What were we thinking?!
Posted by Tony & Cheri on August 26, 2011
We are coming up on an anniversary. On August 27, 2005 we pulled up in front of the Zanzibar Hotel (soon to be renamed the Luna Blue Hotel) in Playa Del Carmen to start our new life in Mexico. Six years ago. Wow.
People ask why we did it. The truth is there really wasn’t any one reason. Like many people, we spent a lot of vacations on the beaches in Mexico. We would often would sit there margarita in hand and say to each other, “We should live here.” But we never really thought it would happen. We would just listen to those Jimmy Buffet songs and dream.
We had a good life in San Francisco. Tony had been a lawyer for over 30 years and Cheri was an IT business analyst with a large international corporation. We had a nice home and many good friends. Yet, as we had grown older and more established, we felt that perhaps a little mid-life adventure was in order. Our son was grown and had started his own life, and we felt that we now had a chance to do something…well…a little crazy. Perhaps we were feeling what singer/songwriter Michael McCloud calls “middle age madness.”
Whatever the reason, we decided that a few years living and working in another country would be a great adventure, and so we bought a run down little hotel on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen.
We had found the Zanzibar Hotel in the spring of 2004, almost bought it, then almost bought something else, then came back to the Zanzibar and finally reached an agreement with the sellers in December of 2004. We took over on February 1, 2005. We spent the next six months preparing for our move, and then in August we started out for the new life.
No, we don’t regret doing it. Sure there have been rough spots and some difficult times: Hurricane Wilma, dishonest contractors, local ex-pat con men, dengue fever, the swine flu hysteria, and a world wide recession, among others. And we do miss being near our family and friends in California. We also miss San Francisco, one of the truly beautiful cities of the world. Still, our life here has been rewarding, often lovely and never dull. Most of all we got what we wanted…an adventure.
To celebrate this anniversary we thought we would re-post our very first blog entry, which recounts our drive from San Francisco to Playa Del Carmen in August of 2005. We hope our readers will enjoy hearing about it (again). And we hope it might inspire others to seek out their dreams. So here it is:
The Ultimate Road Trip
The Journey Begins
We had planned to leave San Francisco on Monday, August 15th, 2005. And we did…by about five minutes. The day had been insane. We had been up all night finishing the packing and cleaning. In the end, we were hauling things out the back door as our new renters were coming in the front door.
We were moving in a 15 passenger Chevy van with most of the seats pulled out to make room for our important stuff. What we decided to take or not take led to some interesting “discussions” between us. “You want to take that? Well, if you’re taking that I’m taking this!” This explains why we have a suitcase full of Cheri’s favorite cosmetics and shampoos and also have Tony’s favorite carved wooden trunk from Belize featuring voluptuous bare breasted mermaids, Amazons and angels (you have to see it to appreciate it). Just think about it. If you were leaving the country and could only keep a 10 ft by 5 ft by 4 ft square container of everything you own and have accumulated through the years, what would you take? We found the answers very surprising.
We dubbed the van “the Big Bastard” in homage to the world’s best (only) Aztec Priestess/Vampire/Erotic Dancer Action Movie, “From Dusk ‘til Dawn.” Those who have seen this classic will remember George Clooney commandeering Harvey Keitel’s RV and telling him to “point this big bastard” towards Mexico. It seemed appropriate. At 11:30 at night we were tying our 12 ft sea kayaks to the roof. With three cats and an English bulldog in tow we finally…FINALLY…rolled out of San Francisco around 11:50 that night.
We were sad to be sure. SF had been our home for thirty years. We had met here, married here and raised our son here. Still, we knew this was the right choice and so with our hearts in our throats we headed out for the 4000 mile journey to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. That night we got as far as Sacramento. We were bone tired. We had not slept in almost forty-eight hours, and so we decided that safety required a rest stop. We crashed at the Sacramento home of Cheri’s brother Don and his son Curtis. We spent two days sleeping and resting up. We also got a lot of help and attention from another of Cheri’s brothers, Dean, and his wife Ali. Thank you, guys. You were all great.
Thursday August 18, 2005
Before going any further, let’s talk about the pets for a moment. We were traveling with three cats, Shammy (world’s fattest cat), Carib (bitchiest little princess of a feline you will ever meet) and Belle (tiny, sweet and almost twenty years old). We were also taking our English Bulldog, Huggybear. Have you ever been in an enclosed space with a Bulldog after it has eaten? Enough said.
We had originally planned to put the cats in carriers and put them and Huggybear in the cab with us. Did NOT work. Not only was there no room once the carriers were inside, but the cats hated it. They howled, they sprayed, and they generally turned the cab into a feline hell. By the time we left Sacramento we had abandoned the carriers and let everyone loose in the cab with us. We put in water, food and a litter box. Everyone liked this better except for Carib the Princess who threw up…twice. But eventually even she got the hang of it. In preparation for the trip with the cats, we had gone to AAA and bought “Traveling with Your Pet,” which lists pet-friendly hotels by state. After we bought it, we realized we could have gotten the same information from the free (for members) state “tour guide” books. (This was the first money we spent needlessly, but certainly not the last.) Reviews of hotels in AAA’s tour guides list whether or not they take pets (look for the little dog symbol). A lot of hotels charge an extra fee for pets, and others will let them in for free.
In preparation for our trip, the consulate in San Francisco told us we needed an International Health Certificate and a rabies certificate for each pet. We read on the internet that these documents had to be dated no more than 72 hours before crossing the border. However, other sources said this was not the case, and the consulate in San Francisco said they simply needed to be a couple of weeks before our trip. We got ours approximately two weeks before we reached the border. We got these certificates from our local SPCA for a grand total of about five hundred bucks. We put these documents in our “important papers” folder to have them ready for anyone who asked to see them at the border or in Mexico. Of course, no one at any time ever asked to see them or concerned themselves about our pets. More money we could have avoided spending-again, it wasn’t the last.
One final point on the mascotas (pets): at the Consulate’s office in SF, they told us without question that we could take no food of any kind into Mexico, including pet food. We therefore budgeted the pets’ food with the idea that it would be gone by the time we reached the border and that we would buy more food (at more expensive Mexico prices) on the way. At the border, although we planned to throw the rest of our pet food away, we changed our minds at the last minute. Let’s see what they do, we decided. What they did was nothing. We could have brought a years supply along and nobody would have cared it seemed.
All right, enough about the animals. Now, back to the trip.
We spent the next several hours on the road and expressed our relief that we had not been attacked by banditos, rabid dogs or heavily armed Federales. Of course we were still in California’s central valley, but we felt encouraged nonetheless. Around midnight we pulled into Pasadena and stopped at a motel that AAA had said took pets. We unloaded the animals into the room and called Domino’s Pizza (the only thing still open at that hour in Pasadena). Once the pizza arrived (pepperoni and mushrooms) we popped open a bottle of fine champagne given to us by our dear friend Walid in SF. Thus, the first day of our new life in the tropics ended in a Super 8 motel in Pasadena eating bad pizza and drinking great wine out of plastic cups. We knew then this was going to be one hell of a journey.
Friday August 19, 2005
The next morning we headed out on Interstate 10 going east. This part of the trip can best be described as tedium interspersed with Denny’s and IHOPS. We crossed over into Arizona and began to take note of interesting road signs such as the ones that announced a prison area and suggested that drivers not pick up hitchhikers. DUH!
We passed through Phoenix while playing Isaac Hayes’ 20 minute version of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” (“Hot Buttered Soul” 1969, possibly the greatest R&B Album ever made-editorial comment by Tony) and continued southeast on 10. Since Tony is a HUGE history buff and an absolute fanatic about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, we decided to stop and spend the night in Tombstone, site of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Leaving 10, we found the road to Tombstone was a dark, narrow two-lane highway that seemed to go on forever. Actually it was only 20 miles, but it turned out to be good practice for Mexico. We even saw a new sign: “Watch for Animals next 114 Miles.” We checked into the Overlook Best Western in Tombstone. It was a real find. Clean, pleasant, with a friendly staff. They took pets and had a large outdoor fire pit which guests sat around in the desert evening.
Saturday August 20, 2005
The next morning we stepped out of our room to an unbelievable vista. Tombstone is in a quiet desert valley surrounded by towering mountains. In these mountains the great Cochise united the Apache nations and Geronimo raided the valleys below. You can feel the years past seep into your skin just standing there. And of course, just down the road was the OK Corral.
Tombstone is a tourist attraction with period piece restaurants and shop owners dressed as gunfighters. Still, it was fun. Most importantly, Tony got to take Cheri on the exact same path the Earps and Doc Holliday took to the OK Corral. (“Whoop-de-doo”- editorial comment by Cheri). The actual site of the gunfight was a small alleyway now surrounded by a fence. They have these hokey animatronic robots standing where the actual participants were, but it was still pretty cool.
On the way out of town we stopped at a small store for snacks and water. A group of nice folks sat around the stove (yeah, just like on the Walton’s). An elderly lady spoke up and said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but can I ask where you are going with those kayaks?” They thought it was pretty funny to see ocean kayaks in the middle of the desert. And when we told them we were on our way to the Caribbean Sea they really cracked up. They wished us well, but it was pretty obvious they thought we were crazy!
We returned to Highway 10 and continued southeast. We passed through the rest of Arizona, a small patch of New Mexico and on into Texas. On the way we stopped at a Quicki-Mart type place for provisions. A friendly cashier asked “Where y’all from? “ San Francisco,” we answered. “And where y’all going?” she asked. “Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast of Mexico,” we answered. She stared at us for a moment wondering if we were lost or just nuts. She finally responded, “Y’all know you’re still in Arizona, don’tcha?” We assured her we knew where we were and then continued on our way. We drove to El Paso which was much bigger than we expected. We also noted a number of pawn shops and gun stores confirming our presence in the Lone Star State. Late that night we stopped in Van Horn, Texas which did not seem to be any more than a truck stop with multiple hotels and fast food places. We chose a Best Western only because the one in Tombstone was so good. It was the right choice. And while checking in we discovered that the owners were from San Francisco. Cue puppets to sing “It’s a Small World After All.” There were friendly exchanges and then to bed.
Sunday August 21, 2005
The next day we took 10 into San Antonio. Did anybody mention that Tony is a history freak? Of course we decided to stay overnight in San Antonio so that Tony could visit the Alamo the next day. That night we had dinner on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. Well done renovation, great restaurants and pretty surroundings all on the bank of the river. A lot of fun, if a little pricey. We stayed a few blocks away at the La Quinta. Good motel. Reasonable, clean and secure.
Monday August 22, 2005
The next morning we went to visit the Alamo. We expected something a little touristy but found instead that the preservation and presentation were really well done and very moving. The grounds are beautiful, tranquil gardens. The only remaining structures of the original fort/mission are the “Long Barracks” which is now a museum and the church which is now the Alamo Shrine. Even Cheri who is not a big historical site fan was impressed. Its combination of history and referential honoring of the dead reminded us of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was well worth the stop.
After leaving San Antonio we said goodbye to Highway 10 and we headed south to the border on 87. We figured to spend one more night in the U.S. to avoid crossing into Mexico late in the day. We knew we wanted to cross the border early in the morning to give ourselves as much time as possible with Mexican Customs and Immigration, and to still allow us drive time to avoid spending the night in Matamoros because of the reports of increasing border violence and crime. Our plan had been to stay in Brownsville, Texas that night, but while looking at the map we saw how close South Padre Island was to the border. Hmmm, let’s see. Spend the night in a trucker hotel on the border or find a beach front place on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. No brainer.
South Padre Island is about 30 minutes from the main highway south. The island has a Gulf side and a bay (mainland facing) side accessible by a bridge (upon which traffic stops if pelicans are crossing). There are tons of budget hotels as the island makes its living from crazed college students during spring break and crazed suburban families during the summer months. The summer season was over when we got there so we had the place to ourselves. We stayed at a nice Travelodge and finished the day drinking Margaritas and eating fried shrimp and oysters at a beach front bar called Wanna Wanna.
Tuesday August 23, 2005
We started out this day with whoops, hollers and high-fives. We were on our way to Mexico. We cruised down highway 49 from South Padre Island to Brownsville and asked directions to the border. We were sent to a small bridge called the International Bridge (very original) which we crossed after paying our two dollar toll. We drove into our adopted country to fanfare and celebration. Well, not exactly. Actually we drove in without any sign of Immigration or Customs. We were in Mexico and nobody seemed to care. For one brief moment we thought, “Hell, let’s just keep driving,” but saner thoughts prevailed (Cheri’s of course) and we did a u-turn back to the border, parked the Big Bastard and went into the Mexican Border Patrol offices.
We found the appropriate customs office and presented our manaje de casa. Mexican law allows families moving to Mexico to do a one time only transportation of their household goods tax free. This requires the creation of a comprehensive list of all items being transported known as the manaje de casa. There are certain restrictions (only one computer per person, no new items, etc.). The list is given to the local Consulate who then approves and stamps it. The stamped list is then to be given to Customs at the border who then verifies that the approved list matches the actual items being imported and then the tax is waived…in theory.
After passing our list around to several people with obvious confusion as to its purpose, we were told that we would have to enter Mexico at the other point of entry in Brownsville/Matamoros, which is the Veterans Bridge (not the bridge we had taken). We were then sent back into the U.S. (paying another toll of course, both to Mexico on leaving and to the US on entering).
We found the Veterans Bridge and crossed over. Another toll payment, please. Again, the Customs office. Again no one seeming to understand why we were there. Eventually after an hour or two and several people saying they could not help us, a nice Customs official with reasonable English (better than our Español), told us we needed to hire a customs broker.
Customs brokers are licensed businesses who assist in the importation of goods to Mexico for a fee. In San Francisco, the Consulado staff had told us we did not need a broker since the amount we were importing was so small. Wrong! How much would the broker cost we asked. The fee for the broker would be about $400.00 to have him assist us in gaining a “tax free” entry into Mexico. We asked if the tax would be cheaper and we were assured it was, about $200.00. Great, we said, we will just pay the tax. Lo siento, that is not possible. Since we were entering with work visas, a broker, according to this customs official, was required by law (a law the SF Consulado knew nothing about). How long would this take we inquired. About three hours unless we wanted to return tomorrow morning in which case our papers would already be processed by the broker. So back to the States we went, paying one more toll. We went back to South Padre Island, back to the Wanna Wanna. And back to the shrimp, oysters and margaritas. Hasta mañana.
Miercoles 24 de Agosto, 2005
The next day we returned to the border. We had been told that our papers would be completely processed by 10 a.m., so we arrived at 11 just to give them more time. Of course the broker did not even start our papers until 30 minutes after we got there. The work of the broker, which took another two hours, seemed to be no more than issuing a single document saying that we were responsible for the accuracy of the manaje de casa, not him. He asked us no questions other than our estimation of the value of our belongings, and he examined none of the contents of the van. Finally we were told that the process was done and that we were required to pay $400 cash, which we did. We were then told by the broker that the paper work still did not guarantee our passing through Customs. The agent told us that the Customs officials would now go through all of our things and that it would take several hours. HOWEVER, a small gift of $100 to the customs official would avoid this difficulty. We paid. We were then told that there was a $10 “processing fee.” We paid. The customs inspectors then came to our van, opened the doors, glanced inside, closed the doors and waved us through. Our tax free entry across the border had cost us a mere $510 plus two days in a motel and numerous bridge tolls. Welcome to Mexico Mr. and Mrs. Head!
We headed south for Tampico. The map from AAA said the road was 180. The map from Walmart said it was 101. Road signs seem to use both designations. We learned that in Mexico one highway may have several different names or numbers. Sometimes two roads or even three roads going in several directions would have the same highway number. It may have been that the highways were going in different compass directions, i.e., 180 south or 180 north, etc. But there was nothing on the signs to indicate the direction. You had to pick one of the roads and hoped you picked the right one. We also found that there is an amazing lack of reliable maps for Mexico on both sides of the border. Our maps omitted most towns, added some we couldn’t find, misrepresented the types of roads and generally couldn’t be trusted.
Outside of Matamoros we hit a customs inspection stop where they verified that our manaje de casa had been processed at the border. The agents were polite and professional. We headed off again. We simply followed the signs to Tampico and Ciudad Victoria. It got a little confusing at one point when the road split in two and used the same directions and numbers for both roads. We figured it was a “business loop” and that the roads would reunite. We were right. Eventually the highway offered us a split where we could go to Ciudad Victoria or Tampico. We chose Tampico. It was our plan to travel down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and on into the Yucatan. That may have been a mistake. What followed was several hours on a narrow two lane highway with no shoulder. Buses, trucks and other cars passed each other and us at will all going about 85 mph. It was on this stretch of road that we learned for the first time that the yellow lines on the highway and the road signs (like the ones that say “no passing on the dangerous curve ahead”) are actually just considered suggestions in Mexico. Drivers can follow the signs or not as they wish. Mexicans, having a strong sense of pride and independence, generally seem to choose not to follow these “suggestions.” We thought we were going to die, not once, not twice but every few minutes for hours on end.
Eventually the road widened as we neared Tampico. It took us about 6 hours to drive from Matamoros to Tampico, the last hour or so in the dark. We decided the national game of auto “chicken” made driving at night just too crazy so we looked for a place to bed down. We chose the Best Western recommended by a friend. It was just before Tampico in a town called Alta Mira. It’s right on 180, and the well lit Best Western sign can’t be missed. Normally we try to avoid American chain hotels when traveling in Mexico. We like the adventure of smaller local hotels. However in this case, with the pets and the van full of our belongings we decided on the Best Western. We were very glad we did. It was clean and modern. Parking was in a locked courtyard (a must for us with the van) and it had a cozy little in-house restaurant and the last wireless internet connection we were to find on our trip. It met all our needs so we checked in and called it a night. We had done it. We were in Mexico!
Jueves 25 de Agosto, 2005
We hit the road (still 180 heading south) with high hopes for a wider if not better road than we had seen the day before. Neither proved to be true. The road from Tampico to Veracruz was smaller than the road from Matamoros and was so badly filled with pot holes we feared not for the undercarriage of our van but for the fillings in our teeth. At some point the highway divided (no name change for either direction) and we picked one. We ended up in a tiny pueblo where the streets were in worse shape than the main highway if possible. As we crawled over topes (speed bumps) and car sized craters in the street, Tony saw a Veracruz security officer standing by the side of the road and then he made the mistake. He made eye contact, smiled and waved. “Careful, don’t draw attention to us,” Cheri warned from the driver’s seat. Too late. Whistles, pointing and commands to stop. The officer came up to the van grinning. He explained that he stopped us because Cheri wasn’t wearing a seat belt (something he could not have seen while standing on the side of the road.) She showed him that indeed she was wearing her belt. He then said she had been speeding. She protested that she had been barely moving, certainly no more than 10 mph because of the road conditions. He responded that she had to go slower because of the “niños” (children). He placed his hands together in prayer (seriously) raised his eyes to heaven and said that his job was to protect the niños. Of course the street was empty except for us and no child could be seen in any direction. After concluding his prayer the protector of children asked us for fifty U.S. dollars. We pretended not to understand and he repeated it a number of times. Each time we said how sorry we were but we did not understand. Tony then held up a five dollar bill which he took, smiled, thanked us and motioned us to move on.
We were now truly lost. As we headed through this unknown town we passed a Municipal Police Station. Cheri pulled the Big Bastard over and Tony went inside-not without some concern after the Veracruz state cop. It turned out we had nothing to worry about. Inside were two local cops, one old and one young, in a room which was bare except for a single desk where the two of them sat in their shirtsleeves. In Tony’s broken Spanish and their broken English they were able to understand the problem. They gave Tony directions back to the highway and even drew a map to get us to Veracruz. They could not have been nicer. They followed Tony outside to meet Cheri and wished us luck. Before going Tony showed them our AAA map of Mexico and asked them to show us their town. They laughed loudly at the idea that their little town would be on a map. They did show us where it would be IF it were on the map. Then handshakes, “Adios,” and off we went. In a few minutes we were back on 180 heading south again.
The road eventually smoothed out and we passed the Costa Esmeralda which is a stretch of the Gulf Coast which seems to be a resort/vacation area much like South Padre Island. Lots of little budget, seaside hotels. We headed on, planning to spend the night in Veracruz. We occasionally stopped for gas. Pemex, (the national gas company) had stations everywhere. We also would stop at small mom and pop restaurants. No McDonalds out here. We would leave the van running with the air conditioning on for the pets, and lock it up with another set of keys. After we ate we would walk Huggybear and count up the cats to make sure nobody got out. At one stop we sat in a restaurant when Tony said he was going back out to the van to get the maps. Cheri said, “If you come in here with those maps people will think you’re a tourist.” Tony looked around the room of entirely brown faces speaking Spanish and began to laugh. Up until that moment of course nobody there suspected that the pale Irish guy with the white beard and the blonde girl talking English were anything other than natural born Mexicans. He left the maps in the car and our secret identities remained safe.
We reached Veracruz early that evening. If we had it to do over again we would have skipped going through Veracruz. The city is a large port town with a giant malecon along the Gulf Coast. There is a very large, unbelievably busy tourist/resort area. Some day we will come back to visit Veracruz. We hear Carnival here is the best in Mexico. But on this trip, just trying to get through town, maneuvering through the traffic was a nightmare. Friends from Mexico City have told us that this is only a fraction of the people and traffic we would see there. No thanks, this was bad enough. 180 goes right into the center of town and follows the ocean front from commercial port into the hotel/resort zone. We saw only high rise style hotels, generally of an upscale type. We knew this would not work with pets. After driving all the way through Veracruz we entered a section (town?) called Boca del Rio which appeared to be the cheaper part of town. We saw few hotels but none we could stay in. We finally saw a Best Western sign and went for it (which means we had to drive out of town on a two lane street for a few miles until we could turn around and go back). No problema!
The Best Western was perfect if pricey. It had a secure locked parking area and all of the rooms were suites with two bedrooms and full kitchens. The animals finally got their own room for the night. There were two upscale restaurants adjoining. We ate at the Italian one. The hotel did not allow pets, but when the desk clerk heard we were from San Francisco, he made an exception. He was the first openly gay person we had seen in Mexico. He was very nice and did a small curtsy when we gave him a tip. So far this trip Best Western had really come through for us. We decided we would spend the next night at a Best Western too. Oh, how wrong we were.
Viernes 26 de Agosto, 2005
The end of this day found us drinking cold beer and eating quesadillas in an extremely nice whorehouse a few miles outside of Villahermosa. It had been a long day.
The day started out with much promise. We decided to make this a short travel day and go no further than Villahermosa, about a six hour drive away. We figured we would find a hotel in a city that size (we knew they had a Best Western). We thought that with a day of “rest,” we could start early from Villahermosa the next morning and make the long haul to Playa in one day.
We put our cats and Huggybear back into the Big Bastard and rolled out of town. We didn’t even get lost. At this point we decided to take toll roads instead of continuing on 180. We followed the signs out of town on toll road 150, which took us southwest for a short period of time before intersecting with toll road 180 marked by signs to Villahermosa. Of course, the toll road and the regular highway several miles away were both designated 180. We discovered to our delight that the toll roads from Veracruz to Villahermosa were all well paved, multi-lane divided highways. The tolls were expensive (about $40 US for the day), but after the previous day’s nightmare of narrow two-lane pothole ridden roads, we figured it was worth every penny. We were in great moods and actually were able to go 65 mph for the first time since leaving the US. Woo hoo!
The countryside was muy hermosa. Lush green jungle, beautiful valleys and lots of farmland. Mostly cattle ranches and pineapple farms. Unfortunately we also saw some extensive flooding from the tropical storm which passed through earlier this week. The toll road was elevated above it, but we could see fields and the occasional house submerged. This went on for miles and miles in several different places.
When leaving Veracruz, we also saw some of the largest and most painfully poverty-stricken shanty towns we have seen in Mexico. This on the edge of one of Mexico’s most successful port towns. No, it isn’t fair.
On the way out of town we stopped at a small roadside restaurant/tienda next to a Pemex. The food was okay, but the highlight of the stop of Cheri’s discovery of a nearly life-sized plaster statue of a bulldog. Despite the fact that we had a live specimen of that species waiting in the van, she insisted that we purchase it for our new home in Paamul. At $180 pesos, she said we couldn’t possibly pass it up. Can you say “trailer basura?”
We then spent the day driving towards Villahermosa, arriving late in the afternoon. Before getting to town, we noticed a good sized “auto hotel”/motel on Highway 180 just before Villahermosa. It looked nice, clean and secure. However we passed it by with the expectation that Best Western would come through for us once more. Little did we know.
Although not as large or insanely busy as Veracruz, Villahermosa was still a good-sized town, and took a bit of maneuvering to find the Best Western. We were hoping it would be a regular motel where we could park our van right outside our door, but instead it was a fancy high rise. Knowing we could never smuggle the pets into a hotel of that sort, we asked if they accepted pets. Not only were we told in no uncertain terms that they would not allow pets, but that we would find no hotel in Villahermosa that would. On the way out of the hotel, the doorman suggested we try the El Camino Real and gave us directions. When we worked our way across town to the El Camino, we found it to be a luxury high rise. They didn’t want our type there, either. This desk clerk not only said no to the pets, he literally turned up his nose and walked away.
It was now getting late, and we still hadn’t found a place for the evening. Our choices were to 1) sleep in the Big Bastard with the engine running all night to keep the AC on for the pets, 2) drive back to the auto hotel we had seen on Highway 180 just before Villahermosa or 3) keep on heading out of town and hope to find something on the other side of the city. We decided on #3 with the expectation that there would hotels and/or motels more suited to us on the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately we saw no hotels at all except signs to the Hilton, which we followed diligently until we realized it was a mountaintop citadel of conference rooms and luxury high rise rooms. We knew without being told that we would not be welcome there. After all, we had already been tossed out of better places than that.
At the last (and possibly 12th) toll booth of the day, we asked the toll taker if there was a hotel “cerca de aqui.” He smiled, actually smirked, and said we would find one 30 km ahead near the town of Estacion Macuspana. Buoyed by this news, we drove on. About 20 minutes later, we remembered we had forgotten to stop at the banco and counted up all of our pesos and dollars. We were sure we wouldn’t see another ATM until probably Chetumal. Now our concern was whether we would need to spend all our money on gas and not have enough for even a cheap hotel. However, we pushed on with our fingers crossed. Outside of Villahermosa 180 reaches a junction with 186. 180 goes north, and 186 goes southeast. 186 is what we wanted. However, once we turned on to the highway we still saw no hotels or, at this point, even towns. The road at this juncture will, at some point in the future, be a wonderful divided highway. Unfortunately, now it is a narrow path through a very long construction zone, with only one lane of traffic going each direction.
We were just about to give up and return to Villahermosa and try a second time for a motel when we saw a bright, big and beautiful compound on the side of the road. It was set back somewhat on a hill. It appeared to be surrounded by a wall with interior rooms. It seemed perfect.
We pulled in through the front gate and were immediately met by a very attractive young chica wearing tight jeans, heavily made up, with a streak of purple in her hair. We pushed the dog down so he wouldn’t be seen and got out of the car to ask her about availability. We were nervous because not only the dog but two of the cats were now peering out the window, and we didn’t want to be rejected yet another time because of the animals. Our young hostess seemed nervous, too-we thought because of her inability to understand our broken Spanish. Regardless, we negotiated a room for the night for $35 US, the cheapest rate we had seen yet!
We began to have some questions about our lodging when we saw our room for the first time. The room had no key. The entrance to the room was a private garage which could be closed electronically once inside. From the locked garage, guests entered the room. Unusual, but we assumed it was a security measure. Of course, the Big Bastard, with kayaks on top, was about an inch too tall to fit into the garage. An ancient toothless stooped caretaker in a cowboy hat told us to park out in the open and guaranteed that the compound would be secure through the night and that our vehicle would be safe.
We then went into the room. It was brand new with very nice furnishings. The main room was divided into the bedroom area and separate sitting area with an overstuffed half-moon couch. The bed was quadruple normal size. This made us happy, as the animals had been sleeping with us in a double bed, but it did raise the question of why a hotel with such luxurious furnishings charged such a minimal rate. The bathroom was equally interesting with an extremely large walk-in shower behind a totally glass wall suitable for a party of ten or so. The toilet was in a similar glass enclosure across the way. This also seemed a little unusual for a $35 a night trucker hotel, but still no alarms went off. We then found that the mammoth dressers were just blocks and contained no drawers. Atop one of them was a TV which, when turned on using the controls built into the headboard of the bed, provided nothing but non-stop American hard core porn channels! We then found the notice on the back of the door indicating that rooms rented by the hour, and that if “services” provided were inadequate, guests should speak to the “manager.” We began to suspect that we may have just booked a room for the night in an “adult” motel at best and possibly a very upscale house of ill repute at worst. Just as the light bulbs went on in our heads, the lights went out in the hotel. It seems there was a regional power failure. Our lights, our air conditioning and our American hardcore porn all shut down. We stood there in the dark room of a Mexican whorehouse and simultaneously said “Shit!”
After a few moments, we took a flashlight and walked up to the reception area to see what the situation was. We found a number of young ladies of all shapes and sizes sitting around an electric lantern and joking and laughing in Spanish. With our appearance, they quickly faded back into the interior of the building. We were told that power was out for the whole area and there was nothing they could do. They sold us some ice for our cooler, and we returned to our room. A short time later, the power returned after a few false starts. We then considered our circumstances. Here we were, spending the night in what just might be a Mexican whorehouse, albeit a very nice one. The room seemed secure; however, our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities of the dangers of spending the night here with an expensive van full of our things parked outside. Our location out on the highway many miles from the nearest city made it unlikely anyone would hear our cries of help if our hosts decided to help themselves to our van, our belongings, our virtue or our lives. However, the only alternative was to hit the road in the pitch black night on unknown highways. We decided to go with the devil we knew and hunker down for the night. We reminded each other that every time we had traveled in Mexico, the people we had met, regardless of the circumstance, had almost always been helpful, protective and nice. There was no reason to think that this young group of entrepreneurs would be any different. After all, they had waived their normal $25 per hour fee and charged us a ludicrously low amount for the entire night! Besides, we had Huggybear to protect us. And they had 24 hour room service. A telephone call would produce any number items from a room service menu including full dinners, snacks, condoms, various delicacies and expensive alcohol, including American whiskey, or, if you were feeling particularly generous with your “date,” a bottle of Moet and Chandon champagne. We decided to stay and opted for quesadillas and Coronas.
Food and drinks arrived through a rotating drum in the wall. A knock was given on the wall, and the drum rotated with our food and drinks on the inside. Our dinner was removed and payment placed back inside the drum, which was rotated back towards the unseen waitress. Much to our surprise, some of our money was returned as it turned out management wanted to buy our beers as an apology for the power failure. Tony felt that a more generous offer could have been made by management, but Cheri was happy, pointing out that if they had planned on murdering us in our beds, they probably wouldn’t have bought us beers.
We settled in for the night with our guard dog snoring loudly on the couch but not loudly enough to drown out the enthusiastic sounds of the couple in the next room. We tried to ignore them and practiced our Spanish for a while by reading the subtitles provided by the porn channel. However it occurred to us that we had no idea where we could ever repeat the phrases we were learning! Oh well, time for lights out.
Sábado, 27 de Agosto, 2005
We left early from the maybe-brothel with a wave from one of the girls. As we drove we counted our money one more time and hoped we could get to Chetumal for no more than $100. After gas, this allowed little for food and none for bribes in case Cheri got stopped yet again. We were still on 186 heading northeast, following the curve of the Gulf of Mexico. The road is paved but under construction to make it a larger highway. There were hardly any cars on the road going either direction, which was great for us and allowed us to pick up some speed, despite the fact that the road was uneven, like most roads we’d seen.
Highway 186 runs from the state of Tabasco, briefly skims through the top of the state of Chiapas, comes back into Tabasco for a short time & then crosses into the Yucatanean state of Campeche. Every time we entered a new state, there would be a toll booth where we’d have to pay a small toll. Near the border of Chiapas we saw a number of military stops and inspections. However, they either ignored us or waved us through each time. We were finally stopped at the border of Campeche. Our military inspector was Ernesto, who was born in Anaheim, California (four blocks from Disneyland), had friends in Gilroy, California and occasionally worked as a tour guide in Playa del Carmen for English and Italian tourists. We gave him the name of the Hotel Zanzibar and promised we would all meet up again in Playa. It seemed that the stop was less about inspecting the van & more about giving Ernesto a chance to practice his English. And, of course, as with most bilingual Mexicans, his command of English far outdistanced our command of Spanish.
At Francisco Escarcega we stopped at the Pemex and found to our delight an ATM! Our first prayer of the day had been answered. Now we could afford gas, breakfast and bribes! Francisco Escarcega had a number of hotels, which we filed away for future reference. At this point, 186 moves sharply to the east across the Yucatan peninsula towards Chetumal. The farmlands starting being replaced by jungle, and we were feeling more at home. This was the Mexico we know and love. 186 took us through Xpujil (little sister of Xpu-Ha, we joked), which is a sizable town. We hadn’t seen a Pemex since Francisco Escarcega and were getting a little concerned, given how the Big Bastard guzzles gas. Within five minutes of that conversation there appeared a Pemex – our second prayer of the day answered! Life is good, and we’re almost home. Just past Xpujil, we finally entered our home state – Quintana Roo. Unlike other states, they didn’t charge us a fee to enter. QR rules!
A few miles down the road, we were pulled over at a military inspection point and surrounded by a group of four or five young men in camouflage with automatic weapons. One of the soldiers asked us to open up the doors to the van, and he found himself face to face with Huggybear. He asked in Spanish if he was friendly, and after we understood him, we said yes. He petted him hesitantly. The other soldiers gathered around and soon they were laughing at and playing with Huggybear. Cheri said “Huggybear” to one of the soldiers about 20 times before he got the pronunciation right. After we explained the name came from the movie Starsky & Hutch (remember Snoop Dogg as Huggybear?), the soldiers laughed & made the connection. They had obviously seen the movie. By the time Cheri offered them some revistas de chicas (Playboys)-a suggestion we heard about on the Playa Info board-we were all good friends. One thing we learned is the best way to travel through Mexico is to bring an English bulldog. People can’t seem to resist them.
We headed on our way and 186 opened up to a wide, smooth paved road with little traffic all the way to Chetumal where it intersected with 307 north. We were happy to see the intersection outside of the city limits. Thank God we didn’t have to go through another big city to get home. We’ve been lost in Chetumal before, and it wasn’t fun.
We took 307 north . At this point our journey was practically finished. Four more hours.
No stops now, we could almost see Playa del Carmen in the distance. The road north from Chetumal began as a wide and well maintained road. Unfortunately, it turned into a heavy construction zone where the road becomes a narrow two lane highway with no lights. Continuing north we passed through Felipe Carrillo Puerto. 307 divided to go through town and we once again chose the wrong fork in the road (business loop again!), but it eventually re-joined the main highway. The road became the standard Mexican highway…no lights, two lanes and mad man drivers all about. We kept going. Muyil. Tulum. Akumal. Around 11 p.m. we pulled up in front of the Hotel Zanzibar in Playa del Carmen. We unloaded our pets into one of the larger rooms and headed down the street to see our friends Karent and Alex at their restaurant, La Quinta Pasión. Hugs, kisses, bienvenidos. They fed us margaritas and fish tacos and then we went back to the hotel to get some sleep. After thirteen days and 3903 miles, we were home. Now the work begins. And the fun.