Driving in Mexico – Common Sense Tips
Driving in Mexico can be somewhat intimidating for some, especially those driving here for the first time. While driving laws share many similarities to those in other parts of the world, there are a few things that take some getting used to.
Besides the basic rules of the road which include obeying speed limits and paying close attention to road signs, you may find driving in Mexico in many ways similar to driving in the U.S and Canada.
What do I know about driving in Mexico?
I have had the experience of driving in Mexico with my father making dozens of trips every year. My father had an old 1970 ford pickup truck with a camper which he used to bring stuff down. Back in the early 70’s many things were not available here. My dad would pack the truck full of things that we couldn’t get down here like food, condiments, clothes, and electronics.
Back in those days most of the roads were two-lane highways, gas stations were few and far between, and the roads were desolate.
It used to take my dad three long 12 hour days to drive from California “Imperial Valley” to Lake Chapala.
Today, we have great roads, many of them paid tolls and plenty of gas stations along the way. In fact, I find that many of the roads (especially toll roads) are much better than some of the roads in the U.S.
In spite of the better driving conditions, there are still many precautions you should take when driving in Mexico, most of which involve using a little common sense.
Is driving in Mexico safe?
Just like in other parts of the world, there are some places you want to avoid, while others are very safe. It’s best to remain on the popular roadways and toll roads when possible.
Below are some important rules everyone should try to follow when driving in Mexico.
Paperwork you will need entering Mexico
While the laws change from time to time, the requirements have pretty much always been the same. In order to bring your foreign plated vehicle into Mexico you need the following:
- A valid driver’s license
- Car registration (in your name)
- ID (Birth certificate (original) or passport)
- A credit card in your name
- Tourist visa (which you apply for when entering Mexico)
- Vehicle permit issued at the border
Plan your trip ahead of time
Planning your route ahead can save you a lot of headaches, with Google maps or a good GPS it’s easy to see the shortest routes and check approximate travel time; plus it will give you a list of popular toll roads.
Having a GPS loaded with Mexico maps can make travel a lot easier.
While some may choose a more scenic route and choose to take the free roads (carretera libre) it’s always much safer and faster taking the toll roads – it may be an additional cost, but it’s worth it.
Taking toll roads offers extra benefits including:
- Insurance coverage in the event you have an accident (medical and liability)
- Damage caused to your vehicle while traveling on the highway (potholes, foreign objects, livestock etc.)
- Funeral costs
- Insurance coverage in the event you hit a cyclist or pedestrian
It’s important that you request your toll receipt to ensure coverage should something happen.
Insurance coverage is void if you don’t have a valid drivers license, vehicle registration or you are found to be intoxicated.
Many of the toll roads are just as good as the roads up north and some of them even better.
Military stops and checkpoints
With an increase in recent drug cartel activity, the military will place strategic checkpoints along the roads, in these situations they are usually looking for the bad guys.
In most cases, you will get waved though, in others, they may want to take a quick look through the vehicle, which is usually more about curiosity than anything else.
Don’t drive at night?
This was always my father’s number one rule. Don’t drive at night, especially in Mexico. Once it starts getting dark, the best thing to do is look for a place to stay for the night.
While driving in Mexico is mostly safe, there are all kinds of reasons not to drive after dark, even on the toll roads.
Besides not being able to see obstacles (rocks and potholes) on the road, there is also a risk of horses, cows, and burros crossing the road.
If you find you are too far away from a town that offers accommodations, there are many hotels along the way, some of them are what are called hotels de paso (love hotel).
These are actually motels that are popular among truck drivers and local businessmen. They are known as a place where men can take their mistress for a romantic encounter.
While this may sound sleazy, the rooms are clean and most of them have secured parking.
Another reason not to drive at night is that it’s a time when the wrong people are out and about, and some of them for no good reason.
There’s nothing worse than having car trouble at night on an isolated highway.
Buy a cheap cell phone
I know many expats come down here with their U.S or Canadian cell phone and, for the most part, have decent cell phone coverage – but there are roaming fees.
I always recommend buying a burner phone once you cross the border. You will find them at most convenience stores like OXXO, 7 Eleven and Circle K. They are cheap, costing less $20.00 U.S and they include air time.
Not only will you have great cell phone coverage, but you will also have access to all the free emergency numbers including 911; should you have an emergency.
What happens if you break down on the road
In the event your car breaks down and leaves you stranded on the highway, roadside assistance is available in most areas. The Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) are a government-sponsored agency (part of the Secretary of Tourism) created in 1960 to give motorists roadside assistance and information when they need it.
The trucks are marked in green and they have trained mechanics with skills to either help get you back on the road or will assist you in getting your vehicle to the closest town for repairs.
You can contact the Green Angels by dialing 078 within Mexico.
People who play stupid games win stupid prizes and driving at night in Mexico is not something I would recommend.
If you get pulled over by the authorities, be nice
Something that freaks many foreigners out is being pulled over by the authorities – it can be intimidating.
Traffic cops see foreign-plated vehicles as an easy way to make some extra gas or beer money.
For starters, Mexico is a land where bribes can get you out of a few basic situations, but not so fast! A modest bribe to a traffic cop should only be used as a last resort.
In Mexico, a lot of the traffic police are paid poor wages and in some cases even have to pay for the gas in the official vehicles.
If you get pulled over, it’s best to remain calm, be courteous and ask why you were pulled over.
Many times the reason you have been stopped are bogus, many times federal cops will threaten you with impounding your car or other unrealistic threats, these are common scare tactics. As long as all your paperwork is in order, they have no grounds to impound your vehicle.
If you get pulled over, it’s best to be courteous, stay calm and try to drum up conversation and ask why you were pulled over.
It’s always a good idea to keep some loose dollar bills in a seperate pocket, in the event you need to pay a small bribe.
After a few minutes of conversation, it’s a given they are wanting a handout (bribe). I have always been able to successfully negotiate a reasonable amount and end up giving them a few dollars – $10.00 -20.00 or 100.00 -200.00 pesos will usually make them happy.
Road sign language
Mexicans have many ways of expressing themselves on the road; this includes sign language and gestures. You will find a lot of older vehicles driving around with taillights and blinkers that don’t work so you have to be observant, sudden turns or stopping without signaling is not uncommon.
On the highway, a left turn signal can mean someone is turning left or they could be signaling you that it’s ok to pass. Oncoming traffic flashing their lights could be a warning sign of trouble ahead or animals crossing the road.
People put their hazards on when they are going to slow down or stop – this is common in Mexico.
A lot of times, if a car is going to make a complete stop or is going to park, they will put the flashers on. This is a way of letting you know they are going to stop.
Mexico is a country with an abundance of speed bumps, sometimes you are given some advanced notice with signs or painted symbols on the road. Other times, they are not painted or marked so it’s wise to keep a close eye on the road, especially when approaching school areas or even a new toll booth.
I have been in some situations where all of a sudden the speed bumps seem to appear out of nowhere and some of them are HUGE. So, be on the lookout for them.
In Mexico, people drive defensively
If there is one thing most people notice is that Mexicans drive defensively. In spite of how nice they are, once they get behind the wheel, their character changes and they drive like they own the road.
Driving defensively in Mexico is a must if you want to fit in.
Most Mexicans have a lead foot and drive at excess speeds. Once you get behind the wheel, you need to get your reflexes into gear and join them and build up an aggressive nature within.
In the big cities, it’s all about the hustle and bustle so you need to drive defensively as best you can.
Driving in smaller towns can be more relaxed and things are not as aggressive.
Driving in Mexico can be a great experience; driving here is not as bad as some people make it out to be. Every year, thousands of people from the U.S, Canada and other parts of the world travel throughout Mexico without incident.