^The green highlight on this Mexico map, represents our route from the US border. In a nutshell, we crossed at Progreso (near Brownsville/Matamoros) and drove directly to Playa del Carmen. We retraced that route back to Palenque where we drove up the mountain to San Cristobal and eventually reached the Oaxacan coast at Salina Cruz. From there we paralleled the coast to Acapulco, then northward on a toll road through Mexico City and eventually to Poza Rica where we reconnected with our original route back to the US.
My two sons, James and Joe traveled all the way with me from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Liz, a friend that Joe met at Slice’s in Cancun years ago, joined us in Veracruz.
^Joe, Liz, Jimmy, James (taken in Cuernavaca)
^Joe, Jimmy, James (taken in Palenque)
^James, Liz, Joe (taken near Ococingo)
^James, Joe, Liz (taken in Playa del Carmen)
1986 Plymouth Voyager, 2.6L
^It received a major mechanical make over prior to the trip, as well as bodywork and paint.
Mechanical: New Carburetor, Alternator, Water Pump, CV Joints, Bearings, Brakes, Ball Joints, Hoses, Belts, Battery, and Tires
Cosmetic: New Paint, Windshield, Carpet, Front Bucket Seats (from 2002 Caravan)
Extras: 800w Inverter (110v AC), Quad Halogens (in addition to standard high beams), Antitheft Devices.
Navigational: Garmin GPS-18USB (for Laptop), Garmin GPS60Csx, and 6 Mexico Maps
Sound: Ipod and XM Radio
^You’ll notice in this photo, 4 halogen lights mounted on the bumper. These kicked in when we hit the high beams and allowed us to drive extensively at night.
Taking a 20 year old vehicle on an extensive journey was a significant part of our adventure. The van had been semi retired 5 years prior and was merely started from time to time but never driven. The engine had 20k on a rebuild but was sidelined because the transmission leaked and the heater didn’t work. It came close to being crushed but was given a reprieve, and later on decided it would make a great throwaway vehicle for a Mexican road trip. Figured if we made it all the way from Minnesota to Mexico without any dire consequences, we’d take our chances on the other side of the border.
Since the engine was technically a low mileage rebuild, I was hardly concerned that it would fail. The transmission appeared to be the weak link. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t eliminate the leak from the left CV seal (tried several replacements). With only 130 test miles prior to making the trip, I decided a half case of transmission fluid and a 2 gallon jug of motor oil would be a healthy start. Otherwise, we were fully equipped to deal with any mechanical disaster other than engine or transmission failure. We even had a 3-ton floor jack and a healthy array of tools. The only important thing forgotten on our travel list was a gas can, fire extinguisher and flares.
^By the way, this series of van photos were taken on Maple Street in Dallas across from Trulucks Restaurant.
^This is taken near the grassy knoll in front of the Texas Book Depository, just around the corner from our hotel. Yes, I now have even more JFK conspiracy material! In Dallas, we also met up with several good people from this forum at Mattitos Restaurant. After single handedly driving 18 nonstop hours, this relaxed event was the perfect end to my first day.
On our way through Texas, we spent a few days in Conroe (I-45 north of Houston) where I did some computer work for a friend (and client). We stayed at their ranch where they threw a fabulous dinner party on our behalf (brisket of course). We spent the 2nd day chasing for a radiator hose, other miscellaneous items on our list and did some last minute wrenching. At this checkpoint, we’d only dripped away a half pint of transmission fluid, but developed an oil leak and lost a half quart from the engine.
We departed Conroe about 5am and made our way through downtown Houston where we exited onto Highway 59 towards Victoria. At Victoria, we followed Highway 77 straight south to the border crossing at Brownsville. For anyone making this drive, both highways are excellent (nearly freeway quality) but the key ingredient is getting through Houston during non-peak hours. On our way to Brownsville, the boys were interested is seeing the Padre Islands, so we made a detour at Corpus Christi along the way.
We decided to complete our necessary paperwork at the international crossing in Brownsville/Matamoros, then drive 30 miles west and cross at Progreso. Following Highway 77 south through Brownsville, you’ll eventually reach the main international crossing. You can’t miss it! As you enter the complex, you’ll pass a several small buildings on your left, followed by an open area and then an even larger building on your left with canopied parking. Just pull into a parking spot and head into the building. First thing... find the proper window and obtain our tourist visas... we all received 180 days.
I’d previously made multiple copies of everything (Vehicle Title, MX Insurance Policy, Drivers License, Passport), so I proceeded directly to the Banjercito window. Since I was the registered owner importing the vehicle, they sent me to another window to get duplicate copies of my tourist visa. Back to the Banjercito where everything was processed. We were charged roughly $20 each per tourist visa plus the fee for the temporary import sticker. After all fees were paid, we were given receipts and an official vehicle import document with the removable sticker attached. The person importing the vehicle is responsible for adhering this sticker to the windshield before crossing the border. The instructions are to place it on the inside of the windshield directly behind the rearview mirror. The sticker material is identical to the tabs you place on your license plates each year. It can’t be removed from the windshield without destroying it. After receiving all of the necessary documents, I proceeded to the returno at the far end of the parking area and drove back through US Customs. Showed the agent the paperwork I’d just received and they gave me the go ahead to return to the United States. The entire process took maybe 35 minutes. By the way, cost for the maximum amount of insurance from Sanborns for 20 days was $155.
On the way to Progreso, we transferred the import sticker onto a thin transparent material and then attached it to our windshield with removable adhesive. In the event we had major engine or transmission failure, our plan was to remove the sticker, license plates, vehicle identification number, and leave the remnants of the vehicle in Mexico. Obviously, I had conceived a simple disaster plan to deal with a worst case scenario. By the way, when you obtain a temporary import sticker, your credit card is swiped as a guarantee that you’ll leave Mexico with the vehicle before your tourist visa expires. I’m sure there are consequences for failure to comply... like a large fine or refusal to issue any future tourist visas. Anyone unlucky enough to experience this?
Coming back through US customs puts you right back onto Highway 77 heading north. Exit a mile later at Boca Chica Blvd and turn left (west) and when you cross Central Blvd it will become Highway 281. Follow it for 30 miles to Highway 1015 and make a left. The Progreso border crossing will be a few miles down the road. Just before you get to 1015, there'll also be a border crossing for commercial vehicles... you don't want that one!
When you cross the border at Progreso, go straight ahead all the way through the town and out the south side. You'll see signs for the cuota (toll road) to Matamoros. Take that road and exit at the sign for Valle Hermosa. Go straight south through Valle Hermosa to Highway 101-180 and it'll be clear sailing to Tampico. As you roll south of Valle Hermosa on Hwy 97, you'll reach a check point just north of where you merge onto Highway 101-180.
Here’s that coordinate: N 25 26.945 - W 097 48.991
^We stopped here for our first meal in Mexico, shortly after being stopped by local policia in Valle Hermosa and again by federales about 25 miles further south. Law enforcement expressed their concern that we’d attempted to avoid their secondary checkpoints.
From this point, the road signs toward Tampico are mostly referenced by the town of San Fernando, the Tampico signs will follow somewhat later.
At the following coordinates, Hwy101 and Hwy180 split.
Here’s that coordinate: N 24 27.880 - W 098 20.482
You'll need to go to your left following the signs to Soto Marina (aka Soto La Marina) and Aldama. This isn't the worse road in Mexico but it's narrow, has absolutely no shoulder and very few places to pull over.
Follow Hwy180 south through Manuel where it'll veer left and join with Hwy80 as you near Tampico. You'll pass through Altimira and will be heading towards the airport. This stretch of highway will eventually be called Carreterra Tampico Monterey and in some places, simply Monterey. Watch for Blvd A Lopez Mateos where you'll take a right. This boulevard has a few mini-jogs to the right, so watch the street signs (it's very well marked). Continue following Blvd A Lopez Mateos which will take you directly to the Tampico Bridge. The signs you should be looking for are Tuxpan or Poza Rica. Here are the coordinates for the entrance to the bridge: N 22 13.786 - W 097 50.782. By the way, my advice is to avoid the Tampico cuota!! It merely gets you tangled up in Tampico centro where it’s difficult to find the road leading to the bridge.
After you get over the bridge you'll be free sailing towards Poza Rica. This portion of the ride is beautiful all the way to VeraCruz, although it'll be the slowest leg of your trip. You have a choice of going to Poza Rica through Tuxpan or Alamo. I choose Alamo because the road into Tuxpan is generally nasty. To get to Alamo you'll be making a right at these coordinates:
N 21 06.043 - W 097 45.046
Less that a mile later you'll be making a left at these coordinates:
N 21 05.671 - W 097 43.894
Both of these turns are well marked with signage.
This route will provide plenty of hills and curves as you meander through the citrus orchards. In Alamo, there are lots of vendors at the topes selling orange juice (36oz) for 10 pesos. There is a large citrus processing plant on the southern edge of town. When you take this route, you'll be leaving Hwy180 but will join it later in Poza Rica where you should follow the signs to Papantla, Nautla and Veracruz. Between Nautla and Veracruz you'll have glimpses of the gulf as you pass through a region called Costa Esmeralda.
^A quick pitstop to see the beach in Chachalacas, just north of Veracruz.
As you near Veracruz (maybe 25 miles out), I highly recommend taking a break at Chachalacas. It's about 10 minutes off Hwy180 and is the closest thing resembling Playa del Carmen that you'll find on this journey. There are signs for it on the highway and you'd be making a left turn (north) to get there.
^James having a cigarette and a Negra Modelo in a go cup. We couldn’t spend much time here because Liz was waiting for us at the bus station in Veracruz.
^Liz was happy to finally see us. She had taken the bus from Mexico City and had been waiting for several hours at the bus terminal in Veracruz. We were delayed by a pothole on the highway.
^After hitting the pothole (it was huge), this is how the rim looked with the tire removed.
^Spotted these rims as I was driving by and wondered, could there be a chance they’d have a replacement.
^Where ever the highway is beat to hell, you’ll see lots of these shops nearby. A young lad of 13 changed the tire, replaced a valve stem and repaired a puncture (big nail). Total cost including the rim was about $35. We were once again, happy to have a spare!!
At this point, I personally had been driving nearly nonstop for 32 hours... all the way from Houston. By Tampico, my sons had finally given up on their litany; can we drive yet, can we drive yet, can we drive yet... I knew all too well that once they got behind the wheel, it would become a freaky road rally, so I decided I’d put them off til the toll road at Veracruz. This beauty stretches for hundreds of miles and is the closest thing to a US freeway. It felt so great to finally get some sleep!!!
Beyond Veracruz, you'd be wise to take the cuota (toll road) towards the city of Villahermosa, especially if you’re looking to save some drive time. There are a number of places to catch the cuota but it's easiest to find near the Veracruz airport. You should be on the lookout for 150D heading towards Cordoba, bound for Mexico City. At least 30 miles out of Veracruz on 150D, you'll be switching to 145D which will take you east, all the way towards Villahermosa where it'll automatically reconnect with Hwy-180 shortly before reaching the city. If you miss 145D, you'll be on your way to Mexico City instead!!! By the way, Villahermosa has a side by side Walmart and Sam's Club which you should be able to spot on your left (north) as you're coming over the bridge into town. Although it's a fairly large city, Hwy-180 runs through the center of it like a mini freeway. Most of the town's business traffic will be on the feeder roads in a fashion similar to Houston. In Villahermosa, you should watching for Hwy-186 and the signs pointing towards Escarcega.
By the way, Escarcega is not a good place to find accommodations. I suggest stopping before you get there in Palenque which is 15-20 miles to the right (south) on Hwy199. The ruins there are great with luscious foliage and a beautiful waterfall on the lower level. There are plenty of nice hotels and restaurants in this town to make your stay a pleasant one...