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Prepare Yourself for Driving in Mexico

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A woman on an ATV in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Credit: Laura Espinosa

Driving in Mexico often strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans and Canadians headed south. Purchasing car insurance at the border will ensure that you are legal, but won’t ensure your safety. As someone who has lived in this country for many years, here is some advice on how to prepare yourself for driving in Mexico and what to expect when you are behind the wheel.

Before we moved to San Miguel de Allende in 2007, we knew that our Saab and Infiniti couldn’t easily be serviced in this mountain town of 75,000, so we sold them and bought a Ford when we arrived. In choosing between a car and a pickup, we had heard that license plates were cheaper on new pickups, but because of the limited passenger capacity, we had to choose the car. After all, wouldn’t our friends and family soon be flocking down to see us?

Unfortunately, our estimate of the pickup’s passenger capacity was wildly off too. We’ve since been keeping count of the record for the most passengers in a pickup. It presently stands at sixteen people and a dog. This can be very handy running back and forth to the countryside with your extended family, but it occasionally results in some astonishing highway accidents.

San Miguel is a historic town, and it has no traffic lights, other than a few on the highway loop around it. Major intersections on the outskirts are handled by roundabouts. The idea is simple, although it looks daunting. In the center island is a monument to a patriotic figure, although some believe the statue represents Chaos, the god of traffic. Four streets converge at the circle.

Within, traffic moves counterclockwise. You enter after yielding to the left, and continue around to the right until you exit on the first, second or third street. Or you can go completely around when you’re doubling back. If you keep your wits about you it works well. People are generally polite. The worst move you can make is to freeze up, come to a complete stop within the circle, and cover your face with your hands.

This town has a number of stop signs, none of them in the central part. They are treated as advisory in nature, and I have never seen anyone stop for one unless the failure to do so would result in a collision. This includes me.
People mostly drive with an attitude of live and let live. I have not seen road rage here among Mexicans. Indeed, people are tolerant of what I regard as free-style driving. A certain amount of improvisation is customary. If you see someone approaching in your lane, the natural thing to do is change lanes yourself into oncoming traffic, which will then slow down to allow your eventual return to your own lane.

The existence of speed limits is believed only by the transit authorities, and is the object of crude humor among everyone else.

Flashing colored lights are appreciated for themselves, but using them to signal turns when mounted on cars is a concept that has not yet caught on in Mexico. One exception is their use on trucks in highway settings. Say you are behind a truck signaling with the left blinker. This means either: Pass me because it’s clear ahead or I am going to turn left now. Your life depends on how you interpret the nuance of this.

Streets are generally constructed from the two most common compounds on earth: dirt and stones about the size of a grapefruit. The stones are set in a matrix of dirt. Over time, the dirt is pounded into a fine dry powder that floats upward and seeks the interior of your electronic equipment, where it settles once again in the tiny connections between wires. Repeatedly driving over this rugged surface, charmingly suggestive of medieval London or Paris, gradually loosens all the nuts and bolts in your car until your new expensive vehicle sounds like a 1960s jug band as it lurches down the street.

Both tires and shock absorbers have the life expectancy of a butterfly in a hurricane. What the streets do not do to your car, the sun and weather will.

What at first appears to be random and senseless in Mexico is really a functioning system that can be understood by most expats and visitors with a knack for improvisation and a broad sense of humor.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Very good article. Would you recommend bringing a standard or automatic car? What brand of a small used SUV would be the best to bring?

  2. John, we have twice driven from Nogales to PV and back – 2018-19 and 2019-20, all on the toll roads. In 2018-19 we had no problems, except one bad cop. But in 2019-20, we were several times stopped by “bandidos” who had commandeered the toll booths and threateningly demanded pesos. We skipped 2020-21. We would like to do it again in November-March of this year if it is safe. Any opinion? Any contacts who have done it with insights? Thank you.

    • Hola Bartz, we have never driven from the US to Mexico, just within Mexico & never to PV. I think you should consult the Facebook group San Miguel Civil list. Ask your question & you’ll get plenty of answers. Personally, I would avoid it as cartel violence has been escalating recently. But, things change weekly. Good luck & safe travels, John

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