Monday, August 25, 2008

Merida to Playa del Carmen

Our 4 hour drive from Merida to Playa was a relatively straight shot on poorly maintained highways with tall brush on both sides which prevented any kind of views whatsoever. If we hadn't already driven 4,000+ miles we might have mistaken the landscape for Virginia or Arkansas. We were both getting very tired of driving - yet another hotel, yet another 8 hours in the car. Will the dogs be OK? Knowing that our destination was a short distance away kept us inspired to keep on trucking.

You know you've been driving too much on Mexican highways when McDonalds represents good food and nourishment. Don't misunderstand me - Mexican food is DELICIOUS. However, from our limited experience of driving from one end of Mexico to the other, we've found the majority of restaurants on highways to be run in poorly maintained shacks serving questionable food that's geared mostly towards local truck drivers who are accustomed to the cuisine. Finding palatable bites can be quite an endeavor. After 3 hours of eating nuts, chips and ice cream, we jumped for joy when we saw a McDonalds. This is coming from someone who DETESTS fast food. It's greasy, made from poor ingredients and simply bad for you. But, boy, was that hamburger and fries good!

The only form of excitement during our last long drive was arriving at yet another military checkpoint (number 9 for the entire trip). Luckily for us this is tourist country, and we were waived through without a second glance, past the machine gun toting soldiers and makeshift military bunker. That was the last one for quite a while - THANKFULLY.

After 3 or so hours we hit Cancun and then turned south for the last 45 minute leg of our 4,500 journey. Yes, that's 4,500 miles!! 900 more than we thought - not that it mattered at all. Both of us loved our lives in Boston. We had good jobs, worked with great people, have wonderful family (hello Keil, Victoria, Katie, Nick, Taylor and Cole), and the best of friends. But we were both looking for a change - some excitement in our lives. Driving to Mexico brought more than that. We learned an appreciation of what we take for granted in the US (more freedom, less military presence). We realized what great people live in Mexico. We've eaten some amazing cuisine. I'm sure as we get settled and get our business up and running we'll have lots more to tell.

I'm sure you're eager to hear how our first week has been in Playa del Carmen. That, my friends, will come in the next entry (soon)! All I will say is that we've moved into our long term (1 year) rental in our dream condo complex, Quadra Alea ( We have a mattress and that's about it. Furniture is included in the rental, but it hasn't yet arrived. (It's a brand new unit just built.)

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

We're finally here!

Matt and Allan at Quadra Alea.

Allan at Quadra Alea.

Quadra Alea.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Villahermosa to Merida

Why is it when you give someone a badge and a little authority the power goes to their head? Wednesday night after we checked into the Quality Inn in Villahermosa our conflicting interactions with the parking lot police began. We had just parked in one of the inn's minuscule packed parking lots built in a U shape. Unfortunately we forgot to walk the dogs beforehand; they were now sitting anxiously in the backseat. We now needed to exit the parking lot and drive away from the prying eyes of the hotel. After all, we'd need to sneak the dogs in later, and did not want to bring unnecessary attention to ourselves.
Earlier we had someone managed to back into the parking spot thinking it would make it easier to exit. It wasn't. Navigating was almost impossible especially with a larger SUV and a bike rack on the back. To make matters worse both exits we're blocked with signs placed by hotel staff. The only way out was the way we came in. Needless to say the twisting and turning required to maneuver the vehicle frontwards out of the spot and then backwards out of the lot was more than we wanted. Just then a security guard approached the car as we nervously commanded the dogs to "sit still and don't move". Luckily he was very helpful and actually moved one of the signs for us! We could exit forwards - what a gentleman.
After we departed the hotel premises, walked the dogs and returned to the inn, I parked in the same lot, backing up again into the spot without hitting one car! Actually, I've never hit anyone. Regardless, it's reassuring to know that I may be bad with directions, but at least I've never been in an accident...yet! Of course with the way the maniacs drive around here it's only a matter of time!

We smuggled the dogs into the room, and then Allan and I dined at the hotel's restaurant, a Mexican style establishment with large glass windows overlooking an infinity pool set in front of a lovely little lake. With our bellies full we returned to the room for much needed rest! Driving 7+ hours/day can be very tiring.

The next morning we awoke early, and snuck the dogs back into the car. Mitzi almost managed to escape from the bag in the middle of the hotel. That morning I could see her and Rickey whispering in bed. When I approached they stopped taking, so I knew something was up. Sure enough halfway through the hotel just as Allan passed the maid she made her escape, managing to get 90% out. Luckily Allan caught her and somehow stuffed her back in without being noticed. Close call!

Back in the parking lot from hell, it was time to make our escape. This time backing out wasn't an option - after all we now thought it was OK to move the sign and drive out forwards. However, as I approached the blocked entrance a guard appeared from nowhere and informed us we were not allowed to move the sign. We would have to back out. But we saw two other cars move the sign this morning, and the guard moved the sign for us last night! He didn't care. He was God, and we were on his turf. My explanations were not helping so I began to argue - heatedly. That seemed to work. Not only did the sign get moved - he did it himself! He sulked off, ego bruised. Poor little security guard.

Now I've become the ignorant American I detest. Or have I? I've seen many Mexicans arguing in the same fashion. Am I not allowed to raise my voice and make demands because I'm a foreigner? As long as I am respectful and open to other cultures, can't I argue if I think I'm being wronged? Thoughts?
We had a long 9 hour, 400 mile drive from Villahermosa to Merida thanks to endless speed bumps, slow speed limits through small towns, torrential downpours, flooding, accidents and TRAFFIC. Ugh. Did I mention that we also passed through 6 checkpoints? All were secured by a multitude of military men brandishing loaded machine guns. Some even had small little tanks and armed lookouts. What is this - Iraq? Luckily we made it through all of them without any hassles.
The first stop was for food inspection. Did we have any consumables? Besides the dozen pig carcasses we picked up in Puebla? Nope. The other stops were military checkpoints. Don't ask me what they were looking for. Drugs, I guess. Mitzi and Rickey stop shooting up - NOW! Most of the time we were waived through without question. At others they were too busy chatting to even notice us. Mostly I tried to stay as close as possible to the bumper ahead of me and pass by unnoticed. At two checkpoints we were questioned: where had we come from and where were we going? They made cursory glances in our windows, and then let us go.
As we approached each one my stomach dropped and heart began to pound. So much for the freedom we knew in the US. In Mexico as much as I appreciate the presence of security in the streets it definitely takes some getting used to. On the one hand I'm sure Mexicans love the money visiting foreigners bring in. On the other, I'm sure eager security guards see quick dollars to be made from bribing nervous tourists. Pay me or else!

By the time we arrived in Merida at 7pm, the Holiday Inn was booked. We proceeded to the Hyatt next door and made reservations. It was more expensive, but we had a nicer lobby, beautiful gym, tennis courts and prettier restaurants. In the end the extra cost was NOT worth it: the room didn't look any better than others we've stayed at recently. The Hyatt also nickeled and dimed us: $2US for in room coffee, $4US for bottled water and $15US for internet access. Our consensus after a night's stay: Hyatt, you can go stuff it! You overcharge us and then make us pay for amenities that other hotels offer for free?

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Allan, Rickey and Mitzi wake up to yet another day of driving.

A family collects cans as traffic zips by at highway speeds.

A man collects wood along the busy highway.

School girls congregate on a corner.

Palapa (thatched) roofs are a welcome sight. The weather and architecture are getting more tropical.

Rickey takes it all in.

The Monument to the Flag in Merida.

We're Here!!

We arrived safe and sound in Playa del Carmen Friday afternoon. The sky is blue with little or no clouds, the sand is white and the water so clear you can easily see the bottom below the turquoise water. It's been in the mid 90s everyday, very humid, but that's great with us. Rickey and Mitzi are having a ball meeting all the local dogs who roam free. Both mutts are taking in all the scents and marking their new territories with gusto!

We've been quite busy getting settled, and will write more about our trip soon!!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cordoba to Villahermosa

One lesson I have learned about asking for directions in Mexico is to always get a second opinion. This morning we were off to a late start. We departed at noon and headed east on route 150 towards Veracruz. We then needed to turn southeast onto route 145 about 45 miles outside of Veracruz. 145 then meets up with 180 which brings us to Cancun, 45 minutes north of Playa del Carmen. However there are two route 145s - a local road and a faster highway (depending on road conditions - you never know).

Unfortunately the signage for 145 was dicey at best. We did see one sign for 145 but which route was it - the local road or the highway? I took the 145 turnoff and hoped for the best. Being an ignorant male I refused to ask for directions. Thankfully Allan is a bit more sensible and persistent, and convinced me to stop and ask. Being the one who speaks Spanish, I had to swallow my ego and play the stupid lost tourist.

We pulled off into a dirt parking lot of what looked like a rundown shack with living quarters on the top level, a restaurant on the first level and a tire/mechanic's shop next door. I entered map in hand and asked one of two women inside for directions. Either neither of them drive, don’t know how to give directions or are not supposed to talk to strange men because they immediately went out back to fetch the “minds” (the men). This comes as no surprise: more than once while driving in Mexico I've seen women sitting in open air truck beds trying to hide from the sun's rays underneath newspapers, hats or hands while the men sit in the cab.

The men in the restaurant were taking their time - I could see them puttering around. Being an impatient American I half expected them to drop everything. But this is Mexico and I better get used to it for my own sanity. I certainly don't want to come across as an ignorant American. When one gentleman finally did appear 5 minutes later he had a large grin on his face and was more than eager to help. I begin to explain that I'm heading towards Playa del Carmen and point on the map at the route 145 highway. He responds that I should head right out of the parking lot, travel 1.5 kilometers to a gas station and then watch for signs indicating the route 145 turn off. Thankfully I decide to emphasize there are two route 145s and I want to take the highway - not the local road. He acts surprised, says "ahh", and then changes his mind sending me left to Cosamaloapan instead of right.

We've just gotten 2 completely conflicting sets of directions. Which one do we follow? We decide to head to the gas station for a second opinion. The gas attendant confirms that Cosamaloapan is the correct way, so we decide to head that way. Certainly we have been given correct directions in Mexico on several occasions. We have also been pointed the wrong way in the US. However, from my extensive reading about Mexican culture it seems Mexicans are more eager to please and will give directions regardless of their accuracy just because they don't want to disappoint. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but it motivates me to seek a second opinion.

At this point we are both starving and haven't seen a decent restaurant or store in over an hour. We spot what looks like a convenience store in a line of rundown buildings and decide to give it a try. We pull up as dozens of school children in blue and white uniforms look at our US plates as if we're NBA stars. I exit the SUV and spend about 10 minutes in the store trying to find food that is both substantial, healthy and won't upset our stomaches. In the end I purchase 2 yogurts with active cultures which are great for helping our stomaches adjust to Mexican bacteria, 2 bananas, prepackaged ham, a pack of tortillas, 3 diet cokes for Al and 2 flavored waters for me. The cost? Less than 6 US dollars! Can you believe it? At a convenience store no less!

We fill our tummies and then head towards Cosamaloapan, which turns out to be the right way. We had an enjoyable 5 or so hour drive to Villahermosa besides torrential downpours, flooding and bumper to bumper traffic. When we finally did arrive it was so dark we couldn't even get a feel for the city. We stopped at the first major US brand hotel, a Quality Inn, which turned out to be a great pick with a gorgeous pool, pond out back and open air lobbies lined with flowers, trees and vines.
After a reasonable dinner in the hotel, it was time to smuggle the dogs into the room. I would like to emphasize just how stressful this is. Guards patrol the parking lot. I'm glad they're protecting my car, but it certainly makes it more difficult to stuff a dog into a bag and go unnoticed. Whenever we unlock the car the dome lights illuminate, the dogs stand up and we have to rush to hit the dome override switch while also telling the dogs to "lie down". Luckily our loving mutts are obedient and will even lay motionless under a blanket. Even being carried hidden in a bag on an elevator loaded with other guests they won't even utter a sound - they don't even breath heavily.
Convincing the dogs to get into the bag in the first place is another story. This consists mostly of loving encouragement, a lot of pushing and lots of kisses while apologizing for putting them through this. In the end we know they'll be happier in the room with us then in the car. Meanwhile while one of us is stuffing, the other is trying to block the view of the guards while simultaneously trying to not look suspicious.
Once the dog is packed, we have to walk into the lobby, past the front desk, past other guests, into the elevator and then into the room. Oh, yes, did I mention we only have 1 bag? That means we have to repeat this process twice - once for each dog. It's a lot like smuggling drugs - not that I would know personally. Act normally and you should be OK.
Mitiz rests her head on Allan's arm.

Rickey relaxes in my lap.

A man pedals his food cart up an incline along the highway as traffic zips by at 70mph.

Seat belts? What are those? Child safety?

Matt and Allan dine at the Comfort Inn in Villa Hermosa.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Queretaro to Cordoba

Over the past 2 days we have driven over 400 miles from Queretaro to Cordoba. Queretaro sits high in the mountains about 100 miles to Mexico City's northwest. Cordoba lies approximately 150 miles to Mexico City's southeast just off the Gulf Coast in a lush tropical climate at the base of the mountains. We've descended from an elevation of approx. 6,000 feet to one at just about sea level. Besides fighting severe allergies, we've both had to deal with our ears popping every 5 seconds!
We left Queretaro yesterday at about noon. The 100 mile drive to Pachuca should have take less than 2 hours, but considering we were compelled to drive on primary (back) roads instead of main highways it took twice as long. Regardless we enjoyed the change of pace as it gave us the opportunity to take in the local scenery – and boy we’re we entertained!
The fastest route to Play del Carmen from Queretaro is through Mexico City, the world’s most populated and perhaps polluted city (smog). Crime is rampant, and rich Mexicans especially need to be careful. Corruption is also a huge problem – and foreigners driving through the city are prime targets for harassment by local law officials. We’ve been advised by different unrelated sources to avoid driving anywhere near the capital all together – even in the daytime. Hence we are skirting to the east of Mexico City, cutting though Pachuca and then heading south to Puebla. It has lengthened our trip but should make the drive a lot safer.
As a side note, Mexico City offers an amazing array of architecture, culture, cuisine, shopping and more. Both Allan and I would like to visit (via plane). On the one hand we have heard of people who won't set foot in Mexico City including many Mexicans; on the other many Americans live, work and visit Mexico City often and without any problems whatsoever. In fact a neighbor in Boston spends months a year living and working in Mexico City, and he raves about it. So I guess the decision in terms of visiting the city depends on who you listen to and the level of risk you're willing to tolerate.
The 2 lane highway to Pachuca cuts through the circuitous roads of the Sierra de Pachuca mountain range. Expert driving skills are required to avoid hitting a multitude of unmarked speed bumps, tractor trailers crawling up steep inclines and speed demons barreling around blinding corners to pass the trucks while also trying to avoid oncoming traffic. Road construction often brought traffic to a stand still. Dog carcasses strewn about the shoulder posed another road hazard. We even witnessed a canine feasting on a bovine cadaver.
Apart from the many vehicular diversions the drive offered much color, character and culture. Ornately decorated native pottery peered out from shop walls often masquerading as floral flower pots and wall mounted frogs. Small stores advertised mass market Barbie and Superman towels alongside clothing I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. Strawberries, grapes, melons and papayas were being sold by small families hiding from the sun’s rays under make shift shelters. Allan and I would have loved to sample some if it weren’t for the fact that Mexican fruits and vegetables either need to be peeled or soaked in a solution to kill bacteria which may otherwise lead to traveler’s diarrhea. Furthermore, the knives used to cut the fruit are probably so dirty even if some of the fruit were peeled it would still need to be soaked in iodine to kill any germs left by the knives!
After our adventurous drive we arrived in Pachuca at about 4:30pm and settled on another beautiful Holiday Inn. Allan deserves brownie points for his uncanny ability to find amazing accommodations in less attractive parts of town. The hotel boasts an open atrium structure that scales 5 stories and is topped off by a glass roof. The rooms have unobstructed views of the atrium through wall length windows which rise from waist level up to the ceiling. After smuggling our 2 canine companions into the room we watched the Olympics and then crashed for the night.
The next morning we awoke early, ate a decent 2 for 1 breakfast buffet in the lobby, packed the bags and the mutts into the SUV and then stopped by the lobby to ask for directions to Puebla. To our pleasant surprise a new highway had just been constructed just outside of town which would cut our trip significantly. On back roads it may have taken 3 or 4 hours. On the highway it only took 2. Mexican roads change so often it’s hard to find accurate maps. Our GPS does not even work because GMC does not offer navigation CDs for Mexico. Furthermore, the new highway is not even listed on our 2008 map nor road atlas.
After a pleasant drive we arrived in Puebla without any problems. Apart from the dozen or so vendors selling puppies out of paper bags at the toll booth there really was nothing of note. Puebla is known for being one of the most highly populated metropolitan areas in all of North America. However, it offers much in terms of culture and architecture. We had originally planned to spend the night, but since we arrived so early and still had a few hours of driving left in us we decided to keep going.

It was now my turn at the wheel, and it could not have come at a better time. Ever since we hit the outskirts of Monterrey 4 days ago we have been driving up hill practically the entire time. Since Playa del Carmen is at sea level we had to descend at some point - and today was the day. We shot down hills at times hitting speeds of 70mph, passing through clouds and hugging hair pin turns while looking over the guardrail at shear drops. Allan took photo after photo of amazing scenery.
After our ears had finished popping 2 hours later we arrived in the gorgeous tropical town of Cordoba, located 60 miles as the crow flies off the coastal town of Veracruz. Allan picked Cordoba off the map as a good destination because it shares the same name with a car he used to own: a Chrysler Cordoba with Corinthian leather. Regardless of Al's method of selection, the town offers lots of charm and was a wonderful selection. After settling on a Comfort Inn we took a quick dip in the pool and then walked to the center of town for a delicious dinner. We ate al fresco in the town center while being serenaded by two men playing a wooden xylophone. Ornate architecture stood illuminated behind lush tropical trees. Couples walked hand in hand while local traffic zoomed by. After our meal we grabbed a taxi, smuggled the dogs into the hotel room and settled down for the night.
We’re now 10-20 hours of solid driving from Playa del Carmen. It's hard to get an exact number since road conditions, route selection and traffic are all factors. As for our trip in total so far we’ve driven over 3,500 miles over a period of 2 weeks. We're almost there, so stay tuned!
Rickey prepares to be smuggled from the hotel into the car.

Roadside hazards - rocks to prevent people from driving on the shoulder.

Mountainous traffic.

Fruit anyone?

Local color. A local woman transports goods the old fashioned way.

More roadside hazards. I wouldn't want to hit one of those at 70 mph!

Driving through the clouds with no room for error. See anything over the guard rail? Nether do we!

Allan and I prepare for a quick dip in the Comfort Inn's pool in Cordoba.

Dinner in the center of Cordoba during a brief tropical shower.
Our xylophone serenade.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Matehuala to Queretaro

Allan and I woke up at 8am today and let the mutts sleep in while we went for a delicious breakfast in the lobby. After 10 minutes of deciphering the menu, we asked the waiter for a few translations, including the word "tocino", which I thought mean bacon. I was assured it was meat from a cow and not bacon. In the end Allan and I settled on eggs ranchero with tocino.

When the meal arrived we were greeted with bacon along with eggs sunny side up and salsa. It's reassuring that the US doesn't have a monopoly on dumb waiters. Apparently I need to learn the definition of "ranchero" because I was expecting some sort of spicy scrambled egg dish. We ate every delicious morsel regardless and had a Spanish lesson in the process.

After breakfast I walked the little brats down a neighboring bike path while Allan packed. The scenic walk through the brush was calming - that is until a pit bull charged at us from out of nowhere. The only thing separating us from the jaws of the agitated beast were three strands of barbed wire 6 inches apart. Needless to say I was scared beyond belief and ran as fast as I could back to the room dragging the little angels behind me. My heart was pounding, sweat forming on my forehead. Every 5 seconds I glanced back nervously hoping we weren't being pursued.

Unfortunately in Mexico there is really no recourse should an attack have happened. People don't sue here like they do in the States. Mexicans generally expect when someone walks out their door they should be prepared for whatever obstacles life presents. Even if there was some sort of due process in Mexico to sue the owner, what would I get out of a poor farmer from an isolated hill town in the Mexican outback? A goat? Although the US has gone too far in terms of the quantity and ridiculous nature of lawsuits filed, it is reassuring to know there is recourse against an irresponsible dog owner.

After I recovered from the walk, it was time to get out of dodge and hit the road. The drive out of Matehuala went fine, though I think both Allan and I are getting tired of seeing cacti and mountains. Luckily a few pit stops made the long drive worth every minute.

In many parts of Mexico when you use a public toilet you'll be lucky to have a toilet seat or even toilet paper. The first rest stop had toilet seats but the toilet paper was located outside the stall and around the corner by the sinks just as you walk in. I don't recall when this was first noticed, but at some point it was necessary to exit the stall to obtain the paper. At the second rest stop there was no toilet paper. Luckily I'm a pre-planner and thought to grab a roll from the hotel for such a similar occasion, just so we wouldn't be sh-t out of luck.

As we drove down the road further we noticed what looked like snake skins suspended from a tree. After multiple sightings Allan decided to stop for a better look. The minute our tire pulled off the pavement a whole family came running out of a tin shack towards our car. The children, wide eyed with looks of complete innocence and inexperience with things of the modern world stepped up on the running board of our car, hands in our window and peered in like we were astronauts from outer space. They spotted our Pringles potato chips and wanted some. Not only did I hand over all the chips, I lavished them with most of our supply of packets of peanut butter and crackers and Allan's diet iced green tea. They then spotted Allan's handheld back massager and wanted to know what it was. I explained it's function and then played floor model and tried it out on them as waves of joy crossed over their faces, their eyes filled with elation.

In Spanish I asked the older woman what exactly were those things hanging from the tree. My poor translation was that they were some sort of coyote grass for sale and did we want to buy some. Allan exited the SUV for a closer look and concluded they were rattlesnake skins. I think that makes more sense. Needless to say I need to work on my Spanish.

Instead of offering to purchase something we clearly did not want and had no desire to transport, I offered her 10 pesos (approx. 1 US dollar) for a photo of her family. Surprisingly she demanded 30 pesos (approx. 3 US dollars). That's probably more than she earns in an entire day! It was highway robbery, and I was determined to negotiate her price down. She wouldn't budge, and it was only 30 pesos after all, and they clearly needed the cash.

Before I could get out my camera the woman approached the SUV and asked me to "gift" her the back massager. When I refused, she then asked for my sandals. Boy is she persistent. No way Jose! Another woman approached holding a baby and offered it up for a mere 20 pesos. I didn't know if she was joking, but I scolded her regardless. When Rickey and Mitzi were spotted an adorable golden retriever mix puppy was brought over and offered for sale. Forget it! We're renting in Playa del Carmen and 2 dogs is enough. Plus what are we going to do with an adorable non-house trained flea bag for the next 1,000 miles?

I somehow managed to transition the subject over to the pictures and was able to start directing the family where to stand. It took some sorting out as they were standing in front of each other. Hadn't they ever had their picture taken before? Finally they were settled, and I started clicking away. By the time I was done one of the women was demanding 90 pesos (9 US dollars) for the "3 photos" I took. According to her I had only paid for one. Not wanting to be swindled again I stood firm, got in the car and left. After all I had just given the children free food and beverages. Luckily she knows nothing about shutter speed; I took well over 15 photos, as my camera was set to rapid photo, which takes multiple shots with the press of a button. It looks like she's not the only one who can play tricks.

Once on the road again Allan mentioned he wanted to continue 2 hours south of San Louis Potosi to Queretaro. Not wanting to rush our journey I asked that we play it by ear. A shorter drive meant a swim in the pool, a nap and time to relax. More driving would make me antsy and irritable. Well, just about anything makes me cranky, but especially being trapped in a car for over 5 hours.

When we arrived at San Louis Potosi we weren't impressed. We drove through traffic congestion to the center of town and back out again to the highway. Parts of the town seemed charming: there was some neat historic architecture, good shopping, nice parks and a fiesta was in full bloom. However, we both opted to keep driving onto Queretaro. So off we were for another 2+ hours in the car.

Upon arriving in Queretaro we were both physically and mentally exhausted. We stopped at the first motel we saw, a "love motel" where secret lovers flock to share a quick romance. We drove through a covered archway, and around a corner to a drive up receptionist's window. Clearly we could see each unit had its own private garage with pull down door to hide your vehicle and stairs leading up to the king sized bed. This would be the perfect location to sneak the dogs up to our room. Unfortunately they were spotted by a woman hiding behind a one way mirror, and we were quickly sent on our way. Darn!

The next hotel, a Holiday Inn, turned out to be a gem situated in an unimpressive residential part of town. The bathroom in the lobby was covered in marble, urinals were individually tucked away behind freshly painted wood doors and odor control sensors were spritzing what smelled like cologne. The front entrance looked straight out of a Conde Nast Travler magazine. And the lobby was immaculate.

Allan and I dropped the equivalent of a night's stay in a nice US hotel for a room with double beds in the less-expensive section of the hotel. Unfortunately we arrived too late (9pm) to enjoy the pool lined with white umbrellas and matching chairs or take in a stroll along the manicured gardens. Perhaps tomorrow. We did however have a great dinner in the lobby. And, yes, we did sneak in the mutts into the room - one at a time - and not a peep, though Rickey shook with fear the entire way.

It's now 1am, and everyone's asleep except me. I can't sleep. But that's ok - I'll just sleep in tomorrow. It's Monday, and I'm on vacation. We've got nowhere to be, no deadlines and no one is expecting us.

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

The drive out of Matehuala was lined with gorgeous mountain ranges.

The boys eat our Pringles.

A photo of the 2 women with Allan and Rickey in front of the snake skins.

The puppy for sale. Sorry, Tiger, I'm sure you'd have a better home with us, but we just can't keep you!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Monterrey to San Louis Potosi

I woke up at 7am today, showered and let Allan and the doggies sleep while I went down for a delicious breakfast in the lobby which consisted of beans, eggs with potatoes, granola, cafe con leche, and 2 cheese dishes which were great, but I couldn't tell you what was in them. I caught up on email since the wireless signal didn't reach my room despite assurances by the front desk otherwise. By the time I was done with email Allan was up and peering over my shoulder.

He had just covertly carried both dogs down from the room 1 at a time in a duffel bag and carefully tucked them back into the car. They were so happy last night not be to stuck in a humid car. How could we leave 2 little angels to pant and suffer in a parked car in an unfamiliar country overnight?

After breakfast we packed the car and departed by 10am for San Louis Potosi, about 300 miles south of Monterrey. The drive out of town was absolutely stunning. The mountains loomed in every direction; every glimpse was another photo - another chance to stop and take in the experience. Was I really doing this? What I really moving to this beautiful country? I wish my parents were here to experience this. I just can't believe how gorgeous it is.

We managed to stop at just about every rest stop as usual. Like clockwork our vehicle was approached by people wanting to wash our windows, sell us food or ask for money. At first I felt resistant to interact, but in the end I'm glad I did. I let one gentleman wash all the insects off our windows, and he did a fantastic job. At another stop we shared a few laughs with children who at first asked for money, but when we refused they just asked to play with Rickey and Mitzi. One little thief tried to pick my pocket, and just laughed it off and ran away when I caught him sneaking up behind me. They were all camera shy; I'm quite certain they've never owned a camera, and may have never had their picture taken.

I swear Rickey has learned to open the window by himself. Driving down the road I heard the wind rushing behind me and felt my neck getting warm. In the side view mirror I witnessed Rickey sticking his head out the window, checking out the landscape, taking in all the new scents, paws directly on the window control. Darn dog! Don't teach that to Mitzi.

After 3 or 4 hours of driving we landed about 2/3 of the way to San Louis Potosi in a hill town called Matehuala. It was 2:30pm, and we hadn't eaten a significant meal since breakfast considering all the roadside "restaurants" were either abandoned buildings or dilapidated shacks serving food which I knew would make us sick. We needed an alternative to chips and nuts.

Somehow in Matehuala, a town that greets you with rundown buildings and truck tires piled by the dozen in roadside shops, we managed to find an oasis called Las Palmas (The Palms). Las Palmas is both an inn and restaurant that looks like something out of Palm Beach. Waiters don blue suit jackets, matching the chairs and tablecloths, and serve food that is out of this world. We dined on incredible chicken with vegetable soup and amazing chicken fajitas. We can't remember the last time we ate so well. Outside our car was parked under Moorish looking stone arches, and was being washed by hand by a man who cleaned every inch of that vehicle including the running board and tires for less than I'd pay in a car wash, and by the time he was done that car was sparkling.

We loved it here so much we decided to stay the night. We purchased a room with its own private entrance, covered parking next to our door, a pool steps away and goats roaming behind a fence 100 feet from our front door. (Allan LOVES goats - don't ask me why.) We once again smuggled the mutts like illegal aliens into our "no pets allowed" cabana where we all settled down for a well deserved nap.

Since we arrived in the early afternoon we had ample time to relax, swim and do whatever we darn well pleased. What was the point of driving another 2 or 3 hours to San Louis Potosi when we can just do it "manana". Gosh, were turning Mexican already!

Today we hit the 3,000 mile mark on the trip tracker, and I'm ready for 3,000 more!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

A Monterrey statue with mountains towering in the background.

Matt in Monterrey. Gosh those mountains are AMAZING.

A road side photo of yet more beauties.

Allan and his new friends, the team that washed our windows at a rest stop.

The boys at another rest stop who wanted money for "cokes". The one on the right tried to pick my pocket. Regardless we enjoyed our interaction very much.

Rickey regales in 75mph winds and scents coming in every direction.

Relaxing at Las Palamas. Our room is in the background, our car parked under the archway behind the trees.

Friday, August 15, 2008

We LOVE Green!!

We woke up this morning at 6 in preparation for our border crossing. We got ready, headed down for breakfast at the hotel only to find prepackaged mass consumer muffins and stale coffee. Instead of heading off with upset stomachs we opted for delicious breakfast burritos at the gas station no less. They didn't have hot tea, so I settled for warm sparkling water left in the car overnight.

The border was only a mile away, so we arrived easily by 7:30. We crossed the American side without incident, paying a minor toll, and gave the toll taker our extra US change which is virtually worthless in Mexico. We crossed the International Bridge over the Rio Grande and arrived at Mexican customs, bearing to the left to obtain a vehicle permit and immigration forms. By this time it was 7:45, and I figured we were doing well. The traffic coming into the US was backed up; heading into Mexico was free and clear. I entered the customs and vehicle import office to only to find I had to wait 1/2 hour because NO ONE WAS WORKING. Apparently they don't open till 8, although I knew they were there before 8 HIDING because I could hear them talking. WELCOME TO MEXICO!! I'm going to learn to get used to it. There wasn't even a sign indicating their hours. If the border is open 24/7, what if I arrived at 4am - should I wait 4 hours for customs to open their office?

When they finally did appear 15 minutes late at 8:15, they were very curious why I was going to Mexico for "3 months" on vacation and not business. I stood my ground saying it was only a vacation, and I guess they believed my lie because they stamped our tourist visas with "180", which gives us 6 months to either stay as tourists or get work visas. Our car permit was issued for 1 year.

Once all the paper work was done, we headed into the car, pulled up to border security and were greeted by a gruff looking, intimidating soldier who demanded in Spanish "where are you going and what's the nature of your business in Mexico?" I forgot I was going to pretend I didn't understand or speak Spanish, so I quickly replied in Spanish "I'm going to Playa del Carmen for vacation." He questioned "what is all this stuff in your car?" I managed "personal items" and he replied "only personal items?". I replied affirmatively, and he seemed satisfied and began explaining how I need to pull up to the next light and wait for it to turn green or red. If it turns green, I'm free and clear. If it turns red, it's time to lose my lunch and suffer a car search, which would be torture considering I decided last minute not to declare any of the electronic items I've hidden.

Apparently I began to pull away before he was done speaking because he yelled at me in Spanish to put it in park. What a jerk! He repeated his whole tirade about the lights, and this time I waited till he was all done before I headed on. Luck was on my side as it turned green and I was free to go!!!

I was so shaken by the whole incident it took me 10 minutes before I could speak again. By that time I was yelling at Allan to tell me where I should go. We were lost in Matamoros, Mexico and didn't know how to head south west on route 40 to Monterrey. There were no signs for 40 nor Monterrey whatsoever! We decided to head west toward the center of town, managed to find 40 and headed quickly on our way out of the very dangerous border town. Of course we decided to drive West to Monterrey, which passes through more dangerous border town, so we weren't safe yet.

About 20 miles outside of Matamoros we arrived at the second customs stop, which I was expecting due all the reading I've been doing. It also gave me an opportunity to tease Allan for making fun of me for all the books I bought on moving to Mexico, because he didn't think there was going to be a second customs stop. We went through the whole inquisition about all our stuff and where we were going. After we apparently answered all questions satisfactorily we had to play red light green light again. Thank God it was another green light. Green is now my favorite color in the world!! And I think I'm all done with customs inspections, though I have been warned about occasional military checkpoints which search for drugs. I can handle that. Allan and I don't do drugs - and neither do Rickey or Mitzi that we're aware of.

After about 3 hours of driving we arrived in Monterrey which is like a typical Latin American city with lots of congestion on roads which weren't designed for mass transit, bad drivers and no zoning laws. However, this bustling metropolis is also absolutely gorgeous! It's nestled among beautiful mountains which tower off in the distance, peaking out behind passing clouds. Monterrey has a well deserved nickname "the City of the Mountains." You may read more about Monterrey here:

We drove around in bumper to bumper for a while in search of hotels and finally settled on a Best Western in a seedy part of town. The hotel has clean rooms, a great price and free garage parking. Unfortunately it does not take animals so Allan decided to sneak both dogs 1 at at a time up to the room in a duffel bag. I had nothing to do with it - I was writing this blog and you all are my witnesses!

Some of you reading my earlier blog entries may be aware of one of my plans to drive down the east coast of Mexico along route 180, a straight shot to Cancun. In the end upon advice from good friends in Playa we opted for a scenic adventure and are traveling down the center of the country. It may be a more difficult route to navigate with alternating roads and poor signage, but it's supposed to be beautiful!! And beauty, culture and adventure is what we're after. Bring it on!!!

For some EXCELLENT panoramic photos of Monterrey please visit:

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

We chose new Spanish nicknames. Allan's is "Basura". I haven't the heart to tell him that means "trash".

Fruit anyone?

Allan shows off his new knee courtesy of Newton Wellesley Hospital (surgery was performed on June 19th, 2008). He's posing using his new [left] knee in our hotel with open air hallways, a red tiled roof and beautiful plants.

Monterrey, Mexico (stock photo)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

We're at the Border!!

We've arrived at the border in Brownsville, Texas with plans of crossing tomorrow morning at 7am. It was an uneventful drive from San Antonio other than the sea of butterflies smacking into the windshield causing mass carnage. Luckily we passed through several heavy downpours which gave us a free car wash!

I would be lying if I didn't say I am extremely nervous about crossing the border. There's been a pit in my stomach for the past 3 days. Of course, just about anything makes me anxious. I guess it's the fear of the unknown. Don't get me wrong - I'm very excited about our adventure. I'd just like to know that everything will go OK. Driving down today I felt like shouting "I'm going to Mexico!!!".

I decided to alter my border crossing plan thanks to Don Adams' excellent book "Head For Mexico". He recommends declaring all electronic equipment on a sheet of paper, outlining model numbers, serial numbers, value and date of purchase. So I spent about an hour unpacking my vehicle looking for the requisite information for my PC, monitor, printer, telescope, vacuum and television. I'm also including the 2 bikes for good measure.

We received a phone call from our friends in Playa del Carmen this evening. They're very concerned about our plans to cross at Brownsville and head down 180 all the way to Playa. They claim the roads are horrible and there's nothing to see. They contend if we cross over to Monterrey and then head down the middle of the country the roads will be great and we'll have to opportunity to see a lot more. Now I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I've gotten contradictory advice from 2 Mexican driving experts. I think I'll sleep on it and decide once I cross in Brownsville whether to head south or cut west over to Monterrey.

The big question is should I shave my 3 day beard? Do I cross looking like a beach bum or a rich American yuppie? Do I wear a baseball cap or glasses? I'm sure I'm over thinking this thing. Time for bed!!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

My last night in the US for quite a while!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On the Way to San Antonio

The careless couple have struck again! 10 minutes into our drive out of Dallas a warning appeared on the driver's console that read "rear access door open". Looking into my rear view mirror, the rear access appeared closed. Rather than risk it I pulled off at the nearest gas station only to find the glass access door on my tailgate was wide open! My camera case was perched perilously on the edge. Luckily we didn't lose anything!

Getting back on the road after 4 days of siesta was quite enjoyable. Somehow we always manage to turn a 4 1/2 hour trip into an 8 hour extravaganza. Why rush when there are no deadlines? We passed through Austin, stopping only briefly. From what we saw I wasn't impressed. Then again we were only there 30 minutes and managed to visit the slums in search of an illusive Texan tourist office. After Austin we turned 30 miles out of the way to visit Lockhart, Texas so Allan (Allan Lockhart - no relation) could have some pictures taken in front of the Lockhart sign. We also wanted to try some of Texas's best barbecue. The pork ribs, corn bread, Mexican rice and bottomless sweet tea were just what the doctor ordered!

After Lockhart we managed to make it to San Antonio despite the fact that the GPS was telling us to go East. Luckily Allan noticed the error and headed us West. Otherwise I probably would have driven to Arkansas! Upon arriving at the Comfort Inn in San Antonio I took a prompt swim in the pool to cool off. I have to remember to put on 50 proof sunblock. Although I like getting tan I don't want to end up a raisin when I'm 50! When it's summer year round what's the point of tanning? At 100 degrees outside it is a scorcher. Call us crazy but we love the heat. It sure beats 2 feet on snow on a cold winter day in Boston!

After we decompressed at the hotel we proceeded downtown for routine photos outside the Alamo. It would have been nice to go inside but unfortunately it was closed. Next we took a nice stroll on the River Walk, San Antonio's primary promenade along the San Antonio River. It's a gorgeous area lined with shops and restaurants, and has the same sort of charm as Spain.
We wanted to eat at a charming riverside Mexican restaurant but it had an hour wait so we settled on a tourist trap with Texan food, poor service and overcooked burgers. However, the meal for 2 was inexpensive and the food palatable, so it made it worthwhile overall.

For accommodations for tomorrow night we managed to book a dog friendly hotel in Brownsville, TX after numerous phone calls to various hotels. Allan wanted to book a Holiday Inn an hour out of our way from Brownsville, but I insisted we try calling more hotels. Luckily my persistence paid off! We're finding the closer we get to the border the more difficult it is to find pet friendly accommodations. I'll take it as a harbinger of things to come!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Rickey and Mitzi say "hello" from Dallas.

The rear access door is open. Notice the black camera case. We drove about 10 miles like this.

Matt at Buzzard Billy's creole restaurant in Waco, Texas.

Isn't it great to have something named after you? Allan Lockhart poses in front of the Lockhart, Texas sign.

Matt, Rickey and Mitzi at Black's BBQ, Texas's oldest barbecue. It's located in Lockhart, Texas.

Matt at the Alamo

Allan on San Antonio's River Walk