December was a mix of good and bad. It was a big month that started out in San Antonio, Texas, and finished in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.
Computer Problems in San Antonio…
Our month started off in San Antonio, Texas. We were ready to go to Mexico, we just had one problem. My external hard drive where I store all my thousands of photos wouldn’t boot up on my computer. I thought that maybe the hard drive had become corrupted or that I had too much data for my Macbook Pro to read. We took the drive to Best Buy. It booted fine on their computers. I’d had a similar problem in the past and was able to fix the problem by using a friend’s PC to transfer all the info onto another hard drive and then reformat the one that wasn’t working on my Mac. I was hoping that this would be the fix this time. After a week of miscommunication, they finally transferred my many terabytes of data onto a new drive. The new drive booted up on Best Buy’s computers but not mine. It was time to go to Mexico. We needed a quick fix so I could access my files and have a place to store the many thousands of pictures I was going to take in our 6 months in Mexico. We bought a new Macbook Pro.
Crossing into Mexico…
We crossed into Mexico on December 7 at the Columbia Bridge north of Laredo, Texas. We got there bright and early as soon as the border opened. There was a bit of a line already but the wait wasn’t long. This is our 4th crossing at our 4th different location. Compared to our previous crossing into Mainland Mexico this one was super smooth. As soon as we got over the border we stopped at the Customs building. We parked, the van was boarded and lightly searched, we reparked, and headed into the customs building to do our paperwork. The paperwork is multi-stepped. First, we had to go to an office to get an FMM card (tourist card). From there we had to get it copied. We got into a line that led to a little booth where a woman was making copies. In line, a Mexican-American who was on vacation struck up a conversation with us. Coincidently he lived in Greenville, SC where we used to live and where Greg’s son still lives. After copies, we got in line for the Banjercito to pay for our FMM card and get a TIP (temporary Import Permit) for Ballena Blanca. We didn’t have to do this when we went to Baja last February because Baja and parts of the state of Sonora are part of the “free zone.” But if you are taking your vehicle any further into Mexico they want to make sure you are going to return with it. The tip is a $400 deposit that is returned once you cross out of Mexico.
Our “teller” at the Banjercito was super nice and helpful. We were prepared with everything we needed – copies of our Mexican car insurance, copies of our passports and driver’s license, and a copy of our car registration, as well as the copies we had just made of our FMM cards. She needed to ask us lots of questions and when we didn’t understand her Spanish she would type what she wanted to say into Google Translate on her phone and show it to us. Our new acquaintance from Greenville helped with a little translation too.
After paying for everything and getting our TIP we headed back to the office to get our FMM cards stamped. Finally, we were on our way!
On the road in Mexico…
We were heading to a rare Harvest Host stop in Nuevo Leon, Mexico right outside of Monterrey. Google Maps showed us two routes to get there. One was a toll road that took us through Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. We opted for the other choice, a non-toll road that would take us roughly the same amount of time. Of course, we didn’t know that this road was under construction. Here we found an example of how things are done differently in Mexico than in the US. Instead of just closing one lane and using a pilot car to lead vehicles one way on the road while other cars wait to go the other direction, in Mexico, they just close the whole highway and divert people to a freshly plowed dirt road alongside the highway. This two-way road is often very bumpy and only wide enough for one vehicle. There is no pilot car or anyone directing traffic, everyone is on their own.
Texas was dreary. Cloudy skies aren’t good when you power your rig on solar. We spent a lot of time parked at house sits in Austin so we weren’t charging our batteries with the engine either. By the time we got to San Antonio, we ended up spending our days driving around the city just to keep the batteries charged up. Then one day after crossing into Mexico we were parked in the full sun at a park called Potrero Chico. We took a hike and when we returned to the van we found that the batteries hadn’t been charging. That’s when we discovered that we had blown a fuse somewhere along the way. After our months in Alaksa under cloudy skies and not having a problem with our new lithium batteries that Greg had built, we had grown complacent, never even thinking about checking on the state of our batteries. We opened our battery monitoring app for the first time in probably over half a year – the batteries were just hanging on, very close to dead.
Luckily there are AutoZone’s all over Mexico. We headed into Monterrey the next day and got a new fuse. Now we just needed to baby the batteries back to health.
This visit to Mexico has been different from our previous visits in the number of people we have met and friends we have made along the way. On our fourth day in Mexico, we stayed at one of the few Boondockers Welcome locations in the Country. I had read the reviews and knew that this would be a good stop. It ended up being better than good. Our hosts Juan and Chris welcomed us into their home and took us on an excursion around town the next day. We went out for breakfast, walked around the lovely little Pueblo Magico near their home, made a trip to a beautiful waterfall, and had dinner out that night. The next night Chris cooked for us. We had lots of lively conversations and have stayed in touch since then.
At the Casa Estrella RV Park in Guanajuato, we met a couple from California. We had happy hour with them and a woman from The Netherlands every night with occasional other campers from around the world joining in.
And at The San Miguel RV park in San Miguel de Allende, we met even more campers from the US and Canada. We had a few happy hours and a big night at the RV park and out on the town on New Year’s Eve. We would later meet up with Juan and Chris again at this RV park in January.
Getting Sick …
Somewhere along the way we ate or drank the wrong thing. Both Greg and I developed diarrhea. We thought it might last for a few days but went on for nearly two weeks. We tried two different medicines and we started being a lot more careful about what we were consuming. By the time we decided we needed to see a doctor things started improving. Then I got sick again on January 1 – but I will save that for next month’s report.
Lovely camp hosts…
This looks like it might be a monthly theme (I will have another story to add in January). We really like the Casa Estrella RV Park in Guanajuato. We had a great stay there when we visited Mexico four years ago. But this time I just had one problem. The park, which is part of a hotel, has free wifi but it doesn’t reach to RV area. So one afternoon we were hanging out in the gym using the wifi when someone came in to use the exercise bike. No problem – except that he proceeded to blast music from a smart speaker. It was seriously loud. He knew we were there but didn’t seem to care. Greg got my earplugs but it didn’t help. So we asked him to turn it down a little. He said “no.” Anyways this turned into him telling us how long he’d lived in the hotel and how he felt entitled to this shared space when he was exercising. I got mad but calmed down and tried reasoning with him. It went nowhere. But because I was so whipped up I went and complained. I knew that the manager probably couldn’t do anything about it and I told him so but I just wanted to let him know what an ass this guy was. But of course, I think they already knew that. Anyways, I felt bad about complaining so on Christmas Eve Greg and I went and bought the staff a cake and some cookies. When we delivered them, they were just setting up for a party. Later that evening one of the staff brought popcorn to everyone in the campground. On Christmas morning, the hotel was offering breakfast so we decided to splurge and go with our friends. When we got to the office adjacent to the dining room we were stopped and presented with a card and a glass ornament in the shape of a hummingbird. So sweet!
And our total expenses for December were…
Here is the breakdown of categories…
Expenses were a bit high. But this month includes our insurance expense for our 6 months in Mexico ($396.97) as well as our regular insurance in the US ($96.86) which we have to continue to pay or the state of Florida will revoke my driver’s license. In the Tolls/Parking category this month ($91.49) I also included other expenses related to travel such as the cost of our FMM cards ($65.03), bus or taxi fares, and other foreign travel expenses. The 35¢ for showers is actually the cost of using a Public bathroom. Public bathrooms run about 5 to 7 pesos (about 35¢ to 45¢). In gear, I have included a year’s subscription to our new book reading service ($129.89), Scribd (we have dropped Kindle Unlimited). Interestingly our food cost ($219.37) was lower than our booze cost ($265.39). This is partly surprising because at least $90 of this cost was spent in the US and because this is half the cost of our lowest monthly food cost this year. Alcohol is less expensive in Mexico too but we have been indulging in bottles of Mescal which isn’t less expensive. And since it is Mexico and food and drink are part of the experience we did a bit of eating and drinking out ($202.09).
Not included in this month’s report is the expense for the TIP ($468.74) which will get refunded when we cross back out of Mexico (at which time I will report any difference due to exchange rates or fees), and the expense for the new computer which would double this month’s expenses (It is a Macbook Pro and I expect this one to last forever).
To see all of our expense reports, click here.
If you are interested in reading other expense reports from nomads who really know how to live cheaply while still having a good time, check out the blog from our friends Mark, Liesbet, and Maya at Roaming About. They are currently traveling in Columbia, South America in their truck camper.
The Camping/sleeping Report
Here are our camping/sleeping stats (all camping/sleeping is free unless otherwise indicated):
7 – nights Boondockers Welcome
1 – night at a Walmart
1 – night at a Rest Stop
1 – night at a Harvest Host location
1 – night in a park
2 – nights at a Pemex Gas Station
2 – nights at a lake
2 – night in a parking lot
13 – nights at a campground ($227.29)
1 – night in a parking garage ($10.14)
A few notes about camping in Mexico…
When traveling in the US and even in Canada we mostly try to do mostly free camping (boondocking). Boondocking in Mexico is a little different. Although there is some, there isn’t as much public land that is free to camp on. We mainly use iOverlander to find camping in Mexico – and even though there are often many free sites listed, sometimes those sites seem a little sketchy. Parking in a town square is often an option for the night but the safety of this (and the noise factor) depends on where you are. Beaches are free and were a great option when we were in Baja but we have so far been traveling inland. We will be seeing lots of beaches once we get to the Yucatan Penisula. We have discovered the Pemex Gas stations where truckers spend the night are a good free safe option but they tend to be super noisy (we have earplugs).
So we have been defaulting to pay campgrounds. Campgrounds in Mexico can be really cheap. One of the last ones we stayed at was roughly $5 US a night – and came with hot showers! The most we have paid has been about $23 US a night (with hot showers in a super convenient location). And we’ve been having a great time at campgrounds. They have been a good place to meet other travelers, a safe place to leave the van without worry, and they are often in cities or close to public transportation.
Map and Miles
Number of miles driven: 1503
Gas cost per mile: 22¢
Every time we come to Mexico it seems like we learn something new. Here are a few tips we have picked up along the way so far.
Gas Stations – All gas is pumped by an attendant. Unfortunately, some gas station attendants are not honest. I have written before about how you should always make sure the pump is zeroed out before the attendant starts to pump gas. Also if you pay in cash to count the money out to the attendant so there is no question about how much you have given him/her. You can get scammed using a credit card too. Don’t let the attendant walk away with your card! But here is the new thing we’ve learned. You can ask for a receipt. You say “Quiero un ticket.” Or if you want to be a little more polite, “Quisiera un ticket.” Then you have a receipt and proof of how much gas you got and how much you were charged.
Holidays – Are crazy. Don’t expect to find a parking place anywhere that might be remotely popular. Christmas holidays run from December 12 (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe) to Jan 6 (Día de Los Reyes Magos). The weeks leading up to Christmas are the worst. Find a good place to be and stay there for a while.
ATMs – This is our fourth time in Mexico and during each of our visits, we’ve gotten a lot of money from ATMs. We signed up for a Schwab checking account just for this purpose. Schwab doesn’t charge extra fees for making withdrawals in foreign countries and they reimburse regular ATM fees. But this is the first time we’ve been charged an exchange rate fee from the bank where we were withdrawing money. At our first bank, I was surprised to see a 6.60% markup fee on the receipt and an exchange rate of only $18.38. I had checked before we withdrew the money and a dollar was going for $19 plus pesos. I made a mental note to not use that bank again. At the next bank, I was given a choice of debiting my bank pesos or dollars. I chose pesos. The rate this time was good, $19.73. At the third bank, I was asked to approve the transaction by debiting my bank in dollars. I punched the button to reject the transaction and thought that it would cancel the whole thing but instead, it gave me the money at a reasonable rate of $19.37 pesos to the dollar, without any exchange rate fee.
So lesson learned. Make sure the bank is debiting your bank in pesos and not dollars.
Apps – I find apps so useful and have added a few new ones to our traveling arsenal. Tanque Lleno is like GasBuddy for Canada and the US. It helps us find cheaper gas. Unfortunately, the free version only shows gas stations in a small radius of where you actually are. So I upgraded to the pro version. It only cost .49¢ US after I used a Google Play credit for $1. Now I can see gas stations in a 60-mile radius from where we are or I can add a mark to the map to see stations in different locations around the country. This seriously saves us money. The difference of 3 pesos is about 15¢ a liter or 57¢ a gallon.
Moovit is a worldwide bus app. It took me a little bit to figure out how to use it but now that I have we can go anywhere by bus. This means we can easily stay outside of cities and towns and bus in with ease knowing exactly where to get off and on and which bus to take next.
Whatsapp is a messaging app. This app isn’t new to us but it has been super useful in Mexico. Everyone here uses it. It has been very helpful to connect with people we meet on the road and to communicate with campgrounds.
We are in the city of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico. We are currently camping on the street outside of a Tourist Police Station. It is quiet through the night but the sounds of the city start around 8 o’clock in the morning with the high-pitched circus tune of the propane truck driving through the neighborhood. We are hanging out with our friends, The Third Street Thugs (formally Scamper Squad who we traveled with a bit in 2020/21 and visited in Oregon last year). They are staying in an Airbnb. We have been on the go since we met up with our friends a little over a week ago. We will be hanging out and traveling with them for another two or three weeks so I’m pretty sure I am going to get behind on blogging. But I see beaches and a bit of a vacation from being a tourist after that.
*Click pics to enlarge, read captions, and view in a slide show.
Congratulations to anyone who read this entire thing! I know it is a lot. I hope it is helpful to anyone planning to travel to Mexico or just interesting to everyone else. I’d love to read your comments about anything in this post or anything this post has inspired you to think about.