Even though this is a really good topic I almost changed it to 'Be Careful! Again' because of the ear piercing sound of these words that we have been getting lately that get me riled up like no others. I reread my post Be Careful! from last year. I figured I had pretty much said what I had to say on the topic then. I'll give my final thoughts on it at the end of the post.
Disclaimer. We are not experts on traveling in Mexico. Three and one half months in this large and diverse country only means we have scratched the surface. However, we do have many travel blogging friends that have spent many many winters there combined with relatively little trouble. And really - only the type of travel you find from travelling - not from being in Mexico in particular. Below is a bit of an amalgamation of sorts of our and their experience.
So here's me going to take my best shot at dispelling some of the fears and myths about road traveling in Mexico.
Drug Cartels and Assassins
For some strange reason many people believe that Mexico is the only place that has criminals. Hmm. And not only that - but that Mexico is running rampant with criminals (drug related) - they are on every street corner, don't you know. Sorry - yes I am being VERY facetious because it is very crazy. Over the weekend we had a lady tell us that recently while visiting Cabo San Lucas (I'll be good and not say what I am thinking about a place like this!) she was told by Mexican person that they had a friend that was an assassin.
She was aghast. Hmm.
Ever hear of Clifford Olson or Robert Pickton?
Ok - I'll spell it out. Is there no crime in Canada and the USA? Are there no drug wars and killings going on in Canada and the USA? Could you not get caught in the cross fire in Canada and the USA?
I am not trying to mock this completely. Yes, there are problems in Mexico with drug cartels. People die. Canadians and Americans have died there. On the other hand - we have heard about some of these foreigners and their deaths - were they involved in something they shouldn't have been? Why yes they were - as we heard it. True? Who knows. Bad things happen everywhere.
I'm just so tired of this topic I'm just going to stop now.
The existence of drug cartels and assassins should not keep you from travelling by RV to Mexico.
I bet many would be travellers to Mexico can't get past their first fear - the border crossing. It's the first hurdle and seemingly the largest. In some respects it is - borders are notorious for being convoluted and full of inspections and paperwork. But Mexico isn't alone. Year after year, crossing from Canada in to the USA is our nemesis.
Last year we were so nervous about getting it wrong while crossing into Mexico neither of us slept much the night before. The same thing may happen this year.
The new modern Banjercito office south of Sonoyta, Mexico. The Lukeville Arizona crossing from last year. The biggest problem here? Getting in and out of the parking lot - it's pretty small - I would hate to see a couple of big rigs in there at once!
The irony is this.
Last years crossing was so easy we almost thought we DID do something wrong. I guess it helped that it was about 8:00am on a Sunday morning at a small border crossing, I'm not sure. The other thing is this - when something is built up so big in your mind - like crossing the border, going on vacation - the actual experience can almost never reach that high. So is it with crossing into Mexico. It is straight forward. Stop and pay for your tourist card (FMM) and your vehicle permit - sometimes but not always at the same office (I think). Last year we got our FMM just over the border - our biggest problem was that we drove right by it. When I realized that we must have gone too far we turned around and went back . A friendly fellow was more than happy to point it out. The vehicle permit was at the Banjercito office down the way - also the place where we paid for the FMM. We were the only ones at the office, the man and women there were polite and friendly. Easy peasy.
I'll let you know how it goes this year. Fingers crossed.
The border crossings should not keep you from travelling by RV to Mexico.
Next, Mexican roads. Again, I think there is a huge misunderstanding about what the roadways are like in Mexico. I can tell you this - they are much different than what I recall from 1994, when I first traversed Mexico by car.
Today, the main routes are wide and generally well paved. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that they are perfect but really - I could show you many a non perfect road in Canada and the USA - right?!
If you stay on the main routes in Mexico - and really - why would you have to take a small local mountain road? they are fine. We don't always take the toll roads. Last year we quickly realized that the toll roads are not always better than the free (libre) ones - maybe faster but not always smoother. With a van we don't find the free roads much of a problem. Down south it helps that Derek knows how to mountain drive. Again - we found the narrow, winding, fast roads of the SE States much more difficult than those in Mexico.
A somewhat typical view of a toll roll. This varies of course with the terrain. This is the main highway down on the west side south of Nogales. Look much different than highways in the north? Nope - actually - yes! Much quieter!
A typical 'through town' road.
Ok. I'm not going to lie to you - there are some, not so good roads, that we traveled this year. There were a tiny bit nerve-racking but they make the best stories - right? This one was on our way to El Fuerte - there's Bill and Carol leading the way. First, we were so happy to be in our little van and not their 31' C Class, and two - good thing they weren't in their 40' Alfa.
And who can forget our notorious Mexican Backroad day?! Grrr…..
Of course, the one thing different for us are the toll roads. We don't have them in Canada. There are many in the USA so I would think that this would be old hat to many Americans. Sure, the price adds up but the low price of other things keeps it manageable. Again - glad to have the van since we get the same price as a car. Guess this year it will be a little higher with the trailer. But then again I don't see many toll roads on our route.
Ok - so you really need to give topes a thought. Because of this. You CANNOT miss one. Miss as in not see it and get some serious air if you do. During our trips to Mexico I continue my roll as navigator which is as important as ever. But more important? Is my job as Tope Hunter. Seriously. You MUST see and slow down for all of them. Derek and I? We missed one last year. Good thing it was small. Derek watches too but I still say 'Tope' out loud even though I think he has seen it. He still always says - "Ya - I saw it". Doesn't matter - I'll still tell him. The tope I stop saying that about is the time he won't see it - right?!
The roads, tolls and topes should not keep you from travelling by RV to Mexico.
Pemex Stations are Mexican gas stations. Just so you know. Mexico doesn't have the range of gas stations as we do in Canada and the USA. You need gas? Head to a Pemex. Now, why am I talking about gas stations - getting gas should be easy enough - right? Well, actually it is but many will tell you that it is a very suspect experience. Here's the deal. In the literature and on forums etc. the word on the street is that there are several ways that the gas station attendants will foul things up in their favour. It does happen. Several of our travel blogging friends have run into this. BUT - it isn't as rampant as we thought going in. The first few times that we got gas last year we were so nervous we almost didn't want to get gas. We had a plan. Derek watches the pumping guys, I deal with the money - with him present.
Down to a science. We weren't going to let them get us!
In the end - after a few weeks we really relaxed about this whole thing. It helped that Bill told us that we were going to worry our trip away by holding so tight to our worries about it. He was right. We had some of our most fun and interesting conversations with the gas station guys. Most are very friendly and happy to hear your story - or to look at your snow dog. The thing most of us are not accustomed to these days are to be served and to have so many gas station attendants around outside. Seriously, you could drive up and have five guys come toward your vehicle.
Here's the thing - watch that the pump is set to zero. Stay close. Watch the amount of money you give them and the change received. Better yet - try to have exact change. No big deal.
The fear of being ripped off at a Pemex station should not keep you from traveling in Mexico.
Funny, no picture - not one - of money in my stash. So - here is the scoop. ATM's are plentiful in Mexico - no need to worry about getting a hold of your money. You would have to speak to our friends about the use of credit cards because we don't have them but I don't think there is much of an issue, however I don't think they are as widely used as Canada and the USA but I could be wrong. We use cool hard cash both in Mexico and the USA.
Since we go through so much it means that we have to always be on top of things. Good news! The good news is that at home our bank is Scotia Bank. When we opened our accounts there we never thought about how much that would help us in Mexico. Turns out there are many many many Scotia Banks in Mexico - who knew?! So - they are quite easy to find in most medium sized towns and cities and it there is no surcharge. The same goes in the USA with the Bank of America.
While we are traveling from A to B I look for a Scotia Bank in a town we are going through - generally they are on the main strip so we don't even have to go looking for them. It was crazy easy in Zihua because the Scotia Bank ATM was at the grocery store.
The only thing to wrap your head around is the addition of zeros. A bit strange to have a grocery bill of say 2,000 pesos.
Access to money should not keep you from traveling to Mexico.
Don't speak Spanish? Well, neither do we. Yet, we spent 3 1/2 months in Mexico and did fine. Here's the thing. In many cases you could sit there struggling to get a few Spanish words out and the person you are speaking to will say 'Can I help you?'. Many Mexicans speak English. Many Mexicans don't speak English. But are not some things - hand gestures, what have you - global? I don't know - somehow even when we couldn't say what we wanted to say in Spanish and they didn't know English it all worked out.
A smile has no language.
Derek and I, and even Cassia - did work on our Spanish last year and we intend to this year. Even though many speak English the country is Spanish. I definitely believe travellers to a country should at least try to figure out some words. It's even fun and makes the trip more interesting. Derek and I laugh because he tends to be able to speak it better while I have an ear for translating. Guess we better not go anywhere alone.
Our friend from Villa Corona. His English was way better than our Spanish - he was our unofficial tutor while we were there.
We find that we use many words repetitively - 'cerveza' and 'banos' are two of the main ones.
Not speaking Spanish should not keep you from traveling in Mexico.
Man - what we wouldn't give to have as an efficient system of Internet as Mexico in Canada and the USA. Seriously, we can get online anywhere easier and cheaper than them. And wifi - yep - they have it.
We hardly go without wifi in Mexico. First, there are just as many internet cafes and such there as anywhere else, second, most RV Parks have wifi and third, there is always the telcel stick.
The telcel stick as we call it or the banda ancha - is what it sounds like. It's a stick for you computer that connects you to the internet. It's easy to set up - the hardest part is finding a main telcel office, opening an account and purchasing the stick for $20. Every month you put money on it for a certain about of GB.
I can't say it was totally easy to set our's up - something happened with our account the first time and it took Bill, Carol and I standing in line for a few hours going from one person to the next in Mazatlan, but now it works like a dream now.
I wrote about all this last year but heck if I can find it now.
Store fronts like this are everywhere - money can also be put on the stick at OXXO stores which are everywhere as well.
We'll see how it goes this year. I read from John Kobak that sometimes accounts are deactivated after 6 months. To remedy that he went to a telcel office and had it reactivated - no charge.
Water: Purified water can be found everywhere in Mexico, even in the smallest towns and villages. And cheap?!
Getting sick: Yep - you'll most likely get Montezuma's Revenge if you are there for any length of time. It's almost like a form of initiation. Fingers crossed that this initiation is good for multiple years!
Food: Not much you can't find in Mexico that you get at home. Sure it may be a bit different but not much. You do know that Mexico has Walmart right? And how about Megas! Mega is MEGA. Huge stores with everything you could need. There's probably something from home that you love that you may not find, just make sure to take extras along with you. As mentioned last post - for us that is coffee, salt and vinegar chips and black tea.
Toilets: I know - a strange one to bring up. Again - here's the deal. You cannot flush your toilet paper down the toilet. Did you know that? It's strange at first but you quickly learn to deal. Actually, it is such a none issue for us now that we have incorporated it into our RV living. Who needs to fill their tank with toilet paper - we get so much further before we have to dump!
Well, I think that is it.
**I invite all of my travel Mexico travel friends to add their two cents worth in the comment sections - those of you with a ton more experience then we do.**
And last but not least.
BE CAREFUL!!!! (With THE look - like you are headed to some kind of alien world)
Stop! I can't take it!
Really. I can't.
We are careful. We are careful in Canada. We are careful in the USA. We are careful in Mexico.
We are careful. We are careful in Canada. We are careful in the USA. We are careful in Mexico.
Does being careful mean that we are secure? Does it mean nothing will happen to us? By you telling me to be careful, and me saying that we will careful, does that mean that nothing will go wrong?
I've got some much to say about the topic I can't even get it out - and it was all so eloquently put together in my head the other day. Sheesh.
Hear me on this: The people of Mexico are VERY gracious hosts. The country of Mexico - the REAL Mexico (read - not the Americanized/Canadianized tourist traps) - is beautiful, amazing, colourful, vibrant, middle class, happy, friendly, exciting and on and on.
But be careful!
All from me tonight.
We are in Harlingen and it's cold. A long travel day. We decided against visiting Luling and Victoria and came straight south. It wasn't really a day for meandering and site seeing. Tomorrow we are headed over to South Padre Island for two reasons. I'll let you in on those next post.