December 10 – 12, 2018.
One of the last things anyone wants to hear when they are camped down the end of a dark dirt road by the beach late at night is someone outside pulling on the door handles of their van. This is what happened to us in Mazatlán. The bed was made and we were settled in watching something on the computer when we heard the disquieting sound of “clunk, clunk.” We shut off the computer and listened, then saw the glow of a flashlight through the reflectix that covers our windows. And then there was a knock on the van door.
Greg slid open the side door. It was the police again. “Cómo puedo servirle?” – How can I help you, he asked respectfully this time. They told us it was “peligroso”, “no es seguro”, and “tienen que salir” – dangerous, not safe, and we had to leave. “Donde vamos?” – where do we go, I asked. “Hotel,” they replied.
Of course we weren’t going to a hotel, but we had to go so we folded the bed up and pushed it back in place, pulled on our jeans, put on our shoes, and took down the reflectix. I picked up my phone, opened up my iOverlander app, and we headed out into the dark night of Mexico in a city that we knew little about to find a new spot to sleep.
Unlike in the US where I use many resources – websites, apps, maps – to find established paid and free camping sites, here in Mexico I have only one – iOverlander. iOverlander is crowd sourced website/app with listings of campsites and resources for travelers around the world with reviews and GPS coordinates to locate them. Many of the campgrounds are established pay RV parks and campsites that can be found in camping guides to Mexico, and have websites or roadside advertisements. But then there are the free sites which seem to be established by either one of two ways – asking a local where there are safe places to camp or just parking and seeing if anyone tries to break in or tells you to leave. Sometimes the information about the safety or availability of such sites can be old and change, or may be established by pure luck rather than the real legality or safety of such site.
We had two of these free beach campsites to check out from iOverlander a little north of the main city center as we headed into Mazatlán. Driving to the sites we turned down a nice paved road that quickly turned into a dirt road lined with large houses, condos, and several homes under construction. We passed by our first spot – which was supposed to be a parking lot, but looked more like a place to pull off the road bordered by looming three story houses with gated driveways. Further down the road we found our second option. A short single lane dirt path led from the main road to a small clearing on a hill that could accommodate one or two cars. The site – strewn with trash and with a beautiful view of the beach – was basically as described in iOverlander, except for one thing. It was in plain view of several large fancy houses.
We spent our first night there with no problems. We met one of the owners of one of the nice homes along the beach who walked up the hill to talk to us about the van. They were Canadian, escaping the chill of British Columbia. They had a Roadtrek van and were curious about our life and didn’t care at all that we were camping there.
The next day we drove into Mazatlán and enjoyed an afternoon of just wandering down the Malecón and through the old part of the city before heading back to what we thought was a safe and approved spot to bed down for the night…
There were plenty of options on iOverlander for us to move to after the police ousted us, but the only other beach sites were south of the city, an hour drive away. Someone had marked a Walmart as a good overnight spot so we decided to check it out. The parking lot was really big, but exposed to the busy main road. We pulled up closer to the store away from view of passing cars and parked. We went in for a few groceries and saw a sign that said they would be closing at 11. I wasn’t up for asking in my limited Spanish if it would be ok to stay and didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of still being there as the store was closing down. I opened iOverlander again and looked for another spot.
Not far away was a parking lot next to a police station. The reviewer said that they had asked for permission from the lot attended to stay and was told yes. So we turned back out in the the dark and busy streets of Mazatlán to try again. We didn’t have much trouble finding the location but the parking lot – a dirt field – was so dark we did have trouble finding the entrance. There was no attendant on duty so we just picked a spot near the only other parked car and pulled in. We took off our shoes, pulled out the bed, and bedded down fully clothed (And me with my contacts still in) in case we got another knock on the door. All was fine until the band. Blasting out Mexican crooner standards they sounded like that were right across the street. No problem, we have slept through loud music before. It was the voices that really made us feel anxious.
It sounded like someone talking on their phone right outside the van. We could have made out every detail of their most intimate conversation with their lover or the fine details of a late night business deal if only we knew enough Spanish. After what seemed like forever either the call ended or he walked away from the van and perhaps met someone on the street to chat with as we heard the murmuring of voices mixed with the sound of accordions and wailing love songs the whole entire night. I did not sleep. Greg, on the other hand snoozed soundly waking up only when the cacophony outside the door changed volume or pitch.
First light didn’t come soon enough but as soon as it did we headed back to the Malecón where we had been parked the previous day. Mazatlán was already awake – if it had ever slept at all. The lot attendant had arrived and was prepping his domain for the day’s parking of cars. As we turned out onto the road we saw vendors manning stalls ready to sell hot food. The roads were quiet but the Malecón was full of early morning runners and walkers zipping past people with brooms and dust pans sweeping the street. The world seemed bright, wonderful, beautiful, and “seguro”, no longer “peligroso.”
In retrospect I wish we had gone to our spot on the Malecón to spend the night. After we cleaned up a bit and had some food we left the van that morning and walked down the street. We saw a young couple in a VW van. They were from Argentina, had bought their van in Chiapas, Mexico and were heading to La Paz on the Baja peninsula to find work. They had slept on the well lit Malecón and although they had to listen to loud music all night they felt safe and “seguro.”
* As always, click on pics to enlarge into a slideshow.
8 thoughts on “What Happened in Mazatlán”
Your story gave me chills but what a beautiful town!
Mexico is one beautiful town after another, but not always so modern.
If I gave you chills, I did my job! It was an experience I hope we don’t repeat.
What an ordeal! Almost like being on anchor watch, but instead of worrying about crashing on shore, you’re worried about someone breaking into your van or being told to get up in the middle of the night and get moving.
I think I am going to add a new tag category to the blog called “Moving in the middle of the freaking night” or something like that. This is the first time we have had to do it in the van, but had to do it twice before on the boat (once because a 55 foot boat was banging into our hull). It was unnerving – hope it never happens again.
This is great, and the town looks so beautiful! I’ve got to add it to my list of future “must visits”!
Thanks! It is a lovely town. I didn’t think we would spend so much time there but a whole day evaporated without us realizing it. Mexico is kind of like that.
You are so right: the last thing anyone wants to happen when comfy in bed is to be chased (or scared) off. I think it will happen to all of us at some point, and I’m glad we didn’t have to get up and move yet, since having Zesty. It would be worse to do so in Mexico, especially at night. We hate driving at night in Mexico and Central America.
When we had a truck camper and traveled through Mexico in 2006, we did have your experience with the cop in La Paz, Baja California. That was before iOverlander, or even cell data connections. We left town at night and pulled over along the side of a busy road, where we saw other campers doing the same. We barely slept that night as well.
You know as I was reading your story, especially the part where you didn’t sleep at all, I had to think about the boat life. So many nights did we not sleep those eight years, because of the weather and neighbors anchored too close. I guess not sleeping in the van once in a while will have to be chalked up to the experience. Although, not sure when I’d feel less safe… in a boat that might drag, hit the reef or get in a collision, or in a van with drunk or loud locals around…
I definitely feel less safe in situations I have less control over. Even on the few nights we had to move the boat in the middle of the night for fear of hitting or being hit by other boats or for fear we would drag, I knew we could remedy the situation by steering the boat out of harm’s way. I’m not sure what we’d do if someone actually broke into the van.
I’m finding I like things clear and organized. I like to know where it is legal and expected to camp. There is so much of that in the US – not so much here.
I’m not sure I could do this trip without iOverlander, Google Maps, or the internet. I don’t think I am as brave as you. But when I saw that young couple who had stayed on the Maelcon, I thought about how fearless and resilient the young are.