Travels in Mexico: Thrifty, topes and mordidas

If you've spent any time traveling around Mexico, you should be familiar with the word - topes.

Those are speed bumps. And keep reading because I will get to a story of how topes got us in trouble with the police.

Topes come in a variety of shapes and sizes from tiny bumps about the size of a golf ball to wide bumps almost three feet-wide.

I decided they couldn't all be described by just one general word so I told my driving companion, my boyfriend, that I was going to make up names for the topes based on their size.

While driving along the Costa Alegre, or Happy Coast, of Jalisco we came up with these more detailed names for topes.


A tope, or specifically a toplano, in Mexico. Photo by Teresa Puente.

Topeniños - the littlest ones that are the size of golf balls but they are clustered together by the dozens.

Topecitos - a little larger, around the size of a tennis ball, but they are in straight rows across the road.

Topes - the average size bump maybe about a foot wide and a few inches high.

Toplanos - maybe up to three feet wide but only a few inches high so you can almost cruise over them.

Topotes - the largest ones that are more high than wide and if you're not careful they could knock off your muffler if you don't slow down.

You don't find too many topes in the United States but there are some in front of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Now back to Mexico. The trick with driving over topes is that you have to slow down.

We were driving a rental car on our way to our hotel in Puerto Vallarta. We were approaching a tunnel and there were rows of speed bumps, a mixture of topecitos, topes and toplanos.

They were all in a row so we had to slow down.

Suddenly we saw the lights flashing behind us. The transit police were stopping us and when we pulled off the side of the road we noticed that one of them was carrying a rifle.

It was late at night after 10 p.m. and we had no idea why they pulled us over. But I could speculate.

Thrifty labels their cars in Puerto Vallarta and the name of the company was emblazoned on the back end of the car.

Instead of Thrifty, it should have just said, "Rob Me."

So the young officer approached the car and told us we were going too slow over the topes.

"That's why you stopped us?" I told him in Spanish.

I was already frustrated because this was the second time in less than a week we were pulled over by the police.

The first time we were stopped for running a yellow that turned to quickly to red. To avoid them taking my boyfriend's license, he paid a $60 fine. No official ticket was ever issued. This is what they call in Mexico, a mordida, a bribe. We hated to pay but we couldn't lose the license.

But this time there was no reason for them to pull us over and going slow over topes seemed like a joke. And there was no way we were going to pay another mordida.

The officer explained he would take my boyfriend's license and we'd have to go to a local government office to get it back.

"We're going back to the United States and we don't have time to do that," I told him. "You can't take his license."

The young officer went to check with his supervisor who was sitting in the police car next to the guy with the big rifle.

The young officer came back with a solution. "My boss says that if you pay 1,200 pesos, (about $100) we won't take his license," he said.

"No. We don't have the money," I said.

This wasn't true but I wasn't going to pay it. And then I launched into a tirade in Spanish.

"Mexico is getting all kinds of bad news and here you police are trying to extort tourists. I've been coming to Mexico my whole life and I lived here before so I know what you are trying to do.  And I'm a journalist and a college professor and you can't get away with this."

The young officer looked at me. "Let me go talk to my jefe," he said.

A few minutes later his supervisor came back and I gave him the same speech and more.

"O.K.," he said. "You can go."

"We don't have to pay anything?" I asked.

"You can go," he said.

I reached out to shake his hand and we took off. They waved at us as we drove off and we headed to our hotel.

I complained to the people at Thrifty in Puerto Vallarta about the car branding and they shrugged their shoulders.

I won't stop driving in Mexico but I certainly won't use a rental car company that labels it's cards inviting police and bandidos to rob them.

Leave a comment