Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Driving in Mexico. A Practical How-To Guide

Story and Photos by Jim Foreman

Traveling in Mexico is different than traveling in Canada or the United States. Gone are the strict traffic rules nearly all Norte Americanos are programmed to follow. Signage, customs, courtesies, and right-of-way are all irregular to an unseasoned driver.

Furthermore, stories of corrupt cops stopping travelers for bribes are aplenty. Many stories are real but even more are embellished to make the protagonist sound noble and heroic.

Let’s start with the premise that you understand safety in Mexico, know how to use currency in Mexico, Know what’s legally required to travel to Mexico, and are still ready for an incredible adventure. If you are not clear on these topics, please click on the links for each one for clarity.

Mexico is an exciting and fascinating destination by road and offers amazing sights, wonderful food and some of the warmest and kindest people on Earth.

A Word of Caution: Don’t rely on too many sources for answers. If you pose a question on a Facebook Forum, you’ll get an extensive range of answers and it becomes quite difficult to separate the nonsense (over 95%) from the sage advice (less than 5%). Don’t try to learn too much ahead of time. Most Americans are guilty of this. One ends up trying to re-live the experiences of the authors rather than forming unique and individual impressions of situations, sights, and locations.

Go with a blank canvas. Promptly and completely disregard everything you think you know about Mexico from the interwebs, news, TV shows, movies, and that loud-mouthed woman at the river who kept talking about misadventures with ‘Federales.'

Only rely on what you have directly experienced or can learn from a trusted person of sound judgment who has recently been to the area you are planning to go.

Know a Bit of Spanish

Knowing a little bit of Spanish can mean the difference between a difficult and frustrating journey and a fun and memorable trip through Mexico. There are many methods to learning some key phrases. Relying on Google Translate should not be one of your primary options. Use Google Translate only as a last resort. Some learning options are very costly while some of the best ones are free. Regardless of which method one chooses, one will never learn Spanish unless one practices and does the lessons.

Some of the expensive options that do work include taking courses at your local community college or community center. These are quite useful for those that need structure and an organized plan.

Secondarily, computer or audio book based language lessons do work. Some of these examples include Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and even the free BBC Language Courses. They are frequently started but quickly ignored to make room for Facebook updates or binge-watching TV shows.

Another option is using a smartphone app. There are dozens of apps available to help you learn key words and phrases. At the top is Duolingo. Duolingo is fun and an easy interactive language learning tool. Just 5-7 minutes a day will have you speaking and understanding Spanish in little time.

Papa's & Beer in Asheville, NC
One way to practice in your hometown before departing for Mexico is to enjoy several meals at an authentic Mexican restaurant. Ask the server if you can practice ordering in Spanish. They will usually oblige and even feel proud to help you learn a bit of their language and culture. As you go about your daily tasks, try to think in Spanish. Use Spanish numbers when counting or thinking about decisions.

Finally, a quick cheat-sheet of highly useful phrases to learn in Spanish can be found in this informative article from Tom Campbell posting in No Hay Bronca.

Heading to Ciudad Chihuahua from Ciudad Juarez.

Driving in Mexico

Driving in Mexico requires a different mindset than driving in the USA or Canada. One must pilot their vehicle with eyes up and on the road, in active mode. Mexico roadways are not the place to be complacent or to daydream. Don’t take this to mean one should drive like a paranoid or nervous wreck-about-to-happen. Rather, drive alert, look into the distance for surface irregularities or potholes, detours and deviations (desviaciónes), broken-down cars, animals and livestock, gravel, or a passing vehicle. Active and alert driving is the way everyone should be operating their vehicle, regardless of location. Sadly, technology, passivity, boredom, and predictability have replaced these fundamental skills for far too many drivers. Start at home by keeping your chin and eyes up. Remain aware of who and what is around you. Spot potential hazards ahead in the roadway.

Consider practicing some evasive and emergency driving skills in an empty parking lot. Emergency Braking and evading of road hazards will go on to serve you very well in life.

Another option that can be quite fun is to seek out a high-performance driving course. Often you’ll find these at a racetrack.

Crossing Puente Baluarte.  The World's Tallest Cable Strayed Bridge dividing Sinaloa and Durango

Rules of the Road – Highways

There are, in practicality, only a few actual ‘Rules of the Road’ in Mexico. Here is a pragmatic set of ‘rules’ that aren’t necessarily codified but will help you have a great experience and avoid trouble in Mexico.

Don’t Drive at Night. This rule can be bent but be careful not to break it.
Here’s the truth. ‘Banditos’ aren't typically the primary reason for this important advice.  Road hazards are often difficult to spot during the day.  At night, they are nearly impossible to see with any time to evade them. Virtually all travelers who suffer serious injury or fatality on the roadways were driving at night. Don't! Just Don’t.

Since we all love bending the rules, here’s how the rules can be bent.  If you are on a well-traveled toll road and your destination is less than an hour away, you are probably fine to continue to your destination.  Ask a local or two if it is safe to travel to the destination before you set off. It’s far wiser and probably much more interesting to get accommodations where you are and enjoy a night in a new town.
 Listen to the locals. They are not stupid. It’s the stupid and arrogant travelers who don’t listen to local wisdom who end up in the emergency room or morgue.

Another rule bending allowance is driving at night in a medium to large city. If you are within a town, you are usually OK to travel at night. Know exactly where you are going and how to get there. A GPS can be helpful, but it won’t know which areas are high crime spots or are places to avoid. Do not venture into the outskirts of town or onto back roads as this increases your risk of danger, exponentially. Also, don’t get gas or visit the ATM at night. Wait until daylight.

The second rule is to Ignore the ‘Right of Way.' It’s the right of 'who is bigger' followed by 'who is first' that you must respect. If an oncoming truck is passing another vehicle and is in your lane, you better be immediately thinking of evasive action. Busses are known to do this, too. More often bus drivers are better, but not always. None of them are trying to mess with you. They will try to avoid hitting you, but you need to make way.

Be friendly and gracious and don’t drive with an ego. If someone wants to pass you, pull to the right side and let them pass. Wave to them nicely and smile as they pass.

You don’t own the road and should not drive like one who thinks they do. (Read this line twice!)

If someone is stopped at the side of the road and it appears safe to offer assistance, do so. At least offer bottles of water or a lift into town so they can retrieve help. If it’s an overly attractive woman at the side of the road, it may be a robbery setup. Use your good judgment. If it’s a family, motorcyclist, or a single person in the middle of nowhere, there may not be mobile service and can probably use your help. Remember, those same individuals will stop to help you when you are stuck at the side of a road.

Take warning signs seriously. Mexican roadways have very few warning signs compared to the US or Canada. When you see one, it’s a wise person who takes their message seriously. ‘Curvas Peligrosas’ means Dangerous Curves. ‘Aguas’ means ‘Heads Up’ or ‘Watch Out’ not water.

Speeding… On Mexican highways, there are speed signs posted. They are often absurdly low. Only the Policia Federal can pull you over on the highways. If anyone else attempts to pull you over, it’s most likely not for legitimate purposes.

Often, the police will be on the outskirts of towns and hit you on Radar. Then they will direct you to pull over and have a talk. Occasionally, they will get behind their intended target and light them up to be pulled over. There are many kilometers of highway and rather few of the special ‘Highway Patrol’ designated traffic cops. In the open stretches, the highways in Mexico are like the German Autobahn. Don’t drive in the left lane. Leave it for passing. Go as fast as you like, but remember, if you crash, it may be an hour or two before help arrives. Slow down and give room when you see a police vehicle on the side of the road. Don’t try to be the fastest one on the road. Let someone else do that and possibly get stopped. While driving, if you see brake lights ahead, there may be a cop visible just over a crest or past a bend with radar. Take appropriate action.

Rules of the Road - Cities and Towns

Slow Down! You may have been running at 160Kph (100MPH) on cruise control on the highway, but when you get into town, you MUST slow down! Excessive speed is the reason 90% of travelers get pulled over. Failing to stop at a Stop Sign ‘Alto’ is the reason for nearly all the other traffic stops.

Drive slightly slower than the flow of traffic and keep your eyes up and aware of road hazards, animals, missing utility covers, and pedestrians. Policia Municipal are in charge of the cities and do a majority of the stops.

Don’t stand out and give them a reason to stop you.

Dealing With a Traffic Stop

Mexico has been making significant and substantive efforts to crack down on corrupt cops who pull people over solely seeking a bribe. Most big city cops are quite professional and care about their community. State Police and Federal Police (Policia Estatal and Policia Federal) will almost never pull someone over and seek out a bribe. If you got pulled over by la Policia Federal, you most certainly committed the violation.

Drunk woman trying to bribe police with $100MN ($5USD)
Mexican police have to deal with a lot of idiocy.  They have seen it all.  Be mindful of their difficult job and don't be unnecessarily troublesome.

If you were driving drunk and get into an accident, you will be arrested and held until you pay the fine and arrange to make restitution to the cars or people you damaged, either with insurance or cash. You will remain in Jail until either of those requirements are met.  If you plan on drinking, please walk or take a taxi to and from your location.  It's better for everyone.

Sadly in some smaller and rural towns, some Policía Municipál still try to augment their meager salary with the unwilling help of foreign travelers.

Here’s some sound advice for dealing with a traffic stop either legitimate or not in many countries including Mexico.

1. Show no fear. If you act scared, it may prompt a bad cop to try to shake you down for a bribe. Don’t be rude, macho, or arrogant, but don’t be afraid either. Unlike in the US, It’s OK to get out of your car and casually go to them and shake their hand.

2. If you committed the violation, do everyone a favor and don’t be a jerk. Take it and look for the best way to resolve the situation. Decide if you want to accept a deal with the officer or go to the station to pay the rather small penalty.

3. If you know a bit of Spanish, try to explain what happened. Often expressing how sorry you are and that you didn’t realize the speed or stop sign will help.

4. If you don’t know much Spanish, without being insulting or demeaning, try to explain with hand gestures or poorly worded phrases. Don’t treat the cops like they are dumb. They aren’t. Be sincere and relaxed. Try your best.

5. If a cop starts telling you the fine is $400 US Dollars, or some such nonsense, simply and politely say, ‘No.’ Suggest that you go to the station to pay or ask for ‘El Jefé’ their supervisor. Again, be polite but firm.

6. Always allow the cop to save face. Never insult or demean them. In fact, telling them how important their job is and how they deserve respect is often helpful.

7. If it is just a shakedown, being calm, relaxed and unwilling to give in will usually have them let you go in 15-30 minutes. If they still don’t, ask them for the ticket, in writing. Take a picture of what they wrote or run your phone on movie mode to capture the conversation. Have a pen or pencil and write their names and ID numbers.

8. If you are let go, offer to buy them a coffee (café) or Coke (refresco) for the trouble of pulling you over. $20MN-$50MN ($1USD-$2.50USD) will not be seen or taken as a bribe but an offering of goodwill.

9. If you have been wrongfully shaken down, bring your evidence (names, numbers, photos, video, or audio recording to the police station and ask for the captain. Explain what happened honestly and factually. You can also report it to a national hotline by calling 91-800-00148.

Crooked cops are becoming rarer in Mexico. Bad cops are being fired with a stain on their reputation. That serves as an example to other potentially dishonest cops. Don’t assume that officers, acting lawfully, are going to shake you down. Most cops are doing their best to perform a difficult job.

Traveling in Mexico is an adventure in itself. Some of the best experiences are completely unplanned. Keep an open mind and heart and don’t journey in fear. Don't do things you wouldn’t do back home and use an extra dose of street smarts and (not-so) common sense.

When traveling in Mexico in your car, RV or motorcycle, you must have Mexican Auto Insurance. It’s the law. In less than 5 minutes, get a quote from top rated insurers. Go to Mexican Insurance Store and choose the insurer and coverage you want.  Buy it, and print out your policy. You are now ready to go, with confidence.
©2016 Jim Foreman  All Rights Reserved


  1. I rode my Valkyrie to Mexico 2 summers ago, to visit San Felipe. No problems during the trip, but the re-entry point into the USA through Calexico was the WORST travel experience of my last 20 years: Poorly marked lanes and gates for cars/motorcycles, tons of beggars and hustlers harassing those returning (including me), and a chaotic environment in general. No more Calexico for me!!

    1. Hello, I wish we could have talked about coming back on motorcycle, before then.
      There's two entry points at Mexicali. One through downtown and one to the east. Through Downtown, Motorcycles are allowed to use the medical lane and cut to the front of the line. At the truck crossing to the east, the lanes are wider and you can either filter up to the front or take the SENTRI lane to the front and cut in through the break in the barriers.
      The vendors are there to make a living. They're not just beggars but can be quite helpful. They nearly always leave motorcyclists alone.
      When the lines are long, they can provide drinks, snacks, and even a couple gallons of gas when you run out in lane.
      An alternative crossing that is awesome for motorcyclists is Tecate. Just ride on the left side of the barriers to the front of the line. 5 minutes, max.