After Oaxaca, our next major overlanding goal was to reach the Yucatan penninsula to explore the Mayan ruins and cenotes that area is known for. However, we still had to traverse a lot of territory to get to the Yucatan – 1,500 km to be precise. To leave Oaxaca, we took road 190 south towards Tehuantepec. While this road was wider and better maintained than the 175 which we took to come into Oaxaca, it was by no means an easy drive. It was disintegrating in sections, with hairpin turns, and steep drops. We spent most of the day driving, and by the afternoon we pulled into Teahuantepec. Tehuantepec has historically been considered a crossroads of Mexico, as it is located on the isthmus (i.e. the narrowest part of the country) and many major roads meet there. The women in Tehuantepec are known for the beautiful embroidery on their dresses – a style which incorporates large, beautiful, colorful flowers.
We had used the Mike and Terri Church’s book, Traveler’s Guide to Mexican Camping to identify a campsite on the outskirts of Tehuantepec, and we tried to navigate to the site. However, after crossing railroad tracks that scraped the bottom of the van, rattling down a few kilometers of unmaintained dirt roads, and questioning a couple of local people who had no idea what we were talking about, we decided that the campsite either no longer existed, or was so remote as to be too difficult for us to find.
Frustrated, we turned to our i-Overlander app to see if anyone had posted any recommendations on where to stay in the city. The results were not very promising…but we did see the Tehuantepec Inn that was located right next to the police station and had a locking gate. We struggled back up the dirt roads to the main highway, took a wrong turn down a narrow street into of the most hectic center of town, corrected our path and finally made it to the Tehuantepec Inn. Frankly, we were both pretty stressed by this point. Driving through Mexican urban areas requires your full attention under the best conditions, but after a long day with an unclear destination and heavy traffic it was enough to make us question our sanity for embarking on this trip.
We got into our room and reflected for a little bit. While we had loved Oaxaca, we were finding that the further south we went, the more difficult overlanding camping was becoming. The organized campsites of the Baja and northern Mexico simply simply do not exist in southern mainland Mexico, which for us makes overland traveling a lot less fun and a lot more difficult. Our Church’s Camping book was becoming less and less helpful since it had not been updated for several years, and the campsites identified in the i-Overlander app were often in locations that we would not feel comfortable staying. The distance to the Yucatan – and the unkown conditions in between – seemed particularly daunting at this point, and we talked about whether we should turn around and start heading back to the United States.
So we looked at a map. We calculated it would take us 2 days to reach the world famous Mayan ruins at Palenque. After coming so far, we decided that we should at the very least visit this site. After visiting Palenque, we would make the decision on whether to turn around or continue to the Yucatan. If the roads and the lodging situation continued to make us feel frustrated and stressed, we would turn around at that point. However, if we were able to find reliable information about good camping in the Yucatan we would continue on. With these decisions we decided we would cross over the isthmus on the 185 the next day, and stay in Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico. Tired of the scavenger hunt to find campsites, I used Hotels.com to find a hotel with secured parking on sale for 45% off. It rained most of the next day as we were traveling, but the roads were significantly better, and we found the hotel with no problems. The hotel even had a small gym, allowing us to exercise, despite the rain.
For other overlanders considering a trip through mainland Mexico, I would say it is important to realize that organized camping may not be available in many areas of the country. Our experiences have taught us Mexican cities can go from boom to bust within the course of just a year or two – such that an area that once had many campgrounds may not necessarily have them now. It is essential to seek out the most up to date information available. As I have said before in this blog, our preference is to stay in small hotels when organized camping is not available. We are lucky because our van is just small enough to fit into most parking garages – so the van can be locked up at night while we are staying in a hotel. People traveling in RV’s would not have that option, and would need to consider parking overnight in a public area that may not be meant for camping.