Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

29 September 2008

Mexico Lite

It’s been four years since our last visit to this location, and when we returned, we were amazed how much it had changed . . . for the worse. Like Disneyland’s Main Street or the smile of a corporate lawyer, it’s now just a façade that hides an all-pervasive sound: ka-ching! —MB & JS
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International travelers (like us) venture to Cabo San Lucas—on the southern tip of the Mexico’s Baha Peninsula—for sun, suds, and sin. Cabo’s a hotspot for deep-sea fishing. It boasts championship-quality golf courses and luxury resorts. It’s also home to The Cabo Wabo Cantina and El Squid Roe, world-infamous nightclubs.

What’s not to like? Nothing, if you want to cross the border without leaving the United States. A week at a Cabo resort is like a week at Hilton Head or Miami Beach. Latino servers refill your drink by the pool while you dream of that elusive hole-in-one. It’s a nice albeit pedestrian way of convincing yourself you’ve left the Midwest.

Merchants accept US dollars and Spanish is like a second language, making it seem more like Southern California than Baja California. A brand new shopping mall features such recognizable chains as Harley Davidson, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Hagen Dazs. Its food court boasts so much American fast food, it made us sick—and we didn’t even eat there. Our favorite store in town, Die Trying, sells T-shirts with clever sayings . . . in English. Our favorite bar has an English name: Slim’s Elbow Room. Authentic Mexican restaurants still exist, but you have to hunt them down like a French-to-Czech phrasebook in Rome.

Cabo has become a popular timeshare destination, attracting thousands to its beaches and bars every week. New resorts are popping up like adobe toaster pastries all along the bay. A new development has squeezed Medano Beach, Cabo’s best public swimming location, to a narrow strip nearly impassible at high tide. They’re even building on the Pacific side of the peninsula, where the tide is so strong, ocean swimming isn’t just discouraged, it’s literally life-threatening.

You can find many diversions in the normally tranquil bay. Besides scuba diving, you can snorkel, jet-ski, and para-sail. You can ride a banana boat to Lover’s Beach, a glass-bottomed boat for the colorful fish, or a refitted pirate ship for a history lesson and the kick-ass “Pirate Punch.” Pushy salesmen, however, still outnumber activities ten to one.

Mark gets taken by a pretty face. It cost five dollars for this photo.

We go to Cabo to escape the real world. No telephones. No Internet (although it’s there if you desperately need a fix of your favorite blog). Even the cable TV has limited options. We usually spend our time sitting by the pool, doing nothing but baking the bejeezus out of our skin cells.

So when we couldn’t sleep because of the sunburn, we got dressed and trekked over to Cabo Wabo. The party there doesn’t start swinging until 11:00 PM. Founded by singer Sammy Hagar, the club lives up to its crazy reputation. Dancing at Cabo Wabo is a contact sport. Shot glasses clink like Vegas slot machines, but these players lose clothes and money—on the downside, it’s downright expensive; on the upside, some of those “College Girls Gone Wild” videos were probably filmed here.

That’s Cabo. There’s something for every tourist and for every season (the September hurricane season notwithstanding), but it’s not really Mexico. It’s more like Mexico Lite. Like the beer that promises everything but the calories, Cabo won’t quench your thirst if you want a true Mexican holiday.

As Americanization steamrolls the Third World, native cultures are disappearing in its wake. Some are lost for good. Others are shoved into museums. Others still become parodies of themselves. If you find yourself at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, don’t expect to find real Mexico. It’s not in the trinkets or the food—although it might be in the water. Cabo San Lucas can be a fun place to visit, but there’s not enough tequila in all of Mexico to convince you you’ve actually left the States.

Lessons Learned: A more authentic Mexican holiday does exist in southern Baja. To find it, travel up the coast to San Jose del Cabo. Since no cruise ships stop there, downtown San Jose del Cabo still maintains a quaint dignity. It’s a less expensive place to shop, the merchants are genuinely friendly, and everything is much, much calmer. (Plus, we found an excellent local microbrewery: Baja Brewing Company.)
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Cabos International Airport
Native Population: 57,000
Normal Attractions: Golfing, deep-sea fishing, shopping, fine dining, sunbathing, and drinking heavily. Just watch out for the tequila girls at El Squid Roe!
Final Point of Interest: The 20-mile stretch of pristine beach between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo is called “The Golden Corridor.”

21 September 2008

Quote of the Month

This quote isn’t really about travel, but it belongs with the previous story about Las Vegas. We hope you don’t mind. If you do, well, come back next week for a new installment of Don’t Even Go There. You know you want to.

“We gave poker chips to a mutual friend one year for his birthday. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

06 September 2008

Phoenix Rising . . . Temperatures

While we’re on the subject on unbearable heat (see A Cure for Heavy Sweating), we thought we’d throw in an old story about one of our least favorite places to visit in the United States. It’s bad enough that it exists; unfortunately, we have family there and have been known to fly or drive in from time to time. Don’t make the same mistake we did. —MB & JS
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Every place somehow entices people to live there, be it for the beautiful weather, the well-paying jobs, or the superb nachos grande from the restaurant down the street. Every destination—whether for a business trip, a vacation, or just a stopover—needs a reason for people to visit. The reasons can be historical (like Williamsburg, Virginia), geographic (like Fort Lee, New Jersey, right outside New York City), culinary (like Paris, France), or even experimental (like Washington, DC). Sometimes, a place’s reason for being is simply to serve as a warning to others (like Flint, Michigan).

You can find good in any place, though, if you only stay long enough. The colorful blast that is autumn in New England can make its long winter bearable. The famous architecture and nourishing ales can help you overcome London’s less-than-tantalizing native food. The rugged countryside and friendly locals can almost make West Virginia worth the trip. Almost.

People live in the darnedest places. Oklahoma. Central Louisiana. Nebraska. What do they do there? Why do they stay? We don’t know, despite repeated visits, but we do know that each of these states still draws tourists somehow—and not just to buy lottery tickets or alcohol.

Some places, moreover, require time-stamps to determine the “red zone” of popularity. The skiing season defines many vacations to Ischgl, Austria; Portillo, Chile; and Hafjell, Norway. The surfing season brings people to Waikiki, Hawaii; Papara Beach, Tahiti; and Buzios, Brazil. It’s as much about when you go as where.

Which brings us to Phoenix, Arizona.

Tourists, snowbirds, and other retirees flock to Phoenix from October to March for the warmth of the Arizona sun. Winter in Phoenix offers many benefits, not the least of which is sunning instead of shoveling. Who wouldn’t rather wear shorts instead of parkas? Who wouldn’t rather sit by the pool instead of the heater? Who wouldn’t rather play golf than fight colds?

In addition, Major League Baseball teams, mostly from the West Coast and Midwest, hold their spring workouts and exhibition games every March in and around the Phoenix area. This happens for a reason. Chicago can be brutal in March. Phoenix, on the other hand, offers warmth that aids players and draws fans.

But the attractive winter comes with a catch. While Arizona in December encourages tee times and dune buggies, its August encourages escape clauses and getaway cars. The oppressive heat will drive you underground faster than an IRS audit. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way.

The city in the summer is a dull shade of gray, thanks to the asphalt, gravel, and cement that dominate the landscape. You’ll find very little of the green grass from the suburban scenery of other states. A lawn becomes prohibitively expensive when all the available water has to be used to keep humans and animals semi-conscious. In the obsessive heat, lawns turn brown. Eventually, whole yards are converted to gravel or tumbleweed. Voluntarily or not.

Just north of the city, another suburban lawn has gone native.

Summer temperatures in Phoenix regularly reach triple digits. Lemonade can’t combat that kind of heat. A cold beer barely makes a dent, although we found that six or seven can make us forget how miserable we felt. Whether it’s dry heat or not, the summer temperatures forced our lives into a holding pattern, a cycle of survival. To escape the heat, we had to dart from one air-conditioned enclosure to another: from the house to the car to a bar to another bar to the car to jail, and so on. It became our daily routine.

Only air conditioning—lots of it, full blast, 24 hours a day—saved us from certain death, but the need for air conditioning meant we couldn’t enjoy our favorite outdoor activities. Bicycling? We needed a liter of water per mile. Hiking? We had to do it inside a mall. Camping? We might as well set up a tent inside an oven.

If you find yourself in Phoenix in the summer, your choices are limited. Watch television. Go bowling. Shop for sunburn ointment. You can do anything you want to do, as long as it’s inside an air-conditioned building. We’re not saying it’s Hell on Earth, but you might.

Lessons Learned: Homeowners in Phoenix know better. You should, too. Visit Phoenix in January with the snowbirds. Visit in March to watch pre-season baseball. Either way, you’ll have a much better time than suffering Phoenix in July.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
Native Population: 1,600,000 (in the city only)
Normal Attractions: Bank One Ballpark (home of the Diamondbacks), Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and lots and lots of air-conditioned shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Most of the city streets are lined up on a grid. You’d think this would make finding your way around easier. You’d be wrong.