COAL 1968 Beetle – A Drive Through Mexico, Part I

Time to leave SF behind.


By December 2002, after a couple of years of poor finances the harsh truth couldn’t be denied: my stay in the city of San Francisco had come to an end. I decided to move back to El Salvador and stay some time with my father, after 15 years being apart.

Last time we spent time together had been December 1987. We left him behind; with my mother, my brother and I travelling from El Salvador to New Orleans by bus, in an aborted effort of hers to move to the USA. 3 days of travel later, without any sleep, we reached New Orleans. A lovely city, or so I’m told, for we saw none of it. 5 days after arrival, mother gave up on English speaking and flew us to Puerto Rico.

Now, 15 years later, instead of buses I would travel on my 1968 VW Beetle. I would be crossing 5,300 kilometers (3,294 miles) through Mexico and Guatemala to reach El Salvador. Easier said than done. Obviously, the car had a lot to do with the trip, for I didn’t want to part from it. Resale values at the time didn’t make up for my feelings towards it (3K at the most). Also, El Salvador had a thriving grey imports market, why not take their example?

The car had gotten a repaint and a refurbished transmission few years before.

It was also my chance to revisit that 1987 trip. A few travel books and maps were studied. Few things became clear, getting the car into Mexico could be a lengthy bureaucratic nightmare, driving at night was not recommended, and travelling on the main toll-highways was the thing to do (One caveat, toll fares were rather high on those). After some weeks thinking about the matter, I chose to enter Mexico by Nogales and avoid overcrowded Tijuana. Resting stops were to be Mazatlán, and then Guadalajara. That’s as far as my planning got to, the rest I would make up.

The few Latino friends who knew of the trip took great lengths to dissuade me, with sordid detailed stories of robberies and rampant corruption. The only safe way to make it –they said- would be on a caravan, with many cars riding together. By contrast, Americans aware of the plan spoke with ever-positive American spirit: “Well, that will be an adventure!”

A buddhist charm for safe voyage hung from the rearview mirror.

After sending most of my belongings by ocean freight, I was ready to part. I took a few last possessions into the car, two backpacks and two tool kits, should any repairs be needed. I hung a little Buddhist charm from the rearview mirror. It had been blessed by a Tibetan monk and was said to guarantee a safe journey. I’m not a Buddhist, but was ready to take on any good will at hand. I turned the ignition key and took off early on a chilly Sunday morning.

Driving through the Southwest was the same tedious endeavor it had always been. Rather beautiful and striking in photos, the sun drenched spare landscape becomes a dull sleep-inducing effort as the hours accumulate. Especially on a car with no lumbar support, lacking cruise control, and with a thin steering rim that cramped the muscles. Cross continental cruising is not the Beetle’s forte. The one landscape that stuck to memory in those many miles: the Joshua Tree Monument. The unusual trees added a serene eerie beauty to the desert’s landscape as dusk approached.

At rest, somewhere in Arizona.

After two days of driving and uneventful stays at LA and Tucson, the third was one of big expectations. If everything went fine, the next stop would be in Mexico, hopefully in Hermosillo. If time allowed I would push it as far as Guaymas, on the Pacific Coast.

By 10 am on that 3rd day I reached the Mexican border. Which I saw, and then passed without anyone checking my papers. I was in Mexico just thus? No visa, no permit for the car, no nothing? Sensing something was wrong, I turned back towards the US border.

Once there the US officer was immediately confused.

  • “I’m going to Mexico”
  • “But you just came from Mexico!”.
  • “I know, I know, I just drove in and no one asked for my papers…” She caught on as to what was going on.
  • “I see…” she answered, “You do all that at kilometer 21 on highway 15D.”

(The 21km deal was an arrangement between US and Mexico to allow free movement of legal foreign workers on both sides of the border).

Lots of desert driving to let the mind drift away.

A few minutes later I was crossing the Mexican border, again. I was now on highway 15D, finally in Mexico, physically, if not legally. Eventually a huge sign appeared: “KM 21”, with a bunch of toll-like structures around it. I had reached the moment of truth. What kind of bureaucratic nightmare awaited me? None, it turned out. Unlike what I expected, everything was well laid out, the forms were filled out quickly, and after payment, within 45 minutes I was free to go.

(There’s quite a bit of paperwork to bring along if one wishes to enter Mexico by car. Check current needs, requirements are updated rather often).

The next few hours were uneventful, the roads were narrower and signaling less precise –or absent- but the landscape was just as desolate and population just as sparse. Quite a few American licensed plate vehicles drove past me, usually carrying some outdoor activity equipment. Most tourism in Northern Mexico is aimed to open-air activities targeted to adventuresome Americans. Few hours into the drive I had yet to come across bandidos or corrupt officials, I was starting to be –gladly- disappointed.

“Who’s is the gringo?” “Let’s get him!” – sketchbook of those days.

My first contacts with Mexicans were at gas stations. Not the best of situations. The first stop reminded me loud and clear I had just crossed the border, as all sorts of panhandlers hung around me like birds of prey. As soon as my car came to a stop, seven or so surrounded the vehicle, some selling pens and trinkets, some cleaning the windshield, and two guys asking for a ride. The blitzkrieg was on and my only line of defense was an emphatic endless repetition of the word “NO!” After paying the attendant I left in a rush. Mexico had just saluted me officially.

Then, my first taste of real Mexican city driving in Hermosillo, the state’s capital. Stressful to say the least. Whenever one drives in a new environment, road signaling and layout seems disjointed and out of place. Add to that unpredictable and poor driving, lack of signals and line markings, and trouble seems too close for comfort. Also on my mind, the Napoleonic nature of Mexican law, which states that should any accidents happen the driver is GUILTY until proven innocent.

Driving behavior changes completely as well. Most drivers down south don’t bother with turn signals, instead switching lanes just by doing so. Many vehicles also lack brake or reverse lights, so one has to stay overtly alert to a car’s movement. Pedestrians will cross at any place they feel like, and at streetlights, vendors will be selling or providing anything from newspapers, to fruits and flowers. Drivers use a varied repertoire of hand gestures that can mean from ‘slow down’, to ‘thank you’, to ‘watch out’. These change from region to region, and at the time of these events, I had no idea what they meant. Instead, I wondered what curses were being placed upon me.

Avenida Zerdán, Guaymas.

Hermosillo was crossed safe and soundly, despite the windshield washer brigades, and by 5pm I was in Guaymas. Traffic was heavy on the main avenue, the Avenida Serdán. I had arrived in the middle of rush hour and there was much activity, with plenty of holiday shopping going on. Inching slowly, I managed to find my way and installed myself at Casa de Huespedes Marta. For those who expect Marriot like comfort, you won’t find it there. On the other hand, the place was clean, cheap ($10/night), and the staff was friendly. After dropping off my bags, went for a stroll and something to eat.

My original plan had been for Guaymas to be a stopover, with Mazatlán to be a day and half stop. By then, however, I was exhausted after 3 days of nonstop driving. Thus, Guaymas turned into an extended stay. With that in mind, what was there to do in out of the path-exotic Guaymas?

According to one of my travel books, the port city of Guaymas is “hot, humid, and smells like decaying fish”. Rather unfair, for if it was true it was hot and humid, it didn’t smell like decaying fish. For outsiders, the city’s main reason for existence is as link to the Baja Peninsula (a twice a week ferry service). Sightseeing in the city is generally out of the question; no riviera, historic downtown, nor exotic landscapes. Just regular folks going about their daily lives. It’s the quintessential Latin small city.

Guaymas’ Cultural Center.

On my search for a bite, Avenida Serdán was bursting with shoppers, school kids, and moms on grocery runs. The traffic was heavy, with plenty of crammed buses, Beetles, pick-ups and cheap econoboxes, as far as the eye could see. Sidewalks were the claimed territory of street vendors, and every conceivable trinket was for sale: cheap Hong Kong toys, Taiwanese electronics, pirate CDs, cheap clothes, etc. It was colorful and spontaneous, unlike American orderly malls. Also unlike the US, people would bump and push you as they moved up and down the street. Tight bodily contact was the norm.

Northern Mexico’s soul was all around, with cowboy hats and boots being common. Youth wore current American clothing mixed with local style (jeans were ironed). Others had adopted the Latino style of the north, wearing 49ers and Raiders shirts and jackets. Unlike what I expected, young women wore very short skirts and incredibly tight jeans (Viva la revolucion femenina?).

I finally reached the waterfront, which is topped by the obligatory Cathedral and City Hall. Both buildings date from the late 19th century, built in the neo-classical style popular of the era. On my way back, I came across a cultural center where youth were training in classical music instruments. Hearing it from the sidewalk, curiosity peaked, I walked in and found that besides music, figure drawing and painting classes were imparted.

(This, a legacy of the Cardenas government of the 30’s-40’s, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party –an oxymoron if there ever was one- promoted arts, schools and museums, all over the nation. It’s a complicated, rich legacy).

Mt. Teta Waki, Guaymas.

Proving my guidebook right, I had seen all there was to experience of Guaymas in one stroll. The next day I took to San Carlos Beach, a mere half hour ride by bus; a growing tourist attraction mostly known for expensive water sports.

San Carlos was quite the laidback outpost, as activity was non-existent. Understandable, as I had arrived midweek and the holidays hadn’t officially started. Most people I came across on that aimless stroll were Americans. Besides the yacht club, luxurious hotels and expensive boutique stores, there wasn’t much to see or do. Having no jet sky stowed in my Beetle, a walk by the beach was next.

The beach was clean and picturesque, with granulated sand the color of light brown sugar and azure clean water. Meanwhile, the horizon was dominated by the enigmatic jagged range of Mt. Teta Kawi, a distinctive feature of the region. I sat next to some rock formations were seawater made funny bubble-like popping sounds as it came and went with the tide (Very pleasant sounds, but odd and hard to describe).

Frogs and bare breasted sirens at Guaymas’ beach resorts. Wait, what??

A couple of hours later I took the bus back. The seats were fairly empty, but such was my luck that as I sat in the closest available one, it rocked back and forth like a loose windowpane missing a few hinges. Passengers started to laugh, I had just sat on the fool’s chair. Standing up, I noticed how one of its legs was completely unattached. The passengers, apparently fond of slapstick humor and humiliating defeats, seemed enthralled with the practical joke. As new passengers came, the group would wait in expectation, hoping the newcomer would fall for the loose chair. If they did, laughter would ensue. (The lucky ones –mostly the elderly- got warnings).

I parted for Mazatlán the next day, December 12th, Dia de la Virgen. While all of Mexico was busy in a nationwide party, I would be enjoying the pleasures of sitting motionless behind the wheel all day, in an uncomfortable 35 year old car (not that I’m complaining!).

Driving on La Libre.

Some sad insights revealed themselves by mid-day. Money was quickly running out, with tolls and gas being the culprits. With rough math, I figured gas was costing close to twice as much as it had in California (At the time, Pemex was the sole gas provider in Mexico, a state run monopoly). Knowing the trip to be in peril, I pondered whether to abandon the toll highways and ride on the dreaded La Libre (The Free One). Known for robberies, its slow traffic, and poor road condition, the idea didn’t seem inviting. Still, it looked unavoidable.

By midafternoon I made my way into La Libre, and the difference was stark. It was a two-lane highway plagued with slow trucks, poor maintained surfaces, and with more elements coming into play: pedestrians, vendors and beggars, huge street bumps, suspect policemen, and livestock. Passing was for the daring. Garbage and dead dogs also started to litter the roadside.

La Libre crossed plenty of small towns. As these communes approached, traffic would come to a complete stop, where HUMONGOUS street bumps marked the town’s entrance and exit. They’re, admittedly, a cheap way to control speed limits on inhabited areas. Next to these street bumps, vendors would hang out ready to approach as vehicles slowed down. If one left the window down, anything from fruits to live animals could be shoved in the face, all at discount prices.

Getting closer to the tropics.

By this point the landscape had turned tropical. Green lushness laid abound wherever eyes glanced upon. The weather was warm and the air moist. In my mind, all of these were signs that home was getting closer, albeit rather slowly.

The road got dark soon after. In spite of warnings, I was now driving at night. Lots of traffic though, a good sign. Eventually, trucks slowed down the whole effort and it took another 45 minutes to reach Mazatlán.

Like Guaymas, Mazatlán had a dual personality; a new area for American tourists, the Zona Dorada; full of expensive hotels, yacht clubs, fancy discos, and glitzy condos. Meanwhile, I was trying to reach the old town; where Mexicans live (and lodging is cheap), pack shrimps at the harbor, and -at the moment- attended in hordes the festivities of La Virgen de Guadalupe. It took another 30 minutes of incremental movement to finally come to a halt. It was near 8pm.

Mazatlan’s Cathedral.

After finding a cheap unmemorable room, I went for something to eat. On the way, I came across the last stretch of the holiday’s celebration. In Mazatlán’s Cathedral, food vendors packed the entrance while kids walked around dressed as little campesinos (According to legend, two little campesinos –farmer- kids, were witnesses to the Virgin’s appearance. Kids are dressed up accordingly to commemorate the sighting). Visitors crowded the church’s naves, and photo booths –with kitschy Virgin backdrops- covered the last pockets of space in the gardens. It was all quite festive, and I hung around as far as my body allowed.

With my trip behind schedule I took off the next day without remorse, aiming to reach Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.

From the beginning of the trip I suspected the approach to Guadalajara would be a difficult one. With the city sitting at an altitude of 1.5 kms (5,000 feet), some steep climbing was approaching, most likely in narrow winding roads. Now that I was on La Libre it would certainly be more strenuous.  I was sure traffic would be sluggish, since the city is a major metropolitan center. Trucks and travelers would certainly clog the way.

And yet, more solitude.

These expectations proved to be false, however. And few miles into the drive, the road was absolutely deserted. The uphill and winding road did appear, but it was unnervingly solitary. Maybe even Mexicans were afraid of this stretch of the road? It was quite an eerie feeling, with the Beetle being the sole vehicle for miles. Few cars passed by in the next few hours.

Luckily nothing occurred. By late afternoon, I reached the town of Tequila, a sign I was getting closer to Guadalajara. As you may have already guessed, the town is home place to Mexico’s national alcoholic beverage. Agave fields surround the area, extending for miles and miles, a rather surreal sight. World famous brands like José Cuervo are located nearby. By the roadside, a never ending parade of street vendors are filled to the gutters with barrels and bottles of the firewater.

Welcome to Tequila!

Guadalajara, Mexico’s stately city revealed itself slowly. Lines of idling traffic spreading through wide boulevards and clogging side streets. Buses, cars and mopeds took to the roads with no care for human life, or each other. It was survival of the fittest. Meanwhile, teenagers were dressed in the latest western trends, while boom boxes blasted music from department store fronts. Again, the situation was aggravated by the holiday season. Just as in the US, the happiest season of the year was betrayed by hordes of people with gifts to be acquired, food and parties to prepare, and debts to accumulate.

After half an hour of swimming through endless traffic and frenetic shoppers, I found a 24hour valet parking lot near the historic main square. (Travelling tip: going by car is a bad idea if one is to visit history-rich sites built when carriages were the norm).

Christmas time in Guadalajara!

After a brief walk, downtown Guadalajara seemed to be everything it advertised itself as: “The city that embodies the essence of Mexico”. Yes, by all means. Traditional and politically conservative (The city is home to PAN, Mexico’s conservative party), with a dynamic economy that attracts progress and modernity. The cosmopolitan city was filled with an impressive collection of churches and palaces, museums and cultural activities. To top it all, Guadalajara is said to be the birth place of 3 quintessential Mexican traditions: the Mariachis, the “jarabe tapatío” (Mexican hat dance), and the chorreadas (rodeo).

Back in my room, the time had come to think which way I would be travelling south.  I was to remain two nights in Guadalajara, which meant leaving on Sunday, a good day to approach Mexico City. Still, I cringed at the idea of crossing the country’s Capital. “Only the brave or the very stupid attempt to drive in Mexico City”, said more than one guide. I didn’t like to think as myself as brave, much less as stupid. Unable to make my mind, I left those lingering thoughts for my sleep.

Little did I know as I laid there, that in 24 hours, the Beetle’s fate would depend on the goodwill of Guadalajara’s Police Finest.