Travel Fiasco

Agua Mala in Mexico

by Jen Farrell

The author, pre-fiasco. Photo by Jen Farrell.

In Mexico, you may hear locals talking about "agua mala" — bad water.  What does that mean, exactly? A Fathom reader finds out the hard way.

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico – As Sam drove north through Puerto Vallarta, I petitioned Mike and Nicole to close their eyes. I took the duct tape out of my first aid kit, pulled up my shirt, and applied the tape splat-dab on one of my ladies. I took a deep breath and ripped it off. Several times to be exact. The intense burning sensation left, but quickly returned. It pulsated through my chest. The duct tape was not meant to be sadistic; my wilderness medicine handbook said the tape would help remove any leftover pieces of venom-filled nematocysts, which are found on the tentacles of a jellyfish.

Thirty minutes earlier, I was relaxing on the beach with friends. I ran to the water and threw myself into the ocean break. I felt the sting instantly. As the pain intensified, I had to back track and dive under several sets of waves, fighting the powerful undertow to get out of the water. I wanted to run out screaming, but I kept it cool. I put a towel over my head and took a peek under my bathing suit top: red welts and blisters.

I declined multiple offers from my friends to pee on the sting; I wasn't totally convinced this was the work of a jellyfish. I surf and have been stung countless times. It's not the best feeling, but it's nothing like this.

While living in Mexico, I heard people talk about agua mala (bad water) and always assumed it referred to jellyfish. I witnessed a grown man hobble out of the water, nearly in tears because he was hit by agua mala. I thought he was a wimp.

I was wrong. Upon researching the mysterious agua mala I discovered it signified not jelly fish, but Portuguese man o' war (whose venom is about 70 percent as strong as a cobra's). ¡Holy ba-jeezus! My friend and go-to medic Tiana suggested a margarita. My cousin Sally, a highly certified dive instructor with incredible marine-life knowledge, simply said, "Don't let anyone pee on it and call a real doctor."

After about seven hours of burning, on-again-off-again pain, and, let's be honest, several margaritas, the sensation subsided. The welts stayed for days. The memory of it all? Still fresh in my mind.


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We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.