South of the Border: 3 Mexican Road Trips for the Intrepid Traveler

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather road trip than Mexico. For me, the intoxicating combination of music, culture, food, climate and history sing a siren song that’s irresistible.

That a malevolent minority is trashing all of the for the peace-loving majority of natives and travelers alike, frankly, pisses me off.

Gone are the days of glibly crossing the border, surfing south on a whim, camping roadside and channeling your inner hippie. The state department isn’t joking in their current travel warning. 10,000 people were killed in Mexico in 2010 in drug related violence, according to Mexican government statistics; that’s a lot of sons, brothers, mothers and sisters.

That being said, it is still possible to take a road trip through Mexico and have a wonderful time. Most of the violence is concentrated in a few areas and most is not targeted at tourists. A few safety precautions will reduce your risk of an unsavory encounter exponentially.

  • Drive the main roads
    The expensive “cuota” roads that are higher quality and faster also tend to be safer. Secondary roads can be okay too; we prefer these because they are slower and take you through little towns, but they should only be traveled during daylight hours. The lower down the food chain the road is, the more likely you are to encounter a problem, and the less likely you are to be able to secure help when you do.
  • Travel during daylight hours
    Night drives in Mexico have never been a particularly good idea, if for no other reason than the quality of the roads makes it exciting (we once launched a rental car on an unexpected speed bump in Quintanaroo at night!). Add the safety concerns related to the current drug war in the country and the smart people are the ones driving with the sunlight.
  • Expect delays
    If you’re driving in Mexico, especially the northern third, you’re going to be stopped. Probably several times a day, and certainly every time you cross state lines. These are military stops for the most part and you can expect to get out of your van and have men with machine guns climb in. Relax, they’re just checking stuff out, looking for drugs, people on their “wanted” list and weapons. If you’re not transporting any of those things, you’ll be waved on.
  • Stay in organized places
    Stay in official campgrounds, hotels or hostels with secure parking. Be aware that some folks have been cased at a campground and had their rig stolen at gun point on the road out of town the next day. Even in a brand name hotel it’s not unheard of to have men with AK-47s on a raid get between you and the kids. We had this happen in the “safest” place we stayed last winter. Do not camp roadside -  if you’re absolutely without options, behind a Pemex station is the lowest acceptable option on the sliding scale of safety.
  • Pack your sense of humor
    Mexico is not the USA. Things are not going to move smoothly, get over that before you go. Extortion should be a “budget item.” Travel long enough and you will be pulled over by the Zapatistas in the highlands and fleeced. You will have uncomfortable encounters with military or paramilitary folks, and the best way to deal with that is with a smile on your face, not with an attitude.

Now that the safety basics have been covered, here are three fabulous road trips in Mexico that will make you fall in love with the country and its people.

The Northern Loop

Distance: 1,700 (about 1000 miles)
Days needed: 7-10

Statistically speaking, this is the riskiest of the three because you’ll travel through the more dangerous northern half of the country. Be sure you log your travel plans with the embassy, give a copy of your planned route to a family member or friend before you leave, and observe all of the above safety precautions religiously.

Cross the border at Brownsville, TX to Matemoros (you’ll need special insurance for your car, you can get it here) and drive to Ciudad Victoria, where you can spend a couple of days finding your feet in this city in the shade of the Sierra Madre. This city isn’t likely to show up in your guidebook, but it’s a good representation of modern Mexican city life.

Plan to spend a couple of leisurely days enjoying the splendor and variety of the mountains as you work your way south through the state of San Louis Potosi, visit Gogorron National Park, stop in the little towns like Santa Mari del Rio and buy local weavings and crafts, and camp at least one night at Laguna Media Luna and swim in the bath-water warm springs.

Then head west to the bustling metropolis of Guadalajara and plan to spend a few days (the mercado is a must), taking day trips to Tlaqueplaque & Tonala to buy pottery and ceramics in their distinctive styles. From there go north to Mazatlan, a resort town that is cheaper than the well touristed Puerto Vallarta. Walk the promenade and visit Viejo Mazatlan, make the long climb to the lighthouse that’s been there since 1571 and spend a day or two on the beach. Finally, head north and cross back into the USA at Nogales, south of Tucson, AZ. It’s said to be slightly safer than Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, TX.

The Central Loop

Distance: 1280 km (about 800 miles)
Days needed: 6-9

If you want to see the “real Mexico” but want to fly in, instead of bringing your own car and braving the more dangerous northern third of the country, fly into Mexico City. You can rent a car easily, and you won’t have the rodeo of procuring insurance and crossing the border with a car.

What you will need to pay attention to are the “hoy no circulo” laws that restrict traffic based on license plate numbers on certain days. Any Pemex station will have the laws posted in a prominent place – alternately, ask. You do not want a hefty fine and a police escort out of the city, trust me on that!

Start your trip with a few days enjoying the highlights of Mexico City, including: Chapultapec Park, Teotihuacan, the Zocalo & Presidential Palace with the Diego Rivera murals, the Museum of Anthropology and the floating gardens. Then drive south to Oaxaca (wah-hah-kah) and settle into the rich culture of the poorest state in the Mexican union. Buy black pottery, and if you keep your eyes peeled along the roads surrounding town, you’ll even be able to tour a black pottery factory; just stop in and ask.

Take a day trip to Ocotlan to the fabulous market there, spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon in the Zocalo, climb the steep hill to Monte Alban and visit ruins inhabited by various people groups for centuries. Oh, and you may not leave town with out trying the chapulines: fried grasshoppers topped with chile and lime!

Then head to Veracruz, on the eastern coast, which has a very different feel than other Mexican cities. Stay downtown at one of the many inexpensive hotels and get ready to walk a lot! The aquarium at Veracruz is the best in all of Mexico and worth an afternoon. Be sure to go out at night and experience the danzon on the zocalo, the whole town seems to turn out, dressed in white, to dance together. It’s reminiscent of images from Cuba in the ’40’s. Eat the street food, especially a local shrimp cocktail and any fish cooked “Veracruzana;” your taste buds will thank you! From here you can go back across the mountains to Mexico City, and fly home.

The Yucatan Peninsula & Ruins Loop

Distance: 925 km (about 575 miles)
Days needed: 5-9

This road trip option is perfect for people with a limited amount of time. A lot can be seen in a week or less, but two weeks would cover all of the major historical and cultural sites on the peninsula.

Fly into Cancun and rent your car and then head down the Mayan Riviera; consider staying at the lesser known Paamul, with it’s tiny eight unit hotel and a few thatched cottages by the sea, it’s perfect for getting off the tourist track and enjoying the very best of the relaxed beach experience. Spend a few days relaxing and indulging in some of the areas great activities. Scuba Mex (on site at Paamul) offers some of the very best SCUBA diving on the entire coast at very reasonable prices.

From your base take day trips that could include X-caret, an eco-park that combines history and culture in unique, interactive ways;  Xel-ha, a marine preserve with excellent snorkeling and dolphin experiences that are research based and more respectful of the animals than some available through big hotels; or a visit to Tulum, the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that the Spaniards compared in majesty to the city of Seville. Don’t miss Coba, even though it’s off the beaten track and you’ll be tempted to skip it. It boasts the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan (Nohoc-Mul) and the only big pyramid that you can still climb.

Then hop in the car and head across the peninsula to Merida, capital city of the state of Yuctan. Stay at the Hotel Delores Alba if you want a combination of excellent hospitality, sparkling clean rooms, a courtyard pool and free breakfast at a bargain price. Be sure you visit the Palacio Gobierno and view the murals that depict the history of the Yucatan, and take day trips to Uxmal (a very different and less touristed set of Mayan ruins) and the beaches on the coast. Every Friday night a party erupts on the zocalo, so make plans to attend if you’ll be here that day.

Spend a night at the Delores Alba, Chichen Itza location on your way back to Cancun. They are beginning to be a bit cliche and are certainly over touristed, but the ruins at Chichen Itza remain a “not to be missed” attraction. Try to ignore the hordes of people and just soak in the architecture and history that surrounds you. It’s an amazing way to cap off your exploration of the area.

Book airfare to Mexico, find a hotel in Mexico, plan your trip with our Mexico travel guide, or read more about Mexico here:

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Photos by: ties., Dennis SylvesterHurd, Russ Bowling, CaDeltaPhoto

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