We’ve changed a flat tyre next to lions in Etosha, crossed deep rivers in Iceland and got the car stuck in a souk in Fes. But, driving in Mexico was our most stressful road trip to date.

We love a road trip. The freedom to go where we want when we want. The ability to pack more in the day and get off the beaten track.

We have driven through there remote mountains of Morocco; crossed rivers in a 4×4 in the highlands of Iceland and roamed the desolate wilderness of Namibia.

Our Mexico road trip was the most challenging so far.

We drove from Mexico City, south-east through Oaxaca to the Pacific coast, before heading east across Chiapas, and onto the beaches of the Yucatán peninsula. It’s a beautiful country with palm-fringed golden beaches, jungle-clad waterfalls and ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins.

But we soon learnt that driving in Mexico is far from simple, especially in the less-visited regions away from the beaches of the Yucatán peninsula.

Read on for our helpful tips to help ease the stress from driving in Mexico.

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DRIVING IN MEXICO

Quick FAQs


WHAT SIDE OF THE ROAD DO YOU DRIVE ON IN MEXICO?

Right-hand side

WHAT DOCUMENTS DO I NEED TO DRIVE IN MEXICO?

To drive in Mexico you need a tourist card (arrival card), a vehicle permit (car rental company), and insurance policy documents.

DO I NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT?

No, any foreigner with a valid driving license and a valid passport can drive in Mexico as a tourist.

WHAT IS THE SPEED LIMIT IN MEXICO?

40 km/h (25 mph) urban areas | 80 km/h (50 mph) open roads | 100-110 km/h (62 mph)motorways

DRIVING IN MEXICO – A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES

The Yucatán peninsula is the tourist mecca of Mexico. Five-star resorts and beautiful beaches attract millions every year. The money they bring ensures fast, well-maintained roads, good signage and many petrol stations. Driving here is a breeze and an excellent way to see the area.

But the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca feel like very different countries. Motorways are few and far between. Narrow roads wind their way through the jungle-shrouded hills with potholes so large they could consume a whole car. Every junction has poorly marked speed bumps and locals hold up ropes and cut down trees to block your progress.

The exotic waterfalls, indigenous tribes and ancient ruins of central Mexico make it an excellent destination to explore. But it’s not easy.

Here are a few of the difficulties driving in Oaxaca and Chiapas with some advice from us to help smooth the bumps.

Man sits on top of a steep staircase looking down to a forest

01 – BE VERY CAREFUL OF POTHOLES

We’re not exaggerating, the roads in the centre of Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca and Chiapas, are full of potholes. Not just the odd small pothole you might find on a country road in the UK or the USA. Lots of potholes, often very large.

Roads that meander through hilly jungle terrain need to be navigated carefully as you twist left and right while keeping an eye out for cars coming towards you doing the same thing. In some places, we found half the road missing; swept down the hill from recent floods.

The risk of getting a flat tyre from potholes in Mexico is very high.

This doesn’t make it impossible to drive in Oaxaca and Chiapas but it does make progress very slow. Allow plenty of time for your journey, keeping in mind you’ll be travelling very slowly under maximum concentration.

Palenque, driving in mexico

02 – STAY ALERT FOR THE FREQUENT SPEED BUMPS (TOPES)

A speed bump or (topes) has been installed on almost every junction in Chiapas and Oaxaca. These are not subtle humps to keep an eye on your speed, some are aggressive mounds that require you to slow down considerably.

Some are so high that you will literally need to almost come to a complete stop to get over it. Even with taking considerable care, the scrape of the undercarriage was a familiar and frequent sound driving in Mexico.

It’s not just government installed speed bumps that slow your progress. Locals erect their own to slow down potential customers at their stall or at the entrance of their driveway.

The section of road between Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido is particularly bad. It’s only 250 kilometres (155 miles), but with so many speed bumps, it took us almost 7 hours. That’s an average speed of about 40 km/h (25 mph).

03 – BE AWARE OF LOCALS TRYING TO STOP YOUR PROGRESS

Unlike Yucatán, Oaxaca and Chiapas are two of the poorest states in Mexico. In addition to the roads being in a desperate state of repair, the locals take advantage of the situation by putting up their own make-shift roadblocks.

The strategy is to hold a rope across the road to make cars stop, then engage in conversation by telling drivers the road ahead is blocked. This creates a perfect opportunity to sell some wares or use other tactics to extract money from travellers.

Often it’s just kids trying to make some spending money, or women selling fruit and crafts and not much of a concern. On other times, however, we were stopped by groups of young lads looking much more threatening.

There are one of two strategies you could use to deal with this situation when driving in Mexico. If you are feeling generous and up for chatting with some locals, pull over and buy something. You don’t always need cash, often swapping things like a can of coke will do the trick.

If the situation looks more threatening, simply keep driving and they should drop the rope as you proceed over it.

04 – KNOW THE SEPARATISTS TERITORY

The Zapatistas are a liberation army and separatist movement. They control a large amount of territory in Chiapas and aim to secede from Mexico to form their own state. Since 1994 they have declared war on Mexico but in effect have a policy of civil resistance.

Resistance against the state of Mexico included cutting down trees on main roads to restrict movement between Zapatista controlled territory and ‘foreign’ Mexico. On what should have been a 5-hour drive from San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque, a huge tree had been cut down, completely blocking the main road. For us, this caused a 9-hour diversion around the back roads of Zapatista held territory.

All’s well that ends well, but the area we were forced to drive through had an obvious anti-Mexico theme. Young men roamed around carrying machetes, separatist political slogans were painted over buildings, and it was clear Mexican law had limited jurisdiction here. So not only was the journey extended but stressful as well.

driving in mexico

05 – ALLOW PLENTY OF TIME TO GET YOUR DRIVING DONE

Unlike driving in Yucatán which is very similar to driving in the USA or the UK, driving around Oaxaca and Chiapas will take much longer than you think. Even on roads with a speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph) we often found we were averaging around 40 km/h (25 mph).

This is important because driving at night is not a good idea in Mexico. So make sure you allow plenty of time to get to your destination before nightfall.

06 – AVOID DRIVING AT NIGHT

On some roads in Oaxaca and Chiapas, the frequency of potholes made driving at night all but impossible – you simply couldn’t see them coming fast enough. On other roads, poor lighting and inconsistent signage would make driving at night painfully slow.

In addition to the quality of roads, drug cartels (mainly in the north of the country) are particularly active on the roads at night, so you want to be at your destination by nightfall.

We had no safety concerns walking around the centre of towns and cities at night, but you do need to make sure you have arrived well before it starts getting dark, allowing for any unscheduled stops along the way. You may want to get a bus or a taxi to a restaurant or bar in the evening.

07 – DON’T RELY ON HELP FROM THE POLICE

In the UK, a police officer is a source of calm, helpful reassurance. They will generally give you directions if you’re lost, help you navigate a significant road closure and give you the impression they care about your safety.

Driving in Mexico is very different.

If there was a roadblock or a major traffic incident the police were either nowhere to be seen or actively making matters worse.

During one insane episode of traffic congestion near Puebla, all cars were lined up on a dual carriageway with both directions at a complete standstill. For some unknown reason, the police sent us and a few other cars down the wrong way of the highway. Chaos ensued, we were abused by other motorists and spent hours navigating the backstreets of a small town.

When approaching towns, we were often stopped by police with a lot of glaring and staring before a prolonged search of the car.

Our only guidance: don’t expect a lot of support from the police if you need help, ask a friendly-looking local.

driving in mexico

08 – SCRUTINISE YOUR CAR RENTAL PRICE BEFORE YOU BOOK

When booking a hire car in Mexico online, it may appear you have hired a car for next to nothing. But, when we arrive to pick up our car, additional charges started to stack up very quickly.

There are several compulsory add-ons when hiring a car in Mexico, including insurance and a temporary hire car permit. Additionally, there is a significant surcharge if you decide to drop the car off at a different location, which can be as much as $1 per 2 kilometres between the two locations.

Expect to pay around $30 – $40 per day, more if you want to reduce your insurance excess.

We recommend using rentalcars.com who compare prices across several different car rental companies so you can make an informed choice.

09 – KEEP A VERSION OF GOOGLE MAPS DOWNLOADED FOR YOUR JOURNEY

We downloaded all the maps we needed for Mexico before we travelled using off-line maps in the Google Maps app. Before we set off each day, we’d set the destination while still on the hotel WIFI and hit directions to calculate the route, which stays stored in your phone.

Once in the car we pressed start and followed directions all the way to our destination. However, because you don’t have data it will not update the route if you make a wrong turn and it will not alter the route for any new traffic update. But as long as you are somewhere on the route it has selected it will give you directions to your destination.

You need data roaming turned on for GPS to work (but you don’t need to have purchased any data). Also, remember, if you close the app during the journey you will lose the route information. The Maps.me app is another good offline alternative.

10 – KEEP YOUR FUEL TANK TOPPED UP & BE CAREFUL OF CASH SCAMS

We never had any problems in Mexico obtaining fuel. There are gas stations where you need them and they are usually well-stocked with necessities for your trip

However, as journeys can take much longer than expected, it’s a good idea to make sure you always have a good level of fuel. On a few occasions we had to take significant detours and having plenty of fuel takes some stress away.

It’s a common trick for the attendant to pretend you gave them a lower denomination note than you actually did, by swapping the bill you gave them for one in their pocket. Avoid getting scammed in this way by announcing the note you are giving them before you hand it over.

OUR THOUGHTS ON DRIVING IN MEXICO

We love a road trip. We value the flexibility to do what we want when we want. It allows us to pack more into the day, avoid busy tourist times and get off the beaten track. On our 1-month road trip, we visited indigenous peoples, admired ancient ruins, watched the sunset over virgin beaches, and swam in remote waterfalls.

But often the journey is as rewarding as the destination. This is not the case in Oaxaca and Chiapas. Poor road conditions, speed-bumps, ropes and trees across the road, plus unhelpful police make it a more stressful experience.

We never actually had a problem. We never had to pay a bribe, we didn’t damage the car and we never got forcibly stopped. But nevertheless, some days, after hours on the road, we were very happy to get to our destination.

If you want an adventure, are not a nervous traveller and want to take your time exploring the centre of the country then driving in Mexico is perfectly viable. But if you want a relaxing road trip, Chiapas and Oaxaca is not the place to hire a car.

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MORE READING FOR MEXICO TRIP

Mexico has a vibrancy and energy that hits you the minute you arrive. To help plan your trip, here are more of our guides from Mexico.

Aztec and Myan ruins in Mexico

How to develop your Mexico road trip

3 days in Mexico City

The best cenotes and waterfalls in Mexico


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Driving in Mexico can be safe & easy, but also tricky and stressful depending on where you go. Here's our advice for driving in Chiapas & Yucatán.

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