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Spring Break 2010, Woooo!

This past March, I was sent by Vice to cover spring break in Cancun. The combination of lowered inhibitions, keg stands, board shorts, tribal tats, and hair extensions should have made for HILARIOUS photos, but unfortunately everything went wrong.

by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
May 2 2010, 12:00am
Sea view—nicer than my apartment.
This past March, I was sent by Vice to cover spring break in Cancun. Every year 25,000 American college students go there. The combination of lowered inhibitions, keg stands, board shorts, tribal tats, and hair extensions should have made for HILARIOUS photos, but unfortunately everything that could have gone wrong went wrong: My four-hour New York layover turned into a 50-hour layover because of a big storm, my bank card stopped working, there were two days of shitty weather that made all of the spring breakers stay inside their hotels, and I lost one of my shoes for almost two hours. (I found it outside my hotel room, by the pool. I have no idea how it got there.)

By day four of my six-day trip, I’d seen approximately one hour of spring-break action. Somehow, during that hour, I managed to hear “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas eight times.

One morning, while I was out walking in the grayness and freaking out about not having shot enough pictures, I noticed a restaurant called Pepe’s Tigers that offered the chance to dine with real tigers and jaguars. I had images of drunken bros harassing dangerous animals and thought it might make for good photos. I made a mental note to look it up and go back there.

Then it started to rain AGAIN, so I headed back to my hotel. After watching about three hours of Rachael Ray (for some reason, the only English-language TV channel I could get at my hotel played nothing but CBS News, Dr. Phil, and Rachael Ray), I remembered Pepe’s Tigers and googled it. The first thing that came up was a site called Save the Cancun Tigers. It explained how Pepe’s closed down in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma destroyed it beyond repair and that for the past five years Pepe’s tigers have been slowly starving to death in mountains of their own shit. There’s also a really depressing video that shows severely injured tigers dragging their lame back legs along behind them. A voice-over from a big-cat expert talks about how the animals are being mistreated and need to be rescued ASAP. Further digging around revealed that an animal sanctuary in Colorado (that had a personal endorsement from Jessica Biel on their website, by the way) had raised enough money to charter a plane to Cancun to save the animals, but the Mexican government had stepped in at the last second to stop them.

I called up Pepe and made plans to see him and his tigers the next morning. Unsurprisingly, he demanded $50 for the privilege. The next day, I woke up feeling supermotivated, ready to do some tiger saving. I had fantasies of writing a heart-rending story about how the poor, helpless animals were being mistreated, which would snowball into global media coverage and eventually result in me flying with the tigers to Colorado, stroking their heads, and whispering, “Shhh, it’s going to be OK.”

Pepe with one of his signs. I’m not sure why he’s wearing karate gear on it.
I cannot even begin to describe how terrified I was going into Pepe’s. The videos I’d watched gave the impression that hungry tigers were being kept in shittily constructed cages that were on the verge of crumbling. And to intensify that fear, right before I went I had spent an hour watching videos of tiger attacks online. Have you seen the one where the guy is riding an elephant and a Bengal tiger jumps up and slashes his fingers off? HOOOOLY SHIIIT.

Predictably, the weather finally got amazing on the day I went to see Pepe. Every once in a while, when the wind was right, traces of T-Pain and Jägermeister would make their way across the lagoon. While I was outside waiting for Pepe to come and get me (his property is surrounded by a giant fence and there’s no visible door), I noticed a bunch of signs and banners he’d stuck up saying things like “Save the Cancun Tigers is a fraud!” After some eye-rolling, I made a mental note to ask him to explain how an international aid campaign to save his animals was all just a sham.

Once inside, I went on a quick tour of what used to be Pepe’s restaurant. The inside of the building was totally fucked. It looked like the set of a movie about a bunch of apocalypse survivors hiding out in a hastily abandoned restaurant. Tables were flipped, paper was scattered, food wrappers were everywhere. To add to the postapocalyptic vibe, there were two tigers, a black panther, and a jaguar in cages around the building.

After asking Pepe a million intrusive (and possibly rude) questions, it slowly dawned on me that the crazy signs on the outside of his building aren’t actually that crazy after all. In fact, it started to seem like the whole Save the Cancun Tigers thing was complete and total bullshit.

Preparing dinner.
I’m no expert on tiger care, so I might be wrong, but it seemed to me like Pepe was looking after his tigers just fine. He gives them fresh water, feeds them daily with a combination of pork and chicken livers, and cleans out their cages too. Pepe said that he even takes them out for walks, and when he had a boat he would take them swimming, but his boat was destroyed by the hurricane and he can’t afford a new one. The only thing I could see wrong with the whole operation was that some of the cages were small and depressing: The two tigers were being kept in a cage that would be big enough to park about eight cars in; the jaguar was temporarily being kept in a really small cage, while his regular cage, about the same size as the tigers’ cage, was being fixed; and the black panther was being kept in a two-car-size cage that was just an empty concrete square.

When I asked him about the state of the cages, he explained to me that he saw it as a temporary situation. He’d been in the process of building a zoo with bigger and better cages, but Save the Cancun Tigers was ruining him financially because of all of the legal costs he kept having to pay to save his animals from being saved (good one, do-gooders).

According to Pepe, Cancun is a shitty place to live if you’re Mexican. You can’t even go to the beach. He explained, “The government is paying a lot of money to rebuild the beaches because it’s for the hotels. You cannot get from the road to the beach without going through a hotel. But if you are Mexican and you try to go through a hotel to the beach, the security will not let you. Even if you manage to get onto the beach, they will come along and move you. And everybody here is employed by the hotels. So if they tell you to move, you have to move or you will lose your job. The beaches are not for us!”

He went on to tell me that there is literally nothing to do in Cancun unless you’re a tourist, and anything that’s meant for tourists is way too expensive for locals to use. Some locals spend their Sundays at Wal-Mart because it’s the only place that’s affordable and air-conditioned.

Eating dinner.
Pepe’s dream is to sell the restaurant and build a zoo that the poor people of Cancun can visit. He told me that the animals I saw in his restaurant are only a small part of his larger collection. His other five big cats are kept on some land he owns on the outskirts of Cancun where he wants to build the zoo. After Pepe finished showing me around the restaurant, he drove me out to the site of his future zoo. We had to switch cars to one that didn’t have doors or seatbelts because the terrain was too harsh for his normal car. Our first stop was Pepe’s sick tiger—the one that is made to look like multiple sick tigers in the Save the Cancun Tigers video. She seemed in a bad way. When I looked up, vultures were literally circling. I didn’t realize that was a thing that actually happened; I thought it was just in Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Pepe explained that the tiger’s back had been broken after her brother attempted to have sex with her. “She didn’t want it,” said Pepe, “so they got into a fight and she lost and now there is something wrong with her back. I think maybe it’s broken. Some people say I should kill her or sacrifice her because she cannot walk. But I can’t do that. A specialist vet would need to come and see her and maybe put her on wheels or something, but that would be too expensive for me. I just do not have the money. I think she only has a few days left.”

Pepe says that if the Colorado sanctuary offered to take her and get medical treatment for her, he’d let them. “And you can tell them that,” he said, “because there is nothing I can do for her, and I am very scared.”

From what I saw, Pepe seems to love his tigers, and his tigers seem to love him. And by “love him” I mean “didn’t maul him to death when he got inside their cages.” To save money, he even eats the same meat that the tigers do. “Would you send away your sons? They are my sons. I will die with them,” said Pepe the Drama Queen. “I spend all of my time and money on them because I love them. I have to beg people for help, I have to ask them for money or leftover food. A guy calls me with a horse that they couldn’t eat. I’m that broke. And then they say I do not feed them. Later, if I have ten chickens, I will give one each to the tigers and then have one for myself to last two days. You’ve been with me today—did you see me eat breakfast? No, I have had a coffee today, and that is it. If you can help, help me here. Don’t take my children.”

Pepe’s sick tiger. Poor girl.
I’m not trying to say that Pepe’s perfect or that his animals are being kept as well as they would be in a fancy sanctuary. It’s a bad situation. Pepe obviously cares about his cats, but he can’t afford to take care of them, and he’s not receiving any help. He refuses to give his tigers to the American charity, which might be a shitty move on his part, but he won’t give them up because a) he thinks of them as family and b) he has his big dream of opening a zoo for the poor people of Cancun. I think that, really, the animal charity should stop trying to make him look bad on the internet and just help him out a little by giving him some money to be able to take better care of the animals.

I bid Pepe farewell and on my way back to the hotel I remembered that it was St. Patrick’s Day. Even though I was completely exhausted, I figured St. Patty’s in Cancun during spring break would be the best thing to photograph ever. So I swung by Cancun’s only Irish bar, Pat O’Brien’s. After paying a fucking infuriating $42, I was able to enter the worst place I have ever, ever, ever been. In the 20 minutes it took for me to make my way from the entrance to the bar, I nearly got into about 30 fights. And the music was a song that had been so extensively remixed its sole lyric was the word “shots.” Also, I’ve always thought of myself as looking fairly inoffensive. I wear jeans and a plain t-shirt almost every day. But for some reason, to this crowd, I was hilarious. Particularly my hair. I think it might have been the first time some of these ladies had seen hair without product in it.

I wish I could end this story with some way of helping out, like a site where you can donate money for the tigers or something. Unfortunately, Pepe isn’t web-savvy enough to set something like that up, though he does have a janky website with some cute tiger pictures on it. I guess you could try emailing him and offering to send him a check ( Or better yet, you could email the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary ( and ask them to give some of the money they’ve collected for his tigers to his tigers.

Midvisit, I remembered the incident at the San Francisco Zoo a few years ago where a tiger leaped out of its enclosure and mauled someone to death. I asked Pepe about this. After thinking about it for a minute, he told me, “If they wanted to get out, they’d have gotten out by now. They’re happy here.” OK, Pepe.

I can safely say this is the most scared I’ve ever been. The leash is just a formality, really—if this panther had wanted to eat my face off, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing Pepe could have done about it.

This was the only enclosure Pepe had completed at his zoo. He hopes they’ll all be this awesome soon.

This is two of the tigers doing it. Pepe got all excited by this and started yelling things like, “Hey man, you gotta buy her a martini first!”


With the exception of a couple of lizards and some mosquitoes, this was the only other animal I saw while I was in Cancun. He was outside one of the hotels being forced to pose for pictures with tourists. I also just saw a picture online of this very same chimp with Tila Tequila. Poor guy.


I’m not usually one to namedrop, but this is too major not to share. This picture was taken while I was playing beer pong against Derek from The Real World: Cancun (he’s the one with foil on his head). SHOWBIZ!









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