Trashy travel pictures you hardly see, in honor of Earth Day

Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen

I have an amazing life on Earth. I get to travel around with my spouse and live in fabulous locations on our planet for several weeks to a month at a time, or longer. Places in Mexico like Tulum, Mahahual and Puerto Escondido. Places in Central America Belize, and Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where we are right now. And all of the wonderful places to come that are on our list.

You see all the beautiful pictures I post on social media and here on this blog. No one likes the shots that show anything less than an idyllic scene, like the picture below I put on Instgram. My husband lined up a shot of a gorgeous skyline with volcanoes. I saw the beauty of that, contrasted with the filth of reality.

Travel bloggers clog the internet and social media networks with glorious shots of Planet Earth and they don’t show you the whole picture. I see instant snaps of places that only show the beauty, and never the underbelly. Like this.

That’s a shot of gray water coming down a mountainside, running through trash, into a lake. Yet, a travel blogger will show you himself or herself jumping into the polluted lake with hashtags like #whataview or #gorgeouslake or #thisiswhyitravel.

It’s the HGTV syndrome: ‘It’s all good. Nothing bad to see here. I like my warm cocoon of happy here in suburbia, thank you very much.’

You’ve seen the negative shows and reports – or the documentaries about problem trash piles in India, China, and other places. From what I’ve seen on my travels in Mexico and Central America since 20002, it’s only getting worse.

It’s like we are running out of room under the bed to hide our dirty laundry and now it’s spreading across the bedroom floor. The throwaway American consumerist capitalist culture has stained Earth.

A few more underbelly shots – which could be trash on any roadside in virtually any place in the world.


You might be saying, my god, those people (in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, etc.) should throw trash in the proper place! Ok – I ask you – how are they to pay for the disposal when most of ‘those people’ live on less than $2 a day for everything – food, shelter, clean water, clothes, medicine – and whatever else they need. Two bucks a day is ridiculous by any standards.

The world is not dirty – it’s filthy. And let’s be clear: the poorer parts of the U.S. are just as filthy. If you haven’t seen it – and I assure you it’s there – maybe you haven’t really experienced the world outside of your affluent city blocks or suburban bubble. 

Perhaps the place with the least amount of trash that I’ve seen on my travels was Puerto Escondido’s Zicatela Beach, famous for surfing. The waves on the Mexican pipeline pound the earth and pulverize most pieces of plastic trash into pellets not easily seen. Once in awhile on the sand I would see the little bits, but nothing like the chunks that washed up on Tulum’s beach a couple of years ago with the massive sargassum outbreak in the Caribbean Sea – which, by the way, could have possibly been caused by pollution according to several speculative environmental reports (more study needed).

That’s not to say Puerto Escondido was trash-free – of course it wasn’t. A friend brought a plastic water bottle out of the ocean when he was finished surfing. I guess it hadn’t been in the water too long, or smashed to bits yet.

Since early 2002, when I fell in love with Tulum, foreign travel, and my now-husband, I have visited many locations in Central America from Belize to Panama, Nicaragua to Guatemala. In the last couple of years, we have done extensive traveling in Mexico. I’ve watched the trash pile up in that time. It has increased incredibly in those 15 years. Where there used to be a few wrappers or bottles on the side of the road 10 or 15 years ago, there are now piles of garbage, just sitting there.

When snorkeling or swimming, I sometimes go through plastic trash in the water. I can see tiny bits – pellets of plastic, floating in front of my face as I try to watch fish around a coral reef. It’s beyond disgusting – it frightens me. I don’t understand how anyone with children cannot be upset over how we are hurting the planet with trash and other pollution to the point of action. Any action.

The real problem is the disposable, not-really-convenient-but-you-think-it-is, American consumerist lifestyle that has been held up as the goal to strive for (most of) the world over. In a constant hunt for profit, corporations expanded their plastic products to other nations. Convenience comes at a cost, doesn’t it?

A man and boy look at our installation on Tulum’s beach at the end of 2015. Each year, my husband and I make a Christmas tree out of trash found on the beach in wharever we happen to be in the world. That year in Tulum, there was so much trash in the sargassum we had enough for plastic Christmas presents under and around the tree.

Oaxaca, Mexico, recently launched a “sin popote” (without straw) campaign. It asks that people avoid using plastic straws. That’s cool. It’s something I’m already doing, along with a few other things.

I’ve helped clean up trash on beaches in Tulum and Mahahaul – areas tourists know as Riviera Maya and Costa Maya, respectively. My husband has walked around neighborhoods putting trash into bags. When your hands are putting garbage pieces into a bag, you get a true feel for just how massive this problem really is: cleaning up just one small spot on Earth almost seems futile when there are so many other places, so many more miles, on land and in water, that need to be cleaned up as well.

I tried to stop caring once. The problem is so massive I thought, what good is my tiny effort?

Friends of mine lifted me up from this negative way of thinking. Husband and wife were driving me and my spouse on an unpaved road to a small fishing village not frequented by tourists too often. It was on a relatively remote Mexican coastline. Despite no people around, no towns or villages through bare jungle, we saw trash everywhere. It put me in a black mood during our day-long outing. I declared, ‘What good was my recycling plastic water bottles or shopping bags when the landscape was already littered, and countless people add to the litter every day?’

Her response struck me as clear, right, and good. It lifted a few dark clouds and gave me a little light: “If everyone thought that way – it would be even worse.”

I’m not plastic-free, but I try to reduce the use, and I am aware of the problem. If you already are using reusable water bottles and recyclable shopping bags, here are some more ideas on how to be a part of the solution. I hope just one person reads this list and does something – anything – to help, if you’re not already.

Other commentary:

2 thoughts on “Trashy travel pictures you hardly see, in honor of Earth Day”

  1. We have been to Mexico a dozen times, and spent 2 weeks in Tulum last August, house/cat sitting for a friend. The amount of trash that gets thrown on to vacant lots astonished, and disappointed us! Household garbage is picked up 3 times per week, and we believe the cost is covered by taxes, so just couldn’t understand why garbage is dumped anywhere, and everywhere. We know it’s a worldwide problem, but having kind of lived like residents in Tulum, it hit us harder.

    1. In Tulum’s case, I think people dump their garbage in lots because trash pickup wasn’t reliable in all neighborhoods. I lived in Tulum for five months in 2015, in a working class neighborhood. Sometimes trash collection did not happen some weeks during low season. There was a lot of garbage on the road in front of my building because outdoor cans were overflowing and dogs would get into them. I would imagine some people dumped it on their own wherever they could so it wasn’t sitting outside their front door. But that’s just a guess. Luckily, my landlord had a giant garbage bin so the trash wasn’t overflowing where I was staying. Once high season hit, and more tourists came, trash pickup went back to a regular schedule. Other streets didn’t have the same problem and had regular pickup.

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