Take it with a grain of Sand: 6 Lessons I’ve learned from driving through Mexico

Where do you want to travel?

Your journey will lead you to exotic destinations around the world.


Take it with a grain of Sand: 6 Lessons I’ve learned from driving through Mexico

As I was sitting in the customs line to cross my second international border in my Chevy van I reflected back on the last 10 days driving through Mexico, which were turbulent at times, but very rewarding and taught me many valuable lesson for the weeks and months to come in Central and South America.

I was prepared for some, but not all of the obstacles that I encountered while driving through Mexico. While many of these lessons can help any foreigner traveling through Mexico it is specifically for those who are crazy enough to drive the length of Mexico from the US to Guatemala.


Expect the Unexpected

My first day south of the border started early just north of Laredo, Texas. My goal was to make it to the border by 10 am. That didn’t happen. I had some things I wanted to get done before leaving the US, which I knew would just be easier there. Well of course my small list of things look quite a while which included filling my newly built 21 gallon water storage, going to the bank and getting Mexican auto insurance. I crossed the very relaxed border around 1 pm.

That’s where the trouble started. My plan was to make it to Monterrey for the night so I got through the sketchy border area before dark. I will not go through all the details of crossing the borders and obtaining all the necessary paperwork since it is already well documented on a few blogs that I have come to rely on. Thanks to “Freedom with Bruno” and liferemotely.com The temporary import permit took me about 2 hours. By that time I was ready to hit the road and get to Monterrey but traffic was dead stopped for hours. I turned around and spent the night in a noisy mall parking lot just a mile from Texas.

Learn Spanish

Yes, Mexicans are very friendly and helpful people, but there simply not many English speakers. I knew I would have to learn a few phrases to get by but based on my first trip to SE Asia I figured that there would always be someone available to translate. I was wrong. Maybe its because of the nature of this trip. I am truly off the beaten path and away from the tourist destinations much of the time, but I have a different theory.

Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the world and most of central and south America speak Spanish. There is no need for them to learn English to do business between countries and many of the travelers and tourists know at least a little Spanish. That is where it differs from my trip to SE Asia where each little country speaks a different language. To do business between countries they must learn a common language and English makes sense because a large part of their economy is tourism and most tourists don’t learn Thai just for their trip to Thailand.

Please excuse my ignorance, I truly do feel bad every time I have to tell someone “No habla espanõl.”One thing is for sure over the next 6 months or so I am going to make every effort to speak and learn Spanish. I have already picked up quite a bit.

Take your time because you will need it while Driving through Mexico

Everything seems to take longer while driving in Mexico. The roads are not in very good shape and traffic is common everywhere. My first day actually went quickly because of taking toll roads whenever possible on my way to Mexico City, which are in very good shape for the most part, but once you get through the city things start to change and the pace of life slows down. Don’t expect to cover much distance in a day. I wouldn’t want to be on the road past dark either in most places due to safety concerns and simply being able to see potholes or animals in the road.


Don’t trust anyone

Maybe it is true that police in Mexico are corrupt. I don’t know, but in my experience they were very honest and helpful. I got stopped a couple times but they just wanted to take a quick look at my import permit. If you had asked me on my third day in Mexico I would have given you a different answer. It wasn’t until later in the day when I calmed down and thought things through that I realized I didn’t get bribed by the police but by some random scumbag on the streets of Mexico City. I made the mistake of trying to drive through rush hour traffic into the city to see a few sights. Right now I wish I had just taken a bus and not just because I was stuck in traffic for 2 hours just to go 10 miles.

I was pulled over by a “motorcycle cop” who was sitting on the side of the road. He looked very official so I believed he was a cop. He tried to tell me in broken English that I had broken the “no circula” law. Basically if your license plate ends in a certain number or letter you can’t drive on a certain day of the week. I knew about this and thought my day was Thursday, this was a Tuesday. Who am I supposed to believe something I read on the internet or the very official looking cop who has a gun in his holster?

He said my car would be impounded unless I paid an on the spot fine i.e. bribe. Well I took the easy way out and payed the bribe which was about $150. It wasn’t until I had left that I realized he hadn’t given me my license back. This is the real problem that ended up costing me in the long run.

Later when I contacted the US Embassy trying to figure out what to do about my license they told me that I was right about my “no circula” day being Thursday and that this is in fact a common scam. Then I thought back to his motorcycle and compared it to the other motorcycle cops in the city. This guy was not a cop at all.

It was stupid on my part to trust him and to pay the bribe, but what was I supposed to do let him take my car? Then I would be in an even worse situation. I guess things like this could happen anywhere. They are just more prevalent while driving through Mexico.

If You aren’t a Decent Mechanic, Don’t Even Think About it

I already had a couple breakdowns in the US, but those are easy to solve. Even having to swap the transmission in the middle of the forest in Arizona seems easy compared to having a breakdown in Mexico.

On my way to Tapachula on the Guatemala border on my last day in Mexico I shut the van off and it wouldn’t restart. Nothing not even a click. I was stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Guess what theres no AAA in Mexico, but luckily my diagnostic skills are on point.

With a couple feet of wire and a little electrical tape I was able to bypass the ignition switch and starter relay which were causing me problems and get on my way.

The battery on the van died on the beach in Mexico.

The battery on the van died on the beach in Mexico.

Paradise Does Exist

For those of you who are stuck behind a desk everyday just remember that Paradise truly does exist and it can be found with a short drive from home. Driving in Mexico is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding. My favorite place I saw during my short time in Mexico was here camping on the beach in the state of Oaxaca.

beach in Oaxaca Mexico

Mexican beach paradise



I am traveling the world focusing on adventure and photography.

1 Comment

  • Don Lambeth

    Hi Brooks and Iya. Hope you are doing good.. Mari and I are awaiting your Costa Rica experience..

    October 9, 2016 at 7:47 pm

Comments are closed here.