Driving in Mexico
Vehicle Entry Requirements
If you are bringing a car into Mexico from the United States, you will need to have the title with you. If the title is not in your name, for example if you are making payments and it is still in the bank's name, you will need to have a notarized letter from the legal owner granting you permission to take the vehicle into Mexico. You will also need to pay the permit fee (about $12 U.S.) using a non-Mexican credit card. This is to discourage illegal importation of vehicles. The alternative is to post a rather steep bond. The other thing
Personal Entry Requirements
you'll need is Mexican insurance. This can be purchased in border towns on the U.S. side of the border. You can buy insurance by the day to cover the time you will be in Mexico. Sanborn's used to be the principle one and was known for their road guides that were furnished along with the insurance. Now there are a number of more competitive agencies and you can arrange your insurance online. Both AHA International offers online Mexican auto insurance. AHA International also has homeowners and condo insurance and emergency medical insurance.
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U. S. citizens entering Mexico will need an authentic birth certificate (with an embossed seal) and photo identification (like a driver's license) or a passport. Voter registration cards are no longer accepted. Minors require notarized consent from parent(s) if traveling alone, with one parent, or in someone else's custody. Here's a link to more entry information.
As soon as you cross the border, proceed to Imigración and present your papers. You'll fill out a form that will be your tourist card. It will ask for your name, sex, marital status, occupation, place of birth, home address, main destination in Mexico, and mode of transportation. You'll sign that and get it stamped. They will fill out a vehicle permit, run you credit card, and charge you about $13. You'll get a sticker which they will place on your window. In some cases the vehicle permit will be issued at a different location. Whatever you do, don't leave the border town until this has all been done. You'll make it to the 15-mile checkpoint and they will send you back. Don't ask me how I know. If you are just visiting the border town, you don't need a visa or car permit.
The Open Road
Traffic rules are not much different in Mexico than in the U.S. There's no radar so you can drive as fast as you want. Even so, you may be passed by the busses. I don't know how they do it; even the aging Greyhound hand-me-downs are real performers.
Driving in Mexico can be safe if you realize and watch for certain
hazards that you may not be accustomed to.
Traveling at Night
- Rocks in the Road   If you see a stack of rocks in the road about a foot high, this means that there is a hazard ahead, usually a truck broke down. If you don't see the stack of rocks, you may lose your oil pan. Either way you'll want to slow down quickly and be alert.
- Pedestrians in the Road   In remote areas, the highway is the best pathway around and there will be a lot of people walking. I will point out here that in some places, especially in Oaxaca, there are indigenous populations with their own languages and if you stop to talk to them you may find that your Spanish is not working. I'll also point out that at night, some pedestrians could be drunk.
- Livestock in the Road   That pretty much says it, but I will emphasize that some cows are black and don't show up well at night.
- Holes in the Road   Many areas of Mexico have rainy seasons, typically July-November, when torrential rains can quickly remove sections of roadway. Don't expect these to be marked with flashing yellow lights. I once encountered an open manhole in the middle of a busy intersection in Mexico City with no warning of any kind. This sort of thing is a real trap for a tourist who is searching for street signs and watching traffic.. Also, holes in the road don't show up well at night; they just look like shadows.
- More Rocks in the Road   Referencing the aforementioned torrential rains, there can also be rockslides with debris occupying the roadway. I was once driving through a deep road cut winding up into the mountains in a heavy rain at 4:00 a.m. when I encountered a police car in the middle of the road with lights flashing. I stopped and talked to the policeman who was wanting a push to get his car started. As I was talking to him a rock tumbled down and hit the roof of my camper. I said sure, let's go and we proceeded to push his car uphill in the dark. It became apparent that he had an automatic transmission and needed a bit of speed to get the thing started and was waving me to go faster. I had the horsepower to do it but there was some difficulty in maneuvering through the roadway littered with falling rocks guided by the headlights of the police car with its dying battery. Finally when we got up to 45 mph the car started. I'll point out here that at night you are not able to see the falling rocks coming.
- Gas Station Ripoffs   I don't think this is as common now as in the past but it still happens. The most common is the failure of the attendant to clear the pump before pumping gas. It is not considered impolite to jump out of the car and eyeball the proceedings. I should mention here that sometimes due to limitations of the metering equipment it is necessary to apply a multiplication factor to the total. This may be a legitimate operation and not a scam. It's a good idea to have an idea of how much fuel the tank will take and about how much it will cost so you can avoid any wild overcharging. Another possible ripoff is for someone to examine the underside of your car and come up with an oily hand as evidence that you are in need of immediate repairs which they can facilitate for you. It is a good idea of fill your tank when it gets to about half full; that way you can afford to be choosy about gas stations. One possible indicator of trouble is a station that harbors a small crowd of youths eager to wash your windshield, etc. They are sometimes used to distract you while scams are perpetrated. Best just to roll on through.
In case you haven't figured it out, it's not a good idea to drive at night. Not only is it more difficult to perceive the hazards, but you will have to drive more slowly to be safe and won't make very good time. Also, you'll miss the sights.
Personal Pit Stops
Gas stations rarely have clean restrooms or toilet paper or soap or paper towels. You would do well to carry a small supply of these items. You will find better facilities at restaurants.
A traffic accident used to be a criminal act in Mexico but fortunately not any more. Nevertheless there still may be a tendency on the part of residents not to want to involve the police in handling an accident. If you have a problem, your Sanborn's insurance papers will include a list of lawyers and claims offices in Mexico that you can call.
Getting a Traffic Ticket
Here there is a sharp divergence between the Mexican and U.S. systems and I don't fully understand it myself. As far as I can tell, if you own a gun, a car, have a badge, and are friends with the judge, then one can be a traffic cop. The pay is not too good so they have to make do. If you are asked for your driver's license you must show it but you don't have to let go of it. Evidently there is a market for these and some people just like to collect them. It doesn't happen very often but you could get stopped for no reason and threatened with a ticket. The simplest thing might be to offer a bribe. You won't be given any change so it's a good idea to have an assortment of bills on hand. The rate is negotiable. This may seem somewhat distasteful but it's their system, it can't easily be changed, and it works. You can take care of your fine on the spot (the alternative is to go directly to the judge), it won't cost any more than in the U.S., and it won't go on your record.
Here's something else you don't see too much in the U.S. Due in part to pressure from the U.S. government to stem the flow of drugs the Mexican government operates a number of checkpoints where your papers and the contents of your vehicle are examined by machine gun toting soldiers for drugs and weapons. There may also be machine gun nests on either side of the road. Interestingly, Mexican traffic is often waved through but tourists will all be checked. I once went through six of these in one day along the coastal highway. I don't think there are as many of them now.
There are a number of these, especially around urban centers. Although the tolls can add up, it generally best to take the toll road rather than the free (libre).
Mexico City has a major air pollution problem. In order to fight this they have instituted a restriction on vehicle travel within the city. Based on digits in your license plate number, there are only certain days of the week that you can legally operate your vehicle. If you bought Sanborn's insurance, they should have the specifics on this in their travel guide.
Alto means stop and the stop signs look pretty much like those in the U.S. A stop sign at a railroad crossing means yield to oncoming trains. Nobody stops for these railroad crossing stop signs so if you do, you run the risk of being rammed from behind. Check out this list of road signs.
Enjoying your Trip
In spite of all the terrible things I've mentioned above, you can enjoy your trip. The idea here is just to know and avoid the pitfalls. Plan you driving during the daytime and allow enough time that you don't have to rush things and can enjoy what's along the way as well as your destination. Restaurants may not always be where you want them so take a few snacks and stop often enough that you don't go long without a good meal and a rest stop. Some people get really grouchy if they don't eat regularly; I won't mention any names here.
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Mexico has a variety of geographical areas from deserts to jungles to snow-capped mountains, with some of the most beautiful scenery that you'll find anywhere. Taking your own car into Mexico or renting one there affords the opportunity to stop and explore.
The Pacific Coast of Mexico
Tom Penick:  email@example.com