I’m sitting on a beach on the Baja peninsula writing this piece. While Baja is more insulated in many ways than the mainland, a family barbecuing on the beach just insisted on feeding me and while their kids played with my dog. This friendly encounter is not uncommon here or on the mainland. I’m camped on the beaches and in the mountains and have had zero issues. I’ve even slept on the side of the road at the occasional gas station or trucker style stop.
Driving through Mexico is not without risk but when done properly, it’s not the dangerous place the media and your parents (who likely have never driven here) are portraying. The vast majority of people are working for a living and minding their own business and the road systems are fairly intuitive.
Danger! Your suspension is being hunted by topes.
While I’ve never encountered the roaming gangs of gringo hunters described by an old friend who has never left the United States, I have discovered the biggest threat on the roads in Mexico – topes.
These are speed bumps that sometimes appear out of nowhere just to give your suspension a good whack. If you don’t fork out the money for quota (toll) roads, get used to driving over an incessant number of speed bumps.
Some are deteriorating with protruding pieces of rebar and it’s not uncommon to see local drivers swerving without any reasoning. As you approach the swerve point, you will often find a sneaker route around a tope.
They aren’t the end of the world and in some cases, they make perfect sense. That said, always keep your eyes peeled for speed bumps, potholes and road hazards.
Drive the Quota Roads
The quotas are paid roads and they aren’t always cheap. I spent a few hundred bucks driving across the mainland (a very long distance) while using these. They are however in excellent shape and take away the stress of navigation pedestrian traffic and topes.
The quotas have a station where you pay between sections of road. Bring plenty of cash for long trips because many don’t accept credit cards.
On my first Mexico trip, I drove a few quota sections before reaching a stopping point with a mechanical arm. I pulled up and it spit out a receipt then the arm raised. I went on my way, enjoying the smooth highway for a long time, not thinking much of it.
When I reached the next toll station (a very busy one), they asked for the receipt. It took a few minutes to find and when they said the price, I realized that I was short on cash! The line was long behind me at this point and the attendant took my credit card, walked into a building and returned about 5-minutes later with a receipt.
Meanwhile, I was learning every Spanish curse word used in Mexico. Lesson learned. Carry cash and keep your ticket handy. For most quotas however, you pay first then drive the section of road.
Mexican Cops and Bribes
Ask any experienced foreigners driving in Mexico about the best steps for bribes and you will hear a few different answers. Spend long enough driving around here and you will encounter a local cop working for a bribe. It happens.
This typically happens with the municipal cops, not the federales, military or national guard folks. They will pull you over, ask for your license then proceed to describe the law you broke.
Listen carefully because you may actually have been speeding or doing something wrong. Don’t assume the copy is seeking a bribe just yet.
The next step involves a description of the penalty. One cop in Guadalajara told me it was a $300 USD ticket or “muelta” for having my dog in the front seat.
He then said, “otro opcion senor” and said I could pay him 200 USD and go on my way. He also mentioned that not paying him directly meant we needed to go to the station to pay the ticket. He was working me for a bribe and the negotiation had begun.
I said I didn’t know that law and didn’t have 200 bucks. He asked how much I had and I said 5 bucks. He countered at 150 and I explained that I only had 5 dollars on me (a lie). I called his bluff and said let’s go to the station.
He was agitated and took my five bucks while throwing my license back in the car.
Some folks will pay nothing and hold out and they have a point in saying that paying only encourages more bribe seeking behavior. I’m all for playing dumb, calling the bluff and paying nothing or five dollar bill to get on my way.
Regardless, stay calm, be kind and don’t get frustrated. You have the advantage of time and can just and wait them out until frustration sets in. Using a dash cam also helps because the interaction is recorded and some people make it known that the conversation is being loaded directly to the cloud.
Occasional Road Blocks in Mexico
You may encounter roadblocks or old toll stations taken over by locals. I remember one that was lined with families and children. They were all friendly and the kids sheepishly asked me for a donation to the community. No demands and it was clear that they were seriously struggling. I chipped in a few bucks and moved along.
You might find a few less friendly road blocks where the road is literally blocked with debris or barricaded. This doesn’t happen (to my knowledge) on main thoroughfares or quota roads FYI and I’ve never heard of any incidents in Baja. It’s more of a rural or side route with enough foreign traffic to make it worthwhile for “fundraising” campaigns.
In most cases, they will ask for a specific amount of money. The equivalent of 5 USD seems to be a standard for some reason. Unlike your encounters with municipal police, it’s best to pay and get your butt down the road. These situations are generally docile but resisting or raising a fit can turn things hostile quickly. Part ways with a few dollars and get to your destination safely.
A few rules everyone should follow:
- Don’t drive at night – It’s not because the bad people only come out after dark but largely because loose livestock and unlabeled road issues are dangerous at night. I’ve seen sections of road missing without a sign indicating an issue exists. In daylight, the danger is apparent but at night, it’s another story.
- Ask the locals – There ARE some dangerous places in Mexico and the locals know best. Plan your routes in advance and ask about the roads and general safety. They will tell you if a road is not worth exploring.
- Carry cash – Don’t keep it all in your wallet either. Keep enough cash for the quota roads and road snacks, basic meals and such. Only keep a small sum in your wallet however and stash the rest somewhere safe and out of sight.
- Consider a dash cam – it’s a great tool for recording incidents and for general security.
- Plan ahead – Map your routes, stops, hotels, campsites, etc. Give yourself a time cushion to arrive before it gets dark.
- Watch for pedestrians – People will dart across roads and you will encounter dogs and other living hazards. Keep a wide view and don’t be complacent. It’s not like the USA where pedestrians aren’t on the freeways. Little towns are frequent and the speed will slow down suddenly in many places as well.
At the end of the day, it’s pretty dang safe while driving through Mexico. It’s not the USA or Canada and things are a bit different but it’s not horrible either. Be cautious, acknowledge the risks and have a good time exploring this beautiful country. Carry Mexican car insurance, bring along your registration and a copy of your title and you’re all set.