We were breaking every overlanding rule we set for ourselves. It was pitch black as we tentatively pointed our Jeep’s nose down 45-degree mountain switchbacks. There was no shoulder. There were no barriers to keep us from the drop into the valley far below.
“You know I don’t scare easily,” I told Eric, remembering the thrill of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park with the Jeep doors off. “But I have knots in my stomach right now.”
We didn’t plan to be in that place: threading down a mountain after dark. But, in a way, it symbolized our two-month overlanding trip into the interior of Mexico.
Vehicle-based international travel is inherently risky. You plan for everything you can think of. Those plans still go awry. And when that happens, you proceed cautiously with your accumulated knowledge as your aid.
Plans for Sierra Gorda Unfold
For those not familiar, Overland Bound is an online social network and resource center for the overlanding community. Through forums, a members map, and more, it’s easy to connect with like-minded individuals around the world who’ve embraced the overlanding lifestyle.
Eric e-met @chepocdt and @ap_yotalander17 on Overland Bound when we were first planning our Mexico trip. With Chepo in Mexico City and AP in Querétaro, the conversation started with a simple “We should meet!”
Over time, the conversation turned into a, “We should go on a weekend overlanding trip!” We were all for it, so AP and his friend Israel (“Irra”) started making all the necessary plans and preparations.
When the fuel shortage hit right after we crossed the border, we wondered whether we’d have to cancel the trip. We’re so glad we didn’t! During our first night at camp, we learned this was the group’s first time overland camping together.
We knew they’d all done off-roading, and figured they’d been camping, too. But later we learned overland camping was completely new to them, and many had bought gear specifically for our visit and the phenomenal trip they planned for us. We’re so humbled by that.
Day One: Late Start on Friday
The original trip was planned to start at 8 a.m. on Friday morning. Problem was, we weren’t exactly in the loop. When we found out the week of the trip, we told the group we had work commitments until at least noon on Friday. I’m grateful everyone was cool about it, though I was still rushing through everything on Friday morning!
We arrived at the rally point in Bernal, Querétaro, around 2:30 p.m. We felt better when we weren’t the last there. But it really doesn’t matter who arrived when. The problem was that we were behind schedule.
By a lot.
We hardly cared as we caught sight of Presa Zimapán, weaving in and out of tunnels along this beautiful waterway. We waited in line for fuel in Zimapán, Hidalgo, aired down our tires, and left the pavement for we-didn’t-know-where.
We had no idea where we were going, or what the plans were for the weekend. Our goal was to stay open-minded and flexible, which is an integral part of the overlanding lifestyle we’re trying to learn. (I’m a planner, so it’s a hard lesson for me.)
Darkness falls early in the mountains. By 7:30 p.m., it was pitch black. And we were off-road, with no lights but our own, taking steep switchbacks down a “two-lane” mountain trail with no shoulder, and a drop hundreds of feet to the bottom.
Our most basic rule for Mexico was “don’t drive at night.” But there was no going back. So instead, we tried to have a cautious sense of humor. We made it to the bottom slowly, with no mishaps. And then we were in the canyon.
Our caravan’s headlights hit the canyon’s solid walls of rock, so tall our windshield obscured the top. Part of us felt regret. We knew the scenery must be stunning by light of day. But we reflected to each other that there was beauty in the darkness. We’d never, ever be night wheeling there without a group, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to absorb.
No one could say exactly when we’d arrive at our campground. One estimate had us arriving at 10 p.m. Around 8 p.m., someone said we were only 20 minutes away.
We arrived a few minutes after 9 p.m. The owner of Parque Nacional Campo Alegre met us at recepción for check-in, then directed us to a grassy area. We set up in a corner bordered by fencing on two sides, and quickly deployed our iKamper rooftop tent and ARB Batwing awning.
It felt good to set up camp–our home. I quickly fed Caspian, since he hadn’t had dinner, and tucked him into his sleeping bag. He’s never known anything apart from full-time travel, so he can sleep anywhere. He quickly fell asleep, leaving Eric and me to gather with our newfound friends around a fire.
My Spanish leaves much to be desired, but I enjoyed everyone’s company and took in what snippets of conversation I could. Half of the group spoke English better than my Spanish. But I wasn’t uncomfortable when Spanish was the mode. I felt welcomed.
We turned in at midnight.
Day Two: That Time We Were Stuck on the Side of a Mountain
Before light, I awoke to a cacophony of noise. Half asleep, I thought I was hearing revelers in the woods. After awhile, I realized no human could make so much noise for so long. I was hearing animals. Every kind you can imagine: roosters, donkeys, cows, horses. It was really something.
Thankfully, Caspian let me “rest in” until almost 7 a.m., which is the latest I ever hope for with a two-year-old. The remainder of the morning was spent making coffee and breakfast (sausage and eggs), swinging and visiting the horse stable with Caspian, and then packing up.
Our departure goal was 10:30 a.m. and we were fairly close. We got to see the town of San Joaquín by day, with its colorful homes dotting the hills.
Twenty minutes outside the city, we pulled to the “side” of a “two-lane” dirt road to take photos. The mountain view was breath-taking.
The Unexpected Strikes Again
A few minutes later as we were pulling out, Misa’s Jeep rear-ended AP’s Toyota. AP took a dent to his fuel cans, but Misa’s fan tore up his radiator. With fluid leaking everywhere, the team took apart the whole front end of the Jeep to diagnose the damage.
Eventually, AP and Misa headed back into San Joaquín to try to find: A) a radiator, and B) a mechanic to help install it.
A couple of hours later, they did find a radiator. No mechanic, but they brought the radiator back and the guys installed it together.
All told, our overlanding caravan spent five hours on the road. It was certainly not ideal. But I was struck by everyone’s positive attitudes. There was no finger-pointing. Everyone just helped where they could and made the best of the situation. (And if we’re being honest, I think the guys enjoyed turning wrenches together.)
Our little ones were troopers. Caspian was joined on the trip by Santiago (“Santi”), Irra and his wife’s lovable, independent three-year-old. It’s difficult for pre-schoolers to be in unusual circumstances for any length of time, not to mention the side of a mountain road for five hours. Their resilience was inspiring.
As we waited, we did what we needed to do, which included Irra grilling up an incredible carne meal from the back of Chepo’s truck. We all felt pretty epic sitting on the dirt road in our chairs, as cars slowly passed by. How cool is overlanding–that we carry everything we really need?
Around 5 p.m., we were back on the road. A dense wall of fog had rolled in. So even though we had daylight, we still couldn’t see the valley below us. Oh, the irony.
We entered Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda. As night fell, our lead vehicles missed our turn to the town of Bucareli because the sign had fallen down. Fortunately, one of the benefits of caravanning is that everyone helps with directions. We found the turn and were at Bucareli Extremo Campamento Rivera Del Río not long after.
I was pretty beat. Caspian was dead asleep in the Jeep, but once again hadn’t eaten dinner. So I had to decide between waking him up and feeding him, or putting him straight to bed and risking him waking up early because he was hungry. I chose the latter.
Eric and I had a really nice conversation with Chepo after we set up camp. We want to understand Mexico better: the government and political environment, the infrastructure and way things work, and the culture itself. Through his work in the energy sector and grasp of current events, Chepo made for an excellent conversationalist and teacher.
Afterwards, we enjoyed another delicious carne cena, grilled up by Misa this time. We’re still not used to the whole concept of cena. In the U.S., we normally eat around 5 or 5:30 p.m. (early even by U.S. standards). When Mexicans are normally eating dinner, I’m normally getting ready to go to bed! Suffice it to say, we kind of ate and ran that Saturday night.
Little did we know what we had coming for us.
AP had mentioned something about a concert at the campground. It was off-hand, so I didn’t think much of it. But just before 10 p.m., right after we tucked into our sleeping bags, I heard a horn start tuning. At exactly 10 p.m., a full band started playing the loudest song a mere 100 yards from our Jeep. “You have got to be kidding me,” was all I could say to Eric.
I wasn’t in the best of moods about the whole thing. But I was also exhausted. Because of that, I only made it through a couple of songs before I fell asleep. I woke up briefly when the show ended and a few ATVs rumbled off into the night. I felt bad for our team members who were camping in ground tents, since they were closer to the noise than we were.
Day Three: How Did We Get Here? (In a Good Way)
Sunday dawned, and once again Caspian slept nearly to his normal time of 7 a.m. His first word of the day? “Eat.”
We were supposed to have breakfast on-site, and it was supposed to be available starting at 6 a.m. Before 9 a.m., we found out they were getting ready to feed the 40 people who kept us up late into the night, and then they would be happy to feed us.
That didn’t sound like a good plan, since we wanted to get going. So we packed up as quickly as we could and headed into the small town of Bucareli.
It was the most sublime morning. The weather was sunny and cool. We ended up having a delicious breakfast at Fonda Bucareli, run by a sweet couple. You won’t find it on Google Maps, but it’s located directly across the street from the mission.
Our long table was quickly set with plates of fresh pan dulce and delicious coffee. For my main meal, I had chilaquiles and bistek, along with rice and beans. We treated the group as a thank you for the hours they spent organizing, plus the effort of leading us on such an amazing weekend.
Would you believe our huge spread, including a substantial tip, cost the equivalent of $52.50 USD?
Outside alone, Eric and I marveled at how far our money can go. We reflected on the number of countries in this world where this is true. And how many people eat on less than $1 of food each day. It’s a sobering thought that carries a weight of responsibility. Don’t you think?
Misión de Bucareli
Continuing in our thoughtfulness, we walked across the street to Misión de Bucareli. It was built in 1797 and abandoned around 1914. We paid the suggested donation of 20 pesos each and began wandering around, starting with the lovely central atrium.
Without saying a word, the caretaker approached with his keys and unlocked the sacristy. Thus began our unexpected privilege of seeing behind the scenes at this historical mission.
As we stepped into the roofless area that was once the main cathedral, we asked the caretaker whether he could tell us anything about what we were looking at. His face lit up when he realized Eric knew Spanish and that we cared about what was obviously very important to him.
He unlocked door after door, telling us about exorcisms and taking us into the original library. We knew our friends were waiting outside, but we felt so privileged to have this experience. We say thank you to the mission caretaker, Concepción, for the way he welcomed us, and for all he taught us. He even gave Caspian a small red ball from one of the rooms, which is still along on our adventure.
By now, it was noon or so and time to get back off-road.
Overlanding Through the River
We spent an unforgettable three or four hours threading through the canyon on our return trip to Bernal, with one river crossing after another.
Eric was concerned about the river because we were the only vehicle without a snorkel (now on our mod list). We know so many people who have destroyed their engines by getting water in the intake. Having that happen to us in the middle of nowhere interior Mexico seemed like a bad idea.
But it was all good. Eric took the crossings super slow to avoid splash. And the water itself was hardly more than a foot, even in the deepest places (we may have hit 18-inches at one point).
Dinner and Festivities in Bernal
We were back in Bernal in time for an early dinner. Everyone was kind enough to drive to what we hoped would be our hotel. We wanted to lock down where we were sleeping before it got dark. (More on our Bernal accommodations here.)
But it was dinnertime! We pulled up at an open-air restaurant for gorditas. Afterwards, we walked to Pan de Queso, which AP recommended. Holy cow, I have never had pan dulce so good. The bread was warm because it’s constantly made fresh, and filled with cheese and cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce). The line was long, but it moved fast.
As we were wrapping up with our pan, we realized a parade was moving down the adjoining street. It was quite the spectacle. Costumed dancers, drums and music, followed by church figures with burning incense.
If you just get out into the world, the best experiences will find you. It’s such an important lesson for a planner like me to learn. With five years of full-time travel behind me, you’d think I would’ve absorbed this truth by now.
After all the time we had spent together over three days and everything we had been through, it was a bit jarring to say goodbye to our friends. I’m convinced we’ll see them again.
Until next time, keep it dirty and wheels side down.
-Eric, Brittany, and #LittleNomad