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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!
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. Spoilers: I survived, and rented cars again with no issues on my next Mexico trips to Oaxaca and to Todos Santos and La Paz in Baja California Sur!
Read on for tips on renting a car and insurance, road conditions, gas station scams, and a bonus chart of road sign translations at the end of the post.
Mexico Driving Basics
I researched ahead of time and put the following basic plan together:
- 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).
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Driver’s License: Is Yours Valid?
In Mexico, American and Canadian citizens, as well as many other countries, can drive in Mexico as tourists using their home country license. It’s impossible to find this anywhere on an official website, but I checked about 20 resources for this article and all agreed.
However, if your license is not in English or the Latin alphabet, you should get an International Driving Permit. Basically, this is a translation of your existing home country license and identification information into 10 languages. You can also order an international driver’s permit online here, even if you’re already traveling (although you’ll have to find a print shop to print it in a booklet for you).
Check the requirements of your car company when making your booking to see if they have any additional restrictions based on your particular details (home country, age, how long you’ve been a licensed driver, etc.).
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 amount to several hundred dollars for a weekly rental.
Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)
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 with your credit card company. If you opt for this, a hold of several thousand dollars will be placed on your card when you pick up the vehcle. The hold will be released after you return the vehicle, but it could take several days – ask at time of rental so you know what to expect.
Including CDW insurance at the time of your booking, or shopping around for a reputable Mexican insurance company may save you money.
Check with your credit card company or read your guide to benefits to see if CDW is included in car rentals in Mexico. If so (and this is important), you will need use the same card to both reserve and pay for the car. PLUS, you must waive the CDW coverage offered by the rental car company. The guys at the rental counter will try to talk you into it, but you must stay firm in your resolve! Don’t fall for “half coverage” or partial coverage plans – you must waive CDW entirely.
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 a credit card that included insurance.
If you have an American Express card, you can actually get AMEX Premium coverage for your entire rental for $20-25 by enrolling in their program.
When I drove more extensively on one Yucatan trip which included a backroads lost cenote quest, I opted for Hertz’s insurance.
Third Party Liability Insurance
Third-party liability insurance, on the other hand, CANNOT be waived. Be sure your reservation fee includes it, or plan to pay extra for this coverage. It is usually only a few dollars a day.
Deciding If Waiving CDW Is Right for You
Because everyone has their own level of comfort with insurance coverage, I’m going to include some more links to help you make a decision that best fits your situation:
- Tripadvisor – Renting a Car in Mexico
- The Points Guy – Credit Card Car Rental Insurance Basics
- American Express Premium Car Rental Coverage
Renting a Car in Mexico
There are many TripAdvisor threads dedicated each year to renting a car in Mexico and which agencies people had a good or bad experience with. I always recommend checking there for the most up-to-date information. I usually rent with Hertz or Alamo, but have also used Easy Way with no problems.
I always book online ahead of time – especially if you need an automatic vehicle, it’s best to have a reservation. Many car rental places have a counter at the airport and/or a shuttle pickup outside the airport exit.
When you pick up your vehicle, be sure to check the car thoroughly and take photos or videos of any scratches, dents, dings or missing equipment. I’ve caught things that they didn’t mark on their list many times and asked to include them.
In Cancun and Cabo, there was usually someone in the agency that spoke English; in smaller or less touristy areas, you might need to break out the Google Translate.
Also check under the car for prior damage from topes. Once my car had a plastic trim panel underneath that was barely hanging on. (I discovered this when it started dragging on the highway, and I had to find zip ties to reattach it. I think the guys at the Pemex station were amused by my “I can do it myself” American attitude.)
Elite Status with Rental Companies
If you have elite status with any car rental brands, consider renting with that company. I have status with Hertz because of my United Gold elite status, and never get hassled when I want to use my credit card’s insurance there. I think it’s because I’m seen as a “preferred” customer.
Tulum has a seductive hold over many vacation-goers thanks to clear blue waters, a chic but laid-back vibe, and beach hotels that let you step from your room right into sugary-soft white sand. There is nowhere else in the world like Tulum. Find out the best places to stay for a dream vacation, honeymoon or girls’ trip here!
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.
I have used Google Maps to navigate around La Paz and Todos Santos in Baja California and throughout the Yucatan with no problems. If you can get a per day unlimited use plan with your cell phone, this is probably your easiest option. Remember to grab your cell phone holder from your car at home and throw it in your luggage if you’ll use this option.
A Special Note On Topes
Topes (pronounced “toe-pays”) 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 (sometimes labeled reductor de velocidad). They generally have a sign like this below, unless kids have spray-painted over it (true story!). They should be bright yellow, but 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, when entering a town; then again as you leave a town before the limit increases
- Near schools, pedestrian crossings, town squares, etc.
- In your nightmares (a joke, except it’s kind of true)
Roads In the Yucatan
Federal highways in the Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur states are relatively well-paved. You’ll see highways designated as carreteras (federal highways or primary roads around a city) and autopista or cuota (toll highways).
I found that highways often go straight through towns, rather than around. You’ll be driving along and then hit some topes too hard, and suddenly you’re in the middle of a town square. Also, when you get to a town, sometimes 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 hopes that it made me look more like 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.
Check for a list of common road signs at the end of this post!
Getting Gas While Driving in Mexico
Most countries have their tourist scams, and Mexico gas stations have a reputation. You can’t pump gas yourself in Mexico, so most of the scams relate to being overcharged or short-changed by the attendants.
My basic plan for avoiding problems when I buy gas in Mexico:
- Arrange to be standing outside the car, by either putting 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 cars I’ve rented, this almost fills 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 I figure 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. Most commonly they’ll try to pretend you gave them a much smaller bill than you did, which is why I show it and say the denomination out loud before they pump the gas.
Some further reading with tips and specific scams for your reading enjoyment:
- Akumal Now – Avoiding Gas Station Scams
- Two Expats Mexico – Tips to Avoid Being Scammed While At A Gas Station
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 (1km = .6 miles). 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 holes), 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.
Green Angels (Ángeles Verdes)
The Green Angels (Ángeles Verdes) 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. This number typically has operators who speak English. 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 Baja California Sur
My driving adventures are limited to the Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca and Baja California Sur states of Mexico. I have visited Campeche and Chiapas on public and private transit, and although I loved my travels, 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.
Renting a Car in Mexico City or Other Major Cities
You won’t need a car in Mexico City, since taxis are readily available. Don’t do this! (You won’t do this, right?) If you’ll be staying in one city, it’s easier to use taxis; I recommend only renting a car if you want to travel between several places and see things in between.
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’m giving you my best personal tips, so please don’t come and sue me if the undercarriage of your car gets left behind when you hit some topes too hard.
I drive when I visit Mexico because I want the flexibility of being able to stop at more off-the-beaten track destinations and make the most efficient use of my time. I also plan my trips carefully to keep my driving time to the daylight hours.
Driving in Mexico Bonus Feature
Road Signs in MexicoPlenty of gringos (including yours truly) survive their Yucatán car rental experience with limited Spanish. Here are some of the most common signs I saw and their translations:
|RETORNO:||Return; a lane to make a U-turn on the highway|
|CARRIL IZQUIERDO:||Left lane|
|CARRIL IZQUIERDO SOLO PARA REBASAR:||Left lane only for passing|
|CONSERVA SU DERECHA:||Keep right|
|NO ESTACIONAR:||No parking|
|CEDA EL PASO:||Yield|
|PROHIBIDO EL PASO:||No passing|
|DOBLE CIRCULACIÓN:||Two way|
|UNA VIA:||One way|
|OBEDEZCA LAS SEÑALES:||Obey traffic signals|
|RESPETE LOS LIMITES DE VELOCIDAD:||Observe speed limits|
|DISMINUYA SU VELOCIDAD:||Slow down|
|NO REBASE:||Do not pass|
|USE EL CINTURÓN DE SEGURO:||Use safety belts|
|MANAJE CON PRECAUCIÓN:||Drive with caution|
|RUTA FLAMINGO:||This way to ridiculous pink birds|
Feel free to message me here or on Instagram if you want someone to listen to your feelings/nightmares/regrets about topes.
Also, please check out all my other great Mexico posts! Seriously, do I ever even go anywhere else?
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