This story begins with the purchase of our wheelchair accessible van. A wonderful family in Ellensburg had the van as part of an estate sale. We used money from Mom’s estate to buy the van. Their mom had always loved road tripping and wanted to go to Mexico. The sentimental connection was there for both families and like most things in our business it felt like God was in control and it was meant to be.
The van that we purchased is a 2000 Dodge Caravan that was modified by lowering the floor. That was obviously something that was going to be a challenge with the “topes” or random speed bumps in Mexico, so we knew we would need to have the van lifted. What we didn’t know is that according to about 6 different locations, “it can’t be done.” All along I was thinking, “it can be done once we get to Mexico!” Unfortunately, that meant taking the road trip with a van that was guaranteed to drag it’s bottom across a number of bumps in the road.
Life threw a few curves and our trip was delayed, re planned, delayed and re planned. What was going to be a sight seeing adventure turned into a quick trip with a deadline (okay, we were only expecting company at our tropical home in Vallarta, but it was still a deadline).
First day Yakima to Ely, NV. This wasn’t our planned route, but it is one we are familiar with. We had planned to go through Reno to visit family, and maybe through Rio Vista to visit more family, but instead we cut out a day and took the shortest route. Some might find this a beautiful drive, but having done this drive several times in the past, neither of us were interested in sight seeing and took turns driving just to cover some miles.
Day 2 Ely to Nogales. Again, not the route we planned. We were planning to spend the night in Ajo, AZ, but there was some construction on Highway 2 in Mexico that we wanted to avoid, so we took a little bit longer day and made it all of the way to Nogales. Let me just mention our hotel rental for the night. According to Kayak, it was the Best Western Siesta Motel. We navigated to the Best Western which didn’t have our reservation. After a little investigation, we figured out that we were at the “other Best Western.” That is funny in a not so funny kind of way. The “other” Best Western doesn’t say anything about Best Western on any of the signs. The free breakfast was, and I’m not kidding, a box of chocolate hostess donuts dumped in a display case. There wasn’t even any coffee. We needed a business center, but … not a chance. It was clean, but it was not like any Best Western I’ve ever stayed at. We are pretty easy going about lodging, but this was not what we were expecting. It was close to the border, which made the next morning pretty easy.
Day 3 Nogales to Guaymas. What to do for breakfast now that our buffet was non existent. Yes, the Safeway bakery was the next best thing. Honestly, one of the best bagels I’ve ever had. I would certainly recommend it. A fresh bagel, cream cheese and juice. As a bonus there was a Starbucks in the store. Sadly there was no copy machine as we still needed copies of our car registration for the border. After a Google search we found that there were copy services across the border so we headed south.
The border. Someone could have told us that there is NOTHING at the border. There is a welcome sign about the same as the one that goes from Washington into Oregon. “Welcome to Mexico!” That’s it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there was seriously NOTHING. It was kind of creepy. We felt like we had taken a wrong turn and missed the border crossing. It turns out that about 10 miles down the road you come to all of the things that you thought should be at the border. First is customs. Let me just mention that the bumps we had to cross with the van here were excruciating! No matter how slow or angled we crossed we were scraping the bottom side of the van in a big way. There is a button you push to get a red or green light. If you’ve walked into Mexico or arrived by air, you’ve pushed a similar button. Today was slow at the custom’s area, so everyone got red. I wish someone had warned us that if you get a red there is a horrible alarm that accompanies the light. We pulled over into the stall (scraping the van across the topes). I hopped out opening all of the doors so they could have a look at our van full of lounge chairs and plastic storage. The inspector was much more interested in the modifications to the van. Thankfully, we didn’t need to cross any more topes and they didn’t ask for duty or taxes, but just sent us on our way. Next is immigration. You have to pull into a parking area where they check your resident visa or issue a tourist card. This should be simple because you either have a visa or you get a tourist card. You just need your passport and fill out some paperwork. The next stop is to pick up your vehicle permit and it is in the same location. There is a copy center conveniently located on site (so we could have avoided running around Nogales where we never found one open). You get your copies, go to the cashier to pay for your deposit, then back to the first office, where you jump to the front of the line, and get the final approval. There is a sticker that goes on your car and you exit (again with no additional topes) and are on your way. We had our proof of ownership, proof of US insurance, proof of Mexican insurance, and current registration. Paid our deposit and get our 6 month permit. Return to the border within 6 months and we get our deposit back. Hopefully our custom’s agent in Vallarta can get our vehicle nationalized so we don’t have to drive back to the border every 6 months.
Back on the road. When you get into Mexico you can choose to use the toll roads or the smaller roads that go through towns. Similar to the interstate vs. the state highways. Of course we were sticking with the toll roads because there is generally better road conditions, fewer topes, and the best benefit of all: when you pay your toll you are eligible for free road side assistance. There are call boxes about every mile and peace of mind all along the way. The Green Angels have gas, tires, batteries, water and can call you a tow truck if you need one. This gets important later 🙂 The road from Notales to Guamas was mostly more desert, but as we headed back to the coast the biodiversity increased. This was also going to be a short day, so we finally had time to look around and enjoy the sights. We arrived at Guaymas. We had a room reserved at Playa de Cortes. It was beautiful. It was full of old Mexico atmosphere. The air conditioning was great, the view unbeatable. On a comfort scale, the beds were about a 4/10, but that is pretty normal for Mexico. There was no refrigerator in the room, and the bathroom smelled musty. That being said, I would stay there again. The view and grounds are so spectacular! The restaurant would get mixed reviews. The soup I had was amazing, but the Monte Cristo sandwich was laughable. It was some turkey and a slice of packaged cheese on a piece of toast. Yes, that’s it. Served warm, but not melted (not sure that kind of “cheese” can actually melt). Nice people all around.
Day 4 Guaymas to Mazatlan Getting out of Guaymas was interesting as there are topes everywhere and they are not gentle. We grabbed breakfast at McDonalds and were happy to get back to the toll road. The toll road is interesting because you never know how much the toll is going to be (from 35 to 220 pesos) or how far it will be between toll booths. You would think the higher toll gets you a longer stretch of road, but there doesn’t seem to be a pattern. We reserved a room at Don Palayo’s in Mazatlan. The drive was pretty nice. We had a long section of road that had a speed limit of 110 km (about 70 mph) so travel was good. We stopped at Starbucks in Obregon (if you read much of my blog you’ll soon realize I’m totally addicted. It’s a side effect of years of living in Washington State). Since we had another short day we were able to enjoy coffee and wifi and the company of fellow coffee lovers. It was 110 outside and we ended up sitting on the patio because the air conditioning was too cold. You can always count on Starbucks to keep the temperature cool. We enjoyed our coffee, grabbed a Subway sandwich and headed to Mazatlan. Yes, 110 degrees. I asked Sheri, “did you turn off the air conditioner?” “No” she said, (not the answer I wanted), “but I noticed that it’s not blowing cold air anymore.” Windows down we continue to Mazatlan. About 10 miles outside of town the van starts to vibrate. We arrived plenty early, although there was a problem with our reservation so check in took over an hour. They were really nice about it, but it was still over an hour. Once we were checked in, Sheri got some ice for her very swollen ankle/foot and I got on the “On the Road Mexico” Facebook forum to find a mechanic. We had several recommendations in just a few minutes. The next morning we checked out of our room and headed to Farco Automotriz (next to the green laundry on Avenida de la Marina). We dropped off the van and headed across the street for a torta and fresh squeezed juice. By the time we returned they had the air conditioning unit removed and were trying to find a new compressor. Auto zone said 3-5 days (no thanks) and the junk yard didn’t have a used one. They ended up replacing the bearings, removing all of the rest of the compressor and sending us on our way. This was after all our last day on the road and we could get it fixed by our mechanic in Vallarta. We still had a little bit of a shimmy going on so the mechanic directed us to the tire shop where we had the guilty tire balanced and headed on our way. They were such nice people and we actually enjoyed hanging around the shop for half the day. Reminded me of the time spent at Antioch Radiator as a kid where Dad and Al had areas where we were allowed to play and areas that were off limits. There were plenty of toddler toys at the shop in Mazatlan.
On the road again and headed home. We didn’t even take time to backtrack to the Starbucks, we just headed South looking forward to seeing our own beds. About 2 hours later the van was shaking so severely that we knew we needed to stop. It was shaking more severely when Sheri pushed on the accelerator. We were pretty sure a motor mount had broken. We pulled over at a call box just past the exit to Rosamorada. In my best Spanish I let the operator know that we didn’t need gas, water, battery or tires, but that we needed help and that our car was broken. In hindsight, it would be good to learn the word for tow truck before taking a road trip through Mexico. She kept asking for more information and it was incredibly frustrating. Finally, I told Sheri it was her turn. I had given the number off of the toll receipt, the location of the toll box, and asked for help in every way that I could think of. I had tried for almost 2 hours without success when Sheri got on the box and said, “Carro no bueno” and shortly after that the aid car arrived. Even better though was the SUV that pulled in while the aid car driver was putting on his safety vest to cross the road to our location Rene, Julia and their son Aldo were driving toward Mazatlan when they saw us broken down. Rene asked Julia if she saw those two white women, one on crutches broken down and did she think they should stop. She hadn’t seen us, but said if he thought they should stop then they should stop and was he going to be okay driving on without knowing if we were okay. PRAISE GOD. I love the Mexican people and I love the language, but I was so very happy to hear, “You guys need some help?” in English. Rene and Sheri talked with the mechanic about what the van had been up to and what our next steps would be and I chatted with Julia. What truly kindhearted people. It took some McGuivering to get our lowered van onto the tow truck, but Julia kept on the driver, watching every inch of the process to protect our muffler. When we were loaded up they said they were taking us to the next town to the mechanic. It was that time of night where the mosquitoes start to swarm so we knew we would be spending the night and headed for the tow truck. Rene insisted that we ride with them as they were going to go with us because the mechanic might not speak English. Ruiz is 25 km in the wrong direction, but they insisted. Thank God for sending these angels to assist us in our time of need! We had no problem with conversation and chatted non stop in both the front and back seats all the way to Ruiz. We spent a few hours at the mechanic together finding out that the fly wheel was either cracked or broken and that they could probably get us on the road by either the same time the next day (if it was cracked) or the following day (if it was broken). Well, only 2.5 hours from home and looking at an extended stay in Ruiz. Rene and the whole group of mechanics discussed where we should spend the night in Ruiz (I understood enough to be enamored by the care they were giving the two white women). They decided that even though there were no services nearby that we should stay at the “new hotel” because it would just be better for “the two white women”. They would come get us in the morning and take us to breakfast, then come get us for lunch and hopefully the van would be ready after that. So, Rene, Julia and Aldo took us to the hotel. There was no room at the inn! I think everyone in town was looking for some relief from the heat and booked up all of the rooms with air conditioning. The hotel receptionist recommended another hotel and we were off again (remember that Rene and Julia were headed to Mazatlan and now it’s getting late). On the way to the second hotel, Rene stopped to ask direction and the man said that hotel wouldn’t be the best for “the two white women” as sometimes the highway road crews check in late at night and they can be noisy. He recommended another place and we were on our way. The hotel we landed at was awesome. There was no office, it was a 50s style single story building around a courtyard. The courtyard had building in the middle that was both a commons area and the home of the owner. There were chickens and cats running around, plenty of fruit trees and it turns out that it was only a block and a half to the mechanic. Most importantly, there was a room available. we were happy to see two beds, an air conditioner that worked, a bathroom with a shower and a 9″ TV. The owner brought us clean towels and toilet paper. What more could we ask for. We asked Rene, Julia and Aldo to dinner and thankfully the taco place that was just outside our new home for the night was open late. The owner said not to worry about a key, she would be around LOL. The door did lock from the inside so good enough. We enjoyed some really great tacos and quesadillas and the company of our new friends. It was probably 11:30 when Rene suggested they get back on the road since they were still driving to Mazatlan. What a great adventure and wonderful people.
The next day we left our hotel (unlocked) and headed across the street to the OXXO (like an AM/PM or 7-eleven) for breakfast. Rice pudding and string cheese … yum. We got directions to the ATM and an internet location and headed downtown with Sheri on crutches at 110 degrees. We were about half way to the ATM, which was much more than the 4 blocks we were told, when Sheri notice that right next to us was a place that said, in English “Coffee and Internet”! Seriously, just like a Starbucks from before there were Starbucks! He only had Mocha and the Internet was on some computers that were older than the ones donated to my classroom 15 years ago by the hospital because they were upgrading. He dusted off the computer, brought us some frozen mochas and we were HAPPY. His English was perfect. He called the mechanic, Reuben Guerrero, to check on the van to find out that we were going to have to stay another night. Not ideal, but we already had a room so good enough. We stopped at the panadaria across the street to pick up a loaf of sweet bread, stopped by the ATM to get money for the mechanic, and crutched our way back to the room. Wait, where is that taco stand that was here last night? I asked the owner about tacos and she said, “manana, no hay hoy.” Really, this is the one day the taco stand is closed? I asked where else was close by and she said not to worry that the tacos would come to us and to just head to the room. A short time later there is a knock on the door and a young man says, “My mom said I’m going to get you some tacos?” I’m sure this was the first time they had ever offered room service! We told him what we wanted, he hopped on his scooter and brought us our order a while later. It was awesome. Dinner was delicious and we had sweet bread for a dessert.
The next morning we went to the OXXO for rice pudding and string cheese. Sheri sat down on a planter box and I was going to head down to the mechanic. Just then, here comes our van with a smiling mechanic behind the wheel. He flips the u-turn and I go for a ride with him. Sadly, the van was still shaking. They had replaced the fly wheel which was in fact broken, but that obviously wasn’t the only problem. Sheri took a ride and we all agreed that we were heading back to the mechanic. With only 2 seats in van, I walked down and met them there. They took apart the left axel, then the right. Oh, there’s the problem. The CV joint was broken. This time Auto Zone said 5-7 days and the junk yard didn’t have one. During this time, they brought us ice cream, offered us their car, and showed up with lunch. There was one mechanic that spoke English, so all in all it went really well. They took the broken part to a machine shop where it was sanded and welded to almost perfectly smooth. He said it wasn’t fixed, but would get us to Vallarta. We asked if we should drive slow and careful and he said, “No, it’s good to go. I guarantee it for 7 days.” And we all laughed. Now, how to get back to the toll road? It was dark when we got to Ruiz and it’s not exactly on the toll road. Rueben said to follow him and he got on the scooter with his brother driving and started leading us out of town. Rueben is obviously well known and well liked because he was like the Grand Marshall in the “We got the white women back on the road” parade. We were so glad he took us to the road, because he tried to avoid topes and when there was one coming up instructed us on where it was most gradual. Such nice people. We broke our rule about driving at night. The most important reason to not drive at night is that most of the highway in Mexico is also in open range, cows are black and like to sleep on the road. There are steep shoulders and random speed bumps. There are some areas of the country where criminal activities escalate at night. We were far south of any criminal hot spots, there was a long line of semi trucks going our way, and we would be home by midnight. We actually arrived at the house at about 12:30. We had just enough time to sleep, unload the van into the living room and pick our friends up at the airport at 3:30. Perfect timing. And a fun road trip. Mom would have loved it.