Category Archives: Lessons from the Road

My Top Tips for Travelers to Mexico

Mexico is one of my favorite countries to travel in, and not just because I live here, but because of its incredibly diverse landscapes, friendly people, excellent food, and low prices—especially for those with U.S. dollars, for which the exchange rate is quite good at the moment.

You can plan any type of trip in Mexico: budget backpacking or high luxury, adrenaline or relaxation, culture or nature, a long-term adventure or a quick weekend—the possibilities are endless. Like for anywhere, a little information and preparation will greatly improve your trip, but knowing what to do may not be obvious, especially the first time around.

With this in mind, here are my top tips for first time travelers so you can plan the fun, safe and economical adventure of your dreams in Mexico.

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Choose only one city or one region to explore

In Mexico, long distances separate popular travel destinations like the Mayan Riviera, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta. For example, driving from Tijuana to Los Cabos (on the southern tip of Baja California, known to foreigners as “Cabo”) takes at least 20 hours—so how long do you think the bus will take?

Remember, every day you spend traveling between destinations is a day you miss out on enjoying a destination. So, unless you have plenty of time—like more than two weeks—plan to visit only one place or travel around only one region in Mexico.

If you love culture and big, dynamic cities, go to Mexico City with a day trip to a nearby area. If you love nature, go to Chiapas, or rent a car to explore the Huasteca Potosina.

If you love the beach, you have numerous options—Oaxaca for rustic, low-priced adventure and surfing; areas around Cancun for white sand, clear water, Mayan ruins and a unique ecosystem; Los Cabos for partying, fishing and scuba diving; Nayarit, Mazatlan, the list goes on and on.

Reconsider your resort

Staying at an all-inclusive resort is fun—you can hang at the pool all day, meet other travelers, and eat and drink as much as you want. So if you just want to relax, go for it.

But if you are looking for any culture, skip the resort. If you want adventure—exploring on foot or local transportation—skip the resort. And skip the resort if you are on a budget. The price of staying in a smaller, local hotel and eating at authentic, affordable (and amazing) local restaurants will almost always be cheaper.

Avoid high season

To avoid crowds and save money on hotels, try not to travel during Mexico’s high seasons, which are:

  • Mid December to Mid January, especially between Christmas and New Year’s
  • The week before Easter, called Semana Santa, when everyone has at least a few days off
  • Late July and early August, when many Mexicans have a one- or two-week vacation

Long weekends and holidays can get busy too, such as Mexican Independence Day (September 15-16), the Day of the Dead (the first days of November), and all the “days”—Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, etc. These are bad times to be on the highways, especially on the first and last days of the holiday.

Also, particularly during high season and holidays, try not to check into a resort or a big hotel on Friday afternoon and check out on Sunday morning, because the lines may be really long and slow, as everyone is beginning or ending their weekend trip.

If your only opportunity to travel is during high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just plan on spending a little more money for a hotel, spending a little more time at the airport or getting to a popular tourist destination, and dealing with crowds—but nothing unreasonable.

Don’t be in a hurry

Things can move pretty slowly in Mexico, especially as you travel farther south, where I’ve heard Mexicans from Mexico City complain about slow service, slow walking, slow talking…

Buses may be incredibly indirect, a protest may shut down the highway, the museum you want to visit may be inexplicably closed—you never know what could happen, and you shouldn’t let it ruin your time.

So plan your days with lots of wiggle room. For example, if you think it will take four hours to enjoy the place you want to see, plan for six or more.

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Ignore the hustlers

In tourist spots from Cabo to Cancun, hustlers prowl the beaches and promenades offering tours, boat trips, souvenirs, cigars, and meth masquerading as cocaine. They have a specific, time-tested, friendly approach that can be hard to ignore. Yes my friend, whatever you need, they got it.

You only need one word with these people, a firm gracias. Don’t apologize, don’t stop walking, and don’t laugh at their jokes, or you’ll spend your whole trip dodging them. Sure, go ahead and buy from them if you want, but remember that it’s always best to go straight to the source for any activities—the boat dock or park entrance, for instance; souvenirs are always cheaper in markets; and buying drugs is begging to get ripped off.

What’s most important, however, is that these hustlers don’t sour you to the general friendliness of average Mexicans. Just because you’ve had enough of annoying sales pitches doesn’t mean that everyone who tries to make conversation wants to sell you something.

Save your tourist card from immigration

Most tourists are allowed to stay in Mexico for 180 days, which corresponds to about six months. This time is written on a little card that you fill out before going through immigration, which is also stamped. Save it with your passport because you will need to turn it in when you leave the country. Without it you’ll be charged a fine of $42 USD (or 525 pesos).

Know how to get out of the airport

The easiest and most expensive way is to go to an authorized taxi stand inside the airport. You pay there and then take the receipt to the driver. The price is determined by where you go, not by how many people use it, so try to find people to share with.

Whatever you do, never simply walk outside the airport and hail a cab—it’s not safe.

If you want to save money—sometimes a lot of money—do some research online to see if a bus goes from the airport to where your hotel is. Most airports in Mexico either have a bus stop outside or a little bus station inside, including Mexico City, Cancun, and San Jose del Cabo. Using a bus means you’ll spend 40 pesos instead of 400.

Get multiple destination flights

If you have the time and are planning a longer adventure in Mexico, fly into one city and fly out of another. For a month-long trip covering the best of the south, you could fly into Cancun and then out of Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas. If you have several weeks and want to explore the colonial cities of Mexico’s central highlands, you could fly into Mexico City and then out of Guadalajara. To travel the entire Baja California Peninsula, fly into Tijuana or Ensenada and out of Los Cabos or La Paz (or vice-versa).

This option is called Multiple Destinations on most travel websites, and it can save you a lot of time and money.

Fly long distances, don’t take the bus

A flight between distant cities is typically cheaper than taking a bus, and of course much faster. Mexico has several independent airlines, like Interjet, Volaris, and Vive Aerobus. Always check their prices before you commit to a long-distance bus.

Look for “alternative” bus stations

If you are really trying to save money, go to the city’s second-class bus station or an independent bus station for the cheapest transportation options. In Mexico City, for example, you can catch cheap buses to Chiapas near the huge Merced market, cheap buses to Oaxaca near the airport, and cheap buses north (Monterrey and points between) about halfway between the zocalo and Garibaldi Plaza.

These buses usually don’t have websites and aren’t listed in Lonely Planet or on Google Maps—you have to ask around for them.

Bring warm clothes and earplugs on the bus

It may be steaming hot when you get on the bus, but once they get going, they tend to crank up the air conditioning and play non-stop movies in Spanish. A jacket and earplugs are crucial.

Rent a car, and rent wisely

You can rent cars for cheap in Mexico, and despite some dangers and nuisances, driving is a great way to see the country. Be aware that the insurance you buy from travel websites is not valid in Mexico. When you get to the counter, the price can double or even triple when they add insurance. You can avoid this by renting directly from car rental company websites and reading all that boring fine print.

Stay in small hotels to save money

On side streets in Mexico City, hidden behind the big international hotels, you can find family-run hotels with decent rooms for as little as 200 or 300 pesos per night (between 10 and 15 USD).

For the same price, you’ll find hotels in Playa del Carmen a block or two from the beach. This goes for nearly anywhere in Mexico—you won’t be right on the beach or on the fanciest street in town, but just around the corner.

You can search Google Maps or booking.com or whichever online travel site you like, which is a good option for your first few nights in the country. But to save big money, you’ll find the cheapest hotels in Mexico by just walking around.

By the way, the hostels listed in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks are not your cheapest option. In most places, you can find a private room in a small hotel for the same price as a bed in a crowded, noisy dorm room in a hostel. Stay in a hostel to meet people, not to save money. (Although in some places it’s possible to find dirty and unsafe hostels that cost less than a tall can of beer.)

Try airbnb

If you have a large group, want a kitchen, or will stay somewhere for a long time, take a look at airbnb, which is slowly becoming more popular in Mexico. You don’t need an account to browse the options.

Regarding water

Yes, you can’t drink tap water in Mexico unless you stay at a nice hotel where they specifically tell you it’s ok. In this case, there should be a little sign in the bathroom that says the water is potable. Or there may be a water cooler in the lobby.

The tap water is fine for brushing your teeth, showering, washing vegetables, etc.

Buy large bottles of water

Buying those little bottles of water can add up, so if you will stay in one place for more than a few days, buy a big bottle of water at a convenience store.

You have to pay a deposit for the largest ones (20 liters), so save the receipt so you can return the bottle later.

Don’t obsess over ice

Because of the tap water issue, some travelers have somehow gotten the idea that they have to be constantly vigilant about ice in restaurant drinks. They don’t. Of course restaurants use clean water for drinks—if they didn’t, all the locals would get sick too and the place would go out of business. The idea that Mexicans can drink the water because their bodies are used to it is straight-up wrong.

I cringe when I hear someone asking (usually in English) if the ice was made with filtered water. It’s a pointless question, like asking if the food is good in the restaurant—if it wasn’t, do you think they’d tell you?

If you are really worried, just order your drink with no ice, or ask for a beer.

Don’t stick the whole lime in your beer

Just squeeze the juice into it. And yes, in Mexico they use limes, not lemons.

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Beer lovers, buy caguamas

The cheapest way to drink beer in Mexico is a caguama, a big bottle roughly the size of a 40-oz. There’s a deposit on the bottle, so save your receipt so you can return it later.

Yes, Coca-Cola is better in Mexico

Have you heard this before? That Coca-Cola is better in Mexico because they still use cane sugar instead of corn syrup?

I didn’t believe it either until the first time I flew back to the U.S. after my first year of living in Mexico. I rarely drink soda, but I ordered one on the airplane. One sip of the U.S.-produced Coke and I could tell the difference.

Don’t drink from the bottle

Your best Coca-Cola, and of course your best beer, comes from a glass bottle. You’ll notice that the bottle of soda always comes with a straw, and the beer with a glass to pour it into.

I learned this trick in Asia—when you see that the bottle was recycled, take a look under the rim at the top of the neck to see all the dirt that has piled up from multiple recyclings. Because of this nasty residue, don’t drink straight from the bottle unless you wipe it down clean with a napkin first. That’s why your beer or soda will sometimes come with a napkin wrapped around the neck.

Drink fresh juice

It’s cheap and available everywhere, especially juice stands in public markets, where a liter of freshly-squeezed orange juice (or something fancier) usually costs between 20-40 pesos (1.50 to 3 USD).

Avoid touristy restaurants

When you see a fun-looking restaurant full of colorful sombreros and sarapes, Mexican flags, and singing mariachis, but it’s full of foreigners speaking English, don’t eat there. Mexicans tend to think that foreigners don’t like spicy food, so they dumb it down. If a tired basket of nachos sits on every table and the salsa tastes like marinara sauce, then you’re in the wrong place.

But when you see an open space with concrete-block walls, no decorations, and a handwritten cardboard sign with the menu on it, and it’s full of locals, eat there to experience real Mexican food.

Every town has a taco or seafood restaurant that’s known locally as the best. Find it. Ask locals for advice, but not tour guides or taxi drivers, who will recommend their friend’s restaurant. If all else fails, try at the front desk of your hotel, but explain that you want something real. Otherwise you will be directed to a restaurant with the “Americanized” Mexican food they think foreigners like.

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Avoid foreign food outside of tourist areas

In places with lots of tourists, you can get good pizza, good steak, good burgers, good sushi, all kinds of stuff.

But once you are off the beaten path, stick to Mexican food. Much like how Mexican food outside of Mexico is altered according to foreign tastes, foreign food in Mexico is altered according to Mexican tastes. This means sushi covered in melted cheese, steaks and burgers cooked beyond well-done, and pizza with barely any tomato sauce. (My theory is that it doesn’t matter to them because Mexicans drench pizza with hot sauce or ketchup anyway.)

Tip 10% at restaurants

Check your bill to make sure it wasn’t already included. Also watch out for overcharging and pay in Mexican pesos, not with another currency or with a credit card.

If you go to the supermarket, give the person who bags your groceries a peso or two. Give five to ten pesos to the guy who fills your tank at the gas station. At the hotel, give 10-20 pesos to the guy who shows you to your room. If you stay in an all-inclusive resort, leave a 50 or 100 at the bar if you drink a lot.

Mexicans don’t tip taxi drivers, but in tourist areas they seem to expect it from foreigners. So if your driver is friendly or helpful, give him an extra 10 or 20 pesos, but if not, don’t worry about it.

Shop and eat in markets

Markets are one of the best places to visit in Mexico, period. You can stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, browse odd witchcraft supplies, and get some of the best and cheapest local food at small restaurants found in the corner of every market. (Tip: Look for the busiest restaurant and eat there.)

As you wander around, people will constantly call out to you, asking you to buy something. Don’t let them intimidate you, it’s just how they do business. Just like for hustlers, you only need to reply with gracias, which also means “no thank you.”

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…but don’t be a cheapskate

I can’t count how many times I’ve visited a market with a world traveler who has social conscience and makes sure you know it. You know this type—some even imply that their mere presence in the foreign country is somehow helping it in some vague way.

Yet I’m always surprised to see these same people haggling with every vendor they see, trying to get a five peso discount. In my opinion, if you really want to do good, don’t bargain with farmers over fruit. They may raise the price a little because of your terrible Spanish, but can you blame them? You have a $500 DSLR camera hanging around your neck! Traveling should never be a competition with strangers to see how little money you can spend.

Sure, it’s necessary to bargain in touristy markets that sell souvenirs, but it’s rarely done for food in markets. If you don’t like the price, thank the vendor and keep looking.

Also, don’t treat markets like a nonstop photo opportunity. You’ll get a better picture if you ask the person first, and you’re more likely to get a yes and a big smile if you buy something before asking.

Pack light, pack right

If you plan on changing destinations a few times, whether by airplane or bus, try to pack as little as possible—carry-on size or small enough to fit between your knees on the bus.

Unless you need it for work or something else important, don’t bring the laptop and all the devices. You’ll not only waste time playing with them, but you’ll worry about them whenever your bag is out of sight, like in the luggage area above or below the bus.

There are some things, however, that you should bring no matter what. You’ll need some warm clothes for high altitudes, late nights, and air-conditioned buses. You’ll need some long pants to blend in away from the beach. (Mexicans don’t wear shorts and flip-flops in the city.) And you’ll need some basics like a raincoat, sunscreen, earplugs (your hotel might be next to a nightclub), and swimming gear, even if you won’t go to the coast, because many hotels have pools.

Check out more detailed packing suggestions here.

Know the exchange rate

A guaranteed way to get overcharged is to have no idea how much pesos are worth in your home currency. Look it up online and make some notes about how much 100, 200, and 500 pesos are worth, and keep the cheat sheet in your pocket.

If you don’t speak Spanish, carry a pen and paper everywhere for people to write prices on for you. Taxis, for instance, don’t have meters, so you must agree on the price beforehand.

Don’t pay in U.S. dollars

This is another good way to get ripped off. When someone says you can pay in U.S. dollars (or some other foreign currency), say no, because the exchange rate they will use will be ridiculous.

Exceptions to this are places with a fixed fee, like nice hotels, some tourist destinations, and even some nightclubs. You can check if using U.S. dollars is the usual way to pay by checking the place’s website.

Another exception to this is Baja California, where you can pay in dollars almost everywhere and the exchange rates are typically good. But be sure to know the rate, of course.

Pay in cash, and get it from an ATM at a bank

Don’t use your debit or credit card to pay at restaurants or bars. (Hotels are probably ok.) If someone steals your number, they can run up lots of charges. Banks usually reimburse you for this, but it’s still a pain in the ass.

Get cash from ATMs, and match the symbols on the back of your card (Cirrus, the Exchange, etc.) to the same symbol on an ATM to minimize fees.

Use ATMs at banks, not private ones on the street that charge higher fees, and always withdraw money in the daytime. Avoid the 15th and last days of every month, when everyone gets paid and the ATM lines can be extraordinarily long.

Also, be sure to inform your bank with a phone call that you will be traveling so they won’t put a hold on your card.

Yes, it’s a bad idea to change money in most airports because of terrible exchange rates, but (for the moment) the rates at the Mexico City airport are surprisingly good, although not inside the baggage claim area. Wait until you clear customs to change money, and as always be sure to know the real rate so you can compare.

Read this for more about managing your money in Mexico.

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Carry lots of change

If you’re going to take local buses, shop in a public market, or eat on the street, don’t try to pay with a big bill (200 or 500 pesos), as they probably won’t have change. Save your change every time you buy something so you can use it later.

See a doctor in a pharmacy if you get sick

Most pharmacies have a doctor’s office attached where you can see a doctor for free or really cheap. This is a great option for a bad stomach, insect bites, or any other non-emergency. The doctors typically prescribe lots of medicine, but you only need the crucial ones, like antibiotics.

Go to the dentist

Every office I’ve been to has been fully modern and exceptionally inexpensive (like 10-20 USD for a cleaning).

Don’t flush toilet paper

That little garbage can next to the toilet is for the toilet paper, which you should never flush. Mexican sewage systems can’t handle it. This, like “don’t drink the water,” is true for pretty much everywhere in the developing world.

Don’t get taxis on the street in Mexico City

They aren’t safe. Ask your hotel to call a service for you, or use the metro (subway) system, which will almost definitely go where you want to go.

Walk carefully

Keep your eyes on the sidewalk—stepping into an unmarked hole is no fun. Cross the street carefully because pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. For safety’s sake, don’t wander around at night, and even in the daytime, always ask the person at the front desk of the hotel if it’s safe to walk where you want to go. And, wherever you go, don’t walk around with your face in a smartphone or map—it makes you a target for thieves.

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Keep your safety on your mind at all times

No, Mexico is not nearly as dangerous as the headlines want you to believe. Most tourist areas are perfectly safe for those who take the right precautions—wallet in the front pocket, head up, no drinks from strangers, the usual advice.

Don’t let your guard down, however. The most important way to stay safe is evade anyone who gives you a bad vibe. People traveling everywhere get into bad situations just because they don’t want to offend a stranger. Your safety is far more important than your pride.

Don’t be discouraged by people who have never visited

Why is it that people who don’t travel so often try to discourage those who do? No, you aren’t asking for trouble just by visiting Mexico, and no, it’s not automatically your fault if you get in trouble. And, yes, go to Mexico—you’ll love it.

Learn a little Spanish

Honestly, this one isn’t even necessary for tourist areas. You’ll find that most hotel and restaurant workers speak English, and after diligently studying Spanish before your trip, you may find yourself frustrated by waiters who answer you in English after hearing your broken Spanish.

But, to be polite, especially off the beaten path, that month or two of light studying will be enormously helpful. At least learn the correct greetings in Spanish and how to ask, “Do you speak English?”

When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do 

The best way to have a great trip while saving money is to travel the way Mexicans do. Most of the tips on this list relate to this basic advice. Stay where Mexicans stay, eat where they eat, and visit the places they like to visit. Greet them, chat with them, get to know them. Take their advice and consider their point of view. You’ll find that, more often than not, they will offer you the same courtesy.

Have a great trip, and please ask anything or leave more tips in the comments.

A Month in South Africa (with lots of photos)

Once again thank you to Transitions Abroad for publishing my article Five Unforgettable Adventures in South Africa.

Sure, this blog is mostly about Mexico. I live here and travel around the country often. But that’s not the only traveling I do—what fun would that be?

Last summer my wife and I spent a month in South Africa. She originally wanted to go for our honeymoon two years ago, but we could only travel for a week and a half—not nearly enough time to do a safari and also see more of the country.

After such a long flight, it would have meant only about a week on the ground. So we decided to wait until we could travel long enough to do more than the obligatory safari, and not only in world-class Cape Town but also everyday Johannesburg. (We ended up honeymooning in Moscow and St. Petersburg, about five days in each and also a long layover in Amsterdam, the perfect quick vacation.)

The article describes how we ultimately spent our trip in South Africa, staying in and around only three places: Johannesburg, Kruger National Park, and Cape Town. Johannesburg was more fun than we though it would be, with top-notch restaurants, friendly people, and neighborhoods rich and poor and everything in between. We took a walking safari in Kruger National Park, easily the highlight of the trip (read about it in the article). And although two weeks was plenty of time to see the city of Cape Town and some surrounding areas, there was so much more on the Cape Peninsula: more vineyards, more beaches, more hiking. Cape Town is a place where you could spend an entire month, six months, a lifetime…

Below are some pictures that didn’t make it in the article (yes I have hundreds, and of every wild animal except the cheetah.)

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Johannesburg. This mural of Nelson Mandela was painted by Shepard Fairey (famous for Obama “Hope,” Andre the Giant “Obey”). I took the photo from the Neighborgoods market that goes on every Saturday in Braamfontein, the hip part of downtown, with spicy steaming food, craft beer, and a mellow jazz/hip-hop band.

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Great band.

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Downtown Johannesburg.

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Alexandra township, where we took a fascinating bike tour. I wrote about it in the article.

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An informal settlement in Soweto township, Johannesburg.

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Elephant in Kruger National Park.

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African Wild Dogs in Kruger National Park.

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Lion at night. He had two friends in the bush.

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Sunset in Kruger National Park.

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Downtown Cape Town. We spent five days downtown and then rented a car and moved to a hotel two blocks from the beach in Camps Bay, the fancy neighborhood on the other side of Table Mountain.

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Table Mountain, seen from the Lion’s Head (hike described in the article).

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Hiking on Table Mountain. We started this hike from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.

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African Penguins near Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula. A large colony lives there, with thousands of penguins swimming, walking, and hanging out.

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Our last sunset, from the balcony of our hotel in Camps Bay.

Please check out my article Five Unforgettable Adventures in South Africa.

Driving in Mexico: Everything You Need to Know

There’s no reason for a competent and experienced driver to be intimidated by driving in Mexico. In fact, driving around the country is an excellent option, especially with low prices for rental cars and an abundance of out-of-the-way destinations like colonial towns, national parks, and virgin beaches.

Sure, things are a little different here, but like anything else unfamiliar in Mexico, the main thing you need is patience. And a few tips.

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To Drive or Not?

Your budget is the first factor to consider for whether you drive in Mexico or not. Right now, all over the world, renting a car is super cheap, as low as 10 dollars a day. This means that despite toll highways and somewhat pricy gasoline (compared to the U.S.—it’s still lower than in Europe), renting a car may actually be cheaper than using public transportation, especially if you travel in a group or visit places outside of major cities.

Toll highways can be expensive, however, and navigation can be confusing, so before you rent a car to drive between distant cities, at least take a look at the price of domestic flights. Flights within Mexico can be incredibly cheap, often cheaper than a much-longer first-class bus ride.

Also, if you will confine your trip to only one city, then you can easily use public transportation to get around, which will save hassles like getting lost and finding parking. This is especially true for Mexico City, which has an efficient, inexpensive, and reasonably safe metro (subway) system below ground and incredibly busy and confusing roads above. Other major cities also have comprehensive public transportation systems and an abundance of taxis.

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For longer trips, buses and passenger vans called colectivos travel to nearly every corner of Mexico, usually for cheap, but again I recommend you compare the price of bus tickets to the price of flights for any trip longer than ten hours.

To get an idea of how much your proposed road trip will cost, you can calculate the tolls and gas on this website, which is only in Spanish but easy to use.

Besides your budget, the second factor for deciding whether to drive in Mexico or not is how many people are traveling. If it’s only you, or you and just one other person, then it’s probably better to fly long distances and take public transportation for short distances. But if you have a group of, say, four or five, the price of a car rental, gas, tolls, and parking should be less than the combined total of all those bus and plane tickets.

So, with your budget and the number of your travel companions in mind, the next thing to consider is what kind of places you plan on visiting. Can public transportation get you there efficiently? To explain I’ll give some sample travel itineraries below.

As I mentioned above, regardless of how many are in your group, if you have a week or less to explore Mexico City, don’t rent a car. You can get around just fine on the metro system without the headaches of traffic, parking, and getting lost. You can use taxis late at night when the metro stops running, but remember that waving them down on the street isn’t safe—ask your hotel for the number of a “safe taxi.”

But if you want to visit Mexico City and then take a trip to a nearby colonial town in the mountains, like Taxco or Tepoztlan, renting a car will give you a lot more freedom and access. Although buses do go to these places, they may not take you to the center of town (bus stations are typically outside the city center, especially in larger cities) or to the trailhead below the mountain you want to hike. You’ll need a local bus or taxi for that, and with a car you can go straight there without delays or haggling.

Another example would be if you wanted to visit the city of Querétaro, where the bus station is far from downtown (although you can easily get there by taxi), and having a car makes it easy to visit nearby destinations like the Pena de Bernal.

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If you’re going to Cancun or a nearby town like Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera, and your main object is to hang out on the beach, don’t rent a car. You can take public transportation for day trips to the main nearby destinations like other beaches, cenotes (underground caves and rivers), or the most popular ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza.

But, if you want to visit more distant pyramids or cenotes, then renting a car makes sense because you won’t be at the mercy of rigid bus schedules and indirect bus routes. Also, if you’re in group, that car rental might be cheaper than the combined total of bus tickets.

In sum, renting a car is a good idea if you want the freedom to explore and see the country at your own pace, and it will probably save you money if you’re part of a big group. On the other hand, if you’re traveling alone, will only stay around one area, or are worried about getting lost, you can travel well on public transportation, which provides a different kind of freedom: freedom from hassle.

Renting a Car

If you use a third-party website like expedia.com to rent cars, which often has really low prices, be aware that you’ll still have to buy insurance at the rental counter, which may double or even triple the original quote. Third-party insurance (such as the liability insurance that comes included on Expedia rentals) is not valid in Mexico.

So, to prevent getting shaken down buying pricy insurance at the car rental office, take a look at company websites. The usual suspects are all common in Mexico, like Hertz, Alamo, National, Budget, Thrifty, Europcar, Avis, and Sixt.

Consider all the options for pick-up and drop-off locations, and carefully read all the details about the car (the cheapest ones are usually manual transmission) and about the contract, like insurance and mileage. Usually you’ll pay a smaller deposit when you buy more insurance, so if you don’t want an expensive package, make sure the credit card you use for the deposit has a high limit, like thousands of dollars.

If you only want the car for part of your trip, then you can pick it up at the airport and then drop it off at an office in the city near your hotel. This is also a good option for traveling between distant cities. The rates are calculated by day, so if you pick the car up at 4 p.m., you’ll drop it off at or before 4 p.m.

Or you can pick up the car somewhere in the city in the middle of your trip and later drop it off at the airport when you leave. For example, if you were going to spend a week in Mexico City (where you wouldn’t need the car) and then a week driving to nearby towns, you could take the metro to one of the rental offices in the city to pick up the car and then drop it off at the airport before you fly home.

(Be aware that cars, rentals too, must have a special permission to drive in Mexico City. This is both to reduce traffic and because of environmental concerns. So if Mexico City is your final destination and you’ll be arriving by car, think about dropping off the rental as soon as possible to avoid getting a ticket. If you rent a car in Mexico City, however, it will have that permission.)

Part of the process of renting a car is when the agent walks around inspecting it for previous damage and recording it on a piece of paper. Pay attention during this time—if he fails to notice something, you’ll be charged for it later.

Finally, you don’t need an international driver’s license to drive or rent a car in Mexico if you’re from the U.S., Canada, Europe or many other places.

Driving Across the Border

Yes, you can drive your car into Mexico, though you will be charged $15 for a temporary import permit and must use a credit card (expect this to change). Ask at the border and tell them your destination—if your trip is no farther than 25km from the border, you don’t need this permission, nor do you need it for the Baja Peninsula or the western half of Sonora.

For safety’s sake you should have car insurance that covers you in Mexico, which you can buy online or sometimes in offices outside the border on the U.S. side. Your U.S. (or Canadian, etc.) coverage is not valid in Mexico.

When you come across, after passing immigration where they check your passport, you’ll go through customs next. It’s a simple procedure, just like at the airport: If the light turns green, you’re free to enter, and if it turns red, your car will be searched. The vigorousness of the search seems to be directly related to your patience and politeness with the officers—if you complain or ask them to hurry up, you can be sure that the search will be comprehensive and slow.

A tip: If you’re only going to spend your time in the border town, just walk across. You’ll understand why when you come back and see the huge lines of cars waiting to enter the U.S.

Safety

Aside from some crazy drivers (more on that below), driving in Mexico is generally safe. The worst possible things could be a carjacking in a big city or a robbery at a fake roadblock on a lonely highway.

There’s not much you can do to prevent the first one, other than keeping your windows rolled up at intersections and at night. As for the fake roadblock, it’s a good idea to ask some locals—the friendly person at the front desk of your hotel, if you can’t find anyone else—if the highway you are planning on taking is known to be dangerous.

If you get into a serious accident, wait for the police to come and have your insurance ready. For minor fender-benders, however, Mexicans usually settle up in cash right there on the side of the road. If it’s your fault, offer a few hundred pesos, and if it’s the other person’s fault, it’s up to you if you want to ask for money or call your insurance company.

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Police

Although I would never recommend speeding, you don’t really have to worry about getting pulled over in Mexico. I have never once seen a speed trap on a highway, and very rarely have I heard of people being pulled over for running red lights or other such reckless driving.

(Update, June 2017: A few months after writing this article, I finally saw a speed trap. It was on the highway between Mexico City and Acapulco. But, still, seven years and lots of traveling, and only one speed trap…)

There are two types of police in Mexico, traffic police (transito) and the regular kind, who may be state or federal. The transito police deal with—surprise—all things related to traffic, which typically means directing it rather than actually policing it. You can usually spot them by the orange on their uniforms.

It’s possible to be stopped in a city for running a stop sign you didn’t notice or some similar unclear infraction. In many instances the police are only looking for a bribe, especially if they mention a refresco, which literally means a soda but is slang for a bribe. Yes, it’s common for Mexicans to bribe their way out of tickets, but as a foreigner it could get you in a lot of trouble. Speaking terrible Spanish may help, as they won’t want to deal with you or bother giving you a ticket. The most important thing is to remain calm and polite.

The other police, not transito, have nothing to do with traffic violations. At any rate, both types of police usually drive around with their sirens on all the time, so they won’t be sneaking up on anybody anyway.

Finally, a word on checkpoints and roadblocks, common in cities and highways. In most cases you simply slow down and the police or military will wave you through. Don’t stop unless they tell you to. They’re looking for drug smugglers, not tourists.

In tourist areas, like the Mayan Riviera near Cancun, the checkpoint might actually be a tourist information service. For safety’s sake, of course slow down, but once it’s obvious that they aren’t the police (teenagers in colorful shirts, for example), just keep on rolling.

And as I mentioned earlier, in a big city at night, at the checkpoint the police are probably looking for drunks. If you’ve been drinking and are told to pull over, follow all their instructions with as much politeness as you can muster. You’ll have to show ID and blow into a breathalyzer. The limit is 1.6, and expect this to change. If you blow over the limit, you’ll be taken to jail and your car will be impounded if there’s no one sober enough to drive it for you. You can try bribing the police at your own risk—I am NOT recommending it, but it could get you out of a night in the drunk tank. (Of course, and saying this should be unnecessary, DON’T drink and drive in the first place.)

Gas Stations

In 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil reserves, which means there is only one type of gas station in Mexico: Pemex. The prices are similar nationwide for the two types of gas, magna (which is regular) and premium.

(As I write this, gas prices and the possible privatization of Pemex are big issues. We may be seeing competing gas stations soon. Read an overview of this here.)

You don’t pump your own gas; an attendant does this for you. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to fill the tank, say:

Lleno de magna, por favor.” —Fill it up with regular please.

Notice how the attendant says “ceros” (zeros) before it starts flowing. This is because a common rip-off used to be that there would already be liters of gas marked on the machine, a good way to overcharge the unmindful. I’ve never actually seen this, but it becomes a habit to check the machine to see that it’s blank.

The attendant will wash your windows, check your oil, and check your tire pressure if you ask him to. But even if he only pumps the gas, give him a tip, between 5 and 10 pesos—round up the price of your gas.

At night, keep an eye on your surroundings—dark, lonely gas stations are good places to get robbed.

Navigation

Perhaps the main challenge for driving in Mexico is navigating, both in cities and highways. Unless the route is direct and simple, merely checking it beforehand on a map and then following signs is not enough, as road signs in Mexico are often confusing, incorrect, or simply nonexistent.

If you have a smartphone, then get the app Waze. It will calculate your route and give you alternates when there is bad traffic. Of course, apps like this work best when you compare them with a physical map, especially if you’re off the beaten track. You can find lots of stories on the internet of people following these apps into lakes, rivers, or bad neighborhoods. Apps are super useful, but must be combined with common sense to function properly.

Also, these apps are best used by your friend sitting shotgun. Trying to follow them while driving, especially in the heavy traffic of Mexico City, isn’t only difficult, but exceedingly dangerous.

If you travel with Mexicans, you’ll notice a popular way of navigating—pulling over and asking directions. Do this when necessary and don’t be surprised if the directions you get are wrong. As soon as you feel like you are getting lost, ask again.

I’ll say it again, for the third time now I believe: Avoid driving in Mexico City at all costs. You will get lost. I’ve been driving there for seven years now and still get lost every time. There’s even a song about it by the Argentinean ska band Los Auténticos Decadentes:

Road Rules and Culture

The road rules in Mexico are basically the same as in the U.S., Canada, and other English-speaking countries. One difference I’m still not quite used to is that, at least on busy roads, Mexicans wait for the arrow signal before turning left on a green light, rather than just waiting for the oncoming lane to clear. This also may apply for some right turns. And on country roads, Mexicans sometimes pull onto the shoulder and wait for both lanes to clear to make a left turn—not a safe maneuver by any stretch of the imagination.

Before it turns yellow, you’ll see the green light start flashing, which means it will change soon. And for many drivers, the yellow light doesn’t mean slow down, but speed up, which brings us to driving culture.

People in Toluca joke that at night you drive through the red lights and stop for the green lights, meaning that you should stop for green because of the people running the red lights. Yes, there is a general disrespect for road signs in Mexico, which is so prevalent that on the highway there are actually signs saying “Respect the signs.”

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Now, before I get into driving culture, let me make two comments. First, most drivers in Mexico are perfectly competent and respectful. It’s just easy to notice the bad ones. Second, Toluca (where I live) is particularly famous for bad drivers. So, please remember that the common annoyances I mention below for sure don’t apply to all parts of Mexico, nor to all Mexicans.

Besides running red lights, drivers also commonly run stop signs. At 4-way intersections without a traffic light, people usually don’t alternate, but instead push their way through whenever they can. This also happens when lanes merge—people don’t take turns, which ends up causing a lot more traffic.

Another major cause of bad traffic is that people tend to park anywhere, sometimes blocking an entire lane of a busy road or invading the sidewalk. And if it’s not someone parking in an inconvenient spot, then it’s a taxi driver, either letting someone out or simply waiting for a customer.

Yet another annoyance is that many people don’t use their turn signals. You’ll see drivers making incredible turns in heavy traffic, including U-turns, which are legal as long as there isn’t a sign against it. You’ll also see people taking turns really wide, even on the highway, continually crossing back and forth across the white lines.

Mexicans in general are enthusiastic horn-honkers. I once read that the definition of a moment is the time between a light changing green and the first horn honking in Mexico. Some people honk as they speed through intersections or run red lights, as if this will prevent an accident.

There are so many incompetent drivers in Mexico that there’s even a word for them: cafre. You can often spot a cafre by the terribly beat-up car they drive, but not always. Typical cafre behavior, besides not using turn signals and parking everywhere (even spots reserved for the disabled), includes changing lanes suddenly without checking the blind spot, turning left from the far-right lane (and vice-versa), driving with small children or dogs on their laps, and either driving too fast on residential streets or driving too slow on busy city streets.

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Drunk driving is a serious problem in Mexico, despite all-night breathalyzer checkpoints on major city thoroughfares. It’s such a problem that you’ll see horrible accidents if you drive around after midnight on a Friday or Saturday. So be extra careful on weekend nights and holidays.

Finally, pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. Keep your head up when crossing the street, and don’t be surprised if someone running a red light speeds right at you. And of course—this should go without saying, but I’ve seen many travelers do this—don’t walk in the road, but stay on the sidewalk, no matter how uneven it is.

There’s really only one way to deal with all of these nuisances: Have patience, both in the car and on foot. Try to never be in a hurry and always look both ways.

Topes and Baches

Perhaps the prevalence of aggressive, selfish drivers is why Mexican (and most Latin American) roads are filled with speedbumps, called topes. It’s a philosophical question: Which came first, the tope or the cafre?

Anyone driving in Mexico will have to learn to spot the topes, which are often unmarked and practically impossible to see at night. Hitting them hard will make everyone in the backseat bounce up and hit their heads on the ceiling, or worse, give you a flat tire.

The best way to spot them is to watch the cars in front of you. When you see one slow down and the tail lights bounce, it’s going over a tope. But if there are no other cars, just do your best to spot them, especially on long, straight stretches of road.

Baches are potholes, and though unintentional, they serve the same purpose as topes—slowing you down and possibly giving you a flat tire. So, again, keep an eye open for them at all times.

City Driving

The first challenge to city driving is navigation. In big cities you’ll encounter nightmarish traffic, especially during rush hour and Mexican lunch time (between 2 and 4 p.m.). Add bad road signs and bad driving habits—not letting people in, people parking everywhere, lots of honking—and you could be in for a very frustrating experience.

When you get to a major intersection, your car will be approached by people selling things or offering to wash your windshield. Sometimes they don’t offer but just go at it, immediately spraying it with soap. You can try waving your finger or yelling “no” at them, but it’s usually easier to just give them a peso.

If you drive in a city, you’ll have to park. In the daytime, you can pretty much park anywhere, though for safety’s sake don’t park on an empty street and never leave belongings in view inside the car. The “E” (estacionarse) with the line through it means “no parking,” though you’ll almost always see cars parked under them.

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If it’s a busy street or outside of a big event, like a concert or parade, there will be guys walking around telling you that they’ll watch their car for you. They also may offer to wash it. Ask how much, pay, but don’t give these people your keys.

Unless there is a guy offering to watch your car, don’t park on the street at night. You’ll want to use a parking lot, which fortunately are common in big cities. Be sure to ask what time they close.

You’ll see little parking lots everywhere that charge by the hour. It’s a good option in the daytime too, especially if you have anything in your car like luggage. Usually you’ll have to give them your keys. When you do, they ask if you have anything of value in the car. Put those things in your trunk, and tell them what they are.

Valet parking is common for restaurants and nightclubs. Same thing, tell them if you have any valuables in the car. Before you book a hotel, always make sure it has free parking.

Highway Driving

Driving on the highway is the real pleasure of driving in Mexico. You’ll pass incredible scenery and have the freedom to visit any small town or natural area you want.

Highway driving is safe in most parts of Mexico south of Mexico City. In the north, especially near the border, there are some highways you should not drive on after dark. The best way to find out is to ask locals, for example the person at the front desk of your hotel.

In some dangerous areas, like near the U.S. border or the state of Michoacan, criminal gangs set up fake roadblocks, either disguised as military or openly delinquent. They will stop you, rob you or, if you’re lucky, simply turn you around.

This typically happens on the freeways, not the toll roads. There are two types of highways in Mexico: cuota (toll) roads, and libre, freeways.

Toll roads can be expensive, but they’re nearly always safe at all hours and include insurance. They’re patrolled by mechanics, so if you break down or have an accident they will help you for free. You can check the price of toll roads on this government website, which also calculates the gas. It’s only in Spanish but fairly straightforward.

Often where there’s a toll road there’s also a free road going the same way. It might seem like a good way to save money, but the free roads usually take a lot more time, especially if you get lost. They may have only one lane and you’ll get stuck behind a slow truck. They may pass though a small town and have no signs telling you where to go. So, in general, always take the toll road unless you have reliable information that the free road is direct and safe.

Driving culture is a little different on the highways too. Passing is the most important to understand. As usual, drive on the right and pass on the left. But on many one-lane highways in Mexico, especially on newer toll roads, there’s a wide shoulder on either side divided by a broken white line. When someone wants you pass you, drive about half-way onto the shoulder to let them get by. You’ll see how trucks drive this way, especially when climbing mountains.

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When you see the car in front of you put on a turn signal, it means it’s clear for you to pass. Besides this, there are other strange turn-signal usages that I don’t quite understand. For instance, people stopped on the highway sometimes put on their left signal, which usually means they are stopped, not that they are about to pull out in front of you, although they may do that instead.

People put on their hazard lights when they are slowing down quickly, such as when there is traffic ahead.

There aren’t rest stops on Mexican highways. If you need to use the bathroom, you usually have two options: at a toll booth, usually after you go through it, or at a gas station. In both cases you’ll probably have to pay around 5 pesos for the bathroom, but this payment typically means it will be clean.

If you’re driving at the beginning or end of a major holiday, like on a Sunday night coming into a big city (with everyone returning from their weekend trip) or on a Friday afternoon leaving a big city (with everyone leaving for their weekend trip), you’ll hit heavy traffic, especially approaching toll booths. Avoid driving at these times if possible.

Final Word on Driving

I like to joke that Mexicans are nice people until they start to drive, for all the reasons I wrote above. But the truth is that the lousy drivers are a tiny percentage of the population. Most people are perfectly courteous and law-abiding.

If you get frustrated, remember that you’re the one cruising around having a nice vacation, while every other poor soul on the road is struggling to get to work. Take a deep breath, slow down, and try to enjoy it.

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