Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Driving through Mexico...a 2nd time.

In May I made the drive from Brownsville, TX to Merida for the second time. It was a bitter-sweet experience. The last time I was a little apprehensive because it was my first time and I was driving by myself. This time I co-piloted/navigated for a new friend that moved down here with his family so I was able to take in the sites a little more but there was one thing I noticed: The Border Violence is spreading and tension within certain areas of the country is increasing. You see it at the border crossings, state boundary check points, and inside cities in the Northern parts of the country.

I am not saying I would never make the drive again. What I am saying it takes alot of physical and mental energy to make this journey, even if you know what you are doing. Driving through parts of Mexico today is not what it was even a year ago. In addition to the violence factor you have to consider that.....

  • The drive is long (Over 1200 miles from Brownsville, TX to Merida).
  • It is choppy. You make alot of turns and detours even though you take Hwy 180 almost the whole way down.
  • The quality of some of the roads is not up to American standards. Even toll roads along the way are torn up and bumpy at certain points.
  • The roads are more consistently narrow. Mexicans driving requires alot of 'close-call' passing to get around the car in front of you and this will require a few more deep-breaths, and oh-my-goshes and did you see that's on your part.
  • There are check points all over the place in every state and at every state boundary. This includes roaming military checkpoints that can pop up out of no-where. It has a totally different feel from the U.S.
  • Some cities that you drive through and will need to stop in are not always safe outside the walls of your hotel. Uh-hum (clearing throat).....Tampico anyone?
I am going to give you my advice on some more specifics as if I were in the car with you. One, if you are making this move with kids then fly your wife and kids down after you make the drive. Do not make this drive with them if you can absolutely avoid it. A husband and wife driving down is fine. But not with kids. Mexicans know this and so do most Americans and Canadians in my opinion. Fly the kids. Do not drive them down. OK. Here goes.
  • Never leave your I.D. somewhere else than in your pocket or carry-bag. Never, Never, Never. Ever. When you get pulled over, and you will get pulled over, you better have these in hand and not buried somewhere in the car or back at the hotel. Don't make this mistake folks!!!
  • When you arrive at the border crossing to get your visa (if you don't already have one) and your Car permit, have all your paperwork on your car. Mexican Insurance Policy purchased in advance (2 copies). 2 Copies of your registration. 2 Copies of your title. 2 Copies of each passport. When you get your visas at the border they will have a guy working a booth with a copy machine right there in the same building as the the immigration office. He will make copies of visas for free. Tip him at least $2 USD or $25 Pesos as a good gesture. I have him $50 pesos as a good gesture and they treated us well.
  • Do not take pictures of anyone at the border crossing. This is for the security of the Mexican policeman and soldiers and their families.
  • When you are standing in line at the border crossing offices do not talk on the phone. Do not move around alot. Stand still, be respectful and speak only when spoken to. Be still. This tells the Mexican soldiers, police and government officials that you are respectful of their authority and they will treat you well for it. 
  • Stay in nice hotels. It is worth the money. Holiday Inn in Tampico is $100 USD per night. Well worth it. Clean, nice pool, secured parking and friendly staff. Quality Inn in Villahermosa is about the same price. Clean, good location, safe for parking. Both include free breakfast. Both are clean and hospitable.
  • Be very respectful of everyone. Smile and say muchas gracias as much as possible.
  • When passing through checkpoints look straight ahead and drive slowly. Do not look at the soldiers unless they wave you over.
  • If you do get problem. Just make sure you don't have even so much as your grand kids pop gun in your car. Absolutely no guns, no weapons, no knives, no Swiss army knives that you had since you were a 4 year old boy, not even one old empty shotgun shell....nothing. If you need a knife then buy one when you get here. Don't travel with that stuff. They will ask you 'Donde Viene?' this means, 'Where are you coming from?' Show them your passport and your visa. All should go well. Thank them for their time and move on.
  • Hide your money on your person. Don't leave your wallet sitting out on the dashboard or in plain-sight.
  • When gassing up at Pemex say "Magna lleno, por favor." This means Magna (green) gas and lleno (pronounced yeno) means "filler-up." Por favor means 'please' obviously. Always tip the gas station attendant at least 5 pesos. If he cleans your windows tip $10 pesos if you dare. 
  • Buy a good Mexico map to have with you. You can you can buy GPS for Mexico but you don't have to have it. I didn't. 
  • Here is a link to directions from Brownsville to Merida. Click Here.  Print off these directions at this website and keep them with you. You won't regret it. They are well done and I agree with about 99% of their recommendations. My wife and I know Peter and Linda and we appreciate their contributions even though they weren't the original authors.
  • On your first day cross fresh early in the morning on the main International Crossing in Brownsville/Matamoris. Drive to Tampico and stay the night there on your first day. I recommend the Holiday Inn right as you drive in on the main road into Tampico. If you want to go farther down the main highway then fine. You can get closer to the main restaurants that way. 
  • On your second day drive from Tampico to Villahermosa. I know the map I had you print out with Peter and Linda's advice says to stay in Minitatlan on Day 2. Villahermosa is only about another hour down the road and it is more modern and the hotels are more accessible and modern. Also, I could not find the hotel they recommend in Minitatlan. I tried to stay there on my first trip and found the city to be rather unclean and "risky" if you know what I mean. Others obviously think differently. I recommend the Quality Inn in Villahermosa. It is on the right about halfway into the city. You can't see it from the highway but you can see VIPS restaurant. It is about 2 blocks behind VIPS. VIPS is Mexico's version of Denny's and is owned by guess who?  That right......Wal Mart.
  • Also, I recommend you start this three day drive either on Saturday or Sunday. Why? Mexico half-way shuts down on Sundays. The streets are more passable, fewer cops are out, fewer people are out. Most people are at home hung over and asleep or are at church. This means the country doesn't wake up until around noon so it is easier to drive. I recommend starting on Saturday with your drive from Brownsville to Tampico on Saturday and the drive from Tampico to Villahermosa on Sunday. Day 2 is the longest drive of the three days and it also takes you through many mountains along the way. You will be halfway to Vihallermosa by the time Mexico wakes up on Sunday. My two cents. 
  •  The third day's drive is from Vihallermosa to Merida. It is the shortest day of the three. I recommend the coastal route. It is prettier by far from a scenic standpoint and you will have time to stop and get out and dip your toes in the water at some spot along. On the third day you will go through quite a few military checkpoints from state to state (Tampico, Campeche and Yucatan). Remember the rules and all will be well.
  • Before you leave the states order about $300 USD in Mexican Pesos from your bank. You will need the money for toll roads between Tampico and Merida on Day's 2 and 3 of your drive. You can also use the cash for gas stations and restaurants. You can hit an ATM anywhere anytime in Mexico. No problem. It is just that you half to stop. I don't recommend ATM's in Matamoris or Tampico. I don't like stopping or getting out of the car unnecessarily in those cities except for my hotel in Tampico. My feelings and maybe not others.
  • If you use cash at a gas station or restaurant always count your change. The waiter at Applebees in Villahermosa tried to short me on my change on my last trip. This is a common tactic amongst cashiers and waiters in both the U.S. and Mexico, especially in Mexico. They think you are not going to count it or don't know how and it is a way for some of them to make a few extra dollars each day.
  • Last but not least, make sure you have a license plate on the front and back of your vehicle. Yes, I know the law in Mexico requires only one plate. But sometimes these policemen forget that and pull you over because you don't have one. Order an extra plate if you need one. Or, you can take a picture of your plate at Office Max, have it laminated and adhered to synthetic/plastic posterboard, put a license plate frame around it that you can buy at any auto parts store and bolt it on the front. The cost, around $10 U.S. I know. We just did that for someone last month.
I know I made it sound like a gauntlet. In some ways it is. Be prudent, be smart and pray for God's help. Then sit back and enjoy the journey. And when you get to Merida get out and kiss the ground. Once here you will notice the difference in the Yucatan versus the rest of the country.


1 comment:

  1. I like your idea, having a road trip is so exciting but exhausting when you are driving... I love to have a road trip again... soon..

    Loi =)
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