City Driving | Mexico | Living in Mexico

City Driving

I've managed to get lost while driving in nearly every Mexican City I have visited. Once I attributed this to my lack of familiarity with street naming and directional sign conventions. Now I understand these things better, but I still get lost. Moreover, as I walk around San Miguel de Allende, drivers from Mexico City and Guadalajara frequently stop to ask me for directions.

Usually they want to know how to get out of town. "¿Donde está la salida de Celaya?" (Where is the road to Celaya?)

Exactly. I face this problem whenever I enter a Mexican city. How the hell do I get out of here? Getting into town is easy. Once there, however, it's like entering an alternate universe, where familiar rules of topology don't apply.

Some things that prevent people from finding their way:

1) Street names change from block to block. Calle de la Revolución in this block becomes Carretera de los Heros Niños in the next. Without notice. In San Miguel, our first home was on Garita. A block to the west, it becomes Hospicio, then Cuadrante, then Pila Seca, and finally, Prolongación Pila Seca. Most city maps aren't detailed enough (or accurate enough) to track all this.

2) Signage is poor or absent. There's often nothing to advise you that you now are on the Carretera de los... etc.

3) Most local residents have no idea how to get out of town. But they all are firendly and want to be helpful, so they give you directions anyway. Their helpfulness ensures that you will get lost if you weren't before.

I get lost almost every time I try to drive into the U. S. via Nuevo Laredo. Others seem to manage without difficulty. Not me. Maybe I take maps too literally. Having been advised that Bridge #2 is the best route, I carefully try to follow the route in my Guia Roji (the equivalent of a Rand-McNally road atlas). However, the bridge numbering in the atlas (#1, #2, #3) doesn't match the actual bridge numbering on the signs in Nuevo Laredo (#2, #3, #1). So I wind up wandering on local streets, stopping at Pemex gas stations and asking for directions.

(This is an act that takes some nerve in a city where the last Chief of Police lasted eight hours before he was shot dead by local gang members, and where the authorities have been unable to persuade anyone else to take the job.)

By the time I'm desperate enough to ask for instructions, I don't give a damn which bridge I take. Any one will do so long as it crosses the Rio Grande. I ask, "¿Donde está la puente de los Estados Unidos?"

I never get a straight answer. My putative informant turns to a companion and begins a discussion about where the bridge might be and what routes might possibly lead there. Soon, one or two otherwise unemployed men drift over and join the group, offering other possibilities. I've since come to realize that they, too, are hampered by a street-naming convention so arcane that even though they've lived with it all of their lives, it's as impenetrable to them as it is to me. And in any event, none of them have ever crossed the border, so they really aren't familiar with the route.

Unable to use street names (because they don't know them, and even if they did, there'd be no signs to guide me), they construct a set of directions using landmarks. They tell me to go straight down the street until I see the Pollo Felíz, turn left, continue on straight past the signal light until I reach McDonalds, and then turn right...

The intersection at McDonalds turns out to be six-way, so there's two possible right turns. And anyway, since the Spanish word for "right" is "derecha" and "straight ahead" is "derecho," my guides may not have been indicating any turn at all.

So it's always hard to get out of town.

Once, an an Angel of Mercy got into her car and led me out of Monterrey. Another time, a man got into my car and directed me to the road leading out of Ciudad Juárez, getting out at the city limits. In Gomez Palacio (a town to be avoided at all costs), I rolled through a stop sign while hopelessly lost and was pulled over by a policeman. I was so frustrated that when he came up to my window, I handed him my map and, almost in tears, asked him for directions. After showing me where to go, I asked about about my violación. He looked at me pathetically, laughed and waved me on my way.

All this is bad enough: inconsistent street names, poor signage, poor directions. But in San Miguel de Allende, over time, street names change. Not only do they change, but when the city finally got around to putting up (barely readable) street signs at corners, in addition to directing motorists, they were used to document the street name history of the intersection.

(This is another problem: Signs with too much information. When you slow down to try to comprehend all of the information, a traficante stops you and gives you and writes you a ticket.)

Here's some examples:


The signs on this street indicate that the street names changed somewhere along the way and one street became two. The sign on the left identifies Cañadita de los Aguacates. Cañadita translates as "little gully" or "little sheep track," so here we have a street named "Little Avocado Gully." Underneath the street name appears the notation, "Antes Cañada de los Aguacates." Previously Avocado Gully."

See what I mean? Too much information. Does anyone care that sometime back in history, the word "little" was added to the street name?

And that's not all the sign tells us. Under the Arms of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, underneath the street name and the previous street name, we read that our location is also known as block 37 of quarter 5 and that we are in zip code 37700. Finally, molded at the bottom of the frame, we see "City council 2003-2006." Credit where credit is due.

(Quarter 5?)

At the risk of being branded cynical, I'll confess that I can't help wondering if this is the kind of thing that happens when a scion of the local nobility, unable to find useful employment, is awarded a sinecure in the local government, such as Director of Street Signs. Does he sit at his desk, and with nothing better to do, change street names and design complicated signs to commemorate his contributions?

The second sign above illustrates more of this idea. Here we have Calle Nueva—New Street... Previously Avocado Gully.

I hope you're following this.


On the other hand, two street names can become one. My street was once known as Guadiana Street, when it wasn't known as Hospital Street. Both are now Aldama—an improvement, I guess. Although why this information is included on street signs is beyond me. Is it so old timers won't get confused? I don't think so. The name Hospital Street was used in the 18th Century. See? It says so right on the sign. I don't think anyone is having trouble keeping up with the dizzying pace of change.

Over the years, I've managed to learn the intricacies of our ancient streets. I know which streets are one-way, which ones are too narrow for my Explorer. Diligent and frequent scouting keeps me up-to-date on closures, when men bury new telephone lines or replace cobblestones. There's at least one Mexican town I don't get lost in.

So it's with a certain smugness that I turn to the harried-looking driver in the Lexus bearing Mexico City plates and tell him, "Váyase derecho en esta calle por dos cuadras, da una vuelta a la derecha, y entonces derecho todo por la glorieta. Allí está la salida de Celaya." (Go straight on this street for two blocks, turn to the right, and then go straight through the traffic circle. There's the exit to Celaya.)