In 1981, myself and two companions, Bob and Mary, decided to weather the first three months of Reagan's presidency traveling the length of Mexico.
Our transport for the journey was a white twenty year old Ford Falcon Van retrofitted as a camper. Its most unusual feature was a pop-up silver tin roof that looked like half of a giant tuna fish can when fully erect. In its own way, it was art.
We planned a route that took us down through the middle of Mexico then back north from Acapulco along Highway 200. Renowned for its breathtaking beauty, it is now a popular coastal connection between Acapulco-Zihuatanejo. But in 1981, it was in the infant stages of construction and we began hearing warnings about the condition of the road well before we actually came upon it.
Over many pitted and twisted miles traveling south on Mexican roads, the Ford Van became more than just a machine to us. Despite a number of serious mechanical problems along the way, we recognized it as a respected member of our party. In fact, it was the Van and its mishaps that connected us to the most incredible experiences of our trip.
In Mexico City, an important engine belt broke which led us to a family of street mechanics who feed us homemade tacos for two days and charged little, beyond the cost of the belt, for their work. Hours spent in halting English-Spanish translation had made us extended family.
Before leaving, they gave us advice on our route to Acapulco and up the coast to Puerto Vallarta. Our particular concern was a stretch of 200 between Acapulco and Zihuatanejo. On the map it was designated as just a dirt road for about a hundred miles. Our mechanic friends had heard various reports about its condition but said to check with locals and the military for details. The military was the best source of information about road conditions along the coast because it was such an opportune location for drug trafficking.
Entering the Mexican state of Guerrero we came upon the first of many highway stops identified by big wooden handpainted signs that all said “Drog Search”. Staffed by military personnel carrying machine guns, we had entered the frontline of what later became Reagan’s “War on Drugs”. Searches were under the complete control of whoever happened to be on duty.
We were surprised and relieved to be waived through the first two “Drog” stops. Then on the approach to Acapulco over a steep hillside, wrapped in frail palapas and wooden huts, we were stopped and pulled over for a thorough investigation.
Glancing at our California license plates, the largest soldier yelled “stop” in English and raised his machine gun as if to fire a warning shot. Another soldier, wearing the most adornment, ordered us to get out of the van and open all the doors. He then splayed himself comfortably across the front passenger seat and began chain smoking our Marlboro Menthols from a pack he found on the dashboard. He was preparing for a long and rewarding afternoon.
After scrutinizing our travel gear, food items, passports, visas, auto insurance and anything else that seemed to randomly enter his mind, our interrogator probed for some hidden purpose to our trip. His tactic for breaking us down psychologically was to maintain an intense glare, blow Marlboro smoke out his nose, and slowly repeat “Do you have drogs?”. It felt like we had stumbled onto the set of a Fellini movie. But the guns were real and staying out of trouble was easier than getting out of trouble. So we remained respectful even while hinting to each other about options for bribery.
Leveraging his fondness for Marlboros, we gave our interrogator a fresh carton and achieved a low level of camaraderie. In fact, he then seemed pleased to offer his opinion about the coastal route, though it was not what we had hoped to hear. He told us to go back the way we came. He said the road along the coast was a hundred miles of boulder strewn dirt and mud. And most impossible of all, we would have to cross a river without a bridge. Only specialized military vehicles routinely made it through. Our old tuna can van would not have a chance.
In a final warning to turn back, he made broad “negative” gestures, shaking his head and hands while grumbling about “el mal rio, horrible, peligroso” in Spanish. Despite dimmed prospects, we decided to do more research before abandoning our plan. Adding a John Denver cassette tape to his treasures, our Marlboro man released us from the “Drog Stop” and we continued the last few miles into Acapulco.
In contrast to the poor and crowded conditions on the mountainside, Acapulco was a gleaming economic fortress of high rise hotels guarding the sweep of an azure blue bay. We found a camping spot in a resort parking lot mentioned in “The People’s Guide to Mexico”. Our fellow squatters were mostly retired American snowbirds with mammoth RVs that would never stray from pavement, but we found one weathered Australian who considered the outback of anywhere his rightful home. He, of course, had traveled highway 200 many times and gave us detailed reports of his experience.
On the plus side, much of the road was now passable gravel and there was even pavement on some parts. On the down side, a twenty mile stretch along the cliffs of the Pacific coast was still nothing more than loose rock and it was bisected by the Rio Balsas, still without a bridge. We would need to ford this rio peligroso in our fragile Ford van.
The Australian assured us that, though difficult, it could be done. He had done it many times in his high centered Range Rover and an old school bus carrying supplies to the road crew did it on a weekly basis. However, the depth of the river flow was unpredictable and could make or break our chances of crossing at any time. We wouldn’t know what we were facing until we arrived. So, he gave us suggestions for success in various conditions.
If the flow was low, the biggest problem was to avoid getting stuck on the rocks which, upon inspection, were really small to medium size boulders. Momentum was our friend so he said to get a running start, flooring the gas pedal all the way through.
In a worst case scenario, though, with a deep and fast stream flow, we first had to decide whether to even try it at all. Getting stuck mid stream would mean having to abandon the van and risk getting swept into the current ourselves. If we did decide to go for it, he advised that we disconnect the engine fan belt so it wouldn’t spew water into things like the distributor, differential, and an alphabet soup of other essential parts. We listened with interest but had no intention of doing what he suggested. Our tools amounted to one small but adjustable crescent wrench and few twisted screwdrivers. In fact, we didn’t even have a spare tire. So, our strategy for the river was this: Check it out. If it’s a nightmare, turn around and hope we make it back.
Soon after leaving the last paved section of 200, we decided the words “bajo construcción” (under construction) really meant, “passable only by mountain goats and sherman tanks”. Whoever drove that weekly supply bus must have discovered the secret of levitation. Gouged into the side of nearly vertical coastal mountains, this undeveloped stretch of Hwy 200 was nothing more than heaps of loose dirt and boulders poised to become an avalanche. Views of the Pacific Ocean below were breathtaking, but our risk of falling into it impressed us even more.
Creeping at a top speed of ten miles an hour we finally came upon the river and were overjoyed to find it flowing low. Without a doubt, we were going through.
Bob and Mary both opted out of taking the driver seat. In fact, they insisted that waiting for me on the river bank would actually be helpful and I had to agree. Mary was subject to random panic attacks that were more nerve wracking than the road, and the only license Bob owned was from a cosmetology school. Bob could not drive, a detail he neglected to mention before starting the trip, effectively making him a full time passenger. So fording through a river in Mexico was my destiny.
Aiming for a path with least obstruction, I revved the engine at the top of a small hill on the bank and headed straight across the stream. Clunking and churning, the Ford powered through the river with amazing grace. It felt unstoppable, miraculous, and then, one loud womp and the right front tire was buried in a hole. Rapid shifting between forward and reverse, as though it were trapped in a snow bank, failed to free it. I turned off the engine and rested my head on the steering wheel.
With impossible options flooding my brain, I hardly noticed the hand, a few inches from my face, knocking on the driver side window. A smiling middle aged Mexican man was standing in the river beside the door. “ Hola señorita, nos puede ayudar! (we can help!)
In a daze, I watched a swarm of Mexican men, all sizes and ages, pour into the river and surround the van with a precision that reflected much practice. I was given a few simple instructions, turn on the engine, floor the gas pedal, and steer straight. In a matter of minutes, this host of tropical angels lifted the van from the hole onto a patch of gravel where they pushed until traction shot it onto shore.
All I could do was repeat the word “Gracias” and shake every hand I could find while my stunned companions waded across to meet us. Then, like a dream, the angels were again hidden in the lush foliage of a tropical forest.
The three of us continued our trip in awe struck silence. In Ixtapa, a little past Zihuatanejo, we rested in a palapa by the sea, ate aguacates con salsa wrapped in fresh tortillas, drank Tecate with lime, and toasted our belief in Mexico as a land of infinite Magic.