Atop the mountains in the Sonoran Desert overlooking Kino Bay.
Under the casita's palapa in Kino Bay, Mexico.
The camino less traveled
—Ty Belknap, Signpost
If six thousand drug murders and all the anti-immigrant xenophobia weren’t enough, my son’s request for a warmer sleeping bag was the last straw. I told him that there was no way I’d drive two days to spend Thanksgiving on a cold beach in Mexico.
His loyal mom, however, had other ideas. There was no way we were going to change our plan. Evan said that it wasn’t that cold—he was still swimming every day in between his Prescott College classes at the Kino Bay station. He said that we should pass through Nogales as quickly as possible though, because of the recent drug war beheadings.
Strap the sailboard to the roof rack, pack for car camping, and head south down I-25. I’ve done my share of traveling south of the border and have had some fine adventures, but I’m no expert. It took about eight hours to reach Nogales, Arizona, where we spent the night at the border, having been advised to get an early start. Driving after dark in Mexico is still discouraged.
It’s a shock to be suddenly driving in a foreign country, but from our recollections of a trip to Kino ten years ago, it seemed that Mexican authorities are making things easier for tourists. We don’t speak much Spanish, and it didn’t help that we’d forgotten the dictionary. Drivers can now take the truck bypass to avoid Nogales, Mexico, completely, which is sad because it used to be a good place to shop, eat, and drink. We drove past the commercial checkpoint and crested a steep hill with a distant view of downtown. There’s a caseta de cobros (tollbooth) that charges thirty-nine pesos. (They took our three dollars.) A little further along, the authorities waved us through a second checkpoint.
The bypass merged with Highway 15 and after about eleven kilometers, we stopped at the Solo Sonora checkpoint to get our mandatory tourist permits. The authorities told us to stop at a bank to pay for the permits. Mexican car insurance can also be bought here for about one-hundred-and-fifty dollars, but we had gotten ours a little cheaper in Albuquerque before we left. The state of Sonora is now a “Free Zone,” so we were spared the cost of a vehicle permit and all the window decals that are required for traveling further into Mexico.
Highway 15 to Hermosillo is a pretty good four-lane road. Signs declare it a “Hassle-Free Zone”—whatever that means. The fastest posted speed limit is velocidad maxima 100 kilometros—about sixty-two miles per hour, but most cars passed us going at least eighty. There were few traffic cops, and we were waved through a couple of checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers and armored personnel carriers. We learned the hard way to pay attention to signs in populated areas warning drivers of topes—axle-busting speed bumps.
It took about four hours to cover the two-hundred odd kilometers to Hermosillo, where we were charged nine dollars at another toll booth. We stopped at BanoMex in the heart of town to pay about twenty dollars each for our tourist permits. You don’t have to pay if you stay for less than seven days, and some people don’t pay at all. (Upon leaving Mexico, we drove past an empty booth where apparently they check, sometimes.) The BanoMex also had an ATM that distributed pesos at the going exchange rate.
It took another hour to find our way through the sprawling Hermosillo, where it seemed that road signs advised of a turn after the fact, but finally we found a good straight highway for the final ninety kilometers to our destination.
Having made arrangements through a friend of a friend to rent a casita on the beach in “Kino Nuevo” which is heavily populated by “gringos,” we first had to take dirt roads into “Old Kino,” as instructed, to find the home of caretakers Gregorio and Alma. Despite the language barrier, they led us to the casita, opened the hurricane shutters, turned on the gas, gave us the keys, and agreed to bring a karaoke machine to our fiesta on the coming Saturday night.
We picked up our son at Prescott College during the heaviest downpour anybody in town could remember. Average rainfall in the Sonoran desert is five inches per year. Evan was happy to forego his open air sleeping quarters at the school in favor of the dry couch in our casita, where the power flickered off and on throughout the evening. During that week, we ate turkey, we sailed, kayaked, snorkeled, and had a fine fiesta complete with alternating karaoke singing and acoustic bluegrass jamming. We also took the college ponga (sturdy outboard fishing boat) tour of the islands twelve miles offshore, which were teeming with migratory birds and sea lions. The professor apologized for the day’s absence of whales and dolphins.
We met a number of retired Americans who live in Kino comfortably and inexpensively for most of the year. It is said to be a very social place with parties nearly every night. Albuquerque ex-patriots Perry and Carolyn have two rentals at their beautiful beachfront home, and their website www.wilkeskinsman.typepad.com contains a wealth of information about Kino Bay and how to get there.
We spent Friday evening at the city park in Old Kino, eating tacos and watching Evan play soccer. He was the only gringo in the entire league, but even though they take their soccer seriously, it didn’t seem to bother anybody—especially when he scored a GOOOOOOAL. The park was filled with locals on their bikes, skateboards, and in the backs of pickup trucks. A loudspeaker blared from an empty carnival nearby. Times are hard, but it still felt like the same old Mexico.
Maybe we were just lucky to not run into any problems or maybe things aren’t as bad as they say. Like anywhere else, it’s just a matter of not being in the wrong places at the wrong times and staying out of the crossfire. Friends traveling at the same time, further south in the state of Sinaloa, told us later that their experience was not always so positive. They were potentially kidnapped outside of a bar in Guadalajara. Federales swarmed their RV park one night. Sharks at their favorite beach were reportedly developing a taste for surfers because of the drug war victims disposed of at sea.
After Kino, we drove a few hours south on a back road full of potholes and free-range cattle. In San Carlos, we met a real estate agent named Oscar outside of an overpriced hotel and ended up renting half of his family duplex for a couple of days. His kids guided us down a cobblestone street to the beach while he kicked his brother-in-law out and cleaned the apartment. Oscar said that the once-ballooning real estate market in San Carlos had suffered lately, partly due to drug-related violence. He guessed that the violence would continue as long as the drugs remained illegal.
Outside of town, American RVs were parked for free on a deserted beach surrounded by half-built high-rise condominiums. It looked tempting, but, still a bit paranoid and suffering from a slight case of gastrointestinal distress (Montezuma’s revenge), we decided not to camp there, and instead cut our vacation short by a few days.
With passports in hand, exiting Mexico was as easy as the entry. At the border, we distributed our leftover pesos and trail mix to desperate-looking twelve-year-old window washers, customs agents gave our car a quick once over and confiscated our embargoed produce, and we were readmitted to the USA.