Tips for driving into Mexico

Watching the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mexico is the new Columbia : drug gangs ruling the streets; crooked cops looking for la mordida; armed robbers lying in wait for the first hapless tourists.

The state department has dire warnings for travelers to much of Mexico

Highway robbery and carjacking are ongoing security concerns for travelers on the Mexican toll road Highway 15 in Sonora and on Maxipista Benito Juarez in Sinaloa. These highways are known to be particularly dangerous at night when roadside robberies occur. When traveling in Sinaloa, U.S. government employees are required to use armored vehicles and may only travel in daylight hours.

And the state department are not the only ones hyping up the danger.

In late 2011, I jumped in my car for an impromptu road-trip to Mexico with a friend. As we traveled south towards the Mexican border almost everyone we spoke to thought we were crazy. And not just insulated Americans; Mexicans in America thought we were crazy there too. “It’s bad down there, too much trouble”, “not a good time to go.” One man, working checkout at the auto-parts store, fit and in his 30’s, advised us to go mountain biking in Arizona instead, “otherwise, I fear you will be killed.”

We went anyway.

And we’re glad we did. Once we’d got over our initial nervousness, we found Mexico to be quite safe, and full of wonderfully generous and hospitable people. People look out for each other and tourists are well-cared for. The country is beautiful and it’s quite amazing that such a diverse and fascinating country is right nextdoor.

Here’s a few notes :

Drug trafficers, Highway robbers, and bears, oh my.

Of the areas getting bad press, we went through a lot of them. We crossed into Mexico through Nogales, and drove down Hwy 15 through Sonora, Sinaloa, biked our way through the Sierras to Chihuahua, before driving on to Nayarit and Jalisco.

The border areas have a particularly bad reputation. This is where pressure between the narco-trafficers and the police is highest. Since the police are easily corruptible, the military have been brought in, and you’ll see trucks of armed soldiers roving around in pickup trucks.

But while the battle is between the narco’s and the federales, you’d have to be unlucky or stupid to get in the middle. Don’t traffic drugs, and listen to the locals if they warn you not to go somewhere. In my time in Mexico I didn’t come across anyone who had run into this sort of trouble.

Here’s some resources :

  • UK FCO Mexico Advisory – I always recommend looking at the UK FCO advisories for a more rational advisory, but this is pretty dire too.
  • Drive the Americas – Great site with lots of stories of all sorts of people driving south through Mexico and beyond
  • On the road in Mexico : Facebook group – This site set my mind to rest…. up to date postings from all manner of folk on the road in Mexico.

Safety tips

Don’t drive at night
This is perhaps the fundamental rule of driving in Mexico, and if you’re there during the winter months when the days are short, then it is one of the easiest ones to break. Most of the locals we talked to along the way strongly agreed with this statement. But it’s not as if the banditos come out as soon as the sun comes down. We frequently found ourselves on the road after dark, and there were usually many other cars out too. Highway robbery is still unlikely, but if it’s going to happen it’s most likely to be on a deserted road, and lets face it, most roads are deserted at 1am. – So, don’t be there.

The other big reason to avoid driving at night is animals. Especially up the Baja peninsula, black cows wander freely across the highway. At night they become next to invisible, and have a tendency to lie in the middle of the road where the ground stays warmer. If you have to make some miles up the peninsula after dark, my advice is to follow a big truck.

Don’t flaunt your wealth
My aging Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows was the perfect Mexico vehicle. Petty theft in Mexico didn’t appear to be any worse than in the US. It’s usually not a problem to park your car on the street overnight, but put your valuables out of site. Without doubt, the sketchiest place I parked my car on the trip was Venice, CA.

Cars with US license plates are common in northern Mexico. Many of them are driven by American Mexicans who are visiting families, or who have just brought their vehicles back and are avoiding paying the import duties. On Hwy 15 south down the mainland we saw tons of US plated vehicles. In some parts of Baja it seemed that 50% of the cars have US plates.

Think things through in advance
No-one ever pressed a knife up against us, but it helps to think what you’d do in advance. Think through what you’ll do if you come across a roadblock in the middle of the night. These are unpleasant situations, and there isn’t a right answer, but preparation is the key to success.

As my friend Tommy Lynch, a security expert, likes to repeat : “There isn’t a bad situation that you didn’t put yourself into in the first place.”

La Mordida

If you’ve spent much time in latin America you’ll be familiar with ‘La Mordida’ – the colloquial term the bribe you pay cops after they’ve pulled you over for a random infraction.

I’ve enjoyed this a couple times, so have a couple thoughts about this :

  1. Plan in advance – If you spend enough time on the road in Mexico, you are going to run afoul of a corrupt cop. This is definitely not a reason not to go, but it’s worth planning in advance about how you’ll handle it.
  2. Treat it like a game – Once the blue and red light goes on it’s natural for your adrenaline to surge and the fight or flight mechanism to kick in. That’s the wrong reaction. When the lights go on, you’ve just entered a game. Treat it as an opportunity and one of the more entertaining parts of the traveling experience. For the most part, the cop simply wants to pad his paycheck, and you simply don’t. Unless you act up, the stakes are fairly low. The worst outcome is that you’ll have to pay the official fine; this is usually a lot less than it is at home, and you won’t be getting points on your license. So, treat it like a game, and play to win.
  3. Avoid the bribe – In Mexico, if you get a fine, you should pay the fine at the police station. If you pay the cop, it is going straight to his pocket. If you pay the clerk at the station, it is going to the community. In Rosarito, 10 miles from Tijuana, I was pulled over for having a boat mast sticking out the back of my truck without a red-flag. It was such a ridiculous infraction, especially in Mexico, that we gambled that the cop would look corrupt for even trying to process it officially. We insisted we should pay the fine at the station, and after following the cop all the way there, negotiating with him outside for five minutes, he eventually sent us on our way without any fine.
  4. Throw him off – In your preparation think of ways you can the conversation off from the start. I don’t know of any guaranteed method, but here’s a couple ideas : When he pulls you over, effusively thank him and start asking for directions; maybe let slip that you’re writing an article on his town for a travel magazine; introduce yourself and ask for his name…. all little ways to distract him or make him think that taking you for a ride might land him in trouble.
  5. Time is on your side – Unless you’re on your way to the airport or genuinely in a hurry, sit back and take your time. You are on holiday, he’s on the clock. Be relaxed, think things through, talk things through with your partner in english while he looks on.
  6. It’s ok to be stupid – Is there anything more frustrating than trying to communicate to someone in a foreign language? Use this to your advantage. Ideally you understand him, but throw in a lot of confused looks, ask him to speak slower, ask him to repeat three times. Then tell him you don’t understand. Think Borat.

My story : In Commondu, a tiny town in Baja Sur, we were pulled over for speeding through town. Seeing the speed limit was 20mph for five miles with a barely a house in sight, this was definitely a gotcha moment. You know you’re being taken for the bribe when he asks, “do you want to go back to the station or pay here.” – He made sure to point out that the station was 10 miles away, but seeing as we were vacationing anyway, I said that was fine by us. The cop turned around and drove 40mph back up the road. We followed at a sedate 20mph to the station that was only a mile away.

Unfortunately, unlike Rosarito, this was a tiny town, and our cop was the only law in town. At this point I realized it was going to be a small mordida, or the full fine. He pointed out how expensive the full $150 fine was. I pointed out that he seemed a nice guy and since we were just foolish tourists, maybe he could cut it down to $15. He figured $80 was more appropriate. I pulled out the $15 (200pesos) and suggested that could be used for painting the police station, but otherwise the full fine was fine too as that would be used for the town and for ‘Mexico’ – Well, to cut a long story short we haggled back and forth, but I stood firm on the $15 for the station or the official fine. He relented, and pointed out the folder for police station expenses, and sent us on our way.

So, that was fun.

Word of note : If you’re foolish enough to be caught doing something serious, such as carrying drugs or weapons, forget what I’ve said about drawing things out. These are big-time offenses and you definitely don’t want to go back to the station. Solve the problem fast.

Another word of note. Military inspections are run by what seem to be very earnest and honest soldiers. If you run afoul of them, play it by the book.

Baja : A paradise apart

Travelling in Baja is much easier than the mainland. There are beaches galore to get away from it all, and I found the people to be unfailingly friendly and non-threatening.

I cannot recommend a road-trip through Baja highly enough. Bring a tent, some hiking shoes, and know how to change a tire. Then go.

Some good resources for traveling in Baja :

10 Responses to Tips for driving into Mexico

  1. Dotan Negrin says:

    This is great advice. I really really want to do this trip but Im scared shitless of what I may encounter. I have a bright red 2010 Transit Connect with Tinted windows and I’m not sure its wise for me to go with that car.

    On top of that my goal is to travel with my upright piano and to try and play on the streets of all the major tourist cities to make money to pay for gas and food.

    Any advice on this? I really want to do this trip and drive all the way down to Argentina, but so many people have told me not to. At the same time, some people from Mexico told me that I MUST come down and do it….

    Can you shed some light for me? Should I buy a different used car? Will I even make any money street performing in the tourist cities?

    • James says:

      Dotan,

      Yep, you’ll be more conspicuous in some areas with a bright red 2010 van, but that’s not a reason not to go, and in larger urban areas you’ll fit right in. Cities have plenty of wealthy locals and you’ll be surrounded by plenty of vehicles far nicer than yours.

      The bigger question is your exposure to risk. For the most part, I didn’t feel my Jeep was much more of a target for theft than it would be in the US. But at the same time, it was only worth $2500 and I could afford to lose most of the stuff inside. I’d definitely recommend you don’t take anything you can’t afford to lose.

      As for the piano… awesome! – Take a video and post it on youtube for us!

      BTWSorry for the slow reply.. I hope you went ahead anyway!

      J

  2. Adrian Perez says:

    I am glad to have found this link! I am thinking of driving from east coast US to Honduras this December. What useful websites did you find when planning your trip? Do you know if there are sites where you can connect with others trying to do that same thing?

    Thanks!

    Adrian

  3. John Barson says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your article. This response might be a little long…I drove from Vancouver Canada to Mexico City in my 2006 Ford Escape in 2009. I went via Austin, Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. Long drive but very interesting. I actually had my car loaded down as I was moving to Mexico City. On the inside it was full of stuff I didn’t want to risk shipping down like my computers, favorite cooking pots and kitchen appliances, clothes etc. On the outside I had my sailboard and sails on the roof and my mountain and road bikes on the back. Luckily I also had my Espanole speaking fiancee with me who had flown up to Austin from Mexico City where I picked her up for the drive back into Mexico. I was worried what would happen at the border if stopped and checked. Unlike the Canada/US border where every vehicle is stopped and you are questioned it was just like at the airport going into Mexico. There is a light that goes green most of the time but if it goes red when you pull up you are taken aside, questioned and your vehicle is searched. Odds are against getting a red light but be prepared just in case. The one thing we almost forgot to do because the crossing was so easy was to get the vehicle sticker for the car. If you’re on a day trip you don’t have to worry about that but I was going to be in Mexico City for the full six months my car is allowed in the country. In that case I had to report to customs with my insurance and proof of ownership (must be in your name) paid the fee (I seem to remember is was around 500 pesos but stand to be corrected on this). Once that was done we were on our way. That was our only challenge on the way there. Once we were on the toll road in Monterrey it was a straight shot to Mexico City. Really nice, well kept, modern highway. You might think you are on the German Autobahn given the speed at some of the drivers on the road but unless you know where the likely radar traps are stick to no more than 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. We often drove from Mexico City to Acapulco over the years and once I knew where the radar traps were I could do a sedate 140km per hour…and I was still in the minority of slower cars. Keep checking your mirrors because cars will still be passing you like you are standing still. Toll highways are some of the safest roads in Mexico but rules still apply. If you pull over don’t hang around too long on a deserted stretch. Robberies can still happen on those.

    In the six months of driving in Mexico in my car I did get pulled over a few times and like James said it is a game. Be prepared. Do not keep a wad of cash in your wallet. I keep no more than 200 pesos in my wallet and stash the rest of my cash in a couple of places in my car. I say a couple of places because one of the ways I would play it was if the cop was insistent that the “fine” was more than I had in my wallet, like the time I was pulled over for talking on my cell phone (this is one of the best revenue generators for cops…do not use your cell phone while driving), I would say I only had a couple of hundred pesos and show him my wallet. But he insisted that the fine was 800 pesos or my car would be towed. All of a sudden I remembered I had money in my console and pulled out the amount he required. When paying do it by folding the money up and hide it together with your license when handing it to him or hold it close to the base of your window and let him take it. Do not just hand the money out the window of the car. Another time I got pulled over for apparently making an illegal left hand turn. I was the fourth car in a line of about 6 cars that all made the same turn but low and behold I was the only one pulled over. The cop told me the fine was 3,500 pesos. I played Borat on this guy really pretending I had no idea what he was saying and asked for directions in a really, really bad attempt at speaking Spanish. When he kept talking about the fine I kind of looked surprised when I “realized” he was imposing a fine and pulled out my wallet. I opened it and showed him I only had 140 pesos ($11) in my wallet. He looked frustrated but then all of a sudden just reached into my wallet, took the pesos and sent me on my way. I also got pulled over one day in downtown Mexico City during rush hour. The cops insisted that I was driving on an illegal day for my plate number. That was not true. In DF you have to keep your car off the road one day a week and that day is depending on your plate number but it wasn’t my day. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to handle that situation so I called my fiancee and handed the phone to the cops. Ha ha…boy it was not what the cops expected. I could hear her tearing a strip out of them on the phone. I love her Latin temper. After about 10 minutes of arguing the first cop gave up and handed the phone to a second cop, a sergeant. He tried to get her to tell me to pay him over the next 10 minutes until finally he gave up and told me to go on my way.

    Other than those situations driving around Mexico for that six months was pretty much uneventful. I even drove down to the pyramids at Monte Alban in Oaxaca. Wow…what a site and sight. Everywhere we went outside of Mexico City people were friendly and helpful. In the city it was no different than any other large city. Except…except…drive with patience. You will often feel like you are in a Fast and Furious film. It seems nobody plays by the rules of the road or follows speed limits. You’ll be cut off, you’ll be squeezed out of your lane, you’ll think you are about to be hit a thousand times but miraculously you will escape unscathed. You’ll be making a left or right hand turn and while you are checking for cars one, two, three or more cars will zip around you and cut you off on the turn. In DF you do not have to wait for a green light after 11pm. When coming up to a red light late at night slow down, check for cross traffic, and go. Best thing to do is to watch the behavior of other drivers. Having said that…during the day you are required to stop but I have seen a dozen or more cars just keep on going through a red light.

    After having my car there for the six months I was required to leave the country with it. Since we lived so far away from the border we decided that I would just drive it back to Canada while my fiancee flew to Vancouver. I would pick her up at the airport there in 4 days and we would get married in the little town we met in 35 years previously. Unfortunately I left the morning of the freaking huge hurricane that devastated the north eastern section of Mexico all the way into Monterrey where bridges were wiped out, highways were closed due to flooding, landslides etc. Let me tell you it was the most harrowing and frightening 24 hours of driving of my life. And I have driven through blinding blizzards in northern Canada where driving off the road and not being found until spring was very much a reality. It was incredible. A normal 8 hour drive stretched to 24 hours to make to a border crossing. I came to a stop in stalled traffic at midnight 2 hours south of Monterrey. It still wasn’t raining there but the traffic had been stopped for hours because of the hurricane and the possibility of the main bridge through Monterrey collapsing into the river. I was talking with a truck driver and told him I had to find a way to the border because I was on a deadline to get to Austin to pick up my son and drive to Vancouver for my wedding. He said if I could find a way through the median and make my way north I could take the Saltillo exit and make my way to Eagles Pass, Texas and cut over to Austin on the US side. So found a place where I could squeeze past the halted traffic, thank god I had an all wheel drive version Escape, pulled into the median and barely made it to the northbound lane and headed for Saltillo. He told me once I was I made it to Saltillo from that point on to the border DO NOT STOP or talk to anyone not in uniform. And even then be very, very careful. For the next 10 hours I drove through blinding fog, over mud and landslides and through flooded sections of roads and highways. At dawn, and completely exhausted, I found myself on a beautiful and lonely stretch of highway between two mountain ranges. I hadn’t seen a single vehicle in over 5 hours. It was like I was on a deserted planet. I as I was coming out of the next mountain pass I found the reason why. The road wasn’t just flooded…there was a river running across it. There was a dip in the road and for about 100 meters nothing but moving water left to right. On the right was a sheer drop. On the other side of the water was another driver. We sat there for a moment looking at each other. I was hoping he would drive through it and he was hoping I would drive through it. A Mexican standoff. I decided I couldn’t wait and took the chance. I started as far left on the road as I could…hit the water and barely made it to the other side on the far right hand side of the road as the water tried to carry me over the drop. The adrenaline followed by the sheer relief of making it was indescribable. Shortly after that the rain came in sheets. For the next three hours I hydroplaned my way to Piedras Negras, Mexico. About 5km out of Piedras Negras the sun came out. 5km to the border at Eagles Pass…I made it…almost. I had driven through one of the most dangerous stretches of roads in Mexico. This was drug runner country. Kidnappings and murder part of the day to day life in this region. I got pulled over about 2km from the border by a truck full of paramilitary types. Here I played Borat to the hilt. Here my life was on the line. When I told my cop friend back in Mexico city a month later about being pulled over here he told me I had a fifty/fifty chance of living through that. If is was the drug runner paramilitary I would have been kidnapped, robbed and probably beheaded. After about 15 minutes of playing the stupidest tourist on the planet they let me go. I crossed the border uneventfully and a couple of hours later I was in Austin. Here’s the funny thing. After all of that…the danger..what I had been through…what I had survived…when I went into the gas station in Austin after filling up to buy food for the next leg someone stole my wallet out of my car. I just laughed at that. It was a pain in the ass but after what I had just survived I could only laugh.

  4. Chris says:

    John i really enjoy reading your comment very interesting, i just came back from my trip to mexico city from santa maria, I drove in a 2008 infiniti fx35, the first time i went was in 2010 i drove to laredo then to mexico city, I took the longest drive but people i know said it was the safest which i dont i agree because i had one of the most horrible moments of my life. when i crossed the border into laredo i had to wait for my girlfriends family because i did not know the way but they did, when we were crossing they got a red light i had to keep going anyway i stop next to where the military was, then one of the soldiiers ask me to move because i couldnt stay there, so i kept moving until i finally found a spot in front of a carwash so i parked there i was looking in my mirror at the military then a tamalero park right in front of me so i got out to buy myself couple tamales everything was ok it was like 8 am. i starting having a conversatiom with the tamale man and all the sudden a lot of guys started to come out of the car wash to have some tamales, which seem normal right then one of those guys pull out a brick of coke and most of the guys startes to snif from the brick so i ofcourse pay for my tamales and went back to my car i didnt know what to do at the point all my attention was in my mirros hoping for car that i was supose to follow, all car coming out of us had to pass thru the street where i park. i kept looking at the mirror then i see the military moved their hammer tours the us when they moved all the guys that were having tamales with coke went back to the car wash and i saw them running back to the car wash, one of them quickly opened the doors from the carwash but he was carrying an ak47, at the point a really fear for my life and my 2 little brothers, the guy that opened the door then ask me to open my window and ask to move cuz i was blocking the entrance in a really mean way i did what he asked me to do. once i moved he moved to the front of my car and seem to be looking out for the military which i did too then he started to make singnals for the other guys to get out, they were driving about 4 surbubans and 2 scaleds that look like the chevy avalnch seemed new with no plates and had “z” in all their windows at the end they had an old truck with big container. At the point i was thinking to go back us but i didn’t. When we got to the city to get the toll road the other side of the road was block by the old truck that i saw it was burning all the federelas were there, once i got the toll road everything went fine. My second trip in car to mexico city i did it last moth i went to visit my family this time i took the nogales way which i think is the safest and the fastest i drove at 160 km from nogales to jalisco. i did save 12 less hour than laredo route, i loved the nayarit views, anyway im glad you guys like my country i was born in mexico city and i love it because you can do whatever you want every weekend my friends i close the street to party all night and make bump fires, in new years day we got drunk and woke up in the beautiful acapulco gentle mens club 🙂

  5. Richard says:

    Hi there,
    I’m hoping some of you may be able to assist me…
    I am heading over to the states from new Zealand in January with some friends and we are looking and buying a car in LA and taking it as far south as we can go…. I was just wondering how strict the border police are as well as on the American side of the border? I understand insurance is a given but as far as warrant of fitness and registration (or the U.S counterpart) is it essential?

    It is my/our intention to buy a relic which may not be exactly ‘road legal’ you see.. do you think we would have any problems in taking a piece of american history across the border without being tazered in the face if we are lacking a few pieces of paper which cite the (non)road-worthiness of this vehicle?

    cheers,
    Richard

    • It shouldn’t be that hard? If the car is capable of being driven into Mexico and beyond, it is probably roadworthy by US standards.

      A couple areas to look out for.

      1. When you buy the car, you’ll want to register it and make it legally yours. In California, they’ll make you take it for a smog check. If the car is driving legally when you buy it, there’s a good chance it’ll pass the smog… but maybe get it checked before you buy it.
      2. Take a look at the rules for registering a new car from the California DMV. The rules are probably looser, and it may be easier to find a car, in Las Vegas (Nevada) or Arizona.
      3. You definitely want Mexico insurance. You can buy this at the last exit before you cross over the border. It takes 20mins, but you’ll probably need your US paperwork in order.
      4. At the border into Mexico there is no checkpoint…. you just drive right in. But thirty miles down the road you’ll need to leave a deposit of $200 for the a temporary import permit. I forget what documentation you need for that. Banjercito has the rules.

      Good luck!

  6. Vanessa says:

    Great post! I’ve always wanted to drive to Mexico and this does ease the nerves a bit. 🙂

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