At the time of this writing, we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has halted tourism, and economies across the globe are melting faster than a Guanabana sherbet at Sorbetería Colón in May. Mérida is no exception.
To keep potential visitors prepared for their eventual return to the white city, I will point out a few particularities of driving that you may not be familiar with, especially if you are coming from outside the country.
Mérida – for the most part – is easy to drive around in. We don’t drive on the “wrong” side of the road (nod and a wink to my fellow contributor Cassie), traffic signals are basically the same, and standard rudimentary rules of engagement are the same as elsewhere. Here are some highlights.
In spite of what you might have heard, the Centro Histórico is not at all difficult to maneuver in a vehicle; it is just congested. But not Madrid congested, or Boston congested, or even Vancouver congested. These are streets made for horse-drawn carriages, so there is no mass of vehicles piling up at busy multi-lane intersections. Streets are numbered (evens go north-south; odds east-west) and they are all one way. Simple. Until you come to those particular streets known only to locals where the street suddenly becomes a two-way street for a block. Yikes! Extremely unnerving so keep your eyes out for those; thankfully, there are not many. There is one on 65 when you come into Mérida from the Cancun highway, FYI.
The Ubiquitous Tope
Topes, those bumps in the road that my stubborn father insists on calling “topas” are everywhere. It is rumored that there are over 100 of them on the regular non-toll highway to Cancún, in the various towns you go through. In Mérida, they are on all the side streets and can sneak up on you and wreak havoc with your vehicle’s suspension and steering systems. Note that topes are marked by a white sign with what looks like a strange bra-like symbol. Warning signs are also occasionally placed some distance before the actual bump – these are yellow. This white and yellow signage is of course a rough rule and the colors are interchangeable as is the fact that they are there at all. Your best bet is to drive carefully and be very observant.
Glorietas or Roundabouts
Much is made of the numerous roundabouts and how to get through them, but traffic circles aren’t unique to Yucatán. In large European cities like Madrid, the intersections of five or more major traffic arteries converge on a massive circle with a statue of some famous historical figure in the middle of it. Traffic flows into and out of the circle smoothly, as long as you understand the rules. These are the same in Mérida, namely:
- You wait your turn and the opportunity to move into the circle once traffic has cleared
- The vehicle on your left in the traffic circle has the right of way.
- In order to continue around the traffic circle, drive on the inner lane.
- The middle lane is also for going around the traffic circle and exiting as well.
- If you want to exit the traffic circle, stay on the outer lane.
Interestingly many Mérida avenues are several lanes wide but the roundabouts are not. So, you will suddenly find yourself in a four-lane avenue looking at a two-lane roundabout. The peaceful Yucatecans around you in their cars often suffer a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation so be aware that you might be honked at. Weigh your options carefully before entering the roundabout, pray a little prayer, and dive right in, being observant of the cars around you.
The concept of lanes in Yucatán is an ambivalent one; they are suggestions that can be followed. Often, they are painted and then forgotten forever and one must measure the width of one’s vehicle and imagine the lane that is no longer marked. This is the case on Mérida’s main avenue, the Prolongación Paseo de Montejo. Entire sections will have no lanes whatsoever and it is a fun activity to force the vehicle next to you into its imaginary lane. On the Avenida Itzáes, also known as Circuito or Avenida Aviación since it leads to the airport, the lanes have been painted in each section by measuring the lane widths. What this means is that the lanes actually shift from block to block which can be disconcerting for newcomers.
When there are lanes clearly marked on the streets, you may come across some local drivers who use these to center their vehicles thereby straddling both lanes. If you should dare to honk your horn you will get at least an angry stare and perhaps a nasty and internationally-recognized hand gesture.
To Sum Up
Don’t worry too much and don’t pay any attention to those who say “don’t drive in Mérida.” Having the freedom to move around at your own pace and not wait for an Uber or a taxi, is priceless. Enjoy your jaunts around town, up to north Mérida to the malls (La Isla is amazing), and further out to explore. Enjoy the adventure!
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Photography by Jorge Zapata for its use in Yucatán Today
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