Thursday, May 7, 2015

We Interrupt This Travelogue . . .

. . . for a few words about Gringo Driving in Mexico.  

Why Bother Driving?

After a grossly stereotypical and expensive encounter with a traffic cop in Mexico City in the early 2000's we swore off driving in Mexico. We would travel via the wonderful luxury bus system or fly, and use cabs in town.  And for many years this worked just fine.

Then time passed, we met a lot of North American car commuters - we decided to try driving again. We drove down the Baja Peninsula in 2012 and back up the Peninsula in 2013 and used our little Volvo in La Paz, Baja Sur in between. These travels were without negative traffic-related incident and reacquainted us with the benefits of self-directed travel, which include being able to better: 
  • honor our preferred sleep patterns;
  • accommodate our preference for slow travel;
  • see what we want to see; and, occasionally,
  • see things we didn't expect to see.
An example of the last benefit: On our way from Durango to Sombrerete we sought out a baroque chapel that we had read about - the ex-Hacienda de Juana Guerra. And because we managed to drive right by what we were looking for and turn down the "wrong road" (that self-directed thing doesn't always work seamlessly) we found . . . something else. 

At the side of the somewhat sketchy road linking Cuota 45D to the village of Villa Union, Durango we found a little chapel attached to the back of what looked like a still-occupied hacienda. The chapel had a beautiful tile cupola and, on the front door, a faded handwritten list on a piece of lined school paper listing parishioners who had donated bags of beans. 

The Unknown Chapel

The Hidden (Crucifix?) - Viernes Santo

As we stood outside this little chapel we saw a small group of parishioners crossing a nearby field towards the chapel carrying crosses in honor of Viernes Santo (Good Friday). We did not stop them to ask where we were because we didn't want to interrupt their devotion. A man passing the hacienda on a bicycle told us where to find our original destination:

Ex-Hacienda de Juana Guerra

Bryce Contemplating The Double Flying Buttress 

Experiences like this are why we are happy we've chosen to drive this long, roundabout trip through central Mexico.  

And en route we've also learned a lot about the activity of Gringo Driving in Mexico. 

Random Observations

                    Mexican Law Enforcement Seems To Have Improved - At Least For Foreign Tourists: Knock wood - during the past four months of traveling in a car sporting U.S. plates we have not been stopped by a single policeman suggesting that we pay a fine directly to him "rather than be inconvenienced by a trip to the police station to pay a ticket". Granted, we're careful drivers . . . but we think there's been a reduction in police graft, though perhaps only in their relationship with foreign tourists. 

Drivers still get stopped at random intervals on the highways. Some stops are agricultural inspections - "do you have any fruit?". Others are army or federal police stops and there are also stops that seem to be for trucks only, as all cars are waived through. Our experience is that grey-haired foreign tourists are almost always just waived through. 

At times it may even help to have minimal Spanish language skills. At one stop a stern-looking young soldier looked into the car and said "Oh, you don't speak Spanish." At first Bryce started to explain (in quite passable Spanish) that he does speak Spanish . . . until he realized that he was being waived through. He nodded and we departed. Whatever works.

                    Deterrence Rather Than Punishment: Mexico doesn't spend government funds on the type of complex make-work system of fines, tickets, insurance rate penalties and traffic schools that the U.S. and Canada use to enforce traffic laws. In Mexico traffic law enforcement primarily relies on deterrence.  

For example, in many places police vehicles have their lights on any time the vehicle is moving, and sometimes when parked. The idea is that the lights will remind drivers of the speed limit or other traffic rule and obtain at least semi-compliance. We have been told that when police want to pull a vehicle over, they use a siren. Our biggest concern now is that we've been desensitized to flashing police lights and that we may end up on the wrong end of an angry CHP or police officer's "pull over now" lights.  

Topes (speed bumps) are a brilliant deterrence mechanism that relies primarily on a driver's sense of vehicle-preservation. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, not all topes are clearly marked. We have learned to keep our eyes on the vehicles in front of us to see if they slow or bottom out on a tope, and to assume that topes will be lurking at the entrance and exit to every little town or hamlet and around bus-stops. 

                    Drivers' Self-Help: Bryce, who does all of our in-town driving, believes Mexican drivers are generally more alert than those in the U.S. and Canada. Not necessarily more law abiding - just more alert. He reports seeing some pretty wild maneuvers (backing down a one-way street is a favorite) but very, very few fender benders (again: knock wood).

When we first arrived we noticed how frequently Mexican drivers use their flashers in non-emergency situations . Molly hit upon the following to explain one common use: "Yes, I know I'm going really slowly and I'm not going to speed up just because you want me to, so get over it." 

                     Repairs: We have been very impressed with the few repairs we have had made to The Truck. Importantly, Bryce had been troubled by a rattle that sounded suspension-ish, even though he had been told by three U.S. mechanics that it wasn't a safety issue (even though they couldn't tell him what was making the noise). In Mazatlan he tried again to get the noise diagnosed. He took The Truck to the Ford dealership  where he met "The Ford Whisperer." This man spent an hour diagnosing the source of the mysterious noise and another hour fixing it . . . for the equivalent of about $40 parts and $40 labor. Six weeks and several thousand kilometers later - still no noise.

Cuota vs. Libre

Mexico has a very extensive and expensive system of toll roads (cuotas). Some of them are very good four-lane highways. Others are good two-lane highways. And others are rutted messes that don't seem worth the toll. In general we prefer to pay the price for traveling by cuota because:

                    Speed: The speed limit on the cuota is 110 kilometers an hour (72-ish mph) unless otherwise posted. Travel tip: It is often otherwise posted. 

But the improvement in speed is primarily because cuotas are limited access highways and don't travel through every village and past every bus stop in the country. This avoids the traffic generated by trucks pulling in to deliver cookies to road-side tiendas and restaurants, buses stopping to discharge passengers, mothers herding children, etc.. It also avoids village-related topes. There are topes at various points on the cuota, including before and sometimes after every caseta de cobro (toll booth), but there are many fewer than along the libre roads.  

The cuotas do have their own traffic challenges, including the majority of Mexico's doble-semi remoques (double semi-trailers). These mammoth trucks travel veeeerrry slowly when loaded and very quickly downhill when not:

A Doble Semi-Remolque

                    Passing: Passing is generally easier on the cuotas than on the libres, in large part because more cuotas are four-lane divided highways. Travel Tip For U.S. Drivers: In Mexico, like on Canadian and European highways, vehicles on four-lane highways stay in the right lane unless in the act of passing. Of course there are drivers that consider themselves to always be in the act of passing - but not many.   

Passing is easier on most of the two-lane cuotas because, unlike on the libres, many two-lane cuotas have wide shoulders which double as a "deferral lane" - a partial lane for slower vehicles to use when being passed. In sum, a two-lane cuota with shoulders = a three-lane road with passing traffic using the phantom middle lane to pass. Slower vehicles operate on the theory that the shoulder isn't cluttered with rocks, blown-out truck tires or distressed vehicles; passing drivers operate on the theory that the phantom middle passing lane isn't being used by cars passing from the other direction; and everyone assumes that passing may take place at any time, even on a blind curve or hill. 

We continue to play the odds.

                    Food and Gasoline: The cuotas have well-spaced Pemex (the national petroleum company) stations staffed by uniformed attendants dispensing world-priced gasoline. Kind of like Oregon with friendlier staff and higher gas prices. Travel Tip: It's common to tip the attendants, more if they clean your windshield or check the oil.

The Truck At A Pemex Station

There are also frequent Pemex stations on the libres. Only in extremely rural areas is gasoline dispensed, uh, less formally:

And Just FYI . . .

We used to say it is impossible to go hungry in Mexico; inexpensive and often very good food is around every corner. But the truth is that it is possible to get quite peckish when driving on a cuota. The only road-side food stands or mini-marts are near Pemex stations, but Pemex doesn't run these businesses. The existence of a Pemex station doesn't guarantee a store or food stand. 

Travel tip: Take some snacks with you if you're traveling on a new cuota route. You won't have trouble finding gas, but you may get cranky before you find gas + food. 

North Americans will recognize some of the Pemex-side food purveyors:

The Largest Franchise In The World, We've Been Told

Others will be less familiar, but will probably have better food:

Uniformed Staff and Tasty Tacos

Some Road-side Restaurants Also Sell Bootleg CDs

"Unanticipated Diversions" 

We started this post writing about the serendipitous adventures that can come with self-directed car travel. Driving only on cuotas does reduce the opportunity for serendipity. So to see more of Mexico, consider taking the libres once in awhile. 

That said, one can find "unanticipated diversions" even while driving the cuotas:  

On May 1 we stopped for the night in Tepic, Nayarit on our way into the state of Jalisco. Our plan was to spend the next night in Guadalajara, Jalisco. We had a delightful dinner in Tepic at Restaurante Argentino El QuinchoScore one for Tripadvisor. Even more fortuitous for us, the owner has family in Guadalajara and was closely following a news story that we had heard nothing about: The Jalisco New Generation Cartel had shot down a military helicopter and, in a coordinated action throughout the state of Jalisco had set up more than 30 "narco-blockades" on streets and highways using burning vehicles. Our hostess warned us about the road blockades and equipped us with an internet site about traffic issues in the Guadalajara metropolitan area. 

Over dinner we discussed the application of the "lightening strike" theory of travel (one of our guiding partnership principles) which goes something like: We can't control certain things - one can get hit by lightening anywhere in the world - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't duck inside during an obvious lightening storm if there's a roof nearby.   

We returned to our hotel to search the internet for news about the highway blockades, and found that two of them had taken place on the cuota between Tepic and Guadalajara - our planned route for the next day. We also learned that, in addition to creating burning-vehicle roadblocks, the gang had set fire to a number of banks and gasoline stations.

The next morning we lingered at the hotel, searching the internet. According to everything we could find there had been no more blockades. From the new, it looked as though every police officer and soldier in Jalisco was on the job. We took comfort in the fact that, consistent with the majority of past Mexican narco-gang activity, this action had not focused on tourists or tourist-related infrastructure. 

So, we filled The Truck with gas and bought some food to take with us to avoid having to stop at a potential-target gas station between Tepic and Guadalajara, and departed. Along the cuota we passed the skeletal remains of two burned-out semi-remolques and saw lots of police vehicles. But no one stopped us. 

After a nervous but uneventful drive we checked into the Guadalajara Airport Hampton Inn to avoid having to travel into the city. We walked to the nearby Chile's for dinner. Sometimes the familiar is comforting - even if it doesn't taste very good.

The next day we traveled out of Jalisco, unmolested. This massive and well-coordinated attack was and is a very big deal for the people of Mexico, but for our trip it turned out not to be the source of a lightening strike.   

Travel Tip: For the latest reports on  major traffic issues in the Guadalajara metropolitan area (GMT) go to and click on noticias. This site isn't a real time traffic movement map but it's the best information we've found about traffic in the GMT. There's also a twitter feed for this site at: Both are in Spanish. 

We have also found a site that reflects traffic patterns for several Mexican cities (as well as other cities around the world):, but we don't know anything about how effective or "real time" it is. We would appreciate hearing from you if you have any ideas about how to track traffic, particularly road blocks, in Mexico. 

Thus End Our Few Words

Next post - more about what we got to see and do while driving in Mexico.

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