Highways and Byways in Mexico

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 8.31.24 AMBy 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 to 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. Deterioration includes washouts, pot-holes and cave-ins along the sides, making speeds over 10 miles per hour truly unsafe; but you can be sure that some dare-devil will not slow down. 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 same highway 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 shows a photograph of the high-speed highway Arco Norte, in the segment from Guanajuato to San Miguel Allende.

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 drive a medium-sized truck from Mexico City to Veracruz, a distance of about 250 miles, currently costs 2075 pesos in tolls (about USD 170). (Even by car, it costs 40 dollars.) 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 drivers here 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 their left-turn light means 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 frequently 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 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 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 smartphones 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.

Alberto Najeras, president of the company that designed the GPS map of Mexico marketed by Garmin, told us in an interview that the GPS datafiles of governments in Mexico are not available to the public in forms that are digitally usable and are not licensed to companies anyway. For example, the SCT website mentioned earlier includes a section called Traza tu Ruta, which helps you find the best route from one specified place in Mexico to another (allowing also for intermediate stops). The website also tells you the distance and time of your trip, and the cost of tolls. But when you are finished, you cannot save any digital information – the most you can do is print the map, which surprisingly doesn’t show any roads on it other than your route. Beware though – the recommended route is likely to be the fastest but also the most expensive in regard to tolls, and far from the shortest in distance. For example the recommended route from Puebla to Huatulco covers 500 miles and costs 634 pesos in tolls, whereas the route from Puebla to Oaxaca and then to Huatulco is 400 miles and costs 245 pesos.

 

To boot, the information in the government files is not timely or accurate, The government’s maps may show highways coming to an end, when in fact they continue on, and highways that don’t exist yet but are simply a plan which may or may not come to fruition. (You can even find discouraging government websites containing legalistic documents showing designs of modernistic bridges and highways, only for the purpose of explaining why the project was terminated.)

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. The companies that make those maps you see on your smartphone screen have to find out about newly-opened highways the same way that newspapers do – the President of the Republic shows up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Remarkably, owners of hand-held GPS receivers are an enthusiastic and cooperative group of map-builders – they are involved in a hobby that helps all travelers in Mexico if you know how to use it. 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.

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”), which is not much help to you in the digital world. In areas like Mexico City, which is divided into Colonias, the same numerical address may appear in different Colonias, adding to the possibility that you are not actually being directed 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. Just don’t assume that everything can be easily figured out after you get on the road. Prepare in advance – ask others who have made the same trip, and carry information for accessing the latest versions of maps you consider useful. One final bit of gratuitous advice: Whenever you are traveling down a Mexican highway and see an official rest stop ahead, use the facilities; there may not be another chance for several hours.

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