Nancy and Jeff Move to Mexico: Part One, the Trip to Merida

Dave DeWitt Mexico and Central America Leave a Comment

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By Nancy Gerlach

Nancy in 1995

[Editor’s Note: Nancy Gerlach and I founded Chile Pepper magazine with Robert Spiegel in 1987 and have written ten books together.  She and her husband Jeff love Yucatán, so they decided to sell their house in Albuquerque, buy a house on the beach, and retire.  Here’s part one of their story.  –Dave DeWitt

We left Albuquerque late on Saturday, August 16, 2008 after turning over the keys to 165 La Media to Paul and Dolores, the people who bought our house, and off we went looking much like the Clampetts of “Beverly Hillbillies” fame. We drove only as far as Socorro that day to give Jeff an idea of how the trailer handled before starting the long hauls into Mexico, and also to see how our cat would react to traveling since he’d only been in a car for the 2 mile trip to the vets and he would scream all the way. Apparently, some cats are known to just curl up and go to sleep in long car rides. Not Swat. It only took a short while for us to be thankful that we had gotten tranquilizers for him as he was howling and trying to rip the carrier apart all the way. I was starting to think maybe I should take some of his drugs also! Sunday after giving the cat his pill, we took off for Del Rio, Texas. It was uneventful and we all got a good night’s sleep in preparation for Mexico.

On Monday, we crossed into Mexico at Piedras Negras and after paying the toll to cross the international bridge, we were at customs ready to be inspected. The officer took one look at the trailer and packed car and decided he didn’t want to deal with us. He told us we had to go back and cross at the other bridge, the one that the commercial trucks use. In order to turn the car and trailer around to get back to the other bridge, the border guard had to stop all the traffic coming into Mexico so we could make the turn. Then we had to go back to the U.S. after of course paying the bridge toll again. We were then at U.S. Customs and thinking what if they claim that we were bringing this stuff from Mexico? Fortunately, the border guy believed our story, checked his computer and maybe saw we were only there for ½ hour, and told us how to get to the other bridge. We paid the bridge toll yet again and were at Mexican Customs with our list of what we were declaring.

The inspector had us open the trailer and looked in the packed car, saw the cat and said that he didn’t matter, and then the fun started. All the inspectors at the border came over to look and ask questions in Spanish. Finally the original inspector called over a young guy who spoke pretty good English (certainly better than our Spanish.) Seems like this was his first day on the job and the first custom guy was training him. So Jeff, the inspector, and the trainee went into the office to “talk.” After about 45 minutes Jeff came out laughing saying the duty on our goods was $95 U.S. and the money to the customs inspector was a couple hundred dollars and how to make money off of duty payments was all part of the training for the new guy!

With all of our papers in order, we were off. We made it to the first town across the border, Sabinas, and all of a sudden and for no reason we are pulled over by the police. These guys were a couple of kids and they kept asking for Jeff’s driver’s license. We knew what they wanted and we also knew that once they had it we couldn’t get it back without paying, so we played dumb and handed them every scrap of official-looking paper that we had including those for the cat. They finally got tired of the game and told us to leave. Down the road we went chuckling that it didn’t cost us. One should never get cocky.


On the other side of the town a police car driving in the opposite direction made a screeching u-turn in order to pull us over. We had to open the trailer and show him our papers. He said we hadn’t paid duty on the stuff in the car, we said we did and all that was in there were clothes and you don’t pay duty on that. At that point a truck with Mexican plates pulled up and a young fellow got out and said in perfect English, “Can I help you? I know what the reputation the police have around here for harassing Americans and that I live in the next town and I’ll try to help.” What a nice man! He kept telling the person in charge that we had the customs papers that were properly stamped and that we are just trying to get to our home in the Yucatán and to just let us go on our way. So the policeman called his superior who came roaring up in a big truck, jumped out, handcuffed our Good Samaritan and pushed him into the squad car. Last thing the guy said to us was “See what happens when you try to do a good thing?” To make a long story short and after sitting in the sun for about another 45 minutes with the threat of having to go to police headquarters, we finally paid this guy half of what he was asking “for our infraction,” whatever that was, and were on our way again. We never saw our nice Mexican helper again and can only hope they let him go without much trouble.

The next town, Monclova, was a place where we were stopped by the police in October, so we took the truck route around the town in hopes of avoiding any of them. Everything was going great until we got to a railroad crossing and there sits a police car. The officers took one look at us and I said to Jeff you better pull over and open your wallet. This time we were pulled over because we couldn’t see out the back window of the car because of the luggage—never mind the fact that we couldn’t see out the back window because we were pulling a trailer! More money and we are again on the road.

We made it to Saltillo where they make all the great floor tiles after it was already dark and starting to rain. We stopped at the first place we came to that advertised rooms and said we might as well take whatever they have as we aren’t going to be able to find anything else at this hour. Turned out to be a great room, a suite actually, that for some reason the cat liked too. He ate his dinner and curled up in the bathtub and went to sleep. Got up early and started on our way before the sun was up, so I can’t tell you about the town as we never saw it in the light. Next stop, Tampico.

Tampico is the last major city in our travels that is notorious for pulling over tourists. We got there very late in the afternoon, missed our exit, and got lost in the downtown area during rush hour. Definitely not something you want to do while pulling a trailer. We got so lost that even the locals at the Pemex gas station couldn’t tell us how to find the road that we were looking for. So we hired a taxi to show us the way out of town. What we saved in bribes was made up for in cab fees but now we are far enough into Mexico that the chances of being stopped by the police just because we’re not Mexican were low.

The next day we were going to see how far we could get past the city of Villahermosa so that we could make it into the Yucatán in one more day. We didn’t know too much about the road from Tampico to Villhermosa and it was incredible!! Twisty and turny, up over and down mountains and going through many small towns on a road with very high topes. For those of you who don’t know what a tope is, they are very high, speed bumps before and through towns that, when you are pulling a trailer gets you to come to a stop before going over them. Very effective at slowing traffic. Even though we were coming to a complete stop before going over them, the hitch on the trailer would hit them and I was making a sound every time we hit. This of course, was driving Jeff crazy. Oh, did I mention it was raining, too? What would have taken a few hours in a car, took us a tense eternity for us, but finally we were out of the mountains, into Mayaland, and on the coastal toll road heading for the Yucatán.

Some miles down the road we were crossing topes heading into a toll booth when we heard a terrible crash and our trailer hitch hit the ground. Jeff went out to look and saw the pin that held it to the car had come out and now it was being held by only a chain. Since the traffic had to slow for the topes, we were able to get them to stop so Jeff could drive over to the side of the road. An official came out of the booth to see what the problem was and said that the nearest mechanic was 30 km off the toll road. Just as Jeff was trying to think about the logistics of getting the hitch fixed, the official turned and said, “No, he’s right there helping someone else.” Jeff talked to the mechanic who got in his trunk and pulled out a box of assorted nuts, bolts and various metal things. He fashioned a new pin that was stronger than the old one and between him and Jeff managed to lift the trailer and get the hitch attached. All that took less than 20 minutes and when we asked what it cost, he said “nada” and wouldn’t take any money. Jeff finally got him to take something to buy some cervezas after work.

On Thursday, after five long days of traveling, we were going to make it to Chelem. The sun was shining and the roads were relatively good although there was a fair amount of construction and repair work being done. In Chiapas, we were slowing down for a construction site when all of a sudden we realized the truck in front of us had stopped! Jeff slammed on the brakes but with the weight of the trailer we couldn’t stop before we bumped into the truck. Didn’t crash into him but it was clearly our fault. This old gentleman got out, looked at his truck, then looked at us and got a big grin on his face. Oh no we thought, how much is this going to cost???

He came over to shake our hands, asked where we were from and where we were going. When we said to live in Mérida, he said good, it’s a beautiful place and have a good journey. With that he was back in his truck (one of those old small Mexican trucks with bumpers out of steel so we couldn’t have done any damage) and took off down the road, like a bat out of hell, waving to us. When you get to this part of Mexico all you have to say is you’re going to Mérida and people smile and say beautiful city. Boy, was our luck still holding.

Two hours out of Mérida it was SO HOT! The cat started panting because he was over heating and was in real distress. We pulled over and put some ice in a plastic bag and put it in the carrier to bring down the temperature for him. We didn’t turn on the air conditioner for us because it would reduce the power and with pulling the overloaded trailer, we needed all the power we could get. So the cat had a swamp cooler and we suffered.

We made it to Chelem without any more problems and we were drinking a cold “Sol,” watching the sun set from our porch that evening. Now we did arrive during the last week of August, so we got a taste of the July/August madness at the beach. On the road to our little town there was a temporary traffic warning light at the roundabout and a policeman directing traffic! But by the first weekend in September, the light came down, the police went back to Progreso, and where we live became a “ghost town” again. Except for the weekends we don’t see many people around here. Guess that might change some in the next couple of months when the snowbirds start arriving.

But for now we are enjoying the quiet and unwinding from a year of selling our things and settling here in Mexico. This has been the condensed version of “traveling with Nancy and Jeff.” More of our adventures at a later date.


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