Tips to Plan a Road Trip to Mexico

Take a roadtrip through Mexico

Tips to Plan a Road Trip to Mexico

Wed, 2012-07-25

For many tourists, the thought of driving to Mexico is a big question mark. Will it be safe? What will I do if my car breaks down?  What happens if I get a flat tire? Is Mexican fuel comparable to what I put in my car back home? There may be dozens of questions that potential visitors to Mexico will have. 

More than forty million people cross the border each year between San Diego and Tijuana, making the region the busiest land-border crossing in the world.

Not long ago, I published an article on ‘10 Tips for Ensuring a Safe Road Trip Across the Border’ including precautions you can take to ensure a safe trip in Mexico. Certainly all 10 tips are important, but one of the most important pieces of information to be aware of is the contact for the Green Angels. 

The Mexican government has a free service called The Green Angels. Mechanics patrol the main highways everyday in white and green pick-up trucks and provide free 24/7 road side assistance to visitors with mechanical problems. They have a communication network via radio with various government agencies and provide tourist information and additional visitor assistance. For Tijuana, Ensenada and El Hongo toll roads, call 01-800-990-3900 or for Tijuana to Tecate toll roads, call 1-800-888-0911. Most Mexican Insurance also offers a road side assistance plan.

Thanks to the power of social media, I recently met Mexico travel experts, Bill and Dorothy Bell, a dynamic Canadian couple who now live in the town of La Peñita de Jaltemba, Nayarit, Mexico where they operate an English online newspaper called the “Jaltemba Sol.” They have been instrumental in numerous charitable activities that raise hundreds of thousands of pesos annually for good causes. 

Fifteen years ago, they created a website focused on their road travels to Mexico called On the Road In. The site is a comprehensive travel guide to RV’ing, camping and safe travel in Mexico and is considered one of the best sources out there today. The site is a platform for trip planning, safety issues and entice readers with a plethora of stories and photographs of the benefits of Mexico travel.  “We wanted to share with others the joy of traveling in Mexico,” said Bell. “While many people have traveled to a resort destination, we found a vacuum in terms of awareness in other locations.”

Additionally both of the Bells operate their corresponding On Road in Mexico Facebook page with the purpose of helping would-be road travelers and by providing up-to-date information in a fun and enthusiastic manner. Their Facebook page was started a year ago and was built in response to hundreds of email questions they were receiving on road travel safety in Mexico.  

Their page offers a “Travel Buddy” service; a matchmaking system that marries travelers who wish to travel together for safety and confidence. It also gives traveler recommendations on routes, sites to see, pet friendly hotels, highway construction and much needed “real traveler” assurances driving in Mexico.

“Many people are intimidated and in some cases scared to drive in Mexico,” he said.  “We try to give them the tools, the advice and knowledge to be able to explore this wonderful country by road.”

When I asked Bill for his top recommendations for road travel in Mexico he suggested:

1. When you can, stick to the toll roads in Mexico. They are usually in good condition and are well marked and patrolled on a regular basis.

2. Avoid driving at night.  As road conditions are different in Mexico, you will need light to see topes (speed bumps) animals and rocks on the road.

3. Plan out your trip so as to leave early and arrive at your destination early. If you have a breakdown you have an opportunity to get help before darkness. 

4. In Mexico a left turn signal on the highway is usually an invitation to pass the vehicle; but be careful, it could mean they are turning left.

5. Drive defensively. Mexicans are generally very laid back people who have a flexible attitude towards arriving on time. Put behind the wheel of a car, the situation changes drastically. Expect impatient drivers, passing on solid lines other dangerous stunt car driver tactics.

Bill also addressed some frequently asked questions relating to driving in Mexico:

What type of permits does a vehicle need?

If you drive in Mexico (other than the Baja, Northern Sonora and border towns) you will need a six month importation permit (Recreational vehicles can get 10 year permits) which you can obtain on line and at most border crossings.  

What should you do if you get pulled over?

If you get pulled over by the police, be prepared and have all your documentation; drivers’ license, vehicle permit, your FMM tourist visa or FM3 and registration. In Mexico it is common for the driver to get out of the car to greet the police officer.  The police will be most concerned with seeing your driver’s license.  They will tell you if you have committed an offense and what the offense is.  Unlike in United States and Canada, if you do it nicely, you can often dispute the ticket with the police officer.  If they end up giving you a ticket, they will confiscate your driver’s license. It will be returned to you once you pay the ticket. We recommend being friendly and paying the ticket. 

What type of auto insurance do you need?

American and Canadian vehicle insurance is not accepted in Mexico. We recommend that road travelers get quotes online so they understand the language in the policy. We advise people to get a legal component and liability in case they get into an accident.

How long can travelers by car stay on the road in Mexico?

The vehicle permit is issued for no longer than six months. If you apply and receive an extended visitor’s permit (an FM3) then the vehicle permit extends to the life of your tourist visa. 

Can you tell me about the maps (on your website)? 

We made friends with the operators of a Mexican RV Park who wanted to get more customers. We started a free caravan service that led thirty rigs down the Pacific Coast to La Penita de Jaltemba Nayarit. The problem was that we lost three different RV’s. Knowing that we were going to do another free caravan, we decided that we would write visual instructions that would ensure that they couldn’t get lost. The Road Log is a visual diagram of the highway giving details such as whether the road is two or four lanes, has shoulders. It tells where to turn, which side of the highway has a Pemex. Every Pemex is numbered and says whether they sell diesel. The road logs also give other landmarks to give confidence to the driver that they are indeed on the right road. We have also added small commentary in our road logs. For example we explain why Benjamin Hill is named Benjamin Hill. Who is this Juarez person? Tidbits about currency, customs etc. 

Top recommended road itineraries?

Beach Lovers? Solitude in Nature

You cannot beat the diversity and mystery of the Baja. The beaches are magnificent and the deserts are intense. Bahia Conception is a dream. You can pet the whales in Guerrero Negro, Camp on the isolated beaches on the Sea of Cortes and be dancing with the stars in Cabo a few days later. Diversity, beach, desert, scenery.

Culture, Colonial and Charm

A circular route of Guadalajara, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Morelia and Patsquaro will give you an appetite for more colonial city exploration. This circle route will charm you with history, cuisine, music and more. This is the colonial heart of the country.

Yucatan Peninsula

Take the complete circle route and explore the ancient Maya. From Cancun, (or Isla Muljeres if you don’t want the party) drive slowly down the coast to Chetumal around to Palenque and onward to Campeche and Merida. Enjoy the powder white beaches but also discover the mystical cenotes and ancient sites along the way. The flamingoes on the Gulf coast are magnificent. Campeche and Merida are beautiful and diverse cities to discover. You would be rushed to do this in 10 days. You would also be rushed to do this in a year. There is simply too much to see, climb, discover, taste and touch.

Indigenous Cultures

Oaxaca to San Christobal to Palenque

The drive through small towns and larger cities gives you a glimpse of the lives of indigenous peoples in Mexico. You will experience the ancient cities and sites, the handicrafts and customs of rural peoples and well as the gorgeous natural elements in the countryside such as waterfalls, rivers, mountain passes and cloud forests.

Why Mexico?

Mexico always excited us; its natural beauty, its rich history and the friendliness of its people. The light and colors make photographs very special. Mexico is exotic – different than the day to day life in Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago or LA. 

When you drive in Mexico, around every corner you can expect to be delightfully surprised; a beautiful church, an ancient pyramid, villagers in native costumes, a farmer plowing his fields with oxen…it never ceases to amaze.

Bill is a reporter and photographer by trade and Dorothy has received awards for her work in hazardous waste management and recycling. Together the Bells have a his’, her’s and ours’ family of four children. The eldest daughter is married to Mexican Artist. The two youngest are attending University in Canada.  They are bilingual and in their own words proud to be “bicultural.”

Having fully embraced the Mexican culture, both Bill and Dorothy Bell are working towards becoming Mexican citizens.