I would love to be able to read detailed accounts of how you drive from one place to another in Mexico, with tips on hotels, tolls, pitfalls, choices of routes and all the other things that make a journey easier and help you avoid getting lost. In talking to people I find there’s great interest in the subject, particularly if one of the parties is contemplating a specific journey. I’m writing this account of a recent trip from the Lake Chapala area to the Texas border to provide information to anyone who wants it, and also in the hope that others will feel encouraged to write about their trips to different parts of Mexico. The folks who run Mexico Connect agree that this would be a useful service for users of the web site. So, fellow travellers, how about more of you putting pen to paper ….?
My wife and I have driven from the Lakeside area to Laredo a few times on what always seemed to us, looking at the map, to be the shortest route, taking Highway 23 to Zacatecas and highway 54 from there to Saltillo, finishing the trip on Highway 85 via Monterrey. Starting early in the morning, it was easy to make Saltillo by early afternoon. Laredo was an easy hop the next morning. However, a couple of experiences on that route made us reconsider.
Heading north one morning on Hwy 23, on a particularly winding and mountainous stretch, we rounded a bend to find a car, driving too fast, fishtailing around the turn and heading straight for us. We just managed to swerve out of his path and when we looked back we could see he had ended up on the edge of the road, looking out over the edge of the steep slope and no doubt thanking his stars that he was still alive. We felt somewhat the same way and couldn’t get off that road fast enough.
On another occasion we were driving south from Saltillo to Zacatecas late in the afternoon. I never liked that road. It’s like driving through 200 miles of nothing. There are (or were) only a couple of gas stations and no villages or towns of any size – just nothing but desert. I suppose the concern about a breakdown was always in the back of my mind driving that route. Anyway, that afternoon we encountered an American in a Ford van at the side of the road. He had his wife and baby daughter with him. They had been there for four hours. His van had quit on him and he didn’t know what was wrong. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing we could do to help. Our van was filled to the roof as we were in the process of moving the last of our household possessions from Canada to Mexico. There wasn’t even room to squeeze in his two passengers. There was no way to assist them.
Guiltily we drove off and promised to try to find help. Fortunately, just a few miles ahead, we saw a Green Angel truck coming towards us and we flagged them down and told them about the Americanos who were in trouble. That made us feel a little better. However, we’ve never travelled that road since. I don’t ever want to be in the position that family were in that afternoon.
Most people we know use the Guadalajara-Aguascalientes-San Luis Potosi-Saltillo route so we decided this time to give it a try, even though it’s clearly a longer journey.
Leaving Guadalajara you take Highway 90 east to Zapotlanejo and then head north at the well-marked junction of Highway 80. You’re heading for San Luis Potosí, about 300 kms (200 miles) north. The two main towns on the way are Lagos de Moreno and Ojuelos de Jalisco. It’s a fairly straightforward cruise on toll roads.
Just before you get to San Luis Potosí there’s a curvy, mountainous downhill stretch where you lose a little time. But, otherwise, it’s straight sailing and, for some reason, it seems easier to by-pass San Luis Potosí going north than going south. But more about that later.
The next big destination is Matehuala. That particular stretch of road is a four lane highway that looks and feels like a toll road but is actually free. Matehuala is also a place to consider stopping for the night if you don’t like to drive much in one day. It’s also the almost exact halfway point between Guadalajara and Laredo. Las Palmas Hotel situated on the right in the middle of town is recommended.
From Matehuala to Saltillo and northward the roads are really excellent with good surfaces and great visibility. Except for an area immediately approaching Saltillo, which descends steadily for many miles, the area is completely flat. You just seem to be surrounded by nothing but horizon. It’s easy to bypass Saltillo and, if you desire, Monterrey, too. The roads are well marked and you’re unlikely to miss the turnoffs.
We chose to stay overnight in Monterrey, simply because we had driven for ten and a half hours – quite enough for one day. We had traveled 851 kilometers (566 miles) and it was early evening. We briefly discussed going on to Laredo but neither of us was interested.
If you do decide you want to find a hotel in that area the best place to look is where 85 veers off to the right, away from the toll road. There are several hotels nearby.
Our destination was the Royal Courts, right in town. It’s a Best Western and is quite good. We had a sentimental reason for staying there. It’s the first hotel we ever stayed in in Mexico on our first night in the country four years ago. We weren’t too impressed with the countryside we’d driven through on our way down from Laredo that first day and frankly found it a relief to drive inside the walls of the hotel grounds and find palm trees and a pool, very nice rooms and good security for the car. Now, of course, we’ve been behind lots of walls in Mexico and are ready for almost any surprise – both the good kind and the bad.
The Royal Courts is easy to get to from the highway, although you have to drive eight miles into the city. However, it’s well marked and not complicated. You stay on the same road all the time and you don’t have to make a turn until you get to the hotel. The price for one night with a good dinner was 636 pesos.
It was easy to get back on the road early the next morning and begin the 175 km drive to the border. One of the things we noted on the drive north was that there are no hotels north of Monterrey. In other words, the decision to quit driving the previous evening was a good one. We would have had to keep on going all the way to Laredo.
The total tolls from Guadalajara to Laredo, by the way, were 344 pesos. (February 1998)
About 100 kms north of Monterrey, you’ll find the well-advertised El Rancho Restaurant. It’s on the northbound side of the highway, at the toll booth, but is easy to reach from the southbound lanes. We didn’t stop there but friends have spoken highly of it. So if you’re in need of sustenance on your journey, give it a try.
One observation I must make about driving in that region of Mexico is that the highways are so much better than they were four years ago. And the services are so improved in that time, too. Could NAFTA have something to do with it? The trucks – and there are lots of them – are in much better shape. You hardly see any beat up vehicles any more. Also the gas stations are much more plentiful and easy to access. And the washrooms….! Is this really Mexico? The toilets flush; water comes out of taps, paper towels slide out of dispensers and the hot air dryers all work – every time! I mean…..we’re just not used to that kind of thing. And if you’re looking for water or soft drinks and a variety of snacks, the stores in each Pemex station are all very well stocked. I can’t think of any organization that’s managed to get its act together so well as Pemex in the last few years.
The Return Journey
Starting out from Laredo a month later we decided to divide the journey into two equal days, making Matehuala our first day’s destination. In fact, it worked out to 496 kms the first day and 530 kms the second day. We’d heard good things about Las Palmas Hotel in Matehuala and headed straight for it.
It was, in fact, a long uneventful drive that day on those same good roads. Be advised, by the way, that when we drove the most northerly toll road in early March on our return trip between Monterrey and Laredo, which is the 112 peso stretch, there was a sign stating: Suspendida acceptamos tarjetas de credito. (We’ve stopped accepting credit cards). So make sure you have enough cash.
You can’t help but make good time on the highways around Monterrey and Saltillo. We arrived at Las Palmas mid afternoon and found the place very much to our liking. The rooms are good, and quite large. The restaurant is very good, too, and we even had time to lounge in the winter sunshine by the pool for a hour or so following comida. Late afternoon a busload of square dancers from Texas arrived for a two night stay. They put on a little bit of a show early that evening but appeared to be saving themselves for a bigger event the following day.
The room and the restaurant at Las Palmas cost us a total of 652 pesos, which we considered reasonable.
We were back on the road with our usual dawn start, heading for San Luis Potosí. And once again we were on that 190 kilometer stretch of four-lane highway that looks like a toll road and feels like a toll road but doesn’t act like a toll road. In other words, it’s free.
When you approach San Luis Potosí you have to watch for the Highway 80 signs for Guadalajara. The area is also in dire need of a clean up as garbage is strewn everywhere. Don’t be distracted. Instead, keep your eyes open for signs for Highways 80 and 70 or signs for Ojuelos. We didn’t find them really that well marked. San Luis Potosí is a big highway junction and there seem to be roads going off in all directions.
A short distance south of San Luis Potosí, you’ll find yourself on a mountain road that winds around the inside of a huge deep valley. It’s hard to make speed there. There are lots of trucks struggling up the slope and there’s no guard rail. There’s quite a drop if you stray too close to the edge. Be careful and be patient – it only lasts for six or seven miles.
From there it’s a fairly straightforward drive on Highway 80 – a toll road – with lots of signs for Guadalajara. You’ll pass via Ojuelos de Jalisco, Lagos de Moreno and, near Zapotlanejo, you turn west on to Highway 90. At that point you’re only a few miles from Guadalajara.
That recent trip in February and March was a first time for us on that route. However, we found it very much to our liking. Yes, it’s longer, and there are a couple of slow spots, but the roads are generally first class and there are lots of services and enough places to spend the night, no matter what time of day you travel. I’m sure that will be our route to Laredo from now on.