Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easy Street

I fretted for weeks about our three-day drive north and east to the Texas border, but the trip turned out to be mostly pleasant and blessedly uneventful.

We spent the first night in Mazatlan, but we couldn't stay in our favorite beachfront hotel, the Costa de Oro, because of Chiquita, our shelter chihuahua. Instead we slept at the far more modest Azteca Inn, packed with Mexican families on Semana Santa (Holy Week) vacations.

At the crowded pool, Elizabeth spotted a big group in the tepid whirlpool with a little girl about her age, so she quickly made herself at home with them. I slipped awkwardly in too, nodding in what I hoped was a benignly polite way. Soon the toddlers were best friends.

"How well she speaks Spanish," the mother said to me.

"We live in Puerto Vallarta, and she goes to a Mexican school," I explained as the girls tried to see who could stay under water longest. (I got no compliment on my Spanish.) Half an hour later when I told Elizabeth it was time to go, she was ready too.

"Ya me voy," she casually informed her new amiga, which is a simple but nicely turned phrase I had never heard her use before that means "I'm going now." Then off we went for a vast seafood platter of grilled whole fish, shrimp, lobster, scallops and octopus at Pancho's on the beach.

The next day was the scenic highlight of the trip, the climbing journey through the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental over "the Devil's Backbone" via the newly completed toll road with its dozens of tunnels and bridges, including the impressive Baluarte Bridge pictured above.

Pam made a video as we crossed, which I was going to post, but Elizabeth later deleted it. Mexicans are proud of the engineering and construction skills that created the bridge, and there's plenty of video online if you're interested.

We had planned to spend the night in Torreon, but neither we nor a travel agent we called in Mazatlan could find a dog-friendly hotel there. So we pushed on for another three hours to Saltillo, where an old business suite motel in the midst of remodeling near the airport allowed pets and probably anything else that would pay for a room.

It was on the main highway route through town, but we had a terrible time finding it because, as we've noted before, there are no route markers after the toll road disgorges you into any given city. We expected this and had studied a Saltillo map, but we still got lost.

That wasn't entirely tragic, because we ended up getting a much better look at some charming old sections of Saltillo we weren't planning to see. Pam's Mapquest went in and out of range, and even when she could get some directions, there were few street signs. At times we had no clue where we were. And then suddenly we found Blvd Venustiano Carranza and got to the hotel with daylight to spare.

Road trips in Mexico are an odd mix. The toll roads, though terribly expensive, are first rate, but signage is sometimes ambiguous or absent altogether. And there is virtually no en route dining, not even fast food. My theory is that recreational car travel began decades later in Mexico than in the U.S., and the infrastructure we take for granted at home hasn't evolved there.

We did spot one brightly bannered "tourist support" station on a median north of Monterrey, but it was staffed by more than a dozen balaclava-clad state police in riot gear holding automatic weapons. No tourists were visible, and we didn't feel like stopping either.

We got to the border at Nuevo Laredo well before lunch time on our third day on the road. I think I was supposed to show my "residente temporal" card to Mexican immigration authorities and get an exit visa. Pam's application for her card is still pending after months of delay, so I had gotten her a temporary permit to leave and return. We were supposed to get that stamped too.

But there was no Instituto Nacional de Migration office visible at the border, and by the time we were in the thick line of cars at the bridge, we couldn't have exited to look for one if we'd wanted to. Which we didn't. I guess we'll find out how much it really matters when we go back.

In the meantime, we're just glad to be here, visiting family in Del Rio, Texas, on our way back to New Mexico. As we also say in Mexico, there's no place like home.

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