By Brooke Gazer
When we first drove into Huatulco, in May of 1999, we were impressed by the wide paved streets that were bordered by green, well-groomed boulevards, and bedecked with stately palm trees. Twenty-one years later, there may be a few more potholes, but FONATUR, the federal tourism promotion agency that manages the resort, has done a superb job of maintaining the major streets in our town. What has changed is the amount of traffic. During those early years, it felt as if we had the roads practically to ourselves and more than two cars at any intersection could be considered a traffic jam.
The increase in traffic is not just related to population growth; back in the early 90s, financing a car or motorbike was practically impossible, and this limited the number of people who could purchase their own transportation. A local friend wanted a car, and this was how he purchased it. He joined a group where each member put in an initial sum of cash. Every month everyone added to the kitty until there was enough capital to buy one vehicle. They drew names and the lucky member drove away with his new purchase. My friend paid into this scheme for almost two years before it was his turn to own a vehicle. Of course, everyone continued paying until all the cars were paid for, but when they got one was literally “the luck of the draw.” Today, traditional financing is much more common, but only on new cars. This explains why we see so many shiny new vehicles cruising around town.
First, I want to explain one of the quirks about driving in Mexico (or at least in Huatulco). As a Canadian, I’ve been conditioned to follow the rules, so when we began living here, I stopped at intersections with stop signs. I looked right, left, and right again before proceeding. In our first month, I learned this wasn’t the correct way to drive in Huatulco.
When a woman bumped into me from behind, I jumped out of my car and in broken Spanish, I tried to ask for her driver’s license and insurance, even before assessing any damage.
She was incensed and ignored my request. “What were you doing? What did you stop for?”
I pointed to the red hexagon on the side of the road, “Well, there’s a stop sign …”
“But there’s no traffic. Why would you stop when no one’s coming? No one with any sense stops for nothing. Are you drunk or just stupid?”
Seeing there was no real damage to either vehicle, I slunk back into my car and drove away. This was a cheap lesson on Huatulco road etiquette.
A few years ago, the town installed its first traffic light at the intersection where my mishap occurred. By this time, traffic had increased significantly in our little town, and I envisioned local drivers ignoring the new signals, sailing through a red light, and multiple crashes. The chief of police must have been on the same wavelength; he stationed officers with whistles and ropes strung across the intersection. After several weeks, local drivers understood that a red light required them to stop regardless of traffic flow.
We now have five controlled intersections and most vehicles actually do stop. Like everyone else, I wait at traffic lights but sail through stop signs as if they’re merely a suggestion. Occasionally this causes a gasp from a guest I’m chauffeuring, but I assure them it’s the only safe way to drive. People don’t always follow rules as strictly as we from up north are accustomed to; one-way streets might also be merely a suggestion, and adhering to the speed limit could cause a collision. But on the whole, traffic flows smoothly, and drivers are courteous and flexible.
The same generalization does not apply to motorcycles. Many are courteous, but a few can be unnerving. It peeves me when I leave a comfortable space cushion between me and the vehicle in front, and a motorcycle weaves around me to fill the space. However, I understand that one’s personal space in Latin America is considerably smaller than I am accustomed to, so, regardless of the safety concern, I chalk it up to a cultural difference. What I really find annoying is when a motorcycle buzzes up on my right at an intersection and cuts me off as it turns left, just as I am about to go forward. Originally, I suspected they didn’t know any better but a visit to the state police office assured me they do, and the problem is one of attitude. Some drivers either have a death wish or believe they are immortal.
Elektra and Chedraui finance these machines to young people with only a small deposit and payments as low as $250 pesos weekly. It made me wonder how many injuries and fatalities result from it being too easy to acquire a motorbike? According to state police records, nine accidents with serious injuries or deaths involving motorcycles were reported in 2019. The damages assessed totaled a whopping $180 million pesos. I was surprised by the low number of accidents, but discovered that unless a death or significant injury occurs, most are never reported. You can’t legislate common sense, but I wonder if these kids paid in advance for the motorbike would they treat them, along with their fellow drivers, with more caution and respect?
Still, by the overall standards of Mexico, driving in Huatulco is a piece of cake.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco: http://www.bbaguaazul.com.