South of the Border

In my third year of college, I took a semester off from school, and I traveled overland from Arizona to the end of the road in southern Chile, hitch-hiking most of the way. That impromptu journey, covering the length and breadth of no less than 12 countries, marked the first phase of my abiding love affair with Latin America. I spent most of my final year of school doing anthropological field work in Colombia, and after I graduated, I stayed, for several more years, shuttling between Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. At one point, I returned to the U.S. and bought a used Powerwagon, a beefy, four-wheel drive pickup truck. I built a homemade camper in the back of it, with beds and cabinets and a space for my dog. Then I loaded it with supplies, camping equipment, tools, and spare parts, drove to Houston, and put it on a freighter, bound for South America. The next two years were one really long road trip, as I was essentially living in that truck while I explored the highways and byways of the northern Andes, supporting myself with a small scale export business, buying handicrafts in the picturesque villages where they were made, and shipping them to the U.S.

My Powerwagon in Ecuador, circa 1973. The concrete globe marks the spot where the Pan-American Highway crosses the equator.
Photo by Rick Quinn

The Colombia that I knew in those years was a beautiful country with warm, friendly people, and my life there was idyllic; I leased a small coffee farm to use as a base, and I was convinced that I’d found paradise. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to last. In the mid 1970’s, cocaine eclipsed coffee as Colombia’s most profitable export, and violent drug cartels rose to power, turning the country into a war zone. Travel outside the major cities was no longer safe, so my livelihood was no longer sustainable. It caused me a great deal of pain, both financial and emotional, but I got the heck out, and moved home to Arizona to regroup.

In the many years that have passed by since, the memories of my time in South America, and all those extraordinary road trips through the Andes Mountains, have always been very special to me. That’s a good part of the reason why the second thing on my post-retirement bucket list, right after my drive to Alaska, was a road trip through Mexico. Specifically: I wanted to drive to the Yucatan, and I wanted to see the Mayan ruins.

In recent decades, Mexico has suffered many of the same ills that drove me out of Colombia forty-plus years ago. Violence involving the Mexican drug cartels has rendered vast sections of the country unsafe, especially the border region, though from everything I’d read, the Yucatan and most of the rest of southern Mexico was unaffected, and still perfectly fine for travelers. The smart solution would have been to fly to Cancun and rent a car, to avoid the dangerous border altogether, but that just wouldn’t have been the same. I wanted to drive my Jeep; all the way down and all the way back. I wanted to experience Mexico in the same way I’d experienced South America, and maybe, just maybe, recapture some of the magic that shines so brightly in my recollections.

For something like this, I did exhaustive advance research, reading articles, travel guides, blogs, and the consistently dire Mexico Travel Advisory issued by the Department of State, warning U.S. citizens that they should “reconsider” travel to any part of the Mexican border region, drive only during daylight hours, and never stray from the main roads. In the end, the decision to go or not to go was made for me: I was NOT willing to attempt this drive solo, so when an old friend contacted me and said he had a month free and wanted to go, I loaded up the Jeep, and off we went.

On highways in Mexico, it’s not uncommon to see drivers using the wrong side of the road, ignoring the no passing zones on hills and blind curves. You’ll also see vehicles that are dangerously overloaded, creating a significant hazard.
Photo by Rick Quinn

A Mexican road trip is not a casual undertaking, and it’s far from cheap. Mexican auto insurance is mandatory, and it will set you back anywhere from $100 to $150 for a single month. The driver and each passenger must purchase tourist cards, which cost about $23 per person; the vehicle will require both a $50 permit, and a cash deposit of around $400 (which will be refunded when you drive back out of the country). The price of fuel is nearly 50% higher than in the U.S., and the Federal Highways are all toll roads, the fees for which add up very quickly. The border region IS dangerous; carjackings and robberies are not uncommon, but there is an extremely heavy police and military presence aimed at keeping travelers safe on those main roads; the warnings against traveling at night and traveling off the main roads are well-founded precautions. My friend and I followed those simple rules, and our passage through the border area was without incident. My rusty but still serviceable Spanish came in handy at the frequent checkpoints, where our dealings with the soldiers and the heavily armed Federal Police were unfailingly cordial. It took a full day of traveling south, but once we’d covered enough distance, the palpable tension simply melted away; it was as if the clouds had lifted and the sun came through, revealing the beauty of the countryside.

Sunrise at the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Photo by Rick Quinn

Despite all the complexities and the expense and the perception of risk, my Mexican Road Trip was an honest-to-goodness adventure, a joyous experience, fabulous in almost every way. We drove a total of 8,000 miles, visited 14 sets of Mayan ruins, and spent time in four wonderful colonial cities, including San Miguel de Allende, where we celebrated the Day of the Dead, a national holiday in Mexico.

The Day of the Dead draws a lively crowd in San Miguel de Allende.
Photo by Rick Quinn

A Mexican road trip is not for everyone. Mexico is very much the third world, and there are aggravations, hazards, and thinly veiled corruption unlike anything you’ll ever see traveling north of the border. That said, as long as you follow common sense precautions, and avoid the areas that the Department of State warns against visiting, a Mexican road trip is not only possible, it can be rewarding in ways you’ve never even imagined.

Next up: White Sands Sunset

Rick Quinn

Rick Quinn

Rick Quinn was born and raised in Arizona, earned a degree in anthropology, then hit the road, indulging an admittedly peculiar whim by hitch-hiking to Tierra del Fuego. In one way or another, he’s been on the road ever since, living in a dozen diverse locales, from Paris to Peru, San Francisco to Washington D.C., working as a photographer, a coffee farmer, a magazine writer, a postman, a novelist, and, until his recent retirement, a corporate-level financial systems expert with the Postal Service. Rick is a veteran road tripper who has driven both the Alaska Highway and the Pan American. Rick's RoadTrip America, Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips was published in April, 2018 by Imbrifex Books,