Delicious food. Magnificent weather. friendly people. vibrant culture. And did I mention the food? For all these reasons and many, many more, Mexico has a lot to offer its visitors. With its distinct regions, it offers a wealth of diverse cultural and natural experiences. The best way to see it all is by car and on the road, but there are a few things to keep in mind on your first road trip to Mexico.
Having spent some five years living all over Mexico, in the course of which I have traveled by road through it from top to bottom and from one end to the other, I am well versed in the intricacies of traveling in Mexico. coach. It’s an experience that’s not without its challenges, but it comes with plenty of rewards, as long as you follow these tips to prepare first. Check out our best Mexico road trip tips.
You can skip this step if you are going to be Rent a car in Mexico. However, if you cross the border on your own and plan to leave the Mexico Free Zone, which stretches about 15 miles from the border and encompasses all of Baja and Quintana Roo and much of Sonora, you are going to need an Import Permit. Vehicle Temporary, or TVIP.
If you want to get it online, you must request it between 10 and 60 days before your trip. First get your FMM formthen get the TVIP in the Banjercito website. Keep in mind that you will have to stamp these documents at the Zona Franca checkpoint.
You can also take care of this on arrival. Once you reach the checkpoint, head inside and follow these steps. First, get your FMM at the immigration window. Then make copies of any documents you are given (there is a copy station on site). Finally, take them to the Banjercito cashier on site and pay your deposit. This entire process usually only takes 20-30 minutes.
The deposit depends on the age of your vehicle, and ranges from $50 to $400. But don’t worry, they will give it back to you when you leave. Just stop at the kiosk when you re-enter the Free Zone, where workers will scan your permit. The money will be refunded within 24 hours.
You will also need proof of car insurance in Mexico for the duration of your visit. Most US plans can automatically set it up online.
This next step is crucial: Please have all permits, proof of insurance and registration on hand! Depending on where you go, it’s very likely to be stopped by the police, who will want to see them. If their papers are not in order, they may start looking for a bribe.
While cartels are talked about a lot, I have personally never encountered them, at least not knowingly. But the police, yes. Visitors tend to have run-ins with the police. The police are notoriously corrupt in Mexico, which in most cases means they are looking for bribes. It’s more likely in some places than others, but it’s certainly not uncommon for obvious outsiders to be rounded up by police for no reason other than to get a bribe.
They’ll usually make it sound like there’s some pointless problem with the paperwork, hoping you get the picture, and sometimes they’ll say something about “donations” to the local police. If your paperwork is in order, don’t worry. Just be confident and keep pointing out that your paperwork is all there. If they really insist, you can ask to speak to their “boss”, and that will usually be the end of it.
But let’s say you’ve committed a minor offense and the police are putting on quite a show. You can easily get around the situation by offering to pay the “fine” right then and there. Usually this will involve the discreet (or sometimes brazen) exchange of a few hundred pesos.
However, most of the time, it only stops because the police have a checkpoint at the end of town. Sometimes they’re looking for bribes, but usually they’re just keeping an eye on who’s coming in and out. In most cases, you’ll just show your papers, be asked where you came from and where you’re going, and then you’re on your way.
Many people avoid road trips through Mexico because they are worried about crime. While crime certainly exists and you should keep your wits about you (particularly in major cities), most towns and villages are fairly safe for visitors.
That said, there are regions where cartel violence is a real problem, to the point where you probably shouldn’t go there. The northern deserts and states of Michoacán, Colima, Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas can be quite sketchy, as can parts of Durango and Zacatecas. I’ve driven through several of these states without a problem, but if you go, make sure you drive during the day.
Beyond that, your security concerns shouldn’t be that different from anywhere else in the world. Be aware of where you park and avoid leaving expensive items in plain sight in your vehicle.
Sometimes it seems like you can’t drive ten meters without crashing into another toll booth. They are ubiquitous throughout the country.
You can usually avoid these by taking longer, lower-quality “free” routes, but toll or “quota” roads tend to be safer. It’s worth paying a few bucks for peace of mind.
You will never pump your own gas in Mexico, and it is the norm to tip attendees five or ten pesos, as they are paid next to nothing in terms of hourly wages. Sometimes they will go the extra mile cleaning the windshield and checking tire pressure, so feel free to increase your tip accordingly.
Many locals will advise you to avoid paying for gas by card, as scams do happen. Pay cash when possible.
From my experience, dealing with mechanics in Mexico is great, much better than some experiences I’ve had in the US If they’re not busy, they usually take care of repairs on the spot. If the part is available in town, you can do the most basic repairs right away. Keep in mind that your Mexico car insurance plan will often cover the cost of shipping parts from abroad if necessary.
Best of all, prices tend to be almost absurdly low unless you need something big. On my last trip, I fixed a flat tire in five minutes at 10 pm for about $5. I was living in a town for a while where my biker would fix just about anything for 50 pesos, or about $2.50.
You’ll find various products and services for sale at virtually every traffic light and at many gas stations, from food to souvenirs to car washes. It’s a great way to get locally made snacks, water or a polish for your car. It also helps the local economy more than buying a bag of Lays or something from a chain convenience store.
Supposedly there are traffic laws in Mexico, but it is often difficult to discern them. Common sense seems to be the prevailing rule.
One thing that might surprise you on remote two-lane roads, especially in the mountains, is the style of passing. Slower vehicles come to the middle of the road while faster drivers speed past them. Essentially, the center line becomes a passing lane for both directions of traffic. This can be…let’s call it exciting (rather than frightening) when two cars coming from opposite directions try to pass at the same time.
Beyond all that, driving in Mexico is not that different from anywhere else. Enjoy the scenery, stop often for tacos and photos, and enjoy the ride.
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