Keeping It On the Road in Mexico

Driving habits and sensibilities around the perceived benefits of following the rules of the road varies greatly by culture around the world. Things like adherence to traffic signals and controls, maintaining a driving lane and driver courtesy are different wherever you go. The level of attention displayed by drivers can be wildly different between individuals wherever you live, but it is still fair to say that driving conditions in general can be categorized by the country where you live.

Let’s be honest. Each of us judges the driving habits of others by our own standards. Anybody who drives much faster than we do is a ‘maniac’, while those who drive much more slowly are ‘sloths’. (I personally refer to slow drivers as ‘pylons’, but you get the idea.) Nobody actually believes they are a ‘bad’ driver. In fact, if you ask most people, they would probably describe themselves as an ‘above average’ driver, regardless of their skills.

Part of the problem with driving in many countries is the low bar that is set for new drivers. In Canada, things have changed dramatically since I took my driving test thirty-some years ago. Today, Canada has a graduated licensing system in most provinces that requires new drivers to spend time behind the wheel with reduced privileges. In other countries (like many European nations), getting licensed is a much more demanding process.

A friend was recently telling me about his experience with getting his driving license in Mexico. (Licensing is mandatory here, although anecdotal evidence would suggest that many people don’t bother with getting a license. They just slip the traffic cop a few pesos to ‘make it all better’ if they get pulled over.) The driving test is conducted on a video simulator. My friend said the test lasted all of 30 seconds. It involved him starting his virtual car and driving along a street. As he approached an intersection, the traffic light changed from green to amber. He decided to play it safe and stop (rather than running the yellow, as everyone here does). The instructor told him he did great and approved his license. That was the entire test.

Mexico is a very different driving culture than Canada. That statement alone fails to capture the awe and amazement induced by the state of driving here in Santiago de Querétaro. In Canada, driving is generally very orderly. There are specific rules of the road that apply, even when there are no posted traffic signs. For example, at an uncontrolled four way stop, drivers arriving simultaneously must yield to the driver on their right. Here in Mexico, drivers arriving simultaneously immediately push into the intersection, since whoever has their nose into the flow of traffic first has right-of-way. Hesitation by any driver just causes frustration, and amazingly, as long as everybody keeps moving (regardless of traffic signs to the contrary), things seem to work out 95% of the time. (Of course, the other 5% of the time the largely contention-based driving system here in Mexico resolves itself in damage and injury.)

The first three months of driving here in Mexico were difficult and confusing. The bizarre layout of certain intersections, strange mid-road traffic reversals and incomprehensible traffic controls made for a bumpy introduction to driving in a Latin American country. Oddly, the very things that I thought were so strange originally now seem ‘normal’! I remember being really worried about having to drive across the city for shopping. Navigation was confusing, and Google could barely keep up with the frequent exits and U-turns required to get to our destinations. Traffic was always pressing in on every side. If you dare to allow a car-length between you and the vehicle ahead of you, other drivers from both sides (including from the shoulder of the road) will jump into the gap. It was amazing to me that otherwise friendly, courteous people you meet on the street could turn into such aggressive traffic jockeys when situated behind a steering wheel!

When we first moved to Mexico in 2018, I brought with me a high-quality dash cam, as I was concerned about the driving and wanted to be sure that there was a clear record of events if I should ever find myself involved in a dispute after an accident. That camera has provided me with plenty of opportunities to capture Mexico driving at its finest. For that reason, I am pleased to share with you with my Querétaro driving compilation.

I hope you enjoy the video! Comment below to tell me what you liked the best.

Textiles in Peña de Bernal

Every so often, I really feel the need to escape the city and visit one of the fetching small towns scattered across central Mexico. Having been living in Mexico for over a year and a half, we’ve settled into a routine that needs to be interrupted occasionally to see some of the sights. With increasing risks to security in so many parts of Mexico, I am getting selective about where I choose to travel. Mexico is facing increasing difficulties as a result of the ongoing battle between the government and the various drug cartels, which makes travel to certain states a dangerous proposition. Thankfully, the state of Querétaro continues to be one of the safer locations in Mexico, so I feel quite confident in travelling around the region.

Peña de Bernal is an excellent example of a quiet little town that features colonial architecture, amazing vistas, and the kind of charm that can only be found in this type of setting. Recently, we decided that a visit was long overdue, so we made the sixty-minute drive to spend the day wandering the streets in Bernal and checking many of the little artisan shops the area has to offer. There at the foot of what I believe is the largest free-standing rock monolith in Mexico is a quiet little village that just begs to be explored.

Enjoying a little rest with the monolith in the background behind town

Surprisingly, Bernal was very quiet and empty during our mid-December visit. Normally, tourists fill the streets as they check out the shops or sample the wonderful blue corn gorditas that are on offer in may restaurants along the main streets. With the holiday so close, I suppose most people had other priorities, so it made for a nice relaxed visit to a town we’ve explored a few times since arriving in Mexico.

There are some interesting diversions in the town that are worth mentioning. For about $50 pesos you can get a lift in a three wheeled motorcycle that will take you up the mountain as far as the base where you can start a climb to the top. At that rest point there are other little shops and food stands, as well as a lookout point to enjoy the wonderful view of the town of Bernal itself. The walk back down from the viewpoint is not too strenuous, but paying for the ride up the mountain is definitely worth the price of admission.

Local fruit vendor watches the world from in front of his shop

Bernal (actually the state of Querétaro in general) is known for its opals. There is a particular variety know as ‘fire opal’ that is very common to the region. In fact, there are mines all around the area, so predictably there are several gemstone outlets in town that offer the local product. One such shop has a lapidary upstairs, which allows customers to select a particular unfinished stone, choose a setting (silver or gold rings, bracelets, necklaces, etc.) and have your selected stone finished and mounted. The process takes about 30 minutes for such a customized piece. The prices are surprisingly reasonable, given that this is mainly a tourist destination. Many rings set in silver are available for under $1,000 pesos (about $68 CAD). Although we didn’t buy anything, the owner was kind enough to give us two tiny turtles carved from the opals.

The opal shop gave us a couple of little carved turtles

Bernal is also known for producing many fine traditional textiles. Some of the detail we saw in embroidered wool was remarkable. The local shops have on offer all types of clothing ranging from the very typical rough Mexican poncho to the most delicate and ornately decorated sweaters. At one shop that specializes in such handicraft, we were invited to go into the workshop area in the back to look around as a bit of a self-tour.

There, through winding passageways from the street-front store, we found where the materials arrived in huge bales of rough-spun wool reminiscent of a komondor dog. There are several large concrete baths where the wool is washed and dyed in preparation for use in the weaving process.

Further back in the shop we found bundles of dyed wool ready for use in production, and close by were the rather aged looms used in the weaving process. A lone worker in the deep recesses of the workshop was vigorously brushing a newly-woven blanket to remove the extraneous long wool threads to leave a smooth, soft surface to the blanket.

Although we don’t get away from the city often, I am glad there are places like Bernal close by for a quick visit. Now, with 2020 already arrived, I really want to take the opportunity to explore some of the other nearby places that we haven’t seen yet. Life has a funny way of getting busy, and with having spent so much of the last part of 2019 developing my business I just didn’t take the opportunity to get away much. This year, I must do better! Be assured that when I visit some of the fascinating places around central Mexico that my camera will be at the ready, and I will be sure to share my experiences with you!

Thanks for reading!