How to Survive Mexico for Vandwellers & RVers
“Let’s go to Mexico,” I mentioned, one night, or maybe it was over several nights spread across a lifetime. “It’ll be great, a different language, we can finally see what everyone means when they say ‘this isn’t authentic Mexican food’, and it’ll be cheap, right?”
She didn’t agree as easily as the idea rolled off of my tongue, but eventually, we got around to it.
“Okay, let’s go to Mexico!” she finally said, exuberant and eyes wide open to the possibility.
“Cool, let’s do it in a van!” I pushed the issue a bit. Her excitement waned momentarily, but our “van” is actually a 1978 Volkswagen Bus (Champagne Edition no less), with a poptop, kitchen, the whole shebang. She thought it over for a minute.
“Okay, let’s go to Mexico in our Bus!”
Nine months after crossing the border into Baja California, and eventually driving all the way to the Yucatan, we’re still here. It’s been a glorious ride.
Ups and downs? For sure. We’ve experienced grandiose scenic beachfront campsites and breakdowns in trash-laden middle-of-nowhere towns. We’ve come to understand what traveling in Mexico means, what it can mean, and what you have to get used to accepting down here.
So for those of you who want to make the excursion south of the US border and do so in a van or your RV, this is more or less what you can expect.
Ice Cold in Mexico!
If there’s one thing that you can more or less always count on in this country, it’s that it will be hot.
When we first crossed into Baja in January, it was chilly at night and hot during the day. As our months turned into a year, though, we found some nice and crisp respite in the mountains surrounding Mexico city. For the most part, though? Blazing hot and humid, coast to coast, border to border.
So how do you stay cool?
This post isn’t sponsored by Hydroflask in any way. We just love them. They keep ice for nearly 24 hours, and “hielo” (ee-A-low as they pronounce it in Spanish) is more or less available just about everywhere. So make it a part of your routine to stock up on ice every day, shove it in your Hydroflask(s) and be satisfied with everything from arctic cold water to making your own iced coffee every morning.
Mini-fridge or a Great Cooler
The folks at GoWesty recommended the top-opening cooler style refrigerator / freezers. We’ve seen these in action though, and if you intend to actually live in your van, as opposed to just weekending it, we call foul (Sorry GoWesty!). As they put it:
When you’re traveling (and in need of refrigeration), it is much more practical to be able to put the fridge outside.
Firstly, it’s not all that practical to put the fridge outside. Seasoned full-time vandwellers will tell you that one of the most annoying things they encounter is a need to “set up”. In an ideal world, the only setting up you need to do is to park and pop the roof up. Many of us have too much stuff though, and so young couples and families alike will tell you that there’s always a little more to it than that.
Is it as involved as setting up an RV?
You’ll likely have no sewer hoses, no water hookups to plug in and out. If you’ve got a good solar system, you don’t even have to plug your van in when you’re at a place that offers such amenities.
So, that said, do you really want to pull a cooler in and out every day? That might not sound like that big of an issue, but trust me, it will become one if you find it simply another task on the list.
To give you an idea, here’s what our setup looks like if we need to pack up and leave, and not come back to the same spot later that day:
- Pop up/down the roof.
- Put the bikes back on/off.
- Stow away the food, coffee pot, and whatever else is just sitting around that isn’t bolted down.
- Pack up anything outside, from slacklines to hammocks to camping chairs just organizing it all in the back takes a minute.
- Routine inspections on where we’re at with oil, tire pressure, or just making sure we didn’t leave anything important behind.
So that’s five steps, before I even buckle the kids in, get the route dialed in, a good song on the radio and turn the key to drive away. For a family of five who’s been at it for 8+ years, we’re pretty minimal. Imagine throwing a fridge into that list and all of the other things you may have thought you needed before embarking south of the border.
If that wasn’t enough, the reality is that living in a van is a) super tough and awesome, and b) not always super comfie and convenient. So having a normal, front opening fridge is just a simple pleasure.
For example, the major benefit (aside from being able to pull your cooler out and use it as a seat), folks who support the cooler style fridges tout is that hot air rises. So, if you open a door on the top of a cooler–as opposed to on the side of a fridge–only the hot air comes out.
Okay. Hot air rises. Efficiency and all of that. I get it.
You know what’s worse than a less-than-perfectly-efficient fridge though?
Ice melts, and warms, creating the perfect broth where the rest of the contents of your super efficient cooler fridge are just begging to create a poorman’s stew, gazpacho style.
As the ice gone water warms, everything in your “fridge” starts bathing in it. A slightly opened package of pepperoni. A broken egg. Busted beer bottles and melted butter. Add a little super brown guacamole and you’ve got yourself some stone soup!
The only thing that could make this all better, I suppose, is a poorly wrapped uncooked sausage. Man, that’s a tasty way to cancel your plans for life!
Sure, if you’re a weekender, a top loading cooler will work. Why spend $700 or more on a top loader though when the same setup can be achieved via an Engel front loader? We’ve been using one for about six months now, powered by one 100watt solar panel, and it’s been a dream. Around 3amps draw and we find it works even better if we keep the setting high vs. trying to keep it at a lower temperature so that it doesn’t use as much energy. Short blasts using more energy and creating more coolness works better than the same amount of time using less energy and creating less coolness.
Oh, and keep it well stocked. Even if you don’t have a need for a ton of food, just keep plenty of beer in there. The less empty space, the easier it is for your fridge to keep itself cold.
Speaking of ice, just so you know, all ice you buy in Mexico is made of purified water. So, no need to worry about Montezuma’s Revenge when you order a margarita or buy a bag of ice. When we said it was available anywhere, that means, “It’s available in about every town.” Not all stores will have it, but look or ask around, someone will point you to a big old white box selling hielo.
Cenotes, Rivers and the Oceans
Nearly everywhere most folks travel in Mexico is close to the beach. The water isn’t always freezing, which is usually what you want come the more humid, hotter months, but get away from the shore a little and you’ll be basking in the glorious chill of the incoming tides.
In Yucatan, cenotes are the way to go. Cenotes are ice cold pockets of water, typically underground (though not always), and aside from being nice and chill, they’re also full of cool things to look at like stalactites, bats and exotic birds.
Not by the beach? Then you’re probably in the mountains. These tend to be downright cold in the winter and still pleasant in the summer. Higher elevations, baby. Or if you’re in a town, find a hotel and ask to use their pool. Many will charge you a few pesos to hang out all day, or nothing if you eat and drink there.
The Internet and Working Online
For many of us over the age of freeloading (wink!), traveling full-time requires some type of income. If you’re one of the few who require regular access to the web, finding solid Internet access in Mexico is best done via cell phone reception.
You can buy a Telcel SIM (Telcel being the biggest Mexican cell service carrier) and get access in loads of places, including some remote beaches and just about every town and certainly every city. However, while the service is cheap, for some reason it’s not always as reliable as hooking up with T-Mobile and taking advantage of their unlimited data, calls and text even while roaming in Mexico (and a ton of other countries, including Guatemala and most of the rest of Central America, currently excluding Belize). We’ve found that roaming via T-Mobile, even on Telcel’s network, somehow gets you better download speeds than using Telcel directly.
Outside of cell service, you’d need to rely on campground, AirBNB or hotel access to WiFi. We use AirBNBs frequently, especially during the summer when AC is like gold and a nice breeze is finding sunken treasure, and typically the single home setups they offer have great WiFi. You pay a price, of course. Hotel WiFi is hit or miss, much like in the US, and comes in a distant second to AirBNBs. Campground WiFi is, almost always, terrible. When we first entered Mexico and stayed in San Felipe, we found a campground with great WiFi. It took us several months, and crossing the entire country, before we found another good campground with great WiFi outside of Cancun. Well, it was great until the groundskeeper accidentally cut the incoming line with a machete, then it took two weeks before they had it up and running again.
So if you need to work, a T-Mobile line is the way to go.
If you enjoy power…you know, to charge your cell phone or power your laptop or whatever, then you’re going to want to get setup with some type of electrical hookup.
Even in our 1978 VW Bus, we’ve got the ability to plug in when we’re at an established RV park. The amperage varies, and unlike in the US and Canada, don’t ever expect 50 or even 30 amp service. It’s usually 15 amp service and even then it can fluctuate. A surge protector of some type between your rig and wherever you’re plugging in is probably advisable, though we haven’t used one and (fingers crossed!) no problems yet.
If you want to boondock more than stay at RV parks, though, you’ll need solar power. Our friends who use a ton of energy (think three or four iPads, two or three phoens, a Macbook Pro running all day, a couple of speakers, an electric fridge, etc. and so on) had 250 watts worth of solar panels, and I believe two deep cycle batteries. They never really seemed to ever have trouble. Then again, they could charge their “house batteries” (separate from your car battery) from their alternator while driving, and also charge their phones and other devices from their dashboard (what with them having a fancy new truck and all).
On the other end of the spectrum, we can only mildly charge one phone via our dashboard, and it doesn’t charge at all if we’re also using the phone to play music and as our GPS. That’s via a 75amp alternator in a 1978 VW Bus. So, we rely half on solar and half on RV park power. If I need to work long days, we go to an RV park, especially if it’s not a blazing bluebird of a sunny, cloudless day.
To get by with no external power sources (including charging devices or your house battereis from your vehicle while driving), and if you need to say, power a fridge, one laptop a few hours a day, and charge two phones or so, you’ll probably want four deep cycle batteries and at least 200watts of incoming solar.
Better to be prepared with this stuff before you come down, because getting solar panels, chargers and other associated gear is tough, even in bigger cities. It was downright impossible in Baja when we discovered our original system wasn’t good enough.
I’m Sick of Tacos!
Seriously, it’ll happen. You can only eat fish tacos for so long before they start to smell a little fishy. While people in the US love to revel in their knowledge of how great traditional, authentic Mexican food is, one is left wondering if they’ve ever spent any serious time in this nation.
Authentic Mexican food is terrible for you. It’s often rather bland, nothing like the spicy stuff we’re used to in the US, and so many dishes are so similar, that we just found ourselves fed up after four months. Unfortunately, outside of tourist areas and big cities, this is the only food you’ll find.
So how to avoid the lack of variety? Cook for yourself. You’ll still find that the offerings at local grocery stores are different than in the US and Canada, but that’s a good thing! You’re here to discover new things, and learning how to take Mexican ingredients and turn them into perhaps something not-so-Mexican is a primo way to expand horizons without stuffing your face with fried shrimp, lard-laden beans and fish heads every day.
To cook for yourself, you’ll need a propane stove. They’re much easier to get before you leave the US, as cool camping gear just isn’t available in Mexico, outside of maybe Mexico City. So grab a great little two-burner and make sure you’re hooked up, safely, with some type of propane tank. They sell them in all sizes these days, and getting a refillable one is key…those little green Coleman canisters aren’t readily available in most of Mexico (though Walmarts, Megas and Chedrauis will sometimes have them).
You can refill nearly everywhere in Mexico, just ask a local where you can get “gas”, a term typically reserved for propane instead of gasoline here.
Boondocking vs. RV Parks
Mexico is full of privately owned RV parks. They range from expensive, resort type places right along the water to cheap dingy parking lots tucked back in the jungle, and everything in between. Expect dirty showers with only cold water, toilets without seats, and faulty electrical wiring…that way if you show up and the place is in a little better shape, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Where the country really shines though is when you’re setup and able to boondock. In Baja California, boondocking is plentiful. The same holds true along the Pacific Coast. In Central Mexico, the mountains and region surrounding Mexico City, a good, safe boondocking spot is not as easy to find, but in these areas and across the country, you’re typically allowed to stay overnight in the parking lots of Pemex (the state-run gas stations), Walmart, Chedraui and Mega. Ask first, and consult the iOverlander app frequently. Once you make it to the Yucatan Peninsula, boondocking becomes a bit harder to find simply because most of the beachfront area has been taken up by resorts.
In general, if you find a spot where you feel safe, and can ask any local person, especially a police officer, they should be able to let you know if you’re good to go or not. They may ask for a few pesos to “keep an eye on you”, and don’t be surprised if you find a place that seems like a total boondockers paradise but someone approaches you asking for money. In many cases, these people clean any services that might be available, from pit toilets to palapas to just taking out the trash.
Finally, there are more traditional, non-private RV park type campgrounds. These are typically found in National Parks, rarely have services other than bathrooms and maybe a palapa or picnic table, and cost some small amount of money. Just like in the US, they can be significantly more desirable than an RV park, with larger camping spots and a more scenic setting.
Another beautiful aspect of traveling Mexico is simply that it’s so affordable, that should you want to visit an area that doesn’t have the type of camping you want (or any camping at all), renting a hotel room or even an AirBNB can be incredibly affordable. We’ve snagged AirBNBs in the expensive, trendy Tulum for $35 / night and hotel rooms in less desirable parts of the country for around $10 / night.
Mexico is an amazing country full of genuinely good-hearted people who still know how to have a good time without blowing the budget. Some of our favorite sites are the sheer number of families who are just hanging out at the park, on any given day, kids launching themselves airborne via trampolines or riding bicycles in circles, their parents sitting around food carts on a Friday night eating tacos and drinking Frescos well into the night. In our experience, it has been quite safe, and we’ve received far more help from strangers than we’ve felt like we were in a sketchy situation. If you plan correctly, you’ll find Mexico is the ideal place to get away from the US/Canadian style of culture and see something new, while maybe even saving a little money along the way.