Driving Through Mexico With Dogs
We recently found ourselves needing to drive back to our hometown in California with our dogs. Since many residents of Merida (and Mexico) sometimes have the occasion to do the same thing, we thought we would share our experience. With all the negative press about the violence in Mexico, even we, having lived here for nine years and knowing better, were a little spooked about crossing the border. We searched the internet for recent accounts of driving to and from the United States from Mexico, and did not find many. Here, then, is the Working Gringos' contribution to the store of information that is available about driving in Mexico with dogs.
Sleeping With Dogs
There was never a question that we would bring our two dogs, Mali and URL. The dogs are malixes (Mayan word for "mutt"), callejeros (street dogs), and of course, members of the family. They have lived with us now for almost six years. Our second biggest concern, besides any random violence we might experience, was how to care for them and find a place to sleep with them in a land that considers dogs more like vermin than people.
We set out on a weekday morning to drive from Merida to Central California, where our children live. Our only planned stay was the first night in Villahermosa. From past experience, we knew that driving to Villahermosa was the most we could hope for on the first day. We also had heard that the Hilton, just outside of town on the east and near the airport, accepts dogs. We had our amazing assistant, Beatriz, make reservations for us so that we knew where we would be staying the first night.
Via Ciudad del Carmen
On this trip, rather than drive through Escarcega and past the turnoff to Palenque, we decided to take the coast road through Ciudad del Carmen. As we were nearing Campeche and looking at the map, we suddenly realized that it might make more sense to go that way (we had always gone the other way in the past). What to do? What to do? We quickly sent a Facebook request to our friends about the best way (they had recently traveled down from the States), and within minutes got the confirmation that this was the fastest route now.
It was about lunchtime by the time we passed Campeche via the cuota road, and we started looking for somewhere to eat. We meant to stop to eat in Champoton, but kept thinking we'd like the next place just a little better… and then before we knew it, there were no more next places! Rather than turn around, we kept going, past the still-being-developed developments of Playa Campeche, Santillana and Playas Palmeras. There actually is a little town of Sabancuy, with a few businesses, and then just beyond that, this mini-resort of Bahia de Tortugas.
A Recommended Stop for Lunch
We call it a mini-resort because it looked like there were a few hotel rooms, a big indoors and air-conditioned dining room and restaurant, and palapa-covered tables outside on the beach. We brought our dogs on leashes out to the beach (pictured in the banner at the top of the page), and found we were sharing the beach and the nearby swimming pool with a group of European travelers who were soaking up the sunshine. It was a gorgeous day and the water was inviting. The dogs got to run on the beach off leash and we got to eat a delicious fresh shrimp ceviche. There were clean bathrooms and even though they charged us $50 pesos each for the dogs, we thought the $411 pesos we spent on lunch was worth it, if only for the lovely setting.
Hilltop Hilton Takes Dogs
From that direction, we entered Villahermosa from the north and had to backtrack to get to the Hilton. By the time we got there, the sun was setting and we were glad to be out of the car. The dogs were welcomed, allowed into the room and there was plenty of space on the top of the hill to walk them around the parking lot and the hotel grounds. We wouldn't dare let them off leash there, as the hotel is right next to the highway. The sunset view from our walk looked out over the entire city (see the photo on the left). The room was clean and the bed was comfortable. Our room service dinner, the hotel room and the extra $500 pesos for each dog came to $1875 pesos.
Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz and Beyond!
The next day, we set out to traverse what we remembered as being the worst quality roads on the trip (we did this same trip about four years ago). To our delight, many of those bad roads had been repaired. Right after passing through Villahermosa we stopped at a lovely fruit stand and got some fresh bananas for the drive from one of the vendors along the highway. This would be the first of many stops along the way, where locals set up small puestos (stands) to sell whatever is grown locally. At various times along the trip we bought bananas, mangos, mandarinas (tangerines), honey and pineapple juice.
We did our best to avoid the city of Coatzacoalcos, but somehow managed to go right through it, including paying the $29 peso toll to go over the bridge into the city. We remembered having the same experience during the last trip and we're pretty convinced they have made the signage specifically confusing in order to collect more money! Coatzacoalcos is a fairly unattractive city but one full of services, should you need them, as it is a very important city in the oil industry.
After getting through the city, we did hit some bad roads on the way back to the main highway… roads that were down to one lane due to the collapse of the asphalt into the swamp. Despite that, and the obligatory stop for fresh pineapple juice along the way, we made it to Veracruz by about 3 pm that day. We thought we remembered places up along the beach that we had heard accepted dogs, so we kept on driving.
One of the places we stopped to walk the dogs was right next to Mexico's only nuclear power plant, Laguna Verde. There was a lovely stretch of well-maintained green grass there, as well as a great view of the beautiful mountains. That part of Veracruz looks a lot like parts of Hawaii. Past Laguna Verde, past towns with signs about evacuation routes in case of a meltdown, past miles of pastureland with pink-blossomed trees… it was all beautiful, but there was nowhere to stay. Now it was getting to be 5 pm and we were getting a little nervous. We were tired and had no desire to drive after dark.
Got Lucky North of Veracruz
When we finally saw the first hotel, we decided to stop there and see if they would accept dogs. The hotel was called Boca de Ovejas (Mouth of Sheep)… perhaps the equivalent of Sheepshead Bay? Working Gringa walked past the two swimming pools and the manicured lawn and asked the bored receptionist in her best Spanish if they wouldn't please accept dogs? Por favor? He shook his head. She insisted that they were older dogs, well behaved, short haired, very clean… and it was getting dark. Please?
To her surprise and delight, he relented. The fact that there was only one other couple in a hotel that looked like it had at least 40 rooms probably had something to do with it.
For $800 pesos, we had a large room on the ground floor with two beds, a TV, an air conditioner and a bathroom. The best part, however, was that the hotel was right on a lovely beach with black sand... another reminder of Hawaii. The beach was far enough away from the highway that we felt comfortable letting the dogs off-leash and we spent a beautiful sunset hour walking and running and playing there. A welcome respite after a day of driving! Dinner ($520 pesos) was outside, with the dogs lying at our feet, and the fresh fish was as good as it gets. The stars sparkled, the night was warm and the service was bemused. We were extremely happy to have found a place that in many ways even topped our Hilton stay in Villahermosa, and we started to feel confident that this trip was going to be a piece of cake.
Not so fast, there, cowboy.
Tuxpam, Tampico and Ciudad Victoria
The next day we got up early, had a quick run on the beach, and headed out by 7 am. We made it into Ciudad Victoria by 7 pm, after NOT getting lost in Tuxpam (we consider this a minor milagro (miracle)....)and only getting lost once in Tampico. Yes, we traveled with the most up-to-date Guia Roji maps of Mexico, but the map did NOT match the territory in Tampico. Still, we made it out without having to ask anyone directions and without getting stopped by the police. It was a long day of driving and we needed to sleep.
Ciudad Victoria was our planned stop for the night so that we could get an early run at the border the next morning. The city was the first place we saw armed military who appeared to be permanently stationed in parts of the city. At one hillside hotel that we passed, we saw a young soldier, barricaded behind sandbags with his loaded machine gun, perusing the passing traffic. We decided not to stop at that hotel, and instead headed for the exit road out of town towards Matamoros, where we planned to go the next day.
The most modern hotels in Ciudad Victoria are clustered around the exit to Monterrey, not too far away. We went to numerous front desks, tried our usual pleading and got absolutely nowhere. None of them would accept dogs, but finally one kind soul suggested we go to the auto hotel a few blocks over. We had heard that those hotels would be amenable to dogs, but had only seen one or two in this town, and they didn't look amenable even to humans, let alone dogs. At Motel Plaza, we found an understanding manager, who agreed to let us keep the dogs with us, as long as they stayed in the garage. These hotel rooms include garages, so that people can go there and no one will recognize their car. Of course, this fit our bill perfectly. We put the dogs in the garage with their food and dog beds, and kept the door between the closed garage and our very clean hotel room open. Everyone was happy, and if the dogs crept into the room in the middle of the night, no one was the wiser. The room, plus a pizza and a few drinks that night (delivered to the room, of course), was a mere $750 pesos, with the room itself costing only $360 pesos. Sorry, no photos. This place is strictly private!
Run For The Border... But First, A Few Tacos
We were up before dawn, dogs walked, bags packed and ready to go by 6 am the next morning. As we drove towards Matamoros, we did see a few hotels that looked like they might have accepted dogs, but we were glad we had stayed at the Motel Plaza. Despite the hard-as-a-rock bed and the questionable pizza for dinner, we could have ended up driving that dusty stretch towards the border at night with no place to sleep… not a pleasant prospect.
About 50 miles from the border, we got hungry and decided to stop for gas. The Pemex station that had looked normal from a mile away turned out to be shut down and closed. (We later found out the owners had been arrested and sent to jail for participating in illegal activities). Next door was a small house that advertised Machaca and Tacos de Carne Asada. We decided to eat there. Mario, a big strapping man of about 30 years old, came out to greet us, dressed in an apron and ready to cook the carne asada. We ordered one order of machaca (to see what it was like…) and two plates of tacos. The machaca came out first, served by Mario's mother, a silver-haired matriarch with a flowery apron. Mario's 8 year old daughter set the table (one fork and one tiny tiny napkin each), and then hung around to chat. Mario's 16 year old son brought us the Coca fria that we shared. While we ate the machaca (delicious dried beef mixed into scrambled eggs, with white corn tortillas and a jalapeño salsa served on the side), we heard a passionate telenovela on the TV inside, accompanied by the family calling and back and forth to each other. When we asked where the baño was, the 8 year old escorted us to very clean bathrooms in the backyard, labeled Damas and Hombres, and surrounded by a flock of free-range family chickens.
The plates of 6 tacos each were more than we could eat, but we did our damnedest because they were delicious. The total bill came to $130 pesos and after leaving a generous tip, and a special tip for the diminutive waitress, we were on our way. What a perfect Mexican experience: friendly people and great food in humble surroundings. Hasta pronto, Mexico! And thanks for all the tacos…
OK, Now We Can Cross
We stopped in Matamoros for a last fill up of gas, and though the gas station attendant was kind and could speak both English and Spanish fluently, we were treated strangely by the people in the store, and the other gas station attendants. We decided to get out of this strange place that seemed to be neither Mexico nor the United States, and headed for the International Crossing.
We got there at 10:30 in the morning and the crossing was practically empty. Note to Self: Cross on a weekday during mid-morning! We chose the shortest line, noting the signs with a word 'Sentri'. We thought this was a Spanish word we didn't know yet, but as it turns out, it's a special program for people who cross the border daily and we were in the wrong line. The border guards told us there would be a ticket the next time we made such a transgression, and then our truck was pulled into the station for inspection. The dogs were greeted, but no one asked to look at their papers which we had so conscientiously obtained. Our passports and visas were inspected, and we gave them a comprabante (a JAPAY bill) for our address in Mexico, but apparently this was only for the Sentri paperwork they had to file. They gave a cursory glance at our belongings and then sent us on our way. The whole thing took less than an half an hour, and would have been ten minutes if we hadn't been in the wrong line.
Welcome to Texas!
Now, there it was… Welcome (not to the United States but...) to Texas! The next few days were long days of constant driving. We stayed at La Quinta Hotels in San Antonio and Flagstaff because they accept dogs without batting an eyelash. The rooms were clean, the beds were comfortable (certainly, the dogs thought so...) and there were easy places to walk the dogs next to the hotels. It took us another three days of driving to get to the Central Coast of California.
The Cost of Driving 4300 Miles
For our own edification and to share with our readers, we kept track of what we spent. The entire trip was 4300 miles, from Merida, Yucatan to San Luis Obispo, California. We were driving a 14 year old gas-guzzling SUV and pulling a 1-ton trailer. To get from Merida to the border took us three nights and three days, and cost $8,320 pesos, $2,468 pesos of which was for gas. At about 12 pesos to the US dollar, that would be about $695 USD and $210 USD respectively. We traveled about 2000 miles in Mexico. To get from the border to our destination in California was another 2300 miles, and cost us $542 USD in gas. The gas prices are about $2.80 USD in Mexico, below $3.50 USD in the heart of Texas, and are above $4.00 USD a gallon in California at this writing.
Now, to head back to Merida!! (This time, we're going to fly… )
Bahia de Tortugas in Campeche
The Hilton in Villahermosa that accepts dogs
Laguna Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Veracruz
Hotel Boca de Ovejas north of Veracruz
Guia Roji Maps of Mexico
The Sentri Program – Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (phew!)
La Quinta Inns – dog friendly lodging, unfortunately only in the United States