I love works that are renewed and improved. Carl Franz and Lorena Havens have been exploring the hinterlands of Mexico and reporting back their travel suggestions in amusing detail since their first edition of this book in 1972. For four decades this venerable guidebook has been the best manual for visiting Mexico, getting better with each edition. It has just been released in its 14th. Franz and Havens are not going to be much help in keeping you up to date with the best hotel in the usual tourist destinations (your standard Lonely Planet-ish guide will handle that). Where The People’s Guide transcends the usual guidebook is in its devotion to the blue highways and backlands, the off beat places and indigenous living.
This guide is best for those driving around Mexico in a vehicle, camping in its many parks, exploring its meandering dirt roads, hanging out on undeveloped beaches, sampling native foods and immersing yourself into the culture of our neighbor as much as possible. It’s chock full of all the advice you’d expect from a couple who have been noodling around Mexico every year for thirty five years: how to live off the land, keep on the right side of the law, shop for strange and exotic foods, survive, educate yourself in local customs, and remain healthy and sane. It’s a fat 700-page book with lots of great stories, and endless good counsel. (They run a supplementary website for updated tips.)
A lot of this lore is universal travel wisdom (the less money you spend the more fun you have). In fact The People’s Guide to Mexico is one of the best travel guides I’ve ever seen to anywhere in the world. You could easily transfer many of their tips to traveling in Asia or Africa, and the rest of Latin America. But the bulk of it is very particular to Mexico. Every page yields golden nuggets of fine advice for every part of a very large Mexico. I find myself reading whole chapters for the pure enjoyment of being in the presence of great, gifted guides teaching me useful stuff I didn’t know.
The Mexico/US borders is one the most abrupt borders in the world. There’s almost no where else on earth where you can travel so far in so few miles as crossing this imaginary line. This trip has the additional benefit of being guided by this amazing encyclopedia of practical tips and insights. You’d be a fool not to take it with you.
It’s the operating manual for people in Mexico.
Building a palapa
I climbed over other passengers and cargo to the cab of the truck, determined to check our speed.
“Hey,” I yelled back to Lorena, “It’s really not so bad after all. We’re only doing 90 to 100 kilometers an hour. That’s fast but not so dangerous.” I took another peek through the rear window; a curve was coming up and we were slowing to 70. i was just about to turn and work my way back when I noticed a small “MPH” beneath the speedometer needle.
MPH! I felt the blood drain from my face and go roaring through my ears and down to my feet. Seventy into a curve! One hundred on the straightaway!
“Let me off! Let me off!” I screamed, pounding the roof of the cab with my fists. I got a glimpse of the driver’s startled face turned toward the rear of the truck.
Many common driving hazards and annoyances found in the U.S. are also in Mexico, though usually in a slightly altered form.
In the U.S., the omnipresent teenager hunched birdlike behind the wheel of his 400-hp candy-colored, air-foiled Supercar, passes you dangerously close at 140 mph as he calmly munches a DoubleBurger and squeezes an annoying pimple.
In Mexico, he’s still the same basic teenager, apparently oblivious to other traffic and mesmerized by the blaring radio and the dangling ornaments that festoon mirrors and knobs. But there is one difference: He’s behind the wheel of a hurtling semi-truckload of sugarcane. And he’s passing you on a blind mountain curve. You glance over, afraid to imagine what is about to happen. He grins, flashes a peace sign and cuts you off as he swerves to miss an oncoming bus.
Low-flying buzzards are a very real hazard, as are piles of drying corn, beans and chili peppers placed on the hot pavement by enterprising farmers who prefer the smooth road surface to the dusty shoulder.
As you fly around a curve and find yourself unexpectedly in the middle of small village, it seems that everyone suddenly leaps up and crosses the street, forcing you to brake madly. Pigs that haven’t moved from gooey wallows for a week lurch frantically to their feet and stumble in front of the car, followed by reckless children beating them with twigs.
These are relatively minor hazards that you’ll soon become used to. For really serious trouble, nothing compares to other drivers.
“They may be wild, but they’re damn good!” is a comment you might hear, especially about Mexican truck drivers. If good driving involves good sense, however, they must surely be among the worst. Many truckers would be disqualified from a destruction derby on ground of excessive zeal and disregard for human life.
The good news is that the average Mexican chofer (driver) is definitely getting better. Drivers are more courteous and less likely to indulge in macho grandstanding while behind the wheel of the family car. Bus drivers have also gotten the message about safety and many of them could give lessons to American drivers.
Still, it is dangerously easy for tourists to fall into the same driving habits they see demonstrated by others. When you’re breathing fumes behind a slow diesel truck in a steep mountain pass, the temptation to pass on a blind curve can be very strong. At this point, you should seriously consider what the consequences are if you don’t make it.
Knife blade inscriptions: He Who Acts Bad Ends Bad; Life Is The Road to the Tomb; Beans Are Worth More than Happiness
Diarrhea and Dysentery
Powdered scorpions, chia and 7Up, camomile and “dog tea,” food enzymes, acidophilus, papaya seeds, dried apricot pits: When it comes to upset stomachs, nausea, diarrhea, and disenteria, I’ve tried almost everything. As a firm believer in the value of medical plants and folk remedies, I’m sorry to announce that a dose of bismuth solution (such as Pepto-Bismol) seems to beat them all. In fact, our experience clearly shows that taking the pink stuff in moderate doses before, during, and even after traveling can dramatically reduce stomach problems.
Though it is effective, I’m no fan of bismuth’s cloying pink taste and I don’t like to pour it repeatedly into my stomach. I now take about half of an adults dosage (one tablespoon 3-4 times a day). I start my bismuth program a few days before leaving home and continue taking it once or twice a day for about a week. If my stomach shows no sign of rebellion in that time, I go to “standby” and keep the bismuth close at hand in the event of sudden turmoil.*
In Mexico, “look before you leap” isn’t just an expression, it’s a survival tip. Forget about bandits; the greatest threat to your safety comes from slippery cobblestones, uneven sidewalks, knee-high curbs, head-knocking signs, eye-poking awnings, toe-stubbing thresholds, open trenches, unexpected drop-offs and discarded construction debris.
Keep track of your personal belongings. When Lorena and I lead tours or travel with friends, we continually pick up our companions’ stray cameras, passports, purses and room keys. Tourists routinely walk away from their suitcases, leave their credit cards at souvenir shops and their only shoes at the beach, and can’t recall which lavanderia (laundry) they left their clothes in.
A fellow we traveled with in eastern Mexico left his binoculars hanging on a chair in the restaurant of a small hotel. By the time he realized his mistake, we were hundreds of miles away and couldn’t go back. When I returned to the hotel two years later, the owner’s first words were, “I have the binoculars your friend forgot. … As a postscript, the fellow who lost and regained the binoculars returned to travel with us again. This time he left a very expensive Nikon camera in the washroom of a museum. In this case, however, the camera had vanished by the time we returned for it.