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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkTales of Retirement in Paradise 

Chapter 5: Hit The Road
email this pageprint this pageemail usPolly G. Vicars

Husband capturing the beauty of the desert in full bloom when driving from Puerto Vallarta to San Diego.

One of the many interesting sights you might see while driving in Mexico. This one was actually taken by friend Lynn Nokes.
It took a couple of years of retirement before it finally dawned on us that we had the time to really see the world while traveling. We didn't have to sit in an airplane with the beauty gliding by, unseen, beneath us; we could drive to our destinations. We began to travel by van.

Recently we drove through the deserts of Arizona and Baja California on our way to two Elderhostels - one, canoeing on the lower Colorado River and the other, studying whales and dolphins in beautiful San Diego. You'll have to wait for the next book to hear about those adventures... Now I'll just say that we saw real sand dunes, like in "Lawrence of Arabia" and oases of date palms and tropical flowers right square in the middle of the Baja. We saw Arizona's Sonora Desert in full bloom, and we had a restful eighteen hour ferry ride from La Paz on the Baja to Mazatlán on the mainland.

Our friends question our sanity when we tell them we drive from Puerto Vallarta to Yuma - to Houston - to Las Vegas - to Lexington - to San Diego. They invariably ask, "Aren't you afraid? Aren't the roads awful? What do you do when you have car trouble? Do you have to sleep in your car? Are there gas stations? Do you need a four-wheel drive?" (Unbelievably, after 20 years, they still ask those questions which points to the lack of knowledge about Mexico by its neighbors to the North.)

We have been asked all of those questions and then some. We have fun telling about the México-USA trips, and about the trip we took all the way down México's Pacific Coast to the border of Guatemala, up through the mountains of Chiapas, along the Gulf of México to Mérida, and across the Yucatán to Cancún. That was the six-week trip that started with the clutch problem, remember? Once we got past Manzanillo with the new clutch, we neither encountered a single bandido, had to sleep in our car, nor ran out of gas.

However, we do religiously follow several rules. We never drive after dark - not so much because of the bandidos, but because of the burros. México has no "fence law," thus burros, cows, horses, goats, not to mention pigs, chickens and other domestic animals wander onto the highway. Of course, there really are a few bandidos, so common sense dictates that you take precautions. Luckily, unlike the USA's drive-by shooters, bandidos usually want only your money, not your life.

We obey the posted speed limits, although this forces many to pass us as if we were standing still. We believe the road signs that announce "no gasoline for seventy-five kilometers" and fill up as soon as possible. (Now gas stations are ubiquitous on Mexico's highways, so those signs have disappeared.) We stay on the alert for the topes, those speed bumps used extensively all over México that can "jump up" and crack your axle. Following those simple rules and using common sense, we find driving in México an exciting experience.

Besides the clutch incident, we have had various minor car problems in our hours of driving on Mexican roads; all had happy conclusions that sent us on our way with smiles on our faces and a smooth running van. I'll admit one advantage we have is that we drive a Volkswagen. (We now drive a Nissan Pathfinder that has given us so little trouble over its now 10 year life that I can't speak to Nissan mechanics.) Every pueblo in this country has at least one store selling VW parts and at least one mecanico who knows the inside of the VW as he knows the inside of his casa.

Additionally, our increasing facility with the Spanish language makes asking for directions a much easier task. If you stop to ask the whereabouts of a mecanico or a parts store, the odds are one hundred to one that the person will offer to lead you to your destination. We have been led by ambulances, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. If the person has no transportation and it is too far to walk, he will offer to go with you or send his son, wife, or sister with you to guide you on your way. Either way, you will find what you are seeking and perhaps make a new friend in the bargain.

What about breaking down out in the boondocks? You will find no other people in the world so willing to stop and help a stranded motorist as the Mexican people. Additionally, México has come up with a unique and effective way to help anyone with problems on the road. A troop of "Green Angels" patrols the roads with extra parts, gasoline, etc., and offers expert help for the cost of the parts they supply. These guys are well trained to meet any road emergency and the sight of that green truck when you are on the side of the road with a broken water pump is a welcome one indeed.

When we decide it is time to call it a day, we have learned to ask to see the room before checking into a hotel or motel. This learning took place after pulling into a beautifully landscaped motel behind a high wall. We saw that each motel room had its own enclosed garage and we thought "Wow! How nice!" Then I went into the office to book a room and was told they did not accept credit cards - only cash in advance. (Neither the enclosed garage nor the cash in advance were "business as usual," but innocents abroad - we engaged the room.)

After parking the van in our enclosed garage, we walked into a large, brightly furnished room with a mirror on the ceiling. I turned on the TV; naked bodies in weird positions performed on every channel. At last, the light came on in both of our heads - we had booked a room in a high-class house of ill repute. However, feeling very protected in our private quarters behind that high wall, we settled in for the night and took advantage of the amenities! (We actually looked for another motel of similar amenities on a later trip. This time they looked us over and politely told us to move along as this wasn't the place for us!)

Going north from Vallarta to Mazatlán is about a seven-hour drive on two-lane highways. From Mazatlán to the border at Nogales is another eighteen-hour drive, but all on four lane roads. These four lane highways are cuota or toll roads that are well maintained and have clean comfortable rest areas with all the needed facilities. The toll charges change with regularity, but it is well worth whatever the charge!

When we take our Mexican plated automobile into the United States, we have to have U.S. insurance for the length of time we will be there. We buy ours in Vallarta before we leave, but it can also be bought at most of the border crossings.

If you enter México in an American plated car there are various requirements you must meet. These requirements change often! Check with the nearest Mexican Consul before leaving so that you can be sure to have the necessary papers with you. Your U.S. auto insurance is invalid in México. While the law does not require you to have Mexican insurance, if you have an accident without it, regardless of fault, you are taken directly to jail. (I think that is still the case, but you had better check as insurance might be compulsory now.) I suggest a stop at the border to buy this relatively inexpensive insurance.

The roads going south from Vallarta are not as good as those leading north, but we find improvements each time we drive them. However, whether you are traveling on two lanes or four, going north or south, driving on México's roads is a colorful experience which will bring many serendipitous happenings into your life. ¡Que les vaya bien! (While we are not taking as many long trips as we used to, all the rules of the road from then still apply and I'll bet my bottom dollar that if you break down or get lost, there will still be someone to come to your rescue with a helping hand and a smiling face. Viva México!)

Polly G. Vicars and her husband of 57 years, Hubert (a.k.a. "Husband") retired to Puerto Vallarta in 1988 and soon became active members of several charitable organizations. Polly is the author of "Tales of Retirement in Paradise: Life in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico" [a sell-out!] and "More Tales of Retirement in Puerto Vallarta and Around the World." Proceeds from the sale of her books go to the America-Mexico Foundation, a scholarship foundation that is their passion.

Click HERE for more articles by Polly Vicars.

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