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Driving through Michoacán

Mexico, through the car window


Michoacán isn't the safest state in Mexico to travel around which is a pity because it has so many interesting places to visit. Natural phenomena like the amazing migration of the Monarch butterflies which flock to its high-altitude forests in the winter, lakes full of migrating birds, colonial cities such as Morelia, the culture of the purépecha people, the fishermen of Lake Patzcúaro with their butterfly-nets, beautiful beaches along the Pacific coast, a church buried in lava at Paricutín whose belltowers protrude from the black rock... these are just some of its many interesting cultural and and natural sites.

To get to Jalisco, however, we had to drive across the state of Michoacán or take a much longer way around via Queretaro and Guanajuato, adding lots of time and kilometres to our journey. We decided that the motorway would probably be safe. It is also a well-maintained route and frequent military patrols can be seen. For those who think that outside of the big cities, all of Mexico travels on donkeys or horses or old battered cars on bumpy roads, they need to see the motorways. Some of them are excellent.

We left Mexico City early in the morning with a beautiful sunrise turning all the clouds pink at their base and climbed out of the Valle de México on the Mexico-Toluca motorway. This road snakes over the pine-clad mountains up to a height of about 3000 m (10,000 ft) and then drops down into the Toluca Valley. Temperatures were freezing and thick fog hung stubbornly over certain parts of the road. Mexico's fourth highest mountain, the volcano Nevado de Toluca (4680m/15,354 ft), looked down on us from a distance, standing out in the clear morning air. The roads were empty and the weather was crisp as we drove through the Estado de México and then into Michoacán.

The volcano Nevado de Toluca

Low-lying mist in the Toluca Valley

Thick fog

Frosty fields

Heading in the direction of Morelia and Guadalajara

A factory along the way

Clear blue skies and mountains

A bank of fog along the motorway

Beautiful mountains

Crossing from the Estado de México into Michoacán

For once, we were glad to have a few cars as company... it's always best not to be completely unaccompanied along this stretch. At one point, we met a rather long convoy of military vehicles patrolling the motorway... on the other side. Then we spent a few hours driving, through areas of pine forests, open landscapes and shallow lakes. With my camera on its fast-shutter setting, I was able to freeze some of the scenes flashing past us.

Passing one of the few trucks along the way

The well-maintained road was very empty

Small house along the side of the motorway

Part of the military convoy

Passing Lake Cuitzeo, a large lake about 20 kms long

Fisherman in his boat out on the lake

Many migrating birds stop over at this lake. We saw egrets, herons and pelicans as we passed by

A farmer walking in his field

Rounded hills in the background

A line of cattle grazing on a thin strip of land jutting into a lake

We left the motorway at Zamora, and proceeded to make our way to Mazamitla. This area is called Tierra Calliente, the Hot Country, nothing to do with the temperatures but because it is well-known for its violent clashes between rival drug cartels in Michoacán and Jalisco. We hoped we wouldn't have any nasty surprises as we drove along the smaller roads passing through the towns and countryside. Stopping for a sandwich along a lonely stretch of the road, we decided to remain inside the car... just in case. You never know.

Pointed church spires at a small town near Zamora

This is strawberry country!

Wayside stall selling fruit and vegetables

Horse waiting by the side of the road

We passed lots of cemeteries and wayside shrines where people had obviously had accidents... way too many!

The church domes at Jiquilpan

Not long after, as we moved off again, we came round a corner and drove straight into a military roadblock. We had no warning, couldn't turn around and go back or anything. Obviously, that was the point of putting it there. My first thought was, "Oh no! I hope they really are the military and not just pretending to be."

A sour-faced soldier, with a weapon that looked liked it had seen service in Afghanistan, told us curtly to get out the car. He started searching everywhere, under the seats and car mats, fingering the trim all around the windows and checking behind the mirrors. Then he motioned to me to open our bags in the back. After rummaging around in one of them, his X-ray eyes obviously indicated to him that there was nothing of interest in any of the other bags. "Where are you going?" We told him we were on our way to Mazamitla. "Why?" To visit friends and spend Christmas there. We showed him our hotel reservation. He didn't look too convinced. Shame his X-ray eyes couldn't see right inside us and judge our intentions. He would have known immediately that we were telling the truth.

By this time, his supervisor had arrived, a much more amicable person. He began to inform Josep why they were searching us. "Have you been stopped by anyone? ¿Alguien ha intentado extorsionarles? Extorsion?" No, thankfully. He warned us not to travel in this area after 7 pm. "We don't have enough units to patrol and keep this region safe!" Oh well, at least he seemed to be on our side... Together they decided we were harmless and and that we didn't have any ulterior motives and let us go. We were definitely relieved to leave Tierra Caliente and arrive in the cool green mountains of Mazamitla.

Cool green landscape

That was the only unpleasant incident we suffered but when our friend urged us not to go back that way, we took her up on her suggestion. We returned to Mexico City via Guadalajara, joining the same motorway we had come along a few days earlier and crossed Michoacán safely. We didn't want to meet up with the military or the drug cartels or the self-defense groups so rife in that area.

Driving from Mazamitla to Lake Chapala

Lake Chapala is enormous, some 80 kms long and 18kms wide...we couldn't see the other side

Town along the lakeside

A local man along the road

Jalisco is famous for its horse-riding tradition

Coming into Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city

Horses and pelicans near a lake

Man selling locally-grown strawberries along the motorway

Back in Estado de México

Selling woolly jumpers along the side of the road

We hit a heavy rainstorm

Places to eat along the motorway in La Marquesa

What we got instead was a journey through the four seasons, all in one day.

Posted by margaretm 04:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged lakes mexico driving jalisco michoacán Comments (0)

10 random things about Mexico City

1. Mexico City is sinking

Mexico City's Cathedral has been sinking unevenly.

When it was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, the city, then called Tenochtitlán, was built on an island in the middle of a lake. Then the Spaniards arrived on the scene, conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and started draining the lake to control the floods. One flood in 1629 left the city underwater for five years! Since then the waters of the lake have more or less disappeared and the reservoirs underground providing water for modern-day Mexico City are constantly being depleted as the population continues to expand. As a result, the city is sinking down into the soft former lake bed at a rate of between 8-37 cm (5-14 inches) a year.

If you thought Venice was sinking fast, Mexico City está hundiendo even faster. Between 1950 and 1980, it sank down 5 metres (16 feet). When the famous monument, the Ángel de la Independencia, was built in 1910, it only had 9 steps at the base but another 14 have been added since then as the ground around it has sunk down. As you walk around the old parts of the city, you can see colonial buildings visibly leaning over or well below road level, balconies at odd angles and cracked walls or pavements. The Metropolitan Cathedral still looks askew despite the restoration project undertaken. By 1989, the heavier bell-tower end had sunk almost 3 metres (8 ft) deeper than the rear part and the eastern tower had subsided 1 metre (3 ft) more than the western one. Inch by inch and year by year, engineers repositioned a church that weighs more than 127,000 tons and is more than 400 feet long. Since excavation work began in 1993, the entire cathedral has been ratcheted more than 1 metre (3 ft) toward level, nearly half the distance it had settled askew

2. It has more museums than any other city in the world

Tickets to some of Mexico City's museums

There are more than 160 museums in Mexico City, ranging from the enormous Museo Nacional de Antropología to some very tiny or obscure ones, including museums dedicated to Caricatures, Mexican Medicines or Telephony. In Chapultepec Park alone, you can visit 9 of them. Tickets cost 51 pesos per adult (about US$ 4 or €3) in the official ones which are free on Sundays for all Mexicans and residents. If you want to enjoy the museums without crowds, Sunday is a day to avoid, as is Monday when they are closed. Perhaps one of the strangest museum buildings is the one built by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, to house his personal collection of artifacts and paintings. Located in Plaza Carso in Polanco, it resembles a twisted tin can and is free of charge to everyone.

3. The city changes colour in March and April

Purple jacaranda trees

Sometime in March, the city starts undergoing a startling transformation when thousands of jacaranda trees begin blooming in the streets, covering the megalopolis in a beautiful purple cloak. At the height of the jacaranda season, if you stand still, you can hear the purple flowers drop off all around you and could be forgiven for thinking you're in the middle of a purple snowfall.

4. It is a massive city with millions of vehicles and NO driving test

Millions of vehicles but no driving test is needed

Unbelievable as it may seem, the only thing new drivers have to do to launch themselves into the hazardous, chaotic traffic of this city, joining another 4 million vehicles on the roads, is to buy a driving licence. There is NO driving test involved, neither a written one or a practical one. Except for 15-17 year olds, the vast majority of drivers have had no formal training in how to drive their vehicle or how to share the road correctly with other users. Authorities in the capital eliminated the driving test in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce corruption but anyone visiting Mexico City today will see that this has only created a different set of problems. Sigh!

5. The Aztec language lives on

A cultural centre where you can learn indigenous languages, including náhuatl

Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has been spoken in Central Mexico since the 7th Century AD. There are still 1.45 million people who speak it today mainly in the Valle de Mexico and it is considered a lengua nacional. You may be surprised to find that some of their words have made their way into the English language via Spanish. These include "tomato" (tomatl in náhuatl), "avocado" (ahuácatl) and "chocolate" (chocolatl or xocolatl).

6. The best time of year to drive in Mexico City

Lovely empty roads!

In 2011, IBM conducted their aptly-titled Commuter Pain Study around the world and guess which city grabbed first place? Yes, Mexico City which scored three times worse than New York. Of course, it came as no surprise to those of us who live here. The traffic snarls and congestion are notoriously bad. Yet there are a few times of the year when it can be positively pleasant to drive around the city: a few days during the Christmas holidays, at Easter and to a lesser extent, July. Why? That's when thousands of people leave the metropolis for Acapulco or other places and leave the streets empty. The only problem is... that's when we want to go away too!

7. Baking cakes is hit and miss

A successful cake baked by my kids...

Baking Brownies or cakes can be a real struggle here. Nothing to do with different flour varieties or anything like that. No, it's the high-altitude factor which forces you to re-think all your normal recipes. At over 2300 m (7000 ft), you need to make adjustments such as higher oven temperatures, less baking powder, more liquid, less sugar and who know what else. It's a case of hit and miss and experimenting. So if you have successfully baked a cake or your Brownies haven't turned out like volcanic rock while living in Mexico City, you can be very proud of yourself!

8. Blankets are needed

Colourful Mexican blankets, ideal for those chilly nights

Mostly, when you say the word "Mexico" to people, they are already imagining tropical beaches and warm climes. And when you say "Mexico City" they think the same, but add a huge city to the scene. However, the weather is Mexico City is influenced by its location in a high-altitude "bowl" surrounded by mountains. This means it is COOL all year round, except for a couple of months. As many houses don't have central heating, it often gets chilly at night, especially in January and February when temperatures can drop to as low as -4 °C and chances are you may need one of those typical Mexican blankets on your bed to keep you warm. Ironically, many of us during the winter wear our jackets inside the house and take them off when we go outside.

9. Mexico City is relatively safe

Army truck patrolling in the Centro Histórico

Statistics show that the capital is becoming a refuge for people fleeing from other areas around the country which have seen an increase in violence and crime. In general, Mexico City is safe as long as you take certain precautions... like in any other big cities in the world. Some say the drug cartels have left it alone because this is where their families live, although we have had some grisly episodes recently not too far from us. Others say that the Federal Police in DF are better paid and therefore less corrupt than in other states. Who knows?

10. The city has floating gardens and canals

Canals and trajineras in Xochimilco

Down in the south of Mexico City is an area called Xochimilco, famous for its chinampas and canals. Here the Aztecs created chinampas, or floating gardens, on the shallow waters of the lake, Lago Texcoco. They did this by making rafts of juniper branches and heaping soil and mud from the lakebed on top of them. They then tied these rafts to juniper trees and used them as vegetable plots. Today, there are still around 200 of these islands which are used to grow flowers and other crops and they are part of the Xochimilco World Heritage site. You can go for rides along the canals in colourful, flat-bottomed boats called trajineras.

Posted by margaretm 13:29 Archived in Mexico Tagged traffic museums canals driving mexico_city climate safety cakes xochimilco jacarandas baking sinking lakebed aztecs spaniards floating_gardens Comments (0)

'Tis the season for driving madness

'Tis the season.....


Just about everywhere, December is known as the season of goodwill and brings generous quantities of Christmas spirit.... except, it seems, to the roads of Mexico City. Here it marks the beginning of a time of increased road misery which multiplies drastically as shopping centres and markets fill up with glittering wares to lure consumers out, local authorities decide to undertake major road works, and millions of travellers battle to get through chaotic bottlenecks and traffic jams on their way to and from work, school, home or the shops. Driving, an all-out fight to survive at the best of times, becomes twice as hazardous at this time of year and is guaranteed to fray the nerves of even the most seasoned driver. I say "driving" but sometimes I wonder if this really is the correct word. "Bulldozing" is probably a better one. Other words that readily come to my mind are "slicing", "steamrolling", "shoving", "squeezing", "pursuing" and a host more. Not much peace and goodwill at all.

Huge bottleneck on the way down from Santa Fe

Going nowhere very fast

Two cars collide

Result of dangerous driving

Actually, having lived in DF for over two years, I think I've finally cracked one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. I mean, let's be honest... are there any Rules of the Road in Mexico City? Does the Highway Code exist in this teeming metropolis? If so, where do you find out about it? If not, how do you know how to drive?

These questions and many more like them have been bothering me ever since I arrived in Mexico. I can now say that, after driving more than 20,000 kms in the city and covering many more as a passenger in other vehicles, I think I've finally cleared up this mystery. If there is a Highway Code, no-one has seen it. So in the absence of any written rules, I've decided to enlighten road users on the subject of good Mexican driving practices. According to my observations and experience, these seem to be the main rules:



1. To become a legal driver, you need to buy a driving licence for 605 pesos, which you do by showing some ID and having a photo taken. Don't worry, no test is necessary and no questions will be asked as to whether you know how to drive.

2. The Rules of the Road can be summed up in four small words: DO WHAT YOU WANT.

Chaos - everyone going where they want

3. In the interests of your own safety, you should ALWAYS, without fail, give way to BIGGER vehicles and PUSHIER drivers. These include, especially, PESEROS (small green and white buses falling apart and driven like bumper cars), MICROBUSES, school buses, trucks and shiny black cars with tinted windows driven by guardaespaldas or bodyguards. It doesn't matter who is in the right. This is absolutely essential for your survival.

Two peseros competing for road space

A school bus gets a bit too close for comfort

Keep away from big trucks

4. Traffic lights and other signals are useful recommendations. If you need to get somewhere quickly or keep the flow of traffic going, ignore them. Red lights should only be obeyed when there is absolutely no possibility of doing anything else.

Go or stop??

Road sign saying you have to come to a complete halt when the light is red!

5. You should avoid using indicators if at all possible. Signalling your intention to other drivers will result in them trying to take advantage of you or preventing you from carrying out your desired manoeuvre. If you really want to use them, do as the bus drivers do and confuse other road users by putting the left indicator on when turning right or coming to a standstill.

6. Emergency hazard lights (all four indicators flashing at the same time) are for those occasions when you want to stop dead in the middle of fast-moving traffic (follow the clear example of taxi drivers) or wish to park for an indefinite period of time in rather busy lanes.

7. You must learn the SUDDEN LANE SWITCH manoeuvre as soon as you can since it will be extremely useful and is one of the most frequently used turns. This consists of waiting till the last minute and then without any warning or indication, changing lanes using a very quick, diagonal move. If you can do this across three or four lanes, the effect is much more spectacular.

8. Roundabouts are key components of traffic jams. In general, you should go around them in an anti-clockwise direction although there are some special ones which allow you to go either way around. The general idea is to take up your position and contribute to a total interlocking system whereby no-one can move. When circumstances require, or where there is very heavy traffic, just drive the wrong way around to get to your turn-off more quickly. If you are not sure how this manoeuvre works, observe police cars carefully and follow suit.

Total chaos at a roundabout - the fountain is in the middle!

9. When joining a major road from the side, pull out directly into the oncoming traffic, preferably without looking. Other road users will make the appropriate adjustments to accommodate your joining.

10. Any empty space at junctions should be filled. Move into the space as quickly as you can, even if it means blocking the way for others, and stay there until the light turns green again for you. Ignore horns or glares.

No moving for anyone!

Blocking the way

11. Waiting in line patiently is for drivers who have lots of time. If you are in a hurry or don't want to wait, you can jump the queue and butt in. This helps keep the traffic moving. If you have to drive the wrong way down a one-way street or down the opposite side of the road, do it quickly.

The yellow bus and car are going down the wrong side of the road to jump the queue

12. Never engage eye contact with other drivers since they may be rather annoyed at you pushing in front of them or blocking their way.

13. Look ahead at all times. Avoid getting distracted by looking behind or to the side.

14. When everything else fails to help you advance or jump the queue, just open your window and stick your hand out and wave it up and down energetically. This should work because if someone injures you, they will have to pay for the hospital fees.

15. Police cars have a cruising speed of 20 kmph at normal times and always have their lights flashing. If you see them behind you with flashing lights, it does not mean they have caught you doing something wrong. They just want to be seen and cause nearby drivers to have epileptic fits, especially in a traffic jam. If there is an emergency, or sometimes just to get through solid traffic, they will use their sirens.

Police car with flashing lights cruising along at 20 kmph.

16. If you are stopped by a policeman, make sure you have two surnames as it will make things much quicker. If not, they have to decide what to put in the second space on the traffic fine and that can take a while to work out.

17. Park at your own risk. The city's gruas or tow-trucks will remove you from anywhere within seconds, even if you are in the right. It will then take you many hours and a hefty fine to reunite you with your car. Police cars, however, can park anywhere they want without any unpleasant consequences, especially if they need to have breakfast or consult their cell phones.

Parking close to stop the tow-truck taking them away?

18. Lanes are often very narrow. You should learn as soon as possible to drive quickly using a weaving movement to avoid hitting other cars' mirrors or other parts of large vehicles. The faster you go, the more exciting it is. The primary role of side mirrors is to make sure other vehicles keep a certain distance and do not scratch your car. Secondary uses include putting on make-up, plucking eyebrows, and checking hair.

A tight squeeze along Reforma

Close encounters

A motorbike trying to squeeze between a bus and a car

Completely hemmed in by buses and trucks

19. When there are three or more lanes going in the same direction, you should stay in the middle lane, regardless of your speed, where you will feel safer. Overtaking can take place on either side.

20. When driving in dark conditions, it isn't compulsory to put on your headlights, even though they are in working order. You will save your battery and other road users will not be able to anticipate what you are going to do.

21. Vehicles should be kept reasonably well-maintained from a mechanical point of view. Try not to drive with items falling off or dragging along the ground since this may attract the attention of the police. Ensure that cracked windscreens and broken windscreen wipers do not totally impair your view of the road ahead.

A VW Beetle missing a few bits and pieces

22. Using cell phones while driving is prohibited but since everyone does it, you should make sure your calls are not too long. Texting while driving requires more practice.

23. Drivers should be attentive to any modifications to the surface, layout or work being carried out on the roads. Gaping holes, missing manhole covers, broken drains, road works and unscheduled changes in the use of specific roads may not be duly signalled so you have been warned.

A couple of mops to warn motorists


At least they put a tyre there!

A taxi with a wheel wedged down an unmarked gaping manhole!

24. Speed bumps (also known as "sleeping policemen") have been placed on most roads to promote road safety by slowing vehicles down. Some are marked and others are camouflaged. If you want your car suspension to last for at least 4 months, it is recommended that you learn where they are.

25. Signs informing motorists about the speed limit are non-existent since drivers pay no attention to them anyway.


I hope these rules will be of use to anyone planning on getting behind a steering wheel in Mexico City. In the unlikely case that an official Highway Code or Reglamento de Circulación does exist, it must be buried deep under a towering mound of bureaucracy, waiting to be discovered like ancient Aztec treasure. Given that there are still about three weeks until Christmas, the DF authorities could consider organising an archival dig to unearth it and a copy could be wrapped up and given to every household as a Christmas present. A case of spreading some goodwill, good sense and good driving practices.

An assortment of road users

Sign seen on a truck sums the attitude up well - "May God go with me, and if I don't return, I've gone to be with Him!"

Posted by margaretm 05:31 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico driving roads city transport Comments (2)

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