Travels without my sat nav-
Our Real Latin America Expert
Driving licence? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Sense of adventure? Check. Sat Nav... if only.
Having been fortunate enough to get the chance to take a road trip around Mexico’s colonial cities, I found myself planning for the trip in a state of unease. Surprisingly, my worry had nothing to do with the well-publicised cloud of ash that was bringing the skyways to a standstill at the time; rather with the short journeys we were going to be making along Mexico’s highway system. More specifically:
How would I manage driving through unfamiliar cities without my beloved Tom Tom?
The worst thing is I used to consider myself a good navigator. I have clear memories of making the annual seven-hour journey from the north of England down to Cornwall for family holidays using only an AA map and common sense, and we never got lost.
However, along with driving instructors, police officers and London cab drivers alike (whatever happened to The Knowledge?), who all seem to have given up traditional map-reading in favour of a little plastic box, I have to admit that I have become completely reliant on receiving barked instructions from the computerised voice of John Cleese in order to get from A to B. The grim realisation of this fact is more worrying than the thought of getting hopelessly lost in central Mexico, and I quickly resolve to get over my fear.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the possibility of taking a wrong turning or two that sets my heart racing – that’s all part of the fun. But the thought of driving hundreds of miles in the wrong direction and having to call the office for help? Well that would just be embarrassing. Stories still go around about staff members (mentioning no names, Rafe and Will) who went out for a quick bike ride through the jungles of Belize, only to realise after riding for hours on end that the jungle has no signposts or distinguishing features. As night drew closer, I’m sure they must have considered sleeping with the snakes rather than suffer the humiliation of having to call for help, but in the end they had to bite the bullet.
Anyway, back to Mexico – it couldn’t be as bad as driving in London, could it? Studying Google Maps back in London, I felt greatly reassured about the trip – the route between the cities where we were due to be staying was along main highways; there’d be no chance of getting lost. On top of this there would be no congestion charge to contend with, no bus lane cameras, no sleeping policemen, no traffic wardens…
Fast forward to the car rental office in downtown Mexico City, where we've spent a couple of fantastic days enjoying the city and the nearby pyramids and temples of Teotihuacán. Now, with our rental forms signed, counter-signed, witnessed and counter-witnessed, we start the car and get ready to head out onto the road.
I've agreed to drive the first leg myself (mainly because the driver can deny all responsibility in the event of getting lost – after all it’s the passenger who has to read the maps). I am waiting for our guide to pull out of his parking space so that we can get on our way. Only he doesn’t seem to be in any rush to move and, in fact, he’s got out of his car. Closer inspection reveals the truth – he’s been clamped! You’ve got to be kidding! I’d never before seen parking meters in Latin America, never mind clampers. A small detour to the local police station and we’re on our way.
From thereon in, the journey runs remarkably smoothly. We’re grateful for the guide’s expertise in helping us navigate the 10-million car traffic jam that is Mexico City, but once we’ve left the metropolis behind, the highway is well signposted. Of course, there’s the occasional speed bump to contend with – Mexican speed bumps are aptly named topes (hills) and are huge, even by British standards – but aside from that, it’s plain sailing.
We complete the 4-day trip from Mexico City to Morelia without getting ourselves lost once. Even the notoriously complex underground tunnel system in the beautiful mining town of Guanajuato gives us no problems. The colonial cities themselves are a delight – surprisingly European in their outward appearance (think Parisian tree-lined squares with cafés and restaurants, grand theatres and cathedrals) but unmistakably Mexican at heart, with wandering mariachi bands and bustling cantinas.
Then the night before we’re due to return to Mexico City we receive a phone call: instead of our meticulously planned route to the rental office, we’ll need to drop the car at the airport. So we decide to leave Morelia in plenty of time to return our car by the 4p.m. deadline. Surely nothing can go wrong at this stage?
Entering the city, it all seems too easy. Following the ring road and signs for Terminal One, we can see the planes touching down. But moments later and the signs have mysteriously disappeared; they’re only for Terminal Two. After turning the corner, signs for the airport disappear all together. Even though we can see the airport at the side of the road, there’s no way of getting to it.
Following the ring road around the city, it suddenly becomes clear – there’s no way of making a U-turn, we have to follow the road leading directly away from the airport. As we pass signs for highways out of the city, the realisation hits us - we’re completely lost. Not only that, but I’m the one who is supposed to be navigating and therefore the blame is squarely on my shoulders! What follows is a two-and-a-half-hour detour around the city, with at least ten stops to ask for directions. Eventually, just as we’re about to make the dreaded call for help – the call that will undo all our good work and single us out as a laughing stock – we stumble across the turn off to the airport. We’ve made it!
Returning back to the office after our trip, the first question we’re asked (even before the obligatory “Good trip?”) is “Did you get lost then?” Having conferred between ourselves and pre-prepared our excuses before we got home, we’re ready for the question. All it takes is a quick shrug of the shoulders in reply and a nonchalant, “It was easy, no problems at all”, and we’re home safe and dry. If only they knew…