My first askmetafilter post!
March 19, 2007 5:39 PM   Subscribe

MexicanRoadTrip Filter: Im driving my car to Oaxaca. Where should I stop?

Never been.
I'm aware of all of the paperwork and insurance and technical stuff thanks to askmefi and aaa, but I dont know much else.

Ive got 3 weeks (in June) to get to Oaxaca and back. Maybe a little rushed but not too bad, right?

The Pacific Coast looks like it'll be more interesting than inland. True?
When possible I wanna stay away from overly-touristy spots (because I can because I'll have my car, y'know?). And while I am looking forward to interesting towns and cities, I'd prefer to orient as much of the trip as possible around the natural beauty and cool ruins Mexico has to offer.

Which spots are good for camping/hiking/ruins/villiages along the pacific coast? or the oaxaca area?

I've heard all the warnings about corrupt cops and highway bandits and stuff and dont need any more. Got it. Im still going.
I just need info on cool spots I can park and sleep and take day trips/hikes along the way, how many miles per day is realistic on mexican highways, ANY online resources for mexican camping road trips. Im just getting started with planning.

posted by ElmerFishpaw to Travel & Transportation around Oaxaca, Mexico (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: coming from LA.
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 5:40 PM on March 19, 2007

Best answer: Inland is pretty interesting too. You'll find less touristy stuff there. Most of Mexico's tourism revolves around the beachy areas. If you go inland, definately hit up Guanajuato, one of the most charming cities you'll ever come across. It has a European feel (Spanish colonial) and a creepy mummy museum (ever seen a mummified newborn?). Also hit up San Miguel de Allende ... if you've seen "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" it was filmed there, and is another charming city.

And no trip through Mexico is complete without a trip to Teotihuacan. Pack a lunch, hike up that shit, and take in the history and views along with your sandwich.
posted by afx114 at 6:02 PM on March 19, 2007

I'm envious. I've always wanted to do what you're doing but haven't had the time. On my travels in Mexico in rental cars, I've found the autopistas pretty fast, since they are toll roads, there's not a lot of traffic and the cars/trucks/busses are in good shape. On the free roads you can find lots of open road where you can make good time ~100km/h but you have to be careful since you can go over a rise in the road and find a guy pushing a cart. Or the pavement just stop. I've only really been driving in N. Mexico (south of Texas), Baja and Cuernavaca and Acapulco. I always thought driving down Baja and taking the ferry to the mainland as something I'd want to do.

In Austin, the local Borders has tons of books on camping and driving in Mexico. I'm sure you'd see the same in LA. And in the interior, you'll find dirt cheap hotels when you feel like sleeping on a real bed.

Enjoy the trip.
posted by birdherder at 6:06 PM on March 19, 2007

Best answer: Motels are pretty cheap, so I've never bothered with camping. Most of the camping areas that I have seen are on the beach; inland, not so common. But if you are adventurous you can always ask people in small towns if you can put up a tent in their yard. I wouldn't just camp in what looks like empty land without asking someone first -- it might be private land, or known to be unsafe, or whatever.

For food, I have always just stopped at small roadside places that looked good. The truck drivers know where to stop, so if in doubt just look for some parked semis. Also, long-haul buses stop at cheap and reliable restaurants, so a restaurante familiar with a bus or two out front is usually ok, and will probably have pretty decent bathrooms. Do bring your own toilet paper, though (you don't need to stock up, a roll is fine; you can buy more at any tiendita) because Pemex bathrooms almost never have TP. A roll in the glovebox is good insurance in case of an upset stomach.

They may be further inland than you are considering, but Zacatecas is well worth a visit, as is Guadalajara. The coast is much more touristy, which is bad (in that there are tourists everywhere, more developed, etc) and good (in that there are a lot more hotels, camping sites, and other services useful to the tourist). I'd suggest making a circle (down the coast, back on an inland route, or vice versa), rather than going back and forth on the same route, just for variety.

The Guia Roji is pretty much the best road atlas you can buy for Mexico; available at any Sanbornes and probably at bookstores in US border cities, too. It is accurate for the main roads, but less so for small roads. The toll roads are amazing -- better than freeways in the US, with perfectly banked corners and smooth pavement -- but are really expensive. The libres have more restaurants and other services, too, along with more traffic, worse pavement, etc. I prefer the libres, but if you are in a hurry, the quotas are the way to go.

Night driving isn't such a great idea, because of livestock on the road, and it's harder to see the topes and other things you don't want to hit at 60 mph. Speeds on the open road are pretty high, but every small town will slow you down, so your average speed won't be as high as it is on a US freeway. But distances in the north of Mexico are like in the southwest of the US -- it can be really far between towns and services, so sometimes you have the choice of stopping earlier than you wanted or driving into the evening. The further south you go, the closer together the towns get.

Make sure you know how to change your own tires. The gravel roads in small towns and off the main highway can be really hard on tires, and flats aren't all that uncommon. There are tire repair shops everywhere, and the local mechanics tend to be amazingly resourceful at fixing things with few tools, but the more you know the better.

The military checkpoints are looking for drugs and guns, so if you have neither you are fine. Sometimes they want to search the car, other times they just wave you through. Every checkpoint I have been stopped at was 100% professional and polite -- I think you risk some serious penalties if you try to bribe the military, so don't try. (And unless you are a big time trafficante, you would have no reason to do so, anyway.)

If you see rocks or branches on the road, slow way down, because people put them on the road (sort of like less visible flares or warning triangles) to warn of broken down trucks or road work around the corner. (Often they don't pick them back up, though, so sometimes the rocks are just rocks.)
posted by Forktine at 6:49 PM on March 19, 2007

I would absolutely recommend picking up the book In Search of Captain Zero before your trip. It's a great memoir that details the author's drive from Montauk, Long Island through Mexico to Costa Rica. In it, he drives the length of Baja, takes the ferry from La Paz to Mainland Mex, and continues south along the Pacific Coast. It's a good read and covers some of the areas where you'll be traveling.
posted by doofgod at 7:15 PM on March 19, 2007

From my personal experiences traveling in Mexico (grew up in San Diego/been to DOTD in Oaxaca) all I am going to add here is PLEASE be very very very careful. I don't know how much foreign travel you've done, but Mexico IS a foreign country. I've seen people forget that because it's so close to America. And I've seen it get them into trouble. Try to avoid standing out as an ugly American tourist as best you can. When you are there, always respect that you aren't in your own country and it will make your experience much better & smoother.

Have a great time!

I am not paranoid, I've just seen firsthand that there are good reasons to keep very aware & cautious.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:33 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wish I could offer more advice, but unfortunately the part of Mexico I'm familiar with driving through is mostly south of Oaxaca. When near Oaxaca city, though, it's very worthwhile to go up to the Pueblos Mancomunados. It's a group of villages in the Sierra Norte mountains about 2 hours outside of the city. They've set up an eco-tourism project, but when I was there (a few years back) I was the only tourist there. Most of the villages have a place to stay and a place to eat, or you can camp in the forest. There are many lovely, fairly well marked trails throughout the beautiful cloud forest of the area. Very friendly people (although not many speak Spanish), and very safe. Also, they don't switch to daylight savings time, so in the summer the time of day can be a bit confusing (less of an issue with a private car, but if using public transportation, you need to be aware of which the time zone the bus company uses).

On the pacific coast of Oaxaca, there is a string of villages (Puerto Angel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo, Mazunte) that has some tourism and tourist infrastructure, but none of the big resorts or hotels you find in some areas - just little villages with some cabanas for rent along the beaches and a couple of small restaurants.
posted by Emanuel at 7:40 PM on March 19, 2007

On preview... not trying to scare you. Quite the contrary, I'm trying to give you tips so that you can enjoy yourself there. I'm sure you'll have a good time & a great adventure filled with really fun memories. All of which are more likely if you avoid making the truly stupid mistakes in Mexico that people tend to do. In my late teens/early 20s I bailed quite a few (often hungover) friends out of various scary Mexican jails, and I've made the mistake of walking down a dark alley in San Felipe by myself & nearly getting kidnapped. (I've traveled a lot, but I acquired 90% of my traveling street smarts during my first holidays in Mexico.) Trust me, those kinds of things are simply situations I just wouldn't want you to go through. So, I'm just hoping you'll learn from me to make your trip a safe and fun one. :)
posted by miss lynnster at 7:56 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

BTW, this is a great Oaxaca guide. Don't forget to try all of the mole & pipian you can fit in your belly. :) Oh, and don't forget to try the chapulines (best washed down with a little mezcal, I say)!
posted by miss lynnster at 8:01 PM on March 19, 2007

I've driven from CA to Mazatlan and I have to say that you're in for more or less a shitty time until you get through the border region of Sonora. "PINCHE SONORA!!" was our motto the entire time, although I don't recommend you repeat that to any cops, toll crossing officials, etc etc.

Be prepared for:

1) VERY BAD ROADS - we're talking a thin line of tar dribbled across the desert (in places). Always take the paid toll roads if you value your life. It is no fun driving on a no-shoulder, two-way road about 12 feet wide without so much as a center stripe.

2) FREQUENT STOPS - there is a lot of drug traffic through Sonora and you will be searched periodically. This could happen at any of the toll crossings on the paid highways, or you could get pulled over. Play nice, and be prepared for them to pry open a wall panel or two on your car. Don't pack any illicit drugs, for fuck's sake. I lost 2 hours of my life standing by the side of the road listening to my fluent Spanish-speaking friend try to explain "allergy medication" to the Federales.

3) WARY LOCALS - there are a lot of poor people living along the road in houses made of found objects. I'm not painting a picture of the entire country or anything, but you will see it if you drive from the US through a significant portion of Mexico. Be prepared. Don't stop to photograph their squalor - no matter how sympathetic you are to their human plight. And be careful stopping for the night in small towns that don't get a lot of tourists. In one town, we met some really friendly gents in a local bar who drank Tecate with us for two hours and then made it very difficult for us to leave without giving them money. Basically, it came down to COME ON DUDE YOU HAVE IT AND I NEED IT, NOW GIVE ME SOMETHING. It was about as close to getting robbed as you can get without actually being the victim of a crime. We gave them nothing but they were NOT happy.

Once you hit Sinaloa and cross the Tropic, you are in a much better place. Mazatlan is not far from that point so I can't advise you a lot further. But the above represents my report of driving through Sonora.
posted by ahilal at 8:15 PM on March 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

The funny thing is that although I think ahilal's description of Sonora (bad roads, roadblocks, poor people) is factually correct, I really liked the place, and found it very comfortable. In addition to that stuff, Sonora (and the rest of northern Mexico) has big open spaces, cowboy hats, beautiful horses, great music, neat precolumbian ruins, friendly people, and really good food. But if you share ahilal's reaction, you can get through it in one day, by getting to the border and doing your paperwork late in the afternoon, sleeping at a motel either on the US or Mexico side, whatever you prefer, and then hitting the road painfully early in the morning. A full day's drive will get you down to Zacatecas or even Jalisco (if you are driving inland) or to Nayarit (if you are on the coast), well past the border states.
posted by Forktine at 4:33 AM on March 20, 2007

Zacatecas is my favorite city in all of Mexico - definitely worth a stop if you're in the vicinity (Hostal Villa Colonial is cheap and friendly, but perhaps no parking). I found San Miguel de Allende to be more like Mexico Lite - lots of American retirees. Guanajuato is also nice (similar to Zacatecas, in that colonial city way, but more tourists). I second sticking to the toll road (worth the money)! Buon viaje!
posted by saratravels at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2007

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