Falling for the Cash Payment Scam in Cabo San Lucas

More cabo rocks

“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

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Three ways to visit Tulum

Caribbean Sea

I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.

I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.

Tulum beach
A beach paradise south of Tulum, Mexico.

Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.

Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

Caribbean Sea
The turquoise sea…. Natural… nobody cleans up the seaweed.

My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.

As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.

Mayan ruins
Some of the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.

Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.

Tulum ice cream truck.
The Tulum ice cream man.

Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.

I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.

Tulum beach
A hidden beach below the Tulum ruins.

Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.

For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.

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The Mexican Police Holdup

Tulum beach view

The man and woman got into their rental car on a lazy Sunday morning in the hotel zone of Cancun, Mexico. A drive down the coast of the Mayan Riviera was ahead of them. Sunshine, blue sky, warm sand, taco chips and salsa.

Cancun beach from hotel
Cancun beach view.

Boulevard Kukulkan was nearly empty of cars. Most tourists were sleeping off their margarita induced comas. Hotel vans and taxis sped by the rental car, maximizing their potential of tips by rapidly getting their passengers where they needed to go. The man, however, drove slowly, sticking to the posted 70 kilometers per hour speed limit. He had read about how corrupt the Mexican police were and wanted to obey the law.

After slowing down to take a sharp turn, the man accelerated back up to the speed limit. As he was daydreaming about which beach to go to, the siren came to life and the flashing lights came on. It was the Mexican police.

Tulum ruins beach
The beach below the ruins at Tulum.

Obediently, he pulled over and stopped. The police car stopped close by, blocking his potential escape. The policeman in the passenger seat got out of the car, leaving his partner behind the wheel. Inexplicably, another police officer sat in the back seat. This police officer smiled at the man, like it was his fourth birthday, or maybe he had found a winning lottery ticket.

The policeman rattled off a stream of Spanish at the man, who stared blankly back.
“No hablo español,” said the man. “Inglés por favor.”

Tulum beach view
Deserted beach south of Tulum.

“You’ve been speeding,” said the policeman.
“I don’t think I was. I see that the posted speed is 70 km/h on this road. I was sticking to the speed limit. I even slowed down to take that turn,” said the man.
“The speed limit in this stretch is 40 km/h. You were going faster than that. I am going to have to give you a ticket,” said the policeman in heavily accented English.
“I never saw a sign for 40 km/h.”

The policeman ignored this remark and started writing the ticket.

skeleton
What you might look like after visiting a Mexican jail.

“Why are the taxis and hotel vans going twice as fast as me, but I am the one being pulled over?” asked the man. This comment was also ignored.

“You will have to go into the city tomorrow and pay this ticket. On the other hand, I can save you the trouble if you pay the fine to me right now,” said the policeman.

“How much is the fine?”
“$150 US dollars.”
“Why isn’t the fine in Mexican pesos?” asked the man.
“Never mind that. Give me $150 US dollars, or I will take your driver’s license. Then you can go to the police station in Cancun tomorrow, pay the fine, and get your license back.” The other two police officers in the car were smirking at the man.

“OK, I’m staying in the area. I’ll go tomorrow to pay the fine,” replied the man.
“If you pay cash to me today, I can reduce the fine a little bit,” said the policeman.
“I’ll give you $40 US dollars.”
“I don’t think that is enough. The fine is $150. I might be able take $125.”
“I only have $40. That’s all I can do right now,” said the man, as he took two twenty dollar bills out of his pocket.

The policeman grabbed the money, and got back into the police car.

“Cheap bastard!” grunted the policeman as the car took off, looking for the next gringo victim.

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