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Northwest travelog, Mexico safety update and tips

Northwest travelog, Mexico safety update and tips

Old Sep 29, 14, 4:42 am
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Join Date: Sep 2014
Location: IAD/DCA
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Northwest travelog, Mexico safety update and tips

Well, my wife and I just returned from a two week trip to Mexico that took us from northern Chihuahua to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora. We visited family and took several road trips, driving a rental car with US plates for a little over 1500 miles across northwestern Mexico.

Let me say that I am a police officer in the nation's capital, I work midnights in a pretty rough area so I am acquainted with shootings, homicides, street violence and criminals. I used to live in Mexico many moons ago and keep up with the situation down there as it affects our family and my work all the way up north in DC. OK enough said about that; let's move on to the trip:

We crossed into Mexico at Agua Prieta, SON, leaving Douglas, AZ behind and spent the night there with my brother in law. His assessment of Agua Prieta hasn't changed much in the past few years. He doesn't hang around the streets past dark, avoids going to the neighborhoods where sicarios hang out and drug spots, steers clear of the police and military, doesn’t ask too many questions and stays out of trouble. Most of the violence in his opinion is related to street drugs and alcohol, just like in the U.S., with a twist: The high profile violence everyone is so scared of, namely the beheadings, dismemberments, street shootouts are the result of turf wars and settling of accounts between cartels who do not involve tourists or individuals not involved in criminal activity. I guess there is always a chance you could be an un-intended victim of this kind of violence, just like you could be the victim of a school or workplace shooting in the U.S. Those are pretty small statistical odds.

We stayed the night in Agua Prieta partly to spend time with the brother in law and his family, but also, to avoid having to drive to Chihuahua at night, knowing that the Mexican No 2 Federal Highway heading east from Agua Prieta becomes a two lane road soon after leaving Agua Prieta, going along the U.S. border crossing the San Luis mountains which can be dicey at night with the tractor trailer traffic, the lack of illumination, poor highway markings, the possibility of loose cattle and the fact that this stretch of highways in San Luis mountains is a popular place for drug mules and a drop off point for illegal immigrants getting ready to cross into the United States.

As an anecdote, we stopped at the little chapel on the side of the road a couple of miles outside of Agua Prieta, pretty much at the same level where the US border fence switches from a “pedestrian barrier” to a “vehicular barrier”, so my brother in law could hang a religious picture there. While there, I was looking past the chapel in the chaparral towards the U.S. border when I saw two males in the shade of a mesquite guarding what from a distance looked like some pretty big bales. I guess they were waiting for the signal from lookouts in the nearby hills to let them know that the coast was clear of U.S. Border Patrol agents on the other side to make a move. This was a clear reminder that trafficking is all around you in that area.

We made our way east, crossed the Puerto San Luis Mountain into the state of Chihuahua without incidents. I noticed that since I last came to Mexico, the soldiers at the checkpoint before reaching Janos, were now equipped with explosives detection equipment in the form of a boom attached to a truck emitting low-level radiation used to scan passing vehicles. We didn’t get checked by the soldiers since we were headed east.

We made it to our destination in Chihuahua without incidents. While there, we caught up with the latest narco-violence news in the town. The son of a prominent business owner had been kidnapped; everyone assumes a ransom, was paid since he is now back working at the business. The owner of a shoe store downtown received the visit of some sicarios and soon after closed the business and left for the U.S. It later was said that he refused to pay for protection. The director of the municipal police was killed and it was rumored that his replacement brought on a lot of shady characters who now ride around town in brand new policía municipal Dodge pick-ups. We were advised to steer clear from them whenever possible. I will also let you know that one of my brother in laws down there works for the Chihuahua state police so he has some pretty good intel when it comes to these things. The mutilated body of a man was left at a street corner two blocks away from my in-laws house a couple months ago. It was later said that the victim had been involved with taking up loads across into the United States. I guess something went wrong for him at some point.

We found the mid-size town (of the six largest in the state of Chihuaha) to be fairly quiet. We went out to the central plaza a few times at night, never later than midnight, with the kids and the family to walk around the plaza and have ice cream without any problems. I saw the same kind of drugged out homeless skels I see on my beat in much greater numbers in D.C. and just steered clear of them. I did not have any run-ins with the police or the feared traffic cops, the “transitos”, thought to be overzealous in that town, always on the lookout for a bribe.

We traveled to nearby attractions, to the lake outside of town where we had great time fishing, grilling and catching tons of crawfish. We saw a mountain lion while there and a few other people who were hanging out just like us. The policía municipal came by a couple of times. They slowed down and waived on the second run. I saw them look at the AZ license plate which is not a rarity, far from it, in Chihuahua. They moved on apparently deciding we were just a family on an outing. An older jacked-up pick-up truck bearing older-style California plates came by later. Two males were in it and started talking through the window to my 17 year old brother in law while I was cleaning out some perch we had caught and were getting ready to fry on the disco. They sounded jovial and asked questions about the fishing we were doing, then one them said he noted the AZ plates on the car and said he was from out of town and had recently retired from Tucson AZ and had moved down to the area. The teenager told them we were from the area on a picnic. At that time, the hairs on my neck were stiff from being up. What out-of-towner retires to north central Chihuahua from Tucson? I lifted my head up from what I had been doing pretending not to notice them and called out to my brother in law to help me with something. I later explained to him that these seemingly nice strangers were probably up to no good, that in reality, no one “retires” from Tucson to central north Chihuahua unless they’re from here. I also told him I noted they went in the same direction where the municipal police riding in a brand new shiny Dodge pick-up truck had gone and probably were wondering who we were and what we were up to in these off the beaten path parts. They moved on and did not return.

We bought a pig the next day, which I killed, ironically, and turned into chicharrones while the mother in law made pig blood morcilla and tamales de cabeza; truly a highlight of the trip.

We took a few other day trips, one to Ascensión to visit cousins, aunts and uncles. Ascención is now known to be a sicario’s nest, the last “stop” on the highway to Ciudad Juarez. We went there during the day on a Saturday and made sure we left before sundown. Again, the trip was uneventful. The uncles own small ranches and are chile growers; we talked about the weather, the price of chiles, and the harsh competition from the Mennonite farmers who operate on an industrial scale and other matters. The conversation drifted towards the cartel violence, they were not too eager to speak about it. One of the uncles’ acquaintances sent one of his U.S. born daughter to finish High School in New Mexico a couple years back after several young girls disappeared on their way back from school. They kept to saying the cartel sicarios were ‘around’. They recounted the same extortion stories now common in Mexico. They also told a story of a man found dead in the center of town with his hands missing. He had been accused of breaking into a house and stealing. I guess he ruffled the wrong feathers.

I wanted to go to a couple of small towns in the area I hadn’t been to before, and decided against it based on the family’s recommendations. We went to an archeological site a few miles from town, took some awesome pictures and were assaulted by nothing more than the rain which made us retreat home. Upon our return, my sister in law, the one married to the state cop, reported that she had come home to find her propane tank missing. Stolen by some of the neighborhood little wannabe thugs she thought. Her husband later explained that he was going to make use of his upcoming vacation to build a fence around the house they recently rented. He also explained that he would deal with the culprits, who he thought to be small time teenage thugs hooked on drugs at a later time. His answer to my question of how he was going to deal with them brought a chuckle and a “you don’t want to know” from him. It’s a different world down there and not my world.

We had plans to spend a few days on the Sonoran coast in the Guaymas-San Carlos area but Odile shot us down. We cancelled reservations there and decided to go north from there, to Puerto Peñasco which was supposed to miss the bad weather and made last minute reservation at the Las Palomas condo-resort. We headed back to Agua Prieta, to see the brother in law and spend the night there.

On our way to Peñasco, we took Mex Fed. 2 westbound, stopped at the Janos military checkpoint where the soldiers were very nice, they asked where we were coming from, where we were headed, checked the trunk of the car which contained all kinds of junk in the form of fishing gear, a ‘disco’ to grill all that fish we were gonna catch in true norteño form, snorkeling equipment, suitcases and bags of clothes for all of us. They asked me what I did for a living and I answered "municipal employee" which is true, however vague. I guess they imagined I'm some kind of garbage man, which to think of it, is pretty accurate since we do take the "trash" off the streets. They wrote down my name as the driver and the license plate of the car in this schoolike notebook and sent us on our way. I wasn’t entirely sure why they wrote down the information in a notebook. With so much high tech equipment lying around, why write the information in a wide ruled unofficial looking notebook? Was it for some official purpose? Maybe to track comings and goings in that area? To see who the frequent flyers were? Or are they collecting the information on behalf of a cartel ensuring their primacy isn’t being challenged by newcomers in that area? I guess I will never know. We reached Agua Prieta, went to the brother in law’s house. My wife and I went back across the border, to Douglas, to get some supplies at the Walmart there. We crossed back into Agua Prieta without incidents. We spend the evening around a fire where we grilled meat, ate too much, drank some Tecate, played the guitar and sang corridos and rancheras. A great night all in all. Later on that night, the brother in law and I took some cousins back home, to a sketchy part of town. I let him guide me not to turn on this or that street and avoid this or that area. After dropping the cousins off, he told me, “don’t turn left on this road, there are some sicarios ‘cuidando’ over there”. He said it wasn’t so much of a problem if by chance they stopped us. He said they would look through the car, looking for drugs that weren’t theirs and let us go as long as we didn’t give them attitude or have any drugs. I guess that the kind of ‘looking after’ they do. I wasn’t too thrilled about the prospect of assassins stopping us and searching the car. Fortunately, the sicarios stayed in their neighborhood and we avoided the issue.

We left the next morning and drove through Cananea on to Caborca without incidents. The roads were pretty good, Fed Mex 2 is a four lane divided highway for a good portion of the trip which is a nice change from the two lane roads plagued by double semis and slow traffic. You definitely have to be alert on Mexican roads, watching out for potholes, topes or ‘traffic calming devices’ so high they scrape the bottom of your car, slow traffic and all manners of unexpected obstacles on a level that would be foreign to most U.S. drivers. Fortunately, I drive for a living in pretty intense conditions. We saw a few Federal de Caminos black and white Dodge Chargers and several state and local police agencies on the road, none of which messed with us.

We went through a couple of checkpoints, where the authorities waved us through after inquiring “¿son todos familia?”. The only rough part of the trip so far was due to the construction on Mex Fed. Highway 2 between Cananea and Imuris in Sonora. The paved highway is closed and you are essentially forced to go off road on an unpaved detour paralleling the highway under construction for several miles. As long as the weather is dry, it’s the Sonoran desert right? It’s not too much of a problem. It just slows you down. More on that later.

We went through Magdalena, which was surprisingly big as in my mind it was more like a small village. I saw some nice copperware displayed on the side of the road, including some nice copper vats, called cazos to make chicharrones. I vowed to stop on the trip back and see if I could find an affordable one to take home and leave in Chihuahua for now. We reached Caborca later that day and stopped there to stretch our legs and have some lunch. The temperature was closing in on the 100 degree mark so we didn’t linger there too much. We pressed on, making our way to Altar, the infamous staging ground for many seeking to enter the U.S. illegally. I decided to get off the highway and drive around the small town to see for myself this place of illegal immigration lore I had heard of so many times before. The town was pretty much empty in the sweltering heat. I did see one of the shops selling implements to the migrants on their way to the border with Arizona. I saw the blankets, backpacks, black water jugs and burlap soles you can attach to your shoes to foil tracking attempts by the migra. We spent maybe twenty minutes there. Well, maybe a little more, as my five-month pregnant wife had to use the restroom once again. We left heading for Sonoyta on our “tour of the border towns’ bathrooms”.

The trip was very scenic, crossing the Sonoran desert; we stopped several times for the same reason mentioned above and to take pictures with 200 year old giant Saguaros. We stopped in Sonoyta at the Ley supermarket; a sure bet for a clean, functioning bathroom (they also apparently grill out front the meat you buy there) and headed for Puerto Peñasco. On a side note, for the newbies in Mexico, travel with your own toilet paper, bathrooms can be scarce in some parts and toilet paper may not be provided.

The scenery changes after Sonoyta. The landscape dries up, I guess that’s why they call it “el gran desierto de Altar”. The road leads straight to Puerto Peñasco from there. Or “Rocky Point”as many signs proclaim. I guess to make the gringos feel more at home ¿ que no?. The desert scape as interesting to look at, with many beautiful views we took great pictures of. We noticed many of the older road signs and garbage cans were all shot up on the way to Peñasco. The impacts looked pretty old. That’s something I had not seen before frequently in Mexico before. Part of me couldn’t stop thinking that this had been the work of drunken gringo teenagers of yesteryear coming down to Peñasco to go wild on the town not caring or not thinking about the consequences of taking firearms into Mexico. I may have been totally wrong though, falling victim to some kind of prejudice. I just couldn’t picture cartel gun battles around road signs and garbage cans in the desert though.

We were going to be in Peñasco for September 15, the Independence Day celebration for Mexico and I was looking forward to going to the “grito” in front of city hall there. We asked around how to get to the Palomas Resort. I have to tell you that that was the first place we called that had accommodations suitable for the six of us coming on the trip. We did not look it up online, did not do any research about it. I merely told the wife to book something at the first place she found that had enough beds for three couples, a fridge and A/C that sounded ‘OK’ and that’s what she did. I was expecting a regular hotel with some type of suite. I was not expecting a five star luxury condo. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in the lobby, I looked like I had just gotten off a horse with my dirty campera boots on, rumpled shirt and cowboy hat, dragging a cooler and a fishing pole in a grand marble lobby with a two story high chandelier. I turned to my wife and asked her “how much did you say this place was?”

We approached the front desk where the clerk was dealing with a clearly upper crust Mexican gentleman who was complaining about towels at the pool. The clerk looked a little surprised to see us there. I have to say that my southern Italian heritage and my dressing habits do not give away the fact that I am not Mexican until I start pulling out some kind of ID. I have been told that I look like some Mexican policía ministerial before, I guess I can’t shake the cop look no matter where. I also often get asked for my Credencial de Elector in Mexico and my wife has demanded to see my birth certificate before, alleging I must be from some kind of village high up in the Zacatecas sierra with some of the stuff I have come up with over the years.

My wife had reserved the condo in her maiden name as we always do in Mexico, and she gave the clerk her Mexican voter’s ID card for an identification upon his request. The clerk looked at her, looked at me and said uneasily that we needed a credit card to check in and that they charged a $200.00 refundable deposit for the accommodations. The clerk regained his composure as I pulled out a platinum card with a foreign sounding name on it along with a U.S. Driver’s License with a matchin name and my face on it. The clerk asked for the rest of the guests to come to the reception so they could get resort passes as well. My father in law dresses kind of the same way I do, or is it the opposite? I don’t know, and the rest of the family looking like a typical middle class blue collar family from a rural area in Northern Mexico, made their grand entrance into this place-looking place. I have to say that we sharply contrasted with the rest of the guests, comprised primarily of older Americans. I kept thinking about the disco in the trunk and how we were probably not going to be able to use it on the beach out front to fry fish.

We went up to the condo unit and there again, we were surprised by the luxurious accommodations, marble countertop, side by side full size fridge, spacious living room, pillowtop king size beds, master bedroom with marble bathtub, large balcony facing the beach. The only problem was I couldn’t find the switch to operate the ceiling fan on the balcony…. My brother in law started looking around and said “we’re such indios, that’s what this little remote control is for”. I dialed “0” to call the reception and let them know that the microwave oven was not working; they answered the phone in unaccented English and said they would send a technician up right away. We unloaded our belongings there and decided to get around the town to get our bearings and stock up on food. The technician came much more quickly than I expected and surprised us. He got up on a small step ladder he had brought with him and opened the cabinet above the microwave and plugged it in...He asked us if there was anything else he could for us before leaving. We had figured out the A/C and the TV, so I said we were OK.

I found the port area very interesting since I am originally from a fishing port as well. The Malecon seemed to be your typical tourist trap and the rest of town seemed to be pretty much what you would expect for a mid-sized Mexican town. Only this one has a lot of signage in English. The beaches looked wide and clean.

Since none of us had ever visited the area, I asked a guy who was fishing from a breaker at the mouth of the harbor where was the best beach to fish from as I had ruled out our luxurious resort beach as a destination for fishing. He told me that the mouth of Marua inlet at “Las Conchas” was probably the best place. I also asked him where would be the best place to buy seafood at, I was looking both for shrimp to use as bait, and fish to buy and put in the fridge in case we didn’t catch anything. He told me of a guy who had a little stand by the port and said I would find him once I saw the coolers and the red pick-up truck on the corner of Pelicano Street and the Puerto-Penasco – Sonoyta avenue. We went there, found the guy who had several clients there and purchased a very nice yellowtail for grilling, a few smaller corvinas and a kilo of shrimp for something like $20.00.

We went home to put the fish in the massive fridge before heading out again that night, not before my wife and I made use of the massive bathtub. We had dinner at a completely forgettable place where they found a way to mess up the alambre I ordered. Sorry, I can’t even remember the name of the place. We went to the beautiful beach, enjoyed the pools and the resort accommodations the next day and went to the “grito” that night. The place was crowded as we expected. We parked on a side street downtown in front of an illuminated and rich looking house and had to walk a few blocks to the palacio municipal where a norteño local band was playing. The crowd was behaved for the most part and composed mostly of families. I was in alert mode as I always am in a crowd. The municipal police was out in force. The fireworks were not very impressive, shot almost directly over the crowds with the debris falling all around. I guess it was to replicate the atmosphere of revolutionary battles with shrapnel flying around or maybe just poor planning. The parade consisted of elements of the local naval unit and that was it. The mayor gave the traditional grito, other personalities took the mic and blabbed on for a few minutes about bright futures and accomplishments. Thanks were given by the naval base commander in his bright white uniform and it was a wrap. We returned to the condo without incidents and without witnessing any acts of violence or any criminal activity.

We got back to the condo, where to our surprise, the dishes had been put in the dishwasher which was humming away, the beds were made and the place cleaned. The next day was dedicated to fishing and to be on the beach. We took our tarp, fishing gear and disco and went to “Las Conchas” as advised by the fisherman I found at the harbor. We took Fremont Blvd from downtown where a huge city sign points in English to the “Las Conchas residential development”. We reached the aptly named “Camino a Las Conchas” which turns into an unpaved sand street to get to this famed “Las Conchas”.

We immediately noticed that “Las Conchas” is where the money is in Peñasco. The area is composed of luxury homes right on the beach. Some of the estates were quite grandiose for our blue collar party. We wondered how many narcos had their beach houses there along with all the other gringos given the many English names such as “sea breeze” or “Pacific Queen” written on the entrances of many of the houses. We arrived at a gate where a private security guard asked us where we were going. I was a little surprised as I didn’t know this was some kind of “private” neighborhood. I simply answered the truth, “to the beach” looking at him with a puzzled look. He looked back at me with and equally puzzled look. I guess he must have thought we belonged there since he gave me piece of paper labeled “visitor” where he had written the date and the car’s license plate number. I don’t know if we would have gotten through in a local older model car unless we came to tend to one of the houses. I guess that’s why they’re there, to keep riff-raff like us away. Or is it to keep certain cartel enemies away. Who knows? I guess the late model US plated sedan fooled them. At that point, I still had no idea how to reach the inlet and didn’t dare ask him fearing he would change his mind and take the visitor pass away.

We drove to the end of the street, passing luxurious homes and got to the point where a condo high rise building sits. We could see the beautiful wide beach from the “road”. My father in law and I got out of the car and looked around for a way to reach the end of the point past the “Tessoro at Las Conchas” condo building. The only way to get to the point at the mouth of the inlet was a path I would only attempt on a sand rail or a four wheel drive vehicle with wide tires due to the loose sandy consistence of the ground. We decided instead to park the car on the shoulder of the sand street with the visitor permit displayed on the dash and carry our equipment down to the beach on the side of the condo building down a vacant lot leading down to the water.

We set up camp there and had a blast. The beach was clean, wide and beautiful. We also were the only ones there save for some pelicans that had already started fishing. We surf fished catching a corvina, a couple of smaller unknown fish with dark stripes on the sides and a stingray. We kept the corvina and threw the others back. The stingray was too small to keep. We also caught a very large blue crab that made the trip back to Las Palomas with us. We swam, snorkeled, walked on the beach and the women took a nap on the tarp. We left after 5 p.m as the menacing clouds from Odile were closing on us and rain drops could be felt in the rising wind.
We made it back to Las Palomas after a great day at the beach. The resort had grills for our use, so we grilled our fish, shrimp and crab there before the rain started and prepared for the trip back to Agua Prieta and Chihuahua the next morning. We woke up to a slight steady rain which seemed ironic in the “gran desierto de altar”. We took the same route back, with the rain gaining in intensity as we were heading east.

The radio was spewing out ominous broadcasts about people being cut off by swollen streams in some colonias around Altar and reports of high winds and rain headed for Caborca. I started to worry about the conditions on the unpaved detour between Imuris and Cananea, a stretch we could not avoid to get back to Agua Prieta since not everyone in our party had papers to cross the U.S. border at Nogales and drive to Douglas to reach Agua Prieta from the north. The rain kept intensifying after reaching Caborca. All the streets in Altar on either side of the federal highway seemed to be covered by over a foot of water. We were buffeted by strong driving rains and high winds on the segment between Altar and Santa Ana. I stopped a couple times taking pictures of the flooded desert on either side of the highway. I decided that this may have been my only chance to see the flooded Sonoran desert. After passing a flooded Santa Ana, we pondered staying the night in Magdalena and waiting for the next day to attempt the unpaved Imuris-Cananea stretch once the storm had passed. I was truly concerned that our overloaded sedan was not going to be able to negotiate the steep muddy slopes and huge lake-like puddles that had probably formed on the unpaved detour as a result of the storm. The skies were getting darker and the rain remained unrelenting on the approach to Magdalena. The copperware stands were all closed because of the storm of course, and I had other things on my mind at that point other than chicharron making equipment. We decided to press on and go evaluate the road conditions, playing it safe and staying the night there sounded good, but there was no telling of when the rain would stop or what the road conditions would be after an entire day of this weather, so we elected to continue on.

The Federal highway had a lot of water on it, but it was passable, we reached the detour head and stopped the car there. I got out and looked at the vehicles that were going west, coming from the other side of the detour. I saw nothing but tractor trailers, buses, four wheel drives and other large vehicles. Two sedans came through, but they didn’t have six people in them and a full trunk for sure. The unpaved road looked passable as long as we could make it through the huge puddles and not get stuck in the mud on the inclines. We decided to attempt it.

It wasn’t pretty; we soon got to what looked like a pond tractor trailers were navigating like steamships. I could see a sedan on the other side stopped on the side with the hood up. Not a good sign. I got out in the muddy mess to try to gage the depth of the pond, it seemed pretty shallow. I told my wife I didn’t think the car would make it through without flooding the engine with the load it was carrying; that we better turn around not knowing what was coming up ahead. Less and less vehicles were coming through. I asked a truck driver coming from the opposite direction if he thought we could make it to the other side, and he shook his head saying, I don’t know dude. I went to the driver of the stranded sedan, and asked him what happened, he told me that his engine flooded and he could not start the car again.

My wife then said,”What are we gonna do then?” in a much less polite Mexican formulation some of you will probably guess. I said, we can drive to Nogales, put the non-visa couple on a bus to Agua Prieta, a bus would make it through this mess, and drive the rest of the party on the U.S. side back to Agua Prieta via Douglas, AZ. My wife then said "What if we get out of the car?" I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of seeing the whole lot of them trudge through the mud, but she had a point. With a little momentum, a little skill behind the wheel and God’s help, we could make it through this. So there we were, pushing through the rain, mud and rocks as best we could with the occupants getting in and out of the car when needed for several miles. That’s why some companies don’t allow their rental cars into Mexico I thought. We made in safely to the other side of the detour, back on firm pavement muddy and wet with a couple of chanclas lost in the mud, but in one piece.

We now had to negotiate rocks on the road in the winding path through the hills to Cananea. Fortunately for us, there was a guy I called el truckero loko, ahead of us. This guy was piloting his semi like a jet through the storm, he was opening the way for us, getting out of his truck to push off rocks form the road in a flash, acting as a barrier between us and oncoming traffic in the blind curves, he blazed our path back to Cananea where we lost him without an opportunity to thank him. I truly think he was sent down from the heavens to watch over us.

We finally reached Agua Prieta in a steady driving rain and my mother in law suggested we pressed on to Chihuahua, I guess she wanted to be home after this adventure. My brother in law jumped up and told her that we were lucky to have made it back in one piece and that it would be foolish to go up to the Puerto de San Luis with all the rocks falling on the road in the storm and trying to negotiate the unmarked federal highway from there to Janos at night. I thoroughly agreed with him and decided we would spend the night at Agua Prieta at her son’s house.

We turned on the news there while having a snack before going to bed and saw that the unpaved detour we took had been washed out since our passing there and that vehicles were stuck there. We later learned that people were stuck on that muddy stretch of road for 24 hours. We had made the right decision to push through when we did. A few hours delay would have put us in a world of hurt.

The next day, we returned to Chihuahua. It was raining slightly and we encountered a little fog in the mountains but it was daylight and we could clearly see the many boulders the storm had left on the Puerto de San Luis road. We had planned to go down to the state capital but abandoned the idea due to reports from family members of flooding and people drowning. After the muddy detour ordeal we had been through, I decided not to insist even though I suspected some of these family reports were exaggerated a little.

We stayed home and enjoyed the surrounding area for our remaining days before making our way back to Agua Prieta and the U.S. I had the rental car cleaned before we left and turned it in good shape after all with a full tank of gas and no issues.

I got sick with some kind of wicked flu on the way back, complete with fever and all, which explains how I've had time to write all this while stuck in bed at time.

We used the same sensible precautions we use in the U.S. with minor tweaking to adjust those to the Mexican set of circumstances and had no issues with crime or other safety issues.

My safety advice in Mexico and anywhere else is as follows:

1) Be aware of your surroundings. You can see things coming and act accordingly. Also, the bad guys are smart. They will see you see them and move on. I've had many of these cross gaze experiences, where I've said "don't even think about it" with the eyes to the bad guy who turns away and move on.

2) Do not get involved in sketchy propositions or with sketchy people. I guess if your idea of a good time is to get slammed at a night club and you end up beat up in an alley wearing only your underwear backwards...well you had it coming. If your idea of a good time is to score some weed south of the border and have some fun with prostitutes, don't come crying if you get beat up for your money or possessions of because you pissed off the wrong dealer/pimp somehow.

3) Do not flash wads of cash, jewelry, and expensive electronics in front of people you don’t know. Leave the Rolex at home and wear the $15.00 plastic digital Timex instead. Do not carry excessive stuff with you. The more you carry, the slower you move and the more you are likely to lose track of your stuff. Someone will nab it if given a chance.

4) Do not go to places you don’t feel comfortable with unless you are accompanied by local people in the know.

5) Only share your plans with need to know or trustworthy people.

6) Always keep a copy of your travel documents in a safe place, you can take pictures of passports and visas and email them to yourself, so they will be accessible to you from anywhere and easier to replace if stolen or lost.

7) Limit your use of debit cards, a scammer can empty your bank account before you know it and you don’t have the same protections against fraudulent use a credit card offers. Personally, we only use cash unless we are at a trustworthy establishment where we never lose sight of the card. Plus, the same applies when shopping in the U.S now. See the Target scandal. We only withdraw money during the day and at a bank ATM.

8) Avoid driving at night. If you do, keep to the cuota/toll roads when doing so. Roads in Mexico are not safe for night driving for the inexperienced driver. There is no lighting, poor if any marking and heavy commercial traffic on two lane roads. Rocks falling, loose animals, unmarked construction and potholes can spell disaster. Many years ago, I drove the Tampico – Ciudad Victoria federal highway in the hills at night and still hold this as one of the scariest experiences I’d ever had. You are also more susceptible of encountering the criminal element at night.

9) If you plan to venture in the Mexican country side, read the www.blogdelnarco.com for that area and figure out whether narco wars are ongoing over there. Entire towns have been taken over by cartels in some areas and most of the locals have left, outsiders are plainly not welcome there. Inquire with trustworthy locals before going. We abandoned plans in the past to visit some parts of Chihuahua around the Barranca de Cobre/ Copper Canyon for this very same reason.

10) Use common sense, don't make yourself an easy mark. Bad things can happen to anyone. Even trained individuals such as police officers get ambushed and killed in the U.S. It happens. All you can do it be alert, keep your head on a swivel and think things through before acting. Don't bite more than you can chew and if you travel to a foreign country you are not intimately familiar with and do not speak the language, be aware of your limitations and take the necessary precautions and seek the proper guidance before venturing out to off the beaten path destination.

11) Help yourself and take what you need with you. I like to travel with a minimum of supplies whether I’m in the U.S. or Mexico on long road trips. I always have a small plastic tool box containing a few simple tools, such as screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches and some metal wire spool. I always have a basic first aid kit with bandages, gauze a pair of scissors, antibiotic ointment, sanitizing gel and band aids and tweezers. I also carry a flashlight, a couple of knives, a 100’paracord, duct tape, a couple of lighters and a couple of knives. All of which I have used at one point or another. Remember that there is no 911 in Mexico but a variety of outfits that respond more or less reliably according to the area and help could be far away, as it is in remote areas of the U.S.

If you don't feel you can think this way and are uncomfortable with adapting to a new environment, maybe you should re-think international travel outside of all inclusive resorts and guided tours altogether.


Disco: Metal disk with lets used to fry or cook food on top of a charcoal fire.
Sicario: Hit man usually involved in organized crime.
Federal de Caminos: Federal Highway Police
Son todos familia?: Are you all family?
Indios: A term used in this case to designate unsophisticated country bumpkins.
Chanclas: Flip flops or simial footwear also used to threaten unruly kids.
Grito: The traditional utterance by the Mexican president and all mayors at midnight on September 16 honoring the heroes the revolution. Viva Hidalgo, Viva Morelos, Viva Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, Vivan los héroes de la independencia que nos dieron patria y libertad ¡ "Viva México" "Viva Mexico" " Viva Mexico"
Chicharrones: Fried pork rinds
El Truckero loko: The Krazy Truck Driver
elvatoloko is offline  
Old Oct 1, 14, 6:10 pm
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What a great trip report. I felt like I was there with you.
VidaNaPraia is offline  
Old Oct 1, 14, 8:53 pm
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Originally Posted by VidaNaPraia View Post
What a great trip report. I felt like I was there with you.
Thanks, I had plenty of time to write this as I was sick with the flue for a few days upon returning from the trip and stuck in bed.

I just thought I would share my thoughts with people wanting to travel to Mexico who are wondering about the current conditions there. We were in Chihuahua and Sonora close to the U.S. border, an area that routinely gets portrayed as a war zone. There are definitely issues there, but it's far from a war zone. It was definitely worse there a few years ago when the narco wars were in full swing for control of the area. That type of violence seems to have subsided.

It seemed to me that savvy travelers with half a brain could take the necessary measures to avoid 99% of issues there.
elvatoloko is offline  
Old Oct 2, 14, 12:58 pm
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As someone who has driven throughout Mexico since 1960 and has pretty much seen it all, I have to say this report is very informative, extremely accurate in its perceptions and recommendations and is a lot of fun to read as well. ¡Gracias! for sharing.

(I've lived in Mexico, worked with law enforcement in the U.S. and had an uncle, Nicolás C., who was Chief of Police in Cd. Victoria in Tamaulipas - he shot a newspaper reporter and spent some years after his truncated career in la Penitenciaría del Estado.)

El blogdelnarco is an interesting resource, for sure. And the Policía Federal de Caminos in the northwest zone at least used to have some members involved in an auto parts black me parked / smuggling business, as I found out helping a retired CHP lieutenant friend searching for a warp tear pump for his International Travelall V-8.

Last edited by JDiver; Oct 2, 14 at 1:11 pm
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