About the Author: “Patricio Pececito” traveled in a VW van, pulling a trailer, from Phoenix, Arizona to Puerto Armuelles, Panama in May of 2014.
The Car: A vintage restored 1979 Volkswagen Bay-Window bus, pulling a 5’ wide x 8’ long, x 4’ high enclosed box trailer.
The engine was newly rebuilt and had a total of about 150 miles on it at journey’s beginning. On the road to Brownsville, Texas (where I was to meet a companion coming from Florida) it was to be fully broken in and any adjustment bugs worked out prior to leaving familiar U.S. territory where everyone speaks English. The route from Arizona was I-10 to San Antonio, Texas, then head south to Brownsville, a total of approximately 1300 miles.
During that leg of the trip I, and the bus, experienced some considerable inclines and flats, terrain that would repeat throughout the trip. The bus lived up to its legendary pedigree. Not a speed machine, max speed on downhill sprints was about 60 mph, with averages between 40 and 50 mph the entire way to Panama. By modern car standards that is really slow, and, what else can one expect out of that bread loaf and a half shape being pushed through the air?
At the Brownsville border crossing, Saturday morning May 10, 2014, we got to the Mexican side and Customs stopped us for the required vehicle inspection. They gave my rig a cursory going over. My companion Tony, was driving a new looking year 2006 Ford F-250 diesel truck & pulling a newer aluminum 2 horse show trailer packed from floor to ceiling with mostly with newer tools & other “stuff” to build a house with. When they opened his trailer and saw all the “stuff” along with the “Gator”, a 6 wheeled turf maintenance vehicle he was bringing for the raw land he is building on, they would not let us cross. The reason being is that we were considered “commercial” because we were pulling trailers crammed with sale-able goods. It did not matter that most of the stuff was used.
After long conversations and calls to the supervisor of the customs supervisor on site, Tony is fluent in Spanish, the Customs agent that took charge would still not let us pass. It was revealed that of course he could use his discretion and let us pass but he would not. His sound reason; that we would be asked for paperwork concerning our cargo later on down the road and if we did not have the proper manifest, properly stamped & approved, we could have it all confiscated, all within the law of Mexico and the other countries we had to transit. At first is seemed the Customs officer was giving us a hard time but as the situation played out, he was looking after our best interest by making us turn around and go to the Los Indios border crossing that we learned is the only other U.S./Mexico commercial border crossing between one in southern California and Brownsville. So we got refunded the $200 vehicle fee but they would not refund the other “tourist visa” fees about $75, and we drove back to Brownsville headed to Los Indios about 25 road miles east, to discover what hoops we had to jump through. Total time at the Brownville/Matamoros border to sort this out: 9 am to 3 pm. We did not know it at the time but that time scenario would repeat throughout our journey.
When we got to Los Indios a bit after 4 pm and spoke to U.S. Customs we found out that because the vehicles we were in were not coming back to the U.S. there was a 72 hour wait time (weekdays only) for them to check the Titles data bases to confirm that they were not stolen. On top of that we had to list everything that we were carrying on a commercial export manifest and use an agent to do so. Total cost for that was $460. Plus add vehicle insurance of $46 for the time we were to be in Mexico. And that was just the FIRST border.
A look at the lessons learned:
1. Though we didn’t know it at the time our first mistake in planning was that we were reading accounts of driving through Central America, easily found on the internet, that were written by people on holiday, or on driving adventures heading south…on tourist visas.
2. Because we were driving vehicles not coming back we were classed as “exporters, which is commercial traffic, and we had a mandatory 72 hour wait before the vehicles could cross.
3. Commercial traffic, “in transit” across countries in Central America is treated very differently than tourist traffic. Its more expensive and takes a lot more time to cross borders.
4. Export rules at borders change all the time. What worked previously may not work when you get there. Accept it and do what is required. The alternative is to not be allowed to cross.
This installment is the story of the actual crossing through the Los Indios, Texas border crossing into Mexico, the characters involved, the initial territory to be crossed, and the distance traveled the first day.
OK…so now our mandatory vehicle export wait of 72 hours (Mon, Tues, Weds) is nearly over. On Wednesday at about 9 A.M. we are at our agency, Aguila’s Tranmigrantes, to whom we paid $460 to make sure our documents are in order so that we have a smooth crossing through the U.S. & Mexican border stations. Aguila’s is one of about a dozen agents that line the road to Los Indios border crossing. We came to receive our “freight manifest/invoices” for the personal property in our vehicles. “Wait a bit, it’s almost done”, we are told several times during the day. We finally got our paperwork and original car/trailer Titles back about 5 P.M.
During our all-day wait, we got to hang out, look around, see the cornucopia of stuff others were hauling, and the configuration of their “rigs”. By proper Customs procedure, the vehicles being exported had to be at the freight forwarders for the 72-hour wait in case Customs needed to inspect it. There were mostly cars towing cars, many bigger trucks towing trucks, trucks towing buses, buses towing buses, & even a couple triple rig “road trains”. There was not a single vehicle on the freight forwarders staging-waiting lot that was just a single. They were all towing or being towed.
This white truck on the left is a tractor with the red/white tractor behind it hitched as its trailer, with an entire Toyota pickup truck chained onto it over its rear wheels and the white 24’ box truck behind that is hitched to the red/white truck. The driver, from Nicaragua, makes 3 to 4 ‘hauls’ a year from the U.S. to Nicaragua where he now lives.
Typical car in tow rig. They get insurance total losses & tow them full of stuff to their destination then fix/sell or just sell them. The box trucks are all full of stuff.
We also met and talked to some interesting people. One of which is a used bus dealer, named Lanny, that often makes the driving trip through Central America delivering used buses and the stuff packed in them to buyers. This time he was going as far as El Salvador-Honduras border and he offered to be our guide since he was going anyway, he knew the path that Mexico requires “Transmigrante” traffic to drive, and “it is safer to travel in a convoy”.
I didn’t fully understand exactly what that meant so I asked Lanny and he matter of factly stated that the first 70 miles into Mexico along that stretch of road out of Los Indios is the most dangerous we will cross. It is largely controlled by drug cartels and he said, “Sometimes they will drive up alongside the tailing vehicle of a convoy and roll their window down to reveal their firearms and motion for you to pull over. Sometimes they will target the lead vehicle. In either case we all pull over.” He further advised to keep 1500 pesos ($120) in your shirt pocket separated into 1000 and 500 pesos to be ready. He said, “if/when they stop you they will ask for their “cuota” (toll), do not resist just reach in your pocket and give them the 1000 pesos.If they say the price has gone up give them what they want because it’s just not worth your life to raise ANY kind of protest because they have found many bodies on one side of the road and the head on the other. They will then wave you on after giving you some kind of code in case you get stopped by one of their compadres further down the road. If they don’t give you the code be sure to remember what they were wearing and the color and type of car they were in.” He said that he had personally been pulled over 8 times and related one very lengthy and hairy experience he had while with a group with a cocky younger man, which I won’t go into here. Every driver that we talked to knew we were on our first trip because we told them. Every one of them mirrored Lanny’s cautions and advice.
It’s Thursday and we are in line at the staging area to cross at 6:30 A.M. We are in the 5th line on the first grouping parked on a paved staging area that is about 300 yards long x 50 yards wide. Before the lines start moving that area will be full and the adjacent grass field will start filling up with vehicles. So we wait. The veteran drivers all speculate how long this crossing will take. Guesses range from before noon to nearly all day. They always change the procedure so crossers don’t know what to expect. We learned that lots of drug-related cash smuggling incidents happen here so they x-ray the lines of vehicles…twice, looking for prohibited stuff like guns and bundles of cash hidden in the stuff going over the border.
My light green VW bus is behind the double school bus rig just to right of people & phone pole.
There is Lanny’s double school bus rig on the left, with my VW van ‘Green Flash’ behind him, then Tony’s Ford pickup and shiny aluminum horse trailer, and Jerry in the dark green Ford SUV. That was our convoy.
We finally got across into Mexico at 4:30 P.M. Lanny needed to get his hitch reinforced so we stopped at a welding shop to do that. That done, and it being dusk, we headed to a hotel with a fenced in and locked at night parking lot a few miles away to spend the night because driving at night around there was out of the question.
At dinner we decided to arise at 3:30 A.M. and to assure no mistakes in routing, we hired a guide to take us through the city of Matamoros just before dawn, when the city streets are almost completely deserted. The alternative was driving the country road which was shorter but the likelihood of encountering the cartels soldiers highly likely. That strategy worked as we drove on through the first day without incident.
We drove a total of 16.5 hours that first day with nature stops, fuel, and food. Our arrival somewhere a bit north of Pozo Rica in a small town named Costa Esmerelda happened at about 9:30 P.M. Total miles driven, about 550.
A look at what was learned:
1. How to wait patiently because you are powerless to do anything else.
2. The wild wild west still exists and cars trucks are ridden instead of horses and wagon trains.
3. The stories the American press sometimes reports about the drug cartel territory control and the terroristic violence south of the Texas border is absolutely real.
4. Driving on Mexico’s roads is slower than in the U.S.
5. Highway conditions that commercial ‘in transit’ traffic must use varies a great deal, from excellent to dirt tracks perpetually under repair where speed is necessarily 10 mph for hours, and all you can imagine in between.
6. There are many unmarked speed bumps on the highways where the road goes through a village and the local people simply desire the traffic to slow down.
7. Don’t flush your toilet paper in small Central American hotels; put it in the trash can.
This part will cover from Santa Esmerelda, a tiny community between Tampico and Tuxpan on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, to the Talisman border crossing on the Mexico-Guatemala border which is on the Pacific side.
The hotel is right alongside the highway. No name, just an aging sign with “HOTEL” on it. It was a small family-run affair that catered to truckers transiting Mexico headed to points south. It was clean, well kept, & the L-shaped room had A/C! After 16.5 hours driving, getting a meal in the lobby/restaurant, checking email on the restaurant wi-fi, and showering, I did not fall asleep easily. It may have been midnight when sleep came.
Then, way too soon, my I-phone alarm woke me up for our planned departure time of 4:00 AM! Groan! Brush teeth; grab the bags that were too valuable to leave in the car, and out the door. Lanny had already started his yellow bus.
We were a bit less than half way from Los Indios, Texas to the Talisman border crossing. It’s a bit less than 1200 miles, and not really a long distance, time wise, driving on U.S. roads & speeds. But because the path commercial transit traffic is required to take through Mexico is part open highway AND passes through countless towns and “other” communities, that are full of speed bumps both marked and not, as well as having additional road conditions that are truly hazardous to the well being of an automobile’s running gear if you get surprised, we were slowed way down in many areas. This is OK, although it results in a lot of hours at the wheel to cover the distance.
While in Texas, knowing that I would soon experience extended time piloting my craft, I started collecting 5-Hour-Energy shots at gas stops. I kept another special wide mouth 1 litre water bottle handy that I mixed it in. Only when I was feeling drowsy I would take a few swigs and wait. With water like that it doesn’t take long to work. Using it diluted with water provided just enough pep to stay alert and keep going as opposed to getting too amped by downing a whole one undiluted.
So the scenery, the little towns with the *%:#!! speed bumps, the soon to be super highway that is really wide but still gravel and the miles rolled by.
I loaded my I-phone with over 80 hours of all kinds of music. My taste in tunes is very broad. When I was a child I loved watching cartoons. I did not know at the time that the sound-tracks of cartoons I watched on TV in the 1960s, such as Looney Tunes, the older Popeye cartoons, and others made in the 1940s imparted an appreciation of the 1930’s & 40’s jazz guitar, fiddle, and tuba music. Ever hear of Joe Venutti or Django Rheinhardt? I have some of that as well as a lot of that broad spectrum of glorious noise commonly called classic rock from the ’60s & early ’70s. I just put the player on shuffle and kept on truckin’…as it were.
From Poza Rica to Veracruz, Highway 180 mostly hugs the coastline. I love traveling along coastlines. In my opinion, the places on this earth where the ocean meets the land provide glimpses of the tastiest eye candy there is. I really can’t remember much that is location specific, just that I drove along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and it was quite scenic in many spots. Oh, there was one spot that we pulled over that was a cliff overlooking the lower coastline which we were headed to. A classic rugged coastline view! We all peed there.
At San Andres Tuxtla the highway turns inland and starts inclining upward. After a while, we are driving through mountainous terrain. In most areas, I could drive along in 3rd gear though most of it but the steeper hills required 2nd gear and 3500 rpm at 25 mph. After all, my readers, facing facts, I am driving a VW bus pulling a trailer driving uphill. The others radio me to just follow the road and disappear ahead out of radio contact distance. I found them sometime later waiting where the next turn is, onto a toll road. I don’t remember how much but do remember that it was expensive. Lanny told us that morning to prepare to spend about $125 in tolls today. We ended up on Highway 185, which took us to the Pacific side.
Once over the Continental Divide and on the down slope, I mostly drove along in 4th gear keeping my speed at around 55mph. That is a comfortable speed for the bread loaf shape of a VW bus that is pulling a trailer. Going downhill it was easy to maintain speed and keep up with the convoy.
Before I forget, I must mention that gas stations are spaced comfortably apart in Mexico. My VW van has a 12 gallon tank. Since the engine is modified and I am running larger dual carburetors, carrying the load I had and pulling the trailer, I would drive about 125 miles before needing to stop for gas soon. I was concerned about this so I carried 10 gallons in two gas cans just in case. I did not have to use them in Mexico.
Once over the Continental Divide the foliage got sparser and browner the further the road dropped in elevation. I could see in the distance a vast dry plain with huge windmills spread over many miles. It was starting to get windy. Highway 185 ended and we turned onto Highway 190. I was being buffeted by a hot dry cross wind for a while. Then the direction shifted to where it was coming from my forward quarter; almost a headwind. It was hot, similar to the Arizona desert in summer hot. My air-cooled VW engine was not happy. Only due to the big oil cooler I installed, oil temperature was hovering around 290 degrees. Was I alarmed? Yup! All I could get was 35 mph out of it with the pedal nearly to the metal. So I eased off the pedal a bit, trucked on, and eventually drove into a milder climate further down the coastline.
At some point Highway 190 transitioned into Highway 200. On the map that point is at a town named Arriaga. By this time the foliage had transitioned into a coastal rainforest type of green lushness. At around the town of Tonala day turned into night and we pressed on. It rained off and on for the rest of the drive to Talisman.
After 19 hours on the road, we arrived at Talisman at around 11:00 P.M. We pulled into and parked at the end of the border crossing line which was on a street that was long ago paved with river rock the size of volleyballs. It was rough! There were teenagers out on the street to greet us. Lanny said they are our security guards. He told us to give them a few dollars and they would watch the cars. We went across and up the street a ways to a little hotel and got rooms. The place looked clean. The plumbing was an ancient galvanized iron pipe. The shower water ran black for a bit before clearing and I showered. I laid down and went to la-la land quickly. The next morning I had several bites on my torso; from what I do not know. I don’t think it was bedbugs.
I was up at 6:00 am. I checked out and took my stuff to the car. The security detail was still there. When the other guys came out of their rooms we had breakfast at a restaurant on Lanny’s recommendation and waited near our ride. The line did not start to move till about 10:00 and slowly.
We got stamped out of Mexico, drove through the free zone and parked in a $12/day parking lot. In the parking lot there was a small army of free lance border paperwork agents that followed us in. Lanny chose a couple of them that he knew. We gave them our Cargo Manifests, copies of vehicle Title, Registration, Driver License, & Passport. They disappeared into the Guatemalan bureaucracy offices and we proceeded to wait. We had lunch, wandered around, took in the activity and generally observed… for our own safety as well as the fascination with the hustle and bustle of the place.
The whole wait lasted until 4:00pm when our agents came back with the total cost, to get our documents officially stamped and approval to enter Guatemala. We paid them the Customs (Aduana) and entry charges and their agency fee. They disappeared and came back 30 minutes later with our official documents and we headed for the border gate. Driving into Guatemala, Lanny said our destination would be Esquintla, which we arrive to at 11:00pm.
A look at what was learned:
1.Unlike what the mainstream media in the U.S. would have you believe, Mexico is a generally peaceful country once you get past the border towns, where the people are friendly and industrious.
2. The main roads are well maintained, except where they are working on them. In those areas they are atrocious.
3. Be ever vigilant for unmarked and unauthorized speed bumps.
4. Trust the guy who is driving lead position in the caravan & that he will stop at the next turn to let me catch up.
5. I was very thankful to have that guide.
5. I can stay awake for extended periods behind the wheel but not necessarily fully alert all the time.
This leg of the journey, I embark on Mexico’s Carretera (highway) Federal 200 (Chiapas Province) out of Puerto Fronterizo Talisman border gate, across Puente (bridge) Rio Suchiate into Guatemala’s border-free zone. Then, through Guatemala’s El Carmen entrance gate, which set a pattern that repeated at each border crossing for the rest of the trip.
The scenario is this; we are at the exit border crossing of the country we just transited in the early morning before the officials arrive for work. Out of the “mob” of freelance agents we choose an agent that will shepherd our documents through the country exit and country entry process and surrender our pertinent paperwork to them. Then we wait. First, for our exit to be processed which could happen in a couple of hours, then for most of the day in the free-zone between each entry gate, waiting, waiting…and more waiting.
Sunday 18 May 2014, at about 5:00 PM we are through the Guatemala entrance and on the road moving again! Outside of the rural-ish border town of El Carmen the two lane asphalt highway is narrow by U.S. comfort standards. It has no shoulders. The edge of the asphalt in most places is a sharp drop off of about 6 inches into wet dirt/mud/greenery or a ditch. Surprisingly the roadway is fairly smooth, though it starts to take us through some winding mountainous terrain. Daylight is fading fast. The roadway is mostly in shadows of waning daylight. There is pleasant, very green, and in many places large overhanging tree branches above the asphalt corridor I am confined to. Vegetative lushness and tropical abundance engulfs my visual field and the fresh heavy air of a recent rain shower fills my lungs. Another light drizzle begins, and being that my vintage transportation has no intermittent timer on the windshield wiper, I manually switch it on and off to keep my windshield clear. Soon we are driving through a black night in heavy rain, with the lead vehicle of two yellow school buses hitched together driven by Lanny, setting the pace which was max on the brief straight parts at 30 mph. The infrequent speed limit signs were showing 50. That’s kilometers per hour, which is about 31 mph.
I was tired because of the late previous night and early wake up. I did not/could not sleep more than a few minutes at a time during our wait at the Guatemala border crossing due to being uncomfortably moist with my own sweat, no comfortable place to recline, and the novelty of what I was experiencing at that place in time. So I relied on mixing one of my 5-Hour Energy shots in a quart bottle of water to keep my eyes open and the “rig” I was piloting on the asphalt. My conscious thoughts go to caution in drinking too much of my alertness potion. I certainly don’t want to over-do it and not be able to drop off to sleep when we reach our distance goal for the night. Recalling my experiences with physical ‘performance enhancement’ substances from a more youthful time in my life, I start by taking a gulp at a time and pausing for several minutes to gauge the results. So it goes for the next 6 hours, I turn my classic rock & blues music up loud, belt out the lyrics of the songs that I can remember, and keep the drowsiness at bay, as the time on this night drive I am utterly committed to drones on.
The light drizzle that became a heavy downpour gives no indication of letting up. I am rolling along a fairly well paved, mountainous, winding, two lane asphalt trail, trying to keep Tony’s well lighted trailer rig in sight through the rain, blind curves, and hilly terrain. Since my rig is speed challenged, when I do lose sight of the group, I don’t sweat it because I know there is only one road and will come up on them soon enough. And there are the 2-way radios we all had as long as the batteries held up. Lanny was good about either radioing to us about a turn and stopping to get the group formed up again when he reached a turn or a fork in the road.
Our drive to Esquintla takes us near Guatemala City. Emerging from the pouring rain and 2-lane curvy mountain roads we find the road opens up to a very modern looking, well lit 4 lane divided parkway, complete with manicured grassy sides & median. It’s about 10 PM at this time. I have absolutely no idea where on the non-existent map we are. As soon as we reach this part Lanny radios to us that he is going to run up ahead to get to the motel and secure our accommodations before reception closes for the night. Apparently my slowness would not allow us to get there together. He tells us what exit sign to look for, says do not separate for any reason, and disappears into the night. We drive on for about 30 minutes and of course determine that we have missed the exit. So we decide to turn around and look for it.
The highway at that time of the evening is relatively deserted. Our odd looking convoy of Jerry in his olive green Ford SUV, Tony in his 4×4 Ford Diesel double cab pick-up towing a shiny aluminum 4 horse show trailer lit up like a Christmas tree, & my vintage VW bus rig surely stood out. Unsure of where we were, not being able to raise Lanny on the radio, we decide to pull over and try to call Lanny on Jerry’s cell phone. Jerry in the lead chooses a well lit (safe) spot right after we passed an on ramp. As we pass the ramp, I notice that the occupants of the white 4 door truck that was sitting on the ramp show an interest in our convoy. They pull in behind me then cruise slowly, slowly by Tony and stop next to Jerry.
The 4 men who get out are dressed military style and are heavily armed. They are Policia. One comes up to my window and looks me over and into the back windows. He says something in Spanish to me that ended with “armas” and points to his pistol as he clutches his shotgun. He is asking me if I have guns! It wasn’t hard to have a surprised look on my face and I answer NO! Tony is out of his car and talking to who seemed the leader and explained our predicament. Shortly after, Jerry gets Lanny on the phone and describes to him what is happening. Lanny asks to talk to a policeman and explains to him who we are, where we are headed, that we are simply lost. He thanks the Police for finding and protecting us and gets our location. Lanny shows up a few minutes later, speaks to the police in person, and tells us to get back into our cars and follow him to the motel.
At the hotel, after we get parked inside the hotel’s gated and locked parking area, Lanny tells us that the policemen were doing their job and seemed to be genuinely concerned about our safety when they understood the situation. As he thanked them for finding us he said he gave them some money to get a snack or something later. We all settled up that cost and the room fees, which Lanny had prepaid. I was so tired that I didn’t think to write down the name of the very well kept, clean, and secure hotel. I took a shower in the spacious air conditioned room and went to sleep.
The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel’s spacious restaurant. The food was good, well priced and it had free wi-fi so we could all check email and stuff. Lanny stayed in the restaurant with some folks who came to meet him and would catch up later after a couple small detours. So Tony and I chose to get on the road again. The road, CA-2 to the Guatemala-El Salvador crossing at Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado over the Rio Paz to La Hachadura was just a couple hours away.
It turned out to be an easy drive over a fairly good road except for the incident where I watched what I was soon to learn was a lug bolt, complete with shiny chrome nut still attached, fly off my driver side trailer wheel. This was shortly after I noticed a clicking sound coming from the trailer that seemed to correspond with the rotation of wheels. I thought it was a rock stuck in the tread that was making the sound but it seemed to be getting louder so I was paying attention and happened to be looking in the side mirror when the sound abruptly got louder. I radioed Tony and as luck would have it there was a gas station/truck repair shop that I could pull into. Upon examination, the lug nuts on both the trailer wheels had loosened from all the vibration of the rough roads we had so far traversed, one wheel much more than the other. The wheels are made of aluminum alloy and the bolt holes on the bad wheel had already enlarged to the point of the wheel being unserviceable. I probably said a “shit” or two and then caught myself and acknowledged the blessing that I caught it before a real disaster happened. I put on my spare and had to tighten all my other lug nuts (car & trailer).
The early morning drive was through farmlands and rural countryside on the 2 lane CA-2. Scenery alternated from grassy fields, with cows, a few horses, and spots where there was dry land tropical forest to the edge of the road. We reached La Hachadura about noon. Free agents found us and we proceeded to engage in the border crossing procedure. Lanny and Jerry showed up a short while later.
A look at some lessons learned:
1. As one is repeatedly told by internet sources and experienced Central American road warriors, “Don’t drive at night.” Unless you are part of a convoy and the driver of the lead vehicle knows the roads well. If you must drive at night drive slow.
2. Those stories that we may have heard about Guatemala being a “3rd world country” with 3rd world attitudes (whatever those are), rife with crime and corrupt police may be true…but not in what I experienced. Though there are physical indications of a recent darker period, what I saw is that the people have created an orderly law abiding society which the ones I met strive to improve. Indeed, in many places in the U.S. I did not feel as safe as I did driving at night through Guatemala.
3. Though my time there was very brief, Guatemala is a place I would someday go back to explore more.
4. Pay attention to the sounds around you.
About the Author: “Patricio Pececito” traveled in a VW van, pulling a trailer, from Phoenix, Arizona to Puerto Armuelles, Panama in May of 2014.
When asked if he would ever consider doing this trip again, Patricio said ABSOLUTELY NOT! He thought he would be saving money by driving his tools to Panama but with all the border crossing fees, the cost was about the same or more.