Moving from Canada to Mexico on wheels
By Dorothy Bell Original Print Publication: March, 2009
1992: A tiny beach on the Sonora Coast, Mexico
It seemed that the only quality time the Bells spent as family was during their car vacations to Mexico.
We camped overnight in our VW Westphalia camper and woke up to the sound of waves lapping the shore ten meters away. Unfortunately, the van had sunk overnight and was belly deep in the sand. The tide was rising and there was no one around.
The kids were very young; Adam was about three and our daughter Dylan was still in diapers. My husband Bill grabbed a board and tried to dig us out while I scoured the beach with the kids looking for solid objects to put under the tires.
It didn't work. The VW was now in a three-foot-deep hole. While we were frantically trying to figure out what to do next, something magical happened: the turtles hatched.
Hundreds upon hundreds of tiny turtles suddenly emerged from the sand and started their trek to the water. It is a tenacious struggle to rise to the top of the sand and then walk a predator-ridden journey ten meters to the water. Our children waddled the beach amazed at nature and these tiny creatures.
Two kilometers down the road, we found a construction crew who pulled us out with a rusted marine chain and an old beat-up pickup just minutes before the VW was engulfed by the rising tide.
2000: North Vancouver, Canada
We were working two jobs each. Besides owning a major government consulting business, Bill was elected to the North Vancouver City Council, and I to the North Vancouver School Board. Our lives were filled with meetings and a never-ending stream of nannies and babysitters. Weekends were spent at Home Depot and remodeling our heritage home. Adam and Dylan were shuffled from school to swimming lessons to soccer practice. We were socked in by the trappings of a successful Canadian lifestyle.
It seemed the only quality time we had as a family was on the six-to-eight week car vacations to Mexico that we began taking in 1990. We were fascinated with the differences between Mexico and Canada. We enjoyed the beaches and warm weather in the winters, the colonial cities and culture in the summers. Most of all, we liked the way Mexicans responded to our children. We were welcomed with open arms, as if part of the family. Family in Mexico is the most important thing in life.
We had snapshots of what our life could be: an album of family memories, from Chiapas to Baja, that tugged at us with the promise of a new life.
We can't pin down the exact day we decided to quit and sell our home and "stuff," but the idea first took hold when Bill's older bother Padraic died of a massive heart attack at 51. He didn't smoke or drink, and he worked out daily: he just went to bed one night feeling a bit off and never got up.
"Life is short" became our mantra, and we started fantasizing about selling everything and traveling as a family.
1997: Scammons Lagoon, Baja
We drove and drove through the Baja deserts, three kids in the back of the van complaining all the way. "There's no air conditioning." "Adam's pushing me." "When do we stop next?" "I'm hungry."
We turned up the radio to drown out the chatter. The desert felt therapeutic: hour after hour of sand, cactuses, and rock. Highway 1 down this amazing peninsula winds its way from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez, back and forth, back and forth, from the Pacific's trademark waves and deep blues to the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.
We stopped one night in Guerrero Negro and took a panga boat to watch whales in Scammon's Lagoon. California Grey whales return annually to this spot every December to calve and raise their young before returning north up the coast in April. Dylan reached out to pet a mother whale that was as curious about us as we were about her.
2000: North Vancouver
I retired from the School Board and started an RV travel website to chronicle our journeys, provide a campground directory, and give advice to other adventurers. The website, ontheroadin.com, became the family hobby. We put up a huge 4x6 foot map of Mexico and stuck a pin on the spot of every campground we knew about. We planned trips to document and photograph each one.
Our life in North Vancouver was now all about Mexico.
July, 1998: Catemaco, Veracruz
The village of Catemaco is known for its brujas-witches. You can buy a magic potion here, have your palm read, or cast a spell on your enemy. It is taken fairly seriously by townsfolk and provides a small but consistent flock of tourists to this tiny lakeside town.
We explored the town and visited the quaint plaza. The following day we secured a map from the municipal offices and decided to take a day trip, looping down the road towards the Gulf of Mexico and then back. We estimated a five-hour journey.
As we drove, the road got worse and worse. At times it seemed we were driving over potholes linked by only the smallest bits of concrete. Then just gravel. The map showed a better road ahead so we kept going: our gas was low and we were concerned that we would run out if we turned around.
The road finally disappeared into a farmer's field. We showed the map to a passerby and he indicated that we should drive across the field towards what appeared to be construction. Indeed, a crew was working on what was to become a two-lane highway. We made our way around dump trucks and other heavy equipment for twenty minutes before arriving at the other end. The road that appeared was little more than a footpath. Driving slowly, we finally made it back to Catemaco.
When we returned to the municipal office and complained about the map, they told us that while there is no road there now, there will be soon.
2000: North Vancouver Canada
I approached the North Vancouver School Board with an idea for a course on RV Camping in Mexico. The five-hour course would cover everything from packing to safety concerns, from water issues to police and bribery. The School Board agreed and told me to expect about eight or ten students.
Over one hundred students signed up that first year, and we later held the course throughout BC, Alberta, Washington, and Oregon. The course evolved into a family show; Bill and I presented the material and the kids would tell anecdotes to liven it up.
July, 1999: Palenque
I didn't see it. I was avoiding a peacock at the RV park in Veracruz and made a quick turn. I heard a sharp sound that unmistakably meant I had scraped something.
"Mom," said Adam, "there's white stuff coming down from the ceiling." Upon examination I could see that I had pretty much wiped out the air conditioner on a low overhang.
Bill was in Canada working and I was with the kids researching RV parks in Mexico. "Dad's going to kill you," said Adam solemnly. "He liked that air conditioner just where it was."
I didn't know what else to do. I drove all the way to Palenque and thought about exactly how I would break the news. You can't buy RV parts in Mexico, and here we were in the dead of summer with no AC.
I drove into a mechanic's yard and they quickly assessed the damage. I am not sure where they found the parts, but they reconstructed the tiny metal pipes and completely fabricated the fan. The only thing they couldn't replace was the plastic cover. The price tag? $100 USD.
North Vancouver November 2002 Civic Elections
Bill told me that he wanted one last shot at life in Canada. He wanted to run for Mayor of our city, but knew he had only a slim chance against the incumbent. "If you lose," I told him, "we're moving to Mexico."
The race was close but Bill lost by 180 votes. When the final tally was in, Bill turned to me and said: "We didn't lose. We're going to Mexico."
We were curious about an orphanage in Chiapas. Unusually, it had a campground, and we decided to explore it.
Of course the kids had other ideas. "Why do we want to go to an orphanage?" asked Adam. "That's boring." "We want to write a story," I said, adding that we would leave them there if there was any more complaining.
We arrived at the orphanage, Hogar Infantile, and were immediately led to a camping spot close to some buildings. We hooked up our electricity and water and got settled in. Soon children started to congregate outside our rig and invited our kids to come and play. They practiced their English and our kids practiced their Spanish.
Adam took out an American football and began throwing it to some of the older boys. Soon a number of them were tossing the ball back and forth and receiving instructions from Adam on how to grip it properly.
The girls were taken in hand by young Mexican girls who wanted to show them some pet animals. Later on Justine braided hair until her hands ached, with Dylan chatting alongside. Later that evening, from inside the RV, we watched our kids dance with the Mexican kids on the basketball court.
In the morning Adam sorted through his clothes and bedding. He left some of his prized possessions at the door just before we drove off. "They don't have much," he said.
June, 2003: North Vancouver
We had garage sale after garage sale as we prepared to move from a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house into a twenty-eight foot RV. The kids were left with a 14-inch TV and camping chairs. They didn't know what they were in for. Neither did we.
We sold the house, had parties, and said goodbye to colleagues and friends. They all thought we were crazy, but we knew we were more of a family on the road than we were sitting still. We enrolled the kids in online classes, purchased a large internet satellite dish for the RV, and were ready to go.
September 2001: Kohunlich
We weren't just travelling Mexico with two teenagers: we also traveled with our very large bearded collie CRASH. That is his name and it is spelled with all capitals. That is a great thing about RVing: you can travel with your pets.
We were driving the lonely highway from Chetumal to Campeche, a route that has one ancient Mayan site after another. At Kohunlich, we were the only vehicle in the parking lot. The attendant greeted us and invited us to take CRASH with us as we walked through the city and up and down the pyramids.
After an hour or so, the sky changed from light blue to dark grey. A sudden bolt of lightning struck, and thunder cracked in the air. We looked at each other and ran as the sky opened up and fat pellets of water pelted us.
We made it, laughing all the way to the RV, our wet T- shirts sticking to our bodies. CRASH huddled in a corner, terrified of the thunder.
October 2003: Baja to La Peñita
We were always falling in love with one part of the country or another. The kids would imitate our conversations.
"Oh Bill," Dylan would mock, "I just love this place. We could build something here."
We came to La Peñita by accident, literally. I was riding a motorcycle in Baja and was hit by a truck, suffering a concussion and losing much of my memory. I called my friend Carole Thacker, who operates the La Peñita RV Park, to chat and commiserate about my injuries. "I can hardly remember anything," I complained. "I'm feeling quite lost."
"Not to worry. Come here," replied Carole. "No one can remember anything here either. We're all retired!"
La Peñita is in the state of Nayarit, an hour's drive north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast. La Peñita shares a corner of Jaltemba Bay with two other towns, Rincon de Guayabitos and Los Ayala. Both are Mexican-style tourist towns that are somehow more authentic than the American-style resort complexes of Cabo or Cancun. This is a retirement community, where folks in their mid-50's are considered young and dancing and partying is a lifestyle.
We came to recuperate and made it home. The area has near perfect weather eight months a year, and is near an international airport, good shopping, and health facilities. This small RV community, carved out of coastal jungle, is mainly made up of Canadians who drive down every year to join in the fun. Every year the Park opens on November 1 and closes six months later. All RV parks have rules: Rule Number 4 at La Peñita reads "It is mandatory to LAUGH OUT LOUD at least once per day."
2009: On the road again
We stayed at the RV Park for four years. Our kids were no longer small, and the RV was just too cramped to be fun anymore. They wanted a life that included other teenagers, not just 120 sets of grandparents. We rented a house in La Peñita, and sold the RV.
This summer Bill and I will venture south to Panama and explore Central America along the way. Good thing we kept the old VW Westphalia Van.
Dorothy and Bill Bell live in La Peñita, Mexico, with their son Adam (21) and daughter Dylan (18). Their daughter Justine and Mexican son-in-law Memo live in Ottawa. They left their former lives as municipal politicians and business owners for lives on the road in Mexico. They have brought hundreds of people down to their tiny corner of the country, and started an online newspaper for the area that is read by 51,000 people every week (jaltembasol.com). They have traveled all thirty-one Mexican states at least three times and say they couldn't have done it without their RV. Their only regret is that they didn't move to Mexico sooner.