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San Cristobal
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North to the Border

But first ...Palenque
Mar 12

We were on the road at first light today, traveling west from Chetumal to Francisco Escarcega through a landscape of gently rolling hills. There are few towns in this area and since we have to cover a lot of distance before dark we are using the cuota (toll) highways as much as possible. They are smooth and wide as any American highway. A local tells me that a purchase of the ticket to drive on a toll road also includes roadside assistance and a helicopter airlift to hospital if we are involved in an accident. Good to know.

From Francisco Escarcega we headed south, off the cuota towards Palenque. The rural roads here are narrow, devoid of shoulders, dropping steeply into ditches and the fields beyond. It was raining hard and the consequences of inattention or Palenquemiscalculation were quickly evident in the three accident scenes we passed. Big trucks and buses tear down the middle of these roads, giving no quarter so a moment’s inattention can have dire results. Needless to say, we are totally focused on the driving.

Our early start pays off because by midafternoon we arrive in Palenque. The objective in coming here is to explore the ancient ruins. What makes Palenque unique among the many Mayan sites here on the Yucatan is the jungle setting. Hundreds of buildings spread over 15sq km are buried under the lush foliage. A fairly compact collection of buildings have been excavated. The easiest way to see them is to take a taxi to the top of the hill where the main excavations are located then walk down the path, exploring additional ruins as you walk. Eventually you come to the museum.

We based ourselves at the Mayabel Hotel and RV Park. This is a really interesting place, described in some guides as a hippy haven. I don’t know what they mean by that. The hippy era is long gone and had a defining belief system. Do youngsters in dreadlocks and pyjama pants qualify as hippies?

There are quite a few of them (hippies?) occupying palapas in the park. These are true palapas – just a thatch-roofed structure with four posts on the corner and in this case, a cement floor. The kids staying in them have strung hammocks or erected tents beneath the roofs of these structures. In some cases they have enclosed the sides with tarps – longer term tenants I am thinking.

There are some very nice motel-type rooms and some even nicer cabanas with coveredMayabel at Palenque front porches sheltering hammocks and rocking chairs. Families and couples are staying in these. Then, finally, the RV park area where some big bus RVs are parked along with a handful of vans like ours.

There is a pool and a bar and a restaurant where someone makes music late into the night. It’s lovely, lying snugged up in bed with the rain pattering on the roof while someone strums a guitar in the background. Then the howler monkeys start in.

Based solely on their vocalizations, you would be terrified if you’d never seen them. They sound like wild hyenas, nasty viscous hyenas. But they are actually quite a small monkey; mischievous. Hiking in Costa Rica we would know when they were around because stuff would come hailing down on us from above: sticks, nuts, branches, leaves, etc. If we’d stop walking to look for them, they’d let loose with their chilling howls.

Arriving at Mayabel we heard them in the trees so we figured we’d go looking for them as soon as we got set up. But no sooner was the roof up than monsoon style rain set in again. A lush jungle setting like this only gets that way courtesy of rain, LOTS of rain.

We listened to them howl all night. At one point I think they were bouncing up and down on top of the kayak; something was. And there was this brown liquid that I imagined to be howler pee dripping down the side window.

The Palenque ruins are within the Parque Nacional Palenque. These ruins are very different from others because of their setting in a lush jungle environment and because those that have been excavated are spread up and down a hillside. On this day my bad knee had completely given out on me so walking over a site as vast as this was not going to be possible. I drove Steve to the top of the hill then parked at the museum to await his return. He spent about 4 hours exploring the site and was very enthusiastic about the Palenqueplace.

For my part, I made a friend, as I often do when I am benched by my bad knee. This young fellow, about 9 years old, was selling bracelets. First he wanted me to buy a bracelet. Then he wanted me to pay him to watch the van. Once we got the mercenary stuff out of the way we started talking like real people, his tentative English and my lousy Spanish. Over and over again I am amazed at just how much communicating we human beings can accomplish when we try.

A lady came around selling breakfast tacos. These are a meat-stuffed pita pie kind of pastry. I asked him if he wanted one. He did. For less than a dollar we each got one. I returned to my reading, he to harassing tourists with his bracelets. Between bus loads he would return to talk to me. He made some money. Like any other kid in the world he headed straight for the vending machines, returning with a bag of nuts which he insisted we share. Now we were equals.

At some point I pulled out my notebook and was making notes. He was fascinated about what I was writing and why I was writing so we talked about keeping a personal journal, telling one’s own stories. Remembering additional supplies in the van, I fetched a notebook and pen for him. He was ecstatic. His bracelet business abandoned, he sat down beside me and started writing “his” story, proudly showing me each page as he filled it. Nice penmanship too.

So yes, I hate it when a bad knee prevents me from seeing something like Palenque. But so often, the experiences I have while I wait are even more satisfying. I think a crutch or a cane is kind of like a dog; it gives people permission to start a conversation.

San Cristobal de la Casas
Mar 13

The road from Palenque to San Cristobal de la Casas is picturesque. So we’d beenSan Cristobal de la Casas told and so it was. But after too many hours of going up and down, around and around, even a lush jungle setting is wearying. Combine that with the local affinity for passing on any kind of curve …well, we were glad to get to San Cristobal.

I am happy putting the pedal to the medal on the wide open highways. I also like taking the wheel on rural roads when I can putter along at my own speed. But the distances we had to cover today were too great for puttering. So Steve, who has mastered the art of diving down descents at terrible speeds and has the balls to pass old trucks on blind curves …well, he got stuck with most of the driving.

Another road hazard here is the vendors. Between Palenque and San Cristobal they demonstrated an aggressiveness that shocked me. Where the usual tope vendors are friendly and good natured, these people actually held ropes across the road so you had to stop or risk injuring them.

Steve has a soft heart for kids so in one town all these little urchins had constructed a barrier of vines across the road. Steve stops and takes his window down. He refused to buy anything but starts handing out 1 peso coins to the kids. Well, this was a big mistake because all of a sudden there are a dozen kids and they are standing on the running boards and hanging in his window and the whole scenario has become dangerous for them and for us. They are frantic for money. He slowly raises his window, slowly rolls forward. Eventually they jump off but it had become a scary situation for them and us.

We’d been encouraged to come this way because San Cristobal de la Casas is a unique and very pretty little town set at 6000 feet amongst indigenous Indian villages. It’s been an area of intense political instability, home of the Zapatista rebels. But it’s also a unique place with high appeal for travelers like us.

The RV Park here is a nice one. It’s on the edge of the city, in a garden setting behind a high stone wall. We were just settling in when a big bus arrived with about 40 teenagers. They poured out, chattering away, setting up their little tents. We thought this was going to be one very noisy night. But we were wrong. We were still reading about 10 pm when Steve suddenly said,

“Listen. What do you hear?”

“Nothing.

It was dead quiet. They had all gone to bed. A bus load of teenagers, dead quiet. Amazing. In the morning they were chattering again as they lined up for breakfast. Then just as quickly they had their backpacks on and were marching out the gate and down the road.

As did we. Today’s plan was to explore the town of San Cristobal, first by taking the San Cristobal de la Casasstreet car tour, then return on foot to those places that had looked interesting from the street car. San Cristobal is a picturesque and spotlessly clean little city. The tour narration was all in Spanish but fortunately our seat mates at the back of the streetcar were a couple of young men from Guatemala with perfect English. They cheerfully translated the narration and told us about their home in Guatemala.

One of the sites we saw from the streetcar was a huge open-air Indian market. We could hardly wait to get off the tour and return to the market. Alas, by the time we got back to the plaza and off the streetcar the skies had opened and the deluge of another tropical storm was upon us. First hail the size of baseballs – it hurt. Next, driving rain soaked us right through to our underwear. Raincoats and umbrellas were San Cristobal de la Casasuseless. There was NO way to keep dry. We returned to the van where we cowered in our dry clothes, waiting for the intensity to subside.

There was little hope for the Indian market now. Their displays and products would have been decimated in the deluge so we were pretty sure the vendors had literally run for the hills. But we still hoped the rain would let up and give us some more time in the city. Waiting it out, we enjoyed a long lunch in a charming café. Still pouring, we drove to the edge of town where we’d seen a big superstore. Forty-five minutes shopping for groceries and the rain was still hammering the aluminum roof so loud two people could barely talk to each other. A local fellow warned us this could go on for days and wash out roads in the process so we reluctantly gave up on San Cristobal and headed for our next destination – Tuxitla.

There is only one RV Park in Tuxitla, located in the parking lot of a motel. There appeared to be empty spots but the attendant would not let us park the van and stay as an RV. We were feeling a bit desperate because by now night was falling and it was too late to start down the highway again.
I went back into the office and asked if we could book a motel room.

“660 pesos.”

I guess that is what he really wanted all along. It was expensive but night was coming and we needed a safe place to settle. On the upside, the garden in front of our motel room was beautiful – big palms and philodendrons. We set our chairs up on the front porch and cooked dinner in the van, parked right in front of the room.

The motel backed onto a big park and parade ground. Young cadets spent hours that evening marching and practicing drills. It was interesting. We took several hot showers in the immaculate bathroom. We watched a movie on TV. We were annoyed about the 660 pesos but other than trying to get our money’s worth by showering repeatedly, we let it go. Life could be worse.

In the morning we set off for Oaxaca. We knew it would be a ten-hour driving day but at least we knew where we were Oaxacagoing for the night. Three years ago we spent quite a few days in Oaxaca. It is a lovely colonial city with a stunning zocalo and pedestrian-only streets. There is a wonderful museum and art gallery, a botanical garden of cacti and its own world-renowned ruins, Mount Albàn. There are fabulous markets in surrounding villages. I still have the two rugs and 12-foot hand-woven tablecloth I bought then. Today’s visit will just be an overnighter at the RV Park as we are now starting to focus on the final push north to the border.

Puebla
Mar 16

Driving from Oaxaca to Puebla today we took the cuota roads. These are toll roads – smooth and modern. No little villages with topes to wreck the suspension. When you want to move it they are the answer. We drove them for about 10 hours today at a cost of $20.

It’s a pretty drive, jacarandas in bloom on the hillsides, lots and lots of sheep and goats. Each herd has a shepherd or two, on guard to keep the animals from getting onto the highway. The cuota roads employ a lot of men to keep them clean. There are fellows with big machetes whacking away at the brush. There are sweepers sweeping the gulleys beside the shoulders. Sometimes they have brooms and sometimes just branches. Labour must be very cheap here because sometimes we see a hundred men in a single day of driving.

Puebla is another place we have spent quite a bit of time in the past. Our objective here is to get our laundry washed, do some shopping and rest up a bit. The laundry lady here is just steps away from the campground and she is very good. She does three loads of laundry, wash-dry-fold for 60 pesos. That is less than $6. The only thing I don’t like is that they use a lot of fabric softener and that makes the clothes smell so perfumed. Doing my own laundry my own way is one of the luxuries I am eagerly anticipating.
Tomorrow we start the big push for the border!

Saltillo

Mar 18

Tonight found us in Saltillo, last stop before the US border. We are traveling along the highway to Monterrey. The only RV Park is at the opposite end of town. We are not fond of this town because it has a reputation for nasty cops and we got very lost in it on our way down. So rather than travel through the town we just nip off the highway to a motel so we can make a quick get- away in the morning.

The first motel we came to was called something like “Gardens Villa”. It was very nice, lots of trees and pretty shrubs. I asked the price of a room. The two clerks looked at each other, looked at me and said there were no vacancies. I looked outside - there were only a few cars in the parking lot. How could that be? Nope, no vacancies.
Well, you cannot stay where you are obviously not wanted, but I was perplexed.

We drove a little further down the road and came on the Hotel Camino Real. They wanted us but the tab for the night was $150. That seemed too steep.

A little further down the road we came on another motel. We drove in again. When I asked how much for the room, the lady giggled and told me $260 pesos for 3 hours. I did not understand. Why would you rent a room for 3 hours? A young man with some English skills came out to talk to us. I explained that we did not want the room for 3 hours but for all night. Well, he said, “You must pay by the hour for however many hours you stay.”

“The only time I’ve ever heard of those kinds of rates were for bordellos,” I laughed.

“Si,“ he says.

“This is a bordello?” I ask.

“Si. You would me more comfortable across the street at the Camino Real, I think.

Ohhhhhhhhh.

So off we go again. But this time we look more closely at the signs. The rates posted for the motels are all based on 3 hours. I guess that is what motels in this town are – bordellos.

So we continue on until we see another “hotel”. This one lists rates for a whole night. We check and yes, this is for the “whole night.” So we book a room and settle in.

Turns out the room has been so heavily sprayed for bugs that we can hardly breathe. We use the shower but retreat to the van to eat and sleep. But the funny thing is that in the room next to ours, which we can see from the van, men stand around outside talking all night. They come and go from the room. They drive off. Other men show up and line up outside the door. We might have paid for the whole night but we were still in a bordello.

McAllen, Texas
Mar 19

With all that coming and going you’d think we didn’t sleep much and it’s true. I think we were more than a little jazzed about hitting the border today too. There are many border crossings between the US and Mexico. Everyone has an opinion about which one is safest/quickest/easiest to find. Another RVer has persuaded us that Reynosa will be the quickest to reach and “You cannot go wrong. You just drive down the highway and the border crossing is right there.”

This sounds good because on previous trips we’ve managed to get hopelessly lost in these border towns and even though I’ve never actually heard of an RVer who came to any harm in any of them, they have the reputation of being dangerous. We would prefer to drive straight up to the border station and make our exit quickly.

So we get up at first light and take the highway out of the city. We are just about to hit the big cuota highway when a truckload of local transit cops pulls us over. Some of these fellows are very friendly and some are really sour and nasty looking. This one was nasty. He barked away at Steve in Spanish. Steve indicated that he did not understand.

He took Steve’s license, walked away and came back with a cell phone, at the end of which was an English speaking cop. This fellow told Steve that he had been speeding, which was probably true. The sun was just coming up, the open road was in front of us and to be honest, we had no idea what the speed limit was.

But then he said that the nasty cop had said that we’d also broken “All the laws and signs driving through the downtown city.”

“But we were never in the downtown area,” Steve responded.

He showed the cop at the window the hotel receipt. It was only ½ a kilometer behind us. We had been nowhere near the city. Steve read out the receipt to cop on the cell phone. The English-speaking cop asked where we were now. The freeway entrance sign was right in front of us, indicating the next city. Steve read it out to him.

The cell-phone cop told Steve to give the phone back to the transit cop. The transit cop came back with Steve’s license and told us to vamos.

Don’t need to say that twice!

We were nervous, watching the rear view mirror for a an hour or two, wondering if the cops’ friends from the next town might take it out on us, but eventually we relaxed and enjoyed the view. The road from Saltillo through to the border city of Reynosa goes directly through Monterrey, an absolutely stunning city set in amongst soaring jagged peaks. We were awestruck.

After that it gets a lot more boring, flat and sunburnt. It’s a fast highway though. We were doing 65 mph and everyone else just tore past us at much greater speeds.
There was a heavy military presence on the road, convoys of cars and troop carriers. At times we would be completely surrounded by these military convoys, vehicles in front, beside and behind us. The soldiers in the cars travel at high alert with their big automatic weapons resting on and pointed out the open windows. The troop carriers have guys sitting on elevated flatbeds, machine gun turrets swiveling in all directions, fingers on the triggers. We didn’t know whether to be reassured or worried by their presence.

Were we safer because they were all around us or were we in harm’s way because if there was a shoot-out at the next overpass we’d be in the middle of it?

Within 60 km of Reynosa the traffic ground to a halt and for the next 2 hours we were bumper to bumper. One truck got impatient and tore off down the grassy shoulder. We saw it an hour later – crumpled, windshield shattered, a man lying bloody in the grass beside the road while the paramedics struggled to get through the traffic to him. It was not clear exactly what had happened but it was clear that impatience had its price.

What was all this in aid of? It was a military checkpoint. As foreigners they just waved us through but the locals were having their vehicles thoroughly examined.

Eventually we made it to Reynosa and no, it was NOT straightforward. There are now several border crossings within the same city and the signage is confusing. After some wrong turns and some marital disagreement we did find it, we always do. The first part of the border process was dead easy. This is where we have to turn in our visas and the vehicle import permit to the Mexican customs. They were very well organized for this procedure with lots of parking for big rigs and staff who knew what they were doing.

The next part, actually driving through the border to the US was considerably more frustrating. Turns out it was Saturday. On Saturday, every Mexican in the city wants to cross over to the US. So we sat in a two-hour line-up of cars that had to squinch down from 7 lanes to 3.

I just knew this was going to come to grief because Mexicans are the nicest people in the world – till they get behind the wheel of a car. Then they do not give an inch. So we are trying to find our place in this squinching down process and sure enough I feel our van bump the car to the side of us. The woman behind the wheel gestures out the window. Oh boy, this is not going to be good.

I look at her car. It is a beat up old thing with dings and dents and scratches. So how many of those dings is she going to expect us to pay for? And will this be our Mexican insurance, because this is where we still are? Or is this going to be our Canadian insurance because there is nowhere to stop till we get to the US side? Meanwhile we are all still inching along.

She sends her teenage daughter out to check for damage. Now this young lady, blinged out from her eyebrows to her toes, slouches around the front of the car, plants her highly-manicured hand on her thrust-out hip and regards the condition of her mom’s car. She throws up her hands and screams something back to mom as she saunters back into the car. She and Mom shout at each other for a while till she ends the discussion by sticking her earbuds back in. That is the end of that. Whew.

Next issue to confront is the US customs agent at the front of our line who is making every single vehicle pull over to the examination area. It has been such a long day, we are already so tired. Based on what is happening to the vehicles in front of us, I imagine that we’ll have to unload the kayaks from the roof and unpack every inch of the van.

But when it is finally our turn he scans our passports, hands them back and says,

“Have a nice day.”

Yahooooooo!!!!!!

We made it! We are in McAllen, Texas.

Carolyn Usher