Thursday, April 16th 2020

Tips for Driving in Mexico

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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Tips for Driving in Mexico

One of our WeExpats contributors has written a short guide filled with tips for driving in Mexico. Do you agree with these tips? Do you have anything to add to this list? Join in our Facebook discussion, and let us know! Just click here to see our article.

*NOTE! Whenever you see a text in orange, this is a link that will lead you to another one of our articles so that you can get more information.

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Tips for Driving in Mexico – Introduction:

Driving in Mexico can be a nerve-wracking experience if you’ve never been here before. Even if you’ve been in Mexico for decades, it can still be concerning driving in Mexico. Of course, there are different things that you should know when you’re driving in Mexico—be it in the countryside or in the city. Therefore, we thought we would put together some tips for driving in Mexico that you can apply to make sure that you feel safer.

Driving in Mexico is a lot like driving in the United States. They drive on the righthand side of the road, and the street signs and stoplights are the same as well. However, there are some differences between Mexico and the US.

The most important rule in Mexico—especially when you’re on the highway—is DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT! Mexican roads can be dangerous at night. You could encounter sophisticated traps along the roads to rob you. Also, you could break down with no one to help you until the following day. This is a universal rule. Be safe, don’t do it.

*For more information on safety in Mexico, read our in-depth guide by clicking here.

Tips for Driving in Mexico – About the Roads:

*To read a testimonial from an experienced Mexican driver about driving long distances from the border into Central Mexico, click here. There are lots of great tips here too!

– Lefthand Highway Exits –

Many countries have highway overpasses and offramps that turn around and merge onto the highway heading in the opposite direction. In Mexico though, these are rare. Instead, they have a retorno area where you can stop and make an unprotected left onto the highway. Be safe when you are doing this and watch for oncoming cars.

Or you can use a runup area (sometimes called a lateral) that is found to the right of the retorno which will let you make a smoother turn onto the opposing lane.

– Road Conditions –

Road conditions in most of Mexico are on par with most developing countries. Because many roads in Mexico are not managed by the government, then there are lots of baches (or potholes in English). Some can be large enough to trap a car or van so you have to beware!

– Speed Bumps –

Topes (or speed bumps in Spanish) in Mexico are found everywhere—even on the highway. You will have to keep an eye out for them because they are everywhere (even to the point of being ridiculous).

Furthermore, they aren’t always painted yellow like they are in other countries. Sometimes the paint can fade. They often have no warning signs, and you can really damage your vehicle if you hit one going at highway speeds.

– Car Trouble on the Highway in Mexico –

If you have car troubles, you can dial the Green Angels by pressing 078 from your phone. These trained mechanics will help you get up and going. They work by donation, so leave them a good tip!

– Wildlife Crossing Mexico’s Highways –

Deforestation in Mexico is displacing lots of wildlife. Animals are fleeing and every day protected species like jaguars are killed by motorists on highways in Mexico. Please be safe and do not speed. Keep an eye out for wildlife!

– Toll vs. Free –

Typically there are two highways that can get you between major cities. There is la libre (meaning free in Spanish) and there is la cuota (meaning toll in Spanish). Typically, la libre will be a longer, windier road. It is also known for being more dangerous because municipal and federal police don’t patrol it as often. We do not recommend that you take la libre anywhere.

Cuota highways are newer roads that are more often maintained well. You tend to get to your destination faster. They are generally safer (though you should still be cautious). Unfortunately, you must pay for this convenience. Always keep an old wallet full of small bills and change that can get you across the numerous toll booths when driving on la cuota in Mexico—and keep that wallet in plain sight, but keep your real wallet hidden away. Tolls are usually between $25 MXN and $200 MXN.

*Note: if you’re renting a car in Mexico, then your rental may come with a tag that you can use to coast through toll booths, then you will pay a lump sum when you return the car. Ask your rental company for this option.

Tips for driving in Mexico

Tips for Driving in Mexico – Cities in Mexico:

Driving in Mexican cities can be an experience. There’s a saying in Mexico City, “Donde hay espacio, hay carril,” which means “where’s there’s space, there’s a lane.” In Mexico City in particular, but in many cities in Mexico, driving can be unconventional if you’re used to some orderly city in a developed nation. Here are some tips for driving in Mexican cities.

– Cars Rule the Road –

Though law enforcement has taken great steps to discourage this kind of behavior—explicitly giving priority to pedestrians (especially those with disabilities), cyclists, and the elderly—many Mexican drivers will not yield the right of way to people crossing the street (even at crosswalks). You must be very careful when crossing the street in Mexico.

– Red Lights in Mexico City –

In Mexico City, when it’s late at night, you are legally permitted to treat a red light as a stop sign. That means, that you can make a complete stop, look in all directions, and then if no one is coming, you can cross the intersection. This law was passed in order to prevent assaults at red lights in Mexico City.

– Street Signs –

Though practically every street in Mexico has a name, often they don’t have street signs. Sometimes, these street signs are not visible. Other times, they simply aren’t there. GPS systems are invaluable in maneuvering throughout Mexico.

– Crossing into an Intersection –

One of the problems with traffic in Mexico City is that people have tended to historically cross into the intersection when the light is yellow to ensure that they can move forward when space clears. Obviously, having a car in the intersection blocks the drivers in the other direction from being able to cross.

Mexico City and some other Mexican cities have begun cracking down on this by charging large fines to those cars that cross into the intersection without space to clear it. Therefore, always make sure that you fully cross the intersection before the light turns red.

Tips for Driving in Mexico – General Tips:

One of the most important general tips for driving in Mexico is to just practice defensive driving techniques. Give yourself several car lengths between your vehicle and the one in front of you. Let faster cars pass and give other motorists a wide berth. Mexican drivers are known to drive recklessly. Whatever you do, don’t drink and drive in Mexico!

– Stay in the Right Lane Unless Passing –

If you’re not passing a slower vehicle on the right then you should not be cruising in the left lane. This can invite police to pull you over and try and extort a bribe. Just stay in the right lane.

– Hold a Valid Driver’s License and Visa –

To drive in Mexico, you must hold a valid license in your home country, a Mexican driver’s license, or an international driver’s license or an international driving permit. (Please look at our article on the subject of IDL or IDP for more information.) If you hit an immigration checkpoint, you may be asked for your tourist visa, your temporary permit or permanent residency permit. Be sure to carry these documents with you.

*To find out how foreigners can get a Mexican driver’s license, click here.

– Temporary Import Permit –

If you are driving from the United States or Central America with your own vehicle, then you may need a Temporary Import Permit (TIP). For more information on how to get a TIP, then click here to read our article on the subject.

– Mandatory Insurance –

Mexico requires that you have car insurance before driving. This must include liability insurance. Be sure to have proof of insurance in the car with you whenever you are driving. If you have foreign insurance, check with them first to make sure that you have legal representation, 24-hour service, and a bail bond. Also, find out exactly what steps you should take in case of an accident in Mexico.

– Checkpoints and Bribes –

Police may pull you over on the road or they may stop you at a checkpoint as a way to fish for bribes (mordidas in Spanish). If you have been doing something wrong such as speeding, paying a bribe may be a convenient way to avoid jail. This is why we recommend that you NOT break the law when driving in Mexico!

That said, you may be pulled over or stopped when you were doing nothing wrong. If that is the case, it is universally recommended that you not give the police officer a bribe. Just ask for your ticket and then file a complaint at the Transit Office. If they have no chance of collecting a bribe, then they will let you off with a warning.

– When You Find Your License Plate Missing –

If you return to your car and you find your license plate missing, then that means that it was taken by a police officer. This is their version of leaving a ticket in your windshield. You must go to the nearest police station and pay for your ticket. Then you will get your license plate back. If it’s not easy to remove your license plate, then you could have your car towed.

– Seatbelts in Mexico –

In Mexico, seatbelt laws are not as strictly enforced as in the United States for example. However, it is required by law that the driver and front passenger must wear them. All of us at WeExpats recommend that everyone in the car wear a seatbelt.

– Gas Stations in Mexico –

Gas stations in Mexico are not self-service. Mexico requires attendants to pump your gas for you to ensure employment for thousands of Mexicans. Just let them know how much (in liters) that you need in your tank, and what type of gasoline that you want.

Make sure that your pump is at zero when they begin pumping! This is a common scam. Also, make sure that you explicitly mention how much money you are giving the attendant. That way, he/she cannot claim that you gave him/her a smaller amount and return less change to you.

– Driving on Cell Phones in Mexico –

Driving while talking or texting on your cell phone is illegal in Mexico. Distracted driving causes accidents. To avoid getting fines or being pulled over, be sure to have a hands-free set when using your GPS.

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