Baluarte River Bridge, Mexico // © 2013 Grupo Triada
A self-drive trip into Mexico has its challenges and, if I was relying on media accounts about Mexico, I’d be wary of even taking such a trip. But when I married into a Mexican family, long drives to attend weddings and special gatherings became commonplace — some of these trips even reached up to 17 hours on the road. My experiences driving in Mexico have given me great memories, an adrenaline rush or two and some practical knowledge.
Right off the bat, if your clients are planning a driving trip into Mexico, it’s essential that they purchase Mexican insurance.
“Mexico has traffic laws that are similar to those in the U.S.,” said P.J. Padilla, president of Oscar Padilla Mexican Insurance Services, Inc., based in Calexico, Calif. “The application of the laws is what accounts for major differences and is the reason you need Mexican insurance. The law in Mexico is based on Napoleonic Code, where guilt prevails over presumption of innocence, whereas in the U.S., the law is based on English Common Law, where innocence prevails over the presumption of guilt.”
Padilla explained that the basic difference between Mexico’s and the U.S.’s financial responsibility law is that anyone involved in an accident in Mexico must have the means to respond to damages or injuries for which they may be responsible. In Mexico, this would be in the form of either cash or a Mexican insurance policy. For as short as one day or up to as long as one year, a policy can be acquired and printed online at MexicanInsurance.com.
Like in the U.S., driving is on the right side of the road in Mexico. Distances are calculated in kilometers rather than miles. Remember that a kilometer is about .6 of one mile, so a sign that says the speed limit is 80 kilometers indicates a speed limit of 48 miles. Before setting out, it’s also a good idea to have your clients brush up on Spanish road signs so drivers will be familiar with the basics. Alto (stop) and curva peligroso (dangerous curve) are among the good terms to know.
Driving across the border into Mexico is one of the easiest things in the world. For example, at the Tijuana crossing, drivers slow down and pick a lane, much like the lanes leading to a toll booth in the U.S. They’ll eventually find themselves in front of a light that will flash either green or red. If it’s red, they’ll have to pull over and answer some perfunctory questions about where they live and where they are going. The great majority of cars receive a green signal, which means they’re free to drive into Mexico without producing documents of any kind.
This is a stark contrast to the reverse process of crossing the border from Tijuana into the U.S. The border crossing back to the U.S. can take an average of 2.5 hours, and every passenger in the car will have to produce a U.S. Passport or a U.S. Passport Card to re-enter the country.
On the Road
Once your clients enter Mexico, they’ll most likely notice some differences right away. Lane changes may or may not be signaled, and the roadway will certainly be rougher and, in some cases, pocked with potholes deep enough to break an axle. If you’re an experienced driver, it won’t take more than a few moments to learn the new flow and reconnoiter the road as you motor along.
Having crossed the border and driven some distance, drivers will come in contact with Mexican military checkpoints. The first time I encountered these I definitely felt a bit nervous from not knowing what to expect. After going through the experience many times now, I can say there’s little to worry about if you know how to behave. Remain polite and use basic Spanish if possible, since very few of these poorly-paid soldiers understand English. The soldiers will ask some simple questions, usually about where you came from and where you are going. If it’s an agricultural region, they may ask if you’re carrying fruits or vegetables. These will usually be confiscated. Often times, a car will be waved through the checkpoint without any questions being asked. Remain cool and, before long, you’ll begin to accept these checkpoints as a necessary part of a self-drive trip in Mexico.
One perk for U.S. visitors is that gas is cheaper in Mexico. Bright and modern Pemex stations offer the type of service that is rare in the U.S., with attendants pumping gas and readily cleaning windshields. It’s customary but not required to give attendants a small tip; five pesos will do. When planning your route, take note of long stretches of highway that may not have a gas station and fill up your tank before setting out. On long, multi-day drives, I make a habit of refueling when I hit the midway mark on my gas gauge. It’s also a good excuse to stretch and take a bathroom break if you’re traveling with kids.
On some routes through Mexico, drivers will find they have a choice between taking the libre (free) road or the quota (pay) road. If in a hurry to reach a destination before nightfall, opt for the quota highway. These provide a faster, smoother trip, although they also have their downside. First, they cost money. Second, they are often under repair or construction to make them wider. This means that for some stretches of highway your clients will be reduced to traveling on one lane. The libre roads may be slower, but they have the added benefit of being the original road in the area, meaning that they’ll cut directly through towns. Depending on point of view, this can be either good or bad. I prefer the libre roads because they provide more local color as well as the serendipitous chance of finding a great little restaurant or intriguing shop.
There are bound to be times when your clients are on a one-lane highway behind a slow-moving truck. Advise them to be patient. Sometimes the truck will flash its lights to signal that it’s safe to pass. Drivers should always use their own judgment and proceed with caution, even if there are plenty of Mexican drivers hurtling around the truck, passing on hills and generally putting their trust in God that they won’t get into a head-on collision with oncoming traffic.
No one will advise you to drive at night in Mexico. It’s more dangerous for several reasons. Lighting on many highways is non-existent; livestock have the habit of wandering on the road; it’s difficult to observe hazards, such as potholes and debris; and more vehicles than you’d expect have only one headlight, meaning that what may appear to be a motorcycle can actually be a huge truck.
Should your clients embark on a self-drive trip through Mexico? It’s true that drug cartel violence is an issue, although the great majority of cartel-connected crime is between warring drug factions and the average traveler from the U.S has a slim chance of encountering this type of crime.
Driving through Mexico is traveling, not tourism. A self-drive excursion of any length into Mexico is recommended for the adventurous traveler with a sense of humor and the ability to be flexible in the midst of setbacks.