I’m not the best of drivers. I think my problem is a lack of confidence – there’s nothing worse than a half-arsed or hesitant move in heavy traffic. So it might have been a bit ambitious to hire a car in Mexico for two weeks. I was expecting aggressive drivers, disdain for road rules and basic courtesy, intimidating military checkpoints, and varying road conditions. I got all of these things to some extent, but I also survived to tell the tale, with only minor damage to the car!
I hired the car out of D.F. (that’s Distrito Federal, or Mexico City as most of you probably know it), and having already spent a bit of time in the city I was well aware that drivers here are particularly aggressive. Couple that with a ginormous city and my first time behind the wheel in Mexico and I was understandably fairly nervous about getting out of the city. Luckily the first few days of the trip was spent with a group of friends, and Carlos kindly offered to navigate us safely out of D.F. and bring us to the nearby city of Cuernavaca. Potential mental breakdown avoided!
Cuernavaca is a popular weekend destination for Capitalinos (those hailing from the capital, duh) having a pleasant climate year round. It is even known as the City of the Eternal Spring. We spent a couple of days at a friend’s holiday house, including a trip to the nearby village of Tepoztlan where I ate what I think is my favourite Mexican food so far – Itacates. Unfortunately they are only made in Tepozotlan so I will have to make do with the memory of the two I had there. We met up with some more friends there and brought them back with us, challenging the capacity of the tiny Hyundai. Of course I rented the smallest and therefore cheapest available, which definitely wasn’t meant to carry seven people and a ton of beer, but it did the job really well!
Leaving Cuernavaca we said goodbye to Carlos, Chile, Alexa, Pablo Parce and Parce Primo (that’s Colombian Pablo and Colombian Pablo’s cousin, respectively) and it was down to me and my trusty co-pilot Berna. Although Berna can drive he doesn’t have a licence so I did the rest of the driving myself, and I must say I was quite proud of how well I did. I had one little run-in with a taxi while trying to reverse park (low-speed maneuvers never were my forte) but luckily the damage was minimal and in an already damaged part of the car, so they didn’t even notice (shhhh don’t tell!).
We didn’t make it very far that first day due to heavy traffic, so spent the first night in a town called Izucar de Matamoros, which was surprisingly good fun. They had a great little Christmas market with good food and a lovely little plaza where a concert was taking place and all the locals were out in the holiday spirit.
The next day we took our first toll road – there are loads in Mexico and they are pretty expensive so we avoided them where possible, and in fact I found driving on the fast toll roads more stressful than the slower, windy secondary roads. The highway was only two lanes, ie one each way, but with very wide shoulders that are used for overtaking. Kind of. Imagine trying to overtake someone who is half on the shoulder, therefore forcing you half into the lane of opposing traffic, hoping that cars coming the other way move half onto their shoulder to give you space… This is how they drive! And I didn’t like it one bit. Still, we made it to Oaxaca in one piece, found accommodation with parking and settled in to spend Noche Buena and Navidad in one of the most famous Mexican cities. You can read about how I spent the holiday season here.
One of the obvious benefits of having a car over taking public transport is that you can get to destinations that would be harder to access on buses. From Oaxaca we headed into the Sierra del Norte, a picturesque mountain range that borders Oaxaca to the north. It was here that we camped for the first time on the trip. It was a beautiful and solitary spot by a little river, but it was also fr-ickin-freezing cold and the wood that we bought for a campfire was damp and refused to light. Half a bottle of whiskey helped to some extent but it was a loooong and shivery night.
Leaving the Sierra del Norte behind we headed to the pre-hispanic ruins at Mitla, which was the most important site of the Zapotec culture. As far as ruins go Mitla left me feeling a bit disappointed. You probably have to be really interested in pre-hispanic cultures to get the most out of it. My memory of the place probably isn’t helped by the fact that that night I got sick for the first time in Mexico. I lasted over two months without any issues so I think I did pretty well! And it’s not like it was the fault of my weak foreign guts because Berna was sick too. Yes, Mitla was not our favourite destination.
Thankfully the next stop more than made up for the disappointment, being one of the highlights of the trip. Hierve el Agua is the name given to a system of petrified waterfalls (an awesome name at that – it translates as water boils) not far from Mitla. As well as being an awesome natural phenomenon, the mountainous location is stunning. We swam in the pools (cold!), ate well, and camped the night, this time with a roaring campfire and friendly neighbours. The stars out there were gorgeous as well.
We varied up the scenery after that, driving south to the coast. This was when we encountered our one and only military checkpoint (I was expecting more). We had to get out while they searched the car – they were a bit suspicious of Berna’s pipe but he just smokes tobacco, and we were waved on fairly quickly. The following stint was the hairiest part of the trip, as we had to pass a never-ending mountain range where the road was in particularly bad condition. I’m talking landslides and parts of the road just fallen away down the mountain, leaving gaping holes with maybe a strip of tape as a warning, if we were lucky. It was a looong drive, and I was glad to make it to Puerto Angel. Well, I was glad for about 10 minutes – Puerto Angel was a very strange place. The people there seemed to fall in to two categories – crusty, drunk old gringo, or local resident several cans short of a six pack. Seriously, everyone was very odd. And for some reason all the accommodation was full. We finally got a place to stay but were pretty quick to leave in the morning.
Luckily just a bit further along the coast were some much more promising options. We passed by the hippie hang out of Zipolite, stopping instead at the next beach called San Agustinillo. It was gorgeous. The water was perfect and there were waves and it reminded me of beaches at home. That was another highlight – free camping on the beach with a bottle of mezcal and a big bonfire – we brought the wood along with us from la Sierra del Norte and finally got the bloody stuff to burn!
The very next beach was Mazunte, where we spent New Years. The beach itself wasn’t as nice as San Agustinillo but it had a beautiful headland that we walked out to and climbed down a sketchy cliff to get to a rock pool where the waves washed in, appropriately named the Jacuzzi. As I mentioned in my previous post, it was cool to be on the beach with a bunch of Mexican tourists, rather than feeling like it was an off-shoot of the States.
Thanks goodness that when leaving Mazunte the next day we had another option rather than driving back over that huge mountain range. I couldn’t face it again! We still had to tackle some mountains but they were nowhere near as high or extensive. But even so, it was very slow going. We learnt that whatever timeframe Google Maps gave us, to at least double it. I don’t think Google takes into account an average speed of 40kph. We stopped for the night in some random town along the way – another strange place where the most notable aspect was the abundance of public toilets.
Happily we were close to Oaxaca so the next morning we dropped by to have breakfast in the market – enchiladas de mole is breakfast food right? From there we visited the Mixteca site at Monte Alban. I really enjoyed these pyramids. The mountaintop location was beautiful and peaceful, and we were lucky that the weather added to the atmosphere, with brooding clouds and bursts of sunshine. We spent a good couple of hours wandering around before hitting the road again. With only a couple of days to make it back to D.F. we had a lot of ground to cover. We spent the night in another random town along the way where I tried an “arab taco”. Who would have guessed? To me it was a kebab.
With sadly only one night left before our inevitible return date, I was glad we made it to the beautiful colonial city of Puebla. It was, however, the most stressed I felt driving during the whole trip. For some reason getting into the city took ages, the traffic was very heavy, and there was a distinct lack of signage. Thankfully we finally made it and the beauty of the old centre soon cheered me up. That, and cemitas – a local speciality which is really just a tasty sandwich. I had cemitas for lunch and dinner that day, and didn’t even try the famous mole poblano, and I was OK with that!
Puebla had a whole load of stuff going on for Christmas so that night we watched some story telling in the main plaza (sposed to be for the kiddies but I enjoyed it), took some awful free bikes for a spin (dodging pedestrians is fun!) and saw a light show on the Cathedral (like what they do for Vivid fest in Sydney) that told the story of the history of the city. I always love it when there is free outdoor stuff going on that gets everyone out in the streets, but damn it was cold that night!
I woke up the next day feeling awfully sick but at least we had no plans but to get our butts back to D.F. by 1pm. Getting out of Puebla was just as stressful as trying to get in. What looked on the map like it should have been an easy few manouvres onto the toll road ended with us lost and heading in the wrong direction and making up U-turns to get us at least facing the right way. Once we were at least pointed toward D.F. we ended up on the highway and it was only a couple of hours back to the capital. I was not looking forward to facing the dreaded D.F. traffic for the first time, but after nearly two weeks of dealing with Mexican roads I was driving like a total Chilango! (that’s a person from Mexico City)
Every time I return a hire car damage-free (or close to!) I feel a real sense of achievement. The feeling is magnified because I know I didn’t waste money on insurance that I didn’t need in the end. Not that it was a choice as I certainly couldn’t afford anything but the compulsory third party coverage. Knowing that you’re responsible for the value of the car should anything happen makes the trip just that little bit more exciting, don’t you think?
So back in the big city, and vehicle free, we slung our newly re-packed backpacks over our shoulders and trudged off to take the metro, much more in keeping with the backpacker image than living it up with a car! It was a great trip and definitely worth the few headaches – in general driving in Mexico was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be! Would you do it?