The trip from Saltillo south toward Mexico City had been amazingly smooth and relaxing. The sun lit the distant mountain peaks through the morning fog. I encountered amazing sights and wished I’d had more time to stop, take pictures, and write. But I was pushing myself to simply get to my new home on the Riviera Maya as quickly as possible. Stopping roughly every 150 miles to top off my tank at regularly placed PEMEX stations had worked out well. Except for the one station I encountered roughly halfway between Saltillo and Queretaro, in the middle of nowhere, where a very sly PEMEX staff of pump operators distracted me, asking questions about Zoe while my pump operator reset the pump halfway through, wanting to charge me 900 pesos for what I knew would only be 450 pesos max. While I managed to get him to back down and take no more than 500 pesos, the lesson was learned – get out of the vehicle, watch them zero the counter, and never take your eyes off the pump. I wouldn’t be falling for that trick again.
Before leaving Texas, I’d downloaded regional maps of the areas I would be traveling so I would have offline GPS guidance while driving through Mexico. This worked very well until my device switched over to a new regional map file which was corrupt and unreadable by my phone’s map application. It was some time before I realized I was driving blind, and far beyond a missed turn I should have taken, that I realized that the route I’d taken, MX 57, was taking me directly into the heart of downtown Queretaro, a mid-size city northwest of Mexico City. My intended route, 57D, a toll route, would have taken me around and east of the municipality with its unforgiving traffic and confusing directional signs.
My intention was to bypass this city as well as Mexico City via the Arco Norte, a 2 hour answer to the nightmare scenario of trying to find one’s way through Mexico City. I’d hoped to make it from Monterrey, around the Arco Norte before nightfall and find a place to stay in Puebla, about 60 miles east of Mexico City; unfortunately, this was not to be.
Traffic became heavier and heavier and was moving faster and faster. With no GPS, I was relying solely on an inadequate road atlas and transcribed notes of the route that I’d printed out prior to leaving Texas. Driving down an unfamiliar highway alone is not necessarily the best place to try to figure out where you are and how to backtrack. As it turns out, backtracking would become the greatest challenge in navigating this city, as there were very few retornos available upon which to make a u-turn.
In a bit of a panic, I did the worst thing one can do while lost, and turned on the first available road off the highway. This took me west, while I needed to get east-southeast. It would be miles before I would find an overpass on which to cross over and reach the east-bound side of the highway. Once oriented in the correct direction, I pulled over into a parking lot to catch my breath and study my very inadequate road atlas to attempt to find a route back toward the Arco Norte. I finally settled on simply making my way back east on MX45 where I would hopefully see signs directing me back to MX57. After a 20 minute drive, I did in fact see the welcome sight of a sign pointing me to 57. I was on my way toward the Arco Norte, or so I thought.
Unfortunately, highways in this part of Mexico are not well-marked and directional signs can be utterly confusing. For example, you can be driving along a certain highway and be met with the choice of heading left or right at a fork, with no indication that you are changing routes. It’s imperative to know what cuidads and pueblos you’ll be passing though, as knowing these waypoints is critical in the event of GPS guidance loss. Beginning this journey with the expectation of having GPS guidance the entire way, I’d made the mistake of not studying and familiarizing myself with the routes in the event of GPS loss. I’d begun to question myself. Had I gone too far or taken another wrong fork in the road? Foolishly, I exited the highway that I would later find out would have taken me directly to the Arco Norte had I only stayed the course.
I found myself winding through cuidad San Juan del RIo, a barrio district just east of Queretaro. This was one of those places a gringo does not want to be after dark, and as pedestrians and motorists gave me sideways glances, I knew that I stuck out like a sore thumb, a tall Texan driving around in circles on very narrow streets in a Texas plated Toyota Tundra. The sun was getting lower and lower in the sky, and I knew it would be best to get out of here before nightfall. I managed to find my way back to MX45 and was relieved to be back on the highway, but alarmed at the fact that I was again heading west instead of east.
In the last hour of daylight, I came to terms with the fact that I would not make the Arco Norte this day. I’d spent an entire afternoon bumbling around Queretaro like an idiot, and was once again facing the dilemma of finding a crossover to re-orient myself to the east. Confused and exhausted, I decided I would find a stopping place for the night, re-familiarize myself with the route and find a way east the following morning.
I pulled off into a travel plaza which had a PEMEX station, a Burger King, a Subway, and an Oxxo convenience store. I desperately was hoping that one of the restaurants would have wifi so that I could contact Kathryn and let her know I was still alive and on the way. Although I would not find wifi, I did at least find a place to re-charge my devices in the Subway shop, and after existing on crackers, pepperonis, cheese and cashews, a sandwich sounded good. I’d settled on eating here, stretching Zoe’s legs, studying my maps and notes until they were committed to memory, and then getting some sleep until sunrise. Having finished my sandwich, I went back out to the truck, took Zoe on a walk, and then reclined in the front seat. I began to notice some suspicious looks coming from inside the Oxxo store. I deduced that the staff was suspicious of me for some reason, and thought it might be better to find some other place for the night.
Departing the travel plaza, I headed further west. It was pitch dark now, and my eyes were continually searching for a crossover that would get me headed back east again. I eventually found myself outside city limits. I’d traveled many miles with no indication of a retorno, and wondered if I would ever find a readily available route back towards the east. At this point, my nerves were entirely frazzled, my brain was tired, and my back sore from driving all day and into the night. Rounding the curve, I spotted another small travel plaza, and quickly turned in to park for the night. I bought a couple of Modelos from the Oxxo store, and settled in to study my maps and notes.
I was becoming a bit depressed, missing Kathryn. The thought occurred to me that, if something happened to me out here, there would literally be no way to let any of my loved ones know. I was determined to make the Arco Norte around Mexico City the next morning, and had settled on a couple of options which might get me there, the primary option taking me back to the northeast 60 miles to find my way back to the originally intended route along MX57D. I would lose about an hour, but at least would be back in familiar territory and have better knowledge of the way ahead. Finishing my cerveza, I remarked to Zoe that one way or another we were getting out of here tomorrow morning.
Shortly after 9am, my eyes popped open. I’d gotten some much-needed rest after an exhausting day, and was ready to hit the road, determined to get past Mexico City and as far east toward the Yucatan as I possibly could. As luck would have it, I would catch a much-needed break.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to our good friend Suzan at Dos Ojos Lodge for helping edit this blog entry.