Observations on driving in Mexico’s Behemoth of a Capital City
I have been a regular visitor to Mexico City for the past 15 years and taken just about all forms of transportation. In the last few years I have started driving more. Driving in Mexico City is intense but I grew up in San Diego and have spent much time in Tijuana. The San Ysidro border crossing is good practice for taking on Mexico City. Sure Mexico City is way more complex but the ability to push your way into an aggressive merge while not getting hit is an art form. These are some observations that I have made about driving in Mexico City and enjoying the ride.
Driving in Mexico City is not as bad as everybody makes it out to be. The infrastructure in many parts of the city is better than what I am used to driving in Guadalajara. However the rules are much more complex. Hoy No Circula is enforced seriously and you need to plan around it. Getting in and out of Mexico City is ridiculous but the toll plaza fast pass (Telepeaje) makes it way easier.
Driving in Mexico City requires a lot of planning. From the route that you are going to take to the time that you are going to be on the road. Nobody wants to be stuck in traffic, under a bridge, in a horrible part of town as you are just arriving and looking for that hotel. Or even worse, stuck in a jigsaw puzzle in Chimalistac because the streets are barely wide enough for one car yet the street is meant for two-way traffic.
Hoy No Circula and the Pase Turístico
Mexico City is very polluted and overpopulated with cars. To reduce the traffic and pollution not all cars can circulate everyday. High traffic times and days are restricted and depending on the last digit of your licence plate you can not drive at all times. Check out the link to see what days and times your licence place is not allowed to be on the road.
If your licence plates are not from Mexico City or the neighboring states you are eligible for a Pase Turistico. You are allowed two weeks of the Pase Turistico to circulate freely every six months. The pase turistico allows you to drive everyday of the week as long as there is not a heavy pollution day (Contingencia ambiental).
If you are going to be doing any driving in Mexico City you have to research the days that your vehicle is not eligible to be on the roads and plan accordingly. Avoid driving at those times or get a Pase Turistico. Plan ahead during the holidays. I am not 100% sure on this but I think they are limited. During high season you may not be able to sign up Sunday night and get a pass for Monday morning.
You will come to be a Google Maps or Waze expert while driving in Mexico City. You have to. Until you purchase the telepeaje, or the toll plaza electronic fast pass, you need to adjust the Google Maps settings to avoid toll highways. The second story of the periferico is a toll road that does not allow you to pay in cash. It is electronic only. Making this mistake will cost you hours of headaches.
There is nothing worse than starting a 6 hour drive and getting super lost as you are trying to get out of town because you can’t get through a toll plaza. And then you have to drive back across town to sit on the parking lot that Constituyentes turns into at rush hour .
Buy the toll plaza fast pass at any OXXO before you get to Mexico City. It will be way cheaper. There are people reselling the devices at the toll booths but they are charging double what it costs at OXXO and there is no guarantee that it actually has any money loaded on it.
The Telepeaje device costs $150 pesos but does not come with any preloaded credit. There is a $100 peso minimum credit which will get you in and out of the toll plazas that don’t accept cash. I recommend putting a little more credit on the device to save time at the freeway toll plazas.
Planning & Safety
There are a lot of areas of Mexico City that are very dangerous. Planning is essential. Make sure you know where you are going before you get on the road and double check the directions and route. That restaurant in La Condesa might have the same name as a street in Tepito and you do not want that surprise.
Get to know the Google Maps and Waze search settings. If you don’t have the Telepeaje device then you need to select a route with no toll plazas. Try to stay out of neighborhoods that are notoriously dangerous like Tepito and Ciudad Neza.
Do everything possible to avoid rush hour. There is a constant cat and mouse game between police and thieves that rob people stuck in traffic jams. Right now Constituyentes, one of the main entrances to the city, is safe and has a heavy police presence. Not long ago thieves would hold up drivers stuck in traffic. The practice is still common on other streets with less police presence. We don’t drive with the windows down in Mexico City.
Tips for Driving in Mexico City
I think that the people that drive in Mexico City are some of the best drivers in the world. It is the people that are not from Mexico City that are making most of the mistakes. Unlike Guadalajara, the drivers in Mexico City tend to use their turn signals. There is little room for mistakes but most drivers understand how to merge in a one-and-then-another fashion. If you are on your cell phone holding up traffic you will be told not to do so with a lot of honking and rude gestures.
There are a lot of rules needed to manage the roads in a city this size. There is no right turn on a red light (Vuelta Continua). The yellow lights are quicker than expected. Don’t block intersections. There are photo infractions everywhere. While your out of state or foreign plates might not get a ticket in the mail right now I guarantee they are going to find your soon enough. Most importantly, don’t be a dick. You have to be aggressive but always have that one-and-one mentality.
Early Sunday morning and late at night is a great time to drive because there are very few people on the road. Saturday afternoon in the Centro Historico is a horrible time to be on the road because the rest of the city is also looking for a limited number of parking places.
I am a Google Maps power user and really enjoy having the navigation system with traffic alerts on the big screen. It is nice to be able to call out directions and my music selection. The stereo that my truck came with had a cassette player. I don’t have a CD collection anymore let alone cassette tapes. I exclusively use Spotify and Audible. I have listened to some amazing audiobooks while driving back and forth between the US and Mexico.
The Toyota Land Cruiser is a large vehicle. The same day I bought the truck, I pulled into a parking garage and thought, I wish I had a backup camera. Parking spaces are smaller in Mexico than they are in Texas or California for that matter. The backup camera helps me park more efficiently and fit into smaller spaces. and most of the spaces in Mexico City are smaller spaces.
If you aren’t going to get a new car stereo, at least invest in a good mount for your phone. I feel that some sort of navigation system is a necessity while traveling to a new place where everything is new. I used this mount for years before I got the new stereo. We have them in both my car and my wife’s car. The phone attaches to your phone with a magnet and installs to a vent in one second. I bring this clip with me when I travel and rent a car because it is so convenient.
Lastly, enjoy the ride. Mexico City is amazing. Having a vehicle can make the trip easier in a lot of ways. We have a young child and lug a lot of stuff around for him. Plus, I wouldn’t truck an Uber driver’s car seat. There is an abundance of safe parking lots and valets that make life easy.