If you are considering a vacation in Mexico, I will offer the following. Take a list of all the countries in North America and the Caribbean and plop your finger down. If it lands on Mexico, try again until it lands somewhere else. Anywhere else.
It’s not that the people are unfriendly. It’s quite the opposite. Everyone I’ve met, not only on this trip but also on several previous, has been helpful, friendly and understanding even through the language barrier. I’ve gotten a lot of fist bumps and thumbs-up since I crossed the border on the motorcycle. Also the food is great and there is some beautiful scenery. I’m just saying that if it were me, I’d put aside the money you’ll inevitably have stolen by corrupt cops and customs officials and put it towards a plane ticket to someplace else.
The crew of Silverheels II deliberately avoided the country earlier this year when we sailed past here directly to Belize and Guatemala for just such reasons. And if it weren’t such a conspicuously large landmass directly in my path to Central America, I’d have avoided it on this trip as well.
The first two days were uneventful. I stopped in Monterrey where I had a nice lunch on their downtown plaza. I spent the second night in San Luis Potosi, and woke early to ride to Cuernavaca, a town just south of Mexico City that I had heard was nice.
Despite my best efforts to avoid Mexico City altogether, somehow through a series of missed off ramps, I was drawn as though by a whirlpool into the traffic-choked, smog-smothered desperation of downtown. The entire place is a blisteringly hot, honking mare’s nest of streets filled with people desperate to get absolutely nowhere as fast as they can. The streets may have been adequate as Aztec walking trails or donkey cart paths, but they are woefully incapable of serving a city of over 19 million people. At one point the gridlock was so bad that I seriously considered putting the kickstand down in the middle of the street getting a taco. Eventually, I extricated myself from the mess and got on a highway, any highway, heading away from downtown. While it was hot and irritating, I figured it was par for the course and was just happy to escape.
Soon I was off the major roads and in a beautiful and mountainous forest of pines. The cool, misty silence was a world removed from the chaotic miasma on the other side of the mountain range. I was actually beginning to warm up to the country. Maybe I had been too hasty to judge in my previous negative experiences. I rounded a corner as fireworks exploded overhead and found myself in the midst of procession through town led by a priest in white robes, a group directly behind carrying a gilded statue of a bald saint, with costumed dancers and a mariachi band bringing up the rear.
“Now this is the real Mexico,” I thought to myself as I neared the edge of town. That’s when I saw the police roadblock and soon realized that the real Mexico is what I had already known, a country fouled with corruption.
When the cops flagged me to the side of the road and asked for my documentation, I knew what was coming. There were three of them around a pickup truck. One, the oldest, was in an official looking uniform with a fancy hat, mirrored glasses and a moustache. He was to play bad cop. His partner was chubby with a more jovial nature, wore a regular policeman’s uniform and did most of the talking. He was to play good cop. The third, a weightlifter type with a band-aid on the bridge of his nose, fatigues, and a bulletproof vest with handcuffs strapped to his chest said very little. His job was to stand there and look scary. I’d swear there’s a playbook for these guys if I thought they could read. I’d seen it before and it’s one of the reasons I generally try to avoid this country whenever possible.
After producing my papers, they determined that I did not have a proper “smog check” and the bike would be confiscated if I didn’t pay the fine of $200 on the spot. I was exhausted from the ordeal in Mexico City so didn’t put up much resistance and besides, they held my registration, there were three of them and they had guns. Eventually, I got the fine lowered to $180. Since I didn’t have that much in my wallet, I reached into my jacket envelope pocket. When they saw more money, suddenly the fine doubled. Eventually chubby happy cop took $220 and promptly gave me back $40 for some reason.
I wish I could say it was a few bad apples, but something like this has happened every single time I’ve come to this place. Every time. It’s systemic and it has become an industry. The cops had a good day, though. They got to play their power trip game and wound up with plenty of Saturday night beer and brothel money. The ride into Cuernavaca might have been beautiful, had I not been fuming from the extortion.
I will continue to make every effort to avoid this country in the future and unless this country changes in a big way, I will recommend others do the same. I will also pass this story on down the pike as I run into fellow travelers. I wouldn’t expect change soon though. Mexico has a proud history of bureaucratic corruption stretching at least back to the days of Balboa.
This is sad because the only people that will suffer from this are the hotel workers, waiters, bartenders, and other tourist related trades who have always been great (I don’t care what happens to the Mexican airport cab drivers, however, but that’s another story). These cops don’t care that they’re stealing, hurting me directly and other Mexicans indirectly. That $200 would have ended up in somebody’s pocket that earned it. The thing is, there are so many other countries where I’ve never had problems like this. There are plenty of places where I’d rather spend my time and money without getting a knot in my stomach every time I see a police check point, wondering how much it could cost me this time.
I’m willing to put in extra hours in the saddle to get out of this country as soon as possible and down to the Guatemala border (been there twice for a number of weeks at a stretch and never had a problem). In the meantime, if anyone asks me my thoughts on a vacation in Mexico, I’ll tell them that St. Croix is nice this time of year.