Driving the Ruta Puuc

Rachel, Tim, and I woke up and walked down to the Oriente (2nd Class) bus station with the intention of purchasing a Ruta Puuc bus pass that Rachel learned about online. This was supposed to be a great way to see the legendary Ruta Puuc in the Yucatecan hill country south of Merida. This region features half a dozen Mayan sites dotted along a lush and winding country road, and the bus was supposed to drop into each site for a half hour (except at majestic Uxmal, where it lingered for two full hours). It sounded like a full day of ruin hopping on the cheap. Of course, when we got down to the station, we found out that this particular bus only ran 3 days a week, and this wasn’t one of them.

Renting a car was remarkably painless, requiring only my USA driver’s license and a Visa card (American Express not accepted). The so-called “international driver’s license” we purchased at the AAA in Seattle was superfluous, but we knew that at the time we bought them (these documents are mere multi-language translations of our USA licenses and don’t carry any legal weight, per se). We spent $750 pesos on a Nissan Sentra with zero-deductible insurance. We could have saved $200 pesos to skimp on insurance, but I wasn’t feeling lucky. Even though nothing insurance-worthy ended up happening, I’m still feeling like it was a good investment, considering the gauntlet we ran through.

It didn’t take too long for me to get into the driving groove for the Yucatan. My first lesson: yellow light means “gun it”. I’m so used to Seattle sissy driving where yellow was as good as red. When I tried to brake for a yellow light at an intersection, the truck behind me nearly rear-ended us, having squealed and swerved out of the way and presumably glared (though I couldn’t bring myself to look over). From that point on, I knew that I had to up my game and drive more aggressively. The “zero-deductible” was a nice confidence booster.

Naturally, we ended up taking the wrong way. I suppose it could have been avoided with a standard paper map. But no, we thought we were smarter than that. Highway 261 went straight to Uxmal, but our plan was to do the Ruta Puuc in reverse, starting at the Loltun caves and ending at Uxmal. Using Tim’s phone’s data plan (for Google Maps) and a basic regional map out of the back of a free local tourist magazine, we figured that as long as we kept heading due south and were mindful of the sequence of villages, we’d get where we were going in short order. We did get where we were going, but the order was anything but short.

It turned out that the fastest route to Loltun was indeed Highway 261, which bypasses all villages down to the Ruta Puuc. If you are planning on hitting the Ruta Puuc out of Merida, do yourself a favor and stay on 261 instead of Highway 180, even though it may seem like a straightforward north-south route. We kept seeing signs for Uxmal (which would have led to Highway 261), but these would alternately appear on the right and left sides of the road. According to our logic, we needed to keep going straight on 180 towards the towns en route to Loltun. What we weren’t counting on was that 180 snaked through each village individually. And I mean seriously snaked. Detours and construction, poor or non-existent signage, and profligate tangles of one-way streets turned each of the towns into navigation crises. Rachel and Tim worked in tandem to puzzle out each village turn by turn, with Tim glued to his phone and Rachel scanning for any useful signage or immanent hazard. I had my hands full just keeping from killing anyone.

I was contending with every imaginable obstacle simultaneously. Potholes, parked cars, and traffic cops cluttered the landscape, but the moving bodies were what made this ride especially hectic. Apart from swarming pedestrians, there was a constant chaos of two, three, and four wheeled vehicles competing for road space and apparently ignoring whatever sort of traffic laws that may exist in Mexico. Bicycles, pedicabs, pushcart gelado vendors, scooters, motorcycles, cars and trucks of all kinds and conditions (though there was a heavy showing of VW classic beetles and decrepit Ford pickups), and of course buses, dozens upon dozens of buses. And supposedly this doesn’t hold a candle to traffic in India. Something to look forward to, I guess.

The payoff? We got to see a lot of real Yucatan, the urban in-your-face bustle of modern Mayans, their unvarnished storefronts, ancient churches and cemeteries (bright with the trappings of Hanal Pixan, the Yucatecan Day of the Dead), wild turkeys and stray dogs. We eventually arrived at Loltun, a bit dazed but grateful for our glimpse at the tableau of everyday life down here in the jungle towns.

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