18th May. Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Breakfast was a rather scratch affair, despite its promise. The single waitress struggled to deal with us and a group of twenty two others who appeared seconds after we got into the dining room. With only about half of the items ordered actually delivered we left at 07.00 and fought our way out of the town, through a maze of streets and turnings, none of which had any names or direction indication.
After a short climb, we began a long descent through a rather beautiful gorge, a river way below us to the right, snaked its way down through rock-strewn rapids, between pine-clad steep slopes, all in early morning sun. Further down we began to
encounter large pick-up trucks, which serve as buses hereabouts, mostly filled with women and children, dressed in local costume of principally scarlet hues, very pretty in this light. We assumed they were going to the various markets we saw in the towns, all waved and smiled at the ‘chicos carritos’.
Arrival at the border town of La Mesilla was sudden, no previous announcement and straight into a street
bordered by shops and filled with stalls selling the most fabulous range of clothes and costume all in dazzling colours from traditional to eye-watering fluorescent. Threading our way through the browsers and shoppers we arrived at a barrier, conveniently propped at a height to allow tuk-tuks and motorcycles through, but preventing cars, even Austin 7s. The barrier was raised and we parked in front of the
immigration and customs offices where, in about ten minutes, we had all been processed and the cars as well. A further fifty meters on we were stopped at a barrier announcing Mexican territory.
A young man then explained in minute detail the process we would now have to undergo. Quite whether this was because Amanda spoke Spanish or because he thought we were rather dim, the others were very quickly through and parked at the disinfection bay. We joined them and established that both the inside and outside of the cars needed treatment, the interior by aerosol spray and the outside by a wet spray of wheels and lower portion of each car. The charge for this was made in US dollars after we explained we had no Mexican pesos, change was given in pesos, which helped later on.
Now we were directed to the immigration office about three kilometres further on, where the process was again explained. There is a tourist tax if one stays longer than seven days, payable on leaving the country, and a bond for the car which could be paid by credit card and reclaimed at a bank before exiting the country. Passports now stamped and sensing a comfortable ‘dance’ through the routine, we fished out copies of the car documents and our Mexican road insurance documents, already obtained by River from the insurance agent Johnny Ginn in the States.
Amanda, Stan and Diana went to the Aduana as usual and a little while later
Diana reappeared to cross the road to obtain copies of the recently-stamped passports. With these in hand I was beginning to feel that a record short crossing might be on the cards.
A little later Diana reappeared with good and bad news. She had got the chummy paperwork and was free to go. Stan was next in line, however there was a significant problem with me and Bertie.
We had by misfortune arrived on the day that a pedantic Aduana Officer was on duty. Christened John, I have from the age of 15 been known to all as Jack. Although my passport and driving licence name me as John, most other documents are in my chosen name of Jack and I sign everything, including passport and driving licence ‘Jack’. However the V5 title document to the car has me as Jack Peppiatt and here was his opportunity to shine the bright light of truth on the whole sordid affair.
At first he was quite adamant: nothing, it being Saturday, could be done until Monday when a superior officer would be present to adjudicate. Amanda who was presenting the paperwork emerged from the office looking despondent. This issue had arisen previously at another border crossing, but sense had very soon prevailed when the fact that all the documents are signed ‘Jack’ had been pointed out. We decided to let Stan get through the process and have another go.
Returning to the office, we showed him that my passport and licence have both names and photographs proving my identity, and that the V5 confirmed the address. We showed him some of the previous temporary import documents and the Bill of Lading from London to Buenos Aires. Unmoved, he suggested we go away for the weekend and return, adding for his amusement that recently a Brazilian had had a similar problem which took 30 days to resolve.
However at that moment he decided to consult a colleague who had returned from lunch and was in an adjacent office. Long discussions took place and after ten minutes we were invited to enter the office.
It was explained by the new officer that the paperwork must match, however they would see what could be done. Now began an excruciating half an hour. the original officer had an App on his phone for translating and he proceeded to examine every line and word of the V5 with the help of the App. I was quiet and helpful when questions were asked, translated by Amanda. They even looked at the DVLA website in the UK in case the details could be altered on line, which of course they cannot. We discussed whether I could fill in the part of the form that allows alterations to details to be made, but reluctantly they concluded that this would not suffice, as the document could not be verified by the DVLA electronically, a paper version has to be sent out once the changes are made.
On and on the discussion went, until I could hardly stand another moment. In English, quietly, I established that my passport is proof of my identity, it has my photo and my signature. My International driving licence has the same details and my licence and the V5 have the same address. I have no brother named Jack and the passport requires that I be allowed ‘to pass freely without let or hindrance’.
Now the second officer who had been to find a way out of the problem the first officer had created, began to look online to see if John and Jack were the same, he also suggested that if I would sign the car over to Amanda she could be the owner as her signature is the same as her given name. ‘Jobsworth’ jumped at this, “Ah yes, that would be the solution” I was to cede ownership to Amanda and all would be well. Willing to do anything to be free of this madhouse, I agreed, wondering how this was better than me altering, in the part of the form provided, the name from Jack to John. So we left the inner office and returned to the counter where I duly filled in section 10 and signed the declaration. Amanda signed the New Owner’s declaration and then I walked over to the copy shop and had the pages re-copied.
Back at the office our friendly officer again read through the whole V5 and discovered a new twist. Amanda had signed a declaration that the details in section 6 were correct, but we had not filled in section 6. The reason for this was that section 10 is on the left-hand page and so far all the changes had been made to the right hand page where a number of tear-off slips allow sale, change and scrapping. The left-hand page is where all the original details are recorded but the right-hand page can be discarded and would have made the V5 look untouched. Visions of trying to get the vehicle out of Mexico and into and out of America flashed in front of me. The change would not have been verified by DVLA and yet here we were trying to import a car with change of owner and the forms all filled in.
With bad grace I reluctantly filled in the remaining section and yet again went across the road to get another fresh copy for our torturer. Now he again read through the whole document with the aid of his phone app and concluded that there was no further amusement to be gained from us and so slowly, oh so slowly, filled in the paperwork and charged us the bond. He had also charged all of us the tourist tax although it is not payable, technically, until one has been in the country seven days, a fact that had been given to us by the immigration office next door and checked when it was insisted that we pay now.
We left the office, me muttering dark imprecations, Amanda prodding me to shut up. The whole farrago had taken up valuable time, would stop us reaching our intended goal that night, would cost me £25 for a new V5 on returning to the UK and might well result in untold difficulties at the US border and when shipping the cars home from New York. I was incandescent with rage, hot, very bothered and ready to kill. This was the straw, etc, etc. For the rest of the day I found Mexico very hard going, nothing was pleasant and mister gloom came to visit and stayed.
The road from the border was pretty poor and the countryside not very interesting, so we just got on with the drive and arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, short of where we had intended and rather later than we had planned. Driving into the city on Saturday evening through the dense traffic was not too bad as, for once, the GPS was behaving and giving information that was largely correct and we had a town map in a guide book. Arriving at the hotel I, for once, had managed to interpret the grid pattern and went around the block to get to the front door, the GPS having brought us to the wrong end of a one way street. The guide book had stated that this was a nice hotel, with cheaper rooms in an annexe across the road. Our enquiries revealed that rooms were available but only in the annexe and cheaper than the book.
Our room tour, which we always do, revealed dingy and rather grubby looking rooms, but two had minimal bathrooms which would suffice and one had the use of a shared bathroom. At the price and at this time of night after the day we had had, it
would do for the night at £12.50 per room. Matters improved when we went to a nearby restaurant, which turned out to have lovely food, live music and a happy, informal, family atmosphere. The dish of sautéed ceps and girolles would
have graced the best European restaurant tables; here dinner for four, including two very good Indio dark beers each, was less than £40 in total.
I slept badly, dreaming of conspiracy and paranoia.
19th May. St.Cristobal de las Casas
We had decided to have an early breakfast and get away as soon as we could, to tackle a rather long day. We had been in communication with several contacts, referred by our dear friend in Colombia, Hugo Suarez Fiat. The information we were seeking was about the safest way to travel through Mexico.
All the way through the planning for the trip we had acknowledged that Mexico would represent the biggest risk from a security point of view. The widely-reported drug-fuelled killings and kidnappings, had caused us all concern. I had
hoped we might be able to cross from the Pacific side to the Caribbean coast and travel to Monterrey without having to
climb back onto the Mexican altiplano. The general advice seemed to be that toll roads and the altiplano were the safe way. Now we got from Alberto MontesdeOca in Mexico City direct information to confirm this. We also began to get messages from contacts along the way, asking if we would like hotels booked, and whether we would be available for club meetings and museum visits.
Running more than two weeks behind our schedule, we knew that we were unlikely to be able to do much of any of these things and yet felt an obligation to at least try, the offers being so generous. Our feeling that this was not just our journey but one for the memory of JC and Austins in general making it difficult to put ourselves first. So we planned to get to Minatitlan on the first night, a distance of 218 miles, mostly on toll roads.
As we were setting off I noticed a strange sound from somewhere in the transmission and remembered that on the previous evening as we were descending a hill there had been an odd noise, just once which had reminded me of a dry bearing! Now the noise came and went in third mostly, on the overrun. We had been diverted around a cycle race on the main road and so at a handy wide piece of road, I stopped and with the engine still running had a look underneath. After fiddling about there was nothing obvious and so I heaved on the propshaft and there was the noise.
It sounded like the output shaft bearing in the gearbox and on checking I found a very low oil level which was soon replenished. after a few minutes of running the noise subsided and has not returned. I think this may have been the first time in Austin 7 ownership I have ever had to top up the gearbox, good job they are almost indestructible, but I spent several days kicking myself for the neglect.
We made reasonable time during the day, descending from nearly 6,000 feet to sea level with an increase in temperature and humidity that made the last fifty miles rather hard going. Mr Gloom was still at home and trashing along a boring toll road, did nothing to improve my mood. We passed over a very large man-made lake, serving a hydro-electric scheme and later, through vast acreages of sugar cane. As we neared the Caribbean coast, bridges crossed the still, reflective fingers of waterways, extending inland from the sea, which drain this huge area of low-lying land.
Reaching Minatitlan at 19.00, we rolled up the eight-lane, rather
americanised main street and found the City Express hotel, into which we had booked as an expedient and easy-to-find stopping place. A chain hotel on the highway, it was clean, convenient and completely characterless. There being no restaurant in the hotel, we ate at VIPs across the road. Absolutely worn out by the last two days, I tried to ignore the very poor turn our fortunes had taken.
The rooms although very small, were in fact quite serviceable, the internet connection fast enough and so we made plans for the following days, emailed and plotted mileages and routes. Amanda had all the hard work, translating the mainly spanish communications and writing back, long hours over the ipad to inform and reply to the many emails. I was still not much enamoured of Mexico, the border crossing and the previous days motoring having not been to my taste.
20th May. Minatitlan, Mexico.
We were able to make a rather more leisurely start today having only 180 miles to cover to Cordoba and the previous few days having taken their toll on everyone. At 09.45 we started the engines and followed along the same highway towards Cordoba. Back on the toll road, we were soon overtaken and stopped by a police car. A very imposing figure stepped from the smart patrol car and came to the passenger window. Offering his hand he announced “Julio Cesar Arias: Highway Patrol” with obvious pride and protective assurance.
This later part because in Mexico, sacked and disaffected police officers have been known to stop motorists and impose ‘fines’ for traffic violations. He was amiable and helpful, interested and wanted to have his photo taken, so we obliged. All the while his silent, very scary partner stood on the slow lane of the carriageway, with his automatic rifle held at the ready position, staring down the approaching traffic which cowered towards the central reservation barrier.
Reassured by this police presence we continued along the two-lane road towards Cordoba. We were to see many police and army vehicles during our time in Mexico, always vigilant, always polite, always reassuring by their presence. At no time did we feel in danger or under threat, although I am sure it exists if one is not careful or cautious about the times and places one goes.
We passed over many large and long bridges crossing imposing rivers, passed long trains of cut sugar cane, indeed the road was littered with droppings from these lorries that lent the air a sweet, slightly fermented scent.
During the afternoon, one of those inexplicable road things happened. We were climbing a hill and passed a slow-moving truck. In the lead, we saw the two others also pass the truck just as we reached the brow of the hill. Now hidden from view by other overtaking vehicles we could not see Diana and Stan, but not wanting to get swamped by the slow moving sugar cane truck we pressed on and after a couple of miles and some fairly major ups and downs, still could not see the others and so we stopped under an overbridge for the shade it provided. Now today there had been two stops for Diana to top up fuel and add coolant, the heat being high and if the petrol level falls below 2 gallons, the chummy can suffer from fuel starvation. When they did not appear for about ten minutes we began to think that a similar stop had occurred again. Amanda and I were occupied with changing drivers and looking at the map and so on. After a few more minutes we got out of the car and decided that we would wait another twenty minutes and then find a way of returning, this being a dual carriageway with central barrier, it might take some miles to find a ‘retorno’ and as the barrier was high we might miss them. Leaning against the bridge supports we continued to look back and speculate on what could be taking so long.
After about thirty-five minutes, we had dismissed reversing the three or four miles, along the hard shoulder, turning round and driving along the hard shoulder in the wrong direction and were coming to the conclusion that the only solution was to drive on and find a ‘retorno’. Just then Amanda heard a familiar voice calling and turning we saw Diana walking towards us along the hard shoulder, from the road ahead. Pink and dishevelled, Diana told us in breathless words that she and Stan had passed us twenty minutes before, waving and assuming that we had seen them. They had only stopped about two miles further along the road and Diana had walked back.
None of us could believe that we had all been so inattentive. With Amanda in the middle of the car, perched on the luggage and Diana in the passenger seat we drove towards Stan, who was equally puzzled by the whole thing. We resolved to never again pass a stationary car unless we received a thumbs up.
Reaching Cordoba, we passed through the City centre and its imposing Central Plaza before we stopped at the Villa Florida Hotel. In the foyer, we noticed an old-fashioned painting of the main Plaza and circling the inner square two cars each bearing a strong resemblance to Austin 7 chummies, what are the chances of that we wondered?
Amanda and I caught a taxi back into the centre to find SIM cards and sample the evening air. By now feeling a little less grumpy about the whole country, I had been wowed by the passing sights in Cordoba and as we plunged into the heady early-evening bustle I began to enjoy being in Mexico. We called at several stores to find SIM cards, until at one we were able to buy the required two. It turned out that in fact only one could be made to work and so we followed the very pleasant woman shop assistant along the city streets to a another store in their chain. There no cards were available and so with no more ado, she took the card from her own phone, helped us get credit on both in a nearby farmacia and wished us well in our travels. We were bowled over by her kind and thoughtful help. Retracing our steps to the main Plaza, we sat at an outdoor table under the arcaded facade of a colonial building and ate a very pleasant supper, accompanied by a four-piece marimba band.
This band carried with it a rather elaborately legged marimba, a xylophone-style instrument with legs shaped as on a gate-legged table. Accompanied by a snare and base drum, with cow bell, guitar and percussionist with ribbed shell and stick they played Cuban-style music and bossa nova. Between numbers, the percussionist would visit the tables to collect contributions. He also carried a typewritten sheet of titles which he presented to each table asking for requests. I selected ‘El Amor es una cosa’, which turned out to be ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’, played in the style of a Blues, and this, of course reminded me of a game in the long-running and much-loved radio programme ‘I’m Sorry I Have’nt A Clue’ played by those much-loved and talented artists etc etc. Our fish soup arrived at that moment and so we were able to hide our giggles behind spoon or napkin, the song being mutilated by the drummer who had obviously never heard it before and being unable to adapt to the Marimba player’s changing rhythm to accentuate the bathos of the tune. We applauded their efforts, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as they immediately moved the whole band close up to our table and carried on for the next hour. Other musicians arrived, a wheelchair-using harmonica player and three suited and booted guitarists who sang in wobbly tenor style, standing so close to a table, that the diners almost found their fork-laden hand passing through the elbow of a player! The various parties would watch one another with hawk-like intensity, judging the moment so perfectly that the Marimba band were being counted in as the last notes of the guitar players were being extended to mark the end of a song. We finished supper and thanked the musicians, declining the opportunity for one last request.
We walked around the Plaza in the ink-black night, the warmth of the day still radiating from the black lava tiles that pave the roads and walkways. Vendors were carrying away vast gatherings of helium-filled balloons, we speculated on where one would keep four or five cubic metres of inflated balloons, over 8 metres high, overnight?
21st May. Cordoba, Mexico.
Rising early we got on the road before breakfast in the early dawn light. The road was good and very straightforward and our only need was to make Puebla as early as possible, where we had been offered a meeting and lead into the city, accommodation having been booked for us by Luis Arguelles.
The road rose towards Puebla for many miles but the gradients were not too severe and although the climb was long we reached cooler air and that made the climb less distressing for the cars. Once on the plateau we stopped briefly and a white car pulled in beside us, which, it transpired, had been following Diana at the back for nearly the whole climb. Being equipped with an orange flashing light, it had guarded the back of our slow-moving convoy for about 15 miles. It turned out that they were
employees of a soap making company and on their way to a destination beyond Puebla and so they stayed with us all the way, a kind gesture which we much appreciated.
We had reached 8,592 feet above sea level, the highest point we would climb in Mexico. There were road works and the distraction of fields being ploughed with horses and single-row metal-sheathed wooden ploughs and so the morning passed very quickly.
We were to call Luis when within a few miles of Puebla and so it was that while calling him he asked if we could see a football stadium and just then it appeared, so that we made the correct turn off and stopped briefly to say thank you and goodbye to our escort, who had
been with us for sixty or seventy miles. We also needed to have a quick discussion about how to get to the car park of the stadium across six lanes of speeding traffic. Bold moves by the drivers and the kindly attitude of Mexican drivers in general, meant we were soon on the parking lot and awaiting the arrival of our escort.
Fernando arrived about twenty minutes later and we followed him into the city, where we parked and walked a few blocks to the hotel, checked in and sat at a
pavement table for lunch and the arrival of Luis who was to join us, which he did a little later with his son Luis Junior and friend Luis, who was celebrating his eightieth birthday. A long and leisurely lunch, followed by a walk in the city centre to purchase a road atlas of
Mexico and then we were ready to take the cars back to Luis’ garage facility for over night storage. Luis junior and Octogenarian Luis went in the Austins and I was invited to drive Luis senior’s modern Thunderbird. During the journey I passed the three Austins and for once experienced the same surprise as other drivers do when suddenly confronted with three diminutive antique cars bumbling along amongst the modern traffic. It is an uncommon sight in the UK but here in Mexico it looked quite startling.
By one of those extraordinary coincidences we have now come to regard as completely normal, Luis had discovered the day before meeting us, that his late father-in-law, who was the Austin agent in Puebla in the 1950s, had left some photographs of himself with a UK-registered Austin 7, taken in 1959 when the English owner had stayed with him in Puebla. The Englishman was, of course, John Coleman and Luis was thrilled to have his own photograph taken with Diana and River’s chummy, the closest equivalent to JC’s car.
Luis has quite a collection of pre- and post-war American cars and a post-war Mercedes or two. The garage also works on customers’ cars, a very
nice Buick convertible amongst them. Pride of his own collection is an original Thunderbird and ‘36 Packard 120. Later
when we returned to the hotel, Luis invited me to drive this, with Diana and Amanda and our luggage back to the hotel through the now busy home-going traffic and a short rain shower. Like directing an ocean liner, it was a matter of guiding it rather than steering and the three-speed column-change gearbox was rather lacking in ‘feel’. However the straight eight engine was magnificent, quiet, with immense torque and the ride was absolutely up to dealing with the rather rough road surface. It was a great thrill for me as my Father owned a ’38 Packard 110 in the early 50s and I remember it well, but had not ridden in one since and had never driven one before.
Luis, father and son, joined us at the hotel, as did Stan, having now driven the Thunderbird back from the garage. After several beers, a walk around the now darkened and damp Plaza to see the Cathedral we repaired to the restaurant of his good friend, Jesus Manuel Hernandez. Located in an early 17th-century colonial smoke house, the brick barrel-vaulted La Conjura restaurant is a renowned Spanish tapas bar in Puebla. After a wonderful meal, including very good asparagus and giant shrimp from the Pacific coast, we were given a tour of the remainder of the extensive buildings, all beautifully and sensitively restored, and saw the interior courtyard and underground smoke pits. This was one of those moments of trail magic, given an opportunity to see a remnant of this great city’s historic past, guided by the owner a noted political and food writer. We parted late at night having spent an entertaining and amiable evening in the company of Luis and his son, with arrangements made to meet at breakfast the following morning.
22nd May. Puebla, Mexico
At the garage, we found the cars washed and shined, with oil and water topped up and the staff ready to deal with any repairs we might need. There were a few items we needed to have printed, which we were able to do and we packed our luggage and took photos, received advice on the road ahead and sadly said our goodbyes. Had we had time, that evening was to be a club meeting to celebrate Octogenarian Luis’ birthday, to which we were pressed to stay, but reluctantly we begged to be excused and after rides around the local streets for Luis and Jesus Manuel, we followed them back to the highway and said goodbye there.
Our destination today was to be Teotihuacan to the north-east of Mexico City, the location of two pre-Columbian pyramids,
one the third-largest pyramid in the world. A short distance along the highway, we turned right onto the Arco Norte, a new motorway which bypasses the city and was to give us a speedy and simple route to our overnight stop.
We arrived at the location in the early afternoon and drove along the lava rock broad avenue that encircles the ancient city site to the Hotel Villas Arqueologicas, located on the site at the western end of the Avenida de los Muertes (Road of the Dead), which is the main axis along which the ancient city buildings are arranged. The pyramids and some of the buildings, plainly visible, made the pulse quicken, but we had decided to deal with some organisational things that afternoon and I wanted to rotate my tyres as we had reached 8,000 miles that day and I had been changing the tyres round at 2,000 mile intervals. The hotel was comfortable and we settled down to our domestic chores, laundry, emails and telephone calls and later I removed the carb on Bertie to tighten the float bowl nut that had been weeping for a few days, then rotated the tyres, during which a thunderstorm began and I was just able to finish before it deluged with rain, bringing with it ash from the erupting Popocatepetl, to the south of us.
23rd May Teotihuacan
We were at the site as it opened at 08.00 to make the most of our limited time and to miss the crowds that were promised by midday. It worked well, we were able to walk in at the lower end of the Road of the Dead and walk the length of the two-kilometer site with
barely more than perhaps two hundred other people around and on a site of this size we only met them at the summit of the pyramids. It is an astonishing site of enormous size and complexity and at one time was home to 125,000 people, being an administrative hub in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and among the largest cities in the world at it’s zenith in about 450 A.D. It ceased to be used in the 8th century and was largely excavated in the early 20th century. The two pyramids, one to the sun and the other to the moon, originally had a thick, smooth finished render coat, painted red and must have been quite breathtaking when used for ceremonial and religious purposes with masses of people crowding the formal spaces around them. On site there is a very discreet museum, beautifully laid out with interpretative material in three languages. The rest of the site is beautifully kept, the signs informative and with very few 21st century intrusions. Amanda and I walked out of the east end of the site, which is terminated by the smaller, moon pyramid, having climbed to the heights of the sun pyramid and admired the views. We caught a ‘collectivo’ back to the hotel to enable us all to set off for that night’s stop in Queretaro, north of Mexico City.
We had reluctantly concluded that an invitation we had received to visit Mexico City by bus would not be possible bearing in mind our shortage of time and so were now to bypass the City to the north. Back on the Arco Norte we made good time, delayed only briefly by a joint Army and Police road check as we joined the road north. The countryside now dry and rather flat between the distant hills, the soil was obviously fertile, there being much agricultural activity, sheep, cattle, grain and corn fields, often being ploughed by one- or two-horse teams.
Mexico was proving to be a country that differed from our previously-formed images of how it might be. Highlands in the south and flat plains towards the Caribbean coast, highlands again from Mexico City north. The flatlands very productive with corn, wheat and salad crops, the highlands used for grazing and some intense salad-crop production. The infrastructure was excellent, the roads mostly good except on the city margins, where they can be as bad as any we had encountered in Central America. The cities are oases of culture and convenience, brim full of colonial architecture which has been sympathetically restored and conserved, live music, interesting restaurants and ancient civilisations.
I was after all enjoying Mexico and finding its diversity absorbing!