Driving to Chapala from Laredo, Texas

July 15, 2008

Driving to Chapala Mexico from Laredo, Texas  
If you want to be armed with the best Mexico Map don’t buy a map printed in the USA. Best to get a good one printed in Mexico. Don’t worry about it being in Spanish. A map is a map.
You will not easily find these maps inside the USA but you can order them on line to be sent to your home before you leave. I bought mine here in Mexico, but now they’re available on line 
  www.mexicomaps.com/index.
DRIVING TO CHAPALA MEXICO    

Disclaimer: This report is updated from time to time, but roads change, by passes are built, road conditions change, laws change, etc. so we can not guarantee that the information is completely up to date and accurate. 

Lesson One First Get to Laredo TX from wherever you are as we begin there.

Finding A Hotel
Since Laredo Texas is a Gateway City into Mexico there are a good number of hotels to select from. You would think that hotels here might be higher than in other Texas cities, but you would be wrong. The prices are comparable to other parts of Texas. In the past I had found that it was cheaper to stay on the Mexican side of the border in Nuevo Laredo, but the last two years the rates have escalated on the Mexican side and stayed static on the Texas side.
 
Let me just recommend one hotel on the Texas side and one on the Mexican side.
My Preferred Hotel on the Texas Side: The Siesta Motel (1-800 – 8 Siesta) conveniently located at 4109 San Bernardo more or less parallel to Interstate 35. You can see one of their signs from the Interstate.
 
Now this is not a fancy hotel, but it is clean, with large rooms, a pool, good ice machine, friendly staff, color TVs with remotes, and of course being in Texas there is off street secure parking, and they take credit cards. There are a number of restaurants nearby as well.

The price for their better rooms (larger on the ground floor with king sized beds) go for a about $60 for two people. The smaller upstairs rooms are a few dollars less. They will  bargain somewhat.

Why so cheap? Well, this is what I call a “Faded Glory” hotel. It is older and a bit dingy looking, but again that doesn’t mean dirty or that stuff doesn’t work. There was plenty of hot water and towels and everything worked that was supposed to. I’ve saved a lot of money and enjoyed those things that are important to me staying at “Faded Glory” Hotels all over the world.
 
I had rather stay at an older hotel like this with large rooms, a desk or large table in the room with a couple of comfortable arms chairs in which to relax than in a brand new cramped Motel 6 for the same or more money.

Since I don’t have to stop at the border to process car papers or entry documents any more I will now always stay on the Texas side at the Siesta. I only have to pass thru the customs check points and even staying on the Mexican side you must still pass thru the second 17 mile check point.

The best thing about staying on the Mexican side is you can get a bit of a head start on the long drive ahead to Zacatecas.

If money is not an object and you want to stay on the Mexican side I recommend the Garden Hilton Hotel. I once stayed there as we wanted to get an early start and I was all primed to spend the extra money and I was very pleasantly surprised that they had a special going and it just cost $60 USD.

Sorry I can’t tell you more other upscale places on the Mexican side as I like to get a cheap sleep if all I want to do is get a clean comfortable bed for the night.

Crossing Into Mexico at Laredo, Texas : Bridge #1

There are two major bridges at which you can cross from Laredo, Texas where Interstate 35 begins, over into Nuevo, Laredo. I used to use Bridge 1 (the original), but now I prefer Bridge 2 as it is easier to find, newer and not as congested as bridge 1.
The toll to cross the bridge is $2.00 US or 20 Pesos. Note: The Mexicans use the same dollar symbol for pesos as we use for dollars. I will use Pesos in this article for Pesos and $ for dollars so you are not confused.

Before you cross the bridge change about $300 into Pesos (Current rate of exchange is around 10 to one, so $300 will get you about 3,000 pesos. Carrying more might be a good idea for emergencies, but stash the extra pesos in another pocket and not in your billfold. You don’t want your billfold bulging with money (attracts attention and destroys your billfold ).

Look for the Casa de Cambio (Money exchange places) on either side of the border, but it is more convenient to stop right on I -35 as it ends into a boulevard while still in Texas. There are several on the right hand side with curb parking. The rates are the same or close enough that there’s no advantage to checking several to get a better exchange rate.
 
Get mostly 200 peso notes. Think of the green 200 peso note like a 20 dollar bill . Get a few 100 peso bills. Think of them like 10 dollar bills. They are red. The money has holograms and is color coded. The 100 peso note and larger denominations are larger than the smaller denominations which look more like monopoly money. Fifty and Twenty Peso notes are smaller and are color coded as well. The fifty pesos note is a maroon like color and the 20 peso notes are blue.

Crossing the Bridge: Ok, you have your pesos. Now ease across the freeway (I – 35) and follow the signs for bridge # 2. Watch for the blue and white signs (small ones) that say “Car Permits”.

As you prepare to pay your toll for the bridge a camera takes a picture of the front and rear of your car (Big Brother is Watching !)

First Customs Check Point

Just over the bridge you will see signs in Spanish and in English as well. You will want to take the lane where the Sign says “Nothing to Declare” if you are not bringing in stuff that a duty must be paid on. US citizens can only bring in $50 of dutiable items per person, duty free.

If you’re not sure or it’s close I recommend that you take the Nothing to Declare lane. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Watch the signal light by your lane as you enter. If you get the green light continue straight ahead passing by the metal tables used to check dutiable items into the country.

If you get the red light, don’t worry, you will not be delayed long. Just pull alongside one of the long metal tables as directed by the Customs official (Aduana). He may just glance in the car or ask you to open up the car and put your stuff on the table. I get the red light about 10% of the time.

On a recent trip I got the red light and I had about $3,000 worth of dutiable stuff. My Ford Explorer was packed to the gills. I started piling non dutiable stuff on the table and soon had the table covered. The customs guy looked thru the stuff on the table and then glanced into the interior of the vehicle which was still quite full and said, “OK”. And I quickly repacked the car and off we went. These searches are not very rigorous. I probably saved at least $250 in duties. Mexican citizens can bring in $300 of stuff duty free.

OK, Here are your basic requirements for entry:

1. Tourist Visa :You must get a tourist card (tourist Visa). You can get this at the border. You now do need a passport or soon will.

2. A short simple form is completed and you pay the current fee.

3. Your tourist card gets you into the country. Car Permit: Now you must get your car into the country. If you haven’t already gotten a tourist visa you can do it at the same building where you will get your car permit. Follow those blue and white signs to the Aduana building to process your papers.

4. Insurance: Your US Insurance is not valid in Mexico You don’t need Mexican Car insurance as of this writing, but of course I recommend that you get a tourist policy. (The law can change requiring a policy or you could have a wreck, God forbid.) But note, a policy good for a year costs very little more than one for a few weeks, so if you plan to come back or spend more than a few weeks in Mexico check the price of a year long policy.

If you get Insurance for driving in Mexico be sure and get bail bond protection included..
If you are involved in a serious wreck and the other guy is injured you may wind up in the local jail (yes, even if the wreck is not your fault) until you bail out or a judge determines it was not your fault. Many people in Mexico settle up for cash at the scene and then leave before the police arrive. The law is that you don’t move the vehicles and that you report the wreck to the police and then wait for them to investigate.
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They put drivers in jail in serious property damage or injury accidents to protect the possibly wronged parties. This way the wronged party has a way to find the possible wrong doer.
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5. Car Title: You must have the original title in your name to get your car into Mexico. If there is a lien (loan) against the car, then you must have written, notarized permission from the lien holder to take the vehicle into Mexico and the original duplicate title.
Note: Most banks and Credit Unions are familiar with this provision and have form letters ready to Notarize for their customers.
 
6. Car Permit Fee: OK, now you must pay a fee of about $20 for the car to enter. This fee can only be paid with a credit card. (Yes, of course there are other legal ways to get a car into Mexico, but they are much more complicated than the method I am describing which I speculate 99.9% of visitors to Mexico use.

There is a new location for obtaining car permits at the Laredo, Texas Border. Watch for blue and white signs in English saying “CAR PERMITS” and follow them to a new looking building under a giant Mexican Flag which can be seen from all around the area.

NOTE: See the new post in this section about getting your car permit while still in the USA. This would be the way I would do it now to save the confusion and time at the border. You can also get your tourist visa at a Mexican consulate. If you can get both your tourist visa and car permit before arriving at the border this will save you a bunch of time and frustration.

In the new building begin at the sign that says if memory serves, “STEP 1” and proceed along the corridor step by step and you should have no problem.

You will wind up with a shiny impressive looking windshield sticker which identifies the car as being legally in Mexico. They will also give you a car permit paper to carry with you in the car which you show to anyone who asks for it that looks official.

They are very serious about keeping US cars from being smuggled into the country. I was once even asked for my car title by an over zealous police officer after I had produced my car permit and he had inspected the windshield sticker.

When you exit Mexico your car has to go with you. You must also stop at the border where you got the car permit to have them cancel it.

If you don’t, you could be in trouble if you ever come back to Mexico. I highly recommend having your car permit officially canceled as you leave. Each time I cross the border it seems a little more sophisticated. They are upgrading their computer systems all the time.

Second Customs Check Point
The second customs check point is about 17 miles or 21 kilometers from the border. This check point is much larger. There are multiple lanes and the process goes smoothly using the same sort of signal light system as at the bridge. If you get the red light pull over under the shed alongside one of the inspection tables. If not, continue on slowly.

I once wasn’t sure which light I got as it flashed green/ red quickly so I took the liberty of assuming I had gotten the green light. To be sure I had, I continued much slower than normal past the inspection tables waiting to see if any of the customs guys would flag me over, but none of them did, so I proceeded to reenter the highway, but did not accelerate to highway speeds.

Good thing too, because soon I had a two Federal Police Chase cars bearing down on me. Apparently they tried to give me the red light, but the lights flicked back and forth as described.

I played dumb. They just inspected my car briefly themselves, checked my papers, and released me. I didn’t even have to go back to the inspection tables.

Lesson 2
General Driving Rules: The basic driving rules are very much like in the USA, but with some important exceptions which I will now list:

Lane changes or turning: The vehicle in front has the Right of Way usually. So, if a car passes you on the left and then turns right at the intersection in front of you don’t cuss and curse, as this is accepted practice.

Turning from what we would consider the “wrong lane” is a frequent driving maneuver in Mexico. In a few circumstances I have added it to my regular habits too. (Turning right in front of big buses stopped in the right lane loading or unloading passengers if I feel I have enough time to complete the maneuver.)

Keep Right EXCEPT WHEN PASSING: Why am I listing this as an exception? Because many times there is no requirement on US roads TO PASS ON THE LEFT or not to use the left lane except when passing. In Mexico the general rule is keep right except when passing and pass on the left.

PART II

Lesson 3

Driving Tips:

1. You must be constantly alert while driving in Mexico. You can feel comfortable and relaxed driving along a beautiful tree lined boulevard one minute with relatively light traffic and at peace with the world and a fraction of a second later have a cold chill run down your spine as you anticipate a collision as a bus pulls quickly into your center lane from the curb lane, where it was discharging passengers, causing you to make a choice of pulling left or slamming on your brakes to avoid a collision.

Well that kind of thing happens in the States, right? Well yes it does, but in Mexico it may well be that at the same time the bus pulls out that a kid on a motorbike delivering a Dominos pizza who has been following you chooses that same moment to squeeze between your vehicle and the vehicle in the lane just to your left.
And, it may also be that a college kid wanting to catch the bus that is departing the curb runs diagonally across the street in front of you waving his arms in an attempt to get the driver to wait for him so he doesn’t have to wait for the next bus.

I could add other complications, but you get the idea. You must “fly” your car with your head “out of the cockpit” if you don’t want to crash and burn. In city traffic, never glance down at the radio to change the station or pick up your can of soda. You must constantly scan all mirrors and watch cars immediately in front of and on either side in front of your vehicle as well as those immediately behind and to either side behind.

And, oh yes, you can also telescope a bit further in front of your vehicle, but not too far ahead as things immediately in front of you can change quickly.

2. In City traffic at stop lights, don’t let the jugglers, fire eaters, clowns, vendors, and those seeking handouts distract you. If you look at them they will surely come to your window in the hopes of lightening your wallet. They may come to your window anyway. If they do, a simple wig-wag of the index finger of the left hand horizontally should move them on to the next car. (This symbol means, no I’m not interested at all !) I never buy anything from them, but sometimes I do let the windshield washer kids wash my windshield if it needs it.

They always do a good job in just a few seconds and happily accept 2 or 3 pesos (25 cents) for their service.

3. Never turn left (you can’t legally turn left many places in Guadalajara or other large cities anyway) unless there is a green arrow (la fletcha) indicating that you can do so. A solid green light, even if it is where a left turn signal light in the States would be, does not give you the right to turn left, even if there is no on coming traffic unless a sign indicates that you can turn or you get a green arrow.

4. Yes, “Alto” on an octagonal shaped sign means “Stop”, but Mexican drivers typically treat these signs like we would treat a yield sign. Don’t assume that because the other guy has an “Alto” sign that he will, in fact “Alto”.

5 Don’t be overly concerned or surprised, if as you approach an intersection where left turns are allowed and there is a single left hand turn lane, that other drivers, also wanting to turn left form an illegal second or even third left hand turn lane. You must understand that these folks are in fact doing this out of necessity as it may be many miles before they have another opportunity to turn left. This is not unlike the illegal dirt exit ramps that you see created by our drivers where the government should have put an exit ramp, but didn’t.

6. Watch for traffic signal lights at varying heights and locations even on busy boulevards. On Av. Vallarta in Guadalajara the traffic signals are attached to the very high trolley bus wires and you must look up to see them. At one cross street on Vallarta there was on average a wreck a day because the signal light was nestled in the branches of a tree. After hundreds of wrecks the government finally added a lower signal light and the wrecks stopped.

7. Don’t be surprised when driving at night in the larger cities in Mexico to see most, if not all of the police vehicles driving with their emergency lights flashing. This does not mean that there is an emergency. It is OK to pass them if they are driving below the limit, even though their emergency lights are flashing.

In real emergencies they will turn on their siren and red lights.

No, I don’t know why they do this, except as a nighttime deterrent to bad driving and potential criminals. So at night if a police car comes up behind you with red lights on, don’t panic. If he wants you to stop or pull over they will signal you with the horn or siren. In the day time, if you get the red lights, then pull over and stop.

8. A further word on the traffic police is in order here. If you get stopped and you are guilty of the offense or could be (running a light for example) and you don’t want the officer to issue a citation to you on the spot, and face a trip to the courthouse where you can try and prove your innocence or pay your fine, then you may wish, if it seems certain you are going to receive a citation, to tactfully ask the officer if he would be willing to save you all that trouble and pay your fine for you. You can negotiate what the probable fine might be.

You may not like it, and the police administration is trying to change the system, but old habits die slowly. From what I have heard, the “fine” the officer collects from you will be the same or more than the one you will pay if you go to court, and of course it helps the government keep the pay of the police just above the poverty level. The police do not have/receive much respect in Mexico for obvious reasons.
Oh, the highest on the street fine I’ve heard of has been 200 pesos (about $18) and of course the violation doesn’t go on your driver’s record or insurance and you are quickly on your way again. Even if you go to court and are found guilty (likely) the violation will not go against your insurance.

Most of the savvy gringos I know say, “If you did the crime, pay the fine. If you didn’t, take the ticket.”

9. NEVER DRIVE ON THE HIGHWAY AT NIGHT IF YOU CAN AVOID IT !

The main reason is that it is very difficult to see hazards and of course there are some long semi-deserted stretches in Mexico that remind me of the “badlands” in the old cowboy movies where you don’t want to be stuck, even in the daylight.
Animals on the roadway would be the most likely hazard. It is not illegal in Mexico to allow stock to roam free. At night as the temperature drops the animals seek warm places to lie down, like the black asphalt roadway that continues to radiate heat well into the night.

If you must drive at night, slow down and DO NOT overdrive your headlights so you will see that black cow lying on the black asphalt in time to stop.

Many main Mexican roads do not have shoulders and some are quite narrow. Meeting a double length tractor trailer truck with his second trailer wig wagging behind him at 75 mph with nothing more than a faded white line to keep him on his side of the roadway that is only inches wider than he is, is not something you want to do. THIS IS THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE TALKING, SO LISTEN.

10. Don’t feel threatened if you see a red flag (often hung on a stick stuck in the ground) just off the roadway, and about 40 yards past the flag, a young soldier dressed in pressed green fatigues tucked into polished combat boots, is holding a machine gun. These military check points, for obvious reasons, are usually just over a hill or around a curve. They also are often located near a small restaurant or pueblo where the soldiers can get food.

You probably will get flagged on thru the checkpoint if you are driving a regular sedan and look like a gringo tourist. They are looking for dope and guns. If you are driving a closed van or truck you likely will get searched. They rarely look in small containers or inside suitcases. They are not looking for your personal less than 4 oz. of marijuana stash, but please don’t risk even a personal stash. They are looking for commercial quantities of dope or any type of firearm.

Yes, Mexico has laws against unreasonable searches just like we do, but they are not enforced against the military. A high Mexican judge once refused to be searched as he was standing on the Mexican law. He finally won on appeal, but of course he was also put in jail when he resisted the initial search.
 
Now, if they will put a high ranking judge in jail for not submitting to a search what do you think will happen to you.

No, they don’t want money. They will treat you with respect. But they also are not kidding. Just do what they ask respectfully, and you will soon be on your way. They have been given the job of stopping drugs from entering the US from or thru Mexico by the President of Mexico, who took this job away from the Federal Police who were too corrupt.
 
So far, the drug lords have not corrupted the Army, that we are aware of.
Personally, I’m glad they are out there. I believe if you were broke down or in trouble that they would help, and of course they do slow down some of the dope heading our way.

11. You Have An Angel to Help. In addition to the hedge of protection I will pray around you if you alert me you are coming and your own personal guardian angel, you also have the Mexican Green Angels to help you.

The so called Green Angels are well equipped government pick ups that regularly patrol the rural highways of Mexico. The drivers wear green uniforms and caps that remind me of the old Texaco Service Station attendants in the USA. They carry things like spare gas, jumper cables, etc. and can help with minor repairs or summon help by radio, call a wrecker, etc.

12. Gassing Up: A good rule of thumb is to begin looking for a gas station when your tank is still half full. This way you should never run out of gas. Sometimes as you pass a service station you will see a sign with a picture of a gas pump on it and a number.

No, this is not the number of the station you just passed. It is the number of kilometers to the next Pemex service station. Check your gauge, are you sure you can go that far.

13. Speaking of Service Stations: You have a choice of getting your fuel at a Pemex station or at a Pemex station. Yes, folks, the government monopoly controls the fuel in Mexico. The prices don’t vary and you don’t have to worry yourself with searching for the best price, which at this writing is 5.78 Pesos per liter or about $2.26 per US Gallon. Diesel is 4.79 pesos per liter or $1.87 per US Gallon.

14. Its wise to consider the particular station before you pull in.

If you see a lot of pedestrians wandering around the station or if it looks a bit run down or shabby and if you are in a relatively built up area you probably are not too far from the next station and you may want to continue on to it. Why?

OK, since you asked: You will in all probability be approached by thongs of street vendors, beggars, and children all with the same goal and it is not to welcome you to Mexico. These Pemex stations tend to be at major cross roads near large cities.

People with cars (Mexican and Gringos alike) are considered rich and fair game and so the street vendors and others go to the busy Pemex Stations to find a customer or mark as the case may be.

I try and time my gas stops at the Pemex stations out in the boonies. The service is better, there may be a kid or two, but they usually just stare being too afraid to approach you, and the attendants are usually genuinely friendly and the bathrooms are more likely to be clean.

Two last points on fueling up:

1. Be sure the attendant turns the pump to all zeros before he begins to pump your gas. Fortunately, there are very few dishonest attendants. Many will point out the all zeros on the pump before pumping your gas.

You are more likely to run across the dishonest ones at the previously mentioned dirty looking busy stations at major crossroads near larger cities. While you are distracted by the vendors and kids telling them “No” he begins to pump your gas, but he conveniently forgot to reset the pump to zero, so you are stuck with paying what he pumped into your tank and for what ever he pumped into the last tank, as your reading was stacked on top of the previous one.

3. Never just say “fill it up”. They will indeed fill it up to overflowing. You can estimate how much you will need after a little experience. In my Ford Explorer when my gauge reads half full, I tell the attendant that I want 200 pesos worth of regular. “Dos cientos de Magna Sin, por favor.” (200 pesos of un-leaded regular please.”)

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Note: There are only two grades of fuel, Regular (green pump) and Premium (red pump), and of course diesel.

OK, that’s your baker’s dozen + one tip on driving in Mexico. Now let’s check the meaning of the road signs you might see.

Lesson 4
ROAD SIGNS AND THEIR TRANSLATIONS:

Transito Lento – Slow Traffic
Caril Derecho – Right Lane
Conserve Limpio – Keep (Mexico) Clean
Disminuya Su Velocidad – Lower Your Speed
Returno a Carril Izquierdo – U turn from the Left Lane
Grava Suelta – Loose Gravel
Velocidad 110 kph – Speed Limit 110 kph (68 mph)
No Manejo Cansado – Don’t Drive Tired
Prepare Su Cuota – Prepare Your Toll
Casada de Cobro – Toll Booth
Con Nieblada Disminuya Velosidad –When Cloudy (0vercast) Lower Your
Speed
Division – Detour
Use Carril Izq. Para Rebazar – Use left Lane to Pass
No Rebase – No Passing
Si Tomar, No Manejo – If you Drink, Don’t Drive
Well, I hope this helps you understand most of the road signs you will see.

PART III

Lesson 5
 
This Lesson is not really a lesson at all, but a description of three possible routes from Laredo Texas to Chapala, Mexico.

All three routes are good routes and are the same for a good portion of the way.
Get a Good Mexico Driving Map Check the copyright date to see if it is current. This is no guarantee, but is about the best you can do. Good road maps can be found at the Mapsco dealer in Dallas on Maple Ave, if this is convenient for you or I’m sure you could order a good road map or road atlas of Mexico on the internet.

Of course I buy my road maps here in Mexico. The only drawback is that they are naturally in Spanish, (a map is a map, right?) but much more likely to be up to date.
Permit me a short story. I once drove from Chapala to Morelia, Michoacan ( The Capital City of the Mexican State called Michoacan. I thought I was going crazy as I kept passing towns that the map showed to be to my left, except that they were on my right. There were no highway signs to tell me the name of the highway I was on. Finally I saw a road sign at an exit that indicated the road I thought I was on was actually a newer parallel road that was finished except for the highway marker signs not yet being up. The new highway was not on my so called current map purchased immediately before my trip in Texas.

GETTING LOST: Expect to get lost. Even with good maps, a good navigator by your side, and being extra observant you are likely to get lost.

Solutions: If you get lost inside a pueblo (You should be able to by pass most of them) here are a couple of tricks to get you back on the right track.

Sometimes when you enter a large pueblo from the main highway the highway just seems to disappear into a maze of streets. You follow what you believe to be the highway as it goes thru the town, but then you come to a point at which it appears that somewhere you must have gotten off the highway, what do you do?

Tip 1

Look for a church spire or steeple. Small towns usually only have one church and it is almost always on the Plaza and the highway you want probably goes along one side of the plaza. Also once at the plaza you may find a police officer or someone who might give directions.

For example: You want to go toward Zacatecas, so you stop and say “Desculpe,
(days culpay) a Zacatecas?” “Excuse me is Zacatecas that way?” ( As you point down the road you are on.)

Tip 2
 
To prevent getting lost in a small town I have sometimes followed a large cross country type truck or bus that you think is not making a delivery in the town. The only problem with this is that the driver may be making a side trip to visit his girlfriend and not going straight thru.

Tip 3

You know from looking on your map that the highway enters the town from the North and exits to the South. Check your compass or the position of the Sun and take the widest, busiest looking streets you can and continue to head south.

Tip 4

It is best to ask directions from folks who may be drivers or at Pemex stations. A little lady about 4 foot tall wearing a black shawl who is about 70 years old and walking and who has probably never been more than 20 miles from where she was born is not a good person to ask.

Tip 5

Get 2 or more opinions! Mexicans hate to appear stupid, so if they don’t know the answer to your question, “Is this the road to Zacatecas?”, they will lie and tell you it is, even if it isn’t.

You can generally tell if they are telling the truth. Truth tellers answer quickly. Liars tend to pause a bit longer before answering or change their advice half way thru their explanation. Take the best 2 out of 3 answers and try and follow their advice.

When you ask your questions don’t ask about road numbers. They don’t think that way. Ask about the nearest town you know is on your route or a big City they will be familiar with. “Es este el camino para Zacatecas?” Is this the road for Zacatecas?

THE ROUTES
 
ALL THREE ROUTES ARE THE SAME FROM N. LAREDO TO SALTILLO.

From Nuevo Laredo take Highway 85 south. You will shortly have an option to take the “Libre” (free road) to Monterrey or the “Cuota” (Toll Road).
TAKE THE TOLL ROAD as you want to avoid having to drive into Monterrey proper.
 
Note: This sign shows the prices in pesos for one segment (96 pesos =$9.60)
You will go some distance before you come to a toll booth. Look for the word “Autos” on the list of toll fees and pay the amount of pesos beside the word and picture of an automobile.

They have change, but give them a bill not much larger than the toll. They will greet you with Buenas Dias or Buenas Tardes, take your money, and give you a receipt and your change.

Some toll booths also will accept dollars, but not at good rates of exchange..
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Continue on the toll road also marked Mexico 85 toward Monterrey. You soon will be entering mountains with long gently rising grades and a few not so gentle. The speed limit is 110 kph to 120 kph (68-75 mph). Stay to the right unless you are passing. It looks like one of our Interstate divided roadways.

Monterrey is about 215 kilometers or about 135 miles from Laredo. You will never really see the city of Monterrey if you stay on the toll road and take the turn to the right toward Satillo which is clearly marked.

The name of the road changes from 85 to 40 as you take the exit for Satillo and it is about 85 kilometers (52.7 miles) to Satillo.

Nearing Saltillo you have a choice.
You can turn left at the sign that says “Cuota” Mexico (They mean Mexico City) with the Highway number 57 and continue to Guadalajara on primarily toll roads.
This is what I will call the Toll Road Route.

TOLL ROAD ROUTE

This route is easier driving since it is mostly toll roads, but not much faster if any than my preferred route. This way costs you about $47 more in tolls than you have already paid. It is very scenic, but not nearly as scenic as my preferred route which of course has no additional tolls.

There is also one very narrow stretch of about 20 miles from one part of the toll road to another part which is very slow going. It is slow going because it is narrow and heavily traveled.
 
This route also has the advantage that it avoids going around or thru Guadalajara except for the southern edge on your way to Chapala which is about 33 miles south of Guadalajara.
I’ve only taken this route once. It was OK, but I like my preferred route best. I enjoy passing by or thru the Mexican villages … and it’s nice to save the $50 or so you would otherwise pay on the mostly toll road route.

The Toll Road Route passes by Satillo, Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, Lagos de Moreno, and San Juan de los Lagos
 
If you take this route you will take Highway 57 toll road all the way to close to San Luis Potosi where you change to Highway 80 toll road continuing southwestward toward Lagos de Moreno and San Juan de los Lagos and on into the Guadalajara area.

As you approach Guadalajara Highway 80 becomes the only freeway in Guadalajara, Lazaro Cardenas, which if you continue will take you across the southern half of Guadalajara. SOOOOOOOOOOOO, don’t continue on this road.

Watch for signs for Chapala or the Airport and or Highway 23. This is the road that links Guadalajara to the airport and further on, to Chapala.

Exit at the Chapala exit to the right and eventually you will curve back to the left, I think under Lazaro Cardenas. The airport is about 20 minutes further south on your right. Continue south on 23 another 30 minutes or so (depending on traffic) passing the exit for Salto and on to Chapala.
SID’S FAVORITE ROUTE

Now let me give you the route I like best. Please note I suggested a friend here in Mexico try this route and he did and he didn’t like it at all. The route had too many twists and turns in the mountains for him as he was driving a midsize motor home.

He also likes to drive slowly which is less tiring for him. When he gets tired he just finds a spot to pull over and climbs into bed.

He likes the route that I will describe below which I will call the Regular Route.

OK, Sid’s preferred route is the same from Laredo to Saltillo as the Toll Road route described above.
But, as you enter the outskirts of Saltillo you don’t take the toll road #57. Instead you continue past this option staying on Highway 40 as if you were going into Saltillo, WHICH YOU DO, BUT NOT INTO THE DOWNTOWN AREA.

Note: The downtown areas of cities are referred to as “Al Centro”. So, if you want to avoid going into the downtown area and probably getting lost then stay out of “Al Centro”.

At some point you should see a sign directing you to the left labeled ZACATECAS. The route thru the outskirts of Saltillo is well signed. Just follow the Zacatecas signs. (Don’t get behind a big truck as you approach intersections (you may miss seeing a turn sign for Zacatecas)

If you managed to follow the Zacatecas signs you will wind up on a ring road that curves around the East side of Saltillo which is a divided boulevard type road with all of the street light poles and curbs painted a bright yellow.

BEWARE as you drive around the outskirts of Saltillo to follow the speed limit signs as the police are known here for their strict enforcement. Stay with the flow and you will be ok.

You follow this ring road for some distance until you come to a major intersection where Highway 54 comes into Saltillo. You turn left at this intersection.

This intersection has a Pemex which is loaded with vendors and assorted con men and lots of pesky kids.

 
As you clearn Saltillo and the road gets very straight and you can set your autopilot on about 75 mph or so and enjoy the ride approaching Zacatecas

Updated Information as of mid 2008 – Saltillo is adding a freeway system which even with the detours has already made it easier to get thru the downtown area.

Zacatecas back in 2005 added some new clover leafs and in general made traffic flow faster  past the city proper but an option is to continue into the downtown area of Zacatecas to find a hotel for the night.

ZACATECAS: Zacatecas is a beautiful city and at first it seems quite daunting to drivers new to its century’s old streets.

RECOMMENDATION: if you have an extra day available en route: Spend two nights in Zacatecas. y of the large hotels can set you up with. he day tour will take you around the city pointing out the history and sights. You will get to go n inexpensive clean hotel not too far from the Plaza with secure parking and a restaurant is “The Hotel Zacatecas”.

You say, “Un cuarto para dos personas, por favor.” A room for 2 persons please.

We’ve only stayed at one other hotel in Zacatecas and it was one of the luxury hotels downtown directly across from the main plaza.

As you near Zacatecas (the City) you will intersect with Highway 49. (A divided road) Cross the northbound lanes and proceed some distance before you encounter the southbound lanes where you will turn left heading toward downtown Zacatecas.

An other option is to continue on to Jarez to spend the night there.
 
If you do elect to spend the night at Zacatecas: The first night, just find a hotel. Walk about the city some. The next day take one of the day tours of the city which may take you
inside an old silver mine, and for a ride in a cable car over the city (don’t forget your camera), etc.

Hotel Zacatecas”. Even though it is on the main road into town it is easy to miss as it is on your left hand side with only a small entrance on the main road into town. The main entrance to the hotel is from a parallel street which runs to the ledt of the main road. The cost is about $60 per couple per night and they take credit cards and speak a little Engl The The “Continental Plaza” hotel is directly across the street from the Cathedral and full of old world charm and walking distance to more upscale restaurants, shops, etc. Fifteen years ago it was $72 for two persons per night. They take credit, have underground secure parking, and the restaurant is great.

GOOD TRICK: When you have an address or the name of a public place you want to get to you can flag a taxi over and ask him to let you follow him to where you want to go and usually for a couple of dollars you go right where you want to go.

TIP ON DRIVING IN ZACATES – Most of the streets are one way and from the main divided road you get to the Zacatecas area early enough and don’t intend to sight see in the city and want to n the road into Zacatecas (Highway 49) but before you get into the city very far you will come to the cut off for Highway 54 which you take to continue on this route (Preferred Route).

Sid’s preferred route from Zacatecas is on Highway 54 toward Guadalajara but you will exit at Highway 23 and continue on Highway 23 into Jerez. Jerez is deceivingly large. If you didn’t spend the night in Zacatecas then this is the place to do it.

I’ve seen the sights in Zacatecas at least twice so now I always continue on to Jerez to spend the night.

Regular Route. If you are taking the regular route you just continue on 54 all the way to Guadalajara.

Sid’s preferred route thru Jarez has more dangerous curves, but the awesome mountain scenery more than makes up for it.

The turn off on your right hand side for Jerez onto Highway 23 is about 18 miles from Zacatecas.

From Jarez you will need at least 4 hours of daylight in which to continue on to Guadalajara.
 
Hotel choices in Jerez. Jerez is where the Mexican tourist buses stop for the night. I once met an old gringa in Jerez, who spoke only a very few words of Spanish, She had just gotten off such a tour bus there. She was the only gringa on the bus.

I helped her order her breakfast as she the poor waiter was trying to find out what she wanted. She had decided to find out if she would like to retire in Mexico and was touring various cities on a Mexican tour bus. She had done almost no prior planning. She had not even heard of Lake Chapala.

Many route sales guys and other traveling salesmen etc. spend the night here, along with the tour groups to beat the higher hotel costs in Zacatecas

The Hotel Leo is my first choice. It’s a bit upscale with a five star listing. They have large rooms with king sized beds, color TVs with cable and sometimes you can find a movie in English and they all have remotes. They also have secure, covered, off street parking. The rooms here are a bit pricey for Mexico at $60 to $65 per night per couple, but in May 2004 they were also running a “promotion” and the rooms were just $199 pesos ($20 USD) The hotel is easy to spot just off the main road its 7 stories towering over the other nearby buildings.

They will sometimes bargain rates with you here too. Pay in cash.

I’ve encountered English speakers here on occasion and don’t worry about the 7 stories as they have an elevator. They also take credit cards.

They even have a website www.leohotel.com.

The restaurant is good for breakfast. I recommend “Eggs divorciado “ with one fried egg with green sauce and the other with red sauce, chilachiles (tortillas, cheese and beans cooked together and seasoned), 3 slices of ham, toast, sweet roll and coffee, tax included was about $5 USD.

As you leave Jerez you will soon be back in the mountains. They are spectacular. Much of the time you feel as if you were on a roller coaster ride. There a couple of Miradors (look out points) where you can safely stop and check out the view and take photos.

There are also two nice restaurants about half way thru this set of mountains. I forget the name of the first one you come to on the right hand side. It is an orange color now, but has been bright yellow, and who knows what neon color it will be when you pass by, but I strongly recommend that you wait a few more miles and go to the next nice restaurant called Restaurante de Camino. (Highway Restaurant) Not an imaginative name, but very good food.

It too is on the right and a little easy to miss so keep a sharp eye out. You will be glad you found it The exterior is painted dark brown. The interior is spick and span and they offer a variety of styles of Mexican food. Many of the dishes are fixed California Style, which is not unlike Tex Mex. The food is absolutely great, the prices are reasonable, even if the service is a bit slow (they cook it all from scratch) , but well worth the wait. This Mom and Pop place get a Sid’s Gold Star.

A final note on Sid’s Preferred route:
When I first started taking this route you had to go thru many of the small towns, but now most of them have constructed by passes around the town so you can continue without much more than slowing down.

If you want to see the “old Mexico” then go thru a few of these towns.

The towns are mostly inhabited by Mexican people of Indian descent. They are short in stature with reddish skin. The names of the towns along the way are real tongue twisters. It looks like someone just grabbed a hand full of consonants at random to create the town’s name. These names look somewhat like a not so good scrabble hand. In reality these names are INDIAN NAMES converted into Spanish.

Tepetongo, Huejucar, Cocolitan, are a few towns you pass by on this route
When you begin to think the mountains will go on for ever, all at once they are behind you and very soon you will be approaching Tesistan, the last small town before Guadalajara. Don’t take the turn for Tesistan instead turn left for Guadalajara. This intersection is well marked.

Note your mileage or reset your trip odometer here to zero It is 7.4 kilometers (approximately 4.6 miles) to the next turn which otherwise you could miss.

Approaching Guadalajara at some point on the north outskirts you will intersect with the Anillo de Periferico (Ring Road). This road is 7.4 kilometers or 4.6 miles from the intersection mentioned above.

You should see large signs at the Periferico pointing to TEPIC, COLIMA and perhaps other cities.

For first time drivers to Chapala I recommend that you turn right on this outer ring road and follow it around the southern and western part of the city to the Chapala / Airport exit . This intersection with the Periferico doesn’t say “periferico” and at least in this regard is not well marked.

You exit to the right along by a row of houses built immediately next to each other with only a wall between one house and the next (a common occurrence in Mexico) . There is a 4 story apartment building on your left hand side that is sort of a brownish color with faded red tile roofs.

You enter the Periferico which passes over the road you are on by exiting toward the row of houses on your right and following this road which curves around to your right and for a time runs parallel to the Periferico like a service road to a freeway. Then, take the first up-ramp and you will be on the Periferico.

The Periferico at points look like a freeway and you get to near freeway speeds on several long stretches, but be prepared to stop fairly often at the traffic signals at all the major cross streets like Colon. This road has multiple lanes .

 Avoid the two right lanes until you are pretty sure you are close to the Chapala exit as these lanes are for the very slow traffic. Judge how close you are to the Chapala exit by trying to locate the cross streets on your city map. You can safely stay in the far left lane at least until you cross Colon.
 
You stay on the Periferico until you get to the Chapala / Airport exit which is where Highway 23 picks up on the South side of Guadalajara.

If you miss the Periferico, even after my detailed description of how to find it, don’t feel bad. I’ve missed it several times. If you do miss it you can double back and try to find it or you can revert to PLAN B.

PLAN B

Here is Plan B. Continue on into the City of Guadalajara. This part is too complex to describe well in words, but here goes. At first you can follow the signs for Zapopan or Mexico (the City), or Tonala or al Centro, with a goal of going thru the City from North to South. Don’t go East of the heart of downtown (at this point it will all look like downtown, but I mean the older center of the city known as “al Centro” because you can really get lost going that way. You wind up in a heavy industrial sleazy area with streets that are more fit for off road vehicles. I confess I have done this twice. Each time I vowed not to get into that area again.

Nearing the city core (Al Centro) watch for signs saying Chapala. If you see one of these, follow it and continue south. If you happen to see Av. Americans you could take this south and you will go some distance before it changes to Union and continues south to the Periferico where you can turn left and get back on the above route. to Chapala .

If you see Federalisimo this is a really good one to take south as just before it turns into a tunnel there is a Chapala exit. But, don’t get trapped in the center or left lane and be forced into the tunnel. How do you know when to get into the right hand slower lane? Soon after you cross La Paz (the peace) which is a well marked intersection heading south immediately get into the right lane and look for the Chapala exit sign.
 
If you took this exit successfully you are now on Washington…at last a familiar name, right? Just stay with the flow on Washington and watch for the Chapala signs.

If you get forced into the tunnel heading south on Federalisimo don’t despair.
 
You can follow it all the way to Lazaro Cardenas freeway. Federialisimo’s name changes as it goes thru the tunnel and emerges alongside the metro track (Yes Guadalajara has a subway called the Metro) and at this point Federalisimo changes to Colon. Continue on Colon to Lazaros Cardenas freeway, turn left onto the service road on the south side of the intersection and enter the freeway (Wait for the green arrow even if there are no oncoming vehicles).

Lazaros may not be marked well, but it looks like a freeway and it crosses overhead. There is only one left hand turn lane leading onto the service road of Lazaros, but if you can’t get into it, don’t worry, just follow the lead of the Mexican drivers and bunch in together and create one or even two additional left hand turn lanes that the planers left out, and head east until you get to the Chapala / Airport exit. It is marked, but there are no big signs like you might expect to see pointing you toward the Guadalajara International Airport.

Taking the Chapala exit head south and you are about an hour or less from Chapala. For reference, Lazaros Cardenas is inside the Periferico loop.

Hopefully you will have a good city map of Guadalajara. I prefer the ones that show mostly the main streets in detail as they are so much easier to read if all you want to do is get from one side of the city to the other.

As you cross over the mountains you will soon see Lake Chapala on your left, which is very beautiful framed by mountains on each side. As you descend the mountain you will enter Chapala. The highway becomes Morelos as you enter Chapala. There are two signal lights in Chapala. The first is just as you enter Chapala at the Pemex gas station.

CONGRATULATIONS YOU MADE IT.

REGULAR ROUTE
The regular route is the same as the Preferred Route except that as you leave Zacatecas on Highway 54 toward Guadalajara you stay with it all the way to Guadalajara. It ends at the Periferico a few miles to the east of where Highway 23 intersects the Periferico.
You have the same basic options here as on the preferred route You can continue on into Guadalajara ( a city of 6 plus million people) or you can turn right and follow the Periferico around to the Chapala / Airport exit.

WOW, THIS WAS ABOUT 5 TIMES LONGER THAN I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE. But I kept thinking of things you might need or want to know.
 
My best advice is to get a good map, plan your route considering all the factors, and then work your plan with a spirit of having fun and adventure, and you should do fine.

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this report as much as I enjoyed writing it. Let me know how you make out.

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • sarah McCoy

    Sid, after reading all this (well, actually I didn’t read the whole thing) I’ll fly, thanks. lol
    Sarah
    you did a great job explaining the trip, though.

  • http://www.chapalaclub.com Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Sarah, Living in Mexico is always an adventure. Driving is more of an adventure. With the low airfares and the high toll road costs when driving in Mexico flying is usually a better option… but I do recommend importing a US or Canadian plated car for use here. Shipping a car would be quite expensive. So, at least one drive down to get your car and personal stuff here might be in order.

    I don’t advertise it much, but when I can fit it into my busy schedule, I do have a comparatively inexpensive service where I drive you in your car here from most border crossings into Mexico from the USA. E mail me at Sid@ChapalaClub.com if you want more information.

    Thanks for you comments. Sincerely, Sid

Email for more information:
Sid@ChapalaClub.com

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