I am not an Overlander. At least I no longer use that shackle as a definition. As labels go, Overlander may already have passed its sell-by date. Overlanding’s Australian bush travel origins being ignored and argued over like ravens on roadkill. Burgeoning groups each plucking at the term; force branding it as their own. Retailers smacking their lips in anticipation as they race yet more products to a wealthy and ravenous market. The free spirit associated travel being wrapped mercilessly in a strict set of parameters that ties you to one clan or another. Don’t be drawn in. Don’t choose your affiliation colors. Overlander. Car Camper. Vanlife. Giving up a restrictive label is liberating.
Three choice words. Truck. Camper. Adventure. I started writing for this site not long ago. The aptly named Editor, “Mello Mike,” informing me that he didn’t care what the content was; didn’t care for any particular affiliation. If I was having fun, finding adventure in my truck camper then TruckCamperAdventure.com wanted to hear about it. I was free. Free to write about life on the road; be that stuck in a WalMart parking lot, huddled mid-storm on the edge of a volcano or under a cloud forest canopy on a tropical mountainside somewhere in rural Mexico. It all counts. It’s all part of the adventure. Even if it doesn’t make the Instagram cut.
This Big Road Trip purchased our truck camper “Sherpa” for adventure and sometimes that adventure comes in the form of a town or city. An urban jungle that didn’t take a set of Maxtrax to access or require a winch to escape. Overlanding be damned. I am not missing out of the rich artery of culture covering this fine planet on the grounds that I got there via the blasphemy of a paved road. Sure, we get off the beaten path, discover exceptional camp spots reserved for those with a more capable vehicle; but there is more to independent vehicular travel than simply racking up brownie points on a trail, bypassing adventure because of self-imposed sanctions. The point of vehicle dependent travel is to be free.
Home is Where You Park It
Mexico mainland rewards unrestricted vehicle travel with rich experience. Once away from the Baja peninsula, boondocking camp spots are in limited supply. The desert and unfettered beach access make way for thick jungle hills and privately owned land. Off-grid camping is available, but there is also a reliance on private hot spots such as balnearios (swimming pool complexes), hotel car parks and behind restaurants. More public sleeping arrangements include the occasional prison sentence in a WalMart parking lot or a night in “the shoe” as a last resort under the gentle hum and unleaded aroma of a Pemex gas station sign. Doing what you need to do to stay in the hunt for the daytime cultural education.
Copper Canyon was our first “ditch the camper” trip, leaving Sherpa in El Fuerte – a ‘“Pueblo Magico” that could have done with a little more magico and a little less pueblo. Our savior came in the form of the CHEPE. An overpriced train rumbling and squealing through lush hills and long fume-filled tunnels on its way to Copper Canyon. Limited stops providing a chance for local Tarahumara tribes to ply their crafts and fruit.
The canyon didn’t disappoint. A smaller canyon cousin to Arizona’s “Grand” but prettier and filled with ethnic tribal faces whose open flame cooking joined early morning mist as it crept up, and fell over, the canyon edge. Out first taste of the cultural building blocks that form the backbone of mainland Mexico. A lush spine of highlands with achingly cute villages and a hugely appreciated drop in temperature after the wet furnace of Baja and the coast.
Our break from Sherpa did us good. Absence making our nomadic heart grow fonder. Slipping behind the wheel and compressing the big V8 into life was satisfying as we swung out of El Fuerte and headed to Mexiquillo via a quick stop on the ocean north of Mazatlan. A local mentioned Mexiquillo, a small town detour from our intended path that led us to a boulder-strewn landscape dotted by waterfalls. The location pure Instagram fodder. The carpet of rock and boulders the perfect playground for anyone looking to cut their rock crawling teeth; lumpy enough for entertainment but open and easy enough that you could never really get into trouble. One night became two, partly because of the epic location, partly because of an unrequested gastrointestinal issue that wiped out any semblance of energy and required the digging of a semi-permanent camp toilet. Our first and—touch wood—only taste of Montezuma’s revenge in a country whose remarkable meticulous attention to restaurant cleanliness belies their stereotype.
City stints in Zacatecas, Guadalajara and Guanajuato gave little inspiration for camp spots, but provided a wonderful introduction to Mexican City life. The opportunity to get some decent coffee and dine out on exceptional Mexican food grasped with both hands. Huge vistas were replaced with insanely detailed colonial architecture and God-like cathedral interiors whose construction probably inspired the word breathtaking. The sights, smells, sounds and sheer vibrancy of a Mexican city, almost any Mexican city, is a joy to behold. This is life. The kind of life stifled in countries whose development of industry and commerce has lead to the deconstruction of being human. Everything matters. People hustling as individuals whilst looking after the herd. The close network of streets stalls and stores, bustling with families, children; teenagers actually sitting alongside and looking after their grandparents. Let that last point sink in for a moment. When was the last time you saw that?
Just being there and part of it is joyous, occasionally bringing forth a tear as you realize how far into competitive freefall modern countries have spun and how they will never return.
Each had their own feel. Zacatecas luxuriating in it’s UNESCO World Heritage status, the tan rock walls set against a backdrop of super colorful urban sprawl. Guanajuato beefing up the saturation of its buildings, adding a zesty student feel thanks to the university. Guadalajara is the bigger urban brother, foregoing some of that cultural edge to boost its cosmopolitan feel. Each city providing its own fresh take, adding its own personality.
Swallowed By Lava
The “big cities” were an example of cultural richness, the shock of arriving in Angahuan was paralyzing. Moody skies, small concrete buildings and a web of cobbled streets. Incredibly short women with dark wrinkled skin and beautifully colored dress wandered expressionless down the road, seeping wisdom and existence with every step. Raising a palm in appreciation of a “buenas tardes” whilst a group of polar opposite children laugh, wave and shout at us before chattering excitedly amongst themselves; seemingly unphased by a huge off-road vehicle filling their streets. Their ancient tribal tongue consisting of too many T’s and K’s, looking down majestically on our kindergarten Spanish, giggling as we attempt to engage them in conversation, but posing for photos nonetheless.
Several small horses carry several small men, riding blankets as saddles; desperately photo worthy, but so cool you dare not unholster a camera for fear of spoiling the moment.
Angahuan has a lava swallowed church. Actually, a lava swallowed town, whose church is just strong enough and just tall enough to rise above the top of the flow. The only visible marker for the loss of an entire town in the 1950’s but, thankfully, no loss of life. It’s a remarkable sight. A 30-minute walk from the town, punctuated by a stop in a small wooden shack for delicious blue quesadillas and a tin mug of the worst coffee I have ever tasted.
Hoy No Circular
Mexico City is sinking. And not by the insignificant margins usually associated with long-term city issues. Some areas reporting a drop of 15 inches per year. The difference not just on paper, large historic buildings lean visually into or away from each other invoking a seasickness on the viewer. The large stone blocks desperately clinging to one another, cracks filled with poor cement. We walk into the stunning main cathedral, staggering first left, then right, The sloped floors best viewed from the entrance. An amusement park funhouse that holds intense historical importance, slipping gracefully into ground made spongy as increasing amounts of water are extracted from its aquifers by a thirsty city with a massive population. It’s an epic issue.
The drive to CDMX gave us the first taste of Police cheek. We had heard of the Hoy No Circular. A system to improve pollution by only allowing certain license plate registrations on the road at any given day. Tuesday and Sunday were our days and not realizing the travel ban stretched 65 kilometers away from Mexico City we were pulled over. Good Cop and Bad Cop proceeded to show us a citation form they seemed reluctant to fill and a scrap of paper containing a scrawl “7,800 pesos” ($400 US) they seemed keen for us to pay, preferably in cash. Two things were not apparent; that we were actually in the wrong or that the real fine was a quarter of what they were asking. We feigned ignorance of both the accusation and of any worthwhile Spanish. Calling their bluff by asking to go to the police station and expressing surprise when they agreed and indicated we should follow them. They didn’t seem keen. The thought of a paperwork battle with two foreigners and no bribe money wasn’t too appealing. With adrenaline in our veins, we started Sherpa and pulled back onto the highway, allowing the police to drift further and further ahead. A slip road suddenly appears to our right, slowly edging itself between us and the police vehicle, now half a mile ahead. We gamble and win, hiding in a Pemex whilst scouring Google Maps for shrouded back roads to our destination.
Going Old School
Teotihuacan houses a small overland centre. The neat lawned trailer park hosting a wonderful selection of vehicles pining for their owners. Some vehicles will be there a few days, Mexico City pollution regulations and associated “number plate” driving restrictions causing enough confusion that, when combined with the inevitable traffic issues, cause owners to store up and head in the city by bus. Other vehicles are there longer, under wraps while their owners travel home and work to save up the next installment of their Pan American journey.
A couple of new Bimobils on Iveco platforms and a sweet looking off-road Sprinter overshadow a sad-looking Land Rover with a homemade camper, its broken driveshaft hanging impotently in overgrown grass. It’s been there a while and looks like it will be there a while longer. The perfect project for someone local, a millstone for someone overseas.
The main attraction in Teotihuacan is the stunning, ancient pyramid complex, built an incomprehensible number of years ago. An archaeologist’s wet dream, BC rather than AD. A reminder of just how ancient Mexico is. Superbly preserved buildings some 2,300 years old lining the Calzada De Los Muertos (Roadway of the Dead). A wide avenue of smaller temples bookended by two huge pyramids. The piles of rocks in stark, impressive contrast to the unexciting visit I imagined. The scale of age and historical importance dropping a blanket of respectful silence over visitors as they look out from the pyramid top, surveying the temples below.
No wheels, no big deal
With the exception of Mexiquillo, these locations were not vehicle specific. Camps spots not accessed via gnarly roads, word-of-mouth trails or sheer good fortune. Some may have driven by as it didn’t fall within the remit of “overland.” To us, truck camper life is bigger than that. The truck camper is a means for us to access a wider range of adventure; not cut off as many easily accessed locations as we gain through vehicle capability. Stirring non-vehicle ingredients into an off-road stew makes from a must richer taste in a country that is simply full of flavor. Our truck camper is the foundation of our adventure, free of the labels that seek to weigh us down.
No way Jose….I have traveled both the Mainland and the Baha and my luck ran out when I was jailed on my last trip and managed to jump bail and travel all night on the back roads to escape across the border at 3 am at Nogales only because the Mexican Border Agents were sleeping.
I had committed no crime except that I was a rich American travelling alone. I was probably lucky that I was robbed by the police than the bandits that are looking for easy pickings.
Yes, it is full of magnificent natural and man made wonders and warm and friendly people and criminals, some with badges. I would never go back there.
God forbid you would ever get sick and need to be hospitalized outside of the few American ex pat communities. If you go, always have medical evacuation insurance.
I’ll not go into the time I was woken at 3am with sirens and loudhailers; armed police shouting at me to get out of my camper with my hands up.
That was in California. In a campground. I was erroneously parked in the day use area rather than the waterlogged grass 10 metres away from where I was supposed to be (It was dark when I arrived and I was churning massive gouges out of the well kept but waterlogged grass so I moved ontop firmer ground).
Entertaining writing, James. First paragraph especially sparkles.