The Journey Begins to Lake Chapala Ajijic, Mexico

November 18, 2009

Have you ever been lost in a foreign country and not been able to speak the language?  Sound frightening?  Join us on our journey to Chapala/Ajijic, Mexico and see for yourself.

The first time we got lost was when we crossed the border at Piedras Negras, Mexico just on the other side of Eagle Pass, Texas.  We found the bridge that spanned the two countries—America and Mexico—no problem.  We waited in line to pull through the toll booth where we paid $85.00 pesos to enter the country. 


“We made it!” we beamed to each other.  Next stop, the customs station where you get your VISA, car registration and necessary documentation to be a legal visitor to Mexico.

We drove through the toll booth and chose the lane marked Nothing to Declare as we thought we would declare the tobacco, two bottles of alcohol and meds when we went through customs and this stop was only for those coming into Mexico for the day.  We drove into the city expecting to see the customs station not far beyond the port of entry.  We just kept going and going and going with no sign of an official customs building.

We were now out in the middle of nowhere and the only sign of humanity we saw was a factory of some kind we passed several miles out of the city where Mexican workers were lounging around waiting for the bus to take them back to PN.  The sun was fading and it was getting later and later and later.

We’d been warned about driving in Mexico after dark in every book and website we’d read, so we decided that we’d better turn around  and go back to Eagle Pass, find a room, and call it a day.  The disappointment we felt at not being on the other side of the border was s appeased by a comfortable room where our doggie was welcomed and we had a wonderful meal in the restaurant next to the hotel.

The next morning, we repeated yesterday’s routine; we crossed the bridge and paid our toll fee. Yeah! We were on our way again!  This time, we thought perhaps we should take the lane where you declare what you’re taking into Mexico. A uniformed officer waved us to pull into a lane for inspection of our van.  Feeling confident that I had all our paperwork in perfect order, efficiently stored in a file box, I was prepared for anything, or so I thought.

My files were well-organized and filed neatly into categories, i.e., the Health section contained folders labeled Doctor’s Health Statements (letters from our doctors stating we were in good health and had no communicable diseases), the RX file which held prescriptions for all the meds we were taking into the country and another file  was for our dog, Bitzy.


Bitzy had to have a statement of good heath, too, as well as a record of her vaccinations.  But we weren’t asked to produce any of the documentation in my painstakingly organized file box.  The only thing the inspector found to be of interest was the loose tobacco that my husband brought with him from the states. Even after my husband showed the inspector the cigarette roller and papers for rolling his own cigarettes, he wanted to see inside the roof top carrier on top of our van.  With only a quick look inside, the inspector apparently determined we were not smugglers and gave us approval to proceed. Fortunately, he could speak some English and was able to answer our most pressing question:  Where is the customs station? “35 kilometers,” he answered.  We had to get out our calculator to figure out that was 22 miles.

No wonder we didn’t find it yesterday!  We were looking for it far before we left the city limits—wherever that was. And that information wasn’t in any of the books we’d read. We learned later that this stretch of highway is referred to as “No Man’s Land.” You’re driving down a highway in Mexico, but you’re still not legal.

Our well-thought out plan for the first day in Mexico was to drive to Saltillo, which was 257 miles from Piedras Negras, find a room and spend the night. Easy, right?  WRONG!  We arrived in Saltillo at 5 pm and drove right into rush hour traffic. Cars, busses, trucks, taxis, and scooters flew past us at breakneck speed as we carefully made our way through the wild and crazy traffic looking for a place to spend the night.

Once again, we played like we were the “Energizer Bunny” and just kept going and going and going. And, once again, it was getting later and later and later.  With the city now behind us, I was starting to feel a little frantic.  “We have to go back,” I said to my husband.  We began to look for a place to turn around and then it appeared—a sign that said Hotel with an arrow pointing straight ahead.  No distance was given.  And to add to our relief, beside that sign was another sign with no words—just the universal sign that indicated there was also food ahead.  Hot dog—or, in this case, Hot tamale!  Our sinking hearts recovered as we headed toward our unknown destination.

I kept my eyes peeled for another sign that would direct us to the “Promised Land”while my husband drove down Highway 15 into the fading daylight.  “There it is!” I exclaimed as I spotted a nondescript, hand-painted sign up high with that the same reassuring word, Hotel. With hope in our hearts, we felt certain we were close. Ever vigilantly, I strained to see the hotel with no name in the little daylight that remained, but to no avail.

We drove on; still we saw no hotel.  “Look, another sign!” This time there was an arrow below the word Hotel pointing left.  At the next intersection, we turned left fully expecting the hotel to appear right before our tired eyes.  Instead, we saw construction.  “So, this is it?” I asked as my heart sank, “an unfinished hotel?” But wait—there’s another sign—Hotel with an arrow pointing straight ahead. “Straight ahead?”

But straight ahead all we saw was concrete blocks and cement. Nevertheless, we took the narrow road that curved past the construction and there— hidden behind the construction—was a beautiful Mediterranean-style hotel.  We thought we’d died and gone to heaven!

The next challenge was to inquire about the availability of a room, which I felt sure needed to be in Spanish. Using my Spanish dictionary, I had prepared a list of questions I thought were necessary to get us a room for one night and had rehearsed them repeatedly.  I was ready to get down on my hands and knees and beg if I had to.

We saw the sign saying Oficna, parked the van, stepped out into a lovely evening and then into an exquisitely appointed reception room.  No one was there.  But that’s another story—and you’ll read about it in the next article in Living the Dream here at

P.S. Stay tuned as this is just the first episode of our Journey of Discovery..

  • Patricia Endicott Greco

    I throughly enjoyed reading this article by Donna Lawler…
    It reminded me of my journey back down to the Chapala area the second time to bring more of my belongings…
    I however made the 2,000 plus miles from my home State of Washington solo…I drove only in the daylight and when I couldn’t find a hotel room I pulled into a Pemex station, asked politely if I could spend the night there in my car, and was rewarded with a smile and a Si, Senora…
    I have been living the expat life here in Mexico for a little over 3 yrs now and can’t imagine ever living anywhere else….
    I have found “my piece of Paradise” here in Mexico…
    I hope the same for the Lawlers and anyone else who decides
    Mexico is home for them….
    Patti thecrazychef Somewhere in Mx.

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Patti, Somewhere in Mexico.

    Have you heard the Tall Boys Song, “Somewhere in Mexico”. They play regularly at La Tasca Restaurant/Bar and hey have a small dance floor too.

    I’ll pass along your comments to Donna. I know she’ll be pleased you enjoyed her article.

    All for now, Sid

  • Deanne Barber

    Donna Lawler’s article was excellent and I look forward to chapter two. She has a delightful sense of humor. We have done the trip twice and decided next time to leave the car at our new home in Chapala and fly back and forth.

  • http://VideosofChapala Betty Wheeler

    I have been waiting for Donna to start writing her articles. Well I haven’t been disappointed. I am looking forward to the nest installment. When contemplating a possible move to Chapala I have tried to envision just how it will be done. Of course it all depends on when and where I will be going. Every time I read someones adventures my mind goes in a tail spin. But I know that when and if that time ever comes I will be well informed. Thanks for a great start Donna.

    Longing to be there.

  • Janis Lee

    Loved these stories, sense I’m alone and from Seattle I feel even more afraid to try to make that ride, from hell, so I cannot wait until next month, and you give us the way you survived, this hotel ordeal, WoW someone could make some money to pick us up at the boarder and drive our cars to Lake Chapala, I always did what ever I wanted to but some how I’m afraid, of really getting lost, because I have my dogs so I have to drive.So I look so forward to these made it to Mexico driving stories, keep them coming. Aloha & Mahalo Janis Lee Maui, Hawaii

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Janis,

    Thanks for your comments as always. When I can work it into my schedule I do help people drive here from the border or even from the USA or Canada. Contact me when you’re ready by e mail and we’ll work something out.

    I’ve brought in a total of 10 dogs and about half that number of cats. I’ve made the trip with clients from Laredo, Oregon, California, Nevada and Texas.

    So no need to worry about getting you, your car, your pets and your stuff here. I can almost always help. But, we have to do some careful planning before we begin so things go well.

    You can do it, but if you’d rather not then e mail me.

    Siempre tu amigo, Sid

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Betty, There’s more to come from Donna, so stay tuned. I’ll pass along your nice comments to her.

    Please also take a look at Janis Lee’s comment above and my response to her about dring to Lake Chapala.

    Thanks again, Siempre tu amigo, Sid

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Deanne,
    I had hoped to introduce you to Deanne, but she’s visiting the USA now. BUt she left me some other articles to publish
    for her so look forward to hearing more from her. Siempre tu amigo, Sid

  • Sunny

    Hola! I just found this site while casting about for information on Lake Chapala. I enjoyed reading about Donna’s driving experience. I’m visiting Chapala in a couple weeks (by air)to test the waters so to speak, and look at real estate. Since I have two cats, a long drive from Calif. may be on the horizon, or perhaps bringing them in by air may be the wiser choice.

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Again Sunny, Well, it’s nice to have a car here. I’ve only helped one lady to drive here who brought her cat along. It was well behaved and no problem at all.

    I’ve also had several clients who brought a cat with them in a carry on container placed below the seat on the airplane and this worked well too.

    Looking forward to your visit and helping you get the lay of the land so to speak. Sid

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