Driving Down Mexico Way: San Diego to San Miguel
Despite the negative hype surrounding Mexico in general and my boyfriend Memo's disinclination to chauffeur me, my long-haired dog, and furry cat a quarter of the way down the North American continent, we set off in late May for central Mexico. We encountered no problems, in fact, trying to avoid inhaling the swirling cat and collie fur was the most challenging aspect of the journey. Our trip log may be of interest to others contemplating an international car trip in the near future.
With Memo driving and my two pets in tow, I depart San Diego before noon on a Saturday, stopping for family goodbyes en route. Lulu, the sometimes-nervous collie, gets two natural doggie downers (with ginseng and valerian) to take the edge off: the pills are supposed to help with loud noises, car travel, and general stress. Carlos the cat wanders around my Toyota Rav4, lying much of the time in my lap, where I can grab him if need be. I simply can't imagine him locked in his crate for our four long days of driving through deserts and mountains to our destination: San Miguel de Allende, in the heart of colonial Mexico.
Heading east from San Diego, we pass piles of smooth rocks east of Pine Valley. A faded half moon hangs above the dusty landscape above flat, desolate El Centro, a desert town whose surrounding fields nonetheless produce alfalfa, corn, flax, and other crops. Gritty dust blows north across the border from Mexico; white metal and cement barriers keep undocumented drivers from doing the same. We pass several U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. Near the tail end of the Chocolate Mountains, glittering sand dunes provide a visual respite from the grubby brown desert.
A Tucson Motel 6 is our first stop, and the first time my pets have spent the night in a hotel. We shut Carlos in the bathroom while bringing our stuff in, then feed and water both animals and walk Lulu around the compound. It's right around 40 degrees C (100+F). This is the Sonora Desert, and our route takes us south through the state of the same name in northern Mexico. Next stop: Navajoa.
Wide awake before sunrise, we're on the road by 6:45. Through the haze we see flat-topped mesas and low mountains. Hardy mesquite trees line the median; the jumping cholla cactus appear stationary and the prickly pear cactus here are tinted a pretty purple-green.
By 8AM we cross the border into Nogales. This Sunday morning there's not a single piece of trash in the well-swept streets. After a pit stop at an ATM for pesos, we proceed to immigration to get our tourist cards. There's no one else in line, and we're in and out in five minutes. Since the cashier isn't open, the official staples a form to our visas, which he says we can pay upon arriving at our destination.
Instead we pay our 262 pesos (currently about US$20) at the next stop, about half an hour farther along Hwy 15, where we purchase our six-month car importation permit. We've done this before, and there are no surprises. Multiple copies of tourist card, passport, and car registration in hand, we give a credit card guarantee and pay an admin fee (400 pesos, or about US$30). After affixing the sticker to the windshield, we're ready to roll. It's about 563 km (350 miles) to Navajoa, our next overnight.
Two years ago when we made this drive for the first time, heading south to Puerto Vallarta, we joked about the "Hassle-Free Vehicle Zone" signs we saw throughout Sonora. But this year, the state's hassle-free status was a major factor in choosing this over two other routes to our destination in central Mexico. On this trip our vehicle isn't even inspected at the few manned military checkpoints we see, and despite speeding along (with a watchful eye for la poli), we never get stopped or hassled in any way. Desperate for tourism and worried about its declining reputation among travel professionals and in the U.S. news media, Mexico seems to be doing everything possible to maintain a positive experience for travelers.
We arrive at Hotel El Mayo by mid-afternoon. The AAA-recommended hotel has a large pool with lap lanes; swimming laps is a refreshing antidote to tedious car travel. There's a snack shop and plain but adequate rooms with mini fridge for refreezing cooler ice packs.
Having made excellent progress the previous two days, we sleep in and are driving south by 7:30AM. The Garmin, our GPS navigation device, says it is 396 miles to our next stop, Rosario, (just south of Mazatlán, Sinaloa) and predicts a 3PM arrival. The device adjusts ETA depending on our speed throughout the day, and so far has been amazingly accurate.
After two days on the road the windshield has a tiny crack and we are covered in cat and dog hairs, which swirl like Dorothy's tornado around our Toyota, provoked by the nonstop A/C and our two long-haired companions' propensity to shed. We spend a sleepy, uneventful afternoon at El Yauco, our favorite Rosario hotel. Named for the mountain that looms over this former mining town, El Yauco has plain rooms but a large, guarded parking lot and good restaurant. The animals seem to have adjusted well to this new life of highway travel and hotels.
As we jump onto Highway 15 for our last day's drive, we see a convoy of federal police trucks. The lead vehicle has equipment; each of the other 10 or more pickups has in the back half a dozen policemen. Dressed in black fatigues and sporting Kevlar vests, they are armed with automatic assault weapons. We let a few of the convoy's stragglers pass us to catch up with the pack, and keep a respectful distance behind the group. After half an hour we lose sight of the battalion.
Southern Sinaloa looks dry, its vegetation and fields of mango trees dispirited. As the road climbs towards Tepic, layers of dust-colored mountains appeared through the haze. We take the toll road whenever possible, and although expensive, it is in good condition and saves us time.
After the Garmin has navigated us safely through Guadalajara, we finally see planted patchworks of fields in various shades of green and brown. The hills are greener and closer to the highway. Garmin tells us we're now 3,580 feet (1,091 m) above sea level. As we continue to climb, pine and oak trees appear and the air, while still hot, in noticeably fresher. We turn off the A/C for the first time in days.
As we head northeast the landscape changes again. We see eucalyptus, mesquite, candelabra cactus, and the blue agave for which Jalisco state is famous. (It's the tequila capital of Mexico.) The terrain is undulating hills, the earth red.
Although the Garmin doesn't seem to be following the most logical map route, we let it guide us the last hundred miles or so, sometimes along secondary roads. At the end of our longest day, we arrive at my rented casita. Between us and San Diego, California are seven states (U.S. and Mexican), four days, and 2,565 km (1,600 miles). Add to the count: zero military stops, no flashing police lights or sirens, absolutely no car problems. The pets are now settling in, and we humans too are happy to be out of the car. Despite the nonstop and depressing news reports, I'm safely ensconced where I want to be most: Old Mexico.
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