Vanlife Hack: Stay in Mexico’s Auto Hotels

Photo credit: Barbara Eckstein
Photo credit: Barbara Eckstein

The term “auto hotel” sounds perfectly innocent, and it kind of is. Sort of. For those of us who live in vans at least.

Every van lifer craves a hot shower, comfortable bed and cable TV, even if it’s in a foreign language, every once in a while. But it’s not always easy to find comfortable, safe, affordable accommodations on a moment’s notice — in Mexico — without GPS. That is, unless you’re willing to stay in an auto hotel.


What Is an Auto Hotel?


Auto hotels, also known as “love hotels,” are Mexico’s pay-per-hour highway hotels. Don’t hate on the Mexicans. They exist in most Central American countries, Korea, Japan and parts of the United States and Canada too.

These roadside establishments are typically used by people in search of a discrete place to get intimate. In many Latin American countries, young people live in tight quarters with their parents and grandparents. These are the places they go to have some time alone. Other instances are a bit less romantic, as some guests are at the hotel to keep their relationships confidential.


Sometimes you just don’t feel like cooking on a cardboard box.

Why Would Anyone Ever Stay There?


To van lifers, these hotels are less about the room service condoms, mirror placement and peculiar furniture. They’re about the relaxed pet policies, free Wi-Fi, cable TV and high-quality bedding. After burying your own poop in the sand and killing scorpions with flip flops, van lifers aren’t typically too concerned about who slept in a bed before them. Plus, the spotless room and waterproof mattress pad have a way of putting a weary traveler’s mind at ease.

This isn’t a blog post for vacationers spending a week in Acapulco. It’s for the road warriors, traveling throughout Mexico with everything they own in their home on wheels, including furry friends (who actually own us). Every auto hotel we’ve visited has included secure garage parking, an extensive room service menu (including steaks AND sexy lingerie), cable TV, a comfortable bed (not typical of most budget hotels in Mexico) and miniature shampoo bottles. How lavish!

Best of all, most auto hotels are located in or around large towns and cities, offering a secure place to call home, whether you’re planning to grab some tortas and pig out or do a little sightseeing. We use them as pet-friendly places to rinse, rest and plan the next leg of the trip.


Everyone needs to stretch their legs every once in a while.
Everyone needs to stretch their legs every once in a while.


Ready to pull over in La Paz or Zacatecas and sleep one night without waking up to the sounds of roosters and barking dogs?


The process of renting a room in an auto hotel goes like this.


  • Pull up to the drive-thru style window at the entrance of the fortress/casino-looking hotel.
  • Tell them which type of room you’d like and how long you’d like to stay (a full 12 or 24 hours for most van travelers).
  • Make your payment, without having to provide a name or credit card.
  • Drive to the entrance of your room, open the garage door, close it behind you and check out the bizarre amenities — one free condom upon arrival!
  • Don’t think about what’s been done on that funky chair and sleep soundly.


Groovy or gross? Let us know! We’re going to keep using them either way.


5 Things I Learned While Traveling Baja in a Van


Sweltering summer days in North Carolina have me thinking nonstop about sweltering winter days in the van — and how I can’t wait for more.

We prepared to hit the road in our 1986 GMC Vandura for months before we finally found ourselves on 1-40 West out of Wilmington in January. We’d shopped for everything from drill bits to a three-month-long supply of toothpaste, and we were prepared. Although, I don’t think either of us knew just how epic the experience of driving from Wilmington, N.C., to Cabo San Lucas would be.

A few years prior, we’d packed my 2002 Mercury Mountaineer with clothes, surfboards and our black lab Ellie and peeled out of town in the same direction. However, we stuck mostly to mainland Mexico and spent little time in dry, dusty, parts-of-the-road-missing Baja. This time we were ready for “vanlife,” and all of the life lessons it had to offer. The following are five things we learned on the journey that I hope I’ll never forget.

1. Don’t Make PLans


So much of traveling involves planning, especially if there’s a plane ticket involved. That’s one of the major reasons why I love camping and being mobile. Every time we stumbled across something we wanted to see or do, we did it.  That’s how we ended up in Texas doing backflips into one of the world’s largest spring-fed pools (Balmorhea State Park, affectionately known to us as “Balls Maria”), eating perfectly-fried fish tacos in Guerrero Negro and surfing the peeling waves of one dusty, boring-as-hell town for weeks at a time. Without obligations you can do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

2. Don’t Listen to Everyone


Jeff and I have a knack for loving places that everyone else hates. The number of people who recommended that we go to Cerritos, one of Baja Sur’s most famous surf spots, was astronomical. We rented an Airbnb home near the beach for roughly $30 per night (it was too hot in the van for the pups) and ended up driving 45 minutes north to surf every day, because in our opinion, the shifty, reforming beach break sucked.

The same thing happened in San Jose del Cabo. We arrived at what everyone called the, “quieter, more authentic side of Cabo San Lucas.” People warned us that we’d hate Cabo for its hawkers and tequila-pouring, whistle-blowing waitresses. Sure, San Jose del Cabo was quieter, but its perfectly clean streets had been wiped of dirt and character too. We walked for hours passed French cafes and American-owned breweries in search of a place to find cheap tacos — in Mexico.

In our opinion, at least Cabo San Lucas wasn’t trying to fake anything. We took our eyes off the surf for a day, weasled our way into a resort and swam up to the bar — exactly what we wanted out of “Cabo.”

3. Do What’s Best for You


A van trip through Baja doesn’t sound as badass if you spend half your time in Airbnb casitas. However, in certain places, like Cerritos, Cabo San Lucas and our undisclosed favorite place on the peninsula, the temperatures were still too hot in January, February and March to leave our mutts in the van while we surfed in the cool 70-degree water. This meant we had to shell out a few extra bucks for casitas to keep them cool. I never really minded, because casitas have toilets, showers and refrigerators.

4. Worry Less


It’s important to be prepared. We slept with a machete nearby, and Ellie’s eardrum-shattering bark was another weapon. But we never even thought of using our machete for anything other than smashing open a coconut. Southern Baja is one of the safest parts of Mexico, and we never once felt threatened, even when camping alone on deserted beaches with our doors cracked for extra airflow. We felt drastically less safe sleeping at rest areas in America than we did on Mexico’s beaches, and once the worries driven into us by the media washed away, we slept a lot more soundly.

5. Don’t Try to See It All


The more you travel throughout Baja and meet the community of traveling surfers with the same goals as you, the more you feel like you need to surf all of the spots they’re talking about — and trust me, there are a lot.

Although, moving from one destination to the next, finding a campsite, setting up camp and packing it all up again take a lot of time. Travel days are days you’re not in the water, and it often pays to stay in one place for an extended amount of time — especially if it’s pumping. Our favorite days were the ones when we didn’t have to worry about our next move, and we ended up surfing two or three times a day. The days when water was pouring out of our noses when sitting on the toilet, and we needed to help each other stand up. The days when we ate Zucaritas (frosted flakes) in bed, because we were too tired to boil water. Those are the days we live for.

The Best Guide to Surfboard Airline Fees for 2016

There are plenty of ways to get pumped for your upcoming surf trip. Grab a six pack of Tecates and Google pictures of the wave you’ll be surfing, create a Facebook post about how excited you are, or pack your boards carefully into your board bag, but whatever you do, don’t look up how much it’s going to cost to check that bag to your final destination. Continue reading “The Best Guide to Surfboard Airline Fees for 2016”

5 Tips for an Unforgettable Sri Lanka Surf Trip


Sri Lanka doesn’t have the best waves in the world. And although I’m a believer in quality over quantity, the number of breaks you can reach in a 30-minute motorbike ride is one of Sri Lanka’s most alluring traits. That’s without considering the affordable surf-front accommodations, tasty after-surf tea and the ridiculously delicious flatbreads (which may be the only decent thing you find to eat in some places). Continue reading “5 Tips for an Unforgettable Sri Lanka Surf Trip”

7 Reasons I Can’t Stop Thinking About Indonesia

Maybe it’s because I caught some of the best waves of my life, or maybe it’s because I still have a scar from ringworm on my leg, but I can’t stop thinking about Indonesia. It has been roughly six weeks since I left Indo, and I still miss the delicious Nasi Goreng, friendly faces, fresh coconuts, and of course, the unbeatable waves of the Indian Ocean. The following are seven reasons I can’t stop thinking about Indonesia, which are also seven reasons you should probably get there immediately.

1.The Beaches

DCIM100GOPROIt’s no secret that I’m in it for the beaches, and Indonesia is one giant beach paradise. More than 17,000 islands stretch between two oceans, offering everything from empty white sand shores to golden beaches packed with party animals. Best of all, Indonesia is loaded with world-class surf breaks, and if you travel far enough away from the tourist centers, you can have the perfectly peeling, tropical waves all to yourself. Continue reading “7 Reasons I Can’t Stop Thinking About Indonesia”