Tips for Driving in Mexico

While it’s true that some parts of Mexico should be avoided, other areas are about as safe as driving elsewhere in the world.  We recently traveled to the Yucatan, a relatively safe area to visit.  Renting a car in this area was a must for us because we really wanted to explore on our own and go beyond some of the typical tourist sites.  Based upon our experience, if you are planning a trip to Mexico here are our main tips for driving in Mexico.

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Stopping for a quick bite to eat on our way through the Yucatan

Driving in Mexico – Major Highways in the Yucatan, Mexico

Driving in Mexico isn’t much different from driving at home here in the States.  Major highways in the Yucatan Peninsula region of Mexico are relatively good.  The highway between the coastal resort towns of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum is a well maintained 4-lane divided highway.  Between Cancun and Merida, there are a couple options.  You can take the toll road, which is a well maintained divided highway.

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The toll booth on the road between Cancun & Chichen Itza (and Merida).

The toll road to Chichen Itza is fast because there isn’t much traffic, but there are very few entrances and exits.  So it makes it tough to stop off at small towns along the journey (and there are few gas stations).  You may also opt to take the main non-toll highway.  Overall, it’s a good road but it will go a bit slower because you are going through towns along the way.

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Taking the toll highway from Cancun to Chichen Itza. A great road!

Driving Rural Driving and Side Roads in the Yucatan, Mexico

Secondary highways in the Yucatan region of Mexico are in fairly good condition as well.  For example, we drove southeast from Chichen Itza to Coba and Tulum.  This highway was maintained quite well and it was fairly wide, even though it wasn’t a major divided highway.  When you pull off onto side roads or more rural highways, then you should be much more careful.  Specifically, the potholes will get you.  We joked that there were times on these side roads that it was an obstacle course to avoid the enormous, never-ending line of potholes!

Also Read:  Tips for International Driving

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Secondary highways are less crowded, but still pretty good condition – but still keep an eye out for potholes!

While driving in Mexico towns, the road conditions vary greatly.  Major touristy areas will have pretty well maintained roads, while some of the more local areas will have a lot of potholes to try and avoid.  Cancun is a great example of how pristine the roads may be in one area, and then a couple miles away be a totally different story.

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Driving in the center of Cancun – mainly locals.

Take Special Care When Driving in Mexico in the Rain

When it rains in the Yucatan area of Mexico, it pours like a monsoon!  This may lead to some flooding on the roads, even major roads in town.  So be careful when driving in Mexico during the rain, and go more slowly.  Not just because of the water, but because you can no longer see the potholes!

Watch the other traffic around you to see what they are doing.  Also, most of the Yucatan is fairly flat.  But any area that is low-lying will flood quickly.

For example, when we first picked up our rental car in Cancun it was pouring rain.  We actually had to adjust our route in town because of some low-lying roads in town that were filled with deep water!  We watched traffic back up to avoid this route…and we did the same!  The depth of the water can be deceiving, so just be cautious.

When Driving in Mexico, Beware of the “Topes”

Anyone driving in Mexico should beware of a little thing called “Topes.” They sneak up on you…and they can be scary if you are not paying attention.  Basically, “topes” are giant speed humps in the road – which your car will fly over at high speeds if you are not prepared!

The issue with “topes” are that they are difficult to see.  Typically, the only warning (if there is warning) you will get is one road sign with the word “topes” on it (so you better know what it means!) or maybe just an illustration of bumps in the road.  They are rarely painted — making it very difficult to see them, which is why they can sneak up on you.  Mostly, these speed humps are present you are entering a town.  So be on the lookout.

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Don’t miss the sign or you will be in for a surprise! “TOPES!”

Is Driving in Mexico at Night Safe?

Overall, we recommend against driving in Mexico at night.  In other regions of the country, it could be for security reasons, but in the Yucatan it is more about practical safety.  There isn’t much of any road lighting, especially on rural highways, and the lines are not painted on the road very brightly.  In some rural areas where the jungle is thick on both sides of the road, it can be difficult for even moonlight to light the way clearly.

Also, there is the issue of animals coming out on the road at night and being able to get help if you need it.  Lastly, there is the issue with drunken driving.  So night is not the best time to be on the road.

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Toll road to Chichen Itza – lots of jungle growth on both sides.

Fueling Up a Rental Car in Mexico

Unlike here in the States, there is only one state-owned fuel company in Mexico; “Pemex.”  The signs are pretty easy to spot, so know the name and keep an eye out for the stations.  The stations are full-service, meaning that workers will put the gas in for you.  Don’t get out of the car and attempt to put the gas in yourself.  You don’t pay extra for this service, you may tip if they perform extra services like checking your tires and washing the windshields, but you are not obligated to tip.  There are three different fuel options:  magna (regular), premium (high octane), and diesel.

If you are not fluent in spanish, the easiest way to make your purchase is to pull up next to the pump and when the worker comes up to your window simply say the dollar amount (and don’t forget to say please).  For example, “Hola señor. Cien pesos de Magna, por favor” – if you are unsure of your pronunciation, you can hold up the bill as well.

** Most payments are in cash, but a few take cards.  We would recommend cash and keeping an eye on the meter (make sure it starts at 0.00), to prevent being taken advantage of.  Lastly keep in mind that in Mexico gasoline in not sold in gallons, but liters (as it is in most of the world).

Police Check Points on Roads in Mexico

There are some police check points along the roads in Mexico.  Overall, don’t be concerned by it.  They are more of a physical presence to ensure security and keep an eye out for sketchy things.  They aren’t out to get tourists.  We actually were never stopped by any of them.  Just slow down, look at them politely and wave, and typically they will just wave you through (or even ignore you).  You don’t have to stop unless they signal you to do so (or if there is a sign).

Renting a Car in Mexico & Mexican Liability Insurance

Renting a car in Mexico is fairly easy.  However, there are some unique things to keep in mind; such as the mandatory Mexican Liability Insurance!  This topic gets a bit more complicated, so we wrote a whole separate post about renting a car in Mexico and purchasing the special insurance.  Click here to read the story.

We were lucky to find a great rental car company!

We’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people being overcharged for insurance and other crazy fees by car rental companies in Mexico.  However, we had a great experience with American Car Rental.  If you are interested in America Car Rental, click on the banner below to search rentalcars.com.  America is currently one of their vendors, and their price includes the mandatory Mexican Liability Insurance!

Final Tips for Driving in Mexico

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Following our GPS in Valladolid, Mexico made it easy to get around without feeling lost.

Overall, we really enjoyed driving in Mexico.  Making it even better was the fact that we brought our own GPS, so we never felt lost (well okay, maybe once…but that was because we accidentally had our GPS on walking mode instead of driving!).  You could also use your cell phone, but make sure you check that your phone will work internationally & that you don’t get charged crazy amounts for data!

As with anywhere, be sure to keep your valuables out of sight and be cautious and courteous.  Follow the rules, and don’t speed!  We are confident that with a bit of preparation, you will enjoy driving in Mexico as much as we did.

If you are looking for more ideas, or want to read more about our road trip around the Yucatan in Mexico, click here to read the story!


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15 thoughts on “Tips for Driving in Mexico”

  1. Thanks for these great driving tips! I am planning on renting a car while in Merida this fall to drive down to the Puuc Route Mayan Ruins. I have never driven in Mexico before and am hoping that all goes well! This post helped me to feel more prepared.

    1. So glad this post helped you feel prepared Brittany. We had a blast, but it can be nerve-wracking for the first time — especially when you don’t know what to expect. That’s why we’re here to share! 🙂

      Happy travels!
      -Liz

  2. Just spent a week in Playa Del Carmen area. Your blogs and posts really helped. Had an issue with car rental.
    We made arrangements through Auto Europe (they had the best rates and made sure we had what we needed insurance wise) we paid them for the car rental in advance and thought all was a go.. We got our confirmation and Hertz was the renal agency for the car. WE were to pick it up @Hertz downtown Playa Del Carmen. We made it to Hertz and they said we didn’t show up on time so they gave our car away and did not have another one to give us unless we upgraded. (we had paid for the car in advance and Hertz knew it ) but still gave the car away as we were 2 hours late, so Hertz beat us for about another $60 in order to upgrade and get a car (they have very few cars there and wouldn’t bring one in from another location) I complained but Hertz response was “it is not our problem you got a car”

    1. Hi Doug – thanks so much for the comment, and we are so glad that our post helped you out!

      We are terribly sorry to hear about your experience with AutoEurope and Hertz. Thanks for posting it here so that other travelers can be aware of this situation, in case they are planning a similar trip.

      We hope you enjoyed your trip!
      Happy travels!

      – Liz

  3. Hi there,

    Just wanted to thank you for the info. I am planning to go back to Mexico in the near future and now I feel more confident to rent a car there and have the liberty to have wheels.

    -Julia

  4. Dear Liz,

    Thanks for the detailed info. Just what I was looking for. Hopefully it will help us during our trip in December.
    I have a question. What are the chances of finding a place to sleep if we were to travel to Mexico with no reservations ? We are going to be backpacking are more of the hostel kind of travelers.

    Keep up the great work.

    Cheers
    Naveen

    1. Hey Naveen – thanks for reading, I’m glad you found it helpful!

      It is possible to find places to stay in the area without reservations, but December is a popular time for visitors. So you could have some difficultly in certain areas. To save time, you may consider doing a bit of advanced research and saving some phone numbers to contact people on the road once you decide where you want to go. It’s never fun roaming around a town lugging your packs while trying to find a place to stay. So maybe that will make it easier to call ahead and save you some time.

      Cheers to you and have fun!
      Liz

  5. I would take issue with your suggest rental car company. I have used American Car Rental and found them unreliable. I tried them twice on good recommendation but our experience was not good. One time they tried to give us a car with bald tires. Another time they forced us into a 3 year old high mileage car with lots of wear and a window that wouldn’t roll down. Their online quote never matched the actual price they charge.

    We have used Alamo at the Cancun airport the past 5 times and had great luck. The quote always matches the price. Courteous employees with good english. Always gotten a clean low mileage car.

    1. Hello David – thanks for reading and adding to the thread. Bummer to hear about your experience with America, but good to hear you have had good experiences at another company. It’s always good to have options so that people can choose whichever company they feel more comfortable renting from.

      Happy travels to you!
      Liz

  6. Driving in Mexico was intimidating at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly (it helps that most of the traffic rules are the same). I hear what you’re saying about the rain – I got caught in a HUGE (or maybe normal I guess) rainstorm on highway 307 and one of my wipers whipped off! I pulled over until the rain slowed down, which didn’t take long. Other than that, driving was super easy, just like you say in your post. 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading Heather and for the comment!

      Yeah that rain can really get you, we had a couple times where we had to turn around and take other streets because we just didn’t trust the depth of the water (and maybe a hidden hole!). But it really isn’t that bad, especially for those who are up for a bit of adventure!

      Cheers!
      Liz

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