

Could the pitaya be the next pomegranate?

The fruit, the Red Pitaya, at a market place
Image via Wikipedia

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is the author a memorable poem about an artichoke, in which the vegetable is infused with military meaning but eventually emasculated by a shopper called Maria.

If I were a poet, I would probably write an ode of my own to the pitaya – the fruit of a cactus plant that is also known by the name “dragonfruit.” I first learned about the pitaya when I lived in Nicaragua in 1996. It was a scary-looking fruit on the outside with a spiny armor. But once you got past that tough exterior, the insides were dripping with a sweet magenta pulp that was loaded with tiny black seeds. Nicaraguans typically made the pitaya into a fruit juice, but sometimes slices of it ended up on salads and other food items.

Apparently there are a range of pitayas that grow around the Southern hemisphere, including Mexico, and this site reports that there are “several” that are from Nicaragua. Some other varieties have a white flesh and yellow exterior. It can also also be found in Vietnam and Malaysia.

I got to thinking about the pitaya recently because in one of my graduate classes we are looking at the company that produces POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. POM has funded a lot of research into the health benefits of the pomegranate and I would love to see the same thing happen with the pitaya  (this study seems to suggest that the pitaya also has high antioxidant potential). Like the pitaya, I found Nicaragua to be a country with a rough, complicated exterior. Once you got past that, though, the country – and the pitaya –  was full of surprises and wonders, which made it well worth the challenge.

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