How To Have a Mexican Road Trip


We don’t mean to toot our own horn (get it? road trip? horn?), but we’ve pretty much become experts on driving in Mexico. That’s what happens when you spend 18 months driving 24,737 miles thoroughly exploring 29 of the country’s 31 states (Monterey and Tamulipas, we’ll get you on the way back up). Here are our top travel tips about how to have a Mexican road trip so you can make the most of your own driving adventure in Mexico. We sure wish we’d known this stuff before we left…

How to have a Mexican road trip in 13 easy tips

1. Fuel is cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US

During our travels we paid an average of US$2.40 per gallon for diesel for our truck when fuel was cheaper and the exchange rate was stronger than it is now. Still, fuel costs remain below the US average. As of June 24, 2011 (calculated at the current exchange rate 11.81 pesos = US$1):

Magna (regular unleaded) was 9.24 pesos/liter  =  US$2.96/gallon;

Premium was 10.34 pesos/liter  =  US$3.31/gallon;

Diesel was 9.60 pesos/liter  =  US$3.08/gallon.  NOTE: there is virtually no ultra low sulfur diesel available in Mexico, but PEMEX has announced future plans to refine ULSD in the future.

Here’s a good place to find current fuel prices in Mexico.

2. There is only one gas station chain in Mexico

It’s called Pemex and it’s owned by the Mexican government which sets fuel prices for the entire country (though fuel can be a touch pricier near the US border and a touch cheaper in the free-trade zones in the southern border areas with Belize and Guatemala). This means you don’t have to waste time (and fuel) driving all over creation comparing prices at the Shell and the Exxon and the BP. What you see is what you get so just pull in and fill up.

3. All gas stations are full service in Mexico

Learn to say “Por favor, lavar mi parabrisas” and they’ll clean your windshield too. We generally give the guy (and, occasionally, the girl) a couple of pesos for the effort. Another good gas station phrase to know: “Acceptan tarjetas de crédito?” (Do you accept credit cards?). Even if they say yes, ask them to run a charge through for the amount of gas you want before you pump. We’ve been left paying for a big fill-up in cash after the local Bancomer bank refused to process our credit card which the attendant said the station accepted.

4. You can use a GPS in Mexico–sort of

Magellan makes a GPS device that includes data for Mexican roads. It’s called the Roadmate 1470 and we used it throughout the country. Even so, it’s a bit tricky to use in small towns or in remote areas where data is thin and it can be confusing finding specific streets because name abbreviations are so often used. Sometimes it can be even more confusing in cities that can have dozens of variations of the same street name.Still, our Magellan did help us get oriented in big cities which is very helpful.

5. Better yet, buy a Guia Roji

Available at most big book stores in Mexico and at some big gas stations, the Guia Roji is the Rand McNally atlas for Mexico and still the best source of roadway and city maps plus it has a relatively accurate chart that will help you calculate what the tolls will cost if you choose to take the country’s pay highways instead of the network of free roads (see below).

 

 

6. Pay  Highway vs. Free Roads…

Pay highway PROS:

  • wide and well paved
  • usually bypass towns and villages
  • virtually unenforced speed limit
  • fastest way between two points–often 2-3 times faster than the free road route
  • you’ll often have the whole road to yourself
  • drivers on pay highways are automatically covered by limited insurance that covers civil liability, medical payments and funeral expenses (this does NOT satisfy your requirement to have Mexican insurance, however–see below)
  • pay highways are patrolled by the Green Angels, an amazing fleet of bright green tow trucks driven by mechanics ready to fix what’s broken free of charge (see below)

Pay highway CONS:

  • tolls can add up — the 178 mile pay (286 km) road between Puebla and Veracruz costs US$28 in tolls. That’s more than a peso per kilometer, and you could spend more than US$350 in tolls driving from one end of the country to the other
  • since pay highways bypass towns and villages you don’t see much of real Mexico–driving on a pay highway is virtually the same as driving on a US interstate

Free road PROS:

  • no tolls
  • since they pass through towns and villages you see Mexican life as you travel

Free road CONS:

  • can be 2-3 times slower than the pay highway route
  • often narrow roads that connect towns and cities which become slow moving main streets through each town and city along the way before turning back into a “highway” out of town
  • lots of topes (speedbumps, see below)
  • cheaper trucking companies use the free roads too, so there are often big trucks on small roads

You can get a detailed driving route with pay highway times and tolls from Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation. This is a particularly great tool for planning routes between cities.

7. The Green Angels make AAA look like a racket

Any driver on any road in Mexico can call the Green Angels and a bright green truck driven by bilingual mechanics will show up (8 am to 6 pm) ready to fix what’s broken for the price of the parts/fuel/oil (tips are appreciated). Green Angels patrol the pay highways, but if you don’t see one when you need one you just dial 078 and they’ll come to you.

 

8. Topes are a bitch

Tope (pronounced toe-pay) is the Spanish word for bump and is used for speed bumps as well. These concrete and rock humps in the road vary in steepness, width and severity but they’re all hellish. In the course of our Trans-Americas Journey, so far, we’ve driven over tens of thousands of them.

They are efficient and brutal–especially the ones that are unsigned and sneak up on you before you can slow down. There’s a reason there’s almost always a tire repair shack at or near a tope. They’re also dreadful for your fuel economy and your shocks–which is part of the reason we upgraded to Bilstein shocks.

By the time we left Mexico we’d come up with two new terms relating to topes (no, they’re not swear words):

nope (pronounced no-pay): What you find when you slow down and reach what you thought was a tope only to discover that it’s not.

rope (pronounced row-pay): A tope made by laying a massive rope across the road. These can be even more brutal than the stone and concrete varieties.

-slope (pronounced slow-pay): A tope made with gentle angles and slopes so that it can be glided over at a higher speed.

-gatope (pronounced ga-toe-pay): A tope of any sort with a cat (gato) sitting next to it.

 9. Hoy no circula!

Mexico City’s air quality has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks in part to the innovative hoy no circula (today you can’t drive) rules that designate “no driving” days for all private vehicles in Mexico City and the state of Mexico based on the last number in your license plate. These rules absolutely apply to foreign drivers and it’s important to understand the rules, follow them and be armed with a good working knowledge of the program so you can make your case when a Mexico City cop pulls you over and (wrongly) accuses you of driving on a day or at a time you aren’t supposed to, which has happened to us. Here’s where to get complete hoy no circula rules in English.

You can also apply for a 14 day tourist waiver that exempts you from the hoy no circula rules in Mexico City.

10. Shakedown breakdown

Even armed with full knowledge of Mexican road rules and full compliance with said rules you will probably get pulled over by a cop in Mexico. Despite the fact that the Mexican government has made it illegal for the police to extort drivers for money (that had to be officially spelled out?), it still happens to locals and to foreigners. Soon after arriving in Mexico an expat tipped us off to this trick for getting out of these situations and after being pulled over multiple times in Mexico we can tell you that it works.

A. Act dumb and pretend that you don’t understand much Spanish, why you were stopped or what the cop is asking for. Maybe the cop will get bored and irritated and give up at this point. If he doesn’t…

B. Have the person in the passenger seat (also acting clueless and stupidly kind of excited by this “brush with the natives”) pull out a point and shoot camera and start happily taking pictures of this vacation memory in the making. Smile. Shoot some more.

C. Drive away. Because all cops know that extortion is illegal none of them will want to be photographed in the act. The cop will probably get angry when he sees the camera, but he will also tell you to get the hell out of there and the whole altercation will be over with no money paid, no shouting and no confrontation.

11. Mexicans are not bad drivers (they just have some wacky habits)

Two of the most important Mexican driving habits to understand are as follows:

1. Making two lanes into three lanes. Many two-lane Mexican roads have ample shoulders. This allows for an intricate ballet that involves slower traffic driving primarily on the shoulder allowing faster traffic to pass straddling the center line in an imaginary third lane. Cooperation from all parties is obviously required.

2. A left turn signal does not mean I’m turning left. Usually, it means “it’s clear to pass me.” This leads to some confusion when you really want to make a left hand turn which is accomplished by pulling over to the right of the road and waiting for all traffic behind you to pass, then turning left.

12. Not all Mexican auto insurance is created equal

You must carry Mexican auto liability insurance if you’re going to drive your own car in the country, but the insurer you choose can make a huge difference. A company called Adventure Mexican Insurance Services acts as a brokerage for Mexican auto insurance and it is totally Trans-Americas Journey approved.

They’re based in the U.S. and their 800# is always staffed with English speakers who can help with questions or issues, they offer great rates and they have fixers who can help solve claims problems.

If we’d gone through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services instead of buying direct from stinky old GNP Insurance in the first place, we wouldn’t have gotten so screwed when a taxi ran into us and GNP jerked us around when we made a claim. That’s why when it was time to get a new policy we went right to these guys.

Use this link to purchase your insurance through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services and you won’t pay any more but we’ll get a small commission which will help us put a few more gallons in our gas tank.

 13. You can’t beat a Mexican car wash

They’re cheap (less than 60 pesos, about US$5, for the exterior of our huge truck) and they’re often meticulous. Basically, a team of guys descends on your vehicle with high pressure washers and buckets of suds. No surface is left un-scrubbed, including the wheel wells and undercarriage. The whole thing culminates in a wipe down and polish of all rubber/plastic surfaces including your tires. We’ve had epic washes all over Mexico but the car washes in Mexico City and outside Playa del Carmen stand out. Set aside at least 45 minutes.

They’ll give the same treatment to your interior too for just a few pesos more.

Read more about travel in Mexico

 

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37 comments on “How To Have a Mexican Road Trip

    • Ummm, YES. 18 months and 24,000 miles throughout all corners of Mexico AND nothing but safe. I’m not saying Mexico is without problems, but I am saying you are not traveling in those areas and you are not a target. Quite the opposite, they want nothing more than to steer clear of you. harming a tourist would only bring unwanted attention and pressure which in turn interferes with making money.

  1. That article was great! Coincidentally, just today I was looking into what it would take to drive a US vehicle all the way to Patagonia and found some useful sites. Yours is going on the list too 🙂

    I had the same question as FutureExpat, so I’m relieved to hear driving around in Mexico is not as bad as some may say.

    Question: as far as border crossings go from the US, Tijuana comes to mind as a town to avoid. And just today the State Dept. Advised citizens to stay out of Nuevo Laredo. Is there a “best” crossing to go through, that is safe and convenient? What about on the Guatemala side?

    Thanks for the detailed info.

    -Rich

    • We did cross at Tijuana early on in the Journey (2007) when we did Baja…at this point I’d avoid it, not because of security but because it’s so busy. I would avoid hanging in Tiajuana, or any border city for that matter.
      We generally aim for the minor crossings as they are usually empty and a breeze. If doing Baja, Mexicali is a better option. We’re not fond of Nogales, AZ and we haven’t been on the Nuevo Laredo side of things. We’ve crossed several times in El Paso as we have friends there. Yes Ciudad Juarez IS DANGEROUS, and we did cross their once. BUT, just to the west of the city is the small Santa Teresa crossing which is in the middle of nowhere and a breeze. From there it’s an easy drive down to Chihuahua, or better yet go via Paquime (http://trans-americas.com/blog/2009/11/regresamos-a-mexico-paquime-ruins-mata-ortiz-pottery/). Texas has a few other “middle of nowhere” crossings. Head south from Marfa, Tx to the Presidio/Ojinaga crossing, another breeze and an instant taste of small town Mexico. If you are looking for something near Nuevo Laredo, a relatively easy option is Del Rio, TX (west of San Antonio).

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  3. Great post. Very helpful to anyone contemplating driving in Mexico. One thing you didn’t mention is the registration of your car when you cross the border. We experienced this several years ago, but I assume it is still in practice. You have to stop at a little office over the border and pay a fee, for which you have to go to a neighboring business that they designate–we went to a pharmacy. Then when you return to the U.S., you turn in the permit. We didn’t turn it in, and wondered if we’d every be allowed to cross again, but have not tried, so don’t know.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Walking in ParisMy Profile

    • You are correct, a vehicle importation permit (Permiso de Importancion Temporal de Vehiculos) is required to bring your vehicle into the country, except for the Baja Peninsula where it is not required. This is done when you get your FMT (Mexican tourist card about $23) and along with your passport you need a license, vehicle title, registration, proof of insurance in Mexico, along with a whole bunch of copies of all of the above. During the period we made our four crossings, the permit (a sticker which is placed on your windshield) costs about $35 and must be paid for with a credit card as they will theoretically charge you if the permit is not returned when you exit…the point being they don’t want you to sell your car in Mexico without paying import duties. HOWEVER, as of June 11, 2011 this has changed. Now you must pay a deposit based on the age of your car — For 2007 and newer, deposit is $400. 2001-2006 – $300. 2000 and older – $200. This is charged to your credit card immediately. You get the deposit back when you cancel the permit, it is refunded the day after you cancel your permit.

  4. Excellent post! I almost (and I stress almost) forgot about the Topes – those things are killers! I think it’s really important to show people that not only is Mexico so much safer than people think,but there are so many things that are done perhaps even better than in the US.You mention the Green Angels service (bilingual, on call, not extortionately expensive?!) and I would add the amazing long distance bus services like ADO that put Greyhound to shame. Travel in Mexico is easy, relatively cheap, and it is by far one of our fav. places in the world. Oh, and awesome tip about the photo-blitz against police shakedowns! 🙂
    Globetrottergirls recently posted..Polaroid of the week: Burritts Rapids Locks along the Rideau CanalMy Profile

  5. Those topes really ARE a bitch. I’ve hit a few of those going way too fast. Really informative article! I always noticed the gas stations said Pemex, but I never put two and two together that they they only had one gas station chain.
    Christy recently posted..Seven Past LovesMy Profile

  6. Pingback: Top Ten Reasons To Visit Mexico (via Trans-Americas Blog) « Holistic Healing in Mexico

  7. Hey, I am Mexican, and I can say that you do know my country, very good explanations and tips, I am planning to do that trip myself, there is so much beauty to see in my country. Thanks for show a differente side, the good one, of my country. viva Mexico!!!!

  8. Im with Blanca, thanks! I am a long time traveler and go to Colima when I can and love to travel with my kids,always on toll roads my boys love the gas stations that are so clean and load up on all good sodas and chips!Those toll roads humm to your wheels when your going fast because I never have to worry about pot holes or uneven pavement those roads are the best.I get tickets all the time and dont talk my way out of it “Yes officer I was going about 90 but Im in a hurry so please write my ticket quickly” the Law states they cant take your license, or license plate or car for driving violations! They can only give you a ticket.As for the violence I compare it to any city that has its bad side of town, I live in Los Angeles and to most people its like a real bad place but only because the media plays the bad over and over again and thats what is being done in Mexico as if it was a war torn country.

  9. Great article guys and you really do shed light on stuff others have not covered – that’s rare these days online! But, I have two questions:

    Danger – you mention you had no issues anywhere which is great to see but did you drive only in daylight hours? Much is made of the roadblocks, muggings and other crime on the roads. Does it happen at night, daytime, did you see anything? Would you say driving anytime is ok?

    Food – are there good places to stop for food, toilets etc in the most part and how frequent are they gnerally?

    Thanks and hope to see your reply soon.

    Charlie

    • As a general rule we only drive during daylight hours. This is more because the roads themselves can be physically dangerous – unmarked speed bumps, animals, potholes… and less due to physical safety, as I don’t think there are any more dangerous in most places. Honestly I don’t know what you are talking about when you ask about roadblocks, muggings and other crimes on the road. Having spent more than 18 months in Mexico and driven over 18K miles we did not encounter any such things nor did hear about it. When I first started traveling in Mexico there were ‘bandits’ in certain areas, but as far as I know this is not really a concern at this point. That’s not to say there haven’t been targeted attacks against certain people (rival drug lords, politicians, police chiefs, industrialists…) but as a tourist I don’t find this as a concern. That’s not to say nothing can happen, stuff happens everywhere, I just don’t think it much different than many other places in the world.
      As for food, rest stops, gas…it depends. It’s a BIG country and there are remote and rural areas where there is not much. However, there is almost always something and if you are talking about inter-city routes or driving on the pay roads there is an abundance of places.

  10. Great info here!
    re: GPS,SatNav – I’ve used TomTom’s Mexico data and it was fine. Not 100% accurate in some cities, but I think it’s always nice to have a “time to destination” on long journeys. I’ve also driven 1000s miles in Mexico and second your notes about danger. Never seen anything scary, but always aware of how much more helpful people are in Mexico than they would be at home.

  11. I’m planning a trip from AZ to Yucatan soon. While I haven’t driven across the border recently, I found useful and encouraging the posts as I was worried about all the cartel stuff. Sorry about the one who had the trip from #ell. I have rented cars and driven all throughout Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo in 2010 and 2011. Driving in the Patria Chica in the Maya Area was a gas, totally kool, safe and enjoyable. I particularly like driving on paved back roads, stopping at the villages and towns for a cold beverage, and speaking with the Maya. A little Yucatec Maya goes a LONG way! Cancun “es un desmadre! but places like Coba and even Tulum are very kool. Enjoy Yucatan and los Yucatecos!

  12. I’m very happy to know that you like méxico, many people just think it’s all drugs and war before they actually get to meet the beautiful people of this country! Personally I love my country, no matter what the news says..

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  14. Pingback: Tips for a Safe Road Trip in Mexico

  15. I was in Mexico en route through Central America a few years ago and I named Mexico ‘The Land Of The Cracked Windscreen’ because so many cars were like that. That article was great!
    Aileen Acosta recently posted..Heather PenkoMy Profile

  16. Great tips!

    What other paper work, documents do i need to drive through Mexico?

    Any safety tips as far as what hours to drive or which roads?

    Thanks! 🙂

    • Glad you found our tips useful and we know you’ll have a great Mexican road trip! When we were driving through Mexico the necessary paperwork was pretty simple: passport, vehicle registration, valid drivers’ license (from your home country), valid title to the vehicle. We were issued temporary importation permits for the truck right at the border – no need to pre-arrange anything. A great website to check out in search of information and experiences about driving all over The Americas is called Drive the Americas. They have a LOT of border crossing information as it pertains to your vehicle. The only road safety tips we have for you is watch out for the speed bumps! Many are unmarked and if you drive over them at full speed they can do real damage. Have fun!
      Karen Catchpole, CWO (Chief Writing Officer) recently posted..Another Way to Get Wet – Rio Pacuare, Costa RicaMy Profile

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  18. These quick guidelines will make me feel less stressful when I get to Mexico. The rules on the road and the fuel supply are helpful for a first-time Mexican visitor like me. Nice tips!

  19. Hello Karen! Quite informative post about travel tips in Mexico. I love the inside joke at the first paragraph! I should take note of two, five, nine, ten and 12 just in case I get to visit there someday. Cheers!

  20. I drive to mexico a couple of times a year to relax, I mostly stay in Baja california but I venture into mainland as well, as the article mentions mexican insurance is mandatory , they actually started requiring insurance from a mexican company since 2012 for foreign vehicles.

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