Though the pace was slow (at best) hitchhiking through the States, my dreams of escaping first world life were well underway, and became closer with every passing day.
Of course, when I mentioned my plans of hitchhiking to Mexico – usually leaving out the part that my full plan was actually to go all the way to Patagonia – most people thought I was crazy. The warnings of the dangers of Mexico (an backpacking Mexico) were a daily occurrence. I even had a Mexican friend advise me not to hitchhike in Mexico. But it seemed that with every person that warned me, I became only more determined.
Most people focused their arguments on northern Mexico (of course, not Baja and such!) I can’t blame them, really – people just didn’t want me to turn up in the news as the Canadian who had fallen victim to the cartel, or generally to violence in Mexico. I sort of wondered where this supposed dangerous north ended. Where was the imaginary line of dangerous Mexico versus safe Mexico?
The closest border was in Nogales, Arizona. I briefly researched the place, and it seemed benign enough. In truth, I only referenced hitchwiki – a website for guiding hitchhikers – which told me Nogales was relatively unaffected by the violence in the nearby state of Chihuahua. Good enough for me.
Alex and I left our amazing CouchSurfing hosts in Tucson, Mexico bound. Our third ride was an American who worked in Nogales on the Mexico side. You see, Nogales is a town divided; there is a small town on the Arizona side called Nogales, and a bigger Nogales on the Mexico side.
As we approached, we were awe struck by the site of American Nogales. There was a huge fence extending as far as the eye could see in either direction. We could see tall signs towering above the wall from the other side – signs written in Spanish. There was no field or gap between the two; it was as if someone had built a city, and then put a giant fence in the middle of the road.
We drove over the border and were shocked. There were absolutely no border formalities. They didn’t even check our passports. I’d recently seen the movie No Country for Old Men, in which there was a scene where a man walks across the Mexican border, giving the border official a mere nod. I had thought this was an exaggeration – not so much, as it turns out.
We asked an American official about tourist visas, to which he replied that we get them at km 21. Unfortunately this was well past the town, and our ride wasn’t going that far. We had decided to take a bus from Nogales to San Carlos, five hours south where an American CouchSurfer was awaiting us. I figured it would set the minds of all those who had warned me of the north at ease.
Our ride dropped us at the bus station. I asked the woman working there, in very rusty, broken Spanish, about getting our tourist visas. She very clearly told me we didn’t need tourist visas for Mexico. This seemed odd, but then again, so was not having our passports even glanced at while driving the border.
We booked our tickets, or attempted to, as my bank card had arbitrarily decided not to work despite having already let my bank know that I was going to Mexico. No worries, though. I knew this was but a minor speed bump, and Alex fronted the cost of both tickets.
A couple of quesadillas later and we were on our way. We arrived five hours later in Guaymas, the big city next to San Carlos. With the help of my incredibly rusty Spanish, and more so of kind locals, we found our way to San Carlos and met our host.
Sparky was hammered when she picked us up. It was her 60-something birthday that day, and clearly she was still doing it right. She was from the first moment a quirky woman, filled with the life of a much younger being. She was incredibly friendly and eccentric, and we were laughing and enjoying from the first moment.
She brought us to her lovely home, and showed us to our room. Before passing out, we mentioned our lack of tourist visas. She informed us that we were in what is called the free zone, where people don’t need visas, but if we were to go any further south, they were necessary. I was sure there had to be a way to obtain the visas from down there – no way would we be trekking five hours up north again, even if we had the money for another bus ride, which we certainly did not!
When morning came I had two things on my mind: call my bank and get my card working, and figure out where to get our visas in town. The first was easy, but the second would have to wait until after the weekend, when we could go to immigration in Guaymas.
It had been a long time since I’d visited Latin America, and it was Alex’s first time, so it was little surprise that we blocked the toilet on day one. Yes, we threw our toilet paper in the toilet, rather than in the bin next to it. For those who haven’t visited Mexico or other countries like this, the pipes are very, very small, and so our first world selves must quickly break the habit of tossing toilet paper into the toilet. We clearly failed.
After Alex fixed our little fumble, we headed for the ocean. I hadn’t seen it since Victoria, a month previous, but the ocean isn’t the same on Vancouver Island; I craved open ocean, with no islands blocking my view of the vast expanse of water. It was a relief to see it once more.
As I was staring out at the water, and teaching Alex some Spanish words, he saw my eyes widen.
Soon we discovered that there were at least five dolphins swimming in the near vicinity, and became mesmerized by the beauty. It was a treat since we couldn’t do things like gray whale watching on our non-budget.
We were supposed to meet Sparky at a motorcycle clubhouse for drinks, so we headed out to hang with our new friend and her motorcycle pals.
San Carlos isn’t exactly a tourist town, though it is filled mostly with white people who barely speak Spanish. But it’s more of a place that Americans move to. Some have grown tired of the first world pace. Others are escaping minor encounters with the law, be it drunk driving tickets, or not wanting to pay child support. Whatever their reasons, it was a place for Americans to escape. As such, the folk we met were all wonderfully odd in their own ways, and had been there for many years.
We hung out at the motorcycle club all afternoon and into the evening, swapping stories, making friends, chain smoking and drinking.
The following day we returned to the beach. As we adventured along the shore, we came to a small cave in the water, and decided to go check it out. It was beautiful, and we spotted seven or so small sting rays in the shallow waters. Eventually I headed back for shore, opting to walk through shallow waters. Alex, on the other hand, walked through deeper waters where he couldn’t see what was below.
That’s when he stepped on it.
We’re not exactly sure what “it” was, but one thing is for sure: it was painful.
He felt something puncture him, and became almost immobilized. I pointed out that he probably should get out, so that it didn’t sting him again.
When he got to shore his foot was throbbing in pain, and I had to put my arm around him to walk.
The trek back to Sparky’s was not a short one when one was in that kind of pain.
In our first glimpse of Mexican kindness, a man saw us and offered us fresh water to clean the sting. Alex politely declined, intending to soak his foot upon our return. As we kept walking, the man must have seen Alex limping, and ran after us with a metal pole to use as a cane.
We spent a few more days in San Carlos, Alex’s foot throbbing on and off. I told him at one point that he had two options: stop being a pussy, or go to the hospital. I figured if he wasn’t capable of not complaining about the pain, the boy needed a doctor. The pain went on here and there for another week or so, but eventually went away.
A trip to immigration in Guaymas revealed that we really did have to return to the border to get our tourist visas.
Luckily for us, Sparky found us a ride with some other Americans living in San Carlos – significantly cheaper than a bus.
After five hours in a very cramped car, we got to the mythical km 21 – the land of tourist visas. It took all of five minutes to get our six month visas.
Now it was time for our first hitchhike in Mexico. I hitched in Quebec this summer, having to use a second language to get rides. But my French is a hell of a lot better than my Spanish, which had gone unused for two years.
We were in luck, though, and quickly began to realize the amazing kindness and hospitality that is inherent in many Mexicans. We arrived at a gas station, and there was a man there who spoke some English. We explained that we’d hitchhiked from Canada, and that we were hitching south… And that our Spanish sucked. For the next hour, this man proceeded to ask every car that came to the gas station if they were headed our direction.
One man that he asked very nicely asked why we didn’t just take a bus. The city we were trying to get to that night was only two and a half hours away, after all, and the ride would be cheap. People seldom understand how broke we are, nor the intense love we possess for the adventure that is hitchhiking.
When we explained that we couldn’t afford it, he gave us about $40. We were blown away. I must have said thank you ten times. It’s not that I’ve never been given money by kind souls while hitching before (and I am always insanely grateful when it happens). It was that here we were, two white people – yes, we’re poor, but to a Mexican we look to be rich tourists on vacation in Mexico. In reality we just like their way of life better than the first world countries, and seek to learn about other cultures. I have little patience to sit at home in a world I despise saving up for my dreams. So instead of doing it low budget, I do it no budget, and cross my fingers extra hard.
Anyway, we were thoroughly blown away by a man who earned a Mexico wage helping two white people who at least had the potential to earn a hell of a lot more.
Eventually our friend at the gas station got us our first ride, which was of course what we were hoping for, and what we had been told was the norm in Mexico: we hopped into the back of a pickup truck.
We arrived at the next town, and happily spent the money we’d been given on a hotel room. Although the money would definitely have proved useful later on, we were still new to Mexico. Would camping out be safe? Besides, the night had already rendered the outskirts of the town pitch black; the time for finding a spot to camp had passed.
Morning arrived and we stuck out our thumbs. Before long an older American man pulled over and offered us a ride. We hopped in and were delighted to find out that he was going far past our destination, Sayulita, which was about 17 hours south. We had arbitrarily decided that Sayulita would be the place that we would go and settle down for a couple of months after a friend of mine recommended it.
By the time we made a pit stop five hours into the ride, I had had enough. This man was in Mexico, yet he carried no pesos; he simply expected everyone to accept US dollars! He was racist as hell, even against Mexicans, whose country he was in. He spoke at me, not with me, for those long, long five hours. We hadn’t stopped in over two hours for a break when I asked him if we could stop for a very quick cigarette break. For the next hour, he proceeded to taunt me, talking about smoking and almost pulling in at two or three gas stations, only to change his mind at the last second.
I was far from happy with this bigot. As I turned to Alex to say, “YOU are going in the front for a while,” he beat me to the chase. What I hadn’t realized is that he despised this man as much as I did.
We promptly made up an excuse, grabbed our bags, and smiled as he drove away.
We were getting ready to start asking people for rides at the gas station. This was, of course, an intimidating task; my Spanish was rusty, and Alex didn’t speak a word. But before we had a chance to begin, a man in a truck spoke to us in English.
I got a good vibe from Danny from the first moment. He started asking us about ourselves, clearly having gathered that we were hitchhikers from the first moment. See, hitching in Mexico is rather common, but only for short haul distances. Still, he seemed to understand that we were in it for the long haul.
We hopped into the truck bed, and headed for Obregon. The vehicle turned off the highway well before the city. Although Alex and I looked at each other, each wondering if we’d made a mistake, and danger may well be lurking on the horizon, somehow I knew we were fine with Danny.
Sure enough, we arrived in the city. The truck pulled over, and Danny hopped out.
“Where do you want to go in the city?”
Alex and I looked at each other, and then sheepishly replied that we didn’t really know. It was still light out at the time, but the sun would set soon. Should we try to find somewhere to camp out, or should we continue along?
Danny asked if we wanted to get some food, to which I replied that we didn’t really have money to do so. That’s when he invited us to his house. We happily accepted.
When we arrived he fed us delicious tamales and beer. There were four kittens, as well as a lovely dog in the home. He and his wife seemed to take in many strays, be they human or animal. Before long, they had offered to us to stay the night.
We were incredibly relieved and grateful, and gleefully accepted.
As night fell, Danny took us out to see his city. We visited a beautiful lake which was surrounded in life. There was an amusement park, workout equipment, and vendors selling this and that.
That’s when we had our first Mexican style coconuts. You drink the milk, and then they cut it open for you. You add salt and lime, and… Hot sauce. Dear god. Hot sauce and coconut are basically the best thing you never thought would work. We loved it.
Before heading home he brought us to a hotdog joint. These were no ordinary hotdogs. You get your cheese filled sausage, and proceed to add guacamole, onions, cheese, various salsas, and chilies, until it barely reassembles a hot dog. I’m told it was delicious, and judging from the fries I topped with all the same things, I’d bet it was.
We slept on Danny’s floor that night, and in the morning he woke up extra early to drive us to the outskirts of the city on the south side so that we could catch a ride… Even though he worked on the north side.
After a few hours of ridiculously successful hitchhiking, we found ourselves in the middle of a small city. I was asking people for rides at the gas station, but we weren’t having much luck. Plus it was extremely hot outside, so we weren’t too keen on walking out of town.
Suddenly a man I’d asked for a ride a few minutes earlier came up to us. He started asking why we didn’t take a bus, and I explained that we had no money.
I didn’t believe I’d heard correctly when his reply came. He said he would bring us to the bus station, and pay for our bus to Mazatlan.
I honestly didn’t even trust my ears, and repeated back to him what he had said several times. Half an hour, and nearly $50 from a stranger later, we were on the bus.
We arrived in Mazatlan in the early evening with one problem: now we were in a huge city, and we had nowhere to stay. Camping out is for small towns, and certainly not for huge places.
I was strangely calm about the situation. I sat down, tapped into the wifi, and started sending out CouchSurfing messages. Within an hour I had a hit, and our new friend Uriel came to get us from the bus station.
We spent the next three days at Uriel’s house, hanging out with him and his family and friends. We explored the Mazatlan beach, which seemed to go on forever and ever. Our first evening there, we were treated to seeing a full on band playing on the beach, directly across from the European looking downtown of Mazatlan.
This was also when we discovered micheladas. Oh my god. They take a huge cup, put a huge beer in it, line the rim as well as the inside of the drink with a ton of spices, and voila! It no longer
resembles a beer, but, dare I say, something a billion times better. I’m craving one just typing this.
When we left Mazatlan, we figured it would only take us a day to get to Sayulita. We were so close, and so excited to rest our weary bones, and just settle down and work for a couple of months. Something in our minds said that it simply HAD to be Sayulita. We were broke and worn down, despite enjoying the ride.
It took us half the day to get out of the city on public transportation. Finally we found ourselves in the town outside of Mazatlan. After a while, a guy approached us, asking if we’d like a ride. He pointed to a bus. We explained that we had no money, and he said no problem. I guess these two guys either just owned a bus, or were transporting it somewhere. Whatever the situation was, there were no passengers, and I got to smoke and watch Ted. No complaints.
Several hours later we got to a gas station in the middle of nowhere. This was where our paths parted from the men in the bus. We waved goodbye and started looking for a ride. We were only an hour or so from Sayulita at this point. But no rides were heading that way, and we had lost light.
This turned out to be the friendliest gas station that ever was. First, we were chatting with a man, and mentioned we were going to camp out there. He looked concerned, and replied that there were scorpions and such, but that we could sleep in the trailer of his semi, as he had no load at the time. Score! We thanked him, and went to the tiny bar on the other side of the parking lot.
Now I use the term bar extremely loosely here. It was a big empty room, with chairs outside, and a juke box in the room. There was one kind of beer.
And it was freaking awesome. The locals looked at us as if we were crazy at first, but then they started warming up to us. A drunk man who half spoke English approached us. He told us if we needed to order anything, to tell him in English, and he would translate for us. In all honesty, I understood his Spanish way better than I understood his English, but what can you do – he wanted to help. After a couple more beers, this same man told us we could come spend the night at his house.
We trusted him for whatever reason, and cheerfully agreed. He then proceeded to drive at a snail’s pace back to his house, which couldn’t have been more than a two minute drive away at regular pace. Oh well, if he drunkenly hit something at that pace, we’d be just fine.
We arrived to find ourselves really in it. We were not in tourist land. We were not in a rich person’s home. We were in a simple Mexican dwelling. It was very cool, though I was surprised to discover the house had no taps. None. Water? Who needs it!
The man even gave us his bed for the night. He was just insanely generous.
The next morning we hit the road again. We were stuck at a gas station for ages, when a man selling fresh homemade (by him) rice pudding approached us, asking if we’d like to buy any. We got chatting to him, and explained that we had hitchhiked from Canada, and we really had no money. After a few minutes of chatting he gave us a rice pudding to share. Here he was out trying to make a living, but I think he just understood. He got that we weren’t your typical tourists, he liked chatting with us, so he gave us a tasty treat. Quite honestly I’d never had rice pudding before, and shit, that was delicious!
Some hours later we got dropped off at the turn off.
Sayulita! At last! We felt so relieved, as if we’d finally reached the land that would somehow save us; it was as if we believed that the answer to the question – whatever the question may be – was Sayulita.
We were mistaken.