The Trip in Full

So we made it. 6,500 miles in an ’87 Dodge van. We camped off-road in Chihuahua. We got lost at night on the back roads of Oaxaca. We drove through states, such as Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, that are known as hot spots in the narco wars. According to one study, we drove through three of the top twenty most violent cities in the world (by murder rate):  Acapulco, Torreon, and Culiacan.

                                                                                                                           photo by Gina Dilello

We rode the subways in Mexico City and walked the streets at night. The downside: getting groped once on the subway. The upside: getting plate after plate of free snacks at a cool bar that was hidden behind a tattoo shop and featured an amazing selection of Mexican microbrews. Yes, you heard me. Mexican microbrews. The upside? Getting serenaded by a group of Mexican business men who worshiped at the altar of Javier Solis. The upside? Lounging in Frida Kahlo’s garden. Finding an entire neighborhood devoted to the sale of Santo Niño dolls. Wandering the Alameda in the sonorous twilight. The upside? The tacos.

Churpa reflected in Frida Kahlo’s miniatures.                                photo by Gina Dilello

        Churpa and Gina in Frida Kahlo’s garden.                            photo by Rich Peterson

Frida Kahlo’s studio.                                                                                photo by Gina Dilello

We left our van parked on a street in downtown Oaxaca for two nights in a row. The roof rack was loaded with gear: coolers, full propane tanks, a nice stove, and an unlocked box full of pots, pans, and dishes. This was probably crazy and I don’t necessarily recommend it (I’m sure Codo is horrified if he is reading this), but I will tell you that nothing was stolen.

(I know this may sound naive. But keep in mind that, despite appearances, I’m not a guileless hippie, and I’ve been around the block a few times. My theory is that sometimes the hassle outweighs the risk. We took a chance with the understanding that there’d be no handwringing if it was a miscalculation.)

Our van was searched by federales and soldiers on numerous occasions. We had to listen to a lot of jokes about pot because of our hippie van, but we were not threatened. (It should be noted that we did not carry drugs or weapons and we were always scrupulously polite.) Nothing was stolen.

We left our valuables in hotel rooms. When we had to, we carried cash. We never had our pockets picked. We parked our van in a random barrio outside of Mexico City for four days and paid the proprietors of an extremely degenerate hotel to keep an eye on it. Nothing was stolen.

We tried to follow our own rules: don’t drive at night, don’t take unnecessary risks. And for the most part we succeeded. But Mexico is the way of the curve ball, the blind corner, the wild card. As you all know, even the best laid plans…We ended up in places we shouldn’t have been: off the beaten path, in the dark. And we were met with kindness.

Two rules we managed to follow:

1. Be polite, friendly, and calm, even in the face of apparent hostility.

2. Act as though people are going to treat you the way  you want to be treated.

I’m not bragging. I’m not trying to tell you that the world is not a dangerous place or that if you go to Mexico nothing bad will happen to you. I’m not trying to tell you that if you go to Mexico, no one will steal your stuff.

I am telling you that no one stole mine, or threatened me, or looked at me sideways. And I am thanking our fantastic van Miss Louisiane (and our godmother Tia!), our angels of the road (Hello Frank and Steve!), and San Judas de Tadeo for safe passage; and I am rejoicing in the grace of Mexico.

I’m not suggesting that you follow random dirt tracks in Chihuahua. I’m not suggesting that you drive through the jungle at night on unpaved roads, knocking on random doors for directions. I’m not suggesting that you set off on a 45 km unpaved road toward what may or may or not be a beach. I’m not suggesting that you leave valuables on the rack of your van in a major city. I’m not suggesting that you drive the notoriously dangerous coast of Michoacan. I’m not suggesting that you rely on the kindness of strangers. I’m not suggesting that you should take the libre when you could take the cuota. I’m not suggesting you leave your phone at home and traverse the length of Mexico in an outdated vehicle with no GPS. I’m not suggesting your order the tripe.

But we did. And it was fun.

        Churpa and Rich in Oaxaca.                                                          photo by Gina Dilello

Jazmin, Churpa, Gina

        Maysa and Laci, camping in Oaxaca.                                                    photo by Churpa

Free camping!                                                                                                          photo by Churpa

Map on the dash. Zacatecas.

Ex-Hacienda Los Remedios                                                                              photo by Churpa

Punta Perula                                                                                                     photo by Gina Dilello


23 Responses to “The Trip in Full”

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  1. BC says:

    Another set of beautiful pictures!

    Are you going to do an article on “Mexican microbrews”? I was just looking up information on the cerveza artesanal movement and festivals being devoted to artesanal beer brewing. Not that I’m planning on writing an article, was just seeing if I might fit a couple of festivals into an upcoming trip. Appears, from the number of festivals and articles I found online, that artesanal brewing is booming in Mexico right now.

    Found one article about a Colorado native that seems to have found a dream come true: “found a way to learn to surf and brew cerveza artesanal for a living, Baja Brewing Company [] founded in 2004 in the resort town of Los Cabos, creating easy-drinking ales for tourists and locals.”

    • churpa says:

      When we walked into that bar/cafe in Mexico City’s Centro Historico, I saw a wall of bottles and was excited, but I assumed they were all imports. When we started talking to the bar tender, I realized that many of the bottles were brewed in Mexico. My first whiff of the Mexican microbrew movement! A nice change of pace from Modelo/Superior, especially now that Grupo Modelo has been purchased by INBEV. And yes, I’ve been thinking about writing something on this, so mil gracias for the link.

    • Heido Sundstrom says:

      Yeah!! Baja Brewing Co.!! I got a chance to interview the owners once when we still lived in Cabo… super cool expats making it happen in Mexico. Tasty beer too! They’ve since expanded and now have a few restaurants throughout Los Cabos that serve wood-fired pizza, etc. to wash down their wide array of local brews… Ricooo!!

      P.S. Cool article, Churpa!! :)

      • churpa says:

        I really want to try it! Is your interview on line? Maybe I could link to it when I write my article on Mexican microbrews…

        And gracias…

  2. Sam says:

    You went to Punta Perlua, Jalisco?? I thought I was the only Gringo from WA State that knew about that secret :-)

  3. Brian Fey says:

    Glad you had a good trip!
    Next time you are down visit me in the forest near Patzcuaro.

    We almost have the same van!

    • churpa says:

      Sweet van! You are a lucky man…(I always feel a certain affinity with other van people…)Keep us posted on your adventures in Patzcuaro. I haven’t been in that neck of the woods in ages…

  4. -el codo- says:

    Churpa, IMHO your trusty old van helped out in the security department. I tell my Mexican friends that “No Crook In Their Right Mind Is Going To Steal This Car?” They laugh but I notice they are nodding as they laugh.

    In these modern times, if a tourist loses his wallet in a hotel room in Mazatlan, scant hours will pass before forum postings would announce the heinous crime all the way in Bangor Maine, to the Rio Grande and Vancouver British Columbia. The forums are there. As the little old lady in the burger commercials used to demand as she lifted a corner of the bun “Where’s The Beef?”

    Few people, eve including seasoned travelers have not fallen prey to media hype regarding the “Idiotic Death Wish That Goes Along With Traveling Mexico”.

    You had a great time and guess what, eventually potential tourists are going find out for themselves that Mexico when using appropriate common sense and caution, is safe. Until that time arrives when they return however I intend to fill their prime seat at restaurants, camp in their favorite spots, and generally enjoy Mexico relatively uncrowded.

    Do I have permission to start rumors of cannibalistic plants, incurable diseases, or the certainly of an earthquake of a magnitude of at least 10? Certainly there must be some way to keep the hordes of tourists at bay for awhile longer! Of course I jest. The folks that PG grade folks do business with are desperate for money as always. But losing my prime seats is going to hurt!

  5. Tina Rosa says:

    Fabuloso! And I remember well the year Steve and I strapped our FIRST Oregon tinaco on Jolly’s roof rack! Look in the albums….I remember some pictures you might want to archive as part of this living family tradition!

  6. Nick Threndyle (of !Gringo! fame) says:

    Awesome, Churpa. We just finished almost the identical trip in an ’88 Dodge van! It was my third van trip with my girlfriend through all parts of Mexico, a total of 15 months, I’ve never had anything but the best time. I’ve spent nights broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Slept on the beach in a Mexican tent city, camped in the Zocalo in Mitla, camped in dumps, at presas and beaches by ourselves, everything they say never to do, and never had any problem. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend all of the above, there is the odd sitting bolt upright in bed moment when a pickup truck full of loud teenagers pulls alongside you at 3 in the morning, or the ejido police try to shake you down for a mordida in the middle of the night, but nothing we couldn’t handle with a few handshakes and friendly discussion. Most of what comes close to a nuisance is just curiosity about what those gringos are up to. Curiosity doesn’t always have a curfew in Mexico. I think much of the fear of Mexico is of the unknown because it is such a different experience just a step across the border. I’m glad you had such a great trip, and documented it so beautifully in pictures, wish we had run into you. I still have the idea of another Mexico book bubbling on the back burner.

    • churpa says:

      Wow, really too bad we didn’t run into you! Awesome about your van! We love ours, if you haven’t noticed. 6,500 miles and no break downs. Please keep us posted about Mexico book, and we’d love to post any one-offs you might feel like sending our way…Do you have a website again?

  7. There’s only one thing worth having in this life: LUCK.

  8. Nathan Segal says:

    I love your post and the photos. You do what I do in Mexico. I also read your post on the LinkedIn group. I love Mexico. I’ve traveled all over the country and I’ve lived there for three years in total. I’m looking forward to going back in fall. Again, congrats to you and your spirit of discovery. I love reading stories like yours.

  9. Lorena says:

    Great pictures of a great trip…. Thanks so much for sharing all your experience. Armchair traveling at its best. ;-)


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