My dad was a notorious cheapskate, but even Steve lapsed into poetry when he encountered his first cuota, which bypassed one of our least favorite stretches of highway, the spine-chilling Barranca de los Muertos (Canyon of the Dead).
For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of driving in Mexico, a cuota is a toll road. They began appearing in the 80s and have spread across Mexico, so that now most major routes have two options: libre (free) or cuota (toll). Just as the chicken bus gave way to the air-conditioned Primera Plus luxury liner, Mexico’s infamous pothole-scarred, diesel-perfumed, gridlocked mountain highways can now be bypassed in favor of smooth sailing on spacious four lane autopistas, replete with clean rest areas and regular road signs.
A cuota can be a balm to the road-weary soul, but I still take the libres at least half the time. Yes, like all things related to me, this has something to do with food. Libres offer much better snack options. The cuotas bypass small towns and their ever-intriguing restaurants and mercado. And to compound the problem…instead of Mexico’s traditional roadside comedors and smoky snack shacks, the cuota pit stop offers only corporate mini marts (OXXO). (Again the comparison to chicken bus and Primera Plus works: The main drawback to taking a first class plus bus is that the luxury lines don’t allow roving snack vendors and thus you trade golden empanadas and mango con chile for the bus line’s sandwiches of anemic baloney on pan bimbo.)
Also…Cuotas can be pricey, and some routes are prohibitively expensive for a scrounger like me.That said, you’d have to be insane (or posses Mexican cojones) to take the libre on certain stretches of road. The trick is to create a route that incorporates the best of what both the cuota and libre systems offer: a little adventure here, a little comfort there.
It could be my imagination, but fees also seem to vary wildly. For several trips now I have been marking up a map of Mexico to remind me which sections of libre are particularly horrendous and which sections of cuota are particularly pricey. But as usual, I forget that I am living in the “digital age”…Notorious PG correspondent El Codo just reminded me of this most useful list, which shows toll prices for every route in Mexico. Because my own map is far from complete (and probably outdated), I will be printing this scroll and keeping it on the dash of our van as we venture south this December. Andale, pues!
(If you have any advice on particular routes, we’d love to hear from you.)