Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
It can take as little as 4.5 hours and be traffic and problem free, but just as easily you can be met with congestion and road repairs, extending the trip to six hours or more. On the other hand you can elect to increase the length of your journey by taking in a few select sites and some interesting scenery, including a snow-capped volcano near Puebla and another peak near the Orizaba / Córdoba cut-off.
The first leg of the trip is from Mexico City to Puebla. The main problem you will likely face is leaving the nation’s capital, along a thoroughfare known as Zaragoza. Unless you happen to be starting out very early, or late at night, there will be congestion, so much so that vendors of soft drinks and water, snacks, freezees, and an array of other foodstuffs, will be walking ever so slowly, meandering through the lines of stopped traffic, plying their products. And therefore, arriving at Puebla can take anywhere from one to three hours, the latter applying particularly during extended rush hours and on the weekends. The name of the game is patience, plain and simple. And if you’re picking up a rental car at the airport, ask your attendant to draw a map, and regardless of its quality, at every opportunity ask other motorists and pedestrians how and when to turn onto Zaragoza. Once on this “highway” your only difficulty will be getting off of it. To give you an even clearer picture of the congestion on Zaragoza, in 2004, while driving a three ton cub van on the roadway, the police wanted to pull us over (for who knows what reason), the cruiser several vehicles back with siren blaring. We elected to simply ignore the command and continue, hoping the traffic would never allow the police to catch up and they would eventually give up. It worked.
Virtually the entire roadway from Mexico City to Oaxaca is well-marked and -paved toll road. Signage is large and clearly lettered. However, a few key pointers are in order. You want to be where it says “cuota” and not “libre,” the former being the toll road and the latter the much slower, single lane highway. “Autopista” is invariably the toll road. En route to Puebla you’ll see signs directing you to the city, and then from Puebla, the signage will indicate Oaxaca. The highways are either two lanes each way, a lane and a half, or a single lane. However, custom dictates that cars going slower move to the right and onto the paved shoulder when they see you coming, so regardless of the type of highway, most of the time you should be able to go at the speed to which you are accustomed. There are, however exceptions as with any rule. Sometimes, for example, large tractor trailers are too wide to move over enough to let you pass. But when they see that the roadway ahead is clear, they’ll put on the left-hand signal, telling you it’s okay to pass on the left … assuming you trust them. A solid center line tends to be suggestive only and you’ll quickly learn that with cars moving over to the right for you, you can pass notwithstanding the solid line … except when there’s a significant curve, peak or valley up ahead. There are many gas stations along the entire route, most of which now have “The Italian Coffee Company” franchises alongside, with clean washrooms. Credit cards are generally accepted for filling up, and now as well at the many toll booths … except when the system has broken down.
Leaving Mexico City you’ll pass through a number of stretches of comedors along each side of the highway. You’ll gradually ascend, through a number of easy curves, leaving the smog of the valley behind. The scenery is nothing special, but the ease with which you’ll be able to negotiate the curves at a reasonable speed will more than make up for the non-descript landscapes. The curves and valleys will become more dramatic, to the extent that there will be a red line on the pavement demarcating how vehicles with failing brakes should proceed, leading them off the pavement and onto a roadway ending at a soft a embankment of straw.
You will see at least a couple of exits to downtown Puebla, marked as “Puebla Centro.” Puebla makes for a great stopover for a day or two, if you’re in no great rush to get to Oaxaca. It’s large and sprawling, but the downtown core is quaint, small and full of interesting shops, crafts, restaurants and clean, inexpensive hotels. Within a couple of blocks of the zócalo are good hotels, an extensive pedestrian walkway with many shops, and Los Sapos, a few streets filled with crafts, antiques and collectibles. Arrive on a weekend and there’s an open air marketplace. On Sunday there’s an even larger series of temporary stalls selling crafts, plants, etc, two blocks down. In the same area is the area known as Parián, and the Barrio de Artista, both not to be missed. Of course there are nearby ruins and other sites, but for a brief stopover it’s the downtown that’s the “must see.” For a splurge spend the night at Mesón Sacristía (written up in a coffee table book about the 1,000 best inns in The Americas) in Los Sapos. For economy, stay at Palas or Palace, on 2 Oriente, a block from the zócalo and about four blocks from Los Sapos.
The drive from Puebla to Oaxaca, without stopping other that for a couple of pit stops, takes about three and a half hours. However, during 2007 and at least well into 2008 there are two or three road construction sites which will slow you down. Again, be patient, turn off your engine, and see what the vendors have to offer. And at the toll booths there will be even more offerings, from uniquely Poblano sweets known as camotes, to wholewheat tortillas, to puppies. Two lanes become one and a half, as you approach the turn-off to the right to continue on to Tehuacan and Oaxaca. You’ll see the breathtaking snow-capped peak as you look ahead towards Orizába (but don’t take that road or you’ll end up in Veracruz).
Next there are two recommended stops, unless you also want to spend time at Tehuacan. The first is 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 five or more factory outlets where you can by almost anything into which these stones 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 autopista, 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 and townscapes, near Tehuacan you’ll see long narrow white-topped buildings where poultry is produced and then trucked throughout the state of Puebla and further abroad. There will be a couple of locations demarcated as stops for tourists to pull over and appreciate and photograph the deep valleys and high mountaintops. Long well-marked expansion bridges serve to showcase the valleys and mountains. You’ll pass over a geological fault. There will be several kilometers of impressive “telephone 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 toll booth is called Huitzo. About 15 - 20 minutes further 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.
Until 1995 when the toll road opened all the way from the capital to Oaxaca, for much of the route you were required to travel along secondary roads and highways, pretty well doubling the length of the drive. Now you have the benefit of a much shorter and definitely a safe trip along quality well-marked pavement, with the added feature of the option of getting off the main highway and venturing into some villages to take in additional sites, scenery and local culture. The only cautionary note is to not drive outside of any major urban center, and in particular on the highways or even toll roads, at night, unless absolutely necessary. Lighting tends to be lacking or insufficient, and laws regarding impaired driving are rarely enforced.
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.