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Survive Mexico

Front Driver Side View
Rob Harris | Writer
Posted July 1, 2002
Contributors: Sylvia Cartwright
Photographers: Sylvia Cartwright

Making it South of the Border and Back

Step By Step

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  • We have no idea how he got the wheel off of the truck or how he got it back on without tools, but we were happy to help him plug and fill the tire.

  • Much of the landscape in Mexico is undeveloped. Basaseachie Falls is the fourth highest waterfall in North America.

  • Our stop along the Urique River gave us a chance to do some laundry. At night, bats zipped around the camp fire light and the cliff just behind us.

  • Having a good guide when traveling in Mexico makes all the difference. You’d otherwise miss out on many historical buildings and monuments.

  • You never know what could be around the next corner, so drive slowly on the roads in Mexico.

  • No amount of duct tape would fix our transfer case. The stray dog didn’t seem to care as long as he got some action from our guide Frenchie.

Editor’s Note: My trips to Mexico have seldom involved anything more than a drunken day trip in my younger years. Venturing into the more historic parts of Mexico was something that was a little frightening to me because of all of the horror stories I was told by friends. As a result I never did much traveling south of the border despite growing up less than 50 miles from Mexico. So if you have felt the same as I, then here are some tips to survive a tour of Mexico.

We arrived in Douglas, Arizona, on December 1 and had dinner with our group at the historic Gadden Hotel. We discussed the trip, entering Mexico, and our meeting time and place for the next morning.

Day One

Sunday, after a hearty breakfast at McDonald’s, we crossed the border without even stopping and proceeded to the Mexican immigration office to pay fees and get vehicle importation permits. We had a short delay due to their computers being down but were soon on our way on Highway 2. The destination was the 800-year-old ruins of Parqume, where we toured the excavated ruins and museum. After Parqume we went to the art gallery of Manuel Villalobos who specializes in the Mantaortez style of pottery of the regional artists, and his prices were more reasonable than the museum fees. We spent the first night after driving 135 miles at a nice hotel in Nuevo Casas Grandes, where the dinner was excellent, and we enjoyed getting to know our fellow adventurers.

Day Two

We left Nuevo Casas Grandes for Madera, a 150-mile trip through farmland and pastures.

On this leg of the trip we encountered our fourth check point since we crossed the border. They had a problem because we didn’t have any vehicle importation papers for the camping trailer that we were pulling. After some apologizing and acting dumb on our part, they decided to let us pass and made notes on our permit for the Jeep. During this drive, our Jeep had developed a driveline vibration that seemed to be getting worse. After we registered at the hotel Real Del Bosque, a quick look under the Jeep revealed the CV joint in the rear driveshaft had a lot of play. Since we have a complete driveshaft in our toolbox, it’s a simple job to change it out.

The universal joints are lubricated at the factory, but we like to grease them and the slip joint after installation. This sends us out looking for a grease gun at the local auto parts stores. Very little English is spoken in Madera because it is really not a tourist town, but with a lot of gestures and arm-waving we locate a grease gun but no grease cartridges to fill it. We decide one of the auto service businesses might be a better bet. The first try was a modern and clean BFGoodrich tire store with a lubrication rack. The men in the shop didn’t understand what I needed so they got the owner who was very gracious and accommodating. The owner was impressed that we had our own coveralls and knew what to do, so when we finished greasing the driveshaft he offered us a job. Frenchie (our guide) negotiated a handsome salary of six pesos a day plus lunch and we could live in the back of the shop (what a deal).

Day Three

After a breakfast of huevos rancheros at the hotel, we meet our guide, Salvador, and started out for the caves. The road is rough rock that climbs to 8,099 feet before dropping down to the first group of ancient dwellings that are being made into a park. The park crew was working on the trail to the sites that they call the Snake and the Scorpion. The trail down to the Snake is very steep with steps cut into the dirt and rocks. To get to the Scorpion, the trail involves moderate rock climbing on foot which none of us were up for. At the first site, we met the park director who offered to give us a personal tour of the Casas Grandes site, which he needed to inspect anyway. The roads to Casas Grandes wind down the mountain past some hot springs, which the government has developed into a water park, complete with water slides and a concession stand. This is 45 miles of rock-strewn road from the nearest town. On the way to Casas Grandes, we cross a suspension bridge complete with shrine and guard dog. We pay the guard dog a toll of tortillas, popcorn, and dog food, which he readily accepts. Our two guides give us a great tour of the Casas Grandes ruins before we start our tour trip back to Madera. We had dinner at Sam Saloon and returned to the same hotel. After a small mix-up of giving us a room already occupied by three Mexican truck drivers, we settle in for the night.

Day Four

It was cool and crisp, another beautiful day of travel by way of the Mennonite camps on the way to the fourth highest waterfall in North America: Basaseachie Falls, 153 miles away. We traveled down Highway 23 to La Junita, and Highway 10 past San Pedro just before the park was a military checkpoint, but they waved us through to the park where we set up camp. There was a little water going over the falls through a solid rock streambed, which had spectacular views of the valley below. We ate a spaghetti dinner in front of a campfire and drank cappuccino with gourmet cookies well into the evening. We learned a trick from our guide Frenchie about the dog food he carries. You feed the first dog that shows up in camp and it will keep away the other dogs and vermin. It worked very well this time.

Day Five

We started with a hike down a switchback trail to the bottom of the waterfall; this took until about noon, when we departed for the 65-mile trip to Creel. The reward for our long day was a night at a Best Western, rooms complete with fireplaces, hot water, and even television, although we couldn’t understand it since everything was in Spanish.

Day Six

We explored Creel (a stop on the Copper Canyon railroad) until about noon. There is a Tarahumra Indian store, which has the most authentic crafts. It was also time to gas up and fill our extra cans because the only gas in Batopilas, our next stop, is siphoned from rusty drums.

Day Seven

It is only 90 miles to Batopilas at the canyon bottom, but with the rough and rocky road it takes us all day. Batopilas is an old gold mining boom town where the ruins of the processing plant are a prominent landmark. About midday, we came upon a young man that had a flat on his pickup. He had no jack, lug wrench, or tire-repair equipment, but somehow he had gotten the tire off and put sheetmetal screws in the holes. Frenchie and I plugged the three holes in the sidewall and aired up the tire. Our lug wrenches didn’t fit but we figured he could get it back on the way he got it off. We tried to take a picture of the Tarahumra Indian in his native dress who was helping hold the truck up with a log but he kept hiding and moving away so we couldn’t take his soul with our camera. We encountered a young tourist from Holland and her boyfriend that had hired a Tarahumra guide for a hike, the hike was more than 20 miles and her feet were covered with blisters so she got a ride back to town. We arrived in Batopilas and got rooms at the modest Hotel Mary—we had warm showers and clean beds so all was well.

Day Eight

At the hotel Mary we were awakened by the ringing of the church bell directly across the street; 62 chimes at 5:00 a.m. and 62 chimes at 5:30. We ate breakfast with two guides, one from Montana and one from Texas. Both take tourists on hiking trips into the Tarahumra villages in the surrounding mountains. Our hotel was next to the church school, which has only bars for windows. We got into trouble with a Nun for giving the children candy through the window and disrupting class. Our first stop was Saint Nuevo Mission where we found the local resident who has a key, and he lets us explore the mission on our own.

We continued our climb out of the valley on a new road (opened May, 1998) toward Urique. This road changes from desert arroyo to rocky mountain trails and back again. We were missing a gas cap on one of our Jeeps and believe the last Pemex attendant kept it. We saw a rolled Chevy truck beside the road and it had a gas cap that fit perfectly. We stopped for a lunch break along the Urique River where women were washing clothes and kids. The river was clear and cold with a rocky bottom. We set up camp next to the river later in the afternoon, taking an opportunity to wash out some clothes in the river (up river from the natives). Our camp spot had a large bluff of rocks at the riverbank. Our campfire stirred up some bats that zipped around just on the edge of the light from our fire. No camp dog that night but we did hear a Mexican on his donkey splashing down the river with no light to guide him whatsoever. A nice breeze, few insects, and a cool night made for great sleeping.

Day Nine

After breakfast we crossed the river and continued toward Urique through a valley of sand washes and rocky hills with only a few scattered homesteads. Climbing out of the valley, the road was loose, rocky, and fairly steep; 4-Lo seemed much easier on the Jeep pulling the trailer up these hills but then 4-Hi was needed when the road leveled out. About midday, our transfer case refused to go into either low or high range but after a few minutes of holding pressure on the transfer case shifter and moving the transmission selector between Drive, Neutral, and Reverse, it went into 4-Lo. Later, when the road leveled out, the transfer case completely refused to give up low range. We removed the tunnel cover and found the shifter moving but having no effect on the transfer case. Bad news—the malfunction is inside the case. With only low range, travel was slow so we decided to bypass Urique and head for Cerocahui and Bahuichiuo to find a place to work on the transfer case and find oil to refill it once we’re done. We found a nice hotel in Cerocahui but the rooms were $195 per night and there was no transfer case oil to be found, so we decided to go on toward Bahuichiuo. The only hotel in Bahuichiuo was below our roughing-it standards so we headed out of town looking for a place to camp. By the time we found a good place to bed down it was way past dark and getting cold, so we all hit the sack quickly after some late-night snacks.

Day Ten

Everyone was cold and hungry, so we broke camp quickly and headed for Divisadero, which is a railroad stop and might have some services. After traveling about one hour at low-range pace, we came into a small town, San Rafael, when we noticed a house with a café sign. A quick check with the lady of the house and we had a cook for breakfast. We sat down in her kitchen and had coffee while her mother watched Mexican soap operas on television. We all ordered huevos rancheros. The cooks began preparing the chiles and pepper for the sauce, which created enough fumes to get everyone including the cooks so choked up they had to open the door. The eggs were spicy-hot but everyone’s mood improved after being fed and warmed up. We headed on toward Divisadero where we stopped at the railroad station to enjoy the overlook of the valley and to play with some potential camp dogs. At this point, we intersected a good paved road through the mountains to Creel. We disconnected the rear driveshaft and towed the gimp Jeep. After low-range travel, a 60-mile tow on a good paved road seemed really fast and we soon arrived in Creel. The Creel KOA had good camping cabins with hot-water baths and seemed to us a good place for repairs. While the women get settled in the cabins, the men used tarps for wind-breaks and ground cloths. Once inside the transfer case, we discovered the shift fork for the rear axle set of gears had broken and could not be quickly repaired. So we decided to shift it into high-range, refill the case with oil, and hope it stays in gear. We made a decision to head back to Douglas, Arizona, the way we came rather than going back west to Alamoso like originally planned. We cleaned up and went to the Best Western where we stayed several days earlier for a wonderful dinner and returned to our cozy cabins to sleep.

Day Eleven

We were glad we had worked on the Jeep the day before because it was cold, windy, and starting to snow. After breakfast, we hit the pavement for the good old USA via Madera, Nuevo Casas Grandes, and Agua Prieta for a 258-mile trip. Most of this area is farming country. The chile crops were being harvested, sorted, and dried in the sun. We stopped at a fruit stand and bought a 5-gallon bucket of red chiles for 40 pesos. It had been a long day, especially driving through the mountains near the border at dusk in the rain and snow. We make the border about an hour after dark. We’re stopped on the Mexican side, they look for weapons (guns) but we pass on through and stop at the Pizza Hut in Douglas, Arizona. After eating way too much good American food, Frenchie and Karen decide to stay in Douglas but our motorhome is only 60 miles away in Tombstone, Arizona. So we made a drive for it. About halfway there (Bisbee, Arizona), the highway was closed due to snow, but luckily the historic Copper Queen Hotel took us in.

Day Twelve

The highway was open. We hit the coffee shop and then the highway. The snow was no problem in the Jeep so it is a fun drive back to our motorhome through a snow-covered desert landscape. Our home-away-from-home was patiently waiting for us at the RV park. It was good to be home.