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Driving in Mexico: all you need to know

If you are thinking about traveling to Mexico and renting a car to explore all its magnificent natural wonders, historical places, and cultural towns, but you are concerned about driving in Mexico or you have never done that before, this post is for you. I covered all the most important aspects of renting a car and driving in Mexico and it will help you understand more whether it’s for you or not.


When I talk to somebody who has never been to Mexico and I say that I am driving in Mexico they look at me like I am a superwoman, and the first thing they ask is. Isn’t it dangerous to drive in Mexico?

I don’t think driving in Mexico is dangerous (at least in certain regions) if you follow some practical and common-sense rules, which I am going to explain in this post.

As a Mexican resident for the past 12 years and counting, I had my share of concerns about driving in Mexico when I arrived. I was even hesitant to buy my own car and just rented one when I wanted to explore around.

I was living in Cancun at the time and driving in Cancun I found it a little confusing the first time, because of the way the roundabouts are organized and the multiple crossroads they have.

Cancun is a real mess and you can get lost easily but with a GPS it’s now super easy and after a little practice and patience I could manage.

However, driving in the Riviera Maya or if you go on a road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s very easy and worry-free to drive around.

In this post, I will tell you all about driving in Mexico and what it’s like to drive in different regions of the country and I will answer all the most common questions about driving in Mexico, about safety, documents, insurance, and more.

Driving in Mexico – what you should know

Renting a car vs joining organized tours or traveling by bus

“Obviously” (only to them) it will be much “easier” to buy a fully inclusive tour, inclusive of transportation,  or go to fake parks where you would be looked after all the time like little kids and nobody can hurt you.

It’s ok to choose organized tours if this is what you prefer because you don’t have to think about anything else and you only need to follow the tour leader’s instructions. It makes sense. Driving on your own would definitely require more attention and engagement and probably more time.

But if you, like me, don’t like to be told where to go and how much time you can spend there, when you must eat, pee, look or listen, then you will have an issue with tours.

Therefore, what to do? Rent a car, get a map ( or a GPS) and explore, mingle with locals (they don’t bite, I assure you), and get a local guide at the ruins. Driving is indeed easy, and not at all dangerous. If you can drive in your hometown, you can drive anywhere.

You just need to understand some unwritten rules, and that is what this article is about.

Baja California road trip
Baja California Road

Traveling by bus in Mexico

The bus network in Mexico is first class. You can really get to all the main cities and small towns by local busses and they are usually comfortable and provide a great service.

The way I love to travel is to reach the main destination by bus or flight and then rent a car from there to explore the surroundings.

Driving all through Mexico is possible but not always safe. There are areas that it’s better to avoid. And that’s where I rely on busses or, for longer distances, flights.

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On which side of the road do you drive in Mexico?

In Mexico we drive on the right side so, if you come from the US you will be fine, it’s just like home.

If you are from the UK you may need to adapt to driving on a different side of the road.

What documents do I need when driving to Mexico

Driving in Mexico requires a valid driving license from your own country, so long as it’s written in Latin characters. If your driving license is in Chinese Arabic or any other kind of alphabet you will need to purchase an international driving license.

Also, keep your passport with you or a photocopy where you clearly show your entry stamp. If you are in Mexico on a special visa or permit, make sure you have it with you in case of a police check.

Oaxaca roads
A road in Oaxaca

Do I need a Mexican car insurance?

Driving in Mexico requires having Mexican car insurance. As I explain in more detail in my post on renting a car in Mexico, most car rentals make it mandatory to purchase basic car insurance that includes CDW (collision damage waiver) and theft insurance.

That kind of insurance is not full coverage and doesn’t protect you completely. So if you have an accident or anything happens you will be subject to paying the deductible.

I always advise spending a little extra money for full inclusive insurance that covers absolutely everything (except driver’s negligence) for your own peace of mind.

When it comes to renting a car in Mexico I recommend Discover Cars. Through this site, you can compare prices among different car rentals and decide which one offers the best deals. They also offer full coverage at a small price.

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Do I need an international driving permit?

You don’t need an international driving permit unless your driving license is written in a language that doesn’t use Latin Alphabet.

Do I need mexican insurance if I am crossing the Mexican border with my own vehicle?

Driving Your American Registered Vehicle in Mexico requires you to purchase Mexican driving insurance because US car insurance is not valid here. You should get to one of the dedicated agencies to facilitate the process of getting Mexican car insurance. Bajabound is one of them. Click on the link to get a quote.

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Is driving in Mexico safe?

Mexico is a very big country, so saying that driving in Mexico is safe wouldn’t be completely accurate. Honestly, I have driven around the Yucatan peninsula, Baja California, and Jalisco coast, and I feel completely safe driving in the entire region, just by following the below-mentioned recommendations.

I would also drive around Queretaro all the way around the Sierra Gorda and towards San Miguel de Allende and all the spectacular pueblos Magicos there, Oaxaca coast, and explore the beautiful beaches.

There are a few unwritten rules that you must comply with and most of all be very careful to. Read on to learn about them.

In general, make sure you avoid driving at night and respect the road rules, such as speed limit, wear a seatbelt and never use the phone while you drive.

Road Sign of a cenote near tulum in a cloudy day

How do Mexicans drive?

It depends on where you are. While in Mexico City it’s pretty wild (but I wouldn’t rent a car in the city) in the Yucatan peninsula you won’t have any problem.

The only thing I noticed is that they don’t like to use their blinkers that much or if they do it’s last minute.

In general, I would always pay extra attention, make sure you are using your rare mirror and watch your back front, and sides, especially in Cancun.

Also, they often honk if you don’t move up as soon as the light turns green, which is annoying but it’s better to take your time and make sure you are good to go and let them honk rather than having an accident.

What if You Break Down While Driving in Mexico?

If you are traveling on the main roads you can count on the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels). You can call the free toll number 078 through the country and they will come to your rescue. The service is free of charge, you just pay for the toll fees or gas if needed.

If you speak a little Spanish it would help as the green angels don’t normally speak English.

They are not available on secondary roads. However, if you are renting your car in Mexico, your rental car usually comes with an emergency number that you can call from anywhere if there is phone service of course.

And this is one of the reasons why I always suggest buying a local sim card when you travel to Mexico. That is for your safety.

How to travel safe to the RIviera Maya - Boundless Roads
Driving around Campeche region to explore the area

Military checkpoints

You will find a lot of military checkpoints in Mexico. You don’t have to worry about it. Just slow down and wait for their sign to keep going or stop. I was stopped a couple of times and just asked a few questions.

One time the officer was being a little off, with inappropriate comments, but I managed to put him in his place and he let me go.

Sometimes they may try to get you to offer a bribe, especially if they catch you with something off in your car, or if you are not wearing a seatbelt or you are talking on the phone for example.

That’s up to you. I personally never bribe because I don’t want to support this practice and if I get a fine I just pay it. (keep in mind that if you pay it within 3 or 5 days you get a discount, make sure you read the fine print in the note)

Cobertura Nacional Angeles verdes
Photo © Gob.mx

General tips on renting a car in Mexico

Renting a car in Mexico can be a bit of work because you need to pay attention to hidden fees which we normally consider scams. But they are actually not.

You just need to make sure you use a trustworthy rental car company and purchase full Mexico car insurance. But also read the fine print of the rental company contract and read what is your coverage in case of car accident or other issues that may occur.

When you ask for full insurance, make sure you ask how much is the deductible because sometimes they say “fully insured” and they mean with a deductible, which is NOT FULLY insured.

Is your American credit card insurance coverage accepted in the US?

Even if your credit card from the US guarantees you insurance, you should get one here with the car rental in order to avoid issues in case of an accident. 

You should check with your credit card first, but in general, if it covers you will have to pay for everything and then apply and hope for a refund.

San Cristobal de las casas

What are the best car rentals in Mexico?

In Mexico, you will find all the major car rental brands but I always recommend Discover Cars rental because they compare different rental cars company and you can choose the best deal. They also offer full coverage at a reasonable price.

MY PICK
Best Car Rental Deals w/ Free Cancellation, Compare & Save! | Discover Cars

Find the best car rental deals and explore around freely, at your own pace. My favorite way to enjoy a destination!

We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

Regardless of where you are renting your car, you will want to be aware of hidden costs and avoid any scams. In my detailed post about renting a car in Mexico, I list all the things you need to know about Mexican car rentals.

Keep in mind also that dropping off the car from a place different from where you have picked it up will attract an extra cost, and normally quite high.

Tips and Practical information on driving in Mexico

While driving in Mexico, or, more specific, driving in the Yucatan Peninsula you need to pay attention to the following things

Watch out for topes

Speed bumps

Topes are speed bumps, which most of the time are indicated but many times they are not. So watch for that because they can be quite big and not good for your rental, especially in the proximity of villages and inhabited areas in general.

Police

Yes, indeed! Sad but true. It is known that the local police loves to stop you and make something up so that you feel forced to offer them a bribe.

Unfortunately, it’s most of the time true. I personally don’t like to encourage this unethical practice, and all the time I was stopped for any reason (good reasons I admit),  I managed not to pay anything, or I just paid for my ticket.

However, I have heard of stories where it was inevitable and I understand that sometimes we have to give up on our principles just for the sake of peace.

This practice is most common in Cancun and along the Riviera Maya mainly, but if you wish to explore Yucatan and Campeche, there is another mindset over there and a very different attitude. 

Observe the speed limits

It is a common thought that in Mexico we all drive like crazy and speed limits aren’t really signaled, but this is not true. On the contrary, it is a very good reason for the Police to stop you (see above #2) and they would be right to do it. So remember to watch the speed limit on the side of the roads,  in and out of towns.

There are many police checkpoints, especially along with the “Carretera Federal”, the federal road that connects Cancun with Tulum and Bacalar, and all over the country.  You will see them and just need to slow down. Sometimes they ask you to pull off and check your documents, that’s it.

Wear the seat belt

That’s another reason why the police would stop you. Just remember to wear it. I remember once a Police lady would drive beside me and while driving would kindly remind me about my belt. That was nice and unexpected.

white car rental on a road in Yucatan Mexico

Toll roads vs regular roads

There are 2 main highways in the Yucatan peninsula, one that connects  Cancun to Merida and another from Merida to Campeche.

Those have a cost and they are the fastest. However, when I have the time, I always prefer to drive along the toll-free roads that pass through little villages and let you see more about this beautiful area.

You never know which hidden cenote is waiting to be discovered or what beautiful old church you can bump into.

The roads are generally well maintained although in more remote areas you can find an excess of path-holes.

And always remember the “topes” (speed bumps) which are one of the few certainties in Mexico, especially in the proximity of villages. Just take it easy and enjoy the local life.

Gas station

You need to pay attention to a couple of things about the gas stations in Mexico. In general, you will find enough gas stations along the way all-around Yucatan and I would suggest you always check your tank gauge and keep it topped up.

However, in case you forget, no worries because in the small towns you will always find some grocery store that sells gas as well. Just ask.

Another important thing while they are topping up your gas tank, make sure you check the counter and they charge the correct amount.

Also, sometimes they will tell you they cannot accept credit cards because the system is down. I am not sure whether it is true or not, but it is advisable to have some cash with you (Mexican pesos), always.

In small towns, they almost never accept credit cards and they won’t tell you before. So it’s always advisable to travel with enough Mexican pesos.

Also, it has been a habit to scam distracted drivers that pay by 500 MXN notes by telling them it was a 200MXN so they won’t give you any change.

So, make sure you know well how much money you are handing out and if they try to cheat do not be afraid to stand up for your right.

They usually tend to give up if they see you firm on your point. I know it sounds crazy but it happened to a couple of friends of mine.

From Tulum to Bacalar the only gas station is in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. So remember to fill up your tank in Tulum.

cross roads in a small town in Yucatan

Driving at night in Mexico

Avoid driving at night, always. You won’t see path-holes and people walking on the side of the roads and it’s not safe in general.

Keep it as a daily activity and you will be fine.

Driving at night could be dangerous for many different reasons including the fact that many roads are not lightened and you wouldn’t see people walking or animals. But also people with worse intentions act at night. So just avoid it.

Beware of roundabouts and “retornos” in Mexico

The cars in the roundabouts have priority.

If you took the wrong road and need to go back, you have “Retornos” you will see indications on the road that you can stay on the left and go back to the other carriage.

Be careful to scooters with 3,4,5 people on it, people biking on the side of the road… or not… 

Car rental in Mexico

One way roads

One-way roads are sometimes unmarked so I always watch if I see other cars in my direction in case the road seems too narrow.

Highways/ toll roads

Highways are called CUOTAS and they don’t accept USD nor credit cards, only pesos in cash.


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Barbara

Wednesday 30th of May 2018

I find your tips and info very useful. Thanks for sharing

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