Nitty gritty outtakes and seven rules for traveling in Mexico
Looking (and reading) back on the day we left Santa Fe to embark on a journey full of unknown possibilities, we had no clue of what would happen over the next few months. Or everything that could happen! Every day seemed like an adventure and that was the whole point.
We had tested the trailer thoroughly over the previous months, trying to work out all the kinks. Over planning and over buying, trying to think of everything we might need: from dog food, to facial products, to protein powder and vitamins. A few minutes after we left our new bike rack broke! We installed it only a few days before departure and at our first gas stop about an hour into the trip we realized that the bike rack was sagging. We Jerry rigged it as best as we could and kept going. A few weeks later our water pump died. Luckily we had a spare with us and fixing this small but essential part was fairly easy. Many other things broke along the way, from our stove panel to the fridge fuse, the inverter and even Hannah's hardly used bike. Some things had to be replaced or patched up, welded, or Jerry rigged, so that we could keep moving. Even with a new truck and trailer we learned the first rule of van life the hard way: Everything might break and some of it will, and you better learn to think on your feet. Second rule: don't over plan and over buy. Spare parts are good, everything else you can probably manage without.
We also learned that no matter how much you think you are prepared, the universe will laugh in your face and throw completely unforeseen things at you. It turned out that the new, beautiful, well insulated and off road capable trailer we bought was simply too big for most of Mexico, and possibly unmanageable in the rest of Central America. There is a reason why you hardly see any trailers on the road, especially after leaving Baja, and why most people choose Sprinters when they decide to do the whole Trans American Highway. Yes, there are some well known large camp grounds that cater to larger rigs, but that's not how we roll. We prefer wild camping and had hardly been to any official campgrounds before leaving the US. There are many seasonal and permanent travelers who take their big rigs down south, but they often tend to stay in one place for weeks or months at a time. Some people have even been in the same campground since the beginning of Covid in 2020! Lesson number three: The bigger your vehicle, the more stressful and expensive it is to get it around and the more limited your camping options.
When you live the small rig lifestyle with a big rig in Mexico you will very likely burn out quickly, which is exactly what happened to us. At some point it felt like we were constantly driving, without actually seeing anything and with no time to relax, recover, or adjust to our new environment. What sounds like a constant vacation with lots of down time, turned out to be a high stress rushing around where every day of exploring and enjoying your a new place was hard earned. At one point our immune systems were noticeably weakened and we decided that we had to slow down, regroup and maybe reconsider our options. We were only a few days away from Mexico City and hoped that taking a break from constantly moving around would help us recover. Michael had already been sick a few weeks ago and once we got to CDMX it got much worse. A high fever and mystery illness that could have been Covid or the flu knocked Michael out for almost 10 days (Michael lost almost 10lbs he didn't have). There had hardly been a week since we crossed over from Baja that nothing was broken and nobody was lost, injured, or sick. What we didn't know when we left CDMX was that we had contracted scabies from one of the airbnbs, which wouldn't break out until 6-8 weeks later. Until then, Mz KK would hurt her foot badly, Dasher was bit by a large Geman Shepard and later had some serious stomach issues. They both had to pay a visit to the vet, which was refreshingly cheap, easy and effective.
We also both had food poisoning after eating out at a very hip and expensive restaurant in Oaxaca, which led to a traumatic night filled with Exorcist like projectile puking. Then Michael got bit by a Pitbull, trying to break up a dog fight. Besides almost getting into accidents with big semi trucks every week or so, this was probably one of the scariest moments. The dog bit deep and the wound bled badly and took a while to heal. By then what looked like normal bug bites would turn out to be scabies and they spread viciously and fast. Dealing with unknown health issues while your travelling in a foreign country is very daunting. It probably took us a week to realize what was going on and how to get rid of it, plus two weeks of treatment as the first dose wasn't enough. Lesson number four: travelling is hard on your body and mind, and if you don't slow down and take care of it, your body will force you to slow down.
Somewhere in between all that craziness we decided that we probably wouldn't make it all the way down south, at least not in this capacity. By then we had seen lots of old churches, waterfalls, dolphins, mountains, pre-Hispanic art etc. and Mexico still had some treasures to offer. We had till the beginning of March until Michael's tourist visa would run out and with a looming wedding invitation and a family reunion in the back of our minds, we decided to spend our remaining months exploring Mexico to the fullest before heading back home again!
Travelling with pets
Travelling with two pets made things a little bit more complicated, as you can imagine. Not all camp grounds and airbnbs were pet friendly, national parks often don't allow dogs at all, and Ubers won't accept your request if you are trying to bring your dog. Dog parks are hard to find and generally trying to give them both enough save outside time was quite a challenge. After we lost Mz Kitty, grieved for weeks and eventually found her again, Hannah was even more determined to keep her safe. Since we weren't able to wild camp as much as we initially thought, wild predators were not really an issue (except for the occasional coyote) and a flexible but regular kitty cat curfew led to reliable rhythm that we all could manage. Despite all the troubles and sacrifices, having our pets with us was also very rewarding and we never regretted this decision. Mz KK was always the Belle of the campground and one of our funniest moments was her walking up to a sweet Pitbull (for no obvious or particular reason) only to realize that this might have been a bad idea and then, obviously embarrassed, to slowly recede. Dasher made some great friends, mastered dog parkour, and learned a lot of new words after being exposed to so many different animals. He still gets excited and looks out of the window if we point out cows, donkeys, or sheep to him. No real lesson here, but Hannah started checking iNaturalist for coyote activity before deciding on Kitty Kat outside time.
Police corruption and the greatness of iOverlander
It seems that things have changed a bit in the aftermath of Covid, and areas that were previously good for wild camping are now patrolled regularly by the police, and whether they allow you to stay or not is completely arbitrary. With all that police corruption we experienced during our stay there (being stopped twice in one day for infractions we didn't commit, only to be asked for some coffee money, or street cookies, as little kids sometimes call it) it is surprising that the police doesn't ask campers for a donation if they want to park overnight. Dealing with the police in Mexico is often more stressful than getting stopped by the military. Sometimes the language barrier was enough for them not to bother with us for too long. Otherwise, if you are in a position to do so, going to the station is probably the best solution. We read about some rather nasty encounters at drug checks, and every time you cross into a different state there might be a quick stop or check, but overall military stops at the border were usually quick and friendly, with seldom more than basic questions: Where are you coming from and what is your next destination. Rule number five: Sooner or later the police will stop you and ask for a bribe. Whether you have actually done something wrong or not, insisting on going to the station will probably be the better option.
So much has changed since Covid; many businesses that are still active on Google Maps have closed over the last three years and it would have been impossible to figure out what is still open without recent reviews on iOverlander. Especially when you are travelling in a foreign country and without cell reception, this app becomes your bible, your new Google, even a sort of social glue. It is hard to describe how much it even impacts the way we travel now. Like many previous travel guides, it (or rather its users) puts places on a map. We probably wouldn't have visited some of the off the beaten path places if it hadn't been for glowing reviews by other travelers. We wouldn't have met (and ran into repeatedly) some of the other travelers if we all didn't use the same app and thereby forged similar routes. Rule number six: Use your resources! Besides iOverlander, there are some great apps and sources for information out there such as the Facebook group 'PamAmerican Travelers Association', and driving apps like Waze and maps.me (so you don't get stuck on a cattle path that Google Maps claimed was an appropriate detour).
A whole lot of good!
Mexico is a huge, diverse, and incredibly beautiful country. As you can see from our photos, we tried to see it all, and loved every part of it: Beaches, architecture, art, food, mountains, jungle, wildlife, and ruins. We were met with nothing but kindness by locals, despite our lack of Spanish. And not saying that there aren't dangerous areas, but we always felt safe and welcome. People made us home cooked meals, gave us great tips and advise (without which we would have been screwed for sure), and cheered with us when Dasher overcame his fear of crossing metal gutters. Even though people seemed a little bit warmer towards Germans than Americans, many of the locals we met had ties to the US and were happy to tell us where they previously worked, learned English, or where their kids lived in the US. Rule number seven: Mexico is worth the visit, especially some of the off the beaten path areas, and like any place in the US, it is just as safe if you take simple precautions.
We don't regret turning back and are already plotting our next adventures. With our trailer being so well insulated, we are excited to take it north instead. Alaska is calling us, and we haven't given up on South America yet either. Stay tuned for more to come.