Driving & Bureaucracy – Mexican Style

Ride to Puerto Vallarta
Warning: This is a long blog. Make a fresh brew or have a couple of cans close to hand.

One week before Christmas I left San Diego, and on leaving North America I began the third leg of the trip – Central America. The plan was to ride at a cruising pace through Mexico’s western peninsula – Baja California, spend Christmas in Puerto Vallarta then head to Acapulco on 28 December 2010 to meet my Irish buddy – Tommy. This was to be my first time in Mexico and I was cautiously looking forward to the visit. Total drive time was roughly three seven hours shifts plus a ferry journey to the mainland.

The first challenge was not only to cross the border but also to chalk up as many kilometres between me and the boarder. The state of Baja California isn’t bad as Chihuahua and Neuvo Loen but you still have to pass by Tijuana, which is by all accounts banditoland. I took advice received and found a truck on the US border to convoy with just in case I was bike-jacked. Fortunately, in my case – it was a drama about nothing.

Mexican border control simply waived me into the country without even stopping to check my passport. Only an hour later, Tijuana was in my rear view mirror as I headed south on Mexico 200 – the road (and I mean road) that runs the entire length of the western coastline.

For most of the first day I had the road to myself, I guess the holiday wind down was already underway. As for the landscape, this is the Mexico, which comes to mind: arid desert scenery for miles, cactus plants of all sizes and shapes and the odd tumble weed rolling along every now and again. Before long I realised a number of points about driving in Mexico, namely: Pemex is the monopoly supplier of retail gasoline, topes (speed bumps) are the nemesis’s of the motorist and animals equally feel entitled to use the roadway.

You don’t need a degree in economics to appreciate that granting one company the sole rights to distribute gasoline is fundamentally wrong. I was later informed matter of factly that Pemex’s major shareholder is a former Mexican president. Certain things here are just accepted as the way things are. I have one issue with Pemex. I’m not sure it if arises from the inertia of a monopoly provider but their store footprint is random at best. There might not be a store for 70km (on Mexico 200) and then four in a tiny village. As I only have 200-250km range on the bike I have to be mindful of where to fuel up. My satellite navigation helps with this (most of the time).

After an uneventful first days riding I checked into a non-descript roadside hotel. The Desert Inn. And after an equally, but welcome, uneventful night I hit the road early where I broke my own sacred rule. I always start a long road trip with a full tank; even if it means topping up a half tank. As I clocked up 30km I checked my stat nav for the nearest gas station only to find it 40km away, which was roughly within my range. But something I don’t like to dice with particularly in a country like Mexico and moreover in the desert.

From about 2-3 kilometres out, I could tell the gas station had long been abandoned. Knowing I wouldn’t make the next station, Plan B (ditching the bike to hitch) was being conjured while I also cursed myself for not refuelling next to the Desert Inn. Thankfully my prayers were answered in the guise of a Mexican entrepreneur. A local scrap dealer (in a town of no more than 100) sold gas from oil drums stacked on the back of his pick up truck. After some haggling we settled on a premium price on which we both were happy. I won’t be making that mistake again.

The other mistake made – was not paying enough attention to the dreaded topes or sleeping policeman as they are called back home. Every town the size of a postage stamp has a few topes, which are highly effective in reducing speed to allow pedestrians to cross the road. Some are nice slow ramps with even geometry while others seem to be homemade jobs with a steep apex probably made by residents who couldn’t get out of their driveway fast enough. Their presence alone isn’t the annoying aspect, as you just have to accept that they’re there.

The annoyance arises when they’re unsigned. For about 80% of the topes there will be a sign warning of its presence but no forewarning. No nice 300m, 200m 100m to go heads up. No, the sign is an X-marks the spot. Something you cannot afford to miss as you brake hard after changing channels or finished checking out the scenery. And that’s for those topes that are marked.

Others aren’t marked at all. Where either the white surface paint has faded away or is hidden by the shadow of a building or tree. I was later to pay the penalty for hitting an unsigned topes but more on that another time. In the end, a slower journey time has to be accepted and the best alert is to drive behind another car when possible. The other obstacle, which cannot be forgotten – animals.

These road users have absolutely no respect for the mechanically propelled. I’ve seen animals, farm and exotic, dead and alive on or next to the road. I’ve shared the road with pigs, goats, horses, donkeys, hens and a cow. The latter sadly looked like a recent accident as apart from the fact it was dead, it looked in pretty good shape. I’ve seen a long snake, large iguana and coyotes cross the road in my path. So a constant vigil also has to be made for man and beast.

The other unique road sightings in a second world country include: old vehicles, roadworks and pick up trucks carrying passengers. It’s amazing how old trucks and buses, which would have been written off for parts decades ago at home, continue to crawl up mountains while coughing their guts up like a 20 pack a day enfacema smoker. Fortunately the bike has plenty of power to overtake but patience and caution is required when there are twenty cars between us.

As for the roadworks, which are in seemingly random order, they arrive with limited warning. Apart from that, when the surface is being relayed the contractors strip the road to bare clay and stone. Surface for which my bike is definitely not made.

And the other sign of a country’s relative wealth – passengers in the back of a pick-up truck. I’ve overtaken pick-ups with men huddled together presumably on their way to a job and young kids on their way to school. Obviously I get a few curious glances to which I try to respond with either a friendly nod or thumbs up.

I don’t want to be too negative as overall the road surface is pretty good. Where I just have to get use to driving on what we would call secondary roads and accept that my average speed will be much slower than the first half of the trip. Once in the zone it’s actually quite charming (most of the time).

I finished the second days riding by checking into the Bay Inn, Loreto. This is a small picturesque fishing village with a couple of nice beaches and has a population of 17K. I was pleased with my USD60pn king-size room in a luxury resort and hotel complex. Their surf and turf special was outstanding. It’s been a long time since I’ve had lobster meat folded back on its own shell. The staff were all quite friendly and Louis (the concierge) gave me the low down on the towns nightlife and offered to drop me into the town.

I ended up joining him at his local bar watching a televised boxing match where the Mexican champ beat the Puerto Rican challenger. Then toasted his victory with my first shot of tequila in Mexico. Good smooth stuff unlike the rubbish slammed at home. Sound guy and interesting to hear the stories of his horses, how tourism has halved year over year and how proud he was of his four daughters. The oldest of whom was soon heading to university to study architecture. On suggesting that he should introduce me – he shot back with the speed of a dotting father – that the local brothel was four blocks away.

Afterwards we headed to the local nightclub Baja Loreto where some of the other hotel staff joined. The venue itself was actually pretty cool – the last time I was in a roofless nightclub was Barcelona’s – La Terracea. The atmosphere was pretty lively in spite of the DJ’s efforts. Mediocre mixing can be overlooked, however in the age of file sharing, I-tunes, Spotify where good tracks transverse the globe within days and hits of last year are relegated to complication classics a dated play list shows poor effort.

As I spread the good news I was impressed with the level of English in the club (not even allowing Smallville). I ended the night early’ish but not without a final shot of tequila with the owner who gave me one of the club’s bandanas. An unexpectedly good time in a small town.

In spite of the tequila I left Loreto at 9.30am feeling pretty good and arrived in La Paz around mid afternoon. The town is slightly bigger and more commercial than Loreto as the peninsula’s main ferry port and oil refinery are located on its outskirts. Still a nice town to chill out for just over two days as the ferry left every other day.

I used the time to limber up after two days and 900km in the saddle, obtain the necessary travel permits for the motorbike and catch up on some reading. La Paz is quiet enough and two days was more than enough. Where the excitement on the street mostly related to the state gubernatorial elections. Certainly a lot more razzmatazz than electioneering back home. Street bands, parades, posters, vehicles preaching the virtues of the candidates livened up the race for this auspicious office. It must be a Mexican thing – two of the three candidates sported moustaches, which could only imply their fortitude. And I’m sure the third candidate would have grown one if gender permitted. The other poster which lined the main street related to a child’s disappearance and I hoped her plight wasn’t overlooked in the election fanfare.

One evening was spent in the company of the Foley family. American by birth where the Irish connection was long since diluted and forgotten. Both parents are university professors of biology and their two kids still in high school. Dad and son where uncannily alike sporting geeky beards but were pretty cool, competed to show off their impressive music knowledge and rightly boosted of their guitar collection. Dad even went to a Green Day concert (who I’ve seen twice). However the Foley’s 12 year old daughter is possibly rudest child I’ve ever come across.

In a household where I could see opinion and voice were rightly encouraged – this little princess still had to learn time and place. I’m glad the Foleys didn’t take exception, when I could no longer hold my tongue and told her to stop interrupting. I know what would have happened in the Dempsey household (and proper order too). God – I’m getting old. Anyway, we had a great evening all the same.

The next day, I set about the task of obtaining my Mexican bike ownership papers, which I suspected was going to be a bit of a circus act. Unfortunately I was correct, only too correct. As an aside, during my career I’ve been spoiled with various supports, which not only took the pain out of travelling but also made it enjoyable.

From wonderful P.A’s (thanks Jean & Belinda) who arranged flights, hotels, pick ups, printed boarding passes, to loyalty programs allowing entry to express queues, business lounges, extra luggage, free flights etc made life so much easier. How quickly one gets use to the extra’s in life. And of course the extra welcoming smile and assistance, which only comes when wearing a well cut Italian suit and a Jermyn Street shirt and tie. How shallow counter assistants are the world over, I haven’t been able to get the same level of courtesy while decked in my motorbike leathers.

Knowing all this in advance of the trip, I knew I’d have to lower my expectations, undertake all travel arrangements myself and join the proletariat in long queues. During the first part of the trip in the US and Canada all worked out smoothly and efficiently, excluding the incident where the assistant in Staples Manhattan wouldn’t scan my mere four pages there and then. I had to come back in the afternoon. Anyway, the first real difficulty with officialdom came in La Paz.

Before I could even reserve a place on the ship from La Paz to Mazatlan I had to obtain a permit from the Mexican transport office to show proof of ownership. A necessary evil as many vehicles were stolen in the US and subsequently sold in Mexico. This was my first real test of patience on the trip. I can tolerate bureaucracy when the process is clear and logical but what a head melt this turned out. The transport permit office is located in the port so I went there on the ships off day as I anticipated some loops would have to be jumped threw.

A nice girl with a friendly smile greeted me at the window hatch and explained what I needed: a tourist visa, driver’s licence and original bike ownership papers. No problem except for the tourist visit. The absence of which was the result of Mexican border control simply waving me through the checkpoint. But no big deal as the visa could be obtained without much hassle back in La Paz at the Department of Tourism. However this had to wait until the following day as the office closed at 1.00pm. Seemed fine and I wasn’t concerned, as the boats departure time was 7.00pm. Plenty of time – I thought.

I arrived at the tourist office before 11.00am and was relieved to find no queue and quickly completed the forms requested. Then the drama began. The visa cost pesos100 (Euro6) and a pesos980 (Euro55) penalty for not having obtained it at the point of entry. I explained what happened at the border and while the officer seemed sympathetic he didn’t have the authority to wave the fine. I was however free to report the matter to the complaints department and the tourist office would contact border control to investigate. A refund was possible on paper but I still had to pay the fine to get on the ship that day. Whatever, stay calm…

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Then I was informed to go to the bank to make the payment as the tourist office doesn’t have payment facilities. Off to the nearby Santander with the payment instructions. After queuing up, the teller informed me she couldn’t accept payment by debit or credit card. I can buy a small car in Mexico with my credit cards but cannot pay for a visa in the local Santander. So much for global banking. Without sufficient cash I had to go outside to the Santander ATM, which had a queue the length of a UN food distribution point in Darfur. Stay calm:

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As the minutes passed I hoped I’d get back to the tourist office before closing. The consequence of not getting the visa or permit was obviously missing the boat, spending Christmas in boring La Paz, forgoing the apartment I’d prepaid in Puerto Vallarta and then having to drive to Acapulco without a days break in between. Eventually I got the visa at about 12.45pm but not without higher blood pressure. First hurdle jumped.

I arrived at the port three hours before departure with all the documents advised of the previous day. I was pleased to see the girl with the friendly smile again and as she took my papers she reciprocated the wink. Kiss of death. When she brought my papers to her colleague with a worried look, the pit in my stomach returned. As I knew there was an issue to be cleared.

Both were unhappy that my Dutch bike papers only had my family where my passport and drivers licence had Alan Michael Dempsey. The risk being I could have stolen the bike from another Dempsey also based in Amsterdam. Thankfully they saw the light when I indicated that both the ownership paper and passport/drivers licence had my date of birth. A coincidence they even thought too remote. Then came the killer.

The ladies were now happy with the papers but required copies of each before issuing the permit. Friendly smiley face changed her expression on reading mine – you stupid mare, why didn’t you fucking tell me that yesterday. Stay calm, or I’ll never get on the boat:

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Luckily I’d arrive so early. Back on the bike for the 20 minutes (each way) trip to La Paz. Fortunately, I remembered a place that advertised copying facilities. Remember, I still hadn’t a ticket for the boat. With copies duly made I returned to friendly smiley face and finally obtained the Mexican ownerships papers after paying the Peso350 fee.

Now I could go to the ticket office which was on the other side of the harbour to book my place on the boat. Again the ladies from Baja Ferries remembered me from the previous day and in keeping with the festive spirit both counter assists wore all-in-one short length Santa’s helpers outfits. Something at least to take my mind of the drama. Even if momentary. As I went to pay for the ticket I realised that friendly smiley face back at the transport office hadn’t returned my fucking credit card. Why me:

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Again, I jumped the motorbike and headed back to the office while the ladies processed the ticket using my second credit card.

With only minutes to spare, I boarded the boat much relieved and made a b-line for the bar. Like most people, I’ve been through some challenging moments in my career and personal life but was always able to manage them with little or no angst. God I was proud of myself for not lashing out, be damning the country and overall keeping my cool (and least on the outside). And although I wasn’t able to get a cabin, I slept for most of the 12-hour journey on an airplane-like chair in a room with about 250 other people. Where the noise from the kids, the TV and the ignorant didn’t bother me in the slightest.

I disembarked at sunrise and arrived five hours later at my apartment in Puerto Vallarta. A Christmas present to myself. I know I’m likely to encounter worse beauracrcy as I drive further south through some real Banana Republics. It was just unfortunate that this permit challenge was made worse due the time conflict with Christmas. Had I missed the boat at any other time during the trip it wouldn’t have been an issue to stay in La Paz for a couple of more days. To finish on a positive note – I’ve had a super awesome time in Mexico. But more of that another time.


Al Dempsey
27 January 2011.