As I sit at my computer, I realize just how much my wife and I miss our annual travel to Mexico. Since retiring in July 2007, Joan and I have been making yearly excursions to Bucerias, a small town on the Bay of Banderas located on the west coast of Mexico about 20 km north of Puerto Vallarta. We started with a one-month visit in January 2008 and have since extended our stays to almost five months each winter (except this year, for obvious reasons!) In writing this article, my hope is to dispel the myth that Mexico is a dangerous, drug-infested country. We have found that Mexico has an inexpensive, safe, and diverse alternative to going to the usual retirement centres of Florida, Arizona, California, etc.
While many people have experienced Mexico by going to an all-inclusive resort, the reality is that these travel destinations are really not a good indication of all that Mexico has to offer. I have to admit though, that Joan and I have done our share of all-inclusive Mexico vacations in Playa del Carmen, Acumel, Punta de Mita, and Puerto Vallarta. These resorts provide virtually unlimited alcoholic beverages and do feed you well, even though the food tends to be more “American” than Mexican. Of course, there is also the nightly entertainment which tends to be repetitious! There is really no reason to leave the resort and many guests don’t! This is unfortunate.
While most people do not consider driving to Mexico, Joan and I have found the experience to be rewarding since it gives us the ability to travel at our own pace, and we can stop to visit wherever we choose.
The down side, of course is that travel by car takes about 45 to 50 hours, depending on the route that is chosen. We normally break this travel down to 5 or 6 days. Clearly, to make driving a viable option means that you will be gone from Canada for a minimum of a month. In this article, I will examine the protocol that will help your drive in Mexico.
An offer we couldn’t refuse
After retiring, Joan and I decided that we would make a memorable trip to Mexico. A friend of ours had driven from Winnipeg to Puerto Vallarta and spoke highly of the experience. We were intrigued and decided that since we had lots of time on our hands, we would try the same experience. The plan was to leave Winnipeg on New Year’s Day, 2008 and arrive a week or so later at our destination. As we were getting ready to leave, my sister and her husband informed us that they had sold their house in Winnipeg and that they had bought a condo in Bucerias. If we would bring some of their possessions with us, we were welcome to stay with them for a month. Wow! What an offer! Naturally, we accepted!
Prior to leaving Canada, we had done a lot of research on what driving to Mexico entailed. It’s not as easy as crossing from Emerson to Pembina, North Dakota! Firstly, our auto insurance was not valid in Mexico. For our first drive to Mexico, we planned to cross into Agua Prieta, Mexico at Nogales, Arizona. We knew that we had to buy Mexican auto insurance, but had no idea how to go about this. It turns out that is never a problem, since there is no shortage of outlets on the American side of the border. (You’ve got to love capitalism!)
Our second task was to clear Mexican immigration. Once in Mexico, we needed to register as tourists (easy!!) and we needed to buy a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (Permiso de Importación de Vehiculo) for our car.
While time consuming, this is VERY important!! In order to discourage leaving a vehicle in Mexico, the Mexican government imposes a refundable fee of 400USD plus a non-refundable fee of about 40USD when crossing into the country. This provides a windshield sticker which clearly shows that the vehicle is authorized to drive anywhere in Mexico. When returning home, this permit is surrendered prior to crossing into the US and the money is returned, via credit card. The process which involves providing car registration or proof of ownership (Americans need to show their title of ownership) works remarkably well, but generally takes about an hour at the Immigration office.
Viva México Libre!
Driving through Mexico is generally safe! However, there are a few things to remember.
- Mexico is mostly a cash-only society, so it’s important to have a fair bit of cash with you. Contrary to many expectations, Mexico does not generally accept American (or Canadian) cash. Make sure that you have a good supply of small bills (20MXN, 50MXN, 100MXN, and 200MXN). Many places will not accept 500MXN, since this is really a lot of money, equivalent to about 33CAD.
- There are two main types of road in Mexico, Libres or free roads and Cuotas or toll highways. The toll highways (aka Autopistas) are modern, high-speed highways that are very similar to American Interstates. They prohibit the use of bicycles, donkeys, and farm equipment. Despite costing a total of about 100CAD, we always use the Cuotas whenever possible. On the other hand, the Libres can be used by all traffic. These roads are slower and not well-maintained. They tend to go through the middle of towns and villages and have the added annoyance of speed bumps (Topes), which are often not well marked. I highly recommend against taking these unless absolutely necessary. Toll booths are located about every 100 km along the autopistas and generally require payment by cash. (See Note 1.)
- Never travel at night! Most people think I give this is because of banditos, but no, it’s mainly because animals are known to cross the roads. Mexico has a vibrant agricultural industry with lots of cattle, horses, and other domestic animals. Unfortunately, the fences along highways are not always maintained as well as they should be, which leads to quite a number of accidents. I’m not sure what the protocol is if you hit a cow or horse, but it can’t be a good experience!
A second hazard of night travel is the large trucks. Unlike Canadian and American drivers who are forced to take a rest after so many hours of driving, there doesn’t seem to be any such law in Mexico. This results in a large number of accidents due to inattention/falling asleep. We make a point of being in our hotel by 3:00 – 4:00 pm daily.
- Driving in Mexico has its own peculiarities. If you are driving behind a slower vehicle such as a semi-trailer truck, the driver may put on his left-turn signal as you’re climbing up a hill. This simply means that he can see that it’s clear to pass him and that you have enough room. There are other subtleties, but for the most part, I encourage anyone driving in Mexico to be patient, observant, and polite. Mexican drivers are (for the most part) courteous, but tend to be impatient. While not a major problem, there is more drinking-under-the-influence in Mexico than here. (Again, another good reason not to drive at night!)
- Mexican hotels are a wonderful place to stay! As a rule, hotel rooms tend to be very large, clean, and inexpensive. When driving, we start to look for suitable accommodation at around 3:00 pm. This gives a bit of time to rest and to scout out where to eat. Most rooms provide complementary drinking water. Alternatively, there is generally a nearby OXXO convenience store (equivalent to our 7-Elevens) where you can buy the usual travel necessities (including beer!). As mentioned previously, many hotels do not accept credit cards, so be prepared to pay with cash. A word of caution though, I do not recommend staying at motels – in Mexico there is a BIG distinction between the two! Motels can be rented by the hour and are generally where one would go to take his girlfriend or “lady of the night”. We made this mistake once, even though we had been told the difference. Motels are much cheaper, but in my experience the cost saving is not worth the sleepless nights that one is likely to encounter!
- As you drive through Mexico, you will find there are lots of gasoline stations. Until 2019, all gas stations were owned and operated by Pemex, the government petroleum department. However, recently new corporately-owned gas stations have emerged. These stations all have pump attendants who will fill your car and wash your windows. While not necessary, it is generally accepted that you will tip the attendant (10MXN ≡ 0.70MXN is a good starting point). Make sure that the pump has been “zeroed” before pumping starts – at one point some unscrupulous attendants would leave the pump at the previous customer’s charge, and you end up paying for significantly more than what you got. (This has never happened to me!) Since Mexico has quite large desert areas, it is wise to keep your gas tank at least half-full at all times.
Make the Journey Magical
Once you are at your destination, having a car will allow you to take side trips to locations that most other tourists will never see. Every year, we drive into the mountains near Puerto Vallarta to visit some of the small villages that have been designated Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns), our favourite being the village of San Sebastián del Oeste, which is known for its artisanal ceramics, silver, and coffee. As you get to know some of the people that frequent the area, you will find other interesting places to visit.
While not for everyone, you may even be able to experience a charreada (Mexican rodeo).
The state of Jalisco, famous for tequila, is renowned for its charreadas and you would be missing out a very important cultural event if you passed up the opportunity to see this display of machismo and horsemanship. In addition, we have gone to crocodile sanctuaries, hot springs, and have been invited to attend the homes of several wonderful Mexican families.
While driving to Mexico is a memorable experience and certainly one that Joan and I have enjoyed, not everyone has the desire to experience this type of a travel adventure. It is possible to experience many of the same ventures by entering the country via aircraft. It simply means being a bit less flexible.
In subsequent articles I will look at the culture, food, geography, and activities that are open to the more intrepid visitor to Mexico.
Former Chair, Electrical/Electronic Engineering Technology
(Retired July 2007)
Editor’s note: This is Will’s first contribution to our “Celebration of (Retired) Life“ series. We anticipate it will also be the first in a new “Travel“ series. Welcome aboard Will! We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy. To share with our other retirees, simply email your 500- to 1,000-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.