I always get anxiety when I cross borders. This day was no different. Maybe it was time I got shaken down at a god-forsaken desert border crossing entering Peru 40 years ago. Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems since.
It was still dark when I left the hotel in Cotulla, grabbed breakfast at McDonalds, and filled the car’s gas tank. The gas station, right off I-35 was a sea of white pick-up trucks with equipment filling their cargo beds. Their drivers were filling their coolers with ice, preparing for another day in the oil patch. I too, topped my tank with “cheap” American gas. Gas in Mexico runs about 13.5 pesos/liter or $3.20/gallon.
I decided to cross into Mexico at the new Columbia Bridge about 20 miles north of Laredo. I had heard that crossing there was easier than in town, especially with a car. Because I was traveling about 700 miles into Mexico, my car needed a visa too. The visa is a sticker that you’re supposed to put in the center of the windshield below the mirror. It is coterminous with your immigration visa.
Just like my friends said, the border crossing was easy. I arrived on the Mexican side around 8:45 and was out by 9:15. It was a ghost town. There was no line and only two gringos, including me, getting permits for their vehicles. I got my passport stamped and paid for my car permit. The custom agents, however, were like the Maytag repairmen with not much to do. So, they checked my car and asked me to take out some boxes from the trunk to check. After rummaging through a few boxes of household goods and my suitcase, they decided I was indeed moving my belongings to Lake Chapala.
“Are you driving all that way alone?” One officer disbelievingly asked. I replied in the affirmative, and he shook his head obviously thinking I was nuts.
Relieved, I drove through what seemed an endless road of truck terminals and warehouses, eventually meeting up with Federal Route 85 south of Nuevo Laredo. This highway would eventually take me to Monterrey, where I would head west almost to Saltillo, and then south again.
Driving on the highways in Mexico isn’t much different than in the States – with one exception. Passing. As with most rules of the road in Mexico, they’re suggestions. If you’re passing, oncoming vehicles will generally move to their right to give you more passing room, especially where there’s a shoulder. If you’re overtaking a car going in the same direction, they will generally move to the right too. On 2-lane roads double yellow lines fall into the “suggestion” category. You never know what might be around the next bend.
As you can see from the posted pictures, my first exposure to Mexican roads was the equivalent to an American interstate highway or improved 4-lane highway. I was able to cruise most of the time at 80 mph, and was passed by Mexicans and Gringos as if I were standing still. For most of the trip, passing wasn’t a problem. Of course, there are always exceptions like steep hills with a line of tractor trailers and tandems inching their ways to the top of the grade. Yes Virginia, it is possible to pass a truck going 10 mph safely where there’s a double yellow line.
Mexico is a beautiful country. Once I got about 50 miles south of Nuevo Larado, the Mexican countryside seemed to open up with broad expanses of desert landscape outline with sierra in the far distance. What I learned was that about every 100 miles the scenery changed from desert to canyons to steep valleys back to desert to farmland. For miles the mountains ringed the road, sometimes close and sometimes far into the distance.
I was told to stay on the toll-roads, called Cuotas, as much as possible. Not only were they safer, better maintained, and limited access, but your toll entiled you to free roadside assistance, should you need it from the “Green Angels.”
An occasional Mexican roadside village lined the non-toll roads (Libre). They all look the same whether in Qintana Roo, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, or Jalisco. They were generally dusty congregations of buildings lining the highway – mom and pop restaurants, garages, assorted retail establishments, and the ubiquitous Pemex station.
That first night in Mexico, I stopped at a hotel in a town called Matehuala with a restaurant. It had been recommended by friends, and was about halfway to Lake Chapala from the border. Arriving around 4:00 pm, I took advantage of the short day to enjoy a beer, and an early dinner.
On the road early the next day, the sun was just coming up over the mountains to the east. You could see fog hanging in the valleys providing a white contrast the changing colors of the mountains –purple, red, green. Matisse would have found inspiration.
I bypassed the city of San Luis Potosi, and once again the scenery changed. Huge cliffs rose to the right of the cuota that reminded me of pictures of Utah. It appeared to be great climbing country. Over a few more mountains and through good sized Mexican town, and I was on the outskirts of Guadalajara – just a hop, skip, and jump from home.
But this part of the trip would be the scariest. The southeast end of the circumferential road – the pereferico – merged into the road I needed to take to Lake Chapala. But, it was going the wrong way – toward Guadalajara. The exit had a bus stop and gas station on either side of it so it made it very messy trying to merge into the traffic. It was pretty hairy negotiating entry between busses leaving the bus stop, cars and trucks cruising along the highway, and cars merging into traffic from the gas station.
This sort of intersection happens a lot around Guad. You need to merge going the wrong direction and travel a-ways until you come to a Retorno where you either cross over or under the highway to go the other way. I was pretty close to the airport, and knew that a retorno would come up soon. A half mile later I traveled up and over the highway and found myself going in the right direction. With two major highways coming together, you’ve gotta wonder why they didn’t just build the retorno at the end of the pereferico so you could merge either direction.
It was late lunch time, and I had been saving my appetite for burritos. There’s a Guadalajara institution on the road to Chapala just before you go over the mountains that rim the lake. It’s open 24 hours. All the Mexicans know about it and a few gringos too. I was introduced to it on my trip to Ajijic, by the guy who picked me up at the airport. This would be the first time there since then.
The place is like a cafeteria with indoor and seating. You go through the line where a steam table holds a dozen or more burrito fillings – beef, chicken, pork, veggie, spicy and mild. The server takes a flour tortilla, smears it with refried beans, puts a mound of whatever filling suits your fancy, and rolls it up. You then pick-up a soda, beer, or water at the checkout. It’s all good, cheap, and filling.
Fortified from a couple of burritos and a beer, I began the last leg of my road trip over the mountains, arriving home around 3:00 pm.
Whew! I made it, a little bit tired, but safe and sound. Every once-in-awhile, you need to shake up your life a little. What an adventure!
Finally, I would get a chance to use the garage door opener.