Mainland Mexico / by Kenneth Benson

It has been difficult to find time to write since the last post. For two months we have been moving among so many different places and experiences. I will try and give a glimpse…

El Fuerte

We arrived at the ferry terminal in La Paz around 7pm. Our Spanish is getting pretty good but it is still mildly confusing to go through the process when you only understand “most” of what is being told to you.  Several checkpoints later we were at the curb where Devon and Vega got out of the van and I was directed to take the car and the dog to the boat.  Kohbi was not especially happy about the crate situation as I unloaded her and got her home for the night into place. Next I drove the van into the ferry and down several ramps to what seemed like the bottom of the boat and seemed even more so as I climbed several flights of stairs back to the main deck to wait for my family. After a longer than expected wait for them to shuffle though security we found our cabin, had some dinner and then were rocked to sleep.

The ferry from Baja landed us at the port town of Topolabampo in the state of Sinaloa, several hours north of Mazatlan by car. Many people doing the overland journey ferry directly to Mazatlan and continue from there through Mexico however, Devon very much wanted to see Copper Canyon, Mexico’s Grand Canyon. With a train that tours up through the canyon to small mountain villages with amazing views it sounded like a fine idea. The train stops in El Fuerte, a 2 hour drive inland (supposedly the childhood home of Zorro) then travels up into the Sierra Madres to a place you can see and explore the canyon.

Right off the ferry after not more than a mile I got pulled over for speeding. The officer asked for my license and then proceeded to write the ticket, telling me that I could retrieve my license at the station once I paid the fine… or I could give him 500 pesos and we could be on our way. Welcome to Mexico. 500 Pesos is about $25 and I was going 50 in a 35 so call it a bribe if you want I deserved it and it was by far the cheapest speeding ticket I've ever had. Off to El Fuerte

As we pulled into the town we were diverted to the other side of the road as our side was closed. As we slowly passed the blockade we realized it was due to the police photographing a dead body in what had been our lane. After questioning some locals later and positing that it was probably just a traffic incident they told us no, more likely a drug killing. Interesting and mildly concerning.

We spent the next day exploring the small town. There were some amazing old buildings and supposedly the childhood home of Zorro who’s surname was Vega. We did not feel unsafe at all and arranged with the woman at the campground to watch the van and the dog for the next 3 days, then scheduled a cab to the train for the next morning at 7. That night we fell asleep to and then were awakened multiple times in the night by a lullaby of gunshots. So, dead body and all we bagged our plans to see the canyon and headed to the beach.

It was hard to be too bummed about missing the canyon. Even after meeting a couple who had camped in the place we had, left their vehicle and dog and did the train ride as we had wanted only 2 days behind us, we were still very satisfied we had gone with our gut. On an adventure like this, especially with a 2 year old in tow, it is important to listen to how you feel and not get attached to making things happen just for the sake of it.

Celestino Gasca

Our fleeing from El Fuerte led us south to the coast and through a small village just north of Mazatlan about an hour and to a campground in Celestine Gasca. The beach was pristine, we were the only ones there in the beginning, they had a pool and a the owners of the place had a daughter the same age as Vega. A week went by without really even trying. Several other travelers came and went. We camped, made a few runs in to a slightly bigger town to wander and get supplies. We finally got Kohbi the haircut we had been wanting which was great due to the heat and the sand and the ocean. It was a time to relax and settle into a decidedly new vibe that was Mainland vs. Baja. The experience of our first few days in mainland was so different in so many little ways than what we had become accustomed to in Baja and we needed a little time to adjust ourselves. I’m sure this will be true as we move next into Chiapas or the Yucatan and certainly true as we go beyond to Belize and Guatemala.


Slowing our pace we killed some time as we were waiting for the Heatons to join up with us in Mazatlan. We went just south and stayed near the beach. When it was time we packed up and headed back. In Mazatlan there is an RV park right down in the tourist district on the beach with direct access. It is hard to believe that among all of the high rise hotels there still remains a place for dirtbags like us.

Patrick and Michelle showed up in the afternoon after a day on a zipline and tequila tour. We were actually a bit nervous having visitors. It had only been a few months but we had found a groove and were a bit worried our agendas wouldn’t mesh. All for naught though we all immediately hit the beach and went in search of some tacos. They were down for street food, walking around, chilling and and more chilling. We checked into our AirBNB which was a bit north of town and a super comfy reprieve from camping (showers and all that). We reconnected with the folks we met in Baja and crashed the fancy hotel they were staying at and hit the pool. One of the highlights was grabbing one of the VW Thing cabs that are all over the city and having them cruise us into Old Mazatlan. Vega loved the open air ride and we all fell in love with the Old Town.  If you ever plan on visiting Mazatlan, missing the old center would be a pity.  We found a hostel there and after the AirBNB we all stayed there a night. We visited Isla de la Piedra for a day and spotted sting rays splashing around where we were swimming (I don’t recommend buying oysters from the beach and making ceviche, I was deathly ill for 24 hours).

It was really nice having Patrick and Michelle visit (thanks for lugging that stupid solar panel around guys). We never really got a chance to hang with them in Klamath aside from a party here or there so it was nice getting to know them better. Vega misses you Michelle! She will still sneak up on us and try to scare us. When we ask what she is doing she says she is sneaking like Michelle.


After they left we hit the road again. This was the first time on the trip that we did not have a place to be by a certain time. We could go which direction we pleased and at to whatever place we chose.  We took off inland to Morelia. We made an overnight stop on the shore of Lake Chapala. I had dreams of camping on a beautiful lake in the highlands of Mexico.  There are those lakes but this was not one of them, at least from where we camped. It turned out to be this strange ex-pat retirement RV community on the west end of the lake that was fenced off and not good for swimming anyway. They had a weird playground with scary clown slides. It was just strange. It had a geriatric stepford wives vibe. It could have been the set for a weird 80's movie where old ex-pats suck the blood of young travelers. So, one night there and off we went.

Morelia is a colonial university city and we really loved walking around its cobbled streets.  We stayed in a Hostel for 3 nights and spent our days walking. We checked out a bunch of churches, restaurants, museums and markets. I went on a hunt for a new headlight switch as ours had burned out leaving us without headlights unless I hold on the brights. I was not successful. Despite the proliferation of Volkswagons in Mexico and especially vans our van is just too new.

The Monarchs

From Morelia we took off to the Reserva de la Biósfera Santuario Mariposa. This Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve “is a World Heritage Site containing most of the over-wintering sites of the eastern population of the monarch butterfly.” This was a bucket list item for Devon.

Spending summers in Vermont as a child she watched the Monarchs hatch on the milkweed near her family’s home. Starting in September or October the Eastern/Northeastern Monarchs migrate from southern Canada and the US to this site in central Mexico. We got to the reserve just as they were mating and once the new generation hatched they would start the return trip, arriving back in Vermont around July. This summer we spent two months in “The Study” in Vermont. Making it here to the reserve at the time we did was really special as we felt had made a similar trip to the Monarch.

We hired a guide and went several hours by horseback up into the mountains early in the morning. As we rose higher and higher we started to spot a butterfly here or there. At one point we dismounted and started a short hike. Until this point we were only seeing a few butterflies at a time. As we hiked we started to see more and more until we reached a crest and looked over into a ravine. There were thousands. they were covering the trees and drifting downwind. We were able to sit in silence for a while and just watch (even Vega was amazed and quiet). We hiked even higher and they got thicker and thicker. Mating Monarchs were falling from the sky all around us unable to fly under the doubled weight. There were dead ones all over the ground too, they had finished their journey. I wouldn’t have thought so ahead of time, but seeing the butterflies surpassed seeing the whales in Baja. Maybe it was because we were the only ones there or because of the connection we had with them via the journey. Either way it was incredible.

I hiked most of the way back down as Vega rode with our guide and Devon rode her own horse. When we returned to camp we asked the caretaker of the campsite about the trout farms nearby and he went off and scored us three nice sized fresh trout that we grilled up and ate for dinner.


The next day it was off to Mexico City. Our GPS has a habit of always getting us to where we want to go but not always by the most logical route. There is also no accounting for random massive once a month car sales that block off huge sections of the road you want to be on. Before realizing what was happening we were stuck in the middle of a giant car show/sale. When we finally made it out all we could think about was how we were going to get back and buy that sweet 1998 red VW bug that was only $1500 and looked brand new. It seemed a little crazy to do this trip in two separate cars so we passed on the deal of the century.

We finally made it to our campground in Teotihuacán and headed out to see the ruins the next day. These Aztec Ruins were our first experience with the ancient ruins in Mesoamerica. The Temple of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, and just over half the height of the Pyramid of Giza. It was pretty amazing to climb to the top.

We talked about visiting Mexico city the next day but decided against it because leaving the dog for the day in camp just didn’t feel comfortable as there was another dog that lived there that had a reputation for biting visitors dogs, maybe we will hit the city on the way back. So off we went again working further inland and south toward Oaxaca.

Midway in the state of Puebla we veered off of the main road and passed several small villages that subsisted on a nearby marble quarry. We camped in a spectacular site among giant cacti.  This site was remote and we were the only ones there. It was peaceful, quiet and beautiful, very refreshing after being in the city the last few days.


Our next stop was to be the city of Oaxaca. It was a long but gorgeous drive and we arrived in the city ready to relax and get some renowned great food. Well it was not quite as expected. The campground we were aiming for was closed, the traffic was horrible and we were hungry so ended up stopping at the first place we found that might have wifi so we could search out a new campsite. The food was not good and we left disappointed. We did find a camp just outside of town and headed that way. It turned out to be kind of a waterpark? We were the only ones there and it kind of seemed closed but there was a big field for tent camping and they let us in and ran an extension cord for us. It turned out to be fine although there was an emu roaming the grounds and it turns out Kohbi is deathly afraid of giant chickens. She probably was worried about karmic retribution from her past year spent chicken stalking and spent most of her time in or under the van.

The next day we explored a little bit south and wandered around a big weekend market and finally got some of Oaxaca’s famous Mole’, we then visited a small town where the people are famous for their weaving and I snagged a really nice blanket.

Puerto Escondido and the Oaxaca Coast

Next it was back to the beach! Only 150 miles away, no big deal right? Wrong. It was 150 miles of winding roads and sneaky topes (speed bumps). In that 150 miles we went up and down and up and down from 4000 ft to 7000 ft then down to 2800 ft the back up to 6500 ft before finally going back down to sea level! It was rather hellish. For those that have driven highway 66 from Klamath to Ashland, imagine driving that last 15 mile section into Ashland up and down for 7 hours. The beauty of it was lost to the utter ridiculousness of it. Then to top it all of, when we finally made it into town I passed our campsite and had to make a u-turn resulting in blowing a power steering hose and rinsing the pavement with AT fluid. An easy fix it turned out ,but annoying nonetheless.

Our plan all along was to aim for P.E. and hopefully stay there for a few months, settle in maybe take some Spanish lessons and find a pre-school for Vega. After a few days in Puerto we decided that moving on and seeing more was what we really wanted. Puerto was nice but the beach, though beautiful, had powerful waves and strong undertows. We worked our way south through Zicatela, Mazunte, and Zipolite always with the thought of maybe stopping for a bit but nowhere felt really like the right spot. Plans change.

Our last stop along the coast was a spot just north of Salina Cruz in a small little village at a camp called Cocoleoco.  This camp was near the beach with two right hand breaks and we ended up staying for a week. We met a lot of other travelers, Vega made some new friends and we tried our hands at surfing again, taking a lesson and making a modicum of progress.

San Cristobal de las Casas

Glad to get out of the heat (well not Devon) we headed back inland and to the higher elevations of San Cristobal de las Casas. This town turned out to be one of our favorites in Mexico.  We arrived on the big weekend of Semana Santa (Easter) and the city was vibrant with people and a festival atmosphere.  The campground was really nice and located just a 15 min walk into the center of town.  The center had 2 streets that were closed off to traffic and were walking streets only lined with shops and cafes. The architecture was very reminiscent of for me of walking through Italian towns and the food was excellent. I spent my 42nd birthday here and We shared cake and pizza with a family we met from Canada. David and Ariane are French Canadians who were traveling with their 3 kids and were on their way back north after having been through Guatemala.

We stayed almost a week in S.C.D.L.C. and were on the verge of trying to stay there for a month or more but it seems that whenever we start to consider settling down we are always pulled back into moving on. We can’t quite bring ourselves to do it. Maybe it is the knowledge that this adventure will someday soon be over and settling down will happen eventually. Or maybe we will never want to :)

The Yucatan

Off we went again. Our next major destination was to be the Yucatan peninsula.  The direct route there takes you through Ococingo who’s surrounding areas are Zapatista controlled.  This is not necessarily a bad or dangerous thing but they have been know to create roadblocks for hours on the road we planned on traveling. Thinking that sitting in the car with Vega not moving for several hours we decided to take the long way around southeast to the border of Guatemala and then back up to Palenque. Our first stop was Lake Tziscao in the Lago Montebello region or “Parque Natural Ecoturistico Tziscao”. This was a pretty idyllic campsite on a lake, the one that I had been wanting since Mazatlan.  We stayed 2 days while Devon recovered from some stomach issues and then headed further east to Las Nubes. This place was a little disappointing as we essentially camped in a parking lot but the nature surrounding was amazing. Beautiful waterfalls and a turquoise river.

The next day was a big one. While there was no danger of being delayed by Zapatistas, the route around was pretty long.  We left Las Nubes in the morning and the first 6 miles was on a dirt road back to the highway.  I was driving the van like I had the tires I wanted not the ones I actually had and ended up getting a pinch flat by hitting a big rock. Changing to the spare delayed us a bit but we were back on the road without to much heartache.

In Mexico we have picked up a few hitchhikers, usually women or older men carrying massive loads.  In Morelia we picked up a family and were able to get them to the hospital because the older man had gotten a massive cut on his hand. We passed a few people on this route with heavy loads then decided we should really help out if we could so we stopped again on this trip and picked up an older man and his son(?). Turned out the younger one was drunk and wouldn’t shut up so we dropped them off pretty quick, much to their chagrin. Fortunately they got out without making any trouble.

Afterward we drove for several hours through gorgeous jungle with Guatemala just to or right. Due to the proximity to the border though there were many police stops.  Most of the time in Mexico we are just stopped, asked where we are from, where we are going, and then we are waved through.  This was also the case on this road with one exception. At one stop it seemed pretty normal. The man looked in and saw Vega sleeping in the car seat in the back. Normally when police see Vega she seems to be our free ticket out of there but this time he wanted to open up the car.  As he walked around we heard the word “muñeca” which means doll. From what we can guess he thought that Vega might be a doll and that she was filled with drugs.  He opened the door and stared at her until he could tell she was breathing and then flagged us through. Next a man in the road filling pot holes waved a fake gun at us and demanded/asked for money, we just kept driving. The only other incidents were the random giant pot holes and sections of road that were just gone. We arrived in Palenque exhausted and hoping to find easy accommodations. The guest house Devon had picked from our 8 year old Lonely Planet guide was closed and I had pocket deleted iOverlander the day before. We headed to a more touristy district and found a cheap hotel that seemed suitable until Devon found a pile of ash and cigarette butts at the end of the bed and a giant hairball in the shower. We were exhausted so just stayed. the next day we found a great campsite near the ruins. It felt great to be back in our “home” nothing like a skeezy hotel to remind us how lucky we are.

The ruins at Palenque were nice and we took a nice hike in the jungle.  At the campsite there was a group of travelers who had just finished doing a month long horse ride across Mexico. It is amazing to see so money people doing what we are doing and even some that are doing it way cheaper and more simply.  At home when contemplating this trip it seemed at time crazy, but we are not alone in what we are doing and are pretty middle of the road compared to others who are on adventures like this.  It’s not weird or even especially exceptional which is strangely encouraging and has opened our eyes to what more is possible for us in the future.

The next stop toward the Yucatan was Campeche an lovely walled city on the gulf side of the peninsula. We did our first free stealth camping here in a Walmart parking lot. Despite the cramped conditions because we didn’t pop the top we had no troubles.  The trouble came the next day when we started toward Merida. As I got onto the highway the brakes started feeling a little weird, then a little more weird then they were gone, nothing. We coasted to a stop on the side of the road. It is hard to describe the feelings you have when mechanical failures hit you in a foreign land. They can be pretty overwhelming. Fortunately I am married to a therapist and I am starting to just get used to it.

We decided that I would take Vega and walk back into town and try to find help. I had just gotten out of sight of the van when a cab pulled over and picked us up.  He dropped us at the gas station near the on ramp and as I was contemplating the next step I noticed a flat bed tow truck at the pump getting gas. That just happened to be exactly what I needed. I talked to the driver and we were back at the van in no time. The tow truck took us to the tow yard and called some friends. An hour later two guys rolled up and started going to work on their backs under the van.

We spent the entire day at a junkyard. The mechanics found that our metal brake lines had multiple slow leaks and replaced them all. At 8 pm that night they were finished all told $75. So it was off to another night of stealth camping, this time down by the waterfront.

The next day we were off to Merida. Merida was nice, not as nice as Campeche. We tried our had at the city busses, I got started on our taxes and we bought a hammock.

We drove the next day to Chitzen-Itza. We camped at a nice hotel with a pool and Vega and I got to spend a lot of time swimming.  She is becoming quite a fish. The ruins were pretty spectacular to see and the park is well organized.  The highlight though was returning at night. They put on a laser light show on the facade of the largest temple that was visually amazing for all three of us.

At this point we were both getting excited for Belize and kind of just making our way there as fast as possible.  We made it to Cancun but as expected it was not at all to our liking. The beaches are crowded with giant resorts and expensive shops, like a giant strip mall next to the ocean. We stayed one night and headed south to Tulum. Here we found a nice site on the beach south of all the tourist places and swam in the Caribbean Sea. We swam out past where the waves were breaking and then floated up and down with Vega on the swell. When the waves would crash into her face she would wipe her eyes and then yell "did you see that! I went under water!"

It is kind of embarrassing but we decided to skip the Tulum ruins and get as close to the Belize border as fast as possible. Our last nights in Mexico were spent at Lake Bacalar an amazing lake with a dozen or so cenotes and a reef of rocks that apparently produce oxygen, more in a meter of reef than and acre of forest. We swam and relaxed, finished our taxes and prepped ourselves and the dog for crossing the border.