Mexico’s most beautiful places are far from Cancun’s all inclusive resorts or Puerto Vallarta’s modern oceanfront Airbnbs. Reaching Mexico’s hidden gems such as Cascada de Tamul and Las Pozas requires driving, and a lot of it. Admittedly, I can’t take credit for driving in Mexico during my trips, that’s all on my now boyfriend (who was thoroughly consulted in the creation of this post). However as someone who played passenger for not just one, but several Mexico day trips and road trips in recent years, I know a thing or two about some of the driving quirks in Mexico.
Driving in Mexico is a different beast than driving in the United States. If you’re considering renting a car and driving in Mexico, here’s what you should know:
DO I NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT (IDP) IN MEXICO?
Maybe, depending on where your driver’s license was issued. If you have a US driver’s license, you will not need an IDP in Mexico. Mexico recognizes all driver’s licenses printed in Spanish or English. Most travelers to Mexico from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and South America will not need an IDP to drive in Mexico.
WHERE CAN I RENT A CAR IN MEXICO?
Picking up a rental car at the airport is one of the easiest ways to rent a car in Mexico. Many of the major car rental companies such as Avis, Hertz, and Europcar have offices at airports in Mexico. Even the tiny airport in San Luis Potosí had an Avis, Hertz, Budget, and Sixt. There are also some local rental agencies that are wonderful. We always use Easy Way Car Rental in Cancún when visting Tulum. They aren’t in the airport, but are just a couple minutes away and offer a free shuttle.
I highly recommend booking your rental car in advance online. Rental cars are in high demand, and you’re likely to pay steep rates at the airport day of. Click here to find rental cars in Mexico.
WHAT TYPE OF CAR SHOULD I RENT IN MEXICO?
That depends on where you’re going! Overall, I recommend getting a vehicle that’s lifted, or at a minimum, a SUV. Even if you’re just driving outside Mexico City or Tulum, day trips will require some driving on less than optimal roads. Tulum itself is filled with potholes and rough roads. We’ve rented economy and compact cars in Mexico, however they’ve lead to some very stressful situations, especially in the La Huasteca Potosina region of San Luis Potosí. Skip the stress, pay a bit extra for a car meant for the rough terrain, and stay safe while driving in Mexico.
I do not recommend renting any flashy or nice cars in Mexico. Mexico still struggles with car theft, car jacking, and police bribery. You do not want to be targeted by criminals, or the police.
In cities and resort areas such as Mexico City (CDMX), Cancún, and Guadalajara, renting a car is really not necessary unless you’re planning on taking day trips. Uber exists in several Mexico cities, including Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Merida.
DO I NEED RENTAL CAR INSURANCE IN MEXICO?
Yes, you absolutely need rental car insurance in Mexico. According to Mexican federal law, drivers are required to have car insurance. You want ALL the rental car insurance, actually. Due to the rough road conditions in some areas of Mexico, and frequent, large speed bumps in all of Mexico, scratching your car or causing even small damage is very easy.
To be frank, we’ve never been charged for damage to rental cars in Mexico. In many instances, the cars aren’t as thoroughly assessed for damages on return as they are in other countries, or aren’t inspected at all. It seems as though in areas where dirt roads are common, such as the Yucatán or San Luis Potosí, dust and scratches on return are expected. Typically, the cars we’ve picked up already have some noticeable cosmetic damage. That being said, still purchase the maximum amount of insurance possible. Traffic in Mexico can be aggressive, and you never know what could happen.
WILL MY US CAR INSURANCE WORK IN MEXICO?
Your US car insurance will likely have little to no coverage in Mexico. If you are in a car accident without insurance, you could be arrested. Purchase coverage when renting a car to ensure you will be covered regardless of the situation.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IN A CAR ACCIDENT OR OTHER EMERGENCY WHILE DRIVING IN MEXICO?
Getting into a car accident or other emergency while driving in a foreign country can be well, stressful to say the least. Although I pray you never need to use them, here are a few different emergency numbers for drivers in the event of a crisis.
LOS ÁNGELES VERDES
The Los Ángeles Verdes are a roadside assistance tourist service organized by Mexico’s government. They operate between 8am and 10pm every day of the year. You can easily identify the Los Ángeles Verdes by their green trucks.
In the event that your car breaks down, is in a minor accident, requires towing, or you require other auto support, or road information, you should call Los Ángeles Verdes. Labor and towing are free, however replacement parts are not. They do appreciate a tip.
The Los Ángeles Verdes can be reached by dialing 078 on any phone in Mexico.
EMERGENCY PHONE NUMBER IN MEXICO
Just like in the United States, 911 is Mexico’s emergency number. If you’re in a serious accident, require medical support, or are victim of a crime, dial 911.
Some roads in Mexico have signs with local emergency numbers if you need help. Pay attention on major highways. Some highways have emergency satellite phones in the event you lose service.
IS THERE CELL PHONE SERVICE ON ROADS IN MEXICO?
Yes and no, depending on where you are. While in the Yucatán, cell phone service is nonexistent on most major highways and is can be weak on local roads, even in Tulum. Smaller tourist towns such as Bacalar, have no service at all.
In more local areas of Mexico such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, Tequila, and San Luis Potosí, cell service is much stronger on highways and in local towns. Surprisingly, even in very remote areas of San Luis Potosí, cell phone service was still very strong on toll highways. Service was weak or nonexistent on local and public roads.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I’M PULLED OVER BY POLICE WHILE DRIVING IN MEXICO?
Take a deep breath, and stay calm. Being pulled over by police while driving in Mexico is stressful, especially if you don’t speak strong Spanish.
On one of my trips to Mexico, we did get pulled over in Mexico City. What started as a taco run for CDMX’s famous carne asada tacos, ended as one of the most stressful nights of the whole trip. When dusk falls on Mexico City, police seem to crawl out of the shadows and onto every street corner. I really mean it — I’ve never seen such strong, widespread police presence in any city I’ve previously been to. Police are frequent and obvious. It’s enough to make anyone a bit on edge.
It was 10 pm or so, we were in a neighborhood with a not-so-great reputation, and Sean accidentally turned into a bus lane. Unfortunately, two police officers were parked and stationed at the end of that bus lane. Officers asked $150 USD in pesos as a fine from us and threatened to impound the car otherwise. We were scared. We did everything wrong.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I’M BEING BRIBED BY POLICE IN MEXICO?
Police in Mexico will always ask you for your driver’s license and vehicle registration when pulling you over for an actual traffic violation. They may also ask you for proof of insurance. In the United States, cops issue you a ticket to pay at a later date, and you’re on your way. In Mexico, cops lead you to the station to pay or challenge your fine immediately after pulling you over. Most traffic violations result in fines under the equivalent of $20 USD in Mexican pesos (MXP).
You may be getting solicited for an illegal bribe in Mexico if police are asking you to pay a fine on the spot when they pull you over. It’s a red flag if a police officer does not, at a minimum, ask for your ID. We were never asked for our IDs or vehicle registration when we were pulled over, and that should have been our first red flag.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I AM BEING BRIBED BY POLICE IN MEXICO?
If police ask you for a bribe while driving in Mexico, do the following:
- Ask for the officer’s name, badge number, and precinct
- Ask for the officer to explicitly describe which law you broke
- Request to pay your fine at the station. Police will usually get nervous and release you at this point, if they are soliciting a bribe
- If requesting to go to the station isn’t successful, film the police on your phone as you’re negotiating
- Mention filing a report with the Sindicatura. The Sindicatura is a government organization that investigates cases of police corruption.
You can also attempt to negotiate the bribe. A friend of mine was shaken down on a main road in Tulum at a police checkpoint for a small violation. He lowered his $100 USD bribe by hiding the bulk of of his cash in the trunk, and telling officers he only had the $20 USD in pesos that was in his wallet. For this reason, never travel with the bulk amount of your cash with you. My friend’s situation is not an isolated case — several travelers have reported lowering bribes by using that trick.
MIND THE SPEED BUMPS
Mexican roads are infamous for their large speed bumps, called topes. These speed bumps are one of the reasons that you should never rent a nice car in Mexico. Even the most careful driver will find themselves bottoming out their rental car in Mexico on these large mounds (we certainly did, more than once).
Watch out, and stay ready to reduce your speed while driving in Mexico. Topes can be found anywhere from the middle of the highway to tiny towns in Mexico, and there’s certainly no shortage of them.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO DRIVE IN MEXICO?
Driving in Mexico is chaotic. Many main highways only have one lane, requiring you to pass large trucks and other slow vehicles in the lane of oncoming traffic. Blind passing is common — and terrifying. Traffic conditions vary throughout the country, but overall, driving in Mexico will require you to be especially alert at all times.
As previously mentioned, outside of cities (and even in some), large potholes and extremely rocky roads are common. In mountainous regions, you’ll notice that cliff side roads may have very little barrier and will be very narrow. If you’re venturing outside of proper city areas, such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, or Cancún, and are not comfortable driving on unpaved roads, or in rocky conditions, finding an alternative method of transportation may be the best solution for you.
Gas stations in Mexico are few and far between. Even on major highways, you can drive over an hour without seeing a gas station. If you’re embarking on a day trip or road trip in Mexico, make sure you have a full tank of gas prior to leaving.
One of the most stressful situations I’ve been in while in Mexico (aside from being pulled over by the police), wasn’t ending up in Mexico City’s most dangerous neighborhood, but instead was watching our rental car’s gas meter fall to E, while we were halfway between Tulum and Chichen Itza. We figured that once we left Tulum, there would be a few more gas stations right outside the city. Wow, were we wrong. We drove well over an hour without seeing another gas station, on the only highway between Tulum and Chichen Itza. Luckily, after driving on E for about a half hour, we finally came across a gas station.
If you do find yourself driving in Mexico and running out of gas, call Los Angeles Verdes, Mexico’s free roadside assistance, by dialing 078. While driving, pay attention to the highway and make note of any satellite phones. Many highways in Mexico have little to no service once leaving city limits. Some toll highways in Mexico have satellite phones every 10 km or so, in the event of an emergency.
BEST ROAD TRIP DESTINATIONS IN MEXICO
- Your Guide to La Huasteca Potosina in San Luis Potosí, Mexico
- Cenote Suytun in Valladolid, Yucatán
- Chichen Itza: The Best Day Trip from Cancún
- Thermal Pools near Mexico City: Las Grutas Tolantongo
- The Best Day Trip from Guadalajara: Tequila, Jalisco
WHAT TO WEAR IN MEXICO
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