Tortillas, frijoles, and salsa-our new world for the next three months. Our trusty Scnic carries us from the crisp cool air of the Sierra Madre mountains to the thick pollution of Mexico City; from the sweltering jungle to the gentle breezes of the Caribbean. On the whole, Mexico is a safe country to travel in-with the right amount of caution and luck.
Crossing the U.S. border at Nogales, south of Tucson, our initial impression is, "It's not so bad," considering the perceptions we have of the drug-trafficking border towns. Nogales is no Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, yet there is no mistake we have definitely left the insulation of America. The roads are full of potholes, half washed-out by torrential rains. Dilapidated, rust-eaten trucks compete with enormous semis and buses on the narrow roads. The pollution is palpable-not too many emissions laws here.
As we wind our way out of the mess, we are eager to keep moving as we don't fancy being on the roads after dark-too many warnings of assaults-and we still need to pass immigration. Arriving at the official Mexican Immigration and Customs checkpoint, we park the Scnic and head into the office. Two men sit behind the counter, handing out registration forms and stamping passports. Not a computer in sight-this is all manual. He sends us to get copies of our passports and registration forms, then stamps the form, inserts it into our passports, hands them back, and looks on to the next customer. We look at each other in puzzlement. Do they not stamp passports in Mexico? We ask, and we receive, along with a strange look from the Immigration Officer.
Our next step is the Scnic. There is a certain routine to registering your car in a foreign country, and making sure all the papers are in order normally eases the process. But even after crossing 30 countries, we still anticipate that anything can go wrong. Of course, in Mexico, we have some complications.
Aside from the fact that the process of temporarily importing a car into Mexico involves a number of lines to wait in and multiple trips to the photocopier, the slightest mishap can halt the entire process. The issue of a typo on a document containing the Scnic's chassis number is easily resolved, but when we discover that the $400 deposit we must leave cannot be taken off of our malfunctioning credit card-and pesos are not accepted-we become slightly exasperated. There is no bank machine here, which means we will need to drive back to Nogales to withdraw cash. After little success in finding an ATM that functions, an elderly man saves the day-he points us in the direction of a Commercial Center. We are able to retrieve the amount we need and we are out of the city shortly.
As we head south towards Hermosillo, the highway does not feel to be overtly dangerous, and plenty of vehicles ply the route. But when we reach town, we have another situation. Several "sun-bunnies"-retired Canadians and Americans who drive down here in their RVs to spend the winter on a barbed-wire-ringed plot of land overlooking the beach-tell us, "Be careful going across the Sierra Madre Mountains, and leave early. You don't want to get stuck there at night. In the '70s, this country was safe, but these days, you never know-and the police can be the worst!"
We still wonder what all the fuss is about and as we calculate the kilometers from the coast, we don't have any doubt in our minds that we will be able to reach a National Park where we hope to camp before dark. However, we do not take into account the roads: extremely narrow and winding, and full of potholes. Not exactly prime conditions for making good time. Add the breathtaking views as we climb up and over one mountain after another and well, let's just say we find ourselves doing exactly the opposite of what we've been warned against. Spotting a small village nestled in the side of the mountain, we decide it is now or never: night is approaching. As the Scnic makes her way down the narrow, water-rutted dirt roads between one-room concrete houses lit by generators, we wonder where we are going to stay. When in need, ask. A young boy jumps up and yells, "The football grounds! There is lots of space there!"
We drive a few more meters and catch the attention of a young man in a cowboy hat wooing a young girl. "Sure, you can camp there. Plenty of space. Let me take you." As he gets into his huge new Ford truck, we suddenly realize this seemingly poor town is full of huge American trucks. Migrant workers sending money back home? Perhaps. Drug money? We hope not.
We drive to the other side of town and we settle on the grounds-a perfectly acceptable place to pitch our tent, cook some chicken and potatoes, and have a beer or two. As Megan starts to get the tent ready, Laurent goes over to say thanks, and to double-check on the security: "Oh, yeah, no problem to camp. But you might want to know that some time ago, a man was killed here."
"Some time ago?" Laurent asks, "How long?"
"Oh, some time ago. But don't worry, I'll watch out for you. You'll be fine here."
As the night proceeds, heavy Chevy and Ford trucks proceed to make their rounds around our campsite checking us out while music blares from the town. What sounds like gunshots are heard intermittently throughout our dinner, and before heading to bed, we see military spotlights searching the hills. One restless night later, we're glad to chide ourselves for being so foolish.
Or are we? Two kilometers out of town, we run into a military checkpoint. The soldier stops us, and while doing a quick check, we ask him why the search. He looks at us as if we are really stupid tourists, "Don't you know? This area is heavy in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, you name it. Lots of unsavory characters. Be careful."
Our hearts settled back into our chests, we decide to now try to let only cultural and natural wonders raise our pulse rate. As we conquer the incredible depths of the Copper Canyon (four times the size of the Grand Canyon), and head towards the ghost town of Real de Catorce-set high in the Anahuac Mountains along possibly the longest cobblestone street in the world-we figure that we can get as many thrills by off-roading in this dry and high desert than by tempting fate on the roads at night.
Driving the narrow streets of Zacatecas, the first of several colonial cities that garnered their fortune through silver mining for the Spanish Empire, we feel danger melt away and instead marvel at the city's magnificent architecture. What a difference!
The road is high and dry, making for fast time between Zacatecas and our next stop, San Miguel de Allende. Our trailer rattles behind us as we slowly make our way down possibly the narrowest street we have encountered in a long time, the tires squeaking on the cobblestones. The town of San Miguel de Allende slowly greets us in an array of colors. After the arid landscapes of the high plateau, it is a feast for our eyes. The town is known for several reasons: Ignacio Allende, one of the leaders of the uprising that started the Mexican Revolution was born here; and in the 1940s, with the opening of the School of Fine Arts, many American artists flocked here, in part due to the fine sharp light that pervades the surrounding hills. Today, the town is known for its university, its laid-back lifestyles, and as a popular setting for films. Navigating the minuscule alleys, called callejones, with a student group of singers and musicians, we are treated to the legends and stories of this quaint city before we take off towards the maddening mess of Mexico City.