Most Americans drool over the legendary Land Rover Defender 110, and especially ones newer than 25 years old, which cannot be legally imported & registered in the United States. Friend & Overland Journal contributor, Cyril Mischler, while living in Guatemala purchased a 2007 model and did a Dormobile conversion with the purpose of doing a several-month overland adventure in the American Southwest with his wife, daughter, & dog. Upon completion of that trip, he initially left the vehicle parked at his parent’s house in Phoenix. Later, it would be parked at Overland Journal headquarters in Prescott, and will be published as a Feature Vehicle in an upcoming issue in 2012.
Well, the time came for the vehicle to go back to its origins: Antigua, Guatemala. Cyril invited me to be his co-driver, since the nearly 5,000-km journey would be quite strenuous for just one person to undertake in a short timespan. We’re both fluent in Spanish & somewhat well versed in international travel, so the idea of making a quick trip through Mexico didn’t even faze us. So thus begins the adventure south by a Frenchman & American in a Guatemalan-plated British vehicle.
With last-minute preparations completed at the OJ shop, we drove from Prescott to Tucson and stayed the night at my parent’s house. We figured that would be a good launching point to make the short 100-km drive to the Nogales border crossing early the next morning. Before leaving my parents house, we made sure the contents of the Defender were well organized, so that we wouldn’t have to do so at the border. And for this trip we decided not to try and depend on a GPS for navigation, so we used only a Guía Roji (a Mexican road atlas), and the Lonely Planet guide for Mexico to help out with ideas on where to camp, as well as for the ruins & museums we wanted to visit in southern Mexico. Cyril had lived in Guatemala for 15 years, we didn’t even need any maps since he had traveled extensively throughout that country. Interestingly enough, Cyril noticed that the Guía Roji had better detail of the Guatemalan roads than many maps of just that country!
Final organization & packing before the short drive to the U.S. / Mexico border crossing.
Mexican road atlas & Lonely Planet guide.
As hoped, we had no serious issues at la frontera – just waiting in lines at immigration to get our tourist permits & temporary vehicle import permit. Currently in Mexico, all vehicles 2007 and newer require a deposit of $400, which is refunded upon return of the permit sticker when you leave the country. [Note: be sure to have some good cleaning solution handy when removing this sticker, as it leaves a nasty mess on the windscreen.] With this minor setback, we didn’t quite make it as far south as we hoped to on the first day. Our goal was to stay on the autopistas as much as possible in Mexico to make good time, and then relax the pace in Chiapas & Guatemala. The advantage of these toll roads were faster speeds, better quality pavement, less wear & tear on the vehicle, and less possibility for hassle from the local police. We also wanted to camp as much as possible, to keep costs down.
Monument to Benito Juarez in Nogales, Sonora.
The sun was quickly setting as we approached the city of Navojoa in southern Sonora. We knew the chances for a remote camp so near an urban area were out of the question, so we decided to try our luck with the hospitality of strangers. One thing about the autopistas is that there are not many exits or side roads. With our eyes peeled, we finally spotted a side dirt road that led back into an ejido. Cyril had used this tactic a few times before on previous trips, and said the best bet would be to find some old ladies sitting on their front porch, and to ask them if we could park on their property. Driving slowly through this neighborhood, we just weren’t spotting our intended target, and didn’t want to draw too much attention from machitos. After driving down several side roads, we finally spotted a nice-looking elderly gentleman. I hopped out & politely greeted him, explaining that we had been driving all day, didn’t want to drive at night, & were looking for a place to safely park our vehicle (which we would be sleeping inside of). He said he knew of just the spot, and motioned for us to drive around the corner. We pulled into the gate to a side yard, and parked in a level area just as the pink & purple sunset intensified.
After both breathing a sigh of relief that our camp was secured – first order of business: relax. So we set up the camp table & chairs, and cracked open some ice cold Stella Artois that Cyril had loaded into his Engel before leaving home. Soon after, Manuel (the nice old gentleman) came out to chat for a bit, and we offered him a cold cerveza. The property looked to have about 4 houses on it, which we learned were where many of his family members lived – some of his children & grandchildren. He claimed to have nine children in all, many of which lived in other nearby pueblos. Little by little, some of family came out to join the conversation, probably fueled by curiosity about the two strange gringos parked in their yard. We asked him about how things were going in the area, and he said that there were plenty of jobs in both agriculture & with all the new road construction. There was a bit of traffic on the road going through the neighborhood as people returned home, but no one bothered us. Noticing that there were plenty of roosters in the area, I opted to sleep with earplugs (since they have a tendency to crow at all hours of the night, not just at sunrise).
Camping in front of Manuel’s home, north of Navojoa, Sonora.
First cervezas after a long day.
Don Manuel, our gracious host.
We set an alarm to get up bright & early so we could hopefully get more kilometers under our belt than on the previous day. While driving south on the Mex 15, we enjoyed a nice sunrise. No coffee was consumed on this adventure; we decided to do the road-trip in Argentine style by only drinking yerba mate. For those not familiar with that South American caffeinated beverage, it involves a gourd filled with a loose-leaf tea, a metal straw with integrated filter (bombilla), and a thermos of hot water. But it’s not just a way to stay awake like drinking coffee or tea – there’s also a social aspect to it, as it’s customary to share in a group of two or more. So in this case, the passenger would pour in the hot water so we could each take turns enjoying the bitter brewed goodness.
Sunrise over northern Sinaloa.
Mateando como locos.
Feeling like long-haul truckers, we decided to take a short break for a quick swim in the Pacific. We also used this pit stop as an excuse to test out the new hot water heater & shower system that Adventure Trailers had recently installed. Result: we had hot water for an excellent way to rinse off after some bodysurfing. Fully refreshed, we got back on the road with our sights set south. But there was still one thing missing: a good supply of food & drink (as we had only pre-packed with enough sustenance for about 1-2 days). So we made a quick stop off at a super mercado as we rolled through a town. It was somewhat like a mini-Walmart, as one could procure just about anything here under just one roof. But we were most interested in picking up some fresh vegetables & fruit, stuff to make sandwiches, and más cerveza. Mission accomplished.
Quick dip in the Pacific.
Supermercado en Sinaloa.
Some of the offerings inside the grocery store.
Continuing southward, we hoped to make it all the way to San Blas to camp that night. But based on our progress, we knew we wouldn’t make it until well after dark. So we consulted the Lonely Planet guide to see what kind of places lay ahead that might offer a good place to camp for the night. One that jumped out was Teacapán, not far off the main highway from the town of Escuinapa. Unfortunately, the signage was not clear in Escuinapa, so we lost some time getting back on track. Neither one of us being machitos, we gladly asked directions from the locals whenever necessary. The sun was setting quickly, and we were only about half way to Teacapán when we saw a sign indicating a beach nearby, so we made the turn.
Downtown Escuinapa, complete with fiesta flags.
Still at street pressure (45 psi), we quickly dug deep into the dry sand. As we jumped out to air down to 10 psi under a moonlit red sunset, a sedan of local youngsters drove up to the sand’s edge where the pavement ended. We didn’t feel threatened by them at all, but they did watch as the two gringos tried to get unstuck. Before getting back in to drive on, a second car arrived. At that point we knew there was a greater chance for the potential getting “messed with” since we had been spotted, so we opted to leave the beach to find camp elsewhere. Taking the pavement back towards town, we spotted some dirt roads leading out to agricultural fields. Taking the one that looked the least used, we found an empty field to camp next to, which was quite secluded. At this point the sun had completely set, and we were quite certain that no one saw us turn there, so we could rest peacefully hoping we wouldn’t be hassled.
Stuck at sunset.
Failed attempt at a beach camp.
We woke up before the sun the next morning, and drove out in a rather eerie fog. Initially we could only see the tops of the tallest palm trees, but were soon treated to a wonderful sunrise. This was going to be a very long day of driving, so much mate would be consumed. Before long we were in the state of Nayarit, soon to be in Jalisco. After several days of pretty flat driving through mostly desert & sub-tropic terrain close to sea level, the road climbed up into our first serious mountain. Huge pine trees abound, and we could finally stop using the air conditioner as temperatures & humidity dropped. We switched off driving, and I was the lucky one who got to pilot the Defender through the crowded highway in Guadalajara – Mexico’s 2nd largest city. I had lived here 10 years before, but did not have a vehicle & only took public transportation. So this was quite a different decade’s reunion than I had imagined.
Stealth camp under a tree near a field.
Driving out at dawn.
Sunrise over the lakelands near Escuinapa, Sinaloa.
White-knuckle drive completed, I was slowly getting more accustomed to driving in heavy traffic in Mexico – mostly by learning not to use my turn signal when wanting to change lanes. It was a hard habit to break, but a necessary one. This lesson would later come in handy when driving in Guatemala. By now we were very much inland heading east, and getting into the high-desert plains. A friend of Cyril’s had told him of a new toll road which skirted Mexico City to the north by about 100 km, so far enough away that we hoped to not be hassled by police looking for bribes. We had heard from many other foreign travelers about being pulled over due to driving on a day with the wrong license plate number (which is a law that doesn’t apply to tourists), but nonetheless is an annoyance & delay.
Pemex: always a welcome sight, and always the same price everywhere in Mexico.
The road was of excellent quality, and we made great progress to the east. Arriving to the big industrial city of Puebla well after dark, we decided to pay for a hotel (since remote camping in such a populated urban area is almost nonexistent). The least expensive room at the first hotel we tried was 1,300 pesos. Soon after we stumbled upon an auto hotel, which is pretty much a motel where you have the option of paying by the hour (for reasons I won’t go into here). The least expensive room there was 210 pesos for the night, but the clerk informed us we only had a total of 12 hours. Not too bad for getting a hot shower & sleeping in a proper bed. But we definitely used our own sleeping bags & pillows!! We also had to use our camping lanterns since the bathroom light was nonfunctional.
Inner courtyard parking area of the motel.
Black Diamond lanterns to the rescue.
For the last time on this trip, we arose before dawn in order to hit the road. This would be our last full day of driving before beginning to slow down our pace. The plan now would be to visit a few Mayan sites & museums along the way in Chiapas & Guatemala. East of Puebla as the sun was rising and we dropped down from the mountains, we got a clear view of Pico de Orizaba (which is the highest point in Mexico, and third highest in North America). Snow-capped year round, this volcano is a stark contrast on the surrounding landscape. The highway took us around the southern part, with many good vistas of the peak (especially just after driving through the tunnel). Dropping back down into sub-tropical flora at much lower elevations, Orizaba disappeared from our view.
First view of the peak.
Toll road tunnel near Orizaba.
Rising 5,636 m (18,491 ft), this mountain dominates the landscape.