RULES AND ADVICE FOR DRIVING IN MEXICO:
Driving in Mexico is an adventure. It allows you the freedom to visit places off the beaten track, discover treasures, and see gems most people will never experience. My friends in the United States view us in awe that we would attempt such an adventure. They question if it’s true that the roads are dusty lanes amongst the cacti and that pandillas lurk are around every corner. Far from the truth. Mexico—believe it or not—has some of the best toll roads in the world. It can be a safe and relaxing experience. However, one must follow some simple common sense and a few rules. I have had the pleasure over the last decade to drive all over Mexico, with six kids in tow, and I have never encountered problems. However, I do follow some basic rules.
CHOOSING YOUR VEHICLE WHEN DRIVING THROUGH MEXICO:
Avoid bringing in an exotic car. Mexico is really the land of Chevys, Fords, Nissans, and Toyotas. Your exotic imported car will be difficult to repair if it should break down. I just had a friend tell me how her new transmission for her Volvo will cost $7,000usd to replace here and it needs to be airfreighted from Sweden! When in doubt, consider renting a car from any airport in the country.
Also, you do not want to draw unwanted attention to your expensive car. I would never drive a newer-model, blacked-out SUV. I follow a yahoo group in San Miguel de Allende. A company was offering a ride back to the United States in, “a suburban with federal plates”. One expat commented, “Hell no, its a cartels dream car!” A simple, older, and plain vehicle the best. Visit your mechanic and tell him what you’re planning. If it is your car, check the tires (make sure they are not unevenly worn) replace the old belts—ensure that your car can make it a long way without maintenance. Have your spare tire ready to go. Simple repairs now can save you the hassle of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. Get a front license plate, Mexican police love to pick on cars with no front plates. Pick up a good Mexican road map. I get a recent atlas from Guia Rojo, which is very detailed and up to date. Many expats love Garmins with preloaded Mexican maps.
CROSSING THE MEXICAN BORDER:
I always drive to the border and arrive in the evening the night before. I rest up in an American motel so that I am fresh and ready to cross bright and early in the morning. At first light, I am sure to hustle to to beat the traffic, while not arriving at night. You drive into the Mexican border town and customs (or aduanas) are about 15 miles inland. Be sure to read up what you need to cross the border. Avoid crossing in the evening, Mexican holiday weeks, or weekends (especially three-day weekends called puentes). Be aware of the rules, especially if you do not have a title and your car is financed. Your lender will need to provide a letter and permission.
CHOOSING YOUR MEXICAN CAR INSURANCE:
Your American car insurance will not cover your car in Mexico. You must buy a policy, so be sure to do this in advance. WeExpats sells Mexican car insurance and we represent all of the top insurance companies. A 30-day policy is as expensive as a 6-month policy. For a bit more you can cover yourself for an entire year. There is little or no underwriting. You can quote and print a policy quickly without added frustrations through WeExpats. It will cost about a fraction of what you are paying in the United States. Be sure to never get into an accident in Mexico without insurance. It is not pretty. Often when you’re a foreign traveler, you are guilty until proven innocent.
WHAT ARE THE ROADS LIKE IN MEXICO?
Many people are surprised that Mexico has great, fast, Mexican toll roads. You always have a choice of a libre (free) or a cuota (toll) road. Cuotas are well maintained, patrolled, and usually have very light traffic. Libres are loaded with the slow-moving, stereotypical old trucks with chickens. You will pay about $50 dollars for a long day of driving, but it is well worth it. You will remain safe, while ensuring a speedy arrival. Also keep those little toll receipts, if you break down or have an accident, there is supposedly some coverage for that.
GAS STATIONS IN MEXICO:
Gas used to be a monopoly controlled by one company called Pemex. These stations are still plentiful. All gas stations in Mexico are full-service stations. When you pull up, jump out and walk over to the attendant at the fill area. They will ask you whether you want an amount or a whole tank. Now you need to watch what he does. Make sure the pump is reset. An old trick is to add to the prior sale and you end up paying the previous tank as well as your tank. Also be very aware how you are paying. I estimate how much to put in and show the peso amount to the attendant. This way I do not need to deal with errors in change or a dispute of what bill I gave them. Be sure to tip the attendant a few pesos. This is customary. One little know fact, because of recent laws, gas is more expensive in Mexico—so be sure to mark that in your budget.
PIT STOPS ALONG THE WAY:
There are many choices as you travel throughout Mexico. All over Mexico are convenience stores that are modern, clean, and have great bathrooms. There are 7-Elevens—or a similar Mexican company called OXXO. Here you can get refreshments, simple snacks, and decent bathrooms. I have no problem eating street food, My wife and I follow the simple rule, a vendor who is busy and has a lot of locals is a good choice. Order what everyone else is eating. This will help you find reasonably fresh and safe food. Locals get sick also, and they wouldn’t frequent a vendor with problems.
THE ROADS ALONG THE WAY:
Mexico is loaded with great roads, however many of the toll roads seems to end in major cities. You will find yourself in a city, driving usually on a busy boulevard. Have someone navigate looking for the highway number or sign for the next big city. It might be just one small sign. If you get lost, stop by a OXXO store or flag down a police officer. Cell Phone GPS can be a lifesaver. Don’t keep driving around, before you know it, you’ll be deep in a city with a long way to the toll road.
If there are repairs in a road, you must be vigilant about unorthodox signs. Watch for a can, stick, or a rag in the road. This can be the only thing telling you that a repair or a breakdown is ahead. You might take a corner, and there is a can with a stick and a rag signaling that major work being done ahead. Mexicans are very bad about this.
SAFETY WHEN DRIVING THROUGH MEXICO:
Never drive at night. NEVER. Avoid big cities in the evening and rush hours. If you break down, pull over and call the Green Angels. Have their number handy. The Mexican car insurance we provide through WeExpats also has breakdown coverage. Be very cautious if someone pulls over to assist you. I always try to have at least a car-length of space when I stop at a light. I figure this offers me a cushion to bolt forward or out if someone attempts to carjack me. Have a few pesos in coins lying around. In major cities boys will run up to you and clean your windshield. I let them do it, smile and give them a few pesos. They are happy and you get a clean windshield. It’s not worth fighting them.
I keep a wallet with a lot of small bills and one credit card on me. My big stash is well hidden elsewhere in the car. I figure a thief will be happy with the token change in my wallet. Also be aware of a common scam, someone will throw something at the car, or throw something in your way. (I’ve heard of people throwing dead animals.) You think you have hit something and stop to investigate. You can imagine what happens next. Now that I have scared you. Once again I have never been a victim of a crime in Mexico!
HOW TO KEEP YOUR CAR SAFE IN MEXICO:
I install a basic on/off ignition switch that is well hidden in the car. This way no one can start the car. It cost about $60.00 at any local alarm shop. You can also buy a steering wheel lock that is a bar with a lock that goes over the steering wheel. It costs about 30 dollars. It is a great deterrent and will force the thief to go to the next car. It’s admit it, but if your car is stolen you will probably never see it again. I heard in San Miguel de Allende, 38 cars have been stolen expats in one year.
MILITARY CHECKPOINTS IN MEXICO:
You will come across these as you drive in Mexico. These are really meant for drug traffickers. Do not panic. Simply drive up, cooperate, smile, and 99% of the time they will wave you forward. If not, they will do a simple check. Be courteous, smile, and cooperate. The soldiers are usually 18-year-olds who are looking for drugs and just doing their job. A smile will really go a long way. Federales (Federal Police) are more intimidating because they are looking for drugs.
THE BRIBE OR MORDIDA:
There are many thoughts as to how to handle this if you are pulled over. Some people bribe their way out of these situations, some stand their ground. When I have been pulled over, I am guilty of bribing my way out of a traffic stop. However lately, I have decided to personally stand my ground. When I ask for the ticket, the officers usually lets me off. Many times the tickets for speeding are negligible. One creative expat carries an extra license that he got from his DMV for a few dollars. If his license is detained for a ticket, he has an extra.
IF YOU NEED CAR REPAIR IN MEXICO:
Ask other expats where they go. Repairs are inexpensive and very reasonable. Mexican mechanics are some of the most creative and ingenious that I have ever seen, but they usually can only work on basic repairs, such as: brakes, leaks, and the like. They try to repair parts instead of replacing parts. They will rewire an alternator or starter instead of getting a new one. They will craft new hoses out of old ones. If it involves a complicated repair, I would suggest letting the car dealer work on it. Mexican mechanics have a hard time saying no to a repair, and if it involves computer parts they can cause more damage than good.
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