A Local’s Complete Guide to Driving in Merida Yucatan

Driving in Merida, Yucatan is nowhere near as difficult or intimidating as driving in other major Mexican cities like CDMX or Guadalajara, but that is not to say that it isn’t without its own unique set of challenges and differences, especially if you are coming from a foreign country and your experience of driving in Mexico is limited. 

You are in good hands here because I live in Merida and own a car. My partner and I live in East Merida and getting around would be tricky for us without a vehicle so we use it daily throughout the city and around the wider Yucatan. 

In this post, I will address the main questions and concerns about driving here and hopefully, it will give you more confidence if you do find yourself in the position where you need to drive in the Yucatan.

The Paseo de Montejo in Merida

Driving in Merida

If you are only in Merida for a couple of days as a tourist, you do not really need a car to explore the city in itself. Most of the city’s main highlights and attractions can be reached on foot from the historic center, the Plaza Grande and the Paseo de Montejo, and you can take an Uber or a Va-y-Ven bus to places a little further out such as the Gran Mundo Maya Museum or the ruins at Dzibilchaltun. 

If you are visiting Merida as part of a wider Yucatan itinerary, rent a car for the rest of your trip but save yourself some money during your time in Merida. If you are moving here and decide to purchase a car, or your time in Merida falls in the middle of your itinerary and you will have access to a vehicle while you are here, some useful driving tips are below. 

Calle 47 Gastronomic Street, Merida

Driving in the Yucatan

In the Yucatan, you drive on the right and overtake on the left, just like in the US and Canada. Roads are generally well maintained and free from pot-holes etc except for when you start to get to the really rural dirt tracks that take you to off-the-beaten-track Mayan ruins in remote parts of the Yucatan jungle like Chacmultun or Ake. 

Most roads in Merida are also pretty good, although in some of the lower-income barrios in the east and south of the city, the asphalt road can change to a dirt track, and there are very few street lights by night.

Look out for speed bumps 

Speed bumps known as “topes” (pronounced “toh-pays”) can be a nightmare in Mexico because they come in all different shapes and sizes, are often unnecessarily steep, and there is often no road sign warning you that a speed bump is coming up. 

Some of them are quite thin so it’s difficult to see them on the road ahead of you at night. Others are often in ridiculous places where you would never expect a speed bump to be. 

For example, have you ever turned down a side street into a village where there is a diagonal speed bump on the corner immediately as you turn and you are not going to be driving fast anyway? I’ve experienced that in the Yucatan! 

Never drive fast in Merida. It’s important that you can always react to unseen speed bumps and don’t go flying over the top of them like a stuntman in The Fast and the Furious.

The Monumento a la Patria, Paseo de Montejo

Always look out for pedestrians  

Telling you to always look out for pedestrians might sound like driving 101 but the amount of times that I have seen people just absent-mindedly run right across the road directly into traffic in the Yucatan is startling. Sometimes, I have been driving at a slow speed in a residential area and someone has crossed in front of the road immediately in front of me less than 10 feet from the car. 

Once, I was pulling into the parking lot at La Isla Mall and a lady ran out in front of me, making me need to brake suddenly. Then, when I was still reacting to that, she apparently didn’t need to cross the street after all and then ran back over the road again, so I almost hit her twice!  

There are designated crosswalks in Merida but pedestrians do not have the right of way. 

People dancing in Plaza Grande at night

Navigating your way around Merida 

Merida is made up of a collection of different barrios (neighborhoods) and fraccionamientos that are laid out in a grid system. The city is a lot larger than initially meets the eye and the historic center is just the tip of the iceberg.

Since many of the streets are numbered (calle 8, calle 9, calle 10, etc), and the numbers of the streets get progressively higher, you might think that it is easy to remember where you are and to give directions, etc. Unfortunately not. 

Many different neighborhoods have their own set of numbers. So for instance, while I live on calle 17, there are at least ten different calle 17s in Merida. 

So when looking for an address, you need to know the colonia (neighborhood) that street is in too. If you don’t have a GPS in your car, be sure to pick up a Mexican SIM card and use Google Maps to make it easier to navigate. 

Speed limits 

Speed limits are uniform all over Mexico and that includes Merida and the Yucatan. In Mexico, distance and speed are measured in kilometers per hour. 

The limits are as follows:

  • 90-110km/h on the highway

  • 40km/h in built-up areas (via locales)

  • 20km/h in zones close to schools and hospitals 

People do tend to respect speed limits here as the penalties for getting caught for dangerous driving/speeding in Mexico are steep and simply not worth the risk. 

Art and culture exhibition hall in central Merida

Always be aware of your surroundings 

It would be a stretch to say that you need to drive defensively in Merida but you need to be aware of your surroundings. Sometimes you see some very illogical practices – people driving slow in the overtake lane outside the city, people driving inexplicably slow in general because they are distracted by their phones, etc. 

You will also often bear witness to silly accidents that could have easily been avoided if the people involved were paying attention. Once I drove from Itzimna to North Merida and saw three silly accidents in the course of that short drive. 

A shocking thing about driving here in Mexico is that people don’t really go through the process of taking a ton of driving lessons and then taking a driving test which is enforced with strict rules, like in other countries. It is very common for people to just pay a bribe and then obtain a license which explains a lot of the chaotic driving practices you see. 

In the Yucatan, it’s a little stricter, but many people I know have just paid a person to get them a license in Quintana Roo or Campeche and they didn’t complete any formal practical or theoretical testing. 

The new Parque a la Plancha, Central Merida

Parking in Merida 

Finding a parking spot in the historic center of Merida can be a nightmare, especially if there is an event going on like the Paseo de las Animas parade for Hanal Pixan, Carnival, Merida Fest, or any other event that sees tons of people all trying to get into the city center at once. There is free street parking on most of the streets in Centro but you should not expect to park on the Paseo de Montejo, Plaza Grande, or any other major plaza. 

Instead, prepare to park a couple of streets away and head into the heart of the center on foot. There is now a free parking lot at the new Parque a la Plancha, close to the Calle 47 gastronomic street which places you a short walk from the center, although it is often full at weekends and evenings. 

There are also several multistorey and public parking lots (“estacionamientos”) around town that you need to pay to use, but where you can feel assured that your vehicle is in a safe location. You can easily find tons of these by just searching “parking” on Google Maps 

Some to keep in mind that we often use in the center are: 

  • Estacionamiento Publico de la 47 behind Latte Quattro Sette coffeeshop on calle 47

  • Estacionamiento Portales de Santa lucia behind Santa Lucia square

Useful tips for parking in Merida

  • Outside of the historic center, most malls, shopping centers, and large supermarkets have free on-site parking

  • In all parking lots, you will see parking attendants known as “viene vienes” that will help guide you in and out of parking spaces. You are expected to tip them 5-10 pesos for their help. These are often older people who cannot find other work and work long hours out in the sun.

  • You cannot park in areas marked with double yellow lines and of course, in front of people’s driveways

  • Local police will be quick to move you on or drop you a ticket if you park somewhere you cannot

  • Remember where you parked! (Many streets look similar and there are many streets with the same name/number. Maybe take a screenshot of your car’s location on Google Maps!) 
Parque a la Plancha, Central Merida

One way streets 

Many streets in Merida’s central neighborhoods (Santa Lucia, Santiago, San Juan, San Cristobal, etc) are one-way only although they are not clearly marked as such. If somewhere is one way, there will be a small square sign with a directional arrow on the side of a building indicating which way you can go. 

Confusingly, there are also some streets that start out being two-way and eventually become one-way only. This is all the more reason to use Google Maps because otherwise, it is nearly impossible to know where these types of streets are unless you have been living here for a while. 

Stray animals 

Stray animals are a massive issue in the Yucatan and you will see tons of homeless cats and dogs which is upsetting to see. Some of the street dogs start to go around in packs and it can be difficult to see them when it’s dark. 

Outside of Merida, as you head towards the Ruta Esmerelda or into the jungle, there are also things like tlacuaches (Mexican mouse opossums) and mapaches (raccoons) to look out for. 

Police in Merida 

The police in Mexico do not have the best reputation and are usually associated with being corrupt. You are better off avoiding them where you can, though also keep in mind that the police in the Yucatan state (inc Merida) tend to be much better than in other parts of the country – they are better paid and take their responsibilities more seriously. 

I have personally never had any problems with them and have always had very positive encounters. There have been times when I have made foolish mistakes as a foreigner. (E.g. once I turned into a road where it said “no right turn” with a police bike behind me, pulled over, and he just whizzed past shouting “Buenos dias”). 

Still, by respecting road rules and speed limits, you are not giving them an excuse to stop you.

Police checkpoints  

There are police checkpoints scattered all over the Yucatan peninsula in the interest of everyone’s safety and there are a couple on the outskirts of Merida as you head toward Progreso, or towards Izamal and Valladolid.

You are usually just waved on through. (I have not been stopped once in 2.5 years) but if you are stopped, they may just ask where you are headed and to look inside the vehicle. 

On Sundays, police set up a breathalyzer test checkpoint outside the beach town of Progreso to make sure that nobody is drinking and driving. You will be asked to blow into a breathalyzer and if alcohol is detected or the test shows as inconclusive, you will be asked to pull over to the side of the road for more checks. 

A sweet local lady sells arroz con leche, coffee and tamales from her home in Central Merida

Is it safe to drive in Merida? 

Merida is the safest city in Mexico and driving here is also very safe. People here tend to be very polite and respectful of other people’s belongings, etc, and crime rates are generally low. 

You don’t have to worry about grand theft auto or about having to drive around with the windows rolled up like you do in places like Guadalajara. Just use common sense (e.g. don’t leave your luggage or any kind of personal items in the car on display). 

Buskers and sellers at stoplights 

At stoplights on major roads and boulevards, you will often see people begging for money, doing a little juggling act for tips, or selling candies but it’s nothing sinister. 

If you want to give them a tip, you can. Sometimes, young men will start cleaning your windows while you are stationary at a red light without waiting for a go-ahead from you but you can tell them no if you do not want them to clean it. If you do, you should give them around 20 pesos or so. 

Car insurance 

Car insurance is compulsory when driving in Merida and the Yucatan. If you have international coverage on your credit card or as part of a dedicated auto insurance plan, double-check the small print and make sure that it covers you for Mexico. 

If you are renting a car in Merida, there is a common scam where a rental company will try and force you to purchase their car rental insurance, even if you have an existing plan that is perfectly valid. For this reason, you need to be careful about which companies you use to rent cars and only use trusted names like Avis and Hertz. 

At minimum, you need to make sure that you have personal liability insurance but it is a good idea to opt for full coverage so that you know you are insured for any possible eventuality. I personally use and recommend Discover Cars for both their rentals (they compare and contrast quotes between tons of rental companies so that you can secure the best deal) and their full coverage insurance.

Car Accidents 

If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in an auto accident, you are not to move your vehicle from the crash site, even to move it out of the road, etc. Instead, you need to call the police and your car insurance rep and wait for assistance. 

If you are found to be at fault for the accident, you are responsible for the other person’s repairs and medical bills, which is another reason to make sure that you have insurance. 

Driving on carreteras 

When you exit the Merida periferico (the ring road that runs around the outskirts of the city), you will find that the highways, toll roads, and carreteras have 3 lanes. The maximum speed limit across all lanes is 90km/h but the right lane is the slowest, the center is slightly faster and the left lane is the fast lane. 

You are generally better off sticking in the center lane. You can use the left lane if you want to overtake someone, but you will also find that a lot of people drive in this lane constantly.

Driving in Merida at night 

I see a lot of travel guides about the Yucatan telling people not to drive at night because of hazards and poor street lighting. You need to be a bit more careful driving between cities and in rural areas but it is perfectly safe to drive within Merida at night.

I have done so hundreds of times to head to the supermarket, the movies, etc, and of course, in the city, there are street lights. 

It is also much quieter at night with far less traffic, and Merida is not a creepy or dangerous city where you must be careful after dark. Still, it’s a good idea to reach the point where you feel confident driving around Merida during the day before attempting to drive here at night. 

Alto signs 

You will see red “alto” signs around the city. “Alto” means stop in Spanish but locals tend to completely ignore these signs and if you do stop, you might be met with angry honking. 

You can use your judgment to gauge whether this is somewhere you need to stop (e.g. you are approaching a busy junction or roundabout). 

Turn signals 

There is a cultural difference when someone uses their turn signals here in Mexico compared to in other countries. In some parts of the world, turning on your left or right turn signal might be a way to indicate to other drivers that you are about to move into the left or right lane but in Mexico, it is your way of indicating to drivers behind you that they can overtake you. 

Gas stations 

Gas stations here in Mexico are full service and someone will fill up the tank for you. You can order the amount you want in terms of liters of gas or by monetary value. 

(For example, if you want a full tank, you can say “yo quiero un lleno por favor” or “yo quiero cien pesos” for 100 pesos worth of gas.) English is not widely spoken in Merida and the Yucatan state but if you struggle with communicating in Spanish, you can also use Google Translate. 

Final thoughts on driving in Merida Yucatan

I can say without hesitation that driving in Merida is far less intimidating than driving in other Mexican cities or driving in other large cities in the world, period. I am from the UK and I am not a confident driver, especially since driving in Merida means driving on the “wrong” side of the road for me.

If I can manage, you can too! Just think carefully about whether or not you need a car for your time here first. As I mentioned, I live here in Merida so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. 

Safe travels! Buen Viaje! Melissa xo 

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico and the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Travel Secrets. She has over seven years worth of experience in working in travel media and has travelled to 57 countries, mostly solo. Throughout her career, Melissa has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.

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