Let’s start by the most obvious, since I have read so many warnings about Mexican roadways and their poor and dangerous conditions. I must say the books I’ve read must be outdated because since crossing the border I have been pleasantly surprised by both Mexican toll highways and the free roads. You can tell by the sheer number of renovations, repaving or the plowing of new roadways that Mexico is heavily investing in their road network. Their tourism economy depends on it. With better and better highways, RVs are now able to travel further and further south, generating a welcome influx of income to otherwise dormant fishing villages. On the other hand, this boom is slowly changing the face of Mexico. Typical ocean side villages that appealed so much to travelers wanting to experience quaint and genuine Mexico are now turning into touristic resorts with RV campgrounds, hotels, boutiques, in short all the bells and whistles expected to be found in destination locations, to the grief of many old-timers that have been traveling these roads well before they were on the map.
However, no matter how well paved roads are, they remain Mexican in their quirkiness. Signs reducing the speed limit on the highway to 60 km/h and sometimes 40 km/h appear out of nowhere and no sign to resume speed ever appear! At first I was the only one obeying the signs, now I drive Mexican style, following the flow around me! I gathered that they were placed when the road was being worked on and never removed. That’s the only explanation I have for this weird phenomenon. The other incongruous thing are the “vibratores” , speed stripes on the road that appear where nothing warrants their presence – no bus stops, no town or village in sight, no buildings… forcing you to suddenly reduce your speed. Sometimes they do have a purpose and are signaled in advance, but many times they would appear out of nowhere and without warning.
The Mexican government has the policy that for every toll highway there is a free option. It very often rides parallel to the paying highway and would typically enter small towns that the toll road bypasses. Paying the toll does not guarantee quality of the road and many times I’ve been stuck in traffic because of road work. If you don’t mind taking a bit of a detour, the free option often is in as good a driving condition as the toll road and definitively more picturesque. A caveat though, makes sure your rig can maneuver the narrow and convoluted streets of some of the villages along the way. Harvey gave me an excellent advice regarding this: look where the commercial trucks go – do they take the toll highway or do they turn off at the free road? This will tell me if the free option is a viable one for me. I also noticed many of the local buses will take the free road, of course because they service all the little towns. This has been a good indicator of how safe the free sections are to drive on. By the way, those buses are to be watched for: they drive with no regards for speed limits, safety or passing lanes! I am terrified of them and when I see one in my rear view mirror I purposefully slow down and get out of their way!
Speaking of passing, Mexicans have a different way of doing it, even when there is a passing lane, and often when there are none, and with no visibility whatsoever. On a 2 way road, each side of the traffic would ride straddling the shoulder yellow line, thus leaving a middle lane for passing. Traffic in both directions would use this “passing” invisible lane, sometimes at the same time putting everyone in their path in danger!
The other things Mexican roads have are “topes”. Big speed bumps usually at the entrance of towns or near bus stops. They are big and can be very damaging to a vehicle undercarriage if you do not slow right down. Because of this feature, topes have because the sight of many roadside vendors, some of them with little booths on the side of the road, others just standing on top of the topes and approaching you with their wares. The first time I saw one, I was famished. This woman was selling hot cheese burritos and I found myself at a standstill straddling the topes to talk price with her. Unfazed, traffic just moved around us. This being my first encounter with street vendors and still not familiar with the price of things, I drove off without buying anything and later on beat myself up for it when I found out how cheap this hot meal would have been.
I now always have some change with me in the cabin for such occasions. Very often people sell fruit, homemade tortillas, tamales, burritos, still hot from the kitchen. Others sell pimentos, drinks or newspapers. Another great location to do some shopping are the toll stations. Local artisans will sell their crafts and wares and I even found a guy selling USB charged with thousands of Mexican music. I bought two: one with popular music, the other one with more traditional Mexican songs, in the George Brassens and Jacques Brel poetic style of singing. It is actually a good way of learning Spanish while entertaining me during long drives. I hesitated getting a truly folkloric compilation, but there is only so much Mariachi music one can take!
Speaking of traditional music I have a little trivia for you. Guess what is the most common musical instrument you will hear in Mexican music? You hear it at night in the campgrounds, through people’s car windows, in villages. It is used in folklore, but also in pop music. It is, I would say the most loved instrument in Mexico. No, it is not the guitar. No, neither is it the trumpet. Care to make another guess? The tuba my friends! Not a particularly pleasing sound either as it seems to always strike the same 2 notes, but it is the bass behind every song!
Mexico is not cheap:
Since we are demystifying some popular misconceptions about Mexico, let’s talk about money! Mexico is not cheap. Not anymore. The price of gas is equivalent to the one in Canada – which bears asking the question as to how can Mexicans afford to drive at all on their modest salaries? Tolls are very expensive and so many that by the time you reach your destination you have parted with quite a chunk of money. Between Alamos and Mazatlan, there were no less than 6 tolls. Usually the fee is calculating according to the number of axles your vehicle has. For me, with 2 axles, it costs about M$110, but driving to Mazatlan, and sometimes for a 15 minute stretch of road, I had to pay double that! Adding the price of gas, driving days are very costly.
Campgrounds have become so popular that the claimed $2 a night campsites in some books have long disappeared and the average cost for an RV, with all hook-ups is an average of M$400 (that’s about $26 CDN). The boon docking beach I am currently at, with no service and no hookups whatsoever is costing me M$107 a night or $7 CDN. That’s more like it but these treasures are hard to find and want to be kept so by the regulars.
Hence my constant search for safe and cheap camping sites. I am discovering some unexpected options. Sometimes I would drive 2 days in a row to get to my destination. I might stay on the parking lot of a Sam’s or Walmart if I am near a town. I also found myself on the side of the road at a truck stop, but would not do that again. It was too loud, and the trucks that I thought would be there for the night and “protect” me drove off and I found myself alone and exposed. Not a good feeling.
Parking at a Pemex gas station is always an option. It will be very noisy and you will have to tip the attendant, but it will be safe. However, I found another solution. On the free road to Culiacan I noticed big fenced complexes baring the title of “Motels”.
One night I decided to go and ask for sanctuary to the guard, asking if I could park inside their gates for the night. I was ready to tip him for this privilege. First of all my rig was too high and wouldn’t fit through the gate. I was told that it would be safe to park in front of the gates as they are watched by camera 24/7. The added bonus is that most of such motels are professionally landscaped, making it a pleasant site to park and let the pets out for a bit before dark. The guard even refused my tip! Because it was a bit off from the road and it not being a busy highway, I slept very well. The Mexican “motel” concept is quite unique. Once you are through the gates all you see are garage doors! Do people sleep in their cars? I wondered. But upon closer inspection you can see that the back of the garage or the side of it, has a door opening into a very small building, probably just big enough for a bed and small bathroom. The price of the units varied from M$260 to M$400 a night, which, even to Mexican standard is very cheap. They seem to be very popular and I can see why. Your vehicle and belongings are safe and out of prying eyes. The gated enclosure with security guard and cameras are a good deterrent against night rogues. The high walls will also block out the noise from the highway and ensure a good night sleep. It’s all round perfect!
To tip or not to tip?
The art of knowing when and how much to tip, as well as the art of haggling is an acquired skill and it takes time. I come from a country where people offer to help you and do not expect a tip for their help. Here everything has a price. I do not know if this custom started by gringos offering to tip in order to help the obviously more destitute population, or if this has always been a local custom, but sometimes it gets to me. What about human kindness and doing it just because you can, not because you expect remuneration from it? Also, I do not know if by offering a tip I will offend a person or not. Like the good water truck driver who pulled me out of trouble. Ray kindly reminded me to tip him and suggested M$100. Ok, cheaper that calling a tow truck I guess, but by the same token had you asked your neighbor in Canada to come and help, he would not have charged for the service. Again, I am getting acquainted to the cultural differences. The reason why I am so stingy with my money, and this time the misconception is the other way around – Mexican assumes that all gringos are rich. I am sure that the concept of working 60 hours a week to pay loans, bills and mortgages escapes them completely. As well as the idea that most travel gypsies such as myself, sold everything to enjoy the simpler lifestyle that they themselves are enjoying is beyond their comprehension. They too are becoming conditioned to strive for a more continental lifestyle and to look up to the American culture to the point of naming their children with English names they can’t even pronounce themselves! I look at Antonio and his wife Veronica, the caretakers of this idyllic campsite i am staying at right now and think: “man, what a perfect job!” There is no pressure, you work outdoors, it is calm and relaxing”. They may not make a lot of money by our standards, but they are not lacking in anything either. I know I might offend some people with my perhaps ignorant comments here, but I think that I am voicing a more and more common complaint that life in North America is not the end all be all. The price to pay can be too high for some and there are no guarantees. Many of the people I meet on the road, particularly couples that live fulltime in their RV are doing so because they cannot afford to retire in the States or in Canada!
Cartel: Danger or safety?
The question of the Cartel presence in an area is prone to disagreement depending on who you talk to.
Some advise to avoid certain areas and not stay overnight in some towns known for their cartel affiliations, yet others would claim that the cartel protects gringo populated areas because of the benefits they bring to that region. Expats are investing in properties, using local workers and supplies, and are also supporting the community by organizing milk runs and fundraisers. I am sure the cartel also wants to avoid unwanted attention that a crime against a gringo would bring to a region they would prefer remained unnoticed by the authorities.
So what is one to think? Remaining cautious and aware is a good policy. Heed warnings about areas to avoid with diligence without falling prey to paranoia would be my advice. Otherwise your ability to enjoy your visit in Mexico, or any country with a drug presence would be completely debilitated. Each country has a problem factor, a crime area, a danger zone. It might not be cartel, but it could be vandalism, robbery, home invasions… Listen to the locals, to the gringos that are familiar with the territory and then make your own experience, but with your eyes wide open. For this very reason and after hearing some stories I decided to add extra protection around my camp by adding men’s shoes and clothing to my perimeter! The local expats were happy to help! So now if someone is sniffing around and sees me alone, it might be a simple deterrent to have a male presence in the form of shoes by the door and large shorts hanging on the clothing line. One never knows!
That being said, the kindness and hospitality of the Mexicans I have met is heartwarming. I have never felt but welcomed and protected and this is another reason why I feel very, very blessed on this trip.
Until next time my new road amigos!
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Au plaisir de la route!