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!

The Rough Edge of Mexico

Even though I’ve been living in Mexico for a full year now, there are definitely things about this country that I cannot accept as normal.

Don’t get me wrong… there are more than enough positive things about Mexico to make visiting and relocating here a good idea.  The fact that many things cost about one quarter what they do in Canada is a big plus.  The food is richer and more satisfying, with fewer preservatives and fillers than the processed food typical in Canada.  The people are friendlier;  greeting people as you pass in the street is pretty normal here.  Expected even.  In Canada, if you say ‘good morning’ to a complete stranger on the street, there is a better than average chance they will look at you like you have two heads or something.  In bigger cities especially, people rush past each other on the sidewalk without even making eye contact.

But with all the positive things about Mexico, there are some negative things that I still have trouble with.  The list isn’t long, but these things are definitely a problem.  Many locals even acknowledge that these problems exist.

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Privada Life Querétaro

Sonterra metal sign

When we first moved to Mexico almost a year ago, we didn’t take a lot of time looking around Querétaro before choosing to settle in a privada located in the Sonterra Fraccionamiento, located on the west side of the city.

For the first while, we were thinking we’d made a mistake in taking up residence so far from the city. The drive to get to any significant shops was about 20 minutes, which seemed like a long time. In Calgary, we were just five minutes from major grocery stores and malls. In Sonterra, there are a few small restaurants, a produce store, general store and a bakery (and an OXXO, of course), but not much in the way of large-scale shopping.

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Paying For Utilities in Mexico

Back in Canada, paying for utilities like internet, electricity and gas wasn’t a difficult process. Most of the time, these things happen automatically from your bank account or on a credit card, so you don’t even really think about them.

Any utility I had used in the past 10 years in Canada usually had their own app, allowed payment through my bank online, or had their own online portal for making payment quick and easy.  I’d come to expect that kind of simple and straightforward service when paying for utilities.

And then Mexico happened.

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Graft and Corruption, or Why You Should Keep Your Gas Tank Full in Mexico

gas station

Last month, I had relatives from Canada visiting my family here in Querétaro. We had a grand time driving all over the place and visiting tourist hotspots that we just haven’t had time to explore ourselves since arriving. The downside, of course, is the high cost of fuel that comes with so much travelling.

From my experiences in visiting Mexico many years ago, I recall a very different situation. At the time, Pemex (the federally-owned monopoly for all gasoline distribution in the country) benefited from government subsidies, which ensured that fuel prices stayed low. If memory serves, back in 2013 fuel prices here were equivalent to about $0.70 CAD per litre. That was far lower than what we were seeing in Canada at the time.

Pemex ran into serious financial problems and the government entity became a major drain on resources. To remedy the situation, the government decided to remove the gasoline subsidy, causing prices for the commodity to spike to the highest prices ever seen. The hue and cry resulting from the higher cost was predictable.

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Chapulines Challenge: Crispy, Crunchy Critters

What people like to eat as a snack food varies wildly according to regional preferences and personal taste.  What passes for good eats in some places in the world is considered quite repellant in others.   Often, whether or not something seems tasty to you depends on what kind of food you had where you grew up.  Comfort food means a lot of different things to different people.

In Korea, for example, dog is on the menu.  Koreans consider it to be a delicacy, and there are restaurants that specialize in serving it.  There are even canine farms where certain species of dogs are raised specifically for the food industry.  In North America, thinking about eating dog is more than just unpopular.  It is considered downright barbaric.  Who would ever think about eating man’s best friend, right?

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Day Trip: Guanajuato Wonders

With our daily life in Querétaro now pretty much dialed in, I find that I am once again finding myself face-to-face with my old nemesis: Routine.

For most people, routine is just a part of daily life.  Many people value routine to keep them focused and productive.  I personally avoid it at all costs.  Routine and I have never been on friendly terms.  In fact, I will often go out of my way to avoid repetitively doing the same thing over and over again.  As you can imagine, this makes may parts of life difficult.  Let’s face it: There are a lot of things in our regular daily lives that require sticking to a routine.

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Gastronomic Galavant: Querétaro Tacos, Tequila and More

Back in September, I decided that it was time to get more into the local food scene here in Santiago de Querétaro. There seem to be so many great eateries that choosing which ones to explore can be a challenge.  Particularly along the narrow streets of the historic downtown, the choices are as varied as your imagination.  Every block has countless cafes and restaurants, each with its own charm and tempting menu.

Besides the number of options making decisions difficult, the potential risk of food-borne bacteria in less than tidy kitchens makes just ‘guessing’ as to the cleanliness of a restaurant a high risk decision.  The high daytime temperatures in the city mean that food prep surfaces need to be kept sterile, with food turnaround times kept very short.  How, exactly, should a newcomer to the city figure out which places are clean and safe?

I do not subscribe to the ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ philosophy.  As far as I am concerned, what doesn’t necessarily kill you CAN still leave you weak, nauseated and diarrhetic.  Better to know the place is safe before throwing caution to the wind.

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Food and Foibles- Mexican Style

With each passing week, I get more and more comfortable with living in Mexico.  I remember that when we first arrived, a drive across the city for a quick trip to the market was almost always a white-knuckle experience that left me exhausted and mentally distressed.

Besides the concerns with the hazardous road conditions, damaging wear and tear on my car and the fear of getting stopped by police who are attracted to the foreign license plate for a possible payday, there was just the general ‘newness’ of being in-country that made me feel anxious most of the time.

Now, almost six months into our stay, I just don’t feel like any of those things are as relevant anymore.  What’s weird is that nothing has really changed.  The road conditions aren’t any better, my car has squeaks, rattles and scratches it didn’t have before we left Canada, and although police are everywhere (with their lights permanently switched on) the risk of being involved in a traffic stop seems less likely.  As with most new experiences in life, the ‘newness’ wears off and you start focusing on more important things.

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