While we were a little disappointed that the situation in Nicaragua had prevented us from driving further south, there was a touch of excitement about the promised return to our favorite country, Mexico! We had already spent just under five months exploring the country, but there were a couple regions high on the list that we hadn’t made it to. It just so happened that the quickest route back to the US lead us through these uncharted spots, starting with the city of Puebla and a bit of its surrounding region.
Puebla & Surrounding
One of the major cities we had heard a lot about but hadn’t made it to was Puebla. Puebla is a couple hours southeast of Mexico City, but we had hightailed it down to Belize to meet family and didn’t have a chance to stop the first time around. As we approached, I was impressed by the modern look and feel of the city and the highways that took us in. Almost directly after I shared my first impressions with Lindsey, police lights appeared in my rear-view mirrors and I was brought back down to earth.
It was the first time I had been pulled over on our trip, and I actually somewhat expected it. Thanks to our trusty iOverlander app, we had read about other overlanders having issues with corrupt police on this very highway. They had shared stories of how they were pulled over and forced into paying erroneous fines and bribes to avoid further trouble. Now it was our turn to deal with the corrupt cops we had heard so much about, but never actually encountered first hand.
Right off the bat the officer asked that I step out of the vehicle and directed me back towards his cruiser while Lindsey waited in Poppins. He, nor his partner, spoke any English, so it was time to put my intermediate Spanish to use. He told me the reason he pulled me over was because the back and side windows of our camper were all covered up by our curtains, and this was a no-no. I knew that was a bunch of bologna considering I had driven through many military and police check-points in Mexico, all of which had seen the camper, some of which had inspected the camper, and none of which ever mentioned an issue with the lack of visibility into the windows.
Either way, I followed along, opening the camper so he could inspect the interior to find nothing of issue. After that he inspected my vehicle permit, and here he found his opportunity. He proceeded to tell me that my Mexican vehicle permit was only for a pick-up truck, and not a pickup truck with a camper on it. He tried to tell me that when I got the permit, it should have stated there was a camper on the truck, and not having this noted would cost me a fine of $200 dollars.
This was were he slipped up, and it gave me confidence to fight my way out of the situation. Being in Mexico, the local currency is the Peso, so any legitimate fine would be in pesos, not dollars. On top of that, I don’t know any legitimate law abiding cop anywhere whose smile is blinding with a row of gold teeth on top and bottom. This corrupt cop obviously prays on gringos with US plates, hoping to scare them and have them pay out in dollars.
While it disgusts me the level of corruption that can exist in a government position, I also find myself placing some fault on the gringos. With all the stories passed down from gringo to gringo that all you need to do is pay off a cop when you get pulled over and he lets you go, this creates a standard for the Mexican cops. They get used to gringos folding over and just giving them money, so they take advantage as much as they can. Not this time.
I impressed myself with my usage of the Spanish language as I debated with this officer over the validity of his claim. I explained how I had gone through the vehicle permit process twice already, and both times my truck was inspected by the immigration officer who issued the permit. Both times the permit was issued without any mention of a camper shell, obviously not a requirement. While I continued to argue, he slowly dropped his price, from 200 to 100, from 100 to 50. In the end, I straight up told him I would not be giving him anything.
As he looked at his partner in surprise that this gringo speaking broken Spanish was standing up to them, I changed the subject to the upcoming world cup match between Mexico and Germany. All of the sudden we were exchanging stories from the previous world cup match, and I was getting advice on where I should go watch the game while in Puebla. They ended up giving me a couple suggestions and even some suggestions for food I need to try while I was in town. With one last cheer for the Mexico futbol team, we shook hands and I made my way back to the truck where Lindsey was anxiously waiting, trying not to freak out!
After our run in with the Police, we were relived to get parked and out of the truck so we could find a drink to calm our nerves. We found a spot on the edge of the downtown historic district and headed towards the main plaza, always a good bet to find a cool hang out. When we arrived we were impressed once again with the life and energy that buzzed throughout the square. There is nothing quite like plazas in Mexico, certainly one of my favorite aspects of the local culture.
As with almost every plaza in Latin America, the main feature was the huge cathedral spanning the length of the square, two full city blocks! The Catedral de Puebla is one of the largest cathedrals in all of Mexico and features two massive bell towers complete with eight different size bells creating one of the more impressive chimes you’ve ever heard. The beauty of the church bled into the square and the surrounding plaza, giving the space a classic Spanish colonial feel. We found ourselves a nice little second floor restaurant and perched up on the balcony to enjoy a solid hour of people watching and taking in this beautiful place.
While enjoying our beverage, I did a little internet research to find a good spot for a cheap lunch and stumbled upon what would be one of the best Mexican taco shops ever. Las Ranas Taqueria is a cafeteria style place that has one focus, tacos al pastor. Al pastor, for those poor souls that aren’t familiar, is a giant spigot of seasoned pork layered up and cooking as it spins in front of the flames. You could either get a platter that would feed about four people, individual tacos al pastor, or gringos al pastor, which is the same taco, just add cheese and pineapple. As I find with anywhere that keeps its menu focused on a single item, this place was outrageously good. Pick what you do best and do only that, it’s a recipe for success.
For our night’s accommodations, we found a street spot via iOverlander that happened to be in front of a police station. Corrupt cops aside, its usually safest to sleep on the street if you are parked next to the police. The spot also happened to be near a super cool pedestrian street filled with little bars and cafes that had tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk. There was music in the streets and string lights draped overhead, almost had a bit of a European feel to it.
The next morning, we wandered to a nearby park that also far exceeded any expectations we may have had. The park was huge, filled with biking and running trails, workout stations, art displays, and even a large pond where they rented paddle boats. It was a hilly park, so you couldn’t see it all at first. As we wandered through we kept coming across these cool features and became more and more impressed. I feel like I say this a lot, but once again, Mexico continued to blow our minds.
After a couple nights in the downtown area, we decided to change things up and hang out in one of the suburb neighborhoods of Puebla called Cholula. I figured it was safe to assume that this was the origin of the delicious hot sauce, but as it turned out there was no connection. Just a coincidence as the hot sauce actually comes from Jalisco, but the town was cool none the less.
For accommodations we found a nice grassy parking lot via iOverlander that was mainly used for events at a near by church, but also had some nice facilities for overlanders. Besides a few nice bathrooms with good showers, they also had a really nice pool and lounging area we could use. On top of that, it was a short five-minute walk to the center of Cholula, perfect for our two-night stay.
Our first day we spent walking through the colonial cobble stone streets, checking out the local shops and exploring the main square. Based on a recommendation provided by those corrupt cops from earlier, I was on a mission to find the seasonal dish famous to the area called Chiles En Nogada. We spotted a cool, local looking restaurant near the plaza and sure enough they had the dish.
Chile En Nogada is a traditional dish of Puebla, originating during the independence of the county as it was served to the new emperor after the signing of the peace treaty following the war. It’s a stuffed poblano chili pepper filled with a mixture of shredded meats, spices and fruits such as apples, pears and figs. The nogada sauce is a walnut based cheesy cream sauce that really is the heart and soul of the dish. To top it all off, the chili is peppered with fresh pomegranates and parsley, representing the colors of the Mexican flag as you can see above. Not only a fantastic dish, but a source of pride for locals during August and September when the dish is usually served.
With our belly’s full of Mexican pride, we continued exploring the town, heading up the nearby hill that overlooks the city. At the top you get a 360 view of Puebla, and you find another one of Mexico’s beautiful cathedrals. In the distance, towering over everything and reaching miles into the sky is Popocatépetl, Mexico’s second highest peak, and one of its most active volcanoes. It was a little cloudy, but if you look close at the picture below, you can see the steamy plume rising from the crater.
Its funny, prior to this trip, my knowledge of volcanoes was minimal. I was not aware that so many volcanoes were so active in the world. Mostly, I guess I just didn’t realize that some active volcanoes were as active as they are, erupting daily or many times each day. Seeing this force of nature in person has been one of my favorite experiences of this entire trip, even if one instance was a little too close for comfort…
For dinner that night we had our minds set on visiting another suburb town called Chipilo. This visit was based on a rave review we got from our wonderful hosts Calvin & Leanne from Overlander Oasis in Oaxaca. We were told that this village was founded by Italian immigrants and now is home to some of the best Italian food in all of Mexico. Well, say no more, it had been forever since our last quality Italian meal, so we were all in. We found ourselves a taxi, told him our destination, and we were on our way. We probably should have gotten the red flag when our taxi driver asked us three times if we were totally sure that’s where we wanted to go, but we were blinded by the thought of delicious fresh pasta.
When we arrived at the main street (slash the only) in the Chipilo, we immediately began to doubt the recommendation. At this point, being a 30 min taxi ride away from home base, we were pot committed, so we set out to find some quality Italian. We walked up and down the street, assuming we would be bombarded with options, only to find three places that resembled Italian restaurants, and none of which offering the homemade pasta we had gotten ourselves excited for. Pizza seemed to be the best option, so we picked a spot and went for it. What we got was exactly what you would expect from a Mexican/Italian pizza place; thick soft dough, half decent sauce, and waaayyyy too much cheese. Maybe things have changed since Calvin & Leanne had last been there, or maybe they have a different definition of quality Italian food, either way, our appetite for high quality Italian would have to be satisfied some other time.
To pile on to our strange and disappointing experience, on our ride home we ran into one of the heaviest rain storms we had seen in months. Complete with loud cracking thunder and bright bolts of lightning, the rain was so thick the driver could barely see through the windshield. We sat in the back, hoping to make it home in one piece, and both realized at what seemed to be the same instant that we left the roof vent wide open! When we finally made it back, we sprinted through the down pour to the truck, fumbled with the keys to open the back, and were greeted by a pool of water smack in the middle of our bed. Blankets, sheets, even pillows, completely soaked. We stripped everything down and put the drenched bedding in the cab, exposing two slivers of dry bed on the sides of our mattress, just enough room for each of us to sleep without being soaked. When it rains, it pours, literally.
The next day we were fortunate to wake up to a perfectly sunny, warm day. We pulled out our entire bedroom, including our soaked bed, and hung it up around the truck to dry. Not sure what we would have done if the rain had continued, and glad we didn’t have to think about it. Instead we got to sit by the pool and relax while our bedroom/living room/home dried out in the lawn. Certainly, could have been worse. Once we were all dried out, we packed up and got set to continue our journey north.
Our next Mexican destination would be the region just to the west of northern Veracruz and south of Monterrey, called Huasteca Potosina. That region is high on the list of my favorite places in Mexico & Central America, and you can read all about our adventure’s waterfall hopping HERE. Once we were done chasing waterfalls, our travels took us to our final stop on our Mexican/Central American overlanding journey, and Mexico’s third largest city, Monterrey.
While investigating into places to check out while in the area, I learned that there was another region known for its wine in Mexico besides Guadalupe Valley in Baja. About an hour drive west of Monterrey is the Parras Valley, home to the oldest winery in all the Americas, Casa Madera. My initial reaction was for sure, we need to make a stop, being how we love wine and all. After digging in a bit more about the region, specifically where to stay with the truck, but also about the wine, we decided we would skip it.
There didn’t seem to be anywhere for us to sleep in the truck, and we didn’t want to spend the money on accommodations. On top of that, it seemed the wine in the region was quite limited. The highlight being a visit to Casa Madera, which sounded cool, but at this point we had a bit of time table to get back into the states with time to hang out with our friends in Austin before picking up Phish tour, so we sacrificed the visit.
As for Monterrey, we spent a couple nights in the heart of the city, splurging on a hotel room since there wasn’t really any place to sleep in the truck and it was a cool 104° F with a strong wind coming from the North that made you feel like a hairdryer was blowing directly in your face. This city turned out to be another pleasant surprise. It was one of the most modern and attractive cities in Mexico. The downtown area was highly developed with multiple high-rise buildings towering over many clean parks and beautiful fountains. The highlight of the city and the most beautiful part was the Santa Lucia Riverwalk and the Fundidora Park to which it leads.
Paseo Santa Lucia, the Riverwalk, is a pristine man-made river filled with crystal clear blue water. It leads from the heart of downtown out to the Fundidora Park which is just as, if not more, impressive. Having been surrounded by the severe littering issue throughout Mexico and Central America for the past year, it was a pleasant surprise, almost a bit shocking, to see how immaculate the Riverwalk and Fundidora park were.
As you stroll along the river you pass by a handful of fountains and art displays that give the area a modern and stylish feel. You also have the option of stopping into one of the restaurants or cafes along the river for a snack and some quality people watching. It takes a good forty-five minutes to walk from one end to the other, but you can also take a tour boat downstream, getting a great view of all the art installations along the way.
The Fundidora park you enter at the end of the river is one of the more impressive parks I have seen in any city, anywhere. Years back, the park was the center of the iron industry in Mexico, lined with massive factories producing 90% of Mexico’s iron. Today, only a few of the old structures remain, but they have been rebuilt into park attractions. You can visit the museum and walk through what used to be an active plant, enjoy the view and delicious food and cocktails from the bar/restaurant, or simply admire the old structures that remain and now serve as a relic of what once was.
In our short stay in the city, we had explored the park and the Riverwalk as well as the popular hipster like neighborhood of Barrio Antiguo. Similar to the other neighborhoods you find in any of the larger Mexican cities, Barrio Antiguo was filled with cool bars and an assortment of unique eateries. Between cruising the pedestrian only street through the Barrio Antiguo district and strolling down the river walk and through the park, you can find plenty to keep you busy in Monterrey for a few days.
El Potrero Chico
For our last couple days in Mexico, we drove just outside of Monterrey to El Potrero Chico Park. It was one of the only locations near Monterrey that had places marked in iOverlander, and it turned out to be another gem. We stayed at La Posada en el Potrero Chico, which couldn’t have been a more ideal place to end our Mexican/Central American overlanding adventure. The place was practically empty and featured a picture perfect in-ground pool complete with hammocks swinging over the water. The backdrop was a dramatic rocky mountain with what seemed to be an almost vertical face. Apparently a popular spot for extreme rock climbing, which was immediately brought to our attention by all the tour signs at the entrance of La Posada.
For our brief stay, we decided to pass on the adventure climbing and instead posted up among the trees in their camping area, enjoying some of our last fresh Mexican Micheladas pools side. It was a bittersweet moment as we were relaxing in the hammocks at the pool, looking back on this grand adventure we had just completed, knowing it was coming to an end. At least the overlanding side of things that is.
Way Back Home!
Traveling in Poppins all that time was amazing, but also had its challenges. Its not easy spending that much time with your significant other in such a cramped space, but our relationship is certainly stronger for it. I’m sure one day we will look back in amazement at what we were able to accomplish together, but for now, all we could think about was getting back stateside and seeing our friends whom we missed so much. It was USA bound and we decided to hang around for the holidays, which Lindsey wrote all about in her earlier blog post which you can read HERE. After all that, our adventure starts again, but this time only with what we can carry on our backs. We plan to start the next leg, this time backpacking, in Panama, and then onto South America!