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Day 2: Brownsville, TX to Tampico, Mexico
Everyone got up between 5 and 6 am in hopes of an early 7 am departure. When all was said and done, vehicles gassed up and our breakfast eaten from the restaurant, we didn’t pull out of the hotel until almost 8:30am. Sam, our trip leader, heard that it would be best to cross the border at Los Indios, a recently opened NAFTA bridge, and we could do our temporary importation paperwork for all of the vehicles.
We arrived at the bridge just before 9am, but because it was Sunday, the bank there wasn’t open. We needed an open bank line to run our credit cards in order to place a deposit for the vehicle importation.
Because of the bank SNAFU, we were directed to head back to Matamoros (Brownsville’s sister city across the border) but on the Mexico side of the river. We then had to explain to the Mexican border officials that despite having already been in their country, we needed to “import” our vehicles into Mexico.
Immigration consisted of a quick one page form to fill out, a stamp in our passport and we were legal… but the vehicles were not…yet. Each vehicle owner then had to stand at an interminably long line to get a temporary vehicle imporation sticker. Unfortunately, due to a paperwork problem with Elena’s vehicle, they had to stay in town for an additional couple of hours to clear up their vehicle paperwork. Because they were fluent Spanish speakers, they bid the rest of us goodbye and planned to rendevouz with us at the evening’s destination in Tampico.
After the paperwork was finished, all that was left was for the driver of each vehicle to take a turn pressing a vehicle random inspection button. This button lit up a carnival-like traffic light which either came up green or red. A green light and you’re safe to proceed, while a red light sounded a buzzer to alert inspectors that you’ve been randomly selected to have your vehicle inspected inside and out.
Everyone took their turn with the first eight of the (now) nine vehicles getting through with a green light. Of course Camel was the last vehicle through and sure enough… inspection time! The only vehicle carrying four people and packed to the hilt with baggage, and we got the inspection. Despite the customs horror stories we had heard before, the whole process was surprisingly pleasant. The Customs Inspector talked with us while walking the vehicle, about where we were going and if we’d been to Winona, Minnesota. Evidently he had gone on a trip to Winona and was very proud of it. We talked of the cold weather up north and of the beautiful countryside in southern Mexico. Upon arriving at the vehicle, he opened the rear door, glanced in and told us that we would have a wonderful time in Mexico and we were free to go. Easy!
Cleared of border crossing duties, we drove through Matamoros city with people waving and honking at our caravan. After months of careful planning, the expedition was finally underway. About 20 miles out of town, we came to our first military/customs checkpoint. They asked to see our recently completed paperwork. Again, eight of the nine vehicles made it through, but this time, Sam was the poor soul singled out by the Federales. Sam spent the next five minutes (using his bad Spanish) trying to explain to them that he didn’t have to pay duty taxes on the spare parts he was carrying in the back of his Defender 90. Eventually, they let him go and we were all back on the road to Tampico.
Back on the road, we crossed an interminably long desert sparsely dotted with yucca plants, mesquite trees and little hovels. We made our way down to our half way point and lunch stop for the day, Ciudad Victoria. Lunch consisted of a stop at El Mesquite, a white linen restaurant which was a stark contrast to what we had “expected” Mexico to be like. Despite the quality of the restaurant, we were still careful, avoiding the ice and vegetables in hopes of not getting “la turistas” this early in the trip.
As we left Cd. Victoria the group accidentally took the wrong road out of town. Although this road eventually took us to our evening destination of Tampico, it added on an additional 3 hours or so to the drive time. However, this winding mountain road rewarded us with some breathtaking scenery and it was a nice introduction to the tropics. It was quite surprising how quickly the environment changed once we crossed the line for the Tropic of Cancer. Within just a couple of miles, the greenery changed from mesquite and cactus to lush forest and banana palms.
As nighttime fell, Camel was called to the front of the group to light up the sparse roads with its obscene amount of auxilliary lighting. The rest of the drive into Tampico proceeded rather uneventfully until Disco Stu resumed the helm as we pulled into town. In hopes of making it to the hotel before they locked their gates, we had been speeding all day. This time it caught up with us.
While driving into the north end of town, we passed a Federale (Federal Police) squad car. After the whole group passed him, he pulled into the road behind us and began accelerating with his lights on. He pulled to the front of the group and with the help of a second squad car behind us, all nine of us got pulled over. After a lengthy conversation/lecture with Jennifer, Stuarts co-pilot and fluent Spanish speaker, we were let go and warned not to exceed 30 KPH as we drove through town. We sulked away like whipped dogs while local traffic weaved around the group easily doubling our rate of speed, honking and yelling all the while.
We pulled into the Hotel San Antonio at 10:45 pm, only to discover that Antonio and Elena had arrived over an hour earlier, despite leaving Matamoros hours later than us. We checked into our rooms, quickly unloaded and headed to bed without dinner. Tomorrow, Sam said we will try to leave at 8 am or later depending on how we all feel.
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