2: New Rules

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Oaxaca, Mexico
© L. Nicholas
Mitla’s Zócalo

Our concern with the trip south (Chicago to Mitla, Oaxaca) began with a very kind invitation to speak about The Field Museum exhibition, The Aztec World, at the 31st annual Midwest Mesoamericanists conference at the University of Illinois-Chicago on Friday, March 13th. The opportunity to talk about the making of this show, which I co-curated with four colleagues, was of course welcome, as was the chance to add to the UIC program of which I am an Adjunct Faculty member. In addition, the small Midwest Mesoamericanists conclave has a special meaning for me, as it was at the first such conference (1978) that I delivered my first professional meeting paper in the United States.

So you may be wondering why we were concerned about this. After all, every year for more than a decade, Linda and I have driven south to Oaxaca from the Upper Midwest at this time of year. In making this journey, one that we have taken over 20 times, we've found a plan that works for us. Leave home on Thursday morning, hit the border in two days, and arrive at a spot north of Mexico City on the third night (Saturday) out. Then, drive through Mexico City early Sunday morning (when the traffic is lightest) to reach Mitla that afternoon.

But, if I was to speak on Friday night, then we couldn't possibly depart until a few days later, and we didn't want to delay a full week to the following Thursday. Our first thought was simply to drive through Mexico City early on a weekday morning, other than Tuesday. As some of you may know, in Mexico City there is a longstanding rule to fight pollution, which mandates that every weekday, cars with license plates ending in specific digits cannot drive. The configuration of our plates forbids us from driving on Tuesdays; however, since we knew we wouldn't be able to depart on Saturday morning, that restriction didn't seem to be a problem.

Since our regular Mexico City route passes directly through the heart of the city—a passage that would be jammed on a workday morning—we leaned toward taking a second route that skirts downtown, but still cuts through the upland Basin of Mexico, where Mexico City and its surrounds now sprawls. But alas, just days before our scheduled departure, this plan was dashed when we learned that there were new traffic rules for Mexico City/Basin of Mexico that were enacted since our departure from Mexico last summer.

As a further effort to combat smog by municipal governments, cars with foreign plates now cannot traverse the entire Metropolitan Area of Mexico City Monday through Saturday from 5 – 11 AM. These new rules not only ruled out our passage through the city before 11 AM, but they did the same to the second route that we were considering.

Our discovery of these new rules left few options since we'd pretty much committed ourselves to a Monday departure from Chicago. Either we waited until 11 AM before trekking through Mexico’s urban core (on Thursday), which meant an evening arrival in Mitla. This option was less than appealing, since we already had a Friday morning appointment in Oaxaca City with the Director of the Regional Center of the Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to discuss our new project at the Mitla Fortress. Or we opt for a third route, one that skirts far around Mexico City, and therefore outside the territory affected by the new rules.

For years, Mexico has been planning and then building a new toll road (Arco Norte) that goes around Mexico City (basically from south of Queretaro to west of Puebla), and we were able to ascertain that parts of this long-awaited bypass had now been completed. But nowhere could we learn (despite a concerted effort) just how much was done and what to do in the spots where the new road was unfinished.

With a degree of angst, we set out as planned on Monday. Having taken advantage of a great new program where we could arrange for our Mexican car permit at the offices of the Mexican Council in Chicago (instead of at the border), we made great time on our first three days out. Each evening after driving, we also received key tips via the internet from our colleague, Thomas Charlton of the University of Iowa, who furnished us with the latest data he could find from websites and personal contacts in central Mexico.

By the time we headed south from Queretaro on Wednesday afternoon, we knew that we were going to opt for the outer loop and take the new toll road to Tula de Allende (Hidalgo), spending Wednesday night there. Near the end of three long days driving, we were sorely tempted by a sign at the Tula toll booth that announced that the new toll road was finished to Actopan, the next town up the road. But, not knowing whether we could find a hotel there, we opted to exit at Tula as planned, hopeful that we could re-enter the toll road on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, since although the road was completed, the on-ramp was not, and so we had no choice but to follow the regular highway around to Actopan, Pachuca, and then south to Ciudad Sahagún. The passage was slow, around mountains, but the traffic was light compared to what one faces in the more urban basin. Once past Pachuca, we kept expecting to see signs for the new toll road, which we'd heard should be finished from Pachuca down to the Puebla toll road, but no such luck.

Finally, we asked at the right gas station and were told that an entrance to the new toll highway was a mere three kilometers away, down a narrow road lacking any signs or highway markings. We dashed over and entered this portion of the completed Arco Norte, which was practically empty, and then breezed south to the Puebla toll road.

Once by Puebla, the rest of the trip flew by, mostly on the scenic toll road to Oaxaca, and we arrived in Mitla late afternoon, almost at exactly the time that we have regularly arrived. The best news is that when we return in a few months, almost all of the Arco Norte should be built, and we ought to be able to schedule future trips without the time-dependent considerations of driving through the Mexico City Metropolitan Area.

Word of the Day: cuota, which means “toll road.” Sometimes these special new roads are also referred to as supercarreteras or “super highways.”

More soon,


© L. Nicholas
Palacio Municipal
© L. Nicholas
Mitla Fortress Walls