Driving in Mexico – survival tips for the Mexican roads

Driving in Mexico is a challenge. It may be exhausting, annoying, dangerous and never easy. Even though, it can be one of the best travel expiriencies in your life too. It is a complete adventure by itself but you will need some information upfront.

On this post you will get the most interesting facts you will need to face while driving in Mexico. Check here our best experiencies in Mexico.

Road maintenance in Mexico

Actually from quite bad to terrible. Overall the roads in Mexico have lack of maintenance. There are holes everywhere. With holes we mean craters, deep hollows where you will risk to break your car every ten minutes, specially on the free roads.

Just an example, you would be surprised that even in the Caribean coast paradise Tulum, on the main beach road where you can find the most luxury beach clubs the maximum speed you will reach is 5 km/h. Not because of speed limits but for the craters on the road. Tip: take as a reference a local car and follow his slalom if you want to survive.

“Cuota” or “libre” roads?

Yes! We also hate tolls. And we usually try to about to pay for a road in Europe. In adiccion, in Mexico, to pay doesn’t guarantee a proper highway. Not at all. You may pay for very normal roads while driving in Mexico.

A cuota road means a road with tolls while libre road means free road. You will have to decide several times if you go paying or on a free road to a concrete destination. Our advise is to take every time you can a cuota road since the free ones can be in a terrible condition. You should know that Mexico is a country which doesn’t provide a proper maintainence of its roads and uses to delegate in private companies the construction and the maintanence of some roads. To take a free road is synonym of spending insane too long dodging holes and topes driving crazy slow.

Toll stations

Tolls in Mexico are not cheap. There are many toll stations called in Spanish “Casetas de Cobro” or “Plazas de Cobro”. They will ask very diverse amounts but you will always feel you are not getting a proper service for what you are paying. Funny enough, even you see signs where it is read that card payment is allowed, they only accept cash. Don’t ask why, it is obvious. In 6.250 kilometers driving in Mexico we only could pay twice by card.

  • driving in Mexico
  • driving in Mexico
  • driving in Mexico

Topes

The Mexican administrations don’t seem to be aware that good, easy and quick road connexions are critic for development. Besides the “natural” holes, they add a crazy amount of artificial obstacles to force drivers to slow down.

These topes are so tall and huge that you must to stop almost completely. And there are that many that you will hate them for real. In 79 kilometers in Chiapas we counted more than 200 topes. That means a tope every 300 or 400 meters. So you need almost 3 hours to drive 79 kilometers. Insane.

Those topes are not always in the center of the villages where could be logic, since they have no other way to control the speed limit. They can be in the middle of nowhere, at the same asphalt colour and without any sign which let you know where they are. Even if the speed limit is 90. Quite dangerous no?

Moreover, We have seen the  construction of a new highway with new topes on it in the middle of nowhere. No sense at all.

Signs

The signs are an imitation of the US signs, so some of them they are not very intuitive for Europeans. Try to be tune and focus with that. The main problem is that there is not a proper maintainence of the signs and sometimes they don’t remove the old signs when they are not needed anymore or they don’t match with the current condition of the road.

There are some very important signs for us that don’t exist at all in Mexico. For instance the forbidden direction sign. Some other are in use only in Mexico or they are only in Spanish.

Overcome driving in Mexico

The Mexicans overcome at any condicion or situation if just can. If the road is only one lane each direction they expect that the next car heels to the maple to help overcoming. You will get use to that. But it will be still very dangerous. Take care!

Speed limits

We never saw anything to control the speed limit. There are some signs that warns about radars (very few) but we never saw phisically one of them. Almost nobody respects the speed limits. Drive very carefully!

  • driving in Mexico
  • driving in Mexico

Police controls while driving in Mexico

There are a lot of police controls. If you are a foreigner you probably be stopped often to check your documents. Our personal experience with Mexican police was not positive. We have been stopped 4 times on the road in 6.250 km in a month driving in Mexico. Three of them they tried to get some money from us by clear extorsion. Our tip is to keep calm, smile, try to cooperate, keep with you your documents if you can and never pay.

They will try ridiculous tricks, non-existent offenses to fine you and threats about keeping your documents. Even if they don’t find anything to say they can try with any surreal Covid mesure you are not respecting at the moment or even to ask directly a tip. Don’t forget they only want your money!

Trucks

There are crazy a lot! Since there are no many alternative roads in the jungle trucks are in every narrow road. They have to provide and move goods all around a country of 120 millions of inhabitants. Trucks are often slow and since there are that many they can easily stuck hard the traffic. Drivers use to overcome them at any circunstances. Watch out because they are longer than you might expect since many of them they are double deck.

Uno x uno signs in Mexico

One of our favorite rules in Mexico is “Uno por uno”. You will see those signs in many urban crossroads. It means that instead of respecting the right coming preference, cars must pass one by one alternatively from each direction. Policemen can fine you if you don’t respect that, even though in some occacions is quite hard to understand when is your turn.

Road sellers

They are a lot and everywhere. You can see them in towns and in the middle of nowhere. They can take the chance of selling at topes areas or where there are works on the road and cars must slow down. They don’t push drivers to buy since locals use often their services. Sometimes they can hide signs just because they set their stuff in front.

You can be shocked about the variety of stuff you can buy in Mexico from a street seller, from parrots or pillows to all kind of snacks and fruits.

Works on the road

There are an unbelieveable amount of works on the road. “Hombres trabajando” signs are very often present. It is difficult to understand according the current status of road conservation. Moreover, we have seen in very few occacions people working for real where they were supposed to be. Anyhow, be patient, they use to cut kilometers of a road even they are just waving you in some meters.

Traffic lights

They are not always where you would expect them. And they are not located where you should stop but ahead in the next crossroad. Just look for them and stop before arriving to your next crossroad. Otherwise you will miss them, actually this is very easy, and you will be suddently in the middle of the road breaking the law.

Lack of petrol stations while driving in Mexico

More than lack of petrol stations you will find absence of planification. In some areas there are a lot and in some others you won’t find any. Just get petrol if you can when your tank is half empty. Specially if you go to montain areas or inside jungles.

If you look for European services like coffee, a little store, a proper toilet, just stop at Pemex or Repsol.

Parking

There is a mess of colours and lines in many places so it is quite difficult to understand where you can park and where not. It is much better to park in private parkings where someone is taking a look on your car. There are some parking lots where it is mandatory to leave the keys to the stuff (in Puebla center is this way).

In some streets there are guys that wave you to park just on the street and the want tips to keep an eye on your car. Often you can park just a bit further for free.

Road blocks

It can happen for real in some territories that someone blocks the road. We faced a road block in Ocosingo, Chiapas, in July 2021. A community was demanding improvements on a bridge. They decided to take the Zapatists symbols, they took three policemen and one civil servant as hostages and they block the road. The mess of trucks and cars waiting for the opening was impresive but we have been told that nobody would come to reopen the road. So we needed to wait until the community decided to give up. We didn’t want to wait to find out when that might have happened so we added ten nice extra hours to our itinerary, getting back to San Cristobal de las Casas first and then drive to Villahermosa from there to reach Palenque this way the next day.

The main problem with the road block is that they always choose strategic locations such as bridges, single roads to acces to concrete destinations, exactly to achieve that somebody would react to their actions. For tourist this means to find a Plan B by an insane alternative road, sometimes completely messing up their itinery. The only way to know about road blocks upfront is to listen or read local news. Nobody would inform you in advance.

Google Maps while driving in Mexico

Google Maps can be your best friend in many countries, even in Mexico. Nevertheless in many countries in the world its maps are very trustworthy, in Mexico they can be outdated.

We have found new roads that there were not on Google Maps and they were in much better condicions (quicker and shorter) versus those outdated roads that Google Maps recommended. Be careful with some routes that Google maps can suggest since can confuse dirty roads with proper roads and keep your eyes open for the new road signs.

Final conclusions and tips for driving in Mexico

– Regardless all the obstacles that you have read above about driving in Mexico, try to plan ahead your driving path. It won’t be easy since in Mexico everything is unpredictable but it is always a better choice to have a route plan instead of choosing on the go random secondary roads in terrible condicions.

– Always prioratize cuota roads for your own sake

Follow our tips for renting a car

– Only stop for authorities on the go and even with them don’t be easy going

– Be ten times more careful than usual. Don’t relax even where seems to be a nice road.

– Driving in Mexico is an adventure. For good and bad.

– Calculate good the distances and decide where makes sense to drive and where to fly.

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