As our bus got closer, the knot in my stomach got tighter. The lump in my throat grew bigger. I started shaking with nervousness. What was about to happen? Had we made the right choice? Was the bus driver right? Those are the biggest guns I’ve ever seen…
When we first made our plans to travel through Mexico, everyone felt the need to offer their two cents about just how dangerous it is and how we need to be so careful.
“It’s a lawless country!”
“The cartels run the show!”
“There’s so much corruption!”
“You could get kidnapped!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” was always my response. Sure, Mexico is dangerous, but it can’t really be that dangerous, right? I mean, we’re smart travelers after all. We spent an entire year and then some on the road, crossing plenty of borders on our own. How much different could the USA to Mexico border crossing be?
But after publishing our live Facebook video outlining our plans to our followers, an old friend of Sasha’s got in touch to help us out. He works for Remote Year as their Latin America coordinator, so he’s quite familiar with this corner of the world. He told us we shouldn’t do many of the things we already planned to do (like take a bus to Puerto Vallarta) because of safety concerns. His advice was “Just fly everywhere. It’s so much safer!” Too late. We had already made our arrangements. I tried to brush it off, but it was then that my anxiety over our idea started taking shape.
We booked a bus from Austin, TX bound for Monterrey. Traveling overland is our preferred method as it’s cheap and you can see more that way. Plus, we wanted the country’s 3rd biggest city to be our first stop. Flying directly into Puerto Vallarta would be the easy way out. We prefer a bit of adventure in our travels, and hoped to cross off Mexico’s trio of largest cities plus two of its most popular expat centers en route to PV.
It was finally travel day. As we were boarding the bus the driver looked at our tickets and said “Are you sure you want to go there? I moved to America 40 years ago and I’ve never been back!” I suddenly felt that same wave of anxiety I had felt the day we talked to our friend. Was it really so bad that a native wouldn’t even go back to visit his family and friends?! Surely not. I settled into my seat, put on some tunes and watched Texas go by out the window.
By the time we had arrived in the border city of Laredo, I had calmed myself down and assured myself that everything would be fine. As we were getting off the bus for a routine cleaning and driver swap, the driver stopped us again and told us the steps we would take at the border. As a final word of warning, he told us if we had any money that we had better hide it.
At this point I was truly scared. I had managed to get a hold of myself before, but after hearing this and the tone in his voice, I was sincerely questioning our life choices. I was fully expecting our bus to be ambushed by gun-wielding gangsters who would take everyone’s belongings and kidnap the women. Ok, I’m being dramatic. The point is, my gut was telling me to run away fast. Taking his words to heart, I stuffed all our cash in my bra and kept a few bills in the waistband pocket of my yoga pants.
Arriving at the border, several officials entered the bus with huge guns. Not a single one cracked a smile. With menacing looks they walked through the bus, checking everyone’s passport and papers and looking everyone in the eye. When they got to us they skimmed through my passport and asked where we were going. We answered his questions and upon learning we had yet to get our visitor permits, he instructed us to go to the immigration office.
This was it – the moment we had been warned about. We had to exit the safety of our bus and wait outside in no-man’s land. As we approached the door I was trembling so much I couldn’t take it.
An officer opened the door. He looked intimidating in his green uniform. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Passports,” he said. We handed them over. “Wait here,” and he closed the door and left us standing outside. It didn’t help that it was starting to get dark. Some border officials turned the corner and I nearly jumped out of my skin as I was so on edge.
I kept trying to peer in the window to see what was happening. Several Mexicans were freely going in and out while we were waiting. Why were they able to enter as they please and we had to wait? What was going on in there? Why did it need to be kept secret from us?
Finally they opened the door and motioned for us to come in. Three large men sat behind a desk. “Do you speak Spanish?'” they asked. “No….” How was this going to go? We didn’t have any proof of our plans other than Air B&B bookings and we didn’t have a return ticket yet. Were we going to be denied entry? How could we handle this with no Spanish abilities other than “Una mas cerveza, por favor”?
They laughed! Big hearty laughs and said “Man! What you doing?!” They quizzed us about our travel plans and we didn’t even get through telling them our second stop before he said “OK! 180 days!” With big smiles on their faces, they offered us some of their dinner that had just been delivered. We paid the fee, signed our names and talked about the football game that was on the office TV. “Do you like American football?”, we asked. “No, not really… I like real football!” An answer we’re used to hearing in literally any country other than the US. After a few more pleasantries we were out the door and back on our bus.
However, there was still another step to cross the border. Mexico has a unique customs system – you press a button and if the light is green you can sail right through without having your belongings searched. If you get a red light, expect your bag to be torn apart. A red light is even more daunting for a bus as all the bags on the bus must be searched.
As luck would have it, our entire bus got the green light. Everyone was hooting and hollering and giving high fives. As our bus rolled through the checkpoint, one of the guards saw me watching him from the window. He gave me the biggest smile and a wave.
Sasha and I looked at each other and laughed as our nerves relaxed. It was so easy! We experienced nothing but friendliness from everyone we encountered throughout the process. Our bus driver had been wrong. The media hype is just that – hype. We had absolutely no problems the rest of the way to Monterrey. Surely there are some dangerous areas along the US-Mexico border, and you’d want to exercise extreme caution if driving yourself across at those spots, but taking one of the many buses from the bigger cities in Texas to Monterrey is nothing to fear.
Our host in Monterrey took us in as though we were family. He and his mother cooked delicious meals for us and showed us around town. They even helped us with mundane tasks like getting our phones set up with local numbers.
Since leaving Monterrey we have been to Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Guadalajara. Now we’re in Puerto Vallarta and plan to be here for at least four months. We even took a bus here, against our friend’s advice, and guess what? Nothing bad happened!
We have been robbed zero times. We have been mugged zero times. We have been approached by zero drug dealers. We have taken buses to all our destinations (except between Monterrey and Mexico City because the hour-long flight was cheaper than a 12-hour bus) and I haven’t once felt like I was in danger. Ok, one time when boarding the subway in Mexico City during rush hour, a guy got a handful of my booty. That’s literally the worst thing that’s happened here, and I should have known to ride the women’s only car during that time. That’s precisely why it’s there.
I wrote this post to tell the world that I was right – you really shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. Americans are brainwashed to believe that Mexico is a terrifying place filled with “rapists and drug dealers.” Well I’m here to tell you that it’s not. The people are kind, they are caring, they smile and say “Hola! Buenos dias!” as you pass by. They hold the door open for you and say “Buen provecho!” (bon appetite) out in the restaurants. They’re not any different from you or me.
In fact, we already like it so much that we’re going to stay. You can find us here in Puerto Vallarta – learning Spanish, teaching English online and blogging about our experiences. Please let us know if you’re in the area. We would love to meet up for some tacos and a cerveza or two. Go ahead and come overland via one of the many USA to Mexico border crossings – you’ll save some money and see a lot more of the country.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks and months for stories and videos about this amazing country.