Mexico. I’d been there several times in the past but I hadn’t really been there at all. When flying into coastal cities, the Mexican experience is a far cry from inland Mexico on a motorcycle. Arriving at an airport terminal in Cancún, Cabo San Lucas, or Acapulco you’re treated to bi-lingual Customs and Immigration followed by iced fruity drinks with tiny paper umbrellas and beer with limes in their necks. Chances are you impress your travel companions with your three words of Spanish: Sí, gracias and cerveza, yet still manage to get by because you can read the menu and your waiter speaks English. Believe me, despite your location on the map, you’re not in Mexico. It’s like spending your vacation in Las Vegas, Nevada or Disney World in Orlando, Florida and saying you were in the United States.
Inland Mexico is the real Mexico and it’s a totally different animal, especially when viewed from the seat of a bike. Lots of bad press suggest those frilly coastal spots are safe and trustworthy but encourage the imagination to run wild with thoughts of muggings, kidnapping and murder if you travel too far from your 5 star resort. And that’s just plain nonsense. Never once on my trip did I feel threatened by the actual populace, most all of whom I found friendly, gracious, and occasionally curious. The only exception was a poor excuse of a cop who extorted me for a bribe: funny how the only unpleasant threatening encounter was by official law enforcement and not the drug cartels or the common man on the street that I’d been warned about.
No matter your interests, Mexico has something to offer everyone: ancient colonial cities with fabulous architecture and cathedrals seeped in history – go to the stark and barren Altiplano; surfing, sea turtles and mangroves – the Pacific Coast; wildlife, waterfalls and hiking in mountainous jungle – the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas; Mayan ruins, flamingos and scuba – the Yucatan Peninsula. The range of landscapes is vast and it’s hard to pick a favorite but if pressed, I’d probably select Chiapas for its beauty and the Yucatan for its bountiful water activities, fresh seafood and the best roads (albeit straight and flat) in the country. Unfortunately, those choices are the furthest from my home. A nice option would be a route across the Gulf of Mexico in order to avoid the congestion of mainland Mexico via Texas. About ten years ago, a ferry capable of vehicle and passenger passage ran a route between Tampa, Florida and Progreso, Yucatan. But it only sailed a few months before becoming insolvent. Lately there’s been talk of resurrecting such a service. I welcome the day.
No matter your destination you will no doubt have many encounters with gracious Mexican people. Hard working, easy to smile, innovative, and often poor, they have a generally bright outlook on life and place family second to none. I’d often get smiles and waves from car passengers as they rode by, snapping pictures of the gringo on his big 1050cc motorcycle. As I’d creep past a gauntlet of soldiers they’d usually display a thumbs-up and ask how much to buy such a beautiful bike. Some folks encouraged my butchered attempts at Spanish, most notably a gentleman named Eric at the Salon Mexico bar in Cedral, San Luis Potosi and the woman preparing my prickly pear cactus in Jalpan, Hidalgo. There I learned the word for toothpick (palillo) and she smiled wide at my goofy accent but then belly laughed at herself when she tried to say “toothpick” in English – not easy as Spanish speakers have a tough time with the th sound. People have a slower pace here and take time to enjoy one another’s company. When was the last time you saw a table of men sitting in a bar playing dominoes? In the U.S. a similar group would all have their faces buried in their smartphones. Most are also very courteous and laid-back offering a kind “buenos días” when walking past. Get someone in a car however, and all bets are off. Impatient with honking horns and passing in an unsafe and rude manner is much too frequent.
I did a few things right in planning this trip and would have done a few things different had I known better… First, what I did right.
- Bring a GPS! Going from town to town isn’t too bad but it is invaluable for navigating once within a city or town. And don’t forgo a paper map in favor of the GPS. Not much detail is needed. The AAA country map is fine.
- Seek lodging near town centers and plazas. This worked out very well in that you can park your vehicle and walk everywhere and the accommodations tend to be less expensive compared to the outskirts that generally cater to business travelers.
- Ate the street food – this practice is slightly risky but cheap and very good. Sure, you may get some stomach upset if you’re not careful but the same can be said in the fancy resorts on the Caribbean. It’s also a great way to meet the locals and strike up a conversation as everyone sits next to one another. Use common sense and dive in. You won’t regret it.
- Time of year was great – there were few tourists and the weather was fantastic. Of course, getting to and from Chicago on a motorcycle in February / March requires some advanced planning!
- Planned my budget pretty well.
And what I’d do different.
- I planned for too much distance in too little time. Yeah, I was called home three weeks early which nixed the Yucatan and Gulf Coast but regardless… I was flying through the Antiplano and Pacific Coast. Distance between destinations was OK but time at each stop was ridiculously short. I mean, one day / night in the city of Oaxaca?! And San Cristóbal de Las Casas?! This was repeated over and over again. Each of these places you could easily spend a week and just scratch the surface.
- I should have experienced more activities – especially in the big cities. The problem was I didn’t want to take the motorcycle out and navigate the chaos and congestion once I was checked into my hotel. The solution that I never figured out would be to take a cab. They’re inexpensive and take all the stress of parking, navigation, and vehicle theft out of the picture.
- I over packed. If I go back, I will not bring my camping gear. I lugged this stuff across a continent for nearly 7,000 miles and pitched the tent twice, both times in the United States. Fact is, rooms are plentiful and cheap in Mexico. As an example, I paid $17 for the privilege to rent a piece of dirt with a picnic table, fire ring, and lantern post at Eisenhower State Park in Texas. I paid $9 for a bed, secure parking, WiFi, and breakfast at a hostel in Mexico.
After my first ten days in Mexico, I provided a list of observations from the road. Now that my trip is concluded, I offer some additional musings:
- Many homes and businesses have large black plastic cylindrical containers perched on their roofs. These are passive solar water towers that gravity feed down into the structure. Heating water for free, they provide a refreshing shower but note that it’s best to wash up later in the evening before going to bed. I once waited ’til morning and I suffered temporary yet embarrassing shrinkage.
- Some cooks and servers can be seen wearing surgical masks when preparing food. But these same people do not wear gloves.
- Except for dogs, there is very little road kill.
- Most rural buildings with restroom facilities have a small pail next to the toilet. These are provided to place your soiled toilet paper. This takes some getting used to.
- Coca-Cola bottles are returnable and refilled.
- The vast majority of the hotels and motels I stayed in had no smoke detectors. None had bed stand Bibles.
- Forget about anything that looks like the Americans with Disabilities Act in regards to public accommodations: ramps, handicapped parking, hooked door knobs, braille, etc.
- There is a huge gap in the ability to move goods and services in an efficient manner. I saw almost no railroad tracks to carry passengers or freight and I never saw a single general aviation plane or even any jet contrails. Roads are often in poor condition and those that are in good shape are purposely and deliberately destroyed with countless speed bumps. An exception are the toll roads. These are in fabulous condition with little traffic and no speed bumps. One reason they are so light of vehicles is that they are prohibitively expensive. Only the affluent or businesses (trucks) can afford the price of admission.
- The green light at an intersection will blink several times before turning yellow. The yellow light is fairly short in duration before turning red. Stopped vehicles anticipate the change to green and advance into the intersection moments before the signal changes from red to green. If you’re up front and first in line, cars in back will honk to get you moving before the light changes. Very weird and it must lead to accidents.
- Except for one FedEx panel van in Tampico, I didn’t see any DHL, UPS, or FedEx delivery vehicles.
- Carry small bills and change when in small towns. Once, while in Puerto Angel on the Pacific Coast, I stopped in a small grocery to purchases a bottle of water. I handed the clerk a 50 peso note (worth about $3.75) and she couldn’t make change.
- Only Mexican beer is available and there’s quite a selection. I think I may have seen some Heineken once but that’s about it. I tried Indio, Victoria, Pacifico, Carta Blanca, Sol, Modelo, Dos Equis, Tecate, Montejo (only available in the Yucatan), Bohemia, and Corona. These are all pilsner style lagers with my favorite being the Dos Equis Dark. The lowest in the standings, in my humble opinion, happens to be the biggest seller in the United States: Corona. Ahhh, the power of marketing…
- Internet access, if available at all, is usually pretty weak. Most lodgings I stayed at provided WiFi, but very few had a strong signal with high bandwidth. The exceptions were at hostels which were unequivocally the best. If WiFi is important to you, I suggest you ask for their WEP password before checking in. Use your smartphone to see if you can reach the Internet. Even then, you may be sitting in the lobby to frolic the Web as most buildings are made of brick, stone, and concrete whereby the WiFi signal from the front office is but an infinitesimal whisper in the guest rooms.
- Almost all electrical outlets are two-prong. If your electronics have three prongs, pack a three prong to two prong adapter plug before leaving home. I didn’t bring one and it was a bit of a quest, finally finding a plug in Rioverde.
- Important: check your email accounts and make sure they all have an alternative means to contact you besides a text message. What happens is you’ll be accessing your accounts through unfamiliar servers and your email provider may think it’s an attempt at a hack. So it will attempt to contact you via your secondary means – set-up when you created the account. So, for example, yahoo may send you a text with a six digit code that you acknowledge to confirm it’s an authorized access. But here’s the rub… unless you have an international plan on your cell phone or are willing to spend big bucks, you’re not getting text messages. So you’re basically locked out of your account. I solved my issue by calling home on Skype and having my wife login to my account and add a secondary email I had (gmail or whatever) and that saved the day. All this is rather complicated but the message is to have a secondary email contact on your accounts and not just phone numbers for text messages.
For the record, here’s a snapshot of my daily expenditures. I did a good job of staying on budget with the exception of lodging. This was skewed somewhat when I made a beeline home and cast the desire for room deals aside. Uhh, click image to enlarge.
Finally, as is the custom, I’ll wrap up this trip report with a summary of the glorious Wandering Nomad Badges awarded to various businesses and individuals on this adventure:
La Cebada. San Luis Potosi, SLP
Set in an old stone building in a beautiful area of a gorgeous city this eclectic dining establishment offers open air rooftop dining with fairy tale scenes of towering floodlit cathedrals. The food is reasonably priced, very good and somewhat exotic. Toss in locally brewed craft ales plus attentive wait staff and it excels in all categories: atmosphere, food, service and value.
Mi Antiguo Café. Pachuca, Hidalgo
A fantastic little cafe with a European vibe providing an encompassing street level view of the bright and colorful historic city square. Everything is just-picked fresh and prepared to order. The small quaint space offers limited seating but the decor is immaculately shiny with a waiter to match in smartly pressed shirt and trousers. Eggs with bacon, black coffee and hot baked rolls are the perfect companions while watching the pedestrians stroll by.
Posada Brisa Marina. Puerto Angel, Oaxaca
OK, it’s not fancy, lacking towels and hot water. And the floors are poured concrete. But where else can you find an ocean side room on the beach with a balcony and private hammock for $18.90 a night? WiFi too. The location is tops… look to the south and there’s the limitless blue of the Pacific Ocean and the unceasing sound of its surf crashing ashore. Just a few steps out your door to the north is a sleepy Mexican pueblo with restaurants and family run groceries. And if you like naked women you’ve come to the right place as Puerto Angel is one of the few beaches in Mexico where nude sunbathing is allowed. Oh, but keep in mind, you may see guys swinging their junk while you’re savoring scrambled eggs each morning.
Hotel Ensueño. La Trinitaria, Chiapas
A diamond in the rough a few miles west of the Lagunas de Montebello National Park. Expansive groomed grounds with flowering hedges host a myriad of room types, many resembling small villas. Perfect for a honeymoon retreat. The on-site restaurant served a bowl of the tastiest soup I’ve ever had – Consome de camarónes. Resembling a shrimp bisque, I savored every spoonful. As I got closer to the bottom of the bowl, I took smaller and smaller sips, not wanting the exquisite flavors to end. The restaurant also offers fine tequilas, cold beer and soft drinks. My room had a sitting area with chair, couch and fireplace. A private bath and bedroom with king bed rounded out the accommodations.
Hotel Mansion Real. Tampico, Tamaulipas
Location, location, location. Set on a pedestrian walkway on the southwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, the Mansion Real is in a pretty sweet spot. The plaza itself hosts live entertainment under a center domed gazebo and is surrounded by countless stores and shops, though dining establishments seem to be in short supply. Secure indoor parking is a huge plus in a crowded city where parking spaces are hard to come by. Modern rooms with vistas of the plaza and city are an added bonus.
Corrupt Municipal Police Officer, San Luis Potosi, SLP
Well it was bound to happen… I knew I’d eventually award the dreaded Bunghole Badge. For those not too familiar with the English language, bunghole basically means asshole and the Mexican cop driving car number 2720 on February 26, 2014 certainly deserves that esteemed title. I won’t rehash the unpleasant incident that led to this award (you can read about it here) but suffice to say the man earned it. I can take comfort knowing that when I take a shower at the end of the day, I’m as fresh and clean as morning dew. But there’s not enough soap and water on Earth to ever cleanse this dirty bastard. Sucks to be him.