New Highway Screams Between Mexico City and Acapulco

Stretching more than 150 miles between Mexico City and Acapulco, the Autopista del Sol, or Sun Highway, slashes through the rugged countryside of the southern highlands, reducing the smog-to-surf commute from eight hours to just under four.

Although the drive is truly a pleasure, when a 150-mile stretch racks up $75 in tolls, it had better be a great road.

It is.

Five years ago, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari set his mind to improving Mexico’s highway system. By turning to private industry to construct and maintain sections of the highway system, the Salinas government has in one fell swoop dramatically improved Mexico’s tourism infrastructure, providing convenient overland routes to Mexico’s resort centers while generating tax revenues and stimulating the economy.

Economy, Aesthetics
But the Autopista del Sol isn’t welcome from only an economic standpoint; even those who’ve never noticed a road before concede that this is a really nice one.

Between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, nothing’s changed much on 95-D, the main funnel road leading south from the capital. But just south of Cuernavaca, the newly opened 95-D splits off from the 70-year-old non-toll road (still called 95-D as well), and for the rest of the journey the Sun Highway is smooth, shimmering, fast and often beautiful.

After the stop-and-go madness of Mexico City’s chaotic, smog-filled streets, the pleasure of doing 70 mph on a smooth stretch of open road is almost narcotic. As the highway twists and turns through beautiful valleys and hills, it’s much easier to take in the bold landscapes than to give serious consideration to the relatively traffic-free conditions until you run smack into the reason: The many toll booths along the autopista charge some of the highest tolls in the world.

The toll booths are frequent, but if the idea were to spread out the charges to cushion the impact, it fails miserably; at one toll booth the fee is 120 pesos, or about $36.

All told, a round trip on the New Jersey Turnpike costs $9.20, though to be fair this is not New Jersey. Consider also that the 150-mile round trip through the new Channel Tunnel between England and France will work out to be just less than $240, and a 300-mile journey on Japan’s highways runs $108.

But unlike trips on many other toll roads, on the Sun Highway you really see what you get for your money. On a trip earlier this year, I saw road crews everywhere: scrambling to plant flowers, sweeping the median with hand brooms, placing signs for scenic stops and being generally persnickety about keeping the road shipshape.

The attention to detail is not merely cosmetic. Even to a novice, it is obvious the highway has been built to specifications that would give an autobahn designer an inferiority complex. As the road twists around mountainous curves (affording spectacular views of the valley), you can see drainage funnels every 30 feet or so, with concrete water channels running to the edges of the cliffs to prevent erosion.

Dizzying Bridge
Perhaps the crown jewel of the autopista is the glistening suspension bridge that spans the Mexcala River at about the halfway point between Cuernavaca and Acapulco. It’s 600 feet down to the river and if the dozen or so people milling about on the span were any indication – they just pull over and park in the middle of the bridge! – the view must be spectacular (I was scared to stop).

One major impact of the autopista is that bus travel from Mexico City to the coast no longer needs to be an endurance test. While very inexpensive bus service (which takes eight to 10 hours along the old 95-D) is still available, making the journey in style is still very cheap by U.S. standards. Estrella de Oro bus lines runs a luxury bus service from Mexico City’s southern bus terminal that takes just under five hours and costs $25.50.

On the Autopista del Sol, you won’t see broken-down buses roaring at breakneck speed around dangerous mountain curves, or livestock plopped into the seat next to you just as you are falling asleep. Service on the comfortable, Mercedes-built luxury buses that run on the highway is impeccable; the driver even took time to introduce himself to the passengers and let us know that coffee and tea were available in large thermoses at the back of the bus.

Despite its practical advantages and its lovely views, the excessive tolls may doom the Autopista del Sol to use only by long-distance trucks, luxury bus service and well-to-do motorists. While tourists tired of battling with potholes on Mexico’s older roads will find the autopista and the other 2,500- plus miles of privatized roads a godsend, it’s too bad the average Mexican driver will be hard put to take advantage of them.