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Finally on the Roads of Mexico

   May 09

Finally on the Roads of Mexico

There is no way to drive from Matamoros all the way though Mexico in one day in daylight. Driving in the dark is very dangerous in Mexico and all Central American countries because people and animals also use the same roads. They do not wear lights, nor reflexive clothing. Be prepared for an overnight stay. The best hotel rates are in Costa Esmeralda, but it takes full 12 hours to get there from Matamoros. If you don’t get off the border by 7:00, then you better make plans to find an hotel before Costa Esmeralda.

With my trip tick and map set up for easy access while driving I started navigating the streets of Matamoros toward CD Victoria. My objective was to get out of Matamoros as fast as possible. Traffic was initially heavy and I made a few wrong turns. See the trip tick and maps document to avoid them. Soon enough the traffic lightened up and made me feel better. The street wasn’t congested, but posted speed limit was 40. To avoid unpleasant surprises I went about 40 or so. Yet, I got one anyway.

I discovered a blinking police car behind me. Confused what he wants, I pulled aside and a smiling police showed up in my window. I handed him over my International Drivers Permit with passport. He said that the problem was not with my documents, but with my speed. Apparently, I went 70 in 40 km/hr zone. I was confused, but a glance of he speedometer dial cleared it. 40+ miles per hour is about 70 km/hr. Now what do we do?

The policeman explained that by new corruption fighting regulations he has to confiscate my drivers license and take it to his office. I should go there, pay the fine and I will get the license back. He is required to take all the confiscated licenses to his office at the end of his shift in the afternoon. Losing a whole day in Matamoros did not sound appealing at all. Listening to my sad story about four lost hours in immigration he offered to write down the lowest infraction he can – exceeding the speed limit by 20 km/hr. He showed my the official schedule for fine calculation. For each kilometer over speed limit the fine is 42.5 pesos. I told him that I entirely trust him to take the fine money in his office instead of my license and that he would do a great favor to me by handling the situation this way. Our friendly but tense discussion lasted about 30 minutes. He knew few words in English and I knew few in Spanish. Language barrier did not help speedier resolution, but kept it very civil and friendly. None of us knew any curse words in the other language. Finally he was convinced that I only want to get far from Matamoros fast and will not file a complaint when he takes the money. We departed in friendly terms. He got my fine money and I got my license back.

Taking off I discovered that I was less than a block away from the 60 km/hr zone and 2 blocks away from 80 km/hr zone. What a “lucky” day!

The road driving off Matamoros was good. It is the Inter American highway that ends in Panama after passing through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Close to Matamoros it is a 2 lane road with shoulders wider than half of the lane. In many places it has been renovated and widened to a divided 4 lane modern highway. It is not intuitive to drive on empty straight highway only 60 miles an hour, but that is the speed limit and and I did not want a second fine.

The highway is mostly built with loops around the villages, but still crosses few. The villages introduced a “Reductor de Velocidad” term in my limited Spanish vocabulary. As I have learned since these car torture constructions come in many flavors and characteristics, but since there were not many of them on this stretch of Interamericana it did not bother me.

Soon I noticed another handicap to driving an American car in Mexico and probably rest of Central America. They measure distances in kilometers, but our odometer counts miles. One has to divide all the numbers on road signs by 1.609344 before relating it to what your odometer shows. Initially tried to use a calculator, but punching in numbers while driving did not work too well. Had to develop a simple method for quick calculation instead. After all, the numbers that matter are usually not large. The analog speedometer dial on American cars have both, miles and kilometers. A quick glance on it gives you rough conversion.

It was a nice sunny day. I felt good after all the turbulence of the morning although I was obviously the obstacle on the road driving at speed limit. The road from Matamoros to CD Victoria crosses the Mexico’s agriculture region. Driving there it becomes clear that farming is an industry in Mexico like it is in US. The fields are to the horizon, warehouses and processing buildings are sizable.

I was on a look out for the “other customs” checkpoint. I passed the checkpoint described in some travel books as it had obviously been abandoned for some time. Suspense remained. Quite some miles further from the abandoned immigration and customs check point I reached the freshly built one. They waved me in, checked the documents asked where I was going and after a friendly chit-chat where I had hard time disguising my anguish they waved me off. Lack of language seems to help a lot in a situation like that. You just can not say more than absolutely minimum needed for the answer to the question. Of course, frantically sorting your brain in search for the “right word” does not feel like fun when you are at it. I did not have to spend half a day with customs checking all the tens of bags and boxes in my truck. I also did not pay extra for the luggage. At least not in Mexico. Well’ see what happens at the next border crossing.

While driving down a specific driver behavior became apparent. On a 2 lane road with wide shoulders they tend to drive half way on the shoulder. Initially I thought it was specific driver’s ill advised driving habit. Took some pictures a semi truck driving almost in the ditch. Over time I realized that by doing it the driver leaves the center of the road open for passing traffic if the opposite direction does same. Wide shoulders give enough space for safe driving. Makes sense as a courtesy to others on the road. Of course, on older bridges and other narrow should places they do drive in the middle of the lane like we do. I knew that in Costa Rica and Panama on 2 lane road slower traffic shows faster vehicles behind it to pass by blinking the left turn signal. Same is also common in Mexico. That also means that to turn left one has to first pull to the right and let all traffic behind to pass before actually turning left. Again, although unintuitive at first it is better than blocking the rest of the traffic behind you until the left turn is completed.

The red truck in front of me is not parked, but driving!


This truck is also driving!

My travel plan took me 300 km South almost to CD Victoria, then turning South East to reach the port city Tampico at 225 km on Caribbean coast of Mexico. See the trip tick and map document for specific directions. The roads in Mexico generally have good directional signs, but are cluttered by many completely irrelevant ones. For example, “observe traffic signs” (my translation) keeps on coming again and again every few kilometers. Does anyone really need to be constantly reminded of something they must have learned before they got the license?

Along the way down to CD Victoria I realized that my trip tick had some substantial problems. It was compiled from various travel stories and other people’s trip ticks after verification with special travel maps and Google maps. Some roads did not exist in real life and some distances were just plain wrong. As for sources then Google’s satellite maps are the most accurate, except their labels (road, village/town names) are very inaccurate in Mexico and most elsewhere in Central America. I heard later that Microsoft’s Bing is much better, at least in these regions. Based on the distances of my trip tick I was way past the turn to the highway toward Tampico. I pulled over to a gas station to ask. Apparently, it was still 6 km ahead of me. In general if in doubt, ask. Gas stations and police are usually the best sources.

The turn toward Tampico was clearly signed. Besides few friendly but stern military checkpoints looking for weapons my trip to Tampico was event-less. Tampico is a sizable port town with congested traffic. My trip-tick guided me on to the by-pass, just have to find the turning point in very heavy traffic. Looking for it I realized the benefit of multiple landmarks to identify the turning points. On mine one was a large Kenworth factory on the corner. Well’ it wasn’t there any more. Probably sold to someone else or just closed. The road direction sign was also changed from what the trip tick suggested. Knowing the map and remembering other locations in direction I wanted to go helped me to identify the turning point and navigate while driving alone. Make a note to study the map thoroughly before starting the daily journey if driving alone. Road signs and other landmarks do change over time.

Got around Tampico with a number of natural “Reductores de velocitat” – pot holes. To my surprise few guys working in one place were asking for a tip for me to pass. When I asked whether he gets paid to fix the road he said that this is not enough for laboring in the heat. Well’ may be, but that is the profession you chose. At the next significant pothole two Senioras were dancing frantically, boobs wobbling asking for tips. I showed them to flash to earn the tip first. The negotiations broke down because they asked too much money for flashing something I wasn’t sure will be pleasurable. Passing through a small subdivision on my way to by-pass Tampico the local ladies were also standing at the car torture constructions and asking for propina (tip). Seems they erect all kinds of speed bumps not to slow the traffic to crawl, but to have a natural place to request propina. As I remember this has happened in past history of our civilization centuries ago, but was called differently then.

Finally, on the next road down South to Tuxpan. This was the bumpiest I encountered in Mexico. A two line curvy road with no shoulders and narrow lanes meandering through pretty country side up and down the hills. The road is loaded by heavy semi-truck and bus traffic as it is the shortest way to Tuxpan, Veracruz, the Villahermosa oil fields, and other industry from Port of Tampico. One can pass a slow truck only by switching to opposite lane before someone shows up from the next curve. In some places the pavement was new and good, other places it was patched up and bumpy. The worst was always in villages as the extensive use of “Reductores de velocitat” (RV from now on) by itself destroys the pavement faster.

Here I learned few other uses for RV’s. There were literally tens of villages this road passed through and every one had multiple zones of RV’s. The large trucks and buses slow down to crawling while passing RV’s, Small cars scratch their bottoms unless the can take them in diagonal. For all it is a constant accelerating toward next RV followed by rapid breaking to avoid losing your wheels and possibly differential on the RV. It is a mess in the middle of the village and definitely not any safer for the people. The air is full of dust and exhaust gases. That can not be good, but vehicles losing their vital body parts is for a “Taller Mechanico”. I noticed a “Taller Mechanico” sign next to almost every RV zone. It does not mean that only tall Mexicans are car mechanics, though. By my Franklin dictionary Taller is a car repair shop in Spanish. Perhaps for gringos they add the “Mechanico” so that we would know where to go for suspension repair after an encounter with an RV. I saw some signs without “mechanico”, but few.

Another common occurrence is to have a little restaurant by Maria in front of a building whereas around the corner in the same building you’ll find a busy Jose mechanico. Full service for clients. While you wait for Jose to fix up your car, Maria is feeding you well and the family earns double the money. Customers are all out of the village because the locals know exactly where the RV’s are and how to cross them safely. Money comes in the village and every one wins, or does he? All of a sudden RV’s have a purpose for some, but not all. The purpose appears to be different from the one they say it is, though.

Commercial use of an RV

The road crosses mostly farming region producing fruits. In many villages farmers (mostly wives and daughters) were selling fruit and fresh juice on RV zones. I did not see anyone buying, so it is hard to tell how profitable this activity is.

Disappointed Senioras return to their base
Disappointed Senioras returning to their base

Clearly, the drivers are not happy crossing RV’s. As I have learned from my sales teachers an unhappy prospect is much harder to sell. That’s why we used to wine and dine them. Perhaps an opportunity here to enlighten the villagers about findings of modern day sales psychology.

While still on the same bumpy road by dusk, I realized that there was no chance for me to make up the lost 4 hours and reach the originally planned hotel in Costa Esmeralda. Looking out for place to crash the little hotels next to RV’s in the village did not appeal once I understood why the hotel was right there. Finally, I saw a sign in between the villages.
Good, perhaps they even have Internet as they seem to be from up North
Perhaps they even have Internet as they seem to be from up North

The building appeared rustic, but pretty. I turned in. How much? Two choices: either a room with TV for about 430 MXP ($35) or a room without for 230 MXP ($20). I did not care about TV, so opted for cheaper. Bed, shower and a car port with a giant curtain for door. Strange, isn’t it. Why car port? Why the curtain?

Auto Hotel

The lady did not speak English of course. No way to ask many questions with my improving but still limited language. After some negotiations I convinced her to take dollars for payment because I was low on pesos. I offered same rate I got at the border, she agreed. She had no clue what I wanted when I asked about internet. The accommodation was basic and bed really hard, but I was tired and did not need much. She insisted of closing the car port curtain even though I did not understand why that would be necessary. Finally she left me alone.

Looking around in the room I noticed few others bits of information. The price schedule on the door listed a 3 hour rental in addition to a day rental. Hmm, who would want a room for 3 hrs. It takes longer to sleep. Putting all the bits together it started dawning what place I ended up, but why does it matter. I used the evening to type up the events of the first part of the day and studied the maps for next day preparing myself for an early morning leave to try to catch up lost time.

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