Things I Wished I Knew Before Driving to Mexico from the U.S.

I brought my car to Mexico in 2023 because, like last year, I am making a lot of stops and driving long distances all across the country; I am traveling with my dog, the faithful Penny; and I am traveling long-term.

But, like everything in life, there are pros and cons. Trade-offs. And shoulda, woulda, coulda.

After 12,000 kilometers altogether, and two-thirds of Mexico visited, here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way… plus, what I tell my friends and followers when I’m asked: “What’s the best way to get around in Mexico?”

Should I bring my car to Mexico? Things to consider…

  • If you drive your own car, your U.S. or Canadian insurance is null and void in Mexico, and you have to purchase Mexican coverage (and make sure you get partial theft!).
  • If you drive your own car past the “border zone” or outside Baja, Quintana Roo and parts of Sonora, you need to pay a fee and a $400 deposit for a “Temporary Import Permit” (TIP) as collateral that you will leave the country on time. There are certain documents you are required to bring with you in order for officials to process your TIP, including your original title and U.S. registration.
  • The cost of tolls (I’ve paid a pretty penny in tolls driving across Mexico), and the expense and responsibility of secured parking. I’ve known people personally who’ve had petty theft occur and their parked car broken into, and I was one of them — my side mirrors were stolen in CDMX and I was quoted 20,000 pesos to replace them at a Honda dealer in Mexico (over $1,000 USD). The insurance company said they wouldn’t pay for it unless I had a police report, which is standard. (And because police reports do not happen quickly or easily, I had to go to three stations.)
  • U.S. (and Canadian) plated cars do stand out, and there’s a belief that vehicles that stand out are more likely to be targeted. (I think crooks are largely equal opportunists, and you can’t see a license plate very well at 90kph, but there’s probably some truth to this.)
  • On that note, police corruption remains a thing in Mexico, even as the current government cracks down — police who pull you over or stop you at checkpoints will sometimes spot an “infraction” that they can “resolve” in-person with a few hundred or thousand pesos. It’s important that you do not contribute to this problem by paying them on the spot. Read my account below, and report incidents via the smartphone app Denuncia Paisano.
  • Obviously, there will be wear and tear on your vehicle. But if you have body work to be done, Mexico is an affordable place to do it (shop around for quotes and recommendations)!
  • Here are a list of more precautions I take and continue to take while driving in Mexico. 

Should I rent a car in Mexico?

  • Car rental companies sometimes take an extremely large “deposit” or require add-on insurance (that, sometimes, doubles the cost of your “reservation”). Read the fine print and research where you’re renting from. I’m told price-gouging like this can happen a lot in touristy parts of Mexico.
  • Always photograph the vehicle for any existing damage before driving off the lot (good practice anywhere). 
  • Gas is around 21 to 24 pesos per liter across Mexico; that’s currently a little more than $4.50USD a gallon. In Mexico, they pump your gas for you — but keep an eye out for gas station scams (watch my video below). You’re also expected to tip the attendant 5-10 pesos.
  • Again, don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Look for secured parking, especially overnight. 
  • Rules of the road are largely the same as elsewhere in North America, buuuuut… you’ll find some notable differences soon enough when it comes to passing (nothing you can’t learn on the fly by observing other drivers)!
  • There are an inordinate number of speed bumps in Mexico, called “topes” or “velocidad reductors” — and sometimes, they are not marked. DRIVE SLOWLY through towns or face the painful consequences. 
  • As mentioned above, keep cash on hand for tolls. Check the toll estimator for your route here

What are my options besides a car rental?

  • Long distance buses in Mexico are generally comfortable, on-time, safe, and affordable. and tend to have reliable information. 
  • For shorter-distance traveling, search for shuttles, collectivos (a small public bus, kind of like a van), or other shared transfer services.
  • Flights between Mexican cities are not as expensive as the states. Major airlines include Aeromexico, Volaris and VivaAerobus.
  • Uber (and Mexican Uber, “Didi”) are available in a lot of major cities on the west coast and in the interior of the country. I’ve paid about half as much for the same distance or length of ride, as compared to a typical ride in the U.S. View Uber’s coverage map. Unfortunately, in Quintana Roo (the state of Cancun and Tulum), Uber is unavailable and taxi drivers will set prices to the extreme.
  • In tourist towns, if there are a lot of places you want to visit, and especially if you have a small group, it can be very cost-effective to share the cost of a personal driver who knows the area. Ask around via the tourist information center or your hotel.
  • Mexico City has an efficient and well-patrolled metro system — a ride is only 5 pesos. Mexico’s other major cities and industry hubs are also well-connected with public transport.
  • Some hotels may offer transportation or will be able to help you arrange transportation. When in doubt, ask: you’re not the first person who wants to get from point A to point B — there are solutions!!

Additional important things to think about if driving in Mexico?

  • In Mexico, there is no constitutional right to the presumption of innocence; in practice, it’s the opposite.
  • If you’re in a collision, the adjuster will come out “on the spot” to make a determination of fault, and what I mean by “on the spot” is NOT immediately — it’s often an hour or many hours later. And unlike the U.S., you cannot leave the scene of a collision, cheerfully exchange insurance info, and have your insurance deal with it later successfully. Basically, your plans for the day are dashed (I know from experience). 
  • Never drive long distances at night.
  • Animals, rock piles, potholes, topes, you-name-it — distracted driving has no place in Mexico.

So, should you drive in Mexico?

Millions of people drive in Mexico every day, and thousands of them are guests in Mexico. And largely, I feel absolutely fine about driving in Mexico if I follow all my own rules — but that’s because I’m well-prepared, experienced, and I’ve weighed the level of risk.

It is GREAT to have the freedom of the open road, the opportunity to go to far-flung places on my own timetable, and the ability to store a lot more belongings (including my trusty sidekick, Penny) — but there are a number of downsides, like the associated costs, the physical and material responsibility, and the mental effort and concentration driving in new places takes. Still, of all the kilometers I’ve driven, in all the cities and on all the roadways, I’ve had very few negative experiences. At this point in time, driving makes sense for me!

I hope the above helps you weigh your decision, and let me know — what experiences have you had while driving in Mexico?

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