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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!