Even living as we have been this past eight months: without a television, newspapers or even news radio we still heard the warnings about travelling into Mexico. Travel advisories from the US Government; concerns from people we meet on the road; the ubiquitous border control along the US / Mexico border; all conspired to dissuade us from travelling to Mexico. You may not know that our Canadian or US auto insurance does not cover when travelling into Mexico so before you cross the border you have to arrange auto insurance. You may also be unaware that it is pretty easy to cross from the US into Mexico by car – you don’t pass through customs like we do when we cross into the US or Canada. You simply drive across the border into Mexico. In our case we crossed at Nogales, Arizona into Nogales, Sonora. At km21 you must stop to purchase a Tourist Permit. You know immediately when you cross the border that you are in a different country. When you line up to purchase your Tourist Permit you are more convinced – you first line up and fill out an application which the officer enters in the system; you then take the printout to another building, which is kind of a bank, to pay; then you return to the first building, line up again, and hand over the proof of payment and then receive your Tourist Permit. This permit is good for 6 months and costs about $46 CAD. The province of Sonora has been designated a Hassle Free Zone; this means that if you are travelling only in this area you do not have to purchase an additional Vehicle Permit. Since we planned only to travel within this zone we didn’t have to buy this permit which is about $200 USD and you must turn it in before leaving Mexico. They will give you a prorated refund depending on how long you stayed in Mexico. As we crossed the border we immediately saw the poverty of Nogales in the barrios, garbage strewn down denuded hillsides, people selling everything from tamales to tacos to religious reliquaries to ceramics and copper pots. Speed bumps in Mexico are the size of an adult – you have no choice but to drop your speed to a crawl. And this is on the highway!! Of course the street merchants take advantage of these slow downs and you have the option to purchase candy, food, newspapers, drinks, etc. We passed greenhouses, cattle ranches, pecan farms, lemon and orange groves, vineyards on our way south through the Sonoran Desert.
We stopped for lunch in Hermosillo at a wonderful little restaurant called Las Mujeres de Don Juan. We had read about this little place in Edible Arizona. It is run by a woman and her daughters. They opened the restaurant when her husband, Don Juan, died. We told them about the article and they served us a full tasting menu all of which was fresh and delicious. It was also incredibly inexpensive at 100 pesos.
Fortified by our lunch we continued our drive to Bahia de Kino on the Sea of Cortez. We arrived at Islandia Marina and set up our camp overlooking the beach and an island called Dos Cabezas (so called because it looks like two heads touching crown to crown). If you are wondering how we came to set our sights on this particular town in Mexico it was recommended by our friends Buck and Camp who have been visiting Islandia for many years. This is not a recommendation they pass on to just anyone! This place is special to them. And now to us too.
This is not a touristy town. This is a real living/ working Mexican fishing town. Some of the streets are paved but many are not. And the canine population is alive and well in Kino Viejo. We watched fisherman launch their boats from the beach every morning and return every afternoon. Large shrimping boats were a constant presence farther out in the bay. Every morning carts were lined up in the town centre with fisherman selling fresh clams and scallops which they would prepare for you on the half shell with lime and hot sauce. A couple of our favourite restaurants were Tia Maria (this woman serves wonderful local food from her home kitchen served up by her 16 year old daughter) – the Pollo en Chipotle with bean soup was our favourite washed down with Horchata de Arroz which is the equivalent of drinking rice pudding; the Plywood Palace (which has a menu limited to 4 or 5 items and is quite literally just that, a plywood palace); and Popeyes (where we had whole delicious just caught fried fish). We also tried pan dulce from the local bakery and barbacoa from a food truck in town.
There was no need to drive while we stayed in Kino Viejo. We walked and biked everywhere. We couldn’t walk the beach without picking up dozens of shells but to be clear we didn’t / couldn’t pack them all. The sunsets were spectacular and different every night. We went to sleep listening to the waves lap on the shore and woke up to the same sounds in the morning with the addition of trucks delivering fisherman’s boats into the water. One night a group of teenagers built a fire on the beach and sat around it taking turns playing music on guitar and bongo and singing. We listened and watched with pure delight. Thinking back on that now makes us smile wide. We met fellow travellers from Canada and the US. At our end of the campground we were either alone or had neighbours to one side. Our first neighbours were Paula, Kelly and their awesome multi-toed cat Toeny, likely a descendant of one of Hemingway’s cats. They were on their way much further south in Mexico and so only stayed a couple of nights. Long enough to get to know one another and we missed them when they left. Our next set of neighbours arrived from Montana and her first words to us were, ‘you are in our spot!’ Well, we weren’t. It wasn’t booked until we arrived. Jackie really wanted us to move on so they could spread out for their two and a half month stay. We were definitely cramping her style. Sigh. The people who really affected us were the staff of Islandia: Marta, her husband, Mohammed, Paulina, Marta Sr. and her daughter Lily – we love them all. We had so many wonderful conversations in English, Spanish and French. We learned from them and left knowing we have new friends in Mexico. We hope to welcome each of them to wherever we are in Canada. And we cannot forget a few special dogs especially Chocolate who we would have loved to have brought along on our travels. On our final evening we met a young couple from NYC who are travelling with and on bikes for two or more years. Lewis and Brandy have a website documenting their path and experiences (rudimentsofgruel.com). It is an excellent read and you can really see from the writing that Lewis is an urban planner. We look forward to seeing where they end up over the course of the next year or two. They hosted a great bonfire on the beach which was a perfect ending to our stay at Islandia.
After a bittersweet farewell with our new friends (human and canine) we headed to Hermosillo. It was a our plan to try out another Edible Tucson and Sonora recommendation and to camp at an RV Park north of the city. Hermosillo made sure that this plan like most other plans of ours, changed. We visited the Mercado Central where we sampled more barbacoa, this time cabezas, and Horchata (from a mix). We also picked up treats to share with friends and family. Not much is left. We end up sharing as we go down the road. Since we were unable to find a place to park and camp for the night we opted for a room at the Holiday Inn which had just been rebuilt. Even though it was modern, clean and spacious with a king sized bed neither of us slept particularly well – we missed our bed in the van. The Holiday Inn turned out to be just a few blocks from a restaurant we wanted to try called Bermejo. Well, it was most definitely the best meal we had while in Mexico and probably in many months. The owner sat with us for a while talking about Mexico, where to visit and new Mexican cuisine. They prepare Caesar Salad using the chef’s original recipe (the Caesar Salad was invented by Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who lived in San Diego but worked in Tijuana to avoid the limits of Prohibition). In addition to the Caesar Salad our feast included chicharon, pulpo, camaron ceviche, duck. Unbelievable flavours, heat and balance. A perfect meal served by our friend David.
The next morning we drove back north through the Sonoran Desert towards Nogales, Arizona. At the Military Check Point the soldier very nearly ordered us to the search inspection area but changed his mind at the last moment. Whew! That would have been a time waster since we had no contraband. Now if we did have contraband you know this post would be taking a very different turn. The return to Arizona was bittersweet as we were sad to be leaving Mexico but happy to return to the small town of Bisbee where a hot bowl of Pho was awaiting us at Thuy’s. It’s funny returning to a place we have already visited on this trip. It is kind of like returning home. As we continue east we feel this way time and again and we’ve mentioned the bittersweet feeling frequently. Maybe that is home, revisiting a place that is familiar even if you have only spent a night or a few days there previously. The idea of home continues to evolve, perculate and befuddle us as we live so deeply in the places we visit. This combined with the people we meet and the friendships we foster and learn from the many nomads sharing the road with us. We are absolutely re-evaluting the idea of home – in many ways the nomadic lifestyle suits us. We are completely at home in this tiny space we call Van Morrison and Gibb. We love that our landscape changes with each day. Though we are not always excited about moving on we seem to acclimatize pretty quickly once we have reached our next destination.