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!

Crossing the Border and Settling in

It’s hard to believe it’s already May, but when I look back at everything we accomplished in the last month, I can’t believe it’s only May! At the beginning of this year, I firmly decided to stop waiting for whatever “new normal” will eventually present itself, and started the process of moving to Guadalajara, Mexico. The first few stages went extremely smoothly: we got our visas from the consulate, flew to GDL, received our residency cards, found an apartment, all while working full-time (remotely, of course). However, the final stage of the move was a complicated one. We had planned to fly back to the US, get our vaccines, pack our car with the rest of our stuff, and drive the 32 hours from Orlando back down to GDL – all in less than a week, during a global pandemic. Here’s how it went:

First, a little more on the logistics of this particular endeavor…

Driving our car across the border and down into the inner states of Mexico meant that we’d have to get an import license for our car. The import license required a lot of paperwork (like copies of our residency cards, US driver’s licenses, passports, proof of Mexican car insurance, etc.) It also meant that we had to renew our registration in FL and update our US car insurance policy without actually being in the US (thanks Mom and Google Voice). With crossing the border, we also had to have a list of what we were bringing across (in English and Spanish) as well as up-to-date copies of our dog’s vet records for customs.

We did what we could in advance from GDL, but the week we spent back in the US was crazy! We were lucky enough to get an appointment at Walmart for the J&J one-shot vaccine (absolutely perfect for our circumstances), and we got the jab about an hour prior to the national pause. Whew! We also made sure Jenn got her yearly vaccines and check-up, and then started the process of stocking up on US-specific goods (like Everything Bagel seasoning and our preferred brands of socks and underwear) before packing our little car to its gills. Did I mention that during this week of planning and preparing, appointments and vaccine recovery, questions and more questions, Tucker did not take a day off work! He did, however, take a day off for the drive.

One heck of a road trip…

We drove from Orlando, FL to Baton Rouge, LA on the first day. It took just a little over 10 hours, which was longer than expected due to heavy rains. Jenn thoroughly enjoyed the ride in the backseat on a pile of pillows, dog beds, and blankets. Day 2 was from Baton Rouge to Laredo, TX (right at the border). This was also a little over 10 hours (a bit of a delay again thanks to Houston traffic), but we enjoyed both legs with region-specific favorites like Café du Monde beignets and Whataburger patty melts. Aside from worrying about sitting in a car for three days straight after getting a vaccine with blood clot tendencies, we didn’t think much of days 1 and 2. The border crossing and drive across Mexico was our biggest unknown, and no amount of Googling was helping us feel prepared.

Around 6am on Day 3 (the only day Tucker requested off from work), we went through the McDonald’s drive-thru (our goodbye to the US) and crossed International Bridge II, which connects downtown Laredo (US) to downtown Nuevo Laredo (MX). We went through the first of many gates/checkpoints around 6:30am, before sunrise, when there were only a handful of other cars. Each car was eventually directed into a space that reminded me of where you vacuum your car after a car wash. Very intimidating looking guards came over, opened all our doors, checked a few boxes/suitcases and asked us a few questions like where we were going, what items did we have with us, etc. They were also surprised by our little perrita who promptly barked at them when they opened her door. Once they had ensured we weren’t smuggling goods or people across, we were free to drive through another few gates into Mexico.

It was thorough yet efficient, but as we’ve been told again and again, it’ll be much more difficult going the other way. Luckily, we won’t have to do that for a while! Once we were officially in Mexico, our first stop was at the Banjercito (import license and general immigration office). I stayed in the car with Jenn while Tucker handed over our documents and got the stamped form we needed in order to drive on with US plates. After showing this form to another guard at the next checkpoint (just as you’re leaving Nuevo Laredo), we were officially on our way – eating our McMuffins and calculating mph into kilometers, perfectly content.

The next 11 hours were uneventful and absolutely beautiful. We took mostly toll roads, which are newer and very well-kept. We drove through the Sierra Madres Orientals, Monterrey, desserts, canyons, and many little towns/rest areas. We never felt unsafe; there were plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and clear signage all the way down. The only slightly challenging part was navigating the passing zones (and the fact that some drivers will pass regardless of zone). Overall, we drove through 5 US states and 5 Mexican states, 1,963 miles, over the course of 3 days, and I’d gladly do it again (although maybe not for another year or two).

And now we’re here (semi-permanently, or so it finally seems)

That first night in our own beds with all our stuff in the same apartment was magical! It didn’t take long to put everything away and feel truly at home, but there were (and still are) some things we’re getting used to. First, every time I’ve come back to Guadalajara, I have had to adjust to the altitude/climate again. We’re at about the same elevation as Denver, and in combination with the dry-season (and likely over-exertion) on this particular re-entry, I felt the familiar feeling of altitude sickness that seems to haunt me whenever mountains or plateaus are involved. Jenn is also adjusting to life A) in a high-rise building (with scary elevators) and B) in a city with a couple million inhabitants, but for her, the pros definitely outweigh any cons – so many new smells, a bird watching window, and her own room! Haha! Other than that, everything has been the usual fumbling along until we’ve figured it all out, which is exactly what I love about being an expat!  

Ultimately, I’m pretty proud of how well this all came together, and if I had been pining for an adventure, I definitely checked that off the list early in 2021. Now all that’s left to do is settle in and enjoy la vida en Mexico!