Tips for Driving in Mexico
Driving in Mexico, be it in your own vehicle or a rental, offers the freedom to explore this fascinating country at your own pace and schedule. However there are nuances to driving in Mexico that may be helpful for tourists to understand. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years from my own experiences driving south of the border. Note that in no way am I an expert in the Mexican vehicle code; I only offer the information as one of many points of reference you should look into if you plan to drive in Mexico.
There is a separate thread on Mexican auto insurance you should read. In short, you need automobile insurance that is valid in Mexico. Which means you need a policy underwritten by a Mexican insurance company or a company licensed to provide Mexican coverage. You may of heard that some credit cards offer rental car coverage. It is important to understand just what that coverage is and whether or not it is valid in Mexico. Generally speaking it only covers damage to the rental car but does not absolve you of your liability for damages to other vehicles and property or liability for injury or death to persons. Mexican law now requires all drivers to carry liability coverage. Rental car companies can either include the premium for the liability coverage in their rate or it can be broken out as a separate charge. Either way you need to understand the liability limits; low cost liability coverage may not offer an adequate level of protection in case of a serious accident.
Also review with whoever sells you the insurance and understand what you need to do and who you need to call in the event of an accident.
Gas / Petrol
Mexico nationalized their petroleum industry many years ago. Hence there is one national brand of gas stations throughout the country – Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos). Outside the cities and towns gas stations can be few and far between. It is a good idea to not let the gas gauge go much past half empty when driving in remote areas of Mexico.
Most Pemex stations only take cash, not credit cards. There are some stations that take credit cards but I wouldn’t count on it. Some stations near the US border and in the state of Quintana Roo (Cancun / Playa del Carmen) take US dollars but may return change in pesos. And the exchange rate will more than likely work in favor of the gas station, not you. Best to plan on using Mexican pesos to buy gas.
When you pull into a Pemex station be sure to get out of your vehicle and stand near the attendant filling your tank. Make sure the pump is reset to zero before dispensing fuel. If the pump is out of order on your side, move the car so you can see the pump display. Magna Sin is regular unleaded gas. To ask to have your tank filled tell the attendant “Lleno por favor” (say “Yay-no por fah-vor”). Gas is dispensed in liters (1 US gallon = 3.8 liters). When paying the attendant, pay close attention to what bills you give him and how much change is returned. A small tip to the attendant is customary; I usually give the peso equivalent of around 50 US cents.
Some Pemex stations have mini-marts where you can buy snacks and drinks. Rest room cleanliness varies widely; it is a good idea to carry your own toilet paper while on road trips as you may not find any in the rest rooms.
Drinking and Driving
Drinking and driving is just as illegal in Mexico as it is back home. Furthermore the possession of an open container of alcohol in public is illegal in Mexico. Public intoxication is also illegal. The legal drinking age throughout Mexico is 18. Drunk driving is a major crime in Mexico and will invalidate your insurance. Don’t do it.
Yes, there are traffic laws in Mexico and you are expected to follow them. If you do get pulled over it is important to remain calm and be as polite as you can be. Even if you are a Spanish-speaker, it is generally better for you to not speak Spanish. If you are polite and apologetic you may get off with a warning. You may have heard of “la mordida” (literally “the bite” or a bribe). First off it is illegal to pay a policeman on the side of the road. Second, you are likely unfamiliar with the protocol involved with a mordida and will likely create more grief for yourself. Now if you are asked by the officer to take care of the fine right there then you should request that the officer write out a ticket and that you will pay it.
If you return to your vehicle and discover that your license plate is gone, chances are that you have committed some sort of non-moving violation and the police have removed your license plate. Locate the nearest police station, pay the fine and your plate will be returned. If you try to prevent this by installing bolts on your license plates or welding them to your bumper expect your vehicle to be towed instead.
Sleeping Policemen – “Topes”
Topes (say "tow-pays") are speed bumps located everywhere in Mexico. Their nickname is “sleeping policemen” because they are very effective at slowing down traffic. Topes are not always well marked. They come in various sizes ranging from ripples to giant concrete monstrosities stretching across the highway. If you do not slow down and carefully cross a tope you can expect to launch your vehicle into flight and cause serious damage to your vehicle’s suspension. Not to mention the bumps and bruises on you and your passengers from being thrown around inside the car.
Expect topes whenever you enter or leave a town as well as topes in residential areas, near schools and fire stations. Elevated wide topes with stripes are pedestrian crossings and the pedestrian has the right of way on these topes. If a police officer sees you failing to stop for a pedestrian at these crossings you can expect to be pulled over and cited.
Throughout Mexico you will encounter Mexican military and law enforcement checkpoints. Their purpose is the interdiction of firearms and narcotics. You must stop at these checkpoints until you are given the signal to move along. As long as you are not carrying any drugs or firearms you’ll be just fine. The military and police officers are usually heavily armed which may be a bit unsettling at first. Understand that they are performing a potentially dangerous job. Occasionally you may be asked to pull over for an inspection of your car; on one trip between Mexico City and Acapulco our suitcases were opened by soldiers and the contents inspected. If the checkpoint isn't busy you can politely ask the soldiers to pose with you for a photo if that interests you. But do not take photos without permission.
At some state borders there are agricultural checkpoints where vehicles may be inspected.
Signs and Signals
Many road signs in Mexico use the international standards. Speed limits are expressed in kilometers per hour and distances are given in kilometers or meters. Traffic signals use the standard red-yellow-green but with a twist. Traffic signals flash green before turning yellow; a yellow traffic light in Mexico is a signal to stop and the yellow light doesn't stay on very long before turning red.
If you have a green traffic light always, but always check both ways before entering the intersection.
Mexican traffic law prohibits right turns on red lights. Not to say people don’t do it but if you get caught you can be cited.
Use caution at railroad crossings; many are uncontrolled so you need to check for the train. Also many are in poor condition and can tear up your vehicle's suspension if you don't drive over them slowly.
If you are on a narrow road and meet an oncoming car the first driver to flash headlights has the right of way and the other driver is expected to yield the right of way.
The left turn blinker signals on a vehicle in front of you either means the driver is making a left turn or the driver is telling you the road is clear and it is safe for you to pass / overtake. When in doubt, don’t pass!
Left turns on highways with no left turn lane are a little weird in Mexico. Rather than stopping in your lane with your left turn signal on waiting for oncoming traffic to clear (and blocking traffic behind you), you are supposed to pull off to the right shoulder (assuming there is a shoulder!), turn on your left turn signal and wait for traffic in both directions to clear before making the left turn.
Be careful of one way streets. The directional signs are usually attached to buildings a good ten feet or more above street level. They are very easy to miss. I missed one and was pulled over for going the wrong way on a one way street in Tlalnepantla near Mexico City.
In parking lots and along the street somebody may approach you, even a child, and offer to watch your car for a tip. Agree in advance to a small fee and pay the same person on your return to the car. In parking lots you may find somebody helping guide you out of your parking space; give him a few pesos for a tip.
Toll roads in Mexico (“Cuotas”) are well-engineered and the safest way to travel between cities. Away from the US border tolls are payable in pesos and can add up. The Mexican government has a toll road trip planning page where you can determine toll charges for your route: http://aplicaciones4.sct.gob.mx/sibuac_internet/ControllerUI?action=cmdEscogeRuta
Secondary roads are often narrower than you may be used to the USA or Canada and often have very narrow to non-existent shoulders. Sometimes there can be a drop off of several inches between the pavement and the ground. Drifting off the road can easily turn into a tragic rollover accident because of this.
Look for tire skid marks as a clue for dangerous curves and grades. Slow down.
Except for toll highways and in the cities it is not a good idea to drive at night. Besides potholes and topes which can be difficult to spot, much of Mexico is open range and livestock often like to lie down on a nice warm highway. Bad things happen when you round that corner in the dark at 100 kilometers per hour and spot a big “toro” in your headlights snoozing on the road.
Your home driver license is valid for use in Mexico.
If you are hit from the rear in Mexico guess what? It is generally assumed to be your fault. Just the way things work here.
Seat belt use is compulsory for drivers in all Mexican states; some states don’t require it for passengers. Regardless all occupants in the vehicle should use seat belts.
Do not use your cell phone while driving in Mexico unless you have a hands free device. Do not text while driving. Both activities are just as illegal in Mexico as they are in the USA and Canada.
Do not loan your car to Mexican citizens as then those vehicles are subject to seizure by Mexican authorities and they will not be returned.