Mexico Road Trip (Cozumel to Monterrey)

Travel Journal #11

Who wants to go on a road trip? A good friend of ours was moving to Monterrey (in northern Mexico) and needed a co-pilot for the over 2500-km long journey across the country from Playa del Carmen. This was a destination orientated mission, so we didn’t have much time stop for sightseeing. We made one exception to this rule, and we planned to spend 2 nights in Palenque, specifically to see the famous Mayan Ruins, which have many pyramids and was a vitally important city during the height of the Maya Empire. 

This road trip would require driving from the Caribbean, across the Yucatan Peninsula and north along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, arriving in the mountains that surround Monterrey. We would be driving first south towards Chetumal – with the goal of obtaining documentation and sticker for the car at the Belize border to “import” the vehicle (it’s a long story). Fortunately, this went quicker than expected and we were able to make it to our first destination in Palenque, Chiapas in one day, allowing us more time to explore Palenque.

Jeff had packed most of his life into the car, including most of his personal items (an entire apartment worth of clothes, dishes and stuff) had to be packed into the car. We loaded the SUV with boxes, suitcases, and bags, and set forth on an epic journey across Mexico. We planned to stay close to the coast, avoiding Mexico City and sticking to the lowlands, cutting west towards Monterrey right at the very end.

Cozumel to Monterrey. 2018.

To put this trip in perspective – we would essentially be driving from Belize to Texas. This would be like driving from New York City to the Florida Keys, from Vancouver to Winnipeg, or my personal favourite, Amsterdam to Moscow. This was going to be a long drive, but we were ready for it.

It was going to take us about 5 days to drive between these two distant destinations – with about 7 hours a day of driving on average – and Rob was happy to join in for this epic road trip adventure. This journey would take us 2500-km across Mexico from Playa del Carmen to Monterrey, crossing through 7 Mexican States, and several different climates and terrains.

Mayan Ruins of Palenque. 2018.

Day One – Cozumel to Palenque

Early in the morning Rob left Norma behind on Cozumel and took the short ferry from the island to Playa del Carmen on the mainland. This is where I met Jeff, and where our adventure began.

My carry-on for the week; It takes 5 days to drive to Monterey and 2.5 hours to fly back. 2018.

The water was calm first thing in the morning, which made the ferry crossing pretty smooth. Cozumel is a beautiful Caribbean island off the coast of the Riviera Maya, directly across from Playa del Carmen, which is where we used to live. The journey begins at 7:45am, waiting for the ferry to make the short crossing.

From Cozumel to Playa del Carmen only takes 45-minutes and I met Jeff at the terminal, we stopped for breakfast tacos with Sergio (the bean man) and loaded the last few things into the car.

By 11am we were on the road, halfway to Tulum before the sun had reached the midpoint of the day.

This was going to be a long day of driving; we first had to collect a few last things to load into the car, make a stop in Chetumal at the Mexico/Belize border and drive west across the Yucatan Peninsula into the mountains in Chiapas. Assuming we could take care of things at the border without too much delay, this shouldn’t be a difficult day.

Fully Loaded Car. 2018.

We drove south pretty much non-stop, as it takes about 3 hours or more to get to Chetumal. We skipped past Tulum and Puerto Carrillo and onwards towards Bacalar.

One of our favourite places to stop along the way is just before Bacalar – just south of the turn off towards Mahahual – where seemingly out of no-where you enter pineapple land. There are hundreds of Pineapples displayed on the side of the road, and local sales people selling their treats to the passing drivers forced to slow down for the speedbumps.

Pineapples. 2018.

We stopped here for a snack; coconut water, pineapple, and Jeff bought some locally made honey before we continued south towards the border.

This was the toughest part of our day, as we were unsure of how long we might have to wait; it would determine how far we would be able to drive today. We made it to the border and was surprised that all the necessary documents and paperwork were signed sealed and delivered in less than an hour, which allowed us to continue west towards Chiapas.

Escarcega. 2018.

We cut directly west along highway 186, through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and into the night, watching the sunset over the hills and mountains that stand out against the jungle that surrounded us.

This was a pretty straight drive, but the scenery changed drastically as we left the coast and were greeted by hills and mountains. The only issue we encountered along the road was almost running out of gas – we found one gas station that was “out of gas” and awaiting their delivery, so we had to drive 42-km running on fumes, but since we made it unscathed, it became a non-issue and a non-story.

We stopped for dinner in Escarcega, which is a major crossroads city for roads that criss-cross the peninsula, with roads that stretch east to Chetumal, north to Campeche or west to Palenque. 

We pulled into Palenque late at night, were greeted by the hotel clerk who was obviously up past his normal bedtime. After checking in to our hotel we went immediately to bed after surviving a long day. Tomorrow we had lots of adventures planned, including the Mayan Ruins.

Day Two – Palenque, Chiapas

Mayan Ruins of Palenque. 2018.

We had a pretty tight timetable to stick to, as Jeff had to be in Monterrey before the weekend, so we didn’t have much time for sightseeing. The exception to this was Chiapas, and the beautiful city of Palenque, where we planned to spend a full day exploring the nearby Mayan Ruins of the same name. 

The ruins of Palenque are grand, and quickly became my favourite ruins in the Yucatan. The main plaza has many great structures that have been carefully rebuilt and excavated to showcase how amazing the city would have looked to the local Mayans. It is built on the hillside with many buildings and structures still being explored and discovered today.

Mayan Ruins of Palenque. 2018.

The site was likely known as Lakamha to its inhabitants, was an important Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century, dating from 226 BC to AD 799. When the inhabitants abandoned the city, it was reclaimed by the jungle.

Our hotel (a 5 minute drive from the center of town)
had a pool, which was perfect after exploring

the ruins. 2018.

We spent several hours exploring the site, much longer than we had planned, but it was 100% worth it. Our original plan was to drive south after the ruins to go exploring waterfalls, but we decided we would have time in the morning before heading towards Veracruz.

The best part about Palenque was that our hotel had a pool, which after hiking around in the hot and humid jungle, climbing pyramids, was the perfect end to the day. We had dinner in town and went back to sleep. This was our one day of exploring, the next few days would involve a lot of driving.

Day Three – Palenque to Veracruz

It was time to check out some of the famous waterfalls in Chiapas. There are several great waterfalls – including the most photographed and popular, Agua Azul.

Misol-Ha Waterfall just south of Palenque. 2018.

We originally wanted to visit two waterfalls, but unfortunately, we found out that due to recent rainfalls, the normally “blue” waterfalls at Agua Azul were muddy and cloudy and not as picturesque as they normally were. One of our friends did this journey a few days before and said it was just okay.

It was already going to add a few hours to our already long day of driving, so we decided instead to visit only one, the nearby Misol-Ha waterfalls, much closer to Palenque (about 30 minutes instead of over an hour) and supposedly quite spectacular. It seemed like a pretty great compromise.

These were very beautiful, a very skinny and high falling waterfall that looked beautiful in the cool morning light. The best part of this waterfall for us was that there was a pathway behind the falls, which was a first for me! We wandered around for around an hour, snapping some pictures and enjoying the view. 

This would have been a good place for a swim, but the sunlight hadn’t illuminated the falls yet, and we had a long day ahead of us. We were once again debating whether we should take our chances at Agua Azul…

Before we left Misol-Ha, we started chatting with one of the local tour guides who was waiting around the parking lot for his guests to enjoy the falls. 

We asked him about what he recommended, and his eyes immediately lit up as he began to tell us about another falls, one that we had never heard of before, located in the town of Roberto Barrios. He said it was incredible and definitely worth visiting.

Waterfalls of Roberto Barrios. 2018.

We asked him his opinion on Agua Azul, and he confirmed what we had already heard “oh yes, they are beautiful, definitely worth visiting, but they are not as blue as they normally are”.

We couldn’t resist the thought of visiting the falls he talked so much about, and when we arrived there, it was a small paradise. He was right to push our attention towards this place; we spent a few hours here and for the first hour only saw 3 other people. There were more arrivals later in the afternoon

There were several levels to the falls, surrounded by dense green jungle and beautiful pools of water. We spent more than our allotted time here, swimming in the water and wandering around the waterfalls. While none of the falls were flowing too heavy today and not one of them stood out, as they weren’t “tall”, but it was a collective of smaller falls who’s sum was greater than any single waterfall.

Waterfalls of Roberto Barrios. 2018.

As we got back on the road we realized how late in the day we had come, and needed to get back onto the road. We left the small village of Roberto Barrios, which is located in the semi-autonomous region of the Zapatistas, who resist the government and have been in a non-combat battle with the Mexican Government since the 1990s.

The Zapatista Region of Chiapas, who continue to fight against the Mexican governement, chosing to remain 

As we left the waterfalls, we had rejoined the main highway, we decided to get some lunch for the long drive ahead of us, and we had turkey soup and a delicious mole. We got back into the car and noticed a sign (one that normally celebrates a project that has been undertaken by the government), covered in Zapatista grafitti renouncing capitalism and praising the local civil disobediences and resistance.

The rest of the day was a lot of driving, as we drove along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico towards Veracruz. We encountered lots of traffic for the first few hours, so we were quick to switch to one of the toll roads that made our nighttime driving route a little bit more bearable. There wasn’t much to see here, and much of this area was full of oil refineries with bright flames glowing in the night sky.

The road was flat and straight and we made good time. We would end up pulling into town around 1 in the morning, found a cheap hotel with beds available and had ourselves a fantastic sleep. It was a long day, and the beds were quite comfortable. We were now past the halfway point; three days down, two days to go.

Day Four – Veracruz to Tampico

Veracruz is the capital city of the state of the same name. It hosts a yearly Carnival celebration, giving the town more of a Caribbean Island feel than mainland Mexico. There was lots of really great architecture throughout the city.

Colonial Buildings in the heart of Veracruz. 2018.

We had originally planned to get onto the road first thing in the morning, but after checking out of the hotel, we decided to go for a short walk.

The sun was shining and the city looked perfect. Based on first impressions, the city gave us a good vibe and seems worthy of a return visit. We didn’t get to see much of Veracruz before we went to bed the night before and two hours of wandering around town isn’t enough to even scratch the surface.

Heroica Veracuz is 500 years old, with a long colonial history built around the natural harbour. We spent our time wandering around the Malecon and viewed some monuments and statues, with a short stop at the market before getting back onto the road.

A math problem in Veracruz, Mexico. 2018.

It was time to start some serious driving, as we wanted to cover a lot of distance over the last two days before we arrived in Monterrey. 

Originally we had thought that we could maybe check out the ruins of El Tajin on this day, but we needed time to sleep in the morning and decided that it might be just a little bit far to make it (it was over 4 hours away).

Quiahuiztlán. 2018.

Not too far north of Veracruz was another ruin – the ruins of Quiahuiztlán – situated on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. As we approached the towering mountain (which looked a lot like sugar loaf in Rio de Janerio) and decided it was too nice to skip. 

We spent about an hour wandering around the ruins, exploring the small temples and pyramids that sat on a natural ledge next to the towering mountain. This was a Totonec ruin, which was a prominent location until the 16th Century when the Spanish Arrived. 

The rest of the day was spent driving; through the last of the daylight, well past sunset and long into the night on our way to Tampico. We stayed along the coast mostly, following the contours of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the roads here were in disrepair, especially the final stretch of highway before Tampico. There were new (and almost finished) toll roads that would have made this last stretch a smooth ride, but the bumpy road and bright lights of oncoming traffic made the last bit a little bit more stressful.

We again pulled into town well into the middle of the night, found a basic hotel in town and crashed after a long, long day of adventure. Another port town, there were a few oil refineries near the downtown that made the night sky glow red.

Day Five – Tampico to Monterrey

Chille Rellenos with Prawns. 2018.

This was a big last day of driving. The plan was to leave Tampico in the morning, making it in time for lunch in Victoria, before taking on the final stretch of our trip.

We woke up only 7 hours from our destination! We were on the road by 11, with lots of time to cover the distance with some daylight.

As we left the coast the terrain began to change quite quickly, with several prominent Mesa’s decorating the horizon. There were several substantial wind-farms in this area, harnessing nature to power the nearby cities. This was quite the site, especially since the coasts of Veracruz and Tamaulipas were littered with oil refineries and container shipping ports.

We rolled into Monterrey at night. The highway we took followed the contour of the mountains

So we drove and drove, winding along the flat plans between the coast and the mountains. The real mountains appeared just before we arrived in Victoria, which sits on the flat ground next to some towering mountains. We stopped here for lunch – enjoying Chille Rellenos with Prawns – before driving into the sunset.

We met some of Jeff’s friends for dinner, at a cool eatery in the heart of downtown, before finding our way to the hotel. We had finally reached our destination. Now it was time to get Jeff settled. It was too late to pick up the keys to the new apartment, so we got a hotel downtown

Day’s 6-9 – Monterrey

We had a few days in the city before my flight back to Cozumel. It was a whirlwind; we didn’t have much time for sightseeing, as we were on a mission to collect a few things from storage to move everything into the new place. We picked up the keys after lunch, and began unpacking the boxes and suitcases to from the car and start the final step of Jeff’s move to Monterrey.

Looking around the boxes scattered around the apartment, we realized how much we had transported across Mexico with us.

The newly opened Huerca Brewery in Monterrey. 2018.

While we stayed quite busy during the days, meeting friends and running errands – we managed to find some fun things to do, especially at night. Food is the best way to really get to know a city. Most big cities in Mexico have a wide selection of great food from around the country, and in Monterrey – being so close to the border – there was a lot of great BBQ as well.

It was shaping up to be a fun couple days.We were able to find some amazing places to eat and drink; there are some great beer centric bars and restaurants in the downtown core, we caught a live jazz show at Maverick’s – which included a signature cocktail served in a brown paper bag – and took a trip to the newly opened Huerca Brewery, just outside of town.

We had a pretty fun adventure, especially driving in the city, trying not to get lost even with our GPS, as the network of tunnels, bridges, and highways made it hard to grasp at first. And extremely difficult for the GPS.

There is plenty of really cool public art and unique architecture in the city. It is unlike anywhere I have been in Mexico, a nearly perfect blend between a US and Mexican city, which makes sense due to its proximity to Texas.

The one thing we did get to do, on my last day, drove up to the top of the mountain for some views. Parque Ecológico Chipinque is where most locals go to enjoy the outdoors. There are many great hiking trails in the many mountains surrounding the city, which will be fun to explore the next time we visit together. We got really unlucky with the weather, as there was a layer of smog above the city, and some big clouds coming in over the mountains, but the views were still nice.

The most exciting thing for me about Monterrey was seeing the mountains everywhere. It sparked an interest in the city that I didn’t have before (as is the case with most places you visit for the first time). The city has lots of culture and is close to nature. It is a place I wouldn’t consider moving in the future.

We picked the one day that had bad weather. A layer of smog hung over the city, and an hour after we left the mountain, it rained. Monterrey, December 2018

It was quite the trip, and we clocked in 2500+ km (1500+ miles) and while we didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing, we had some fun stories to share. The highlight of the trip was Chiapas, especially exploring Palenque; stay tuned for more pictures of the ruins and the waterfalls in the New Year.

I’m not sure if I would do it again (especially along some of the terrible roads along the coast) but fortunately, there was a shortcut. They have direct flights between Cozumel and Monterrey, which makes visiting Monterrey again soon quite likely. Norma and I have started looking into planning a weekend visit sometime in the springtime of 2019.

It took Jeff and I 5 days to get to Monterrey and took me 2 and a half hours to get home. Who doesn’t love a good road trip?

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