When I left Wichita Falls, Texas and traveled the desert southwest of Texas into Mexico, I had no idea what adventures would await me.
Mexican customs went smoothly, but the immigration and vehicle import process took more than an hour, at the hands of a very gruff yet extremely helpful gentleman named Pedro, who wanted to double and triple-check to make sure all of my paperwork and payments were in order.
Finally back on the road, I hit 57D, a toll road, at full throttle and gazed out at the beautiful Chihuahua desert of Mexico. Rolling hills gave way to the stunning Sierra Madre mountains. I traveled into them at sunset, and traversed them by moonlight and headlight, and left them behind at daybreak with their peaks cloaked in fog and clouds, an otherworldly sight.
I’d been ripped off by pump attendants at a PEMEX station about 3 hours south of Monterrey. While several employees distracted me talking to me about my dog, the guy pumping my gas reset the pump several times, and what should’ve been a 450 peso top-off (about half a tank) showed up as a little over $1000 pesos. I quickly told him, “No bueno”, and he began pointing at the liters pumped into my tank. I brought up the calculator on my phone and showed him that the liters pumped could not possibly result in the cost he was charging me. He started to object, and I simply said “Yo quiero tu jeffe. Pronto.”
“I want your boss, now.”
That changed his tune a bit, and he tried to negotiate me down to 900 pesos. I gave him 450 pesos, got in the truck and drove away. No hard feelings, I simply was not about to be the gringo who paid for what they intended to be their beer money that night. The mountain vistas and free feeling of driving though the Mexican desert quickly eclipsed that experience. I was content behind the wheel and Zoe was content snoozing away in her copilot seat.
Then, the madhouse that was Queretaro, costing me an extra day on the road, and finally finding my way onto the Arco Norte around Mexico City. For 2 hours, I finally felt like I could relax, sit back, and enjoy the views of the Mexican countryside. Hills and mountains surrounded me like giants, and green valleys dropped off into the misty unknown. This was truly a beautiful and relaxing drive, and very therapeutic for both Zoe and me after the craziness of Querataro. We shared cashew nuts and she sipped water from the on-board water dish I’d rigged up for her prior to our journey.
Exiting the Arco and having stopped just before Puebla at a store with wifi to chat with Kat for the first time since I made my border crossing, we pressed on east. I was determined to make it to a town called Minatitlan, where I would seek safe harbor for the night.
I traveled east along 150D, a toll road. We gained altitude without even realizing it. We were climbing up desert hills, following semi trucks, when suddenly we were forced to slow down. Making a curve to the left, I looked to my right and realized the cause for the slowdown. We’d crested the mountains, and, glancing to my right, I was looking down thousands of feet into the Orizaba valley far below.
Driving became a challenge at this point. I was so busy watching the road while at the same time wanting to just gaze down into the valley, I had to kick myself back into concentration mode to navigate this very narrow pass. After the first tunnel, I finally found a roadside overlook where we could pull off and check out the mountain vistas. Trucks sputtered past me with their engine brakes fully engaged, and I wanted to stay longer, but a look at my watch told me I must get back on the road to keep my promise to Kathryn to be home with her by tomorrow evening.
We continued on down the mountainside, into the streets of ancient Cordoba, and I remembered reading about the legends of pirate treasure buried there in the 1660s. Unfortunately, I was on a self-imposed schedule and treasure hunting would have to wait for another time.
As we began our descent toward sea-level, the rocky, moss-lined mountainsides gave way to beautiful tropical jungle and savanna. Seeing the horizon lined with palm trees, I was pretty excited, as I knew we were getting closer, although, in reality, we were still 15 hours away from our new home in Chemuyil.
After crossing a couple of very broad rivers and traversing many miles of jungle, I reached a toll booth. I asked the booth attendant (in my worst possible Spanish) directions to Minititlan. He was a young man in his late twenties, who smiled at me and said, in perfect English, “Dude, I see you’re from Texas!”. He’d seen the plates on my pickup truck as I pulled up to his booth. “You’re on the right road, just keep driving and you’ll be there in about an hour.” Thanking him and handing him a tip, I asked where he’d learned to speak English so well. Turns out his parents had saved for years to send him to UCLA. We shook hands and I pressed on, refreshed at having found this guy in the middle of the Mexican jungle who spoke perfect English.
Driving farther into nightfall, we’d finally made it to Minatitlan and found our stopping place for the night, another PEMEX station. Taking Zoe out to stretch her legs, I could smell the invigorating salt air coming from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico just a few miles to our north.
After a bite to eat from my stash of crackers, pepperoni, and cheese, I got busy on my nightly ritual of route planning, running fuel and speed tables, trying to zero in on a realistic arrival time. After crunching the numbers a few times just to be sure, I sat back, took a deep breath, and smiled. If I started out at first light, we could make it home by 6:00 in the evening, if not sooner.
Having taken Zoe out one final time and paid a small fee to use the restroom, I found a parking place between two 18 wheelers and cranked the seat back for the night. While trying to get to sleep, I found it a bit weird that every so often, a car would show up, and one of the PEMEX attendants would walk up to it. The driver would exit and they would disappear around the corner of a building. Minutes later, they would both re-emerge and the driver would be gone. My “spidey-sense” went off, telling me to be careful here.
It was around 4:30am that something didn’t feel right. I opened my eyes and saw one of the PEMEX attendants standing right beside my passenger window, staring into my truck. Without even thinking about it, I started up the truck and gunned it. I drove for awhile until I found another PEMEX station, where I would buy some water for Zoe and me for what would be our final leg of the trip.
I got Zoe out of the truck and let her stretch her legs for a good long time, knowing that this would be a long travel day. I made one final visit inside the store to purchase a large coffee.
As the sun began to break the horizon, I left the outskirts of Minatitlan. My next waypoint was Villahermosa, about 2.5 hours east, where MX180 would turn into MX186. As the sun rose with a burst of light above the Gulf of Mexico, I found myself singing happy tunes in my mind, eager to be home and see Kathryn and our friends.
Sticking to my fuel plan, I would begin watching out for the familiar green signs of a PEMEX station every couple of hours. This would be especially critical on this leg of the journey, as I would be passing through a biosphere reserve for over an hour. These reserves are set aside by the government of Mexico, and, with the exception of very primitive pueblos, not inhabited or supported by infrastructure such as gas, water, or electricity. Passing through them is truly like going back in time. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the roads as I passed through small villages with women wearing the traditional huipil, a loose-fitting woven dress with beautifully embroidered flowers. They carried baskets of fruit and vegetables perfectly balanced on their heads as they made their way back to their palapas from the market. Men carried machetes, the official all-in-one tool of this region, with loose fitting trousers rolled up to the knees, white shirts and palm hats. Many sat in circles by the road, passing around a bottle of beer, and appeared to be laughing and joking as men will do after a hard day’s work.
In almost every pueblo along the highway, we would encounter a series of topes, speed bumps, where we would have to slow down to almost a full stop. Merchants would strategically place themselves right in these areas to take advantage of the slow traffic, peddling their fruits and snacks. Impressed by their resiliency and artful salesmanship, I bought 4 oranges and some dried, seasoned nuts to share with Zoe.
Having made it through Villahermosa and finally onto the Yucatan peninsula, I felt a sense of relief. This road, MX186, would carry me straight through to Chetumal, the capitol of Quintana Roo, where I would then head north on 307, the road home.
The low country savanna of the Gulf coast gave way to gradually deepening rain forest. I rolled down the windows and let the smells of the tropics flow through the truck. Zoe had her head out the window, tongue flapping in the breeze. I sang “Welcome To The Jungle” at the top of my lungs and was pretty sure she did not approve.
There were occasional irritating moments. 186 is a major trucking artery from interior Mexico out to the Yucatan region, and only a two lane highway. Truck drivers travel in convoys and creep along at about 40mph, and you often go for many miles before finding a safe stretch to gun the engine and get past the trucks. All the same, this is life in Mexico.
Topping a hill, I crossed under a most welcome sign which read “Bienvenidos A Quintana Roo”.
“Welcome to the state of Quintana Roo.”
I’d been saving a cerveza for this moment, and reached into the cooler, pulled it out, and popped the top on a still-cool Modelo. A few miles later, and I’d reached the outskirts of Chetumal.
Road signs in this part of Mexico are incredibly helpful, and it was easy to find my way from eastbound 186 to northbound 307. It was here that familiar sights came into view. The beautiful little town of Bacalar with the Lake of Seven Colors shining in the late afternoon Mexican sunlight, on up to Felipe Carillo Puerto, where we’d had to pay off a cop to let us go for running a non-existent stop sign about a year earlier, then finally, Tulum.
As I was waiting in traffic, I reflected on just how much this once small pueblo had changed and grown. What was once a golf-cart community had become a kind of retro-hippie metropolis. Scooters and taxis moved around and through traffic like swarming bees. I smiled as I finally rolled through the intersection, across the topes and north along 307.
About seven miles later, I was approaching my final destination – Chan Chemuyil. I’d decided I’d make a quick trip through the pueblo of Chemuyil, just for fun. Driving slowly though town, I waved at pedestrians and motorists, and was greeted with the warmest, friendliest smiles one could ever hope for. Some faces were familiar, and a few recognized me and called me by my Spanish name, “Andres”.
Heading south for what we call the “Jungle Road”, I popped the truck into 4-wheel-drive – again,just for fun and to give the drive train a workout. I crested the hill out of the jungle and rolled into Chan Chemuyil. Turning down our street, I could hardly believe it, and I had to stop the truck and park for a few minutes and just think. Think about what Zoe and I had been through, the miles we’d traveled, the sights we had seen on this unforgettable journey.
Easing it back out of 4 wheel to 2 wheel drive, I went down a couple of blocks. As I pulled up in front of Kathryn’s house and put the gearshift into park, I heard a very welcome voice.
Kathryn had been hanging out with our neighbors, Vicki and Curtis, and trying to keep her mind off of wondering if I was alive or dead. She’d heard my truck pull up and when she stepped out of their house, she looked at me with the same look of relief that I was feeling in that moment, and then yelled back to Vicki and Curt, “He’s here!!!!”
I shut down the motor, put my feet on tierra firma, and taking her into my arms, held on to her so tightly.
After 2,140 miles alone and in the blind, I was home.