Driving Mexico’s Pan-American Highway
Uneasy feelings dissipate as the border gets farther away.
Setting out to drive 40,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina via Mexico’s Pan-American Highway wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d expected. All I had to do was jump into the driver’s seat and hit the road.
I’d dreamed and planned for so long that leaving was actually anticlimactic. For the first few months, it felt like any other road trip. The biggest difference was that the trip felt longer, and Alaska was more epic than anywhere I’d previously ventured.
As the weeks turned into months, I settled into my routines and optimized setting up camp, cooking and resupplying. Because of the abundance of gas stations, supermarkets and outdoor activities, moving from one stunning national park to another in western Canada and the United States was about as easy as overlanding gets … anywhere on the planet.
Approaching Mexico, I slowly became aware everything was about to change. For six months, I’d had the following conversation more times than I cared to count:
Me: “I’m driving to South America.”
After a long pause, the reply was invariably—Other person: “Wait! You’re going to Mexico?”
“It’s extremely dangerous. You can’t go!”
“Many people who’ve been there recently loved it.”
“You can’t go. You’ll get kidnapped and beheaded by the drug cartels on day one.”
“When was the last time you were in Mexico?”
“Well … I’ve never been to Mexico. But it’s extremely dangerous. Everyone knows that. You’ll die.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Given the sheer volume of people certain I’d die, it was difficult to tune them out and focus on the big picture. If I were going to drive the entire Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina, Mexico was just the first of many hurdles I’d need to overcome. I aimed to do so as safely as possible.
I drive south on I-5 until the end—literally at the huge fence on the Mexican border. Staring at the sign and seeing the level of security on display, it quickly becomes clear that a very big change was coming in my life. The armed officer directing traffic waves at me frantically, and I realize I’m in the wrong lane. With some difficulty, I move sideways through four lanes of moving traffic into the “declaration” lane, where I should’ve been from the start. This officer only speaks Spanish, while, at this point, I‘ve only managed to master fewer than five words. He gestures and then smiles, making it clear he wants to look inside my Jeep. After a cursory poke through my gear stashed in the back, he quickly loses interest.
Twice, he repeats, “¿Uno?” before I clue in and realize he’s asking if I’ll be driving on Highway 1 through Baja California.
“Sí,” I reply. “Y Mazatlán.”
If I were going to drive the entire Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina, Mexico was just the first of many hurdles I’d need to overcome. I aimed to do so as safely as possible.
Going to Mazatlán on the mainland means I needed to get myself a tourist visa and a temporary import permit for the Jeep. Using the three words of Spanish I’ve been practicing for a week, I ask where to find immigration and customs.
I park next to the flowing traffic and find the adjacent immigration building, where the officer explains in broken English that I need to walk two blocks to an office that can take care of the required paperwork for the Jeep. I set off on foot before quickly realizing he means for me to walk through the turnstiles into downtown Tijuana.
I’ve previously been to Tijuana on day trips, so I have a reasonable feel for the place. And walking across the border while the Jeep sits in the busy border area isn’t something I like the sound of, especially while I’m carrying all my important paperwork.
The Travels Progress
In a snap decision, I decided to scrap the whole paperwork-at-the-border plan, delaying it until I reach the southern tip of Baja California. I’m immediately happier back in the Jeep; I always feel at home behind the wheel.
I can’t take my eyes off the busy road for long. However, when I do, memories come flooding back. I see decrepit buildings all around; garbage and filth coat every surface possible; and desolate people stare, blank-eyed, as if in a trance. With no air conditioning in the Jeep, I have my window down, and soon, the smells also come in full force—first, a rotting, dead animal. It is followed by wave after wave of rotting fish and, finally, the most powerful sewage stench I’ve ever experienced. All this combines with low-hanging smoke from mountains of burning trash and thick, black smoke belching from trucks, making the air actually feel thick. Not only does it smell awful, but I can also taste it too. Within just five minutes, I’ve quite literally driven into a different world from sunny San Diego. I try my best to digest my new surroundings.
I’ve consistently been warned that the major problem areas in Mexico are along the border. There are warnings of rape, kidnap and murder. For that reason, it was always my plan to drive as far south as possible on the first day, hoping to put solid distance between myself and any trouble.
Moving through toll booths, I pay $2 (U.S.) multiple times on the way to Ensenada, which turns out to be a major city. Even after only a couple of hours in Mexico, it’s strange to see a row of box stores—complete with a Walmart Supercenter, McDonald’s, Burger King, Scotia Bank and Home Depot. I could just as easily be in a strange part of the United States or Canada. However, the shopping district comes to an abrupt end a few blocks later, and my vision is again filled with trash, smoke and crumbling buildings.
I’ve also been warned repeatedly about the crazy drivers and roads throughout Latin America. I was told that roads aren’t a place for cars to move swiftly and safely—as you might think—but are more commonly used for every other purpose imaginable. As a result, I have to always be careful to drive accordingly.
In only the first few hours, I encounter the following road hazards. At the time, I was completely unaware these would become daily occurrences for the next 18 months of my life:
- Potholes the size of the Jeep tires
- Severe speed bumps … without any warning signs (called topes in Mexico)
- Construction and highway surfaces so bad they require first gear in the Jeep
- Beasts of burden (including donkeys painted to look like zebras!) pulling carts on the road
- Kids playing on the road—complete with volleyball nets and soccer goal posts placed across, and on, the road
- Food that is being dried on huge tarps directly on the road
- Broken-down vehicles in the middle of the driving lane, often with men working around the vehicles
- Huge boulders that are left behind after being used to stop broken-down vehicles from rolling
- Police and military roadblocks
The police and military in Mexico evidently don’t mess around. About every 15 miles, I pass through a heavily fortified roadblock manned by stern men in full combat gear. All of them are wearing riot helmets, bulletproof vests and hold assault rifles at the ready. Conversation with the officers is difficult. They seem more amused by me than anything else. I’m quickly waved through at each roadblock—with little interest on their part. It’s obvious I’m a tourist, so they don’t bother to search the Jeep. Apparently, nobody really cares about whatever is moving south.
Within just five minutes, I’ve quite literally driven into a different world from sunny San Diego. I try my best to digest my new surroundings.
A few hours later, I stop at a small bank in a nondescript town. The ATM has an English option, and withdrawing money from my Canadian bank account presents no issue (this was something I’d been wondering about). In terrible Spanish, I order lunch from a small roadside shack; it happily turns out to be a delicious omelet with chorizo for just a couple of dollars.
Now feeling more confident and at ease with my surroundings, I stop to buy gas at a Pemex station, the government-owned gas stations all across Mexico. I come to learn they’re often brand-new, clean and friendly. When I say, “Más, más” (“more, more”), the smiling attendant teaches me how to say “full” in Spanish: lleno. He’s clearly happy to meet me; and although we can’t actually converse, many smiles and handshakes get the message across.
Mexico’s Pan-American Highway: Settling In
South of Ensenada, Baja California becomes much less populated. I pass through many smaller towns that look like farming communities. Translating road signs becomes a fun game, and I break out my pocket Spanish dictionary every time I pass an unfamiliar sign. Most say things such as, “dangerous curves,” or “Reduce your velocity.” I realize this is a great way to learn Spanish and that I should do this at every opportunity.
South of Ensenada, Baja California becomes much less populated. I pass through many smaller towns that look like farming communities.
Over a couple of days, I begin to get comfortable with my surroundings. I start to venture out and explore more each day. In San Quintín, I tackle more routine tasks that’ll be necessary for a life on the road through Central America. Exchanging dollars for pesos is relatively easy at the bank, although I don’t understand much when the teller speaks much faster than I can hope to understand. I simply nod and smile, and everything seems to work out. I stop at a taco stand and, using my Spanish dictionary, I manage to order egg and chicken burritos—a literal mountain of food for only $3.
Simply to explore, I take the long, roundabout way, and the road gets crazier and crazier—until I’m in low-range 4×4 and pushing the Jeep on slippery gravel hill climbs.
I explore the streets on foot and wander into a few small markets and shops. All the big-brand names are represented, as is every kind of food I normally eat, along with a ton I’ve no idea about. Prices seem cheaper than the United States … but not amazingly so. A street vendor’s 75 cent soft-serve ice cream is extremely tempting, However, I remember a stern warning about how it’s poorly refrigerated and can quickly make you sick. I reluctantly pass on this temptation.
Pushing Your Boundaries on Mexico’s Pan-American Highway
Everything goes smoothly, although I can’t shake an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. This is the farthest I’ve pushed out of my comfort zone. It’s going to take some getting used to. I become more determined than ever to learn Spanish, certain that it’ll help me converse with locals and thus feel more at ease with my unfamiliar surroundings.
Each year, tens of thousands of people drive their own vehicles into Mexico to explore, and many thousands of those continue south through Central America and over into South America. Virtually all of them do so without experiencing a major safety incident.
I repeatedly explore dirt tracks to the beach and quickly learn about dirt roads in Baja. Potholes, huge ruts and corrugations are common, meaning I have to creep along and can barely use second gear. I’m told I must check out the nearby surf hangout of San Carlos. Simply to explore, I take the long, roundabout way, and the road gets crazier and crazier—until I’m in low-range 4×4 and pushing the Jeep on slippery gravel hill climbs.
I round a corner and find myself at San Carlos, a world-famous point break. It’s popular with windsurfers, kite surfers, as well as the “regular” kind. I meet the owner, Kevin, and am given the grand tour. I’m surprised by the scale of the great setup. It offers solar power, showers and tons of boards for hire and sale. A crew of professional mountain bike riders is kicking around, filming, so I tag along and hang out for the day. We are laughing and enjoying paradise together. A couple of the guys have been coming down to Mexico for 20 years. Over dinner that night, I pick their brains about everything I can think of. This puts my mind at ease about the road ahead. A highlight—sunset over the Pacific Ocean—seems to take forever. It transitions through every shade of red, orange and yellow.
Mexico’s Pan-American Highway: Not What It Seems
Each year, tens of thousands of people drive their own vehicles into Mexico via Mexico’s Pan-American Highway. They travel to explore. Many thousands of those continue south through Central America and over into South America. Virtually all of them do so without experiencing a major safety incident. However, getting real-world information about the situation in various countries can be difficult. Unfortunately, the mainstream media provides little help. Mexico’s driving dangers are hyped. Travelers are left with a very one-sided view of the situation.
The most accurate and up-to-date information is found by speaking with other overland travelers who’ve recently visited any destination, like Mexico’s Pan-American Highway, you’re interested in. People who’ve just spent time there will give you straight facts about the reality on the ground in a given country or region. You’ll get the truth because they’re just regular folks; they have no interest in hyping or exaggerating the story either way.
(Editor’s Note: For more tales of faraway travels, follow adventurer Dan Grec @theroadchoseme on YouTube and Instagram.)
(Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in Tread May/June 2021.)