Mexico is a beautiful country and having a car can be the ultimate form of freedom. A vehicle gives you the ability to explore the cobblestone backstreets of pueblos magicos, off-the-grid beaches, and the urban districts of cosmopolitan metropolises. It is really enjoyable to pull over on a whim and eat seafood at a roadside stand, explore the agave fields, or go look for a beautiful beach that someone told you about. However, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask the internet, “Is it safe to drive in Mexico?”
This is my attempt to answer that question in detail and help you avoid the most common risks. I am combining a data-driven approach with personal experience.
Many of the most vocal critics have never actually changed a tire on the side of the freeway in Tlajomulco or fell in love with Culiacán the way that I have.
There is a lot of nuance to driving in Mexico. Renting a car in Cancún to drive down to Tulum is very different from planning a cross-country surf trip across Mexico.
The driving experience changes greatly between urban and rural locals but it is all manageable with the right guide.
I learned to drive in the sand dunes south of Rosarito Beach in Baja California and I have lived in Guadalajara since 2009. My family and I road trip all over the country to vacation and visit family.
Confidently driving in Mexico City is a personal accomplishment that I enjoy greatly. I want to help you feel the same level of autonomy and safety that I have developed over the years.
Is It Safe To Drive In Mexico: An Overview
No, driving is an intrinsically dangerous activity but drivers can take some basic precautions to minimize risk and avoid the statistically common problems. Ask any tow truck driver, highway transportation worker, or experienced traveler. There are a lot of bad drivers out there and you need to anticipate their errors.
All of those little white crosses and altars along the side of the road are there for a reason.
Recently, a tow truck driver and I were hypothesizing about a YouTube channel analyzing driver error in traffic accidents called “Why did you do that?”
Most people Googling, “Is it safe to drive in Mexico” are probably thinking about the high-profile cartel violence, carjacking, and kidnapping. While that does exist, it is much less common than the US news media will make it seem.
There are both safe and unsafe places in Mexico and it isn’t too hard to mitigate the unsafe challenges by staying on top of the news.
The real danger when driving in Mexico is a traffic accident.
Why Is It Dangerous To Drive In Mexico?
The driving culture in Mexico is challenging to adjust to. An uneven application of the law, minimal driver’s education, and regional traffic norms mean that many drivers do not know how to react in the face of a surprise.
Mexican traffic police and drivers in certain parts of the country are notoriously corrupt. There is an effort to professionalize the police force all across Mexico but lots of people still think they can buy their way out of a DUI by throwing a $100 peso bill at a cop after wrecking three cars.
Corruption supports an uneven application of the law and drivers do not respect the traffic regulations that are meant to decrease accidents and save lives.
Getting a driver’s license in Mexico does not require any type of formal driver’s education. I got a license in Jalisco and it required a ten-question, multiple-choice test on a computer where people would freely share answers and discuss the questions.
Most of the questions are obvious and even the few difficult questions have a 25% chance of correctly selecting at random. Very few people actually bought the study guide with a detailed description of the regional rules of the road.
The driving portion of the test was driving around in a small circle and parallel parking in a private parking lot with no other traffic. There is no way that level of training will prepare a driver for rush hour in Guadalajara.
Regionally, the driving changes greatly in Mexico. The infrastructure in Mexico City is amazing but very complicated. People use turn signals in different ways in the city and the country.
A right turn at a red stop light is illegal in some states and legal in others.
It is important to research the rules of the places you will be visiting. Showing up to Mexico City on a day that you are not allowed to operate will usually end in the impound yard or with an expensive bribe.
Driving In Mexico
Learning to drive in Mexico takes a little adjustment. Pedestrians are given zero consideration on the streets in Mexico.
Drivers park on the sidewalk pushing pedestrians into traffic. I have pushed a stroller all over central Mexico and 90% of drivers do not yield to pedestrians at a crosswalk.
Large traffic circles, glorietas, are particularly dangerous for pedestrians because so many drivers don’t know how to correctly change lanes to exit.
There is a stop sign near my house that I have never seen another driver actually stop at. Most do not even slow down unless there is another car coming.
Drivers hate cyclists (the feeling is mutual) and bus drivers assassinate cyclists without a thought of stopping to render aid. I have seen more flagrant hit-and-run accidents in Mexico than I ever saw back home.
Urban motorcyclists don’t follow many of the traffic rules. They blow through stoplights and stop signs, and they can avoid speed bumps meant to slow down traffic at dangerous intersections.
Pedestrians need to be wary of motorcycles on the sidewalks because they have a reputation for stealing cell phones out of the hands of unsuspecting tourists.
Always look twice because you never know when someone is coming in the wrong direction down a one-way street.
Having the right of way is less important than avoiding an accident. Many times it is hard to prove who was at fault after the fact and the insurance companies call it a draw. I was rear-ended by a driver with no driver’s license let alone insurance and lucky it was minor and the police didn’t have to get involved.
Driver error is responsible for the vast majority of traffic accidents. Distracted driving, speeding, inopportune lane changes, and a general lack of preparation are the most common problems that travelers run into.
The fact that you are Googleing advice on how to be safe while driving in Mexico is a big step in reducing your exposure to risk.
Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP)
Foreign vehicles need special permits to drive in much of Mexico and there are limits on who may apply for those permits and what kinds of vehicles apply.
Drivers agree to remove their vehicle from Mexico by a certain date or else forfeit the deposit and risk seizure of their vehicle. Visitors must turn in their TIP upon leaving Mexico.
The TIP may be applied for in person at the border or near the border. There is an online pre-qualification that saves time waiting in line at the border on busy days but you still have to stop and get a stamp anyway.
I have read a lot of people complaining that making changes to their itineraries by just a day can complicate their paperwork and even require them to pay a second fee.
The current consensus on the forums is that it is best to apply for a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP) in person on the day you cross the border and not in advance.
The one exception would be during snowbird migration season when the lines can get rather long right before the winter holidays. Just make sure you don’t need to make any changes.
Temporary residents and drivers with 6-month tourist visas must maintain vehicle registration in their home country for the TIP and insurance to be valid. Expired tags will get you pulled over.
The organization issuing the permits is Banjercito (Banco Nacional del Ejército Fuerza Aérea y Armada) on behalf of the SAT (Servicio de Administración Tributaria).
- Passport or passport card
- Valid Driver’s License or International Driving Permit
- Forma Migratoria Múltiple (FMM) tourist card or temporary resident visa. Permanent resident visa holders are not eligible for temporary vehicle import permits.
- Registration or title
- Permission letter if the vehicle is finances
- Birth certificate or marriage certificate proving kinship if the vehicle is registered to another person.
Mexican Auto Insurance
Buy it. It is the difference between having a big problem and not having a problem.
I recommend Baja Bound Mexican Insurance. I used them for years before buying a Mexican-plated car and I found nothing but positive experiences when searching the expat forums about Mexican insurance.
Drivers without Mexican insurance risk being detained even after a minor traffic accident that was not their fault. In many cases, the cars block traffic until insurance adjustors go to the scene of the accident and fill out their reports.
If you do not have an insurance adjustor on your side at the scene of the accident, and maybe your Spanish lacks some of the advanced automotive or insurance vocabulary words, and the other guy does have an adjustor, that opposing insurance adjustor will railroad you and make you pay way more than you should.
If somebody is injured, even fictitiously, it becomes a matter for the criminal courts. My sister-in-law nudged someone who walked into traffic outside of the crosswalk. There were no injuries but the lady claimed there were injuries and it went to court. You do not want to enter into that kind of situation without having someone to talk to. You need an insurance adjuster to come to the scene ASAP.
While not common, there are scam artists called “monta choques” that drive banged-up cars and cause traffic accidents to extort money from inexperienced drivers.
They cause a minor accident, sometimes working with another vehicle to box a car in, then aggressively demand cash from the driver. If that happens, you get in the car and call the insurance company immediately.
The monta choques usually drive away before the insurance adjustor arrives because they won’t get any money from your insurance company for a staged accident.
Additionally, car insurance covers some level of roadside assistance.
Buying Mexican car insurance is an absolute must while driving in Mexico.
Toll Roads and Free Roads
Mexico has an interstate highway system that uses both toll roads (Quotas) and free roads (Libres). Many first-time visitors are surprised at the cost of the tolls but experienced travelers consider the cost a worthwhile expense. The toll roads generally save lots of time on long drives. You can estimate the cost of tolls with the Mexican government app.
The toll roads in Mexico are usually built with modern engineering technology and are safe to be driven at 70 mph or more. Toll roads connect mostly major cities like Guadalajara to Mexico City while the free roads go into the country and the coast.
Many times, the toll road is not complete and drivers will switch between toll roads and free roads without realizing it. Interstate 15 in Sonora and Sinaloa is a good example of a stretch of highway that you sometimes have to pay for and sometimes you don’t.
Driving to Sayulita requires both toll highways and some backtracking on free roads.
It is important to drive slowly on the free road because of the large number of obstacles like potholes, livestock, and speed bumps. The free roads are not meant to be driven quickly.
One of the benefits of paying the toll road fee is the minor insurance policy they give you while driving on the road. My wife had a windshield replaced because of debris that was kicked up because of construction.
I see a lot of people saying to stick to the toll roads and avoid the free roads altogether. That needs some context.
When driving long distances like from the border in Nogales, Arizona to Guadalajara, Jalisco, the toll road is the best option for most of the trip.
But don’t be afraid to get off the toll road to visit some of the more secluded beaches and small towns. Many of the most fascinating destinations in Mexico are not connected to toll roads.
The Baja Peninsula south of Ensenada has no toll roads. The Tequila Route in Jalisco is far more enjoyable taking the free road through the small towns and agave landscapes. I make detours for tacos, birria, and seafood at famous establishments all the time. Getting off the freeway to explore rural areas is one of the best parts of driving through Mexico.
With a few exceptions, tolls must be paid in Mexican pesos and credit card machines are not common. Make sure to plan out how much cash you will need to pay the tolls in a day.
I use a fast pass ‘TAG’ or ‘Telepeaje’ transponder to pay the tolls as often as I can. Before going on a big trip, I load up my ‘tag’ transponder with the cash that I need for the trip. The fast pass has special lanes that allow you to skip the lines at the toll booths. When there is no traffic the time savings is negligible. When there is traffic, the toll booths can get really backed up. I like to have the toll pass.
Having a TAG transponder is particularly important when driving in Mexico City because many of the toll booths for the second story of the periferico do not accept cash, only TAG transponders.
The transponders are for sale in a large number of national stores like convenience stores, supermarkets, and pharmacies. I bought mine at OXXO and usually put money on it there. If you look at the website you can see the full list of partners that accept payment for toll boths.
You can register the TAG transponder on the pase website and see all the tolls that you have paid.
Not every toll booth accepts the Pase TAG transponders. There are always a few toll booths in Sinaloa that are not connected to the system.
DUI, FGR, and Military Checkpoints
There are checkpoints all over the place on free roads, toll roads, and city streets. Some of the officials are courteous and professional while others are not.
It is important to remember that these officers are the front-line soldiers fighting a drug war. Most of them are working to keep Mexico safe. Occasionally, you will come across some corrupt agents who want to extort money from travelers.
Many travelers report that dashcams reduce the likelihood of blatant shakedowns. If you are the victim of government extortion, there is an app called Denuncia Paisano that will help you report the incident.
In my experience as a sober driver in Guadalajara, the DUI checkpoints in the city are always professional. Drinking and driving was a real problem in Guadalajara when I first arrived in 2009. The professionalization of the transit police is a breath of fresh air.
The FGR (Fiscalía General de la República) is another agency that conducts checkpoints along the roads in Mexico. They are a part of the attorney general’s office on the national level that is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of federal crimes. On the freeways, this is usually money laundering, arms smuggling, and drug trafficking.
The FGR agents are often dressed in a way that many people confuse them for non-government employees operating an independent checkpoint. They wear tan pants, and black shirts (that rarely have an FGR logo), and cover their faces with a scarf that resembles a kaffiyeh. The first questions out of their mouths are if you are carrying drugs or weapons, and how much money you have in cash.
My vehicle was taken apart by a group of 6 FGR agents. They removed and searched every bag in the vehicle. Lifted up the carpets, took out the stereo, and removed paneling over the course of an hour.
They mostly put the vehicle back together when they were finished and only an iPod was missing when they were done.
An uncoordinated agent accidentally dropped the entire contents of my mother-in-law’s suitcase onto the asphalt while attempting to open it. It was more incompetent than malicious.
I still get nervous going through FGR checkpoints because they are often aggressive asking for things they come across like flashlights or change. I have heard on more than one occasion if I would like to help them get some sodas.
Gas Stations In Mexico
The gas stations in Mexico sell a high ticket item and travelers must be prudent during the process. I don’t want to be sensationalist but there is some level of fraud at the pumps in Mexico. Even if it is less than one fraction of one percent, it is important to take some basic precautions.
In Mexico, drivers do not pump their own gas. Gas station attendants pump the gas. Fraud was so common in the past that now, every time you get gas, the gas station attendant has to say, “check that the pump is starting at zero.”
The oldest trick in the book is to start the pump at $200 pesos that was put in someone else’s gas tank and charge you for the full tank.
When pumping gas I always get out of the car and stand at the pump, stretch my legs, and keep an eye on the pump.
I prefer to pay in cash at gas stations that I do not know. If I do pay with a credit card, I ask the gas station attendant to bring the credit card terminal to the pump. I do not let them take my credit card away from my view where it can easily be cloned.
When paying in cash, it is important to count out the bills for the gas station attendant. You can not hand the attendant a wad of bills, get distracted by the windshield washer, and expect the attendant to count out the total on his own.
It is ever too common for that attendant to swap out a $500 peso bill for a $50 peso bill and say that you short-changed him. Make the attendant acknowledge the total that you gave him before averting your attention.
I hear about this scam all the time in the expat forums. It happened to me once when I wasn’t paying attention. It happens to both tourists and locals alike. Read the reviews of the Pemex station on Highway 200 at Sayulita. They have horrible reviews both in English and Spanish.
Pumping gas is a high-ticket item that invites scams. The corruption runs deep and hustling travelers is actually small potatoes compared to the wholesale theft of gasoline by organized crime.
Driving At Night In Mexico
There is another mantra in the expat groups that is repeated religiously without enough context. Never drive at night in Mexico.
This is very good advice for first-time drivers entering Mexico on a long distance road trip. It is particularly important when traveling between towns to stop before it gets dark.
The free road has tons of obstacles that are nearly invisible after dark. There are no streetlights on the highways and a speed bump or a cow can sneak up on you really quickly.
I have done my fair share of driving at night in Mexico and the most stressful part is my eyes being blinded by the lights of oncoming traffic. The two-lane highway, a windy road into Puerto Vallarta is shared with a lot of big trucks with powerful lights.
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust from pitch black to staring down some high beams. That oscillation of light, dark, light, dark is stressful and gives me a headache.
When it comes to driving at night in large cities, it is often easier to drive at night than it is during the day.
I live in Guadalajara and know Mexico City and Tijuana well. The traffic in those cities is insane during the day and much more fluid at night. I learned the geography and main streets of Guadalajara when I first moved here by driving around at night.
Mexico City has a program called “Hoy No Circula” that restricts the vehicles that may circulate on local streets on different days and at different times. There are heavy restrictions on when a vehicle from a foreign country may drive in Mexico City.
If I had to pick someone up at the Mexico City International Airport and drive back to Polanco, I would much rather do it at 10 p.m. than at 10 a.m.
Crossing the border from Tijuana into San Diego is usually much easier at night than it is during the day. 2 a.m. is almost always easier than 2 p.m.
There are exceptions to the Never Drive in Mexico at Night rule. If it is your first time driving, yes, avoid driving at night. Once you have felt out the situation, maybe driving back to Downtown Puerto Vallarta from Punta Mita isn’t that big of a deal.
Tips For Safely Driving In Mexico
These are my observations after a significant amount of driving through Mexico.
1. Prepare For The Drive
Do your research before getting into the car. This is important on both the micro and macro levels.
Collect the correct documents, plan a few rough itineraries, know the driving restrictions of your destinations, tune up the car, and read the up-to-date trip reports on the online forums. There is a lot of really great information out there right now.
On the micro level, look at your route on Google Maps before getting into the car and make sure you have the correct coordinates plugged in. Rerouting and rescheduling are actually pretty common when a highway is shut down because of a crash or a hurricane.
It is better to know about a road closure before you get behind the wheel.
Check The Free Zone Map To See If You Will Require a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP)
Foreign vehicles traveling outside of the free zone (an area along the borders) are required to register, and pay a deposit to the Banjercito office.
2. Carry Lots Of Water On A Road Trip
I drive back and forth through the Sonoran Desert a couple of times a year. Temperatures often reach 120 degrees. Breaking down in the desert without any water can be deadly. It could be hours before a tow truck can find your location on a bad day.
I just finished reading The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea which goes into detail about the effects of sunstroke among other dangers of the desert. Water is super important when driving through Mexico.
3. Don’t Drive Slowly In The Left Lane (The Fast Lane)
The left lane is supposed to be for passing only. Driving slowly in the fast lane is very dangerous and puts a lot of people in danger.
This video does a really good job of explaining how it is so dangerous to drive slowly in the left lane.
If you do choose to drive slowly in the left lane you can expect the truck drivers and bus drivers to tailgate aggressively and flash their lights to get you to move over.
4. Check Your Spare Tire Before You Leave
I remember the very first time I helped change a flat tire only to find the spare was also flat. Changing a spare tire is a very simple repair that can get you out of a sketchy situation very quickly. Not having a spare tire or missing one of the tools to change the tire can cost you an expensive tow.
I recently replaced all the tools needed to change a tire because the last owner had the wrong tools or was missing tools. The tire itself had a bulge and was unsafe to drive on. The tire iron and the tool to lower the tire from its place in the undercarriage were missing. It is very time-consuming to change the tire without that tool, I know from experience. And the bottle jack was not original and didn’t even reach the frame of the car when fully extended, let alone lift up the car.
I got a flat tire on the road to the Guadalajara Airport while going to pick up friends attending my wedding. If you have the right tools, changing a tire is a minor setback. If you do not have the tools, you might be rescheduling some plans.
5. Refill The Gas Tank Often
Make sure to refill the gas tank often and do not let the needle get down to empty. There are some stretches of highway that do not have a gas station for over a hundred miles.
Things are changing but the stretch of highway on the Baja Interstate 1 between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario was a long way without a gas station. There was always a dude with a barrel of fuel and a hand pump but that is a last option.
I like to plan out my gas stops before we get in the car. I’ve got little kids so we try to plan some time to get out of the vehicle and run around in a park for a little while. I’m always looking for food, a park, and a convenient gas station one stop off the freeway.
6. Slow Down And Drive The Speed Limit
I used to work at a restaurant that arranged transportation home for the closing crew late at night. Don Pepe was an older gentleman who had been driving a taxi for over 50 years. That man drove so slow it drove the passengers crazy because they wanted to get home after a long day of work. Don Pepe would reply with something like slow and steady gets me home alive.
I have been able to avoid a lot of accidents by anticipating someone’s bad behavior. Driving at a reasonable rate of speed is key to avoiding road hazards.
Slowing down is one of the best things you can do to avoid accidents.
7. Watch Out For Passing Vehicles
There is a very aggressive culture of passing on two-lane highways. If there is a shoulder and only one lane of traffic in each direction it is likely that slow-moving vehicles, often semis and double semis, will drive on the shoulder to allow easy passing in the opposite direction.
Many first-time drivers, driving in the center of their lane, are surprised to see a semi passing a slower semi crossing the double yellow line, and coming straight for them head-on. It is customary to move to the shoulder to allow vehicles coming in the other direction to pass easily.
Additionally, there is always some jerk passing aggressively through the curves of the main highways. The road to Puerto Vallarta is a good example of this. You need to let the aggressive drivers pass you. Speeding up to try and block them only puts you in danger. Keep your distance from the people driving erratically and let them get as far away as possible.
On Mexican highways, a left turn signal is also used as a signal that passing is safe. If you can’t see around a large truck and you are trying to pass, it is likely that the left turn signal is telling you that it is safe to pass.
8. Put The Green Angels On Speed Dial
The Green Angels is a government-run roadside assistance agency that will help with basic mechanical problems or put you in contact with a tow truck and a repair shop. They work mostly on the toll highways and do not operate in remote areas.
If you need help from the Green Angels dial 078
9. Do Not Pay Bribes
This one is easier said than done. It is important to remember that corruption works both ways. Many times the driver has actually committed traffic violations that deserve a ticket. Paying a bribe on the spot saves the time of going down to the station and possibly spending an unexpected day in Toluca or Navajoa.
It wasn’t that long ago that a DUI could be overlooked for just a few hundred pesos and the intoxicated individual back behind the wheel to keep the party going.
Today, paying bribes is looked down upon. Bragging about paying a bribe in the expat groups will be met with chastizing. Paying bribes perpetuates something about Mexico that we all complain about, corruption.
Take this recommendation with a grain of salt. If you are in a dangerous situation or you feel threatened and paying a bribe can get you out of that situation it is up to you.
I recommend doing your best to insist on paying the infraction at the station but remember to keep your cool and not escalate the situation.
Corrupt cops are dangerous. People disappear in Mexico at an alarming rate. Losing your cool, disrespecting a cop, and calling him corrupt is an escalation you do not want to make.
10. Lateral Turning Lanes
Many roads in Mexico have both central lanes and lateral lanes. The central lanes do not have stoplights and drivers must move to the lateral lanes in order to make a left-hand turn.
The central lanes typically move faster than the lateral lanes because there are fewer stoplights. You might even see some tunnels or bridges that skip over problematic intersections. The lateral lanes are used to exit the highway and make a turn.
It took me a little while to get used to the idea of moving to the right lane to make a left-hand turn.
There are roads that have left turn lanes in the center median but it is up to each driver to read the maps instructions well enough
11. Don’t Block the Highway When Turning Left
Many two-lane highways do not have left turn lanes where you need them. If there is oncoming traffic and you can not turn left immediately, it is very dangerous to stop in the middle of a high-speed highway while waiting to make a left-hand turn.
A car coming from behind needs enough time to break. If there is a curve and they can not see 100 meters ahead, it could easily provoke an accident.
Highways should be used like roads with central and lateral lanes. Making a left-hand turn on a highway with traffic should be made from the shoulder to avoid blocking traffic and possibly causing an accident.
12. Driving In A Glorieta
One of the biggest challenges to driving in Mexico is the dreaded traffic circle, AKA the roundabout or glorieta. Some of them are small and only have one lane of traffic. The Glorieta Minerva in Guadalajara or the Angel de la Independencia in Mexico City are much more complicated.
The first thing to remember about a traffic circle is that unless there is a stoplight, the vehicle already in the traffic circle has the right of way. Major traffic circles will have stoplights that allow some drivers to enter and others to exit.
Second, you must pay attention to lane changes in a traffic circle. You cannot cut across 5 lanes of traffic and expect that nobody will be in your way. Make sure to plan your exit from the traffic circle before entering the circle. You do not want to be in the left lane if you are taking the first exit.
I have found that going slowly, using my turn signals, and looking over my shoulder is a good strategy for escaping a big traffic circle without a scratch.
When I lived above the Glorieta Minerva in Guadalajara I would see a traffic accident almost daily. There is something about traffic circles that makes people drive poorly. Take it slow until you get the hang of it.
13. Know Your Turn Signals
Turn signals are used (and not used) in different ways across Mexico. Tapatíos are notorious for not using their turn signals when changing lanes or even waiting in an intersection to make a left-hand turn.
I have been told on many occasions to not use turn signals because telling someone you are changing lanes is only going to make them speed up and block you. That is horrible advice.
Use your turn signals when turning or changing lanes.
On the highway turn signals are used for passing. It is difficult to pass on many two-lane country highways. Slow-moving trucks will often put on a blinker when it is safe to pass.
There is room for error with this practice. I was following two double semis through some curves. When we finally hit a straightaway that was stripped for passing with a broken line the semi in front of me hit his turn signal which I understood as it is safe to pass. I was following close and hit the gas instantly.
Luckily, I have a V8 engine which accelerates quickly even at highway speeds. The second double-semi really turned on his turn signal to indicate he was passing the first double-semi.
I was about halfway passed the second semi when he started coming over pushing me further into the oncoming traffic lane.
There was no oncoming traffic and I was able to quickly pass both semis. I realized that the passing signal is not always used in the same way.
14. Respect The Rain
Most of Mexico sees a significant rainy season. Even the deserts get monsoons and tropical storms.
When it rains heavily, water collects at the bottom of a hill. This can be really dangerous when it is on a roadway or in a tunnel. It doesn’t take a lot of water for a vehicle to hydroplane if it is moving too fast.
Every city has sections that flood when it rains. Motorists are stranded in deep water every year. If you have a doubt about the depth of the water on the roadway, don’t drive into it.
It is also important to watch the news during hurricane season. A hurricane, even a small one, can put out enough rain to create a landslide.
A long time ago I was driving through Costa Rica with a friend. Like a couple of idiots, we were driving along, well after dark, in the middle of a major storm.
We finally found a place to pull off the road and stay the night. The next day, just a few miles from where we stopped the entire road disappeared under a major landslide. If we had been driving when that landslide hit we would have been killed.
Avoid being on the road during major storms. It just isn’t worth the risk.
15. Google Maps Isn’t Perfect
Google Maps will send you down some sketchy streets to avoid traffic. There is an area of Guadalajara that has heavy traffic and Google Maps told me to get off the main street to take a back route. The only problem was that the back route was a dirt road and it was raining heavily resulting in a mud pit.
Make sure to check your route before you get in the car. There are a lot of destinations with the same name. You wouldn’t believe how often the founding fathers’ names are used on streets, towns, and other points of interest. Make sure you have the correct one before starting the drive.
Sometimes it takes a second for the GPS to get the orientation and direction straight causing a recalculation. I recently had an incident where I missed three different turns because I took off before the route was finalized. Google Maps kept recalculating while I missed turn after turn.
Be patient and double-check your route.
16. Careful Where You Park
I recommend using off-street parking as much as possible. You do not want to leave an expensive car parked on the street overnight. All sorts of parts and emblems will disappear.
It is very important to not leave bags in the car when it is parked on the street. Even if the bag doesn’t have anything of value, the cost of repairing a broken window is high. It isn’t worth taking a chance.
17. Wash Your Windshield
When I first started driving through Mexico I was nervous about all the people walking through traffic at the stoplights.
These days I am always looking for the windshield washers. They do a better job than I could.
You will notice that driving through Mexico can leave your windshield dirty with bugs that are hard to get off. Reduced visibility can be dangerous, especially in low light.
I highly recommend spending 10 or 15 pesos at a stoplight to get your windshield washed. It makes the drive so much more enjoyable.
18. Foreign Plates Get Pulled Over
In my experience, vehicles with foreign plates are pulled over frequently to check their papers.
This doesn’t just apply to foreign license plates but also to out-of-state license plates. License plates from Sinaloa are viewed with suspicion in Jalisco while the reverse is also true in Sinaloa.
Mexico doesn’t have a national system that can transfer a parking ticket from one state to another. Many drivers take advantage of this and do not pay their tickets because of this.
Local authorities tend to be stricter with out-of-state drivers than they are with local drivers. Out-of-state tourists must pay for moving violations the same day or have their license plates confiscated by the officers.
This is a point of contention, but according to a lawyer I spoke with the practice of confiscating license plates for moving violations is legal. Using anti-theft screws to attach your license plate could result in the vehicle being impounded.
19. Traffic Signs Are Hard To See
In a lot of situations, traffic signals function more like suggestions than the law. It is important to find a balance between assertive and aggressive driving, especially at a four-way stop that is supposed to be one and then the other (uno y uno)
Stop signs are nailed to trees well before the intersection or well after the intersection.
Again, having the right of way is less important than avoiding an accident.
There is a residential intersection near my house that is notorious for accidents. I always slow down even though I have the right of way. The cross street has a stop sign that people often run. I have seen three serious accidents at this intersection and slowing down helped me avoid an accident.
20. Do Not Move Your Vehicle After An Accident
In case of an accident, even a minor accident with no injuries, it is important to not move the vehicles. Call your insurance and wait for the adjustor to arrive.
Even though the law has changed it is important to not move your vehicle until the insurance adjustors arrive and fill out their reports.
If a police officer instructs you to move the vehicles in order to make way for traffic, it is important to take pictures of the accident from many different vantage points in addition to the police vehicle.
The insurance adjustor needs to know who the police officer is to fill out their report and they have a tendency to take off before the insurance adjustor is finished.
21. Respect The Topes (Speed Bumps)
Because drivers in Mexico do not respond to traffic signals, authorities put speed bumps all over the place to force them to slow down.
Many of the speed bumps are well-marked and easy to see. Still, there are plenty of surprise speed bumps that come out of nowhere.
The best recommendation that I have is to slow down. It is easier to see speed bumps and respond in time while driving at a lower speed.
22. Don’t Play Chicken With The Buses
I don’t want to say that it is all or even a majority but a significant number of bus drivers are jerks. They are highly knowledgeable about how traffic flows and they do not believe that they need to wait in line.
I am always amazed at how bus drivers can push their way into a merge with such a large vehicle. If you look closely at those vehicles you will see lots of scratches and dents from minor collisions. Just remember that a minor collision for a bus could be a major collision for you.
When I lived in the Minerva Traffic Circle, I would watch how the bus drivers would drive on the shoulder yet not exit the roundabout. In an effort to move faster than the rest of the traffic, they would block the exit and exacerbate the traffic.
I recently saw a “class” the city government mandated for bus drivers. Bus drivers were put on stationary bikes in the street and buses were driven by them at the legal passing distance and then closer in hopes of scaring them into driving better.
Give them their space. If they hit you, it isn’t likely they will stop.
23. Don’t Honk At People
Some of this might be local lore, but I have been told over and over again not to honk at people. You never know who is in that car holding up traffic or what they could be up to.
This is particularly important when driving in places like Tijuana or Culiacán that have a reputation for criminal activity. Could you imagine following a car driving unreasonably slow because they are casing a joint and then you come up behind them honking and attracting undue attention? They are going to be really upset with you.
This is a rather extreme example from an area with a lot of criminal activity but it gets to the point. A woman was recently pulled from her car and had her head shaved in the middle of the street after a road rage incident.
Growing up in San Diego, I heard all sorts of stories from friends in Tijuana about that person who honked at the wrong car and was punished by criminals.
While all of these stories may seem like they have a one-in-a-million probability, it isn’t worth pushing your luck. Just stop honking at people in traffic.
Driving In Mexico Frequently Asked Questions
I see these questions come up in the Mexico groups all the time.
What are the most dangerous roads to drive in Mexico right now?
Some of this information has stayed relevant for years but violence on the highways of Mexico tends to be fluid. As the authorities get a handle on the situation in one locale, the problem moves to a neighboring state.
In 2023, Jalisco has had some serious problems. The border regions of Michoacan, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes have become increasingly dangerous. A high-profile carjacking on the toll road near Jalostotitlán was caught on camera.
The 80D from Lagos de Moreno to Guadalajara is very dangerous right now.
These are the most dangerous highways in Mexico at the moment:
- Monterrey – Nuevo Laredo (Carretera de la Muerte)
- Monterrey – Matehuala
- Puebla – Cordoba
- Morelia – Lázaro Cárdenas
- San Fernando – Matamoros – Reynosa Triangle
These are the most dangerous road to drive in Mexico in terms of robberies and not because there are a lot of accidents.
Is it safe to drive in Mexico with US plates?
You will see lots of US plates while driving through Mexico. In the northern border region of Mexico, specifically Baja California, there are towns where foreign plates outnumber local plates.
In my years of driving in Mexico, I have never experienced animosity for simply being a foreigner.
Mexico Traffic Signs
Is It Safe To Drive In Mexico: Final Thoughts
Talk to an insurance actuary. It is not a question of if but a question of minimizing the factors that contribute to a serious accident. The violent incidents that the global media likes to exploit are actually pretty rare. Fender-benders are not.
Road trips in general require a bit of preparation but driving in Mexico requires a little bit more preparation. Between the permits, insurance, and rules of the road, you need to spend a day getting ready.
Every year that we do our drive it gets better. We have seen some incredible beaches. My kids are learning to swim in awesome pools that are way nicer than the pool where they take swim lessons. And I get to scour the countryside for exotic foods. I love driving through Mexico to explore new places.
If you are prepared, the rewards far exceed the risks. I just put new all-terrain tires on my Land Cruiser and I want to drive to Colima to go camping at the Volcano. Sounds like an adventure to me.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great road trip.