I’ve heard so many bad things about driving to Mexico. I’ve seen so many movies that portray Mexico as such a hopelessly lawless place that, even though I’ve been there three other times, I still believe the hype. John, Lydi, and I drove from Cancun to Merida in the Yucatan on Highway 180D through Valladolid several years ago and that trip was so UN-dangerous as to be boring. A few days ago, we completed a trip on Highway 2 and then Highway 15 from Tijuana to Guanajuato, Mexico. I mean, there are certainly isolated places in Mexico that are dangerous. And if you go out looking for danger I’m sure you can find it. I think it would be unwise to be an asshole when you stop at gas stations or rest areas in Mexico, but that’s true everywhere in the world. Just be nice and people will be nice back to you. Driving in Mexico is still an adventure for adventure-seekers, but if you’re stressed out about it, don’t be. Have fun with it because it’s a beautiful drive on decent roads through areas filled with nice people.
The Golden Triangle (an area within a triangle formed by the cities Chihuahua, Durango, and Culiacan in Sinaloa) is reputedly a dangerous area, for example (never been there, but I believe it). I’ve also heard that it’s possible to go into these areas safely as long as you’re not looking for trouble. Still, we stayed on the toll roads between Tijuana and Guanajuato which were remarkably safe and drivable. As we drove past Culiacan we both looked at each other and said, “This place rings a bell.” We’d both heard of it and we both knew it might be a place with a bad reputation, but neither of us were able to pull any solid information about it out of our brains. Looking it up later, I found that Culiacan is where the Sinaloa Cartel crime syndicate is based. Culiacan is at the tip of one point of the Golden Triangle.
After driving from Tijuana to Hermosillo and then from Hermosillo to Mazatlan and onwards from Mazatlan to Guanajuato, I just can’t emphasize enough, how incredibly safe and easy this trip was, Golden Triangle and all. I regret that John and I haven’t made the drive before because the scenery is amazing and the people were friendly.
John was especially nervous about driving in Mexico, particularly Highway 15 moving south toward Mazatlan. He’d spent a considerable amount of time reading about the drive on forums and a lot of people were saying that our drive on Highway 15 and 15D from Tijuana to Mazatlan and onward through Guadalajara to Guanajuato was going to be dangerous and difficult. He braced himself and worked himself into such a lather that he had an excruciating headache by the time we reached Mazatlan. He thought there would be banditos and carjackings. He almost ran over a kid who tried to wash our windshields in Los Mochis, thinking that the kid was going to kill us and steal our car (he felt so bad about it later that we went back to give the kid a tip and say we were sorry). We were never afraid for our lives. Nope. Not to say that bad things don’t or can’t happen on this road, but that’s true everywhere in the world. The roads were a little rough and in need of some repair in a couple of places, but mostly, I mean, for at least 85% of the trip, they were quite good.
We drove the toll roads which were mostly well-maintained with the exception of an area between Hermosillo and Los Mochis. Between these two cities about 50% of the roads were under construction and the rest of the roads were a little rough and in need of some repairs. There was a lot of litter in this area too, but it is relatively close to the Golden Triangle. Since we’ve been in a lot of foreign countries, mostly third world, none of this struck us as a big deal except for the fact that our 10-hour day of driving quickly turned into a 12 ½-hour day. That part was upsetting, but otherwise, highway driving in Mexico was a breeze.
Driving in Mexican cities is not necessarily for newbies. I wouldn’t have let Lydian, our 16 year old, drive in Los Mochis, for example, but she would’ve been fine in Mazatlan. As with driving highways, when driving in Mexican cities, you need to follow Mexican rules. You’ll need to get closer to other cars on the road than you might be used to in American cities and you might need to think on your feet more and react more quickly.
We’ve driven at night a lot in Mexico since we got here 3 weeks ago, both in the cities, and on the highways, and overall, it was similar to driving at night in the states. As with U.S. cities, there are times of the day and certain areas of certain cities that you’d want to avoid at night, but if you avoid those places, you’ll be fine driving at night. Driving in Tijuana at night, for example, was not a big deal at all. Driving on the highways was a bit more dangerous in Mexico because sometimes, there would be mopeds or trucks with their tail lights out. We weren’t able to see these vehicles until we were really close to them. So night driving in Mexico requires some vigilance not unlike driving through an area with lots of deer on the road.
That being said, there are a few important rules of the road that John learned really fast while we were on our way from here to there. You can’t drive like an American when you’re driving on Mexican roads. Though many of the rules of the road are the same, there are some crucial differences:
- On 2 lane highways, vehicles will move over onto the shoulder to create a third lane down the middle of the road so that faster vehicles behind them can pass “safely”. When you pass the vehicle in front of you (as it drives on the shoulder), don’t move all the way over into the left lane. Drive down the middle of the road even if a semi is coming straight at you in the left lane. It will move over onto the shoulder too so that you can pass safely. As an American, it feels kind of like that scene in the movie Trains, Planes, and Automobiles when the car squeezes between two semis, but we got used to it and the whole three-lanes-out-of-two started to make sense with practice. Don’t insist on waiting for there to be no vehicles in the oncoming lane to pass the vehicle ahead of you. When the vehicle ahead of you pulls onto the shoulder, that’s your cue to go for it (of course, always use your best judgment though…)
- Turn signals sometimes mean that a vehicle is going to turn or merge…sometimes they’re used as a signal for the car driving behind them to go ahead and pass.
- On 4 lane highways, if there are a lot of big potholes in the right lane, move over to the left lane. The left lane is almost always better.
- Get cash when you have the opportunity at a “cajero automatico”. Many of the tolls booths don’t take credit or debit cards. We used about 2000 pesos for the tolls from Tijuana to Mazatlan. Mazatlan to Guanajuato tolls were a LOT more expensive though. We spent about 1500 pesos for this stretch of the journey.
- Oxxo and Pemex almost always have restrooms. Sometimes you have to pay to use the
restrooms in Mexico (usually 5 to 10 pesos per person…they give you a little roll of toilet paper for this fee). The restrooms we stopped at weren’t too bad. Stock up on toilet paper and carry it with you in a pocket or a purse for the restrooms that lack amenities like toilet paper.
- Don’t leave home without checking your tires and making sure you have good tread. And check your spare to make sure it’s in working order. There are tons of llanterias or tire repair places near the highways with the most potholes so if you do blow a tire, chances are, you’ll be able to find someone to help you repair it and get going again.
We drove all the way from Tijuana to Guanajuato Mexico (roughly 40 hours) in our Prius with two cats in 3 days. And I’d do it again and I can’t wait to go out in our car to explore more…