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Monday, 2 July 2012

Mexico, Part 1

The extra day spent in Nuevo Laredo was well spent - there isn't much of anything to see in town - it's really just an outpost for Mexico/US trade. So I pretty much spent the whole day in the motel, or walking through a local shopping centre. The general rule of thumb with prices in developing countries are pretty logical - if it is labour intensive or locally made, it'll be cheaper than in Australia, but if it's capital intensive or shipped internationally, it'll be nearly the same price. This can lead to some interesting comparisons - a bottle of locally produced tequila will be far cheaper than any imported wine, and approaches some of the more expensive beers.

I did a little mechanical maintenance (adjusted the valve clearance, for the grease monkeys out there), and then got ready to leave. The next day, I headed off to Monterrey, about 220kms south of Nuevo Laredo. I didn't get far before I discovered why Mexican customs & immigration were so lax before. Nuevo Laredo is classed as some kind of no mans land - you don't need a passport or anything to visit and return to the US (although I'm sure the US immigration service would beg to differ. They do check the papers of people travelling outside of Nuevo Laredo though. So I had to backtrack a bit, get my papers sorted near the border, then head south again. All in all, it wasn't a bad border experience, so if that's the standard (I doubt it though), then this trip will be smooth sailing.

The main road from Nuevo Laredo is a toll road, which I didn't expect. However, considering the road passes near the Chihuauan desert, I was grateful for the infrastructure and implied safety net of traffic and police patrols. Especially when I felt oil splatter onto my leg about 50kms from Monterrey. Fearing the worst, I pulled over, topped up the oil and limped into the city worried that the trip may be over before it had really started. When I inspected it properly the next day, I was relieved - the bumpy journey had unscrewed one of the engine mounts, and the head had leaked a bit of oil throught the now loose rubber gasket. In short, a few bolts came loose - repairs cost me about 2 bucks at the local hardware store. What was more expensive was replacing the rear tire that was Donald Trump-like uncomfortably close to bald for most of the US. But it had to be done, and was completed quickly and effectively, with a little bit of communication difficulty.

Monterrey seems like it could be a nice city, but suffers due to it's location - surrounded by mountains, there's no real escape for the pollution caused by over a million old cars - breathing is a little like taking up smoking. Desperate for some cooler & fresher air, I headed southeast for the Tampico and the Gulf of Mexico.

Now is probably a good time to explain the Mexican law enforcement system, excluding the omnipresent military. At the top you have the federal police. These guys are generally charged with tackling Mexico's notorious problem with drug gangs. Whenever they meet, there's generally casualities, and so they treat their job with suitable seriousness. Basically - these guys don't f**k around - most of them dress like the TRG watched a Rambo marathon - automatic rifles always at the ready, faces covered and not a smile to be seen. They are everywhere, and share responsibility with the military for running the many security checkpoints along any major road. While this may seem intimidating, I wasn't particularly worried - flare ups are pretty localized, and (most importantly) the federal police have little interest in someone like me. I have only been stopped at a checkpoint once, and then only for the briefest time. I'm not running a drug cartel from my bike, so they generally keep their distance. The same could be said for the state police. The municpial police apparently have a reputation for corruption on my level (ie could see me as a potential target from which to extract bribes), but I've yet to see it. The corruption of the local transit police however, I have experienced. Twice. In Tampico. Both times, the officers motioned for me to pull over, asked for my  licence and then told me I had commited a bogus offence (running a yellow light, and too much luggage on my bike). While explaining that a ticket would cost 100 US dollars, they explain I could pay in cash. It must be mentioned that in the case of "yellow light" officer, he wasn't as brash as that, but mentioned the ticket and was hinting that there may be 'another solution'. This kind of corruption kills developing economies, and robs decent people of the money tourists would otherwise spend in their shops, restaurants or hotels. In short, I detest it. So, if I had actually committed a crime, I would take the ticket and court date over handing a corrupt cop the cash. Both times I ended up leaving without paying a dime or getting a ticket, partly because the charges were trumped up, and because I ended up frustrating the officers with my lack of spanish to the point that they just gave up. It's fun playing dumb with these guys - even when I understood them (I have learnt a bit of spanish, and they both spoke some level of broken english) I'd pretend their accent was indecipherable, and shrug my shoulders in confusion. This ploy worked so well, I may continue to use it, even when my vocabulary and pronunciation has improved.

Anyway, I got into Tampico and was quickly disappointed - the beach was a dirty port, and the dirty part should be emphasized. But I found a cheap (120 pesos, or around 9 bucks) hotel, put Isabella in the lobby for safekeeping, and grabbed a few beers and a couple of buns filled with a bbq-style pork, pineapple and coriander. Delicious.

The next morning I headed out for Veracruz, where I had the second transit cop encounter. After that, I was fuming a bit, but luckily, the road ahead saved me. Beautiful mountain passes, twists and turns, dotted with glimpses of the blue Carribean lightened my mood considerably. However, the constant toll bridges put a little bit of a dampener on things. I changed the oil in Isabella in Veracruz, and kept heading on. At this point, I had resolved to keep pushing on until I reached a city I liked, then buk down for a few days. So I slept in auto hotels - basically motels, but with the vehicle parked in a curtained garage next to your room (as opposed to a carpark outside a block of rooms). On the 29th, I stayed in a town called Villa Sanchez Magallenes - don't try too hard to find it on the map, it's pretty small. I found a nice lady serving empanadas there, and had some for dinner, and the breakfast after.

Leaving Villa Sanchez Magallenes, I continued east along the southernmost part of the Gulf of Mexico, along what my GPS assured me was a road. The first 5kms or so was beautiful - palm trees, white sand, etc. However, the road soon gave way. Literally - the road had washed away in some kind of storm. From there on it was a mix of remaining road, sand and coconut husks that the locals had laid down to improve traction (it works, considerably). For those who hadn't ridden a motorbike offroad before - deep, soft sand is not fun. It's slow, tough and unpredicatble. If I had brought a heavier bike, I may still be there, grunting and swearing. But 250ccs meant I had enough grunt to get through, and yet could steady the bike with a well placed foot when things got wobbly. It wasn't what I had expected, or wanted. To top it all off, some of the locals had erected barricades, and required 5 pesos to pass. 5 pesos isn't much, but there were alot of gates, and I didn't have enough coins to pay everyone (I doubt I'd get change back from notes, either). I went around most, and paid one guy who had pretty much walled off the whole area, so I had no choice. When I saw a t-junction with a road that the GPS said led back to the main highway, I cracked it pretty soon and turned down what the GPS thought was a track. GPS-wrong again. After that, it was pretty much smooth sailing to Campeche, including a beautiful twisty road in the last 50kms or so.

I found a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended, and was the cheapest so far (95 pesos for a dorm bed). Campeche is a beautiful city, well deserving of its UNESCO world heritage listing. Cobbled streets connect colonial buildings from the 15th century (my hostel was a mansion of that time), all being surrounded by the remnants of forts and a high wall, built to protect the town after a partiularly nasty pirate attack in the 17th century. I decided quickly to stay for a couple of nights, and take in the sights. I had arrived on a saturday, so at night the main plaza was full of people, vendors and entertainment including a water fountain light show rigged up with sound, which I particularly liked. during the high season, Campeche is full of tourists, and even now there were a few gringos about - a welcome change from myself being the only pale skinned person in sight. The next day I walked to the fort of San Miguel, which overlooked the city and Gulf from a nearby hill. What was interesting was how the fort resembled a fortress from the outside, but a house from the inside, complete with pretty courtyard. It now houses an interesting museum with a range of Mayan artifacts.

All the photos can be found HERE

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