On December 1st me, my wife and our 13yo daughter and 16yo son struck out from Montana to begin an 80 day, 10,000 mile expedition that would take us as far south as El Salvador in Central America.
We took about 5 days to get to San Antonio TX, stopping by places like Ship Rock NM, and Carlsbad Caverns.
In San Antonio we stayed 2 days while we got the truck some final maintenance before crossing the border. I had heard stories of mechanics in Mexico adding water to the oil and didn’t want to rely on a South Of The Border (SOTB) mechanic if I didn’t have to. So we got fresh fluids and a tire rotation. And some amazing bbq!
Then we drove to Cotulla just north of the border so that we could get an early start the next day.
It’s best to get going early. You don’t know how long it could take, and they say there are more problems with cartels in the afternoon and closer to the border. Leaving early gave us maximum time to get as far south as possible before dusk.
Key rule for SOTB travel: ALWAYS be at your camp by 5 or 6. No driving at night if at all possible.
We crossed at the Columbia Bridge border and it was a pretty straight forward process. They’ll Direct you where you need to go. Make sure you have your passports, required Mexican car insurance, and your TIP (Temporary Import Permit) There were some long lines and it ended up taking us about an hour and a half to cross the border.
Side Note; change dollars into pesos on the US side of the border.
Generally the country is less safe up north and very dry so we opted for hotels for 2 nights till we arrived in San Miguel de Allende.
Once there we found (via the iOverlander app) a great campground close to the heart of the city. There were some amazing rigs with Overlanders from around the world. We spent four days there.
We cooked our own breakfast and lunch but took advantage of some of the fantastic restaurants and taco shops the city had to offer.
San Miguel de Allende, MX, cathedral
From there we struck off towards the south stopping by the ruins of Teotihuacan, the metropolitan city of Puebla and made it to Coatzacoalcos at The southern tip of the golf of Mexico. Along the way we enjoyed even more amazing Mexican food, seeing 250-year-old cathedrals, and volcanoes that top out over 18 thousand feet! [most of the Mexican interior is over 7000 feet of elevation]
Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacan
Pico de Orizaba 18,491 feet
Sumidero Canyon. 3000 ft tall walls!
Around Coatzacoalcos the country turns green, and as we headed south from there into the Chiapas region the mountains became dense green jungle. We stopped in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez and toured the breathtaking Sumidero Canyon. This is definitely a Must-Do!
Then we spent 5 days in one of our favorite towns San Cristobal, in a hotel, since it was rainy, and it was city.
Food, culture, architecture, artisan markets.
Side note; overland camping is difficult in this region. Most of the entries on iOverlander are Mexican gas stations called Pemex. Not a good place to stay unless you are in a hard-sided camper.
We have had nothing but great experiences with everyone in Mexico.
There was never even a hint of danger! No narcos, no corrupt police, no shakedowns. There are random military checkpoints permanently set up along the roads. We got stopped at about 2/3 of them. They just wanted to know who we were and wanted to check out my truck. Most of them were car guys checking out a sweet rig! I even got sent off from one checkpoint with a high five and a fist bump!
Crossing the border into Guatemala at the La Mesilla crossing was an adventure! It was easy and straight forward, but the dense crowds on very narrow streets was what did it. We literally had to push thru the crowds with our truck!
It was supposed to be a 5 hour drive to the house in Antigua that we rented for two weeks for the holidays. But driving in Guatemala is about twice as long as Google maps says it is. And it is extremely draining! [Most overlanders recommend that you not drive for more than about four hours in Guatemala.] Anyhow we arrived at our house in the dark after 9 1/2 hours of grueling mountain driving. At one point in the road we came within 20 feet of 10,000 feet elevation!
Vulcan de Agua, Antigua GT
We didn’t drive at all in Antigua. Such a great town. It’s over 500 years old. So many colonial ruins and amazing restaurants 2 weeks went by in a flash!
From there we found an amazing Overland campground on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We stayed there with other world overlanders for a week. It was very restful as we were able to set up Kim and leave it that way. Everything there is accessed by boat. There’s so much to see and do!
Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, GT
Pasaj Cap overland campground
After moseying around Guatemala for another week we entered El Salvador.
Convoluted but tranquil border crossing. Just lots of hoops to jump thru.
We made it up to the mountain town of Ataco to spend a few days with dear friends. Short trip.
Back to Guatemala.
We arrived at the jungle town of Lanquín in the cloud forests in east central Guatemala. The last 10 miles was a steep and muddy road that made us glad for the heavy rig and good tires. We enjoyed swimming in the turquoise mountain pools at Semuc Champey and wished we could stay longer.
the natural pools of Semuc Champey, GT
On our way out there was a bus with a blown-out tire that was attempting to be pulled by a water truck blocking the road. They were making zero progress! We had a solid day of driving ahead of us and so I decided to go around on the uphill side, but right before I was clear the back end kicked out and smashed my bed and tail light against the water truck. My first body damage!
From there we explored the north eastern part of Guatemala. (In route I got to cross off one of my top overland bucket list items: take my truck on a small river ferry!)
There are so many things to see up there. We visited the lake town of Flores and climbed the spectacular ruins of Tikal, along with some other lesser-known ruins that were pretty much equally spectacular. Camping there was kind of tough. Muggy, muggy jungle!
Flores island & The ruins of Tikal, GT
Crossing into Belize was a trip! You say “adiós” to short brown people, cross an invisible line, and walk into the customs office and say “hello” to tall black people with Jamaican accents! English is the official language for Belize. But because it is a Central American country they also speak Spanish. And with the heavy African population from the Caribbean they have developed their own way of speaking that is more or less equal parts of English, Spanish, Creole!
Food there was amazing, and completely different than everywhere else.
We would’ve liked to of spent a little longer here but we are starting to see that we are running out of time. And we are still far from home.
Amazing campspot on the edge of Chetumal Bay, MX
We are now back in Mexico at the south end of the Yucatán peninsula. We love it here as we have spent two months here previously. We made a stop at the crystal blue waters of Lake Bacalar then we headed out the remote fishing village of Xcalak (Ish-calock). We were hoping to take advantage of the beautiful and otherworldly camp spot that we had previously found, but spiritual promptings and mosquitoes dictated otherwise. we later found out that the cartel had used that spot for landing a drug plane!
We spent several days swimming in the waves and snorkeling the reefs.
Leaving there, sadly, we headed due west to the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Oaxaca, in retrospect, was one of our favorite stops. The Overland camp there was one of the nicest that we have stayed in. The city in the food were exciting. (If you make it to Oaxaca try a Tlayuda, you’ll thank me.) We could’ve easily stayed another week!
This begins the section of our journey where we have to push hard in order to be back in Washington for work. Having an unlimited time frame would be so much more fun!
Oaxaca to Puebla to Guadalajara to Mazatlán in quick succession.
Guadalajara was ok, for a city of 5 million people.
Mazatlán was very cool! The ocean at sunset was magical. The food and nightlife were fantastic as well. Unfortunately we could only be there for 24 hours as we had to catch the ferry over to the Baja Peninsula. If we missed it on Sunday the next one didn’t leave until Wednesday.
Riding the ferry was a singular experience! The ferry was an ocean going ship unlike what we are used to here in Washington. You have to get in line at least 4 hours before sailing and once in line you can’t leave. You can buy tickets for the ferry the day of but you probably won’t get a cabin. Which means that you get to sleep on the floor. Don’t get me wrong the floors are nice and clean and carpeted, but it’s still a floor. The ship provided you dinner (not tasty!) and there were plentiful vending machines. The passenger compartments all had large screen televisions with movies playing to pass the time.
Getting off the ship was an exercise in SOTB inefficiency. It took 2 hours!
After arriving in La Paz we ate probably our best meal in Mexico and then headed up to Loreto. Awesome place! There we were able to slow down for a few days and enjoy life, and sleep in. And more amazing food. Check out Taqueria Super Burro if you go.
Traveling north we stopped in the desert oasis town of San Ignacio to go whale watching.
Baja is such a wild gem, wide-open spaces and little government presence.
It’s a place where you are free to roam and explore. It’s very safe and very friendly.
A few days later we had our last tacos in Mexico and crossed the border in Mexicali. The line moved fast and once at the customs booth they waved us on with only a few questions and no inspection.
(Make sure to cross at the East crossing in order to cancel your TIP.)
The last leg of our journey saw us doing 8 hour days with a “fun” stop each day.
In the end we had a life-altering experience.
We saw 23 of 32 states in Mexico along with 3 other countries. We saw many amazing things, and meet even more amazing people. We always expressed our love and respect for their countries knowing we were ambassadors for ours.
We helped people we meet along the way. (including one vehicle recovery !)
And they helped us see that there are good, kind, hard-working people wherever you go.
Don’t believe the media and their overdone reports of rampant crime and corruption. Yes it exists, but it does here too. Just do your homework, keep your situational awareness up, and be friendly (and don’t be a drunken ass like a lot of Gringos do) and you will have the time of your life!
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