Monday, October 26, 2020

On the road in Mexico

Road travel here can be an adventure, especially down south and away from tourist areas and commercial (truck) routes. The smart thing to do is stay on the toll highways as they're well-maintained, reasonably safe, and have plenty of services, even though they are forever stopping you at tollbooths to hit you up for more tolls. But when going to places less traveled, that's not always ab option, so the other day saw us on a mountain two-lanes highway that was all hills and curves and few guardrails, and your speed is kept to an absolute minimum by countless topes, aka, "sleeping policemen" or "speed bumps from hell".  Now these pernicious obstructions, if gathered together in one place, likely would have been sufficient to have kept the Allies off the Normandy beaches in 1944. But here in Mexico they are spread out so much that they only slow everyone's travel to a glacial crawl and provide full employment for auto repair shops. These topes require you to come to a near stop to cross every one, unless you're driving '69 Charger with a rebel flag on the roof, in which case you'd be in heaven. Taken with any speed, they will bottom out your shocks, scrape your frame, and rearrange the contents of your car. And they are everywhere. Some are maked with signed, some are painted, and others are just raised asphalt the color of the road and invisible until you're on top of them unless you're smart enough to follow another car and watch it bob up and down on them. Topes, plus generally poor roads, turned a hundred mile drive the other day into a near six-hour trial, keeping us down to an average pace of just less than 20mph. Fun. And no shoulders, either. go off to either side and you're in a deep ditch or down the side of a mountain in deep jungle brush. There are no real passing lanes, but Mexicans don't seem to care. They pass on hills, curves on into the face of oncoming traffic and everyone just avoids each other when three cars meet on a two-lane road.

Kids in Mexico.

Kids are everywhere, and they beg like crazy. Many want to sell you things and mob your car when you slow for topes in front of their houses. (I suspect some of these topes were put in by residents for just this reason.) At places where you stop for sights or gas, they descend on you. One girl hit us up selling pieces of quartz. Useless, but she was young and cross-eyed and I felt sorry for her and gave her four coins totalling the requested amount. She very quickly swapped out a couple of them for lower denomination coins and demanded the "correct" amount. Little hustler. I'll bet her eyes weren't really crossed either. 

Sometimes the kids will team up and hold a rope across the road when you approach, bringing you to a stop so they can offer you fruit or just try to extract their own "toll". It's cute the first couple of times but it gets old fast and I did see one Mexican SUV blast right through one, yanking the rope out of their hands and dragging it down the road. It's dangerous to be a roadside bandit kid in Mexico.

Overall though, the people are friendly, everyone has something for sale, and it's easy to get around if you even try to speak their language. Violent crime is low and the only time I've ever felt uneasy is when I'm approaching one of the countless police or military roadblocks, which are everywhere. Most of the Federale force has been disbanded and replaced with a new army civil guard of sorts in an effort to stamp out corruption, and the new guys seem a lot more professional and less inclined to shake you down, but the local cops are always bad news. I've noticed that the police or soldiers who wear clean, neat uniforms and keep their kit and weapons clean and well-organized are just about their business and never a problem, but the unshaven slob in the unkempt partial uniform is always going to have his hand out. Just keep a few pesos handy to pay them and move on; it's not worth arguing and attracting more of them. Cameras do seem to scare this lot off because they can get fired for this but don't let the military guys see you taking their pictures. Since they fight the narcos, they don't like being identified even by touristas. 

Loving this place but looking forward to being back in the land of What-a-burger by the end of this week. 


  1. Oh how it's changed in the 40 years since I was down there. The roads probably are about the same, minus the topes, but the tolls/crooked cops are definitely 'new'...

    1. Mexico began building modern highways in the last couple of decades, and these are toll roads, but quality roads and safe. Think of US toll highways. As for policia, the average wage for cops here is about $350 a month, on par with a builder's apprentice. It's not considered a skilled trade or a prestige job so graft often supplements the low wages. Reform efforts at the federal level seem to be serious, with the fring of most of the Federales and replacing them with Guardia Civil, but at the local level it's still just Thunderdome without Tina Turner.

  2. Be safe while south of the border

  3. My only experience south of the Rio Grande was in visits to Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Juarez with my parents on some of our travels to the border area in the late 50's and early-mid 60's. Those towns were great then, with easy access, relatively safe 'tourist areas' with nice shops, good food and cheap prices. I remember my dad asking directions and was told to simply "follow the bus". My other experience in Mexico is on the Riviera Maya, diving in Cozumel. Nice folks other than the attitude of some of the "divemasters" who had a LOT LESS experience than me and especially my wife, a physician doing research for the USN.

  4. Mexico should be a thriving country. It has physical resources. It has lovely people. But, unfortunately, it has a Spanish-style government history.