drove through Mexico in 1978, and he remembers being coerced into paying
a bribe anytime a police officer spotted his out-of-country license plate.
On one occasion, after being stopped somewhere in the D.F., he told the
offending officer that he didn’t have the $10 bribe on him and asked if
he would wait while my husband went quickly to the bank to cash a traveler’s
check. Somewhere, on some random street corner of the capital, that police
officer is still waiting.
While you will
see a lot of police in Mexico, if you have your paperwork in order, they
will not bother you. It is my understanding that if you are asked for a
bribe you should report the incident immediately to the nearest police
station. The Mexican government has worked hard over the years to change
the image of their police. At present, asking tourists for bribes
is dealt with severely. Every time you cross from one state in Mexico to
the next, expect to be stopped by stern looking soldiers in olive green
uniforms, and with semi-automatic weapons slung casually over their shoulders.
They will want to see your passports, the paperwork for the car, including
the original title, and they will often search the vehicle. Plus,
the closer you get to Belize and Guatemala, the more thorough these searches
will become. Entering into the state of Quintana Roo, two police officers
searched our belongings so thoroughly that they opened our shampoo bottle
and then sniffed our toothpaste! Nothing was ever taken during these searches
and it is best to just be patient and let them do their jobs.
and entering Guatemala, certain differences become obvious immediately.
Gone are the four lane super highways and pothole-free pavements. On the
Pan-American Highway, crossing into the highlands you will find yourself
on narrow, often unmarked, two-lane roads. It is a good idea to plan on
a leisurely drive, enjoying the scenery and resigning yourself to spending
a lot of time stuck behind exquisitely painted busses that already saw
a tour of duty in U.S. school districts. These busses are the most common
forms of mass transit throughout Central America, but only Panama comes
close to competing with the level of artwork put into these formerly canary
yellow vehicles. In Guatemala, some busses will have elaborate dashboard
altars, complete with plaster images of Christ and various saints, all
adorned with flashing lights. The windows might be dressed with curtains
similar to those found in my grandmother’s kitchen, with pom-poms swaying
and dancing with the bumps in the road. The back doors and sides will be
dedicated to the most important convictions of the driver- God and or his
girlfriend/wife/mother. (In Panama busses go for more pop culture themes,
with portraits of Britney Spears and other artists gracing a bus’ rear
fairly good two lane highways, but it is best to rely on navigating from
city to city rather than expecting highway numbers (I-99, for example)
to keep you on course. We had a very frustrating experience the morning
we left Antigua. To get from Antigua to the border with El Salvador, it
was necessary to pass through Guatemala City. On our map, it didn’t look
like such a complicated task. However, once we hit the city we realized
what a puzzle we had entered. None of the routes were marked and our very
basic map proved to be useless. Worse-- every single Guatemalan we stopped
to ask for directions would tell us something completely different, and
when we would follow their instructions we would only end up more lost.
We drove around for about five hours before finally finding our way OUT
of the city. Once on the outskirts, and at last convinced that we were
on the right track, we pulled into a Pollo Campero (a Guatemalan chicken
chain that has spread throughout Central America and well into South America)
and tried to settle our nerves over some good ol’ fried chicken. Unless
you have a detailed map of the capital, or have some desire to actually
stay there, I recommend avoiding the city altogether.
El Salvador, we left behind the world of computers and the wonderful efficiency
they can sometimes provide, and entered into the world of carbon paper
and corrupt officials. Be prepared to spend an average of two hours at
each border crossing. If you get a grumpy official, or one with a birthday
in their family coming up, expect to be charged an extra $5-10 for his
particular services. I repeatedly asked for receipts for these charges,
but my requests were refused throughout, even when I asked nicely. Fortunately,
the Salvadoran crossings were the only ones where we found that these “donations”
were absolutely necessary.
While El Salvador
has a growing reputation for crime, the worst cases we saw were the border
officials. We traveled during the rainy season and possibly as a result,
the roads were more potholes than pavement. This was especially bad near
the Honduran border, where hurricane Mitch had struck months before. Perhaps
another factor influencing the road conditions was the fact that we chose
to travel the southern route through the country, hugging the coast and
avoiding San Salvador. I am assuming that since the road was not
vital to the capital, it was possibly less maintained.
we noticed in El Salvador was that it was hard to find decent places to
stay that offered secure parking arrangements. We stopped at several “Moteles”
before we realized that they were love shacks for couples that preferred
anonymity. These places not only provide parking, but the parking areas
are always adorned with nice curtains to close around your car so that
no one knows you are there. These are also common in Honduras and Nicaragua
and are best to avoid. Not only is their cleanliness questionable, since
they charge by the hour, they tend to get expensive if you plan on spending
the entire night there.
your trip through El Salvador, give yourself plenty of options as to where
you might stay and plenty of time to check them out. All Mexican and Central
American highways are dark and dangerous places to be at night, and it’s
no fun to be out after dark still wondering where you will sleep.
After yet another
LONG hour and another “donation,” we crossed into Honduras. Admittedly,
the El Salvador experience made us anxious just to arrive to Nicaragua,
so we plotted the shortest course possible through Honduras and we spent
only two hours in the country on a very nice, straight, two-lane road.
Honduras is, however, known for its excellent highways. There is much to
see and do in Honduras, especially if one is interested in snorkeling or
scuba diving. The Caribbean coast of Honduras is not only easily accessible
by car (unlike Nicaragua), but boasts the continuation of the coral
reef found in Belize. For these reasons and more, Honduras is a great country
worth driving around in—which, unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do.
crossing exiting Honduras was a breeze, but entering Nicaragua was a different
story. We happened to arrive at high noon-- lunchtime. Following a custom
found commonly in small towns in Nicaragua, the border closed for two hours.
There were no air-conditioned restaurants in which to sit and relax. No
air was moving anywhere, and it must have been 95 degrees in the shade.
This lunchtime two-hour border closing might have changed by now, as I
know that the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border is now open all day long.
Once we were
finally on our way, practically three hours later, we realized that the
delay was going to force us to do some night driving in order to reach
the next town. The implications of this realization came to us as we faced
a highway full of potholes from Hurricane Mitch and resembled something
from the surface of the moon (the road has since been repaired).
Some of the
hazards we encountered in our mere one-hour of night driving were drunks
staggering on the side of the road, a wandering cow or half-starved horse
here and there, and the occasional skeletal dog scratching his fleas. The
worst one was this large shape looming ahead that neither one of us could
really identify. It turned out to be a wooden cart pulled by two oxen.
Since the cart had no lights, no reflectors, and was painted a dark red,
it was extremely difficult to see from a distance. Fortunately for us,
the ox cart driver noticed our fast approach and he steered off the road
into the shallow, grassy ditch. We swerved to give him extra space and
with our hearts racing vowed never to drive at night in Nicaragua again.
Once in Nicaragua
and well beyond the damage done by hurricane Mitch, the roads improve and
driving becomes slightly easier. However, driving in Nicaragua requires
more caution than in other countries due to the large amount of animals
that you encounter in the roads. Many farmers only own one or two horses,
or cows, or pigs, and they often tie them up along the roadside to graze.
These animals inevitably get loose and it is not unusual to see a horse
wandering alone, even through the busy streets of Managua! Other than the
large animals, there are seemingly endless mangy dogs and foraging chickens
to look out for, not to mention the many pedestrians.
All in all,
driving through Central America and Mexico is an adventure few will ever
regret. Drivers need to be prepared to accept that for the most part,
not only life, but traffic, as well, seems to move at a different pace
the further south of the United States one gets. Plan your trip with
plenty of spare time to compensate for sightseeing, slow traffic, random
unexpected stops to watch a religious procession pass by, and whatever
else the region might have to offer. It is generally best to plan your
trip during the Central American dry season that runs from January-May,
but while the rains have started by June and July, the road conditions
usually haven’t deteriorated too terribly. You will find that a trip by
car will indeed give you the options and freedom to see Central America
and Mexico in a way that just isn’t possible by plane or bus.
What NOT to
can provide good maps of Central America and Mexico)
Aerosol flat tire
Copies of passport,
license, and car title (just in case) in addition to the originals
from Sanborn’s (can be purchased at any U.S. border town and is available
on a daily or monthly rate while you are out of the U.S.)
a temporary 30 mile spare. While this takes up additional space, should
the time come when you need to use it, you will find that it is more than
worth its weight in gold.
In the past,
unleaded gasoline was not readily available in this region and drivers
were advised to have their catalytic converters removed from their cars.
This is no longer necessary since unleaded gasoline is easy to obtain and
the removal of your catalytic converter is actually illegal in the United