Jan 8, 2014

From Brownsville, there are three bridges that you can use to cross the border into Mexico. Two of them are called the ‘International’ bridge – one is older and one is newer – so I took the newer one, hoping for greater expediency. The process was relatively painless, you leave the car with two ‘minders’, one of which had never seen a Volvo before, and then go to immigration. Inside, the officer seemed to become a little friendlier after he saw my Romanian passport. ‘Your face is not so much American, yes? Your face is very European. Comprendes?’ You buy your insurance from an agent, get your car permit, go back outside and have your whole trunk taken out for inspection. The MSR camp stove fuel bottle (bright red) seemed to puzzle the two guards, but they let it go after awhile. And then you’re out in Matamoros.

Matamoros has recently been in the news for a lot of killings, kidnappings and overall scary gang activity. Immediately it’s easy to see why. Where as most towns in Mexico have a lot of police cars, this one had none (at least that I could see). Everything is run down, with houses crumbling, cars trying to squeeze in at the lights (some obeying them, some not). Buses, taxis, dogs, children, food vendors, newspaper vendors, are everywhere. The potholes start to happen (more on that later). Your every sense is now heightened. It quickly becomes apparent you’re not in Kansas anymore. The TomTom GPS that was promised to work in 87.5% of Mexico, does not. It gives a relative direction, but not which roads to follow. It’s not even showing any roads, period. The AT&T network stops working. As I meander along the streets, trying to get a general direction to the highway, the GPS decides it’s now drunk and so I manage to get lost. I drive the wrong way on one way streets, I circle the same blocks a few times, and while nobody seems to mind, everyone looks at you. Let me make this very clear, a side street in Matamoros is not where you want to have a flat or blow a radiator hose. I finally get back on a major road and swap my TMobile sim card into my phone. I get full bars, and more importantly, 3G data.  I open up Google Maps at a stoplight, type in Tampico, and soon I’m on the right road. Side note: I would like to thank Google and also TMobile, which is now offering free data and texts abroad.

Half an hour outside of Matamoros, you’re in a different world. Blue skies with rolling hills of greenery. Fresh air. Like upstate New York fresh. I’ve now been in Mexico three days, and whatever spats of bronchial cough I caught at the office are completely gone. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel like I have a cold anymore, and even though I’m dead tired at night, I wake up more refreshed then ever.


The drive to Tampico, though beautiful, is punctuated by potholes. Lots of them. And I don’t mean little tennis ball ones, I mean coffee table sized ones that swallow your tire up to your rim. Driving becomes a game, kinda like Frogger, between you and the potholes, you and the incoming cars, both swaying to the left or right, caught up in a dangerously flirty tango. You can no longer get bored driving, and whatever luxury you had stateside of falling asleep at the wheel is now gone out the window. If you take your eyes off the road for a second to put in a CD or look at the map, there’s a 50-50 chance you will hit a big one. I’ve included some photos, these are of average size, there’s smaller, trickier ones and much larger ones.



I have my first fill-up at a gas station outside CD Victoria, and soon get the first major scare of the trip. There were two pumps, one red and one green. The red said 92, and I remember one of them said ‘Sin plomb’ – but which one? I know I used the red one. Is that bad? Does that mean the one I used is leaded? I completely forget octane ratings, and all of the sudden 92 seems like jet-fuel. 20 miles down the road I finally find a spot to pull over, in the middle of the desert. If I did use leaded gasoline, I’m screwed. The engine will seize, and everything from the catalytic converter to the fuel pump, filter etc. will be destroyed. Basically meaning my trip would be over. I couldn’t even fathom calling a tow truck here and waiting weeks (+money) for the parts to arrive. But do they even use leaded gasoline anymore? I try looking it up on my cell phone, but no data and one measly bar of service. So I decide to siphon out as much fuel as possible into the 6 gallon jerry can I have. I take out the whole contents of my trunk to get the siphon hose. It goes in about two feet into the gas tank and then stops. Great. Anti-siphoning cap. Thanks a lot Volvo. When I try to take out, it won’t budge. I break a small plastic flap and chip a nail, but it finally comes out. The sun is now setting, I’m dirty, sweaty, all my bags are out, and still no solution. A few references to Walter White come to mind. I decide to bite the bullet and keep driving, hoping to get as many miles before the car stops.


Front under carriage protection panel gone from hitting too many potholes.

The car doesn’t stop, and I find that 92 is Premium fuel, unleaded, and it costs a penny: $40 for about 10 gallons. Now I’m driving at night, 2.5 hours behind schedule, and a long ways away from Tampico. I’ve driven though some gnarly conditions in my life – icy, snowed over, hurricane windy, one-side-volcano-one-side-lake-horse-road in pitch black Iceland – and this would be kinda like it, except for a few different things. There’s two thin lanes, with alternating 1-2mi patches of proper tarmac, gravel (where, at the speed you’re going, your car starts to sway, front and back), or hard dirt/potholes. There seem to be 50 semis for every passenger car. Most of them have their brights on, these large looming lamps coming at you from a distance, one after another, like on a merry go round. Some trucks are decorated with complex light installations that twinkle and change colors, and in the clouds of dust and night, you might get carried away and think you’re tripping. Except you’re not, you’re intensely glued to the steering wheel and windshield, trying to spot the next pothole. You’d be driving slower if you could, but you can’t because you’ll get flashed and honked at repeatedly by the semi behind you. They can’t overtake you and they’re on a schedule.

On average you’re doing 60+mph, which is pretty fast, considering. Most potholes are avoidable, but some are not. They’ll be on either side of you, and you need to make a choice quickly which one is the worst. Your suspension will be bottomed, the gps will fall off its cradle, and every time you’ll wonder why you didn’t blow a tire or bend a rim. Coyotes will dart out in the night, inches away from your headlights, and you’ll get to practice your Spanish, yelling ‘conio!’ and ‘puta de tu madre’.

At every highway ramp, or major crossroads, you will meet the Policia Federal. Armed to the gills like swat teams, with mean looking black Chargers and Suburbans, they will pull you over for inspection or just wave you through. The universal sign that such a checkpoint is coming up, is that everyone puts on their hazard lights, well ahead of the checkpoint. So don’t do what I did, which is to drive around the truck or car in front of you, wondering why they put their hazards on. You will get pulled over. The cop didn’t come out of his car – he stayed behind me for about 10 minutes with his lights on and spotlight trained on my head. He then turned them off and drove away. I finally made it to Tampico around 9pm, had dinner and a couple of Victoria (how appropriate) beers and passed out in bed, fully clothed.

These are the personal views and thoughts of Stefan and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally, LLC.