Tips for RVing in Mexico
by Stephanie Bernhagen
We traveled to Mexico with our rig for the first time this winter. What an adventure! I would recommend you not even consider going without Church's Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping. I don't know how you would ever find the campgrounds without this book!
Plan on spending $11 to $22 a night for campgrounds that often do not have sufficient power to safely plug in. We dumped 5 gallon jugs of purified water in our tanks. Using the public showers helped conserve our water. Some of our group used tap water with bleach added and had no problem.
You do need to get stickers for your motorized vehicles and tourist visas when you visit Mexico. This is time consuming, confusing and a hassle. And you have to return them when you leave Mexico or they may not let you in the next time you want to visit. Church's book also gives you good information on crossing the border.
There are a lot of restrictions on what food you can take across the border. Check before you go to see what the restrictions are at the time. Beef was the big one this time, but we also had been told no chicken, pork, eggs and most produce items. But don't worry, grocery stores in the larger communities were as good or better than many of those in the states. Markets, which are in the downtown areas, varied a lot. We would buy produce, fish and cheese at some and not touch it at others. You will know which ones you feel comfortable buying at.
We had been told to take paper products as they were not as good in Mexico. We took toilet paper, but bought paper towels and Kleenex in Mexico. The Kleenex was okay, but the paper towels were not great. Napkins are also much smaller than what we get in the US. I guess they don't make as much of a mess when they eat as we do!
We also found we could not buy good pickles in Mexico. Salad dressing was limited in choice and came in very small bottles. Peanut butter also only came in small containers and only came in creamy. Produce is priced by the kg, which is 2.2 pounds. The cost of produce was very inexpensive and meat was generally less than in the US. You do need to soak produce in a product like Microdyn, which you can buy at any grocery store. I took a bucket just for soaking produce so I could recycle the water Microdyn solution for several bunches of produce.
Roads are something else to consider when going to Mexico. There are libres or free roads and cuotas or toll roads. We had three motorhomes and two fifth-wheels in our group. The motorhomes quickly decided they wanted to travel the cuotas as they were struggling with rougher, narrower roads. The topes, speed bumps, were especially hard for the motorhomes and most towns had topes. The topes were better marked than I expected, but you still had to watch closely because there were topes that were not marked and were hard to see in some towns. The cuotas took vehicles around the towns. The drawback was they were expensive, some as much as $1 for every three miles.
Paul and I traveled the libres almost the entire time. We wanted to experience the country and felt like we would miss a great deal by traveling the cuotas. The only time we had a major problem with things shifting was actually when we traveled on a cuota that was rough.
Maps are not like US maps. We would look at different maps and no two maps have the same highway number for the same road. And none of the maps agreed with the signs on the actual highway either. One of the couples traveling with us got a Mexican Atlas from Amazon.com. It's in English this way instead of Spanish if you wait until you get to Mexico. It gave more detail than a foldout map and helped a great deal with the big cites. Money well spent. You also need to know which towns are on the route you are traveling because signs tell you where the road goes by town names. The signs are not consistent with which town goes on the sign for a particular route so one may say one town and the next may say another town.
Another driving tip is being aware that the left turn signal is often used to help the person behind you pass. We thought this would be confusing, but it was a huge help both for us and those behind us, on the libres. You also need to be alert to where left turns are made from. Some are made just like in the US and others are made from the right hand lane or a special road to the right of the road you are traveling. This didn't cause a problem, as long as you were alert to what the method of turning left was in the different areas.
Some parks offered laundry service where you drop it off in the morning and get it back in the afternoon. We enjoyed letting someone else do this chore! It was interesting to find you had to pay to park as some of grocery stores and even Sam's Club in Mazatlan! And if you didn't have to pay to park you were expected to tip the parking lot attendant who goes around blowing a whistle helping you find a parking spot and get in and out of the parking lot. More often than not you were also expected to pay a few pesos to use the bathroom.
Communications with the US were easier than we expected. Before you go to Mexico you should do two things.
- Figure out who you might have to contact in the US - credit card companies, insurance companies, brokers, etc. - and get non-800 numbers from them. Most US 800 numbers do not work in Mexico.
- Buy a calling card that works internationally. We had an AT&T card that we got at Sam's Club. Then contact the calling card company and get an access phone number to use in Mexico. We had been told we would need a Ladatel card - Mexican Phone Company - to initiate our calls using our AT&T card. After some trial and error we found the AT&T card worked without the Ladatel card. You can use the Ladatel card to call the US or get an AT&T card at Sam's Club in Mexico, but they will cost more to use than getting one before you leave the US.
We also did e-mail several times a week at Internet cafés. Even the smallest communities normally had an Internet café and some RV Parks had a computer or two available. The cost was generally $1 to $2.50 an hour. I generally did some e-mail in MS Word on my computer and put it on a floppy disk to transfer into e-mail at the Internet café. This was a real time saver. It also gave me a method of copying e-mails I wanted to read later. One couple traveling with us took their computer to the Internet café and connected via an Ethernet cable. Two others used PocketMail with their calling cards.
Several of us were concerned about elderly parents in the US. One of the couples traveling with us had a daughter who teaches Spanish, so she was recruited to act as a go between for our parents and us if they needed to call us at a campground that did not speak English. While we never needed to use this resource we traveled with fewer worries.
NOTE: Since Stephanie and Paul made their trip, there are now other options available for staying in touch. You can purchase a SIM card specific to Mexico for your cell phone. See this article about cellular coverage in Mexico. Friends who were in San Miguel de Allende this past winter used Skype on their computers to make calls. The quality was excellent.
As a minimum you will need to get liability insurance for your rig and tow/toad vehicle. Prices vary from company to company. Know what you have for coverage in the US and be sure you confirm it by reading the policy yourself. One of the couples traveling with us had been told they had comprehensive in Mexico for their tow truck by their US insurance company. Just before leaving she read the policy and discovered that wasn't they case.
Also check out what the Mexico insurance policy offers in travelers assistance coverage. Paul's mother died while we were in Mexico. His plane ticket home was $1200 and it took 3 days to get a flight out of Mazatlan. While we are still trying to process this cost through our travel assistance coverage - which added an additional $20 to the policy - it appears we will be reimbursed. Another friend’s mother died while she was in Mazatlan and their Mexico policy did not have this coverage.
You do not need to speak Spanish to travel in Mexico, although it would make your trip much richer. We carried a Spanish - English dictionary in the truck and would look up what signs said as we traveled. We found that we didn't pronounce Spanish correctly in the Mexican's eyes. Therefore it was often easier to translate our questions on a piece of paper and let the person we were talking to read it. The Mexicans were very kind about trying to communicate with us, and even helping us learn a few words. It was quite an experience to speak in a combination of Spanish, English and hand language. We only had one time when we didn't get what we ordered in 6 weeks however. What was really strange was when someone would speak to me in English and I automatically responded in Spanish before it hit me I had been spoken to in English.
Here are just a few of our highlights:
- We felt so welcome by the Mexicans, without even getting out of our vehicles. The kids and even the adults would wave and smile big at us. Some would flash their lights. It took a little while to figure out that they were just saying hi!
- San Blas, between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, has a wonderful Jungle Boat Ride. The small boat takes you out through channels cut out of the jungle trees to see the birds. The best trip is the first of the morning before the birds are disturbed. We are not bird or boat people, but we really enjoyed this trip. San Blas is known for their bugs, but if you stay at Playa Amor RV Park south of San Blas you will be right on the ocean and won't have to deal with the bugs.
- Guanajuato was a favorite for us. It is a mining community NE of Guadalajara. Guanajuato is a beautiful, brightly painted community on a mountainside with streets running in tunnels under the town.
- Creel is the perfect place to see the Copper Canyon from. It is a quiet community where many of the people in the area are Tarahumara Indians. The women's dresses are extremely bright and beautiful. Down in the canyon the Tarahumara Indian men wear a white cloth wrapped around as shorts with a triangular piece of the material hanging down in the rear.
From Creel we drove to Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon. The road to Batopilas is 64 kilometers of gravel, which is easily driven with a high clearance vehicle. However if you are not comfortable narrow rough roads with steep drop offs you may want to consider hiring a guide to take you down. (To read the full account go to A trip down Copper Canyon)
While we didn't, you can take the train from Creel to El Fuerte and back. Some people really enjoy this trip and others feel it is much too long. However you can break it up by stopping in a couple communities along the way though. The train is inexpensive at $50 for the first class train and $25 for the second class train one-way if you buy the ticket yourself. If you buy a package it will cost a lot more.
Will we return to Mexico? Probably someday. It took 10 years for Paul to get brave enough to go, but the very first day we both knew we would be okay traveling alone in Mexico. It isn't necessary to spend the big bucks to go with a caravan, just go with a few friends who have been before and who you know will stick with you until you feel comfortable. The experience is well worth the challenges you will face!
Back to A trip down Copper Canyon