Potholes in Paradise: The Downsides of Driving in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

As we begin our fourth year living in a beautiful condo steps from a sparkling Caribbean beach in Cancún, Mexico, we are incredibly grateful. Life here is truly wonderful and we are mindful of the fact that we live in a place that many call paradise. Indeed, the Riviera Maya draws some 5 million tourists each year and is the Caribbean’s number one vacation destination—where people enjoy a week or two visiting a place that we are fortunate enough to call home.

But living in paradise is not the same as vacationing here. I often write about the area’s abundance of great restaurants, reduced cost of living, superb and discounted medical care, the warm weather, and the surreal, aquamarine colors of the warm Caribbean Sea in my front yard.

Shopping options along the Riviera Maya are abundant, with plentiful big box stores and modern supermarkets, shiny new movie theater complexes, and spacious malls filled with everything to soothe the shopper’s soul. Leave the beaten path and you discover the open markets and small family-owned shops where the deals are hidden. You can also discover ancient Maya ruins and swim in crystal-clear cenotes (underground caves filled with sparkling fresh water) filled with stalactites and stalagmites. It’s all here.

But you should also know that all is not perfect. Like anywhere else, the longer you live in a city, the more you get to know it. And in the case of Cancún and the Riviera Maya, the truth is that paradise has potholes.

Recently, Diane and I were headed to a new restaurant across town. The traffic was dense and aggressive as is normal here in Cancún. Regular cars mixed with enormous unyielding buses with less than half a car length between them. Endless darting, speeding taxis jockeyed for position, cutting me off to gain one car length, and motorcycles, as usual, were driving between the lanes and threading the tiny distance between each car.

Courtesy is rare on these roadways and is not readily offered or expected. Mild assertiveness is a weakness. Only aggressive driving is respected. Driving here feels like a competition and while I don’t want to compete…without a bit of attitude, merging into traffic would be impossible as very few are inclined to yield and eye contact is avoided at all costs.

After more than three years of daily driving on the daunting thoroughfares of the Caribbean’s number one vacation destination, my defensive driving skills have been honed to a razor’s edge and my nerves have steadied. I now move through this traffic like a seasoned local, but I don’t enjoy it one bit!

Local drivers use their warning flashers for all sorts of situations. It might mean they are stopping right there in the middle of the lane to text someone, or they’re slowing to take pictures out the window. Maybe they’re picking up or dropping off a passenger during rush hour traffic. It may be an emergency toilet break or sometimes, they simply want to stop to talk to a friend on the sidewalk or in the car next to them. That last maneuver, of course, blocks two lanes.

I regularly see drivers blocking a lane, flashers blinking, as they await a passenger who is shopping in a nearby store. But they always turn on their flashers like it’s a free pass for anything that happens next. These days, when I see someone in front of me activate their flashers, my senses peak and I prepare for anything. And of course, there is the propensity for speeding. Lots and lots of speeding.

On this occasion, I had properly signaled for an upcoming right turn into the parking lot of the restaurant. I slowed as the entrance approached and was monitoring the traffic behind me as much as I was the traffic in front. As I began my turn into the entrance, I was forced to jam on my brakes. I wasn’t expecting a telephone pole to be erected exactly in the middle of the paved entrance to the parking lot. (Engineering, here, is often an afterthought.) This naturally prompted a loud blast of horns from behind as I needed to reverse into oncoming traffic and find another way in.

Unmarked lanes demand that rush-hour drivers battle it out amongst themselves. One-way streets are often without signage, and uncontrolled intersections, where five or six roads converge, are not uncommon. Oh, and I must not forget the topes (Toe-Pays).

Topes: These large, sharp, and significantly elevated speed bumps are the ubiquitous, manmade road hazards present throughout Mexico and especially prominent along the Riviera Maya. They regularly destroy automobile suspension systems and humble even the best of drivers when hit at high speeds. The last time it happened to me, I honestly thought the newly rebuilt front suspension on our Jeep had been ripped from beneath the car.

Some topes are well-marked, but an equal number are not. And they are placed, seemingly at random, on secondary roads, main roads, neighborhood roads, and even on roads with highway speed limits, requiring tire-squealing braking. And, they are all but invisible at night.

In my life, topes have been responsible for the invention of entirely new and incredibly creative curse phrases; dirty words immediately and spontaneously generated, arranged in ways, previously undiscovered.

The traffic police are well known for their close attention to any possible driving infraction. Some say they even invent reasons to stop and detain drivers. But the good news is that while it may appear as if you are about to receive an expensive violation requiring you to go downtown and pay a huge fine, they often provide a way for you to settle things right there, alongside the roadway, at a significant discount.

I once challenged an officer who was performing an impressive bit of roadside theater about my infraction. My subsequent ticket contained a total of nine violations. The cost for my transgressions? Twenty-two dollars and 40 minutes from my schedule. This bit of roadside chicanery is so common, it has been assigned its own slang terminology—mordita. It means “little bite.”

It isn’t perfect here but we all choose our compromises, and for Diane and me, Mexico’s Riviera Maya offers benefits far greater than the detractors. Yes, there are potholes in paradise but the Riviera Maya is close enough to perfect for us!

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