Buggies Across Mexico


When Dan called me, he sounded pretty excited. And then I got excited, too, as he asked me if I'd like to go with him to take a couple of his dune buggies from where he lives on Cozumel Island to Tijuana. First, my mind went sort of blank, deer-in-the-headlights-like. Then I saw the map of Mexico on my frontal lobe. Cozumel, way down here; Tijuana, way over there. Sort of like Miami to Seattle, but in Mexico.

I told him I'd have to check with Pam, but that otherwise, he could count me in. I checked with Pam, who loves me, fortunately, and who wouldn't deny me this grand opportunity to do something she knew I'd love to do.

So a couple of weeks later, I was on a plane to Cozumel with a waterproof canoe-bag for luggage and a Pelican case full of photo gear.

Dan picked me up at the airport in one of the buggies that was going. It had a recently installed turbocharger on it. It had the latest modifications he'd come up with. It was gray, and it was fast.

Dan had bought a car-rental concession a couple of years before that came with no cars. He had been managing rental properties of his own and for other people who owned condos and villas, and wanted to rent them out when they weren't using them. He had been throwing a lot of business to other car-rental places, and decided not to keep throwing it. So he bought new Volkswagen Beetles -- still made in Mexico, but now with computer-controlled fuel injection and other improvements not found in the models still in the US -- rented them for a couple of years, then sold the bodies while they were still in good condition. (After a couple of years on an island in the ocean, the salt begins to eat car bodies.) Then he made them into dune buggies.

Dan loves Volkswagens. Dan has lived outside the USA since he graduated from college as an engineer and went to work for a big global oil field services company. His first child was born in Gabon. He lived in Australia, Paris, and on oil rigs in the North Sea. Beetles were everywhere, and were reliable. (Ironically, he left the country about the time they quit importing them to the USA.) Dan loved to soup Beetles up, and had become an expert on how to do it. He had also always wanted to build a dune buggy.

On Cozumel Island, you can rent Jeeps and VWs, and some of the locals drive sort-of-dune-buggies, but you couldn't rent a dune buggy. So Dan built one. As a shrewd businessman, he knew he couldn't make a two-seater work as a rental, so he stretched the conventional Meyers Manx design and left the back seat in. He also built in a couple of tank-like compartments behind the seats for ice and beer, and made the running boards so that they would hold a pair of scuba tanks. His design goal was, "to hold five fat fucking gringos and two cases of beer."

He tested his buggy by driving it up to a part of the island that had been abandoned because the road had been washed out by a couple of hurricanes. His goal was to abuse the thing, and see what fell off. (That trip became the basis of his Dune Buggy Tours, now a featured attraction on Cozumel Island.) As an engineer, he was constantly seeking to improve the design, and succeeded with some innovations of his own. He molded the headlights into the body. He experimented with different ways of stiffening the otherwise floppy body, and eventually made it quite rigid using bundles of PVC pipe molded into the fiberglass. With turbochargers, there was enough power to fit much larger tires. These are not your father's dune buggies. (In Baja, Bruce Meyers, who pretty much invented the dune buggy in its common form, commented to Dan after examining one of Dan's buggies, "Perhaps it's time to pass the baton.")

The gray buggy was ready to go to Baja, but the second vehicle was still in production.When I first saw it, it was unpainted and the engine was sitting on the ground. It had yet to be wired. But Dan assured me that it would be ready to go to Baja on Tuesday. It was now Friday.

There were a couple of late nights and one all-nighter put in by Dan's crew. Dan's crew was headed by Rafael, a factory-trained VW mechanic who was a miracle worker. Rafael would go out to retrieve a broken-down vehicle armed with a screwdriver and a pair of vise-grips. He never came back empty handed. Rafael wired that buggy by taking the wiring harness out of the box, throwing it on the ground and spreading it out, then stuffing it into the body without ever looking at a manual. He could drop an engine out, rebuild it, and put it back in in under a day. Dan had hired him away from the local VW dealer by paying him well. Rafa was also going to go with us to Baja. Up until then, he'd never been anywhere except between his home town of Tizimin, in Yucatan, and Cozumel, except for a couple of trips to the VW factory in Puebla for training.

Helping Rafa were an assortment of young guys who mostly worked for Dan doing other things, but who had gotten very interested in this car-building project. None spoke any English, a couple barely spoke Spanish, having been raised speaking Mayan. The manufacturing facilities were located behind the Rentadora. There was a concrete pad with a roof of corrugated steel held up by poles cut from the jungle. When it rained, everyone got wet and continued to work, dragging the electrical cables through the water. (Dan had mostly gone from electrical tools -- which everyone wanted to borrow too often -- to pneumatic tools -- which required a compressor that only he had -- some time past, but there were still plenty of electrical things like lights to be moved around.)

It has to be said that the use of any power tools is rare in Cozumel. Multi-story luxury condominium buildings and hotels are built there with the only "power tool" being a small gas-powered motor with a flywheel attached that is used to lift buckets on ropes up to higher floors. These are beautiful buildings built by guys who drill concrete with star drills and hammers. The power comes from their muscles. The beauty comes from their vision, talent, and wit. So Dan's shop is state-of-the-art, and probably the only auto manufacturing facility in the state of Quintana Roo.

The buggy being made this time was different than the others: it was modeled to look like a Hummer. We called it The Hummer. It is still in use on Cozumel, and everyone knows it as The Hummer. It looked pretty close to a Hummer, but was smaller, as befits a VW. It had no doors, and wouldn't have time to get any, but eventually, it was fitted with what Dan describes as "Fred Flintstone" doors whose hinges are sections of larger PVC tubing around the smaller structural tubing that holds up the top of the car. The intercooler (a sort of radiator of welded aluminum square tubes) for The Hummer's tubocharger was located right in the middle of the "hood" in front of the car, and the air was fed to it through the structural tubing of the frame on one side, and sent back to the engine through the tubing on the other side. Lots of great ideas, lots of innovation. But it was far from being a car, and it had to get on a boat in four days and drive over 3,000 miles, participate in a rally, then come back. The presssure was on.

Dan doesn't normally wear hats. He has a head full of long blonde hair. No bald spot to protect. This week, however, he was wearing a Greg Norman-inspired baseball-type hat, black with a big white shark on the front. All the guys on his crew wanted that hat, and Dan said he'd give all of them one if they had the car finished by Monday. That got them going, but it was never going to happen. Still, they chipped away, sleeping only as necessary. The engine went in on Saturday, after the wiring harness was installed. The resident car-body painter came by after church on Sunday with his sprayer and painted the body a bright red, with a black top. Sunday night, the lights were added, and the other electrical stuff hooked up. Early Monday, the seats were put in. It had still never been started. And there were still a bunch of details.

Monday afternoon, it got started for the first time. There were still a bunch of details, but it ran, and only needed a few minutes of tuning. Besides, since Rafa was going along, he could tune it on the boat, and any other time it needed it.

Tuesday morning, I was sent to the ferry dock with the gray buggy and a radio, with instructions to radio back to the shop when I saw the ferry coming, and to buy tickets for both. The die was cast. We were going even if the boys had to push the Hummer down to the ferry dock and onto the ferry.

I saw the ferry and made the call. A couple of minutes later, I saw the Hummer come around the corner, drawing stares from everyone it passed. Rafa sat proudly at the wheel, Dan was still on his radio, sending back instructions to the folks who would be minding the store for the next couple of weeks that he'd be gone. Rafa had been given some money to go buy some clothes for the journey, since he didn't own anything not appropriate to the tropics, and we'd be crossing mountains at the end of October, and it would be cold. But he'd never had a chance to go, so he had what he was bringing in a little gym bag. Dan had a duffel bag that looked empty, but he was very practiced at traveling light. He often came to visit in Oklahoma with no luggage at all, figuring that if he needed something, he'd buy it.

Dan called one of the boys on the radio to come get our radios. When he left, we were suddenly without an emergency. We had a beautiful sunny day, a light breeze, two dune buggies, good company, and all the time in the world -- well, actually just six days -- to get to Tijuana, where we were to meet Chip Marshall at the airport to join us.

What was actually going to happen is that I was going along for the drive to Tijuana, where we would pick up Chip and Steve Canon, who would join Dan for the annual rally/get-together of dune buggy enthusiasts -- coordinated by Bruce Meyers -- at the time of the Baja 1000 race, which by 1999 had grown way past dune buggies and was now a race of factory-prepared pickups, four-wheel drives, and specialty vehicles. The buggy boys got together and watched the race, criss-crossing the route, playing in the desert, and drinking some beer. And, of course, admiring each other's buggies. Steve and Chip would join Rafa and Dan for the rally, and I would cross the border and go home. After the race, Dan and Rafa would drive back to Cozumel by themselves. I was the one-way relief driver.

The ferry pulled in as we felt the weight of the pressure lifting, and the lightness of adventure setting in. It disgorged its incoming cargo, and we drove on as part of its outgoing cargo. Our little buggies among the big trucks. This was not the tourist ferry, this was the freight ferry. It was a ship with a driveway attached. It's "lounge" was not attended by a bartender and a snack bar. Well, actually, there was a snack bar, but it was never open, and there was no place to get so much as a drink of water. And instead of going right across to the scenic village of Playa del Carmen and its beautiful beach, it made its way up to Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun, a much longer journey, and pulled into a little port with other cargo vessels. By the time we got off, we were pretty hungry, so we stopped for some sandwiches. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon, and we were on the way.

It was going to be a bit of a race across the continent in order to get to Tijuana by noon next Monday, and if there was going to be slack time, it would have to come at the end. We had no way of knowing what might slow us down, but we could be sure that something would. We were pretty sure we'd face slow going in Tabasco because of the severe recent flooding there of the Usumacinta River. The point is, we had to get moving, so off we went.

Buggies headed to Cancun
Buggies headed to Cancun

Since I had the maps and the inclination, I was appointed navigator. Although the toll roads in Mexico are much more expensive than the US, we were going to use them as much as we could, because they are so much faster. On the regular roads the brush is not cut back, so birds some flying out of the bushes without us seeing them or they us until it is too late. People use the road as a path, for themselves and for their livestock. I had driven the stretch between Cancun a Chichen Itza in previous years twice. Once, with one of my boys, we had taken the regular highway, and those 120 miles took three nerve-wracking hours, and we killed two birds. A second time with Pam, it only took two hours on the toll road, but it cost thirteen dollars each way.

We headed north from Puerto Morelos the few miles to the toll road to Merida, and got on it. While the toll roads are faster, they miss most towns and villages, just like in the US. This makes them considerably less charming, if less lethal. There is also practically no traffic, because they are so expensive. Because roads are used as pathways for people and livestock, and because they are not trimmed back, and for other reasons, it is not a good idea to be driving in Mexico after dark. So we were going to confine our travel as much as possible to daylight hours. We would get up with or before the sun and drive until dark, or dark:30. It was already late in the afternoon, and we really wanted to get to Campeche, on the other side of the Yucatan, before we quit this first day.

First border crossing from Quintana Roo into Yucatan is very casual. A wide spot on the toll road with a booth occupied by bored soldiers asking the soon-to be-familiar question: "¿De donde vienes, a donde vas? (Where are you coming from, where are you going?)" We get raised eyebrows with the Tijuana part, and we're waved through.

It's just scrubby jungle in Yucatan, forty-foot trees covering dense undergrowth. And flat as a pancake. And no rivers. Most of the Yucatan peninsula is a low, flat shelf of limestone which has slowly eroded over the eons by dissolving in water. It's now the consistency of swiss cheese, full of holes into which the rain drains, and into which people go to get the water. The Yucatan is riddled with caves. The longest known uderwater caves on the planet are near Playa del Carmen. Many caves have collapsed into sudden holes in the forest known as cenotes. The reason the waters of Cozumel are among the clearest in the world is that there are no rivers flowing into the ocean bringing clouds of silt with them. All the water just goes down through the holes in the rocks.

The drive across the Yucatan is as straight as an arrow, just as the old Mayan roads, or sacbe, were. On the west side of Merida, however, the terrain starts to develop a little relief. And the road bends to the south, beginning to come alongside the Gulf of Mexico. For us, it also began to grow dark, so mostly we just paid very close attention to the road and pressed on to Campeche.

Just as darkness was falling, we crossed the border from Yucatan into the state of Campeche. This crossing was a little less casual, with the Army guys out in the road -- teenagers with machine guns -- stopping all traffic and asking The Question: "¿De donde vienes, a donde vas?" Same raised eyebrows, waved through, off down the road we went.

We began to climb and descend much larger hills, and wound around between them. We caught occasional glimpses of much larger trees from those of Yucatan. We reached Campeche about an hour after dark.

The highway forked into what was clearly a road into town and another that clearly skirted town. We went for the skirting road, which climbed shrply up, revealing a panoramic view of the city of Campeche. This was no village. It stretched for a few miles along the inky black of the gulf, squeezed between the water and the mountain we were on.

After a couple of miles, we passed, then came back to what appeared to be a pretty nice little motel. It was well above the road, and when we drove up, we saw that it consisted of a bunch of separate modern little buildings, each with it's own garage with a door that came down to about eighteen inches above the ground. So you could see that there was a car in there, but you couldn't tell what it was, or see the license plate.

Dan got us registered, and on the way to our little cottage, remarked that this was probably the same kind of place he used to see in Brazil where wealthy men took their mistresses for liaisons. Plenty of privacy, hide the car, nice little places invisible from the road.

We emptied our buggies into our room and headed for town for dinner. We drove back the way we'd come, and took the fork into town. Campeche turned out to be quite a thriving city, with lots of people out on the streets, lots of traffic, and lots of choices for dinner. We stopped at an open-fronted cafe with a seafood menu.

Campeche is pretty much the shrimp capitol of the universe. The local economy clearly depends heavily on the harvest of critters from the waters just offshore, mostly shrimp, but lots of other stuff, too. We ordered something, I forget what, except for the seafood cocktail. We expected the standard bew of shellfish parts in a red sauce, but this was different. The sauce was a creamy tan and moderately spicy, and there was a large assortment of seafoods: scallops, shrimp, octopus, squid, hunks of fish. It was terrific, and became the new standard by which seafood cocktails will be judged.

We drove around Campeche a little, mostly because we were lost, then headed down by the water where we knew that if we kept the water on our left, we'd eventually have to connect to the road back to our lodgings. We got back, and slept with the smell of adventure in our nostrils.

We got up a good hour before sunrise, knowing we'd have a long day. We would be going through Tabasco, where there had been flooding the week before, and we had no way of knowing how bad it might still be. So we started early.

As the sun began to lighten the world, we saw that we were in a landscape of steep hills covered with tall jungly trees. Vines hung from the canopy, and orchids and bromeliads festooned the branches. It was foggy and cool and absolutely beautiful. I thought about the early Spaniard visitors to this area, that kept coming back to Campeche when failing to defeat the Maya in the Yucatan. I could see why they'd come here. It's beautiful.

After sunrise, we found ourselves driving along the Gulf of Mexico. The hills grew more distant on our left, and finally disappeared. We entered the little town of Champoton and stopped for breakfast.

Buggies at Champoton
Buggies at Champoton

It was a gorgeous morning in Mexico. Down by the water, folks went about getting their boats ready for a day of fishing. The golden light gave a warm feeling to the cool air. The little place we stopped was open but empty, except for the owner, who was sweeping a meager pile of dust toward the door. We ate in the cool quiet, studying the map. We would see a lot of water today.

As we headed south, the Gulf was just a few yards away on our right, and would stay there for a long time. Every twenty or thiry yards, a boat was hauled out on the beach with a pair of long poles hanging out over the sides. These poles were spreaders for the trawls these boats would pull to harvest shrimp. The boats were largish, at maybe twenty feet, and were operated by muscle power. What would have been done in the US by one big boat and a lot of gasoline was being done here, as is so common in Mexico, by a bunch of little boats and a lot of muscle.

These boats were lined up on the beach like this for miles. I couldn't figure out where all the people who owned them were. Every now and then, we'd see some guy out a hundred yards or so offshore, wading along in waist-deep water, looking down, perhaps looking for crabs or other critters to catch. But other than these, there was no one around.

The coastal plain continued to recede to our left and the wetlands increased, until we were clearly driving down a raised spit of sand between the gulf and the swamps of the interior. There were patches of trees, but it looked more like the Everglades and the sea of grass standing in water.

Rafael fixing brakes in Tabasco
Rafa adjusting brakes in Tabasco

Buggies coming through the floods
Buggies coming through the floods in Tabasco

Buggies headed to Cancun
Buggies crawling over a pass

Buggies near Guadalajara
Buggies near Guadalajara

Buggies entering Mazatlan
Buggies entering Mazatlan

Buggies breakfasting in Hermosillo
Buggies breakfasting in Hermosillo

Buggy with Federale sitting on it
Buggy with Federale sitting on it

Buggies under the only trees in Sonora
Buggies under the only trees in Sonora

Buggies entering Baja
Buggies entering Baja

Buggies high over Baja
Buggies high over Baja

Buggies headed to Cancun
Buggies at the Tijuana airport, waiting for Cheep