Who doesn't love Spring Break? Cops and prudent people. It's a time when youthful exuberance can lead to crime and indiscretion. Popular Spring Break destinations offer a chance to let everything hang out, sometimes too much, and they can be dangerous for young people who visit them unprepared.
Acapulco is a resort destination on Mexico's Pacific coast. It's suggested that 22,000 American students could make their way to Acapulco this spring. The place is so popular that even Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria celebrated her 34th birthday on its beaches recently.
What draws Americans in such great numbers is the city's many "discotecas," or dance clubs. Notable stops include the Palladium, El Alebrije and Disco Beach. There is no set closing time for nightlife in Acapulco, although most night spots tend to close between 3 and 4 a.m. While Spring Breakers might think this is fantastic, they should use caution. Even though steep cover charges and exorbitant drink prices might keep public drunkenness in check, a well-heeled tourist could very well end up the victim of a fraud or a kidnapper. A tourist may even become a convict in Mexico's notoriously unforgiving penal system.
The State Department says that what might seem like a small infraction in the United States can be treated harshly by Mexican law enforcement. Authorities in Acapulco are often wary of Spring Break, and alcohol causes its share of arrests, accidents, injury and death . Be mindful not to disturb the peace, litter, drink on the street (or public transportation), use public transportation without payment or insult anyone. The repercussions can be more sudden and harsh than a student might think they would otherwise be.
Also be wary of the ongoing Mexican drug war. The US State Department has warned travelers to be cautious when visiting Mexico. Murders, assaults, kidnappings and rapes have all been linked to a massive nationwide battle between drug cartels. Most of the violence has been concentrated along the border areas, and Acapulco has seen little of it. Still, be on your guard.
Petty crime is a more minor concern, but one that you are more likely to encounter. Take common sense precautions and hide your camera and passport, which are at special risk of being swiped.
More mundane dangers beset the careless Spring Break traveler. Drink only bottled water and avoid street food. The tap water may be contaminated. When you're on the beach, always mind the beach flags. Several visiting Americans have died swimming in this area. Pay attention to flags on beaches that warn of riptides or rough conditions. If flags on the beach are red or black, do not go into the water. If they're yellow, be careful. If flags are white or green, you're safe to swim.
The good news? Acapulco has a dedicated tourist police in place during Spring Break. Look for the police in the white and light-blue uniforms. They will be able to help you and speak great English.
Keep in mind that you will need a valid US Passport if you're traveling to Mexico. If you're traveling by air, or if you're traveling more than 25 miles south of the border, you need to have an FM-T, which is a Mexican tourist card. Air travelers should have the price of this card included in their airfare. If you're traveling by car, it's a good idea to pick one up at the border if you plan on traveling inland.
Cancun, Mexico is Acapulco's Caribbean coast equivalent. Like Acapulco, it is one of the safer destinations in the country. The drug cartel violence hasn't made it down to Cancun, so, if you're traveling by air, you should be safe from it. Don't let your guard down, though. Do remember that resorts can attract criminals, so be mindful of the people around you.
What is there to do in Cancun? Everything. From all-inclusive resorts to beachside villas, the city has something for every Spring Break partygoer. Keep in mind that this city is not for the meek, at least not during Spring Break. You are likely to encounter every form of lewdness imaginable, from public drunkenness on down. Still, if you avoid tourist traps like Carlos -n' Charlie's and Senor Frog's, you might find nobler pursuits to explore, like sportfishing, which is a popular local pastime.
If you like a more rarified nightlife, hold the wet t-shirt contests, all is not lost. Cancun teems with world class restaurants and truly classy dance experiences. From salsa to ballroom, if it involves gyrating in time to music, you can do it in Cancun.
Remember that traveling to Mexico requires a passport these days. Make sure that yours is valid and that you FM-T tourist card is in order.
Negril is Jamaica's leading Spring Break destination. Unlike most tourist destinations on the island, Negril is not a fenced-off resort. You are closer to the people of Jamaica but also to crime. The resort is heavily policed, but crime still does happen. And sometimes, tourists are harmed. Keep in mind that petty crime, like robbery, is a rare but omnipresent threat to your Spring Break experience.
The major danger in Negril is the drug traffic. You can buy marijuana or cocaine anywhere on the beach; drugs are sold openly. Never buy or use drugs in Jamaica. The health risks alone should cause you to rule it out. But getting caught could turn your Spring Break beach romp into a prison movie. Undercover police are everywhere, and the penalties for drug use and possession in Jamaica are stringent.
Seven Mile Beach is the center of Spring Break activity. It has seen massive development in the last few years, and resort areas have sprung up along the stretch. Some of the resorts, notably Hedonism II, allow full nudity and are popular among people with extremely loose morals. Steer clear of these places. The activities that go on there are legally grey and ethically repugnant.
Spring break and speedy development have been taking their toll on Negril's ecosystem, and the beach is beginning to show signs of erosion. Ironically, the charm of the area-its quiet seclusion-might soon be undone by its popularity.
If you visit Negril, be careful not to travel too far from town. As you get farther from the tourist hot spots, you also leave the zones of police protection. Bandits and highwaymen are plentiful along Jamaica's deserted roadways.
Panama Beach, Florida, is a hotspot for Spring Break wildness right here at home. Sometimes it can get too hot. Recently, violence has marred Spring Break proceedings. A woman was shot. Two people were stabbed with beer bottles during a Lil' Wayne concert. Others died in a horrible car crash.
Still, the charms of the destination draw in record crowds every year. Be careful what you do here. It's the home of the MTV Spring Break, and your indiscretion might end up on national television. MTV throws its share of parties, across the 27 miles of white-sand beaches, but it is not the only game in town. La Vela, for example, calls itself America's biggest night club. The dancing there is hot, and there is no better way to cool down than a quick dip in the ocean.
As always, though, take care when swimming. Panama City Beach officials stress the importance of beach safety. Beware of rip currents, and watch out for flags indicating that it is not safe to go into the water. Double red flags mean the water is closed to the public.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island is a barrier island on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Its prime Spring Break spot is Coca-Cola Beach, which is sponsored by the soft drink.
Crime is low in South Padre, compared to other spring break destinations. As a Texas city with a median income of $45,417, its population is middle class, and its police department is well-funded. As always, don't buy drugs or accept rides from strangers, unless it is the "Jesus van," a ride service offered by the Beach Reachers who drive drunken revelers home in exchange for some evangelizing.
Hurricane Dolly dealt a significant blow to the island in July, 2008, and the city has yet to fully recover. Three out of four resort hotels were still closed as of March 20, and none were expected to reopen before April. With the hotel closings, the island lost 700 rooms. Many beach houses were also lost in the hurricane, severely depleting the island's available lodging. The only resort hotel to remain open was the Isla Grande.
The loss of lodging had a significant impact on South Padre this year. Even during the University of Texas's spring break, usually the busiest week of the year, many tourist facilities saw significant declines in revenue that can't simply be attributed to the economic downturn.
Stay on the island, if you go to South Padre. Nearby Matamoros, a Mexican border town popular with students, has been named in a State Department travel advisory as an area that has seen increased violence from an ongoing drug war. (This year marks the 20th anniversary of the ritual murder of Mark Kilroy, a Texas A&M student who had ventured into Matamoros on spring break. Thankfully, human sacrifice disappeared from Matamoros when Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo's drug cult was broken up by police.)
A new breed of tourism is emerging. Rather than simply whiling away the hours, lounging at the beach with a frothy drink in hand; travelers are showing a renewed sense of spirit and adventure. In a concerted effort to expand their horizons, increasing numbers of vacationers are booking trips which have the ability to transcend them beyond their every-day visceral and physical existences.
The Elderhostel is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing extraordinary learning adventures for people 55 and over.
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