I entered Mexico at a relatively new border crossing near a town called El Ceibo. Upon arrival I discovered that had to pay a $400 deposit as a guarantee that I wouldn’t sell my motorcycle within the country. Somehow, in my minimal preparations, I had missed this large fee. Initially, I was quite suspicious of the Banjercito official who was trying to charge me the deposit. “Sure you need $400. Yeah I bet. Guess what, I need $400 too.” But he had a uniform, an office and the customs sticker I needed. Before I would even consider forking over the cash, he had to show me a ream of official looking documents and bring in another uniformed employee. Even then, I confirmed that this ridiculous sounding fee was in fact legit with a few people outside of the office, as I was quite sick of officials laying claim to my cash. As if I wasn’t unhappy enough at the though of paying a $400 deposit, Senior Banjercito made things even more enjoyable by informing me that he could not accept a credit card, as the facility had no electricity, telephone line or internet service. I would need to find cash.
As my normal cash reserve had been greatly depleted upon leaving Honduras (again, f$%# you Honduras), this put me in an unpleasant spot. First, I had to ride 30 miles into Mexico to the nearest town with an ATM. I rode around the town square looking for a cash machie, all the while wondering why the Mexican military had apparently invaded the town. I saw several six wheel trucks outfitted with large machine guns. It certainly was a bump up in the intimidation factor from the many shotguns I saw further south. Once business was done, I rode back to the border with a big wad of pesos. Hoping to soon be on my way, I instead nearly strangled Senior Banjercito when he informed me that his little operation at the border did not accept pesos. WTF! Say that again. A Mexican bank would not accept pesos? Like many things in Latin America involving efficiency or reason, this was beyond my comprehension.
So, to fix the peso problem, I walked back into Guatemala, cursing the whole way, to find a money changer. The money changer, who I had met earlier in the day, did not have the $200 I needed. He ran around for a while until he found it. Then, he swapped my peosos for dollars, albeit at a none too great rate. Several hours spent running in circles. What a great welcome to Mexico. Even with my pile of fancy papers, several stamps, multiple signatures and even a sticker for my motorcycle, I was extremely doubtful that I would ever get my $400 back at the other end of the country.
From the border, I basically had four hard days of riding ahead of me so that I could meet up with Amanda near Puerto Vallerta, which was a long, long way away. The ride went pretty well, aside from the part of Mexico called Chiapas, which I rode through on the way to and from Palenque, my first stop in the country. From what I saw, the state of Chiapas looked like a beautiful and incredibly green area with a rich history, but a number of the very poor rural indigenous people that live there turned out to be f-ing crazy. One lunged at me with a machete. Two pulled ropes across the road in front of me to get me to stop. Not interested in their game, I hit the throttle and rode directly at the guy holding the rope. Fortunately, they blinked first. All this made me very glad that I picked up my own machete in Guatemala. As you can imagine, with such a nice welcome I didn’t take many photos.
Palenque was a decent enough place, located near an ancient Maya city of the same name. The region was hot. Beastly hot with humidity that was nearly unbelievable. I stayed at a hotel that had blessed air conditioning and was never so happy to take a cold shower. A decent meal that night and an amusing conversation with a somewhat challenged english teacher was unfortunately all the time I had for the town. The next day, I was off again. I spent about eight hours riding through a mixture of donkey towns and boring but fast cuotas. I spent my second night in the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza. It was a rather dirty place with little or no trace of culture, other than pickups, tacos and coca-cola, but I was tired and it was getting dark. The hotel had a secure parking lot, air conditioning, wifi, a few beers and there was a taco shop nearby. That was about it. Aside from visiting the nearby taco shop, I really didn’t go exploring as the town seemed a bit sketchy.
Southern Mexico, especially the state of Chiapas seemed to have been inundated by rain as well as a large amount of flooding while I was there. In Guatemala, which wasn’t too far away, I had seen the evidence of heavy rain in the region from the Country’s may land slides. In Southern Mexico, I rode through one particular area which was full of swamps, lakes and wetlands on either side of the road. In this area I saw that hundreds of houses, apparently built on the water’s edge, had been recently flooded. I felt very sad seeing a significant number of people standing on the shoulder of the road, looking at their houses with empty faces. These people have very little to start with and when something like a flood comes along, I can only imagine how hard it is on them. Further north, the flooding abated, but very poor drainage systems became apparent in many cities, especially the city of Oaxaca where I left a wake behind me as I rode through town.
My next day was another very long one which took me away from the coast, into the higher and cooler central mountainous part of Mexico. I had hoped to make it to the town of Cuernavaca, but along the way I managed to find a less than optimal route. The road I ended up on was a secondary country road that wound through a number of farming villages. It was raining, or misty, giving the landscape an interesting and very scenic look. As one would expect, the very rural road, which at one time had been paved was a bit rough. Plus, the route had the standard Mexican slew of speed bumps near just about every settlement of more than two people or six chickens making travel a bit unpleasant. After a quick consultation of the guidebook, I picked the town of Izucar de Matamoros as my best hope for lodging that night. I found a hotel, which again had secure parking and wifi and that was about it. Compared to the previous nights stop, my restaurant choices had improved immensely to three different restaurants, two of which were open.
The big attraction in Izucar de Matamoros during my brief stay seemed to be a little kiddy fair. It had the standard set of tilt-a-whirl rides and traditional Mexican food stuffs. The town had some interesting older buildings and cobbled streets, but like a lot of places I have seen in Mexico, it seemed that its best days were in the past. It had this run down and dirty look and somewhat oppressed feeling that seem common in parts of the country. I can’t even pretend to understand it, but I’ve noticed that a lot of places in Mexico just seem slightly off. The next morning I cleared out of the hotel at a decent hour and made my way to the town’s blessed coffee shop. While there, I met an American missionary who was quite surprised to see another American there. That pretty much confirmed that I had made it quite a ways off the beaten path.
Not too long after leaving Izucar de Matamoros, I was pleasntly surprised to get a great vista of Popocatépetl, the 17,802 foot tall Mexican volcano. Even though it was partly obscured by clouds, it was an impressive site.
After Izucar de Matamoros, I blasted across a good share of the country via toll roads, or cuotas as they are called in Mexico, on my way to Guadalajara for my fourth night in Mexico, without much of interest to report. Traveling this fast always leaves me with a big sense of regret. Regret that I couldn’t stop in Palenque, San Cristobal, Oaxaca or Puebla. Regret that I couldn’t see the Yucitan. Regret that I didn’t have time to take more photos. Regret that I hadn’t taken a full year off for the trip, or more.
During my first couple days in Mexico, I learned a few new things. One of the first lessons I learned about was “Mexican change”. In some areas, this mathematical phenomenon became a frequent occurrence. Let’s just say I’ve gotten pretty sharp at keeping an eye on my change due after a purchase and also quite good at auditing my bills in restaurants. I also found that Mexico toll roads rival anything in the U.S., in terms of expense. Yikes, I spent a couple hundred dollars on those things. The cuotas are pretty good in terms of quality too, and since most locals can’t afford the tolls, the roads are virtually wide open all the time. As you can imagine, the alternative to the expensive toll roads lies somewhere between a donkey trail and a cobblestone or unmaintained road with more speed bumps than I can count to in Spanish.
Another very unpleasant experience, one of the worst of my entire trip, happened during my first day in Guadalajara. I now know what its like to be left with only the shirt on my back, as some ba$tard stole the bag containing my clothes from me. I unusually spent the night in a nice hotel, as it was late and they had air conditioning and secure parking. I expected to be off the next morning to first buy a new front tire and then make my way to the Puerto Vallarta airport. I was surfing the net while eating breakfast with my bags about five feet behind me. Someone walked by and with out me noticing, bent down, picked up my small bag of clothes and left the hotel. This was truely an awful experience. But fortunately my computer and other harder to replace items were not taken. Most disappointing for me, a number of small trinkets and coins I had saved from my trip were in the bag. I hope the pinche ladron who ended up with my clothes is short and fat and cannot wear them.
Amanda met me for five days near Puerto Vallarta. I got to go shopping with her at Wal Mart to replace my stolen clothes. I am now very stylish. No, I did not get the lucha libre shirt even though I really liked it. I picked her up at the P.V. airport, arriving a couple hours late after dealing with the theft of my clothes and a much slower road than I had planned on. When traveling in rural Latin American roads, generally one can’t average more than about 50 mph, or very bad things will happen. After giving my story about why I was late and creatively strapping her luggage on the bike, we headed off to Sayulita and the beach.
Sayulita is a moderately nice beach town that is as hot and humid as a Florida swamp. I will say I did not stop sweating the entire time I was there. The town has been overrun by a flock of annoying old gringos who think they are in paradise and have driven all the prices up to match those in SoCal. We booked a “nice place” only to discover that no one in the town has air conditioning or a pool. With no air conditioning, we slept with the unscreened doors and windows open at night, under a large mosquito net. We were visited by every type of bug and beetle imaginable, as well as one bat and about 10,000 large ants. I am glad Amanda picked the hotel otherwise I would never had heard the end of it.
In her luggage, Amanda had brought me a new set of break pads and another horn to replace the fancy Stebel Nautalus super loud horn that had stopped working in Colombia. It was very nice to have a horn again. I also replaced my front tire with the one I had picked up in Guadalajara. This gave me a lot more confidence in the bike as the previous tire had been mounted months before in Bolivia.
As hot and humid as it was, we had a decent time there. We spent the first day lounging and eating, mainly because I was exhausted and hungry. On the second day, we went to a fun surf break. On our third day, we hit up WalMart and a few other stores to re-stock my traveling wardrobe. The following day we went horseback riding. We spent our last day with more beach and surf time. But the constant, never ending oppressive heat of the place really took its toll and was a big energy drainer. After five short days, I dropped Amanda off at the airport and I was once again solo.
From Sayulita, I rode north along the coast to a turtle conservation camp I had read about. It was located at an interesting place called Playa los Tortugas, about two hours north of Sayulita and at the end of an approximately ten mile long dirt road that wound through farmland, swamp and coconut plantations. It was one of the muddiest tracks on which I have ever ridden a motorcycle. I was pretty well covered by mud upon arrival. The turtle camp was located on the far end of an apparently “on hold” gringo McMansion spawning ground. There were a handful of completed houses, all of which were of enormous proportions and looking nothing like an of the houses for hundreds of miles around. I thought it was an odd place for a resort community. There were no nearby towns or villages. The climate was extremely hot, humid and infested with bugs. The location also had a very rough and exposed beach. Nice McMansion house aside, it was not my ideal place to spend a vacation.
If possible, I believe that Playa los Tortugas was even hotter and definitely more humid than Sayulita. I met up with the crew of the Platanitos Turtle Camp, who appeared to be sleepy. They gave me a quick introductory and told me that around 8:00 p.m., we would be off, looking for turtles. Generally, the crew stayed out until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. When I first got there, I met Charyn a woman from Seattle who was taking a break from her travel writing job, to do a year of different volunteer projects around the world. She is also keeping a blog describing her volunteer projects here. There were also two (very sleepy) Mexican men who were more or less in charge of operating the camp. The crew was rounded out by a group of three from Guadalajara.
Shortly after sunset, our group headed out to begin our beach patrol. I learned that there was another group, primarily made up of locals, patrolling the same beach a couple miles to the south. Meanwhile, two additional staff members patrolled on ATVs. At first, I found it odd that so many people needed to be on the look-out for turtle eggs. Then, I was told about the poachers. Apparently some Mexicans like to eat turtle eggs and will pay a fair price for the product. So, poachers dutifully hide in the bushes, keeping away from the lights of the volunteers (most of the time) on the hunt for turtle eggs. Until recently, I was told, the Mexican Marines would occasionally patrol the beach for the poachers. But, times are not so good in Mexico and they were needed more elsewhere to fight the narcos. Meanwhile, the local police don’t care about the turtles, as they can pay no bribes. So, preserving the turtle eggs has become a constant cat an mouse game between poachers and conservationists.
Seeing a sea turtle coming ashore, in the dark was a surreal sight. Then seeing the turtle awkwardly walking, if you could call it that, across the shore to lay her eggs in a pit that she had dug was pretty amazing. The turtles that I saw were Olive Ridley turtles, apparently one of the smaller species of sea turtles. They can grow to around 30 inches long and weigh up to about 110 pounds. Aside from the females laying their eggs, the turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean. This becomes quite obvious when you see them awkwardly flopping around on the beach. Awkward on land, the turtle can swim at speeds approaching six miles per hour. Not a tremendous amount is known about the lives of sea turtles, other than their very high mortality rate; only about 1 in 500 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.
The main goal of the Platanitos Turtle Camp staff was to first, collect the turtle eggs to prevent them from falling into the hands of poachers, which is very common. Then, they take the eggs to their incubation facilities, where they are incubated for 50 to 60 days. After hatching, the turtles are released by the group at night, in order to reduce the risk of predator attack. The little turtles, then make their way out to sea. Unfortunately I did not get to see the baby turtles released.
While I very impressed by the work going on at the turtle camp and thought highly of the people I met there, the lodging conditions there were a bit rough. The facilities were clean enough and it didn’t hurt that the dormitory was located about ten steps from a beautiful beach. But man, it was like sleeping in a steam room. I’m not sure if it was due to choice, or design, but the cement block bunk house had zero ventilation. It was actually hotter in the building than outside. The long term staff had gotten used to the heat. But for me, it was pretty difficult to deal with. It was in all honesty the hottest and most uncomfortable place that I slept at on my entire trip. That night, fitful, restless and damp would describe how I slept.
The next day, I woke up with good intentions of making it to Guadalajara. But after the rough night, I was just way too tired to make it all the way there. So, I made my way from the turtle camp, again, down the incredibly muddy road. Since Sayulita was more or less on the way, and fairly close, I ended up staying there one more night to a good night sleep and figure out where I’d stay the following day in Guadalajara. As soon as I had unpacked at the hotel, disaster struck. I realized I had left my very cherished sandals behind at the turtle camp. That evening, over the course of several beers, I agonized over what to do. On one hand, I really liked the sandals. On the other, the camp was 25 miles out of the way and there was also that terrible muddy road. I decided to postpone the decision until the morning.
The next day I had a big breakfast and decided that yes, I would return for my sandals. After the absolute pain in the ass ride back to the turtle camp, which involved me getting covered in mud and nearly sliding off the road a couple times, I had my sandals. Then, I had a nice five hour ride to Guadalajara to think about whether or not the time was well spent. It’s funny, when you are traveling on a long term trip, you have time to think about things to which you would never really consider in normal life. Over the previous six months, I had a lot of time with my head stuck in a helmet to think about all manner of things. On this particular day, I started thinking more and more about how happy I was for Guadalajara’s eternal spring climate.