On my most recent flight to Cancún, a seatmate and I chatted about our travel plans. When I said I was renting a car and driving in Mexico solo around the Yucatán Peninsula, she was nearly speechless. I had to work to convince her I wasn’t a crazy person with a death wish. I’m still not sure I succeeded!
I’ve rented a car several times to travel from Cancún and Tulum and points in between, but this trip was the first time I was going solo. I’d also done a small group tour in Mexico and Guatemala, traveling with a combination of public buses and private vans. So I knew there were risks involved. But there were places that I had missed on previous trips that I just couldn’t get to using public transit. I also couldn’t imagine arranging a week’s worth of private drivers. And, because I’m the Haphazard Traveler, I decided to make a go of it.
Read on for tips on renting a car and insurance, road conditions, gas station scams, and a bonus on road sign translations at the end of the post.
My basic plan was:
- Never drive on highways at night and take toll (“cuota”) roads as much as possible. My itinerary had me getting into towns before sunset each day, and then I was able to walk from there to get to dinner, etc.
- No speeding and, of course, no drinking and driving.
- Use GPS, and preview my destinations on Google Street View. I looked up my hotels so that I knew nearby landmarks.
- Always have cash and change in small bills for toll booths and emergencies.
- Have emergency and the Green Angels roadside assistance numbers programmed into my phone (with international roaming on).
Renting a Vehicle and Insurance in Mexico
Car rental deals in Mexico seem amazing online! $5 a day? Don’t mind me over here, upgrading to the convertible! But what you don’t realize right away is that this doesn’t include any insurance or fees, and that those can get pretty hefty.
If you rent a car in Mexico, you’re required to have Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and Third-Party Liability insurance. The good news is that your credit card might provide CDW… the bad news is if there’s a problem, the rental company will charge your card for the damage and let you sort it out later. If you opt for this, a hold of several thousand dollars will be placed on your card and released after you return the vehicle. Including CDW insurance at the time of your booking, or shopping around for a reputable local agency may save you money. I usually rent with Hertz or Alamo, but have also used Easy Way with no problems.
Third-party liability insurance, on the other hand, CANNOT be waived. Be sure your reservation includes it or plan to pay extra for this coverage.
I recommend calling your credit card company to ask about any included insurance coverage benefits. On the trips where I did mostly highway driving between Cancún and Tulum, I waived CDW coverage and used an AMEX card for booking and payment. When I drove more extensively on my most recent trip, including a backroads lost cenote quest, I opted for Hertz’s insurance.
Because I’m not an insurance expert, I’m just going to drop some links for you, and let you use your own judgement:
Unless you plan to use your phone’s data plan and navigation, I recommend either renting a GPS with your vehicle, updating an old one to be sure it has all North America maps, or consider buying one if it makes sense for you. Expect a daily GPS rental cost to be around $10.
A Special Note On Topes
Topes (pronounced “toe-pes”) are speed bumps. Not regular ones, but the world’s most evil ones lying in wait to rip your muffler off. Topes come in different sizes and materials, from small metal bumps to large concrete speed tables. They generally have a sign like this below, or kids might have spray-painted over it (true story). They should be bright yellow, or the paint could be old and faded.
When driving in Mexico, look out for topes:
- Before police checkpoints on highways
- Before toll booths on highways
- As the speed limit lowers, at the edge of a town; then again as you leave a town
- Near schools, pedestrian crossings, town squares, etc.
- In your nightmares
Roads In the Yucatán
Federal highways in the Yucatán are relatively well-paved. They also often go straight through towns. You’ll be driving along and then hit some topes too hard, and suddenly you’re in the middle of a town square. Also, in towns the road sometimes becomes one-way and you’re going the wrong direction entirely. Try to stay alert and watch for signs – and what other cars are doing.
The great thing about navigating cities like Mérida and Valladolid is that the roads are mostly laid out grids, with even numbers running roughly north-south and odd going east-west. Many of the roads are one-way (UNA VIA!) and the smaller intersections lack stop lights or signs. In these cases, it seems to be that the busier street continues, while the less-busy cross-street has to stop. I just was cautious and let people pass if I wasn’t sure.
On highways, it’s normal to see a car drive halfway onto the shoulder as an indicator that others can pass it. People don’t use their turn signals much, like to signal a lane change. I also adopted this in case I was fooling anyone about being a local. Sometimes, though, people pull all the way over to the right and wait until they can make a U-turn. Just stay alert.
Getting Gas While Driving in Mexico
Most countries have their tourist scams, and Mexico gas stations have a reputation. My basic plan for avoiding problems:
- Arrange to be standing outside the car, by either puting something in the trunk or getting something out. This annoys them, but I can be sure they reset the pump to zero before they start and that they’re really filling it up. Then I just hang out there until I pay.
- Pay in cash (“efectivo” not “credito”). Have a bill ready, and show it and say the denomination of the bill to indicate how much gas I want. For example, five hundred is “quiniento” (kee-nee-en-to). For the small car I was driving, this came close to filling the tank from empty.
- Buy “magna” (regular) not “premium.”
- Pretend I don’t understand much Spanish (not difficult) in case they try to distract me or offer unnecessary services. I just say “No, gracias” a lot and use my nice-lady face.
- Have a few small coins ready to tip (10 pesos). I usually let them see that I’m holding coins with the bills, because maybe they’ll be less likely to scam me if they know I’ll tip.
If you get stranded without cash, I would recommend using an ATM if there is one. Otherwise, if you have no other option, take your card to wherever it is charged and watch the process. I asked about paying with a card just to see what would happen, but the machines always seemed to be broken.
But honestly, if you get scammed for $20, it won’t be the worst thing in the world. Don’t stress too much about this one.
Some further reading with tips and specific scams if you’re an overachiever:
- Two Expats Mexico – Tips to Avoid Being Scammed While At A Gas Station
- Akumal Now – Getting Gas Plus Avoid Gas Station Scams
Exits (Salidas) While Driving in Mexico
Mexican roads are not like U.S. highways. You will not see an exit or gas station every few kilometers, or even every 20 kilometers. Signs do often list the distance to the next gas station or exit so you can plan your stops. It’s also common to see pictograph signs indicating ruins, cenotes (swimming), churches, restaurants and other points of interest coming up.
Tolls and Police Checkpoints
Toll booths are pretty much like those in the U.S. I was able to figure out from signs how much to pay. Once, though, I handed over too much, and the attendant gave it back.
Police checkpoints in Mexico are common: they’re looking for drugs, though, and not folks on vacation. There’s one as you head south from the airport in Cancún, and others before and in Tulum. I also encountered some “pop-up” ones near Merida and Valladolid. I didn’t have any issues, and I didn’t see anyone get stopped.
The Green Angels are a fleet of tourist assistance vehicles whose crew are trained in auto maintenance and first aid. They patrol federal highways and toll roads to offer assistance in the event of a breakdown, accident, or medical emergency.
Reach the Green Angels by calling “078” 24 hours a day, although the assistance service runs from 8am-6pm. Expect to pay for supplies or parts used, and it’s nice to offer a tip for their assistance. Find more info here:
Driving in Mexico Beyond Yucatán and Quintana Roo
My driving adventures were limited to the Yucatán and Quintana Roo states of Mexico. I have visited Campeche and Chiapas on public and private transit, and although I loved my travels there, I would not feel comfortable driving there. My group met other travelers whose overnight public bus was robbed en route to San Cristóbal. My group ended up in a road block along the same route. A town had effectively stopped all through traffic as a protest for not getting investment and funding from the government. After talking with some of the residents for a few minutes, our group leader expertly offered a donation for their schools. We paid the equivalent of about $20 US and passed without incident – an approach I’ve filed away in my memory.
The End of the Road
Driving in Mexico or in any foreign country is a risk and can be stressful. Honestly, I don’t recommend it for everyone. I did it because I wanted the flexibility of being able to stop at more off-the-beaten track destinations and make the most efficient use of my time. I had also traveled to the area before and planned carefully to keep my driving time to the daylight hours.
The only time I started to worry was when I was on a quest to find hidden cenotes. I ended up on a single-lane dirt road that kept getting narrower, AND I was pursued by a kid on a motorbike (blog post coming soon!).
Have you driven in the Yucatán or are you planning a trip and have questions? Ever lost a bumper to topes? Tell me in the comments!