It’s hard to leave an old friend. Easy going familiarity creating a layer of quilt-like comfort over your travel experience. The people, food, traits, language. The every day no longer a challenge as eight months of stunning Mexican hospitality have moulded our Brit/Canadian edges into a Hispanic purr of contentment. These edges need roughing. Adventure awaits further south. These are our last days in Mexico.
We have a history with volcanoes. In 1994 we were standing most of the way up Mount Merapi in Java, Indonesia during a major eruption. Two hundred and fifty people were killed. Our luck has, unsurprisingly, improved since then. Mexico has a rich tapestry of volcanoes, cast over the mainland like confetti. Some active, some extinct for dormant. Most can be climbed. We try three.
The first is Nevado de Colima. Our big diesel engine and blocky Yokohama’s making light work of the rough and occasionally steep trail as the forest sends tentacles our way hoping to snag a rooftop vent or solar panel.
I hate my Indian Jones routine. Marching up the trail, hitting home runs with my machete-like saw blade. It’s sharp and toothy, making short work of anything that needs cutting and even shorter work of the thin branches that magically fall with one swing. But it’s slow going. My vow to make covers for the campers plastic Dometic windows has been broken once more, the easily scratched panes becoming an anchor to our progress as I baby them through the canopy. Getting sweatier and more grumpy in equal measure, the plant sap occasionally causing welts on my skin because, well, because tropical plants are bastards basically.
We hit our camp spot, a clear-cut section that’s flat and sheltered from any potential wind. The night is clear other than a thick scarf of cloud around the neck of the volcano. We hit rum, food and bed. In that order. Sleeping soundly. Waking early for the quick and easy hike to the summit, half of which is on a graded road. Summit one; done.
Summit two is upping the ante. More elevation. Less oxygen. Nevado de Colima has stunning rim hike, a mix of smooth ridge trail and several peaks. The trail up is smooth enough that we don’t air down, a quick adjustment of the suspension settings enough to keep things stress free. We camp in the parking lot, right up to the edge for a nice view over the surrounding barren landscape, chatting to the local Police, who man a small hut at the hiking trailhead. Our invite for beers sees us in their hut watching soccer, Mexico playing out a dull loss to Chile.
The weather picks itself up off the canvas as the sun goes down. The day was somewhat cold but subdued, now it’s raining and the wind is getting punchy. Each gust hitting the camper aggressively, our ringside seat overlooking the hillsides mixing with paranoia to have me second guessing our decision to park that close to the edge. I lean over in bed, grabbing my phone, which glows 12:30 am. I am forced to go outside and check; the weather embarrassed by my discovery that things seem a lot worse on the inside. I head back in and the weather slinks away, it’s cover blown.
The hike is uneventful but beautiful. The initial ridges sweep by quickly, flattering our progress and inexperience. But the caldera is like half a royal crown, a series of peaks and troughs, each on rockier and more exposed than the last and taking longer to traverse. With those behind us, we finally hit the summit and gaze down at the lakes below.
The second summit is a boost and we’re ready for more. Camped in Cholula, Puebla’s more laid back and infinitely cuter cousin, and dizzy with summit fever; Claire dials in the final plans for a third climb. A guide, camp host and equipment. Ice axes, climbing belts and crampons giving validity that this climb is more serious.
High at 5,200 meters and difficult due to that height being reached quickly and maintained. Iztaccihuatl is not a typical cone shape, the locals call it the ‘Mujere Blanca’ or ‘White Lady’. The silhouette depicting a lady laying on her back, feet, knees, breasts and head making up the peaks and outline. The usual dusting of snow adding ‘white’ to the lady moniker. Rather than up and down, you go up quickly and then move across, staying at altitude for longer.
We forego the camper this time, choosing the full mountainside tent experience. Our 5:30 pm bedtime is not entirely unreasonable, but the cold and altitude headache from 9:30 pm is. I long for the luxury of our camper bed and Webasto dual top heater. By midnight I have had enough, getting up before the guides keen to get up and down the mountain quickly. The first two hours starting reasonably but slowly reducing me to shreds by the time we reach our initial rest stop; a grim hut, pungent with camp gas and sweat. I am not doing well at all, to the point strangers are starting to ask after my well-being. I am not one to give up so push on, understanding, now, why the steps of Everest climbers are so slow, so laboured. This isn’t fun. Not fun at all.
The final summit push is welcomed by a stunning pastel blue and orange landscape. The sunrise sprinkling itself over the glacier and previously night sky. My altitude sickness fades and I enjoy the final 800 meters or so to the top. The view is wonderful, the lights of Puebla jump and sparkle on the valley floor below. A picture-perfect volcano peak puffs a celebratory cloud of ash behind us while the glacier beckons back down for the return to home.
Truck camper travel can leave you complacent. Despite driving under the banner of rainy season the weather is behaving impeccably; the occasional soak staggering by, spraying an hours worth of ungainly suds over us before moving on. ‘Unusually dry’ is the local verdict, their enthusiasm for dry diluted with talk of climate change. Veracruz brings us back down to earth with a splash as we crest the mountain range from Mexico State and head towards the coast.
It has just rained, sure, and hard too. But the low-lying coastal towns have now been battered too many times in a row; the river swollen well beyond breaking point, the banks gone, new banks being created. The river’s now so wide it’s no longer able to maintain much speed. the initial rush transformed into a lazy mass; swallowing homes, yards and fields as it makes a pilgrimage from the mountains to the sea.
We arrive in the reportedly pretty town of Tlacotalpan glad of the trucks high clearance as every street is at least 6 inches deep in remarkably clear rainwater. Frogspawn doing laps in the gutter, the entire town suddenly their playground. Apparently, this isn’t a sudden situation. Battalions of sandbags line the river shielding massive pumps at war with the passing flow, cannons hoping to spit out as much water as the enemy can seep in. Their bravery slowly winning the day as the water level remains static.
The locals are Mexican. They don’t care. Embracing adversity is a national pastime. Move furniture to higher ground; swap shoes for plastic thongs; grab a bike and pedal into town. As you were. They wave as they cycle down the street, laughing at our concern about their town, batting the inclement weather away with mild irritation like a mother with her unruly child, as they go about their daily business.
Almost everywhere is shut. We eat in the camper, which is parked for the night in a less than scenic Pemex gas station under the watchful eye of the night-time pump attendant and a scrawny dog that shows mediocre thanks for a few biscuits.
Back on the Road
Plenty of Mexican city life has left me keen to get back behind the wheel. Mexico harbors a magical ability to stop you from being bored. A heady cocktail of city life and beach chill mixed with mountain cloud and jungle density. The ability to drive between hugely different experiences within a few hours never ceasing to amaze.
San Cristobal has been a great stop, meeting up with some online friends in the form of the Tucks (@TucksTruck). Julie and Claire swapping travel notes while Marcus brings me up to speed on the finer points of an Iveco water pump install. His overland vehicle effectively being a blank canvas for his many wild ideas. He’s made and installed a Geiger counter because who doesn’t want to keep an eye on radiation levels? I hear he is now printing his own circuit boards via an in-vehicle CNC machine. We’re all Brits, so the opportunity to unload sarcasm and reminisce about different brands of tea is inevitable. Say what you like about social media, but somehow we were friends before we’d even met. The easy-going patter of nonsense already plastered over the guarded small talk of the newly acquainted.
The nearby town of Chamula provides a more traditional side to the sassy tourism of San Cristobal. Lots of tribal attire and a church that should prove a magnet for people who have a love of chicken sacrifice.
Mexico has been such a remarkable exploration that we are out of time. The six-month visa crudely stamped into our passports warns of trouble ahead if we stay much longer.
Six months has ripped by, a blur of friendly faces, great experience and stunning scenery. We can’t leave though. It’s too soon. We hit the Guatemalan border in Chiapas state, playing dumb to the local Mexican border officials. “How can we get a new visa?” They detail an arrangement that we know to be true, but no more suitable for it. Three days on the Guatemala side before we are allowed re-entry. A fact made worse by the need to import our vehicle in Guatemala and then re-import it into Mexico again.
Knowing the answer we question further. “Is there any way we can pay?” Needless to say, there is. The reduction of the discussion volume to a whisper indicates it might not be legit. A somewhat strange dance then takes place, respectful obedience on our part, guarded instructions on theirs. We bargain slightly, but not hard. Knowing the ball is not in our court. Paperwork is fussed, receipts not given. Stamps pound their likeness onto our passports and we are good to go.
One thing Chiapas has in abundance is water. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls carve their legacy on the landscape in spectacular fashion. The humidity has kicked up a notch. Rarely getting below mid 70’s and driving up as the sun goes down. The camper is damp to the touch. Bedding, clothing, skin. It feels wrong, but it’s a small space surrounded by wet air and no air conditioning. There’s nothing we can do.
We drop down towards El Chiflon; a tall and skinny waterfall that pounds into a turquoise pool. The road leading to the camp spot is littered with career-ending potholes. The light is poor, with the sun low and strained through the trees the road silhouettes are hard to read, tiger strips that camouflage the danger. I yelp as one particularly nasty void makes an appearance.
It’s huge, easily more than a foot deep. My feet and hands suddenly pricked with adrenaline. It’s more than apparent I have no chance of going around the outside. I aim for the middle and actually pull up on the steering wheel, subconscious desperation making me believe that I am capable of defying gravity and hopping the vehicle over the hole. The silence is shocking. No bump, no jolt. The big width of the truck and wide tires must have been centred enough to desperately cling to each edge of the pothole without entering. Claire climbs back down the seat and stares at me. Like Marty looking at The Doc when the Delorean first takes flight.
El Chiflon blends into Las Nubes. The latter trading height for width but is no less stunning for it. The flat river plunging smoothly over stout rocks. It is a wonderful sight.
Border crossings, the scourge of vehicle travellers. The desperation of needing our camper to smoothly enter the country with us means we fall into overly obsequious mode while a trail of paperwork is completed. But this is Belize. The friendly porters usher us from kiosk to counter while the laid back officials shoot the breeze and give us travel tips. “If you need to change some money grab it from the guys behind the fence”
The fence in question—a series of thick, round metal columns—separates the recently admitted from the money changers. Claire rendezvous’s with one of the shady looking characters ganged meters away. He ambles over, unzipping his hip bag and pulling out a stack of soiled notes. Drug dealing is commonly known to be avoided under the gaze of border officials, and this money exchange is starting to feel an awful lot like one. No one else seems phased. The exchange rate is agreed and the deal done. The most unofficial slice of officiousness we have encountered so far.
Belize awaits. Garifuna coastal towns, stunning jungle hideaways and the promise of jaguars and toucans. You never know if you never go.