Driving in Mexico can be challenging for foreigners because we are not familiar with the local traffic laws and customs. But I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging than anywhere else.
Prior to our trip to Playa del Carmen, many people warned us against driving. The majority of blogs I read suggested only lunatics try to drive on Mexican roads. Everyone said take a bus from Cancun to PDC, take tour buses for excursions, and use local taxis or walk locally.
We ignored that advice.
Why we chose to drive in Mexico
One of my favorite ways to become acclimated to and figure out the geography of a new place is by driving. I’ve driven from Florida to British Columbia, and in cities of all sizes across the US and Canada. I have road-tripped all around France, and have almost fallen off a mountain in Puerto Rico. On our first trip to Mexico in 2017, we rented a car to explore the area and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Driving in foreign countries does not scare me.
Flexibility and freedom
Driving allows us to have more flexibility over our schedule, which helps keep my anxiety in check. Since I often get triggered by having to leave a comfort zone (e.g. the house), leaving on time can sometimes be a challenge. Too often, the minute I’m ready to walk out the door is when my body says, “Oh are you trying to go somewhere? It’s time for a panic attack! Let’s get this party started!” sending my gut into distress and my mind into a downward spiral. Having a car lets me dictate the travel schedule, so if we left 30 minutes later than planned, it wasn’t a big deal. We weren’t on anyone else’s schedule and had nowhere specific to be.
A sense of control
Driving gives me a sense of control, which helps alleviate some of my anxiety as well. It may be a false sense of control, but I’ll take the placebo effect. It stressed me out being trapped in a car, especially in any sort of slow moving traffic situation. If someone else is driving, the stress can quickly become panic. But put the wheel in my hands, and for some reason, it’s easier to keep the anxiety at bay.
I know this is not the case for most people. If you experience any sort of anxiety while behind the wheel of a car, I would not suggest driving in most foreign countries.
So what is driving in Mexico like?
For me, frankly, driving in Mexico just wasn’t that bad!
It took about a week to adjust to the driving culture in and around Playa del Carmen. We picked up our rental car upon arriving in Cancun, and then drove the 42 miles to Playa del Carmen. What should have taken less than an hour took nearly two due to a massive amount of construction. This first foray onto the Yucatan highways was probably the most stressful, because I wasn’t yet familiar with the driving customs.
Since we didn’t have to drive within Playa very often, it took me longer than I had thought it would to understand the rules of the road. But once I got there, I put on my “driving hat” so to speak every time we got in the car. This meant being extra alert and ignoring all distractions. Justin sat in the passenger seat, in charge of Google maps and helping me navigate. He also dealt with Skyler’s whines and complaints as I remained focused on the other drivers. Our system worked well for us! And now, I have no concerns about renting and driving a car in Mexico the next time we go!
Road conditions in Mexico
Just like anywhere, the quality of the roads in Mexico can vary greatly. We drove on several brand new roads, and the highways were all in decent condition if not excellent condition. Smaller roads and rural areas may have potholes or uneven surfaces. It is important to drive carefully and be aware of road conditions – and pay attention for those topes! I’m serious, they can seemingly appear out of nowhere!
Traffic laws and driving customs in Mexico
Mexico’s traffic laws are similar to those in the United States, but there are some important differences. For example, in Mexico, you can not make a right turn on a red light!
Pay attention to topes!
The topes are so frequent that it became our family habit to shout “Tope!” every time we drove over one. And we drove over a lot of topes in Playa del Carmen. They are quite large in comparison to the average American speed bump! Do not ignore them! Some of them are not painted causing them to blend in with the rest of the road, so they may surprise you. They sometimes seem to pop up out of nowhere when driving on longer stretches of roads at fast speeds.
Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules.
When driving in the right-hand lane, drive close to the edge to prevent other drivers from sneaking past you on the right. More than once a hotel shuttle or colectivo snuck up from my right-hand blind spot and overtook me in the lane. I learned quickly to stake a claim to my space on the road and not allow anyone to come up behind me.
Speed limits are suggestions and lanes are merely guidelines. So my advice is to follow the flow of traffic. Get behind someone who knows what they’re doing. We often drove behind one of the many colectivos, which collectively ruled the roads, letting them forge a path for us.
Constant vigilance is required!
There are a lot of roundabouts! I feel like Americans don’t encounter many roundabouts in our daily driving, so the rules often seem hazy. Just go slowly, and follow the lead of the other vehicles.
Four-way stops can pose a threat. It often looks like drivers are not going to stop at stop signs and 4-way stops. While I did not fully trust the other drivers, no one actually rolled through and I never saw anyone hit anything or anyone else.
One of the more stressful situations you’ll encounter driving in Playa is crossing Avenida 50. Avenida 50 basically divides the city into two parts; you won’t find as many expats or tourists north of Avenida 50. Highway 307 runs on top of Avenida 50 – literally. When entering the highway, you have to first cross one direction of Avenida 50 – which is actually split into two sections itself: one for through-traffic closer to the highway, and one for turning onto streets and into businesses closer to the city. The first few times I crossed Avenida 50 to merge onto the other side and drive towards the highway entrance, I was almost side-swiped by taxis. You really have to stake a claim to your space on the road. Don’t leave enough space for them to sneak up along your side.
Safety concerns while driving in Mexico
No matter where you’re driving, you should take precautions to ensure the safety of everyone in your vehicle.
If you rent a car in Mexico, you are legally required to purchase insurance. The insurance you carry for your own car at home does not cover you in Mexico. The insurance provided by your credit card will not cover you in Mexico. Don’t leave yourself uncovered by skipping this important step in the car rental process!
At home, it’s easy to become complacent at home when driving the same routes day in and day out. You must snap out of all complacency when driving in Mexico. It’s new. It’s unfamiliar. Signs are in another language. You must pay more attention than you would at home.
Use a GPS to guide you.
Turn on the voice alerts for the GPS so you don’t have to worry about visually following the map and can keep your eyes on the road. Take as much mental burden off of the driver as possible so they can focus on the only thing that matters: getting to your destination safely. If you use Google maps, I highly recommend downloading the maps to your phone so they work even if you lose a data connection.
Wait! What if you travel without a cellphone? What if you don’t have a data plan that doesn’t include Mexico?
Yes, you can use the GPS on your phone without a data plan. The GPS function on your phone relies on a network of satellites maintained by the United States government, which means that it does not require an internet connection or a data plan to function. However, keep in mind that without an internet connection, your phone will not be able to provide you with live traffic updates or directions, and it may not be able to update its maps or provide you with information about nearby businesses or points of interest. But, you can still use the GPS to track your location and navigate using pre-downloaded maps.
Avoid driving at night.
Hazardous road conditions are harder to see in the dark. The unfamiliar becomes even more so without proper visibility.
Take a photo of where you park.
Navigating a new town already requires you to be more alert. Your brain is busy following directions, translating signs, keeping an eye on the kids. Take some of the mental load off by not asking it to also remember where you parked. Take a photo with location services on and use your GPS and map to find it. (I show how you to utilize this feature in this post with travel tips.)
If you travel with kids, strap them in!
Did you know that there are no car seat laws in Mexico? We saw very few children in car seats while living in PDC. More often than not, they rode unrestrained on mopeds or in the backseats of vehicles. But that did not mean we would take the same risks with our son. While we did allow him to ride unrestrained one time during the five minute drive back from the grocery store one day, he was otherwise strapped in with the RideSafer Vest. The RideSafer Vest is a crash-tested, safety certified, truly foldable and portable car seat alternative for those who travel. It took us several car rides to become adept at strapping Skyler in, causing him to whine loudly about the process. But once we got it down, it was simple. I was so glad we didn’t have to lug a bulky, heavy car seat with us!
What about gas station scams?
In Mexico, you do not pump your own gas. Gasoline attendants, also known as “gasolineros,” pump your gas, check oil levels, and perform other basic maintenance tasks on vehicles. When you pull into a gas station in Mexico, a gasolinero will approach your vehicle to ask how much gasoline you need and to pump the gas for you. You can usually pay for your gas with cash or a credit card at the pump or inside the gas station.
It was definitely an odd experience for me for a few reasons:
First, it feels so elitist and bougie to have someone else pump my gas (besides my husband, who is the designated gas pumper as I am the designated driver). Like, I can pump my own gas. I don’t need to be waited on (unless you’re my husband, please continue to pump the gas when we ride together).
Second, it made a run-of-the-mill activity stressful since it forced me to interact with people I could not understand and who could not understand me. Which makes it easier for me to not notice when their feigned friendliness might be a cover for a quick little scam.
You need to be aware of potential scams when driving in Mexico. We fell victim to a common gas station scam on our drive down to PDC from Cancun: you hand cash to the gasolinero, and they distract you with questions (“De donde eres?”) while they subtly swap the cash out for smaller bills, and then show you that you didn’t give them enough cash.
The same thing happened to us once in Budapest with a shady taxi driver. In the end, we lost $20 USD. We’re chalking it up to a learning experience. We had not yet become adept at currency conversions in our head and do not speak Spanish. But even if we were fluent in the language and experts at mental math, it is still easy to let your guard down and fall victim to simple scams like this.
Should you drive in Mexico?
Driving in Mexico is a choice. It may not be the choice for you or your family. It was the right choice for me and my family.
More often than not, you do not need to drive when visiting another country. You can get around most of the places you would visit in the Yucatan without a car. You can use public transit, colectivos, the Ado bus, hotel shuttles, tour buses, private drivers, taxis, bikes, or your own two feet to get around most everywhere.
We did not drive much during the week, because it just wasn’t necessary. Playa del Carmen is inherently walkable, which we loved. But we were really glad to have the car to give us the freedom and flexibility for weekend excursions. We drove to Cenote Azul, Xcaret Park, Valladolid, and Ek Balam. We were able to return to Cancun on our own schedule, without feeling rushed, and get ourselves to the airport. For me, the sense of control and relief I felt from having the car overshadowed the stress of driving on unfamiliar roads with unknown driving customs.
But if you do not suffer from any driving-related anxiety, or if driving gives you a sense of control, then go for it! Rent that car! Go forth and have an adventure! 🙂