Palenque and the Fine Art of Driving in Mexico

I've developed two small calluses where my palms grip the steering wheel.  By my accounts I have now driven close to 2,000 miles in Mexico, which makes me an expert in this Mexican driving business.  Ok, well maybe not an expert, but definitely capable of getting myself from point A to point B in one piece.  

Before this, I had never driven outside of the US, and it was definitely the most terrifying aspect of this trip.  In my head, I envisioned dirt roads, high on a mountain top, with banditos around every corner.  Most of the time, this could not be further from the truth....

I have stuck to driving on cuotas, (toll roads) whenever possible.  These roads are almost always four lane highways, and for the most part are pretty well maintained.  They are also monitored by the "green angels" which are cars that patrol the highways, helping people who break down or get into an accident.  So if you get stuck on a toll road, you just dial 074, and a mechanic shows up.  I hope that I never actually have to use this, but it's nice knowing that it's out there, and worth the extra cost of driving on a toll road.  

When I first started this trip, I would download the directions on google maps, write simplified directions on an index card that I kept in the console, and then finally highlight my route in a copy of "Guia Roji"  a book of road maps in Mexico, that I am most thankful to own.  Since those first few trips, I have come to rely solely on Google Maps, and found the other two steps to be totally unnecessary.  

Mexicans have mastered the art of communicating to other cars on the road, and I wish this bizarre "car language" was something that we used in the US.  For example, if you're stuck behind a slow car on a two lane highway, the car in front of you will signal when it's safe to pass, by turning on their blinker.   However, most of the time this isn't needed, because most slow cars will always drive on the shoulder.  At first, I really hated this, but I've learned that it's actually safer to stay on the shoulder, in case a car coming the opposite direction is trying to pass.  

My favorite thing about Mexican driving is the use of hazard lights.  Raining?  Put on your hazards.  Tope coming up?  Put on your hazards.  Toll?  Put on your hazards.  Military checkpoint?  Put on your hazards. A bunch of teachers blocking the road? Hazards. Construction Zone?  Yup, you need to put on your hazards.  It's a really nice signal to alert everyone that something on the road is happening, and you need to wake the fuck up.  

One of my biggest concerns before leaving was military checkpoints and corrupt police.  I heard endless stories of police asking for bribes, of police planting things while doing a routine search of American's cars.  However, all of these stories, ended up being from people who had not driven in Mexico for ten years or more. I heard from several people who have driven through Mexico more recently that they never once were pulled over or searched.  I have been through about ten checkpoints, and have been waved through every single one of them, even if every other car around me has been stopped.  I think this aspect of police corruption in Mexico has changed- that the government at some point realized that foreigners bring a lot of money to Mexico, and that maybe it would be best to just let them pump their money into the economy.  But the trip is not over yet, and there will be many more checkpoints here in the Yucatan than there have been in central Mexico, since it's a popular place to illegally cross from Guatemala.  

All this being said, I just finished what I expected to be the "worst" driving part of this trip, which is the road from San Cristobal to Palenque.  It's a "libre" or free road, and only 120 miles, but google maps expected it to take five hours.  It took me six.  To top that off, Lonely Planet's description of the road warns of armed robberies of this road, but also says that it's much safer than it used to be due to an increased police presence.  But it also says to NEVER drive this route at night.  It's a vague description at best.  To be on the safe side I hid my camera, laptop, passport, and most of my money.  

I found a "buddy" car for the first part of the trip, and we drove together from San Cristobal to Ocosingo.  They stopped in Ocosingo, and I was left to fend for myself the rest of the way.  It was definitely a hard drive, as the shadows on the road make it nearly impossible to see the potholes and topes.  For those of you who have never been to Mexico, a tope is like a speed bump on steroids.  They are not gradual bumps, but more like a little wall of asphalt that sometimes appear out of nowhere.   I think I was passed by nearly every car on this road, and went over three topes way too fast.  My poor little Suby....

At one point I came around a corner, and a bunch of little girls where standing around, looking suspicious.  As soon as I approached them, they pulled a rope up and blocked the road.  My car was descended upon by ten year olds with mangoes, banging on my window, and pleading for me to buy them.  The mango banditas.  I shouted at them and eventually drove through their rope. The mango banditas definitely gave me a bit of a scare, and I realized how easy it would be for actual banditos to stop your car on this road.  

But they didn't, and I made it safely to Palenque.  The actual town of Palenque is nothing to write home about, and I was glad I only stayed for two nights.  I have to give a shout out to the lovely hotel, "El Colombre." It's off a dirt road on the way to the ruins and is a big plot of land in the middle of the jungle, with little palapas and an amazing swimming pool.  The do breakfast and dinner on site, and were more than helpful.  The only other guests were a family originally from Pennsylvania, who are currently living in Mexico City.  They are the first Americans I have seen in two weeks. 

Just outside of Palenque are ancient Mayan ruins, set in the middle of the jungle.  Only about 3% of the ruins have actually been excavated, making this an enormous ancient city.  You can hike into the jungle and see part of the ruins that have not yet been restored, which I enjoyed much more than the restored ones.  It feels much more like walking alone in Angkor Wat, than in Mexico.

This was my fourth of July: Mayan ruins, pool, hammock, nap, pool, hammock, pool, hammock, pool hammock.  

I left Palenque yesterday morning, expecting an easy 6 hour drive to Merida.  But Mexico does not always go as planned, and I once again hit a road block outside Palenque.  I pulled out my copy of "Guia Roji"  and plotted an alternative route.  I love Google Maps, however it's not very helpful, when you are trying to find an alternative route because teachers have lit a car on fire in the middle of the road you are trying to travel on...

So I detoured to Villahermosa, adding an extra 4 hours to the trip, and getting into Merida just as the sun was starting to set.  

The expected temperature in Merida today is 102.  I'm about three weeks into this trip, and feeling a bit burnt out.  I still have not made it into the city center, and Nilo and I have just been chilling in the lovely casita that we will call home for the week....

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