This weekend was the first weekend in a while that I did not have anything going on. My MBA class concluded and I wasn't on call like last weekend. I decided I wanted to make another trip to Mexico and check things out. This time I chose Nuevo Laredo since I can just hop I35 from Austin and take it all the way down to its end in Laredo, TX. Since Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are referred to as “Los Dos Laredos” and are sister cities, each influences each other's' cultures. I wanted to see the American influence on the Mexican side. I could then compare the difference between, say, a McDonalds in the United States versus one in Mexico.
We all have heard about the violence in Mexico due to the drug wars. The violence peaked in 2010, and has been going down ever since. The problem, I find, is the media likes to blow things out of proportion and use past perceptions to further their sensationalism. They will keep reporting as if the violence is increasing and use the perception gained when it peaked in 2010. It's kind of like a trip I took to New York City a couple years ago. When I told my parents I was in Central Park, they were concerned thinking Central Park was that of the 70's and 80's, when it actually was really bad.
The fact is, Central Park is way safer now and, I'm my opinion, a pretty nice place. With the NYC example, it's clear old perceptions die hard and are still prevalent 30+ years later, even though the situation has changed. The media knows this and propagates their sensationalism based on this. I can, and most likely will, touch more on this topic in future blog entries. The BS the media puts out is one of the big reasons I travel. I actually want to see things for myself and not take what the media has to feed the gullible masses.
In a lot of places, it's statistically safer in Mexico than it is in a major U.S. city. The problem is the media can't conveniently tell people not go to Houston, Chicago, or any other U.S. city the way they can say, “Don't go to Mexico.” With that being said, there are inherently still risks involved. It's no different than going to a major city. You need to make sure you are aware of your surroundings and don't flash any signs of wealth that make yourself a target.
For me, I made sure to update my GPS unit. I've had way too many technology fails with a smartphone and Google Maps to rely on it to get around in Mexico. I spent $45 and purchased the Mexican maps for my Garmin. I also just wore a plain old t-shirt. Obviously my IT work-related induced pale skin would stand out, but I wore plain clothes that wouldn't exactly put me under the profile of wealthy. I also cleaned out my car and made sure I took everything out I didn't need so there were less valuables in it. The cars are definitely more beat up there, but my car would fit in being older and having a little rust on it from the Wisconsin winters. I basically did everything to keep myself from being a target, and as you will read below, this trip went completely incident free.
Saturday morning, I hit the road at 5am. It was a 3.5 hour drive from Austin to the border in Laredo. Of course, the weather didn't play nice and it was raining very hard and hailing a bit when I hit San Antonio. Once I went a little further south, I found the weather had cleared up. It was still hot and humid, but now since my AC works, that wasn't something that I really had to worry about.
On my way down, I saw a lot of oil trucks and a ton of new wells and oil activity.
Unlike Canada, where US liability polices carry over, this is not the case in Mexico. I currently have Progressive and they will cover damage or theft to the vehicle if it happens within the Frontera area of Mexico (where I was going), but their liability policy won't carry over. There are many places at the border, often adjoined to gas stations, that offer day liability policies. I stopped by Johnson's Mexico Insurance to pick up a day policy for my car. As you can tell by the windows, it was very humid.
Inside I provided my information and everything they needed.
I got a day policy for around $35. The whole process took about 5 or so minutes and I was issued my packet with all the insurance information.
I then fueled up and set my GPS to the Nuevo Laredo H-E-B. I waited in line to go across the bridge. One interesting thing I've never experienced is the U.S. border guys were checking people as they left the country. Of course, I got pulled into secondary and had to park my car in an area and sit on a bench away from the car. It only looks like they walked around with a dog and maybe looked inside my car and the other few cars that were parked in that area as they walked by. After about 5-10 minutes, they said we could go. I found it odd that I was being checked by U.S. border agents as I was leaving the U.S. When I made it to the Mexican side, I just got the green light and wasn't checked at all by the Mexican border agents.
The roads in Mexico are definitely narrower and aren't well marked. The left turn lanes are especially narrow and barely fit 1 car. It feels like you're hanging out halfway into the lane and someone is going to run into the back of you. People also drive way faster and crazier than in the US. I can definitely see why insurance is required.
Another interesting discovery I found is they put stop signs by their stop lights. The first time I saw this, I slammed on my brakes at a green light, thinking I was about to blow through a stop sign.
One thing that is definitely noticeable in houses are burglar bars and fences. As an American, it's easy to think that these equal a bad neighborhood since that's really the only places you see this. In Mexico, there is a lot of influence from 100's of years of Spanish architecture, so having this is a part of how they build houses there. Security is definitely an added benefit of these and is probably a part of the decision to build a house this equipment, but security isn't 100% of the equation like it is when this equipment is put up in the United States.
Finally, after dodging traffic I could see H-E-B was in sight.
The H-E-B looked like the ones in Texas.
One thing I noticed that was different from the ones in Texas was, in addition to having handicapped spots, they also had a bunch of spots for pregnant women.
I knew there'd be an ATM in the store and I could get some local currency. I first asked a security guard there where the ATM was. He pointed me to the deli. Now looking on the internet I should have said, “cajero automático.” I then walked around a little bit more and, at a different part of the store, asked another security guard. This time I said, “ATM dinero.” He pointed me over to the ATM machines so I was happy my rudimentary Spanish got me what I needed.
Some of the ATM also had English subtitles so I was able to use it easily. I got a 500 peso bill (about $33 American). Right now the conversion rate is about 15 pesos to a dollar.
It was definitely interesting seeing prices of stuff like a can of corn at 100 pesos. I just kept dividing the prices by 15 and realized some stuff was pretty cheap overall, especially the liquor. As you can see by the picture, most of those bottles can be had for around $10 American.
Since I already have a bottle of Mexican tequila and 2 bottles of Mexican rum from my last trip, I opted for some Mexican brandy.
One big difference I noticed was there was a tortilla section in this H-E-B. Obviously this is like the bread section in the U.S. H-E-B.
A big difference between a U.S. and Mexican H-E-B is the assortment of what is considered homemade salsa. To the left is the Mexican-based H-E-B and to the right is the American-based H-E-B up the road from my apartment. The Mexican salsas are awesome!
I then found and bought a bag of Rancheritos. These aren't available at the American H-E-B. They are really good and it's basically like taking both nacho cheese and ranch Doritos and combining them.
My next stop was McDonalds. I had to drive around the block several times to finally get in the parking lot because of the way the entrance was setup. While waiting in traffic, I saw a typical Mexican auto repair shop.
Finally after circling the block to get into the parking lot where there were free stalls, I made it to McDonalds.
Since I had been on the road since 5am, I thought it was later than it really was. They were still serving breakfast. One immediate difference is Mexican McDonalds don't have a numbering system for their meals. You order the sandwich you want and then add a combo. Below is a comparison of the Mexican and U.S. McDonald's breakfast menus.
The cashier obviously only spoke Spanish so ordering was going be interesting. I said, “McMuffin Mexicana combo meal.” The cashier started asking me some other questions in Spanish. When she asked about the drink, I could hear coffee, so I shook my head and pointed to the soda fountain. That was acceptable enough to get a soda instead of a coffee. She could tell I didn't speak Spanish but then when she asked, “Here or to go,” she said here in Spanish and started to point down. I said, “si” and then she told me the total. It was 47 pesos or $3.13 American. A #1 McMuffin meal at a U.S. McDonalds, the cost is $5.61.
One noticeable difference was the service was a lot slower. This appears to be attributed to they actually still use a grill don't nuke premade stuff. It does seem like you get a lot more for your money as shown in the comparisons below. They also use real bacon versus a precut ham slice. The hashbrown also is bigger.
While the actual meal is heartier in Mexico, there is a difference in the amount your soda cup can hold.
When it comes to soda selection, the US wins hands down.
The one thing I like about the Mexican McDonalds was the condiment selection. I really wish they'd bring over the jalapeno sauce and jalapenos for breakfast in the U.S.
The U.S. just has ketchup and a few other things like picante sauce but it has to be specifically requested and isn't usually just at the counter.
At McDonalds, I must have been close enough to the border it picked up the American towers and my phone said I had a voicemail. I listened to it and found out my brother had come down with appendicitis and was having an emergency appendectomy. I then headed back up to Austin to be with him and make sure everything was alright.
On the way back, I could see there was a long line of people waiting to come into the United States.
Crossing wasn't too bad. The border agent asked me a few questions and let me go on my way. I pulled up to the TABC booth to pay the tax on my liquor and then BS'd with them for a few minutes, as I had previously worked on the phone helping them with their computer issues. After crossing I saw an interesting site. Of course, I wasn't expecting to see this guy this close to the border but I wanted to yell (I didn't), “The Bears still suck.”
I made it back to Austin in time to be there when they wheeled my brother into his hospital room. I had my appendix out 15 years ago when I was 11 so I know it's not any fun. After visiting a while, I went home and went to bed pretty early. I was definitely tired from all the driving and got a good night's rest.
This trip was pretty cool overall. I found that Nuevo Laredo was not even as close to as sketchy as I thought it would be. Overall the only time I felt unsafe was driving since the roads suck and people drive like crazy. Other than that, I never felt unsafe and it was cool comparing the Mexican flavor of American companies. I'll definitely be up to more road trips in the future to Mexico.