This article is from the April 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Driving Adventure from Texas through Zacatecas to Lake Chapala

by Sid Grosvenor

Sid Grosvenor is a Dallas Police Commander who is looking forward to retirement and world travel. Sid and his wife, Patricia, plan to spends months each year in the Chapala area escaping the extremes of Texas weather.

My wife, Patricia, and I visited the Lake Chapala area several years ago on a packaged retirement exploration trip. We flew down on American Airlines out of Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport. We liked what we saw and decided to go back for a second look in the winter of 1997, but this time we wanted to drive from our home in East Texas. We wanted to experience the drive— to determine how long and arduous a trip it might be.

Since we had traveled in Mexico on vacations over the years, the country was not a totally new experience for us. We obtained our tourist visas at the Mexican Consulate in Dallas and arranged with Sanborn’s Insurance for coverage and car permits before leaving home. I changed the oil in our pickup truck (yes, almost everyone in Texas does indeed drive a pickup truck!), bought spare hoses, fan belts and such to take along, just in case— and off we went.

We got an early start around 7:00 a.m., knowing that this would not be the fun part of the trip. We had much ground to cover to reach our goal for the night: Laredo. It was 17 degrees at the time we left. I thought that it would be much warmer by the time we got to Waco or Austin, or surely by the time we arrived at the border. I was wrong. It did warm up a little, but still we encountered bands of ice on the roads. We went in and out of icing conditions and the Interstate was full of wrecks. The ice wasn’t that bad, really, but people in Texas, especially South Texas, are just not used to driving in ice storms.

We made the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo border by nightfall and had a not so good "Tex Mex" meal at a Mom and Pop Mexican restaurant. Usually these places are better and the price is lower...but not this time. Our motel room on the Texas side was nice, but seemed a little high at $50.00. On later trips we learned to stay on the Mexican side for about half the price on the Texas side for equivalent accommodations.

We easily crossed the border, paying the small toll to cross the bridge spanning the Rio Grande, and after getting lost only once found the right Mexican Immigration building. There we cleared our vehicle and ourselves for a visit of up to ninety days on our tourist visas. Having done almost everything in advance through Sanborn’s, having all the originals of our documents plus multiple photocopies of everything before arriving, made the paperwork process go quickly and smoothly. You can get the needed photocopies made at the immigration office for 25 cents a copy, but you must stand in the copier line and then take the copies back to the right window. We learned that it is better to take multiple photocopies of all your papers, including your driver’s license, with you to avoid the extra wait. Remember that your vehicle must have Mexican insurance coverage, and if it is under lien you must have written permission from the lienholder. My credit union was familiar with the process and provided me with a form letter. By getting an early start we were only the second ones in line when we got to the immigration building to do our paperwork.

You actually cross the border and then process your papers on the Mexican side. If you were to just drive on through you would be stopped at the kilometer 17 checkpoint. At this checkpoint we did have to open our camper-covered pickup truck for a quick glance by the officer on duty. I suspect that all trucks get looked at a little more closely than regular passenger vehicles. We encountered several more checkpoints on our journey, and I discovered that my Spanish, bad as it is, was very helpful at the various checkpoints.

For example, at several of these checkpoints the officer in charge would speak with me as the male and the driver, but would look at my wife, who is easily mistaken for a Mexicoamericana due to her beautiful olive complexion and dark hair, as if to say, "Why are you not speaking to me in Spanish rather than letting your husband struggle to communicate?" When I noticed that look, I would quickly know to tell the officer that my wife was half-Filipino and did not speak any Spanish. The smile and words of acknowledgment received from the officers confirmed that my assessment of their looks at her was correct. I don’t really understand it, but Patricia doesn’t like being mistaken for a "señorita." She has some of the same Spanish blood running in her veins as the Mexicans if you go back 500 years. My Costa Rican and Salvadoran friends here in Texas also don’t like to be mistaken for Mexican, which reflects the fact that we all have pride in our heritage.

Laredo to Zacatecas

After the first checkpoint the road is straight and long into the desert of the Northern Mexico plain. You will see lots and lots, and lots and lots more, of various types of cactus plants. It is a barren yet strangely beautiful landscape. The cactus often grow to the size of large trees, perhaps 40 feet high or so. The desert reminded me of scenes of the ocean floor and the strange looking plants growing there. The cactus, of course, do not sway in a current, but stand stoically stationary. Some folks don’t care for desertscapes. If you are one of them, and are the passenger, you may want to take reading material for this part of the trip.

We were able to take the ring road (periferico) around the center of Monterrey which leads to the Auto Pista, also called the cuoto (or toll road), toward Saltillo, the next major city on our route. We thought we had gone far enough south to be out of icing conditions by the time we arrived in Laredo, where it was cold but not freezing, but as we drove along the toll road we were flagged down by a police officer. He was stopping traffic and sending the few brave souls out there back from where they had come. He told us in Spanish as we stopped, "Ice...ice up ahead...you must go back." I asked in Spanish, "How can we get to Zacatecas?" He told us to go back and exit the cuoto and then take the libre (or free road) to Zacatecas. The libre is old, bumpy and riddled with potholes in places.

We saw no ice on the toll road, but obviously had to accept the officer’s direction to go back. I suspected that there was not that much ice ahead, but that the bridges ahead had iced over. Fortunately, the free road was not busy, no doubt due to the extraordinarily cold weather, but the mountains were a challenge. It was pretty much us and the big trucks on the libre. We encountered no ice and had no problems, except for dodging a few potholes. Sometimes the trucks were only going 10 to 15 mph on the climbs up the mountain. My top speed on the same slopes, with only a 4 cylinder engine in a loaded pickup truck in the thin air, was around 40 to 45 mph.

We had left the border that morning around 8:00 a.m. and arrived in Zacatecas a little before dark at 5:45 p.m.— not bad, all things considered.

Zacatecas

A beautiful colonial city resting on a series of hills, Zacatecas is about 500 years old and was made rich by its silver mines during the Spanish occupation. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it lies in a high valley with an elevation around 7800 feet above sea level. Our two days of hard driving through ice, desert, mountains and detours was rewarded by a picturesque city oozing with charm and history.

Our hotel, the Continental Plaza, is top rated and lies in the heart of the city on the Central Plaza. There was secure off-street parking and our room came complete with a small balcony, a sitting area, color TV with over 100 channels of which about four were in English, and little bottles of fancy soap. This was our "splurge" hotel after two long driving days, and the cost was $72.80 US per day for the two of us. We went downstairs to dine in the exquisite restaurant in the hotel and found the food and service to be outstanding. We had so many great meals at so many fancy restaurants in Mexico that I don’t recall what we had that night, but I recall it was very good. My credit card receipt shows I paid $11.02, which included the tax, a generous tip, dessert and drinks. The meals in this restaurant were served by candlelight— and the name of the restaurant was appropriately "Los Candiles." It is very difficult to spend more than about $10 or $12 for a great meal at even the poshest restaurants, where even the busboys wear tuxedos.

Breakfast at Los Candiles was also a class act. Tableside chefs cooked omelettes to order, or you could choose from a mindboggling array of other breakfast foods, including four or five kinds of fresh fruit juice and fruits, some of which we had never seen before, a variety of casserole dishes, and many kinds of muffins, biscuits, and breads. It was probably the best breakfast I have ever eaten. To top it off, we had our choice of a number of types of coffee. I chose Americano, and it was very good and strong, but without being overpowering or bitter. I suspect it was from Veracruz.

On our first full day in Zacatecas we decided that a packaged tour would get the most sightseeing accomplished in the shortest time. For about $12 per person a van picked us up and off we went for a day of sightseeing in Zacatecas. The secret to enjoying a walking tour of Zacatecas is to walk very slowly. The air is thin and your heart and lungs will tell you very quickly to slow down.

Staying at our hotel were a young couple and their two children from Colombia who also went with us on our tour. The father spoke only a little more English than I speak Spanish, but between the two languages we were able to communicate fairly well. The mother spoke almost no English, but the older daugher, who was only twelve years old, spoke English well and served as translator when we needed her.

The tour took us to the local sites which included an old silver mine. Emerging from the silver mine we found ourselves at a cable car platform. We took the cable car which runs along a cable strung between the mountain and a hilltop over the city. It is an exhilarating experience with a fantastic view of the city not unlike that from a helicopter.

In mid-afternoon the tour ended. Tired and hungry we lunched at the hotel with our new Colombian friends— a late lunch that lasted several hours, in the Latin American tradition. After an afternoon siesta we met our new friends again and went to a unique nearby restaurant/cantina inside one of the nicest hotels in Zacatecas. The hotel was built around an old bullring. Each of the numerous entrances into the bullring had been glassed in and made into small, private dining areas. It sounds unusual but it worked out well. We had a nice evening getting to know our new friends and learning about our respective countries and customs. The father had traveled in the U.S. as a civil engineer, and the mother, also well educated, was a realtor, balancing her career and family commitments. With all of our cultural differences, we learned that each family shared many common values: hard work, the importance of family and lifelong learning, and of course the enjoyment of international travel. We were interestingly different from each other and yet comfortably the same. And we learned that they are more like us, and we like them, than many people in our own respective cultures.

After breakfast the next morning it was time to say goodbye to our new Colombian friends and to Zacatecas.

On To Lake Chapala

Before leaving the hotel, I checked our tires. The slow leak I thought had been repaired in Dallas had by now lowered our pressure in one tire down to the point of being visibly low. I wanted to air up before getting into the mountains again. Leaving Zacatecas and heading south on Mexico Highway 54 I checked at the next two Pemex stations for an air pump, but no luck. I even asked one of the Green Angel truck drivers parked along the road. He was very polite, but did not have an air pump. (Note: The Green Angels are government employees who drive jeeps or pickup trucks up and down the long stretches of Mexican highways where there are few towns or repair facilities; they carry spare gasoline and other repair supplies.) I asked the attendant at the second Pemex where I might find someone who could "repara me llanta" (repair my tire) and he gave me directions to a nearby tire shop. I found the shop, which had no sign but did have an old tire propped up by the roadway. This is, I now know, the Mexican equivalent of a tire shop sign. We aired up again and were off without charge.

The mountains between Zacatecas and Guadalajara are quite majestic. The road was far from perfect, but not bad, and we could manage a comfortable 60 to 65 mph, except when climbing or descending the mountain.

I was impressed with the courtesy of the drivers, especially those who drove big trucks and buses. We have all heard about the daredevil drivers who pass on curves and up and down hills. There are indeed drivers like that in Mexico, just like in the U.S., but the drivers we encountered were mostly both skillful and courteous. For example, when approaching a large, slower vehicle from the rear on roads with no shoulder and only one lane each way, the driver would almost always put on their left directional signal to let you know that the road ahead was clear and that you could pass. This courtesy significantly reduced the time we might have spent behind big trucks and buses.

We made good time through the mountains and arrived in Guadalajara in the late afternoon. We even managed to find the periferico (the ring road that almost circles Guadalajara). I felt fortunate to have found the periferico because Mexican roads are not marked that well. It took almost an hour to circle the metropolitan area of Guadalajara, a city of more than two million people. The periferico was like a freeway, but with stop and go signals at the major crossroads into and out of downtown Guadalajara. We soon found our exit, the airport highway exit, although there was, surprisingly, only one sign indicating it was the airport highway.

We made it to the Lake Chapala area as the sun was going down. We took the cutoff that bypasses the town of Chapala itself and goes straight to Ajijic. As you curve around the mountain, all at once you see Lake Chapala framed between mountains on either side...truly a breathtaking scene, especially with the sun nearing the horizon and glistening off the lake. A few more miles and we arrived at our bed and breakfast hotel, previously booked over the internet. The hotel was located just off the picturesque plaza of Ajijic, with its colonial cathedral, bandstand and open air cafes.

We braved icy roads, navigated around closed roads, drove up and down and around curving mountain roads and overcame minor car problems. All in all, I’d say we did just fine— and so can you. Just do a little planning, use common sense—and allow your sense of adventure to spur you on.