The only portion of Mexico we had experienced before this trip was a little slice of the Yucatan peninsula. We had flow out to MJ’s brother’s wedding at a big all-inclusive resort near Puerto Morales, south of Cancun, and taken one day away from the swim-up bar to drive a rental car to the Mayan ruins at Tulum, which was great. It was at that wedding that we met Robbie and his wife Kristen (adventureontap) who had recently returned from their Pan-American overland adventure. Over the course of a few days (and countless margaritas) they described their trip and stoked our fire for a new adventure. At some point during the week Rob looked at MJ and asked; “Would you like to drive to Patagonia?” Her answer was simple; “Yes!” And that is truthfully how this entire 300-day adventure was born!
Fast forward 2 years, and we found ourselves flying back into to Mexico once more. This time from Cartagena, Colombia, while our van was being shipped by boat to the port-city of Veracruz, Mexico. Our plan was to explore Mexico City and kill some time while the van made its way across the Caribbean on the slow boat. However, we were really looking forward to experiencing Mexico City. MJ has taught middle school humanities for many years, which in Canada, includes some Aztec history. She was therefore very excited to visit the origin of this great empire, in person.
Our hotel, located in the heart of old centro, provided great access to the must-see sites of Mexico City. First we visited the ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochitlan. Mexico City was literally built over top of this ancient site. The Spanish, led by Hernan Cortes, deftly defeated the Aztecs and promptly levelled the massive Aztec temples to build a cathedral (predictable, right?). However, the foundations of the pyramid shaped temples were buried and, after major excavation, still provide a meaningful glimpse into the old empire. The Templo Mayor Museum next to the site also contained many impressive exhibits and artifacts.
The next most important pre-Hispanic site near the city, and possibly one of the most impressive in Mexico, is Teotehuacan. These massive pyramid temples were constructed by the Teatehuacan culture? centuries before the dawn of the Aztec empire. Very little was known about the Teatehuacan culture and thus the two major pyramids were somewhat arbitrarily labeled as the “Temple of the Sun” and “Temple of the Moon”, to coincide with the deities of the more contemporary civilizations. However recent archeological revelations may begin to contradict that longstanding notion.
After spending all morning exploring the temples, our excellent local guide brought us back into the city to tour us around a shrine of a different kind. The Mercado Publico San Juan is a modern monument to Mexican cuisine and perhaps the most famous food market in all of Mexico. Believe us, this place is truly a temple of taste! Here is we experienced our first Mole sauce. This type of sauce is actually a very broad range of recipes, but the one we were after wasthe famous Mole Poblano (which implies it is from the Pueblo region of Mexico). It is thick and dark brown with a hint of chocolate hidden among the dozens of spices. This would not be last time we sought out the Mole Poblano. Best. Enchiladas. Ever.
The Museo Nacional de Antropología, is also a mandatory visit in Mexico City. This world-class museum encompasses general anthropological history as well as spectacular exhibits for every major pre-hispanic culture in Mexico; the Olmec, Toltecs, Maya, Aztecs etc. We did not have the full day (or more) required to absorb the entire museum, so we carefully chose the exhibits which interested us the most, and we were not disappointed! The exhibits include several full-size recreations of famous temples scattered all over Mexico.
The next item on the to-do-list was to witness some true Lucha Libre wrestling, first-hand. With the help of our top-notch hotel concierge, we located tickets for the matches to be held at the nearby Colosseum stadium, on Saturday night, and Cinco de Mayo no less! We were all vibrating with anticipation, and the spectacle was as enthralling as we could have hoped. Hilarious characters, reprehensible villains, high-flying acrobatic takedowns! We cheered, jeered, and laughed until our voices were hoarse. The only catch was a late-night walk through a couple of blocks of “rough” neighbourhood before we reached the relative safety of the main tourist streets. However, we stuck with the crowds and didn’t really feel sketched out.
Setting our sights a little higher on the cultural scale, we attended a Sunday morning dance show at the exquisite marble-clad Grand Palacio de Cultura. This was a world-class production of live music and dances from every era of Mexican culture. Averie was especially captivated by the beautifully choreographed dancing and elaborate costumes.
We also enjoyed several more remarkable Mexico City dining experiences, some shopping, and plenty of people-watching and sightseeing. Mexico City has a LOT to offer (the most museums of any city in the world!) and we had not even put a dent in the list after nearly a full week. We wouldn’t hesitate to return for another visit.
We eventually had to leave Mexico City and transport ourselves, by bus, to the city of Veracruz to await the arrival of our van. This time, we opted to stay in an AirBnB condominium on the outskirts of the city. The price of a two-bedroom condo was the same as a hotel in downtown. It would allow us to cook our own food, enjoy a little personal space, and use the semi-private swimming pool. It did however complicate Rob’s nearly daily commute into the city to deal with the vehicle importation bureaucracy.
Even though most days were spent catching up on school and swimming in the pool, we did make sure to take in the rather good aquarium in Veracruz. We were blown away by the massive Tiger Sharks! Not to mention the other exhibits including rare Saw Fish and endangered Manatees.
After our experience with shipping our vehicle from Canada into Chile, we didn’t hesitate to hire a shipping agent in Veracruz to move the process along a little more efficiently. We would consider our Spanish language skills as “passable” for visits to the grocery store or tourist attractions. However, dealing with customs officers, port officials, and banks is better left to those who can speak fluently and understand the jargon. Our agents (Cevertam) performed admirably, but once again we were at the mercy of the port schedules and frustrating bureaucratic delays. Our originally planned 4-night stay in Veracruz dragged on to 9-nights before we had the the van parked in front of the condo! Luckily our AirBnB had availability and we made some good friends in the condo complex to help pass the days.
After finally jumping through enough hoops, we had El Condor back in our possession. We were very grateful to see that the temporary plywood wall Rob and Pete had installed behind the front seats did its job of protecting our possessions from theft. After removing the wall and repacking the entire van, we were finally ready to resume our Overland adventure, a full 21 days after leaving the van and checking into the hotel in Cartagena! Because we had been delayed a week longer than expected in the shipping process we were forced to amend our plans for Mexico. There was no longer time to back-track East to see the famous Mayan ruins of Palenque, or to loop South from there to the famous (infamous?) town of San Cristobal. Perhaps that was for the best, as there were fresh reports of civil unrest and roadblocks in the state of Chiapas.
So instead, we would short-cut straight South from Veracruz to the great colonial city of Oaxaca. This was another place we had heard so many good things about. The artisanal handicrafts and especially the food were known to be world-famous!
Our hosts at the Overlander Oasis Campground in Oaxaca were none other than fellow Albertans, Calvin and Leanne. They had travelled through Mexico extensively in their converted old Greyhound bus, before finally settling permanently in Oaxaca. It was here they purchased a vacant lot, parked the bus, and built a house right over top of it! They now open their unique home to other travellers and provide supreme hospitality and tourist services.
When we told Leanne that we were thinking of attending a Mexican cooking class in Oaxaca, she promptly offered up her kitchen and suggested that it would be more personal (and more economical) to hire a local lady for a private lesson. We couldn’t have agreed more. The next day our kind and patient instructor arrived to teach us how to make tortillas, Mollitos, Taquitos, and enchiladas from fresh local ingredients. Despite the language barrier, we learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and taste of true Oaxaca cuisine!
We also spent a day exploring the old colonial center of Oaxaca. In our experience, most colonial cities have managed to preserve a few precious blocks of the old buildings and parks. In Oaxaca however, they have preserved dozens and dozens of city blocks! It was a treat to walk for kilometres in every direction without ever leaving the charming cobblestone streets. The selection of high-quality artisanal crafts was virtually endless. We tried hard to restrain ourselves, yet we returned back to the campground with our arms full of souvenirs and gifts.
We really enjoyed staying with our Canadian hosts, and wished we could have hung around longer. The kids especially loved chasing the cats around the bus. However, the relentless nature of this adventure inadvertently required us to pick up and keep moving. We kept El Condor pointed South and, after one extremely exhausting mountainous drive, we reached the Pacific coast and the town of Puerto Angel.
We had not really been able to swim in the Pacific Ocean for nearly all of this trip, due to temperature, waves, or rip tide, and Puerto Angel was no exception! The surf was so unusually high that a number of beach-front resorts and restaurants were risking flooding at high tide, and the red flags signifying dangerous swimming conditions were flying full-time. Thankfully, our campground had a great pool with a waterslide, because the heat and humidity were stifling! We were also pleased by the abundance of fresh delicious mangos, literally dropping into our campsite.
After 3 days, we packed our fridge with free fruit and turned North-West on Highway 200. We were now entering the infamous “Cartel Coast.” The states of Guerrero and Michicoan had been a hotbed of cartel violence in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and still have a bit of a reputation. However, we knew that if we stuck to our simple ground rules (never drive at night & always use major highways) we should be just fine. Aside from a heavy police presence on the highways, we saw no signs of strife and we felt perfectly safe the whole time. Of course, as is our tradition, we had to take a few wrong turns in Acapulco, just to keep our streak of stressful big-city driving alive!
We broke up the drive along the coast by stopping at a few nice locations (Playa Ventura, La Barrita) but didn’t linger long at any of them.
A few days later we turned inland once more and climbed back over the mountains to the city of Uruapan. We were delighted to get a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the coast and happily dug our sweaters out of the closet. After visiting a famous waterfall on the outskirts of the city we found ourselves “camping” in the parking lot of a stately old hotel, perched on a hillside above the city. The staff welcomed us warmly and gave us free reign of the grounds, including the large swimming pool. We also got to witness a Quinceañera, which is the elaborate Latin American version of a girls “Sweet Sixteen” birthday celebration, however it is celebrated on her 15th birthday in this case. The guests were all dressed very formally and they partied hard into the night to the sound of a true Mexican Mariachi band. Unfortunately, all of our photographs from that charming old hotel are forever trapped inside of Rob’s water-damaged iPhone.
Our main reason for stopping in Urupan was to visit the Volcan Parícutin, which erupted in 1943 and buried the small town of San Juan Parangaricutiro with its pyroclastic flow. Only the remains of the old stone church are partially intact and protrude from the lava field, like a ghostly white spear. After zig-zagging through the destitute indigenous town of Angahuan, we paid for “secure” parking and began hiking down to the volcano, much to the chagrin of the locals, who really hoped we would have hired some horses and a guide for the short trip. We climbed around on the amazingly sharp volcanic rock (requiring a few bandaids) and marvelled at the ruins. It was truly one of the most iconic sights of the entire trip.
From Uruapan we continued North-West along scenic mountain highways and passed through one unique “check point” manned by armed locals! We noticed some real police nearby so we knew this was not going to be a daylight bandito robbery. In fact they paid us very little attention and did not try to intimidate us in any way, aside from keeping a hunting rifle on display. We paid their small fee to drive through their community and continued on our way to the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Lago Chapala. It was here that we finally found ourselves in the realm of Canadian and American “snow birds!” We knew that there was a pretty large ex-pat community near Jacotopec but we were somehow still surprised to finally see an abundance of vehicles and RV trailers with US license plates. Gringos were in abundance! The grocery store could have been in SoCal. In fact, we heard that there was once a grocery store in in Jacotopec that did not allow Mexican’s inside!!!
Because it was the off-season, the lake-front campground was nearly empty. However, nearly every unit being stored there, mostly large fifth-wheel trailers, had California, Texas or Arizona plates. Even then, most of the trailers were empty except for a nice couple from New Jersey and another American family. The kids played at the large pool and made friends with the kids in the nearby trailer. MJ took full advantage of the free laundry facilities and Rob did some cleaning and maintenance on the van (including a slight panic when the wheel lock key went missing). We were also pleased to find a station to fill our North American propane tanks just outside of town for the final time on this voyage.
Only a short drive North of Lago Chapala is arguably one of the most famous towns in all of Mexico; Tequila! Yes, the birth place and center of the Tequila universe. Surrounded by arid hillsides, covered in neatly planted rows of spikey blue-green Agave plants, this small town is mostly comprised of tequila related souvenir shops and industrial distilleries. Thankfully, we had done our research ahead of our arrival and selected a smaller boutique distillery outside of the town for our visit. The Tres Mujeres distillery reminded us of some of the Canadian wineries we like to visit in BC, with its boutique family-owned atmosphere. After waiting patiently for an English speaking guide to become available we received an informative private tour, which included a fun ghost story about the underground cellar that had the kids full attention.
The first thing we learnt is that the agave plant has to be at least 3 years old before they can be harvested and they are replanted about every 15 years. We were also under the impression that it was the spikey green leaves that were harvested, however it is actually the pineapple-like core that is the valuable part. The leaves are discarded/composted while the cores are placed in large ovens and steamed for a period of time. The liquid that flows out the bottom of the ovens is collected in vats and then distilled into Tequila.
After distillation, the tequila is either bottled right away, as a claro, or barrelled and left to age in the cellar. If it is bottled directly after distilling it is called Blanco, if it is aged for less than a year it is called Reposado, and beyond a year it is called Añejo. Of course there are numerous variations that can be obtained by aging in used wine barrels, or rum casks, or whatever you can imagine. We are not tequila drinkers, but we thought we ought to try a tasting, just to be polite! We were surprised to find such a palatable difference between the types (and prices) of tequila. The blanco was as harsh as the shots we remembered getting at the bar as teenagers, but the reposado was actually fairly smooth, especially with a lime to chase it. The añejo was in fact as smooth as any fine liqueur we’d ever tried and did not even require a chaser. Obviously, the price increases exponentially with quality.
We bought a bottle of tequila cream liqueur from the gift shop and then continued our drive west to the pacific. The big toll highways slowly gave way to rough secondary roads as we approached the coast and we pulled into the tiny town of Santa Cruz de Miramar to pickup some groceries from a dismal little shop. After a few wrong turns we eventually found our target campground and, after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a lower price, we settled in under a tree within view of the beach. Rob attempted to snorkel but was once again turned back by zero visibility. Thankfully, the cool multilevel swimming pool provided all the refreshment that we were craving.
After a few days we headed a short distance north along the coast to the La Tovara National Park. Here we signed up for a boat trip through the mangrove swamps and a visit to the crocodile zoo. We weren’t disappointed by the fun wildlife viewing from the boat, with several crocodiles, turtles, and innumerable birds.
The zoo offered some closeup viewing of the huge crocodiles that they breed there. One big beast startled Rob when he moved in for a close up picture. Averie is a bit of a cat fanatic, and so she was thrilled to finally see some real jaguars up close! Unfortunately they were being held in cages that were clearly not large enough for these huge, magnificent cats. They gave the impression of being bored, sad, and angry. We did not even want to take a picture, it felt kinda shameful.
After the boat ride we purchased some delicious banana bread from the roadside vendors and headed into the town of San Blas to stock up on food and find some accommodations. We rolled into the Los Cocos campground and found it completely deserted. The employee told us to park anywhere, so we slid in under the shade of some large trees and began to setup camp. A minute later the employee walked over and told us we had to move our van, because it was facing the wrong direction! This was rather confusing, since we were literally the only ones in the entire massive campground. The employee explained that all vehicles must park in a North/South direction, not the East/West we had chosen. Rob tried to explain that we really preferred to stay where we were, due to the direction of our solar panel and the location of shade etc. But really, there should be no reason why the only vehicle in the entire campground shouldn’t be able to park in any direction at all! But the employee refused to compromise. Perhaps because of the heat, or the mosquitos, or the price, but we really did not feel like abiding by such arbitrary “rules”. So, we packed up and left town!
We normally do not like driving so late in the afternoon, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Only a short drive back south down the beach we found El Chaco; a large, busy hotel. They were happy to have us to camp in their beach-side parking lot next to one other camper in an old fifth-wheel trailer with California plates. We had a dip in the large swimming pool and then returned to the van to start dinner. A short while later our American neighbour came by and introduced himself as Geary. He seemed like and interesting character and he invited us over after dinner for some live music at his trailer. Liam was especially excited about this and so we carried our chairs over to his camp site. There he had set up a small outdoor concert area with microphones and large PA speakers. He explained that he was a travelling musician and that he got free accommodation by playing shows at the hotel. We were excited to hear him play so we waited patiently while he tuned his guitar, fiddled with his equipment, did a sound check, and rechecked his equipment all over again. Eventually he began to play small parts of various songs, usually until he forgot the rest of the lyrics or his equipment started to malfunction. Liam and Averie did not seem to notice or care, but Rob was starting to wonder if the hotel was getting good value for its bargain with Geary the travelling musician…
The next day we backtracked inland to the toll highway and pointed El Condor North towards Mazatlán. Unfortunately, the ferry we were hoping to take from Mazatlan to the Baja Penisula was shutdown for maintenance (and the alternate cargo ferry was no longer allowing tourists) so we had to continue past the city towards the next ferry port at the town of Topolobampo. This would be a full days drive North, so we stopped a little ways outside the city at a small campground and boutique hotel called Villa Celeste Resort. We were the only ones there at this time of year so the friendly owner ensured we parked directly in his best site, as close to the beach as possible, and with a great little patio furnished in homemade furniture!
We were so surprised to learn that the owner, Noah and his wife had spent a few years living in Melfort, Saskatchewan! By coincidence, Rob knows several people from that small prairie town, and we could not believe the uncanny connection. Noah and his wife, along with their adorable little girl, were now running this campground used mostly by Canadian snowbirds. They said that they missed Canada and sometimes contemplated moving back. Noah made us feel so welcome, and Averie had so much fun playing with his daughter, that we did did not hesitate to extend our stay with them. Rob really wished that he had access to a surfboard because the little break out front looked like a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, our booking for the ferry required us to move on again and so we completed our drive up mainland Mexico to the small port town of Topolobampo. For unknown reasons, the ferry to Baja leaves very late at night, so we found ourselves with time to kill. While driving randomly around town searching for a car wash, we found an amazing taco shop called Don Gato where we gorged ourselves on perhaps the best fish tacos in Mexico.
Once we arrived at the ferry terminal we were reacquainted with Latin American bureaucracy. After checking in the van was weighed and measured. To perform this mandatory check we had to pay a fee. We were then told that our booking was for the wrong type of vehicle. Rob had booked online as a “van” and that we were actually an “RV” and therefor had to pay an additional fee. Uh huh.
Only the drivers were allowed to be in the vehicle when it was driven on board the ferry, so MJ and the kids watched movies in the air conditioned terminal building while Rob sweated profusely in the van while waiting on the loading ramp. Eventually, El Condor was wedged very tightly into the deepest bowels of the ferry and we all regrouped onboard to check into our room. We had decided that because the ferry sailed through the night it would be best to attempt getting a decent night sleep and we were actually fairly pleased with the little quad cabin we paid extra for.
Once the early morning wake up call sounded we dressed and found our way to the deck to watch our arrival onto the Baja. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy continued on the Baja side. Once again, MJ and the kids had to disembark as pedestrians while Rob extracted the van. Once again the van was weighed, for an even larger fee, and then Rob was cued up for a customs inspection, followed by a police inspection, and finally a military inspection! Regardless, we were excited to finally be on the Baja Penisula and starting the final leg of our Latin American adventure!
We were feeling a little bit of culture shock as we rolled into the city of La Paz. Big modern resorts with English language signs were crammed into the picturesque coastline. American style strip malls and big box stores were at every major cross roads. Within a few short hours we had visited a Home Depot, WalMart, and a Burger King!
We checked into a nice, empty campground and desperately tried to find relief from the sweltering 40 degree temperatures. Everything seamed to radiate heat like an oven set to broil. The pool was not going to satiate us so we took a day to visit the famous Balandra Beach. The shallow clear water was a perfect place for the kids to finally get some use out of the snorkelling gear we had been trucking around for the last 8 months. We even decided to rent a SUP to find some better snorkeling a little further out of the bay, away from the crowds. It was a fun outing and Averie really enjoyed spotting fish, including her first puffer. Unfortunately, once we returned to the beach Rob removed his iPhone from its “waterproof” case to find it would no longer turn on! We lost dozens (hundreds?) of irreplaceable pictures from our journey through mainland Mexico on that phone, and learnt a few valuable lessons that day.
Loreto was our next stop, a days drive up the coast. This small town had a comfortable vibe. After arriving at our first choice of campgrounds and finding that the swimming pool was not filled we quickly moved down the street into a less scenic, and more expensive, snowbird RV park / condo complex with a nice cold pool called Loreto Shores RV Park.
We heard that the islands just off the coast included a marine park and were worth a visit. At the harbour and hired a guide who took us on a day trip around Isla Coronado. We spotted manta rays jumping from the water, sea lions and enjoyed some fantastic snorkeling from perfect white sand beaches! The quaint town also provided an abundance of good souvenir shops and tasty tacos! It’s no wonder there is an international airport located here. We have added Loreto to our list of future return visits.
We had not paid much attention to the weather forecast for the majority of this trip. Either because good/bad weather would not affect our itinerary anyways, or because the weather was so consistent in the tropics that it was a non-issue. However, we suddenly had to take Mother Nature into consideration when we learnt that a hurricane was on its way towards us! Unfortunately, our plans to move slowly up the Baja peninsula would have to be accelerated somewhat. We would spend several long days driving northward with only short stops at some picturesque locations we wish we could have lingered at for a week.
Once we felt confident that we were out of the path of the hurricane we slowed down and spent a few very hot nights in Bahia de Conception. The water here seemed hardly any cooler than the 40 degree air, and we hired a boat for another snorkeling trip out into the islands. The kids once again impressed us with their confidence in deep ocean water and we were all rewarded with huge schools of tropical fish of every size and colour. It was during this outing that we experienced our first and only crime on this trip. We returned back to our campsite to discover our frisbee had been stolen! The horror!
We had been enjoying the secluded coast of the Gulf of California / Sea of Cortez very much and decided to stick with it, rather that follow the main highway North West towards the Pacific coast and the larger cities like Ensenada. Our chosen path would require some more really rough gravel roads, which zig zagged relentlessly next to the incomplete modern highway under construction. El Condor proved unflappable once again, despite the extremely washboarded road and scorching 47 degree air! We really enjoyed marvelling at the 10m tall Cardon Cacti (aka. Elephant Cactus) that dominated the landscape.
Eventually we emerged, dusty and tired, into the outskirts of San Felipe. This small town is the last bastion of Mexico along the Gulf before the USA border. Despite its proximity to the USA we were surprised to find it geared much more towards Mexican tourists that American ones. We were thankful to still be in authentic Mexico for a while longer.
We selected a beachfront campground just south of town and settled in to enjoy some much deserved R&R after moving so quickly up the peninsula. We spent a full week lounging, swimming, reading, playing and enjoying some friendly company. We did however decide to move a few sites away from a large raucous crowd of Mexican ex-pats (now California residents) who arrived to party hard over the weekend.
Here we met Gunther, a gentle old German (and NASA scientist!) with a contagious smile and perfectly stereotypical accent. Obviously, he was driving a mint condition VW Westfalia, which he was studiously modifying for a longer overland journey he was dreaming of in the near future.
We also met Steve and Lillian who were regular weekend warriors down from San Diego. They rolled in a modern 30 foot RV towing a modified Jeep for cruising the dunes and beaches. Steve was soon to retire from his job as a Fireman and they were here shopping for land near San Filipe to settle down on. Lillian made instant friends with the kids and taught us where to find the best shells and sand dollars. They left us their phone number before they headed home and instructed us to drop in on them if we were driving past (which we did).
Inevitably, it was time to pull up our roots and enter the United States. After nearly 9 months in Latin America we were feeling conflicted about re-entering “North American” culture. We were looking forward to some of the conveniences and comforts of being back in familiar surroundings, but we knew we would quickly miss the warmth and generosity of the Latin American people, especially Mexicans. We knew that, despite the privilege of being able to speak fluently to the locals for the first time in a long time, we would ironically meet less people and learn less about them! North American culture is just different that way. More private, more suspicious.
We departed early for the long push to the quieter border crossing at Mexicali. We had been warned enough times to stay away from the mayhem at Tiajuana or Tecate. We were also a little worried (MJ mostly) about how the notorious US Border Agents were going to treat a dirty van-family driving up from Mexico and Columbia. Were we going to be disassembled and searched? Interrogated? Forced to prove we had money in the bank or jobs in Canada?
After stamping out of immigration and customs, we endured one final bout of Mexican bureaucracy to get our $400 temporary vehicle deposit back, and excitedly entered the cue for the US Customs. Moving slowly up the line we rehearsed our story, coached the kids on how to behave, and crossed our fingers. This could go two ways… Thankfully we picked the right cue. A friendly young border agent asked a couple routine questions, gave us props on our trip, looked in the back door of the van and said “have a safe drive home!”. Home was only one more border away!
Check out our Mexico Photo Journal here.