Whenever the family is deciding where to travel for a family vacation, the first things that come to my mind are, “What are the roads like? Is it car friendly?” Part of being a Gearhead is having a love for driving, regardless of the car you’re driving as long as the view through the windshield is interesting. I am originally from Mexico, but due to the drug cartel violence of the past decade my family and I have not been able to visit our relatives since 2007. However, last month we were able to drive into Mexico and spend some time with family friends and I got a chance to drive in Mexico for the first time. This is a travel story as seen through the eyes of a Gearhead.
We were all a little nervous when we entered the border city of Reynosa, Mexico. My parents’ hometown, and the city where I was born, had changed immensely since we left for Texas during the early 90’s. I remember visiting Reynosa, and other cities in Mexico during family vacations as a kid and seeing the streets filled with VW Beetles as soon as we crossed the border. For reasons I’ll never understand, border towns on either side of the line are always a bit… rougher than cities that are more inland. Reynosa was no different as some of the roads looked like the surface of the moon, and my Mazda 3 bunny hopped over each and every one of them. If any of you have never visited the beautiful country of Mexico, and plan on doing so, there is one very important rule to learn when driving on Mexican streets and that is… there are no rules. When I say there are no rules I mean that driving around Mexico is a lot like a being in a road race.
Lanes only exist when traffic develops, and that is only for freeways or highways, any other time you can have four car wide traffic squeezed into a two lane road with cars just inches away from each other. Bus drivers think they own the road, much like our 18-wheeler friends on American interstates, only these guys are masters of knowing the dimensions of their vehicles as they cut through a sea of near miss traffic. I have never seen a city bus dive across three lanes of traffic just to cut off a line of cars behind it in order to drop off passengers at a bus stop. Cars don’t even honk, they just serve to avoid it with rally car driver reflexes.
My second night in Reynosa I was handed the keys to a brand new work truck from my Uncle’s business. A little Nissan pickup truck with a flatbed designed to haul 2,000 pounds. Cute little truck with a manual transmission, four cylinder engine, and just 200 kilometers on the clock. It was nighttime when it was my turn to drive and it started to rain minutes after I was tossed the keys. At night, the lines on the road do not reflect so you have no idea where the lanes on the road are and have to just pick a groove and stick with it. Also, the reflection from the water makes the roads look like mirrors so you are unable to see any potholes until it is too late. The truck had brakes and suspension set up to haul and carry heavy loads so when it’s not loaded the truck feels like a 1944 Willys Jeep. Breathing on the brake pedal causes it to lock up and any bump or pothole sent me flying up into the roof as it bounced along. I’ve always wanted to drive one so I was able to cross it off my bucket list.
We were going to take a road trip to Monterey on our third day, and my uncle handed me the keys to his 2014 Range Rover so I could follow him in the two car convoy. I’m used to driving vintage cars and dirty farm trucks and now I was behind the wheel of a supercharged, six figured price tag, luxury SUV! I loved driving it, to the point that I saw stopping at a restaurant to eat or going to a mall to shop as a distraction. All I wanted to do was get behind the wheel and keep driving the streets of Monterey with its fast, anything goes, driving style. To survive on the road you need a car that is either very nimble or has quick acceleration to get you out of tight situations and avoid a collision.
The police gave me cultural shock as well. It is a little disorienting waiting at a stoplight and having a military truck next to you with a Mexican solider riding on the roof holding an M60 machine gun. In Reynosa, the military is the police and they fulfill all the duties as a police officer only with much more firepower and presence. Once you get further inland you start to see Federal police officers cruising around in souped up Ford Taurus and Dodge Chargers. One thing that stood out for me was that they do not have unmarked interceptors, instead each police car rides around with their red and blues flashing. When I asked why, they told me it was to let people know they are around in case they need help. They do not try to hide in the public eye, instead they try to stand out as much as possible so the public can find them in an emergency.
The classic Volkswagen Beetle and Kombi have not be in production since 2003, and used to be the kings of the road in Mexico. With more economic, faster, and comfortable European cars on the market I was worried that they would have been replaced and sent away to the scrap yards to rot. As a kid, I would count the number of Beetles and Kombis I would see as I looked out the window during car rides. Back then, you would see four or five VW’s before seeing any other type of car. Beetles ruled the roads up and the people loved them. I am pleased to say that although there aren’t as many around as there use to be, you can still listen to the “Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak” sound of an air-cooled engine providing a bass to the city’s soundtrack. I spotted a few classics being used as daily drivers, and seeing them on the road brought nostalgic memories of my early days when I was just getting hooked on cars as a little kid. According to my parents, when I was around five years old I wanted to take a ride in one of these funny tear drop shaped cars. My parents pulled over and stopped a VW Beetle taxi cab and asked the driver to drive us around just so I could experience what it was like to ride in a Beetle. VW’s will always have a very special place in my heart.
My uncle is a very fast driver, and he knows the dimensions of his truck very well so he can maneuver his Dodge Ram as if it was a mini cooper through traffic. Staying on his tale was no easy task as I have to change my driving habits in order to keep up. I broke nearly every traffic law you can think when just trying to keep up with his Hemi powered Truck. I ran through red lights, stops signs, sped through boulevards, changed lanes in an unsafe manner without signaling, driving on the wrong side of the road, and speeding. I gave the Range Rover a thorough test of its ABS, traction control, and engine performance in the process. I concluded that the truck feels extremely confrontable at 110mph, but it lacks stopping power when it comes to throwing the anchor out in an emergency stop, it’s too heavy. Ironically, my first day back in the United States I was pulled over for speeding and given a ticket.
My trip to Mexico was amazing because it was unplanned and those are usually the best kind of vacations. I never expected to drive through the cities my parents grew up in a Range Rover, let alone be allowed to drive it like most of us day dream about. Having a blast on the roads, playing near-miss with motorcycles and city buses while keeping my foot hard on the gas to keep up with a Red Dodge Ram in front of me. I love Mexico, and I love traveling by car, to me it’s the only way to properly enjoy a country you have never been in.