Driving through Mexico for Dummies

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We were warned, heavily and repeatedly, about the risks of both the U.S. and Mexican border areas. We were told the border towns of Texas are basically dangerous, crime-ridden wastelands where drug smugglers lie in wait to inflict harm on unsuspecting families. Everyone told us to be VERY CAREFUL. We did avoid Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican border town on the other side of Laredo, Texas because we didn’t want to dip our toes in the proverbial water in a river that was rumored to have crocodiles, but we found Laredo quite nice. It is well maintained and everyone was very friendly. Interestingly, Laredo is one of the least diverse cities in the nation because it is 95% Latino. Our hotel had a happy hour the evening before our border crossing and they were offering root beer floats for a children’s hospital fundraiser. As soon as we arrived a man at the hotel donated money to the charity in honor of our kids and brought them each a root beer float. They were even offered refills, which we declined out of concern for their blood glucose levels.

The next morning, we woke at 5:30am, ate the same complimentary breakfast we’d eaten every day for seven days (the single supplier of eggs, sausage, and biscuits to U.S. hotels is making bank), and shipped out at 7:15am. We chose to cross at the Columbia Bridge, which is about 40 minutes from Laredo because it’s less crowded and the immigration and customs office is all in one building so we would only need to stop once to complete our paperwork. We arrived at the border with a full tank of gas, full bellies, and empty bladders a little after 8am. The border agent asked for our passports and searched through our trunk and roof rack, taking a moment to plunk out a few chords on Pickles’ ukulele. We passed with flying colors and then went inside to get our passports stamped and pick up a temporary permit for our car.

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I began posing everyone for a lively border crossing photo when Scott pointed to this undeniably clear sign. I quickly put my camera away for fear of breaking a law within 5 minutes of entering Mexico.

We spent 30 minutes at the office, then hit the road. As we pulled away, we turned left and proceeded to go the wrong way down a divided highway (not realizing it was, in fact, divided). This precarious situation was quickly and calmly remedied by me screaming and flailing wildly in the direction of the oncoming traffic until Scott realized his mistake and jerked the car across the median. After we resumed breathing Scott said, “Well that would’ve put a quick end to this adventure.”

Once we were an hour or so south of the border the scenery went from so-so to spectacular. It was a beautiful drive with mountains and valleys and endless blue sky. Cactuses gave way to yucca palms (or Joshua trees) which, when we reached lower elevations, became farmland with rows and rows of agave. Caballeros on horseback and boys tending herds of goats dotted the mostly human-less landscape.

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Those alien shaped things in the distance are Joshua trees

While the highways in Mexico are well maintained with good signage, it takes an adjustment period to get used to some of the informal road rules. For example, on the two-lane highways, the shoulder gets used partially by slower moving cars and trucks. This allows faster cars to pass on the left, while not really worrying too much whether a car is coming from the other direction. Slower vehicles basically straddle the white line. Passing is frequent and fast and everyone seems to keep an eye out for each other, which is good because there were several times we were one of three cars side by side on a two-lane highway. There really seems to be a friendly vibe when driving in Mexico. We didn’t see or experience a single incident in which someone wouldn’t let another car in or sped up when they tried to pass, even in downtown Guadalajara. That’s not to say we experienced passive drivers, just not angry and spiteful ones. This is all quite refreshing after spending most of our lives driving in a country that coined the term “road rage.” The use of turn signals and flashers requires its own, separate, blog post.

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Tequila bushes (also known as agave)

Another adjustment involves roadside bathrooms. Many of the rest stop bathrooms require $1-5 pesos (basically equivalent to 6 to 28 cents USD) per person to enter. At first, I found this kind of irritating. We exchanged our USD for pesos, but we didn’t have a bunch of small coins lying around and you have to pay for each person individually. To add to the frustration, there were full-body turnstiles to access the bathroom after dropping your coins and they only give you about 3 seconds to get through before they lock. Bunny learned that you need to hurry the hard way. Eventually, however, we visited a bathroom that didn’t require payment and I was very, very thankful for the pay bathrooms from that point forward. Let’s just say those pesos go to very important sanitary measures.

We stayed in Guadalajara (one of the largest cities in Mexico) on our second night of travel. After unloading our gear we ventured out in search of dinner. Without a crosswalk in sight, we jay-ran across a four-lane highway to a recommended fast food restaurant called Karne Garibaldi. It was not fast food in the American sense.

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Satisfied customers

It was clean and attractive, there were waiters, and they served beer. We were quickly seated (the “fast” has more to do with the expeditious service than the junk food we now associate with fast-food restaurants) and the waiter promptly pulled out his notepad to write down our order. Not knowing anything about Karne Garibaldi, we asked for a menu, which resulted in the waiter visibly rolling his eyes and leaving to hunt for one. Once he returned we realized that the menu basically consists of one meal, ordered in various sizes, which explained the eye roll. Our dinner was delicious – a chopped beef/bacon combo cooked in a savory liquid (“meat juice,” eloquently translated from carne de jugo), served with cilantro, onion, lime, and warm tortillas, family-style.

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No es McDonald’s

The next morning we hit the road for a final push to San Pancho. This required a thrilling and dashboard gripping drive through the Sierra Madre mountains before descending to the Nayarit coast. It was scenic and spectacular, steep and curvy, and every curve delighted us with a semi or passenger bus zooming from the other direction. In the middle of this exciting, mountainous drive the sky opened to a torrential downpour. At one point, cars from the other direction flashed their lights at us for a half a mile or so. We had no idea what this meant. Were they warning us of a speed trap? Cows in the road? Was it just a friendly greeting? Our imaginations ran wild as we attempted to interpret cultural norms while zigzagging down a mountain road. We slowed down a bit and around the curve was a large bus positioned perpendicular to the road, with the tail end blocking part of the highway and people exiting the bus (no one was hurt, it just looked like the bus had lost control). Up until that point I’d comforted myself with the idea that the bus drivers must know something we don’t – some secret skill at driving fast on narrow, steep highways in huge buses while avoiding accidents – but this scene destroyed that fantasy. After a while the road flattened out, we all exhaled, and we enjoyed the forested drive down the coast to San Pancho.

So here I sit, in the small courtyard of our rental house at 7am (because it’s the only time of day I can sit outside without copious amounts of sweat dripping on my keyboard), drinking coffee, and feeling thankful for an uneventful border crossing and a safe drive to San Pancho.

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My courtyard companion this morning

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