When we we told people that we were driving across the entire country of Mexico, we had three reactions: 1) No way; 2) Are you nuts? and 3) Where exactly are you going? The news reports in the States have done a great job of confirming the dangers of cartels and drug runners BUT all of our research (and we did a lot) told us the media was doing their job...reporting what sells, not the norm.
We spent almost 2 weeks enjoying Mexico while speaking only rudimentary Spanish in a car with US license plates. We did not exactly blend in, yet we traveled freely throughout the country with no issues. No bandidos, no corrupt cops, nothing but fun and great memories.
This is not to say that bad things don't happen or exist in the country but they certainly happen less frequently than most people think. For example, only one of the cities we traveled through has more violent crimes per capita than St. Louis, MO. It was the border town of Nuevo Laredo and we quickly went through that town without stopping in order to play it safe. Besides we're not 19 anymore. Border towns don't have the same intrigue now as they did when we were underage and less intelligent.
Here are the top tips we found in our research about driving in Mexico:
Don't Drive at Night and Always Stay Alert on the Road - the fact is the highways are not well lit (if at all) at night and you never know what you are going to see on the road. For instance:
- You could hit livestock. We saw dozens of untethered cows, goats and horses. They can and do wander onto the highways.
- The phrase "Secure Your Load" means something different in Mexico
- You'll miss great scenery
- Speed bumps (aka topes) are not well marked (and can be huge)
- You never know when something might be blocking a lane of traffic
- You might miss a chance to do some roadside shopping
Try to Stick to Toll Roads - Mexico has invested heavily in a nationwide system of toll roads. We found them to be clean, a lot more direct between major cities, contained fewer topes, and were very well maintained. In general you want to stick with them because they are faster and pose a lot less wear and tear to your car. That said, we did veer off of toll roads a number of times in order to get to specific destinations and found those highways to be comparable to rural state highways in the States.
Get a Good GPS - This is an easy one and quite surprisingly a lot of GPSs have US and Mexico maps pre-loaded.
Outside of that, the only other hazard we encountered came from within the car...both kids got car sick a few times.
There were also several things we LOVED about driving in Mexico.
- The middle of the road is a passing lane. Often on 2-lane highways (1 lane each way), people would pass slower traffic using the center of the road. Oncoming traffic would move towards the side of the road, as would the person being passed which created enough room in the center of the road for all three cars to drive safely. It may sound crazy, but it worked well, and made driving a much happier experience. There are some slow vehicles on the road!
- A minimum and maximum speed limit. It took us a while to figure this out. There would be one speed limit on the right side of the road and another on the left. Again, this made sense and everyone on the road could drive a comfortable speed.
- Don't drive the speed limit, drive as fast as everyone else is driving. We read this during our research, and it was true. Often traffic would drive faster than the speed limit, and we figured we'd be more dangerous on the road driving slower than faster. Therefore we kept up with traffic and enjoyed being part of the wolfpack.
- Pemex Gas Stations - Pemex is the only brand of gas stations in Mexico, and it's government run. While we don't typically believe that government run entities are the best, we found comfort in Pemex all along the way. As in Oregon, these are full service, and attendants do everything from pump the gas to taking our payment and tip. We depended on Pemex for gas, clean restrooms and several bottles of Gatorade for the munchkins in the backseat. Gatorade appeared to help with the kids' nausea. Don't get me wrong though, these rest stops didn't compare to rest stops in the US!
Lastly, for anyone that is interested, here are a few of the resources we found helpful in researching and planning our drive through Mexico: