What you need to know to drive safely in Mexico
This article guides you through some of the considerations about actually driving in Mexico. Driving in Mexico is more guided by feelings than by legal rules of the road. Although of course the rules of the road are defined and do exist, many Mexicans do not have an inkling of what they are.
To know more about the legal aspects of driving in Mexico, including import fees, drivers licenses, vehicle insurance, and what you need to enter Mexico with your own vehicle, see our article covering all of these technical details.
Canadians and Americans are more regimented and disciplined. We are brought up to follow the rules. As we apply that mind set to driving, we can run into a multitude of surprises in Mexico. Let’s see how to safely maneuver the road down south.
First of all, can I legally drive in Mexico?
You can legally drive in all parts of Mexico with your valid U.S. or Canadian drivers’ license. It is recommended to have your passport with you although you will rarely be asked for it during any form of routine police check.
Renting a car
If you are considering renting a car, the process is, in theory, the same as a rental from a major car rental company anywhere. Avis, Hertz and Enterprise rent cars from the airport in Huatulco and a couple of smaller rental car companies rent cars in town.
When you search to make your reservation online, you may be surprised at the affordability of the pricing announced. Reserve your car online. But then know that you will need to purchase the full insurance through the car rental company to be fully covered. American and Canadian insurance companies will not cover cars in Mexico, nor will insurance through credit card companies.
Next, although these are major global car rental companies, they are operating in Mexico and subject to the parameters of Mexican life. Some visitors have arrived at the rental counter to pick up their car and discover that their reservation was cancelled or that there are no cars available. “But we reserved a car.” Yes, but it’s Mexico and things do not always work as smoothly as in other places. In the unlikely event this happens, take a deep breath, see when a car will be available or check at the other companies.
When you do get your car, it is highly recommended to take pictures of the car as proof of how you picked up the car. Photograph any scratches, dents, the state of the tires, crack in the windshield and the mileage. These pictures will serve as proof when you turn the car in that you picked it up in that shape. Some people have had difficulties claiming and ultimately holding customers responsible for damages they did not incur. Protect yourself, take pictures and be sure to note every little thing on the record sheet.
Putting Your Defensive Driving Skills to the Test
Not many Mexicans have formally learned to drive or have learned the rules of the road. The more rural the state and area, the more true this is. Mexican drivers’ licenses are bought for a fee and no testing is required to buy the license. Go forward knowing this.
As many drivers have not learned proper rules of the road, do not assume anything. Do not assume a right turn signal means the driver ahead will turn right. Some drivers will use a right turn signal to swing wide to the right and then ultimately turn left. General confusion can ensue if you are thinking of passing.
Do not assume that because a slow-moving car ahead of you who hand signals you on has checked that it is safe for you to pass. Only pass if you have actually seen that it is safe to pass.
Using hazard lights is like total coverage for the driver. If a driver uses hazard lights, they may park in the middle of the road, cross a double line or maybe they are just still thinking about what they are going to do.
Using hazard lights is a license to do anything.
It is common on larger 2-lane highways with shoulders, to use the shoulder so that another car may pass, either oncoming or from behind. Do use the shoulder if a car wants to pass and be attentive of the oncoming passers.
Plan Your Route
Plan your route before leaving home. Siri and Google maps cannot always be counted on because of mountainous and rural areas without coverage. Go old school. Take notes, make a map, write down distances. Print out your directions and download the Google map.
More often than not, roads and highways are signaled. Sometimes, signs are few and far between. Sometimes there are no signs until it is actually time to turn. Public funding in Mexico has a way of disappearing. This results in the absence of some things including road signage. Do not drive along and just assume you will turn when you see the sign. Be aware of your distance and landmarks to turn at the appropriate junctions.
Straight forward, you think. I can get gas and there is an attendant to fill the tank. This service is fantastic but always be aware of what is going on.
When you pull into a gas station, the attendant will greet you and will fill your car.
Do not get on the phone while you are filling up. Check that the counter shows all zero’s before the attendant begins fueling. Watch the attendant. Some places will fold the hose. Other attendants may come over to distract you asking if you would like your tire pressure checked. Just say “No, gracias.”
When you go to pay, count your cash carefully before handing it to the attendant.
Don’t let yourself be distracted by them or your phone.
If you follow that advice, things will go smoothly.
What happens if the police stop me?
There are several categories of police you may meet during a road trip in Mexico.
In hierarchical order:
Ejercito or the Army
And a variety of other inspection services like Immigration and Sanitary and Agricultural Inspection.
First, the Army will not ask for your license in particular, they will ask for an id. Don’t be afraid of them. They will never ask for extortion money.
Los federales regarding foreigners will not ask for extortion unless you were involved in an accident. In that case, do not accept the extortion. Act like you don’t understand. They will let you go. During a routine traffic stop, they will ask for your license and all of the vehicle’s documents including proof of insurance. They have jurisdiction on federal highways.
The state police may ask for id and license but do not have jurisdiction to ask for vehicle papers even though they may.
The other, lower and more local categories of police may ask for your documents. They may want to give you a fine for taking a one-way street in the wrong direction, for example. Don’t protest. Just say, “Yes, give me a fine.” Your fine will cost 200 pesos and you will be on your way.
Regarding all of these police units, it is important to not participate in propagating corruption. If you are asked for money as extortion, act like you don’t understand. Say or make them understand if they want to give you a fine, then that is ok with you. They will say, “But it is complicated for you to go and pay. It will take a long time. It will cost you more.” Respond by saying, “I don’t care. I have all the time in the world to take care of things legally.”
This tactic will send you on your way without a fine and without paying extortion money.
Being a foreigner gives you a distinct advantage in dealing with police. The authorities have direct orders to not make issues with foreigners. Be sure of yourself (remain calm and polite), have your papers in order and you have nothing to be worried of.
Regarding these issues in and around our area of the coast and Huatulco, it is important to know that there are no reports of police bothering foreigners and tourists like has been reported in and around other tourism hotspots like Cancun.
Topes and Natural-born Rights
Every Mexican feels they have a right to their own tope (speed bump). Be aware of speed bumps lurking in the shadows, anywhere, everywhere, all the time. If you haven’t seen one in awhile, slow down. It’s coming up.
Topes are a reflection of a cultural attitude. No one may drive faster than anyone else. This is the reason towns and villages feel they have the right to put as many topes as they like throughout their town.
Obstacles in the Road
Mexico has an astonishingly wide variety of possible obstacles you may find along your route: donkeys, dogs, cows, chickens, people and kids, fallen trees, rocks, boulders, road blocks, a broken down car filled with watermelons. Be aware, drive slowly. Sometimes these obstacles will be signaled not by orange cones, but by broken tree branches. A driver whose car has broken down on the side of the road will let other drivers know by putting tree branches or a piece of cloth tied to a limb in the road every few meters leading up to the broken vehicle.
Political protests in Mexico often take the form of peaceful roadblocks. All of a sudden, groups may block a road or highway for a few hours or so. If so, use your patience and just observe. Roadblocks are peaceful manifestations of citizens’ rights in a country where it is hard for everyone’s voice to be heard. Although I recognize the inconvenience this creates for all of us, I also admire the fact that people protest injustice.
Driving at Night
It is recommended to be at your destination at nightfall. The reasons for this are for safety and visibility. Hold-ups are more frequent at night. Visibility regarding topes and the obstacles in the road is of course easier during the day.
In Case of Emergency
Although other sites confide in the service of the “Green Angels,” a vehicle safety and repair brigade that operates along major routes, their presence is low in Oaxaca. In case of a roadside emergency in Oaxaca, you may be dependent upon the warm and good-willed hospitality of the people of Oaxaca. You will come across someone willing to assist you with what you need. You may choose to compensate this person in the form of reimbursing them for gas or any inconvenience they experienced from helping you as this servility may come at a material cost for them.
In sum, do:
Drive slowly and defensively
Be aware of your surroundings
Have your papers in order
Have a confident attitude during police stops
Plan your route
Travel at night
Pick up hitchhikers
Stop to assist an apparent break down
Assume the driver in front of you has checked that the coast is clear for you to pass.
In general, driving in Mexico can be challenging. However, these challenges are all easily overcome by having your papers in order, driving defensively and having a practical and safe attitude. Using your patience and being aware that drivers are not necessarily knowledgeable about the rules of the road will assist you in embracing the Mexican feeling of driving.