A year ago we decided to buy a car. It wasn’t an easy decision. Mass transit here in Mérida is abundant and inexpensive, and we were uncertain what driving here would entail. But buses are also crowded and often lack air conditioning. Taxi service is inexpensive and reliable, especially since the advent of Uber prompted taxi companies to upgrade their fleets. But while taxis and Uber are great for getting from points A to B, they do not facilitate the sort of impromptu exploration that helps one become more confident in a new city. After considering the vast range of makes and models, some of which, like the SEAT and BAIC, we had never seen in the US, we settled on a small SUV that would allow us to transport a harpsichord to performance venues without hiring assistance.
The freedom to navigate streets at will brings with it the need to adjust to uniquely Mexican attitudes toward driving. We have lived in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Chicago, so I thought adjusting to driving here would be pretty routine. I was wrong.
Mexico has some perfectly fine traffic laws, but they tend to be viewed as suggestions more than rules, or perhaps many drivers are just oblivious - it’s hard to know which. Running red lights, for example, is quite common if the intersection appears to be clear.
Fines are fairly low for infractions, and one hears many stories of bribes remediating the inconvenience of a ticket. For the majority of people I know who have received traffic citations, the infraction has involved failure to use seat-belts. This is a serious matter in a town where the daily news is plastered with gruesome images of pedestrians and cyclists following collisions! Just wear the seat-belts!
Here are a few things one needs to understand up-front:
1-On the Mérida street grid even numbered streets run north-south; odd numbered streets run east-west. In Centro most streets are uni-directional. The tricky part comes when streets don’t line up, so a one-way street may become two ways just for a block or two. Since drivers park on either side of the street at will, the direction of parked cars is of no assistance. More problematic is that numbering begins anew in each colonia (neighborhood) of the city, so a single street can have three or four different numbers in the course of a mile or less. Finding an address requires knowing the colonia as well as the house number, since there are literally dozens of streets numbered Calle 7, for example, and without the colonia even GPS is at a loss. To complicate things further, there is no consistency in lane marking. Streets often narrow and broaden to accommodate surrounding buildings, so some streets are actually one and a half lanes wide for a block or so and may be two or more lanes wide a block further down. This is complicated by lax attitudes toward parking, which is supposedly prohibited in all those yellow zones where all the cars are parked!
2-Glorietas. These are roundabouts, with any number of streets feeding into them. They are ubiquitous, and come in all sizes. Some come with stop signs or lights to help control traffic flow, but most do not. These must have seemed like a good idea to someone, but trust me, they aren’t. They usually include a lovely center island and some fine memorial statuary or monuments, but they are magnets for insanity. There actually are rules for which lane to use depending on where one wishes to exit the roundabout, but it is most common that people ignore lanes altogether and take the most direct route to their chosen destination. If you do try to follow the rules you will be risking life and limb! There are varying degrees of chutzpah required to enter a glorieta, and some people are just more reticent than others, so occasionally there is a significant back-up that ensues.
3-Topes. These are speed bumps, but like glorietas they come in many sizes and shapes. Sometimes they are brightly painted to grab your attention before you destroy the suspension on your car, but just as often the paint is faded, or was never there. Some have signs on the roadside as a warning, but these are also of varying types, and are often hidden behind branches or parked cars. The easiest topes are the pedestrian topes, which are really just raised wide crosswalks. The worst are the stealth topes that are short but sharp and will make your teeth rattle when hitting them unawares. There is no apparent logic to how topes are distributed throughout town, and some blocks will have two or three in a short span, while others have none and encourage Daytona level racing. In the surrounding villages they are even more prevalent than in Mérida.
4-Right of way. In most developed countries pedestrians have a privileged position in the hierarchy of moving elements. That is less so here in Yucatán. The largest and most intimidating vehicle generally rules the day. Don’t mess with trucks, and NEVER mess with buses. They are unpredictable, irrationally hurried, and often careless. On three occasions when crossing a street near my house I have had drivers speed up and honk to intimidate me. I find it advisable always to cede the right-of-way whether walking or driving. This doesn’t always ingratiate me with the people behind me, but it has obviated many close calls.
5-Right turn on red - unless there is a clear sign marked with an arrow and/or the word “continua”, these are only allowed outside of Centro. Mexican buildings are built close to the streets and often block the view of oncoming traffic. Thus, cars will pull farther forward than we may be comfortable seeing. Doing so increases the risk of a collision, but there are few options.
6-Motorcycles. In a country where cars are beyond the reach of so many families it is no surprise that motorcycles are so popular. They are the preferred method of delivering food from restaurants and stores. Motorcyclists are required by law to wear helmets, but many do not do so, and it is common to see small children carried on the lap where neither driver nor passenger(s) have protective gear. But this never inhibits cyclists from passing between and around cars at will. I have had cyclists pass me on the right and suddenly cut across in front of me to turn left. It is essential to watch every direction at all times. Bicyclists, handcarts, pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages pose a similar challenge, but with their lesser speed they are less threatening, and just more of a picturesque annoyance.
All in all driving is an adventure here and we are glad we jumped in. Over time it has become more comfortable, and has allowed some interesting excursions to neighboring small towns, but constant vigilance and scanning eyes is certainly the rule of the day!