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#210067 - 11/16/03 07:25 PM Two Gringas Drive to Belize
MissLena Offline
previous chapter...

If you've missed the preceeding five days, check out "A Gringa Drives to Belize" here . If you're wondering about my inability to decide how many of me there are...well, you'll just have to read on... 'L ;-)

[Photos added Feb 2008. 'Lena]

Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 5, Part 2 — Monday afternoon 20 October 2003 — Just a Little More Texas...

"Why 'call in sick' when you can 'call in insane'?"

Mile 2528 - Austin, Texas

It is pleasant in the shade with a warm breeze blowing through the car. Denise and I sit quietly, not saying much; about to part ways and just kind of taking in the moment. We take turns glancing towards the lot where her rental car awaits.

"Wow, this is it, I guess."

"Yep. What a ride, huh?"

"What a ride..."

"Well, you must be looking forward to Houston..."

"True, true... been meaning to go for years now."

"Pretty cool, I guess, for an astro-nut like you."

"Yep, pretty cool..."

Beyond the shade the parking lot is baking in the Texas sun. No one else is in the lot; the agency awaits its only customer.

"The Company will pay your return flight."


"There's a line-item in the start-up budget for an extra flight, should that be necessary, so the Company can pay your return flight."

"From Belize."

"From Belize."

"You're joking, right?"

"Nope. Consider this: If something happens to me and/or the vehicle on the way down, the entire project and the future of the Company is at risk. With you along, the chances of something seriously bad happening are reduced, not by half, but by a much, much larger factor.** The Company pays for insurance; the Company will pay your return flight."

There is a confused pause. If "tug-o-war" could be a facial expression, it's on Denise's face right now.

"I already have a flight booked out of Houston tomorrow."

"It's changeable."

"There's a hundred dollar fee."


Another pause. Now she looks like she's trying to pass a stone.

"How long does it take from here to Belize?"

"Three to five days, depending on weather, how early our starts are, and how often we get lost."

"Man, that'll use up all my remaining vacation."

"Isn't this a vacation?"

"Oh yeah, oh yeah... what a ride, huh?"

"Yep, quite a ride. And really, we're only half way. The other half of the Adventure is yet to come."

"I hate you."

"I know."

We both gaze off toward the rental office.

"Stuff is piling up at work."

"Yes, but one way or the other, two years from now all that stuff will be long done -- will you remember it then?"

We both gaze off toward the rental office.

"Well, I'd better go cancel the car, we're burning daylight."

Denise is gone and back within sixty seconds. There is something like a grin crossed with a scowl on her face. I'm still in the passenger seat. She starts the car, puts it in gear, punches on the A/C, and we're headed toward the on-ramp. She is glaring fiercely straight ahead.

"You always do this to me!"

"I can't make anyone do what they don't already want to do."

"I know, but you always do this to me!"

Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas

It's a brand new Motel 6, but nothing special and only OK for the price. For some weird reason the room is chilled to 62 degrees F. We actually have to turn the heat on to make the room tolerable.

I get online and book D's Belize-to-Houston one-way for the following Sunday, while she gets on the phone and moves her Houston-Seattle flight out from Tuesday to Saturday — yes, she'll still get her precious day at the Space Center...

I take care of email and the last postings before Mexico. I head to bed at midnight. Denise stays up till 1 AM doing her timecard online and "explaining" her extended absence to her coworkers via email. (Earlier during the drive she'd phoned her boss and, to her annoyance, he said "go for it.") We need to be up with the sun to get insurance, top off the tanks, and start the Mexican customs and immigration rigmarole.

After traversing seven states in five days, tomorrow we finally cross our first international border...into Mexico...

== End of Day 5, Mile 2855, McAllen, TX ==

** In addition to being an engineer, Denise is an expert mechanic. And five foot ten, with some serious muscles and the attitude to match. You don't mess with Neesie....


Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Mexico Leg


I feel a need to preface this next segment by stating that different travelers' experiences in Mexico seem to be, well, different.

We have all heard the horror stories, and we've also heard from plenty of folks who had no difficulties whatsoever. This was our very first time in Mexico, and our experience was somewhere in between the two. And all I can say for sure, is that your experience will also be different.

Given that, I will venture a few general remarks:

1. Based on input from many folks more experienced than I, things are generally better now than they were in the "bad old days."

2. We were not there to visit Mexico, we spent very little time in Mexico, and we stuck to the major routes and made no side trips (well, no deliberate side-trips ;-). This limited our exposure: less time and fewer miles means less exposure to chance. At the other extreme, if one were to spend a year driving all over Mexico, or one made many trips through Mexico, one would eventually wind up with a horror story. Or the USA or even Canada probably.

3. We did not travel solo and, although female, we are both quite tall — taller than most Mexican men — and more-or-less middle aged. There were several minor "events" which might have gone differently had there been just one of us, or had we been, say, young men or petit young women.

4. We generally project a polite, friendly, accommodating demeanor. When required we can be firm to the point of stubborn. We are very capable of faking ignorance and even stupidity (sometimes we're not even faking ;-), and are not embarrassed to do so when called for. We understand just a little Spanish, but when convenient we understand no Spanish at all. As a last resort, we are able to become angry and even physical. Except for that last item, we used all the above on our journey through Mexico. Openness and attitude are key.

5. We are both very practiced, alert drivers, and not at all timid. Timid and hesitant do not work in Mexico (or Belize, for that matter). We quickly adopted a driving style based on observation of the drivers around us. As a result we did things and drove in ways we would never even consider in the States. We got crappy gas mileage. But within the Mexican context, we did not take undue risks. Had we driven by American rules and etiquette, we would have been at greater risk.

6. There were several times when safe passage meant applying the unwavering attention of both pilot and copilot for extended stretches. Another reason not to go it solo.

7. We had two sets of maps and Sanborn's guides and all were inaccurate and out-of-date. One of the best, newest highways we drove didn't exist. We often used both maps and the guides to sort things out. If I find an accurate, up-to-date map or road guide I'll let you know. Ditto for you?

8. We never really got lost, but we were "temporarily misplaced" on many occasions. The only real angst I personally experienced was when I let this get to me. The trick to keeping your misplacements temporary is to (a) halt the minute you experience doubt; (b) double-back and re-cross and re-re-cross intersections until you've seen all possible signage (this solved the problem in more than half the instances); (c) ask someone who has real knowledge — cops and taxi drivers are my favorite; (d) be creative in a Mexican way -- we got unmisplaced by taking dirt back alleys, driving in circles on purpose, going up a one-way street the wrong way (the cop we asked said to!), and entering a controlled access road via the off-ramp when there was no on-ramp. And backtracking, backtracking, backtracking — DO NOT keep going if you don't know where you are — you might actually get lost. You too will become temporarily misplaced multiple times — have fun — be Mexican about it — get into it! ;-)

9. We went against the common advice (e.g., night driving) at several points, but did so with care and judgment. Just because we did something doesn't mean you should follow blindly in our tire-tracks. Use your best care and judgment.


P.S. Yes, don't get your knickers in a knot, the actual Mexican segment is coming up next. Really. Trust me. ;-)


Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 6, Part 1 — Tuesday morning 21 October 2003 — Texas - Tamaulipas

"Bienvenidos á Mexico (but por favor, stay close to your own border)."

As a citizen of the USA or Canada, you are free to travel in and out of Mexico with nothing more than a passport or original birth certificate. Unless you want to go south more than 20 miles or so. *That* is another proposition altogether!

Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas

Exhausted from staying up so late, we over-slept again, arrived late to Sanborn's for the Mexico auto insurance: we are not making the early start we need at the border.

Sanborn's is friendly and helpful and, for the four days' insurance we need, pretty much the same price as other numbers I've seen.

The best insurance they could offer us for my 11-year-old car was plenty adequate, and included collision and (the equivalent of) uninsured motorist coverage (but not non-collision loss like theft or vandalism), prepaid injury medical, accident-related jail bail and representation, and roadside assistance and towing; all with an in-Mexico toll-free number. Now, we didn't put any of this to the test, thankfully, but assuming all of it works, I found it more than worth the price of admission (which was somewhere around fifty bucks, I think).

. . .

Sanborn's has a long reputation for providing savvy guidance and route planning as well as the insurance, but I'm thinking that maybe this isn't quite up to the original standard that set the reputation. From our subsequent experience with their over-the-counter info and the Guides, I'd have to say that their general info is merely the generic advice that everyone offers, and the specific knowledge (like that the north end of highway 97 right across the border from them is CLOSED!) is no longer there.

In reviewing the dates on their documentation, it appears to me that they may have lost whomever the force was behind that route-planning reputation (and the Guides), maybe sometime around 1999, and it would seem prudent to consider the info as outdated. The folks at their office in McAllen are extremely nice, but do not, I think, have any knowledge beyond what feedback they get from their clients.

. . .

Insurance in hand, we zip over to a nearby gas station and top off the tanks (we had only clear Texas freeway from Austin: mileage = 37.8 MPG (!)), and over to the currency exchange next door.

Before attempting this trip I checked back through other folks' travelogues and made inquiries and the #2 problem (after #1: getting lost) was running out of pesos. Sanborn's recommended $250 to $400 USD, so I changed $500 at 11-point-something. We actually ended up burning about $300, but with very slight shifts in itinerary and/or "events" we could easily have used it all.

Gassed, financed and insured, we're off to the border! Based on many, many recommendations, we are traveling Mexico "turista" to Veracruz (which is a reasonable destination given our 4-day insurance, but nobody ever asked for the insurance), rather than "transmigrante" to Belize, which is, we understand, an entirely different headache altogether...

As turistas we are heading to the crossing at Pharr — a couple miles south of McAllen, with an ETF (Estimated Time for Formalities ;-) of about an hour -- instead of McAllen with an ETF of 2+ hours.

It is already pushing 11:00 AM and our schedule is now seriously at risk.

Mile 2860 - Pharr, Texas

I am driving to cross the border (as it is legally my vehicle) and as we near the Mexican line in the center of the Rio Grande I am already beginning to suffer from encroaching gringmoronitis.

We stop at the toll booth on the US side of the bridge over the Rio. I look up at the uniformed gentleman with utterly no concept of his function.

"Where do we take care of our tourist and vehicle paperwork?"

There is a pause. He points south.

"At the border."

Denise leans over, speaking sotto-voce.

"Lena. It's a toll booth."

Finally there is an awareness of the large placard listing the tolls.


I hand the guy some money — pesos, dollars, I don't know and I don't know how much — I get a receipt which I hand to Denise and nearly kill it putting the car in gear. I guess I'm more nervous about this whole thing than I realized.

(OK Lena, get it together, try to remember to breathe evenly. You have been breathing, haven't you? Lena? Hello...)

The bridge is immaculate concrete, with beautiful pavement and tall, inwardly curved chainlink fencing to each side and a clear stripe between the lanes — right up to the very center — whereupon it all immediately goes to hell: the stripe disappears, large pavement flakes are lifting off, the resulting rubble scattered about, and the anti-jumper fences have mostly fallen off, in some places sagging on their supports, in others completely gone, with only the rust stains on the concrete left to testify to their former presence. As an engineer, it occurs to me that the bridge structure may, in fact, be one huge cantilever**, for all intents and purposes supported only on the US side...

** A cantilever is a horizontal structure supported only at one end, like a tree branch.

Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas

And here, at last, is the Mexican border authority.

There are several non-descript buildings to the right, few signs and none of them in English — on the surface, it would appear that the Mexican government has little interest in the non-Spanish-speaking citizens of its neighbor to the north.

Directly ahead is what is clearly a customs inspection station with multiple pull-ins and inspection tables. Unsure exactly what to do, we pull up next to the nearest unoccupied official-looking person and inquire.

"Where do we go for visa and vehicle paperwork?"

—Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.

It is at this point that we discover that we do not, in fact, speak Spanish.

Or comprehend much either, for that matter.

And evidently we're guilty of hubris to have thought that Mexican officials working the US border might have some ability to communicate (or at least have signs) in English. Silly us. This is a crucial juncture in our education: Mexico is showing us how it's going to be.

I point to myself, Denise, the vehicle, then southward.


I make an exaggerated, questioning gesture and show him a passport.

The uniformed fellow gives me a sour look; he is realizing that I'm not going to simply go away. He points to a dirt lot past the customs area, then to one of the many tiny, nondescript buildings.

"You park...go!"

I hesitate; don't quite believe I'm supposed to just drive right past customs. The sour look is repeated.

"You park...now!"

The finger is now clearly jabbing at the entrance to the dirt lot. A sharp elbow from Denise acts as a spur in my side, and we trot off, right past customs, and park in the dirt in the beating sun.

We bail out of the Bomber and head over to the building which most closely approximated the official's gesture. There is a line of people inside, each grasping vehicle titles and such. We have vehicle titles and such. We take this as a good omen and join.

We wait. Others join the line. We wait. There are three "windows" open, but their occupants seem to have made little progress. Another fellow joins the line; he is speaking fluent Spanish to his next-in-line, and has an air of intelligence and long experience about him. Nice looking too.

—¿Habla Ingles? I inquire meekly. I really don't do meek, and this is a good indicator of just how far I've devolved during my short tenure in Mexico.

"Certainly, how can I help you?" Perfect American-accented English.

He takes one glance at the paperwork I'm clutching and informs us that we're in the wrong line. Well, no, it's the right line, but at the wrong time.

He explains: first we walk 100 m. back north to Immigration, get a paper there, go to the next building south from there, pay something and get a stamp, go to the next building south of where we are right now, get a photocopy of that paper, come back to this building, give them all the papers, they will give us a paper, take it back to the photocopy guy, he'll stamp and sign it, bring it back here, pay something, sign twice, and you get a sticker to put inside your windshield. And make sure you get all your stuff back each time. He points to the nearest window: there are several forgotten drivers' licenses taped in the corners.

Profuse gratitude expressed, and with patience and sense of humor intact, we shuffle north to Immigration. There are no signs we can decipher, but we go in anyway.

It is a large, spacious room occupied only by a very young, cheerful pair of officials tucked behind a counter in the far corner.

"Hi. We're turistas, going to Veracruz?"


We hand them over.

"Here, make these paper."

English! (Well, sort of...) He hands us each a long strip of paper. And then smiles! We are nearly overcome.

He directs us to the kiosk in the center of the room where we are to make paper. We do so. Still we are the only customers.

We deliver the papers, all made.

"What you want?"

"To go to Veracruz."

"No — *what* you want?"

I am stupefied. I have spent the past forty-something years trying to answer this question for myself. I have no ready answer.

"You want one month...six month...what you want?"

"Oh! Just a week! We're just going down to Veracruz and back."

"Six month OK?"

"Oh, yes, certainly, perfecto, six months it is."

He stamps and writes and stamps and writes. We have our passports back and a new paper each. He smiles blankly. We're done.


My ability to form English sentences seems to have been reduced to the local common denominator.

He gestures vaguely south. We exit the air-conditioned edifice into the dusty sun and shuffle southward.

We have a new operating procedure: enter every building, no matter how small or obscure, stand in every line, repeat until somebody does something.

On the second try, in a cramped little hut, we find a woman under glass who will not only accept our papers, but wants money to go with them. We take this as a good omen.


I nod my stupid grin and push 30 pesos under the glass. It pops back.


I retrieve my pesos, momentarily confused. What country am I in?

Denise produces thirty dollars and saves the day, it disappears under the glass. Sounds of stamping. Papers come back plus a receipt. The glass woman smiles blandly. We're done.


"Copy." The vague gesture is southward.

"Copy." Denise repeats, dragging me out the door. She seems to be learning the drill faster than I; maybe because she works for a corporation...

We trudge further southward, pass by the vehicle building, knowing better this time, and in the next hut discover the Copy Guy. He's a happy, round sort of fellow, and cheerfully makes copies of our stamped and restamped papers, hands them back, no charge, and another smile! No English habla-ing, but the big smile more than compensates as he shoos us off northward to the vehicle hut. His optimism is contagious.

We are finally back where we started. There is only one person before us for three windows. We take this as a good omen. Two windows promptly close. We wait.

We approach the final window. The fellow reaches for our paperwork.

—Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.

"Er, yo no hablo..."

The paperwork screeches to a halt on its trip under the glass and reverses direction.

"No English."

He waves us perfunctorily off to one side and begins serving the next (Spanish speaking) person in line. No other window is open. I am at a complete loss.

But strangely, Denise seems calm and unconcerned. Well, she works for a corporation, so...

"I guess we wait for the English speaking person to get back."

And who knows when that might be. Another no-English client is helped, exits.

The guy who was helped before we weren't helped reappears with a paper and bellies up to the no-English window. After a minute he exits with a wad of documentation and a shiny new sticker. Denise is shrewdly observing from the sidelines; taking notes, her expression inscrutable.

For the moment we are the only customers in the hut — I take the matter in hand and boldly step back up to the only open window and resubmit my wad. This time the paperwork is accepted.

"Copies." It is a request (in English!).

"How many?" He actually looks up at me for the first time. It is a look of overwhelming forbearance.


The number required seems to be somewhat variable — we had been advised to come equipped with up to four copies of everything. I peel off two copies of everything I have and hand them over. He sorts through for the ones he wants, shoves the rest back. He begins comparing each photocopy to the corresponding original, letter by letter as near as I can tell. He makes paper.

A document is pushed my way with a vague gesture southward. My passport, drivers' license, vehicle title and registration remain firmly in his custody. I have a momentary, disconnected feeling, as if this stranger who won't even look at me has my clothes.

Meanwhile, the wily Denise, who has figured out the drill, snatches the document.

"You stay here, don't leave this window, I'll be back."

In the absence of any coherent thought of my own, I do as bidden, blocking access to the one open window. Thankfully, my position goes unchallenged, as no one enters before Denise returns and shoves the document to the no-English guy, who's activity suddenly resumes as if Denise had popped in a fresh battery.

"Where'd you go?"

"Copy guy."

"He made a copy?"

"No, he signed it."

"He signed it..." I had no idea copy guys had such clout in Mexico.

"Yeah, twice."

We are interrupted by a request for money. This time pesos are the desired unit of exchange. We take this as a good omen.

A new, very fancy document appears.

"You. Sign. Here. Here."

I sign. I sign. There seems to be something magical about the number two here.

A portion of the document is torn on dotted line, the remainder turned over to reveal a very fancy sticker with holograms and some serious, imbedded electronics. I've never seen the like. And these people can't afford English signs...

He says something about the car window. I start to ask—


—but before I can cause any more trouble Denise hustles me out the door, across the customs inspection area, and toward the parking lot.

The car is roasting in the noon sun. The solar oven has been reinvented. We climb back into the Bomber and start the engine and A/C.

"Put it there." Denise points to the lower-left corner of the windscreen.

"How do you know?"

"That's where everyone puts it."

How my copilot has come by this rare information I do not know, but I've stopped caring. The magic sticker is applied.

"Now let's get out of here."

I try to comply with Denise's command but there is no exit to the dirt lot which will permit access to customs — the only way out is the way we came in, which is well beyond the checkpoint.


I drive to the exit, poke my nose out into the road, wait for a customs official to indicate what I should do. Two uniforms look at us, then turn their backs.


Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas

We drive off into Mexico. It's a little after noon.

Lesson of the Day:

It takes two gringos to equal one Mexican. Every situation from route finding to ordering lunch seems to require both a pilot (doer) and a navigator (spotter); and the undivided attention of both at all times. No matter how smart you are, unless you're born Mexican, you can only do one or the other, not both. Don't leave home alone...

. . .

(By the way, the whole border dance took just about an hour.)

== End of Day 6, Part 1, Mile 2861 - Just east of Reynosa, Tamaulipas ==


Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 6, Part 2 — Tuesday afternoon 21 October 2003 — Tamaulipas, Mexico

"Already Lost in Margarita Ville..."

Mile 2863 - Somewhere in Reynosa, Tamaulipas

Hardly more than a mile into Mexico and we're already lost. OK, not really lost, just "temporarily misplaced." The first of many such Temporary Misplacements or "TMs."

TMs are a way of life for the non-native in Mexico. A TM is relatively harmless — as long as it's still light, you have fuel, and can turn around or back up — and only becomes a TL (Totally Lost) when the imprudent non-native fails to turn around or back up once the TM has been identified.**

. . .

TM #1: We're hardly more than a mile into Mexico and we're already misplaced. We know this because we're in Reynosa. This might not seem unreasonable, were it not for the fact that we started out east of Reynosa and we want to go south on 97, which is also east of Reynosa, thus the determination that we've been TM'd. The reason for this becomes evident soon enough, once we turn around and backtrack (this will become SOP — Standard Operating Procedure).

Now, as I said, we were heading west on the major sort-of-freeway towards Reynosa when we discovered we were already in Reynosa. Now, as it turns out, on- and off-ramps are expensive and take up space, while intersections create traffic congestion — all of which the Mexican highway designer wishes to avoid — and successfully does so by omitting both. Further, the omission of ramps and intersections conveniently reduces the need for signage which, as we have already seen, is unpopular in Mexico, probably for reasons of aesthetics as well as expense.

Now, as I said, once TM'd, we back-tracked underneath the sort-of-freeway until we found 97. As it turns out, the accepted procedure (really!) for making such ramp-free connections is 1. to exit on the (psychically determined) previous ramp or intersection, 2. follow the service road or "lateral" parallel the arterial exited, until you pass by the desired intersection (often no left turn possible), 3. make the next U-turn under (or sometimes across) the arterial you've been paralleling (this is called a "Returno"; sometimes there is even a sign ;-), 4. backtrack to the desired intersection and turn right, 5. proceed on your merry way. I am dead serious: this is how it is actually supposed to be done. No kidding.

OK, now, as I said, we'd back-tracked underneath the sort-of-freeway until we found 97, whereupon we were immediately presented with our next challenge: it was partially dug up and access was blocked off by a parked piece of heavy equipment; no signs, no cones, utterly no evidence of any detour, and absolutely nobody around. (And Hwy. 97 is the major north-south arterial, bear in mind.) The absence of any workers and the absence of a huge snarl of honking vehicles leads us to conclude that it must be siesta time. Either that or a national strike is under way...

Now, although we did technically know where we were, since we really couldn't "get there from here", I've taken the liberty of declaring this TM #2.

TM #2: We are stopped, staring stupidly at the enormous pavement roller blocking our advance. We look to one side where there is actually a sign, and it actually says that this is Hwy. 97. We look back to the roller. There is no way around it, over it, or under it; there is no one on it, and it is definitely not moving.

The only options are back the way we came, north towards the US border (doesn't seem like such a bad option at this point ;-), and off to one side following a narrow, muddy alley which squeezes between buildings on its way into the local shanty town. Stunningly, there are actually vehicles taking this latter route. We follow.

What ensues is a vigorous 1/4 mile of urban off-roading and mud-bogging leading to, yes, Hwy. 97! somewhat past the non-rolling barricade. Still hardly believing what has just transpired, we roll down a window to consult with a fellow off-road enthusiast.

— ¿Cd. Victoria para...? (Relevant finger-pointing.)

— ¡Si, si! (Vigorous nodding w/ similar finger-pointing.)

A sharp, cautious drop into the unfinished roadbed and we're off, heading southward on Hwy. 97...

Hwy. 97 to 101 and on toward Cd. Victoria, passes easily and uneventfully. The scenery is more-or-less Mexico's answer to Texas, sans oil. Based on every recommendation and trip report we've come across, we choose to give the Soto la Marina / Hwy. 180 route a miss — a large percentage of the complaints in re road conditions seem to relate to this route.

Tooling happily along 101 toward Cd. Victoria at 70+ MPH, we come to, and pass, an intersection with a nice new highway which doesn't exist on any of our maps. And there's even a sign which optimistically declares "Tampico" with an arrow pointing south. We grind to a halt and reverse back to the now-familiar pull-off-right-and-U-turn-left ramp. Yes, there really is a sign to Tampico — in both directions! — the road appears real enough, and there is no heavy equipment blocking it.

We take a meeting. Denise's position: it looks like a nice, brand new road, it says "to Tampico", it goes in the proper direction, and it even looks like a logical extension of a highway which *is* shown on our maps and connects with the main route to Tampico. My position: It's a honey-trap and will land us in a mudbog. Denise's motion carries. We head south on what now calls itself Hwy. 83.

What follows is a logical series of connections involving Hwys. 83, 81, and 80, none of which has the slightest connection to the lines and numbers on either of our two maps. Fortunately, Denise is still navigating, and we eventually connect up with the toll road to Tampico.

I use the toll as an opportunity to break a large bill, hand the change and receipt to Denise, and pull forward — only to be waved off to the shoulder by a police officer who was waiting for us just beyond the toll gate.

I roll down the driver's side window and he leans on the frame, shoving his head into the car, smiles like a welcoming committee, reaches into the vehicle to shake, first my hand, then Denise's. This is not a good sign.

— Long stream of staccato Spanish devoid of useful gestures or facial expressions.

Followed by what is no doubt intended as a friendly smile, but falls somewhat short, and ends up somewhere between comical and predatory. He is still leaning on the window frame, his face about six inches from mine. Oddly, I almost think I pick out a reference to "cold drinks" (refrescos) and "tips" (the actual English word).

Sometimes it is very handy to be an idiot. If you can manage to pull off foreign female idiot, so much the better (though if you are not female, you might leave that part out, just to avoid misunderstandings).

I stare blankly (innocently, I hope fervently) at the sweaty face just inches from mine, and deliver a deliberate, earnest, random mix of Spanish and English syllables.

— Long stream of staccato Spanish, this time accompanied by a hungry smile and a vague gesture toward the change Denise is still holding.

We follow his gaze; there is no doubt what this is about. Denise hands me the change, I take it but palm the one large (200 peso) note back to her. I hold up my handful of pocket change and look inquiring. We waves it away, gestures enthusiastically toward the $200 which, unfortunately, he's caught sight of. He makes the mistake of holding his hand open, palm up.

Smiling and looking directly at the man as if speaking to him, I say—

"Denise, put that away right now, this instant."

—and dump my handful of change into the officer's open palm. He tries to give it back, but my hands are folded demurely in my lap. He has to stand up from my window to use his remaining hand to indicate the now vanished $200 peso note.

— ¡Short burst of rather annoyed-sounding Spanish!

"Yes, I know sir, and you can ask Spanish and I can reply English until we're both blue in the face, don't you know?" I am exceeding careful to preserve a sweet, confused, inquiring tone.

— Increasingly frustrated-sounding Spanish.

"Yep, I sure do know what you want, but it's not gonna happen today Senior, not with this Gringa," and I throw in a troubled —No comprende... shaking my head for good measure.

— Spanish monosyllable with perfunctory gesture toward Denise and the missing $200 note.

Unfortunately for him, his gesture also includes the glove box. I reach purposefully into the glove box. A look of hopeful anticipation passes briefly across my victim's face. I deliberately withdraw a small pocket Spanish-English dictionary, show it to him, and begin to studiously leaf through it.

— ¡Unmistakable exclamation of hopeless frustration!

He is walking backward, waving us away. Instead of starting the car, I call out to him, waving my text, perhaps looking like I might follow him. He is now walking briskly away with his back turned, pocket change in one hand, still waving us southward with the other. I believe that, had I got out of the car, he might actually have run.

Mile 3214 - Tampico, Tamaulipas

We had wanted to make the reputedly very nice coastal town of Tuxpan for the night, but thanks to our late start, dusk catches us on the outskirts of the rather industrial city of Tampico. We are far enough south now that night is starting to fall pretty quickly.
Thanks to the twilight, a foolish attempt to circumnavigate the city via the tollway bypass, random road construction, and the crush of end-of-the-day traffic, we have missed a turn and are already beginning TM #3, though we are, as yet, blissfully unaware of the fact.

Actually, TM #3 turns out to be a blessing in disguise (or, as I like to say, a "mixed curse"), as without it we would never have discovered the first Love Shack.

So it is now definitely getting dark, and starting to rain, and we are wrestling our way through a muddy construction zone, pinched between huge trucks when, ahead on the right, there is a glorious, brand-spanking-new, gorgeously landscaped, pink-walled edifice which looks as misplaced as we in the industrial mudpit of eastern Tampico.

The sign says: Motel.

We pull in, under the huge pink arched stucco entryway, and park next to a very shiny, late model Mercedes. We are surrounded by immaculately tended gardens of tropical vegetation, spotless concrete and tile, and very curious, slightly amused-looking staff, including one very polite, cheerful armed guard with a walkie-talkie.

This last fellow, grins and waves in a friendly, reassuring manner, and keeps his distance, which we consider a good omen. A fellow who has a friendly "in charge" air about him approaches from what appears to be the office. He also sports a walkie-talkie. The female staff have all piled out of their various hiding spots and group up in the background, enjoying the spectacle.

We take in our surroundings as we await the in-charge fellow's immanent arrival. There are several driveway "isles" lined to each side with what appear to be suites, to each of which the only access is through what appears to be a garage door. There must be forty or fifty of them, all surrounded by the high, pink wall. The design, landscaping and maintenance are all perfect — the place is nothing short of beautiful.

The in-charge man has arrived. I've got a pretty good idea what we're dealing with here. But I don't think Denise does! ;-)

—Friendly stream of unintelligible Spanish, this time accompanied by a generous and sincere, if slightly amused, smile.

I'm a little fuddled, not quite sure how to proceed, so Denise takes the lead, making her best impression of a room request in Spanish.

—La, er, habitacion para, er, for the night..." She looks to me for help.

—La noche, I prompt.

—¿Para la noche? ¿La habitacion? She waves her hands about and looks hesitantly optimistic.

The man looks bemused, and maybe just a touch at a loss.

—No hablo ingles.

And inserts a long string of Spanish into his walkie-talkie. His voice is echoed some distance away at the guards hip, but he makes no motion.

We all stand around, enjoying the silence of each other's company, and soon another fellow, very young, approaches: the Manager.

"Good evening ladies, how may I be of help?"

We are speechless. Near-perfect American-accented English, with maybe even an undertone of college education.

Denise looks nonplussed. I believe she may be trying to get "la habitacion para la noche" to come out again, so I take the lead.

"Is it possible to get a room for the night?"

There is a brief debate between the Manager and his #2.

"Ah, yes, but the best price we can offer you is from 8:00 PM to 10:00 AM."

It is now somewhat past 6 PM — seems odd — but whatever...

"How much?"

Another conference; it seems this event may be precedent-setting. A conclusion is reached.

"For eight until ten it would be $360 pesos." He seems to think this is likely to be too high. It's about $33 USD.

"No problem. Can we see a room?"

Now the young Manager is really at a loss. He's starting to look distinctly awkward.

"Ah, ma'am, ah, this is... you know, this is like... a love hotel..."

"Yeah, I know. Can we see a room?"

He is defeated. We are shown a room. It's fantastic. Huge bed, elegant decor, without question the cleanest, best appointed, most secure room we've seen anywhere either side of the border. Words don't do justice — you really need to take a look at the photos!

I think Denise may be catching on: there is a complementary condom in the ashtray.

"We'll take it. Can we pay now?"

. . .

We drive off in search of the restaurant the Manager has recommended. Properly fed, we return well in advance of the 8 PM assigned check-in, but it doesn't seem to be a problem. As our car appears and is recognized, we are rapidly ushered by #2 to an open garage door, while the guard, er, stands guard.

The instant our vehicle is clear, the mechanism engages and down comes the automatic door and we are suddenly ensconced in our secret love nest.

We are exhausted — take a few photos before we mess up the room, then unload — no need even to lock the car. Shower and bed. Lights out. I make Denise keep to her own side... ;-)

== End of Day 6, Mile 3214, Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico ==

** I do have one report of a first-time successful transit of Mexico from Texas to Belize which disregarded this advice. The transit in question involved a large truck towing a large fifth-wheel, and a compass. Since there was, in this case, no reasonable hope of backing up or turning around, their MO (modus operundi) was "just keep heading south." Evidently they did eventually make it to Belize (since that was where I got the story from), but this MO is nevertheless not recommended: they could just as easily now be permanently parked, sunk to the axles, and living today on some muddy, dead-end road, somewhere in Mexico...

Clic here to see all Day 6 pix...

Text and accompanying photographs are copyright 2003 Galena Alyson Canada.
MissLena is Galena Alyson Canada
Her email is themisslena ã gmail õ com.


Edited by MissLena (03/11/08 06:18 PM)

#210068 - 11/16/03 07:33 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
MissLena Offline

Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 7, Part 1 — Wednesday morning 22 October 2003 — Tamaulipas - Veracruz

"Who's Driving on First?"

The run from Tampico to the town of Veracruz may have been deliberately designed to take the non-native on a mystery tour of the entire state of Veracruz.

There is, naturally, the usual minimalist approach to signage, and the frequent lack of correspondence between the available maps and guidebooks and the actual roadscape. Then there are the random road construction, blocking breakdowns, diversions, checkpoints, donkeys, etc. And, of course, the locals' irritating insistence on speaking only in Spanish.

To add to the confusion, the Mexicans seem to have taken their lead from New York and thriftily reused the names of their cities as monikers for their states and country. Or vice-versa — who knows. Thus you can "go to Mexico" even after you're already in Mexico — the locals consider it an economy of speech to leave out any superfluous words — like "city" (ciudad, usually written Cd.) or "state". Thus, once in Zacatecas you can still go to Zacatecas, being in Campeche does not prevent you from going on to Campeche, and, alas, once you're in Veracruz you still have to figure out how to get to Veracruz.

Mile 3214 - Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico

We awake in Camelot — well, a sort of mock-adobe version of Camelot with palm trees rather than oaks and Birds-of-Paradise in place of roses — the rain is gone, the dawn sun is rising in a clear blue and rose sky, the pinks of the sunrise harmonizing perfectly with the pink fortress wall. The high-tension lines behind and the industrial complex in front detract only slightly from the spectacle.

Denise hustles up, packing as I shower and make coffee — we need to make up time. She might even have succeeded in getting us off to an early start had it not been for me — my need for caffeine, my inability to locate and identify my possessions, my need to criss-cross the love-fortress snapping pix... (Evidently I had underestimated the number of suites at this particular Love Castle: ours is #127!)

We're finally off, me driving, Denise in the co-pilot/navigator/spotter seat. She's exuding a slight aura of impatience (I suppose I *could've* been a bit quicker out of the gate this morning). This sets the mood for our first junction.

Now, unbeknownst to us, we are already engaged in TM (Temporary Misplacement) Number Three. We think we're heading west on Hwy. 70 looking for a left turn to resume the Tampico Bypass (via Cuauhtémoc — go ahead, try to pronounce it, I dare you), crossing first a railroad, then a river. That's what the Sanborn's Guide shows.

We may even *be* heading west on 70 — we're pretty sure the Pink Love Shack is on 70 (well it *might* be, anyway) — but whether we're heading west on 70 *before* or *after* the Tampico Bypass junction, well, that will never be known. Actually we'll never even know if we were really on Hwy. 70, for that matter...

So we're confronting our first junction. It appears to be a significant junction. We follow protocol: drive right past (no sign), stop and look back (no sign there either), reverse to the exit-right-to-turn-left lane (no sign), turn left across traffic onto the new road, then U-turn to check for signs from this direction (there is one, it says back the way we came to Tampico, duh), turn around again, have second (third?) thoughts, halt and call a meeting.

Denise's position: we're about to cross a railroad, just like the guide shows; if we cross a river soon, like the guide shows, then we're probably on the right road. My position: it's a honey-trap and we'll wind up gridlocked in some crowded, unnavigable village. Denise holds the navigator position, has the best junction-reading average so far, is a tad impatient this morning, and can easily take me down in a scrap: her motion carries.

. . .

We cross, first the tracks, then a river, just as shown in the guidebook, and progress is uneventful until we reach our next junction, which is a perfect triangle junction with a statue in it's center.

We follow protocol: drive right past, three-point-turnabout annoying traffic, around again, halt and call a meeting. Each of the three conjoined avenues is of approximately equal size, traffic and wear, and there is not a single sign. There is, however, a statue. I get out to consult the statue. I am able to decipher some of the attached plaque. I return to the driver's seat.



"This seems to be Cuauhtémoc."


"The guide says the Bypass goes via Cuauhtémoc."

"Whatever you say..."

Denise seems unimpressed by my deduction. In truth it is not of much help as we still need to choose between Road Number One and Road Number Two, and the fact that we may be on route at the moment doesn't mean that we will be shortly.

As we sit and debate, traffic starts to back up on the left fork, which snakes up a hill and out of sight toward (I think) Tampico. Denise considers the traffic a good omen and wants to queue up; I figure it's probably just a donkey with a blowout.

I like the right-hand fork, as this seems to head in a more southerly direction, passes *via* Cuauhtémoc proper, and lacks the parking lot which has by now taken over the left-hand route. The guidebook has no opinion, as it does not recognize this junction's right to exist. For reasons which I shall never grasp, my motion carries. We head right, into Cuauhtémoc.


Now, had we gone Denise's way, I suspect we would have ended up right on route — after working our way past the hypothetical donkey-jam. Instead we wind up driving circles around the central square of Cuauhtémoc, making various excursions afield only to be returned to the central square — a sort of Escher-esque navigational experience.

We halt in a taxi queue and call a meeting. Denise wants to head back out the way we came and follow the traffic up the hill outside town. I find this position to be too reasonable, and insist on consulting a taxi-man instead.

(As it turns out, either method would have worked, but mine was more fun! ;-)

I approach the nearest taxi-man, pidgin-español at the ready. The exchange involves a dreadful butchering of the Spanish language (on my part) combined with some very creative gesticulations (on his part) — altogether too complex to present here in the original, so I must take the liberty of translating the exchange into English:

"Excuse me, Sir, but which way to Veracruz?"

"This is Veracruz."

My coherent thought processes lurch to an abrupt halt: I cannot rationalize our transit of over two hundred miles southward whilst circling the spacetime vortex of this village square. Escher or no, this is just too much.

"I thought this was Cuauhtémoc."

"That's right."

"We need to go to Veracruz."

"You're in Veracruz."

The conversation seems to be trapped in the same spacetime vortex that our navigation had recently fallen into.

"No, we're in Cuauhtémoc."

"That's right."

I'm not sure who I want to strangle more — him or me. A couple other idle taxi-guys have entered the discussion. There is a three-way debate which no longer includes me — probably trying to decide what to do about the insane gringa.

I have a flash of insight. I make a hop-scotching kind of gesture with my right hand, like a skipped stone—

—Cuauhtémoc...Poza Rica...Veracruz...

—¡A-ja! CiuDAD Veracruz!

Each of the three take turns repeating the phrase —¡Ciudad Veracruz! —¡A-ja! —¡Si! Ciudad! Cd. Veracruz! until they've all memorized it. I join in enthusiastically—

—¡Si! Si! Cd. Veracruz!

This is followed by Taxi-man #1 launching into a utterly confident set of gestures this way and that, as if slicing a pizza with his open hand; liberally accompanied by directions in, of course, Spanish.

Interlude: Spanish Directions

—Derecho, derecha = (turn) right

—Todo derecho = go straight (yeah, no kidding, and that todo gets lost pretty easily!)

—Directamente = straight (but why use that when you can use todo derecho?)

—Izquierda = (turn) left (quite a mouthful for a concept as simple as "left", if you ask me...)

—Divertido = not "diverted", but "entertaining" or "amusing" (which is how the person giving directions sees you).

End of Interlude

So #1 is enthusiastically burying me under a load of derechos, todo derechos, and izquierdas, with an occasional generous directamente, as he slices the air to shreds, barehanded. I nod gravely, as if I am actually following this and committing it to memory.

Then, just to be divertida, I run it back to him with (to me) startling accuracy, even managing to clarify some todo derechos into directamentes. All four of us are surprised and impressed. Grins and felicitations all around.

Back in the driver's seat and we're off again. I am repeating a mantra:

"Around the square, then straight, then left, then right, then straight, then left-and-right..."

We exit the square, go straight, left, right, etc...

We are back at the square.

The spacetime vortex still holds us captive. Denise wants to go back to the triangle junction, but I am feeling determined. Denise would say "pig-headed."

I have a theory: perhaps I fell short by 90 degrees on the "around the square" part. We circle again and exit on the new heading. The three taxi-guys are still there, obviously very divertirse.

We exit the square, go straight, left, right, etc...and...there it is: a miracle of pavement, a four-lane controlled-access divided highway fit for a Porsche.

The only hitch seems to be that our present road passes up and over this glory of asphalt and concrete without the benefit of an on-ramp. There is, however, an off-ramp, which joins our present location off to the left. We stop. I look at Denise inquiringly, she grins, I grin.

"Get the camera ready."

Nobody in sight, we swing left, wrong-way up the off-ramp, and a couple hundred feet later pull a sharp right ("...left-and-right"), just like taxi-guy #1 said to. We are speeding south, the road to ourselves and, if I don't miss my guess, with taxi-driver savvy as our guide, we probably just skipped a toll booth, not a broke-down donkey.

As we pass signs (!) that confirm that we are right on course, we are feeling pretty darned Mexican...


Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 7, Part 2 — Wednesday afternoon 22 October 2003 — Veracruz - Tabasco

"Dogs, Topes, Stalled Vehicles, Nearly Stalled Vehicles, More dogs, and the Mexican Pot-Hole Slalom."

Entering the state of Veracruz south of Tampico, Mexico starts to look more tropical; here coconut, bananas, papaya, mango, flamboyant, almond, hibiscus, and the ubiquitous tropical morning glory make their presence known; here also, as the land becomes increasingly fecund, agriculture prospers and the first thatched roofs appear...

It is here — from quaint Tuxpan, down the sandy, coconut-graced beaches of the Costa Esmeralda to Nautla, and onward along the Gulf coast to historic Cd. Veracruz with its famous "pole dancers" — it is here that you find the "real Mexican Caribbean" about which those in the know crow.

Or so I'm told. We were really too busy looking for potholes and topes to really look at much else...

Mile 3230 - South of Tampico in Veracruz, Mexico

We are ripping south from Tampico at 75 MPH on a gorgeous four-lane divided controlled-access miracle of pavement. Neither of our maps gives any hint of such a wonder south of Tampico, and the road quickly complies by dropping to an undivided single-lane each direction with no lines. The good news is that the absence of paint is due to the very recent new pavement. We see no compelling reason to moderate our speed.

The bad news is that we soon discover the paving crew in action, complete with flagger with red flag. Between the red flag and the ending of the sweet, new asphalt, moderation of speed now seems prudent. Leaving the paving crew behind, we are back to the Mexican Pot-Hole Slalom. After futbaaaaaaaaal, this must be the national sport.

We are behind schedule, and have been since oversleeping our last morning in Texas. The original overnight had been planned for the reputedly very nice town of Tuxpan. Unfortunately dark and rain had forced a halt in Tampico the previous night, and now our only interest in Tuxpan was finding the bypass to avoid it.

One map makes the bypass look obvious, almost unavoidable, even gives it a number — Hwy. 130; the other map is utterly silent on the matter — what highway?; the Sanborn's Guide describes a completely different bypass route, skirting closer to town.

And now we are in scenic downtown Tuxpan.

TM #4: We are at a three-way, signless junction in moderately heavy traffic. For lack of a better plan, we follow the greater traffic flow and wind up part-way up a one-way street which is obviously taking us nowhere we want to go. We halt and call a meeting. There is a traffic cop a little way back, ignoring traffic, having a nice chat with a Señora. We consult the nice officer.

There is the usual series of derechos, todo derechos, and izquierdas accompanied by the obligatory air-karate visual aides. The uniformed gentleman is very nice and helpful and is clearly directing us back down the one-way, against traffic, to where ever it is we need to be. We thank him and blithely head back against traffic: this kind of maneuver no longer causes the least concern for us.

. . .

Although, in truth, I am not doing well today.

I am becoming increasingly anxious and am not approaching our Temporary Misplacements in the proper frame of mind. I can tell this because Denise is becoming irritated and rather cross with me, which is her way of reacting when I am out of sorts. Her irritation is then feeding back into my anxiety, and I get shorter and crabbier, which annoys Denise all the more. We've been doing this for nearly a decade-and-a-half, so we're pretty good at it.

I have utterly no recollection of how or where we got back on track, and we have not one single photograph of scenic Tuxpan. There is an hour-and-a-half gap in the photojournalistic record. Next thing I know, we're on the main drag in Poza Rica, in very heavy traffic, and I'm jerking the Bomber into the first open restaurant with parking. My nerves are completely shot. Denise is visibly resisting the urge to throttle me. I'm done.

Now I am not necessarily an advocate of prescription drug use as an everyday coping method for life's little bumps, but the fact is that, for their own safety, certain pets should be tranquilized for travel, and today I'm one of them. I have a small stash of Mothers' Little Helpers (properly prescribed, for emergency use only) and as we enter the restaurant I head straight to the washroom and take one. I'm done. Denise will take the con for the duration today. I will practice my mantra.

We had a delightful little lunch in Poza Rica, and I wish I knew the name of the restaurant so I could tell you. We had the place to ourselves, the owner took fantastic care of us as we all pantomimed our way through the menu, and later her teenaged daughter came by to try her English on us. First-rate, if limited, English, and well-accented. Obviously the young Senorita was highly motivated and had been studying very hard. She was so hungry to speak English, I felt bad as we made our excuses and scooted on out of there.

[The restaurant is "PAL-MART" on the right side of the main drag downtown. See Two Gringas #2 for a photo. —Lena]

. . .

Back on the road with Denise at the helm, things are going better. I have given up any pretense of navigation — Denise has proven her superior skills — and have been reduced to being the spotter, photojournalist, and turbo-boost operator.

Now, for those who have not driven in Latin America, the "spotter" function may be obscure; the rest of you certainly know... "Photojournalist" is pretty self-explanatory.

But "turbo-boost operator" is a function unique to loaded cars with small engines and A/C running and a need to pass (as in overtake). Here's how it works:

You have lost momentum as you come up behind slower traffic which you cannot immediately pass; you hold back far enough so you can see oncoming traffic, either on the driver's side, or on the spotter's side, and leave yourself some "running room"; when the opportunity presents itself, the pilot begins to accelerate and close the gap with the offending vehicle ahead; then, as the last opposing vehicle clears, the pilot lurches out into the passing lane before the vehicle behind can get the drop on you, the spotter simultaneously switches *off* the A/C, shutting off the compressor and thus providing more power to accelerate; when the vehicle has reached peak velocity, the spotter switches the cooling back on as the pilot swings the vehicle back to the proper lane, and you continue on your merry way.

Now, as to other functions of the spotter...in addition to keeping watch for vehicular attacks from the flanks and other bogeys, here is a short list of common Mexican road hazards the spotter must keep an eye out for: dogs, marked topes, potholes, donkeys, ruts, stalled vehicles, rocks put out to warn of stalled vehicles, checkpoints, pedestrians, bicycles, stopped busses, wood, dogs (cats are generally smart enough to keep off the highways), rocks left behind once stalled vehicles have moved on, unmarked topes, spare parts, pavement settled up to several inches at bridge decks, people (including small children) using the pavement edge as a chair or cot, craters, flaggers, tractors and other very slow equipment, horses, secretly hidden topes, random roadwork lacking flaggers, bomb craters, dogs, and the occasional complete absence of pavement altogether. Not *one* of these is made-up. (Did I mention dogs?)

. . .

Except for the minor hazards mentioned above, we have clear sailing along the Costa Esmeralda to Nautla. Everybody talks about how great the Costa Esmeralda is, mostly for the beaches, I think. We are, unfortunately, road-bound and enjoying the beach from several hundred feet away and at 50 MPH. My best photos are some blurry coconut palms with something that might be water beyond them, and a photo of a wall that jumped up just as I clicked the shutter.

We actually manage to make the correct choice first try at the Hwy. 180 junction with 131, and avoid the side-trip to Xalapa — the actual capital of Veracruz, which oddly, Cd. Veracruz is not.

. . .

TM #5: We are less lucky at Cardel and find ourselves heading off west toward Xalapa after all, but after several miles into the westering sun with no junction southward, we realize our error, turn around, backtrack, pass through village of Cardel and rediscover the main route heading towards Veracruz.

Veracruz, finally, and we actually manage to navigate the bypass — a Two Gringas First! Then onward toward Córdoba, and make the turn to Acayucan & Villahermosa, again on the first try — we're now up to 50% junction success!

But it's really getting dark, so we're cruising to Acayucan for the night.

. . .

And then something strange happened.

There is a toll point right before the turnoff to Acayucan. If you're going to Acayucan, you take the right-hand booth, pay I think $6 pesos, and exit. If you're continuing on to Villahermosa (another 128 miles of toll road), you take one of the left-hand booths and pay the princely sum of $131 pesos.

Now, it was dark, and we had already decided to stop in Acayucan for the night, but the line of toll booths caught us by surprise, and like a deer in the headlights we just stopped. Right or left? Right or left? We're stopped, a huge truck behind us is honking, and we're taking a meeting.

Right or left?

¿Derecho o izquierda?

We're tired and confused. It's been a long day. The truck horn blares again. Someone in a uniform off to one side is signaling frantically, or maybe doing jumping jacks.

Denise goes left. I pony up $131 pesos. We're off into the night...

. . .

With minor exceptions, this is a fantastic road, and we bomb 70 to 80 MPH.

The one curious event occurred, we think, somewhere around the Coatzacoalcos River: suddenly we're into a wall of bugs, like white rain, like a downpour of Elmer's glue, for a mile or two; the windscreen is completely plastered, and we stop in the night to scrape it off.

Onward we bomb, through the night, and make Villahermosa about 10 PM.

And the best thing about the Pink Love Shacks? Well, they're open all night! This one was nearly as nice as the last, and cheaper, but then again, we booked fewer hours. ;-)

== End of Day 7, Mile 3821, Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico ==

Clic here to see all Day 7 pix...

Text and accompanying photographs are copyright 2003 Galena Alyson Canada.
MissLena is Galena Alyson Canada
Her email is themisslena ã gmail õ com.


Just got back from three days in the backcountry looking after my god-daughters. I expect to be cooking the next episode tomorrow...


Edited by MissLena (03/11/08 11:34 PM)

#210069 - 11/17/03 08:15 AM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
dbdoberman Offline
we'll be waiting, Lena, and thanks again.

#210070 - 11/17/03 11:25 AM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
indygal Offline
Thanks Lena. What fun to read of your adventures. Looking forward to your next installment.
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain.

#210071 - 11/19/03 10:13 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
Laguna Punta Offline
Thank you very much for your travel log. The most I get from others driving through Mexico to Belize is "won't do that again". Your writting is beautiful.
Gone fishing!!

#210072 - 11/23/03 12:55 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
MissLena Offline
Sorry for the silence, folks. Been down all week with a bad cold and it's pretty hard to write (or anything else, for that matter) when I feel this crummy. I hope to get back to writing "real soon now"...please bear with me...

#210073 - 11/23/03 05:08 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
indygal Offline
I have been anxiously awaiting the rest of the story!! Thanks Indygal
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain.

#210074 - 11/25/03 06:47 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
MissLena Offline

Two Gringas Drive to Belize

Day 8, Part 1 — Thursday 23 October 2003 — Tabasco - Chiapas - Tabasco - Campeche - Quintana Roo - Belize

"The Vast Yucatan: Mexico's answer to Texas."

The run from Villahermosa up to Escarcega and across the waist of the Yucatan Peninsula to Chetumal is rather anticlimactic compared to the preceding Mexican journey. Once out of Tabasco the waypoints are few and far between. The road is generally straight and generally in good condition and generally well-marked with real painted lines and both directional and warning signs. Sometimes there are even signs to tell you how far it is to various destinations. You'd almost think you were in Texas.

Unlike Texas, the geology has some relief to it (yes, pun intended ;-); there are a few hills and curves to break things up, and in some areas the bush is starting to regrow and shades the roadway, though for the most part the landscape has been stripped (at least within sight of the highway).

Also unlike Texas, and very much like the rest of Mexico, you will never be bored for long, as you pass through occasional towns and villages with the obligatory potholes and secret topes, scenic natives and their livestock and other transportation, surprise blockages, and, of course, the occasional military checkpoint, replete with machinegun nests.

Mile 3821 - Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico

We awake with the sun, in our Pink Love Nest #2. Lena grinds the beans as Denise repacks the Belize Bomber. Entropy has really begun to set in after a week of car-living, and with each morning it is getting increasingly difficult to compress our lives into the modest space available.

Obligatory morning-after Love Hotel photo-shoot (careful not to catch any other clients!), then across the street to the Pemex.

Now, one of the reasons for adding the 32 gallon long-range tank to the Bomber (and thus the name) — in addition to convenience and being able to economize on cheap fuel before entering first Mexico and then Belize — was to have the luxury of not having to buy gas in Mexico at all. Nevertheless, although we were pretty sure we had enough fuel to reach the duty-free zone at the Belize border, we decided to hedge our bets before the long haul across the Yucatan by adding a few Mexican liters — our first gas since McAllen, TX.

And, yes, we've all heard the horror stories of getting ripped-off by attendants failing to fully reset the pump meter**, and getting served leaded fuel by mistake, thus ruining the catalytic converter. But I would venture to say that these concerns may be somewhat out-of-date — at least on our route (though do note that we hardly put the matter to the test). All fuel in Mexico now seems to be unleaded ("sin", meaning "without"), and our attendant forgot to cheat us even though we didn't bother to watch him. Operations at the Pemex stations all seem pretty shiny and western, with modern pumps, attendants in uniform, convenience mini-stores, and clean washrooms.

[**This did happen to us in Xpujil on Two Gringas #2. Beware when they wave you to a specific pump! —Lena]

As we head out of Villahermosa, on the outskirts of town we notice a Love Hotel of a different stripe: this one has abandoned vehicles and rubbish for landscaping, mud for pavement, and blue plastic tarps hanging in place of automatic garage doors. Now, on a budget, I suspect one could economize significantly here — nevertheless, I think I'd strongly recommend choosing one's Love Nest by the quality of its landscaping and pavement and the freshness of its paint...

. . .

Two hours out of Villahermosa we encounter our first rain since driving out of the Pacific-Northwestern drool somewhere in western Montana. But it is a brief, intermittent late-season series of little tropical showers (only occasionally completely blinding), and soon the sun god resumes his blessing of our endeavor.

It is in this stretch after Villahermosa that the main route dips from the state of Tabasco, down into the infamous state of Chiapas, before briefly returning to Tabasco on its way to Campeche. Chiapas is the Mexican state which borders on western Guatemala and in which occurred the famous Mayan militant uprising, and in which continues the more-or-less ongoing (but quieter since the change in government) guerrilla war with the Mexican army. Of course, you're a long way from the action (if any), but you can now soberly inform your friends that you've "been through Chiapas."

It is also somewhere in this stretch that we first became consciously aware of the Milk Bugs. They're everywhere. At first we thought somebody was playing cat-and-mouse with us, but soon realized that what we were running into was a series of individual-but-identical Milk Bugs. Shiny, new, old-style VW Beetles, apparently available only in pure-white. Maybe the last of the production (which I believe has ended) — grab 'em while you can? Or maybe a Henry Ford thing: "Any color the customer wants, so long as it's white."

. . .

As in Texas, we pretty much just charged across the Yucatan at 60-80 mph. Back on schedule, nothing but open road, the villages few and far between, and practically smelling the aroma of rice-and-beans wafting across the Belizean border... Well, there just wasn't really any reason to slow down...

OK, but now when I say "open road" I do, of course, mean this in the Mexican sense...

In Mexico, "open road" means the following: (1) relatively few craters, (2) relatively few villages, thus relatively few topes, (3) lanes wide enough to miss both the on-coming truck and the fellow sleeping on the pavement-edge, (4) fairly light traffic and plenty of more-or-less straight sections with good visibility to permit the passing of busses, breakdowns and burros without the inconvenience of having to slow or reset the cruise-control, and (5) an ample supply of blockers.

Interlude: The proper use of blockers.

Anyone who has ever deliberately followed (at some distance) in the wake of a speeding vehicle — thereby intending to avoid being caught by speed traps or police cruisers — already knows the proper use of blockers. Though, in Mexico, the use of blockers has nothing whatsoever to do with police — in fact, we never saw anything resembling a speed trap and (although *we* never tried such a thing) several times we witnessed cars passing police vehicles at speeds vastly over (like double!) the speed limit, apparently without consequence.

So, OK, you're tooling along the open highway at whatever maximal speed you feel will allow you sufficient opportunity to dodge any possible upcoming craters, topes, breakdowns, or machinegun nests. Suddenly, to your delight, a vehicle comes roaring up behind you flashing its headlights! You demurely edge right and allow the creature to fly past.

Then you stomp on it! — keeping the vehicle ahead in sight to the best of your (and your vehicle's) ability — secure in the knowledge that if there's anything in or on the road ahead, he'll hit it first, giving you ample warning to slow down and negotiate the obstacle.

Eventually, of course, you will lose him (you are not, after all, a native Mexican driver) and return to your former pace until your next blocker arrives.

End of Interlude

As mentioned, once out of Tabasco, the waypoints are few and far between. You pretty much just follow the signs to Escarcega for an eternity or so, then follow the signs to Xpujil for a few epochs, then finally, for the last millennium, the signs say Chetumal. (Don't forget to stop and turn right before Chetumal, or you'll drive into the sea.)

Ah, but the indigenous names have finally defeated us.

Up till now our tongues have struggled and overcome the likes of "Tamaulipas" and "Tuxpan", our lips have braved "Papantla" and "Xalapa", and we have even choked our way through the terrible syllables of "Cosamaloapan" and "Coatzacoalcos." But now, at the last, weakened as we are, "Escarcega" has pinned us to the ropes and "Xpujil" has sucker-punched us into abject humiliation. No western tongue stands a chance against the likes of "Xpujil." [Pronounced, I think, something like "Shpoo-CHeel" where the CH is a guttural, choking sound like that used to clear phlegm.]

And so we have adopted the traditional white-man's solution to indigenous nomenclature, and replaced it altogether with our own. Thus, today's route starts out in Herman Town, dips into the state of Cowpies, then back up into Camp Itch, via Escargot-gaga and Poo Hill, to our destination at the Real Honda in Kangaroo near Cheat-em-all.

Mile 4168 - Rio Hondo, Quintana Roo, Mexico

We are helpless in the grip of an irresistible force which draws us towards Belize, we can't help it. We ought to have stopped for (a very overdue) lunch in Chetumal, we'd like to have, but somehow here we are, at the Mexican side of the Rio Hondo, the narrow bit of water which separates Mexico from Belize. We can actually see the crest of the bridge, where Mexico ends and Belize begins.

But we're not there yet! No, we still have paper to make. Or rather, we need to clear our tourist visas and our tourist vehicle permit if we ever hope to be allowed back into Mexico.

There are vehicles scattered about, but no apparent attempt to provide parking for those who might have paper to make. We pull into a spot which looks as likely (or unlikely) as any other, and it's in the shade.

With just a touch of trepidation, I peel the Magic Technology Sticker off the windscreen and get out, leaving Denise to deal with any parking infractions, and enter the nearest dusty, unsigned building.

The wrong one, of course.

Well, no, it's the right one — just in the wrong order. SOP. At least there are no queues this time. And no fees. I trudge on to the next dusty building, enter its air-conditioned bliss, and try to hand the nearest official-looking fellow my Magic Sticker, which, alas, holds no interest for him. I fan out documents — passport, drivers license, all the paper we made at the last border — and he picks and chooses, stamps and writes, and makes a new paper.

I trudge back to the first dusty building and hand my new paper to the nice lady, who also wants my Magic Sticker and takes it out of view to perform some mysterious operation on it. She then issues a receipt, which she hands to me as if it were the most precious of things — which it clearly is, as it's my ticket back into Mexico should there ever be any question regarding the Bomber's legal exodus from that country.

Please note that no one ever actually went to see if I really had the vehicle in question with me.

Which, apparently, I don't.

It has gone. But a distant honk from across a dusty, sun-scorched expanse alerts me as to its new, remote location. Thankfully, Denise has the A/C running as I arrive, dripping. (Evidently, a uniform had made her move out of the shade, back into the sun where we belong.)

But we are moving, south, up and over the Rio Hondo, and we've made it! We are in Belize!


But rather than heading to the right, towards Belizean Immigration and Customs, we take the left road, toward the official opening in the huge cyclone fence which surrounds Belize's Corozal Free Trade Zone/Zona Libre — which exists for the sole purpose of exchanging Belizean and duty-free imported stuff for Mexican Pesos. Including gasoline.

We pull to a stop at the checkpoint. The uniform makes a deliberate circuit of the vehicle, looking for any evidence of Belizean identity; finally makes it to my driver's window.

"Where are you going?"

"Uh, the Zona Libre?"

The uniform's speech slows deliberately as he realizes he's dealing with a complete idiot.



"And where are you coming from?"


"Five pesos."

I exchange a coin for a ticket, and we are waved onward, into the land of duty-free gas and other sins.

A hundred metres later we're at the first of several expansive gas depots, and we begin the process of taking on fuel. 89.2 liters at $5.50 pesos per — that's 23.5 gallons for $491 pesos, or about $43 USD — about $1.82 USD per gallon. [The cheapest gas inside Belize at this writing is $7.28 BzD/gal — that's USD $3.64/gallon!]

[Adding everything up, the total, border-to-border, was 1314 miles using 45.4 gallons and working out to 28.9 miles-per-gallon — a significant drop from our formerly thrifty 34 MPG average, probably due mostly to excessive braking for craters, topes and other rude surprises.]

Fully-loaded, we about-face, drive right back out past the checkpoint, and onward to Belize.

Well, onward to Belizean Customs and Immigration anyway — but that's another chapter all by itself... ;-)

Clic here to see all Day 8 pix...

Text and accompanying photographs are copyright 2003 Galena Alyson Canada.

[The saga continues at the new topic "Two Gringas Drive *in* Belize" here. ]

next chapter...
MissLena is Galena Alyson Canada
Her email is themisslena á gmail ó com
Her personal blog is at galenaalysoncanada.blogspot.com
The new Two Gringas blogsite is TheTwoGringas.blogspot.com

Edited by MissLena (03/11/08 11:37 PM)

#210075 - 11/25/03 07:02 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
ckocian Offline
Well, Miss 'L, do hurry with the next installment. On our first driving trip down from Texas to Belize, we turned around and drove all the way back because Customs wanted us to pay duty on our vehicle because we own property in Belize even though we were on vacation and the vehicle was going back to Texas in the first place. We didn't lose the opportunity to learn something very valuable, though: CYA, lie like a dog like everyone else does!!! It's not altruistic to be honest, after all.

#210076 - 11/25/03 11:13 PM Re: Two Gringas Drive to Belize
klcman Offline
_ _ _ _ _ _ _________________ _ _ _ _ _ _
But then what do I know, I am but a mere caveman

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