Monday, April 12, 2010

Driving the Streets of Zihuatanejo

Driving the Streets of Zihuatanejo – and Other Observations

By Ed Kunze

Part 1 – Frantic Driving and Why
Part 2 - Individual Vendors
Part 2 – Taxis
Part 3 – Micros and Combis
Part 4 – The new freeway to Morelia, and Chilangos
Part 5 – Parking in town and a few tricks
Part 6 – Trash alongside the highway
Part 7 – Do you need a rental car?
Part 8 – Mordidas (the bite)
Part 9 – Driving and drinking
Part 10 . Left Turn Signals
Part 11 – The Future
Part 12 – Emergencies and important phone numbers

Prologue - When I moved here 14 years ago, the population in Zihuatanejo itself (not including the outlying areas of the county) was about 40,000 people. It is now more than double that, and with the population explosion the easy tranquil driving on the streets has changed dramatically.
         I was raised and lived in the L.A. / Orange County area of Southern California, and got my drivers license when I was 16. You would think I should have been able to handle anything Mexico could throw at me. Wrong.
          I often tell people I didn’t really learn to drive until I was 35 years old and started driving in Mexico’s larger cities. In the U.S. and Canada you get lax, because you can mostly depend on the other drivers to not be disruptive and continue with the flow of traffic. In Mexico, you have to almost be preternaturally alert, because you don’t know where the surprise is coming from, but you know it will happen. You really have to be aware of what is going on all around you.
            However, driving in Zihuatanejo is still not as bad as you encounter in the large Mexican cities, and in my opinion, Acapulco is even worse than Mexico City. But, we are no longer the quiet fishing village which was promoted 20 years ago.

          Apparently, Zihuatanejo is now becoming a big city, at least this is what a couple of enterprising men think. You may have observed them coming from the airport, and just before you get to the traffic signal at Aqua Correa. They will be either sitting on the side of the road or in the center divider. You can tell who they are because of the large red rag or red towel they have.
            What are they doing there? They wait until a large 18 wheeler truck comes screaming into town, and then run out waving their red flag…Huh?? Yup, that is what they do. In big cities this a common practice if the truck driver is new to the area. These guys are guides, and the red flag is their trademark. For a small fee they will guide the large truck through town and the best streets for him to get to his destination.
           It is a great idea and an interesting concept for big cities, because it can be very difficult driving a car, yet alone a truck. Plus, there is always construction going on or street closures with an open air market, which can really confuse you. However, other than a couple of men trying to guide trucks, Zihuatanejo has yet to reach that situation.

So, welcome to big city driving; Zihuatanejo style.

Part 1 - Frantic Driving and Why
           When people ask me about driving in Zihuatanejo, I always jokingly start out by saying “you are now in a country where a Stop sign means yield and a Yield sign means if you hurry, you can beat the other guy, and it deteriorates from there.” But unfortunately, in many instances, this is not far from the truth. How can a laid back people, who have a notorious reputation for being late, transform so radically when behind the wheel?
       Hell, a few years back we didn’t even have a traffic light. The Transito police were at all major intersections, and traffic flowed fairly smoothly. There were a few rare accidents, but mostly at intersections which were not policed by the local transitos. Then came the traffic signals, which left it up to the Mexican driver to do what was best for his agenda. The results are incredible. Accidents are now a multiple daily occurrence, and the photos are very graphic in our daily newspaper. It does not help that we are a very popular vacation resort, with the majority of the vacationers being Mexican Nationals. And, Mexican Nationals come here for 3 reasons. They come to enjoy the beach, the climate, and to party.
       With the advent of traffic signals came a defined period of time when the traffic is stopped. When the Transito Police controlled the intersections, it was only relative to the traffic backed up in one direction or another. With peak times in one direction, a few cars would have to wait for a while if they were going in the other direction. Now, at peak periods, a lot of cars have to wait while a few cars have the same time frame to cross the intersection as a whole bunch of cars going in the other direction. This is just incredible to the Mexican driver, who will easily slip out of his driving lane and into the oncoming traffic lane to gain a few seconds on the vehicles ahead of him.
Here is the logic:
      1) I have to be at work, or the meeting, etc. at 10:00. I will leave the house 10 minutes before the time I need to be there…This is not negotiable. Mexican time works different than what you or I believe in.
     2) It only took 10 minutes to get to work for years, and I am now running late.
     3) “They” are the problem…Not me.
     4) And, the cycle repeats itself.

         (Note: I have had meetings scheduled for a certain time. After waiting 15 minutes after the appointed hour, I leave. About 10 minutes later I get a call on my cell phone wondering where I am. I flat out tell them I will not wait. I was there 5 minutes early and you are 20 minutes late. I explain to them 15 minutes of my time waiting for the average meeting; multiplied by 5 days a week is about 60 hours of wasted time for the year. More than a whole week wasted while waiting on “Mexican Time”. The people who do business with me regularly now understand this…or they get no business.)

           Another thing I have observed is when driving in the big cities; people rarely have an open space of more than a car length in front of them. If they leave a gap, another car will shoot into the gap, trying to get into a faster lane. So, you have a multitude of cars racing down the street, basically bumper to bumper. When these people get to Zihuatanejo, it is like an open freeway to them. They can drive like Hell, and if things get clogged, they certainly know how to maneuver when the traffic gets heavy.
        In Zihuatanejo, I was once heading towards Cinco De Mayo and I was in front of where the Coppel store would soon be built. A car with DF (Mexico City) license plates was frantically weaving in and out of traffic as we went along. Sometimes he was ahead, sometimes in back. When were about even with the Comex paint store he was along side of me. I said to the guy (in Spanish): “Hey! Are you a Chilango (and he nodded his head and smiled) or just some other kind of an idiot?” As to which he stopped smiling.
      Back 12 years ago, the majority of vacationers we had were the Chilangos from DF. The freeway, which bypasses Acapulco, makes it an easy 8 hour drive to get here. I have driven to DF many times and I am comfortable with the time frame. However, I have had many a Mexican driver tell me it is only 5 ½ hours…Go figure.
      When you are in the left lane of a two lane street, but you can see ahead the right lane is non-existent because of the parked car in the right hand lane, why do taxis, combis, and private vehicles stay in the right hand lane? Because they want to advance and cut you off. And, most of the time they are successful.
      Why should a driver, who is waiting in the correct lane for the traffic to move, yield to a vehicle who has intentionally taken the option of moving forward and cutting you off, in order to gain the spot in front of you? My solution is to be aware of what is happening, and because you are perfectly legal, creep forward to block his entry. He will be pissed, because you have blocked him off, and he feels he has every right to cut in front of you….No problem. It is not road rage; it is just lost of face for him. He has been successful most times in the past, so why not now?
        Another time, while riding in a friend’s car in Mexico City, he would brake hard at the speed bump, stop sign or traffic light, and then take off again like a Bat out of Hell. A set of brakes on a vehicle should last at least 40,000 miles or much more. He had a turbo charged Nissan. I asked him how long a set of brakes lasted on the car. He said he usually gets about 12,000 miles out of a new set.
       This is a perfect example of the mind set. I mean after all, if you are upper middle class, and you can actually afford a car, people better take notice of you, your car, and how well you drive.
       My neighbors think I am crazy. I wash my Suburban about once a week. They wash their cars every morning before they go to work. Every one of them makes sure their vehicle is presentable for the new day. This is not an option to them. It is an obligation.
       An American or Canadian takes a car for granted, and it is also used as a status symbol. However, its primary purpose is mostly as a tool to accomplish what needs to be done. A vehicle of any type to a Mexican is very much a status symbol first, and a tool is secondary: to the point of arrogance. No matter what type of vehicle or age you have, there is always somebody lower than you who should respect your exalted position.

Part 2 – Individual Vendors
        For now, let’s not talk about the actual driving. I want to point out the trend towards making a living off the people who are driving; just like in the big cities of Mexico.
        Going back to the traffic signals, we now have well defined periods of time traffic is stopped in each direction. People who want to sell items, wash windows, or even beg, no longer have to wait by the side of the road at a speed bump knowing people will slow down and hopefully take notice of your product. The vendors now know the traffic has to stop, and they have a set time period to tune up their act and sell.

1) News papers –
          Several years ago, with no traffic signals, few people ever bought a newspaper. They just were not available, except in a few locations. A few corner magazine sellers, a kid driving around on a bike, and a car parked near the Mercado blaring out the headlines on roof mounted speakers, at full volume.

Now they are distributed and read widely, and mostly because of the traffic signals. There will be as many as 4 people selling papers at a single intersection. From Coacoyul to the gas station in Limon one morning, I once counted 9 people hawking newspapers.

I have a set of rules for buying a paper. I do not buy from one of the many very able bodied and healthy men. I only buy my papers from a woman, or the old man selling papers from the signal near the Bodega. He has only a stub of a right arm and is on the street 6 days a week; just like a regular job. When the papers are sold out, he sells packets of gum. He keeps a small plastic bowl around his neck so he can make change with his good arm. I respect that. It is way better than sitting on the steps of a bank and begging.

The vendors in the best locations make about 150 pesos a day selling papers, which is three times the minimum wage. Plus, they usually start selling around 6:00 in the morning, and are done by 11:00. The paper company itself gives the locations to the vendors, with priority to the oldest participants; otherwise there would be battles as the younger able bodied young men arrive, trying to take advantage of some easy money.

2) Window washers
         We used to only get our windows washed from enterprising young men when we got gas for the car. The young men were usually a bit mentally handicapped, and tolerated by all. Then the outside professionals arrived. I have no idea where they came from, but the competition here must be less than the big city they worked in. Then they leave, and a couple of months later, they come back again.

And, of course they bring their big city tactics with them. They approach a vehicle from the driver’s blind side and quickly squirt a well aimed stream of water on the corner of your windshield. They get a lot of work that way, and some of them are amazingly fast and hard working.

When the window washers are at the intersections, if you don’t want your window washed, and somebody sitting up on the hood of your vehicle to do it, you better be alert and learn to quickly wag your finger to tell them “no”.

3) Jugglers and fire eaters
     Another set of migrants who come and go are the jugglers and fire eaters. Sometimes their act at the intersection while waiting for the green light is amazing. Sometimes it is best they just stayed at home. Unlike the window washer who gets paid by the individual driver, the jugglers and fire eaters are entertaining the entire crowd and will disperse among them just before the light turns green. From the duration of time to do their act, to collecting the money, they have their timing wired.

4) Drinking water
      Other than one enterprising man down near the Bodega, who has a large ice chest and sells water, sodas, and various newspapers from the larger cities, this is something new. I haven’t seen it before here, but it is rather common in the large cities. Able bodied men wait at the traffic signals and wander among the parked cars with a 6 pack sized ice chest and sell bottles of cold drinking water. Over on the side of the road is a larger ice chest they can refresh their supply with. I am sure they are also migrants from other cities, and we will see how long they stick around.

5) Begging
      Begging in Mexico’s cities is a fact of life. The assistance from government programs is almost non-existent. Cities provide crippled people with larger populations in which to have more new people to be in contact with daily. I am fairly sure the invalid beggars here are all from this coast, as they need family close by to assist them.

It can be quite heart rendering seeing a man with shriveled legs emplaced on a speed bump at the center line of Highway 200. In both directions cars, huge trucks, and busses all go past him with only a foot or so of clearance on either side. The man I am speaking of will be straddling the tope at Achotes one day, and the next day I will see him up at the Barrio Viejo tope. I have yet failed to pass him without giving a few pesos.

Another, who is confined to a wheel chair shows up every few months selling leather products at the speed bump at the Fuente Del Sol. It is possible he is an outsider and making the circuit. Or, it is possible he makes what he sells, and then goes home and makes more when they are sold out.

However, people begging from the highway or traffic signals can be quite intimidating to the driver. Another man who has been working the traffic signals these last few months has only one leg. On crutches he goes out among the stopped vehicles at a red light and glares at you with his hand held out. If you give him some change, there is no “gracias,” no nothing. He just moves on to the next victim.

Part 3 – Taxis

          Taxi fares around town, when compared to other destinations, are cheap. One of the reasons is there are so many taxis, the competition is fierce, and the public will not tolerate higher fares if a lot of taxis are just sitting around. Another reason is the rates are not set by the time spent in the taxi; rather they are set by which zone you will be traveling to. If you learn the zones and the rates to each, you will do well using taxis here. Another thing I like about our taxi system here, is when you get a taxi, it is yours. For instance, in Acapulco, you may end up sharing the taxi with a bunch of strangers. A taxi can pick up as many people has he can while taking you to your destination.

Most taxis are on the road, or at least available for about 20 hours a day. This is because the owner of the taxi will take a 10 hour shift, and then he subcontracts the other 10 hours. The other person usually pays the owner 300 pesos for the shift, and he pockets any money he makes. When an owner has two taxis, he sublets the other vehicle completely, with that driver even sharing in minor expenses and repairs.

(Note: this is why around 3:00 you see a lot of taxis at the gas stations, and shaking the vehicles to get the tank full. They are about to make a shift change, and the gas tank must be completely topped off.)

Taxi drivers are generally excellent people. They are hard workers, and trying to make an honest living. Not too many years back there were only a couple of hundred taxis, and they made a decent living. Everything was well balanced. The resident population sustained them, and when the vacationers came, they would put in incredibly long days, but usually stayed very busy and made a few extra pesos to put aside.

The population exploded, and with the advent of the new highway to Morelia, the tourism increased. And, some politician felt if he could justify more taxis and sell the permits, he could make a little extra money. This was fine. Another hundred taxi permits would have serviced the area well, and money could still be made by the drivers. But greed took over, and there are now almost 700 permits. It is so bad; it has almost become a joke.

You see many a taxi driver zipping in and around traffic to hurry up and get his fare to the destination. He will sit at a traffic signal about 6 cars back and start beeping his horn the instant the light turns green. He is basically saying “Get out of the way! Can’t you see I am working?” The joke is once he drops his fare off, he goes back to the hotel or location he works out of, parks his taxi and has at least another hour or more before he takes off again.

The theory is if he goes like Hell, and hurries to get back, he can immediately get another fare and take off again. The faster he goes, the more fares he can collect in a day. But, standing under a shade tree and talking with all the other drivers for an hour or more puts the brakes to that logic.

Compound the fact additional permits were issued just before the slow down in tourism a couple of years ago, and the taxi occupation has become very cutthroat. Overcharging fares, not letting a fishing captain pick up his client, and pirating licenses are just a few examples.

Don’t get me wrong, I still feel the majority of the taxi drivers are good hard working people. About 10% speak English well, and give excellent tours of the area, at a very reasonable price. But, if even just 10% of the taxi drivers are bad apples, that means there are almost 70 taxis out there, 7 days a week, making things bad for everybody else driving on the road. And bad they can make it.

Part 3- Micros and combis

a) Micro buses are usually the white school bus type you see in town and out on highway 200. There are variations in size, and coloring. The larger all white busses are going to either Petatlan to the South, or Union to the North. The smaller buses with white and yellow or green coloring are on different routes, with the coloring determining the route. Because they know the routes, the locals just watch for the yellow striped micro when they want to go to Pantla, but for a new tourist, just look at the windshield. The destinations will be written on the windshield on the “passenger” side.

Most Mexicans do not own a car, so micros and combis are relative cheap public transportation, which the Mexican population could not be without. Yet the same system would not work in the States or Canada.

For instance, to travel from Centro in Zihuatanejo to Petatlan is only about 15 pesos. And, even if they did own a vehicle, it would take about 50 pesos in an economical car to make the same round trip.

Plus, even if they do own a vehicle and drive, they would be faced with parking problems at their place of work. Ixtapa was built to be primarily a resort for air arrivals. Parking was not really considered at all, with most available open space taken up by the hotels themselves, restaurants and other commercial endeavors.

The reason the Mexican system of combis and micro buses will not work in the States or Canada is simple. The buses are owned by an owner operator. He pays minimum insurance, does not have safety inspections (at least none which he can’t get out of with a few pesos mordita), does not have a union mechanic, and does not pay a union wage when he subcontracts the vehicle to another person. No doubt some of the buses are borderline unsafe, but the system works.

Going back to the word “relative” when I was talking how cheap this system is. It is cheap to us, but when a Mexican National has a 200 peso a day job in Ixtapa, and lives in Petatlan (which is very common), he or she must pay at least 34 pesos to get to and from Petatlan to the Fuente de Sol in Zihuatanejo, and another 16 pesos to and from Zihuat to Ixtapa. The cost for transportation, for only to and from work, amounts to almost 25% of their income.

It must also be noted the micros drive by intimidation. They figure they are larger than you; therefore they have the right of way. Trying to park my Suburban in a parking spot in front of the Mercado de Pinturas one afternoon, I had pulled over as far as I could and turned on my emergency blinkers. This lets the vehicles behind know what your intentions are. A combi paused, had plenty of room, and then went around me.

A favorite game with these micro drivers, who have an IQ about 1 point above a head of lettuce, and nor other diversion, is to force people to give up their intended parking spot and move on. This allows them to not have to wait 20 seconds before they head on down the road.

The damned micro pulled up on me blocking my ability to back into the parking space. He had plenty of space to go around, but wanted to play his game. And, he started blaring on the horn to intimidate me. I am 6’ tall and 220 pounds, and bigger than most Mexicans. I just shut off the engine, pulled the keys out and walked back to the micro, showing him the keys. He was yelling and cussing for me to get out of the way. I said “call a transito or back up 3 feet”. He backed up. He was pissed because he lost a lot of face in front of his bus load of people.

Even if you are a woman at 5’ tall and 105 pounds dripping wet. If you pull the keys out of the vehicle and show them, then walk to the other side of your vehicle to the sidewalk, they will eventually get it figured out. They aren’t completely stupid (zero points above a head of cabbage)…they only act like idiots.

b) Combis are the more modern Dodge Vans you see driving around with a lot of people inside. A few years back they were all Volkswagen buses, but money has been better in this industry with the population growth, and the vans have been updated.

For whatever reason, only micros are allowed routes in Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and beyond, in both the north and south directions. Combis are only allowed routes in Zihuatanejo itself and from outlying areas from the south. If you come from the airport area in a combi, and want to continue on to Ixtapa, you must stop at the Fuente del Sol and grab a micro from there.

The different stops are marked on the windshield, and the colors of the van depict the route.

But again, way too many permits have been issued. How is it justifiable that there are 44 combis with the Coacoyul markings taking locals to Zihuatanejo? It does not matter if the locals are going to school, shopping or work. Too many combis are almost empty and all combis must wait at a staging area for a set period of time, before being allowed back on the highway.

At peak times, all combis are full. I was once on a combi at 6:45 in the morning and there were 3 other people besides me. By the time we made it to the school stop, there were 22 people crammed inside, with a couple of kids hanging outside on the door. But, if fewer combis were available, it makes sense the students, workers, etc, would have to allow leaving a few minutes earlier to be sure to arrive on time. This is not going to happen. Permits appear to be allocated based on peak times, and nothing else.

Back to how driving in Zihuatanejo with combis on the road affects you. Like the taxis there are too many. They drive like maniacs to get into the 1st position. With a combi in front, and the one pressuring up from behind, they will even put their passengers at risk, trying to pass the leader. The more fares they can pick up, the less the guy behind has, and the more money the guy in front can make. Of course it is all a joke, because he no more than gets into the 1st position, and a passenger will be approaching his let off point. The combi must stop, gets passed, and the whole thing starts all over.

And then you come driving along. You are not competition to the combi, because you will not be picking up his potential clients. You just want to go to the Mercado. Not important. The combi drivers sit on top of the van’s wheels, giving the van a very a short turning radius. He will cut you off every time. Why? Because if he cuts you off and gets in front, he is putting more space between him and the combi coming up from behind.

I dislike combis more than any other type of vehicle, or any other class of driver on the road. I have actually seen a woman, sitting on the back bench seat, thrown forward with her baby in both arms. The driver was running and gunning and then slamming on the brakes. I got a hand on her shoulder just before they launched. The idiot driver would have thrown them to the floor and seriously hurt the baby for sure. No, there are no seat belts. You are at the mercy of the driver, who is trying to make a living in a very competitive business.
       Not all combis, but a significant number of them turn their emergency flashers on when they start working in the morning, and never shut them off. For an oncoming vehicle, this is appreciated when a combi or taxi partially blocks traffic in the right hand lane to either pick up or drop off a passenger, as that is what the emergency flashers are for. But, by virtue of the fact he has them on all the time, it negates the message they are trying to relay to the drivers behind. And, all of a sudden he then shoots out across his lane, into the left lane, and only about 4 feet in front of your bumper. You had no warning at all. Whatever happened to turn signals?
     Here is the driver’s logic:
           1) I have my precaution signals on, so you must respect this.
           2) If you rear end me, even though I did not use a turn signal, I was fully in the same lane as       you, managed to get straghtend out and moving forward…it is your fault.
      What is a person to do? Many combi drivers do not signal their intentions, yet they freely stop to the right or turn left at their discretion, assuming you must respect their flashing lights. The only answer, because you will not change their mentality, is to be very aware of what is happening when combis are near.
       Assume you are driving into Zihuat Centro. You are approaching the Electra, and you are in front of Pollo Feliz. Look in your rear view mirror behind you, then to your side, and in front. Within your vision will be 5 to 12 combis, and every one of them wants to get their passengers dropped off in order to get back on the highway as soon as possible.
        Experience it just once and you will understand the rudeness and incredible ability they have to weave in and out of traffic. Again, it is a joke. There are too many combis on the road, because they must first go to a holding area and wait…then they can get out on the road again.

Part 4- The new freeway to Morelia, and Chilangos

     With the opening of the new freeway to Morelia, Zihuatanejo has been opened up to an entire new multitude of vacationers from the interior. The driving time of what took me 8 hours the first time I went to Uruapan, is now done leisurely in less than 4 hours, with Morelia only 4 ½ hours away. Some of this tourism is well received here, as the hotel occupancy has been higher than if they had to depend on Americans and Canadians as their main source of income. Plus, the people from the interior seem to tip better than the typical arrogant Chilango. This really helps the hotel and restaurant workers, who depend on tips to help offset their minimum wage income.
       Why the animosity about people (Chilangos) from Mexico City, D.F.? (Districo Federal) Again, it is kind of a percentage thing. Only 10% need to be bad apples, but there are so many of them, it seems like a bad one is always around. During Semana Santa and between Christmas and New Years, the population here will swell by more than 40,000 people. Most of them still come from DF.
        Chilangos look down there nose at people from this coast (Costeños). They think the local people are lazy, uneducated, and basically a lower form of life. The racial prejudice is incredible strong between the fairer skinned Chilangos and the darker Costeños. I have heard this many a time from people in Mexico City, to the point it is a prevalent opinion by the people of DF.
         But, they have a couple of valid reasons to be arrogant. Unlike in the U.S., where New York is the center for finance and theater, Washington D.C. is the nation’s capitol, Hollywood has the movie industry, etc. For the Republic of Mexico; Mexico City has it all. Plus, for 75 years, when the PRI was in power, the politicians had the mind set of “what is good for Mexico City is good for the nation”. Mexico City had the funding for the best schools, hospitals, the infrastructure, highways, etc. However, with the last two presidents, the trend is getting away from that, and instead of giving most of the benefits to about 25% of the population, it is actually getting spread throughout the Republic. The new Sigalo XXI (21st century) highway to Morelia is a good example of that.
          What does this have to do with driving? It is all about attitude and arrogance. If you already drive like a maniac, have a social prejudice of the people where you vacation, and you feel your nice late model car has put you at the top of the food chain, problems are bound to occur. Especially when your attitude is the ½ part of the road which is yours is right down the middle. And, you are going on vacation, “so let’s put a few beers in the cooler for on the way down to Zihuat”.
         With the opening of the new freeway to Morelia, we are now, at least for the most part, getting a different type of Mexican National here for their vacations. However, they still come to party, and instead of the bad head on collisions mostly being distributed between Zihuatanejo and Tecpan to the south, they are now also between Zihuatanejo and Lazaro Cardenas to the north. It is quite nerve racking too. I was once on my way to Troncones at the start of a 3 day holiday. Across the highway from the gas station, at the entrance to Ixtapa, was lined up a couple of Federal Police cars, an ambulance, and a tow truck. They knew it was a not a matter of maybe a bad accident would happen that day, it was just a matter of when.

5) Parking in town – a few tricks
        As I have stated, the 3 day holidays (called puentes), Christmas, Easter week, and other times (such as the month of July), are all very popular vacation holidays for Mexican Nationals. The population of our local area swells by as much as 30 to 40 thousand more people. Not all of them come by bus or plane either. A good percentage of the people come by vehicle.
       During these times, I have often I parked my Suburban at the Commercial Mexicana and taxi to the bank in Centro. For fresh fruits and veggies, I do a bit of shopping at the Mercado, and taxi back to the Commercial. I wrap up my shopping at the Commercial, and then head home.
       About the only way to beat the problems with parking downtown when the vacationers are here is to be sure you do everything early. The vacationers are parting most of the night, and if you get into town before 9:00, there are usually a few parking places around. Try and start your shopping and things you need to do with those establishments who open early, and finish up with those which do not open until about 10:00.

6) Trash alongside the highway –
        Other than a disgusting sight, and ruining you otherwise peaceful and picturesque drive up and down the coast of Highway 200, this chapter has nothing to do with driving.
   Why so much trash? The answer is very complicated…very complicated indeed.
           a. The stretch of highway 200 from Puerto Vicente Guerrero to the South and the turnoff at Los Llanos to Saladidita to the North span three different counties. Petatlan is to the South, Zihuatanejo in the middle, and Union to the North. But, almost all the traffic is going to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo; and it is there the tourists will spend their money, generating tax revenue for this county.
   The state of Guerrero is one of the 5 poorest states in Mexico, with most of its income generated by tourism. And, the state only has Acapulco, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, and the silver town, Tasco. There just isn’t enough money for public works projects for trash clean up between the state and the counties of Petatlan and Union to pay for Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo’s tourists.
             b. Flat out arrogance on the part of the drivers throwing their trash out the window is the biggest problem. If drivers would hold their trash until they got to a gas station, up and down the coast, the highway would be fairly clean. Every time I gas up, I unload the trash I have shoved under my seat, and I notice there is very little trash in the trash can. Why? It is not because the gas station attendants have just emptied the trash, it is because the traveling tourists never drank a beer, or a bottle of water, smoked a cigarette, or had a package of potato chips…..yeah, right!
     Again we have to revert back to the controversial topics I had previously covered. First, if the obsession to have a clean and presentable car on the outside is so strong, why would they want to dirty up the inside of their car? And, if you have no respect for the people on the coast where you are going to vacation, why not flaunt it a bit? “Let the peons take care of my trash.”
            c. I have tried to point out to dozens of people of this coast when they are riding with me, why I keep all trash in my vehicle, until I can dispose of it correctly. I tell them it is only a small plastic bag, weighing almost nothing. But with 10,000 vehicles passing each day, with almost “nothing” thrown out the window, it soon becomes tons. Their attitude is beyond me. They shrug their shoulders and tell me: “Everybody else does it.”
           d. And, most of the trash is plastic, with about a 20,000 year breakdown to be organic again. In La Puerta, midway between Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo on Highway 200, is a place where they compact plastic bottles, with thousands compacted into huge cubes and shipped out by truck. But, it is only a drop in the bucket of what we have for 50 miles in either direction up and down this coast.
     Hell, I don't know if any of those plastic Coke and water bottles were even picked up off the highway, or simply recycled from Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo itself. It is impressive though, until you go up the coast a ways.
    After the first good hard rain in June, maybe 3” in two hours, the ground can’t absorb it fast enough, so it runs off. We call this the first flush. No matter where the plastic bottle is, alongside the road, or on a hillside, it will eventually find its way to the ocean, and wash up on the beach. Thousands and thousands of plastic bottles, washed up on the beach, all up and down the coast.
                 e. Coke a Cola is a fixation in Mexico. So the problem with plastic bottle disposal can’t be blamed on Mexican National tourists alone. Diabetes is becoming the No. 1 killer in Mexico, and it is not because the people are depleting the Republic’s drinking water supply. A few years back, when I lived in the colonia Hujal in Zihuatanejo, I observed two sisters of about 6 and 4 years old going to the local store one morning. This family was really poor. They had invaded some property up on the hillside, in an ecological reserve, and built a home. All materials, water, etc had to be taken up by burro. There was no plumbing or electricity. (Land invasion in Mexico is another story, but not here.)
        The girls soon came back and were heading up the hill. They had some tortillas, about 6 eggs, and a 2 liter bottle of Coke. There is no way the little girls could have carried a 5 gallon jug of water, but the cost for the water and the Coke a Cola were the same.

Note: Another observation: It is rare anymore to see kids in Mexico having a glass of milk with their meal….sodas are the preferred drink.

               f. Almost all legal disposal sites here in the three counties are no longer free. “Well”, you think, “that is the way it is everywhere”. But, these people are poor. Even if they have access to a vehicle, there is no way they will pay a fee, when they never had to in the past. Where is the trash going to go? As in the past, they will burn what they can, and dispose (somewhere convenient) the rest.
              g. Aluminum cans here have a recycling value, just like you have where you live. This is the only thing I do not get into a tizzy with when I see an empty beer can fly out a window. I know it will be picked up within 24 hours.
     For 10 years now, when I am not fishing on Sunday, I have been going for a mid-morning meal of barbequed ribs, chicken, or carne asada down at San Jeronimito and about 30 minutes South of Zihuatanejo. This last 5 years, an elderly man has been walking the roadside wearing a much faded orange traffic safety vest and carrying a sack to put aluminum cans in. I really respect this. He walks about 5 miles (uphill) out from the town, and then returns on the other side of the highway every Sunday morning. He picks up the cans and crushes them on the spot.
      Imagine his surprise when, with no traffic coming, and I stop in the middle of the highway and hand him a huge garbage sack of aluminum cans.

7) Do you need a rental car?
            If you fly here and like the freedom of a car, you will probably want to rent one. With the very reasonable taxi fares around town, this really is not necessary if you are going to stay in Zihuatanejo proper, because you can use the micros if you want to venture out a couple of times.
        However, due to the high taxi costs and the micros will only get you part of the way there, if you are spending a lot of time out at Barra Potosi, Troncones, or Saladita, it would make sense to rent a car for your stay.
     One word of caution however is the use of Hertz as your choice for a rental car company. Even though there are always two sides to a story, with some people swearing by them, it is best to do a little more investigation on the agency here, or at least be aware of the past pitfalls. Over the last few years there have been an incredible amount of complaints from their clients here. After they get home, they find unauthorized charges on the credit card statement, to the amounts of several hundred dollars. Complaints to Hertz have not stopped the fraud, and complaining to management here has gone nowhere (management here could possibly be the problem anyway).
     These charges involve spare tires missing, scratches and dents in the paint, and in several instances, airplane tickets to other destinations in Mexico and even the U.S. For further information on this, go to Zihuat Rob’s travel and discussion board, and type in Hertz. You will be amazed.

8) Mordidas – the bite
      Police, all over Mexico are notoriously under paid for the work they are supposed to be doing. This also includes the traffic cops, the transitos.
      It is very common for them to pad their income by preying on the public in form of petty bribes.
      Here is a simple example of how the system works: If you are parked illegally, because every parking space in Centro is taken, and you take off to get your business done, when you return, the transito will be there waiting. Unless you want to pay a 350 peso fine or even have your vehicle towed, it will cost you at least 200 pesos to the transito.
       However, if you parked in the same place, approached the local transito and explained the situation, ask him to watch your car for you, and tell him how long you will be gone, the 50 peso note you give him to “buy a refresco” will be much appreciated, and your vehicle will be in good hands.
       The above example is certainly not recommended, but it shows how things work. And, a savvy driver in Mexico can sometimes use it to his advantage. Many a time, to “buy a refresco” (for about 20 pesos), for a few transitos a few times a year, will pay dividends in the future. Plus, when Christmas comes around, they really do expect their bonus of another 50 pesos or so.
       The mordida hits Mexican Nationals, resident Gringos, and tourists alike. And, to minimize damages, it certainly helps if you speak Spanish. As far as how much you pay depends on como te ves es como tu paga … Or “how you look is how much you will pay”. A Mexican driving a nice late model car, or any Gringo (because most Mexican’s know we are all rich) will pay more than some poor Mexican driving a beat up VW bug.
     One example, and a couple of good lessons to be learned, happened to me on the unopened new highway between Pantla and Troncones a few years back. I was just coming off the new unopened highway, and onto the old section of 200, and there was a Federal Police car just waiting for people like me. In Spanish I told him everybody used the new road, but he just shook his head, and told me it was a “very serious violation.” Meanwhile, an old pickup and another car came off the same stretch of road. He looked at them, but still wanted to see my driver’s license (ie; wallet). I had filled my Suburban up with gas earlier, and only had about 70 pesos in my wallet, and he could see that.
     All of a sudden the violation was not quite as serious, and probably would still have cost me the 70 pesos, but a nice new car came off the highway at that time. The Fed gave me back my license, told me to not do that anymore, and motioned to the other guy to pull over. It was on a Saturday, and I had just paid the guys their payroll in Troncones, and heading to another project. I had over 35,000 pesos in my front pocket.
    The two lessons to be learned here are: I had a local driver’s license, which helps, and you should never have a wallet full of money. Keep the majority of your money in another location.
      In another instance, I had passed a slow truck at the speed bumps in front of the gas station at the intersection of Highway 200 and 134 near Pantla. And there was the Federal Police car, waiting for the exact same thing to happen. I was clearly guilty, and figured it was going to cost me at least 300 pesos. But, a new red pickup, with out of state license plates, had followed me, and was also pulled over by the Fed’s partner. Once again, out came the wallet, with very little money, and the local driver’s license was handed over. I was very respectful and he told me wait for him, while he went back to talk to his partner. I looked back, and the Mexican National was really raising Hell with his partner. The Fed came back to me, gave me back my license, and told me not to do it again. I have no idea what the guy in the red truck ended up paying, because I was long gone.
      Driver’s licenses are cheap here, and there is no exam or driving test (anybody can get one – spooky). If you are driving here very often, you should have one. A couple of years back, my 5 year license cost me 300 pesos. If you are ever in a situation, in town or on the highway, and are asked to show your driver’s license, you will get more respect being a “local”. The license takes about 15 minutes and is obtained from the Transito’s office, across from the sports complex.

9) Driving and drinking –
       Basically, almost all laws on the books in Mexico are the same laws the U.S. and Canada have. Mostly, it is because of just common sense. However, enforcement of the laws is another thing. As far as drinking and driving, the relaxed attitude in Mexico, especially in resort areas like Ixtapa / Zihuatanejo, should not be construed for you to think if you abuse the law, you will get away with it.

Mexico also has a very pragmatic approach to the law, which when compared to the U.S. and Canada, is quite a unique concept. In Mexico, certain north of the border lawyers would starve to death trying to make a living here. This is because a person is actually responsible for their own actions.

If you go to a coffee shop and spill hot coffee on yourself, you will not be compensated. If you are stumbling drunk and break an arm from a fall in the restaurant, you will not be compensated. In fact, if you went to a lawyer and told him you wanted to sue over it, he would laugh at you.

However, even though enforcement of the rules are relaxed, if not abused, do no harm. I remember a time when we had been out fishing, and I was taking the clients back to the apartment they rented annually. It was really hot; the kind of hot where you are drenched when you get 100 feet away from the beach and the breeze. They had picked up a couple of very cold beers at the pier, and I had bought a one liter bottle (cahuama) of Corona. As we were approaching the tope with the transito there during school crossing hours; they were sipping on their cold ones, and I had the cahuama in a black plastic bag beside me. Gayle said to me “Scott is still talking about the time last year when you saluted this traffic cop with a beer.” And, as we stopped for the speed bump, I handed the black plastic bag out the window to the transito.

The transito, with a huge smile said to me, in English even, “OHHH! Thank You! Thank You!” After that, you could have heard a pin drop in the Suburban. When Scott finally got his jaw off his knee, all he said was “In New Jersey… that would have added 6 months to last year’s prison term.”

But, there is a kicker to the law. Once you step over the line and abuse the relaxed rules on drinking and driving, and injure somebody; you are going to jail, and possibly for a long time. Remember the part about not being compensated because of your stupid actions? The double whammy, being that you are responsible for your actions, after the accident you must now pay dearly.

Even if you were not under the influence, and it is deemed you were very negligent in your driving when you injured somebody, you are going to jail. Man or woman, Mexican National or tourist, you will get out of jail when all injured parties, hospital, ambulance, doctors, insurance companies, etc. are all satisfied all funds are accounted for and compensation is assured.

If you were under the influence, and depending on the extent of the injuries, the penalties are even more severe; you may be in for a long time.

Is it a debtor’s prison? No, it’s worse. I have a Mexican friend who once owned a huge and beautiful ranch in Jalisco. He was in jail until he could sell the ranch, and even beyond. He lost everything. But, on the other hand, he had injured an innocent person while under the influence.

10) Left Turn Signals -
        If you are driving from Zihuatanejo on highway 200 to Troncones (north) or Petalan (south)…or actually anywhere in Mexico, and the driver ahead of you turns on his left turn signal, you had better start paying serious attention, because there are several options:

1) He may be telling you it is safe to pass. But first, you must look up the road and be sure there is no oncoming traffic. Then be darned sure to check up ahead there is no wide area for him to actually make a left hand turn into. Then go ahead and pass.

2) But, if there is a wide area up ahead on the left, slow down considerably. If traffic is coming, he may stop in the middle of the road to make his left turn, or he may turn right into a wide out on the right hand side of the road.

This right turn dilemma is the one which absolutely blows you away. Your mindset is just not ready to accept a turn signal to the left, and have the slowed down vehicle turn right. However, the logic is correct for the Mexican driver. He may think if there is oncoming traffic, and a vehicle behind him, rather than get rear ended by the car coming up from behind, it is more logical to turn right, and cross back over the road when there is no traffic.

Of course, for a driver paying attention to what is going on around him and signaling right in the first place, especially since he has driven the road a thousand times, would resolve this situation…But, that ain’t gonna happen.

3) As I once told a friend of mine. “Mike, between the two of us we have over 50 years of driving experience here in Mexico…and we still do not understand the concept”. I was going to his house in Ixtapa, and had a micro bus in front of me, coming from Pantla. The micro was signaling “Left”. There was oncoming traffic, so he was not telling me to pass. And, there was nothing but a brushy hillside on the left, so he was not going left. But, I also observed there was a wide spot in the road on the right, which he promptly turned into. His male passenger jumped off quickly. But, because his left turn signal was still on, he was now legal to get back on the road from the right side!

He flat out turned back onto the road, cutting the vehicle off which was a short distance behind him. And, within moments he was shortly close up behind me. He basically only allowed me to “pass” him, and nothing more.

These micro drivers evaluate their passengers, the location, and the traffic conditions. They really know their routes and all the stops. If there was a woman with a couple of children, and bags of groceries, this would not have happened. But, if he sees a young man, who can get out quickly, the driver just yells out “Jump”. They have nothing else to do in their 10 hour work day, and have learned all of the tricks to make the fasted round trip possible for their route.

As I told Mike, this was a maneuver of minimum effort, no wasted motion, and very effective.

11) The Future –

As the population of Zihuatanejo increases, as it will, more people will want to have their own car to drive around. I say this because there are numerous condos under construction, lots for sale on the beaches, and additional lots being planned for sale. It only stands to reason if you buy a condo here or build a home, even if you are only planning on using it a few months of the year, you will want a vehicle at your disposal.

Plus, more Mexican Nationals will be driving here and vacationing, and young people will continue to migrate from the country to the job rich cities (as they do in all parts of the world). It is hard to imagine what the congestion will be like 5 years from now, but it is bound to happen.

If you are easily intimidated, you probably should not drive your own vehicle. For instance, when a taxi comes shooting out of a side street and appears to be continuing on into the traffic, a lot of people hit the brakes, and in fact, he does take advantage of this and turns into the traffic. They are excellent drivers and do it for a reason. I just look the other way and he thinks I do not see him. I love to watch them almost turn inside out coming to a quick stop to allow me to pass. Plus, it helps that my Suburban, which is almost impossible in tight parking situations, is a lot bigger than them.

On a final note, Mexican insurance is fairly cheap. Get a couple of quotes from reputable known National companies, and be sure you have insurance. If you are a gringo in an accident, and even though it is not your fault, there is a good chance you will be paying for a lion’s share of the damages. It is assumed you have money, and you can afford to pay. I speak from experience. I have actually been completely stopped and had a Mexican National run into me head on while he was trying to make a “U” turn. My Suburban barely had a scratch, but the two month old Jetta had $1,000 worth of damage. I paid.

On the other hand, this was a Jetta whose owner lives here, and probably went to school with the transito who headed the investigation (or money exchanged hands). Whereas, I once was run into by a Chilango, and boy did he ever pay. I knew the Transito, and he had the car’s damages appraised an expensive repair shop. Then he sent me to another, and I paid half of the original estimate, and pocketed the rest.

12) Emergencies and important numbers –

       Nobody wants to think you are going to have an emergency while on vacation, but if it can happen where you live, it can happen here also. And, occasionally they do happen. First, let me ease your fears about the quality of the doctors, hospitals, and care you would receive. I am not going to try to convince you they are equivalent to John Hopkins or one of the highest rated hospitals in the world, but you will be well taken care of.

My personal experiences with fishing clients who were in a real nasty head on accident, and me almost loosing several fingers to a machete, have fortified this belief. Without going into detail, the doctors of the fishing clients where they live said they couldn’t have done better, and my 5 hour surgery went well.

There are basically two hospitals I have had personal experience with, and you can trust. In Ixtapa, the Marina hospital near the tourist flea market has an excellent reputation, as well as Hospital Especialidades across the street and up the hill from the central bus station in Zihuatanejo. I know for a fact the Hospital Especialidades, if the onsite staff feels it is needed, will call a specialist in to take care of any specialized situation.

However, it is also understood by most of the population here, to stay away from the General Hospital in Zihuatanejo, even though the few times I have been involved with them, they were satisfactory.

I have also heard good things about the Maciel and the La Salud clinics in Centro.

For a personal general physician, it is hard to beat English speaking Dr. Greyeb in Zihuantanejo Centro.

Here are some important phone numbers:

U.S. Conciliate (Debbra) ................................................553-2100

Marina (Navel) Hospital, Ixtapa……………………...…553-0499

Hospital Especialdades, Colonia Hujal, Zihuatanejo…..…554-7628

Clinica Maciel, Centro……………………………...…..554-8617

Clinica La Salud, Centro………………………755-101-4928 cell

Dr. Greyeb, Centro……................554-3334….. cell 755 557 8303

Cruz Rojo (Red Cross ambulance)…………………….,..554-2009

Plus, these numbers copied from ZihuaRob's web page

Emergency Phone Numbers

Emergencies (general) 066

cellphones: 112

Cruz Roja (Red Cross) 065

cellphones: 114


Policía Preventiva Municipal

(Municipal Preventive Police) 060




Policía Turística

(Tourist Police) 060



Policía de Tránsito Municipal

(Municipal Traffic Police) 060



Policía Judicial del Estado (PJE)

(State Judicial Police) 554-2100

Policía Federal Preventiva (PFP)

(Federal Preventive Police) 554-0090



Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI)

(Federal Investigative Police) 554-3899

Bomberos y Proteccion Civil

(Fire Department and Civil Protection) 068




Armada de México

(Mexican Navy) 554-6070

cellphones: SOS MARINA

(767 627 462)

Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE)

(Federal Electric Commission)

(for reporting problems) 071



Ambulance (other than Red Cross) 554-5404


Air Ambulance 554-3334


Hospital de Especialidades 554-7628

Hospital Naval 553-0499

Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social (IMSS) 554-3257

Centro de Salud

(Health Center) 554-2088

Hospital General 554-3650



Dialysis Clinic cel: 755-112-1754

Hospital Clínica Maciel 554-2380

Funerales del Pacifico 554-2825

Funeraria López 554-8309

cel: 755-559-5393

Dr. Grayeb MD

(Spanish - English - French) 554-3334

cel: 755-102-8066

Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF)

(Municipal Family Services) 554-4367

No phone card is needed on public phones for 3-digit emergency numbers.

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