Before I became a nomad, when I lived in Arizona, I had road-tripped to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico, several times. But I had always been with others. I had never driven my own car. And Puerto Peñasco, often called “Rocky Point” by Arizonans, was only an hour from the border and four hours from Phoenix. Child’s play!
This time was different. One, I was alone, in my own car. Two, I was going deep into the heart of Mexico. Three, I would be in Mexico for six months and driving all over! Here’s how I prepared (and some other general advice I’ll offer up). All prices quoted are in USD unless MXN is specified.
How I prepared for driving in Mexico:
- Unlike in the U.S… the shortest route is not necessarily the best. I planned my route by reading posts in Facebook groups like On the Road in Mexico to get recommendations on which border crossing to take and which roads were safest. from people who had recently traveled. Ultimately, I decided to cross at Piedras Negras (near Eagle Pass, TX) because it has a safer reputation than Laredo, even though it added a couple hours on my trip from Texas. I spent the night in Eagle Pass, TX, crossed first thing in the morning, and then spent the night in Saltillo before continuing on the next day to San Miguel de Allende.
- In order to drive in Mexico past the “border zone” with a U.S.-plated car, you’ll need to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP). Read up on the requirements and cost here. Officials reviewed all my paperwork at the Banjercito in Allende, about one hour past the U.S.-Mexican border, and I paid and went on my way. The total cost for me was $472, of which I’ll get back $400 as long as I leave Mexico before my TIP expires.
- I bought a dash cam on Amazon. This one was easy to install and use, and so far, I have no complaints. The idea is that the dash cam will deter corrupt police officers from asking for bribes or otherwise hassling drivers (and capture anything else you might wish you had on record). Mexico is trying to make a lot of strides towards curbing police corruption — another tool for the toolbox is the smartphone app Denuncia Paisano to report cases.
- I bought Mexican car insurance, which was about $415 for 6 months, purchased online here. The price you pay is dependent on the year, make, miles, and overall value of your car. You will need to hold American car insurance at the same time. Note: In Mexico, you cannot leave the scene of a non-injury accident, even if you exchange insurance information. You’ll have to wait for an adjuster to come out, review the damage and determine fault (be prepared to wait a few hours!).
- I got pesos from my bank in the states for the toll booths and gas. I paid a slightly inflated exchange rate, but I needed pesos for the tolls immediately after the border and I didn’t want to bother looking for an ATM. I got MX$5,000 ($250), which was more than enough for tolls, gas, and spending money for a week. Use this site to approximate how much your tolls will be by route. Always take the toll roads — they’re patrolled!
- I changed my car display to kilometers so I would know whether I was driving within the speed limit. Lifesaver!
- I downloaded all my Google maps offline so I would still have a map available should the cellular service be weak. Pro tip: I do this everywhere, not just Mexico.
WHILE DRIVING: I generally found Mexican drivers to be pretty attentive on the road, perhaps more so than distracted Americans. That being said, there are some interesting habits you’ll encounter.
- On single-lane highways, drivers will straddle the solid line so the middle of the road can be used as a passing lane. I got used to this quickly.
- The speed limit changes a lot, seemingly for no reason. Mostly, I went slightly slower than the flow of traffic. Standing out seemed the greater of the two evils. The speed limit also does not seem to be listed as often as we’re used to in the U.S.
- Speed bumps. They’re often not marked, or the lines will have faded. Seriously, watch out!
GETTING GAS: In Mexico, there are gas station attendants who pump your gas, and there are a few scams I was advised to look out for. Here have been my best practices (so far):
- Fill up at half a tank. I don’t want to get stuck somewhere with an empty tank.
- Pay with cash. This means I avoid any chance of my credit card being run twice or having my card used to pay for a pump that’s not mine.
- A half tank in my Honda CR-V SUV is about MX$400-$500. When I pull up, I make sure the reading is at zero, then tell the attendant, “Cuatro ciento, verde” which is MX$400, regular gas. (Premium gas is “rojo.”)
- I stay in my car with the doors locked while the gas is being pumped and I hand him the money after he’s done.
- A tip is expected. I give him about MX$5. (He’s usually also cleaned my windshield.)
I haven’t had a problem getting gas yet, but I’ve heard stories of people who have. Actually, at most of the gas stations I’ve stopped at, the attendants made a point to show me the reader was set at zero before they started. Still, a good idea to keep an eyes out!
OTHER PRECAUTIONS I’VE BEEN ADVISED TO TAKE DRIVING IN MEXICO:
- Only, only, only drive during the day.
- Don’t have a lot of cash on you or in your wallet. If you do have a lot of cash, put it in places where it won’t be easily or quickly found.
- While driving, consider wearing a hat to cover hair that’s long, blonde, or otherwise female in appearance.
- Have multiple blank and white photocopies of your insurance information, passport, and driver’s license. Do not hand over any original documents should you be pulled over.
- It’s not a precaution (or maybe it is?), but I bring toilet paper with me on long drives for gas station restrooms.
Thanks to the fear-mongering of the American media, I had a lot of worry about driving deep into Mexico. And sure, I’ve only been here a few weeks, but so far, so good. (My Google Maps on Carplay is an absolute lifesaver!) Still, I think it’s better to be over-prepared for any scenario than under, and always stay fully alert.
I still have a lot more driving to do across this beautiful country, and I will update my blog [READ THIS to catch up on ALL my MEXICO experiences!]. Happy driving!
SOME MORE OBSERVATIONS FROM MY DRIVE INTO MEXICO: