Driving in Mexico can be a lot of fun, but it certainly comes with its challenges – I only know too well! The first time I visited Mexico with my sister, we decided to rent a car and embarked on a road trip that took us all the way from Mexico City to Cancun, passing through San Cristobal and Palenque, in Chiapas; Merida; Valladolid and Tulum before finally returning our car at Cancun Airport and flying back home.
If you are considering renting a car for your Mexico trip, you should definitely get yourself acquainted with what driving in Mexico implies. Here are a few things you should know – based on our experience.
Check out the prices of car rental in Mexico here.
What You Must Know About Driving In Mexico
Though driving in Mexico is relatively simple, the first things you have to understand are the rules of the road, of course. This is the obvious way to start – especially when you’re driving on unfamiliar roads! Here are a few of the very basic things you should know in Mexico.
Driving is on the right
In Mexico, cars drive on the right and overtake on the left. Cars are left hand drive. It’s the same as in the US and many places across the world. However, if you’re coming from somewhere like Japan, Australia or the UK, for example, you’ll have to get to grips with driving on the “wrong” side of the road (and that can take some getting used to).
Understanding the speed limit of the area you’re driving in is really important in Mexico. Although there are various speed limits depending on what type of road you’re driving on, it’s not uncommon to see locals speeding. Even so, that doesn’t mean that you should!
In urban areas, the speed limit is between 30 and 70 kph. In rural areas, 90 kph. On the highways, the speed limit is 100 to 120km/h.
Don’t think about breaking the speed limit – there are multiple police checkpoints, particularly in areas around Cancun and Tulum, where you could easily get pulled over by the police if you’re caught speeding – it happened to us as we were driving back to Cancun Airport and it resulted in a fine we had to pay on the spot so we could go and not risk missing our flight!
Throughout Mexico there are a number of speed cameras that are fixed usually located on the outskirts of cities and on urban roads. These usually catch drivers coming off highways onto lower speed limit roads.You also may come across speed enforcement units who will give you a ticket on the spot if they catch you speeding.
Mention driving in Mexico to anyone who’s been there, and the police are bound to come up in the conversation. It’s true, these guys will undoubtedly stop you at some point during your trip if you’re driving.
They may pull you over for something you’ve done, and other times they may just make up some traffic infringement that you’ve apparently committed. There are stories of people having to pay bribes to police in Mexico, which obviously isn’t very ethical or something I recommend, but this sort of thing can happen particularly in the Maya Riviera. It’s just something to take note of.
You may be on vacation, but wearing a seat belt when you’re behind the wheel is still really important – that goes for your passengers too. Everyone in the vehicle is required by law to wear a seat belt at all times.
If you don’t, you may be pulled over by the police or just be waved at and reminded to wear your seat belt. Of course, it’s not just about the law – it’s about being safe too!
Toll roads are the most well maintained, quickest, and most straightforward places to drive in Mexico – and there are many of them. Called cuotas in Spanish, these are the most popular way to travel long distances.
In fact, the Department of State advises driving on toll roads because of their level of safety and high standard of road conditions. Toll roads are also recommended as, outside of large urban hubs, there’s limited access to roadside services and police, and toll roads allow them to respond quickly to anything that happens.
Insurance is required
Even if you are covered by insurance via your credit card or otherwise, you will still need to have Mexican insurance for any vehicle you drive in Mexico – hire car or otherwise. That’s just the rules!
Minimum third-party insurance is required. Check before you start your journey that you are covered by the correct insurance.
Using cell phones is prohibited
Don’t think about taking that call or sending a message when you’re behind the wheel – if you get caught you could be pulled over and fined by the police. It’s best just to leave your phone alone and focus on the road ahead (and safer, too).
Roads come in all shapes and sizes in Mexico – from the modern, well-maintained toll roads, through to toll-free highways and all the way to small roads that pass through villages, and roads that are no more than dirt tracks.
Toll roads are the fastest and safest, but if you want to see a little more local life, then you may want to take some deviations through local villages and see some more natural scenery. To get to some places – cenotes in particular – driving on more local roads such as this is unavoidable.
If you’re unfamiliar with driving in Mexico, you may not know about topes. This is the word for “speed bumps” in Mexico, but they’re not used how you might expect them to be.
Often unmarked and found on all different types of roads, you really need to make sure to look out for these. Some topes can even damage your vehicle if you hit them at speed. Mostly, you’ll find them close to rural villages and outside of towns. They can be made out of concrete or rocks, and are always quite extreme to drive over, so be careful!
While topes may be a purposely created hazard, potholes aren’t and can be just as damaging. Many roads in Mexico, especially those that aren’t toll roads and therefore less well maintained, can often have large potholes. Sometimes these can be hard to spot – in some cases, all the warning you’ll get is the person in front of you suddenly swerving at the last minute. If they’re unavoidable, take it slowly to avoid damaging the car.
Not only will you have to watch out for other drivers, topes, and potholes, but you’ll also have to pay attention to other hazards that can be found on Mexico’s roads.
Sometimes you may find people walking on the side of roads, especially on the outskirts of urban areas and villages, so be very careful when passing. Wild animals and dogs can easily stray across roads, so you should really pay attention.
You’ll also have to watch out for motorbikes and mopeds which overtake from both the left and right, and almost always without warning. Make sure you check your mirrors at all times.
Getting your head around roundabouts may be tricky if you are not accustomed to them as we are in Europe, but it’s important that you understand how they work in Mexico. These traffic circles are a bit daunting at first, but the main thing to note is that the cars on the roundabout already have the priority, so you need to give way to them (not the other way around). What that means is that you have to wait to enter the traffic on the roundabout.
If you’ve gone the wrong way on a highway, don’t worry, you won’t have to wait for the next exit. Just look out for retornos. These dedicated lanes of the highway allow you to make a U-turn to the left and go back the way you came – very handy if you’ve missed your turning!
It’s always important to make sure you have enough gas in your tank before setting off on a journey in Mexico. Depending on where you are and where you’re traveling to, there may not be much access to gas stations on the road – that’s definitely the case on the road from San Cristobal to Palenque, in Chiapas.
If you do pass a gas station on your route, it’s a good idea to top up until full – you never know when the next one is going to pop up.
Another thing to note is that not all gas stations will be able to take a credit card, so it’s a good idea to keep some pesos in your car when you need to pay for gas. Many gas station attendants may even check your oil and clean your windscreen for you which is lovely, and you should tip them a few pesos for their trouble.
In smaller towns without gas stations, you may be able to find a small store that sells gas. Just ask a local if there’s one of these nearby.
Driving in Mexico at night
It is not advised to drive at night in Mexico. It’s completely fine to drive in the daylight hours, but you should make sure that your journey is completed before the sun goes down for a variety of reasons.
One of the main dangers is the fact that many of Mexico’s roads are not lit, so dangerous hazards – such as topes, potholes, and animals ion the road – won’t be obvious or even visible. It’s also just so much easier to get lost at nighttime, especially if you’ve spent the day at a cenote and need to travel back along rural roads. Finally, driving at night puts you at higher risk of being caught up with the wrong sort of people.
All in all, driving at night in Mexico is just not a good idea!
Driving under the influence
It’s illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol in Mexico. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.08%. Driving under the influence of alcohol or any other substance will put you at high risk of being in a dangerous situation and being pulled over by police.
Driving In Mexico – Frequently Asked Questions
Do you Need an International Driver’s License in Mexico?
If you have an American driving license, you do not need an international driver’s license to drive in Mexico. A selection of other countries are also exempt from having to acquire an international driver’s license ahead of travel.
Whether you are able to use your own license, or an international one, you still must have it on you and in the car at all times when you are driving. A good rule of thumb is that you’ll need to get an international driver’s license if your driver’s license is not in English (but that’s not always the case).
How old do you need to be to drive in Mexico?
The minimum driving age in Mexico is 15, although that is with parental supervision. The age for driving independently is 18. However, you have to be 21 or older in order to rent a car in Mexico. Some rental car companies may charge a young driver surcharge if you are under the age of 25.
Do you need to speak Spanish?
Being a Spanish-speaking country, it really pays to have some basic Spanish phrases under your belt when you travel to Mexico. When it comes to driving, knowledge of Spanish is important. You’ll be able to ask for directions, ask for help, talk to police if you need to, and even do simple things like read road signs. Maybe keep a Spanish phrasebook in the car, just in case.
Is driving in Mexico safe?
Mexico is a large country with a variety of different roads and regions with different approaches to road safety. Depending on where you are planning to drive in Mexico, some places are safer than others.
Driving in Mexico offers up an amazing way to see the country and explore at your own pace. Although it can feel daunting at first, it’s actually not too scary. In general, it’s safe, but you should do your research about your intended destinations before you hop behind the wheel.
There are a few precautions you should take on a road trip – for starters, making sure your phone is fully charged, having a full gas tank, and not driving at night.
Where can I park in Mexico?
Some hotels and accommodation in Mexico offer free parking or parking at an additional cost to your room rate. Many of the top sights have specific car parks, but others – such as more remote beaches, cenotes, and some Mayan ruins – will have an unofficial car park. Often there are unofficial parking attendants who you should pay a few pesos for helping you navigate into a space.
In cities and urban areas, parking can be a real pain, but you should always park in a designated, safe spot where your car can be clearly seen.
These posts will come in handy when planning a trip to Mexico:
- The Best Travel Tips For Mexico
- How To Get From Mexico City To Puebla
- How To Get From Mexico City To Oaxaca
- How To Get From Cancun To Merida
- How To Get From Cancun To Tulum