Twenty-Five Tips for Americans Driving in Mexico

Twenty-Five Tips for Americans Driving in Mexico

As you leave the American border and enter Mexican traffic, expect shock and awe as seven lanes of traffic form at 45 mph on a road designed for three. Despite the differences in traffic rules, you’ll soon become accustomed to hesitating at a light or stop sign for a second, then shooting across the intersection. You’ll take pedestrians and vendors in stride as you whirl through the morass of traffic and people. You’ll adjust to passing horse-drawn wagons or pausing as cattle cross a city street. The following twenty- five tips on Mexican roads and driving may make you smile; but beware; at some point during your trip, you’ll adjust and may even come to prefer many of the Mexican highway rules and customs.


1. Many travelers find the Mexican road system to be a succession of potholes with a patch of cement or asphalt thrown sporadically about. Others argue the Mexican Highway department has large elephants wade through the asphalt before it’s fully cool. Unfortunately, those ideas become reasonable, and you better drive watching for the “mother of all potholes” at all times.

2. Just because you spent three hours over a leisurely meal that would have taken twenty minutes in the United States, the Mexican you ate with doesn’t take all parts of life as if there was no hurry. That same person with whom you talked, joked and sipped an extra glass of wine before enjoying two, last-minute cups of coffee will undergo an extraordinary metamorphosis after he or she leaves the restaurant and slips into the driver’s seat.From the moment the key turns the ignition, that person with seemingly unlimited time doesn’t have a second to lose. Traffic lights and stop signs are suddenly obstacles to be overcome. Posted speed limits mean nothing. It’s as if he has entered the most important race ever run, and not until he reaches his destination will he again assume a sane existence.

3. Mexico has many toll roads. The fee is based on what a member of the Rockefeller family could afford. One of the few toll roads worth the cost is between Juárez and Chihuahua. The cheapest rate was recently eight dollars for a motorcycle to travel about one hundred miles. This particular road is valuable because it takes you quickly through roasting desert. Since there is no alternative road, you may as well pay with a smile.Other toll roads that might be worth their cost are those through Mexico City. Toll roads are the only way to avoid bad highways. Still, an occasional pothole will appear out of nowhere, meaning the driver better stay alert. Of course, it’s easier to watch for potholes on the toll roads as they have been constructed in areas devoid of scenery.

4. Yes, Martha, you did see that! We were sitting in the left-hand lane waiting for the light to change so we could turn left. Yes, two cars to our right turned left in front of us as the light changed so they could beat the three lanes of traffic that sped across from the other direction.

5. Beware! You’re adjusting. You just nosed out a compact car for a superior position in traffic.

6. Ahaaaaah! You’ve somehow survived and been ejected from your first glorietta, the Mexican version of a traffic circle. Why aren’t these Mexicans putting men on the moon? How can eight–or was it thirteen–lanes pour into a giant circle, with several lanes running through the circle, several lanes flowing under the circle and traffic lights somehow signaling some areas, with cars speeding through, crossing lanes, entering, exiting and seemingly never stopping? You’ll enter the next six or seven gloriettas filled with trepidation. Then you’ll begin to anticipate the challenge.

7. What about the bumps in the road called “topes?” Remember them when approaching villages! These speed breakers are often dangerously high, to the point a car can overturn by hitting them too fast. They may be inconvenient, but they’re cheaper than hiring highway patrol officers.

8. Martha, you can get up from the floorboard now. It’s okay! Yes, we were driving at 45 mph when the pickup truck on our right turned left in front of us!No, I don’t know why we didn’t wreck. I closed my eyes.

9. Open road driving between Mexican cities differs from the U.S.The speed limits are posted, but there is no highway patrol. You’re on the honor system!

10. Beware! You’re adjusting too well. You just nosed an eighteen-wheeler out for a superior position in traffic.

11. The road is clearly marked, three lanes each way. Don’t let it worry you that your side has turned into five lanes.There’s still room for a motorbike, but you might feel sorry for the three opposite lanes. They’ve turned into six lanes and a donkey cart has just edged off the sidewalk in front of them.

12. A tourist will be constantly impressed by the honesty of the Mexican people, except at some gas stations. Years ago, virtually every attendant and owner was helpful and honest, but times have changed. An American should watch the attendants where inexperienced North Americans purchase gas.The pump indicators can be confusing, and some attendants will overcharge if they have the opportunity. Americans visiting by car for the first time should fill up more often than is necessary.When the gauge reads half-empty, know more or less how many gallons it will take to top off the tank.Count out enough pesos for the gallons necessary and specifically tell the attendant, “I want this much, only.” Continue this practice until you become accustomed to the pumps and numbers. It will prevent small thefts.

13. Where do I park? How does one know? The Mexican uses logic and it works. Try it yourself. Park where you want, but be darn sure a large bus can pass. It’s a good idea to push outside mirrors flat against the car.

14. Car stalled on a lonely road with no shoulder? Don’t worry! Just leave it on the road until you get help. Everyone drives aware someone might be stalled so you’re probably safe.

15. Beware! Mexican road rules and traffic etiquette are starting to make sense. You’ve enjoyed a sense of accomplishment and are beginning to realize your true driving skills. In the States, you would have never squeezed between a city bus and an eighteen-wheeler so you could be the first person to pass the Volkswagen Beetle.

16. Worried about deer where you live? In Mexico, you’d better worry about more than Bambi. Learn to drive defensively. In the cities, every kind of pedestrian, bicycle, pushcart and horse cart will vie for a space on the road. In the country, it’s worse.Deer pale in comparison to worrying about freely roaming cows, mules, horses and donkeys.

17. You’re cruising along, doing about fifty through the city, secure in an outside lane of four going one way. Without warning, your lane ends. You slam on brakes, curse and stare in amazement. No sweat. It’ll happen three or four times. Then, during your next encounter with a dead end and without a second thought, you’ll merge with other traffic.

18. “All roads lead to Rome” should be changed to “…Mexico City.” The Romans didn’t have a clue when they coined that expression, but Mexico City knows how to make it true. In Mexico, Mexico City is referred to as just Mexico. The word means more the city than the country. At virtually every sign signaling direction there is also one reading Mexico. You can be going directly east, west, north or south away from Mexico City and signs will read “(to) Mexico.” Ironically, less than a half mile from one American border crossing is a sign saying “(to) U.S. Border and Mexico.”

I am convinced the only easy way to avoid driving through Mexico City is to stay on the east or west coast highway and never venture inland. On five occasions I’ve tried to cross central Mexico without going through Mexico City. Each time, I memorized the small roads and towns on the route. One time I actually made it.It took an extra day and a half to avoid the additional sixty to ninety miles that would have taken me through Mexico City.

19. So, the policeman stopped you for some minor infraction.He wants to give you a ticket and take your license until you come to the station and pay the thirty-dollar fine. You have a problem, but you don’t have to pay the fine. The question is, can you get off with the two-dollar bribe the average Mexican would pay to escape the fine or will you end up paying five or six dollars? It’s time to test your bargaining skills and to selectively use less Spanish than you know. But even a six-dollar bribe is preferable to the thirty-dollar inconvenience!

20. Beware! You just made a middle lane in moving two-way traffic so you could get around a slow truck. Definitely insanity, but you’re beginning to wish the United States would adopt some of these traffic rules.

21. Get over that American male hang-up about asking for directions. Mexican cities are crowded and fast moving.You won’t see every sign, and many won’t correspond to

the map or route you’ve planned. Stop and ask! The one time I managed to avoid Mexico City, the roads on the map didn’t correspond to reality. I had to stop and ask directions at virtually every intersection.

22. See those little crosses beside the curves in the highway? That’s where someone didn’t heed the warning signs and died. When you see warning signs, take note.

23. Mexicans claim they have a lower auto accident rate than the United States. That’s probably true. Everyone drives defensively at all times.

24. What do you do in heavy speeding traffic when you’re cut off? Hit your brakes, of course! Oh no, not in Mexico. There are signs instructing you to use your horn, not your brakes.

25. Beware, too late! Your driving attitude is now Mexican.The truck without lights you just ran up on during a dark night didn’t faze you. You’re responsible for yourself on the road, and you enjoy the challenge.

Bonus rule. You’ve been prepared for almost everything you might encounter in Mexico. Now, you’re ready for Mexico City–if anyone can ever be prepared to drive in Mexico City! Take all the above rules you find fault with and multiply them by a factor of twenty. Even Mexicans talk about the bad driving in Mexico City. Nothing can prepare you for huge buses sandwiching you or the volume of cars speeding past you. Literally expect anything possible with a vehicle to occur in the world’s largest city.

There’s an element of truth in each of these tips. At first, Mexican traffic will scare the beejeebees out of you. A friend, who recently made his first trip into Mexico with me, termed it “combat driving.” His statement is a great summarization. Yet very quickly, many of their driving customs begin to make perfect sense.Just relax and enjoy yourself. Every one of those other drivers is as aware and watchful of you as you are of them.

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