So we quit our jobs and rented out our house, converted a school bus and hopped on the Panamerican highway. After 4 years of sedentarity, we needed to be back on the road exploring the world again but this time we would carry our house with us! We decided to roll across the Americas with our self-converted skoolie and discover our own continent.
We started by traveling our own country which we didn’t knew much. We visited Canada from the Eastern to the Western tip for over two months and we had a blast. We then continued our journey in the United States from Washington to California going by Utah and Arizona.
After experiencing the van life in Canada and the U.S. we were then ready to start our journey south to Mexico. This is where things changed, but mostly for good!
Here are the top 10 things that are different in Mexico compared to the U.S. and Canada on a road trip:
1. The language
Lots of people asked us if the language barrier was a problem or not. As a fluent english and french speaker, I would say no. I would never tell someone not to come to Mexico or Central America because they cannot speak spanish. It is true that once you cross the Mexican border english is rare (apart from Gringos) but it is not impossible to get away with it. With Google translate, iTranslate, good old dictionary and Duo Lingo you will be able to order food or ask for directions in no time. Mexicans are adorable and as soon as you make an effort, they will try to help you as much as they can (sometimes too much!!). If you want to learn the language there are many schools and private teachers that can support you and you can even do homestays or work as a volunteer and you will pick it up real fast.
Ok before crossing the Mexican border half of the people we met tried to convince us not to go to Mexico and told us the worst stories about the country. Mexico is different and the cartels are an issue in the country but they rarely target tourists and to be really honest, we have been here for over three months now and we never felt in danger. There are many military checkpoints, especially in Baja California but all of those are meant to stop the cartels from bringing drugs to the U.S. and firearms to Mexico. All of the checkpoints we went through waved us through and were very friendly. We have been lucky and never got pulled over by the Police so far, but some of our van life friends did and nothing major happened. Most of the policemen want bribes from foreigners since they have a terrible salary which is not acceptable but by knowing the laws, your rights and being firm and confident you will probably get away with it without paying anything. Be aware that some cities like Mexico City have special laws for foreigners and locals. Every day from 5 am to 11 am in Mexico City, you can’t drive in town with a foreign license plate for pollution and traffic reduction purposes. Also, in Mexico City, depending on the last number of your license plate there is a day you can’t drive at all.
3. Driving in Mexico
What’s challenging is driving on Mexican roads with Mexican people and Mexican road signs. In Mexico, people rarely take driving lessons and they learn as they go, so beware. The road shoulders are also considered as a lane itself so better be attentive and cautious. On top of that, especially in Baja California and none paid roads, the road conditions can be very bad. We have seen humongous pot holes and extremely dangerous road damages. We recommend taking the paid (cuota) highways to avoid the bad roads since we have seen a lot of travelers damaging their vehicle because of poor conditions. In Baja and on the coast, traffic is almost none existent but once you go inland in cities like Guadalajara, Querétaro or Mexico city, traffic is challenging and you are better off just paying for a safe parking lot out of town and taking public transport in town which we now do all the time. Spare yourself and your vehicle.
4. The food
Your first grocery shopping experience in Mexico will be a shock. Most of the everyday Canadian and American products are not commonly found or very expensive in Mexico. You will need to change your eating habits and cope with what is available, fresh and common in Mexican markets. At first, this was challenging to us, but we started trying new dishes and eating out more often so it would be easier to eat healthy. Mexican food is a culture in itself and it’s important that you embrace it to live the real Mexico experience. Try new things, eat out, trust the street stalls and enjoy the tasty and spicy food of all states in Mexico. People warned me not to eat in the streets, to peel my fruits and veggies and to be really careful but I strongly believe that the human body adapts itself to most conditions and this is how I roll.
5. Wild camping
Since we are full time on the road and not working at the moment, we can’t afford to pay for camping all the time. While we were on the road in Canada & in the U.S. we never paid any campground fees and always found spots to boondock. Once we crossed into Baja Mexico, we started paying for camping spots. They were wild camping but on private property, mostly were surf breaks are. The fees vary from 40 to 100 pesos (3$ -7$ USD) so it’s not too bad but you basically just pay for the spot since they don’t offer any services. You will need to adapt to not having a shower and toilet at your disposition all the time, that’s for sure. I have to admit that we rely a lot on iOverlander App. We are very grateful for this boondocking tool that makes our lives much easier. We try to contribute to this tool as much as possible to help fellow van lifers. Please do the same!!
6. Internet connection & WIFI
As soon as we crossed the border we knew that the cell coverage would be spotty but in Baja, I have to say it was pretty nonexistent. We took a plan with AT&T Mexico which uses Telcel network, so we thought we would have service pretty much everywhere, but we didn’t. If you are working on the road and need a reliable internet connection, you will have to plan your trip accordingly, since most remote areas don’t have reception. It’s awesome if you want to unplug from social media and Netflix, but can be challenging if you need to work. We met some fellow travelers who had cellphone boosters (antenna) so that can help as well. Since we are on the Mexican mainland, our coverage is much better, but can be spotty sometimes in the mountains.
7. Parts for our vehicle
This is a very challenging one! Mexico does not carry all of the parts we need for our vehicle. For example, our air filter was super clogged after spending 2 months on the Baja peninsula. We did all the AutoZones and auto parts stores, but none of them had the parts we needed in stock. Same thing for the oil we use for our engine. It’s impossible to find synthetic oil for our vehicle type down here, and same for the oil filter. If we want those parts we have to order online, which means finding a place we want to stay for an undetermined period of time and hope it gets there one day. Also, Mexico charges significant import fees on top of the shipping fees which increases the bill. We were able to find people who live in Texas that crossed into Mexico and shipped us the parts so we would save almost 36% of fees but it is still challenging and time-consuming to get parts that are normally found off the shelf in America. For us, for now, it has only been maintenance parts. We could wait for them and still keep rolling, but I can’t imagine if we were to break down…
8. Being a Gringo
When traveling in Canada and the U.S. I never really felt like a tourist and I rarely saw people turning around to look at me, but nowadays this is my everyday reality. Everywhere I go people know I’m not from the area. People smile at me or look at me strange like I was lost or something. At first, I thought it was my skin tone but after traveling in Mexico for over 3 months now, I have to admit I am darker than most of the Mexicans from the North so it is not the reason. After, I thought it was the way I dressed that was maybe too short or too revealing so I started wearing long sleeves and jeans even if super nice and warm days, but I would still get this look. I think I’m slowly getting used to it but it is a strange feeling to constantly feel like a foreigner, like a gringo, like an American. Since the beginning of the trip, I haven’t felt that Mexicans would raise prices that much when they saw me coming to their stands, but sometimes they do and since I’ve been here for quite a while now, I know right away. It makes me feel like I could never really feel at home here. Even though I could learn the language and live here as long as I want, I would still look different, which is something that can be hard to cope with sometimes.
9. The cost of living
That’s something very important when you are living on the road without a steady income. Vanlife is known to be an affordable way of traveling, but when you travel for a long time, you need to be careful with your money. When we were traveling through Canada and the U.S. we were spending roughly $2,000 USD per month for the two of us. Once we crossed into Mexico, we lowered those costs to $1,000 USD per month, which is a big difference in the long run. Food, activities, entrance fees, alcohol and shopping are all more affordable in Mexico, but one thing that didn’t change, and sometimes got worse is the price of fuel. We thought fuel (Diesel for us) would be cheaper in Mexico, but it’s not. It’s even more expensive than the most expensive we have paid in California, which does affect our budget. Also, all of the electronics, car parts and other things like fishing gear are more expensive in Mexico.
10. Mexican traditions
Mexico is different from the U.S. and Canada in so many ways. Wherever you drive in Mexico, you will hear music in the streets. It’s very loud in the cars next to you or in shops and restaurants. Music is a big part of mexican culture. Everybody listens to music. All types to, including from reggaeton to bachata. Music is lively and nice, and you feel like you are in Mexico when you see Mariachis going around the table in a restaurant and youngsters driving with music full blast in their cars. Mexicans are also very religious and you can feel and see it pretty much in every city you go through. There is always a little central plaza with the church in front, which is always the meeting spot on Sundays.