by Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
Long distance road trips in Mexico are always an adventure. Unlike traveling the trans-Canadian highway or interstate highways in the U.S., where hundreds of kilometers roll by while the driver can relax and listen to music or an audiobook, the highways and byways in Mexico demand constant concentration and quick responses. Travelers who arrive at their destinations in cars almost always need a cold drink, at least a few hours to recuperate, and an audience to listen their unanticipated experiences.
The paved highways in Mexico are a mix of modern toll roads, some of them miracles of modern highway engineering, ordinary well-paved two-lane roads, and once-paved roads that have deteriorated into washouts, pot-holes and cave-ins along the sides, to the extent that speeds over10 miles an hour are unattainable. Beyond the highways lies a vast network of rural unpaved roads, with barely a warning that your trip necessitates travel on one of these.
We would advise long-distance travelers from north of the border to stay on the toll roads as many kilometers as possible. Don’t worry about missing cities. With a few exceptions where urban bypasses have been constructed, most of the tolls roads simply dump you off at the edge of a city and leave it to you to find your way across to the opposite outskirt where the road begins again.
The Mexican government agency in charge of road construction and maintenance (Secretary of Communications and Transport) is justifiably proud of its modern, safe, high-speed highways through sometimes extremely rugged terrain. Its website http://www.sct.gob.mx now features a photograph of the beautiful Baluarte bridge, on a highway between the states of Sinaloa and Durango, whose height over the river below is the greatest of any cable-stayed bridge in the world, and it is the second-highest bridge overall.
Mexico’s toll roads, with graduated charges from motorcycles to cars to various lengths of trucks, are so expensive that it is hard to believe any big trucks are on them at all – but they are. For example, to travel by car from Mexico City to Acapulco, a distance of about 200 miles, currently costs 495 pesos (about USD 41). In return, the toll roads offer speed limits of 100 or 110kph, good-quality pavement, limited access, rest stops normally a place to buy gasoline and refreshments, roadside assistance, and insurance. Sounds like easy driving, right? Wrong.
Many car drivers take the posted speed limit signs to be only a suggestion. A car traveling at 110 kph will commonly be the slowest auto on the road. When another vehicle wants to pass, the driver signals with the left turn signal, and since most toll roads are one and a half lanes on each side, the slower vehicle needs to move all the way over to the right in the half-lane – no kidding, all the way over – since a car coming in the opposite direction may also be passing, creating four parallel vehicles on a three-lane highway.
Trucks on the toll roads are another story. Many cannot reach the even lower speed limit posted for trucks. Getting around them requires both patience and nerves of steel. Most truck drivers in Mexico are extremely helpful and will signal you to pass when they judge that it is safe for them to move to the right and provide adequate clearance. The signal is – you guessed it – a left-hand turn light. But sometimes they are signaling that they are about to pass a truck in front of them. And at other times, the left-turn signal actually means they are going to turn left into an area across the highway!
Other sources of anti-boredom features on toll roads in Mexico are work crews, farm machinery going from a field on one side of the road to another, and animals that have managed to circumvent fences; one toll road in Chiapas proudly provides signs of the diversity of mammals that may be crossing. The driver also needs to stay alert for the occasional geological event such as sink holes, landslides and rockfalls; warnings for these are often posted – but really, what can one do when rocks suddenly come hurtling down at your car? Other sources of toll road amusement are the areas with vendors – not the authorized commercial areas but several kilometers of entrepreneurs all selling exactly the same items; on the toll road between Oaxaca and Puebla, red toy trucks are the featured item.
Even the toll booths can be an adventure. Although almost all have “multimodal” signs suggesting that one can pay with a credit card in a specific lane, that lane can be closed and all the other lanes (usually just one open) require cash. Toll booths in Oaxaca commonly become the target of labor union strikes and can be closed off by demonstrations for several hours. And in our most hair-raising trip, the toll booths on the highway between Morelia and Ixtapa became the sites of a shoot-out between the military and a drug cartel using automatic weapons – a once-in-a-lifetime experience we hope.
Even given these features of the toll roads, for long distance we still think that they are preferable to the free federal highways. Some federal highways in Mexico traverse 250 miles without any rest stop or gasoline, and indeed without any place where you would feel safe pulling the car off the highway to exchange drivers.
Estimating the length of time to travel on highways other than toll roads is difficult in Mexico, partly because of possible problems with the road surface, partly because of military and police checkpoints, but also because of the intentional placement of berms (called topes or vibradores) for slowing down traffic in urban areas or near schools, intersections, bridges, or dangerous curves. While very effective, topes are made to extend entirely across the road, which would not be needed if Mexico’s drivers were not so clever at avoiding them by traveling in the opposing lane or the shoulder. On the free federal highway between Huatulco and Acapulco, we counted over 200 topes and missed slowing down for two of them.
There are several advantages of the free highways, aside from the cost savings. In many parts of the country not yet served by toll roads the national highways get you where you want to go in a relatively straight line. Those that hug the coast or climb up and over mountains generally have many curves, but the views around each curve can be extraordinarily beautiful, including sweeping Pacific views, verdant valleys, and cloud-covered mountain peaks. The slower speeds needed on these roads allow both driver and passengers to admire the scenery. Many pass through villages where travelers can buy luscious fruits picked ripe off local trees that morning and handicrafts that are far less expensive than when purchased in urban locations.
The ‘real’ Mexico is part of the experience of driving these highways. The multiple uses of rivers becomes evident as one crosses bridges. The traditional modes of transportation – burros and horses – are more frequently seen than on toll roads. And the indigenous costumes which many visitors to Mexico have just seen in photos or folkloric performances are plentiful.
By-ways, for long distance travel, are best used when only absolutely necessary. These are usually unplanned instances involving unusable bridges. Sometimes a bridge will simply wash out. But, in some states, labor unions or other dissatisfied groups of citizens block bridges on national highways to gain the attention of the media and government officials. We’ve learned that there is almost always another bridge to ford the canyon or river, albeit a hundred kilometers out of the way on a dirt road. When a highway is blocked, enterprising taxi drivers are usually available to lead you to the alternative crossing and back to the highway on the other side of the blockade. At times it feels like they are leading you on a wild goose chase – but if your only choices are to turn around and not continue the trip, wait for an undetermined amount of time – perhaps days – or follow the taxi, we follow the taxi.
Planning a successful car trip in Mexico requires some advance concentrated attention to details, and perhaps some investment in mapping resources. In the US and Canada we are accustomed to accurate and up-to-date GPS information available to us real-time on smart phones or tablets. But in Mexico, the public sources of GPS information are so limited and inaccurate that companies which prepare commercial GPS maps must devote resources to air or ground surveillance to find out what is the actual situation.
One of the companies in Mexico with the longest history of being devoted to accurate GPS information in Mexico is BiciMapas, whose founder and president Alberto Najera told us in an interview that the GPS data files of governments in Mexico are not available to the public in forms that are digitally usable (all you can do with the maps after download from web sites is to print portions) and are not licensed to companies anyway. To boot, the information in the files is not timely or accurate, so producing correct maps requires a staff of personnel who can understand the limitations and can verify the existence and locations of highways.
We know people who depended on Google maps for routing in Mexico, the same as they do in other countries, and were directed at least 5 hours out of their way on a two-day trip. The government’s currently available digital map of Mexico (which took us 4 hours to download) was dated 2011 and shows two high-speed toll roads from Huatulco to Oaxaca, which do not exist to this day in April 2013, and failed to show a good toll road to Tuxtla Gutierrez (in Chiapas) which did exist in 2011.
Mr. Najera said that the government provides details on its website of highway construction projects and their planned completion dates, but the information is not reliable enough to include them in GPS maps planned for release in the near future – the construction may be delayed or terminated without notice. His company finds out about newly-opened highways the same way that newspapers do – the President of the Republic shows up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
One of the most important planning activities when traveling in Mexico is to figure out where you need to fill your gas tank in order to reach the next destination on your trip. Mr. Najera said that Pemex provides no public information about the opening of new stations or closing of old ones, so his company is dependent on feedback from past customers who say they have found “mistakes” in the current map. Remarkably, owners of hand-held GPS receivers are an enthusiastic and cooperative group of map-builders – they are involved in a hobby that perhaps has replaced building model ships.
A worldwide cooperative community has produced the maps you can find at http://www.openstreetmap.com, which are available for free to anyone and for this reason are found on the websites of many companies in Huatulco for showing the locations of their offices. In Mexico, these maps contain details of new roads, names of roads, one-way directions, walking paths, parking lots, etc. which are laboriously provided by ordinary (but nerdy) local amateurs who own GPS equipment. GPS maps are made by professional surveyors and amateurs using GPS!
Those who are accustomed to finding businesses or residences on their smartphones in other countries by using street addresses have to realize that many addresses in Mexico look like “Blvd Mitla s/n” (meaning “without a street number”). If Blvd Mitla is a long street, it is quite a challenge to companies like BiciMapas to show the locations and addresses on maps. In addition, some areas have street numbers but they do not coincide with any current numbering system – some of the numbers may be historical outdated numbers. In areas like Mexico City, which is divided into Colonias, the same address may appear in different Colonias, adding to the difficulty of preparing GPS maps that will guide you to your intended destination. The software that lets you search for an address in your car or on your smartphone was not designed with Mexico’s peculiarities in mind.
If planning and taking a long-distance trip in Mexico sounds daunting, that’s because it is. But, if you consider life to be an adventure, you will not let this stop you. We used to drive to Huatulco from the U.S. every year for many years, taking a different route each time. Now, we leave a car in Huatulco. But after a month or so of sun and sand, we’re ready for a long-distance road trip to a part of Mexico we haven’t yet explored. We hope to see you on the road.