Thoughts on Mexico and Central America

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Thoughts on Mexico and Central America

 

Our experience was complex and difficult to summarize, but I'll try. 

 

Our decision to return early was based on Ned's time with us and whether we wanted to continue traveling in difficult parts without him

 

It was our best course of action for our safety and my sanity.  Being the solo parent and driver traveling with three kids can be tough.  Having a partner assist is incredibly helpful. While the kids are terrific travelers, they cannot/should not assume all the responsibilities of an adult.  It is far easier with two parents than one.  My heart goes out to all single parents.  You have an exhausting job, particularly if you live in a challenging environment.

 

My decision to travel with a partner who could help with these child responsilities, as well as provide additional safety in the event of an emergency, and simply as a male, affected our decision to return home early, moreso than the challenging environmental circumstances.  (Besides, we like him!)

 

I don't want people to be scared away from traveling south of the border.  It is beautiful, vibrant, exotic, and fascinating.  More than likely, you will have a travel partner who enables you to take more risks than can a single parent traveling with kids.

 

I want to be honest and share both our stressors and what we loved.  Then you can decide for yourself, given your travel partner, goals, and timeframe what adventure you seek. 

 

What we liked:

  • Nice, very helpful, smiling, wonderful people
  • Spectacular scenery
  • Markets bustling with activity
  • Delicious Mexican food
  • Belize wildlife
  • Mayan Archeological sites
  • Meeting up with Jonna & Mimi in Merida, Mexico & getting to meet their friends and see how they live
  • Making friends along the way, both the people who live there and fellow travelers
  • Involving ourselves in the culture on a daily basis:  shopping and doing all the things that locals do
  • See list of favorite things at the end *******

 

What we didn’t like:

  • Not knowing the language well enough to understand the answers to our carefully crafted questions
  • Difficult camping environment- no campgrounds south of Mexico, very few dump stations, no camping supplies, few fellow campers
  • Driving a large rig in small towns and on dirt roads- I'd take a truck camper next time or at least a tow vehicle and I'd only drive the main roads with the big rig.
  • Feeling like aliens and being stared at- this feeling was lessened when Ned was with us
  • Traveling too fast to get to Managua by a certain date to meet Ned- this did not allow recovery time, time to seek out services, time to tour by taxi, etc that is needed to refresh the spirit and provide for the needs of daily living.  It is also hard to research places for the next day's activities if you're always on the road.
  • Difficult border crossings (basically as expected though, if not a little easier)
  • Police hassles-did not like intimidation and lack of security that arises from corruption by the very people you need to protect you- complete violation of trust- singled out as tourists- this more than anything undermined my sense of safety
  • Lack of laundry facilities and difficulty getting hand-washed clothes to dry in some jungle environments
  • Feeling uneasy (constant stress) because some places are not the safest environments- feeling like a target because we were minorities
  • Food issues (better food is in cities, but difficult access with the RV), sometimes the food was unrecognizable which is broadening, but at times difficult

  

Not for Sissies:

Recognize that unless you pad your travels with extra pampering, the reality of people’s daily lives in these areas can be a shock. 

 

When you travel by motorhome, you have far more than most people in these areas do.  You have:

  • Bathroom facilities with running and hot water
  • Filter system for potable water
  • Heat, windows with screens, and a protective roof without leaks
  • Oven, microwave, stove
  • Table, chairs, bedding, mattresses, closet drawers & hanging space
  • Wood floors with throw rugs

All these luxuries mean that you are already cheating a bit in living like the locals. 

 

Still, your travels will involve some survivalist training that either becomes easier or more stressful over a long period of time.  These include: 

  • Washing clothes by hand
  • scrounging meager grocery stores for food that is sometimes packaged differently and occasionally unrecognizable because we don't have it in the US; or having to ask for each grocery item over the counter and then watching carefully as the total payment is added on a basic calculator with no paper tape
  • traveling in a cash society where credit cards require carbons and a phone call which may result in a random decline
  • You must always on the lookout for ATM’s, unusable worn money, possible counterfeit money, awareness of conversion rates, and fear of theft with all that cash. 
  • Lack of potable water requires filtered water for drinking, toothbrush rinsing, and remembering to close eyes and mouth in the shower, as well as rinsing all silverware, dishes, and cutting board in filtered water.
  • All fruits and veggies have to be peeled, boiled or soaked in a chemical solution for a number of minutes.  You have to avoid ice, be careful of buying any juices or foods that may have been washed or had added unpure water, and drink only purified water or bottled drinks in restaurants.
  • There is a need to take malaria pills in certain areas (most of Central America) and use bug spray during the day for mosquitoes carrying dengue fever. 
  • Roads can be difficult and hazardous without warning, with potholes that can swallow cows and road edges that are completely gone under hanging asphalt due to landslides, as well as landslides eliminating half the passable road along mountainsides
  • Trying to speak and learn Spanish is a lesson in humility and humor. 
  • Finding gas stations and fearing police on lonely roads makes traveling stressful. 
  • Air polluted by overburdened trucks and roadside burning fires can lead to respiratory problems
  • Sights of wandering stray animals and those who didn’t make it across the road can add to the stress
  • Learning and using currency conversions, the various bills and coins of the country, and counting your change without appearing trite is a challenge
  • Recognizing painful poverty where children beg for food money, disabled people wait by topes for coins, and a day's wages are difficult to obtain for basic necessities - that obtaining drinkable water, enough food to eat, and protective shelter is a challenge for many people in this world

There are many wonderful benefits to visiting these countries:

  • The people wave and smile, sometimes yelling out a friendly greeting
  • Drivers are more patient and kind, more aware of what is happening around them, not stressed out and speeding like maniacs
  • People are sociable and happy to be of help, they are not inconvenienced in stopping to talk to you
  • Their mechanical skills are legendary
  • The scenery is breathtaking: The mountains are high, the volcanoes bellow smoke, and the beaches are gorgeous
  • The food is often delicious, beer from different countries can be enjoyed, and local specialties are delightful
  • Fruit is juicy with many different exotic varieties making awesome liquados (smoothies)
  • The animals are exotic and amazing
  • The Indigenous cultures are fascinating and very much alive today- the archeological sites are grand and impressive
  • The people are beautiful with shining eyes, bright teeth, and gorgeous skin that shows not a wrinkle
  • The focus is not materialism, but rather family
  • Business hours are shortened so that life can be enjoyed- long lunches and time spent with others is valued
  • The rich land blesses them with wonderful coffee, corn, mangos, oranges, bananas, etc, etc.
  • Communities are very active and people are out experiencing daily life, walking to get most places
  • You can flag down a bus from any roadside and it will also let you out wherever you want - plus they are very prevalent and inexpensive
  • The weather in the winter is delightful- after the rainy season ends in November and before it gets really hot in March or April. 

So you see, there are many benefits from the stressful travel.  Your job is to figure out how best to manage the stress so you can enjoy the benefits!  You can do that by shortening your travel time, spending more time in one place, going slowly through the countries, planning out your travels to seek the highlights of the countries, immersing yourself in one place which minimizes the time finding the survivalist needs, etc.  There are many different techniques to help.  Just be aware that it is very difficult conditions for travel and that you will need to manage it in order to have a positive experience.  Difficult travel does not negate the benefit.

 

Advice for Next Time:

 

Pick and choose the places to go:  choose the best of the best rather than an overview.  Decide what it is you want to experience and focus on that.  Recognize that some places are non-tourist friendly.

 

Would read guidebooks from cover to cover before going.  Research the places, activities, food, and roads.

 

Take all things needed for RVing for long length of time.

 

Take friendship flags of other countries

 

Definitely take the GPS, the Nature’s Pure water filter, the Mexico City GPS Card, a Visa credit card, and thousands in U.S. cash

 

Know all driving info, signs, and customs before you head south.  There are many sources on the internet.  We printed pages in our notebook, which we used, but it is better to know before you go.

 

Decide what your goal is in going:  Meet the people, see the sites, try the food, buy the crafts, see the countryside, understand the lifestyle, learn the language, and appreciate the differences.  That's what we aimed to accomplish.

 

Try to meet up with people along the way (friend of a friend) who live there so you can get a glimpse into their world.  Sometimes immersion is not possible for tourists unless you know a local.

 

Where I want to return: 

 

In Mexico:

Costa Esmerelda

Campeche

Merida

Mayabell’s at Palenque

Paa-Mul on the Mayan Riviera south of Playa de Carmen

Western coast of Mexico

Colonial centers of Mexico like San Miguel de Allende

Copper Canyon via train

Baja peninsula (although police stops are frequent there, I hear)

Anywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula felt good

Really enjoyed the Mayan sites

Want to see La Venta in Villahermosa, but not via motorhome

 

Places I would avoid in Mexico:

Tampico

The entire state of Veracruz while in an RV although Veracruz itself was interesting

Matamoros

Mexico City until the security has stabilized and I had a good place to stay with advice from locals on where I could safely go- maybe if I had 4 bodyguards as some locals travel

The state of Oaxaca in a motorhome

Zapatista area south of Palenque to Agua Azul unless in a taxi or minibus with sane driver (also aggressive tope sellers)

 

El Salvador:

We were enthralled with the El Salvador coast (the people and the scenery),

I’d check security really well before heading north of the coast

Avoid San Salvador in a motorhome and probably as a tourist- rough place I read

Nice people, gentle spirits and ready smiles

Felt welcome on the coast as a tourist

 

Guatemala:

I’d like to see more of Guatemala but would check security of places before venturing

Loved Finca Ixobel- would gladly fly there for a week- like summer camp

Would love to experience Rio Dulce, Bruno’s Under the Bridge- and take the boat trip to Livingston

Nice people, relaxed feel, good horseback riding, beautiful woven goods by the actual artists

Loved Quirigui Archeological area and the craftspeople there

Avoid Guatemala City

Want to go to the Chichicastenego and Xela markets (when Xela security stabilizes)

Want to see Lake Atitlan and Antigua

Liked the food, although not as good as Mexico

 

Nicaragua:

Spectacular countryside and liked the people we met

Police trouble near Masaya & Managua (rough city)

Would like to visit the arts & crafts town of Masaya in a taxi and buy a hammock

Loved the Volcano Masaya National Park

Would enjoy visiting all the other National Parks

 

Honduras

I did not enjoy most of Honduras, except for Copan (so I would enter only from Guatemala on a day bus trip)

Thought the town of Copan Ruines was delightful, loved the family across from the ruins, enjoyed the ruins but would hire a guide and go see the Museum next time (which we disappointingly missed)

Would like to see the nice parts of Tegucigalpa with a tour guided taxi

Did not like San Pedro Sula, Lago de Joyoa, or

Loved the small town of Zapata south of Lago de Joyoa

Didn’t find the food very good- rather bland

 

Belize:

Loved the natural beauty and eco-tourism:

Ambergris Caye- laid back and amazing snorkeling and beaches- good food- dusty and scrappy- dirt roads with loud gas-powered golf carts- people accepting of tourists

Baboon Sanctuary, Belize Zoo (with Jaguar experience), and Blue Hole National Park were real highlights

Loved the jungle boat trip with guide to Lamanai Ruins

Avoid Belize City

Liked the rice with beans daily lunch dish

 

 

******* List of Our Favorite Activities:

  • Swimming twice in the Blue Hole- Belize
  • Swimming with sharks and stingrays at Ambergris Caye- Belize
  • Jungle boat tour to Lamanai- Belize
  • Baboon Sanctuary and petting the howler monkeys - Belize
  • Petting Junior Boy the Jaguar at the Belize Zoo
  • View from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala
  • Finca Ixobel, Guatemala - horsebackc riding, dinners and breakfast on the honor system in the notebook
  • Costa Esmerelda- east coast of Mexico - friends at the campground, beautiful beach, dinners together, Mexican friends, puppies
  • Veracruz - Chicken bus, market, watched while eating tacos, trying to call dad on the street corner pay phone, colonial square
  • Campeche - dinner to go from family restaurant, cathedral lit up at night, lovely square and pastel buildings, pastries at the panaria
  • Merida - enormous market, enjoying Jonna and Mimi’s house and friends, the Arabian-Mexican dinner
  • Volcano Masaya, Nicaragua- climbing to the cross, billowing volcanic smoke, nice visitor’s center and rangers
  • Uxmal - sound and light show “Chaac….”
  • Tortos in Tapachula by the Ford place with Dad
  • Paa-Mul, Mayan Riviera, Mexico - nice people and pool, gorgeous beach, dive shop, palapas, Brazilian Margarita
  • Coffee Bean Plantation- Copan, Honduras - wonderful tour, lunch, learning, and horseback riding
  • Riding a tuk-tuk into Copan Ruines town (Honduras) with Brenda and Marylee, dinner in town, going to the farmacia, buying a phone card to call Dad (I want a tuk-tuk!)
  • Quirigua, Guatemala - Steleas, buying woven purses and fabric from the nice artisans, camping under the shade trees
  • Playa San Diego - El Salvador- delicious chicken dinner on the beach at sunset, walking the beach under the stars, the cute kids on bikes finding a site for the night, buying necklaces from the 9-year-old and her Mom
  • RV park in Victoria, Texas- back in the U.S., laundry facilities, nice people, lovely park, friendly
  • Home- seeing our puppies, appreciating our great country and our house, hoping that we came back more “Mexican” ourselves so that we are as friendly and other-focused, helpful, and kind as the people we met along our journey.

 

Here’s a random question - I was wondering:  What would our housing look like if we didn’t finance it and if we built it ourselves (with the help from our friends).  We have great housing, but it is all built on debt.  How big would our houses be if we had to pay cash?  Would we try to build a bigger house than the friends who are helping us build it?  How would that go over with them? 

 

Another thought:  Are our U.S. police officers honorable with visiting tourists and people who are minorities?  I would like to think so, but I wonder if visitors and minorities experience stress is in the pit of their stomach when the see police officers or get stopped.  I asked a Physician Assistant friend who is African-American and he didn't really feel fearful now, as he might have several decades ago.  I hope that is true for all.  We definitely need to make sure that we pay our police officers well so that extortion is not validated as a means of raising their income to acceptable levels (as appears to be the case in Mexico).  Thank you to our police forces who are, I believe, honorable and put their lives on the line daily.

 

Finally, did you know that journalists (and photographers, radio reporters, and newspaper editors) who investigatively report on crime, gangs, corruption, and mistreatment by officers are often victimized?  I'm grateful to the reporters who risk their lives to report so that we can be aware of injustices and corruption by the people we expect to both protect us and prosecute criminals.  Without a free press, we'd have a difficult time having a clean democracy.  Thank you, Journalists!  May you be protected in your important work!

angelldy77 says:
Tessa & Kids:

We are so relieved you are all home and safe! Mando and I were worried about all of you, especially when you hadn't posted for awhile after Dec. 12th. We really think you made the right decision by coming home after Ned arrived. Mando and I hope to see all of you on the road again someday. Welcome home!

Mando & Linda
Posted on: Dec 28, 2008
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