The Mega Mundo Maya Manual (with a little help from us)

Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and HondurasEarlier this year travel writer and guide book author Joshua Berman asked us for input for his new book, a mega Mundo Maya manual published by Moon Handbooks called  Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. It was a perfect fit.

During our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve spent well over a year in the Mundo Maya visiting more than 50 Mayan sites in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In addition, Josh (who also writes the Moon Handbook travel guides to Nicaragua, Belize and the Living Abroad in Nicaragua guide) is committed to conveying a true sense of place based on actual first-hand experiences just like we are.

We did some digging around and provided Josh with information about the best guides, events, tours and hotels to help readers plan the most powerful and revealing trips through the Mundo Maya in 2012.

The end of the world (as we know it)

Why 2012? Well, the Mayans were meticulous record keepers, astronomers and day counters. The carved-stone calendars they left behind are stunning in their accuracy and artistry and have been the focus of intense research for decades.

Mayan calendars end on December 21, 2012, however, for reasons we may never know. Theories range from hysterical (and often ignorant) cries of “It’s the end of the world!” to the more moderate view held by many actual Mayans that the end of the Mayan calendar is merely a kind of re-set button for humanity–difficult and painful, but nothing to get apocalyptic about.

Whatever theory you subscribe to, 2012 is a year full of unique celebrations of Mayan culture throughout Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. If you’ve ever been curious about these countries and/or the Mayans, 2012 is the time to visit.

Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras (Moon Handbooks, $7.95 for the book/$2.99 for the Kindle edition), is available NOW so if you want the inside scoop about the most unique and authentic on-and-off-the-beaten-path celebrations, pick up a copy and start planning smart.

We do not get a percentage of book sales. We just hate to see people waste their vacations (and their money) on mediocre experiences, especially with regard to a once-in-a-lifetime event like the end of the epic Mayan calendar.

Use the link at the end of this post to buy a copy of Maya 2012: A guide to celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras (or snag a FREE Kindle version). But first, here’s a sneak peek look at the interview with us that ran in the book.

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2.5 Years, 250 Posts, 7 Links Worth Re-Visiting

We started our Trans-Americas Journey blog 2.5 years ago and we’ve produced more than 250 posts since then.

When we were nominated by Immersed in the World to contribute to the “My 7 Links” project on Tripbase it felt like the prefect time (and perfect reason) to take a little stroll back through blog history and fulfill the pretty simple mandate to come up with seven posts that fit into the following categories.

Some posts are old favorites, others are unsung heroes but they all deserve a second look!


Our Most Beautiful Post

You Know You Want It: MORE Antarctica Photos

Even the word Antarctica is beautiful and we made the most of the wonders of the white continent (penguins! glaciers! killer whales!) during adventure aboard the MV Antarctic Dream.



Our Most Popular Post

What’s In Your (Travel) Wallet?

Our own frustration at being charged foreign transaction fees when using a credit card outside the US  inspired a whole lot of digging until we uncovered the one, the only credit card that makes sense for serial travelers like ourselves who just can’t bear giving someone money for nothing. Which credit card is it? You’ll have to read the post (like more than 7,000 other travelers have) to find out.


Our Most Controversial Post

Rockstar in the Bullring

Spaniard Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza is not just a rejoneador (a matador who fights bulls on horseback). He is the world’s best rejoneador so when we had the chance to watch one of his fights during his most recent tour of Mexico we had to go. Whatever your feelings about bullfighting (and, trust us, there ARE feelings) the experience gave us an amazing glimpse into Latin culture and an amazing display of horsemanship.



Our Most Helpful Post

How To Have A Mexican Road Trip

After 18 months and nearly 25,000 miles on the road in Mexico we learned a thing or two (sometimes the hard way) about how to have a Mexican road trip. This comprehensive post covers all the bases from topes warnings to how to get out of a police shakedowns to which insurance to buy to the pros and cons of toll roads.  Read this before you drive over the border (we sure wish we’d had a resource like this before we left). You’re welcome.



The Post Whose Success Surprised Us

Fiesta de 188 Aniversario – Union de Tula, Jalisco, Mexico

We went to Tula with our friends in the Delgadillo family from Guadalajara. The patriarch of the family, who was born in Union de Tula, returned with his family to his home town to celebrate the 188th anniversary of its founding and we tagged along. We had a lovely time being welcomed to each neighborhood’s food and tequila and music-filled street parties and we produced a very nice post about a very nice Mexican town. End of story.

Nope. This post was an instant, huge hit. It rocketed through the roof and instantly to the top of our most popular posts list and stayed there for months. What readers were (and still are) after are the two videos embedded in the post–one of an adorable 5-year-old cowboy dancing up a storm in front of a band and another of couples dancing (very closely) to banda music in the town square. To date, these videos have been viewed more than 54,000 times. That accounts for more than 25% of all the views of all of the 150 videos on our YouTube channel.

Turns out, a high percentage of those born in Tula now live and work outside Mexico–mostly in the US (we met the two long lost sons, below, during our time in Tula) and they’re homesick. Very, very homesick.



The Post We Feel Didn’t Get the Attention It (totally) Deserved

Children of Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

Come on! This post has adorable children and one of the most famous and colorful religious events in one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. Did cold-hearted readers care? Not so much.



The Post We’re Most Proud Of

Flower Wars: Is Your V-Day Bouquet Destroying the Jungles of Belize?

Published just prior to Valentine’s Day, this post alerted many readers to a hidden problem with that annual V-day bouquet. Besides being more than a bit trite as love tokens go, many bouquets use an innocuous-looking palm frond as cheap, long-lasting filler. This frond is from a species of xate palm and almost all of it is harvested in the jungles of Belize (having already been seriously depleted in Guatemala and Mexico) and sold to huge international floral companies.

Where’s the problem? Let’s see…illegal border crossing, animal poaching, jungle clearing, theft, violence and all of it in vast tracts of untouched jungle where endangered species like the harpy eagle are trying to regain a foothold. Makes chocolates look like a genius move.



To keep the ball rolling, We’d like to nominate the following great bloggers to take part in the My 7 Links project:



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Top 10 Reasons to Go to Mexico (a retrospective)

Before arriving in Mexico during our ongoing Trans-Americas Journey we estimated that we’d spend about eight months in the country. By the time we finally tore ourselves away we’d spent 18 months driving 24,737 miles through 29 of the 31 states in Mexico. We recently went back through all 177 of the posts we put up about Mexico on our travel blog and compiled this list of the Top 10 Reasons to Go to Mexico complete with links back to our original words and pictures on the subject.

We road tripped through Mexico because that’s what we do. However, no matter how you explore Mexico you’ll be glad you did because…


#1…the beach is just the beginning

It’s easy to get the impression that Mexico is one long, white sandy beach peppered with frosty cold Coronas and festively-colored hammocks. And there’s plenty of that. However, the great big pleasant surprise about Mexico is its geographic diversity.

Yes, tanning is an outdoor activity but you can have even more fun in Mexico if you venture off the beaten beach.

The north offers expansive deserts. The vast central area of the country is downright mountainous (the capital, Mexico City, is at 7,350 feet or 2,240 meters). One of the largest canyon systems in the world is in Mexico along with enormous volcanoes, meandering caves, impressive waterfalls and tumbling rivers.

Here’s proof.


Copper Canyon, Chihuahua state

This series of six interlocking canyons in northern Mexico is both larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. We know because we spent a month exploring the area on the Copper Canyon train, in our truck and on foot from Cusarare to El Fuerte. We camped on the rim of the Sinfarosa area of the Copper Canyon, enjoyed the area’s massive Basaseachi Waterfall and generally got a sense of the indigenous Tarahumara (who, we learned in the canyon, actually prefer to be called Raramuri) and the gorgeous world they fled into to escape the enslaving Spanish.



Cenotes, Yucatan state

When the ceiling of a cave falls in and the cave fills with crystal-clear fresh water it’s called a cenote. They’re gorgeous oasis perfect for snorkeling and even scuba diving, as we found out when we jumped into Dos Ojos Cenote in southern Mexico for one of the most other-worldly scuba dives of our lives.  In the town of Cuzamá (near Merida) you can rent a horse-drawn cart to pull you along a small-gauge railway track (originally used to transport harvested sisal) around a long circuit that includes stops for swims at three dramatic cenotes.  Up the adrenaline factor by joining the locals and swinging into the water off massive descending tree roots, Tarzan style.


Laguna Media Luna, San Luis Potosi state

Speaking of other-worldly dives, how about diving in a crystal clear, constantly warm, spring-fed, fresh water lake at 3,200 feet (975 meters)? You can do it in Laguna Media Luna in central Mexico.


Lagos de Montebelo, Chiapas state

You can’t dive into them, but the collection of brilliantly colored  lakes (turquoise, jade, aquamarine) that make up the Lagos de Montebello region in southern Mexico is stunning and includes one of the closest things to a US-style national park road in all of Mexico.



Cacahuamilpa Caves, Guerrero state

We’ve ventured inside a lot of caves on the Trans-Americas Journey but none were as surprisingly awesome as the massive Cacahuamilpa Caves in the Parque Nacional Grutas Cacahuamilpa in central Mexico. One of the largest cave systems in the world, it has two rivers running through it, impressive rock formations and no nasty bat poop smell. Honest.


Nevado de Toluca, Mexico state

The active Toluca Volcano in central Mexico (just 50 miles from Mexico City) is the fourth highest peak in the country. At 15, 34 feet  (4,680 meters) it’s a weather-beaten, rugged corner of the country most visitors don’t visit. We did, though the summit eluded us…


Rio Antigua, Veracruz state

White water rafting in Mexico was born in the Jacolmulco region of Veracruz state in the central/southern part of the country and the area continues to offer watery thrills.


Bernal Monolith, Queretarro state

At 1,150 feet (350 meters) this giant hunk of free-standing rock in central Mexico is the fourth tallest monolith in the world (or third tallest, depending on who you ask) after Mount Augustus, the Rock of Gilbraltar and Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio. Smack in the middle of the oldest wine region in The Americas.





#2…you’ll become a better cook (and a better eater)

Since leaving Mexico not a day goes by that we don’t long for the amazing food we ate there. There just is no beating the food you get in Mexico. Whether you have $1 or $100 to spend on a meal you’re gonna get good eats. Here are a few appetizers.


– Making mole poblano at the cooking school at Mesones Sacristia hotel in Puebla

– The tempting tacos of Mexico City

– Why everyone should mix lemon sorbet and cheap red wine like they do in Queretaro

– The best ice cream in the land (and that’s saying something)



#3…you’ll finally learn how to drink good tequila (and mezcal)

Tequila is a passion in Mexico–a delicious, fascinating, artisanal passion. To be called tequila the stuff must be made from blue agave from specific regions in Mexico including the town of Tequila (near Guadalajara) where large producers and small producers rub shoulders. Tequila can also be produced in the Los Altos region. Yes we visited both areas. What’s your point?

Tequila may be “the drink of Mexico” but in the foodie state of Oaxaca (birthplace of mole, tlayudas and much more) a community of small batch mezcal makers is quietly at work on a tasty revolution.

Forget shots. Start sipping.



#4…you’ll really appreciate a good cup of coffee

A visit to the coffee plantations in the Ruta de Cafe in Chiapas is a tasty education in the economics of coffee, how to brew a perfect cup and a glimpse at impressively innovative organic farming methods that are changing the way coffee is grown. It doesn’t hurt that many of the plantations now have gorgeous hotels and spas on site too.



#5…they’ve got animals all over the place


Monarchs on the march
Monarch butterflies know Mexico is a great place to go. Every year, between November and March, hundreds of millions of monarchs somehow navigate their way to the exact same areas of central Mexico—some flying 5,000 miles or more from where they were born in Canada and the northern US. Scientists say they’re drawn to Mexico’s fir trees, but can’t provide a more complete explanation than that. Once the butterflies arrive, they rest and eat then mate like crazy before attempting the return flight home. And you can stop by and check them out.


Flamingos galore
In the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site in Yucatan state, we sawthousands of long-legged, pink stunners as they gorged on the shrimp that thrive in this unique super-salty estuary.





Cave of swallows
Every morning thousands of swifts fly up and out of their home inside a 1,220 foot deep pit called the Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of Swallows) in San Luis Potosí state. The birds burst out into the world and spend the day feeding before returning home in the evening. Yes, we have video.


Abyss of the parrots
The Sima de las Cotorras (Abyss of the Parrots) in Chiapas state is another feathery find as hundreds of parrots squawk their way out of an almost perfectly round  sinkhole that’s 525 feet (160 meters) wide and 460 feet (140 meters) deep.


Scarlet macaws and howler monkeys
Centro Ecoturistico Las Guacamayas is a sanctuary for the flamboyant namesake birds (guacamayas is Spanish for scarlet macaws) and a haven for other jungle finds like howler monkeys. You’ve got to hear it to believe it…





Fine. We never actually saw a wild jaguar in Mexico (in fact, we’ve never seen a wild jaguar at all despite much trying). But we did see an impressive installation of 25 life-size jaguars decorated by 25 different artists when we were in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. We’re counting it as a partial sighting…


#6…you won’t believe how great the hotels are

We’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels in Mexico from quirky boutique properties to flawless all-inclusive resorts. Here are just a few of our most memorable Mexican stays.

Maison Couturier

Verana: A hippie-chic hilltop retreat outside Puerto Vallarta (as published in Afar)

Maison Couturier: French farmhouse charm in Veracruz

Clarum 101: Guadalajara’s hidden hipster

Casa de Mita: Your Punta Mita beach home, only  WAY better

Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort:Riviera Maya all-inclusive-ness, perfected

Grand Velas Room

Casa del Atrio: The best arty b&b bargain in the laid back (but happening) town of Queretaro (as published in National Geographic Traveler)

Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal: A Mayanist infuses his passion into the first boutique hotel on the doorstep of the Palenque archaeological site

Boca Chica: Elvis was here, sushi by the seashore and a dose of retro Acapulco



#7…when the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 you’ll have an idea why

Uxmal-Cuadrángulo de las Monjas-Nunnery Quadrangle-detail

We don’t know exactly how many Mayan archaeological sites there are in Mexico. We do know that we visited 54 of them–from stars like Palenque and Chichen Itza to little-visited WAY off the beaten path digs. To save you from trolling our blog endlessly in search of each of our posts about these sites we (thoughtfully) compiled all of them into this handy alphabetized list of archaeological sites we visited with links back to our original posts about them. Now you can really get serious about planning your vacation in the Mundo Maya before the Mayan calendar mysteriously ends on December 21, 2012.



#8…you’ll never watch US-style rodeo the same way again

Rodeo was invented in Mexico, specifically in the Lagos de Moreno area of Jalisco which is still a hotbed of horsemanship. Lagos is where we spent many blissful days riding from hacienda to hacienda (often over stretches of the original Camino Real), watching amazing horse trainers at work, cheering along with the crowd at charreadas (Mexican rodeos), taking part in branding day and learning how to ride like a charro (Mexican cowboy). Sort of.





#9…the cultures (and culture) will floor you

Mexico is a huge country and every region has produced distinct cultures including like the Aztecs and the Lacandon, who cling to existence with less than 1,000 members. Vibrant (literally) cultures remain strongest in Chiapas where many different traditions in clothing, food and customs exist in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas.

For culture of another kind, you can’t beat the museums of Mexico City where you can see everything from ancient Olmec heads carved out of enormous boulders to the most modern of modern art. We’re from New York City and we were floored by the museums here.



#10…you’ll have a clue what you’re talking about when the issue of tourist safety in Mexico comes up (again)

For the record: after 18 months of independent overland travel driving nearly 25,000 miles through 29 of the country’s 31 states we can report, first hand, that we have never seen or sensed any threat or danger of any kind at any point anywhere in Mexico. Period.

Want to see where we wandered? You can see all 177 of our posts from Mexico displayed geographically on this map.

Learn more about travel in Mexico.

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Archaeological Index: What You MUST Know About the 100+ Mayan (and other) Sites We’ve Visited

Since our Trans-Americas Journey started in 2006 we’ve visited nearly 100 archaeological sites in the US, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.  These sites have given us a window into cultures ranging from the Anasazi to the Zapotec but most of our Indiana Jones time has been spent with the Maya–we’ve visited 54 Mayan sites so far with more to come.

With so many posts about so many sites we wanted to index them in one easy place–and here it is. We’ve categorized sites by culture and by country and alphabetized each site within its grouping for quick reference. The links take you directly to our blog post concerning that site.

Bookmark it for trip planning and research–especially with the puzzling end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012.


Mayan Archaeological Sites in Mexico

Chichén Itzá


Ek' Balam - The Twin Pyramids & the Oval Palace

Ek’ Balam



Becan Campeche he state

Bonampak Chiapas state

Calakmul Campeche state

Chiapa de Corzo Chiapas

Chicanna Campeche state

Chichen Itza Yucatan state

Chinkultic Chiapas state

Coba Quintana Roo state

Comalcalco Tabasco state

Dzibilchaltun Yucatan state

Dzibilnocac Campeche state

Edzna Campeche state

Ek’ Balam Quintana Roo state

Hochob Campeche state

Hormiguero Campeche state

Izamal Yucatan state

Izapa Chiapas state

Kabah Yucatan state

Labna Yucatan state

Loltun Cave Yucatan state

Mayapan Yucatan state

Palenque Chiapas state

Sayil Yucatan state

El Tabasqueño Campeche state

Tenam Puente Chiapas state

Toniná Chiapas state

Tulum Quintana Roo state

Uxmal Yucatan state

Xpuhil Campeche state

Yaxchilan Chiapas state


 Mayan Archaeological Sites in Belize


Actun Tunichil Muknal aka ATM cave

Altun Ha


Chan Chich



La Milpa

Nim Li Punit



Mayan Archaeological Sites in Guatemala


Dos Pilas

El Ceibal (Seibal)

La Florida


El Mirador part 1, part 2, part 3


Punta de la Chimino


El Tintal




Mayan Archaeological Sites in Honduras


Los Sapos

Las Sepulturas

El Puente


Mayan Archaeological Sites in El Salvador


Joya de Ceren

San Andres


Other Mesoamerican Sites in Mexico

Cacaxtla (Olmec-Xicalancas culture) Tlaxcala state

Cholula (Olmec-Xicalancas culture ) Puebla state

Guachimontones (Teuchitlan culture) Jalisco state

La Ventana: Parque-Musueo de La Venta Villahermosa, Tabasco state

Mitla (Zapotec culture) Oaxaca state

Monte Alban (Zapotec culture) Oaxaca state

Paquimé (Mimbres culture) Casas Grandes, Chihuahua state

Quiahuztlan (Toltec culture) Veracruz state

El Tajin (Totonaca culture) Veracruz state

El Tepozteco (Aztec culture) Tepotzlan, Morelos state

Teotihuacan (Aztec culture) Mexico state

Templo Mayor (Aztec culture) Mexico City

Xochicalco Morelos state

Xochitecatl (Olmec-Xicalancas civilization) Tlaxcala state

Yagul (Zapotec culture) Oaxaca state


Museo Nacional de Antropología Mexico City

Museo de Antropología Xalapa, Veracruz state



Archaeological Sites in the US

Aztec Ruins National Monument (Anasazi culture) New Mexico

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Anasazi culture) Arizona

Chaco Culture National Historic Park (Anasazi culture) New Mexico

El Morro National Monument (Anasazi culture) New Mexico

Fate Bell Shelter – Seminole Canyon State Park

Gila Cliff Dwellings National monument (Mogollon culture) New Mexico

Hovenweep national Monument  (Anasazi culture) Utah/Colorado

Hueco Tanks (Mogollon culture) Texas

Mesa Verde National Park (Anasazi culture) Colorado

Montezuma Castle National monument (Sinagua culture) Arizona

Navajo National Monument (Anasazi culture) Arizona

Painted Rock – Carrizo Plain National Monument, California

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico



Archaeological Sites in Canada

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (Vikings) Newfoundland



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How To Have a Mexican Road Trip

We don’t mean to toot our own horn (get it? road trip? horn?), but we’ve pretty much become experts on driving in Mexico. That’s what happens when you spend 18 months driving 24,737 miles thoroughly exploring 29 of the country’s 31 states (Monterey and Tamulipas, we’ll get you on the way back up). Here are our top travel tips about how to have a Mexican road trip so you can make the most of your own driving adventure in Mexico. We sure wish we’d known this stuff before we left…

How to have a Mexican road trip in 13 easy tips

1. Fuel is cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US

During our travels we paid an average of US$2.40 per gallon for diesel for our truck when fuel was cheaper and the exchange rate was stronger than it is now. Still, fuel costs remain below the US average. As of June 24, 2011 (calculated at the current exchange rate 11.81 pesos = US$1):

Magna (regular unleaded) was 9.24 pesos/liter  =  US$2.96/gallon;

Premium was 10.34 pesos/liter  =  US$3.31/gallon;

Diesel was 9.60 pesos/liter  =  US$3.08/gallon.  NOTE: there is virtually no ultra low sulfur diesel available in Mexico, but PEMEX has announced future plans to refine ULSD in the future.

Here’s a good place to find current fuel prices in Mexico.

2. There is only one gas station chain in Mexico

It’s called Pemex and it’s owned by the Mexican government which sets fuel prices for the entire country (though fuel can be a touch pricier near the US border and a touch cheaper in the free-trade zones in the southern border areas with Belize and Guatemala). This means you don’t have to waste time (and fuel) driving all over creation comparing prices at the Shell and the Exxon and the BP. What you see is what you get so just pull in and fill up.

3. All gas stations are full service in Mexico

Learn to say “Por favor, lavar mi parabrisas” and they’ll clean your windshield too. We generally give the guy (and, occasionally, the girl) a couple of pesos for the effort. Another good gas station phrase to know: “Acceptan tarjetas de crédito?” (Do you accept credit cards?). Even if they say yes, ask them to run a charge through for the amount of gas you want before you pump. We’ve been left paying for a big fill-up in cash after the local Bancomer bank refused to process our credit card which the attendant said the station accepted.

4. You can use a GPS in Mexico–sort of

Magellan makes a GPS device that includes data for Mexican roads. It’s called the Roadmate 1470 and we used it throughout the country. Even so, it’s a bit tricky to use in small towns or in remote areas where data is thin and it can be confusing finding specific streets because name abbreviations are so often used. Sometimes it can be even more confusing in cities that can have dozens of variations of the same street name.Still, our Magellan did help us get oriented in big cities which is very helpful.

5. Better yet, buy a Guia Roji

Available at most big book stores in Mexico and at some big gas stations, the Guia Roji is the Rand McNally atlas for Mexico and still the best source of roadway and city maps plus it has a relatively accurate chart that will help you calculate what the tolls will cost if you choose to take the country’s pay highways instead of the network of free roads (see below).



6. Pay  Highway vs. Free Roads…

Pay highway PROS:

  • wide and well paved
  • usually bypass towns and villages
  • virtually unenforced speed limit
  • fastest way between two points–often 2-3 times faster than the free road route
  • you’ll often have the whole road to yourself
  • drivers on pay highways are automatically covered by limited insurance that covers civil liability, medical payments and funeral expenses (this does NOT satisfy your requirement to have Mexican insurance, however–see below)
  • pay highways are patrolled by the Green Angels, an amazing fleet of bright green tow trucks driven by mechanics ready to fix what’s broken free of charge (see below)

Pay highway CONS:

  • tolls can add up — the 178 mile pay (286 km) road between Puebla and Veracruz costs US$28 in tolls. That’s more than a peso per kilometer, and you could spend more than US$350 in tolls driving from one end of the country to the other
  • since pay highways bypass towns and villages you don’t see much of real Mexico–driving on a pay highway is virtually the same as driving on a US interstate

Free road PROS:

  • no tolls
  • since they pass through towns and villages you see Mexican life as you travel

Free road CONS:

  • can be 2-3 times slower than the pay highway route
  • often narrow roads that connect towns and cities which become slow moving main streets through each town and city along the way before turning back into a “highway” out of town
  • lots of topes (speedbumps, see below)
  • cheaper trucking companies use the free roads too, so there are often big trucks on small roads

You can get a detailed driving route with pay highway times and tolls from Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation. This is a particularly great tool for planning routes between cities.

7. The Green Angels make AAA look like a racket

Any driver on any road in Mexico can call the Green Angels and a bright green truck driven by bilingual mechanics will show up (8 am to 6 pm) ready to fix what’s broken for the price of the parts/fuel/oil (tips are appreciated). Green Angels patrol the pay highways, but if you don’t see one when you need one you just dial 078 and they’ll come to you.


8. Topes are a bitch

Tope (pronounced toe-pay) is the Spanish word for bump and is used for speed bumps as well. These concrete and rock humps in the road vary in steepness, width and severity but they’re all hellish. In the course of our Trans-Americas Journey, so far, we’ve driven over tens of thousands of them.

They are efficient and brutal–especially the ones that are unsigned and sneak up on you before you can slow down. There’s a reason there’s almost always a tire repair shack at or near a tope. They’re also dreadful for your fuel economy and your shocks–which is part of the reason we upgraded to Bilstein shocks.

By the time we left Mexico we’d come up with two new terms relating to topes (no, they’re not swear words):

nope (pronounced no-pay): What you find when you slow down and reach what you thought was a tope only to discover that it’s not.

rope (pronounced row-pay): A tope made by laying a massive rope across the road. These can be even more brutal than the stone and concrete varieties.

-slope (pronounced slow-pay): A tope made with gentle angles and slopes so that it can be glided over at a higher speed.

-gatope (pronounced ga-toe-pay): A tope of any sort with a cat (gato) sitting next to it.

 9. Hoy no circula!

Mexico City’s air quality has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks in part to the innovative hoy no circula (today you can’t drive) rules that designate “no driving” days for all private vehicles in Mexico City and the state of Mexico based on the last number in your license plate. These rules absolutely apply to foreign drivers and it’s important to understand the rules, follow them and be armed with a good working knowledge of the program so you can make your case when a Mexico City cop pulls you over and (wrongly) accuses you of driving on a day or at a time you aren’t supposed to, which has happened to us. Here’s where to get complete hoy no circula rules in English.

You can also apply for a 14 day tourist waiver that exempts you from the hoy no circula rules in Mexico City.

10. Shakedown breakdown

Even armed with full knowledge of Mexican road rules and full compliance with said rules you will probably get pulled over by a cop in Mexico. Despite the fact that the Mexican government has made it illegal for the police to extort drivers for money (that had to be officially spelled out?), it still happens to locals and to foreigners. Soon after arriving in Mexico an expat tipped us off to this trick for getting out of these situations and after being pulled over multiple times in Mexico we can tell you that it works.

A. Act dumb and pretend that you don’t understand much Spanish, why you were stopped or what the cop is asking for. Maybe the cop will get bored and irritated and give up at this point. If he doesn’t…

B. Have the person in the passenger seat (also acting clueless and stupidly kind of excited by this “brush with the natives”) pull out a point and shoot camera and start happily taking pictures of this vacation memory in the making. Smile. Shoot some more.

C. Drive away. Because all cops know that extortion is illegal none of them will want to be photographed in the act. The cop will probably get angry when he sees the camera, but he will also tell you to get the hell out of there and the whole altercation will be over with no money paid, no shouting and no confrontation.

11. Mexicans are not bad drivers (they just have some wacky habits)

Two of the most important Mexican driving habits to understand are as follows:

1. Making two lanes into three lanes. Many two-lane Mexican roads have ample shoulders. This allows for an intricate ballet that involves slower traffic driving primarily on the shoulder allowing faster traffic to pass straddling the center line in an imaginary third lane. Cooperation from all parties is obviously required.

2. A left turn signal does not mean I’m turning left. Usually, it means “it’s clear to pass me.” This leads to some confusion when you really want to make a left hand turn which is accomplished by pulling over to the right of the road and waiting for all traffic behind you to pass, then turning left.

12. Not all Mexican auto insurance is created equal

You must carry Mexican auto liability insurance if you’re going to drive your own car in the country, but the insurer you choose can make a huge difference. A company called Adventure Mexican Insurance Services acts as a brokerage for Mexican auto insurance and it is totally Trans-Americas Journey approved.

They’re based in the U.S. and their 800# is always staffed with English speakers who can help with questions or issues, they offer great rates and they have fixers who can help solve claims problems.

If we’d gone through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services instead of buying direct from stinky old GNP Insurance in the first place, we wouldn’t have gotten so screwed when a taxi ran into us and GNP jerked us around when we made a claim. That’s why when it was time to get a new policy we went right to these guys.

Use this link to purchase your insurance through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services and you won’t pay any more but we’ll get a small commission which will help us put a few more gallons in our gas tank.

 13. You can’t beat a Mexican car wash

They’re cheap (less than 60 pesos, about US$5, for the exterior of our huge truck) and they’re often meticulous. Basically, a team of guys descends on your vehicle with high pressure washers and buckets of suds. No surface is left un-scrubbed, including the wheel wells and undercarriage. The whole thing culminates in a wipe down and polish of all rubber/plastic surfaces including your tires. We’ve had epic washes all over Mexico but the car washes in Mexico City and outside Playa del Carmen stand out. Set aside at least 45 minutes.

They’ll give the same treatment to your interior too for just a few pesos more.

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Mujeres y Mayans – Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico

Tapachula could be just another border town (when your Wiki page starts with “Tapachula is a hot, humid town…” it ain’t good), however, there are two standout reasons to stop.

The first is Casa Mexicana, a boutique hotel with just 10 rooms each named for an iconic Mexican woman. Yes, Frida gets a room. Bt the hotel also pays homage to Doña Josepha Ortiz de Dominguez, known as La Corregidora, a privileged woman who lived in Querétaro and was one of the earliest agitators for Mexican independence. Then there’s  Ofelia Medina, a seminal Mexican actress and singer who’s still alive today. And Maria Bonita, a famous beauty who had an infamous affair with a singer who gave her her name. Short bios of each woman are part of the eclectic and colorful in-room decor.

One of the rooms at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.

In fact, the whole place is fun to look at too–chock full of art and kitch collected by the peripatetic owners, including an impressive mask collection, some fascinating religious art and a massive two-part painting of women’s legs in fishnets that was rescued from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.

This pair of paintings at Casa Mexicana was salvaged from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.

Lucha in a box! Just one of the many playful pieces of art in Casa Mexicana.

There’s also a swimming pool, an inviting open air bar, a great restaurant and charming co-owner Manuel. With doubles from around US$80 it’s a great value.

The swimming pool at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.

The second reason to do more than just pass through Tapachula is the Mayan ruins at Izapa archaeological site. Some experts believe that this collection of three little-visited sites which may have played an important role in Mayan astrology and calendar making. Yes, that same calendar that “ends” in 2012 which has sparked theories ranging from “it’s the end of the world” to “it’s a chance for humanity to reboot” to “they must have run out of stone.”

A plaza at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

A rana (frog) altar at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

All three of the pre-Hispanic sites lie a few miles outside of Tapachula on the way to the Guatemala border. They’re small, free and overseen by a caretaker family. You will likely be the only visitor there. All day. There are not a lot of structures to see in the Izapa group, but there are carved rocks galore, including what some believe to be the origins of the calendar which mysteriously comes to an end in 2012.

Small stele at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

An unusual fertility sculpture at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

Need another reason to put  Tapachula on the itinerary? It’s also the jumping off point to the coffee fincas of the Ruta de Cafe, which we raved about in our last post.


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