Road Trip!!  Driving in Mexico (and Central America)

Average reading time: 10mins

Sometimes we take the road less traveled.  It may be smooth concrete, sexy black bitumen, pothole ridden, cobble stone, sand or just plain, ole’ dirt. It’s independent, adventurous, exciting, and more often than not will open your eyes to the way people really live. However, there are some important “lessons learnt” that you should consider before getting behind the wheel in Mexico.

Car hire:

– Global hire companies vs locals. For the risk averse, renting from a larger global brand is definitely safest in Mexico. Don’t expect it to be cheap though, insurance often doubles the rental cost. We’ve used Avis, Hertz, Europecar without any issues. Thirty however, tried charging us for a dirty grease mark that they mistook for a scratch. The attendant had called the original rental office to log a damage charge and recalculate the cost of our rental (even had a new invoice with the charges printed) before I’d seen the car. When I insisted, it wiped away with just my thumb. 

Local companies – there are some very good deals to be had. We were able to negotiate $500MXP including 2 drivers and insurance, per day. Where possible, ask for a referral from your hotel/hostel/airbnb, or perhaps ask them to call and confirm details. But, don’t be surprised if the car actually belongs to the rental clerk! Paperwork, car check video still essential.

– Damage check (make a video), particularly if the car is dirty when you pick up. This saved us on two occasions, when we’d noted damage during collection that somehow hadn’t made it onto the office’s copy. It was also useful when returning a car approx 1 hr late, we could prove what time the car had been inspected & subsequently rented. Don’t forget to include a picture of the fuel gauge – its normal to pick up and return a car with them same amount of fuel (even if that means 7/8 of a tank).

– Registration papers. If you’re driving across a state border, you will most likely be subject to a police inspection. You will need the rental contract, registration papers (often laminated and in the glovebox, or clearly displayed on the window), a passport & immigration form for all passengers. They are diligent, and will take any opportunity to try and extract a bribe from you. When we were stopped on the state border between Merida and Campeche, the officer reached into my handbag, tapped my wallet and asked what was in it (told him it was the right money for our hotel). 

Another point related to registration. Rental cars don’t always have number plates, front nor back. This is true of big companies (e.g. Thrifty in Yucatan), however the registration papers should be clearly visible on the rear window. You’ll definitely be noticed with one of these hire cars!

– Spare tyre & jack. There is roadside assistance on the major freeways, usually the ones where tolls are charged. Mobile reception is often unreliable, and you may have to walk 5kms or more for a roadside phone. Smaller freeways, you’re on your own. Additionally, they will check there is a spare tyre & jack when you return the vehicle- I wouldn’t risk trying to explain why it isn’t there (and would expect they’d charge you for a replacement).

So each time you hire a car, your checklist is: Car contract, damage video (showing fuel gauge, registration papers and spare tyre/jack).

– We had a phone with a Mexican sim, so had the benefit of google maps. We weren’t expecting mobile reception to be as unreliable as it was, so it’s definitely useful to plan ahead and take a few map screenshot on your phone. Another great option is CityMaps2Go or a similar product that caches maps and directions, for use offline.

– Sat navs were available from the larger rental companies for an additional fee, should you not have a local sim.
Service stations: all servos in Mexico are government owned, clearly marked with green, white and red colours, and called PEMEX. You’ll spot them a mile away. Some smaller, independent stations are starting to emerge, and we even found a gas n go just outside Campeche. Pay with cash and beware of scams, but excitingly, they have….

– Pump attendants! Just like in the 1980’s!!! It’s unusual for you to fill your own tank in Mexico. Pull up to the pump and stay in the car, but pop your fuel tank open. You can tell the attendant how much petrol you want either by a peso value (e.g. “Quienientos pesos por favor” for $500MXP), or number of litres (e.g. “Veinte litros por favor”, 20Ltrs). “Lleno por favor” means full please, but here’s some tips to avoid scams: 

1. Watch the pump, ensuring they reset it to zero before any fuel is pumped. A good attendant will ask you to watch and check. Quite an assertive start to proceedings. 

2. The attendant will either set the pump to the amount (litres or pesos) nominated to automatically fill, or will hold the petrol nozzle and do it manually. Either way, watch the quantity being filled to ensure the pump counter for Litros isn’t blank… you should see numbers ticking over. There have been scams (particularly in Yucatan) where attendants “bump the pump” midway, resetting the display then manually entering the peso amount. If this happens, insist on a copy of your receipt (and check the date & timestamp).

– Window washers in service stations. It’s normal for your petrol attendant to offer to check the air pressure of your tyres or clean the windscreen if they have set the pump to autofill. It’s also normal for a different attendant to offer this while the petrol guy fills your tank. It’s not normal for them to clean your side windows (obscuring your view of the petrol pump). Again, if this happens ask for a receipt and or hop out of the car to see what’s going on.

– Payment. To avoid any complications, always pay in pesos (“effectivo”). You shouldn’t expect to tip the petrol attendant, but if a separate person cleans your window while at the pump, a $10MXP coin is normal. The attendant should have ample change if paying with large bills.

– Bathrooms. Usually located inside the convenience store, sometimes free, often at a charge of $5-10MXP. Take your own toilet paper just in case, but if you’ve paid for the convenience there should be paper provided (usually the man or woman collecting the money will have rolled up portions to hand to you in exchange for your coin).

– Convenience store. Snacks and drinks a plenty. Newspapers, coffee, sometimes instant soup or noodles, or a microwave and popcorn! You won’t go hungry or thirsty here. 

Road signs:

– Traffic lights. Not always your standard “red, amber, green” set up, sometimes an LED screen with the words “Sigue” in white or green (for go), and “Alto” in red for stop. 

– Cuotas & toll booths. Sometimes manned, occasionally automatic (Yucatan, between Playa del Carmen and Holbox Island is a great example). Each one will have a sign with the cost as you approach, each one varies in price (sometimes greatly). Try to google the cost prior to your trip, and have your wallet handy.

– Stopping at intersections. Often, the pedestrian crossing will not be clearly marked. If you pull up parallel to the curb, or aligned with the traffic light, chances are you’ll be on the crossing. Pay attention to the curb to see if it’s marked, and be aware of where other cars stop. If in doubt, leave extra room.

– Road works & workers. Sometimes signed (look for the word “trabajo” or similar on road signs), sometimes not. If someone ahead is slowing down, assume it’s for a reason. Usually Central American drivers will use their hazard lights if slowing down or stopping for any reason. Often, there will be a road worker with a red flag. They’ll either wave you on, or hold the flag to stop. Expect to be driving on dirt/unpaved road if you see roadworks, and leave extra space in front to avoid rocks chipping your paintwork). Use your hazard lights from the point where you start slowing down, until you have cleared the roadwork and start accelerating again.

– Police filters. These are often under bridges or at roadside checkpoints. Wind your window down and slow down. There will be a speed bump of some description (temporary rope or rubber, vs concrete if it’s a permanent checkpoint). Keep rolling unless they instruct you to stop. If instructed to stop, pull over and follow their instructions. Hopefully you won’t have to “share the love”.

– Road blocks/protests. More likely in different parts of the country, based on political activity. It will look like a long queue of cars, doors sometimes open, people from the cars waiting on the side of the road, and sometimes street vendors going car to car. Don’t try to pass, take your place in the queue. Between Oaxaca city and Puerto Escondido we were held in a blockade that had been in place for 2hrs, by locals with guns, machetes and a rope at windscreen height, blocking the road. There’s nothing you can do during a protest apart from wait (so make sure your roadtrip playlist is sorted).

However, if it is two kids with a bit of string, on a dirt road, don’t stop. The kids will attempt to charge you an unofficial “road tax”. Cheeky, right? They will drop the string when they see you’re going straight through, so just keep going.

Road culture:

– Hazard lights (blinkers). Used more commonly than individual indicators in Mexico & Central America! Serious! Used when: slowing down, parking, double parking, wanting to push in, reversing, *all* the way through a section of roadwork, and when broken down. This concept is hardest to get used to initially.

– Dodging potholes. If traveling on anything other than a national freeway, anticipate potholes. Big ones. Ones that make you think “you’ve taken the bumper bar off” big. If the car in front swerves, is in the shoulder, or in oncoming traffic’s lane, anticipate potholes. If it’s safe, follow their lead. If not, hazard lights on immediately and slow down till it’s safe. 

– Topes/reductors. These are speed bumps, usually used to slow traffic when entering a small town or village. Often unsigned and unmarked, often without a change in speed sign, these guys can be smooth or extreme. Approach with the intention of shifting back to first (and almost stopping) if you’re unsure. Also, 4 adults in a sedan hire car will likely scrape on a standard tope/reductor. Take the bump slowly, on a diagonal angle, and/or overinflate the tyres slightly.

– Overtaking on freeways. Almost a national sport. If a car has their left indicator (blinker) on constantly, it means they want to come past (and are patiently waiting till it’s safe). This also means you should yield if they attempt to overtake and have a surprise oncoming vehicle (unless they choose to abort, of course). Either way, be aware and prepared to respond to keep your passengers safe, should it go wrong. You can overtake on dual carriageway using the same rules as most English-speaking or European countries; broken line marking your side of the road, clear visibility (no curves or hills), plenty of distance (safety first!).

– The shoulder is for driving, pedestrians, horses, bicycles and scooters/motorbikes and is considered an actual part of the road. It’s almost considered rude for you to not use the shoulder when someone overtakes you! Don’t think it’s weird, it gives oncoming traffic extra room if they’re attempting to overtake, or avoid potholes. Watch the line other cars are taking, and align if you evaluate it as safe. 

– Passengers in utes/trucks. Sometimes on cargo (bananas, dirt, logs…), occasionally sitting or standing. Seatbelts are supposed to be compulsory, but apparently not if you’re in the back of a ute. Expect these vehicles to stop & drop, or pick up passengers along they way. Also be ready for them to accidentally drop a hat, cell phone, or otherwise. 

– Collectivos & buses. Ditto. Unmarked bus stops mean Toyota Hiace sized vans, or old school bus sized “chicken” buses will randomly stop and drop, or pick up passengers from the side of main roads, often without indicating. People may hang out of these vehicles to jump out so the bus doesn’t completely stop. Be on your game.

– UNO y uno, seen at 4-way intersections. It means the first vehicle to arrive at the intersection has right of way, then each direction alternates turns, one by one. Cars will be cheeky and attempt to not stop but roll into the intersection to jump their turn. You’ll get the hang of this after a few goes, but eye contact is king!

– Estacionamiento flag bearers, showing where car parks are in cities, towns and ferry ports. Often standing in the middle of the road, with a red flag or a flag with an E inside a circle painted on it. They will get out of your way, politely shake your head unless you need parking. Hazard lights on if you do want parking. Expect to pay, usually per hour.

– At intersections (food, drink, entertainment, window washers…). Much more persistent than in Western culture. If you can’t pull off a stern no, with head shake and finger waggle, leave extra space when you stop in traffic then roll the car forward slightly when they approach. The movement is often enough to make them think the light has turned green, and they’ll leave you alone. If you’re unlucky enough to say no and still get your windscreen washed, remember that they are working for their money, they have washed your windscreen with detergent they’ve purchased, and hand over a $10MXP coin.

One last point to note, is that during the 10 months living and traveling through Central America and Mexico, I’ve not seen a single breathalyser or random drug test. Unfortunately, I have witnessed drunk driving, and driving under the influence of other drugs (seriously – a guy smoking a bong, driving the car behind me). It’s important to be aware of this, to partially explain erratic driving behaviour, but also to emphasise that safety and road culture is very different in this part of our diverse world.

In summary, get out there and explore but do your homework, drive defensively, be aware of your surroundings and ready to respond. Blend in and adapt to some parts of road culture, and have an excellent adventure.

(Alternatively, take the bus 😉)

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