Don’t even think of flagging down a random taxi in Mexico City. Kidnapping, rape, murder, or worse will be your fate if you do such a crazy thing. At least that’s the take of the US State Department, perhaps the only arm of the US government given to histrionics. And in my early years of traveling to Mexico City, I largely followed the advice, though in the back of my head I wondered if it was really that bad. But as time rolled on, I grew lax, and began flagging down taxis in the street. And I’ve lived to blog the tales.
My ex-partner, “F” deserves at least part of the blame for this reckless state of affairs. We’d be out, wanting to get home, but it’d be raining, or we’d be tired, or for some other reason, we just didn’t feel like hanging around watching dozens of free libre taxis whizzing by without us, while we searched for a sitio.* So the sheer inconvenience of hunting down sitios began to wear on me. And it really wore on “F,” who thought I was a gringo pantywaist for preferring a sitio. “I’ve never had a problem in a taxi,” he’d say. And if we took a libre taxi together, F assured me that since I was with a Mexican, nothing bad could happen. “Yeah, Right!” I’d say. “Most of the bad things are happening to Mexicans because there are hardly any Gringos here.” We had many discussions about this topic before he finally wore me down. But his assurance, regardless of how ridiculous, and the fact that the libres are about half the cost (or less) of a sitio, and usually easily found, soon found me flagging down taxis with abandon, even late at night.
However, the State Department wasn’t entirely wrong either, just terribly misguided about the actual risks. Maybe because they were following their own advice, they had never taken any Mexico City cab rides. While they were worried about kidnappings and other dramatic crimes, they really should have been worried about the many crazy drivers and how they tended to race through the city like madmen, breaking dozens of traffic regulations at a time. While we have had some very nice, calm and competent drivers over the years (mostly older men), they’re not the ones you really remember.
No, the ones you remember are about 25, and clearly frustrated race car drivers. Especially late at night, they provide hair-raising trips that make skydiving look like the junior carousel with the pastel ponies for the 4-year olds. And it’s not like they drive fast in a competent way, either. Half the time, they’re racing around, straddling lanes, passing semis with centimeters to spare while chatting on their cell phones, music blaring in the background. Heck, these guys pass police cars with abandon, something that never fails to shock me. But I don’t know what’s more surprising, the passing, or the fact that the cops don’t seem to care that someone is blasting past them at twice the legal speed limit. Personally, I never pass cops, no matter how slow they’re going.
And for safety equipment? Good luck is what you’ll need most. For protection, or perhaps a smooth journey into the afterlife, Mexico City taxi drivers almost always have statuettes of the Virgin glued to their dashboards. They also cross themselves if they happen to pass a church. But their seat belts typically hang slack, fresh as the day they left the factory. Passenger seat belts are even worse, usually tucked far away under the seats and mostly not accessible. I’ve spent more than one journey through Mexico City fishing around under the back seat looking for the short end of the seat belt, only to arrive at my destination slightly disoriented and with grubby fingers for my efforts.
I’ve also asked more than one driver to slow down a bit. Usually this would start with some kind of declaration that I wasn’t in a hurry. However, this subtlety seldom conveyed the point, so in the end, I’d just have to ask them to slow down. This always mortified “F,” who insisted that wasn’t a good idea. “What if the guy was so frustrated by life as a taxi driver that this last straw would provoke him to pull out a gun and shoot us?,” he’d ask. I never found that a particularly convincing argument in any case. “What if we happen to say the wrong thing on some other subject and he shoots us anyway?” I’d reply. But to placate F, we struck a bargain. He would do the asking for slower speeds in exchange for me not saying a word to the driver, at least about his driving. This generally worked pretty well. If I started to feel like the scenery was turning into a blur, I’d just lean over to F and drop the hint. He in turn performed his duty with admirable diplomacy, and always blamed the fact that I was a lily-livered foreigner for the slow speed request. Amusingly enough, this almost always seemed to be sufficient reason. Most taxi drivers would simply nod knowingly at F and promptly slow down. Somehow I seemed to easily fit into some kind of heretofore unknown national stereotype of the timid gringo passenger.
One time, a particularly scary fast driver decided to be a real pendejo, though. When F asked him to slow down, he slowed. Initially it seemed that he had indeed calmed down and was driving at a reasonable speed. We were relieved and started to relax. Then he slowed some more. And slowed. And slowed. To the point that EVERYONE was passing us, even lumbering combis. Had we been part of a parade, we’d have likely been holding up the marching band behind us. For a while, we chuckled to ourselves, figuring that we’d just be patient and wait him out. But the ride finally turned into a sort of “Zeno’s Paradox,” where every two minutes the speed of the taxi would be cut in half, and we feared we’d either be rear-ended or never arrive. We finally asked him to let us out early, and then hailed another cab. Asking the first driver to speed up again was simply out of the question.
But merely driving crazy fast isn’t the scariest part. Late at night, red lights also seem to be little deterrent to these guys. Some speed right through, others slow a bit and look both ways, and then proceed. Maybe only half of them actually stop and wait for the light to turn green. One driver told me that in DF after midnight it was perfectly legal to run red lights. “Yeah, right,” I thought. When I asked him who would be at fault if a collision occurred under such circumstances, he couldn’t answer me. (Hint: it’s not the guy with the green light.) Another time after running several red lights, I asked a driver to just wait for the next light to turn green, but he told me he was worried about being assaulted while stopped. I told him I was more worried about being T-boned by another taxi, but he didn’t seem too persuaded. Yet some years later, F was involved in just such an accident as a passenger in a car with the right-of-way, but thanks to the statuette of the Virgin, he was uninjured.
Despite the horror stories, we’ve also had a few truly amazing taxi rides too. One night we flagged down a taxi in the Zona Rosa, and wanted to go back to F’s house in Agrícola Oriental. Well, there were traffic jams everywhere. Yet our driver saw them several blocks in advance and diverted around every single one of them. He seemed to know every last back street in DF by heart, no small feat considering the number of one-way streets. We went through some dark, scary neighborhoods like Peralvillo, just north of Tlatelolco, and through other neighborhoods I can only guess at. And each time we hit new traffic, this guy found a new back road to get us around it. We arrived home in record time despite the traffic, and it wasn’t due to manic speed. My only regret was that I didn’t get that guy’s cell number.
Other times we’ve had drivers who’ve told us interesting stories about being held up, about other crazy passengers, or interesting details about their personal lives. One afternoon I got in a taxi near F’s house, and the driver picked up my accent and asked where I was from. When I told him, he broke into perfect English and told me all about how he had lived in Texas for twenty years, worked hard, and had saved his money. With that money he had bought two houses in DF, along with the taxi cab and had come back home. Though he enjoyed his years in the USA, he was glad to be back in DF, his “home sweet home.”
So if you’re ever in Mexico City and either hit a dull moment, or just need to be somewhere else, go ahead. Hail a taxi. You’ll probably get to your destination, and you may even have an adventure to tell your grandchildren some day.
* In Mexico City, there are basically two types of taxis: sitios and libres. The sitios are tied to a particular spot or an establishment like a hotel or restaurant. They have different licenses and are considered the safer of the two options. Libres are taxis that drive around and pick up fares from wherever they happen to be. If you’re really worried about security, take a sitio.