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 the mountains of Morocco, the ancient ruins of Turkey, the highlands of Iceland and the desolate wilderness of Namibia, but our Mexico road trip was the most challenging so far.

It took us 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 Aztec and Mayan ruins. But we soon learnt that driving in Mexico is not a simple affair.

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 a different country. 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.

NAVIGATING GIGANTIC POTHOLES ON SMALL WINDY ROADS

We’re not exaggerating, the roads in the centre of the country 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.

Roads that meander through hilly jungle terrain need to be navigated on high alert as you dart left and right while keeping an eye out for cars coming towards you doing the same thing. In some places, half the road is missing, swept down the hill from flooding. The risk of car damage is high – placing both your tyres and your rental contract in jeopardy.

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. So, no driving in Mexico after a big night on the Mezcal.

FREQUENT & EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE SPEED BUMPS

After several weeks of driving in Mexico, the uncomfortable bounce over speed bumps was ingrained in our psyche. Even after we had finished driving for the day, the motion of bobbing up and down was still with us.

At almost every junction in Chiapas and Oaxaca, a speed bump has been installed. And not a subtle hump to alert drivers to the impending junction, an aggressive-grinding-halt speed bump. Some are so high that you will literally need to come to a complete stop to get over it successfully. Even with complete concentration, the scrape of the undercarriage was a familiar and frequent sound.

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 250km but after clearing literally hundreds of speed bumps, it took us almost 7 hours, averaging about 40kmh (25mph).

LOCALS TRYING TO STOP YOUR PROGRESS

Unlike Yucatán, Oaxaca and Chiapas are two of the poorest states in Mexico and it shows. 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 passers-by.

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. 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 will drop the rope as you proceed over it.

SEPARATISTS SUCCEEDING IN BLOCKING THE ROAD

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 no jurisdiction here. So not only was the journey extended but it was stressful as well.

FINDING ENOUGH TIME TO GET YOUR DRIVING DONE

On any road trip, you have to make sure you have time each day to make the journey you plan to do. When driving in Mexico, planning is imperative.

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 need to get a bus or a taxi to a restaurant or bar in the evening.

UNHELPFUL AND UNFRIENDLY 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. They appeared to care more about their gun swinging macho image than helping and protecting citizens and tourists.

Our only guidance: don’t expect a lot of support from the police if you need help. It’s much better to ask a friendly looking local.

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 swam in remote waterfalls, visited indigenous peoples, admired ancient ruins and watched the sunset over virgin beaches.

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.

MORE READING

If you are heading to Mexico check out our 3 days in Mexico City, as well as our experiences during our 1-month travels. If you like road trips in remote beautiful places consider heading to Namibia or South Africa.

Alternatively, check out our SELF-DRIVING ADVENTURES ROAM PAGE for all our driving articles.

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Driving in Mexico is not without its challenges. Here's our guide for navigating the tricky driving in Chiapas & Yucatán.

Driving in Mexico is not without its challenges. Here's our guide for navigating the tricky driving in Chiapas & Yucatán.

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