In May, 2017, I began a new life.
I’d been flying to Mexico about once every 1.5 months to be with the love of my life, Kathryn, who has lived on the Riviera Maya for a few years now. We’d been talking about putting our lives together, and finally reached the decision to just do it. The perfect time would never arrive, and at some point, we would simply have to act, figure it out from there, and live life to the fullest along the way, together.
So, after getting my personal effects in order, on a late spring afternoon with a full tank of gas and the few things I’d decided to haul in my Tundra pickup, I loaded up the dog and guitar, and set my sights south for the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas. I would make a 2,150 mile drive to the Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
Faith hope, and love from both Kathryn and very good friends made that journey possible.
I’ve always considered myself very studious in any serious undertaking. This trip was a reminder that, no matter how much you study and prepare yourself, at some point, you must load up, not look back, not underestimate yourself, and simply begin. Hit the gas and giddyup.
Here are the top six lessons learned along the way.
Plan, But Don’t Over-Plan
Know the route you will take, but don’t plan to know everything about that route until you are actually on the road. My number-one advice would be to stick with toll roads as often as possible. They aren’t that expensive, nor are they necessarily in the best repair, but better and safer than “libres” (free roads), with fewer topes and fewer slowdowns as most take you around larger cities.
Familiarize yourself with your overall route to your final destination, and spend some time each evening studying waypoints for the next day’s drive. Most hotels will be located off the highway, meaning you’ll have to travel into towns along the way to find them. I chose to sleep in my truck, using well-lit and staffed PEMEX parking lots alongside commercial trucks each evening. Each of them had readily available and clean restroom facilities.
Be familiar with your chosen border crossing, including customs, immigration and vehicle importation locations and processes. Each one is arranged a bit differently. For my chosen crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, it went like this:
-Pay a small toll, in cash, to the booth attendant after crossing the bridge. Pay attention to the signal lights just before the booth. Do not advance toward the booth until the light is green. Smile for the cameras!
-Once past the bridge, you will advance through Customs, which may or may not be staffed. They may wave you over into a parking slot. If so, you are likely to be questioned and have your vehicle searched. Be prepared to tell them where you’re from, where you’re going, how long you intend to be there, and what you are carrying. By this time, you should have familiarized yourself with the items you can and cannot take into Mexico.
-Once past Customs, you are in Mexico. Technically, you are in the “Free Zone”, where immigration and vehicle importation is not required to travel about. In my case, I had to find MX57, (GPS is your friend!) which would take me about 30 miles south to the immigration checkpoint on the right just before the first toll booth. VISA and vehicle importation requirements were taken care of there, after which I attached my new TIP (Temporary Import Permit) to my truck’s windshield, and was off on my own into the great unknown. The Chihuahua Desert surrounded me, and I could see mountains looming ahead far off into the distance.
A healthy fear of the unknown soon gave way to wonder and amazement.
Have All Documentation In Order And Ready To Present
Passport, driver’s license, vehicle registration/ownership paperwork, and insurance. Your U.S.-based vehicle insurance will not carry into Mexico. Mexican law requires a minimum liability insurance on all vehicles. A vehicle accident in Mexico can be a complicated manner in any case, and not having insurance can place you in the very uncomfortable position of being jailed until settlements are reached and expenses paid. This is also a good time to mention toll receipts. Keep every one of them as you pass through the booths, as they are your insurance policy should you be involved in an accident where road property is damaged.
Mexican auto insurance can be purchased in the United States prior to departure online. Prior to your journey, be sure to make triplicate copies of all critical documents to keep with you. At the advice of a friend, I purchased a 3-week policy in the United States which would get me across the border and to my destination for about US $70, then purchased a one-year policy for less than $360. Always keep a copy of your policy in your vehicle along with copies of your vehicle Temporary Import Permit paperwork.
If traveling with a pet, have up-to-date records for pet vaccinations and anti-parasite treatment on hand, as well as an international health certificate from a veterinarian certified to make out this document. These are required by Mexican law, but not always demanded for presentation when crossing by motor vehicle. But, if asked for it at any point, you will have it rather than having your pet impounded for observation.
Take Your Time
Mexico is an absolutely stunning and beautiful country, with an impossible number of photo opportunities. If I have any regrets, it is that I was in a hurry to get to my destination, as I was traveling alone and felt the need to keep my eyes on the road.
Pull over and take in the sights when and where you can. You will experience everything from cactus and sage deserts to rolling hills with agave plantations to beautiful adobe ranchos that take you back to “Old Mexico” to lush, forested mountains providing views you would see in National Geographic. I was amazed at how the alpine views quickly turned into dense, tropical jungle and savannas punctuated by fruit plantations and sugar cane fields.
Take time. Take pictures. Make time to get lost and explore.
Live by the Half-Tank Rule
Pemex stations are quite frequent, and you’ll see helpful signs along the way which tell you the distance in kilometers to the next gas station. But, in some backcountry areas, you can go almost 50 miles without seeing one, and it’s no fun seeing a sign pointing to gas 45 kilometers ahead when you only have 30 kilometers left in the tank.
For peace of mind, commit yourself to the rule of not letting your tank fall below half.
You will be charged in pesos, so know about how much it will cost to top off your tank from half to full. And, while most of your PEMEX attendants will be friendly and honest, always keep your eye on the pump.
About halfway between Saltillo and Queretaro, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I stopped to refuel, told the pump operator “Magna, full”, and then was quickly distracted by other station employees talking to me about my dog, who was in the passenger seat. As it turns out, this was a distraction while the pump operator charged me a full tank’s price for a half a tank of gas. Realizing I’d been had, I was able to get him to back the price down to something more reasonable, but only after I could show him on my calculator that he’d charged me twice the listed price per liter. Be prepared by letting them know you are watching so that they zero the pump, and stand your ground if you know you’ve been cheated. Thankfully, in 2150 miles, this was the only occurrence of pump cheating I experienced, and a few miles down the road I found myself laughing about how these guys trying to make a very hard living had scored at least some beer money off me that day.
In another instance near Villahermosa, I got an impromptu lesson in the Mayan language from a very friendly young pump attendant who was excited to meet an American who could also teach him a bit of English. Mind you, having learned the hard way, I was standing right beside him as he filled my tank, but it was a great exchange.
Perhaps the coolest moment was rolling into a toll booth where I asked the attendant if I was on the correct route to Minititlan, where I would spend the night.
“Yeah dude, it’s straight down this road. Just keep goin’!”
He said it in perfect West-Coast English.
Dazzled after days of having to navigate with my terrible Spanglish, I complemented him on his English skills.
He smiled, laughed and then told me he’d grown up in Mexico City and spent eight years at UCLA, saw my Texas plates, and knew I was a Gringo.
After a quick Mayan handshake, we were back on the open road, and smiled. That quick little experience was amazing.
GPS Is Your Friend
Even if you don’t have a Mexican data plan, if your smartphone has GPS, you can use Google Maps to download the maps for the regions you’ll be traveling and store them on your phone, and Google turn by turn navigation will be available to you offline.
As a backup, take a detailed paper map of the region(s) you will be traveling in case you experience a device failure.
And I don’t mean a Rand-McNally Road Atlas of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Get the most detailed maps you can find of whatever regions you’ll be driving.
Being on the road in an unfamiliar country is not the best place to discover that the little squiggly line passing through a pueblo on a map is, actually, a series of unmarked turns that leave you scratching your head and wondering where you’re going.
If the power-points in your vehicle go out, consider other power sources. When faced with this problem, I used my laptop as a power source for my phone via USB cord, and found that it would keep the phone battery charged for over 48 hours when connected, enabling me to continue with GPS navigation.
Obscure road signs can be an issue, especially in the interior regions where tourism is less. Signs will often point to towns with nothing more than an arrow with no highway marker to confirm that you are on the correct route.
Again, be familiar with your day’s waypoints, stay attentive to traffic, and try not to drive at night.
Get Your Pesos Prior To Crossing The Border
Cash exchanges are not always easy to find in Mexico, and while ATMs are frequently available, the last thing you want to do when trying to familiarize yourself with a foreign country is stumble around looking for a place to exchange dollars for pesos. Check with your local bank or online to exchange US dollars for pesos prior to crossing the border.
Have twice as much as you think you’ll need on hand in pesos for peace of mind. I purchased my Pesos from the main branch of IBC Bank in Eagle Pass for a very small fee of $10 for opening a checking account with them. They had more than enough Pesos on hand to fulfill my exchange request.
My trip total from Eagle Pass, Texas to Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula was $600 USD, including tolls and fuel.
That figure does not include the US $400 deposit required to temporarily import my pickup truck into the country. That fee is paid upon entry to Mexico, and must be paid by credit or debit card via electronic transaction at the Banjercito, the Mexican National Bank facility located at or near most immigration facilities along the border.
- Do your homework!
- Make triplicate copies of all important documents
- Purchase Mexican vehicle insurance
- Stock up on Road supplies: snacks, water, cooler, roadside assistance equipment, blankets and pillows, any pet supplies you will need. There are frequent tiendas which will get you through, but stocking a few necessities will make your life easier.
A very special thanks to our friend and neighbor Suzan Aschmies for her excellent input in developing this article.