After the relief of knowing we were able to ferry from La Paz to mainland without the title, we hopped aboard to Topolobampo, a port town on mainland. This was definitely a sketchy town so we were happy to be searching for a hotel with a Vanagon couple doing the same trip, as well as a crew of 5 Australian guys plus 10 surf boards all squeezed into one old white van they dubbed "Pamela". Driving from Topolobampo to Mazatlan the next day was our most brutal stretch of driving thus far. The temps were upward of 105 and with a 7 hour drive it was inevitable that we did a chunk of it in the midday heat. On top of that we had to crank the heat full blast to cool the engine which was soaking up all of the heat from the inland blazing hot pavement of the road. We would be nothing without our stockpile of NPR podcasts accompanying us on the long drive days. Arriving in Mazatlan we were a bit overwhelmed with the craziness of the tourist scene after the desolation of Baja. We splurged for a hotel (a whopping $18 each) and it ended up having the best view in Mazatlan.
The old town of Mazatlan was truly stunning. It was one of the first colonial influenced towns we had explored and we were in awe. The cathedral and plaza were something out of a painting. We enjoyed fresh chile rellanos in a street side café and soaked in the views.
To celebrate my birthday Dillon surprised me with renting a house in Teacapan right by the ocean. The lack of space in the bus to spread out and craft was one of the things I had been missing most so I channeled 2 months of granny into 5 days and stayed up until the wee hours of the night making jewelry. We assumed a place with temperatures like Teacapan would automatically come with AC but boy were we wrong. It was a sweaty but relaxing 5 days, covering our bodies in wet towels we rotated through the freezer. We had a kayak at our disposal but primarily lounged about…rooting up for 5 days in one place was a much needed reset.
We continued south to San Blas where we were greeted with even higher temps and unreal humidity so we decided to keep moving after a quick stop here.
From San Blas we were headed to Sayulita but decided to make a pit stop in the town of San Fransisco, the more laid back, less touristy sister of Sayulita. Unable to find a place to park the bus in this mellow surf town we continued on to Sayulita where we were welcomed with scorching temperatures and hectic tourist-filled streets. I had stayed here 9 years ago and I was blown away at how much it has changed, and not for the better. One night was enough for us!
The drive from Sayulita to Tequila was filled with stretches of blue agave fields. This colonial town was a maze of narrow one way cobblestone streets, the nightmare of a bus-driver. We spotted a pay-to-park / car wash lot. The woman who lives on the property explained that she does not allow overnight parking but apparently she saw the desperation (or heat exhaustion) in our eyes and made an exception. Within a few blocks of ‘camp’ we were swept into stores for tequila tasting. Being in Mexico right around the elections can be nerve wracking as there is a lot of political tension in the country, but it also brings parades with live music and multi-generational fun. We watched the festivities, sipped Tequila, and dodged potential third degree burns from a stray perro knocking over a huge vat of oil full of frying taquitos in the town of Tequila…it would have been a truly Mexican battle scar.
We have quickly learned that cities are not the most conducive to bus life and driving, but Guadalajara was a city we heard was not to be missed and it absolutely lived up to the hype. The main Cathedral was incredible and the slow pace of the city despite its size was an unbeatable combination.
Not being much of a city gal I was not exactly thrilled to go from one city to the next, but Guanjuato can’t even be categorized as a city. It is more like a drop of heaven landed in the mountains of Mexico. The steep mountainside is covered in the brightest, most eclectic homes clinging to the valley walls leading into a colonial town center with an elaborate labyrinth of underground tunnels. This city was originally the hub of silver mining in the 1500’s and is now known as an artistic, theatrical hub in Mexico. With an elevation of over 6,000 feet the temperatures were truly a gift from the gods. This country bumpkin is going to become a lover of cities if Mexico keeps wooing her at this rate.
After barely surviving driving (our physical beings as well as our relationship with a few tense navigational differences in opinion) the outskirts of Mexico City we were truly in shock when we reached a vacant national park within an hour or two of the city limits. Driving up into the mountains of Itza-Popo Zoquaipan National Park (named after two of the five tallest volcanoes in Mexico) looked like driving in the Pacific Northwest after the extinction of humans. We had the place entirely to ourselves.
Camping nestled between the base of two snow covered volcanoes solidified that going to the mountains is truly going home for us. The sense of peace experienced by being alone in the mountains was something we hadn’t experienced in months and an entity that is vital to our sane existence. For me the beach is beautiful and relaxing but it doesn’t move me on a visceral level like being humbled by peaks looming overhead.
Unfortunately going from sea level to camping at 12,000ft over the span of only a few days is not conducive to scrambling up volcanoes for the lungs, but our little strolls below them felt just as fulfilling.
Driving down from the campsite the clouds lifted for a full view of one of the peaks and it left me with tears in my eyes to be leaving the mountains. I guess one of the benefits of travel is shedding some light on what fills your cup and mountains are one of my primary soul nourish-ers.
While it was not easy leaving the mountains, we had heard incredible things about the city of Oaxaca. After a 5 hour drive through some long mountain passes we relied on fumes to make it to a gas station about 60 km outside of the city. We pulled in and the gas station attendant informed us that there was no gas. The teacher’s union took over a Pemex (Mexico’s only gas distributor) refinery in protest of new expectations put on teachers in conjunction with the upcoming election. There was no gas to be found. Luckily we had a few gallons in our spare jug and made it the 40k to a station that had some gas left, but each vehicle was only allowed a small ration. After a lovely experience in Oaxaca full of yummy grub, wandering through the markets, and watching a traditional dance group in the town center, we decided to head to the coast to avoid the city during elections.
The morning we left the military moved in. We arrived in Puerto Escondido eight hours later to find news stories of the military presence expecting violence surrounding the corrupt election weekend. The teachers loosened their grip and the election went on without violent protest (at least here). The states of Oaxaca and Chiapas often hold protests, their large indigenous populations not always agreeing with the Mexican government. Through all of this the state of Oaxaca is the friendliest, brightest, least expensive and safest feeling of all the Mexican states we have been to.
After dodging protest mayhem for the most part, arriving in Puerto Escondido to a friend’s dad’s vacant condo was a relief. A real bed with ocean views and a pool?! Yes please.
Puerto Escondido and the surrounding little hippy communities were an absolute treat, but the heat would have been unbearable to camp in so we were incredibly grateful for a roof over our heads. Puerto is known for its insane beach break wave, one left only for the pros when the swell is in. After 5 days here we were all packed up to continue south when we were informed of a hurricane warning. We decided to batten down the hatches and wait out the storm by sipping Oaxacan hot chocolate and sipping on micro brews (the first we had found since the states!)
A few hours south in the hippie town of Zioplite we rolled into a campground to find a Vanagon with Northwest Territory plates. The couple was our age and we felt like instant pals, an incredible gift that comes with being a VW van owner. I didn’t’ realize quite how much I had been missing female comradery while one the road. We stayed a night with them in dirt cheap palapas on the water and the next caravanned Barra de la Cruz, a surf spot a few hours south. The girls tried surfing a few waves and quickly opted for some yoga on the deserted beach while the boys got totally tubular.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and its good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” –Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Jack knew what’s up. It is the best part of travel to meet people from all walks of life along the way, but farewells are part of that too. We needed to press south but I could have soaked up sharing stories from the road and good company with another lady on the road for much longer.Our vans were just as bummed to be parting ways.
On to La Bomba, a surf spot that is definitely off the beaten path and ended up being one of our favorite camp spots since Baja. At the end of a long dirt road was a palapa with a tiny restaurant run by Espaldo, one of the sweetest old men I have ever met. He welcomed us to camp under his palapa free of charge. He created a community space for people to gather with the little that he had to his name. He lived in the shed that was the restaurant and assured us that camping close to him would be safer, as the locals knew he was always around. My chat with Espaldo (mainly listening, but he was patient with my grammatically incorrect attempts at communicating) was one of my most treasured interactions with a local on the trip so far.
The next day we made a long push to San Cristobol de las Casas which was an incredibly quaint little town. After an hour of trying to find a place to park the bus we found a hotel near town center and played tourist. This town was cute but completely overrun with international tourists, so after one night we decided to head into the jungle.
A long windy desolate road lead us to a campground right near the entrance to the Mayan ruins of Palenque. We have explored many ruins since and this one remains our favorite. The lack of people paired with the deep jungle backdrop to the stunning ruins will be hard to beat.
We splurged for a guide to familiarize ourselves with the history and theory behind how and why the temples were built the way they were. Initially we were told it would be 1000 pesos but when we said that was too much for us they agreed fine, 200 each. I enjoyed our dynamic conversations with our local guide as much as exploring the ruins. He had lived in Texas for 8 years working for and living on the property of a man that owned a construction business and had too much money for his own good. When our guide and his wife got pregnant he reassessed how caught up in the American way he had become of working more to buy more. He also shared his concerns with what he would feed his baby. In his home state of Chiapas, Mexico, everyone knows where their food comes from because if it’s not from their own farm it’s from their neighbors. This disconnect motivated him to move back to Mexico. He was passionate about us not buying souvenirs from the children selling them at Palenque because it would reinforce their parents decision of pulling them out of school to try and make money, when all of these families had farms and food-o-plenty. The lack of emphasis put on education was why he felt his people of Chiapas were living in oppression and being taken advantage of by the Mexican government, stripping their land of resources and giving nothing back to the community.
We stopped for a dip in this stunning waterfall to cool down before the drive to Campeche.
We arrived in Campeche with no expectations, we simply did not have enough daylight to make it to Merida. This town we stumbled upon was like real life Disney Land. The church and old buildings surrounding the plaza made it feel like we were in wonderland.
The pastel colored refurbished colonial buildings lined the cobblestone streets and the temperature was perfect. One of our favorite cities so far, Campeche welcomed us with open arms and locals eager to be of assistance. An extremely friendly homeless man was eager to chat us up despite the language barrier. He offered to wax the bus which we had been needing to do from all of the seaside camping. We were thrilled to pay him a few bucks to give us a bit more time to explore the town. Unfortunately a local restaurant owner called the cops on him while he was cleaning our car, as he was drinking vodka at 9 am on the street while giving the bus the wax on wax off. When the cops came he proceeded to spray vodka all over the front of the bus to prove to the police that it was water, which they clearly didn’t believe. A bus covered in vodka as a bonus souvenir to remember Campeche by, score!
We continued the drive north deeper into the Yucatan peninsula to the city of Merida. At a standard police checkpoint they had us get out of the car and searched it. This had become the norm with our out of country license plates. But this time it wasn’t as routine as shooting the shit with the 16 year old looking military members holding M16’s. These older police members searched the bus extremely thoroughly and among where we keep our prescription antibiotics and travel medications found Dillon’s prescription muscle relaxers that he has in case of emergency for an old neck injury. They saw the warning label that you shouldn’t drive while taking them and we agreed, yes of course. I explained repeatedly that the bottle was 3 years old and he hadn’t taken one in over a year. After an hour of going back and forth and them saying they will have to impound the car since Dillon was driving and the pills are in his name, and he will need to come to the station over an hour away to get a blood drug test. Obviously they wouldn’t find the muscle relaxer in his blood but we didn’t have time to spare…Chichen Itza was waiting! After a stressful hour and a half of negotiating they finally settled on a 500 peso ($30) bribe to let us go.
We aren’t sure if it was the bribe (mordida) we had to pay that put a bad taste in our mouths but Merida was not nearly all it was cracked up to be. We quickly continued on to one of the seven wonders of the world.
We arrived at Chichen Itza (Chicken Pizzas as we call it) around closing time. We had read about a possible free light show at night with a movie of the history projected on to the largest temple. Technically this show is for people staying at hotels in the area (classier than the abandoned hotel we paid to park the bus at) but we waited it out and were able to squeeze in for the show at the last minute. We toured the place all lit up with a German couple who had spent all day at the ruins and they informed us that is was less of a zoo and much more striking at night with the lights, allowing you to fully see the intricacies of the structures.
After Chichen Itza we were beginning to get burnt out on Mayan ruins but heard that the Tulum ruins were not to be missed. This place felt like Disneyland with a Starbucks at the entrance and insane lines. Despite the location on the ocean, roaming the ruins of Tulum left much to be desired.
We did find an awesome camp spot with a thick canopy of palm trees and the finest white sand we have seen. Tulum the town as well as the ruins seemed so touristy in contrast to other places in Mexico and with that comes American-like prices so we only spent one night here before heading to the border town of Chetumal.
On the way to Chetumal we drove to Lago Bacalar and simply couldn’t press on without a night in this magical place. While looking for a kayak rental we found an unreal hostel on the water where we were able to park the bus for $6 including breakfast and unlimited use of the kayaks. This lake has 7 colors of striking blues, making the bus feel right at home.
Upon pulling into Chetumal we stopped at Home Depot to look for some random things for the bus. Leaving skunked, we were stoked to score some free hot dogs for the father’s day celebration. From there were drove a few blocks to McDonald’s to get some wifi to research the border crossing. We find ourselves doing more quintessential American things abrad than we ever do in our homeland. While making Ronald proud eating a burger and wifi-ing hard, Dillon spotted a parade of VW bug’s driving by. He hopped in the bus and followed them to the local VW dealership where they were offering test driving of VW rally cars around a track. The VW community was so excited to check out the bus and ask questions. Through a translator the story of the bus and us was told on the town’s local radio station.
After a night at one of the most unreal campsites we headed for the border, but not before one more wifi stop at McD’s.