Date Archives January 2018

It’s all Gypsum and Aliens in New Mexico

Spent a week uncovering UFO sightings, White Sands and Bottomless Lakes around southern New Mexico.

I’m going to start off by resisting making any “New Mexico/Old Mexico” jokes since that’s all we heard when we told people we were no longer in Mexico, but in New Mexico. I’m sure the residents are tired of hearing them but more importantly, Wikipedia is telling me that New Mexico was actually named over 200 years before modern-day Mexico was established…who woulda thunk it!? Anyway, we were on the I-10 for the beginning of this drive before veering off to head toward Silver City. It was crazy to see how many abandoned shops, motels and gas stations there were. It had an eerie feeling similar to those towns along Route 66, where the surviving businesses are relying on highway traffic just to stay afloat. Speaking of highway traffic, we saw so many warnings for dust storms and what to do if you’re caught in one that we know they’re not messing around. Luckily we didn’t encounter anything but they seem pretty crazy dangerous. We’ve got the 5 steps on lock if we ever do though.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Sign
Gotta love being welcomed by dancing chili peppers

Our first night in New Mexico was spent camping in the Gila National Forest, just south of Silver City. The spot was right by the trailhead to the Continental Divide (that we definitely did not hike) so all you active folks can add that to your bucket list. With a cold morning breaking the 6600 ft. elevation, we got back on the road and drove into Silver City. Now, it was Monday at this point, which normally seems like a business as usual kinda day, but not for this town. Chock full of artist studios and showrooms, this quirky little place appeared to be more of a weekend hotspot. Most signs in the windows showed shops being open Saturday and Sunday and then usually another random weekday. It was a drag that we couldn’t visit many places but it was still a cool place to walk around and peek in the windows. At one point, there was even a priest, a biker and a cowboy chatting in front of an herb store – there has to be a joke in there somewhere… Despite the sleepy demeanor, Silver City has lots of colourful buildings and street art that bring the town to life. Billy the Kid seemed to be a popular motif, as New Mexico was his stomping ground. If we ever pass through again, we’ll make sure it’s on a weekend to catch all the action.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Silver City
Lots of really cool buildings in Silver City. Most just admirable from the street since everything was closed!

From there, we headed east to Las Cruces. Before settling in for the work week, we explored the old Mesilla area a little bit. It had a really cool atmosphere filled with pueblo-style houses and skinny streets that didn’t make you feel like you were in America. The old timey feel was quickly lost when we ventured back into modern America’s love for box stores and supercenters. Can’t deny that stepping into a Walmart and being able to find pretty much anything you’ve ever known to exist is convenient, but I’d still take the character and history of Mesilla over the rest of Las Cruces any day.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mesilla
Stopped at this cute little spot in Mesilla for a beer…or two

We stepped up our game and stayed at a boujie RV Park for the work week as some sort of a treat I guess? This place had a hot tub that could easily fit 20+ people and they even collected your trash at the curb (the staff, not the hot tub…that would be quite an invention though), but unfortunately what comes with fancy amenities are the fancy-ass people that own million dollar RVs. As bad of a wrap as RV Parks get from most van people, we’ve had such a wicked time meeting people in them and sharing stories. We see it for its sense of community but driving an ‘84 into a jungle of brand spanking new rigs created some sort of a separation. Maybe we were just taking it too personally but people wouldn’t even wave back when we walked or drove by. Granted there were a few times where I didn’t have my contacts in but I’m not so blind that I wouldn’t see an arm even slightly move up. That’s all I’m askin for!! Just a little gesture to acknowledge I exist instead of these elitist travellers just blankly staring. We, of course, didn’t let that ruin our time and just carried on being our dirtbag selves ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but full disclosure: the staff was lovely, it was just the crowd that sucked. We also got our first rainfall since being in Calgary, which was really refreshing and smelled oh so good.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Las Cruces RV
You get a cheaper rate if you park along the highway, sold! Keep those fancy people away!

Anxious to go back into non-judgmental nature (not bitter at all), we drove into the Organ Mountains to camp at Aguirre Springs the following night. This place was sick! You take this skinny little winding road into the mountains and pretty much at any given point, you can’t see where your next turn is going to lead. Even when we initially entered the park area, we had no idea where we’d be camping since it just appeared to be heavily forested with jagged mountains popping out of the top. There was something magical about this place that made it feel like a Disney movie; the sun glimmered on all the plants while tiny birds chirped away and butterflies perched on rocks. It was a magical drive that we were happy to make again when we realized we had driven the whole loop and were closing in on the exit, haha. We don’t usually pay for camping on non-work days but this beautiful park was only $3.50 since we have an annual parks pass (best investment btw) and was nicer than a lot of campgrounds we’ve paid $30+ for in Canada. With it being an actual campground comes a couple rules like having to arrive before the gate closes and…yea, that was pretty much it. It’s also all designated sites, not the usual dispersed camping, but each one had a covered picnic table gazebo thing, multiple fire rings, a cooking grill and there were bathrooms nearby. I sound like I work for the park but this was just such an awesome spot that if you’re ever in the area, you should check it out. It’s definitely not great for bigger rigs since the gravel parking pad section of the sites are pretty small but there are lots of cool spots for smaller campers and tents. Being so high up also made for a real big night sky and a view of the town of White Sands, which just looked like a small illuminated square from up there.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Aguirre Springs
How neat is this little set-up? Plenty of space for multiple campfires, dining and parking. Take all your friends down to New Mexico and do it up!

We were stoked to make some breakfast the next morning and head to the White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo. This place doubles as a missile range and has got all kinds of neighbouring military “stuff” that seemed like complete juxtaposition to this tranquil and picturesque place. As the name would imply, the sand is snow white and is that way because of its gypsum content. So why not make a ton of drywall? No! These sandy dunes are protected and are open for tourists to drive amongst and climb. We were a little unsure about how driving would be after the Quartzsite Quicksand Incident, but a friend told us that 4wd wasn’t necessary since there’s a hard, sand packed road that goes through the park and you’re not even allowed to drive on the sand dunes anyway. You can pretty much pull over anywhere and climb up a soft, sandy dune to get an awesome vantage point of the rolling hills that look uncannily like snow banks. Like snow, the sand was almost blindingly white from the sun’s glow (albedo effect whaddup) and people were even sliding down it on crazy carpets and toboggans. Basically this was all the fun of snow but minus the cold and wetness, beauty! This place was extremely cool and absolutely worth all of the sand that we shook off of our clothes for days after.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico White Sands
Just a lone speck in endless white sand

One thing these big open areas with lots of military presence create is…mystery. That was cheesy but for real, what’s going on at all these top-secret places that often just show up as blank areas on a map? Something the government doesn’t want us to know about and one of those things is ALIENS! Being in New Mexico, it was just a given that we were gonna go to Roswell. We knew it was going to be a little silly but that’s just part of the fun. However, our first bizarre experience began on the drive. Now, I’m not talking supernatural-bizarre, but we had no idea that our route would take us through the mountains and back into snow! Going from white sand desert to snow-covered spruce trees in a matter of hours was pretty trippy. I suppose we just didn’t look much into it, but neither of us had any idea that New Mexico was home to any skiing destinations at all. I’m now learning that the Ski Apache is, in fact, the southernmost ski destination in North America. As we ascended into Ruidoso, it became clear that it was a booming tourist town amongst the Sierra Blanca. When we were leaving White Sands, we saw a mountain that looked snow-capped but we dismissed it as just being some sky-high gypsum. Turns out it was the Sierra Blanca Peak and it was indeed, icy cold snow.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Organ Mountains
Oops! Didn’t take a photo of the snow. Here’s a shot of the Organ Mountains instead

We were dreading having to bundle up to socialize with some aliens but thankfully, the elevation returned to normal New Mexican heights and the warmer temperatures that come with it. We were greeted with a bunch of car dealerships and billboards for Italian restaurants when entering Roswell, but soon caught of glimpse of what we were lookin’ for, the UFO Museum. We went in with corny expectations and it delivered. Very info heavy but had its fair share of alien replicas (or were they just taxidermied?!?) and stories of sightings from around the globe. For those unaware of why Roswell is significant in the alien world, here is the ultra abridged story: a UFO reportedly crashed just outside of Roswell in 1947 and the man who reported it was threatened by the military to change his claim and everyone involved was sworn to secrecy when the evidence was replaced by a weather balloon. The museum had allegedly original transcripts and signed affidavits, which were the most interesting part to us. Make of it what you wish, but it’s still a fun/spooky/hilarious place to check out.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Roswell
Re-creation or taxidermy?!?!?!

To get away from all that hustle and bustle of alien town, we camped the night at Bottomless Lakes State Park. Being a state park, there was a small fee ($10 for primitive camping and $14 if you want hookups) but it was worth it for how beautiful the grounds were. After talking to the camp host, we opted to get away from the Lea Lake area, where all of the RVs and hookups are (even wifi), and find a more secluded spot by Pasture Lake. There are designated camping areas with picnic tables, garbage cans and vault toilets. We were the only ones amongst the large rocky cliffs that made for some nice quiet camping. The only thing making noise were the animals (raccoons I’d assume) rummaging through the garbage can devouring the mess left behind by whoever had stayed at this spot before us. The garbage cans were uncovered and these people left a bunch of celery and whipped cream for whatever reason and it was all over our site by morning. We collected as much as we could but it makes me wonder what kind of a weird party these folks were having. In any case, I’m sure the raccoons are well fed around here if that’s the norm.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Bottomless Lakes
Got a nice little spot all to ourselves

The following day we were able to explore the grounds a little bit more and take in how cool these little lakes are. They call them “bottomless” because they’re so full of vegetation that they take on rich turquoisey-green hues and appear to be very deep. They’re all sinkholes that aren’t connected to any rivers or streams and formed as a result of limestone caves collapsing – similar to the cenotes found around Mexico (shout out to anyone who’s ever done the Yucatán excursion to Ik Kil lol). One lake in particular, Mirror Lake, reminded me a lot of Emerald Lake in Yoho, BC. This lake was exceptionally cool because it was composed of two connected sinkholes, one with fresh water, which had a bunch of game fish, and one with salt water, which couldn’t support these fishies. They’re about 40’ deep but look like they go on forever.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mirror Lake
Really hard to capture the colour of the water here but it was super rich and saturated, similar to lakes in BC and Alberta

All in all, New Mexico definitely surprised us in many ways. Their state slogan is “Land of Enchantment” so we’re ready to be enchanted again when we go through Albuquerque on our way back west and join in on the Breaking Bad tourism that has caused homeowners to build barricading fences around their houses (it was just one, but still).

 

Tucson is like Vancouver but Smaller…and with Palm Trees.

Back to familiar American cities in Tucson, AZ.

The border crossing in Lukeville makes way to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: a large park filled with towering saguaro cactuses (just a sidebar here for anyone [probably just me] questioning if I should be saying cacti instead of cactuses…there’s some debate over it but both are correct, as cacti is Latin and cactuses is English). A lot of the park is drivable if you’re taking the 85 up to Why, but of course, there is a separate paid area as well. Interesting fact about saguaro cactuses is that they’re actually protected by the State of Arizona – if you have one on your property, you are to call the Department of Agriculture to get a permit to remove it. We considered camping in the park because the thought of waking up in a cactus forest is pretty cool, but ultimately decided we’d keep on trekking. It felt like quite a treat to be back on well-maintained roads while paying just over $2 a gallon for gas (God bless America).

Generic Van Life - Tucson Cactuses
These saguaros have got a few inches on 6’4″ Justin

We found a cool spot just outside of Tucson called Snyder Hill. This is a BLM where you can camp for free for 14 days right outside of a developed area in Tucson Estates, convenient for grabbing gas or groceries. It sounds a lot fancier than it is but it’s clearly a very popular spot for people in the area as it was one of the fullest BLMs we’ve stayed at. Granted it was upward of 80°F (it was 28°C when we finished grocery shopping) and the start of the weekend, so who wouldn’t want to pop out for some free camping. Lots of trailers, vans and RVs parked across the desert park, gathering for bonfires and doggy play dates – it was almost like Quartzsite on a much smaller scale.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Snyder Hill
All about those bug nets. Flies travelled in gangs around here

After a much needed recharge, we headed into downtown Tucson the next day to check out the Arizonan city that was never really on our radar to visit. I gotta say, we were both pleasantly surprised with how much we liked it. It’s clean and full of mom & pop shops and restaurants that seem to be on the earlier stages of gentrification, AKA before it becomes lame expensive bullshit. It reminded us a lot of a smaller Vancouver that was less expensive and had palm trees. We had no trouble finding some good coffee shops to steal wifi and electricity from and we even went for brunch, which we never do. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, people are NUTS about brunch. As someone who has worked in a weekend brunch spot, brunch is the bane of my existence. Partially because Toronto has become so expensive and pretentious and the brunch crowd is insanely particular about…everything. Anyway, we were expecting line ups of people that look way too clean and put together to be out and about on a Saturday morning (what did you do last night?! Even when I stay in on a Friday, I’m still a troll until noon on Saturday) but to our surprise, we had some awesome food in a nice low-key spot that didn’t charge $20+ for eggs benny. Score!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Downtown
Downtown Tucson

Tucson seemed like a city we could spend some time in, with lots of music venues, restaurants and colourful painted murals scattered around the downtown. There’s also a streetcar system that seemed way too cheap to be real compared to the $3.25 a ride we pay back home. Tucson had it goin’ on and we really enjoyed it. That being said, we can only spend so much time in the city before heading back into quiet, secluded parks for camping. That night, we drove into the Coronado National Forest and slept at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. The road in was a slow crawl because it was so bumpy and uneven, but well worth the drive despite being swallowed by clouds of dust left behind by jacked up 4×4 pickup trucks barreling down it. The road seemed to be a common route for border patrol trucks to cruise on but we didn’t witness any juicy Live PD-style chases, which is probably for the best.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Dragoon Mountains
The Coronado Forest was a really cool spot!

From here, we began making our way toward New Mexico by taking the road that continues through the rest of the forest. Beautiful views but a little hairy for Clemmie. Think lots of twisting winding roads just scraping the edge of cliffs along some rocky switchbacks. She persevered but it made for a wild ride out!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Coronado Forest
Sketchy drives always lead to sweet views

Driving Where Your Momma Don’t Want You to Go: Mexico

Venturing across another border in Guaymas and Puerto Peñasco, Sonora

When a lot of people think about going to Mexico, they think of an all-inclusive vacation in Cancún or Cabo San Lucas. AKA Americanized tourist meccas geared to give you just enough sandy beaches and cheap booze to make you feel like you’re in a tropical place, while still feeling comfortable enough to not have to understand a lick of Spanish. To that point, we’re fed by the media to be afraid of this beautiful country and “never leave the resort” – it’s definitely not as popular an opinion in Canada as it is in The United States, but a familiar warning nonetheless.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Lunch
Hard to believe by my eyes that this was my first beer of the day

With our travel advisory apprehensions in check, we made our way out of Yuma to the border in San Luis Río Colorado. As two young people in a Scooby Doo van, we got searched entering Mexico. I must say, the guards were so polite and friendly and oddly unintimidating despite their fellow officers with machine guns on either side of them. We carried on without trouble and made our way toward Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point in English, a total gringo vacation town where prices are even presented in USD. Don’t get me wrong, the town and the view of the Sea of Cortez is lovely, but it definitely fits in the margins of the category I made fun of earlier. People trying to sell you mass-produced “authentic” goods and discount pharmaceuticals (they seemed to have more Viagra than a Pfizer factory) made walking down the street a game of Frogger.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Sign
Tourist-ing it up

Our ultimate destination was Teacapán, Sinaloa – a small fishing village about 2 hours south of Mazatlán where Justin’s aunt has a house. From the border, it was to be about a 3 day trek down. After lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Puerto Peñasco, we started making our way toward Puerto Libertad, where we had planned to stay for the night. Upon arriving to the tiny beach town, we realized that there definitely was no RV Park to be found and that a misunderstanding on a website had led us astray. We rolled up to the Pemex and asked if it was safe to stay the night there. The immediate “no” that came out of the attendant’s mouth made it quite clear that we were to hop back on the highway and keep driving. To be fair, I don’t think that this town was necessarily dangerous, it just wasn’t the Flying J that semis and other travellers would pull into and park for the night. We were a van and a C Class motorhome that didn’t really scream “locals”.

Had some precious cargo on board. This is Justin’s mom’s cat, Sir Walter. He has more followers on Instagram than you or I ever will (@sirwaltermsmelody)

So what now? The nearest RV Park was over 2 hours away and sunset wasn’t far off. We didn’t feel like we had much of a choice so we got back on the road. I want to make it clear that despite our critical view on fearing Mexico, driving at night was something we wanted to avoid. And go figure, on our first night, we found ourselves cruising through the dark (it was only early in the evening so not totally disturbing, but still really, really dark). Nighttime driving aside, the biggest mistake we made was taking the state highway instead of the federal highway. We can’t blame our past selves because we didn’t know the road would be that bad but yikes, we’ve never experienced deeper car-swallowing potholes in our lives. At first it was like a video game, swerving to avoid the odd crater and then it just became downright scary. We had to slow down to a MAXIMUM of 40 km/h (25 mph) in order to not pop a tire or completely wreck the undercarriage of the van. I say completely wreck because it definitely took a beating, even when we were trying our damnedest to be cautious. Luckily traffic was very light (wonder why…) because moving into the oncoming traffic lane was as inevitable as the potholes. Suddenly the 2.5 hour drive started to feel like it was going to be a lot longer. We did pass a number of state and federal police checks that all seemed friendly enough to just make fun of our poor Spanish before waving us along. One shady occurrence was a group of 5-6 cars (some with California plates, others with Sonora plates and the rest with none) that travelled in a close group that would pull over then speed up periodically. Normally this would probably mean bad news but fortunately, they didn’t bother us.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Drive
At least driving in the dark had some nice views

Peeling our clammy hands and white knuckles off the wheel, we arrived in Bahía Kino and set up at Islandia RV Park and Marina. The owner was lovely and it was such a relief to have a safe spot to sleep for the night in such a beautiful location. Sunrise gave us our first real opportunity to admire the beachfront and chat with other travellers passing through. Our next order of business was getting our temporary vehicle permits necessary to exit the “hassle-free zone” that is the Baja Peninsula and the western side of Sonora. In the simplest terms, you need a permit to operate a foreign vehicle in the rest of Mexico. We already had Mexican auto insurance so you pay a fee, get a sticker and get your money back upon leaving the country. Easy enough so before heading to Guaymas to get it, I decided to give the office a call to see what documents we needed to get the permit. That’s when we realized we did not get our tourist cards (FMMs). Oops! This was quite a silly oversight on our parts as we were supposed to get it in San Luis right after entering. We can blame the border guards all we want for not directing us there (they were apparently supposed to) but at the end of the day, we should have prepared better and sought it out immediately. We were told that even though we had auto insurance, they wouldn’t honour it without a tourist card. This mistake meant driving back to the nearest border, Nogales. If you’re familiar with Mexican geography then you know that that’s a 5 hour haul from where we were, essentially erasing all the ground we covered the previous day.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bahia Kino
The beautiful beach in Bahía Kino (Kino Bay)

Justin and I decided that it just wasn’t worth the hours and wear and tear on our vehicle to make the rest of the drive down after having to start over, so we parted ways with our convoy crew after successfully getting our tourist cards in Nogales. It was Friday by this point and New Year’s weekend so we figured we’d stay the weekend in Puerto Peñasco and cross back into the States in time for the work week. No doubt it was a bit of a drag but we just couldn’t justify spending 8 full days of our allotted two weeks driving.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bahia Kino Morning
Can’t be too stressed when you’re waking up to this sunrise

Anyway, we made a stop that evening in Santa Ana to spare us from another nighttime drive after an already stressful day. I couldn’t write this blog post without mentioning our dear friend, Edgar Osuna. Originally planning to camp out at a gas station for the night, we zoomed past a homemade sign that said “RV PARK OPEN” right off the 15. We turned around and checked it out and were very glad we did. The RV Park itself was nothing to write home about, with electrical and limited water hookups but no bathrooms or showers. All that mattered to us was that it was a safe place to rest our heads and it was only 200 pesos, after all (about $13 CAD or $10 USD). We got to talking with the owner, Edgar, and discovered that he loved Canadians and his late wife was actually American. At 74 years old, Edgar is paralyzed on his left side but still full of life. He greeted us the next morning and told us stories of how he toured in a band called The Thunderbirds (the Mexican version, he added) in the 60s and used to love driving through Mexico and America. He was the sweetest man to talk to and a local celebrity in the town. I highly encourage anyone to visit him at Punta Vista RV Park if you’re ever passing through Santa Ana.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Edgar
♥ Edgar ♥ The sweetest Mexican rockstar you’ll ever meet!

The RV Park we scouted out to stay for the weekend was on the west side of Puerto Peñasco, where all of the hotels and resorts are – about a 10 min drive away from the town. Despite not being in a “beachfront” spot, we were just a stone’s throw away from the sandy shores of the Gulf of California. As Justin says, this place was like Arizona Lite. There were many seasonal spots with permanent decks and patios where Arizonans came down for 6-7 months of the year to escape winter (wait, Arizona’s not cold?! It is the sunshine destination for tons of Albertan snowbirds). Essentially, everyone was a sunbaked gringo on vacation. Fine by us, as we were the same – just pale. We enjoyed some beers on the beach and spent the evening on our neighbours’ patio drinking tequila and Tecates. They were indeed Arizonans but were originally from Alaska and New York; they’ve done their fair share of cold winters so I completely understand why retiring in Mexico would be a dream come true. As fate would have it, our neighbours on the other side were travellers from Kelowna, BC! We celebrated in true Canadian fashion by being civilized, polite and friendly, ha.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Playa Bonita RV Park
Clemmie has broken into van, RV and fifth wheel communities alike

Unfortunately, when New Year’s Eve rolled around, Justin was dead sick. While he rested in the van, I went to a bonfire party with our newly acquainted Arizonan friends and watched some fireworks over the beach. It was a rough beginning to the year with Justin’s flu and my hangover but we couldn’t overlook how awesome it was that we were starting it off in Mexico, in our van, doing exactly what we want to do. Not gonna turn this into some sappy reflection post but we definitely feel super happy to be doing what we’re doing and are so stoked about all the amazing people we’ve met along the way and all the ones we’re yet to meet in interesting places in the near future.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Playa Bonita
RV Park on the beach > Walmart parking lot

We decided that we’d stay the work week instead of leaving after the weekend because…why not? There was passable wifi, it was cheaper than most American parks, our tourist cards were good for 7 days, oh and being by the beach didn’t hurt. Go figure it was one of the busiest work weeks (we even had to pass up going to tequila shot bingo, sigh) but we certainly couldn’t complain about sitting on a beach after clocking out. We had an awesome time and made lots of new friends but were ready to go back to the US for cheap gas and nicely paved roads. We said our goodbyes and made the short drive to the border crossing into Lukeville, AZ and geared up for an intense search. We’d also been warned that there were often cops camped out in a couple of the small towns you drive through, waiting to give you a “speeding ticket” (get their palms greased) but we were lucky enough not to run into any trouble. The border crossing was a breeze – it was actually easier for us to get into the States from Mexico than it was from Canada. Seems odd but we had nothing on us anyhow.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bye
A subtle reminder to brush up on your spanish. And to have a nice trip

All in all, we loved Mexico but will definitely prepare better next time we go. A word to the wise: gas is expensive (about on par with Canadian prices but significantly more expensive than American) and RV Parks aren’t too common so plan accordingly because it’s not worth taking the same risks you might be comfortable with in America by parking on a deserted beach or in the desert. This website as a whole is pretty handy and constantly referenced by travelling Americans, but on this page you can see all the RV Parks on the northern west coast – you’ll see what I mean about them being few and far between.

 

Here are some more useful links to prepare for your awesome Mexican road trip:

All about tourist cards (FMM) here. All about vehicle permits here. You can even do this in advance here and pick it up upon arriving in Mexico. That woulda been smart to do, huh!

This Mexico Mike dude does a good job summin’ it all up. He also was the only avenue we found to find info on the vehicle registration centre in Empalme (just south of Guaymas).

 

Vanned your way through Mexico? Tell us about it! We’d love to share stories.

A Day of Van Life Time-Lapse

Living the Van Life:  Here’s a time-lapse view of the highlights of our average day on the road! We never try to plan too far ahead and we’re always looking for new places and adventures. This video was taken during our stay at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains in the Coronado National Forest, AZ and then our drive through the Mountains to the Gila National Forest, NM.

RVs and Retirees

First stop: sinking into quicksand in Quartzsite, AZ. Second stop: the land of the 55+ in Yuma, AZ.

Now that Christmas was over, the mission was on to head south toward Mexico to celebrate the New Year. We made it a point to go through Quartzsite before crossing the border because we had heard it was the mecca of everything RV – anything you can think of for mobile living, they’ve got it. And they’ve got tons of them. As you’d expect, there’d be plenty of RV parks and RV/vandwellers about…little did we know, the whole place is basically one giant RV park. Being the end of December, this was low season – a few weeks before an ultimate fortnight to come: The Tyson Wells Rock & Gem Show.

Generic Van Life - Quartzsite BBQ Sauce
Just when you thought you’ve seen it all…this sacred BBQ sauce will save you and comes with a keychain size Bible for all your portable reading needs. Quartzsite, you’re crazy!

Quartzsite gave us the vibe that back in the 70s, a bunch of hippies found their way there and just never left. And we’re not just talking flower child hippies, we’re talking crystal-worshipping, shaman-esque hippies. At the end of the day, it’s pretty cool that this town exists and people come together in such huge masses (over 1 million RVs pass through each year just in the second half of January) over common off-beat interests, but it just wasn’t really our scene. Knowing that there are plenty of free camping areas around, we pulled off into a sandy wash with the hopes of finding somewhere more quiet and secluded and less flea-market-y. As we drove just metres from the main road, Justin said, “maybe we’ll even get stuck or something!” Well. Within 30 seconds, he was eating his words. We got jammed into what felt like quicksand. We tried piling some sticks by the rear tires to gain some traction – we’re rear-wheel drive – but it just went full on food processor and mulched all of our efforts. We tried pushing and digging our tires out but Clementine was so sunken in that every attempt just seemed to make it worse.

Generic Van Life - Stuck in Quartzsite
No caption needed. We stuck!

As road magic would have it, a 4×4 truck pulled in just as we were covered in sand and despair (I’m being hyperbolic for effect…we were really just laughing the whole time cause it was so ridiculous). A man, Charlie, popped out and asked if we needed a pull. He seemed like he had been stoned since he was in the womb, so just a regular dude in Quartzsite. He hooked on, we floored it on reverse and made it out of the sandy pit. We thanked him, he carried on into the hazy desert and we climbed back in the van to find somewhere with harder ground to sleep – it was dark already by this time. We were about 5m from the main road and were stuck again. Ha, luckily this time a push was enough to get her going but we made a conscious effort to avoid any washes that looked precariously soft after this. First thing in the morning, we got our tires rotated and set out toward Yuma.

Generic Van Life - Quartzsite Yuma Proving Ground
We drove through the Yuma Proving Grounds which was just downright weird. This was on the side of the entrance gate as if it were a stone lion. And we’re fairly certain we saw a UFO…

We dillydallied a bit and didn’t reach Yuma until later in the afternoon so after stocking up on any American rations we needed before going to Mexico, we figured we’d crash at a park and hit the border early the next morn’. Free camping isn’t really a thing it seemed (with the exception of Walmart parking lots) and we were hard pressed to find an RV park that wasn’t age restricted at 55+. Eventually we found a great spot that was cheap and even had a hot tub. No wonder this was snowbird central! I think we saw more Alberta plates in Yuma than we did anywhere in America so far. We filled our bellies with sushi (they say the best Japanese food is just north of the Mexican border, right?) and caught some much needed shut-eye before hitting the border bright and early the next morning.

Christmas at the Grand Canyon

Swapping a Christmas tree for a giant hole in the ground at Grand Canyon National Park.

With the provisions for a van-sized Christmas dinner in tow, we set off on the very unassuming drive toward the Grand Canyon. If there were no signs indicating where we were going and you were trying to surprise me, you wouldn’t even need to blindfold me. It felt like we were driving through Ontario with tall boreal-lookin’ trees, rich non-desert-sand soil and snow on the ground. Definitely not what I expected for what the surrounding area would look like, but that always made the surprise that much more exciting. Also, the snow and chill in the air helped to make it feel a lot more like Christmas!

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Xmas Lights
Getting festive with Christmas lights! What Justin doesn’t know is that I’m never taking them down >:)

I was really set on exploring the North Rim and stoked to park just metres away from the edge until I learned that the roads to the North Rim are closed for the winter. Womp womp wooooomp! Luckily, the South Rim is still ridiculously cool. This is the part that most tourists get to see so there are plenty of parking areas and whatnot nearby. Being the end of December, it was still pretty packed but not too overcrowded to enjoy. It’s hard to articulate how crazy it is to drive into a wooded area and then walk barely 10m to see that thing. I don’t think we were expecting it to be that cool but we sincerely recommend checking it out at some point in your life, if you haven’t already. We climbed onto a rocky peninsula and relished in how small we felt in the crazy landscape that surrounded us. Another thing we felt was hungry since we hadn’t eaten all day and just scaled our way into a canyon.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Cliff
We’d look a lot smaller if this wasn’t taken with a zoom lens

We met plenty of interesting folks in the parking lot that all seemed to come out of nowhere like some weird mirage – guess we were hungrier than we thought. We stayed to watch the sunset and immediately felt the absence of the sun as the temperature dropped significantly. We headed back to Tusayan, where we were staying for a few days, just outside of the park’s entrance.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Drive
Probably thought we heard an ice cream truck

We spent Christmas Eve binging on The Great British Bake Off and spending time with Justin’s parents. After doing our Christmas morning shindig, we cooked up a delicious holiday feast – complete with a tiny turkey – and made our way back to the canyon to enjoy some different views as the sun was packing it in for the day. Despite being a drag that you can’t drive along the North Rim in the winter, it’s super awesome that the road to Hermit’s Rest is open to regular vehicles in the off-season. Driving along the edge of the cliffs is a trip!! There are so many cool spots to pull over and see the landscape from a different perspective. Our favourite was Powell Point, where you can walk down onto a peninsula and be surrounded by canyon on both sides. It’s a pretty cool feeling that again, is very hard to put words to.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Powell Point
Ain’t no canyon for ants! This is below the memorial at Powell Point. Climb down and feel really really tiny

As we were just about done filming a time-lapse of the sunset, a guy came over and complimented Clemmie and told us he’s also a vanner. We shared proud parent stories about our vans when he told us that he had slept at the bottom of the canyon that night. We had heard of this but didn’t know if it was possible in a rig like ours. It’s top on our list to do next time we’re in the area and sounded like an amazing drive. As our new friend explained how to drive in, we realized that the turn-off is right by Peach Springs – a ghost town on Route 66 that we stayed near while boondocking in Kingman! It seems that we had literally driven past this magical road and didn’t even know it. For anyone interested, you must visit the Hualapai Lodge, just east of Peach Springs to get a permit (the last bit of the drive puts you on Native Land so you need the permit to enter). From the Lodge, you just carry on Diamond Creek Road until you reach the Colorado River and set yourself up from there! He said we’d be fine with rear-wheel drive but some other stories I’ve read might suggest otherwise. We’ll have to find out for ourselves one day – if blog posts cease to be posted after this then yes, we’ve gotten stuck in the sands of the Grand Canyon.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon View
Sitting along “The Abyss” – only a 3000′ drop below. That’s cool. Not scared.

Our first Christmas in the van was awesome and we hope for many more to come. We were lucky enough to spend it with some family and found good enough Internet to FaceTime in with the others. Even though the snow was pretty for Christmas but we’re satisfied. We are heading south! Hit us up in the comments with your experience camping at the Grand Canyon if you’ve ever done it – we’d love to put it on our roster.