A Travellerspoint blog

Mexican Drug Wars

Is it Safe to Travel to Mexico?

Since 2006, when I began writing about international travel advisories cautioning against travel to Mexico, and to a lesser extent about Mexican drug cartels, violence appears to have escalated. My major concern was not, however, for the safety of those considering vacationing in Mexico, but rather about the misinformation being fed to the public. Sensationalistic, misleading and inaccurate reporting relating to violence and drug related deaths in isolated areas of Mexico was unfairly influencing prospective travelers to any part of Mexico; and blinding them to what was happening in their own back yards.

It’s the violence outside of Mexico which seems to be on the rise (not to discount the casualties in President Calderón’s war against drugs and the cartels, and the gravity of matters in and around certain Mexican cities), yet the Mexico fear-mongering continues at a fervent pitch.

A major daily newspaper’s online version included these eight, separate headlines (including dropdown articles) on November 6, 2011:
“Two dead in stabbing: police seeking suspects”
“Man arrested after woman and 2 children plunge from balcony”
“Man found guilty in shooting death of 17-year-old”
“Man found shot in [suburban] backyard”
“Man dead after train, vehicle collide”
“Woman survives fall over bluffs”
“His wounds left little chance for survival”
“Accused in city hall stabbing appears in court”

These stories appeared not in a Mexico City newspaper, not in a Mexican city noted for violence where the Sinaloa cartel maintains a presence, and not in Oaxaca, which contrary to the belief of many has been virtually incident-free in terms of harm or violence towards tourists – of course there is the odd incident, as in any other city of comparable size. The foregoing headlines appeared in The Toronto Star.

I wrote about The Toronto Star four years ago, noting five stories with headlines indicating violence – violence in that Canadian city, not in a Mexican metropolis (http://oaxacadream.com/articles/tourist21.html). I subsequently updated the article, looking at online versions of the newspaper for two dates in 2009, with headlines reflecting three violent crimes for each date. And then finally in 2010 in one edition of the same newspaper I noted seven headlines centering upon violent incidents in the Greater Toronto Area.

And here we are, as 2011 closes out, if not with an escalation of violent crimes being perpetrated in Toronto, then little if any reduction in the incidents of violence (at least reported). Yet in Cuidad Juárez, often identified as a hotbed of drug wars and violence given its location right on the U.S. border, homicide rates dropped 68.6% from October 2010, to May 2011 (Mexico’s ministry of public security).

Thankfully the travel advisories relating to drug wars and violence in Mexico are now, finally, more location specific than previously. But the naysayers keep coming out of the woodwork, trying to paint all of Mexico with one broad stroke of the brush. The fact is that the majority (70%) of homicides during 2010 were committed in seven of Mexico’s 31 states. Oaxaca, for example, has not been overtaken by the Sinaloa cartel, or any Mexican or other drug cartel. Expats and Mexican nationals alike continue to move to Oaxaca.

If I didn’t feel as safe or safer living in Oaxaca now, as I did spending most of my live in Toronto, I would have high-tailed it to back to the land of hockey and Northern Lights in the wake of Oaxaca’s 2006 civil unrest. Even those few months did not result in a wholesale exodus of Mexicans or expats out of fear.

I won’t repeat the names of the cities to which I would dare not venture (though one Mexican city has already been noted), or even the stretches of highway accessing those cities. They do exist. Surely even President Calderón would not recommend that tourists visit certain areas in Mexico at this point in time because of drugs and violence.

The following cities each bear witness to incidents of violence, drug-related deaths, and even the odd tourist casualty from time to time: New York, Montreal, Paris, Rome, Toronto, Chicago, London, Sydney, LA, and the list goes on.

The following Mexican cities, and tens of others like them, are essentially as safe if not safer than the foregoing international centers of cultural and commerce: San Miguel de Allende, Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mérida, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Puerto Escondido, Mexico City, Puebla, Ajijic, Lake Chapala, etc, etc, etc.

The main tourist destinations for U.S. and Canadian citizens are geographically far removed from the very specific areas that have of late been significantly affected by crime in Mexico, primarily along the U.S. - Mexico border. For example, the distance between the border and Puerto Vallarta is over 800 miles. It’s almost the same distance between Oaxaca and Nuevo Laredo (the Mexican city bordering Laredo, Texas). And the more southern Mexican tourist destinations are even further away from the U.S. border and Mexican cities noted for violence and drug wars. The distance between Cancun and Ciudad Juárez is about the same as between New York and Miami.

Take a look at your own big – city newspaper, and then ask if Mexican and other international journalists should caution prospective tourists about drug gangs and violence in your hometown. Should the Mexican government begin issuing travel advisories against vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Daytona Beach, because of murders in South Miami? What about shunning travel to Chicago and other major American and Canadian cities because of drug trafficking and violence in and near public housing developments?

Statistics of homicides per 100,000 per capita in the 20 most densely populated cities in the Americas, recently published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, indicate that you’re more likely to be a victim of homicide in Detroit, Washington and Chicago, than in Mexico City. Mexico City ranks about the same as Houston, with Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco ranking close behind. It’s time to rethink unfounded fears and do your own research before outright discounting travel to a Mexico tourist destination.

Alvin Starkman is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Mr. Starkman is under a contractual obligation to write in a factual, truthful and verifiable manner within the context of stating reasoned opinion. Mr. Starkman has written over 230 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, including essays about the 2006 Oaxaca civil unrest, and Mexican legal reform.

Posted by titosarah 07:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged travel mexico is it to mexican safe wars drug Comments (0)

Seat belt, cell phone and speed limit laws enforced

drivng in Oaxaca, Mexico, just got a little more precarious

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

Driving in Oaxaca, Mexico, became a little more difficult in September / October, 2009. That’s when federal, state and municipal governments actually began enforcing the law, at least in the City of Oaxaca and in parts of the central valleys. Until then rules of the road for driving in Oaxaca were on the books, but not enforced; or if enforced at all it was on a very sporadic basis.

As of autumn, 2009, the authorities have been out in full force in a concerted campaign to stop those suspected of driving without seat belts in use, using a cellular phone, and speeding. It’s not as though enforcement is a bad thing, only that as a driver you have virtually no recourse in terms of disputing the alleged infraction.

Oaxaca still has a Napoleonic, inquisitorial penal system, and while change is in progress in terms of oral trials for the most serious of criminal offences, it’s unlikely that drivers will ever be given the right to dispute highway traffic offences through the courts – at least not in this writer’s lifetime.

The range in penalties so far seen is from being given a ticket, to having your plates removed, to having your vehicle towed. No doubt those with more serious infractions uncovered are being whisked off to jail. And since there’s no such thing as “probable cause,” the police can pop the truck and the glove box, as they wish, and try to uncover all manner of illegal material. So just watch out if you’re inclined to smoke up and take along your grass, pot, boo, mota, hierba or weed with you.

The enforcement of seat belt and cell phone laws is indeed admirable, regardless of whether or not a bribe can be paid. But it’s the use of radar guns to determine whether or not you’re speeding, which is troubling, for two reasons:

1) The speed limit signs are simply absurd. For example, en route to the Sunday market town of Tlacolula, there are signs randomly indicating 40, 30 and then 60 – and not miles per hour. We’re talking kilometers per hour. This is a major highway leading from the City of Oaxaca to the coast. And naturally one of the speed traps recently seen is just outside of Tlacolula along this stretch of roadway. Leaving the city and descending the Cerro del Fortín just beyond the Auditorio Guelaguetza, there are newly erected signs indicating 40 kph. At least here the limit is consistently displayed, unreasonably low as it is. And yes, the speed traps are there from time to time, with up to nine police officers awaiting you.

If you ask a Oaxacan what the speed limit is, he will on balance have no idea, for two reasons: the signage, as indicated, in many cases makes no sense; and perhaps key to the analysis, is the fact that drivers are now licensed without a requirement of passing a written or on-road test, since such testing does not exist. So there is no way that drivers will reasonably, of their own accord, go out and try to ascertain the limit.

2) In the US and in Canada, there are a couple of pretty good radar defences to which those facing conviction can avail themselves. Since in Oaxaca one does
not have the right to dispute an alleged infraction in court before a judge, with evidence in chief, cross-examination, submissions and the rest, those defences are
not available. You cannot question the officer using the radar gun regarding his training regarding competence to use the equipment, whether or not the equipment has been tested before his shift to determine its reliability, or based on
any other doubt you may have or wish to pursue.

The best advice is buckle up, don’t use the cell phone while driving, try to find some speed limit signs, and drive accordingly – no matter how much those behind you are honking. And if you are in fact stopped, try to direct the officer’s attention to the motorcycles whizzing by you, drivers without helmets, and on the phone and smoking – at the same time.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes tours to the sights, and owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), a unique Oaxaca bed and breakfast experience, providing Oaxaca accommodations which combine the comfort and service of Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.

Posted by titosarah 15:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas & Palenque driving tour

A 2,000 circuit, without backtracking, with options for Huatulco, Veracruz and Puebla

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.


This 2,000 kilometer driving tour serves the needs of vacationers to Oaxaca who also want to take in the sights in central Chiapas, as well as those who want to at least consider visits to the Pacific coastal resorts in Oaxaca and the Gulf beaches and cultural sights in the state of Veracruz … all without foreclosing a side trip to Puebla. The south central circuit of Mexico provides travelers with a leisurely and culturally diverse driving segment within the context of a two or three week vacation, with virtually no backtracking.

For this particular trip, our first day took us from Oaxaca to Tuxtla de Gutiérrez, then to Chiapa de Corzo. After visiting the impressive lookouts at the Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero the following morning, we carried on to San Cristóbal de las Casas where we spent two days in the city and visiting nearby villages. The following morning we drove to Agua Azul, and then on to Palenque, touring the ruin the following morning. That afternoon we continued through Tabasco, then Veracruz, spending our final night at Orizaba. Our sojourn concluded with a return home to Oaxaca, via Puebla. As a result of personal time constraints the excursion lasted only six days. It easily could have been extended by a week or more, taking in many additional sights and cities. Accordingly, while we saw many of the highlights noted in the tour books, a close examination of all that is available is highly recommended, in particular for those with time to spare.

For most of the drive the highways were excellent. We passed through 14 toll booths and nine military checkpoints, at the latter having been stopped, questioned and required to pop the trunk, only once. We did experience, however, one disturbing incident involving state police, in Acayucan, Veracruz, noted as an Addendum. It convinced us to deviate from our otherwise steadfast rule against night-time driving.

Distinct from Oaxaca, in Chiapas there is signage encouraging drivers to use the paved, wide, right hand shoulder; warning that physical abuse of women is met with jail time; cautioning that the fine for littering is ninety times your (daily) wage; and along many stretches of two lane highway there are small home-made signs indicating where gasoline is for sale (from householders; sometimes in plastic 10 or 20 liter containers out front as your notification). In addition, one encounters checkpoints aimed at regulating and policing the transport of animals.

Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas

The drive from Oaxaca to San Cristóbal takes about 8.5 hours, but is best done in two segments, with an overnight, assuming you want to visit more than one sight en route.

As you leave Oaxaca for the drive towards Mitla along Highway 190, fill up with gas, since there are lengthy stretches of highway without stations after you turn off and head towards the coast. You’ll approach that first interchange after close to a half hour of proceeding along straight, essentially flat highway. Take the 190 cut-off to Tehuantepec / Matatlán. After about five kilometers of rolling hills, you’ll reach the “world capital of mezcal,” Matatlán, with production facilities and shops peppering the roadsides for about three kilometers. The billowing smoke is from deep pits being readied for baking agave, and to a lesser extent the stills fueled with firewood.

For the next hour and a half you’ll be climbing, at times considerable inclines, then descending into fertile river valleys, along curvy, well-paved yet at times repaired highway. If you hadn’t filled up for gas earlier, do so just beyond the first military checkpoint, an hour into the drive, at San Pedro Totalapan.

The predominant vegetation is agave under cultivation --- occasionally on the steepest of hillsides --- and mixed brush, with pole cactus and palm interspersed. Towns are encountered, with small stores, restaurants, pharmacies, mechanic shops, and even a guest house at about the two hour mark, in San José de Gracia. In the area around El Camarón you’ll one again encounter a few fábricas de mezcal.

Your final descent towards the coast begins at about three hours into the drive, when you’ll finally find yourself speeding along straight-aways. Once you reach Marilú, you’ll feel you’re in the tropics, with signs offering fresh fish (mojarra) and cold coconut milk.
You’ll then have the option of heading up the coast to Huatulco, or down towards Salina Cruz, Juchitán and Tehuantepec.

The new toll road to Chiapas, along Highway 200, has an interchange which can potentially create a bit of confusion. At kilometer 240 of the trip, more or less, you’ll encounter a traffic circle with signs which do not assist in terms of reaching your destination. Take the exit which includes the words María Romero, and then ask to ensure that you have the right highway. Traffic and pedestrian activity, at least as of early 2009, are sparse. You’ll be heading towards La Ventosa, so when you see a sign so directing you, you’ll know you’re on the right road. At about four hours into your trip, near kilometer 270 of your day’s drive, you’ll pass through the La Ventosa toll booth, with clean washrooms and a gas station close by. From this point, until your arrival at Tuxtla, you’re home free.

For the next 60 kilometers you’ll be driving across flat winding plains. There’s a stretch of 15 kilometers with two sets of large white windmills, very unusual and impressive to the eye, the second set with power generating equipment apparent. There are thereafter a couple of provisional checkpoints along sections of new, and then old and badly pot-holed road in the process of being repaved.

Your arrival at San Pedro Tapanatepec follows along good highway traversing mango orchards, with a bit of ranching. In town you’ll find a gas station, Banamex, etc. After passing through the next military checkpoint, once again you’ll begin your climb into the mountains, arriving in Chiapas approximately six hours into the drive.

The approach to Tuxtla is uneventful, marked by continuing periods of ascent and descent, stretches of plains, and traveling through a couple of small cities. Upon arriving you’ll encounter a traffic circle, easy enough to navigate. You are not required to enter the city, but rather, will be traversing a number of overpasses in the course of about 20 minutes. You’ll be passing high above and to the left of the city, then descending towards the fork in the road leading you to Chiapa de Corzo. Note that the cut – off is not well marked, so when you see the choice to veering to the right or left, turn off to the right.

The two main attractions which you may find at Tuxtla and / or Chiapa de Corzo are the zoo and the Cañon del Sumidero. Both are easily accessible via Chiapa de Corzo, but could require a bit of backtracking. The advantage of staying in Chiapa de Corzo is that it’s quaint, you do not have to enter the metropolis of Tuxtla de Gutiérrez, and it makes for an easy morning beginning for a boat tour of the canyons. However, if you wish to take the boat trip as opposed to driving through the national park, you may have to wait an hour or two in the morning until there are sufficient tourists to fill up one of the many waiting vessels. It all depends on the time of year in terms of level of tourism. We arrived at the docks shortly after the 8 am opening, only to be told that we’d likely have to wait at least an hour. We therefore hopped back in the car and drove to the lookouts in the Parque Nacional Cañon del Sumidero. The site, via boat or drive, should not be missed.

The highway from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal de las Casa is perhaps the best quality stretch of roadway and most pleasant to navigate on the whole trip. Unfortunately the drive takes only about 35 minutes. It begins immediately after you pass through the toll booth as you leave Chiapa de Corzo. Almost all of the drive is ascent with easy curves. You’ll descend to San Cristóbal over the final five minutes of the brief ride. “Must” visits while in the area of San Cristóbal, preferably with a guide notwithstanding that you’ll have your own vehicle, include Chamula and Zinacantán.

San Cristóbal to Palenque

Although along the basically good, two-lane highways descending from San Cristóbal to Palenque there are several homes and businesses offering gasoline for sale, and at Ocosingo you’ll find gas stations, it’s best to fill up as you leave San Cristóbal. Don’t worry about your departure time, since with stops en route you’ll probably be too late to take the tour of the ruin, and in any event it’s best to visit the site during the early morning hours before the afternoon sun and heat preclude enjoying your visit to the maximum. Without stops, the trip takes about 4.5 hours, over the course of about 200 kilometers.

About 11 kilometers into the drive you’ll find a cut-off to the left, onto highway 186 to Ocosingo. Take it, even though there is no sign for Palenque or Agua Azul. Notwithstanding several ascents, you’ll gradually descend into the hot jungle environment characterizing Palenque, a stark contrast to the relatively cold climate of San Cristóbal you’ve just left

You’ll pass through pine forests and lumber mills, ranches, quaint roadside eateries, and stalls offering local produce for sale. At about 65 kilometers into the day’s drive, a “don´t miss” stop is at one of the two or three amber outlets, in an area where the mineral is mined and then worked into predominantly silver accented jewelery. If you’re in the market for amber, wait until your arrival here. You will have likely visited the Amber Museum in San Cristóbal, so by the time you’ve reached these workshops you will have learned how to detect the real thing from the glass and plastic imitations. These stalls boast true amber, and for the asking you’ll be shown pieces in the rough, how to identify the fakes, and how raw amber is fashioned into fine jewelery.

On the approach to Ocosingo you’ll have an opportunity to also stop at craft and coffee outlets. In the course of the decent you’ll encounter cultivated bromiliads used as impressive garden borders, and produce changing to tropical varietals such as bananas, coconut palms, sugar cane, and perhaps surprisingly, still some corn.

Almost immediately you’ll then begin to encounter more switchbacks and peaks and valleys, with once again a net descent into a lush, green forest environment with streams, waterfalls and even a water park and an ecotourism site. After the military checkpoint just over 100 kilometers into the drive, your descent will be characterized by predominantly straight-aways for close to 40 kilometers as you arrive at the cut – off to the left, for Agua Azul, another “must” on your trip. Don’t be surprised to find that you have to pay two separate tolls or entrance fees. In the parking area, you’ll be asked by a youngster if he / she can guard your car. We declined. Later we found that our car aerial had gone missing. Give the kid 10 or 20 pesos, both here and at Palenque.

The ride from Agua Azul to Palenque takes about two hours. A few kilometers into the drive you’ll pass through a stretch of stalls on both sides of the highway, selling hand embroidered skirts, blouses, dresses and shirts. From here on, until Palenque, the highway descends, with easy curves and lengthy straight-aways, featuring corn, sugar cane and plantain.

Get an early start to your day at the ruin. The gates to the park open at 7:30 am, with tickets to the site available for purchase at 8 am. You can secure a guide while waiting to buy tickets. Suggest that you wait for a group of about eight people to make the cost more reasonable. You’ll be given a per person rate on the basis of eight or ten in the group. In our case, the guide decided to take us for his per person rate for eight, with only six of us, presumably anticipating that it would take a fair bit of time to get the other two, and preferring to finish the tour before the hottest time of the day … or perhaps anticipating being able to fit in another tour if he finished with us early enough.

Palenque to Orizaba, or other stopovers in Veracruz

If you intend to spend the night in Córdoba or Orizaba, you might want to consider leaving Palenque early the following morning because of the driving time involved. Of course if you intend to head to the city of Veracruz, another plan might be in order. Between Palenque and Orizaba you’ll encounter at least three cut – offs leading to Veracruz, and at one point you’ll only be about 50 kilometers away from the city.

Choose carefully from your various lodging options, if for no other reason than to reduce the likelihood of encountering the problem which beset us … feeling compelled, at dusk, to change our plan regarding where to spend the night, and as a result having little choice but to drive at night, not the optimum way to enjoy any trip through Mexico.

Leaving Palenque along route 186 you’ll immediately encounter palm and sugar cane under cultivation as well as cattle, on both sides of a good, two lane highway with flat curves and straight-aways. After about 25 kilometers, immediately after passing through your first checkpoint you’ll turn left. During 2009, the highway was being converted from one lane in each direction, to a lane and a half, quite common throughout southern Mexico. As noted earlier, this wide shoulder is perfectly legal to drive on, and in fact speeds up traffic flow as long as drivers are prepared to yield to the right. Aside from this construction, the highways for the rest of the trip back to Oaxaca, or to Puebla, are excellent.

Within an hour or so the highway will be solid four lane, minimum. It will be basically toll road for the rest of the journey. About 125 kilometers into the day’s trip you’ll have the option of staying at an impressive Hilton Hotel & Conference Center, easily visible from the highway. Just before that complex you’ll see a large underpass where there’s a gas station. About 25 kilometers further, as you enter Villahermosa, take the Cárdenas cut off and proceed along highway 180. You’ll be continuing along a highway with plantations of bananas, coconuts and sugar cane, and fields of familiar tropical flowers. Consider a brief stop at La Venta, a small town known for its Olmec ruin. But the site closes at 4 pm, so keep that in mind if interested in a visit to the site.

After about a half hour, roadway curves will once again begin, and less crops will be apparent, now with more herds grazing. You’ll pass through river plains and over a large suspension bridge. Based upon the recommendation of at least one tour book, we had planned to spend the night in Acayucan, Veracruz, but as noted earlier felt compelled to continue on to Orizaba, after dark (see Addendum). The saving grace, at least in our minds, was somewhat of a comfort in passing through four toll booths over the next 2.5 hours, between Acayucan and our ultimate stop for the night, Orizaba. The cut – offs are clearly marked and leave little room for error. From Acayucan, just continue along the highways marked for one or more of Puebla, Mexico City, Oaxaca, since it’s well after Orizaba that you’ll actually be turning off for Oaxaca.

For those interested in floriculture, plants, cactus and succulents, consider a stopover at Fortín de Las Flores, perhaps as a taking – off point for a diversion to Veracruz. Córdoba is a reasonable option for spending the night, close to Fortín de Las Flores, and with many more hotel options as well as daytime sights. But Orizaba also has a number of interesting options worthy of consideration for a stopover, and a visit to its tourist office makes for a good start for a short, pleasant visit to the city before continuing on to Oaxaca.

Orizaba to Oaxaca

The drive from Orizaba to the Oaxaca / Puebla interchange is extremely scenic, climbing dramatically for all but the final few minutes. The snow-capped peak of Orizaba is particularly impressive. You’ll pass by areas of large, ornamental agave, used as property boundary lines. Simply follow the signs indicating Puebla / Mexico for about 30 - 40 minutes, until you finally see the Oaxaca cut – off, at which point you’ll either carry on to Puebla, or return to Oaxaca.

The home stretch of your journey should take about 2 ½ hours, without stops other than to rest and gas up. However, there are couple of worthwhile sights to consider. Unless you want to spend time in Tehuacan, your first stop will be at the onyx / marble village of San Antonio Texcala. Take the second Tehuacan exit (after the Tehuacan toll booth), onto highway 125 leading to Huajuapan. After 6 km you’ll arrive at the village, with several factory outlets where you can by almost anything into which onyx and marbel can be shaped --- tequila sets, plates, sinks, lamps, tables, bowls, boxes, unicorns, fish, hash pipes, and of course a number of diverse ornaments with religious imagery. Prices are about half of what you’ll pay elsewhere.

Next is the Museo de Agua, or water museum, actually a misnomer because it is so much more. Take the well-marked next exit after your return to the toll road, for Sangabriel and Chilac. There will also be signage for the museum. You’ll be given a tour (in Spanish) in the main building, and of the outside surrounding landscapes. You’ll learn how progress is being made to teach villagers in desolate regions where water is scarce and soil fertility is lacking, to conserve and recycle water; to use compost, worm culture and other techniques to enrich the land; and to grow and market nutritious produce such as amaranth.

In terms of the land use and sights, near Tehuacan you’ll see long narrow white-topped buildings where poultry is produced and then trucked throughout the state of Puebla and other nearby states. There will be a couple of lookouts demarcated as stops for tourists to pull over and appreciate and photograph the deep valleys and high mountaintops. Long, well-marked expansion bridges showcase the valleys and mountains. You’ll pass over a geological fault. There will be several kilometers of impressive pole cactus. Close to the approach to Oaxaca you’ll see vendors on each side of the highway selling brightly colored miniature wooden trucks.

The last of several toll booths is Huitzo. About 15 - 20 minutes later you’ll approach Oaxaca. A few minutes after entering the city, you’ll be given two opportunities to turn to the left (one of the signs is difficult to interpret), but unless you’ve been provided with specific instructions to get to your hotel or B & B, and know it’s in a northern suburb, best is to just keep driving straight, eventually entering onto a one-way street which will lead you to the core of the downtown area and the zócalo.


We had planned to spend our last night in Acayucan, Veracruz, having noted three hotels, one of which piqued our interest because it appeared to be the only middle-of-the-road and acceptable option, at least for us. Immediately upon entering the town, at about 6:30 pm, we were pulled over by two state troopers, and asked to produce some type of sticker about which we knew nothing. I produced license and ownership without a request to do so. The more belligerent of the officers, Taurino Santiago Ramas (Santiago) insisted he would phone for a tow truck, and did pull out his cellular and make a call.

After ten minutes of heated banter, I told me wife to just ask him “how much?” Santiago said he didn’t want money. This was a shock, since my initial assumption was that it would just be a matter of how long, and how much. He became more testy, almost as much as we had become.

Out of the blue, Santiago’s mood suddenly changed. He asked us about our plans for the night. We indicated that we intended to stay in town. He immediately mentioned his hotel recommendation and how to get there. It was the same hotel at which we had planned to stay. We assured him we would indeed lodge there, whereupon he told us that we would have to pay a 1,000 peso fine the next day. In the same breath, in a softer tone, he proposed “but since I’m a nice guy, and have a kind heart, if you like, instead you can pay something to me.”

I pulled three fifties and a twenty peso bill from my pocket, and offered him one hundred pesos. Santiago demanded, “I’ll take them all.” So 170 pesos lighter we got back in the car, hearing Santiago’s loud laughs, directed at his partner, us, and anyone else on the crowded street within earshot.

But I think we got the last laugh. Santiago certainly assumed that we were going to stay at his suggested hotel, and in fact we drove off in that direction with he and his sidekick watching. He had probably called not for a tow truck, but the hotel, and advised that we’d be coming by, and confirmed the amount of his commission for the referral. Otherwise, he probably would have demanded a bigger bribe. Of course we did not want to stay anywhere he suggested. We were concerned that overnight our belongings might be snatched from the car. We decided it would not be prudent to stay in Acayucan at all, so we high-tailed it out of Dodge, and drove a further 2 ½ hours, during the night, until bedding down in the city of Orizaba.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin, a good-standing member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, now resides with his wife Arlene in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), providing the comfort and service of lodging in a Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of a small country inn.

Posted by titosarah 08:55 Archived in Mexico Tagged automotive Comments (0)

Should I rent a car in Oaxaca?

recent change to licensing requirements may influence your decision!

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Driving a car in Oaxaca has always been dangerous, be it using your own or a rental vehicle (see my earlier article entitled Driving in Oaxaca: Rules of the Road). But with a dramatic change in the law respecting obtaining a driver’s license, it’s now more precarious, and scary, than ever.

Until recently, to obtain a license you had to either take a written test, or pay a small bribe to avoid having to do so. In either case there was no road test and no eye examination. But now the state has done away with virtually all licensing requirements relating to safety: no written test, no road test, no eye test. The new law is advertized as “more secure.” However, the fact of the matter is that drivers, passengers and pedestrians are much less secure on the roads, curbs and sidewalks.

As long as you’re at least 18 years of age you can apply for licensing for two, three or five years. For the longest period, the cost of obtaining a license to drive a car or light truck is 552 pesos (about $42 USD using early 2009, exchange rates). Add a further 66 pesos ($5) and you can obtain a chauffeur’s license, enabling you to drive a tractor trailer. And with a payment of only 375 pesos ($30), you’re off on your Harley Davidson roaming the roads for a half a decade.

Those 16 and 17 years old must produce an original certificate confirming that they’ve taken a driver training course, but naturally producing such a document has nothing to do with how you’ve performed on the road while taking your lessons. If you can’t afford the lessons, or if your road skills are so bad that driving instructors refuse to teach you out of sheer fear for their own lives, all you have to do is wait that extra year or two, until your eighteenth birthday, and then there are virtually no hoops to jump through.

The requirements with which you must comply are:
1) You must be able to sign your name, which of course does not preclude placing your mark (i.e. an “X”) instead;
2) You must produce proof of residence, such as a water, phone or hydro bill;
3) You must have identification in the form of a voter registration card, or in the case of non-Mexicans, a visa and passport;
4) You must have the name and minimal contact information for a next of kin;
5) You must provide fingerprints of all of your digits, but it’s not clear if this requirement means that those missing one or more fingers simply have to ink up those, if any, that they have;
6) You must be able to pose for a photo.

It appears that if you are legally blind, you can still be licensed. You are simply asked if you need eyeglasses to drive, with no mention of the nature or strength of prescription. It appears that you must be able to speak so as to enable you to comply with the fourth requirement noted above, but if you bring along a piece of paper with the name and contact information of your next of kin, or attend with someone assisting you who can speak, this possible prerequisite may not apply at all. And of course if you read lips when being addressed by the application officer, the ability to hear becomes irrelevant. It appears that you must have at least one arm, or portion thereof enabling you to sign, but there is no suggestion that you must have a lower limb.

So why is it so dangerous for those of us driving in Oaxaca with years of experience and not a single traffic violation on our record? Think about it; the lane to your left could be occupied by a fully licensed sixteen-year-old blind youth who has rarely been behind the wheel or even a passenger in a car, trying to make a right hand turn in his three ton cube van, all the while oblivious to you honking your horn in sheer fright.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes couples and families to the sights, and owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), a unique Oaxaca bed and breakfast experience, providing Oaxaca accommodations which combine the comfort and service of Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.

Posted by titosarah 14:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged automotive Comments (0)


The drive, and an opinion regarding the town's development

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

On my first trip to Huatulco in 1991, part of a driving tour throughout much of the country, the town was is its infancy, only recently having been created by FONATUR, the federal government tourism branch. Apart from a Sherarton and Club Maeva, there was little more, and the Zócalo consisted of just a few shops. It seemed all too contrived for my liking…and furthermore the highway to get there we fondly remembered as the “vomit trail.” Now, with improvements to Highway 190, even those who have been resisting getting behind the wheel in Oaxaca can take an enjoyable trip to the coast in a rental, kids and all, without so much as a map in hand, avoiding the loathed Mexican traffic, and soaking up all that Huatulco has to offer. Both the drive and the town are at times criticized in favor of respectively, flying or busing, and Puerto Escondido. Huatulco has a great deal to offer, distinct from its sister town up the coast. The drive itself can be informative in terms of presenting a range of climates and cultural adaptations, and rather pleasant if you opt for the longer route on the better highway.

Leaving bright and early in the morning makes the 6 hour ride more doable, since you can end up on the beach early in the afternoon while at the same time take in some wonderful scenery and a diversity of local culture en route. Just head out towards Mitla, take the well-marked Highway 190 cutoff to the mezcal capital of Matatlan, and continue to the coast, towards Salina Cruz, following the signs right into Huatulco. The highway, while consisting of perhaps a couple of hours of curves and switchbacks, is very smooth with wide shoulders and clear markings. It straightens out before reaching the coast, and then eventually, after you’ve been rejuvenated by driving on flat curveless open road, has some further “easy” bends. Pemex stations, while not in abundance, are well-placed along the route, so that as long as you leave with at least a half a tank, you won’t run into a fuel shortage.

You’ll have an opportunity to witness the changes in vegetation, beginning with short mixed brush and candelabra, nopal and other cactus, followed by denser forest, then becoming more tropical in nature with coastal palms, mangroves, etc. You’ll traverse two major maguey growing areas, early on in approaching Matatlan, and a couple of hours into the trip in the mountainous region, the entire route flecked to some extent with agave.

Stop periodically for a short break, have a light lunch or snack, speak to the local inhabitants and continue the trek. Along the coastal highway, see what vendors are offering for sale as you slow down to pass over the topes, and don’t forget to stop for fresh, cool, coconut juice. You’ll stop once to pay a 25 peso toll. You’ll drive through a couple of military checkpoints, and in all likelihood will simply be waved through. Regardless, they’re there to protect us all, keeping a look-out for drug-runners, and to a lesser extent arms traffickers.

If you are traveling with children, while knowing that the beach is not too far off should help to keep them in check, before departing buy a few inexpensive CDs or cassettes for the road…the 100 pesos or so will seem like a bargain once you need them. Another easy way to keep the kids occupied is to play the “spotting game.” Have them count and keep track of the number of soaring birds of prey, donkeys alongside the road, fields of agave under cultivation, or even how many times they see the words “Comedor” or “Miscelánea.”

In the course of building up Huatulco with its multitude of hotels, both luxury and more middle-of-the-road, came the golf courses, wide palmed boulevards, air-conditioned mall with 4 screen Cineplex-type theatre complex and all the other facilities deemed necessary in order to “sell” a man-made oasis in the midst of one of the poorest states in the Republic. Hence years ago there developed a stark distinction between this Miami Beach style of vacation spot and the “authentic” Mexico up the coast.

What we find today is very different…from this unique urbanization process developed a sociological phenomenon which has dramatically transformed the town, resulting in a “the best of both worlds” resort. As Huatulco was being built (and continuing today), there came the need to service the “imported” local population of predominantly building trades and tourism personnel. We therefore find hotels of a more modest nature, the produce and meat market, and a wide diversity of retail, service and government health and welfare establishments. With the influx of people to provide these goods and services came their families, and thus further needs to be met.

The result has been the creation of a micro-society not unlike what we find right here in our state capital, complete with a meshing of regional cultures. A major difference is that all this has developed over a period of about only 25 years.

So what then are the implications for the tourist wanting a respite on the coast for three days? There is now the diversity of hotel qualities that previously was non-existent, with many away from the beach and close to the Zócalo. Within blocks of the Zócalo you can find not only shops and services designed to attract the tourist dollar, but also what the local population requires for its day-to-day living. Since this populace has now, a generation later, become more diverse in age and socio-economic level, the range of offerings which benefit tourists has correspondingly increased. We find much more so than previously, a resort town with establishments frequented by both tourists and local inhabitants alike, making for a much less “artificial” ambience. What caters to tourists must also cater to non-tourists, and vice versa, to make the marketplace work to its potential. Prices must reflect this developing reality. Hence, as we recently learned, for example, four can dine deliciously on a bountiful array of the freshest of seafood, including appetizers and three rounds of drinks, for 850 pesos; during the “off” season (if not at other times depending on your level of negotiating skill), notwithstanding a stated hotel rate of 1200 pesos, a couple can end up with a junior suite including breakfast, for 450 pesos.

The range of tourist products and services together with indigenous cultural traditions found in other resort towns which developed more naturally and slowly, has fast arrived in Huatulco…and for the traveler, arriving can be more than half the experience. After that first anxiety-free drive, the rest of Mexico, cities and all, might no longer seem all that frightening from behind the wheel.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) .

Posted by titosarah 14:43 Archived in Mexico Tagged automotive Comments (0)

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