Robert H. Page, MD and Curtis P. Page, MD are authors of the MEXICO: Health and Safety Travel Guide and Yucatan: Healthy Traveler's Handbook. For more information visit medtogo.com
Any North American or Canadian that has driven the roads of Mexico will tell you that the experience is quite different than what they are used to back home. While the toll roads (“cuotas”) are generally very safe the “libre” or free roads are poorly maintained. Up until about 10 years ago Mexico’s government-maintained freeways were in shambles. They privatized the system and now corporations own long-term leases on the country’s numerous toll roads. Engineers from the US helped with the planning and construction. The result is an excellent and much safer roadway network but at a substantial cost. As an example, if you take the toll roads from Guadalajara to Mexico City (about a 6-8 hour drive), it will cost you approximately 550 pesos ($50 US) each way. Thus, most of the toll roads are fairly uncluttered and easy to maneuver. In contrast, a neighboring two-lane “libre” or free highway typically contains much slower moving traffic. If you get behind a semi or an old, beaten up, 20 mph, gas-guzzler you may be in for a long night if oncoming traffic is heavy. We always recommend that you travel the “cuota” roads though the “libre” roads are sometimes unavoidable. We suggest you exercise particular caution on the “libre” roads.
Speed limits are generally much lower than in the US and Canada, but rarely are they enforced. It is very uncommon to see a patrol car on the highway. The military police are much more common, but are mostly serve to inspect cars crossing state lines. Unwarranted speed bumps and potholes are often all that is needed to regulate speed. Slower traffic always stays to the right in Mexico, and you will anger other drivers if you do not follow this rule. The left lanes are reserved for passing and the fastest driver in the vicinity. It is very dangerous to pass on the right in Mexico.
In general, drive at the speed limit and definitely try to drive in daylight. Streetlights are uncommon especially on the “libre” roads and there are enough cars with malfunctioning headlights that it can be downright dangerous. Mexican drivers seem a little more risky than those in the US and Canada and they often follow their own set of rules. Many drivers will commonly pass on the solid yellow line. Be extra careful on curvy or mountainous roads. Slow moving drivers, will often pass without a good view of oncoming traffic.
Because of the rough roadway conditions, drivers tend to communicate with each other a bit more. It is more common for passing drivers to warn each other of upcoming danger by flashing their lights. If you are approaching a narrow bridge where only one car at a time can pass, it is customary for the driver that flashed his lights first to have the right of way. A blinking left turn signal on the vehicle in front of you could mean that it is clear ahead and safe to pass. This could also mean that the driver is about to take a left turn, so be careful. When forced to stop abruptly or notice danger ahead, most drivers turn on their hazards to warn cars tailing them.
There are several other unforeseen dangers to first-time drivers of the Mexican highways. Roadside shoulders may have dangerous drop-offs, so use caution when pulling over. If you are planning a lengthy drive throughout Mexico, be prepared for tire damage, especially in Chiapas or Oaxaca. Potholes are numerous especially in rural areas and on the “libre” roads. Make sure you have a good spare and jack before you go anywhere. Also in rural farmland areas along the “libre” roads, animals occasionally stray onto the highway. It is not uncommon to run into a farmer or rancher herding his cattle or sheep across the highway. There are fewer markings or lights along Mexican highways, especially on the “libre” roads, so again, try to drive during daylight hours. Under rainy conditions travel with extra caution as there may be more oil and dust or sand on many stretches of highway. Along the “libre” roads at the entrance of most small towns there are unmarked "topes” or large speed bumps in the road to slow down traffic. Do not take topes lightly; you will damage your tires or your front end if you hit them too fast. Keep your speed down to a minimum when driving in these towns, as there are often people in the road.
If you do have mechanical problems and can find a good mechanic don’t always expect anyone to have the part you need. Make sure you take your car in for a good check-up before you head out and keep a directory of car dealers on hand. Fortunately, the Green Angels or “Angeles Verdes” patrol the highways and offer assistance to stranded motorists. This fleet of trucks is driven by mostly bilingual mechanics. The Green Angels can be reached by dialing 01-55-5250-8221 anywhere in Mexico (hours of attention: 8am-8pm). If you don’t speak any Spanish, you can phone Infotur at 01-55-5250-8221 for assistance. They are available 24hrs and generally have English-speaking staff available. If you require the help of the Green Angels, be prepared to direct them to your approximate spot, i.e. 20 kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta on highway 200 on the way to Manzanillo. The Green Angels charge for parts, oil or gas but not service. You will be expected to pay in cash. For your safety, pack an extra fan belt, fuses and an auto first-aid kit. Also, bring a flexible funnel as some gas stations have nozzles too large to fit unleaded tanks.
Be sure to map out your trip before you go and give someone back home your travel itinerary. The Mexican government has developed a website (capufe.gob.mx) dedicated to driving the Mexican toll roads that offers driving distances between cities and services rendered on those roads. There is the option to view the site in English, though not all of it has been translated. We also recommend you visit your local AAA store, where you will find information on Mexican automotive insurance as well as useful road maps.
US: 1-407-284-1673 Mexico: 011-52-998-273-2970