In the desert sun our bus does a jig along the road to a bouncy Mexican rythmn. Strange to tell, but this transit seems to contain some of the best of Baja life. As we learn however, outside of the bus, there’s a world of cold-hearted corruption that’s doing for this real town’s reputation with tourists what Jaws did for the fictional Amityville.
Ah the bus! Cheap and characterful, each one is a secondhand US school bus with no suspension, not built for these potholed, dusty roads. Every driver customises his bus to a lesser or greater degree. Ours is influenced by car modification TV show, Pimp my Ride. Hip stereo with huge, cymbal-sized woofer in the front? Check. Hip hop graffitti on the speakers? Check. Baseball-sized silver skull with red eyes on the steering wheel? Hell yeah! No law-breaking in here, hombre.
As we shake, rattle and shimmy through cactus forests down the burning hot Baja highways, cooling breezes dance beautifully in through the windows. We don’t expect to hear about sickening tales of tourist extortion in this place, but we’re about to. Instead, we’re entranced by the bus, which seems to have a story all of its own. Dear bus, amigo, what makes you dance along the highways so carefree? Is your fuel margherita mix (or at least gas cut with a little tequila). ‘El camion’ occasionally stops its hypnotic rythmn to let people off and wave them adios (gracias senor), and welcome passengers on: a mix of hotel workers and local and holidaying families returning still wet from the beach with dark skin and generous white smiles. Adults that you want to go to the pub with, children that you want to take home with you. These aren’t the bad people we’re about to hear about.
As we bob and shake along the road, we find out about the darkness enveloping the bright world outside this bus, Cabo San Lucas. Situated at the extreme south of the Baja California peninsula, it’s a relatively new tourist destination – mainly for Americans and cruise shippers – with glittering looks. Yet a widespread criminal element is biting the very hand that feeds it – tourists. Oh this fun little party and beach town has everyone from restaurant staff to police, and even doctors, ripping off the foreigners.
In restaurants in this swell-looking town, padding bills is simply routine, if not merely the tip of the iceberg. Listen, at one joint waiters pickpocket visitors – it’s pure routine. And, get this, at many more venues, credit card number theft is the norm. Often the cards are used to buy items before the victims even get home. Expect the same from certain hotels, too amigo. Most of this happens in the glittering marina area, where the cruise ships come in, and party central – downtown. Welcome to our town! Roll up and be ripped off!
Yet the tale gets darker yet – much darker. Amigo, the cops can’t help you – hell, they’re more crooked than the restaurant staff. If only their stick-up routine was as placid. These guys pull foreign drivers over just to extort cash from them, and they hustle pedestrians with aggressive threats of planting drugs on them.
Even the injured are cleaned out – doctors try to swizzle thousands pf dollars out of foreign accident victims. And if they don‘t cough up, the police are called into A&E, batons in hand. They hang these poor suckers out to dry until they splutter up the cash.
Spin doctors optimistically call Cabo “the Monaco of the Americas”. And all of the above tales of corruption were based on first-person accounts and compiled into an article by Carrie Duncan, publisher of the Gringo Gazette, the local English-language newspaper here for ex-pats.
It actually gets worse – to the point where it would be funny if it weren’t true. Carrie also reveals that the sleaze goes right to the top of the local law enforcement. In one example, the Ministerio Publico (a US district attorney equivalent), told a foreign realtor he could help solve some of his police extortion problems – for a fee $40,000 pesos. Ah Mexico, you’re so colourful and beautiful, but you’re so naughty at times.
Thing is, I’m sure there are horrible incidences of bad mojo, but we have had broadly good impressions of this wonderfully colourful, if not occasionally feral, town. Without diminishing – and at the risk of simplifying – the issue, there’s a real naiveity about the tourist crime. The Mexican government seems desperate to develop this part of the coast to boost the coffers with tourist revenue. So suddenly, an invasion of unprecedented wealth – cruise ships, yachts, Tiffany’s jewellers, expensive restaurants etc – wash up on the shores of these small, typically poor traditional fishing towns. Of course there are going to be problems.
Americans, Britons and Western Europeans seem so shocked by this kind of thing – and yes, it’s wrong. But, as travellers, as guests in this country, we must avoid thinking that we’re superior. Our country is hardly corruption free – Goldman Sachs, Fred Goodwin, MPs expenses – simply directed inwardly at the country’s citizens rather than its visitors. Indeed, Britain feels more like a sad, old man these days, rather than a youthful, Arcadian dreamer.
Ah but here, under azure, cloud free skies, next to the emerald and turquoise waters of the sea of Cortez and the Pacific, the corruption is aimed at the region’s main source of income – gringo tourists. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you – Cabo San Lucas really gnaws the thing off, spits it back in your face, and fines you for littering the pavement with it (or so we’re led to believe).
Oh Mexico, the cheek of it! Your tuneful mariachis play us songs of love on the sidewalks while the police lurk around the corner to smash us in the guts with billy clubs. A day after we learn about the scandal, H and I are downtown and walk past a parked rental car, when a motorbike-mounted policeman emerges out a dust cloud. He parks, brushes off the dust, approaches the car and nonchalantly starts unscrewing its license plates. Come and get them back gringo! $1,000 pesos or else we‘ll bang you up for driving an unlicensed car. Ha – all in a day’s work. We say nothing (obviously) and shuffle on, unease disguised as nonchalance.
Such brass-necked mischief, dusty Mexico! Oh you really make us double-standard gringos blush as we try to avoid your challenging gaze on our lush green high moral ground. Still jiggling along in the bus, oblivious sitting next to beautiful mamas and Mayan-faced children with smiles to melt the ice caps, we pass a gringo car crash. Bad move, Americano, with your mucho dinero, you’ll be paying that one off for years.
Safe in the bus, no police in here, just people with no mucho dinero travelling by the cheapest transport known to Baja man. These cheap-ass gringoes in the bus aren’t worth bothering with. Damn cheapskates! They won’t rent a Hummer and stack the roof rack with totems of success that beg the police light to flash and siren to scream STOP and SPREAD THEM (the folds of your wallet).
Though safe now, wiggling along uncomfortably butt-numb, squeezed into this re-purposed school bus, hot, we recall that we came here with different . We had heard nothing about the scams, but it seems that Baja has bigger image problems. Foreign offices shut the book on the place to tourists: drug gangs in north Baja crazed with visions of Vlad, they warned, are slicing off heads of police and prosecutors to put on public display – and throwing grenades at children to show they are not to be messed with (and it‘s true, they were and are – 25,000 people killed by drug wars in as little as four years). Quakes up there in Baja too, big ones – the Weather Channel stirs up a storm of drama around the event. The distressing cracks underground mirror the deep fissures in society overground – perhaps Mother Earth is shaking violently with lament as the innocent blood soaks into her daily.
Either way, H and I have been safe till now, aside from a few slightly inflated prices (we only pay what we won‘t walk away from in some cases). No scorpion surprises in our purses or long snake-arms around our neck. Just golden days, warm breeze evenings, pearl dives and smooth rides on sweet surf days. We’ve even kept our lunch down. And if our stomachs aren’t corrupted, as the palm trees sway, we live well today. Don’t let the wheezes and stories keep you away. Just be smart about how you travel here. Adios, amigos!