I used to think it was my mind playing tricks on me. It’s not. The journey time from Guanajuato International Airport to downtown León has definitely got shorter.
This has nothing to do with me driving faster along Méxican Federal Highway 45 than before. If anything the traffic’s got worse, the road has probably slowed down with the passing the years. So what gives?
It’s simple: León has moved closer to the airport.
The Mulza shopping centre was the first hint of this, with its Nike store, Starbucks and host of other American outlets. It confused at first sight. How were we in the middle of León already? Oh. We’re not. Another set of traffic lights became another became another.
Have we passed the Poliforum? What about the football stadium? Must have.
Not a bit of it.
León’s rate of development was entirely discombobulating for an annual visitor. It just didn’t make any sense the rate at which the city was heading south. And north. And, yes, you guessed it, east and west.
When I first landed in León, it was all about the shoes. And leather. And mainly leather shoes. Everybody went to the city’s indoor markets and bartered on a pair of soft orange leather loafers they didn’t really need. Before being upsold a matching leather holdall. And belt.
The only place to eat was a Méxican restaurant over the road from the Holiday Inn where knives and forks weren’t even an option and every taxi ride was an adventure – especially during the local derby between Club León and Unión de Curtidores, when the cabbie would invariably have either no eyes or just one on the road.
And between one and two eyes on a portable television set strapped to the passenger seat.
That was then.
This is now.
León has grown into an international conurbation. There’s the largest railroad infrastructure in all of México leading to GTO, the city’s inland port, at a cost of $US500m. The population grew 20% between 2010 and 2015 and state exports out of Guanajuato have risen from $US200m to $US20bn in 30 years.
GM, Ford, Pirelli, Volkswagen, Honda, Mazda, Subaru are just a few of the companies who have seen the potential of the place.
And the arrival of those major multinationals has given León very much an international feeling. American hotels chains are everywhere and now some of the best restaurants in town are Japanese or Argentinian.
That growth has impacted on Rally México. The number of fans has increased ten-fold in its World Rally Championship history and trying to take a flight from Dallas or Houston south around rally week is a nightmare. If you picked the right time 10 or 15 years ago, it was like cruising down on a private Embraer.
And all of this is why the world championship really has to go back to Mexico. As well as becoming a booming economy, the state of Guanajuato has retained the unique charm that the city of the same name offers. Just as it was two decades ago, it’s still a place full of character and charm. Sit in the centre enjoying a couple of lunchtime tacos with the mariachi players strolling by and you’re left in no doubt where you are in the world. It’s pure Mexico.
Add in the sort of ambition that takes a WRC round out of the service park and places its superspecial slap, bang in the middle of a capital city of nine million people and you start to understand what this place and these people mean to rallying.
But, if it’s the bigger picture you want to look at, that’s no problem. Just follow the road towards Cubilete. Then go up. And up again. All the way up to 2700 meters. At the top of the mountain, not only do you get to see a hugely impressive statue of Jesus Christ, but you also get to take in pretty much all of Guanajuato.
It’s then that you can see how that GM plant can churn out 380,000 trucks.
It’s only then that you understand how the trip from airport to the city is getting quicker by the day.