Navigation while Driving in Mexico

So you’re driving to Mexico? You might be wondering about the best way to navigate while driving through a new country. It’s not overly complicated and the style of driving is often similar to the USA and Canada with 4-way stops, traffic signals and signage that says things like Curva Peligrosa.

Mapping routes in advance is handy and you might even print off directions if your destination is singular and direct. No matter how you travel, one rule is consistent for navigation: Never Depend on Connectivity. Cell service is great in some places and unreliable in others, Your phone plan may also have limited data and driving apps will eat through your allotment in a matter of minutes.

Always have access to offline maps to ensure your navigation remains engaged when it’s needed most.

Choose Your Primary Mapping App

Numerous mapping apps exist but two seem to dominate the digital landscape. You can download multiple mapping apps but I’ve found it more effective to only use a single app. Other apps sync with your maps and having too many sources of information can lead to conflict and crashes. Try a few at home and decide which is best before making a commitment.

Google Maps vs Waze for Mexico

Google Maps is the obvious front runner in my opinion but Waze has a loyal following and users swear by the accuracy and intuitive features. I used Google Maps on a two year road trip down the Pan American highway and it was surprisingly accurate in places that seemed chaotic at best. It failed a few times but never in Mexico and it’s still my preferred method of navigation.

Downloading Google Maps for Offline Use

There are a few ways to save information. The first method involves saving a large geographic area so you can drive freely and navigate offline. The second involves saving specific routes so you can quickly pull up pre-loaded destinations and jump into navigation. I recommend saving the geographical area first then adding routes and destinations second.

Saving an area on Google maps to your phone’s memory…

Step One:

Find a town or city that is somewhat central to your trip. For long trips, you will need to save multiple overlaying maps to cover the entire route. Enter this city or select it on the screen. In this example, I chose Loreto in Baja Sur, Mexico.

Step Two:

Swipe up to pull up the info screen and hide the map. In the top right hand corner, select the three dots and a drop down option will appear with “Download Offline Map.” Select this option.

Step 3:

The map will appear with a rectangle over your selected town. You can move the map around to select the desired area. You can also zoom out with your fingers to grab a larger geographical area. It will show the required storage space as well. When you have the correct area selected, hit “Download” and your map will save for offline use. Repeat this process for every area you will drive to navigate without service.

This is the default area but you can zoom out for a bigger section.
Here’s a look at the maximum area. It’s quite large and with about 3 maps saved, I can navigate all of Baja offline.

Understanding the Value of iOverlander

iOverlander isn’t designed for navigation but it merits discussion here. The crowd-sourced app offers a ton of data on campsites, services and businesses in places where that information is super valuable. I am conflicted about the excessive sharing when it comes to wild camping spots as they end up overrun with people. The overall value of the app is however undeniable.

Campsites – I really love the established campsites options listed. People review them and you can get a sense of what is what. In many cases, you might simply need a place to crash with secure parking and you can find those spots on here. When it comes to wild camps, I don’t share any of my hard earned spots and recommend migrating away from sharing this information in general.

Hotels – It’s nice finding hotel options with ratings and intel. I’ve discovered some nice budget options for quick stopovers and have shared a few as well. Small, rural communities rarely have these places listed and this is a handy source of information.

Mechanics – If there is one category on iOverlander that is absolute gold, it’s the mechanics. When you have breakdowns, finding info about the good and bad mechanics is incredibly useful. I tend to drive older rigs and use this feature for everything from basic maintenance to major repairs.

Water and Gas – Water purification stations are often listed as are fuel stations and places to refill your propane.

Danger – Roadblocks, dangerous stops and places where issues are often listed and this will help you navigate and plan routes to avoid obstacles.

These are just a few of the markers used on iOverlander. Showers, shopping, laundry, restaurants and plenty of other things exist on here. If you plan a route in advance, consider looking at the services along the way and screenshot business names, GPS locations and contact information to have a host of resources at your fingertips.

How is Driving in Mexico Different from the USA?

The general rules of the road are very similar in Mexico so you shouldn’t have a major shock after crossing the border. Here are a few things to understand before making the trips however:

Stop Signs are Smaller – We are accostomed to large stop signs and traffic signals. In Mexico, they are often smaller and the placement is more recessed in some places if that makes sense. It’s intuitive but you need to really be aware and look for the signals and signage at times.

Topes are everywhere – Topes are speed bumps and they are prevalent. They are not super bad in Baja but the mainland folks don’t hold back on tope placement. Sometimes, they are not colored or marked and will just appear so hang on tight and slow down. Topes also lack maintenance in many places. Watch out for exposed rebar that can damage tires. If you see locals swerving for no apparent reason, they are likely avoiding topes or damaged sections of road.

Quota Roads require cash – If you hate topes, jump on the Quota (toll) roads on the mainland. These fee based road systems are super nice and well maintained. While a few do allow credit card payments, many are cash only and you better be ready to pay. I fell short on cash and held up the line at one, causing a load of chaos and angry drivers.

Mexican car insurance is mandatory – Keep an envelope with car insurance on hand along with steps required for accidents and claim filing. Drive safe and hopefully your insurance cards can remain safe and sound in the glove compartment.