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Don’t drink the water!

We were warned about coming to Mexico. “I wouldn’t take my family there!” “You’re crazy to take your car/Airstream into Mexico!” “You can’t take guns there!” “What about the mordida (bribes)?” “Have you had a Hepatitis shot?” And of course, the perennial favorite “¦ “Don’t drink the water!”

The nay-sayers were out in force in the months before we came here. A dozen conversations we had with well-meaning friends can be summarized as simply, “Don’t go. It’s too dangerous.” But none of these people had ever camped in Mexico, indeed, few of them had ever crossed the border.

Many other people said “You’ll love it!” and recommended places to go. All of these people had been to Mexico numerous times. Many of them were in their 60s and 70s and felt safe traveling alone. Quite a few spent months camping in Mexico each winter. We chose to listen to these people because they had the benefit of actual experience.

We did not find a single person who had a first-hand tale of “banditos” or violent crime, and very few had ever gotten sick. It turns out that the banditos are a piece of folklore, about as relevant as tales of Billy The Kid to today’s traveler of Mexican highways.

The two books I consulted on the subject were also reassuring. “Traveler’s Guide to Mexican Camping” said, “People in border campgrounds will warn you not to cross into Mexico because there are banditos, dishonest cops, terrible roads, and language and water problems. The one thing you can be sure of when you get one of these warnings is that the person has not tried Mexican camping for him/herself.”

The “People’s Guide to Mexico” went into even more of a tirade on the subject, too long to quote here. But it was clear from our research, and our recent days in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, that we were not about to experience anything nearly as bad as the hazards and crime found on the US side of the border.

Puerto Peñasco is not part of the deep innards of Mexico. It’s a small town on the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez, only 65 miles from the border. It is also known as Rocky Point by Americans, although that’s not its proper name. Being so close and convenient to the USA, it’s a huge spring break draw this time of year, and so popular with Arizona residents that it is sometimes referred to as “Tucson Beach.”

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It hardly feels foreign, with the thousands of US residents filling the RV parks, hotels, restaurants and beaches. Everyone in the tourist-related businesses seems to speak English, dollars are accepted in many places, there are lots of English signs, and services in the RV parks are pretty similar to the US standard. It’s an easy place to visit even for someone who has never set foot outside of the US or Canada before.

Being a tourist town that caters to college students on spring break, most things are geared to serve clueless Americans. We overheard a group of them coming through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, telling the ranger they were headed to “that Mexico place.” When she asked which place, they said, “You know, that place in Mexico.” With that sort of knowledge and preparation coming across the border, you can imagine the patience the residents of Puerto Peñasco must have to deal with their customers.

I like to dive into the local scene in a foreign country, and the easiest way to do that is to join the local economy. Hit a grocery store, drop in on the market that doesn’t cater to tourists, or buy lunch from a street vendor or small off-the-beaten path bakery. Today, after Ken & Petey bought us a nice lunch at Playa Bonita Resort on the beach, where the menus and service were in English, I went out to see if I could do a little local business.

My short trip started with a stop at the local Banamex for some pesos from the ATM. Even though the machine only “spoke” Spanish, ATMs are the same the world over, so this was no challenge at all. However, it was interesting to observe the people using the ATM ahead of me: a security guard from a resort, a college student trying to get a cash advance on his US credit card, and an American couple who didn’t realize that in Mexico the “$” sign is used to denote pesos. Thus they were a tad confused that the machine would dispense as much as $5000 at a time. (To approximately convert pesos into dollars, divide by 11.)

I spent 300 pesos at the local Telcel store, buying a Telmex pre-paid SIM card for my spare GSM phone. GSM is the type of cell phone network used most widely in Mexico. Although US cell phones will work in some places, the technology they use is not as widespread. My US-based Verizon phone, for example, reports only an analog signal and not much of that. The Telmex SIM gives my GSM phone a Mexican phone number, so we can make calls in Mexico as inexpensively and easily as the locals do. This will be useful on future trips.

The final stop was to put 100 pesos of gas in the truck. Since Pemex stations sell in liters it can be confusing to determine how much gas you’ve bought, but with a calculator it’s pretty simple to do the conversion. How much gas does 100 pesos get you? Answer: Not much.

The fun part of doing these little errands is that nobody I encountered spoke any English, and so I was forced to communicate with universal tools. These include a smile, a polite and self-deprecating demeanor, as many words of the local language as I can conjure, hand gestures, and endless patience. With these tools I have successfully communicated with speakers of French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese, and even Czech. I don’t speak any of those languages. It is a very satisfactory feeling to manage to conduct even a minor transaction (such as buying gasoline) with only a smile and a few words, and I think the person on the other end of the transaction usually feels the same way.

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Our campsite next to Ken & Petey at Playa de Oro

Google Earth location of Playa de Oro campground.

There are several RV parks right along the beach, and we’re in one of them: Playa de Oro. This place is located south of the Old Port, near a lot of tourist “restaurant-bar” spots (emphasis on BAR, especially this month). The park is 320 tightly spaced full-hookup sites on a crushed shell surface and no view except on the beachfront sites. At night the restaurant-BARs turn on their music and we get a free, somewhat muffled, concert of dance music until about 2:30 a.m. Last night it was noisy but not unbearable, and we managed to sleep through it.

We don’t know if the water in this campground is safe to drink, but we arrived with a full tank (39 gallons) of fresh water and it should last for the four days we will be here, with conservation. If not, a vendor drives by daily in a pickup truck loaded with 5-gallon jugs of agua purificada, and when he honks his horn all we need to do is wave to him and buy a jug, just like we would for an ice cream truck. As a result, we have not connected to the water spigot at our site.

Similarly, we have avoided using the AC power. I tested the power outlet for correct wiring (ground, polarity, hot/neutral) using the simple tester that Airstream provides with every new trailer, and it passed. That’s more than I can say for some US parks, most recently one in New Mexico we stayed at. However, my voltage tester is dead, so I can’t verify whether the current is in the safe range for running certain appliances, like the air conditioner. Mexican campgrounds have a reputation for wildly fluctuating voltage, sometimes dropping during the day and rising at night, or spiking without warning.

As in other desert locations, there’s endless sunshine, so our strategy is to simply not plug in except for a few minutes in the morning to run the coffee pot. With the cool sea breezes we don’t need air conditioning anyway, and the solar panels are supplying more than enough power each day to fully replace what we use at night. My laptop, which comes out only once every other day to record my musings, is running off DC power and is thus insulated against variances in the AC voltage.

For the various comforts and liabilities listed above, we are paying $19 per night, which is very reasonable by US standards for a spot about 200 yards from the beach. In Fort Myers Beach, for comparison, a similar site cost $52 per night, although the beach was prettier. The beach is not bad here but certainly not up to the gorgeous sugar-white standard of the Florida barrier islands, and not quite as nice as the beaches north of town, which are wide, shallow, and uncrowded even during Spring Break.

The water is reasonably clear, if somewhat cold, and the beach is a coarse tan sand which at low tide reveals shelves of the underlying volcanic basalt. Anyone on the beach will soon encounter all types of beach vendors, selling “Cuban” cigars, jewelry, trinkets, and other assorted junk. Not one so far has offered us the stuff one might expect on the beach: cold drinks, sunscreen, parasols, folding chairs, inflatable beach toys, or kites.

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