Don’t do this; don’t do that–it’s dangerous. Stay home! I hear this over and over. Really?! The longer you drive out of the country, the more you realize that most of the rhetoric is BS. Talking head stuff designed to terrorize you. Read what the travelers are saying. There are a lot of blogs, posts and resources out there. Most say exercise the same caution as in the states. IF YOU FEEL SAFE THERE YOU SHOULD FEEL SAFE ALMOST ANYWHERE. I look at my local hometown newspaper. If I exercised the same caution in AZ that I am told to do in Mexico, I might never have settled in that town. When we are on the road, we lock everything up on the outside of the van. We also have a safe for extremely important documents and cash. When we are in a town we lock all doors and remove things from sight. While wild camping, (which is off the grid or boondocking) we keep a window open and pay attention to the dogs “alerts” at night. They invariably hear and see things going on around the van. We like to wild camp often since the dogs can run and I can explore. When I leave for a hike we use radios to keep in touch. Sometimes one dog stays back at camp with Geneva. One time some strangers pulled up right next to the van. Geneva felt nervous so she locked the doors, took a photo of the vehicle and called me on the radio to head back. It turned out that they were there to go fishing, but it felt a little scary. These things can happen anywhere. We do what we can to feel safe in every situation. Just be smart.
Military inspection stops are the norm in Mexico, so get used to them. Not any different from an airport inspection, except less intense. Young military trainees with automatic weapons that are mostly curious about the vehicle we drive. Generally we act as if we do not know much Spanish and they let us go, for it is too much trouble to translate and gesture. If you “look suspicious” when you stop, expect to be inspected. That means that you should take your sunglasses off your face and put your windows down and look them in the eyes. If you want to carry on a limited conversation with them feel free. It can’t hurt. You don’t have anything to worry about right?
Sometimes a local cop will pull you over and try to get money out of you. We had our first “stupid stop” happen recently in Ensenada. The cop pulled us over to try to get $110.00 US DOLLARS out of us. He said I was speeding. I was not speeding. I told him to take me to the office and I will talk with them. Nope, he was not going to do that, he just wanted me to give him effectivo (cash) and we would be done. I insisted that we could go to the department. Finally he said “okay, goodbye, slow down” and walked away. I have paid the police before, but just $20.00. And that was my decision in the moment. This time I was not willing to pay and I had the time to follow-up with his charges. It’s your choice in the moment. It’s all about commerce to them. Lunch money. Salary bonus. Mordida. Whatever you call it, it is part of their economics. So you have the freedom to make the decision. You can pay out, or play along and go to the office.
The operative rule is “don’t drive at night”. Is it really that bad? Well yes and no. That seems to be when the activity that you don’t want to meet up with happens. Cows and horses wandering, vehicles on the road with no lights, slow vehicles, poorly lined (painted) roads, sneaky potholes and drunk drivers. Many of these issues occur even on U.S. roads at night. Our rule is that we try to be where we want to be by 4:00PM. We are not in a hurry and that is the best way for us to travel. We have driven 40 miles and we have driven 400 miles in one day. But regardless of the distance, we try to be done by 4:00PM.
The roads are generally narrower than what you will be used to, and they have almost no shoulder. It does make it a little stressful when approaching trucks that will hug the centerlines. Many of the older towns have a European feel to them with really narrow roads built for smaller vehicles. Big rigs and those pulling travel trailers have to make special notice of their size when considering a stop in an old village. Is driving in Mexico a hassle? Absolutely not!! You just have to figure where you are going and what kind of traveling will meet your needs. If you like to camp where there are people around and improved camp sites then a big rig or pull trailer works well. If you want to go to a deserted beach and find some isolated sites then a smaller rig will have to do. But either way, when driving in Mexico, consider something with good ground clearance and easy handling. The roads demand it.
We use a GPS as well as local maps for navigation. We also have a TELCEL data SIM card in our iPhone. That helps us access online maps if we need it. When we are on the road there are TWO POSITIONS; a driver and a navigator. The navigator has the toughest job. The navigator finds the camping sites, grocery stores, banks, directions as well as everything else that is needed. They do the “turn left, right, take this road, let’s camp here”. The driver checks the roads, dodges the pedestrians, jumps the topes (massive speed bumps) and tries to keep in touch with the vehicle. I drive most of the time and Geneva tells me where to go. NO PUN INTENDED. I’m horrible with the routes and selections, AND I work on the vehicle. I need to feel how it is driving. I also pack the outside of the vehicle, again to be familiar with how things are working. Geneva is exceptionally good at selecting the sites and places to eat and routes. Besides when she drives, she drives ALTA like a quarter-mile dragster, which makes me nervous. And as you would have guessed, when I navigate I usually get us lost.
We have met many people traveling in a similar manner as us. It’s fun chatting and learning about the places that they have been. An instant camaraderie develops with fellow travelers. This first meeting usually includes a tour of each other’s vehicle. Later we reference them in a conversation by describing their rig (e.g.- remember the Canadians with the Sprinter or the Alaskans with the XP) We can carry a conversation on for hours before anyone introduces themselves with names. We all become known by our blog or our vehicle. This part has been especially entertaining since many of the folks are also foreigners. Canadians, Dutch, French, Germans, Kiwis, Latvians and a few fellow Yanks. Some have short-term jobs that allow them to travel during the off-season (operating an RV park in the summer, fishing on huge ships, counting fish in a lake that freezes in winter). Some are young couples trying to kick off their lives with an adventure and many who have retired young like us. Once we meet them on the road, we often cross paths with them again further down the highway, and keep in touch through Facebook.
We approach van life as our job. It just happens to be one that we love. We have a budget, and tasks, and specific responsibilities. The rewards can be fantastic if you are up for it. But like any job it is not for everyone. We continue to refine our practices and decision-making. Please continue to send us questions if you have any and we will do our best to answer them.