What to Expect when Driving through Mexico

Driving through Mexico can be a wonderful experience if you understand the driving culture, rules of the road, laws and the difference between toll roads and unpaid roads. Always do your research before taking a trip and plan stops along the way. Driving at night is not recommended but luckily, many of the road signs are intuitive with similar shapes as those in the US and Canada.

Mexico Toll Road Costs

You won’t find toll roads in Baja but they are common on the mainland. The toll roads are not mandatory and alternate routes exist without any fees. The tolls are fairly expensive on longer road trips but they do pay for the roads and the difference is notable. Toll roads are often smooth with wider lanes and higher speed limits. Stops are less frequent and you can cover ground in a hurry. Essentially, they are similar to highways in the US.

Want to save some cash? I spent more than 200 USD on tolls while crossing from the west coast of Mexico to the gulf. Was it worth the price? Absolutely. The alternate routes have frequent stops, random topes (speed bumps) and the roads are crumbling in many areas. The toll fees were worth the trade off in wear on my suspension.

The only downside to driving the toll roads is that you might miss some really neat places. If you’re trying to make miles, go with the tolls but consider exploring planned trips on the side roads as well. You should keep a reasonable amount of cash and change on hand for the toll systems as well. They are increasingly frequent and expensive around Mexico City. Mexico toll road costs do vary based on location. Credit cards are rarely accepted and you’ll need local currency.

Common Road Signs

Mexico stop signs are smaller than those in the US but the shape and color is the same. They read “Alto” in the center as well. The stop signs are not always up front and noticeable so pay close attention at intersections. If other cars are stopping, you should as well. Yield signs are the same triangle shape as the US and they read “Ceda el Paso” in the center.

Other common signs exist for pedestrian crossings, divided roads, curves ahead, roundabouts and more. Most of the signs are intuitive with universal signals. Being in new territory, you will really want to focus and have your eyes scanning for signs and perils in the roadway. Pay attention to the way other cars are driving through Mexico and fall in line when appropriate.

In rural areas, driving is often easy and you need to watch for loose livestock and narrow shoulders on the roads. Many of the historic towns have cobble roadways and narrow one-way streets. If you’re pulling a camper or driving a wide rig, you might benefit by staying on on the outskirts of town while using taxis in the city centers. In congested areas, a two lane road can turn into four lanes of jostling for position with the right land being used by taxis and tuk tuks. Take your time, go slow and work through the mess until traffic clears.

Mexico Speed Limits

The speed is labeled pretty well in most areas. Keep in mind that Mexico, like most of the world, uses the metric system. Your vehicle most likely has a km/h label or option to switch on an electronic dash. In kilometres per hour, expect to have 100-110 km/h on open highways, 80-90 km/h on open roads and 40 km/h or less in towns.

Speed bumps or topes are very common, especially when entering a town. They are not always maintained or visible with yellow paint so pay attention and always be ready to slow down. Pedestrian traffic is also very common and random and you should always be looking for people darting across roadways.

Police Corruption

Corruption does happen and as a foreigner, you can look like an easy target. I’ve experienced corruption in Mexico on two occasions and will say it’s the exception rather than the rule. On the first occasion, I was passing through Guadalajara and the cops were phishing for a payoff. They said I was violating the law for having a dog in the passenger seat. As the cop made this statement, a pickup truck with a bed full of people and two kids riding on top of the cab drove past.

The way it works is they ask for your license, makeup a law then explain that it comes with an exorbitant fine. Mine was supposedly 300 USD for the dog. Then they will offer an alternative option to pay them cash at a reduced rate. Essentially, you are buying back the drivers license.

If you committed an actual violation, they will write a ticket and you must pay it at the police station or appear in court. If they ask for cash, it’s a bribe and the strategy for this situation varies based on the individual. I will hold out and simply not pay cash in person. I will ask to visit the station to pay the fine and speak with the boss. This generally squashes the issue quickly. How you choose to deal with this is up to you.

Many travelers have dash cameras to record everything and it helps mitigate corruption. Some however choose to pay the bribes which are generally small anyways. I don’t recommend paying without a written ticket because it only encourages more corruption.

Mexican Auto Insurance

Insurance is mandatory in Mexico and your US policy is not likely to cover much or anything after you cross the border. The country has it’s own insurance companies and we issue policies through those insurers. The system is very similar to the US and Canada with liability limits, deductibles and full coverage options that can include theft and collision. We are here to help you find an affordable policy with excellent coverage.

Driving through Mexico is a bit different from the USA. Roads are narrow, potholes more frequent and traffic can be crazy. Then again, I’ve driving long stretches of smooth asphalt down coastal highways and through big mountains. Mexico is a big country and it all depends on where you are traveling. Research your routes in advance and take your time. It’s a great country and driving most areas really isn’t bad.