By Robert Hill from the August 2011 Edition
Getting a Mexican driver’s license was one of the most delightful experiences I have had in Manzanillo, but this was 10 years ago when things were a good deal more Mexican than they are now, and a lot more fun.
In those days the Transportation Department was in an upstairs office on the narrow street which parallels the railroad in Manzanillo Centro. There was an unmarked wooden door which opened to a steep flight of stairs, making it seem like you were about to enter Fernando’s Hideaway. Upstairs there were lots of people waiting in line at the windows for vehicle registrations, and off to the right a separate room for people like me, who had come to get a driver’s license.
I had brought my friend Ramón along as an interpreter and we sat on some plastic chairs along the wall to await our turn. After about 15 minutes we were motioned to the counter where we answered a few questions and produced the standard documents; Passport, FM-3, Curp card, utility bill, etc.
The next step was for me to take a written exam covering Mexican traffic laws, which was the main reason I brought Ramón along. However, the woman in charge of giving the exams did not want Ramón to help me, and with her big smile kept saying “no problema, tu puedes” (no problem, you can do it !) Obviously, I did not share Maria´s optimism that with my very limited Spanish, I would be able to read, much less understand, a written exam of Mexican traffic laws. Nevertheless, Maria seemed to have taken a somewhat maternal interest in this gringo who wanted a Mexican driver´s license, and she led me to a computer console and sat me down in front of it.
She proceeded to boot up the test so that I could see the first question, in a multiple choice format with 4 possible responses, numbered 1 through 4. It might as well have been in Mandarin Chinese as I had no idea of what the question was, let alone the right answer. She was standing close to me on the left and at that time she nudged my left arm. I glanced down and saw that she had extended 2 fingers on her right hand, so I dutifully punched 2 as my response and the program advanced to the next question. And so it went for about 20 questions as I would pretend to be reading each one, then glance down at Maria’s fingers for the right answer. When I finished the test Maria gleefully announced to the whole office that this Americano got a perfect score!
Her co-workers were all laughing and applauding, so it was obvious that they were in on the scam. After having my photo taken I was directed into a small, private office for an eye examination, and met the “eye doctor” who spoke pretty good English. There was an eye chart on the wall with the big “E”, but not much else in the way of equipment for giving eye exams. The Eye Doc was a jovial sort who was more interested in talking about Las Vegas, where I came from, than my eyesight.
Finally, he told me that he was an official with Cruz Roja (Mexican Red Cross) and that I had 2 choices: He could give me an eye exam or I could make a donation to Cruz Roja. I asked him if 50 pesos would be OK and he said fine, you have perfect eyesight but you must wear your glasses when driving.
After paying the fee of $500 pesos I was finished, but had to return in about 10 days for the actual license, laminated in plastic, and good for 5 years. A nice feature of the Mexican driver’s license is that on the back of it appears the name and phone number of a person you wish to be contacted in case of an emergency.
I have had my license renewed twice since then, each time for 5 years, but now the Transportation Department has been moved to the new Municipal Government office complex near the Coca Cola plant. The process for getting a driver’s license has been streamlined and is much more efficient, but not nearly as much fun.
As long as you renew it before the expiration date you do not have to re-take the test, and you will be out of there in about 15 minutes with a new one, laminated with a new photo and ready to go… still $500 pesos. There was no problem with the U.S. authorities at the border with my Mexican license nor with Car Rental companies in the States, and I assume it is the same in Canada. (Ed: it is.)
I had another related experience about 9 years ago which illustrates how things have changed over the past decade, with respect to driving. After a brief border run to Brownsville, TX, I headed south again on the main autopista going toward Mexico City.
About 50 miles south of the border I was waved through one of the military checkpoints, and continued on a few miles down the highway, doing about 70. All of a sudden I saw a car in my mirrors with red lights flashing, coming up on me at a very high rate of speed. It had to be doing better than 100 mph, so I eased to the right expecting it to pass me like a speeding bullet. Instead, it pulled in behind me with red lights still flashing, so I slowed and stopped on the shoulder of the highway.
My mind was racing trying to think of what in the world I had done to warrant getting pulled over by the Federales! The officer got out of his cruiser and came to my door with the window down. He said (in
English) “Sorry to bother you but I need to ask you some questions”. Now I was really wondering what I had done that would make the Federales want to question me ? With a big smile he explained that he had seen my Nevada license plates at the checkpoint, and that he was planning to take his wife and 3 kids to Las Vegas for a vacation, and could I please recommend a good hotel for them to stay at? At this point I breathed a big sigh of relief and smiled back at him.
Turns out he had a lot of questions about Las Vegas, and I recommended that he take his family to the Circus Circus Hotel on the Strip, as it was inexpensive and had a lot of fun attractions for the kids. He was very grateful and asked me where I was headed. I told him I was going to San Miguel De Allende for a few days, then on to Guanajuato, Tonala, and then home to Manzanillo. He said his compañeros would be watching out for me along the way. He then took out one of his cards, wrote something on the back of it and gave it to me, saying, “if you have any problems with the policia, show them this card”. I assured him I would, we shook hands, and said “adios”. I kept that card for a long time but never had a reason to use it.
Since that time in 2002, things have become a lot more problematic with respect to driving in some parts of Mexico, due to the narcotraficantes. I hope and pray that one day soon things will return to the way they were a decade ago.