Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Viaje En Coche (Road Trip!)
We bought this little Honda Fit because our Puerto Vallarta neighborhood is a warren of narrow cobbled streets jammed with SUV's and pickups.
For zipping around town it's great, and we figured we'd make cross-country trips by bus or plane. But the tiny Fit has such a surprisingly roomy and comfortable interior that we decided to give it a try on our recent trip to Guadalajara, Morelia and the butterfly sanctuaries further east. We weren't sorry.
Here's Elizabeth enjoying a roadside vista while perched on the little portable throne we occasionally need to deploy between stops with plumbing. The Fit is aptly named. We had plenty of cargo space for all our gear and amenities, including E's folding bed, carriage and comfort station, and never felt cramped ourselves.
So we picked the right car for touring Mexico in the way we usually make our best choices, which is by lucky accident. Other travel wisdom, we picked up the hard way.
Mexicans are generally helpful and hospitable, so if you ask them for directions they will give you some, even if they have little or no idea how to get where you want to go.
And even when they do have a clue, their instructions often tend to be vague and general, with usefulness further degraded by the language barrier. Estimates of how long it will take you to get to any given destination are likely to be severely understated, again in the spirit of helpfulness.
And yet, the need to ask for directions is often acute and unavoidable. You may follow one of the largely unmarked state highways into a town along your way but then find yourself unable to identify the way out because signs and route numbers don't appear when they're needed if at all.
There are sometimes two ways to get from A to B, the way you want to go and another way. There may be a sign with an arrow for getting to B, but it is sure to point you to that other way.
I pored over maps for days before we left, but they turned out to be about as useful as directions from strangers.
In Guadalajara, for example, we wanted to see the vast area called Tlaquepaque, where arts and crafts of all kinds are made and sold. We used our densely printed city map and our iPhone to navigate to this famous place. All indications were that we got very close, but I blush to confess we never found it. (Friends have since told us it happened to them too.)
We had similar trouble getting to our hotel, stymied as we were in Tlaquepaque by street names that didn't match up with the map and by a conspiracy of no-turn or one-way thoroughfares that kept us from reaching the place even after we finally had located it.
Next morning, after we had actually spotted our breakfast stop, it took us another 15 minutes to get to it because the streets that led there were one-way toward us and we got disoriented looking for one that wasn't.
Pronounced TOE-pays, these are speed bumps, but not like any you've seen unless you've driven around here. Some are big enough to be nearly impassable for a small car like ours. They often come without any notice or any contrasting color that would let you see them before impact.
Topes can appear at whatever spots people or creatures are likely to use for a crossing place, which means practically anywhere, in town or out. We encountered a couple on the main freeway through Guadalajara next to a big open-air chicken restaurant with tables set out practically on the shoulder.
Speaking of freeways, there is a pretty good network of them in Mexico if you're willing to pay the shockingly high tolls. There are fuel and bathrooms at reasonable intervals, although the only food service is convenience store snacks.
One odd feature is frequent placement of non-potable water for overheated radiators. But it was reassuring to see closely spaced emergency phones for calling in the free road repair and tow service that's included with your toll payments.
Watch out on the steep descents and curves though. Mexican engineers are apparently an optimistic bunch when it comes to driver prudence and skill.
Signs suggested that we yield right of way to trucks without brakes. Hard to imagine who needs such advice, but we twice came along just minutes after big rigs had slalomed to grief on a downslope.
In cities, most businesses accept credit cards, and ATM's ("cajeros") are as ubiquitous as they are in the U.S.
But better not head for smaller towns or rural areas unless you're sure you're carrying enough cash. We got caught short and twice tried to ask directions to a cajero with all the difficulties described above, only to find that it was either out of cash or out of service altogether. By the time we finally located a working cash machine, we had scrounged pesos from the depths of every box, bag and seat cushion we had.
So altogether, I guess I'd have to say that getting there wasn't half the fun. But I add with haste and pleasure that the people and places at the end of our road each day more than took up the slack.