Are you on a long distance bicycle tour and at the point where you’re wondering what it might be like to ride your bike across the border from the U.S.A into Mexico?
If you are (yes this post is more about bicycling than rafting), then you might find our experience, and my perspective, on the approach that Lothar and I took to cross the U.S.A.–Mexico border of use as a bit more information to support your decision-making. In any case, whether you’re a bicycle tourer on such a mission or not, I hope you’ll enjoy my story about how we ended up riding into Tamaulipas, Mexico via the border crossing near Los Indios (between McAllen and Brownsville), Texas.
When Lothar and I left home, I set out on a ‘bike adventure’.
Then I started thinking of our travels as a journey. I think it was when I realized that any harmony in my life these days is adversity (Imagine enduring interactions with aggressive drivers on ‘their’ road and being a solar panel in extreme humid heat!) and serendipity (Imagine kind strangers appearing out of nowhere, again and again, to help you when you least expect it…). Since I tend (or try) to see the glass half full, clearly serendipity comes after adversity. As Lothar and I travel south, we immerse ourselves in the opportunities and negotiate the challenges. In whitewater river runners’ lingo, and on this bicycle journey, sometimes we have a chance to ‘scout’ the cruxes, investigating the situation and formulating a plan ahead of time, but mostly we’ve been using the ‘read-and-run’ approach, figuring out strategies as situations unfurl.
Now it’s time to pedal through a challenge that’s been looming over me for months, crossing the line from the USA into Mexico at Los Indios, without tangible ideas of what lies ahead.
I’m as ready as I’ll ever be: resigned, scared, committed. To make things even more stressful, we’re on a trajectory that’s threatening to intersect with a thunderstorm storm, looming on the horizon. For some reason, I have a 100 kilometre mark in my mind; the distance that I think we need to put between us and the border to be through the worst of the danger zone. I don’t need to deal with adverse weather too.
One part of my mind is frantically pushing down fear, while another part calmly dredges up memories held in a tattered photograph, one that I safely tucked away in storage last May. In it, I’m in my puffy red down jacket, standing on the edge of a river canyon on river right (from the perspective of drifting downstream). My friend Gord is standing beside me, bundled up too. He’s pointing a set of rapids, known as Caribou Fence, on the Firth River in the northwestern Yukon. We’re plannings our moves to navigate the rapids in whitewater rafts. I’m probably shaking but cold would have had nothing to do with it. That’s just how I feel before running a rapid that I don’t want to swim. When rowing, I know I’ll be fine. Whitewater rafting taught me a few things about how to “break things down; one-step-at-a-time.”.
So now, as my mind drifts into the badlands along the border between the U.S.A. and Mexico, I pull back by imagining that day at the Caribou Fence and repeating my mantra: one-step-at-a-time. I didn’t ride this far only to turn back now. And more importantly, the challenge before us pales in comparison to the dangerous conditions so many illegal immigrants (Mexican and Central American) have endured, some pursuing dreams of better lives, some fleeing nightmares haunting lives, or some doing both.
In the months leading up to today, in an attempt to plan a safer route to cross the Mexican–American border, I searched via Google to find reasonable solution for making our way into Mexico. I found much that made me feel worse.
But I got through it and this is how it worked out.
New Years Eve 2015; Okefanokee Pastimes Campground, Georgia
We meet a couple from western USA who are travelling in a eye catching, craftsman attracting silver Crown Bus. They tell us about the many years they’ve spent travelling through Mexico. They loved it. When we ask, they only know border crossings on the western side of the continent. They recommend “The People’s Guide to Mexico.”
Back at our campsite, I look on the Internet for the book, which is not available for our Kindle, and end up reading warnings posted on the US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs website, that is the same as or similar to this 19 January 2016 update they posted:
Defer all non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas. Throughout the state violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, pose significant safety risks. State and municipal law enforcement capacity is limited to nonexistent in many parts of Tamaulipas. Violent conflicts between rival criminal elements and/or the Mexican military can occur in all parts of the region and at all times of the day. Violentcriminal activity occurs more frequently along the northern border. Organized criminal groups sometimes target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas. These groups sometimes take all passengers hostage and demand ransom payments…Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Victoria have experienced numerous gunbattles and attacks with explosive devices in the past year. The number of reported kidnappings in Tamaulipas is among the highest in Mexico…
(US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs 2016, https://mx.usembassy.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2016/04/Mexico-Travel-Warning-Jan-16.pdf)
Now, I’m really keen to find a way to circumvent riding our bicycles across the border. Lothar is too. But flying is not an option; we are concerned about climate change so we want to avoid air travel, among other things.
3 January 2016, Landing in Florida
The campground operator on our first night in Florida tells us that freighters travel between St. Petersburg, Florida and Mexico. Apparently, they take passengers. Great! But when I search the Internet, I only find one company doing the trip and when I call the woman I talk to tells me they don’t take passengers.
While searching, I find a reference to a ferry running between Florida and Cuba. Maybe, we can take a ferry to Cuba and then take a ferry to Mexico. But I learn that while Obama has opened the door to allow for ferry traffic Cuba has yet to reciprocate. There’s lots speculation about this topic on the Internet, any day now some say. I hope.
Mid January, mid Florida; Commitment
There’s still no sign of a ferry service starting and we’re getting discouraged by some of our experiences in Florida, feelings that grow as we ride south through the most heavily developed areas. So we decide to abort our mission to ride to the Florida Keys and we turn west to follow the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico. With this, we commit to crossing the border from the U.S.A. to Mexico, hoping a reasonable solution for where to cross will become clearer on our approach.
21 January 2016; on the road between Bald Point State Park and Indian Pass, Florida
We meet a young guy, Brian, who is cycling the four corners of the U.S.A. He rode along the southern tier bicycle route that goes through Texas, along the U.S.A.–Mexico border. He tells us that border patrols will probably be checking us out if we wild camp along border. He was rousted from sleep twice by officials who found him, somehow, in the middle of the night. They checked his I.D., and when they confirm he’s indeed an American they left him be.
25 January 2016; on a beach between Grayton Beach State Park and Henderson Beach Park, Florida
We meet an older guy, recently retired from the military. Now he walks with a cane, due to cancer surgery. But when he was able, he loved bicycle touring. He’s intrigued by our bikes and travels. He’s also travelled extensively in Mexico. When we express our concerns about crossing the border. He replies, “Screw that. It’s all propaganda. Don’t worry you’ll be fine.”
13 February 2016; landing on Pecan Island, Louisiana
We arrive at Chris and Juanita’s, our Warm Showers hosts, for one night; we stay for three. Juanita has spent a lot of time in Mexico too, although it’s been a few years since her last trip. She loves Mexico too. “Don’t worry”, she says, “You’ll be fine…and I say joy (the latter words she often shared).” She sends us on our way with a care package: cheat sheets for learning Spanish vocabulary and grammar, Cliff Bars, and the sweetest foil-baked yams of all time.
26 February 2016; landing in Corpus Christi, Texas
We ride to Glenn’s where we stay for two nights. Clearly, we’re nearing the border with some days on our travel permit to spare, and we’re thriving in the company of our Warm Showers hosts, so much so we’re slowing down. Glenn takes Lothar under his wing and teaches him how to replace a bike chain (while I’m busy writing a blog post!).
When we leave, we ride on into full on semi-arid prairie, and along with the people we meet on the way, I feel like we’ve made the transition from Cajun country to Mexican territory. We eat at a Mexican restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The next town, Bishop feels like a ghost town. It’s hot out here!
28 February; landing at Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Kingsville, Texas
We arrive in Kingsville and none of the RV Parks we call or visit will take us in. “We don’t do tenters,” is a response we get a lot, ever since Virginia. People seem antsy about ‘intruders’ on their private, and often massive, properties. And I’m not really into stealth camping (or hiding), if we don’t have to. So having heard that churches sometimes take cyclists, Lothar tries calling the Saint Paul Lutheran Church. Without hesitation, despite never having had such a request before, the Pastor, Michael, and his wife, Katheryn, take us in. We sleep peacefully in our tent in their backyard.
29 February 2016; landing in Riviera, Texas
We arrive at Keith’s, another Warm Showers host, for one night and we stay for four. Keith has hosted several cyclist’s who have crossed the USA–Mexico border without problems. He’s with Juanita; he assures us we’ll meet lots of helpful people along the way. Don’t worry about it.
4 March 2016; landing near Harlingen, Texas
Keith drives us 20 miles closer to the border where he drops us off just before a border patrol check-point. We ride on to Raymondville, where Richard, our next Warm Showers host, picks us up after work and takes us to his home, just outside of Harlingen. We stay for six nights, as thunderstorm after thunderstorm roll through. He knows the border area well. We discuss various options for crossing, from whether to cross at Los Indios or at Reynosa to whether we should ride our bikes or take a bus across. Now, we have a lot more information to support our decision. We decide to ride across at Los Indios; it feels like the right choice for us, at this time.
10 March 2016; finally, crossing the line!
I ride for the border with my cache of comforting memories for distraction: all of the people who have helped us get to this point and when I’m really grasping, running Caribou Fence rapids on the Firth River, a place on Earth that captivated my mind, body and spirit. Gord (and Mau) are right there with me; and I’m breaking it down, one-step-at-a-time. It starts raining in our final approach. But just as I can see we’re arriving at the border, a brilliant shaft of light breaks through heavy cloud.
U.S.A. border patrol vehicles are plying the highway and a perpendicular road that intersects it. We ride over the Free Trade Bridge across the Rio Grande: tiny, lazy, and murky.
The Mexican customs officials smile and wave us through. We pull over to get our Tourist Card. The office isn’t open until 9:00 a.m. We try but can’t exchange US dollars for Pesos at the Cambio. Everyone seems relaxed and friendly: personnel, and others.
A man from Honduras who speaks English helps us to interpret the Spanish on our tourist cards. He’s a transmigrante, Latino lingo for drivers transporting used vehicles from the U.S.A. to Central America, often with ‘in tow’ painted on windows and sometimes in short trains of multiple vehicles. It’ll just take him five days to get there, which is hard for me to fathom given our form of travel.
As he’s leaving, he approaches me, bends over to the level I am sitting; he reaches out his right hand out to shake mine and then he puts his left hand on my shoulder; he looks me in the eye, and says something softly in Spanish. I know he has given me the best farewell that he has to offer even though I have no idea what he said.
When we’re riding again, a semi-truck full of used vehicles pulling a fuel truck and then another flat bed trailer stacked with vehicles passes us playing an enthusiastic song on the horn. We both guess that it’s our Honduran friend. We ride on with purpose, straight to Valle Hermoso, only stopping briefly on the road to eat granola bars.
We grab the first hotel we find, Hotel Martín, and stay for two nights, as we gather ourselves together. We withdraw Mexican pesos at a bank and buy telephone SIM cards, barely managing to communicate our needs to people who don’t speak English. (Learning Spanish is a blog post for later.)
12 March 2016; landing at the Junction of Highway 97 and 101
We stopped at a tienda (small store). A beautiful and gracious woman in her mid-60s, or so, serves us. Somehow, we’re able to communicate to her that we’re looking for a safe place to camp. She tells us that there is a hotel at the Junction of Highway 97 and 101. We tell her we’re thinking about turning west after the junction, heading for an area near Monterey where I know people have studied black bears (I’m keen to see a study area that I’ve read about). Only by drawing a map can we describe to this woman the route we were thinking of taking to get there. She adamantly discourages us from taking this route (Highway 18). She recommends heading south to Ciudad Victoria.
We continue riding and don’t stop again until we get to the hotel at the junction. Again, like yesterday, I haven’t taken a single photo. We’re still seeing lots of police and military vehicles along the road. And it’s so hot!
The hotel is beside and just before a police check point. It is apparently strategically located to intercept all vehicle traffic heading to and from the major border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. We catch the evening shift change, and the workouts begin: some men are running around the court, others are doing leg presses with large truck tires, and others are doing push ups using the bumper of pick-up trucks for their feet. For dinner, we eat tacos at an outdoor food stand, right next door. We sleep peacefully.
13 March 2016; landing near the military base
We ask some of the officers about our route options. They also recommend heading for Ciudad Victoria, deterring us from heading west on Highway 18. With bellies full of pancakes that we cooked up in the parking lot, we launch from our hotel into our first Federal Police checkpoint. They smile and wave us through.
Our next crux is San Fernando, where several people have warned us to be careful, including the woman we talked to yesterday. When we asked her if going through San Fernando would be safer than heading west, she made the sign of the cross and nodded yes, dangerous too but safer. We considered all of these warnings, along with the prayer that a restaurant owner asked a Reverend to give us back in Valle Hermoso, and committed to continuing south on Highway 101.
When I see that there’s a bypass to circumvent San Fernando, my spirits rise. We stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant. In a scrum with the owner and the boys working at the Pemex gas station next door, we decide to aim for a military checkpoint that they think we can get permission to camp at.
It’s 37C, when we roll into a Pemex gas station. We waffle about camping here. The attendant assures us it’s safe. We’re not so sure. A state police officer asks to take a photo of us with the other officer. They recommend we camp at the military check stop too, so off we go. As we’re riding, I realize that some of the bus drivers are so enthusiastic with their waving and honking that they’re probably driving back and forth and in seeing our progress they’re giving us encouragement.
When we arrive, hot and exhausted, at the checkpoint. The soldier tells us we can’t camp in the compound. But he’s quick to suggest that maybe the Campesinos can help us. A young woman selling burritos steps forward. She’ll take us in. We can camp at her place. It’s just 500 m down the road. Wonderful!
We get another peaceful night of sleep.
From here, I think we’re out of the most dangerous zone:
But as it turns out, from talking to people and reading newspaper reports later, most if not all of the communities we stayed in for the next several days have been experiencing serious conflicts, either recently or in progress. Despite these risks, I get the impression that because we are unusual, exposed and vulnerable on our bikes, we’re not attracting potential thugs (we hardly look like big ticket items); and for many more people we’re an attraction, or at least not a threat, opening doors for “the kindness of strangers.” Many people helped us, some when we asked and others reaching out to us.
So as it turns out, I’m so glad the ferry to Cuba wasn’t running.
Because if it was, we would have missed the many valuable experiences in life and in travel that we gained by riding our bicycles across the border, from the U.S.A into Mexico: experiences I’m sure will come in handy when we cross the border into El Salvador… coming up next!
By the way, if you are heading into Mexico…
This is my take on what works for us: we gather information, we trust our guts, and we make our decisions along the way: one-step-at-a-time, something like running a river. A journey like this is so mind boggling that it’s impossible to plan, a bit of a challenge for me but as it turns out it’s a good thing. In our experience, the best information comes from people who have direct experience with the areas we’re asking about.
And don’t rush through it.
Despite it’s troubles, Mexico is a country rich in diversity, born of swirling mixtures of climate, geology, ecology, and culture, and warm and generous people. So many stories to tell…
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, I incorrectly reported meeting a couple who owned an Air Stream Trailer when in fact it was a silver Crown Bus.