I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Touring the Yucatán With a Local Guide

This winter, my family and I vacationed in the Yucatán Peninsula. And anytime I take a First World vacation to the developing world, I make a point to get out of the resort, hire a local guide, and learn about the local culture. It’s always easy to do. Sure, you’re a wealthy tourist from the USA. But you can take the initiative to learn about the culture that’s hosting your fancy hedonism on the beach.

When an American goes to a beach resort in Mexico for a week, it’s important to remember the economic reality: Your little sun break probably cost you the equivalent of what the people bringing you your margarita earn in two years. It’s the nature of our world. (When I caught a local trying to overcharge me, he joked, “We have to pay for that wall somehow.”) It’s just right to be mindful of gross disparity and to spend some time learning about the local culture. And a local guide can help you do just that.

While we were in the Yucatán Peninsula, we hired Diego Viadero for two long days of touring (Pixan Travel, $180 a day, and well worth it).

rick steves family with pixan guide
Diego met us early each morning (before the crowds hit) and organized great days filled with visits to pre-Columbian sites (the Mayan temples Chichen Itza and Coba), natural wonders (including a swim in two exotic cenote sinkholes), the delightful city of Valladolid, and a couple of tiny Mayan communities off the main road. At our request, he organized a lunch with a family in one of the villages, where we got to help make corn tortillas and enjoyed a fascinating tour of their world, with Diego’s translating help.

chichen itza
Chichen Itza
Diego Viadero
Diego Viadero of Pixan Travel
Cenote in Mexico
Swimming in a cenote sinkhole.
Lunch with family
Our local guide organized a lunch with a Mayan family.
Rick and Andy with Mayan family
Getting to know a Mayan family was a highlight of the trip.


Thanks to Trish Feaster for many of the photos in this post. For more photos from our family trip, check out The Travelphile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Gun Control: The European Perspective

Non-Violence, a sculpture
Non-Violence, a sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. (Photo: Francois Polito)

I’m currently traveling across the USA on a lecture tour. And one thing that’s consistent from coast to coast  — from Palo Alto to St. Louis to Pittsburgh to Newark — is that Americans are reeling from last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

A few months ago, one of my Spanish tour guide friends emailed me an explanation of the red tape required to own a gun in Spain. As our country renews its gun-control debate, it feels timely to share this example of how a country at the opposite extreme from the USA grapples with the same issue:

In the last few weeks, I’ve been going through a process to acquire a gun license here in Spain. My reasons are very noble: legacy. My dad owns two shotguns from the days when he was a hunter, and now he’s getting old and doesn’t want them anymore. But I do. In Spain, you cannot own a gun if you don’t have a license, and this process takes several weeks or even months. I’ll summarize the steps I’ve taken to get it, but keep in mind this is for a shotgun or rifle exclusively. A license for a handgun is almost impossible to get.

  1. Get an appointment in the Firearm Control Police Delegation in my province.
  2. Go through a psycho-technical evaluation. You can get one in certain specialized clinics. The cost is €50, and you go through sight and hearing checks and — most importantly — an evaluation by a psychologist stating you are fit to own a gun.
  3. Pay the license fees and the exam fees, a total of €100, and choose a date for the tests (they run them twice a month). Sign a disclaimer and responsibilities clause. You are also required to buy a safe for your guns.
  4. Study the 400 potential questions and answers that will be part of the test. You’ll be asked 20 out of those 400, and you need 16 correct answers in order to pass onto the second part: handling a gun, loading, and shooting.
  5. Go on the date chosen to the Olympic Shooting Federation, where you will take both tests, written and handling. They will give you the shotgun for the shooting part, only two shots per person.
  6. Pass both the written and shooting tests.
  7. You’re now good to go. You have a license and you can buy a shotgun or a rifle. (But never automatic rifles – those are only for the Army.)

Now the catch-22: You need to shoot a gun in order to prove you’re fit enough to own one. However, you don’t have a license yet — so you can’t buy, rent, or borrow one (legally). What most people do is practice with a friend or relative during the hunting season or at a skeet shooting range.

The entire process is supervised by the Guardia Civil (national police force, similar to Italy’s Carabinieri or France’s Gendarmerie; they are the department who issues the licenses). The only private contractors involved are the clinic for the evaluation and the shooting range.

I have spent €150, I had to take a day off work to pass the tests, I had to put in a few hours of study and practice on how to handle a gun, and only then did I get a license valid for 5 years. It doesn’t even mean I can go hunting now; to do that, I would have to apply for a separate permit at any hunting ground in my area.

PS: Even though now I have my guns, I don’t think I’ll ever use them. I don’t even have any ammo at home. I simply like the idea of keeping my father’s guns.

At first glance, Spanish gun regulation sounds comically complex. However, if you really think about it, shouldn’t it be at least a little difficult to own a deadly weapon? I’m not saying that the United States should become as restrictive as Spain is. But as travelers, we have the opportunity — even the responsibility — to find inspiration in the ways other places deal with the same societal challenges. And for a complete look at the issue, here are the results:

In a typical year, 15,000 Americans are killed by guns (not including suicides). In Spain — a country with, admittedly, one-seventh of our population — most years see fewer than 100 deaths.

Europe has, to varying degrees, gun control policies closer to Spain’s than to ours. And the Europe-wide numbers are also compelling: In a typical year, around 1,500 Europeans are killed by gun violence (not including suicides). That’s one-tenth the number of deaths here — even though the European Union has 180 million more people than we do.

Numbers are a cold and cynical way to consider such a gut-wrenching issue. But assuming all you care about are the numbers, consider it this way: By opting for our less restrictive gun laws, the United States is choosing to sacrifice an additional four 9/11’s worth of its citizens — every single year. Including those 17 precious lives snuffed out last week at a Florida high school.

Some people say that the problem isn’t gun access; it’s our pop culture’s glorification of violence. But the European numbers tell a different story. Europe watches the same violent (and American) movies and TV shows that we do. And somehow, they aren’t killing each other in such high numbers. Could it be that Europe’s laughably restrictive gun-control policies actually work as intended?

Yes, our Second Amendment must be respected. But, like all aspects of our Constitution, it’s open to interpretation. It’s hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers had assault rifles in mind. Spain’s Constitution does not guarantee the right to bear arms. And yet, Spaniards do have that right — they simply have to go through the proper channels. Isn’t there some compromise to let Americans exercise their constitutional right to own guns…without allowing them to own all the guns?

As America renews its gun-control debate once again, it’s time to look beyond our borders to see how other countries grapple with the same challenges. Of course, Europe doesn’t have all the answers. But it feels like Parkland has triggered a sea change in America’s resolve to finally address gun control in a meaningful way. And, as always, Europe is standing by to offer us some pointers.

Trip Report: Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

rick steves with beach reflection in sunglasses
Each winter, in a noble effort to escape my work, I take my family on a vacation that has nothing to do with Europe. This year, it was the Yucatán Peninsula, home-basing in Tulum.

I visited Tulum 30 years ago and fell in love with it: gas lantern-lit cabanas, walks on the desolate beach with moon shadows, lonely Mayan ruins, and private cenotes (limestone sinkholes — dreamy for swimming). Today, it’s completely developed — the entire beach is a steady string of hotels, bars, restaurants, and private clubs — and the congested two-lane road is littered with potholes and Bohemian-chic experts in lethargy making the scene.

While very different in 2018…Tulum is still lovable. I was thoroughly on vacation and heroically stopped myself from taking notes and doing any writing. But it’s been about a month since I got home, and I just have to share a bit about the experience — even if my report is sketchy. Over the next five days, I’ll be telling you a bit about our Yucatán vacation here on my blog and on the Rick Steves Facebook page.

rick steves family on beach
The plan: Fly into Cancún (a massive beach resort), pick up a rental car, and drive a couple of hours south along the Caribbean coastal road (passing Playa del Carmen, a foreboding chorus line of huge golf club-style resorts, each with their own security gates and guard towers) to Tulum. Then, settle in for about a week: two days touring the interior with a guide, and four days hanging out at the beach and in the town of Tulum.

Tulum is a funky tourist town with fun shops, cheap restaurants, and lively clubs straddling an ugly six-lane main drag. Inviting side-streets are lined with more places catering to tourists. Prices here are midway between “resort” and “real Mexican.” Accommodations in town are far more ramshackle and affordable than on the beach.

Ten minutes down an access road takes you from the town to the beach strip — with Rich World prices (about the same as Florida) and an international, youthful, high-end tourist scene. We slept in Aldea Zama, a modern development midway between the town and beach. It felt like a gated American resort, with security guards and lots of American and European vacationers who had booked their condos through Airbnb-type services. It was modern, with superficial conveniences and shoddy appliances and workmanship. Safe, comfortable, sterile, expensive, and efficient, it was handy to the town and beach. With a family of five and six days, I just wanted security and convenience more than economy and local culture — and I got it. Local taxis constantly shuttled tourists back and forth into town or to the beach for around $5 a ride, but I was happy to have our car.

rental condo
We could have paid a lot more to sleep on the beach, but I was glad we didn’t. After a short drive each day, we simply settled into our favorite “Beach Club” (Ak’iin Beach Tulum), giving us a fine place to belong on the beach. The club was free if we spent a minimum of about $20 each (no problem with cheap drinks all day, addictive chips, heavenly guacamole, and lunch). It came with all the umbrellas, cabanas, and chairs we needed, showers, and our own perfect stretch of white-sand beach. Our beach club attendant stood, back to the sea, watching the holiday-goers and jumping to our service with the raise of a finger.

chairs on beach
rick steves family at mexican restaurant
jackie and damian on beach
trish feaster and jackie on beach
rick steves family with guide
While I enjoyed proving to my family that I could actually relax on the beach all day, I preferred leaving the high-end beach scene at night to go into the town of Tulum for dinner and the bar scene. While I had good guidebooks (Moon and Lonely Planet), I let my daughter be the tour guide and take me to popular places she had found online. All our meals were fun, tasty, and cheap.

mexican food
Trish and I enjoyed spending lots of time with my kids, Andy and Jackie, and really getting to know Jackie’s wonderful boyfriend, Damian. The highlights: smoothies, amazing chips and guac on the beach, and still — just like 30 years ago — that surfside stroll with my favorite travel partner…just us and our moon shadows.

Thanks to Trish Feaster for many of the photos in this post. For more photos from our family trip, check out The Travelphile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.



Video: Wintertime Travel Dreaming

Oh, baby…it’s cold outside! Days like this are the perfect time to start dreaming about your next trip. We research, write, and lovingly update Rick Steves guidebooks for destinations across Europe. These give you everything you need to know to be your own guide and have an efficient, economical, and vivid experience. Today, I’m thinking about Ireland — how about you?

BTW, these guidebooks originated back in the 1980s as handbooks for our European tours that weren’t available for purchase. I’d have them out in my classes, hoping people would page through them during the break, like what they saw, and take one of my tours. Time and time again, people would thumb through the handbooks, like what they saw…and take the book! I didn’t blame the petty criminals. In fact, it occurred to me that these little manuals were driving decent people to theft, and they should be available for sale. So, I took the hint and set about to putting everything I knew about leading our tours into these books, in hopes that people who wanted to could buy the book and do my tours on their own. The guidebooks were a hit, and America’s leading series of European travel guidebooks was born.

Today, we have over 50 titles covering destinations across Europe. They typically outsell their competition…and in many cases, they outsell all the competition combined. Yes, I guess I am bragging a bit. I’m proud of the work my staff and I do, powered by a passion for helping Americans enjoy the best possible European trips. And I love the thought that we scratch your travel itch in many ways: You can take our tours, grab a guidebook and be your own guide, or even settle into your couch and enjoy us on TV. However you do it…happy travels!

Video: Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls

Heading to Spain this summer? If you time your trip right, you’ll witness one of Europe’s most exuberant festivals and craziest spectacles: Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. For nine days each July, throngs of visitors descend on the city for the adrenaline-filled event. Revelers enjoy carousing, music, parades, fireworks, and lots of sangria. My TV crew and I were there for two days with front-row seats for the stampeding action. I was really impressed at how the people of Pamplona have it organized: party, party, party, bulls run, clean up, sleep, party, party, party…repeat daily for nine days.

If you’re thinking of taking in this one-of-a-kind festival, get started on planning with my Rick Steves Spain 2018 guidebook.