Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Observations on Mexico

Well, I have a few minutes to collect my thoughts, so I am going to deliver on my promise to share our Mexico observations with you here. If I get ambitious at some later date, I will try to turn this into a feature page on our main web site, which has not had a content update in quite a while.

First, let me say that there are many, many resources for people traveling to Mexico by RV, and it is not my intent to duplicate those excellent works here. If you're thinking of going, then I recommend you spend some time surfing the web sites, and also pick up copies of some of the printed references. I have listed some of the resources at the end of this post. What follows, then, is my very subjective and personal opinion of our experience, derived from our recent 38-day caravan.

To Caravan or Not?

This was the first question we had to answer, and it might be yours as well. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you are doubtless aware that we are not the caravaning type. We don't generally travel with other rigs, we seldom stay in RV parks, we almost never make advance reservations, and we prefer to travel at our own pace, which varies even from day to day.

That being said, we had two good reasons to do this caravan. First and foremost, we really wanted to do the piggyback train through the Copper Canyon, and that is a caravan-only proposition. Second, we'd heard (as you likely have also) many tales of inexperienced travelers suffering various and sundry mishaps in Mexico. While we had the gut sense that most of the stories were myths, or at least exaggerated or embellished, there was some comfort in having the benefit of experienced guides and well-established routes and stopping points on our first foray into the unknown.

Now that we're back, I can say unequivocally that, for us, a caravan was a wholly unnecessary "precaution" to entering Mexico for the first time. Yet, we are glad we did it to get on the train, and glad we took the long tour because going down just for the piggyback experience would have been much too short.

Bottom line: If you are thinking at all about going to Mexico, don't hesitate to go on your own. On the other hand, if you are considering the piggyback train, then book as soon as you can (tours fill up over a year in advance) and consider taking one of the longer tours, which are a better value than the shorter ones.

Driving in Mexico

One of the factors we found hard to decipher from the guide books and other resources was the road condition and driving environment in Mexico. Horror stories abound, and, to listen to some folks, driving anywhere in Mexico is nothing short of trailblazing through uncharted desert. On the flip side, many guidebooks downplay this, rightly stating that reports of extreme conditions are exaggerated.

Having now driven some 2,000 miles over varying types of roads in Mexico, I can easily see where the confusion arises.

The US Interstate system is a marvel of modern engineering (really, when you look into it), inspired half a century ago by the emerging German autobahns. The design standards are quite strict, with minimum specifications for lane width, radius of curvature, crown and bank of roadway, steepness and rate of change of grade, durability, and load-bearing. Nothing coming even remotely close to these design standards exists in Mexico.

When you hear or read, for example, that the Cuotas, or toll roads, in Mexico are "like" the Interstate system in the US, what it means is that these roads are intended to serve a similar purpose. It does not mean that the design standards are similar. So if you go to Mexico expecting to find a driving experience similar to the Interstate, you are in for a rude awakening.

I have my suspicions that the tales of horror about driving in Mexico originate with people who never venture far from the Interstate in the US, and were wholly unprepared for unending miles of secondary-like roads. Our own experience was quite different.

As you know, we seldom drive on the Interstate, preferring instead the "blue" highways -- state primary and secondary routes, US highways, and even forest service roads. Four lanes is the lap of luxury, while two is the norm. Shoulders vary from a few inches to several feet, and may or may not be paved.

Primary highways in Mexico are very much like secondary roads in the states. If your normal routine in the US limits you to a few dozen miles a day on secondary roads, then a 250-mile day in Mexico will seem very long indeed.

Some highways in Mexico, and I am thinking here of Mexico 1 in Baja California, are more akin to forest service or tertiary routes in the US. This is the sort of road that we are comfortable on at speeds between 35 and 45 MPH. The limit on these roads in Mexico is around 50 MPH (80 KPH), and the Mexicans drive them a good deal faster than that. This is an area where being in caravan was a liability, since it created a dangerous situation with traffic trying to pass 20 rigs in succession. My advice: drive at the speed that makes you comfortable, and follow the Mexican custom of putting your left blinker on as needed to inform traffic behind you when it is safe to pass.

Several people on our caravan had left-mirror mishaps on highway 1. I attribute this to a combination of lack of experience on narrow, twisting roads in general, and a keep-up-with-the-group mentality. I truly believe there would have been fewer problems had people proceeded at their own pace (both driving speed and how far to go each day). As for the lack of experience, that can be cured before you leave the US. Try Monarch Pass the next time you cross the Rockies, instead of I-70. Cross Nevada on US-50 instead of I-80. I think you'll have a nicer ride, anyway.

Banditos and Federales

Rumors of ruthless banditos and even more ruthless Federales have been greatly exaggerated, at least in the northern states. The only bandito we had trouble with was the Frito Bandito, whose mental image we could not escape (well, those of us of a certain age) during the myriad renditions of Cielito Lindo.

As for the Federales, we did not have any encounters with civilian law enforcement whatever, and the military checkpoints are staffed by 19-year-olds who are just trying to focus on doing their job while at the same time being overwhelmed by more wealth than they will ever have (any American RV represents more money than a Mexican soldier will earn in a lifetime). They were friendly and polite and we were always on our way within a few minutes. If your Spanish is lousy, expect to have to muddle through communicating with them -- few speak any English.

The Mexican People

We found the people of Mexico to be friendly, helpful, and generally pleased to have us there. This experience was more pronounced on the mainland, and in the less-frequented places in general. Making even a token effort to communicate in Spanish is greatly appreciated and goes a long way toward improving diplomatic relations.

Mexicans in Baja, particularly in the tourist areas, tend to be a bit more jaded. I suspect that the "typical" American tourist does not make for a good ambassador of international relations, and this is the result. We tried to distance ourselves from the prototypical tourist image, but that's hard to do when, after all, we were tourists. As with all tourist destinations, expect establishments in these areas to be a little more pricey, and to "take advantage" of what the market will bear. This is no different than in Miami or the Grand Canyon. (The lone gas station in Death Valley routinely charges 50% more for fuel than stations in Baker, CA, the nearest town -- at least Pemex stations charge a nationally set price for fuel.)

Mexico is an impoverished nation, by western standards. Working wages average 50 pesos, or about $5 US, per day. One consequence of this is that, if you shop and eat where the Mexicans do, you can get by in Mexico quite cheaply. The flip side, of course, is that the average American tourist in Mexico represents, to the locals, a level of wealth unattainable their entire lifetime. While many Mexicans live in comfortable houses with running water and modern conveniences, many also live in cobbled-together shacks without plumbing or sanitary facilities. Sometimes, you will see these dwellings side-by-side on the same street. We were constantly mindful of the sort of impression Odyssey might make in such an environment, and we tried to be as inconspicuous as anyone in a giant bus can ever hope to be.

The Best and the Worst

We have been asked many times what part of our Mexico trip we liked the best. I tend not to think in superlatives, so this is a hard question to answer. Instead, let me list some of the high points:
  • Camping on the beach. If you forced me to pick a "best," this would probably be it. Falling asleep to the sounds of the surf, no lights at night except the moon and stars, and just a few steps to swimming and snorkeling in the warm waters of the tropics. Several good spots, but I think I liked Playa Tecolote the most.
  • Mexican food at local stands and restaurants where no English is spoken at all.
  • The train ride through Copper Canyon. Definitely a must-do, either on the passenger train or piggyback. (Some people, apparently, took my statement that I would not do the piggyback again as a recommendation against doing it at all, and this was not my intent. It was definitely the trip of a lifetime and not to be missed -- but once was enough.)
  • The pace of life, much slower than here in the US.
As a counterpoint, I feel I should point out the things with which we were the most disappointed. Principally, that would be the amount of trash we saw nearly everywhere we went. Just as the economy and standards of living lag somewhat behind those of the neighbors to the north, so does any sort of culturally inculcated sense of environmental responsibility. Interestingly, residents of suburban streets feel compelled to keep those streets neat and clean, even extending to sweeping the streets by broom. Yet the countryside is littered with bottles, cans, paper, spent auto parts, and even human waste. My only other complaint is that sanitary standards are also somewhat lax, requiring one to always be careful in selecting food and beverage.


We have used these printed books:
  • Mexico by RV, by Kathy Olivas. This book was given to us by Fantasy Tours as part of our pre-trip materials, and we found it somewhat useful. Olivas was formerly one of their tour staff, and the book is slanted toward the places frequented by the caravans.
  • Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping, by Mike and Terri Church. The Church's, uhh, "wrote the book" on Mexican camping, so to speak. Comprehensive and well-written, I think it's a better book than the Olivas book. I've perused borrowed copies, but we'll get our own before our next trip. The Church's post updates to the campground information on their web site.
  • Baja Camping, by Fred and Gloria Jones, published by renowned outdoor-guide and camping icon Foghorn Press.
I've also found these web sites useful:
  • Vagabundos Del Mar, a camping/boating club for Mexico adventurers. Lots of good information on the site, even if you don't join. Membership gets you benefits such as access to advance entry permits, discount insurance programs, and legal services.
  • La Conexión Mexicana chapter of Escapees. This organization exists pretty much to hold one rally a year somewhere in Mexico, but there are a few useful articles on the site. If you're an Escapee, joining their annual rally is a good alternative to a commercial caravan, if you're looking to cross the border in a group.
  • Mexico with Heart, a website provided by one couple with a story to tell. Lots of useful information and links based on their own travels.
  • RVing Mexico on RVersOnline. A mini-series by one man with lots of experience.
  • The Mexico and South America forum on RV.Net. Plenty of good information just to browse through, but you can get answers to specific questions from the collected wisdom of the group by registering for free.
  • The RV page at OurMexico.com.
  • The Banjercito vehicle permit page (in Spanish). This gives definitive information about bringing your vehicles into Mexico (not required in Baja, Sonora, or within ~30km of the border). Click on "Realiza tu trámite AQUI" in the lower right, then select English, to order your permits online.
And, of course, this very blog, from October 7th through November 14th, gives specific information about all the campgrounds and other spots that we used on our trip, mixed in with my somewhat dry and often lengthy narrative.


  1. Congradulations, As a Mexico traveler of many years, I think your comments about Mexico travel and caravans was right on.

  2. A dream of mine but my mother will not leave the United States. Without the RV I have been to Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The only beach I have been to was Rotaan Island. All of these places were out of the way and I was treated very warmly.


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