Starting Global Health in (Hot) Jaltenango - How'd I Get Here?

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

After a long drive from Providence RI, I am finally at my international rotation site! Jaltenango is a small enough town in Chiapas to not have any details on their Wikipedia page, but large and significant enough for Partners in Health to have been there for nearly 10 years now.

The population is around 12,000, and the climate is HOT.

The Drive

Long. It was long. Providence, RI to Jaltenango was 3,200 miles, 12 days, 11 stops. Crossing the US-Mexico border was undoubtedly the biggest hurdle because not only did I have to get a Mexican visa, but I also had to register my car for 6 months, which entailed paying the import tax up front (to be refunded as long as I return to the US before my 6 months is up) and obtaining Mexican car insurance. A word of advice to anyone wanting to do this - you can get your vehicle registered online if done between 30 to 7 days prior to departure, and probably avoid my sweat-drenching mistake.

For safety reasons, I was told to avoid driving at night and to always take toll roads, so a lot of planning went into this. I crossed the border at Piedras Negras, after initially planning to cross at Laredo. While Laredo has been a popular crossing point, reports of recent ill encounters with narcos made me reevaluate that decision. And per the huge line of people that waited 6+ hours at the Piedras Negras crossing, that was a good choice as a few Mexican nationals I spoke with reported run-ins where they were charged large "fines'' to pass the barriers put up by narcos.

Also - something that no one mentioned and I didn't read anywhere (also please forgive my ignorance): I crossed the border and BAM I was in Mexico and didn't wait in any long line or have my car searched or paperwork requested. That was a huge surprise. Little did I know, I was just in a border zone and the lines awaited just about a 40 minute drive down the highway.

The line was not made of cars as I had imagined, but of people who had parked their cars and stood in line in the hot (90 degree-plus) sun for the entire morning and into the afternoon. In retrospect, I'm glad I was unaware of that potential because I likely would have changed plans entirely. Shout out to anyone who has done that and is willing to do it again.

First stop - Monterrey! The capital of Nuevo Leon, it was just a 4ish hour drive from Piedras Negras. The toll roads there were very well taken care of, and the drive itself was breathtaking.

Monterrey is home to a little over 1 million people, and is nestled in a floodplain with a lot of the city's backdrop being the scenic Mount Silla. I was only able to stay the night, but enjoyed some amazing local food.

After Monterrey, I spent a night in San Luis Potosi, and then on to Mexico City. I stayed in a neighborhood in the north called Colonia Condesa (I highly recommend, check out Culture Trip's take on it), where it seems everyone has a well-trained purebred dog and you can find anything you need without having to go more towards the center of the city. I spent the week here so I could have stable wifi for our online orientation, and it was a nice break from driving 4-5 hours a day. The cooler weather was also very welcome.

Arriving in Jaltenango

I drove down from the capital of Chiapas (Tuxtla, with a quickly growing population of over 600,000), which took around 3 hours. I was warned that the roads were not complete in some sections and had occasional holes, and I was so glad for that heads up. Speed bumps ("topes") were not sparse, potholes challenged my driving acuity, and there were even a few places on the edge of the road where there indeed was no road. Not a pothole on the side, but a place on the side that had no road, and was kindly outlined with paint so as not to attempt driving over what might be perceived as a pothole.

I don’t know much about Jaltenango itself yet, but it boasts busy markets during the day, seems to have an overall younger population, and the people are very kind and welcoming. There’s a river on the edge of town, chickens roaming throughout, and plenty of tuk-tuks (auto rickshaw) for getting around at a low price of 10 pesos per head.

The Medical Scene

I’ll know more later! The organization I’m working with is taking careful COVID precautions, which means I am isolating for the first week. I will be spending a week out of each month at what is called the Casa Materna (birth center), two weeks at more rural clinics which range from a 2 to 5 hour drive from my base site, and a week with regular clinic tasks and project time. There is a hospital in Jaltenango with 12 beds, and from what I have been told, they are often mostly occupied with women having pregnancy complications. For now, I am just resting and getting mentally prepared for what I hope is an amazing experience with this organization and the people of Jaltenango over the next 6 months.

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