Traveling in Mexico by car, plane, bus and taxi
Is driving in Mexico safe? Can I take my young children in the car? Are the toll roads expensive?
There are so many questions and stories about driving in Mexico. Unless you're in Chiapas, driving is just as safe here as in the States or Canada (IMHO). That's "In my humble opinion," for those of you unfamiliar with the term.
I drove down with a friend two years ago July. Other than it being hotter than anything I can remember, we had no problems. We stayed on the toll roads, because they're faster and we were anxious to get here. The toll roads are new, in excellent condition and have very light traffic. They're not cheap, although the prices are going down and most take credit cards. It's better, I think, to have a wallet-full of pesos for the tolls.
Even AAA warned me of driving down here. The books I read said never let your tank get below half-full. There are plenty of Pemex stations on all the toll roads. It's never been a problem, and all of them have Magna-Sin. That's unleaded and works for most of our cars. The toll roads are well marked, typically indicating the next largest town on the green overhead signs.
When we stopped for meals or lodging, I locked my car. We kept our bags out of sight in the trunk. No use inviting trouble. Many friends, however, have driven down with vans and station wagons chock-a-block full and not run into any banditos -- except for the customs officials! I don't recommend driving at night -- not because of banditos, but because of cows, dogs, horses, donkeys and other assorted impediments that walk into the path of cars. It's dangerous. And, in the villages, there may be pot holes or construction areas that are not well marked. Until you're used to the roads and know where you're going, I advise stopping before nightfall and definitely before you're tired.
Now, driving in Guadalajara is another matter. It's not for the faint of heart. A lot of folks absolutely refuse to drive in the city. It's a city of six million people and unless you think getting lost is part of the fun of discovering a new place, you probably shouldn't tackle it. Street signs, if they exist at all, are normally small little signs on the corner building that you can't read from your car. One way streets, if marked at all, aren't indicated on the maps. Round-abouts, or gloriettas, as we call them down here, rival the ones in Paris. The one with the most guts, or biggest car, gets the right of way.
I drive in the city often. I can get around without a map now and there's so much to see and do in the city. I also like to shop and don't like to cart things around on the bus, so I learned to drive there. Besides, after your car gets baptized (first scratches and dents), then it isn't so bad after all.
At least, we have excellent body work folks here and the prices are reasonable, so go ahead, give it a go. What are a few more dents among friends? Just another story to tell when you get back home.
I spent my first month here without a car. It's really a better way to see the cities and villages. The bus system is very good and very cheap (less than 20 cents for most rides). You need to learn to step on, hang on and dig out your money without falling down when getting on. I'm convinced the bus drivers have a pool and once a week, the driver who caused the most passengers to fall down, wins! The little village busses can be crowded; but the inter-city busses are first class -- better than anything I've been on in the states. Roomy seats, English movies with Spanish subtitles, bathrooms and in some cases, snacks.
They have overhead storage as well as additional storage under the bus. You can easily get from major city to major city as well as to the beach towns, colonial villages and any place else you want to go. Then, if you're not sure where you're going when you get there, just hail a cab and for a few more pesos you'll be there, rested and having had a chance to enjoy the scenery enroute.
There are many charter bus tours -- a day into Tonala or Mazamitla, two days to Aguas Calientes, three days to San Miguel de Allende or Morelia, or all-inclusive five-day trips to the beach or Copper Canyon. There's something for everyone.
Taxi's are readily available and inexpensive. Most taxi drivers are honest (at least in the areas that are not real touristy). Ask someone at your hotel or restaurant about what the charge should be and then ask the driver before you get in. Often, they'll deal a bit with you.
In Guadalajara some are marked $10 or $15. That means they'll take you anywhere in the city for $10 or $15 pesos. At the airport in Guadalajara, you buy a ticket from the taxi booth. It's a fixed price. You give the taxi driver the ticket. That's all there is. They're friendly and most understand some English, although you'd be well advised to have the address written down and a few phrases memorized. Or bring along a Spanish/English dictionary. It's easy to arrange for a taxi driver to pick you up early for a departing flight. Most are very dependable. They want referrals when you're in an area where people live rather than just pass through.
Taxi's generally look in pretty good shape, but a friend of mine always bounces on the back of the taxi to see if it still has shocks before getting in! She's a tall girl and doesn't like hitting her head on the roof every time the taxi hits a hole in the ground or a tope (speed bump).
At some of the larger hotels, taxi's or other tour guides (bi-lingual) are available to give you personal tours of the city.
I got stuck one time in Ajijic (I was staying in Guadalajara for intensive Spanish lessons at the time). My friend and I came in by bus, had a wonderful meal at Billy Moon's, and left after 11 p.m. No more busses. No more taxis. It was a Sunday and they had all called it a night. We walked the mile back into town, found a B&B and spent the night. Another story.
Not much I can tell you that you don't already know. Arriving in the Guadalajara airport, you're bussed from the plane to the terminal, and all international flights go through customs. There are two lines -- one for nationals and one for the rest of us. It's pretty painless. Show the visa, get it stamped, answer a couple of questions and then pick up your luggage. After it's retrieved (and there are plenty of carts for your use), proceed to the dreaded "button." Press it. Green light means walk on through; red light means you get to open your luggage. It's irritating when you're tired and want to start your vacation, but it doesn't take long and as long as you're not a smuggler, they'll just go through and then wave you on.
If you have boxes, bring extra tape to close them up again, since that's not a service offered by the customs' folks. See all these lessons you get to learn the easy way! Outside customs, men are ready to help with your luggage. There are cabs and rental cars available. Nothing too different from any other international airport.
Then, of course, there's walking. It's my favorite way to enjoy Mexico. You can smell the Jacarandas, hear the sounds of the streets, watch the Mexican children frolicking on the sidewalks, and stop in at the unique shops to spend a few pesos or grab a bite to eat from a street vendor. Just watch those cobblestones and bring comfortable shoes.