“… the road is life.”
We thought, Why not drive from Massachusetts to Mexico? After all, Paul Theroux travelled from Massachusetts through Mexico to Patagonia. Though his journey was by train, not by car, I liked the adventurous ways he got to know new places, people and cultures.
We bought the Berkeley Guide to Mexico because the subtitle, “On the Loose, On the Cheap, Off the Beaten Path,” seemed just our style. We like the freedom of road trips that allow spontaneous exploration. Depending on who we meet, what we learn and where we end up, we can stay longer, leave earlier or change direction as we please.
So, with adventure in mind, we left the house in Massachusetts in the care of our kids home from college for the summer and traded the keys to our newer cars for their shared older red vehicle, affectionately nicknamed Cherry. (Given the warnings we read about banditos, we figured it was less likely to get stolen.) Then we drove south to New Orleans and west to San Antonio where we purchased Mexican insurance for Cherry.
We crossed the border from Laredo, Texas into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and drove south on Route 850. This was the Nineties and it was a pleasant ride. (These days, the U.S. Department of State recommends using extreme caution due to violent activity.) Our first stop was at a roadside restaurante for lunch. It was a simple place and much better than fast food, not that any was available on this stretch of road.
We continued on to the city of Monterrey, about 140 miles south of the Texas border. In the center, we found the Zona Rosa.. It’s a large pedestrian area for shopping popular with the locals. Shops sold lots of leather items, including cowboy boots. Straw cowboy hats were ubiquitous and inexpensive. We stretched our legs and browsed before heading south again.
For our first overnight, we headed for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato. Built on the steep slopes of a natural ravine, you enter the city upwards via exits on the highway that tunnels beneath it. Narrow cobblestone streets wind between colorful houses and old colonial buildings, some dating from the 16th century. Clutching the Berkeley guide, we searched for a B&B it recommended and found a parking spot in a plaza nearby. A walk to the B&B and some basic Spanish revealed it was full, but the congenial woman who owned it suggested an alternative nearby. Then she walked us over there and helped us get a room! She also recommended a place to go for an evening meal and drink. Both places were good and we appreciated the hospitable welcome.
After exploring Guanajuato, our next goal was the city of San Miguel de Allende. Its old town of 17th and 18th century buildings is another UNESCO World Heritage site, but In the early part of the 20th century, it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town due to an influenza epidemic. After its Baroque/ Neoclassical colonial structures were "discovered" by foreign artists, many moved in and began art and cultural institutes such as the Instituto Allende and the Escuela de Bellas Artes. In the 1960s, it was again discovered by counterculture figures like the writer Ken Kesey and beat poet, Neal Cassaday who fell down drunk and died there. It remains an artists’ and writers’ colony today. We visited a museum in the city center that was the artist Diego Rivera’s childhood home. Some of his work hangs there, including a sketch of his wife, folk artist Frida Kahlo. It was in San Miguel that Kahlo hosted her famous salons.
Driving into the oldest capital city in the Americas, Mexico City, was exciting. Its wide boulevards, modern skyscrapers and historic center are located on a high plateau at 7,200 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that reach elevations of over 17,000 feet. The highest, most active and most well-known volcano, Popocatépetl (called El Popo by the locals) is visible to the southeast of the city.
Our Berkeley guide directed us to a high-rise hotel not far from the historic center and a room was available. It was a lovely facility and we were pleased to see a note on the bathroom faucet assuring guests the water was potable. We left Cherry in its parking garage for several days so we could explore the city on foot. It has a lot of diverse offerings and we enjoyed our urban treks through neighborhoods that ran from modern to colonial.
The highlight of the historic center is the Plaza de la Constitución known as Zócalo. It has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times and the site is just one block southwest of the Templo Mayor which, according to Aztec legend and mythology, was considered the center of the universe. One evening, we gravitated to a high-floor, open-air restaurant overlooking Zócalo with views of the Municipal Cathedral and the National Palace.
We were warned not to take the trains in Mexico City and not to visit the canals of nearby Lake Xochimilco, but we risked both because the pictures we’d seen of the flower-bedecked canal boats looked lovely and a train was the easiest way to get there. We expected a tourist trap but Xochimilco was a disappointment for other reasons; the boats looked bedraggled, like an amusement park past its prime. The trains were good though, like riding the Blue Line in Boston. They were fast and we did not get groped, mugged, kidnapped, etc. In the end, an adventurous train ride trumped a tired tourist trap.
Overall, Mexico City was great. The only negative was the result of a poor choice of ice cream. I bought a pre-packaged pop and he bought a locally-made cone. I was fine and he got a mild case of turista.
Next stop was Taxco, an old, mountainous mining city southwest of Mexico City known for its silverwork. One of the decisions we had to make while there was how to proceed to the west coast safely. The main highway toward Acapulco was infamous for its banditos so we opted to head for Zihuatanejo, a town further north along the coast. That meant a trip on a smaller road though the mountains.
It was a pretty drive and we were enjoying the mountain air, the rugged landscape and the views when we came to a roadblock and all of a sudden, military guys jumped onto the road and surrounded our car. It was heart-stopping. When they told us to open the back for an inspection, we were even more worried. We didn’t take drugs but we did have a month’s supply of white Vitamin E pills for my husband’s medical volunteer study. They might be hard to explain with our basic Spanish. To our relief, they did only a cursory check and we learned they were all young kids doing their obligatory one year of military service. They sent us on our way with friendly waves.
Zihuatanejo was a great choice. We found a small hotel terraced into the hillside overlooking the Pacific and the room had a wide deck with several hanging hammocks. Paradise! We asked the owner for a restaurant suggestion and it was a small gem of a marisquería. The red snapper cooked in parchment is still the best I’ve had. After a few days enjoying the quiet, palm-fringed ambience of the town, we pointed the car north and traveled up the coast.
Puerto Vallarta was our next stop and the Berkeley guided us to another excellent hotel. The price was reasonable and it had a magnificent open-air lobby leading right onto the sand. Puerto Vallarta was not another quiet paradise but it was a vibrant and fun place to spend some beach time. After a few days there, our next goal was to cross the Sea of Cortez to get to the Baja peninsula. The ferries left from Mazatlan, further north.
The ferry terminal in Mazatlan was jammed with people and cars, but in time, we managed to make our way to the ticket counter, only to find out there would be no available tickets until the next day. We found a hotel for the overnight and returned in the morning to more long lines for tickets and a lot of traffic congestion around the ferry entrance. We secured the tickets after a long wait and (on the advice of a local) a small bribe. Then we went back to the car, drove to a spot at the end of the ferry line and bit by bit snaked our way forward. When we finally reached the front of the line, I was ordered to get out of the car and wait in the terminal. Only the driver could enter the ferry hold. What?
I did as I was told but I worried more as the departure time drew closer. My husband was on the upper deck waving to me, shouting that, if I didn’t make it onboard, he’d be waiting on the other side. I said I’d be okay. The terminal was filled with others but I was the only English-speaking tourist. I screwed up my Spanish language courage and asked a few if they were waiting to board. They were, so I took some comfort from that. The large ship’s warning bells for departure sounded and we were all told to line up. The military came in with drug-sniffing dogs, went down the line and we pedestrians were allowed to board at the last minute. Whew!
It was an overnight trip across the Sea of Cortez (called the Gulf of California in the U.S.) and we slept in reclining chairs. Early in the morning, we landed in La Paz on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula. I walked off the ship and met my husband and the car as they exited the hold. We proceeded toward the gate surrounding the ferry complex, only to be stopped by the military once more while more drug-sniffing dogs checked out the car. After we passed muster, we went through the gate and drove west to Cabo San Lucas.
The position of Cabo at the tip of the peninsula gives it a dramatic beauty highlighted by the jutting rocky sea arch, El Arco de Cabo San Lucas. The beaches and sporting opportunities are awesome but there were too many large-scale tourist developments and too many touts pushing timeshares for our liking. We enjoyed our beach time for a couple of days before beginning our ride north through the diverse inland geography of the peninsula.
We drove through fertile agricultural valleys, rugged, forested mountain ranges that form the peninsula’s spine and a vast desert dotted with cacti and Dr. Seuss-like boojum trees. When we needed gas in the desert area, the only “station” we encountered was a house with a sign saying “gasolina.” We knocked and asked then the man nodded and filled a 5-gallon, military-style gas can from a tank not far from the house. He carried the can to our car and poured in the gas. Next stop was lunch at a food truck in a small dusty town and we had some of the best fish tacos we’ve ever tasted.
The drive up the peninsula took a couple of days and our stops were in coastal towns—drab-looking Santa Rosalía on the Gulf-facing east coast about midway up and Ensenada, a west coast Pacific port city less than two hours from the U.S. border between Tijuana and San Diego. It’s popular with expats from Canada and the U.S.
We were dreading the chaos of Tijuana but the drive became interesting before we got there. At one point, the road took a sharp right. As we came around the bend, we were stopped for “speeding” by the Federales. We were confused because we hadn’t been going fast but we pulled over. They took our papers then a strange thing happened; they didn’t issue a ticket, just a strong suggestion we buy a raffle ticket for a car. We were smart enough to realize a refusal wouldn’t be taken well so we handed over the money. As we drove away, I read the raffle ticket. It was for a car about ten years old! Nice scam.
We didn’t dally in Tijuana and crossing the border was easy. We were back home… almost. We still had over 3,000 miles to go and many adventures to pursue along the way. After stops in places like San Diego, Las Vegas, Grand Junction and South Bend, we rolled into Massachusetts, having been on the road for close to six weeks. As expected, the kids took good care of the house and the cars and we still cherish the memories of every minute of our adventure, even the sorta scary parts.