Observations on Driving in Mexico’s Massive Capital City
I have been a regular visitor to Mexico City for the past 20 years and have taken just about all forms of transportation. It makes sense to use several different forms of transportation depending on the activities you are planning. Don’t automatically discount the car. I have started driving in Mexico City more and really like having the option.
A lot of people are intimidated to drive in a large city with challenging traffic and infrastructure. And rightfully so, it isn’t for everyone. However, I have noticed more and more experienced drivers taking up the challenge. A little bit of advanced planning goes a long way in Mexico City.
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: Overview
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 and the area is significantly larger.
In fact, as a federal entity, Mexico City functions much more like a state than it does a city. There are 16 independent delegaciones within Mexico City, the largest being Iztapalapa. Plus, there are huge municipalities in Mexico State that just continue the urban sprawl. The Valley of Mexico Metropolitan Area is massive to say the least.
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 is strictly enforced and you need to plan for it. Getting in and out of Mexico City is ridiculous but the toll plaza fast pass (Telepeaje) makes it way easier.
I think that the people who drive in Mexico City are some of the best drivers in the world. It is the people who 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.
Hoy No Circula and the Pase Turístico
Mexico City is very polluted and overpopulated with cars. To reduce traffic and pollution not all cars can circulate every day. High traffic times and days are restricted and depending on the last digit of your license plate you can not drive at all times.
Tourists with license plates from other parts of Mexico or international license plates are heavily restricted from driving at peak hours and on poor air quality days.
Hybrid and electric vehicles are exempt from the Hoy No Circula restrictions.
If your license 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 every day of the week as long as there is not a heavy pollution day (Contingencia ambiental).
Not all vehicles are eligible for a Pase Turistico. The last time I checked it was 2007 and newer vehicles.
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.
Telepeaje – Fast Pass Toll Transponder
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 by getting super lost as you are trying to exit the city because you can’t get through a toll plaza. And then you have to drive back across town to sit on the congested Constituyentes street.
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.
Driving At Night in Mexico City
There is an axiom in the expat community about driving at night in Mexico. Most people will say that you should never, under any circumstances, drive at night in Mexico.
I understand this belief when it comes to freeway travel and I mostly adhere to it. However, when it comes to city driving, I don’t mind driving at night.
When I first moved to Guadalajara, I got behind the wheel every night to drive around and learn about the city when there was no traffic. It was a good way to learn the main roads and how intersections worked in a less stressful manner.
The infrastructure in much of Mexico City is excellent with streetlights and clearn signage. When there is no traffic, it is easier to get the flow of the city.
I wouldn’t have a problem arriving at the Mexico City Airport after dark, renting a car, and going to my hotel.
I don’t recommend getting on the freeway to Acapulco but driving to Santa Fe or even La Condesa is super easy after dark.
Is Driving in Mexico City Dangerous? Pro Tips
Mexico City has both some of the safest and most dangerous municipalities in the country. 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.
✔️Become a Google Maps Pro User Before Getting In The Car
Get to know the Google Maps and Waze search settings. If you don’t have a 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.
Make sure you know where you are going before you get in the car. It is not possible to drive and use the maps application at the same time. Your focus needs to be 100% on the road.
I have found that the voice commands on my English-speaking phone do not understand the Náhuatl names of streets and restaurants.
✔️Avoid Rush Hour Traffic In Mexico City
I lived in Los Angeles, California for a number of years so I am familiar with intense rush-hour traffic. There are certain times of day that you do not want to be on the road if you can avoid it. Going just a few miles can take hours.
Do everything possible to avoid rush hour.
The morning rush hour starts before 7 am and runs until about 10 am.
Parents picking up their kids from school create a mini rush-hour around 2 pm in the afternoon on school days. This isn’t a city-wide rush hour but a lot of bottlenecks near schools.
Evening rush hour usually runs from about 5 pm until after 8 pm.
Saturday mornings in touristy areas like the Centro Histórico and Chapultepec Park can be congested.
Sunday after a three-day weekend the roads leading to Mexico City are brutal. There will be huge lines at the toll plazas and having an electronic transponder to pay the toll can save some time.
If you are going to be taking a day trip from Mexico City, make sure to plan around the traffic when leaving and entering the city.
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.
In addition to the extended travel times, 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.
✔️Don’t Drive With The Windows Down
There are always lots of people walking around in traffic washing windows, trying to sell something, or asking for money.
It is rare, but if the window is down someone could use a knife to take your cell phone or a watch. Keeping the window up is a small step that can save a lot of trouble.
We don’t drive with the windows down in big cities, especially at stoplights.
I use the window washers all the time but don’t roll the window down until the end to give them their money and then I roll it right back up.
Be careful at stoplights and always look out for pedestrians.
✔️Look Over The Traffic Laws
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.
Major roads have lanes of traffic that are exclusive to bikes or sometimes buses.
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 you soon enough.
✔️Look Both Ways No Matter What
Always look both ways when pulling out no matter if it is a one-way street. Motorcyclists, bicycles, and pedestrians don’t follow traffic rules.
There are tons of videos on the internet of people getting hit by something unexpected like a food cart or bicyclist coming down the wrong direction of a one-way street.
✔️Don’t Be a Jerk
Most importantly, don’t be a dick. You have to be aggressive but always have that one-and-one mentality. Let people in without holding up traffic.
On the same note, realize that you can not always give pedestrians the right of way. If there are multiple lanes of traffic and you are the only one stopping, it is even more dangerous for a pedestrian to step into traffic because they are hidden behind your vehicle. Don’t assume that other vehicles will stop for a pedestrian just because you do.
✔️Do Not Leave Anything In The Car When You Are Not There
People in Mexico City do not leave anything in their cars when they park. You can not leave luggage or a laptop computer in the vehicle and expect that they will be there when you return.
This is a hard rule that must be followed. Even a bag of dirty gym clothes is a target. Many times, the cost of replacing the window is much greater than the items that were stolen. Don’t do it.
✔️Get a Good Navigation System
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.
Parking in Mexico City
Look for off-street parking and pay parking lots. Parking on the street is always a risk, especially at night.
Many restaurants have valet parking or private parking lots. Don’t leave anything in the car. If you must leave something in the car document the items with the valet or the insurance will not cover them in case of theft.
Street parking is ruled by street urchins called viene-vienes or franeleros. They charge a fee to park on public streets and can get violent if you don’t pay.
It is not legal to put buckets or furniture in the street to save parking spaces but the practice is still common.
Where Should You Stay In Mexico City?
Everybody is going to tell you to start with Roma and Condesa but I think that is cliché. Mexico City has so much more to see.
According to the INEGI survey on the perception of safety in Mexico, the Benito Juárez and Cuajimalpa burrows are two of the safest places in all of Mexico.
Benito Juárez is directly below Cuauhtémoc (Roma and Condesa) and is one of the safest places in Mexico. This burrow includes the neighborhoods of Narvarte, Del Valle, Xoco, and Tlacoquemecatl.
Cuajimalpa is also very safe but it is on the far western side of the Metropolitan area next to Mexico State. It includes the neighborhoods of Cuajimalpa and Santa Fe, which are both lovely.
Our four favorite places to stay in Mexico City are the Centro Histórico, San Angel, Del Valle, and Coyoacán
✅ Downtown Mexico City Centro Histórico
Downtown Mexico City is built on top of Tenochtitlán, the old Aztec capital. It really is the first neighborhood that you should get to know in Mexico City. The murals in the Palacio Nacional and the mole at Café Tacuba are some of life’s great pleasures.
Once you are there, everything is within walking distance but the traffic on Saturday morning is brutal. On Sunday morning it is empty.
The Centro Historico has a well-defined tourist corridor from the Alameda to the Zócalo that is safe to walk all day. At night, it is better to use a vehicle
✅ San Angel
We have family that lives near San Angel. My mother-in-law lived in a Catholic boarding house in San Angel when she was in high school and college. Many of the buildings have stood for over a hundred years.
Walking the streets of San Angel and Chimalistac is better than walking in la Condesa and Roma. Eat at Restaurante El Carnenal and San Angel Inn.
✅ Del Valle and Narvarte
Del Valle is where people actually live. While Condesa and Roma are being taken over by short-term rentals, Del Valle and Narvarte still have a sense of community.
If you want to know what life is like for middle-class and upper-middle-class Mexico City locals, Del Valle is a great place to do that. The market and the food are excellent examples of traditional cuisine. Anthony Bourdain ate at Fonda Margarita in the Tlacoquemecatl Plaza. I loved Los Chamorros de Tlacoquemecatl which is across the street.
Coyoacán is a southern suburb of Mexico City that feels like a pueblo someplace in the country. There is a great deal of traditional culture, wonderful food, and great museums.
Get coffee at Café Avellaneda, eat breakfast in the Mercado de Coyoacán, and have dinner at Los Danzantes.
Final Thoughts on Driving in Mexico City
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 trust an Uber driver’s car seat anyways. There is an abundance of safe parking lots and valets that make life easy.