My eyes were open at just after 9am on Monday, May 22, 2017. By now, I’d hoped to be in Puebla, some 60 miles east of Mexico City. Instead, I was about 85 miles northwest of Mexico City, after a half day of bumbling around the city of Queretaro, with no GPS guidance and a road atlas that made the whole thing look like a bowl of spaghetti.
I’d holed up at a PEMEX station for the night just west of the outskirts of Queretaro, having settled on finding a route back east via backtracking through backroads that would take me to some place familiar. I’d come to grips with the idea that I was already a half day off, and this plan would add another two hours to my drive time. But I was determined to get out of this city, get east, and find my way to the Arco Norte, which would take me north of Mexico City and southeast to Puebla where I would find my way further east toward the Yucatan and my new home on the Caribbean coast.
I took my dog Zoe out for a stretch, and finding my heart pumping with anticipation, I was eager to get on the road, so we loaded up.
Pulling out of the PEMEX parking lot, and heading west, I was greeted with a most surprising sight. There, not 100 yards from where I’d slept, was a toll booth. Pulling in, I exclaimed to the booth attendant, “Necisisto retourno!” – “I need to turn around!”
“Si, amigo, dirección?!”
“Esta, esta!” was my reply, pointing back to the east. He motioned at the break in barrier gap dividing the west and east lanes of the highway, and indicated that I would still have to pay him the toll fee. I quickly threw him 200 pesos and told him, “No cambio!” letting him know he could keep the change. He lifted the barrier arm with a grin that you can only find in Mexico, and I quickly flipped around and was finally – FINALLY – headed east on MX45 with a memorized plan in my head of how to reach the Arco Norte and points east.
This plan I would repeat out loud for about an hour, as I made my way outside of Quretaro, bidding that hellhole goodbye, staying left, and ignoring deceptive directional signs. I was, finally, on my way to the Arco Norte.
The Arco Norte is a recently built bypass which circumvents the far outskirts of Mexico City, making it possible to travel from the north to cities east, such as Puebla, without ever having to venture into Mexico City. It is designated MX40, Autopista Arco Norte by the Mexican government. If there was one aspect of this trip that made me nervous, it was the possibility of taking a wrong turn and ending up having to navigate the traffic nightmare that is Mexico City. I
There was only one problem. The Arco Norte is not clearly marked. In fact, it’s not marked at all on the highway directional signs. So, traveling southeast on MX57, looking for well placed and brightly lit signs that say, “THIS WAY TO THE ARCO NORTE!!!” or “ARCO NORTE, PARTE STRAIGHT AHEAD!”, or, “ARCO NORTE – WE HAVE FREE TACOS”, I was greeted with one itty bitty sign that, had I not known what city I needed to travel to, I would have missed.
That sign read simply, “Puebla”.
Still being a greenhorn to driving in Mexico, I was kind of used to the American way. That is, letting me know that my turnoff onto a clearly marked toll road is coming up in about a mile or so, and I should be in the right hand lane. Not so here. Here was a sign marked “Puebla”, a city I knew I should be headed for. I was in the left lane and the exit was on the right, and the time to exit was right now RIGHT NOW, if I was going to make the exit at all.
It was at this moment that I followed my intuition and became a Mexican driver at heart. I kicked on my right blinker and gunned it for the exit. Buses and livestock trailers sailed around me, horns blaring, and I didn’t care. I was not missing this turn.
Thankfully, I was greeted with signs that directed me to the north-northeast route onto the Autopista Arco Norte. After a stop at an automated toll booth where I finally figured out that I had to pull my ticket to get the barrier arm to lift and give me access to the tollway, I found myself heading east.
Feeling like I could finally relax, Zoe and I were treated to the most amazing sights in all of Mexico. Beautiful lush valleys thousands of feet below surrounded by volcanic mountain ranges in every direction. Hillside vineyards and terraced plantations were everywhere. The following two hours were sensory overload. Never once did we see a hint of Mexico City, and that was just fine with me. I had no idea that this stretch of highway would be so beautiful. The landscape of the northern Mexico high desert had given way to something that looked more like Tuscany and in some places, the lower French Alps.
Making our exit on the eastern side of the Arco, we headed toward the city of Puebla. I caught sight of a convenience store, and whipped in for a chance to get Zoe out of the truck and grab some bottled water. As I parked, I saw the most welcome thing I’d seen in two days – “Free WiFi”.
I took Zoe out for some exercise, replenished her water and food, then made my way inside where I bought a few necessities. After talking to the manager in broken Spanish, I was finally connected to the internet and made a hurried call via Facebook Messenger to Kathryn.
She answered quickly. The connection was awful, but I managed to let her know that I was alive and told her my location. Throughout the day’s drive, I’d been doing speed and fuel table calculations in my head, and told her I expected to be home with her no later than 6:00 the following evening. Hearing her voice was a welcome relief, and I could tell that the same was true for her. This was the longest time we’d ever gone without talking to one another, and being unable to contact her until now had been extremely difficult to deal with.
With a refreshed dog and a renewed spirit, I once again struck out for the open roads of Mexico. I would press on until nightfall and make my final push the following day, determined to make my promised timeline to Kathryn and our Riviera Maya home. Little did I know what amazing sights awaited me just down the road.