Saturday, 22 March 2014

How to make life difficult for yourself in central Mexico

Most people driving north on the 120 from San Juan del Rio are heading for Tequisquiapan, a colonial town built on the site of a thermal spring. It is known as a popular getaway destination for people from Mexico City, and is supposed to be worth a visit for its pretty streets, good markets, and excellent spas; we drove straight through. Having just come from Zacatecas and Guanajuato we felt we’d spent enough time in bustling colonial centres, and were headed for something completely different.

For about 50 miles, the scenery from Mex 120 was pretty much the same as what we had seen since leaving Real de Catorce, 500 miles or so further north; rolling semi-desert, filled with cactuses and scrub, and with mountains in the distance. Slowly the mountains in the distance became the mountains in-front of us, and before long we were climbing again, up into the Sierra Gorda. Whereas previous ascents in Mexico had been long curving uphill drags, the climb we were now making was different. Mex 120 is a small, narrow road, not leading to any large population centres or cultural attractions, and so instead of forging a straight corridor up into the peaks, the road snakes its way up, following the contours of an increasingly steep and dramatic area. As we continued into the mountain range, the road gradually became steeper and more convoluted, and the arid scrub made way at first to larger deciduous trees, and increasingly to dense tropical forest. At the beginning of our days drive we were pegged at 55mph on a straight and flat highway; by the afternoon we were crawling upwards at 25mph, winding our way through the northernmost rainforest in the Americas.

Our planned destination had been Jalpan, but by 5.30pm we were only just reaching Pinal de Amoles, the steep climb had finished off one car and we had been delayed for about an hour as the burning vehicle blocked traffic in both directions. The most winding section of the road is no place to be driving at night, and the final 25 miles could easily have taken us two hours. We stopped for the night at a Pemex station a hundred meter or so above Pinal de Amoles, having climbed almost a kilometre from our departure point, to an altitude of 2,600 meters. A walk into town quickly showed us that we’d landed on our feet, a huge sound system had been set up in the central plaza and the town was beginning to fill up as people from miles in all directions gathered for the annual Huapango (folk dancing) festival. The streets were filled with food, drink and craft stalls, and there were men and women dressed in an array of traditional costumes. We watched an array of dancing from contemporary to traditional and saw a local band playing folk music; I regret that I was so tired after a long and sometimes difficult drive, and wish we’d had the energy to stay all night.

The next day started with a plan to head to Jalpan and find someone who knew some interesting places to visit in the biosphere. Not more than half way to Jalpan we saw a sign to the Cascada el Chuveje waterfall and thought we’d take our chances

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Once we were on the road, the route to Guanajuato was pretty uneventful. A fair stretch of the 45 is a toll road and so it is fast and in reasonable condition, a description which cannot be used to describe the ring road that skirts Aguascalientes. Like Zacatecas, the centre of Aguascalientes is off limits to heavy vehicles, and so we were forced onto a ring road which is in an unbelievably bad condition, parts of the road made the cobblestone route up to Real de Catorce seem like a billiards table, and by the time we were back on the toll road I felt like I’d been in a washing machine on spin cycle. Once off the 45, we followed the 110 towards Guanajuato.

It is difficult to imagine a more awkward place to put a city then Guanajuato. Coming from Europe, I am used to cities being sited in strategic transport locations, either on major rivers or on historic trade routes, and so almost always being in places which are easy to reach. In this part of Mexico, the major cities are often sited on the location of an old silver or gold mine, and consequently they are rarely flat or easily accessible. There is not a single significant area of flat land in Guanajuato; the main roads run through the valley bottoms and as soon as you leave them the valley sides rise steeply, often so steeply that there is only pedestrian access to the houses on the slopes. With this in mind I could see immediately that Guanajuato was not an easy city to navigate in a large vehicle; I followed the directions given in Church & Church to the Morrill Trailer Park exactly, aware that deviating at all could result in getting wedged under a low tunnel entrance, or getting stuck down a road that I couldn’t reverse out of. Following the instructions took a fair bit of good faith, there are a number of tunnels on the Hidalgo highway running North through Guanajuato and none of them have signs indicating the minimum height. All of the tunnels going north are one way, and are two lanes wide, and so to minimise the risk of reconfiguring the bikes and solar panels, I was able to straddle both lanes and use the highest section in the middle of the tunnels. Once out of the centre of town and onto the hillside above, we followed the eastern section of the Panoramica highway which runs in an extraordinarily circuitous route around the edge of the city.

As instructed in Church & Church, we parked on the Panoramica and walked down to the trailer park to check the access. The Morrill trailer park is remarkably close to the centre of Guanajuato, in what has to be one of the only slopes accessible to large traffic, nevertheless the access to the trailer park is extremely tight and necessitates driving 200m the wrong way down a one way street to avoid an absurdly tight bend in the opposite direction. The book identifies a 24 foot motorhome as the maximum length that could access Morrill and I would wholeheartedly verify this claim. Jim is 24 foot long, but I would hazard a guess that he is wider, taller and heavier than the kind of 24 foot RV that Church & Church had in mind when writing the book. The gate at the entrance to the trailer park is probably the limiting factor on the longest RV which could gain access, but height should also be considered. At 3.55m, Jim’s awning was rubbing against the tensioning cable running underneath the power lines; anything taller would be likely to cut power to a small corner of Guanajuato. I would recommend that anyone else wishing to stay at Morrill uses a pair of walkie-talkies or mobile phones so that whoever has blocked traffic coming up the road can communicate that the road is now clear. Not having two working mobile phones we used a whistle which was not very effective over the noise of Jim’s engine.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


The road to Zacatecas took us through some of the sparsest terrain that we’d encountered so far. The 200 mile journey was almost entirely through flat semi-desert, with gentle hills and mountains in the distance; the long straight sections could just as easily been in the American mid-west. It wasn’t until we were on the doorstep of Zacatecas that we encountered any serious grades again. We headed straight for the more central of the two Hotel de Bosque RV parks listed in the Church and Church book. Both of the hotels are well signposted from a long way out of town, but anyone else looking for them should note that they have changed their name to Hotel Baruk.

The site that we headed for is located on the high road that bounds the northern edge of the town centre; the hotel is in an extremely central location, and given how well presented it is, it is a miracle that they still have any space for RVs. When we arrived we immediately knew that there would be trouble. The entrance forks in two, with the left route passing under a structure which shades the entrance and concierge, and the right route leading directly into the parking area. The right route had been dug up to fix the paving, leaving only the left route which has less headroom than we need, and has an abrupt turn to avoid hitting a tree. The hotel staff did not want us to drive over the section being repaved and so we had no choice but to turn around and head to the other branch, three miles or so out of town. Unfortunately the drive down to the hotel is extremely steep, and not being able to access the car park to turn around, we were forced to reverse up the drive until a point at which we could turn around.

With only 6 forward gears, Jim is not the best geared truck in the world, but on the whole the ratios work well; Jim was originally designed as an urban and trunking truck and was not specified with options for heavy haulage or extreme grades. The problem I discovered on the access road down to Hotel Baruk, was that Mercedes had chosen to gear reverse higher than 1st. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I could have turned around, but without this option I was forced to reverse up the drive in the equivalent of 2nd gear. The only way I could make any progress was to rev the engine until the red line with the clutch down, and let the clutch out quickly, at which point I would jump backwards and start slowing immediately as Jim ran out of power to maintain the revs. I had to do this three times until I could turn around and crawl upwards in a more suitably ratioed first gear. Not a kind manoeuvre on the clutch but I had no alternative.

The Hacienda Baruk branch of the hotel, slightly further out of town, is a nice building and grounds, and is not a huge way out of town by RV park standards, but since it was built it has been penned in by a huge freeway and off ramp, and is now just an island in a sea of tarmac and railway. It’s a loud and ugly vista from the parking lot, and if it wasn’t for the swimming pool, and regular bus service into town we probably would only have stayed one night. The parking lot is less than 10 metres from a six lane road and is probably less than 20 metres from a well-used railway, light sleepers (a bracket which certainly doesn’t include me) will struggle at this site.

On our first day in Zacatecas we walked into town, and I honestly would not recommend any other travellers do the same. We walk pretty much everywhere that we can, and three miles is not a great distance, but the walk is completely miserable, along the hard shoulder of a six lane road, and then up a steep dusty road through an industrial area. The highlights of the walk were a cement works, several tyre repair yards, and a dead dog. The bus runs from just behind the hotel (under the bridge and on the other side of the railway), runs several times per hour, costs 6.5 Pesos, and takes ten minutes, I would suggest others staying at Hacienda Baruk use the bus rather than walk! We didn’t try with Boris, but we saw a passenger with a dog on the bus so I expect dogs are allowed at the drivers discretion.

Incidentally, taking the bus in Zacatecas is the perfect medicine for anyone worrying about annoying rattles or vibrations in their motorhome. We took several busses, and beyond 30mph all of them vibrated so badly that you’d swear that the wheels had been replaced with litter bins.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Jim the Truck

I have updated a few details on the Jim the Truck page indexed on the menu bar at the top of this page. I have only included a few key details but if anyone wants to know anything else (lighting, furniture, plumbing, wiring, etc) please let me know in a comment and I would be happy to add it.

The JimTheTruck page can be found here

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Real de Catorce

Almost as soon as we left Saltillo the upwards climb continued. The road is astonishingly beautiful and even in the Alps I can’t say that I’ve ever been on a road like it. The Mountains on either side of the road are huge, but are gently folded and carpeted in vegetation, giving them a softer appearance than the sharp, craggy rock faces you normally find in mountain passes. Thankfully only the short stretch of the 57 through the steep ascents is a toll road, and the more gentle section beyond is free and in reasonable condition. In a number places the smooth tarmac degenerates, but attempts to smooth over the cracks and dips leave areas of darker tarmac which enable you to change lane well in advance and avoid the worst patches.

About 140 miles from Saltillo, we saw the signed turnoff from the 57 for Real de Catorce; the turnoff is approximately 10km north of the road marked on Streets and Trips but rejoins the marked road 17km later at Cedral. The 62, running between the 57 to the east, and the 54 to the west (San Tiburcio-Matehuala) passing Cedral and Vanegas is well paved and in good condition throughout, and so travellers coming from Zacatecas could use this road to get to Real de Catorce. I expect that the road will be signed to Matehuala for travellers on the 54. The map on Streets and Trips showed two roads off of San Tiburcio-Matehuala leading to Real de Catorce; the east most road is the road signposted well, and that given in our guidebook, I could find no information on the other road and so we took the signposted route.

The route that we took goes through a tunnel just before it reaches the town of Real de Catorce, large vehicles, including Jim, have to park at the east entrance of the tunnel and get on a local bus (15 Pesos/person when we visited) to visit the town. Looking at the map I had considered using the alternative route to the west, to enable us to get closer to the town, but used my better judgement given that the guide book did not mention it and the signs point towards the route with the tunnel. As we later found out on a walk out of Real de Catorce, this was the correct decision. The western route marked on some maps is the old road, passing through Vanegas and Estacion de Catorce and used before the tunnel was made; it is impassable except for small 4x4 vehicles. The old road is extremely steep, very narrow in places, and with precipitous drops; I can say with 100% certainty that this route cannot be used as means of getting larger vehicles into the town. Nor would you want to, Real de Catorce is full of very narrow and very steep roads, and even if you could get a large truck or RV up there, you would not be able to navigate the streets. Rugged motorbikes, and Land Cruiser or Land Rover sized vehicle may like to use the road to add some adventure into their journey, but I would not recommend it in anything larger.

The old road from Estacion de Catorce to Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce is a great place, but you have to be keen and dedicated to endure the 26km road up into the mountains. The road that we used is reputed to be the longest cobblestone road in the world, and is an unrelenting pummelling the entire way. One blog that I read suggested that the only difference between driving slowly and driving fast, is that the punishment lasts longer if you drive slowly; to some extent this is correct. Driving at about 25mph turned out to be least uncomfortable for us, the vibrations did not get considerably worse at this speed and the journey took less than 45 minutes. Driving faster became increasingly uncomfortable and at any rate there are some extremely steep sections which do not permit greater speeds in a heavy vehicle anyway.

Jim the Overland Motorhome Truck, on the cobblestone road to Real de Catorce

The road is actually in good condition, being fairly level and wide for most of its length, and I would suggest that almost any sensible vehicle could travel on this road (I wouldn’t try it in your Lamborghini), even large and tall RVs with poor ground clearance should be fine, however the vibrations are fairly gruelling and flimsier motorhomes may suffer if driven at speed. I had 45 minutes to ponder which kinds of vehicles would be least uncomfortable on this kind of road, but had the satisfaction of noting that none of the vehicle we passed looked to be suffering any less. Jim’s big tyres and air sprung seats no doubt put us in better stead than the lightly loaded pickups with stiff old fashioned leaf springs.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Crossing the Border into Mexico

Sadly the following blog post is very short on photos, largely because there was very little worth taking a photograph of, and partly because taking photos at a border is a good way to ensure that you, your vehicle and all your possessions get a thorough going over by the police.

Before reaching the McAllen/Reynosa border crossing, you have to drive across the Pharr International bridge. I’m not sure whether the truck and car lanes before the Pharr bridge divert to different crossings, but we took the truck entrance as the car lanes looked uncomfortably narrow. We paid our $11 and set off for Mexico. Halfway down the bridge, we came across a huge queue of trucks, crazily large considering it was 15 minutes after opening on a Sunday. We played ignorant and drove down the side of the truck queue; this turned out to be the correct procedure anyway as the trucks queue for the ‘goods to declare’ lane while recreational and passenger vehicles use the queue free ‘nothing to declare’ entrance. At the border there were no checks at all, and it would be easy and possible to drive into Mexico without having completed the necessary visa and importation procedures at the Migracion and Banjercito offices.

I won’t explain the procedure here as it is explained in great detail in the Church book, but getting a 6 month tourist visa for Naomi and me, and a ten year temporary import license for Jim was straightforward and relatively cheap, despite our Spanish being terrible and the office staff speaking little English. Without a computer system problem we would have undoubtedly been out of the border in less than 15 minutes, however even the hour and a half that we spent there was nothing to moan about. I would highly recommend the Pharr Bridge crossing to anyone planning to drive into Mexico from west Texas; the Migracion, Banjercito, and photocopier are all in the same modern building, the staff know exactly what they are doing and will direct you from one desk to the next, and in addition we were the only people using the office. In the hour an half we spent at the border, not a single person came into the office behind us.

We were soon on the road in Mexico, and were immediately confronted with the magnitude of changes that we’d have to get used to.

Jim se repara, y estamos en camino a México

Jim has now been fitted with a new air chamber and replacement brake pads at American Equipment at Pflugerville. Not only were they willing to work on him when many garages weren't interested, but the work was done at an extremely reasonable price and we were seen at a days notice each time we visited. The work was straightforward, although I am glad that I and the mechanic had access to the Mercedes service manual. The replacement of the air chamber was very simple, and replacing the brake pads was like most other brake callipers, but the automatic adjuster on the Mercedes/Knorr callipers needs to be reset when the brake pads are replaced, using a tool that comes in the kit of parts. Whacking a spanner on the adjuster can easily ruin the calliper through over torque. The only complication was finding two M16 locknuts to replace the damaged nuts from the old chamber, it turned into a bit of a saga in a country still working with archaic units.

Mercedes migrated away from paper service manuals many years ago, and now all of the maintenance and repair instructions for all Mercedes vehicles are accessed via the WIS (workshop information system) portion of the larger Mercedes Xentry system. In some ways it’s a pain as you can no longer buy a cheap copy of the book issued to authorised Mercedes mechanics, but in most other ways it is fantastic. On a laptop equipped with the Xentry software, I have access the service manuals and parts catalogues of every Mercedes vehicle made for at least three decades, and with the addition of the Multiplexer gizmo, I can plug the laptop into the truck to identify fault codes, monitor engine and drivetrain sensors in real time, and reprogramme various features. At £750, the laptop was a lot more expensive than a scanned copy of a ropey old service manual bought from eBay, but it does a lot more stuff, and can probably be resold for the price I paid for it. To be clear, £750 gets you a dodgy copy of the Mercedes software, on a second hand laptop, with a Chinese knockoff of the multiplexer; the authentic Mercedes kit is only issued to authorised service centres and probably costs 100 times what I paid.

We had been in Austin for two weeks by the time the repairs had been completed and so we were keen to get back on the road and cover some distance. The more time we spent in Austin, the more great stuff we found to do, but we were getting itchy to get moving and head into Mexico. This plan started well, we left Austin the same day that the repairs were completed, and we got on the interstate (something we don’t do too often). As dark was approaching we arrived in San Antonio, approximately 100 miles south of Austin, and found a spot to park for the night on a residential street about 3 miles north of downtown.