How (and why) to roam mexico in an rv or van
-- by Rosana Hart
Traveling in Mexico by RV led us to wonderful experiences we could only have had that way. Camping by a remote ferry landing on the Gulf of Mexico, deepening our immersion in the ancient ruins of El Tajín by spending the night in the parking lot, having brunch in our motorhome with a taxi driver in Xalapa, watching an informal rodeo by a restaurant in Chihuahua - these are some of our treasured memories. Many other small moments of beauty or interest came from this way of traveling too.
There were drawbacks, though. Getting lost, having to maneuver the motorhome out of tight spots, the ever-present need to find a place for the RV for the night, the challenge of visiting cities while in an RV... it was rather like having a third person along with my husband and me, one who needed regular meals of gasoline, water, and electricity and needed to dump the water frequently.
In the U.S., it's easy. You just take off in your motorhome of any size or shape, and everywhere you go, you can find public or private campgrounds. There are huge national directories listing them. You can have a general idea what to expect wherever you go.
Mexico isn't like that. Some parts of the country are more developed, most notably the Pacific coast beach towns where American and Canadian RVers have been going for years. But if you get off the beaten path, RV travel in Mexico is bound to be an adventure.
Why travel by RV? We found it enjoyable, flexible, economical, and convenient.
We greatly enjoyed having a mini-home with us wherever we went. Having our own bed, kitchen, and bathroom gave the trip a kind of simplicity and stability that we liked. We were both writing a lot during the trip, and having a table for our two laptops was another benefit. We liked cooking most of our meals, only eating out when we wanted to rather than because it was the only choice other than snacking. It was worth something not to be living out of a suitcase - and for us, since the laptops and Kelly's video equipment were necessary parts of our business reasons for the trip, it would have been several suitcases!
We treasured the flexibility too. Without plane tickets, we could go when and where we wanted spontaneously. And while it's true that the outstanding bus system in Mexico does go everywhere, I doubt we would have gone to many of the more remote places we explored if we had had to do it by bus.
RVing is an economical way of traveling, unless you are going long distances in a rig that gets poor gasoline mileage. Our Toyota Dolphin averaged 17 miles per gallon - we kept track. So even though gas prices were higher in Mexico than in the U.S., our transportation costs were not bad at all. You do have to buy Mexican car insurance - American insurance is not honored there.
We averaged well under $10 a night for campgrounds, specially since many nights were free. With grocery costs maybe 60% of U.S. prices, we ate avocados and mangos galore. I'm not a big beef-eater at home, but I loved the flavorful (though generally tougher) Mexican beef. Fresh bread and bakery goods were inexpensive, and I was pleased to see whole grain breads from time to time.
Taking care of the basics was generally convenient. Bottled water is sold in even the tiniest villages, and you can buy a large container full and then exchange the plastic bottle for another one elsewhere when you're done. I was really pleased to see how widely available clean water was. It's a terrific step forward in public health for Mexico. At just over a dollar for roughly five gallons, the cost was inconsequential for us though still a challenge for poor Mexicans.
Groceries and housewares are easy to come by - all the cities have chain-store supermarkets which also carry housewares and pharmacy items. The public markets offer a wide selection of produce and meats. Even in small towns, there are "mini-supers" (that's what they call them) of varying sizes.
Of course, all this cost money, and we were pleased that the Mexican ATMs accepted both our credit cards and the debit card from our checking account at home. The receipts often told us how many pesos we had in the account, which made me feel rich indeed until I remembered the exchange rate. We did take more than one card with us, as we heard stories of ATM machines sometimes not giving back people's cards. This was our first long trip outside the U.S. without travelers' checks, and it worked fine. We did have a couple hundred dollars, in twenties and smaller bills, tucked into a secret place in the motor home, just in case.
Staying in touch with family, friends, and our business was easy with the internet. Everywhere in Mexico, we found nice little internet cafes. Once in a while the connect speed was prehistoric, but usually it was okay and sometimes very good. It tended to cost between one and two dollars an hour. We were online about twice a week. A couple of times, we left idyllic spots because they didn't have connections there, but we never had far to go to find them. Mexicans are embracing the internet, and few of them can afford computers at home - and many of them have cellphones because the regular phone service can be hard to get and expensive - so the cafes meet a real need and are far more numerous than in the U.S.
How much Spanish should you know?
The further off the beaten tourist path you go, the fewer Mexicans who speak English will you meet - though we did notice that in the northern states, far more people spoke English than further south. However, we found that even when Mexicans spoke English, we often relied on our Spanish to verify that we had understood them correctly. In many cases, their accents are quite thick (which I find charming). Like us with Spanish, they had learned more in school about reading and writing than about speaking clearly.
It's really a personal thing. If your Spanish is minimal or nonexistent, are you comfortable communicating with gestures and a few words, even if you should have some health or vehicle problems? Despite being able to handle daily chores with ease, Kelly and I found ourselves constantly challenged by the limits of our Spanish. With my chatty personality, I found it frustrating to think of some little thing I wanted to say to someone and not quite know how to do it. If we end up spending a considerable amount of time south of the border, I will probably take an immersion Spanish course somewhere, to move to a higher level.
What's it like to drive in Mexico?
Kelly did all the Mexican driving on our trip, as I tend to be a klutz with motorhomes. He realized immediately, and I did a bit later, that even though Mexicans drive quite differently from Americans, they are no less interested in staying alive. We noticed that just as Mexicans make more eye contact and relate to each other more in public places than Americans do, so too in their driving habits, they expect each other to be alert to what they are doing. Someone may pass in a situation that would be madness in the U.S., knowing that both the people that they are passing and any oncoming traffic will be alert if things get tight.
Once, after a hair-raising taxi ride in Guadalajara, I came to the conclusion that our driver had mastered the underlying principle of the universe, that matter and energy are the same. I decided he had changed our taxi into energy at several crucial moments!
Mexican accident rates are reported to be somewhat higher than American. The evidence of my eyes bore this out. In about 3000 miles in Mexico, we saw one totaled small car, two different places where accidents had happened and huge trucks were burning, and one flipped pickup where the ambulances were on their way. That seemed like a lot to me - I am grateful that we didn't see any accidents occur. These were all daytime events; the standard advice for traveling at night is DON'T. Livestock like to sleep on the warm pavements, all the busyness that you see during the day is still going on but you can't see it so well, and there is probably a higher risk of being robbed. (Though not as high as most Americans seem to imagine.) In my reading on Mexico, I did take comfort that Carl Franz and John Howell - who have both traveled extensively in Mexico and written a lot about the country - have gone many thousands of miles. Each can tell some hair-raising tales, but neither has ever suffered a serious accident.
Another feature of driving in Mexico is getting lost. Kelly and I don't get lost at home, but we frequently found ourselves missing poorly marked turnoffs or having to guess at intersections. We had the best maps available, but they were not always correct either. It seems to me that since relatively few Mexicans travel long distances by car to unfamiliar destinations, putting up good road signs for travelers hasn't been a governmental priority. We found that when we were on the main touristic routes, the road signs were better. For example, the northbound bypass road around the city of Chihuahua could not have been better. Well, except for that one corner where we did guess right!
Throughout Mexico, especially at state lines, you will come up to army checkpoints. They are looking for drugs and guns. We were pulled over and checked several times, and it was never a problem. The young men were unfailingly courteous, and the searches were minimal. One soldier did find some white powder among our nutritional supplements, but he had no problem believing us that it was vitamin C. We did not crack inappropriate jokes that might have triggered more searching, nor were we transporting anything questionable. We did think that we were pulled over more often than other vehicles, but chalked it up to their being curious about us and our rig.
What size RV to take?
If you handle your large rig like you were born to it, if narrow curvy roads without shoulders don't faze you, if you can stop on a dime, if you can go with the flow in city traffic like a New York taxi driver, and if you don't mind spending a small fortune on gasoline, then a larger rig might be just fine.
It would also be fine if you were just going a little way into Mexico, to one of the campgrounds on the West coast that are popular with tourists.
It must be obvious that I have a bias here. For several years, Kelly and I full-timed in a bus conversion motorhome, a former Gray Line tour bus the size of a Greyhound. Kelly did handle it almost as deftly as described above, but we chose never to take it into Mexico. It was just too big a thing to enjoy there, with the way we like to explore back roads.
In talking with other Americans in the campgrounds, we found that the people in the smaller RVs were generally having more fun and going to more remote places. Our small Toyota did quite well.
I think that the ideal vehicle for versatile Mexican driving is some form of van. It could be one of the nice van conversions with all the trimmings or even just a regular passenger van to which you added some basic camping supplies or built in a bed, table, kitchen, and maybe a bit of a bathroom. This would allow you to use it for sleeping and eating when you wanted to, but you would still be able to stay in hotels and get the vehicle under the common short entry gates.
Choosing your route and finding campgrounds
On our recent trip, we were able to boondock more than most RVers because Kelly had added a couple of extra batteries that charged when we drove. (We haven't put solar panels on our RV, but may well in the future.) Also, we were at times willing to conserve water in order to boondock, even if it meant shorter showers, or no showers for a bit. But even so, we couldn't go more than 3 or 4 days without wanting hookups. This was partly because we were both writing a lot and needed to keep our laptops charged. On our 1979 trip, we didn't need hookups and had correspondingly more freedom.
The essential key to finding Mexican campgrounds is a book called "Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping, by Mike and Terri Church." Don't leave home without it, to coin a phrase!
As a librarian, I know that no one book has everything, and we did find additional information on campgrounds in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks aimed at the budget traveler. These books were also invaluable in choosing our routes, as I pored over their descriptions of various places. I thought I had a lot of guidebooks with me, but I would take even more another time!
In choosing your route, consider the availability of campgrounds, the weather at that time of year, how much driving it would be, and what your interests are. Be aware that Mexican highways vary considerably in the speeds you can go. We averaged about 35 mph in the state of Veracruz but a lot faster on the four-lane highways in Chihuahua. We rarely went over 55 - that's part of how we managed to get excellent gas mileage.
We chose our route as we went along, but we did set out with some general ideas. We had never been along the Gulf coast and wanted to see some of it. We wanted to go to some archaeological sites. We were curious to see if we could find places we might want to return and live for some months. Well aware that the more miles you travel, the more the trip costs and the less time you have not driving, we planned to only cover part of Mexico this time. Once there, I found it hard to give up some of the places I wanted to see that were further away, but we didn't give in to those impulses. It was much more fun to have a relaxing journey.
When there is no campground
Whenever we were going to stop for the night and there was no campground, we started talking to local people and asking their advice about a place to stay. We had done that all over Mexico in 1979. Travelers say that it is more risky now. If that's so, I don't know by how much, but on this trip we did always ask, where on the earlier trip, we didn't always bother.
By asking, we were directed to one of our favorite spots, the ferry landing near Tampico. By asking, we were welcome to stay in the parking lot at the ruins of El Tajín, where there are two night guards. By asking, we were warned away from a small town where a couple of young girls had disappeared ten days before. As we drove away from that one, I remembered the persistent Latin American rumor that Americans steal babies for their body parts. A chill ran down my spine, and I was grateful for the kind local woman who had warned us we should leave. That night, we soon found another spot behind a café, intended for truck drivers to pull in and sleep.
When we spoke with the people where we stayed, we felt included in their network. Mexicans are so hospitable that it was a lovely feeling. Sometimes children would bring us warm tortillas their mother had just made, and we would scramble around to find some tiny gift we could reciprocate with.
I must admit that I slept somewhat better when we were in campgrounds. In some of the other places, I would wake in the night, wondering what that sound had just been. Rural Mexico is not a quiet place, and it took a while to get used to sounds at all hours. Kelly generally felt safer than I did, and that is true of us no matter where we are. One night in a rare Mexican government campground, the only other visitors were a jolly group of Mexican men drinking, singing, and conversing all night. I was uneasy, though there wasn't any danger really.
I discovered that if we had a little dry dog food for the local street dogs, they would immediately adopt us for the night. I liked it that they would bark if someone came close, though of course when that happened once, it did wake me up.
In a nutshell, it's a matter of using common sense and finding your comfort zone.
Danger and crime
We heard scary tales of guns and crimes in Mexico, though the scariest came from a librarian in Texas whose ex-husband carried guns around Mexico himself! Like attracts like, they say.
We had one experience of petty theft. One Sunday afternoon, we were camped at a popular balneario or hot spring, and we put our bathing suits and towels on the back of the RV to dry before taking a walk. I had an old pair of sandals with me, and they were quite wet. I set them on the hood of the Toyota to dry, where they were more visible to people going by. I thought to myself that if someone did take them, it really wouldn't matter much. I had a better pair with me.
Sure enough, when we got back from our walk, my sandals were gone. Kelly noticed that a rather rowdy group of young men were also gone.
End of story? Not quite. When we left that spot a couple of days later, my sandals were tied to a tree by the front gate, at just about the height someone in the back of a pickup could easily reach. The sandal straps were undone. It seemed that someone had tried them on but had been no Cinderella!
Of course, there are risks greater than that of losing a pair of sandals. But there is also a risk of staying at home and missing out on wonderful experiences. I have a sign over my computer: "If you don't do it, you'll never know what would have happened if you had done it."
We always pulled the curtains and locked the doors of the RV when we were gone. With both our current vehicle and the van we took on an earlier trip, Kelly installed simple sliding door latches on the driver's and passenger's doors, which we used in addition to the regular door locks. We came and went through the side door of the vehicle, which had an extra lock as well. In this motorhome, we decided not to use the oven but to make it our electronics center. We kept our laptops and cameras in there, and Kelly created an arrangement which locked the oven without showing. It involved removing a drawer next to the oven and poking a small screwdriver into a hole. Also, he installed an extra electrical box right beside our other one, in the closet. We kept our extra money in it, along with photocopies of our credit cards, passports, and Mexican tourist cards.
Beyond that, we just kept our spirits up. I've noticed many times that the better mood I am in, the more likely things will go well. Hey, I won't claim 100% for this philosophy, but overall it works.
In my opinion, RVs are well suited for certain kinds of trips: if you want to explore various regions, as we were doing, or where you drive to a destination and stay there, perhaps at a beach. If you want to spend most of your time in cities, you might be happier staying in hotels in the heart of town. If the driving would make you too nervous, go some other way instead.
So - for yourself, what do you think? Whatever you decide, may you enjoy it!
Rosana Hart has traveled to Mexico many times. Her website, www.mexico-with-heart.com, contains the full text of a book she wrote about traveling in Mexico, as well as information and travel tips on a variety of Mexican cities popular with tourists.