The swine flu and drug wars a media exaggeration?

Our 5 week drive tour throughout Mexico

by Joel Muñoz

Foreword by Susan Dearing: Joel Munoz and Helen Kuhn have a new idea for a relaxing vacation. Have fun, feel safe and let them do all the work. Ride in a beautiful 25 ft. motor home with two personal, knowledgeable guides. Leave the driving through Mexico to them, but be free to ask for a photo stop, have a snack, make a drink. 

On their Pacific Mexico route, you'll be able to enjoy the scenery and not have the responsibility of driving. You'll have a Spanish-speaking guide to take care of your every need, won't have to pull over to take bathroom breaks, and will be able to make all the enjoyable decisions of where you want to eat and what you want to do once you reach your destination. 

Please read and enjoy, as I did, Joel and Helen's account of their last sojourn into Mexico in 2009. I highly recommend their trip as an exciting, secure way to explore areas of Mexico you've never seen. After doing a lightly structured trip, you can take note of the towns you most enjoyed, and put them on your list of places to visit for a longer time on your next vacation. Or maybe you'll want to try another one of Buena Vida Adventures cool expeditions!

Please click on photos to enlarge

We had been hearing for months of the beheadings, kidnappings and shoot outs by drug traffickers throughout Mexico. Friends and family warned us that we would not come back alive, or at the very least, we'd come back missing a limb or two if we continued with our plans to explore Mexico. But Helen and I aren’t ones to listen. Just ask our family and friends! So we packed up the truck and headed out for the 7-hour drive to Nogales. Helen wasn't too keen on the border area after hearing of all the violence, so we ate at a Denny’s, and holed up in the luxurious Motel 6. An interesting note is that at $69.99, this was one of the pricier rooms we had on our whole trip. We were up at 6 a.m. the next morning to cross the border while all the drug lords were asleep. We got our car permit about 20 km from Nogales in world-record time and made Los Mochis at about 5 p.m. We saw some phenomenal topography from the great Sonoran desert through Hermosillo.

Copper Canyon

We arrived in Los Mochis about 5 p.m. A typical Mexican working town, there was nothing really special in Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortes. The city layout is the traditional grid setup, and a short drive outside of town is the car ferry terminal. The main tourism in Los Mochis is that this is where you catch the train into Copper Canyon or the car ferry over to Baja California. We were up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. train to Copper Canyon

Many of the native indigenous people of Copper Canyon, the Raramuri, were in line for the second class train. They speak a different language, are very short, and live in extreme poverty.

The train started out at about 15-20 mph and we thought perhaps it was warming up before the speed increased and the mountains started. That was not the case. It really went that speed the entire way. It was a solid 10-hour ride to Creel but the train was nice and comfortable with a dining and bar cart. We thought we’d have spectacular views of Copper Canyon, but this really is not the case (although you do have some spectacular views of other canyons). You really need to stay overnight in one of the towns along the way to see and explore the canyon. Otherwise, you're just on a long, slow train ride.

We got off the train in Creel, Chihuahua. Helen and I were really pleasantly surprised by Creel. You're over 6,000 feet high amongst towering, resplendent pine trees. Creel sits at the edge of the main part of Copper Canyon and is a quaint little town. We were downright chilly at night in April and it gets considerable snow here in the winter. We only had one full day and two nights here, so we just got a taste of what there is to do. We rented a scooter and took it to the bottom of the canyon. There are hot springs, lakes and waterfalls to see, but our butts were so sore, we just wanted to get back to town. The Raramuri, are fascinating--as they're living today almost the way they have for 10,000 years. They are known to be fanatical distance runners due to the necessity to run in and amongst the huge canyons. A Raramuri placed very high in the Olympic marathon a few years back.

We had to literally run to the train to catch it since we had a little time change problem. Seems when George Bush changed daylight savings time in the United States, the rest of the world didn't follow. Not knowing Mexico daylight savings time was happening the day we were to leave, we showed up an hour late.  

Train in Creel

Old town Mazatlan,
with sidewalk cafes and pedestrian walkways,
a quaint Colonial town with a stunning 19th century cathedral with twin golden towers.

We took off from Los Mochis the next morning toward our next destination, Sayulita. We stopped in Mazatlan so Helen could see it, though I'd been there before. However, my earlier visits were during my college days, and I was not impressed, due to the fact that I rarely made it out of the club district. I have to say that I was pretty impressed with today's Mazatlan. We had lunch in the old town, next to the zocalo (town square), and what a beautiful colonial city! We had a great lunch and, after, went hiking up the hill to the lighthouse, the second highest in the world. Muy hermosa!

We left Mazatlan and headed south another four hours to Sayulita, about 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. We booked a private studio apartment for $50 a night and got every penny's worth. We had a pool, patio, BBQ, kitchenette, water, and a three block walk to town and the beach. We were here during the busiest tourist week of the year in Mexico, the Semana Santa, so it was crazy busy. The break in front of the town is a pretty fun, soft long board wave and there were a ton of guys out but everyone was pretty cool so we didn't have any major flare ups.

Sayulita, a charming
fishing village and tourist town, popular with surfers. Surrounded by a lush, tropical jungle, and on a beautiful beach with restaurants offering delicious seafood.

The zocalo was packed every night with festive locals and we had a fantastic diversity of cuisine to pick from. Homemade pastries from the local woman and ice cream from the back of trucks was the order of the day. The next day we took a snorkel tour out to one of the islands with a lady and her son that were staying in our apartment complex with us. We saw some pretty cool schools of manta rays on the way out, although the snorkeling was very rough when we finally got to the location. Most of our days were spent relaxing and surfing. Sayulita was a great town, very quaint with some unique shopping. In fact, this little town might have been Helen's favorite.  

"La Familia"

We packed up "La Familia" (we started calling my truck this--which is Spanish for "The Family" half way through the trip because we had my mom and my dad with us for two weeks) for the 5-hour drive to Barra De Navidad or Christmas Bar. We stopped in the Mismaloya area of Puerto Vallarta for lunch and had the best fish of our entire trip. We got into Barra De Navidad on the weekend  at the end of Spring Break, and it was CRAZY! I got some surfing in and Helen did a whole lot of relaxing. Our room was literally on the sand. We occasionally had high winds due to a local weather phenomena that happens that time of year.  We were only here two days in this quaint little town but it was long enough for Helen to kick my butt on a pool table, and take a nap at a table in a bar where we were watching a band. She even forgot I bought her flowers. Some good deeds never go unpunished.  

Barra de Navidad

Playa Troncones

After Barra de Navidad, we climbed in La Familia and headed to Zihuatanejo. This 8-hour drive was some awesome coastal driving with lunch in a surreal beach stop along the way. Our hotel had the most beautiful bay view with a vanishing edge pool and lots of areas to play cards, relax, and read. We made daily trips to Troncones, driving on the beach to surf, play coconut bowling, and have cervezas. We went through the smallest, poorest puebla (town) you could imagine, but they had a kick-ass arcade for the kids. Go figure. Helen and I had a great dinner way atop the bay one night, and dinner in the downtown area another night. We had this great bay access path below our hotel that gave us a thirty minute walk to town and made a great jogging path in the morning. I even gave the surf a try right in front of our hotel in the bay, but it was way to close to the rocks for me. But this little local nut on a surf board would ride waves right into the rocks.  

View from hotel at Zihuatanejo


Leaving Zihuatanejo, we got in the truck for a 4-hour drive to Acapulco to pick up the parents. We stayed in Acapulco for a couple of days and went to see the cliff divers and the plaza/downtown area. This is my second time in Acapulco, and I really don't have a need to go back. Our hotel was fine, but Helen was a little under the weather with what we started calling the "Acapoopoo's". My mom, on the other hand, had a fantastic hotel. We picked them up and headed to Puerto Escondido.

We breezed through every military checkpoint down the (highway) 200 with them in the back seat. It was a 5-hour drive to Puerto Escondido that went pretty fast. 

Puerto Escondido

We checked in to this little hotel on the beach with a pool and a crazy owner with a nutzo daughter. After doing the three stooges room shuffle and checking out every room they had, we ended up getting a great corner unit with ocean and pool views for $60 a night.

I did a lot of surfing here and we got a family game of Scrabble going on the beach. This is one of my favorite places with great surf and a very chill environment. The beach is wide and very uncrowded. At night, the local musicians and entertainers sing, play bongos or guitars, or juggle fire for tips only (although the talent can be a little questionable). Puerto Escondido gets some of the best surfers in the world when the summer swell hits and the waves can get upwards of 20 feet. 


The next stop was Huatulco. We drove the two hours south down the coast, stopping near Zipolite for lunch after visiting a fantastic turtle refuge. We all did the tour and were pretty amazed by the amount of turtles and the exhibit in general. You would have never thought that out in the middle of nowhere, you'd find this great exhibit. We booked a room in La Crucecita, because, as it turns out, Huatulco isn't a city but a series of six bays. Our room was HUGE although the whole place had a little too much pink in it for my tastes. The first day we booked a snorkel/boat cruise to tour all the bays and saw some spectacular coastline. Before we left the dock, I bought us all some breakfast tacos this guy was selling out of the back of his car. It turns out he is well known in town for his tasty “car” tacos. On another day we took a day trip in our truck to the phenomenal isolated surf spot, Barra de la Cruz. It's at least a minute-and-a-half right-hand break that, once the wave is done, you have to get out of the water, walk ten minutes back to the point, and paddle out again. The surf was pretty big that day. We had some good eats there in Huatulcoas--well, enjoying the local Oaxacan cuisine.  

We then crossed the isthmus over to the eastern side of Mexico. Our next stop was Palenque, the awesome Mayan ruins in the heart of the Chiapas jungle. The state of Chiapas is still a hotbed of revolutionary activity with recent demonstrations by the local rebel group, the Zapatistas. We were here only one full day but what an awesome site the ruins were! They are in great shape and we hired a local guide to take us back into the jungle to look at the ruins that haven't been excavated. In fact, the area is so enormous that they don't have the manpower to even come close to excavating this most beautiful of the classic Mayan city-states. On numerous occasions our guide would pick up broken pottery on the ground that belonged to the ancient Maya. It's all over the place. Helen and I couldn't imagine that ever happening in the United States. Archaeologists would have it roped off for miles. Only 5% of the total Palenque area has been excavated. 


Playa del Carmen

After Palenque, we made the long drive across the Yucatan peninsula to Playa Del Carmen. This was my mom and Don's favorite spot. The city center had lots of great restaurants, a long pedestrian street, cool bars and beach clubs, and tons of topless Euros. It's also very central to other things such as Cancun, which is about a half hour north, Tulum, which is about 45 minutes south, the Coba and Chichen Itza ruins, many freshwater cenotes, and Cozumel. We had a fantastic hotel for $60 a night and did some diving in Cozumel and snorkeling/caving in the Gran Cenote outside of Tulum. The swine flu scare allowed us to have Playa Del Carmen to ourselves. Playa del Carmen is also a great place to book a trip to Cuba if you're feeling adventurous.  

Underwater caves, or "Cenotes"

Belize, a good place to leave,
and get back to the
safety of Mexico

We dropped the parents off in Cancun to fly home and continued on to Belize. We parked the truck in Chetumal, Mexico at a small hotel and walked across the border into Belize. This is a pretty scary border town. A local Belize thug was harassing Helen, offering her a "good" time and we caught one scary cab to Corozal to take the ferry the next morning to San Pedro. Corazol was dirty and dilapidated. We had a hard time finding any place good to eat. We caught the ferry over to Ambergris Caye to San Pedro in the morning. It was a bumpy, noisy ride. San Pedro was expensive and an ordinary Caribbean town. You could rent golf carts and see the sights which was kind of cool. The diving to their famed "Blue Hole," which I wanted to do was $200, which I thought was crazy expensive. The beaches reminded me of the Florida Keys--which is to say, there really are none--and, if you find them, they are small. We had planned on spending up to three days there, but, after we got the run-around from the dive shop, we booked the first flight out. We found Belize to be way overpriced, the people could give a crap, and there's definitely some kind of drug element going on there. The best thing I could say about Belize is that they speak English. Out of our 5 weeks traveling through the coast and jungles of Mexico, this was the place we felt most unsafe.  

We crossed the border back into Mexico in the morning and began the long trip home. We made the border town of Matamoros in two and a half days. No swine flu, no beheadings, and no trouble. What a great trip!

Joel Munoz is owner/operator of Buena Vida Adventures that offer adventure trips throughout Mexico. He can be reached via his website at or (760)672-2180 if you'd like to find out more about his motorhome adventures.