Driving in Mexico is not as daunting as it may sound. Honestly, opting to rent a car here makes getting around much easier and gives you a lot more freedom and flexibility of schedule.
That being said, it is understandable to feel anxious about driving in Mexico for the first time. Yes, things are notably more chaotic than what you may be accustomed to in your own country.
However, roads in Mexico are very well built and maintained, and the same rules apply here as with driving in most countries in the world. Perhaps the only extra thing you need here is more patience than usual
With the right mindset and a little information on what the road rules are, driving in Mexico can be an enjoyable or at least bearable experience! This rings true even if you are a relatively new driver.
Driving in Mexico: Things to Know
When you are driving in Mexico, you will note that people here drive on the right-hand side of the road. This is the same as the United States and most of the world.
You will absolutely find that a lot of people here do drive in a chaotic fashion. For instance, they are often speeding, sometimes skipping red lights, overtaking dangerously, and generally not respecting the rules of the road.
Just pay attention to your own driving and your surroundings and you will generally be fine. Don’t be tempted to follow suit just because you see a lot of people around you breaking the rules.
Fines and punishments for driving dangerously and breaking road rules when driving in Mexico can be severe. Worst still, a lot of the police here are corrupt.
These people are more accustomed to driving in these conditions than you are. Just follow the same level of caution as you would when driving in your home country.
Can I Drive in Mexico?
You can drive in Mexico provided that you have a full driving license. If your license is written in the Latin alphabet (this one), the only thing that you need to take with you to Mexico is the driving license from your own country.
This applies to American, British, Australian, Kiwi, and most European travelers. However, if your driving license is written in another language – e.g. Chinese or Korean characters or Cyrillic letters, you will need to obtain an International Driver’s Permit.
IDPs are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. The process for getting one varies depending on where you are from. You can find out more information here.
When it comes to renting a car in Mexico, there are a few things to consider. Age restrictions vary from company to company but generally speaking, you need to be between the ages of 21 and 75.
A few rental companies may rent to drivers under 21 but they are few and far between. Drivers under 25 are likely to be charged a premium rate.
Plenty of reputable international rental companies operate in Mexico. It is generally better to rent from there as opposed to a small independent company.
That way, you have some assuredness about their quality and reliability as scams do happen in Mexico. You can expect to pay between $30-40 a day for a rental.
Car Insurance is Essential
Comprehensive insurance is a prerequisite for driving in Mexico. You will also need a credit card to keep on file with your rental company.
Most rental companies do not accept debit cards although there are exceptions. Full coverage is not essential but it is better to purchase this for your own peace of mind.
A lot of rental companies will try and pressure you to purchase their insurance and oftentimes, they may refuse to let you rent a car unless you buy insurance through them. It is typically better to just buy their insurance rather than an external policy.
Full insurance coverage usually means that there are zero deductibles. Read the small print as some things may not be included. For instance, tires, windows, minor damages, and keys.
Carry Your License and Tourist Card Everywhere
If you enter Mexico as a tourist, you will complete an FMM tourist card on the plane. This will then be stamped by an Immigration Officer and they will write down how many days you are permitted to stay in the country.
Residents of most countries can stay in Mexico for up to 180 days visa-free as tourists. However, Mexico is cracking down on the number of international people living in the country illegally on tourist visas.
So, sometimes people are being given less time in the country on entry. This is important because should you be stopped by the police or find yourself involved in some kind of accident, you will be asked to present your documentation and your FMM.
You should also consider making photocopies and taking photographs of all important documents. For instance, your driving license, your passport, and your FMM.
Take a photo of each on your phone and send them to yourself via email so that you always have access to them. You may also want to print out and keep a couple of photocopies. Perhaps keep one with you, and another at your hotel.
Is it Safe to Drive in Mexico?
Aforementioned chaos aside, driving in Mexico is generally safe. There absolutely are areas where you should not be traveling. However, they tend to be in parts of the country where you would have no business going as a tourist anyway.
You will find that there are two main types of roads in Mexico – toll roads (autopistas/carreteras de cuota) and free roads (carreteras libres). If you are traveling from one place to another, e.g. Merida to Uxmal, you will generally find that you can use either option to get there.
The two options exist because the Mexican government ruled that it was unacceptable to force people to pay to use roads. However, it is definitely the toll roads that you want to stick to.
These are better quality and well-maintained. You will find that police are stationed here and there, and you will pass by various checkpoints that exist for your security.
Tolls can be annoying but the costs are low and it is better to be safe than sorry. Just be sure to always carry plenty of change with you.
The free roads are less busy and are more likely to be home to thieves and bandits. Other areas to avoid specifically? The Toluca Highway – Carretera Nacional 134, known as the ¨Highway of Death¨.
Wherever in Mexico you are traveling to, do not drive at night, especially not between cities and especially not alone. You never know who is around, and getting your bearings becomes altogether more stressful when you cannot see your surroundings clearly. Locals too, will not drive at night.
General Rules for Driving in Mexico
All of the rules that you have in your own country likely apply to driving in Mexico. For instance, no speeding or driving recklessly, no driving under the influence, no texting at the wheel, and you must always wear a seatbelt.
Mexican state police often patrol roads and highways in the same way that state troopers do in the United States. It is seriously not worth the risk of breaking any road rules here.
Speed Limits in Mexico
Always make sure that you are adhering to speed limits in Mexico. Road signage will usually make it easy to understand what speed you should be driving at.
Police do enforce speed limits and will often be found at the side of the road checking people’s speed. Speeding often incurs an on-the-spot fine.
That is unless the police officer involved is dodgy and offers for you to pay him a lesser amount as a bribe (more on that below). Otherwise, you may get a ticket and have your driver’s license taken away. You will have to pay for the ticket in order to get it back.
Speed limits in Mexico are displayed in Km/h. Obviously, this varies depending on what type of area you are passing through.
The maximum speed limit on a Mexican highway is 110 Km/h. On main roads, the limit is up to 70 Km/h.
The speed limit in built-up areas (vías locales) is up to 40 Km/h. Meanwhile, in pedestrian zones and close to schools and hospitals, it is 20 km/h.
Speed Cameras and Bumps in Mexico
Fixed speed cameras do exist in Mexico, commonly on the outskirts of cities and on main roads. However, they are nowhere near as commonplace as in say, the US or western Europe.
What you need to be concerned about however are speed bumps or ¨topes¨. Keep your eyes peeled for them!
There are a lot of speed bumps on some Mexican roads and the thing is, there are no signs warning you that one is coming up. Even if you are driving slowly, they can be bumpy, and sometimes they are extremely steep and wide.
Rules of Driving in Mexico
Using a seatbelt is mandatory for all passengers in a vehicle in Mexico. You are not permitted to use your phone at the wheel.
If a policeman sees you with your phone in your hand or on your lap, even if you are not looking at it, you will be fined. If you need to use your phone to navigate and use GPS, make sure that you have a car phone holder.
Rental cars don’t come with these by default but you can pick them up before you travel for just a few dollars. Driving under the influence is an absolute no here.
The legal limit of blood alcohol content is 0.08%. If you get into an accident whereby you caused the crash and potentially put someone else in danger, punishments are severe. So drive carefully.
Download Offline Maps to Help Navigate
It is useful to download an offline maps app such as Maps. Me in advance of your trip to Mexico. You will often find that you pass through areas where there is no phone signal whatsoever, rendering your online maps ineffective.
This is fairly common and you will often find that close to Mayan ruins you are on a quiet road with nobody around and absolutely no service. Offline maps are great because they continue displaying your location along the route even when the service dips in and out.
If you plan on spending a lot of time in Mexico and you are going to be driving a lot, it may give you additional peace of mind to have a paper road map in your car as a backup. If you cannot speak Spanish, downloading an offline translator app is useful for helping you to translate if necessary.
Get a Mexican Sim Card
Some American and international phone plans do include calls, texts, and data in Mexico. Check your plan before you travel to see if this applies to you.
Alternatively, you may be able to purchase something through your provider that allows you to use your phone in Mexico. Failing that, it is cheap and easy to pick up a sim card in Mexico.
Telcel, Novistar, and AT&T are the main cell phone providers in Mexico. You don’t even have to venture into a phone store and go through a lengthy signup process to get one.
Instead, you can pick up a sim card in OXXO stores and gas stations. You will find OXXO convenience stores on virtually every street corner in Mexican towns and cities.
Plans start from less than $10. For this, you can get unlimited texts, plenty of calls and data, and unlimited social media usage.
It is very important to stay connected when driving in Mexico. You never know when you have to Google and check something, use a map, research the opening time for something, or find a local contact number.
Useful Things to Know About Driving in Mexico
General etiquette for driving in Mexico may differ from that which you are used to in your home country. A few notable aspects to keep in mind are detailed below.
If you see an oncoming vehicle flashing its headlights, the driver is warning you to slow down. This could be for any number of reasons.
For instance, perhaps it is because you are approaching a narrow stretch of road that is only wide enough for one of you to pass. In Mexico, the first car to flash its headlights has the right of way and the other must yield.
One very useful thing that Mexican highways have are retornos. These are exits in the middle of a highway that allow you to do a U-turn and change direction.
They are very useful if you are driving along and you realize that you have missed an exit or set off in the wrong direction. You don’t have to take a long and convoluted route and wait for the next exit to correct yourself. Instead, you just turn at the retorno.
There is a lot of wildlife in some parts of Mexico. Usually, you will pass road signs telling you to look out for deer, raccoons, or whatever other species inhabit that area.
Some parts of the country that sit within protected reserves will have additional signs telling you to drive carefully to protect the wildlife. That being said, it is not unheard of for animals to just run out into the road so always be careful.
Stray dogs too are a cause for concern and they often run around villages and remote areas in packs. Sadly, sometimes you will see dead animals in the middle of the road and you will have to switch lanes to miss them.
A lot of roads have limited to no street lighting meaning that visibility is bad when driving at night. Many roads in rural areas do not have sidewalks so you will also see people walking at the side of the road. Take your time and always respect the speed limits.
Many Mexican towns and cities do have roundabouts. This is something that you may or may not be used to depending on where you are from.
The cars in the roundabout have priority over those joining. That means that you have to give them the right of way and wait for someone to let you in, or for the opportunity to join.
Potholes and hazards
A lot of roads in Mexico that are frequented by tourists have very good roads. For instance, the Yucatan peninsula was once laden with poorly maintained roads, potholes, dirt tracks, and other hazards.
However, in recent years, a lot of efforts have been made to improve road surfaces and the overall driving experience. That being said, in more off-the-beaten path states like Chiapas or Veracruz, you may find that the roads are a different ballgame to those near tourist areas and resorts.
Drive carefully, you don’t want to cause any damage to your rental car. While well-maintained asphalt roads connect cities and towns, sometimes driving down a gravel/dirt road is unavoidable.
This is particularly true if you are visiting cenotes, archaeological sites, and hiking trailheads. Some are better suited to 4x4s although this is not exactly the type of car that everyone chooses to rent. Know when a road is feasible for you and your rental car to access, and when you need to park nearby and hike a short way to whatever it is you are visiting.
Gas Stations in Mexico
A lot of gas stations in Mexico are full service. In other words, a gas station worker will fill up your tank for you.
They often also wipe your windows and windscreen. It is very important to tip them as many work for very low wages or for tips only.
20 pesos or so is a nice amount. Many gas stations accept cash only so make sure that you always have a few pesos with you.
A lot of Mexican gas stations are comparable to those in the United States. They have restrooms of various standards, and you can often buy hot coffee and snacks.
Encounters with the Police while Driving in Mexico
Encounters with the police are not unheard of while driving in Mexico. Unfortunately, a lot of police officers here are corrupt.
If they catch you doing something you shouldn’t, they may try and get you to pay them a bribe. Alternatively, sometimes they may stop you for no reason whatsoever and make up a reason to charge you.
This is completely unethical and it can be very daunting to be hassled by the police in a foreign country. This is particularly true if you are traveling alone and there is a language barrier.
Paying the police should not be seen as encouraging or supporting this. Sometimes you just want to get out of the situation without hassle and intimidation so do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
Should you be so unfortunate as to have this happen to you, there are a couple of approaches you can take. First of all, you can refuse to pay the fee and ask to speak to the officer’s boss (Jefe).
This should usually be enough to get the officers to stop what they are doing. Mexico is very dependent on tourism and generally, people will not push it to potentially cause problems with foreigners.
If you happen to get stopped and you were doing something wrong, never suggest paying a bribe or buying your way out of the situation. It is an offense to bribe a police officer and if you deal with an honest one, you can land yourself in a lot of trouble.
You cannot just park anywhere you like when driving in Mexico. Use basic common sense when looking for a place to park in towns and cities. E.g. you are not blocking someone’s driveway, etc.
A Mexican ¨no parking¨ sign is a capital letter P with a cross through it. If you see it, don’t park in that area.
A lot of tourist attractions, ruins, etc will have designated free car parks. Some have valet parking and others have parking attendants that will help you find a spot. You should tip both valets and attendants a few pesos.
What Happens if I Break Down?
Breaking down is always a possibility, no matter how small, wherever in the world you drive. Should you be so unfortunate as to break down, call your rental company immediately and let them know what has happened.
A rescue company called the Green Angels (Ángeles Verdes) operates in Mexico. They drive up and down highways, toll roads, and major roads, armed with tools and prepared to help anyone that may need their assistance.
They should be your first port of call if you break down during the day. You can reach them on either 250-82-21 or 250-01-23. If you have an emergency or you are in danger, call 911.
Do you have any additional questions about driving in Mexico or planning a trip here? I live in Merida and will be happy to assist where I can.
Feel free to reach out via the comments below and I will do my best to get back to you ASAP. Safe travels! Melissa xo