Road Trips en México

Our time in Mexico has been unique for several reasons (global pandemic anyone?), but honestly, one of the most notable differences is the fact that this is our first time living abroad with a car. While it seems like such a small thing, it has definitely changed many aspects of our day-to-day life here and has (very fortunately) allowed us to explore Mexico in a new and exciting way. Yay road trips!  

Of course, at first, we found the thought of driving our car down to Guadalajara a bit daunting (not to mention keeping up with basic maintenance and handling any issues that cropped up totalmente en español), but after almost two years, I feel like we’ve now got a pretty good idea of what to expect on Mexico’s roadways. So, for this month’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things I wish we had known from the beginning, things that might help anyone else who is planning to drive around Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

7,500 miles and counting!

Rules of the road:

First up, I have to mention some of the different (and sometimes unwritten) rules of the road here in Mexico. When we were first preparing to drive across the border, the main thing everyone kept saying was, “don’t drive at night”. It turns out that most of Mexico’s highways, especially those cross-crossing deserts and jungles, don’t have street lights, so it is really difficult (read: impossible) to see anything that might be in the road (be it half a tire, a pothole, an animal of some sort, whatever). We experienced just how crazy this type of driving can be on one early morning drive from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta…not a very far drive, but jungle-y, hairpin turns and surprise speedbumps in the pitch-black darkness was not fun at all.

Another thing we learned on the fly was utilizing the phantom third lane. Since a lot of Mexico’s tollways are two-lane roads, which happen to have tons of semis and other big, slow trucks, drivers have come up with a solution, which I call the phantom third lane. Basically, everyone drives straddling the line that designates the shoulder, which creates a lot of space in the center of the road. People that need/want to pass can then use that middle “lane” to get around slower vehicles and then get back to the shoulder, so cars on the other side can have the same opportunity if needed. At first this scared the sh*t out of us, but now we love how efficient and consistent the process really is.

One last thing to mention about road rules in Mexico – pedestrians will be in the roads. In the cities, they’ll be there to clean your windshield, sell or replace your wipers, or entertain you with a bit of fire-dancing. In the countryside they’ll be crossing with a flock of sheep or flagging you down for some fresh fruit or nuts. And on the highways, they’ll be darting across to get to the bus stop or rest area, so be on the lookout for people crossing any and all roads at any and all times.

The roads themselves:

Now onto the types of roads. Immediately upon entering the highway system of Mexico, it becomes evident that there are two sets of roads: cuotas (tollways) and libres (freeways). The cuotas are often much newer, smoother, and in many instances straighter paths to wherever you may be heading, but they do come at a price. All along the tollways of Mexico there are casetas/plazas de cobro (toolbooths) which charge anywhere from 40-300 pesos (approximately $2-15USD). The tollbooths are very clearly marked, with prices listed for each vehicle type, and there are very rarely any issues, lines, etc. However, be prepared to pay in cash. Lots and lots of cash.

This is where a navigator comes in handy!

The good news is, it’s not only tolls that you’ll come across on the road. There is also a plethora of gas stations, rest stops, and roadside stands dotting Mexico’s highways. There are gas stations you’ll recognize (like Shell, BP, and Mobil) and some that are specific to Mexico (like the national chain Pemex). The major chains all have little convenience stores (usually Oxxos) and bathrooms, which are sometimes free and sometimes five pesos or 25 cents. One thing to be aware of, however, is that Mexico is like Oregon or New Jersey in that you can’t pump your own gas. When you pull up to the pump, someone will come over and ask which type and how much you want. They might also clean your windows and check your fluids for a tip.

In addition to the many places you can stop, go to the bathroom, and stretch your legs, Mexico also has several road safety services that you can use if needed. As you drive along, you’ll see emergency service numbers posted everywhere, which is super nice. You’ll also occasionally see the Green Angels themselves, which are roadside assistance vehicles that are supposedly bilingual and free. Thankfully we’ve not needed to use any of these services yet, but just that fact that they’re there makes me feel really good. Another interesting safety feature you can find along Mexican highways would be the water points, or places where you can get free, potable water if you ever run out. Desert driving has lots of potential hazards!

Why we do it:

With all the things that can go wrong on a road trip, especially one in an unforgiving and unknown environment, a lot of people wonder why we do it? Mexico has amazing long-distance bus services as well as super affordable domestic airlines, but no matter where you are, something about road trips just hits differently. Stopping when you want, snacking, blasting music, it’s all about the journey, right? Like most of North America, Mexico has an incredible diversity of things to see and do, and we wouldn’t have seen half of it if we hadn’t chosen to drive to so many places.

So, was there a steep learning curve? Sí. Was it worth every hard-earned lesson? ¡Absolutamente!

Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!