For snowbirds in Mexico and other highwaymen
To you motorized snowbirds of the United States and Canada, come on down. Mexico awaits. Tourists are really important to the economy.
Mexico hasn't changed much while you were away. Flowers are blooming. Fruit is ripening. The weather forecast is favorable. The exchange rate is near enough to what it was last spring. Political races are heating up. You may want to bring along a jar of peanut butter but arrive relatively low on gas. It costs less south of the border.
Mexico is changing some. There are new signs along major toll roads urging drivers to slow down. They come with a warning that radar is in operation. Some signs are in English. How about that!
For decades, this colorful country has focused on larger problems than protecting lead-footed motorists from themselves. If this isn't just a fund-raiser, it shows new and deeper compassion. Or, maybe the highway department has grown weary of sweeping glass and replacing guardrails.
Considering the end of free lunches and other hassles of flying, more who come from the northlands will be driving this fall. Before you leave home, have your car properly prepared. If you drive an exotic, bring the filter you'll need for your next oil change. Acquire enough pesos from your friendly, neighborhood bank for two or three days of transactions in Mexico.
Be reminded to buy Mexico auto insurance over the phone or internet. U.S. or Canadian insurance won't cover you in Mexico and the border is a poor place for comparison shopping. You can often purchase a six-month policy or even an annual cheaper than a short-term plan. We've used Lewis and Lewis of Los Angeles for several years but the company was slow to respond to our most recent e-mail and phone call and we switched. Too early to recommend our second choice, the International Insurance Group of Flagstaff, Ariz. Maybe next year.
You probably don't need me to tell you to read the fine print. Be sure the policy really covers what you want covered. Most companies offer several options. Don't even consider driving in Mexico without liability insurance and attorney support in case of an accident.
If you are anywhere east of Winnipeg, Bismarck, Wichita or Oklahoma City and going for Guadalajara, Mexico City or anywhere north or east, find I-35 South and follow your nose. If your target is the Baja or the Yucatan peninsula, you really should be flying.
Thousands of snowbirds funnel toward Laredo. We recommend a side trip, 30 miles out of the way to the Colombia Solidarity crossing. The gate opens at 8 a.m.
It can be pleasantly lonesome out at Colombia. The morning we dropped by, the $2 toll-booth attendant was napping. There were no drug dealers shooting at each other with heavy artillery. No women were running for their life or even screaming for help. There were no lines at desks and windows set aside for Mexican paperwork. Alas, there were no Dunkin' Donuts or free coffee.
Here are other recommendations, coaching tips and travel observations, free with your subscription to MexConnect.
If you get to Colombia and have an FM3 and the same set of wheels with the import sticker on the windshield, you are invited to keep on rolling. If you need a tourist visa and a car permit, come to a complete stop. Posted instructions are surprisingly clear and attendants are willing (maybe even eager) to help. Some speak English. Ask politely. Have passport, car title and credit card in hand. Expect to invest a few pesos in document copying.
Copies are very important. Mexicans generally want three of each for stamp-stamp-stamping.
Once you are really in Mexico, your peso stash will drain away. Toll roads from Laredo to Guadalajara add up to about 900. For your sake, please choose toll roads.
Gas is about 6.4 pesos per liter. Mexico highway snacks are comparable in cost to Texas highway snacks. Budget 800 pesos for a halfway house and dinner for two. Some with NASCAR experience drive the entire 700 miles from the border to Lake Chapala. Sometimes we do.
Do drive carefully. We encountered two tortoises crossing Mexico 85D, left to right. One had advanced as far as the passing lane. At the rate they were traveling, they may have arrived at their destination by now and you may miss seeing them.
Moving through Mexico is much easier with a pilot and navigator, chief scout and lookout -- for highway signs and topes, those gosh-awful speed bumps that keep small-town muffler and alignment shops flourishing. Don't have a navigator? There may still be time to marry one.
The obvious south route from the border is 85D toward Monterrey. Pay whatever it costs to bypass the city. Don't go there.
This is the voice of experience speaking. Highway 54 out of Monterrey is straight on the map. It is the way the crow would fly. Be advised that the crow soars over mountains and hairpin curves and avoids steep dropoffs and long lines of slow traffic behind overloaded 18-wheelers and ancient farm trucks that blow smoke.
You'll miss scenic beauty if you follow my plan but your odds of arriving alive are better.
Pick up Highway 40 toward Saltillo but pull up short and veer left on 57 toward San Luis Potosi. The sign says Matehuala/Mexico Cuota. Matehuala offers lodging and food. Las Palmas motel is expensive by Mexico standards but the rooms are nice.
With or without a navigator, always look for big green and white highway signs that point toward major cities along your route. Think ahead. Avoid all downtowns unless relatives live there.
We have personal landmarks. There are a couple of dangerous curves on Highway 40 and some rollercoasters on 57D. There are wood carvings for sale on the side and adobe bricks in an unfinished building that may be as old as I am.
At one point, beside the road, is an enormous pile of broken glass where a Coca-Cola truck tilted and crashed. What a pity. At another junction is gas for sale from a barrel and a tub. This is not a Pemex station.
You may see goats grazing between north and southbound lanes. Once in a while, a grandpa and grandson cross in a little wagon pulled by two burros. Hope you see this show.
There are interesting displays of pottery and copper pots and dried snakeskins for sale. If you see a large farm truck loaded with chilies, pass with care. It is too hot to touch.
There is a Casa Inn in San Luis Potosi if you've had enough driving by then. From there, we go 80D toward Lagos de Moreno, past Leon and on to Guad. There are a few reconstruction zones but mostly smooth sailing. Tolls do bite.
Mexico remains a sound investment for snowbirds. Here's proof: There are no stories in this magazine about driving to Miami.
(Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, "Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?")