Driving in Mexico
Tips for a Smooth Journey
Whether you’re doing it for business or for pleasure, driving in Mexico can be an extremely fulfilling journey. However, it’s important to be aware of the possible risks involved and take the necessary precautions. Otherwise, what would be an awesome trip could turn into a nightmare.
The first thing to remember is that while Mexico is amazing, it’s different from the United States in many ways – especially when it comes to the rules of the road.
If you’re deciding to drive to Mexico and want to avoid unwanted headaches, here are tips for driving in Mexico with best practices and guidelines to follow.
Road Conditions and Safety Tips
Before we get into the details, it’s important to note that road conditions in Mexico can be vastly different from what you’re used to in the States.
This is especially true if you plan to go off the beaten path to journey through the “real” Mexico – away from the touristy areas and noisy attractions.
Here are a couple of things that you have to keep in mind when planning such a journey.
Be on the Lookout for Speed Bumps
Speed bumps are called “topes” in Mexico – and more often than not, they’re unmarked.
Even worse, some locals decide to add their own speedbumps on the road. You’re likely to experience this if you’re traveling through small towns away from metropolitan areas.
While speed bumps may seem harmless, they can actually do some serious damage to your vehicle if you’re not careful. So, it’s important to always be on the lookout for them, especially when driving at night or in unfamiliar territory.
Pay Attention to Road Signs
While you might be able to get away with ignoring road signs in the States, that’s definitely not the case in Mexico.
One thing you’ll quickly realize is that street signs are often in Spanish. While it would be great if you could learn the language before your trip, we understand that not everyone has the time (or inclination) to do so.
The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the most common signs before setting off on your journey. This way, even if you can’t understand the words, you’ll at least be able to get the gist of what they’re trying to say.
Get Ready for Potholes
In many areas of Mexico, driving on the roads can feel like driving on a washboard. This is because roads are not as well-maintained throughout the country as they would be in city centers and frequently-used highways. There’s a big chance that you’ll encounter potholes, some of which are large enough to cause serious damage to your vehicle.
That’s why it’s always a good idea to drive slowly, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar area. This will give you more time to react and avoid potholes (and other obstacles) that might be lurking in the road.
Know the Difference Between Carretera Cuota and Carretera Libre
Carretera libre refers to free roads, making them much cheaper compared to the alternative. However, they are not as well maintained, are prone to traffic, and can be full of topes in certain areas. These roads run alongside cuotas, and go through all of the towns that they pass through.
On the other hand, carretera cuota is the term for paid highways. These roads are well-maintained and offer a smoother, quicker ride, but they come with a hefty price tag, even by US standards.
Generally speaking, it’s best to stick to the carretera libre unless you’re in a hurry. Just be sure to drive carefully and watch out for topes, potholes, and other potential hazards.
Be Prepared to Pay Cash
Tolls are common in Mexico, and you’re likely to encounter them frequently on your journey. Unfortunately, most toll booths do not accept credit or debit cards. So, before you set off on your trip, make sure to withdraw some cash from an ATM. That way, you’ll have plenty of money to pay for tolls (and other expenses) without having to make a pit stop at a bank or currency exchange.
Ensure Your Safety By Planning Your Trip Beforehand
Driving in Mexico is usually quite safe, but one thing you should be aware of is drug-related violence. These could be gang or police activities, high crime rate locations, or areas with a lot of illegal activity.
In order to avoid these dangerous areas, it’s best to plan your trip in advance and research the route you’ll be taking. Additionally, have emergency numbers such as the local police hotline ready and avoid traveling at night. It also wouldn’t hurt to let someone know about your travel plans, like a trusted friend or family member.
Importance of the International Driver’s Permit
When driving in Mexico, you need to have an internationally-recognized driver’s permit with you.
Foreign licenses, including your US license, are accepted in Mexico, as long as they are in Spanish or English. However, having an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is always a good idea.
An IDP is an official translation of your driver’s license that is recognized in over 150 countries, including Mexico. It can be obtained through AAA in the US, and is valid for one year. You need to present both your IDP and your domestic license when questioned by authorities, or when trying to rent a vehicle for your trip.
Hiring a guide while traveling through Mexico isn’t necessary, but it can be helpful, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
but it could save you a lot of trouble. A good guide can give you information that will make your trip more pleasant, such as what roads to take, what places you should avoid, what you should do in certain situations, and more.
Plus, having somebody who can speak the local language is always a plus, especially if you, or anyone in your party, can’t speak Spanish fluently. It might also give you an edge in negotiations with local authorities or vendors along the way.
Road travel in Mexico is a completely different experience from traveling in the United States. Here are a couple of things you should keep in mind.
- There are return systems instead of exit ramps. Instead of exit ramps, Mexico uses a “return system,” which are areas where you can safely make a U-turn just a little bit past the intended exit.
- Turn signals can also be invitations to overtake. Drivers in Mexico use their turn signals to indicate that they can safely pass them, rather than just for turning. Before concluding that it’s an invitation to overtake, look around if there are any exits nearby.
- Driving on the shoulder is the norm. You’re expected to drive on the shoulder to accommodate overtaking vehicles, so don’t be surprised when this happens.
- Always have your legal documents on hand. Be prepared to show your legal documents – even if it might not be required often. When road authorities pull you over, they will most likely ask for just a valid driver’s license. Nevertheless, it’s always good to have your registration papers and proof of insurance ready.
- Never offer bribes. Although some police officers might ask for a bribe, offering bribes yourself can land you in big trouble. We advise that you err on the side of caution.
- Expect plenty of communications with the US Customs. Upon your reentry to the US, you are expected to declare everything you’ve bought from Mexico. There’s a good chance you’ll be pulled over for a secondary inspection, so have all your documents ready.
- Be aware of the Green Angels. The Los Angeles Verdes are a government-backed fleet of green trucks that roam 206 major and minor roadways in the daytime, assisting motorists that might have had troubles on the road. You can call them at their 24-hour toll-free number 078, or 01-800-987-8224. If you can’t call, you can pull over, put your hood up, and wait for them to pass by.
Dealing with US Customs On Your Return Trip
US Customs can be quite strict regarding what you can bring back to the US from Mexico, and they will require you to adhere to a strict procedure of declaration. If you’re not sure whether something will pass the inspection, just leave it behind.
Some of the most common items that get flagged down are the following.
- You are only allowed to bring back $800 worth of shopping per person, anything more and you will be taxed.
- You are only allowed one liter of any alcoholic drink per person over 21, more than this will be taxed.
- There are so many fruits that are not allowed to be brought back to the US, so check before packing any.
- No steroids, illegal drugs, or weapons are permitted.
- Any items made from illegal or endangered species will not be allowed into the US.
Driving in Mexico is an exciting adventure, but not if you get into an accident and don’t have proper insurance coverage. Mexican car insurance is a must, and you should get it before you even start.
To keep your peace of mind while you’re traveling in Mexico, get Mexico car insurance from Magnum Insurance. Our competitive policies and generous coverage are designed to make your life easier. Call today for a free quote!
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