Our plan for the next two years is as follows: travel the Americas in a converted school bus. We quit our jobs, rented out our house, converted a school bus, and hopped on the Pan-American highway. After four years of a sedentary life, we needed to be back on the road exploring the world again. The difference is that this time, we would carry our house with us! So began the journey of rolling across the Americas in our self-converted skoolie with the goal of discovering our continent.
We started by traveling around our own country, Canada, which we didn’t know much about at the time. We visited Canada from the Eastern to the Western tip, spanning over two months. It was an absolute blast. We then continued our journey in the United States, driving from Washington to California, exploring Utah and Arizona along the way. After experiencing vanlife in Canada and the US, we were ready to start our journey south towards Mexico. This is where things really changed – mostly in a positive way! While we’ve learned so much along this journey so far, here are the top 10 things that were different for us in Mexico compared to the US and Canada on our road trip:
1. The language: A lot 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, but it is not a deal breaker. With Google translate, iTranslate, a good old dictionary and Duo Lingo you will be just fine ordering food or asking for directions. Everybody is friendly and as soon as you make an effort, they will try to help you as much as they can (sometimes too much!!) If you decide that you do want to learn the language, there are many schools and private teachers that can support you. You can even do homestays or work as a volunteer, both of which would help you pick up the language very fast.
2. Laws: Before crossing the border, half of the people we met tried to convince us not to go to Mexico and told us negative stories about their experience in the country. Mexico is different and the cartels can be an issue but they rarely target tourists. To be honest, we have been in Mexico for over three months now and have never felt in danger. There are many military checkpoints, especially in Baja California, but all of those are meant to stop smuggling, not to bug tourists. All of the check points we went through waved us through and were very friendly. We have been lucky and haven not been pulled over by the police but some of our fellows vanlifers were pulled over and even then, nothing major happened. Most of the policemen want bribes from foreigners but by knowing the laws, your rights, and being firm and confident you can leave the situation without having to pay. Also, be aware that some cities like Mexico City have different laws for foreigners and locals. Everyday day from 5:00 AM to 11:00 AM in Mexico City, you can’t drive in town with a foreign license plate due to pollution and traffic reduction purposes. Another example is that depending on the last number of your license plate, there is a day you can’t drive at all. It is important to be aware of local laws and policies when visiting another country, not only for your safety, but also out of respect.
3. Driving in Mexico: One of the more challenging aspects of visiting Mexico is driving on the roads, especially if you’re unable to read the signs. In Mexico, driving lessons are not common and drivers often learn as they go. Road shoulders are also considered lanes so it is very important to be attentive and cautious. Additionally, especially in Baja California and none paid roads, the road conditions can be pretty bad. We have seen humongous potholes and extremely dangerous road conditions. We recommend taking the paid (cuota) highways to avoid damaging your vehicle due to poor road conditions. In Baja and on the coast, traffic is almost none existent but this definitely changes ocne you go inland towards cities like Guadalajara, Querétaro or Mexico City. Traffic is challenging so we suggest paying for a safe parking spot out of town and taking public transportation into town. This is usually what we do during our visits! Spare yourself and your vehicle.
4. The food: Your first grocery-shopping trip in Mexico will be a shock. Most of the everyday Canadian and American products are not commonly found or are very expensive in Mexico. You will need to be flexible with your eating habits and cope with what is available, fresh, and common in local markets. At first, this was challenging for us but we have started trying new dishes and eating out more frequently, which has led to healthier eating habits. Food is a culture in itself and it’s important to embrace local foods to truly experience the country you are visiting. Try new things! Eat out! Trust the street carts and enjoy the tasty and spicy food! We were warned not to eat street food, to peel our fruits and veggies, and to be really careful in general while we were visiting. However, we strongly believe that the human body will adapt itself to most conditions so we would recommend diving in headfirst for the experience!
5. Primitive camping: Since we are full-time on the road and are not working at the moment, we can’t afford paying for campgrounds all the time. While we were on the road in Canada and the US we never paid any campground fees and always found spots to boondock. Once we crossed into Baja Mexico, we started paying for spots to camp, which were usually primitive camping spots, just located on private property and usually near surf breaks. The fees range from 40 to 100 pesos ($3 -$7 USD). While this isn’t super expensive, there aren’t any services included in the cost. You have to adapt to not having a shower or a toilet. I have to admit that we rely a lot on iOverlander App and are very grateful for this boondocking tool that makes our lives so much easier.
6. Internet connection and WiFi: As soon as we crossed the border we knew that cell phone coverage would be spotty but in Baja it was almost none existent. We bought a plan with AT&T Mexico, which uses Telcel network. Because we were using a local network we thought we would have service pretty much everywhere. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. If you are working on the road and you need reliable internet connection you will have to plan your trip accordingly. You won’t be able to stay in remote areas for long periods of time without reliable reception. On the flip side, it’s awesome if you want to unplug from social media and Netflix but can be challenging if you have work requirements. We met some fellow travelers who had cell phone boosters, similar to an antenna, which can definitely be helpful. Now that we are on the mainland, our coverage is much better but still can be spotty at times in the mountains. Don’t forget to take remote work into consideration when traveling this region!
7. Parts for our vehicle: This is a very challenging aspect! Mexico doesn’t carry all of the parts we need for our vehicle. For example, our air filter was super clogged after spending two months on the Baja peninsula. We checked all the AutoZones and auto parts stores in the surrounding area but none of them had the parts we needed in stock. Then the same thing happened with the oil we use for our engine. It is impossible to find synthetic oil or oil filters for our vehicle type down here. In order to get these parts we had to order them online, which meant finding a place we wanted to stay for an undetermined period of time and hoping we can coordinate the delivery process. Also, Mexico charges significant import fees on top of the shipping fees, which increased the bill. Luckily, we were able to find people that lived in Texas and crossed into Mexico, then shipped us the parts, saving us almost 36% of fees. Even then, it is still challenging and time consuming to get parts that are normally very easily found in America. So far we have only needed maintenance parts and have the option to just wait for them to arrive, worst case scenario. However, we can’t imagine what we would do if our vehicle entirely broke down…
8. Being a Gringo: When traveling in Canada and the US we never really felt like tourists. We rarely saw people turning around to look at us but nowadays this is our everyday reality. Everywhere we go people know we’re not from the area. People smile at us or look at us strange, like we may be lost. At first we thought it was our skin tone but after traveling in Mexico for over three months, our skin has become darker than most locals. After a while, we thought it was the way we were dressed. Maybe something we were wearing wasn’t appropriate so we changed the way we were dressing. This still didn’t make a difference. Now, we are slowly getting used to it but it’s definitely a strange feeling to constantly feel like a foreigner, like a gringo, like an American. There are times when prices are raised and we are treated like a tourist, even though we’ve been here for quite some time. It makes us wonder if we could ever really feel at home here. Even after learning the language and living here for a longer span of time, we would still be treated differently. This can be hard to cope with at times but we are learning to make do.
9. Cost of living: Expenses are very important when you’re 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 US we were spending roughly $2000 USD per month for the two of us and once we crossed in Mexico we lowered those costs to $1000 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 or, if anything, got worse, is the price of fuel. We thought Diesel would be cheaper in Mexico but unfortunately it’s not. It’s even more expensive than the highest price we have paid in California and these high prices affect our budget. Also, all of the electronics, such as car parts and fishing gear, are more expensive in Mexico. We would not recommend waiting to buy things until you get here because it will just cost you more money in the end.
10. Mexican traditions: Mexico highly differs from the US and Canada in various ways. Whenever you drive you will hear music in the streets, music blaring from the cars next to you, and even playing in the shops and restaurants that surround you. Music is part of Mexico and everybody listens to it, from kids to grand parents. The type of music you will hear even varies, from reggeaton to bachata. The music is lively and wonderful. You really feel like you are in the country of Mexico when you see Mariachis going around the table in a restaurant or youngsters driving with music full blast in their cars. The culture is also very religious. You can feel and see it in nearly every city you visit. There is always a little central plaza with a church in front and on Sundays, the entire town gathers.
Overall, we are loving our adventures so far. We hope that our tips and recommendations will help others feel more comfortable coming to explore and enjoy the wonderful continent of Mexico!