DEMYSTIFYING MEXICO

Mexican Roads:

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 I must say the books I’ve read must be outdated because since crossing the border I have been pleasantly surprised by both Mexican toll highways and the free roads.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.20161118_170156

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.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

20161215_114445Kiki

 

 

COCORIT

I was parked for the night on the town square in Cocorit, right across from the pretty white church. This gave me a unique opportunity to see firsthand the life of a typical small Mexican town.

Cocorit wakes up at 6:00 am to the sound of advertising from a little truck blaring his message around town, the roosters were soon to follow. Then, the first city bus arrives. Children in their school uniforms start crowding the streets. At every corner, street sweepers appear with their brooms and are busily at work. The larger the area to sweep, the bigger the broom made out of long supple palm leaves.

At 6:30 am a tin bell sounds the morning service and old women wrapped in hand-knitted shawls hurry to church. By the time 8:00 am comes around, things seems to have settled into the routine of the day. An old gentleman comes to the square to water his rose bushes that he carries in a cart behind his bicycle. Women sit on the benches and chat the morning away.

The town will spring into life again when night falls, which is early around 5:30 pm. By 7:00 pm the plaza is full again; of youngsters gathering and listening to music, young couples holding hands and families meeting around benches to socialize with their neighbors. And then, as suddenly as it started, everyone goes home, and the town grows silent.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016

Kiki

 

 

MEET THE BOYS: MARLEY THE DOG AND PATOUFFI THE CAT.

I felt guilty at first for forcing this trip on my pets. With the heat and long driving days it is not fun for a furry animal. Since I am myself a free roaming spirit and understand the need for freedom I always make sure that I find spots where it is safe for the boys to roam and so far I have to say they have been spoiled. Over the last month we have fallen into a routine.

Patouffi at first would travel in his kennel  securely wedged between  storage bins above the driving cabin. He was next to a window for fresh air. But soon he decided that he would rather be under the couch which I realize now has better air circulation and is a much cooler spot for him. As soon as I start putting things away for a drive, Patouffi wiggles under the sofa.

They both seem to know when I am stopping along the way for pictures, gas or food – none of them stir, and when I am stopping for the night. Marley is whining to get out and Patouffi comes out from under the sofa. How do they know, I wonder?20161015_183828

Patouffi  goes out for his early morning stroll, when it is still dark and cool outside and at night after dark. Sometimes he stays close by, other times he is gone for 2 hours. In Cocorit for example, we were parked at the town square, a beautiful shaded park with pretty lanes, benches and flower bushes. I let him out for his morning exploration. In the meantime I shower, have breakfast and start packing the RV for our drive. Patouffi  is still not back. I would intermittently open my screen door and call out.20161213_080302

What is she doing? One woman sitting on a bench across from the RV would ask her friend. She is looking for a cat, the other would reply. She is from Canada, traveling all the way to South America. Ah, would acknowledge the first lady. They left before Patouffi decided to come home and would never know the end of the story of the Canadian traveler looking for her cat.20161016_080037

Marley is not much of a guard dog. Let me rephrase that, Marley doesn’t have an ounce of guarding instinct! The only times he would bark is if someone (ie: Patouffi) gets too close to his dinner (or mine- which he considers his as well), or if a dog comes near the RV. But if a total stranger comes near, Marley would lick his face if he had food! In Cocorit again, I awoke to the distinct sway of someone climbing on my RV! I panicked! What should I do? But upon opening my curtains a crack I noticed it was 2 older gentlemen pointing at my map and discussing about my voyage.  Marley didn’t even stir and was happily asleep the whole time. I wondered if I should be the one barking to show him how it’s done!20161015_144253

Marley has been spoiled with our locales. Most of them have been gated, safe, where he is free to roam and only in Islandia did I become concerned because he started to look like a Mexican dog, which is not a good thing. I would watch him like a hawk to see if he was scratching himself a little too much or getting mangy. One day I had enough and gave him a lavender shampoo to remind him that he was a well-bred pup and not some street hoodlum!20161016_092454

As a beagle, Marley will never pass up food, even if it has been rotting for 10 days, is full of worms or flies or lying in the sand as in San Carlos. I realized too late that he had done some beach combing of his own and all night he was vomiting gravely sand.

I am so grateful for my pets to be with me on this journey. They make the travel more interesting and definitively give me the companionship that I need to stay sane.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos! Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016

Kiki

 

 

GUAYMAS AND EL MERO MARINA

I didn’t see much of the town of Guaymas. It was actually on my way out of town, when I drove through its center that I saw what a pretty and typical Mexican town it was, much bigger than I originally thought when I first got in. Unfortunately I couldn’t take pictures as the traffic was too intense.

The town seems to have grown around the  local mountain called “cerro del tetakawi”, that in native Yaqui language means “cerro de piedra”, or in english “rocky mountain”20161120_105602.

I was looking for a particular campground around the bay and found myself traveling down this beautiful scenic road along the shore.20161120_115615

When the road ended at a pier and I managed to turn my truck around without falling off the cliff, I retraced my steps in search of a free site where I could spend the night safely. I marveled at the number of beautiful mansions lining the road, most of them abandoned, some obviously not.

I stopped next to a marina for commercial boats to take a picture of all the pelicans and decided to talk to the guard and ask him where I could camp. The old gentleman sent me to the next bay over, telling me I would be safe there. When I arrived I was surprised to find, not a beach as I had assumed, but a small gated marina named El Mero. I decided to ask the guard if I could camp there and he waved me in with a big smile! Oh my god, I had found a gem. Private, secluded, quiet with a beautiful scenery! As for safety, I couldn’t have found better: gated and with a security guard! Wow.

I happily set up camp and settled in when a gentleman came over and introduced me to a sub-culture completely new to me: people that travel and live on their boats, the same way I travel and live in my RV! I was, after all not alone in my paradise. I had thought that the people milling about their boats were tourists with a villa in town, and that they would be gone by evening- but not so. They were to become my new friends for the next few days.

I’ve been sent over, he says, to figure out who the woman in the RV is. I forgot his name, but he tells me that originally Polish, he lived in Winnipeg for a number of years before starting to sail full time. He sold everything and has been sailing the world for 9 years now. He commented that a lot of sailors find out the hard way that the boats they have been using for the occasional sail are not designed for the high seas nor for living full-time but rather for berths in marinas. I understand this concept as it is the same for RVs set up for full hook-up campgrounds, versus the ones better equipped for dry camping such as mine.

Another person to pay me a visit as I was sun tanning in my bikini, where I thought was an out of sight location, was a Mexican hand, with his patron closely running behind saying “Roberto, I don’t thing your wife at home would approve!”

At $50 (pesos)[I know it is confusing Pesos is a dollar sign with only 1 /] a night El Mero is one of the cheapest and prettiest marina in Guaymas. Some of its residents have been here for over 1 year, either because of personal health issues as was the case of Jay or because of needed repairs or renovations, as was the case of most of the others. Most of them have been returning to this piece of paradise for years.

Knowing I was safe, I slept like a baby. I woke up early and decided to go out and wait for the sun to rise. It was still dark when I distinctly heard the very loud exhale from a breathing hole! It was so close I couldn’t believe it! I know of only 2 sea mammals that have breathing holes and the marina was definitively too small and shallow for a whale, so it had to be a dolphin. It leisurely came to the surface and breathed at very short intervals and I could see its wake, really close to where I was standing. What a magical way to start the day!20161121_093404

Locals came in to fish on the piers and would leave at dusk. My neighbors warned me to pack everything a night as thieves would come in by boat and snatch anything that was not bolted or tied up. Engine motors were a prime target. Apparently Guaymas is notoriously bad for boat thievery in both wet and dry marinas. They would boldly come on board as you are sleeping below deck!

I had arrived on the Sunday of a holiday long week-end. The week-end guard had let me in because he was not the one in charge of collecting the rent. On Monday I got the visit of the regular guard, Miguel. He told me that Campers were not allowed to park here and that I would have to leave or go to the main office to get a permit to stay. I didn’t know if he was implying that I paid him directly or not. Since the office was closed on Monday, I would get a lift to the office on Tuesday to sort it out. It turned out that I was not allowed to stay. That night had been quite windy and I had rolled up my awning. In the morning I thought that I could either leave right away and not bother going to the office, in fear too that they might charge me for all 3 nights, or go and find out about my options, in the chance that they gave me a permit showing the guard that I was cleared to stay, as per my neighbors’ assumptions. I was not ready to leave that day – I wanted to stay one more night before leaving the next morning so I was very disappointed to find out as I crossed the gates on my way out that all I had to do was bribe the guard!

I am still learning about customs here, as in pay half now, the other half when the job is done (I learned that one when I had my van painted. I paid him in full and of course he never showed up the next day to put the varnish top coat!) and as in offering a bribe to the security guard of a beautiful and cheap marina. Even at $50 (pesos) a night it is way cheaper than most RV parks that charge an average of $400 pesos a night! I beat myself up for this lack of judgement.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos! Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016

Kiki

 

 

 

SAN CARLOS

I have been very blessed lately with amazing locations where I could camp for free or almost, and most importantly, where I was safe.

After leaving my new friends at Islandia, I drove to San Carlos, a little town along the coast of the Sea of Cortes. A beautiful place that smacks of American money where everything down to menus seemed geared to please the benefactors of the place: pizzas, chicken wings and Coca Cola! From the guide books I’ve read this used to be a typical Mexican town with dirt streets. It is now paved and lined with pretty little shops, souvenirs and food shacks. In many ways it reminded me of some of the little villages on the French Riviera. I had noticed a beach at the entrance of the town where I could boondock. I drove all the way down to the beautiful harbor where exquisite mansions are perched, build on that pretty pink chain of mountains typical of the region. San Carlos is surrounded by it. It is quite a stunning sight.

I settled on the beach under the only tree for shelter from the blazing sun and off we went for a walk on the beach. We were pretty much the only one there.20161119_095610

By the end of the afternoon, Mexican families came over to picnic on the beach. It became very lively. I became concerned that may be some unsavory soul might decide to pay me a visit at night and was wondering if I should move the truck to a more secluded area, away from prying eyes but decided against it. I was quite visible from the road and under a street light. I was told this was a safe place to stay for the night, but still slept lightly.

I woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise.20161120_070513

And off we drove to Guaymas, the next town in search of a cheap campsite I had found in my book. Good bye San Carlos.

Until next time my new road amigos! Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016

Kiki