Is Driving Through Mexico Really That Scary?

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The reactions you get when you tell people you’re going to drive through Mexico are funny. One worker at the grocery store told us simply, “You’re gonna die.” A rather grim message from the guy bagging our provisions for an extremely long road trip. A few statements, including the U.S. Consulate’s warning against driving through every portion of the country we’d be visiting, made us second-guess our decision, but the opportunity to be mobile (with our dog in tow) in a country with a  coastline full of perfect waves, vibrant culture and $.10 tacos, seemed worth the “risk.”

It’s safe to say the drive from North Carolina to southern Mexico was our best road trip ever (until our next road trip), and although the trip went flawlessly, it wasn’t without a ton of research. This article is a guide for anyone thinking of driving through the absolutely beautiful country of Mexico: things to do, things not to do, and why you should certainly make the drive — no matter what the guy at Food Lion tells you.

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Visas, Car Insurance, the Border

A few preparations are necessary before you even think of crossing the border, and handling them at home can save you a lot of hassle. Signage is poor in Mexico, and you don’t want to hang around the border towns too long.

Compare car insurance for Mexico online. No matter what you think, you need Mexican car insurance in addition to your American policy. Sanborn’s Mexico Insurance offers some great full-coverage rates that are much cheaper than the price you’ll pay as you cross at the border.

If you’re passing through a border town in mainland Mexico or are even planning to cross over to the mainland from the Baja Peninsula via ferry, you’ll need a vehicle import permit sticker for your vehicle. Without a doubt, order this permit (and the sticker for your vehicle that comes with it) before you hit the road, or you’ll be stuck in lines at the border for a couple of hours with piles of paperwork about your vehicle trying to get one. It costs a small $30 fee, plus a roughly $350 deposit that you get back when you cross back in to the U.S.

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Research where you need to return the sticker before you head back to the border crossing. We learned this the hard way and had to stay a night in Tijuana (which was actually pretty nice) just to find the place to return the stupid sticker. If you have all of this in line before you even leave your driveway, it will save you a ton of hassle on your much-anticipated border crossing.

While it used to be commonplace to pop over to Mexico for a night in the clubs then back to the safety of your home in Arizona, Texas or California, that’s not really the case anymore. Keep a good map of Mexico on hand (or a serious data plan on your cell phone) and get through the border towns quickly and early in the day.

What to Avoid

Mexico is a third-world country — there are fewer instructions, fewer rules, fewer signs and way more speed bumps (topes). By following three simple rules, you can save yourself some serious hassle, and more importantly, danger.

Rule No. 1: Never drive at night. If you’re insistent on driving at night and are convinced the banditos won’t get you, the speed bumps, unmarked roads, cows or drunk drivers will. In fact, the biggest threats of night time driving in Mexico are the unmarked speed bumps. If you’re unprepared for just one of the countless “topes” on every road in Mexico, you could be left stranded on the side of the road with a wrecked vehicle.

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Unlike many others, these topes in Boca de Pascuales are marked with a sign.

Rule No. 2: Never let your gas tank run low. In fact, never let your gas tank get below half full — you never know when you will see a PeMex station again. The best way to avoid this is to stop at just about every PeMex station you see. PeMex stations are great — the attendant will wash your window (tip him), you can grab a snack in the Kiosko or tacos in the OXXO, and they’re usually equipped with clean restrooms. Even better, gas prices are set by the government and PeMex is your only option, so don’t open any apps and try to search for the lowest prices in town or the entire country for that matter.

A PeMex station at a secret surf spot somewhere in Baja.
A PeMex station at a secret surf spot somewhere in Baja Sur.

Rule No. 3: Keep most of your money hidden. It’s best to keep small bills in your wallet in case you’re pulled over by a corrupt police officer. They’ll likely ask you for a bribe, in which case you have a few options. You can give him the small bills you have in your wallet, offer him something else you keep in your vehicle just for this purpose (such a pack of cigarettes, a Coke, a dirty magazine — I’ve heard it works) or ask to see his badge. If he’s corrupt and doesn’t want to show you his badge, it’s likely he’ll fumble and let you pass.

We weren’t confronted with this problem on our travels but were prepared if we did. We took some t-shirts with us to give away, kept small amounts of money on us at all times and plastered a Mexican flag sticker on our back window to prove our love for this beautiful country.

What to Do

Don’t be scared. Take in the sights — the burros, the mountains, the cacti — wherever you are in Mexico, gorgeous scenery is nearby. Stop at restaurants and taco stands along your route and enjoy some fresh food made by the locals — it just tastes better that way.

Be patient. Military checkpoints can involve tedious searches of your vehicle, and a truck carrying 1,000 pineapples can take a while to climb a hill.

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Me – waiting as the military completely destroyed our strategic pack job.

Driving in Mexico is an excellent experience filled with beautiful landscapes and even more beautiful people. Smile often and use whatever Spanish you have at gas stations, restaurants, military checkpoints and everywhere along your route, and you’re sure to enjoy the road trip of a lifetime.

Que tenga un buen viaje!

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Author: Courtney McCaffrey

I'm an adventure travel writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C., Mexico and around the world. This site is named after my grandma’s talk radio show “Bits of Life,” which allowed her to talk about whatever the heck she wanted to talk about, and people loved it.

2 thoughts on “Is Driving Through Mexico Really That Scary?”

  1. Hi guys! We are planning a trip very similar to yours…with a truck, two dogs and some surfboards down mainland Mexico. We are getting very mixed reviews on where is safe, and what to avoid. Honestly it all seems slightly risky, and we are well travelled! If you all have any insight or travel tips that you didn’t mention, we would really appreciate it…we enjoyed reading your blog and all of your travels sound fantastic…adventure must run deep in nc! (‘We are from the outer banks) thanks and happy 2017!

    1. Hi Sam, I’m so sorry — I’ve been so slack on my blog this year. I just noticed your comment, and I think you will have a blast in Mexico. Baja is a safe and easy place to start, while mainland brings a few more dangers and more uncrowded waves. We just returned from the Outer Banks a week ago. We love it up there! Send me an email at courtney@bitsalife.com if you need some planning help. We spent three months in Baja this winter (which is probably why I didn’t see your message) and are heading back to Mexico by van this fall. Thanks for getting in touch!

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