Adam writes on 2013.12.28:
We are sitting in the lounge of our hotel in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico closing up on our visit through Mexico and preparing to move on to Guatemala. This includes updating the GPS units with updated maps based on the Open Street Map (OSM) project. Jenn’s older GPS only accepts one auxiliary GPS map file so Mexico will be replaced by Central America. Garmin does not provide adequate maps for Central and South America, nor a good chunk of the world, actually, so Garmin users rely on third party maps. OSM is interesting to us in this way as it has user provided points of interest – for example, if you stayed at a hostel or found an interesting landmark, it can be integrated into the OSM maps.
We arrived in Tapachula yesterday, being Friday, minutes after the local “Banjercito” closed. The Banjercito is the Mexico government operated bank which, amongst many purposes, handles cash bonds for vehicular importation – specifically, we had to leave a US dollar cash deposit ($400/each) when we entered at Tecate, and received a very official looking certificate which is required during travel in Mexico, and required for processing at the end of ones stay so that you can get your money back. This cash bond is a new process and was not in place during my 2010 visit.
We had expected to stay in Tapachula, head towards the border and deal with the bond at the same time as our tourist permits. Luckily, and a bit late, we did some research and found that there is no Banjercito at the border, and while there is at least one in town here (possibly two), other travel reports have stated that they close early on Friday, and are not open on the weekend. What we also found out is that we passed right by a Banjercito about 50kms on the way into Tapachula. It was not obvious as it is on the other side of a divided highway without much fanfare, and seemed to be oriented towards people leaving the “free zone” of which Tapachula exists in. So we rode back out to the Banjercito and got our US funds back without much fuss – but given that an border official escorted us in her truck up a one way road to effectively perform a u-turn back into the “free zone”, I suspect that they haven’t thought this one through. One must have advanced knowledge in that you must perform your “banking” Monday through Friday or know that you have to hit the Banjercito on the wrong side of the highway without an obvious return route.
On the way back to Tapachula, we opted to get our bikes washed. Thank you OSM maps! Just looked up auto services and then car washes, and found one nearby down a dusty side road. The price seemed a little high at MEX$80 (about $7) when all I really wanted to do was borrow a pressure sprayer. The operator was busy under a pickup truck on a lift and wasn’t too responsive for a while and I began to become impatient as I was happy to do the work myself. One he had completed the work with the truck, he got to work with de-greaser spray, high pressure water, and eventually had himself and his help scrubbing wheels, and everywhere necessary with a brush. They definitely got the engine and related areas clean of oils and dirts – my primary objective thinking that it best to do this now to avoid hassles crossing into Guatemala and avoid fears of zoological contamination – but they hand polished most surfaces and even “Armor-Alled” our plastic Pelican cases and other plastics on the bike. We were impressed with the amount of effort here and it was worth the money, but I almost feel bad as we ride through so much dirt and grim that the sheen will surely be short lived.
Tapachula is an interesting place. While I have been here before, I stayed in sort of an upscale Boulevard area and I am pretty sure that I ate Dominos Pizza for dinner (canned mushrooms and all) and basically pulled a “breeze through”. I was aghast when we looked at the place where I previously stayed as its cost was several multiples of what we wanted to pay for two people. Previous written memoirs suggest that my Garmin only listed a single hotel and I guess I just settled.
Jenn and I looked around for hotels as we agreed that we would give a full go at finding the best option for us, which is not necessarily the first option. We gave up what appeared to be the expensive side of town and went “centro” – right downtown in the bustling heart of the city, full of chaotic cabs, street venders, road work, and typical Latin American arrays of one way streets. Riding in such conditions is a full departure from Canada and the States. We basically are following suit with the many Mexican motorcycle commuters lane splitting up the side of cars (being careful as we are twice as wide as the typical Mexican 100cc steed). We soon became weary looking for a hotel here as space is tight and parking is tough. Not another love motel! Alas, we found a couple of hotels with adjoined parking lots. I would prefer to bring the bike into the room with us, or at least park it outside of our room in a courtyard, or next to the front desk, but their parking seems pretty secure with a gate and filled with various other not-quite-luxury cars but probably pretty decent by Mexican standards. Pairing the bikes together with our super heavy cable lock and putting on our bike covers provides piece of mind.
We spent a fair amount of time walking around our area of Tapachula. It is definitely not a tourist city. We met one couple who looked like tourists. She was from Guatemala and he had moved down here. We think we saw another couple of women who may have been from outside of Latin America, but from what we can tell, we are it. For the most part, we get a couple of looks but people largely ignore us – except for when we choose to eat lunch in the central square where we had on average a hit every three minutes with someone asking for money, or trying to sell us counterfeit DVDs (probably in Spanish). We feel pretty safe here – even after dark – but stick to the main, more heavily populated streets.
During last nights traditional taco feast (not a Mexican feast, but we seem to eat a lot of tacos), we experienced the shoe shine boys and young boys selling cheap toys out of a black garbage bag, like Santa Claus. We both immediately started to talk about Oliver Twist – this phenomenon is definitely outside of our normal reality. These kids are definitely not beyond grade school age yet and are carting around traditional wooden shoe shine kits as if they have been shining shoes for years.
In the central square we found a grand stand with bleachers with signs advertising something that we didn’t understand. Perhaps one of these popular Mexican cowboy singers – certainly the size of the line up of people patiently waiting indicated that something special was happening. We snuck in through an opening and peaked in. To our surprise – noting that the the temperature had probably just dropped below 30 degrees celsius – the line up was for an ice skating rink. There were dozens of people, largely kids, careening around on ice skates, mostly hugging the boards, but having a great time – and had obviously waited a long time to do so.
After a little more exploration, we found a little Santa’s village – with a Mexican (obviously) Santa, a choo choo train for the younger ones, a large Christmas tree, and various stalls without candy apples, fudge, pretzels, etc. but with churros, french fries, and corn dogs. I think that Jenn was pretty happy to have found this as Christmas in Puerto Escondido, while good, had something missing — ya know, Christmas on the beach. The little Christmas village was a nice segue to New Years which, barring issues, will be in Guatemala.
It has been a most interesting couple of days seeing unadulterated urban Mexican life. Between cotton candy vendors, shoe shine boys, impressive wedding dress stores, appliance stores, shoe stores, sporting goods stores (think wide definition – soccer balls, fishing and hunting equipment, knives, backpacks, and boxing gloves), to pastry stores, hardware stores with anything from bolt cutters to equestrian saddles, to a pet store with cute puppies in cages (why buy a dog in Mexico when there are so many to choose from on any curb? – Mexico has a very bad stray dog problem).
Ahh Mexico. The good, the bad and the ugly. It is a very interesting, diverse place. There are many, lovely, lovely sites but there are many rough and gritty areas. Most areas seem to have a garbage problem – the sides of the highways are often littered with debris. Many of the roads are excellent and put our local roads in Ontario to shame, but there are just as many in poor condition. Road signs are often contradictory and the use of speed bumps known as “topes” or “reductors” (i.e. reduce the life of your vehicle) would be
more tolerable if their existence was properly posted, or of they were consistently painted. 80km-30km-bang is a typical scenario. Mexico has more than its fair share of bad drivers. Throughout Mexico, you will see shrines on the side of the road – sometimes a simple cross, but usually far more elaborate such as religious figures, small structures, erected in memoriam to someone who had lost their life there. This is of no surprise since people generally drive fast and pass in areas which I would consider suicidal and have very honed skills at senseless tail gating.
I think that we have felt pretty safe so far. We aren’t exactly hiding out exclusively in tourist zones, and haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary in terms of criminal activity. I don’t think that I have seen any signs of cartel activity. From time to time you see bullet holes in signs – but then I see a lot more of these in rural Ontario. In the past, I have seen one shot up and burned out car in a secluded area, but nothing like this over the past month. We have, however, seen evidence of communities standing up for themselves.
In larger cities, we have been careful not to carry large amounts of money or other interesting things carelessly at fear of casual pickpockets – but in main areas I would go so far as to say that it might be difficult to perform a proper mugging – too many people, and you never know when a pickup truck of two to six heavily armed police are going to drive by. In fact it is interesting how “accustomed” you become to firearms. As you may know, Canada has fairly tight gun control laws. Unless you are into hunting or know hunters, you might not run into firearms so often except for police side arms. Americans can speak for themselves as it is a different experience down (up?) there, but unless you have been in the military, I don’t think that most Canadians and Americans are accustomed to seeing pickup trucks carrying 6-8 machine gun wielding soldiers, including a roof gunner, on your common highway – these guys look like they mean business! While we haven’t seen too many instances of bank machines with “strong security”, is it weird that I feel a sense of comfort that there is a guy behind me with and AK-47 paid to make sure customers are not robbed at the ATM?
It may be a strange way to end this post but I don’t have much else to say at this time beyond that this again – being my second trip to Mexico – has confirmed that it is a place I would like to visit again and that I feel that the fears propagated by Canadian and American media is verging on hysteria. Having spoken with various people, such as RV park operators and northerners who have chosen to move here, tourism has really been hit and sectors of the economy are suffering because of it. Don’t be afraid, just come, and enjoy.