What a Difference a Year Makes (Or Nogales to San Carlos, Redux)

I am very amused (but touched!) by the comments I got last night and this morning attempting to destress me about the border crossing today. If, on a scale of one to ten, one is driving from Haven to Assiniboia and ten is that bad feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that I should not hit the road, I was at a solid three last night and this morning. As a point of comparison, I’m at a two most travel mornings, unless I’m going to hit big city traffic (Montreal usually warrants an eight) or my budget is too tight to truly absorb something unexpected. I’d say I was at a seven last year. So I really wasn’t stressed out about today. 🙂

I tried to delay bedtime so I wouldn’t be up insanely early today, but I was out by 8:30 and awake around 4:40. *sighs* But I was in no rush, so I dozed until about 5:45 (how luxurious!). I’d done most of my packing last night, so I had just a few things to do this morning. I brought a load down to the truck, then went to the restaurant for breakfast. It was enchilada casserole with refried beans again, which suited me just fine. I also had fruit salad and just one cup of coffee since my bladder hates me! 😀

I’d filled out the comment card and it said to please drop it off at the front desk rather than leave it in the room, so I did that after leaving $5 for housekeeping as well as a very tidy room. Having done housekeeping myself, I know the feeling of dread as you enter a room that someone has been living in for several days without having had any service and the joy of getting a decent tip anyway.

By the time I got fuel, topped off the truck oil, did one last pit stop, and hit the road, it was about 7:05, ten minutes earlier than last year. There was no one at the American post, so I just drove through. Then, I got the green light at the first checkpoint! So far, so good! The first toll hadn’t changed, still $52 (all prices in pesos from this point forward!).

Kilometre 21 was a bit busier than last year and a real cautionary tale of doing some research when going to a foreign country and to never, ever, ever take anything for granted no matter how long you’ve been there! The woman ahead of me had a resident visa (or something like that) that she was supposed to have turned in when she left Mexico, but didn’t. They didn’t want to let her back in. It was ugly. As for the couple behind me, they are permanent residents and tried to bring in a US-plated vehicle, which is illegal. That was ugly, too. And then the people behind them were very impatient and complaining about the ‘bitchy’ immigration officer just doing her job. *sighs*

I got to the head of the queue in less than ten minutes and filled in my FMM. The officer gave it a once over, compared it to my passport, asked me how long I was staying in Mexico, and sent me off to Banjercito to pay, reminding me (still in Spanish) to come back and have the form stamped. I remembered to stop to have a copy of the form made, then got in line for payment. Remembering what Contessa told me last year, I paid for my vehicle import at the same time, rather than returning to immigration to have the form stamped, then going back to Banjercito for the vehicle stuff. Saved me a heap of time!

I did the whole TIP thing in Spanish without any problems. I think the only hiccup was that I wasn’t allowed to pay for the TIP itself (not the deposit) in pesos, only USD or with my Visa. Weird because I was allowed to pay my FMM fee in pesos. Anyway, nothing to be concerned about! The process felt very quick and easy and not at all convoluted like it did last year, since Contessa saved me those extra steps (thanks!).

Once the TIP was sorted out, I went back to immigration to have my FMM stamped. The officer now had other people helping her. She looked at me and said that she’d be a moment and made a slashing motion across her throat to show they were swamped. I told her I wasn’t in any hurry and the grateful smile she gave me made my day! Another gal ended up taking my FMM and dang was her Spanish fast. All I caught as she handed me back my receipt was ‘pide.’ Since that means ask/request/demand, I’m fairly certain she was telling me to hang onto it in case I’m asked for it…

I went back to the truck to put my holograma on my windshield and grab the wet wipes I had forgotten to put in my purse. There was a window washer trying to get some business (and some folks being absurdly rude to him — what is wrong with everyone?!). I called him over and had him give my windows a good cleaning while I went to the bathroom. This year, there was an attendant and paper, so I had to leave a tip.

So I was back on the road by, oh, 8:30ish, I believe, a little earlier than last year. I think I was there a total of forty minutes, tops.

I hit the road and within a couple of kilometres, I encountered my first of four narco (I’m assuming) checkpoints of the day. I was asked where I was coming from and going, the guy peeked through my topper window, and then I was on my way. Not more than two minutes later, I encountered the second checkpoint…

This one was very much like getting the red light last year. The first person I spoke to asked the same questions as I’d answered at the previous checkpoint, then I was told to pull over to an inspection area so they could check the back of my truck.

After a few minutes of wait, an officer came to ask me the same questions again, as well as how long am I planning to be in Maz, where am I stopping tonight and the name of the hotel, what I’m carrying, and more. He went over my FMM receipt, examined my holograma (first time I’ve had it checked), and requested my passport, as well as opening up the back and poking through my things.

This was absolutely fine as I have nothing to hide, but the interview was quite in depth and the man did not speak English. How the heck do non-Spanish speaking people get through situations like that?! My comprehension is definitely better than it was last year, especially since I’ve figured out that I don’t have to understand every word to understand what is being said to me. I still consider it miraculous when I’m asked a question, I give an answer, and it is what they want to hear!

After this, I was finally able to get some miles under me. It was a little chilly and drizzly, so that meant that I was in the mood for another coffee. I pulled into an Oxxo sometime before Magdalena and learned that you get charged for their smallest size of coffee if you have your own cup!

Sometime later, my coffee had been processed, so I pulled into a Pemex to use the bathroom. It had paper and soap, wow! I am thinking of starting a Bathrooms of Mexico website for the ladies. 😀 I left a tip here since I wasn’t a customer.

If you remember last year, I didn’t stop once between KM 21 and San Carlos, so we’re at two stops already for today. 🙂 The next stop I wanted to make was in Hermosillo to get my phone set up. Research told me to stay on the route through town to reach a Centro de Atencion a Clientes (full service store) next to the BMW dealership, but just a block or two after the turn off for the sort of bypass, I passed a different Centro de Atencion a Clientes! I did a U-turn, circled the block until I found parking, and headed inside.

This was so much easier than last year. For one thing, I knew what I needed and had an idea of the questions I was going to be asked. I registered at the entrance, saying that I needed a new Amigo SIM card for my phone and was sent immediately to a customer service associate. She processed me efficiently and her supervisor came by to tell me that there has been a huge change in the last year and I can call the US and Canada at the same rate as local calls. WOW! I do want to say that the standard Amigo rate sucks, so I’m still going to be favouring Skype! She got my order started, then sent me to the payment window.

There, I finally understood why I couldn’t do the internet refill in addition to the SIM card purchase at the same time — you need your phone number to do that and you don’t get a phone number till you have a SIM card. I paid my $149 and then went back to the first lady so she could activate my service. It took a few tries (ie. reboots) for my stupid phone to accept the SIM and I had to reiterate that, yes, I’ve used this phone with a TelCel SIM before. I’ll be so glad to upgrade my phone when I get home! But she finally got it working. Then, I went back to the payment window to buy 3GB of bandwidth good for one month ($400). That done, I sat down on a bench in the store to send the ALTO30 message to activate the discounted rate for data service and make sure I had service by checking in on Facebook. 🙂 Done, and easy peasy to boot!

It was only about an hour more to San Carlos, so I didn’t make any more stops, except for two more narco checkpoints, where I was just waved through. I pulled into Totonaka around 1:45. They didn’t have a cheap ($400) room available for me, so I had to take the $500 room that is identical, except that is has a TV…

I was ready for lunch by this point, so I headed across the street to Charly’s Rock for octopus tacos and beer. Two musicians asked me if I wanted to buy a song and I said yes! They serenaded me with a beautiful love song for several minutes and asked for $50. Very lovely!

My meal was excellent, of course, as was the view. It was supposed to be rainy in San Carlos this afternoon, but my luck continues and it was super hot and sunny. I just love this stop so much. It really is like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, or being dropped into colourized Oz!

After lunch, I walked to the Ley to get something to munch on tonight and for breakfast tomorrow, settling on a bag of bagels with some cream cheese since they didn’t have any savoury single bakery items. I had looked for a bakery while driving through Hermosillo, but didn’t see one. Anyway, bread and cheese are so cheap here that even if I don’t get through it all, there won’t be that much waste, financially speaking.

Finally, I got an ice cream for the walk back. 🙂

It’s so good to be back in Mexico! I can’t believe what a difference a year (and six months in this country) makes. I was comfortable on the drive down today, just as at ease as I am when traveling through the US and Canada, and feeling perfectly safe to stop when I needed to, as well as recognizing where to stop to do what I needed. Also, being comfortable with the currency really helps!

It’s now 4:30 and I’m rather beat. I think I need to accept that I’m on this super early morning schedule, completely wiped by late afternoon, and that this is fine as long as I get stuff done earlier in the day!

The only thing I need to do tomorrow is get to Guamúchil, so I don’t anticipate an early start, no matter what time I wake up. Then again, there is a pool at the other end… 🙂


Adios, Mexico — or San Carlos to Nogales, AZ

I left the motel just past nine this morning and decided to drive into San Carlos for fuel since I was running on fumes and wasn’t certain when I’d encounter a Pemex on 15. I only had 800 pesos left and wasn’t sure what I was looking at for tolls, so I decided to take on just 500 pesos and then top up with the credit card if needed. It was 9:30 when I hit the open road and I hoped to be in Nogales by 4:00, 3:00 local time

I saw this weird truck (RV?) as I was getting on the road. From the front and side, it looks like a UPS-type truck.

I saw this weird truck (RV?) as I was getting on the road. From the front and side, it looks like a UPS-type truck.

The first part of the day went by fast. By the time I was just shy of Hermosillo, my coffee had caught up with me and I really needed a bathroom. I pulled into the first Oxxo I saw, grabbed a coffee, paid for with my last 13 pesos of change, and only then learned that they didn’t have a bathroom. I was told to try the Pemex at the next corner.

So I did. The bathroom was inside an Extra convenience store and the cost was five pesos. I used it and then went to the cash to let them know that I was going to have to pay the five pesos with a 100 peso note. The lady looked at me funny and said, “Didn’t you just fill up with fuel?” I answered in the affirmative and she said no charge. Before y’all judge me, not only did the bathroom not have paper, soap, running water at the taps, or seats, IT DIDN’T HAVE A DOOR. I think I get a pass on this one!

Hermosillo was still under construction, but the detour wasn’t too bad, except for the nearly Quebec-sized potholes along one short stretch.

Goodbye ocean/coast, hello desert!

Goodbye ocean/coast, hello desert!

Before I knew it, The Big Military Checkpoint just before Santa Ana was upon me. 18-wheelers were backed up several kilometres, but there was almost no lineup for cars. The guy ahead of me had Arizona plates, was asked what appeared to be about dozen questions, and was instructed to pull over.

I pulled up and was greeted in clear Spanish. We had the following exchange:

-“Where are you coming from?”
-“San Carlos.”
-“San Carlos! And where are you going?”
-“Nogales!” Then something I didn’t catch.
-“Could you please repeat that?”
-This time I sort of got one word, “trae,” which I vaguely thought means carry. It actually means bring, so he was saying, “What are you bringing with you?”
-“You want to know what I have with me?”
-“Clothes and household things.”
-“Okay. Go ahead.”

So I did. Meanwhile, the guy who was ahead of me was being held at gunpoint while his vehicle was being searched!!!

I hit the E mark on the fuel tank just after the checkpoint, shocked that I’d made it that far. I can go quite some time on E without the you need gas now light coming on and having done nearly 300KM on a half tank already, I wasn’t stressed about running out of gas since the gas gods were obviously at work today. Can’t complain about my gas mileage so far!

I pulled into a rest area that had a Pemex and asked if they could take my credit card. The attendant asked me to show it to him and he said not a problem, but he’d have to run it through before pumping so I had to be sure about much I was putting in. Not a problem; this is just like pre-paying in Canada or the US. I then used the bathroom since I had a feeling it would be my last obvious opportunity before the border.

Driving through Santa Ana, I debated whether or not to stop for lunch and decided I wasn’t hungry. What a difference from when I came down, though, in that a) I wasn’t afraid to stop, and b) I saw tons of places I would have eaten at if I was hungry. When I came down, I didn’t know yet that the little roadside taco stands and such are okay to eat at.

Before leaving Mexico, you have to turn in your temporary vehicle import permit. Until this morning, I thought that meant having to go back into the immigration office/Banjercito and wait for ages to be served. But I got several comments that mentioned a booth and sure enough, there it was, well marked in advance for foreign-plated cars to get into the far right lane to turn in their permits. It was at most a five-minute wait to be served.

The attendant took my paperwork and then took photos of my license plate and a sticker on the inside of my door jamb that has the VIN number on it. She then scrapped the hologram off the windshield (leaving a nice mess), and that was that! Easy peasy. We’ll see how long it takes for the money to be returned to my credit card.

I’d checked the map before leaving this morning, so I knew to keep left when I hit Nogales. There was no signage for Nogales cuota or Mariposa Road or anything obvious to let you know the bypass was that way, just a sign in the other lane for Nogales downtown being that way.

I had to roll through the Mexican customs (nothing to do), then pay my last toll. Tolls today were 65 + 25 + 57 = 147 pesos, or about 12CAD.

Then, the border, and OMG. It was CHAOS. No lane markers, dozens of aggressive vendors, and tons of people weaving in and out trying to find the quickest path to the front of the line. I don’t think I could have handled it in an RV since signage for the RV lane was so slow to appear and I would have likely missed my turn for it. I arrived at 2:55 San Carlos time and just stayed in one spot, moving forward as I could. I got to the front of my imaginary line much more quickly than expected.

The customs official asked me for my plate type, which meant state because he didn’t realise he was holding a Canadian passport… He asked if I had any plants or produce and I said no. He said that they would have to check and to follow him to an inspection booth.

There, a very kind official promptly came over, asked me where I was coming from and where I was going, then informed me that I was being subject to an agricultural inspection. I made my declaration and then he said he had to go through all my stuff.

He had me open up the back, where I discovered that my tailgate isn’t opening again!!! WHAT?! He said that was okay, but I had to empty out everything and it was up to me to figure out how to do it without them needing to get a crowbar. I quickly replied that I never put the tailgate down while traveling and everything was packed to fit through the top (absolute truth). I began to pull out my bags and suitcases and crawled in to get the tote way at the back. I did not have to pull out the cot.

Let me pause here to say that I do NOT believe that emptying out the truck was an unreasonable request. Quite the contrary and I even packed for that eventuality making sure everything was containerized by category and that there were as few loose items as possible.

While I was getting my exercise, he was going through my bags and totes in the front and his partner was pulling off the lid off my tote from the back and just peering in before closing it.

I was then called over and the guy was holding up my chia seeds. My first thought, pardon the French, was “FUCK.” I declared them on the way down and was told that they were okay to bring across, so the thought of declaring them this way (not the same ones, I got more in Mexico) completely slipped my mind. I had declared no to seeds and was caught red handed. I told the guy all this and he said, “It’s okay, sweetie, but you got lucky that these are perfectly fine to bring across.” Yes, he called me ‘sweetie’!’

He then told me I could pack up and go. I just threw everything into the truck and took off. It was 3:24 when I was clear of customs, so the whole thing from arriving in line to being clear was just 29 minutes. Dang did it feel longer than that! But it was yet another very nice American border official (although his partner was rather Canadian in her business only, I don’t know how to smile attitude).

From the border, it was just a few minutes to the Motel 6, where I arrived just shy of four San Carlos time, or three local time!

Contessa wondered why I’m staying Nogales, and her question makes absolute sense to anyone who has been to Nogales. The answer is that any other options are too far away today and I really don’t feel like driving any further. It’s not like being in an RV and being able to pull over outside the city. Moreover, I have work to do in the morning and I knew that the rooms here would be clean, well suited to work with a proper desk, and with good wifi.

The rate was lower than in November, $42 with the taxes, so with the exchange rate about $50, same in CDN as in November. I asked for a room in the back, thinking it would be quieter, and got free wifi in exchange for giving them my email address. I am getting TelCel service, so I’m using up my Banda Ancha and Saldo Regalo, then will use the wifi.

After checking in with everyone, I went off in search of US cash and food. 100USD was 120CAD, OUCH. Because of the exchange rate being as bad as it is and my planning to be on the road for a full month, I am being mercilessly tight with my budget and am on a very strict spending schedule. I do have reserves for true emergencies, but otherwise, I have exactly as much as I anticipate gas and lodging will be, with about 10USD per day for food, however I want to spend that, and a little bit for incidentals and outings not covered by my Interagency pass.

I really don’t want to get home flat broke and am not on vacation the way I was in October. I am just trying to avoid getting home while it’s still cold and want you all to be prepared for the very likely eventuality that if the roads are passable through the mountains, I am going to decide to just get home already and start shooting north very fast. Vicki, I am still coming to visit if I choose to do this!

The good news is that I am a quarter of the way home already and even with the exchange rate, I’m now on inexpensive gas AND my gas mileage is greatly improved. I budgeted 1,000CAD for fuel. I knew that that was outrageous and that it shouldn’t be much more than 600 or 700CAD, but with the way I was burning through fuel on the way down, I wanted to be prepared. I spent 171CAD on the first quarter of my trip home at about 1.20CAD per litre. Arizona is at about 0.80CAD per litre right now, so I know that my fuel costs will be quite a bit less than 700CAD and nowhere nearly 1,000! I’ll have a better grasp on the number after I do another 1,000KM and I’ll be able to then release some funds back into the general budget for the end of the trip.

For food, I went to a restaurant I went to when I was here in November, ‘Panda Express’, which I think is a national chain. It’s American-Chinese food. I remembered being impressed by the crispy veggies and lean chicken, making for a decent and not too expensive takeaway option. I asked for one main course (grilled teriyaki chicken) and one side (steamed veggies), then accepted their offer to do half veggies, half chow mein (noodles) for the same price. The cost was about 6USD, which I thought was quite a good deal and the food was tasty and not too heavy. I really liked how tender crisp and generous the portion of broccoli, zucchini, celery, and carrots were and that it didn’t have that slimy coating veggies normally have at Chinese restaurants.

I’ll go down to Safeway in a bit and get a snack for tonight and something for breakfast. My only complaint about the rooms here is the lack of fridges and microwaves. I hope their coffee tomorrow will be as decent as it was in November so I don’t have to traipse all the way down to McDonald’s.

Checkout is noon tomorrow and then I will head east. I told clients I’ll be back at work Tuesday, so I’m hoping to get somewhere tomorrow where I’ll be able to get a decent weekly rate or that has super good nightly rates. I’m also considering not taking a motel and just working out of a library or something, but sleeping in my truck for a month is going to get old fast, so I wouldn’t mind starting the trip with one week at a motel and then roughing it for a bit. We shall see. Nothing is written in stone for the next four weeks, other than my visit to the South Dakota Black Hills!

Nogales, AZ, to San Carlos, MX

Once you get through the US post at the border crossing at the end of Mariposa Road in Nogales, there is no way to return for quite a while. You have to go over pieces of metal that would shred your tires if you go across them in the wrong direction. Then, you are on a closed toll (cuota) highway for quite a while. The highway opens to four lanes past the Mexican city of Nogales, and continues that way after the KM 21 checkpoint.

Generally speaking, the drive to San Carlos was tedious. The speed varied from 110KPH to 40KPH and there was a lot of construction. The road conditions were decent and it was fun to drive through small towns and see the contrast between grungy local shops and shiny big name chains like OXXO (convenience store) and AutoZone.

The biggest excitement of the day was the drive through the city of Hermosillo, the capital of the state of Sonora. There was a detour, but I just followed the signs for MX 15, as well as a whole parade of cars, and had absolutely no trouble. Really, after you’ve driven in Montreal and found your way out of Flagstaff, you can drive anywhere. 🙂 Part of the detour route would have been a little rough in an RV, but not too bad.

I quickly noticed that Mexican drivers do not believe in using turn signals, so I got into the habit myself of passing and merging without signalling. I’m already living like a Mexicana! 🙂 There really wasn’t much traffic the whole way down to San Carlos, not even in Hermosillo, and this was a good way to ease me into Mexican driving. I’m not a very aggressive driver and I was worried I’d have a tough time down here, but so far, so good!

I was just about ready to pull into a Pemex station and beg for a bathroom when I saw the big ‘El Valiente’ sign that was my clue that the exit to San Carlos was coming up! It was coming on 1:00 and pulled into Totonaka RV Park at about 1:15, almost exactly six hours since leaving Nogales. I made good time! Croft recommended that I stay in one of the rooms the park has to rent. Unfortunately, their rates are quite a bit higher than on the website, 40USD for the least expensive room, rather than 25USD. I’m staying two nights for sure, then will possibly get a tent site for 15USD if I’m stuck here because of the storm.

My room wasn’t ready, so I was invited to park, using the public restrooms, and sit outside for a bit with the WiFi. I was also offered a map of town if I wanted to go exploring. I was hungry and Croft had recommended a restaurant, Charly’s Rock, right across the street, so I headed there.

This is a seafood restaurant open to the beach (the Sea of Cortez!!!!!!) with an amazing view! What a place to unwind with a cold beer! I ordered a Pacifico, which turned out to be delicious, and sipped it while munching on tortilla chips, salsa, and limes while I perused the menu. San Carlos is a gringo community, so I expected the menu to be bilingual. Nope! I read it slowly, occasionally looking up words on an app I downloaded to my iPhone.

The chips and salsa were good and quite filling, so I decided to get something light, with my eyes finally resting on the words ‘ceviche al coco’, thin fish filet with coconut milk and serrano peppers. I had no idea if serrano peppers would burn off my taste buds, but I decided to be brave and try it! For those who aren’t familiar with ceviche, it’s fish or seafood ‘cooked’ in acid, usually lemon or lime juice.

I was almost done with my beer by the time the meal came. It was beautiful! I took a sip of the liquid and my taste buds were flooded by the acidity of the lime juice cut by the sweetness of the coconut milk. The peppers added flavour, but no heat; same thing with the red onions. The fish was soft and melted in my mouth. There was also a little avocado and plenty of crackers to soak up the juice. Yum, yum, yum. 🙂

When I was done, I flagged down the server and asked for the cuenta, which came to 135MXN. I added 20MXN for a tip. I still can’t wrap my brain around the money and keep reminding myself to remove a decimal point to make the sums easier to stomach!

I left the restaurant and walked up towards the centro to check out the supermarket. I found an ice cream place on the way back and got a small cone. There was a dizzying array of flavours, most of which I did not recognized, so I asked for chocolate and was offered Rocky Road and some other kind. I asked for ‘No Rocky Road, el otro.’

When I got back to the RV park, my room was ready. It is small, but adequate, with a clean bathroom and a very hard bed. I am tempted to grab my mattress out of the truck! I have a fridge, but no microwave. I really need to figure out how to get coffee tomorrow morning! 🙂

So I’m really in Mexico, using pesos and speaking Spanish! Wow! I’m so proud of myself. 🙂

Driving here, I couldn’t help but marvel at the brave souls who do so with little to no knowledge of the language. I’ve been cautious about over estimating my Spanish skills, but after the last few days, I know that they are much better than I realised, well beyond the basics of where’s the bathroom and I want a beer! I mean, I have negotiated rent on an apartment, rented motel rooms, bought currency, ordered meals, paid tolls, and done a few things at the border all with what I learned 20 years ago! All those late night Tuesdays and Thursdays of conversation class are finally paying off!