Not many other parts of Central America have a reputation quite like northern Mexico. Most discussions of Mexico revolve around cartel violence, corrupt police and many other reasons to not visit this part of the world. Our plans did not have us spending much time in the northern states mostly due to time constraints (believe it or not 4 months is not a lot of time). Therefore, we planned to find the quickest and safest way through the northern states to make it down to the beautiful Yucatan peninsula. Let me preface all of the following information with something: I am not a security expert, but I am a very experienced traveler who has spent time in some parts of the world I’d rather not return to. Part of life is about managing risk. We assess the risks we are going to expose ourselves to, understand them, then put measures in place to prevent and mitigate those risks as much as possible. After all this is done, we reassess the same risks and decide whether those risks are acceptably low (more on this method in a much later post). Natasha and I did hours of research from information online and friends in the country and came up with this plan.
Where exactly is it safe in Mexico? This is something I kept asking myself over and over again. And if you read the different travel advisories you will be cross-eyed trying to figure out where are the “kidnap, extortion and murder” areas vs the “petty crime, robbery and assault” areas vs the “safe to visit” areas. I finally put everything together into a map that I color coded to make sense of it. Reminder: this is not official, but based off of US gov travel advisories, SOS International travel advisories and other travel blogs.
In a nutshell: On the East coast, everything North of Poza Rica is a hot zone of cartel and criminal activity, this carries on with less intensity down to Vera Cruz. On the West coast the hot zone extends down to Guerrero. After that, it’s safe enough to travel and explore, but general traveler smarts should be applied. From what we read and discussions with locals, the large highways are perfectly safe during daylight hours (even in the North). In absolute worst areas, even the highways can be dangerous. Now I am sure there are plenty of ways to travel through the North and get out alive. We met two other groups of “overlanders” who had drove down the West coast (the route we chose to avoid). The one group saw a dead body on the highway 10 minutes after driving into Guerrero (one of the “hotspots” to avoid). The other group spent weeks in Michoacan and said they loved having the entire coast to themselves, but all the civilians were armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and body armor. Ya… no thanks. Be smart, do your research and there’s plenty to enjoy. What route did we take? Basically we were looking for a road through the northern states during daylight hours. The East coast might look shorter geographically, but it is mostly local roads with lots of speed bumps. The west coast is a huge distance to cover and means at least one night in the “hot zones”. So the best looking route was right down the middle on highway 57D. There were two options to cross the border onto this highway: the Eagle Pass/Piedra Negras border or the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo border. Eagle Pass meant an extra 2 hours of driving on the Mexico side, but Piedra Negras’ crime rate was lower than San Francisco’s so we opted for Eagle Pass. From there it was 11 hours to Santiago de Querétaro making it drivable in one day if we had no issues. We planned back-up hotels along the way in case we were delayed for any reason and found San Luis Potosi, Matehuala and Saltillo. After Santiago de Querétaro we’d continue for another full day until Villahermosa and make it to the Yucatan on day 3. Is this the only safe way? No, I’m sure you can take any number of ways down and be fine, but statistically this was the safest route.So… how was it? In a word, beautiful! In two words? Stunningly beautiful. We drove through sleepy little Mexican towns, towering vertical rock mountains, desert plains from a John Wayne movie, colonial city pastel streets, tropical jungles and cactus filled deserts. It kills me that we couldn’t stop to take pictures every time the topography changed. I grabbed a few pictures with my phone and took a bit of video I put together below, but none of them does the country justice. You could tell each region’s local produce by what kind of stands were set up on the side of the highway. Fresas (strawberries), Pinas (pineapple), or for the regions without produce Bon Bons and Coke. Queretaro seemed like a quaint town of pastel streets surrounded by modern amenities like Walmart. Villahermosa is very much an oil field town and I met up with an old work friend who took us out for our first truly delicious street tacos. I’m glad I got a glimpse at a part of the world that so few people do these days. The roads themselves were good most of the way, with patches that were full of pot holes and one or two missed turns due to funky signage. The drivers were both good and bad. For the most part driving in Mexico is like driving in a lot of developing countries: there are few actual normal road rules (like staying between the lines) but everybody is actively avoiding accidents. A two lane road is actually a 3 lane road, slow vehicles ride half on the shoulder leaving just enough space for passing in the middle (however it’s from both ways). It truly is a shame that the recent history of this region has made it inaccessible to locals and foreigners to enjoy. My friends from Chihuahua (a northern state) tell me how they miss the days when they could ride 4x4s through the country or barbeque in the mountains on Sunday afternoons. Don’t misunderstand me, there is additional risk in the North, but driving through on your way South is very doable, very safe and worth the trip and frankly, I look forward to the day that things quiet down so I can come back and spend some time exploring this part of Mexico. Were there any surprises? The two biggest surprises were the tolls and one traffic jam. So far we have had to stop and pay tolls 19 times totaling 1200 pesos ($80). However, given the alternative we didn’t mind paying the tolls to drive on the highways. Off of the highways, the local roads were riddled with axle shattering pot holes and suspension smashing topes (speed bumps). The second surprise was a traffic jam caused by an accident further down the highway. We had seen one on the northern side of the highway that had cars stuck for up to 4 hours (according to a local we met at a gas station). When traffic came to a complete standstill (and I mean 0 mph) we were worried the same would happen to us. Luckily a rash of locals took off on a dirt road detour and we followed suit. 30 minutes later we were back on the highway and around the accident, win one for the nomads.
- Driving: Eagle Pass/Piedra Negras Crossing, Highway 57D to 57 south past Mexico City then 150D to 145D west.
- Accommodation: Queretaro – Hilton Double Tree $80; Villahermosa – Hotel Maya Tabasco $50
- Podcasts for the long drive (best way to make the time fly by) – Serial, TED Radio, Freakonomics
- US Travel Advisories (always take these with a grain of salt) – http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings/mexico-travel-warning.html
- Excellent blog describing the drive from someone who does it often – http://www.yucatanliving.com/destinations/driving-through-mexico-to-yucatan.htm
- Online guide that covers everything from the route to what kind of car – http://www.drivemeloco.com/
- Best advice I’ve found on corrupt cops – http://dilworth.org/all/driving-in-mexico/
Border Crossing Info: If you’re wondering what the border crossing into mexico is like here is a quick description. We left around 7:00 am and there was absolutely nobody on the road. The actual drive across the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass was far too easy. No check point, no stopping, just a few lights a bridge and *boom* we’re in Mexico. The actual paperwork was done 40 miles down where there was a big immigration check point. But it’s still easy to miss, we accidentally drove through it before realizing we hit it and probably had to get our passports stamped so we turned around. Pull to the right side of the check point and there is a big blue building (see below) you need to go in. There’s a desk on the right that will need passports and registration. Then you go to a desk on the left and pay a USD$400 deposit for your permit + $53 processing fee. (The $400 is returned when you leave the country). Back to the desk on the right to give them your receipt, get stamped and you’re done. Easy. We left this building at about 8:45am and the line was just starting to build up. Get there early.