Southern Mexico

After climbing the volcanoes of central Mexico, we had to rush a bit to make it out to the Yucatan as Nikki’s parents were flying into Cancun to spend a few days with us. Still, we did want to at least get a glimpse of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains, but a more thorough visit will have to wait until next time. We spent a day in the city, tasting some of the food and buying mezcal (siphoned by mouth with a hose!). We also went to the ruins of Monte Alban, and because we went early in the morning, we had the place to ourselves. It made the visit so much more pleasant without the tourist crowds. Before leaving Oaxaca state, we spent a night at one of the Pueblos Mancomunados but it’s only really worth it if you have some time to hike / bike in the area.

Our next stop would be San Cristobal in Chiapas, so we left early in the morning and got on the slow and windy road, past Oaxaca, checked out the largest tree in the world (allegedly, but it’s pretty huge) and got on the highway east.

A few kms down the road we encountered protesters blocking the road. Thinking nothing of it since everyone seemed very peaceful, we followed the other cars that were slowly making their way through the mob. This was a mistake. One by one, cars were stopped by protesters, who proceeded to write “43 normalistas” on the windows and hoods with removable paint. We had followed the events that had been going on in the area, although news reports at the time didn’t seem to reveal much (and people we spoke to didn’t seem to have any real idea either). We knew that protests had been going on for a while, but as far as we had heard everything remained peaceful. Unsure of what to do, we had to stop, like all the other cars before us, as people were blocking our way. I’m not quite sure why, it may have been because of our foreign plates, or because we didn’t want to roll down our windows, but in addition to the window paint the protesters decided they should spray paint our car. They used red and black spray paint on our car, and there wasn’t really much we could do about it short of running someone over. As we finally sped away, a rock hit our windshield, but thankfully nothing broke. This was certainly the scariest moment of the trip so far.

There were a few lessons learned here (obvious in hindsight): 1) Don’t drive into a roadblock when you don’t know what this is about. The right thing to do would have been to stop before and talk to some of the people to find out what is going on. 2) When in doubt, turn around, drive another way, or wait. 3) In this case, rolling down our windows would have been the right thing to do, and may have prevented the spray paint, but you just don’t know in a situation like this.

Anyways, we stopped by a paint store a few miles down the road and carefully removed the graffiti with paint thinner, so there’s no permanent damage. However, it does leave a truly bad impression of these protests. I’m all for expressing your discontent with corruption, cartel violence, and the president. Everyone has the right to do this in a peaceful manner. But when protesters, who I believe don’t even really know what they’re arguing for, start damaging property (and not just ours – we saw a bunch of Mexican cars that received the same treatment, though not all), they invalidate everything for which they stand – this is pent up destructive energy that is being suppressed. It’s not good.

After calming down or nerves (I had to buy Nikki some ice cream), we continued onwards to San Cristobal where we spent 2 nights. It turned out that Bethany and Ike, who we had met before in San Miguel, happened to be there as well. Great to see them again and share some stories.

But a long distance to Cancun remained. We only picked a couple of things we definitely wanted to do on the way, primarily the Maya ruins of Palenque. These are set in the jungle, complete with howler monkeys waking you up in the morning, Jurassic Park style.

2 driving days followed, and we headed straight for Cancun, enjoying the amazing roads of the Yucatan – no topes (speed bumps), no potholes, no traffic. It was like driving in the US, except better. That allowed us to make it to the airport in time, where we got to see Nikki’s parents for the first time since we had left for the trip in May.

We spent a wonderfully relaxing 5 days with them, first stopping by Chichen Itza (the Disneyland of archaeologic sites, not our style), and then on the beach in Sian Ka’an, just south of Tulum. Among others, Nikki’s dad got to go fishing, we went snorkeling, had a beach camp fire, and a bunch of swimming and quality family time. One of the days we drove the dirt road down to Punta Allen (a fishing village 40km south), which was easily the worst road I’ve ever been on. Pretty fun driving the small Hyundai i10 rental car through massive pot holes filled with brackish water – the car was entirely covered in mud, including the hood. One other night, we came across baby turtles making it out to the sea, so we helped as many as possible into the way. What an awesome experience to be the only ones witnessing this.

After those 5 days passed way too quickly, we had to get back to “business.” That meant outfitting our van with our new Mexican propane tank (turns out no connectors are compatible between countries), getting some Sprinter parts from Mercedes, and stocking up on cheese (and finding the ideal hiding place to smuggle it into Belize). We spent our 63rd and last night in Mexico near the border in Chetumal. It’s been an amazing time with a huge variety of experiences, and very different from my stereotype view prior to our drive through the country. We’ll be back.

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  1. Loving these blog updates! Have there been any mechanical issues with the sprinter that have been disappointing surprises?

    • Chuck, so far we’ve been lucky and haven’t had any major issues. We’ve been to the mechanic twice in Mexico. The first time we went to a suspension mechanic in a small town who replaced two rubber pieces, for about US$25 – I would say in Central America your suspension definitely gets tested because of all the speed bumps (“topes”) that are vicious. The second time we actually went into limp home mode on the highway (car went back to normal after turning off and on again); we stopped by the Mercedes dealer in Puebla and had a really good mechanic there. All it took was cleaning the connectors to the turbo and ECU, and haven’t had any issues since.

      The biggest potential issue we may have is the transmission, it’s important to replace the transmission fluid every 50,000 miles. We bought our van with almost 90k miles on the original transmission fluid, and had it serviced shortly thereafter. There were some metal particles in the old fluid. Since then, we have put nearly 30k miles on our Sprinter, so it doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but it’s what I’m most worried about on this trip.

      Other than that, no issues. We use OEM parts for filters and always buy the Mercedes-approved oil (Mobil 1 5W-40 ESP Formula M in the US, in Mexico they actually import Mercedes oil from Europe). The car has been up at 4,000 meters, we’ve encountered very large intra-day temperature differences, and there haven’t been any problems. Sometimes our tire pressure sensors malfunction when we’re camping at high elevation and driving downhill on a cold morning.

      Let’s hope we stay this lucky!

  2. Pingback: Belize | Sprinter Van Diaries

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