I recently returned from a three-week trip to Mexico. I wasn’t teaching and didn’t have any holiday plans, so I decided to do some relaxing down in one of my favorite places in the world, Playa del Carmen.
I spent my 50th birthday, Christmas, and New Years down there. If you want to experience another country, I’d highly recommend traveling over Christmas and New Years. It’s an experience few travelers ever have.
I spent a lot of time chilling in the sun, reading, writing and getting mentally prepared for my cancer surgery (surgery update at end of article). It turned out being a great trip. I chose Playa del Carmen because it isn’t quite as touristy as many Mexican towns, is completely walkable, has some world class restaurants, and a population from just about every country on the planet. It’s really easy to meet fun new people there.
I flew to Cancun directly from Austin. Of course, my flight was late. Even though the Mexican immigration officials got rid of their FMM form for tourists flying into Cancun airport. That made things faster, but the line was still over an hour long getting into the country. Once I got through customs and immigration, I found my pre-booked transportation and prepared for the hour-long drive to PDC.
That drive gave me a reminder to be careful talking to taxi, shuttle, or ride sharing drivers.
As I mentioned above, my flight was delayed. I was tired from the delay and the insanely crowded airports. I didn’t have the mental energy to talk to the driver for an hour. I pretended to be the stereotypical gringo and greeted him in English. Even though I speak passable Spanish, I didn’t speak any Spanish to him. His English was not good.
On the drive, he made a phone call in Spanish. I’m listening to the conversation when the driver mentioned his previous customer was unique and worthy to be watched. He said the last customer was a single man in his 40s who was traveling by himself with eight large suitcases.
The driver went on to say how the man had told him that he was a wealthy businessman and owned several hotels. The driver pulled up the phone app he was using to track his rides and shared the previous customer’s full name, email address, phone number, and the hotel where he was staying with whomever he was speaking.
The driver told his friend that the rich businessman should be watched. For what? I’m not sure, but it can’t be for anything good.
I didn’t hear them plotting any nefarious actions, but why would the driver share all that info?
Taxi drivers, especially in the developing world are true hustlers. Many do far more than just drive tourists around. They often serve as a connection to get people information, drugs, and prostitutes.
Be careful what you tell your driver. If questioned, make up a boring middle class job. If you are alone, you should tell the driver that you are meeting a large group of friends soon. Don’t tell the truth when they ask you about how long you will be staying.
Don’t give the drivers any reason to think you have money. Don’t give them information that could later be used to facilitate a scam or a criminal act.
Have a believable boring cover story ready before you get in the cab. Hopefully you won’t be “watched” like the passenger with eight suitcases.
If you want to dig a little deeper on the topic, read my article about best practices for a safe cab ride.
I arrived at the condo I rented and got the keys. The lobby Christmas tree needed a little attention. They didn’t put the live cut Christmas tree into any water. I was amazed that it didn’t catch fire at some point during my stay.
My rented condo was in a secured building and on the top floor. It had its own rooftop balcony. On another part of the roof there was a small pool and a friendly little bar where we watched the beautiful sunsets almost every evening.
I spent the first couple weeks in Mexico without any travel companions. For the initial few days I spent a lot of time walking around the neighborhood getting a lay of the land. The condo I rented was in a good location right on the border of the tourist area and the neighborhoods where the locals lived. It was quiet, yet was within a 10-minute walk to the beach and all the fun tourist bars and restaurants.
On my walks, one of the most obvious things I saw was the enormous presence of armed security guards everywhere. As I mentioned in this article, in failed states where corruption and government distrust is high, people with money hire private security instead of relying on the police.
Take a look at the photo below. It is a private security armored gun truck with bulletproof glass and gun ports. This isn’t a cash transport vehicle. This transports armed security guards as a quick reaction force.
Interestingly, it was parked in front of the public bus station, a resource that would usually be protected by municipal police in almost every country in the world.
But when you don’t trust the police and have expensive buses to protect in the developing world, you hire private security. We are rapidly seeing the exact same thing happening in the USA.
There was a bank in the mall that contained a large grocery store near my condo. When grocery shopping, I regularly saw armored car security guards picking up and dropping off money at the bank.
They always operate the same way. Two guards armed with handguns go into the bank. Two more guards with pump shotguns stand outside the bank watching the crowd.
What’s interesting is that the outside shotgun guards stand with their back to the front wall of the bank and arrange empty shopping carts as a barricade about five feet in front of them. It provides both an obstacle and a standoff to reduce the chance someone will get close enough to disarm them. Smart.
I always find it instructive to see how professionals do business in high threat environments. The security guards in America seem clueless and untrained by comparison.
I was last in PDC during the height of the pandemic in February of 2021. The police were quite menacing. With businesses closed and fewer tourists around, the cops were very aggressively targeting folks for bribes. On that last trip, I met people almost daily who had been shaken down by the cops. I met a couple girls who went to a jungle rave in Tulum and the police robbed all the passengers on the bus going to the party. It was nuts.
This trip was very different. I was never approached by any cops at all. Some even waved (with all of their fingers) when driving past me on the street. I talked to a lot of people and no one mentioned any problems with the police.
Drug sales were also far more open. I was solicited to purchase cocaine and weed on the street daily. There were new open cannabis stores selling marijuana in all forms.
On previous trips, pharmacies would not sell very many controlled drugs without prescriptions. That’s all changed now. If you went to the right place, you could buy almost any pharmaceutical you wanted.
Be careful at these pharmacies. The ones in the tourist areas and catering solely to tourists may be selling fake drugs. My advice for buying drugs in foreign countries is to stick to drugs made around the world in factories that the US FDA authorizes to manufacture and export US generic drugs. I also recommend purchasing drugs in pharmacies that have a local customer base and those the have air conditioning (hot temperatures reduce the storage longevity of many drugs).
You are legally allowed to bring back a 90-day personal supply of a non-controlled drug. You are limited to 50 unit doses of all combined controlled drugs per trip back to the USA. If you want more information about building a pharmaceutical stockpile from foreign sources, please check out one of my systems collapse medical classes.
Beyond the issues of drugs, cartels, police and other curious topics, I actually had a very relaxing vacation.
My friend Emily, who has shared adventures with me all around the world, came down and joined me for my final week.
Emily got us on the VIP list for some great DJs spinning on the rooftop of the nicest bar in PDC for New Years. We went to the show and met a bunch of fun people from all over the world while staying out entirely too late at a classy rooftop bar.
Interestingly enough, I expected wand metal detectors upon entry to the club. I prepared by carrying a ceramic knife and some hidden pepper spray. When we got there, I saw that the bouncers were patting people down instead of wanding them. I re-positioned my weapons to an area that wouldn’t be searched during a standard pat-down.
As we approached the bouncers, the door man said “They’re on the VIP list.” That got us escorted past security without any searches. Just keep in mind that you may be able to carry better weapons than you might think if you are on a special entry list, especially in the developing world.
We spent New Years Eve watching fireworks from our rooftop bar followed by a great dinner, and a walking tour of the beach and tourist areas, popping into various bars, restaurants and parties. We stayed out late again and treated ourselves to a sushi feast when we woke up. It was a lot of fun.
The next few days we did daily running workouts on the beach and at a local track to make up for our excesses. We also went snorkeling one afternoon on a nice catamaran out on the reef and closed out our trip with some amazing meals at some of the city’s best restaurants. It was a great trip.
Here are a few more photos.
Some of you have endured all my travel content in the hopes of getting an update on my cancer surgery. As of today, I am three weeks into my recovery from the surgery. The doctor said he was extremely happy with the surgery results. He rated the surgery as a 10/10 (best score) on their measures of both success and reduction of chances of long term negative side effects.
I’m still a bit swollen and fatigued, but I already have complete urinary control. I still have to wait another three weeks before I do any physical activity and start recovering my lost physical fitness. I won’t know for certain until my six-month followup MRI, but the most likely scenario is that the doctor fried all my cancer and I am now cancer free.
I’ll probably be around for a few more years yet. Thank you all for your messages of support.