Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mexican roads are like a box of chocolates... never know what you're going to get. It is not at all similar to driving on US highways, where you can turn up the music and operate on autopilot. In Mexico you constantly need to be on guard. Most highways are smaller two lane roads lacking shoulders, marred by Volkswagon Beetle-sized potholes, herds of animals accompanied by cowboys on horseback cross freeways at will, adults and children bike or walk along the freeways, and freeways end unexpectedly. Maps are outdated: a paved highway we recently took was shown as a dirt/gravel road on the AAA map. Our friend's map was even worse: it showed the road as incomplete with a 300 mile gap between the two gravel sections. These are not hand me down maps, they were recent purchases.

Adding to this confusion, the signs themselves on the highways are often contradictory. While the highways themselves are numbered, we have found it much more useful to ignore these numbers and pay attention to the endpoint city as indicated on the signs. It wasn't unusual to have signs pointing in three or four different directions, each indicating a different city, but each also marked with the same freeway number. The distance to cities also seemed to be a rough guess in many instances as well. For example, when driving from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, we expected that the distance to Puerto Escondido should decrease in a regular fashion as we approached the city. However, after passing a sign indicating Puerto Escondido was 300 km away, ten minutes later the sign indicated that it was in fact 315 km away. This was not an isolated incident.

The time to drive between two distant locations is seemingly always vastly underestimated when asking directions from otherwise very helpful and friendly locals. I think maybe they want you to get there quickly, so give an overoptimistic estimate. And as road conditions can vary so widely, knowing the km distance between two cities isn’t helpful for estimating the time it can take to travel this distance. Our guidebooks provide bus schedules between cities, which we have also tried to use to estimate our driving times, but the bus drivers must be more willing to risk the lives of their passengers as the buses always seem to beat us by a couple of hours.

All of these variables came into play when we left Puerto Escondido. Our plan was to drive east to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, north through the city of Villahermosa, then east on to Palenque. This would bring us from the Pacific Ocean across the narrow isthmus of Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico. After spending the night in Tuxtla, we were told it would take about 3 hours to get to Villahermosa, and another hour to Palenque from there. Our guidebooks pointed us to a new freeway (slated for completion in 2006) to Villahermosa. The freeway still had large unpaved sections (with unmarked lanes) as construction wasn't complete. The ‘shortcut’ we then took from this highway to Villahermosa immediately turned into a rutted-out, slightly flooded windy country road, but did improve after a couple of hours. About 6 hours later (double the estimated time) we arrived in Villahermosa and decided to spend the night there, as it was getting late.

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