Falling for the Cash Payment Scam in Cabo San Lucas

“Good afternoon, sir! Is this your first time in Cabo?” asked the polite young man standing near the taxi counter in the San Jose del Cabo international airport.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. I had just picked up my suitcase from the baggage claim carousel and needed to get a ride to the coastal town of Cabo San Lucas, 45 kilometers away. I usually arrange my arrival transportation before leaving home, but for this quick trip to the beach I thought I would wing it. I’m an experienced world traveler after all.

“If you would like a taxi, the cost is $85 to Cabo San Lucas for up to three people.”

I thought that sounded pretty steep. I hesitated.

cabo beach
A walk on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“Or you can take a shuttle for only $17 one way,” said the man. Calculating the cost savings in my head I quickly realized how taking the shuttle was a much better deal, even when I had to pay for myself and my traveling companion. We could get to the hotel for $34 and save $51! That’s at least five margaritas! Maybe ten at happy hour!

“Sure, we’ll take the shuttle,” I said.

“Will you be needing a return ride to the airport at the end of your trip, sir?” asked the man.

I don’t know. I might just spend the rest of my life here in Mexico relaxing in a comfortable lounger next to the pool, with the sound of ocean surf reaching my ears, and a waiter at my beck and call bringing me an endless supply of margaritas and nachos. I might never go back home.

Cabo resort
Palm trees, pool, ocean, and sunny warm weather!

“Yes, I need a ride back to the airport on Sunday,” I said.

“OK, here is the very good deal for you sir. You can pre-pay today for your shuttle ride back to the airport. I will give you a voucher to give to your shuttle driver on Sunday. In addition, you will get free breakfast tomorrow and a 50% discount on selected excursions from the Cabo marina. You can pay for today’s ride in cash or by credit card, but you pay for the return ride in cash.”

That sounded like a decent deal. I handed over my credit card. The man processed the transaction and gave me a ticket to give to the driver for today’s ride. I gave him two twenty dollar bills and he promptly gave me $6 in change along with the return voucher, which I stuffed into my backpack.

Cabo land's end rocks
Rocks at Land’s End in Cabo.

The ride to Cabo took about an hour. It was reasonably comfortable in the van and the views of the countryside were nice. I was stuck next to two girls who carried on the most inane conversation I had heard in years. I couldn’t figure out if they were drunk already or just uncommonly stupid. They were holding half empty Coronas.

First girl: “I see some water! Is that the Indian Ocean?”

Second girl: “I dunno…”

Cabo land's end rocks boat view
A view of the rocks at Land’s End from a boat.

A couple of nights later I was wandering around the small town of Cabo and decided to stop in a tequila factory outlet store. I had already drunk a few margaritas at a semi-famous bar called Cabo Wabo. I wasn’t at my sharpest mental acuity.

“Hello!” said the woman behind the counter. “Would you like to taste some tequila?”

Yes, I would indeed. Bring it on.

She brought out a dozen bottles and gave me many small tasting cups. I had never known that there were so many varieties of tequila. Some were delicious, some were disgusting, but most were somewhere in between.

I picked out a couple of bottles of tequila to buy and took them to the counter. The sign on the shelf listed the price as $35 per bottle.

“That will be $80,” said the woman.

Wait a minute, said my brain. I just saw a sign that said $35. I know that 35 times two is only 70.

“Uhh, I thought these were $35 each?” I asked.

“Yes, but there is a $10 tasting fee that you have to pay in cash,” said the woman.

I was thinking hard about how I was going to find my way through the streets of Cabo back to the resort as I gave her my credit card and a ten dollar bill. She expertly packaged my tequila bottles so they wouldn’t break on the flight back home.

More cabo rocks
I wisely did not try to climb these rocks.

The next morning I was stretching out on the lounger by the pool, contemplating the mysteries of life, when it hit me like a thunderbolt. There was no tasting fee. She had taken me for $10 and pocketed the cash. The purchase of the tequila bottles had a paper trail via the credit card transaction. The purported tasting fee became a nice tip. How many tipsy gringos could she get with that scam every night? Probably more than one.

Cabo Arch
The Arch at Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

This got me thinking about the shuttle ride back to the airport. I didn’t go to the free breakfast and I hadn’t tried to get a discounted boat ride. I dug out the voucher that the guy at the airport had given me. It was a generic form for some vacation resort. The guy had filled it in with the return date to the airport, the free breakfast, and the discount offer. The form, however, did not have any information about the shuttle company. No name, no address, no phone number. I had nothing. The guy had gotten me a legitimate shuttle ride to the resort, but had kept the $34 cash for the return.

I had unwittingly fallen for the cash payment scam not once, but twice!

(for a story about another Mexican scam, check out The Mexican Police Holdup


Searching for U2 in Dublin

I’ve always been a big U2 fan. I loved their early music of the 1980s, tuned out a bit in the 1990s, and reengaged with their uneven albums of the past 15 years. I’ve seen them in concert a few times. They always put on a great show, but the concerts earlier in their career were more spontaneous, energetic, and thrilling. They’re getting old now, and in my opinion the recent shows are too over-the-top huge and overly programmed down to the last millisecond.

early U2 photo
U2 in the early days…

Back in 1983, the Irish band U2 was on the War tour across the US.  On Sunday, May 22, they played Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This was back in the day when the band played 5,000 seat venues and stadium tours were sometime in their future. I was a college student at the U of MN and months in advance I went with my best friend Laurance to the ticket office very early on the day tickets for the show went on sale. We were excited when we got tickets in the third row. I had finally atoned for my blunder the year before when I didn’t go early enough to buy tickets for the October tour date in Minneapolis. It sold out before I got there.

The show was fantastic, Bono climbed into the audience and sang part of song right in front of us, the Edge’s guitar work was amazing, and the crowd went crazy. When the show was over, Laurance suggested that we go outside to the back of Northrop Auditorium. He had heard that sometimes bands would go out the rear stage door when they left the building. So we hiked around the huge hall and found the stage door.

Irish pub
Traditional Irish pub in the Temple Bar neighborhood of Dublin, Ireland.

A small crowd of young people were standing by the stage door. We waited and waited. Nothing happened. The crowd thinned. People decided they had better things to do than wait any longer. After a long period of time we talked about leaving. But we were diehard U2 fans. This was our one chance to meet them. Only two girls remained with us.

The door opened and Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton, the bass player, emerged into the night air. They were friendly and talked with us for 10 or 15 minutes. We didn’t have a camera (smart phones weren’t invented yet), so the only image of the event I have is my memory. I remember that Edge was really short!

Me: “What does your Mom think of your success?”

Adam Clayton: “I dunno. She must like it.”

So much for my expert journalistic instincts in interviewing.

Girl #1 to Bono: “Do you know Mick Jagger?”

Bono, laughing: “Uh, no.”

Girl #2 to Edge: “Did you know Elvis Presley before he died?”

Meeting three of the members of U2 has been one of only three brief encounters with celebrities in my lifetime, along with seeing Wilt Chamberlain lean over a café counter (that dude was tall!), and urinating next to Walter Mondale in the Newark Airport men’s room.

Guinness sign
Yes, every day is a lovely day for a Guinness!

This summer I finally traveled to Dublin, home of Ireland’s favorite musical sons. I wondered if anything related to U2 existed in the city as an attraction. The only information I had was that they came from a North Dublin neighborhood.

In a tourist brochure I found a reference to a “U2 graffiti wall.” The wall was supposed to be on a street called Hanover Quay near the Grand Canal docks in the Dublin Docklands area. The Grand Canal was linked to the River Liffey, which runs through Dublin. It is one of the older parts of the city and quite run down.

Dublin graffiti
Thanks Dublin!

I navigated to the proper spot according to the map in the brochure but there was almost nothing left of the U2 graffiti wall. Many of the old buildings on the street were torn down and new condo towers were being constructed in their place. Only a couple of wall fragments were left. Across the street from this spot was a large anchor mounted in a concrete block. The anchor and the surrounding old brick had some U2 graffiti on them, perhaps as an afterthought when the wall was torn down…

Windmill Lane graffiti
The remnant of the Windmill Lane Studios.

A few blocks away from Hanover Quay is a small street called Windmill Lane. A recording studio was started there in 1978. U2’s early music was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios, culminating in the 1987 masterpiece that was The Joshua Tree. The studio moved to a different location in Dublin in 2006.

Windmill Lane RIP
Windmill Lane Studios former home is gone.

The site has been popular for music fans to visit and leave their creative mark. Because the area is being redeveloped, the building which housed the Windmill Lane Studios was demolished in April 2015, a few weeks before I visited. However, a section of one outer wall still stands, pending a decision on what to do with it. One idea is to preserve it and move it to another location.

Windmill Lane graffiti
More Windmill Lane graffiti.
Guinness barrels
Barrels of beer at the Guinness brewery.

I never made it to North Dublin to see the neighborhoods where the band members grew up. Instead, like everyone else I visited the Guinness brewery, took the touristy factory tour, and drank Guinness from the seventh floor bar (overlooking the unimpressive city skyline of Dublin).  Each night I made the touristic pub crawl through the Temple Bar area. Drinking Guinness beer and listening to live music in a series of small Irish pubs is a most excellent way to spend an evening in Dublin.

The band in every pub played U2 music at least once or twice in every set. That was OK with me, because I still haven’t found what I am looking for.

Temple Bar
The Temple Bar in Dublin.

Drinking Coffee in Sicily: An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

coffee cup
Travel and coffee, an excellent combination!

I never used to drink coffee.  In fact, when I was younger I couldn’t even stand the smell of it. Especially when some liquid residue of brewed coffee sat for hours or days on a burner in a workplace break room. But I bought the family an espresso machine for Christmas a couple of years ago and now I am as addicted to the holy bean as anyone.

When traveling, I don’t desperately need a cup of joe as soon as I get up. I can eat a leisurely breakfast and then seek out a café for my espresso and latté caffeine fix. In a pinch, I will go to Starbucks, but I think when overseas it is much better and nicer to find a friendly local place frequented by the natives.

Scopello view
The countryside near Scopello in Sicily.

I recently spent some time touring around the northwest corner of Sicily, just west of Palermo. I stayed in a villa out in the beautiful Sicilian countryside. The fields were full of olive trees and vineyards in one direction, and I had a delightful view of the Mediterranean Sea in the other direction. I ate breakfast every morning on the pool deck outside the house, but since there was no espresso machine (and I refuse to drink brewed coffee), I had to venture out by car to get a latté.

Scopello view of sea
View of a bay on the Mediterranean Sea near Scopello. No sand!

I found a small town called Scopello a few kilometers up the road. Scopello was built in the 16th century on the site of an older Moorish settlement.  The rocky coastline near Scopello is phenomenal with its crystal clear turquoise sea, beautiful bays, and jagged cliffs.  Scopello is located near a nature reserve called Zingaro, which is one of the finest and unspoiled areas of the Mediterranean. Near the town on the Mediterranean coast is an old tuna factory, where tuna was processed up until the 1980s. This region is certainly one of the most beautiful areas in Italy.

Scopello rocks
The famous rocks and old tuna factory of Scopello.

There was a small café in the main square of the town. I wandered in to practice my feeble Italian language skills.

Scopello cafe sign.
A cafe sign in Scopello.

“Un café con leche por favor,” I said to the grandmotherly woman behind the high counter. The old woman was clothed in traditional Sicilian country garb.  She was timeless. What year is this? Being in this town, in this café, with her behind the counter it could be 1850, 1950, or yesterday.

She stared at me with a blank look on her face. Shoot! That’s Spanish. I’m not in Spain. What am I thinking? I have to try again to not look like a dumb American tourist.

Scopello piazza
The Scopello piazza, with the cafe in the background, and a centuries old water trough.

“Un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” I said.

The blank look had not changed on Grandmama. D’oh! That’s French, brain. Wrong language, wrong country again. What is my problem mixing up what few words I know in Spanish, French and Italian? I loudly cleared my throat and started over.

“Un latte per favore,” I said. I tried to clearly enunciate this phrase so she would understand my request.

Grandmama nodded her head and replied in English: “Yes, sir. A latte for you. Would you like any pastries with that?”

“Uhhhh, yes, please. I would like a chocolate filled croissant.” (They are my favorite).

Scopello baglio
The 800 year old “baglio” of Scopello, an agricultural estate headquarters.

I went into the café in Scopello each of the next few days. Each day I asked Grandmama for un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato. She would smile and rattle off a monologue of Italian back at me. I would not understand anything she said. I would simply nod my head like an idiot and smile back.

One day Grandmama was missing. Maybe it was her day off (I hope she hadn’t died during the night). A burly guy in his mid-30s was behind the counter. He had a New York Yankees baseball cap on his head.

“Un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato per favore,” I said to the man. He looked at me intently and then smiled.

“Sure, man. Coming right up,” said the guy in a strong New York accent.

Scopello chair
If you hang it on the wall you can call it art!

We got to chatting. Of course, he was from New York City; the Bronx in fact. He was born in Sicily but spent many years in the Big Apple. He was probably related to Grandmama somehow and came back to the ancestral home to help out in the café. He was a big Yankees fan so we talked about baseball and why Alex Rodriguez is such a jerk.

His name?

Michael Corleone III


Best Beaches of the Big Island, Hawaii

If you’re a beach lover like me, taking a trip to the beach is one of the most relaxing vacations. Sink into a beach chair, curl your toes into soft sand, and watch the surf roll in.

Whenever I go to a place with beaches, I always want to find the “best” beach. But I don’t want to stay in one place all the time either. I like to explore different areas of an island or coast.

Recently I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. Here are the best beaches on the island.

Hapuna beach
A local girl catching some rays on Hapuna Beach.

Hapuna Beach State Park

This is the best beach on Hawaii. It is located on the northwest coast of the island in an area called the Kohala coast. The beach is hundreds of yards long, with soft white sand. Entrance to the water is sandy, smooth, and fairly shallow. It is an excellent beach for families with children. The surf break is relatively mild and is good for easy body surfing. There is no shade at this beach so bring an umbrella if you have one.

Kekaha Kai beach
An empty beach at Kekaha Kai early in the morning.

Kekaha Kai State Park

This state park is just north of the Kona International Airport on Queen Ka’ahumananu Highway. There are actually two separate beaches. The access to the first beach (the one farther north) is via a paved road whose entrance is across the highway from the Veteran’s Cemetery. It has soft white sand and park facilities, but no shade. Snorkeling is good along the rocks on the left side of the beach (facing the ocean). A local told me that dolphins are frequently seen in the shallow waters just off the beach.

Kekaha Kai cove
A secluded cove at Kekaha Kai State Park.

The second beach (the one farther south than the first), is accessed from the highway over a rough, unpaved road across a lava field. The road twists and turns for a mile or so from the highway to the beach parking area. Drive slowly or be prepared to lose a muffler if you aren’t driving a high clearance vehicle. From the parking area, it is a short hike of about two hundred yards to a pristine curved beach fringed by trees. This beach is typically less crowded than the others, probably because of the rough drive to get to it. It is a fine place to spend the day because there is shade.  Bring a beach chair, a cooler full of food and drink, and forget about the rest of the world.

White Sand Beach
The magic sands of White Sand Beach.

White Sands Beach Park

White Sands is located a few miles south of Kailua town on Ali’I Drive. It is a small beach, but it has soft white sand and is known for its surf break. Locals and tourists alike come to White Sands to ride boogie boards in the surf. A couple of days I was there, the surf was high and rough. I only managed a few rides on my boogie board before I was done getting tossed around and ground into the sand. To the right of the beach are reefs with lots of fish for good snorkeling and resident turtles. The beach is also known as Magic Sands Beach because winter storms sometimes make the sand disappear.

big fish
I went fishing and all I caught was this one…


Kahuluu Beach Park

This beach is a few hundred yards south of White Sands Beach on Ali’I Drive. This is a popular snorkeling spot. The beach has ugly gray sand and is generally unimpressive, but the snorkeling is superb. There are a lot of reefs spread around the bay in shallow water. The inexperienced snorkelers tend to stay close to the left side, but I found that the best snorkeling is farther out into the bay near the reef line. This is the only beach that I visited that had any food or drinks for sale. At Kahuluu there was a food truck parked near the facilities, selling ice cream, snacks, and sodas.

black sand beach
Hot on the feet!

Punaluu County Beach Park

Punlauu Beach has Hawaii’s famous black sand. The sand is crushed black lava. This beach is on the southeast side of Hawaii. If you are taking a driving tour of the island, it is about 67 miles (and 1 hour and 45 minutes) from Kailua-Kona.

It is definitely worth the drive to see this beach. It is spectacular. However, the black sand gets very hot! Wear water shoes or flip flops instead of going barefoot to walk across this beach. Also, the surf is rough and there are lots of rocks in the water at the shoreline. So it is not a good beach for swimming or lounging, but it is an amazing sight.

After previously visiting Oahu, Maui, and Kawaii, I think I like the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii the best.

golf course view on Hawaii
Tropical paradise on the Big Island, Hawaii.

The 5 Best Castles in Wales

For anyone interested in medieval times, knights in shining armor, fair maidens, the struggles of kings and conquered peoples, and fortifications, the place to visit is Wales. This tiny country in the United Kingdom has the world’s best collection of existing castles from the Middle Ages.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle on the River Conwy in Wales.

Between the Norman invasion in 1066 and the English Civil War in 1651, warring English and Welsh forces constructed, and in many cases tried to destroy, more than 400 great stone fortresses. That’s a huge amount for such a small place. Some castles were constructed by Welsh princes to defend their homeland from the English invaders. Other castles were built by the English kings William of Normandy and Edward I to subjugate the proud nation of Wales.

Here’s my list of the top five castles to visit in Wales: Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Raglan.

Conwy Castle inside view
Interior view of Conwy Castle.

I started my castle tour driving into Wales from the Roman town of Chester, England. The first stop was the magnificent Conwy Castle. Conwy has been described as “one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval military architecture.”  Conwy Castle was built from 1283-1289 to strategically protect the entrance to the River Conwy in north Wales. The English king Edward I withstood a siege in the castle in 1295 during a Welsh revolt. After climbing to the top of one of the towers, I could see for miles up and down the river. It was certainly built in the right spot to control the area.

Conwy Castle tower view
View from one of the towers of Conwy Castle.

Farther west along the coast of North Wales is Beaumaris Castle. This is the last of the many castles built by Edward I. Construction began in 1295 with 3,500 laborers on the job. After 35 years of building, the money and supplies ran out and the castle was never completed.

Beaumaris Castle entrance
The entrance to Beaumaris Castle.

Beaumaris was designed with geometric symmetry in a beautiful setting amidst marshland. Part of the castle was connected by a short protected channel to the Irish Sea, so ships could safely deliver men and supplies.

inside Beaumaris
Inside view of Beaumaris Castle.

The most famous castle in Wales is Caernarfon Castle. This fortress was modeled on the walls of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and begun in 1283.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales.

Caernarfon was intended as the seat of English government in Wales. In 1284, Edward I’s son was born in the castle and thus was dubbed the “Prince of Wales.” This tradition of giving the heir to the English throne the title of Prince of Wales carried forward all the way to 1969, when Prince Charles became the latest prince in a ceremony held at the castle.

Caernarfon Castle view
Interior view of Caernarfon Castle.

Situated on the west coast of Wales, Harlech Castle has a concentric design and is noted for its large gatehouse protecting the entrance to the castle. It was also built by Edward I from 1282-1289 during his invasion of Wales.

Harlech Castle
The imposing entrance to Harlech Castle.

Harlech was controlled by various sides in the English and Welsh wars and later in the English Civil War in 1461-1468, and was the site of several sieges. The castle was heavily damaged during the sieges and was never rebuilt.

Harlech Castle view.
Spectacular views of the Welsh countryside from one of the towers of Harlech Castle.

The last castle I visited before leaving Wales was Raglan Castle. It is one of the oldest castles in Wales, having been established by the Normans in the twelfth century. It was modified throughout the late medieval period.

Raglan Castle entrance.
The entrance to Raglan Castle.

Raglan was lived in for hundreds of years before being ruined during a siege in the English Civil War.

Raglan Castle tower view
Interior view of Raglan Castle from one of the towers.
Raglan Castle bathroom.
One of the bathrooms in Raglan Castle.

It was interesting to see the parts of the castle used for domestic purposes, such as the kitchen with its massive fireplaces and ovens, and even a latrine with a stone toilet seat!

As we know very well today, war is expensive. When the English invaded Wales, I wonder if King Edward I had any idea how much it was going to cost his treasury to build all of these castles to protect his conquests.

Was it worth it? Probably not, but it left us with a rich array of stunning military architecture to appreciate.





Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat