February 04, 2010

In a Mexican Limbo, Miles from Nowhere

An alternate title for this entry might be:
Broken Down in Purgatory, Mexico

Leaving San Cristobal early on Sunday morning, we had high hopes making it most of the way to Merida, which was some 450 miles north east. The hardest part of the journey would be the first 130 miles over narrow, winding roads through the mountains of Chiapas. Near the end of that 130 miles is Palenque, where we thought of stopping. That first leg took four hours to traverse. The rain discouraged our stopping. Just north of Palenque is Mexican 186. We stopped near there for lunch, then proceeded northeast. The road was straight and in good condition. We were making very good time now passing by the road to Emiliano Zapata, and then then into the state of Tabasco. After lunch we had gone about 40 miles when the bottom fell out at kilometer marker 169.

Outside Wall of Chilango
 Outside Wall of Chilango
Shop Yard of Chilango
Shop Yard of Chilango
Porfirio and His Crew
Porfirio and His Chilango Crew
Passat Front-End in Storage
Shop Yard of Chilango

One of the worst possible travel situations befell us at that moment. The motor on our 1998 Passat just stopped - no power, no go. We immediately got a car to stop and take the message of our breakdown to our Mexican car insurance company, which supposedly provides road assistance everywhere in Mexico. Foolishly, we waited a little over one hour for help, which never came. Finally, I had to act. It was 3 PM and there would only be light for another two hours or so. A very kind Mexican family took pity on us and drove me 15 miles to the little pueblo of Chable. I tried dealing with the insurance company from a pay-phone on the street. They were impossible. And after 45 minutes they finally let me know that there was not much that they could or would do for me. Should I get a tow they would pay for it, but I had to solve the problem myself. So, how do you get a tow-truck in a little town in Mexico on a Sunday? The answer is with great difficulty. The nice, old Mexican couple had not abandoned me. In very broken Spanish, I explained my problem to them. I suggested that a local mechanic might know where to find a tow. They drove no more that a hundred yards when they spotted a mechanic who did have an idea of where to find a tow. So we took off down the highway, over the Rio Usumacinta again with the 20 peso toll and another five miles almost back to the turnoff to Emiliano Zapata. Here was a small Federal Police Station and our eventual salvation of sorts. It was here that I said farewell to the Mexican couple. I wish to thank them with deep sincerity. They were a life saver. So, thanks to you Candelaria and Rosemberg Trujillo Martines for your great assistance in our hour of need.

The desk sergeant, Armando Gonzalez Lopez, was also kind. He called for a less expensive tow-truck in Emiliano Zapata and arranged for a shop to repair the vehicle. We waited a half-hour for the truck to arrive. It was a flat-bed tow truck with a driver and a helper. We drove the twenty odd miles to our car, back over the river and through the border check point. I had been gone three hours. Betty had been brave and stayed with the car. There was still light and they quickly secured the Passat. Then back again through the border check point and over the river again. Then we turned off to Emiliano Zapata and covered ten more miles again passing through yet another check point and the river again. The mechanics came out on a Sunday night to put our car in their yard. I paid the tow-truck. The price was 1600 pesos or about $130 USD. The mechanics brought us to a hotel. Damn, the hotels are expensive here, 705 peso the first night. We and the mechanic had hoped that Betty and I would be on our way by noon the next day. Noon came and went. The shop owner and mechanic Porfirio came to the hotel at about one PM. He gave us the bad news that he was having trouble finding a part, but he hoped that it would come later in the day or tomorrow. We hoped so, too. I asked him to bring us to another hotel. Not only was this expensive, but the desk clerk was not authorized to make phone calls, which had made it a hassle to call Porfirio Rosales Salgado, the owerner and chief mechanic. The new hotel was fine and the cost was more reasonable at 495 pesos per night.

We checked out on Tuesday and waited for Porfirio. He arrived with his two translators, who spoke English like I speak Spanish. Again he brought very bad news, the part was nowhere to be found, save in Mexico City. It seems that our Passat motor is virtually unknown in Mexico. The motor is a four-cylinder, five-valve turbo engine. He gave us a worst case scenario the the car would be ready on Friday. Yes, Betty and I were extremely bummed out. But what could we do?

We explored the town a bit. There is nothing to do. Are we in hell? Not quite, but being here is a kind of limbo we would wish on no one. They say this is a farm town of 30 thousand people. Where they are is hard to say.

We checked back on Wednesday, walking to his shop - Chilango. Still, no part and trying to pin him down on when that part would come in was impossible. Evidently they have never heard of overnight air delivery. And Porfirio had no concept of a tracking number. So, where is the part? He does not know.

Today, Thursday, we checked again, late in the afternoon. Porfirio was not at the shop, because he had gone to pickup the part. If the right part came in, he should be able to finish tomorrow. Let us hope that Friday is our lucky day this week. If so, our stay in purgatory will be over.

Posted by bill at February 4, 2010 04:53 PM

Bill! That's crazy.

I would hope at least there'd be a little local fare or something to brighten your stay. But, being a stranger in a strange land with no spare parts does not sound like a wonderful time. For future drives through the area, what sort of car would be best? Do the "domestic" GM brands have better availability for parts over there?

Be safe, guys--you're not missing much in the Twin Cities either.

Posted by: Alex at February 4, 2010 05:49 PM

I see the movie. American couple stranded in a Mexican farm town, far, far, from their vacation destination. While they sleep, a stranger drives into the village. The moon is full. Somewhere a dog barks...

Posted by: MIckie Turk at February 4, 2010 11:11 PM

What a drag! Hopefully you can get a replacement car & the rental company will get that vehicle!

Posted by: Margie Sanroman at February 5, 2010 08:25 AM

It would have been fun without car, schedule and hurry :)

Posted by: Päivi & Santeri at February 5, 2010 09:14 AM

What foul luck! Too bad the old Passat didn't break down outside of Palenque! I'm still way envious of you guys, hope the rest of your trip is smooth sailing.

Posted by: Greg Speltz at February 7, 2010 11:58 AM