We had read many helpful internet articles and interrogated other cruisers about driving in Mexico but that left us only partially prepared. Knowing and doing are two different animals. Despite all the helpful info, it was nerve-racking for the entire 3 days… and I wasn’t even driving. Once we did it the first time though, going back down was a breeze; now we know what to expect.
The road itself, while in excellent condition overall, was slow. We averaged a whopping 40mph over 980 miles. Our 3-day drive consisted of 5hr/9hr/11hr days, with that last day including 2 hrs of border crossing time. This was a no lunch stoppage, gas/pee only kind of trip. Ok, just once - Carl's Jr. in Ensenada. Yeesss. Guilty as charged.
The reason for our slowness was many:
Roaming livestock: Mexico has zero highway fencing as we do in the US. Our first encounter included cows AND cops; the Federale was herding several of them off to one side with his patrol car. Along the way we also warily eyed many fidgety goats in the ditches several feet away but luckily they didn’t seem to want to jump out at us like deer. Dogs are always running about. Burros were often tied up to a tree along the highway - I don’t get that. One cow stood unmoving right on the white line grazing on scrub grass… “F.U.” it said, as we honked our way by. Luckily, we passed the animal obstacles pretty easily.
Average speed limit of 60 kph. That’s like 40 mph. Seriously. Is this Florida? And of course we were afraid to go faster (on the trip up) fearing a ticket. The highest we ever saw was 100kph = 62mph but that was rare, even on a straight-away; 80 kph was quite often = 47mph; 40kph = 24mph was very often. Why?
Curves galore. Rocky, mountainous terrain is the norm along much of Highway 1. Mountains equal curves…curves with sheer drop-offs and no shoulders and semi’s bearing down us around a blind corner veering 1/3 of the way into our lane. We were glad our tiny rental car squeezed though those scary moments. Several times, I might add. We drove behind a semi with his outside dually wheel hanging off the concrete, mid-air. Nail-biting. Not as bad as driving some of the back roads in the Rockies but this IS supposed to be a highway. I can’t imagine driving this road in the 1970’s.
Did I mention no shoulders? While it is apparent this major arterial highway has received significant attention, there are still quite a few stretches with no shoulders. I’m talking white line painted right on the crumbling concrete edge, no gravel border, just dropping off sharply into a ditch… or a mountain valley. No biggie. I envisioned one slight wrong move and cart-wheeling the car instantly. Did I say I was anxious?
Speed bumps. Our nemesis. We found speed bumps on seemingly every curve, in front of every checkpoint, and in towns of all sizes… down to not-even-a-town with just 1 house/store. The gigantic ones are neck-wrenchers and suspension-killers at 2-3x the normal size, I estimate 5ft thick x 8”high. They really get your attention when you don’t see them. Why? Because they are rarely painted! Usually there is a warning sign…usually. In towns we watch for the lead vehicle’s sudden jolting motion as an affirmation of their existence.
Rumble Strips! Often, these speed "mountains" are preceded by the same jarring rumble strips that we use in the US, increasing in proximity and annoyance the closer you get to “the big one”. These strips are also found around curves. I know they save lives, but here they almost always stretch across the entire road. Great when approaching a curve, but then you are forced to stay slow and be subjected to 20 strips again on the way out! Caution, you just exited a sharp turn. Head-scratching. Our rental car was a brand new 2015; I’m sure it has aged at least 2 years in 3 weeks due to hundreds of speed bumps wreaking havoc on the suspension.
Military checkpoints: We went through probably 8 or so checkpoints each way, so many we lost count. It made me nervous at first, but they were all courteous and are really just on the lookout for drugs and guns. They are performed by either the military or the Federales and we were never asked for a bribe. Most inspections are cursory. The officer asks where you are coming from and where you are headed. Know how to say: Venimos de San Diego y vamos a La Paz. He says: “Ah, vacaciones?” You say “Si. Vacaciones.” He does a visual sweep of the car and waves us through.
A few times we weren’t even stopped. Sometimes there is a more thorough inspection where we both have to get out, open all the doors and 2 or more officers go through the car. Essentially they open some bags, poke around and they are done. This only happened 3 times. We had our solar panels in the trunk (weird for a vacationer right?) - they were given only a cursory glance. We used Brian’s green, canvas, military duffle bag for a suitcase (ugly but durable and fits flat under our V-berth when not traveling) and we were questioned as to what was in it and searched every time…looks blatantly military and therefore suspicious. Funny thing is I kept using the wrong word for clothes…What’s in that manly military bag? Dresses! (FYI…clothes = ropa, not vestidos). Oops… no wonder they looked at me funny.
Misc. Potholes were sometimes annoying but rarely a real issue, we’ve seen much worse. At one point the road went through an arroyo that had been overtaken with sand. Good thing it hadn’t rained. Major road construction just outside of La Paz continued for several rough, dusty miles but even after two weeks we could see significant progress.
Some things we learned:
Their way of notifying you of roadwork ahead is to set up a few cones. Or not.
We learned that seeing hazard lights from an oncoming car is a very helpful warning of an obstacle ahead and to slow down… not really for speed traps (we saw none, not sure if that’s a thing here) but animals, rocks, road workers or construction.
Stop signs and license plates are optional for all Mexicans, but essential for tourists. Better not do that California roll just in case someone is watching.
Passing is definitely a concern. Everyone uses the left turn signal to indicate it’s safe to pass since this is a 2-lane road most of the way, and there’s no such thing as a temporary passing lane. Are they slowing because they want me to pass or because they are actually turning left? Caution is key. We were passed on a blind hill, we also saw one impatient guy barely miss being crushed by an oncoming car. I am not so sure these aren’t time-obsessed Americans needing to go faster.
Defensive driving in Mexico takes a different skill set than in San Diego with its texting teenagers and road rage. I feel you definitely must scrutinize every car and pedestrian (and cow) in view much more here than in the states, constantly pondering their intentions. People just do stuff you don’t think they are going to: cross the street without looking, backup without looking, run through stop signs. (hmm reminds me of which state again?) The good thing is people are polite and slow about it. We don’t get the finger, we don’t get honked at, and we don’t get wild gesticulations of offense. It’s not Rome. It’s not NYC. But it’s still anxiety-provoking to me.
So I left all the driving to my helicopter pilot and he performed the task exceptionally well, as usual, but I did make him miserable. A sharp intake of breath here, a flinch there, grabbing the door armrest for impact, a quiet “look out”, “lady in pink on your right“, “you might want to slow down there’s a checkpoint ahead”. In my defense, I don’t know if he sees the small road signs or notices that pink-shirted woman crossing the road from an odd angle or not, therefore it’s in our best interest for me to point these potential catastrophes out …each and every time…just in case. We are in a foreign country, and getting in any accident no matter how minor, is something I don’t want to deal with…period. Brian is happy to be rid of the car, only so he doesn’t have to hear me say “speed bump” one more time.
More on the scenery part of the Road Trip in a few days...