Driving 'The Beast' through North-America
by Isabelle Demaeght, December 12th, 2021
Some of the people surrounding us thought the car wouldn't be there after almost two years (despite the previously forwarded photos). I was thinking more of the possibility that sticky fingers might have still taken something away. We had imagined different scenarios, but the reality was different, of course.
We sleep in a hotel in Mexico City after the plane ride; the first day after our arrival we visit the headquarters of the Mexican Tax Administration (SAT: Servicio de Administración Tributaria). Martha, the woman who spoke to us, was very friendly but thought it would take up to 20 days for her to get an extension of our expired temporary import permit for us to get done. We feel relieved and celebrate with a full breakfast at the Hilton hotel.
After a two hour long subway/bus trip, we arrive at a the trailer park where the car is parked. We both drag along with old, large suitcases that are already very heavy when empty (they are the first, sturdy and robust models that Delsey and Samsonite once made). Now they are also filled with spare parts and a little bit of clothing: exactly 23 kilograms each. We'll leave the empty suitcases with the owner of the park after we have neatly arranged our luggage in the car. She can then pass them on to others who leave for their homes while leaving their cars here.
Both batteries are dead as Dillinger and the trunk turns out to be electrically unlocked: most things in the car are not accessible. And The Beast is blocked by a sloppily parked French mobile home: we can't leave the garage. That is not in our scenarios.
Luckily there are other travelers, who immediately remove a battery from their own vehicle so that our trunk opens up again (with jumper cables). Nothing is missing, apart from the stuff that has already been stolen before between Colombia and Mexico. We try to rinse the thick layer of dust from the car and unfold our rooftop tent. The first night in this familiar bed is uncomfortable. The next day the French arrive and (very embarrassedly) move their RV. Meanwhile we have already bought 2 new batteries for The Beast, Adriaan repairs the fridge, which needs extra attention after two years of inactivity. And there is still a lot to polish...
The trailer park in San Juan de Teotihuacán, where The Beast stands motionless, is on a thoroughfare. Mexicans have in common with South Americans that they are noisy: there is always noise here from traffic, music, fireworks, church bells and barking (stray) dogs, even at night.
Hot and cold
We are in the tropics. But because the center of the country is so high (more than 2000 meters (6500+ feet) altitude) it is never really warm here: on the nice days (almost every day in winter) it becomes – in December – easily 25°C (77°F), thanks to the sun. In the summer it gets a little warmer, but then it rains more often.
Mexico City is located in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. In these wintery days the air is very polluted because the warm air cannot rise due to inversion. Someone said that walking around the city is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes daily. Fortunately, we wear masks… (which, by the way, become dirty inside very quickly)
The nights are cold: up to 4°C (40°F). We have our down sleeping bags washed in Europe and that is didn't go so well: Adriaan's has clumps of down that insulate less than before. He therefore takes warm showers at 4 o'clock in the morning; for our next visit to Mexico City he already has prepared a list of outdoor sports shops.
People follow all Corona measures in a disciplined manner. Face masks everywhere except at home, body temperature measurements in restaurants and hotels, disinfecting hands when entering a place – people do it all without protests. And they do it for each other: there is no law that obligates the use of mouth masks on public streets. The only ones who don't wear a mask more often are ... unabashed, well-insured tourists (from The United States or Europe).
Social security not like in Europe: Covid patients have to survive in pretty bad public hospitals, or in expensive private ones. In all cases it costs a lot: no income due to illness, or a huge bill. Everyone has an interest in the measures, out of respect for each other.
Waiting for the necessary documents, we spend some wonderful days in the middle of Mexico City, where we use a budget hotel as a basis. The city is located at an altitude of 2240 meters (7350 feet) and is the largest high-altitude city in the world. We really enjoy the museum of the painter Frida Kahlo (Casa Azul, ten south of the city). After reading her biography and seeing the movie 'Frida', I was already fascinated by her person years ago. She died in Mexico City at age 47 after an eventful life. We walk through her residential area and drink coffee with casual passers-by.
As in other South American cities, we also participate in an educational 'City Walking Tour' here in the old part. The old town was built on Lake Texcoco, which was reclaimed by the in the 16th century Spaniards. Furthermore, buildings partly rest on the ruins from the Aztec empire. That makes that there is not a stable surface, causing some buildings to 'sink'. And then of course there are the earthquakes: many buildings are leaning or leaning against each other.
Sundays are the most enjoyable because the city is made almost free of traffic. Nice to the to see human diversity. On November 28, we look at the thousands of marathon runners, encouraged by countless enthusiastic spectators. In Chapultepec Park, similar to Central Park in New York, it is teeming with people, strolling between the many food stalls. Some take wedding photos there.
3 km from our camp site are the pyramids of Teotihuacan, an archaeological site whose purpose remains mysterious to archaeologists and anthropologists to this day. We leave the begging guides for what they are because they can't do much more than say that according to one theory it is so, and would be different according to another hypothesis...
We book a next extended weekend in the city in an apartment in the Grand Polanco (in the district of the same name: all embassies, important government buildings, offices of NGOs and ... luxury shopping malls are here). Wonderfully quiet after the noisy nights in Teotihuacán. We choose this district because:
We received son Andries and his colleague lawyers from Maxime Monard's team in October 2021 at our house in the Ardennes and provided them with good food and drink. As a "thank you" they secretly booked a table for us at the Quintonil restaurant (ranked 27 in the world and just about the best in Mexico). That restaurant is only two blocks away. We choose the gourmet menu: 10 dishes that have us discover unique Mexican flavors including a cactus sorbet and a crème frache with caviar.
Due to corona measures, among other things, we were not allowed on top of the pyramids of Teotihuacán and we decide a balloon flight where we can see the pyramids from the sky. The site, seen from altitude at sunrise, is a captivating experience. Our pilot is doing his very best. He plays a series of English songs and gives us a box of grapes, strawberries, cheese cubes and croissants.
The bad news: Getting our documents in order isn't an easy job. Instead of to visit the anthropological museum, we decide to investigate how the temporary import license for The Beast is progressing. We visit Martha at SAT, who promised on November 24 that it would be okay. They are waiting for a document from immigration, which mention our arrival date and our ulitmate departure date. In our passports there is a card that says November 23 and 180 days, but SAT can't do anything with that, while we manage to add 180 days to November 23: May 21 2022...
In the city there is an extensive metro network that is intensively used. Sometimes, when things get busy, the platform guards push the travelers into the carriages. Everyone wears a mask but the 1,5 meters distance rules are… zero.
We enjoy using the metro all the time and decide to personally go to the office (in Palenco) where SAT applied for the document. By chance, we walk past the Belgian embassy. Immigration sends us to another office (also in Palenco, closer to our hotel). There they tell us that they don't know of anySAT request and stress that the document we have in our passport is legal. The following day we confront SAT, who stand firm. They think it could complete in 2 days, 2 weeks, or much more. The bureaucracy here is Kafkaesque. We are disappointed after two wasted days and almost two weeks of 'waiting'.
Adriaan takes the bus back to the city on Friday for another attempt. He comes back with a document (retorno seguro) that allows us to drive to a border in a maximum of 5 days. We can 'export' the car there, to 'import' it immediately even without leaving Mexico, until ... November 23 plus 180 days.
We chose Friday so we could leave on Saturday. Unfortunately, the retorno seguro only appears to be valid on working days, and we are not allowed to drive until Monday. The distance to the nearest border is 1250 kilometers (780 miles: Laredo, Texas) and we have no idea if The Beast, which has been sitting for two years without any maintenance, will do okay. And then, hopefully they can add 180 days to a date at the border…
The good news: not a drop of rain in the first three weeks, we've seen Mexico City and we're going driving monday!