1/27/2015 – Driving in Mexico

The first time I had to drive a car in Mexico, in La Paz, I was petrified.  I just knew that every cop was corrupt and they were all waiting to get me.  I also was sure that I wouldn’t be up to the task of dealing with other drivers, road signs, etc. and would be reduced to a quivering mass of tears before I’d gone 5 miles.  That experience turned out to be a whole lot less traumatic than I’d feared and gave me the nerve to try again some day.

Now that we’ve put several thousand Mexican miles on our little motorhome, I feel somewhat qualified to talk about driving in Mexico.

First, there are only a few things that I don’t particularly care for:

Cops:  In all these thousands of miles I have only been stopped by a cop three times.  Once was entering La Paz when a Federale roadblock was checking licenses and registrations of everyone passing by.  No biggie.  Once was in Caborca when a local cop stopped me for speeding. This was a legitimate stop as I’d been going 20 km/hr over the posted speed limit (like pretty much everyone else).  I’m sure that the reason I was chosen for a stop was because I was gringo.  The cop made it fairly obvious that he was looking for a payoff which he didn’t get and eventually waved me away with the admonishment to “slow down”.  Fair enough.  The last time I was stopped was in Hermosillo.  I was pulled over for making a right turn on a red light (like every car ahead of me at the intersection did).  I’m not sure what this guy wanted as he didn’t seem to be fishing for a bribe or anything.  Just wanted to hassle me maybe.  Anyway, got away without a fine or anything again.  No harm done.  That’s been it so far.  So, although I’m still a bit leery of cops, I’m just as leery, if not more so, in the States.

Cuotas:  There are toll highways (cuotas) all over Mexico.  These tend to be the newer, wider, faster roads.  The deal is that you never supposedly have to drive on a cuota to get somewhere.  All cuotas are supposed to have an accompanying “libre” or free road.  Sometimes, however, the libres are pot-holed, circuitous, and generally poor choices.  Most times. however, at least from our experience, they are just fine.  Not if you’re in a hurry maybe, but otherwise they’re fine.  You go through many more small towns than on the cuotas and every small town requires a drop in speed from 60-80 km/hr to 40 km/hr. And, if you choose not to slow down, the topes (speed bumps) will make you wish you had.  A small town less than a half mile long might have as many as 8-10 topes, each one high enough to make dropping your speed low enough to shift into 1st gear a wise choice.  There are also the “vibradores”.  These are small topes which are placed closer and closer together as you approach a pedestrian crossing, etc.  They do just like the name implies:  they vibrate the crap out of you.

If you want to avoid most, though not all, of these slow-down techniques, and arrive at your destination faster since you can often travel legally at 110 km/hr, you take the cuota.  Also, if you happen to miss the poorly-marked, if marked at all turn-off to the libres, you take the cuotas.  We actually tried to avoid taking cuotas most of the time but still found ourselves on them much more often than we liked.  The worst thing about the cuotas is that they are FREAKIN’ EXPENSIVE!  “How expensive are they?” you ask.  Well, as luck would have it, I just this morning finished entering the amounts on all my receipts into the computer.  On this trip, since we entered Mexico in November, we have spent a total of $317.07 ($4,597.47MX) on tolls.  That’s for traveling on 17 cuotas.  This means we spent an average of $18.65US (or $270.44MX) per toll booth.  And sometimes these toll booths are only a few miles apart.  It’s also tough to tell whether you’re paying for the road you’re about to drive on or the one you just finished driving on.  I have no idea which it is or if there’s any consistency.

No Shoulders:  Fortunately nothing has happened that has caused us to have to pull over to the side of the road.  Good thing since most of the small roads have absolutely no shoulder to pull off the road onto.  No shoulder.  None.  And the road is elevated such that just pulling off onto the brush would usually entail a very steep drop.  It’s just kind of unnerving thinking about what you’d do if the rig just stopped..

Directional Signs:  I’m sure they’re much better than they used to be but much of the directional signage in Mexico is somewhat less than helpful.  There might be an arrow indicating a turn off to say, a libre.  Trouble is, the arrow might be a few hundred yards ahead of the turn-off, or it might be right at the turn-off.  And, the turn-off will often not even look like a real road which makes you question whether or not to turn now or a few yards down the road.  Oops, there is no turn-off down the road.  Should have taken that one.  Crap, now we’re on the cuota.

And that’s really about all that I don’t like about driving in Mexico.  On the other hand, there are some things that I really prefer about driving in Mexico vs. the States:

Retornos:  On pretty much any divided highway, there will be openings every so often called “Retornos”.  These give you a chance to undo whatever you did wrong and go back the way you came without having to wait for the next exit, which may be many, many kilometers down the road.  We’ve only had to use these a couple times, but when we did, it was nice to have them.

The General Attitude of Other Drivers:  Mexicans have a reputation as a very laid-back people.  You know, “mañana” and all that.  However, this whole persona changes the minute they get behind the wheel.  Now they need to be wherever they’re going RIGHT NOW!  This leads to them driving fast and passing slower vehicles at very dangerous-looking places.  Solid middle line?  So what?  Blind corner?  Big deal.  Being one of these slower vehicles, we’ve seen more than our share of what looked like was sure to be a head-on collision only to have the passing car pull back into his own lane at the very last minute.  So, why does this make me like the general attitude of Mexican drivers?  Well, it doesn’t exactly.  But the thing about these scenarios that does make me appreciate them is their attitude.  No one’s mad.  I doubt they can even grasp the concept of ‘road rage’.   Sure, I’m driving slower than they might want to go.  But they seem to recognize that I’m probably driving as fast as I am comfortable driving or as fast as my rig will let me drive.  They might tailgate me until they see a suitably inappropriate place to pass but, as they fly by on my left, I’ve never heard a horn honk or seen a raised middle finger like is so common in the good ol’ US of A.

The unwritten rules seems to be “drive however you need to to get done whatever you need done and recognize that everyone else is doing the same thing”.  There just aren’t all that many cops so there isn’t a strict adherence to a bunch of rules.  Quicker to cut through this gas station than to wait at the intersection?  Go ahead.  Need to drive your motorcycle the wrong way down the street?  No problem, just stay well over to the side so you don’t impede traffic going the right way.  You’re in the right lane and need to get into the inside lane, 3 lanes over?  No problem: turn on your blinker and just start edging over.  They’ll make room and no one will get mad or try to squeeze you out.  It’s all very live and let live although you may not recognize that at first as these little Hondas and Toyotas go zipping here and there.  And, for every 2014 Jetta speeding along at 120 km/hr, there will be a ’77 Chevy LUV pickup, loaded to overflowing with palm fronds, and held together by bailing wire trundling along at 40 km/hr.  And it’s all OK.

I think the reason that Mexican drivers generally seem to survive the narrow-misses that go along with passing at crazy places is that everyone is expecting to see someone hurdling at them in their lane and they, maybe unconsciously, plan for it.  They don’t get mad and try to force the guy to back off.  They do what needs to be done so that everyone survives: they back off their speed enough so he can get back over safely.  Oh, they’ll probably make sure that they pass him pretty close just to give him a thrill, but there’s no flashing lights, no honking horns, no one-finger salutes.

I have only had one instance in which other drivers acted like jerks.  Entering the little village of Costa Rica, you come to a “T” intersection signed as a three-way stop.  Everyone has heard that in Mexico a STOP sign is just a suggestion.  But that’s not really true.  Granted, if they slow down as they approach the intersection and see no reason to stop, they will probably just blow on through.  But, if it’s a multi-way stop and someone beat them to the intersection, they’ll at least slow down to take their turn.  In Costa Rica, however, they weren’t so courteous.  The intersection was busy and the streets were very small and narrow, I was on the leg of the “T” and had to turn left.  None of the other drivers would even slow down to allow me to stick my nose out into the intersection.  Very-unMexican.  However, a gentleman in a pickup on my left finally pulled up to the intersection and blocked the other traffic while waving me across.  Very Mexican.

I don’t even mind the topes.  They make one slow down and I don’t mind slowing down.  I don’t like the topes that take me unawares but they are usually fairly well signed or painted so they stand out.  I’m not crazy about some of the really, really badly potholed roads but I just slow down.  They only bother me when I want to get somewhere and I can’t even go fast enough to get out of 1st gear.

We took a dirt exit off the cuota the other day to stop at a Deposito to get some cerveza in case we didn’t pass a store before our evening’s stop.  No problem until I looked at what I had to drive over to get back onto the cuota.  A steep dirt incline that pulled right onto the right lane of the highway, no shoulder or breakdown lane to ease the transition.  Fortunately, I could see the highway well enough to tell when there was a low enough traffic flow to make the re-entry safe-ish.  It was a little unnerving but ultimately no big deal.

We don’t drive at night and we’re happy to have whatever help Dora is willing to give.  She’s bailed us out many times.  But all in all, I have to say that, even though it seems like everything is faster and crazier, I’m actually more relaxed driving in Mexico than I am back in the US.

IMG 4774

Sunset at El Mirador, Huatabampito, Sonora


About sryoder

Steve & Lulu... retired. Had enough of the cold wet dreary fall/winter/spring in the Pacific Northwest. Bought a boat, fixed it up, sold our home and sailed to Mexico in November, 2010. Been here ever since except for occasional forays to the States (summer only, thank you) to visit the kids, parents and siblings. If you're looking for a sailing blog, this is the wrong place. This is a traveling, hunkering in, eating blog. Sailing is just how we get from place to place when we can't walk.
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8 Responses to 1/27/2015 – Driving in Mexico

  1. gdmobbs says:

    I agree, good evaluation/description. I might add that sometimes people are too polite. You go first, NO, you go first. OK, but then they might be at the OK moment as well, by that time. It can be a little awkward. I have often said, that there has never been a time when a Mexican was too busy to stop to help out a Gringo. We pulled off the edge of the road one time, just to double check the map against the GPS girl, and a Mexican, pulling a cattle trailer pulled over, asked if we needed help, and then proceeded to lead us through the town.

  2. Great to hear that your driving experiences down there have been mostly positive. We had similar experiences in the northern area and Baja as well. Drivers were *mostly* friendly, cops were *mostly* law abiding and road conditions were *mostly* decent. All is all, we were pretty happy with our driving experience down there. (Well, I suppose except for that week the car was stolen….but at least we got her back!)

    PS – LOVED that photo of you, Steve, on the Bums site. Awesome and makes us miss you guys so much.

    – Katie and Mark

  3. Don Strong says:

    A long life of driving in Mexico gives me the authority to say that you got it right. My fav Mexico driving story is about crossing a long two lane bridge near Culiacan in 1970 or so in a VW van. At the same instant that we saw a large hog on the bridge, a petro tanker came onto the bridge towards us. We were lucky. The hog ran in front of the tanker, which hit him just as we passed. The driver was waving his hat like Slim Pickens in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove. We stopped to hose off the van at the next opportunity.

  4. Sound like it is over here in GR where the old Spartan rule is (unofficially) in effect. It’s against the law to be “caught” breaking the law!

  5. Chouliha says:

    Great write up. We have been using citymaps2go on our ipad. Been wonderful all over South America. Just took a look at the free Mexican maps and there are heaps. Pay once for the app and all the maps of the world are free.



  6. Jim Focha says:

    Steve, you summed it up perfectly. We were just drove to Ensenada to check the boat and with a cop behind I accidently ran a stop sign. I started to pull over but he just continued on. Sometimes you just get lucky.

    Jim “Worldwind”

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