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Driving Mexico

by Karen Dale


Hi Karen
Karen in Yelapa

No Fear

I love to drive. I got my license the day I turned sixteen and for my remaining high school years spent countless hours, just my VW Bronze Bunny, the stereo, and me. Perhaps the circumstances of my driving test characterize my overall driving style, and speak volumes about my relationship with my cars and the road.

I was to take my test in a downtown area which was pretty much unfamiliar to me. I had been warned ceaselessly about all the one-way streets in the area, so that my mind’s eye held a picture of the downtown streets more as a maze than a neatly organized suburban neighborhood. So it was with a vague anxiety that I undertook my behind-the-wheel driving test. Long story short, thinking that EVERY street must be of the single direction variety, I turned left into oncoming traffic. Luckily, traffic was minimal and I kept my head about me and got into the correct lane without further mishap. The beauty of the story is that the examiner awarded me with my license even with such a disastrous foible, because she felt that I corrected the error with skill and confidence. Go figure. Probably the only thing I did with skill and/or confidence in my entire adolescence.

Somehow I had developed the ability to get out of sticky situations, if only of the automotive variety. I spent a lot of time on an ATV (quad motorcycle) as a kid, and only I know how many scrapes I narrowly averted then, which I think also helped me develop a sense for getting out of tight situations. So I think it is this character trait which makes me not only tolerate, but look forward to driving challenges where I will likely get INTO some sticky situations just to find my way out again.

Having a partner from Mexico, I have had many occasions to visit the country, and abundant opportunities to drive there. I’ve been up and down Baja and through different parts of a broad section of central Mexico. All of the experiences have been fun and interesting, but not necessarily recommended for everyone. We are all familiar with the typical annoyances and hazards of driving at home. If your home is Boston or NYC (very exciting driving), you’re living closer to the Mexican experience than many of us. I like to think of the grounding wisdom of driving in this type of environment as: “Those white lines on the road? Merely suggestions.” The thing about driving in Mexico is that you’ve gotta do it with gusto or not do it at all. As I remember a guy from college describing his mountain biking philosophy, “You seriously just gotta go balls-out [dude]”. And it does take big cojones (figurative ones, thank you very much) to tackle the roads in Mexico and come out smiling.

Road Manners Get a horse!
Watch out for burros!

Driving in Mexico is at once civilized and challenging. Courtesy and common sense are put into play in simple but meaningful ways. At stop signs drivers are often advised to proceed uno y uno, one at a time. People tend to follow this instruction and are often pleasantly willing to yield to others. And little gestures mean a lot on the highways. Huge cargo trucks may turn on their left blinker when it’s safe for you to pass them across the solid yellow. The car ahead of you is likely to turn on its flashers during a heavy rain storm, presumably to help the car behind follow more safely. And when we returned to our car after a gorge on roadside tacos and encountered a seriously flat tire, we had no difficulty finding help for a quick tire change.

As congenial as some drivers in Mexico may be, more frequently encountered are some dangerous and strange driving strategies. One classic example is something that I am, unfortunately, starting to see a lot more of on this side of the border. Since parking can often be difficult due to congestion, narrow streets, and laziness, people often don’t find anywhere to park when they need to exit their car for some kind of errand. So the solution for many people is to just stop the car right where they are, turn on the flashers, and go attend to their business. This happened directly in front of me twice, in heavily trafficked streets. The most selfish part about this practice is that the roads are primarily one or two lanes only. So if the car in front of you blocks your path, your only option is to sit there like a goof until the driver returns, or plow headlong into oncoming traffic, praying to the blessed Virgen de Guadalupe the whole time. If you happen to be on a single-lane, one-way road, you’re just screwed. With this kind of attitude among fellow drivers, the ‘anything goes’ tone is firmly set.  

The autopistas (highways) have a somewhat regular highway patrol presence and various speed-reducing methods are commonly implemented. All of this notwithstanding, speed is highly valued by Mexican drivers. Contrary to the notion of “Mexican time”, people in their cars are in a damn hurry. Even if people are perfectly willing to yield when a sign at an intersection instructs them to, it would be foolish to expect the same courtesy when entering or crossing a flow of traffic.
Very few drivers will slow down to allow an unscathed crossing, much less let you in
gleefully. And really, fugedaboudit with a bus or combi—any kind of public
transportation. If you get yourself out in front of one of those, you better be prepared to step on it. Same goes for pedestrians crossing streets, by the way: there is no mercy.

I have come across very few obnoxious slowpokes on my Mexican road trip
adventures. I’m typically the one swerving around the Nervous Nellies at home, but down south I am often the swerve-ee. Maybe it’s because I’ve never driven anything other than a rattletrap over there and pushing it over 140 KMs just doesn’t seem prudent. Perhaps I’m more concerned about the effect of the cobblestones and potholes on the car than are local Mexican drivers. Or maybe all those crosses on
the side of the road are reminders enough that I’d rather remain for now on this side of the ether.

Vaya con Dios...and watch for bad weather

Avoiding Death During our most recent trip, I made many facetious comments about narrowly escaping death after a tense moment. My mom started giving road features memorable nicknames such as Puente de la muerte and Circulo de la muerte. Perhaps I exaggerated a little on the cheating-death talk—it was really not all that bad. There are great vacation-enhancing features to doing your own driving in Mexico . For one thing, it is very convenient. Towns are spread out across wide stretches of often beautiful land and you can see a lot more of the place when you’ve got your own wheels. You can buy a lot more knickknacks, as long a you carefully consider the size of the trunk juxtaposed with the number of people and hours of driving required. It can also be pretty affordable, compared with the amount you could otherwise spend on taxis, busses, and foot pain.

Public transportation can be quite convenient, but for people who are unfamiliar with the culture and not too fluent, it can be overwhelming and difficult to manage alone. Long distance bus travel is generally pretty convenient and comfortable, along with being affordable. However, there is a list of things about it that put it in second place for me. For one, it takes a whole lot of time, including getting to the bus station, waiting for departure, and then the actual travel time. Other things I don’t enjoy: 1) The little light that goes on near the dashboard alerting the driver and passengers that the speed limit has been surpassed. I actually want the driver to make as good of time as possible and I don’t feel any safer with the bus going slower than the traffic around it. 2) As much as I enjoy an in-route movie, the TV set loosely bouncing over my head doesn’t feel innocuous at any speed. 3) Although we all dutifully buy first-class bus tickets as instructed, there is no guarantee that the ticket will actually get you onto a first-class bus. I’ve traveled many a kilometer without a Coke or a clean bathroom to show for my extra pesos. Sure, they take the cuota roads and perhaps arrive at the destination in good time, but even the first-class busses get stopped on occasion so that adolescent soldiers with machine guns can come aboard and glare at the passengers menacingly.

Just like at home, driving provides freedom and independence at the cost of a negotiated risk. Truly, I find driving in Mexico a lot of fun. Knock on wood, I’ve never had any major problems. Granted, I haven’t driven in every part of the country, but I’ve handled some pretty hairy environments: Tijuana at rush hour, Puebla in a run-down bochito (VW Bug), downtown Guadalajara on a fiesta weekend, and the jungles of Nayarit in monsoon-like rains. I’ve been practically asphyxiated by smog and exhaust on the carreteras of Michoacan. And I’ve been blindsided by one too many stealth freeway speed-bumps in the black of night. But along with the risks go the rewards. We love stopping in tiny little towns in the middle of who-knows-where to check out the plaza, paroquia, and the homestyle tacos. During our latest trip we stopped after the torrential rains (to clear my head and re-start the circulation in my legs) at a roadside fruit stand. We had a great experience with a congenial proprietor who had nothing but our comfort and pleasure at heart. We walked out with a bag full of fruit and candy, and bellies full of breadfruit, for less than five bucks. Another time, we had the opportunity to jump out into a storm of marble-sized hail that had been pelting the car for ten minutes to see if it would hurt when it fell on us. Well, yeah, it did. It’s this kind of experience (lacking in common sense though it may be) that you can only get from tooling around on your own.

In terms of legal and financial protection from any untoward events, I should offer a word about auto insurance. When you rent a car in Mexico , it is required that you purchase basic insurance for $15 a day. A small price to pay for a bit of security, although who knows how well it would serve if an accident actually were to happen. When I perused my own auto insurance policy after our trip, I saw this notice in 16 point, bold, CAPITALIZED font on Page 2 of the policy explanation packet (italics are mine): “Auto accidents in Mexico are subject to the laws of Mexico , not the laws of the United States . Under Mexican law, auto accidents are considered a criminal offense as well as a civil matter”. Geez! In one town we saw two cars stopped mid-intersection and the drivers speaking very animatedly together, with the police arriving quickly to the scene. I didn’t see any damage to either car. If THIS was the response to such a small incident, I am afraid to wonder how ugly it could get for a real accident, being a criminal act and all. Moral of the story: be careful in your rental car, don’t quibble over the insurance, and be prepared. Looking back on our most recent driving adventure, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the traffic god of Jalisco: you got my back, man!  

Hi Karen
Karen in Chapala


So, to get to the advice segment of my story. If you decide to do some driving on your next trip, there are a few things I suggest. 

First, really do try to follow the rules of the road to the best of your ability. I have never had the misfortune of being pulled over and I have very little advice for those who do. What I know is: don’t assume that a bribe can get you out of the predicament, but don’t entirely exclude the possibility, either. Avoid the police with even a little more caution than you would at home, especially if you don’t speak Spanish well. Just try to follow the flow of traffic and be cautious when you can. Howeverthis advice comes with a qualifier. DO NOT be overly cautious! To drive well in Mexico you gotta be assertive and take what’s yours. Don’t wait for someone to wave you in or allow you to pass. Get out there and do it, and you’ll be fine. Watch out for one-way streets, but if you happen to turn the wrong way onto one, just turn around as soon as you can. The most important rule is: Don’t freak out (or, as I say in my personal Spanglish dialect, no te friques). Often the streets are very narrow and people are doing all kinds of weird stuff with their driving, so any missteps you may make will likely be overlooked or just ignored.

Another important consideration: know the condition of your car. If you decide on a rental car (and bargaining is appropriate here, too), they will want to show you the pattern of the upholstery and the space in the trunk to secure your business. More importantly, check the tires and the oil. Cars are not routinely serviced and you don’t want to be the one wearing out your car’s last leg. The “roadside assistance” they offer is negligible at best.  If there is a dangerous condition, ask for a different car. Do your best to pick a good car while you’re in the office—if they all have problems, go to a different rental car company. While you’re on the road, be aware that gas stations are full-service, and the attendants are trained and willing to check tires and fluids all for a couple pesos’ tip. Check the air in the tires frequently, as the road and weather conditions can cause drastic and unexpected changes.

A word about maps. Oh Mexico

They are very untrustworthy for some reason. It seems to me that the roads are in a constant state of development, and many new highways are under construction. Maybe this is why the roads on the map don’t always seem to match the ones rolling out before me. Also, the thickness of the map lines can be very deceiving. What may appear to be a relatively straight and well-maintained patch of road may actually be a curving trek through countless hills replete with traffic which requires thirty minutes to travel five miles. Keep this in mind if you’re considering driving into Puerto Vallarta from any direction. My partner and I have actually done very well traveling by feel; but it certainly helps to ride with someone willing to call out to any passerby for the route to your destination. One thing Mexico does well is signage. There are usually sufficient signs posted to guide you to any destination, and they do tend to be reliable. There are also little tips posted along the roads reminding you to be kind to others, brush your teeth, and honor your parents (something like that, anyway). Oh, and our favorite sign is the one reminding drivers that wearing seatbelts is mandatory. That is, unless you and twelve of your friends are squashed into the back of a pickup truck, which appears to be perfectly legal.

Perhaps this article will inspire readers to stray from the resort areas and venture into the heart of Mexico to get a true sense of the culture and the people. If your travels do lead you in this direction en un futuro, please do your best to represent el Norte well. Learn a little Spanish from someone with an authentic accent. Treat your money with respect and don’t flaunt it or withhold it rudely. Smile and say “Buenos dias/ tardes/ noches” to the people with whom you do business. Be aware of your surroundings, go with the flow, and EAT THE FOOD (it’s delicious!). Buen viaje!  

Here's my mom's take on our Mexico trip!

Find it here!     

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