Hiring a Car in Mexico?

An Adventure in Itself!

We are just recovering from the long flight and gathering our luggage trying to get ourselves and all our bags to the car hire counter when other people, wearing different uniforms, yell in strange accents to us:  “Try our special offer and get one day free!! Come in my friends!!!” One more over there, ready to intercept us, and then two more at the very edge of our car hire agency. So, after saying “no thanks” to many and struggling on our way, we finally arrive to the small stand. Some paperwork and offers of extra insurance later, we get our car and it is a big one. That is really odd!! The steering wheel is on the wrong side. What a rare angle of view from the mirrors!! Anyway, we manage to get familiar with every part of the car and in spite of being nervous, afraid and excited at the same time, we decide to start the motor and move on to our hotel.
 Oh my God!!! There are many signs on the next junction, it is a kind of roundabout, I can´t see any road marks, and the other cars behind us are honking so much, who has the priority??? "Try to pull over there", says someone in the back seat…. But there are no hard shoulders drawn, Aaaarghh!!! "Now go! Go! Now! No cars are coming! You see??" We continue on our way and then 5 minutes later we are on the motorway.  It is very busy, cars changing carriages all over the place with no previous indication at all! And what does that sign say??? Now cars are slowing down, it seems an accident might have occurred further ahead…. We don´t know exactly what’s going on, but when we see military vehicles, red cones on the tarmac, soldiers waving their hands in slow-down movements, we realise that it must be a security military inspection instead. The main stop point has 4 officers, they look at us and move their hands in a kind of "go-on" gesture, we assume it means we are allowed to continue our trip. No questions at all, no revision, nothing. Whoa!! That was scary, but a bit exciting, too!
We are now arriving to our hotel. Great adventure we have had and our holiday has only just started!  We are feeling a kind of relieving sensation with a bit of pride strangely mixed in, due to the achievement of such a challenge.  By the way, we are amazed at how big the car park spaces are.  We deserve now an extra cold Mexican beer, margarita or piña colada and that sun bath on the beach we have been waiting for, it is still sunny and we’ve earned it!


Cases like this are not rare and represent how people commonly perceive some of the differences (some of them very, very big) in driving.   If only I had known about it before…. you’d say.  There is no way you can change the style or the rules of how people drive in other countries; it can be, in other words, frustrating.  However it helps enormously when learning a few tips and being aware of what to expect.  Then you will realise that driving in Mexico is, in fact, not as crazy an idea as it sounds, and you will come out of the experience more knowledgeable and will be more confident with driving in remote and strange countries.  Driving in Mexico can be as hard as it is in any other place in the world, or it can be as easy as it is at many tourist areas in others latitudes.  That is actually one of the key factors that can make your driving experience less stressing and demanding:  stick to driving in the tourist zones, because mostly everything is made and planned with the foreign visitor in mind, in a more international style.

Having said that, taking your adventure farther and being more daring will allow you to discover that going “deep into the country” can be a marvellous, rich and unique experience, and one you are likely never to forget.  If you are one of those travellers who really likes to take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture and get the most of it, then this advise is for you. Many of the main descriptions on how to drive in México and the most important contrasts between UK and this area are shown in the following article:

(Please note that while many of the main differences are detailed below, this article is by no means all-encompassing.  Try to do your own research and always keep yourself informed and up-to-date, especially for the period you are visiting the country, given that some laws, festive days, events, seasons, type of car or other variables could change.)


THE BASICS

THE VEHICLE

The very first thing you will notice is the “empty-driver-seat” effect in cars already moving.   The steering wheel is located on the opposite side compared with British cars and you will need your LEFT HAND TO CONTROL IT whilst you change gears.  Even though the gearstick is in the same place, you will use your RIGHT HAND TO CHANGE GEARS instead of your left one.  The order of gears and the position are the same.  Pedals are fitted in the SAME SEQUENCE as the UK counterpart.  The dashboard, depending on car model, year of manufacturing and brand is similar in appearance and it has the SAME FUNCTIONS.  Mirrorsare located on both sides in the exterior (most of them) and there is one in the interior (rear view mirror).  You should be aware that ANGLES and PANORAMIC VIEWS CHANGE compared to British ones.  It is highly advisable to review and check the car manual or booklet in advanced and to ask questions to the car rental people about your car itself, as well as completely familiarising yourself with the interior and workings of the car BEFORE you head out.


THE ROADS AND STREETS

The first main difference is RIGHT.  The driving in Mexico is to your RIGHT.  You need to keep to the right lane all the time, unless you need to overtake a vehicle or an obstacle; you must always overtake to the left.  Many roads are dual-carriageways and the low speed lane is the right one.  One other main difference is that streets, roads and motorways are WIDER compared with the British ones.  Within the motorway and main roads there are hard shoulders and resting areas in good condition.  However, the situation again may change if you go farther and away from these tourist routes, where neither hard shoulders nor resting areas are provided.   Also important to note and look out for, it is not uncommon for drivers to wrongly use the hard shoulders to overtake on the right.

Car parking is generally not a problem, it is abundant and cheaper, especially in tourist areas.

Traffic Signs for restrictions, warnings or directions are installed on posts and billboards in high places and it is really very easy to see them, they are the main and primary source of information, while road marks are much less used than in UK.  The main signs and indications painted on the surface of streets and roads are the lines dividing carriageways, those at the edges of the road, Zebra crossings for pedestrians and yellow ones painted on the edge of the pavement (generally meaning no parking allowed) and very occasionally speed limits, school areas and restricted areas.  But compared with UK and Europe in general, there is a LACK of road marks (drawings on the tarmac’s surface) and even in those rare cases when you see them, they look worn out and are barely visible.

There are MANY humps and speed bumps on the streets and roads in order to prevent speeding; with the main difference that they are usually an uninterrupted rise that goes from kerb to kerb, so the car “climbs” over it rather than having it go between the wheels.   Most of the time, they are correctly indicated, although sometimes warning signs are very close to the bump itself, almost at the edge of it, so you don’t have enough time to reduce your speed.  In few cases they are not signalized at all.  Some of these obstacles (bumps) can be extremely high or wide and could cause DAMAGE to your vehicle or passengers if it is crossed too fast.   These bumps are varied and are sometimes made up of creative and inventive materials:  they can be concrete, nylon boat ropes, metal pipes, or metal semi-circles in a row.  As a general rule, look out for yellow striped bands crossing the road ahead, changes in darkness or colour of the road, proximity to villages, schools, crossings or cities, and so on.

The general condition of roads is acceptable and in good condition most of the time; but some of them have serious design problems, POT HOLES (some could be called craters), SURFACE GRIP (lack of it), cracks, loose gravel, permanently flooded areas (rainy season), and again, some of these problems are not properly indicated.  The farther you go from main roads and tourist areas, the more you find these conditions.  You must use your common sense, guessing and intuition, and be constantly alert and aware of what the other drivers are doing:  why are they reducing their speed or braking?  What is the meaning of a traffic jam in a place with low movement of vehicles?

Driving in Mexican roads demands extra attention, focusing, alertness, hazard awareness and knowledge, and of course, a pinch of good luck is always very welcome.  Following these rules, your driving adventure will be safer, more comfortable, enjoyable and fun.


SAFETY

 When you have travelled and driven in many varied countries and cultures across the world, you can conclude that there are definitely a few common and universal rules for safety.   Here are but a few to consider:

·       Avoid driving at night in isolated areas
·       Do NOT pick up any hitchhikers
·       Do NOT leave any visible valuable things inside the vehicle
·       If you need to check the map or GPS, pull over!
·       Do not use your mobile while driving, it is dangerous and may cause accidents

The same rules apply while driving in Mexico.  You would be amazed and surprised that areas like Cancun and Riviera Maya have a smaller ratio of assaults, robberies or felonies related to tourists while driving, than in many big cities or other mega tourist zones in the rest of Mexico, as well as other parts of the world.   Just follow the general rules.

In addition, and more specifically in the Mexican Caribbean area, as in many other parts of the country where it should be highly emphasized, stick to the rule of avoiding isolated areas, especially at night.  In some cases this rule should be followed at any time of the day, but it becomes highly important to do so during the dark hours, when you may encounter drunk people crossing a road or walking along it, (unfortunately) drunk driving is not uncommon, there may be a herd crossing a road, people on bicycles with no lights, and so on.  Loose animals on the roads are a very real and common risk while driving in rural and secondary roads.  Lorries, tractors, wagons, motorcycles and bicycles with no lights are not rare to find in these roads and in streets within the main cities too (bicycles and tricycles in particular).  In extreme cases you may see them (hopefully) in intersections with main roads or even the motorway.  PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION when approximating bridges, junctions, intersections, small villages, etc.  The right and legal speed, hazard awareness and alertness are your best way to prevent or minimize the risk of this.

Avoid areas where mega events are going on, such as protests, international leaders’ meetings, concerts, celebrities visiting, etc. It is common in Cancun to see this kind of events and because many people are participating, the result will normally be crowds of people surrounding the place.  You will be safer not driving near of those perimeters. Keep yourself informed and updated about it.


SERVICES

You will find a variety of services offered in main roads.  Gas stations are named PEMEX and they are located along many points during your journey in the major tourist areas. You always receive personal attention from one or two employees who fill your tank with the fuel required. At the same time they normally clean your windshield, mirrors or check the air pressure in your tyres expecting to earn a tip (their main source of income).  Inside the principal gas stations you will find convenience stores, takeaways, restaurants, cafes and other shops.  In secondary roads you need to plan your journey in more detail, because the petrol stations are much LESS FREQUENT and they lack the offer of services.  Petrol is much CHEAPER when compared to UK.

Always make sure you have the emergency contact numbers for the car hire agency, and keep them with you at all times.  It is highly advisable you get full insurance or coverage that includes services such as tow truck services.   When getting the car, ask and go over the procedure of what to do in case of an accident or car trouble, it pays off to be prepared.


THE ADVANCED

DRIVING IN CITY CENTRE AND BUSY AREAS

 One of the main characteristics of Mexican driving style, especially in central streets, high traffic areas and busy roads is how lanes, carriageways and road marks are used.  Cars sometimes don't align with the lines painted (if they are still visible at all) over the surface of a road indicating where your carriage is, so many times you will see three cars using 2 lanes and one of them is overlapping two of them while waiting to cross over a street or the green light.  The same could happen while you’re moving, some drivers won’t previously indicate they’re switching carriages, they just do so without any pause at all, moving in just a little bit ahead or behind your car.  Suddenly you could find yourself stuck in an entanglement of cars, motorcycles and buses (sometimes they invade 3 lanes).  But remember, this happens every day, it is a normal and everyday situation, it is not a personal matter against you.  Just take a deep breath, wait and follow the vehicle in front of you while at the same time inching your way back onto your own carriage.   On a side note, one important thing to point out about buses, they do not have their own lane and although they usually stick to the right side, they DON’T HAVE TO.

You need to keep your eyes on many things and all your attention should be focused on EVERYTHING that is going on around you.  Take a glance a little bit in front of you (you don't want to hit the car ahead of you), another quick look to the road (find your lane), another for the ALTO signpost (mandatory STOP) or stoplight, check your mirrors for turns or before changing carriages and so on.

In addition, another annoying noise that you’ll find is very common:  honking.  It’s coming from everywhere, even from people behind you while you wait for the red light to turn green, as soon as that stoplight changes, you’ll hear a honk half a second later.  It is a learnt behaviour and a cultural feature firmly ingrained in every driver, so don’t take it personally or as a insult, nor is the driver necessarily having a bad day.

You have to keep in mind that pedestrians are a very important thing to look out for at ALL TIMES.  Although Zebra crossings and pedestrian stripped humps are relatively well marked and signalized, and some high-speed avenues even have pedestrian bridges, you must expect people crossing the streets from any given direction.   You may also see people walking, running, working in stands or just having a chat at any part of the road.   You must remember you are a pedestrian too; keep in mind that if there is no stoplight, even when walking across a specifically designed crossing area for people, CARS DO NOT ALWAYS STOP, they may expect you to run or wait for them to pass first.

Public service buses can stop at any place and at any moment, to pick up or drop off people; so besides looking out for the bus suddenly halting in front of you, you must BE CAREFUL with those people getting off the bus, because they could be CROSSING the street from ANYWHERE around that bus.

As many cities in the world, Mexican ones lack parking sites or spaces in the areas close to the centre or with heavy traffic.  As a general rule, a yellow line painted on the edge of the kerb or pavement means NO PARKING, and you must park 15m or more from the corner.   However, don’t worry, as there are many private car parks that are cheaper than European or British ones.

Most side or secondary streets are one-way only and traffic goes in only one direction, so it is important to take note of the traffic’s direction for each street.  This is usually indicated by a white arrow on posts located on street corners, but sometimes, although less common, you will find it painted on the wall of the corner house or building or painted on the surface of the street.

Keep in mind most of the scenarios described above refer to busy areas, or sometimes rush hour.   As soon as you leave that zone, you will find a more organised area to drive.  That’s why one more piece of advise is to try and avoid the high-traffic times; your travel agent should be able to help you with these.


DRIVING ON MAIN ROADS AND MOTORWAYS

Travelling along dual carriageways or motorways is not hard at all if you keep in mind all that you’ve read so far, and whatever else you may have researched.  After a while, you will become familiarised with the local way of driving and will probably feel more comfortable as you go along your way following the car in front of you.  After that, you might even start feeling confident and quite sure of yourself.  Well, that could be one of the worst mistakes to make.  As soon as you leave behind you the heavy traffic sites and find yourself driving all alone on the road, and you don´t see any more cars that have so far served as an implicit reference, it is very easy for your subconscious to take over and unconsciously swap to the left side, in particular when you turn at intersections, junctions, when a dual carriageway turns into a single one and NO OTHER VEHICLES ARE PRESENT.  Always check indications and signals, over all if you have been driving for a while with no cars around you.  When possible, AVOID DRIVING ALONE at anytime, IT IS ALWAYS BETTER TO HAVE A COPILOT.

Speed limits in motorways are normally well regulated and signalized, but in real life you can encounter vehicles travelling at different speeds, from very slow lorries and trucks to the very fast sports and 8-cylinder cars.  Normally the right carriage is for LOWER SPEED and the left carriage for HIGHER SPEED AND FOR OVER TAKING.  Speed limits can change at any time, and vary repeatedly along motorways.  Be alert and on the lookout for these signals, because sometimes you will only have one warning to reduce your speed.   Always keep an extra distance between you and the other vehicles.

When the car behind you, in the left carriage, is coming very fast towards you, it is a common practice for them to use the high beams to alert you THEY ARE COMING AND YOU NEED TO STAY CLEAR OF THAT CARRIAGE.  The same could happen at an intersection, junction or crossing and the meaning of getting the high beams from a fellow driver is ambiguous at best; although it usually is used more as a WARNING that THEY have priority, than as yielding it to you.  Try, if possible, to look for extra hand or face gestures indicating that they are giving you way.  When in doubt, it is definitely much more advisable that you give way.

CHECK constantly the appearance of the TARMAC OR ROAD SURFACE. When no signs are displayed and if you see changes in colour, texture, width or shape you could face also a change in your gripping capacity situation.  Loose gravel, concrete (sometimes polished by extreme use), humps, bumps, spilled oil or others could AFFECT THE CONTROL of your vehicle, especially when you have been in one kind of road surface for a while and then you suddenly change.  The best way to prevent losing control is TO REDUCE YOUR SPEED until you are familiar and confident with your new environment and, thru observation and common sense you are able to determine what caused that suspicious change in surface.  The same situation could also happen when entering a city or village.  You could encounter speed limits changing abruptly, the number of carriages increasing or decreasing, two carriages or dual carriageway becoming one without warning, stop lights being in use, etc.


THE LEGAL ASPECTS

In addition to your own international insurance policy you SHOULD contract the MEXICAN FULL INSURANCE COVER with your car hire agency.  Many people in Mexico have no insurance covering and in case of an accident, car stealing or third party damages, it is much easier to deal with the process through the Mexican insurance than with the British or European version.  If possible, try to contract both.

In case of being stopped by the police, try to insist that you do not speak Spanish and ask them politely if they can give you a warning (this may not necessarily work, but at least it gives the impression you want to do the right thing).  You might probably have heard about famous Mexican corruption and how “easy” it is to bribe an officer in order to avoid the fine.  The reality is that it's a learnt art imbibed in the culture, and you must be very, very careful if trying to put it into practice; you may be accused of bribery intention and your fine could be increased or they (if in effect, they are corrupt) could ask you for many times more the money they would be asking from the locals.  Normally, when you commit a minor fault (common for tourists) and it is not one involving any damage to human beings or property or resulting in an accident, fines usually are not very expensive and it is preferable to pay it.  The only issue then is the time you will spend paying this penalty, which could be 1-2 hours, or even half a day, depending on day, hour, season or others.

Do not pick up, carry, deliver, store or receive in your car any kind of package, luggage or even a parcel from unknown or people you’ve recently met, asking you for that favour or service.  Drugs or weapons possession are a very serious crime and most of the time the penalty is many years in prison, plus the huge payments for the legal process.  The method of using innocent tourists as a transportation means for illegal articles is a very real risk, which can be easily avoided if you take the mentioned precautions.

Military and security stops are common in areas close to airports, big cities and tourist areas.  Almost every time, you need to reduce the speed or stop for five or ten seconds to let the officers see you and that’s it, you can then continue your trip.  Most of the time the military stop checks are that easy, even in those rare cases when you are stopped, as soon as they realise you are a tourist, they let you continue your trip without any questions.  In extreme and rare cases, they stop you and ask for destination, hotel bookings, passports, return flight tickets or documentation and they could proceed to make a visual inspection of your car, outside and inside, mainly looking for illegal things (drugs and weapons basically), thus if you are not in possession of any of these, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Most of the time, and keeping in mind all the advice and tips suggested in this article, you will not have any trouble with legal situations, like the vast majority of foreign people travelling to Mexico.


IN SUMMARY

1.  Take your time in advance to learn, know and get familiar with your car model, maps, routes, restrictions, special events, trip logistics, weather, etc.

2.  Right-side driving.  Right-side slow speed.  Left-side higher speed and over-taking.  Although keep in mind some drivers wrongly overtake on the right side as well.

3.  The main source of information and signs are situated high on signposts and billboards, NOT painted on the tarmac.

4.  Avoid night driving.  Avoid remote and isolated roads.

5.  Double your attention, alertness, hazard perception, focusing and awareness while driving in any road, especially the secondary ones.

6.  Try to stay away from busy city centre areas (it is preferable to walk), special-event zones and dangerous areas identified by your recent updated research.

7.  Keep reminding yourself about the right-side driving, especially when you don't have other vehicles as a reference.

8.  A change of high beam lights could mean the opposite of what you’re used to!  If you receive it, it normally means you need to give way.  Try to find and check for other non-verbal indications, and when in doubt, give way!

9.  Changes in the appearance, colour, width and any other feature noticed on the street or road mean caution.  Reduce your speed and pay extra attention.


10.    Always contract your travelling insurance and try to get a full cover one from the car rental in Mexico.

Always refer to your travel agent for further advise and tips.  Happy driving!

Pump House Indoor Waterpark, Jay Peak Resort, Jay Vt.

Jay Peak Pump House Waterpark (Photo Credit: Jay Peak Resort Media Office)
The Pump House Indoor Waterpark at Jay Peak Resort in Jay, Vt., in is not your basic, garden variety waterpark.

We all know that water parks can "slide" in quality and innovation very rapidly, thus suddenly becoming "lame" in the eyes of kids and "a bad value" from an adult perspective.

With its state-of-the-art waterpark and other attractions, Jay Peak has found a new life in the past 15 years by actually investing into its idyllic property with a 21st century mindset --- unlike many other waterparks and resorts resting on their laurels.

The huge Pump House features chutes, tubes, surfing-like opportunities, a river with rapids. indoor and outdoor hot tubs, poolside bar,  and a kids play area with a play structure and maple sap tipping bucket filled with real Vermont maple syrup (only in March). Additionally, you'll find arcades and a snack bar,  as well as a gift shop with merchandise relevant to the waterpark experience.

It all looks like a giant candyland for aquatics! Another nice element to the Pump House Waterpark is that there was significant life before this attraction -- that is, Jay Peak Resort has a grand reputation as a ski, golfing and spa destination. They also offer several restaurants, an ice skating rink, fitness center and summer tram rides.  It's truly what you could easily call an "all-inclusive resort."

Jay Peak is located at 830 Jay Peak Rd. in Jay VT. Tel. (802) 988-2611. Log onto the Jay Peak Waterpark page to start, and explore the rest of the site to see all that Jay Peak has to offer.


Christo's Brockton is Gone, Christo's to Go Arrives in Whitman, Mass.

Christo's in Brockton, Mass., had been a local dining legend for more than four decades. Some called it "Cheers South" -- South of Boston's version of the famous Boston restaurant.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis once dubbed Christo's "The Greek Salad King." Thousands of customers each week called Christo's their "go-to" local restaurant. I personally remember family gatherings -- whether it be for happy times like birthdays and Mothers Day or  for sadder times when loved ones gathered after a funeral. Christo's just seemed like a best friend -- loyal, committed and friendly.

The Greek salads, famous salad dressing, baked lamb, bar-style pizzas, the large four color coded rooms (especially the Gold Room with that huge golden floor-to-ceiling fountain), and the welcoming day and night presence of late owner Christos Tsaganis helped shape Christo's one-of-a-kind restaurant personality. Unfortunately, family chose not to continue operating Christo's not too long after Tsaganis' passing, and the announcement to close Christo's came as a shock for many who thought it would be around forever..

Massasoit Community College recently bought the property and will be building a new Allied Health and Science Building. Great for academia, bad for our Christo's embedded taste buds.

Although this fabled of version of Christo's is gone forever, all is not lost. Recently, owners Gigi Johnson and Maria Samson -- daughters of Tsaganis -- opened Christo's to Go in Whitman, Mass. Clearly a fraction of the size of Christo's and strictly take-out, the look is still familiar with about 20 former Christo's employees, and signature dishes like the Greek salads, famous salad dressing, baked lamb and bar-style pizzas still there to please the local public.

You won't find any larger-than-life Gold Room fountains, or 450 seat environs, but hopefully the magic remains in what Christo's did best: serve consistently good Greek-American fare that made the former East Side restaurant a wonderful tradition for so many years. Stay tuned for dining reviews here, as, over time, I get to sample Christo's to Go.

Christo's to Go is located at 785 Bedford St., Whitman MA. Tel. (781) 523-7932