Considering driving down the 2018 Family Adventure Summit in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico? You can do it!
Our friend Lindsey Fenimore shares her experience on driving to SMA with 4 kids, and a dog in tow!
Driving in Mexico
We are a family of six (two parents and four kids, ages 12, 10, 8 and 5) and a dog who moved to Mexico to mix things up and have an adventure. We left Wisconsin, USA in June 2017 and, after visiting our families on the east coast, drove to San Francisco, Mexico (also called San Pancho) with a minivan packed full of Legos. After realizing the Pacific coast was really hot and humid and a giant spider took up residence in our shower (although, to San Pancho’s credit, it was August and the spider was an intimidating but non-venomous Huntsman), we decided to check out San Miguel de Allende. We love it in SMA – the climate, the culture, the community of expats, the food, and the medium-sized bugs – and decided to stay.
We were nervous about the drive but were pleasantly surprised by the ease of driving through Mexico and now travel all over the region with little hesitation. The drive is not only doable, it’s enjoyable; at least if you know what to expect and follow the formal (and informal) rules.
We crossed the border near Laredo, Texas at the Columbia Bridge. It’s a 40-minute drive from Laredo (where we slept the night before), but it is a nice, clear crossing with minimal traffic. It’s best to cross in the morning, on a weekday, to avoid long lines. We had our paperwork in order before we crossed and it all went smoothly. They looked through our car briefly, we went in the office to get our passports stamped, and everyone used the bathroom.
You’ll need to purchase Mexican car insurance (either in advance or at the border). We paid $400 USD for one year of Mexican travel insurance on our minivan. Six months would have cost us $300 and a 14-day policy would be around $170.
Don’t forget to get a temporary import permit (TIP) for your car or RV. We had to ask around to figure out where to get ours, as they were ready to wave us on without one. Depending on who you ask, you’ll either need the car registration or title. We had both and they only asked for the registration. It’s also best to exchange your USD before you cross the border so you’ll have pesos ready for the tolls.
For safety reasons (well-maintained highways, regular police patrols, and the Angeles Verdes service, which I’ll describe later) it’s best to stay on the toll roads (or cuotas; free roads are called libres) on a drive through Mexico. When you approach two roads diverging, take the one marked “cuota.” They’re well-traveled by, and they make all the difference.
The tolls range from approximately 20 pesos to 160 pesos per toll. We kept a bag of change and small bills in the glove compartment for easy access. The toll is posted as you approach the booth, but is often hard to read until you get close, so you either need to think fast as to not spill your money on the floor of the car in a frenzy (which totally did not happen at our first toll) or you can look it up in advance. There is a helpful government website with route and toll information here. We had plans to be organized and print out the toll prices so we’d be prepared with the right amount before we reached the toll, but like many things in our life, we forgot. And we did fine anyway.
The toll booths are staffed by a human who takes your money and gives you a receipt. We were told to keep all of our receipts by someone on a travel forum. I don’t remember the reasoning behind that suggestion, but we kept all our receipts. We actually still have them in the door of the car 3 months after our drive because we have yet to clean out our car, but that level of commitment to receipts is not necessary.
Mexico has many of the same road rules we have in the United States and Canada. Don’t speed excessively, drive drunk and/or high, run other cars off the road, flip off a police officer, etc. There’s a yellow line in the middle of the road and it’s best to stay to the right of it unless passing. There are some informal rules, however, that take some getting used to.
- The shoulder is multi-use. Cars straddle the white line on the shoulder so faster moving cars can pass without needing the whole opposite lane. It’s actually quite civil and organized and makes for fewer instances of cursing at the little old lady in front of you driving 30 in a 45. You do need to watch out when driving on the shoulder, though, because it’s also a stopping area for disabled cars and the occasional fruit and veggie stand.
- Topes (pronounced toe-pays). Or speed bumps. They’re everywhere and often not marked. They’re used for speed control, traffic control (they work like yield/stop signs at busy intersections), and at crosswalks. As you approach towns and cities on the highway, beware of the tope. Go slow or else you’ll tear off the underside of your car, throw off your alignment, and possibly get a ticket. We’ve experienced two out of three.
- Flashers. The kind on your car, not the kind in a trench coat. The driver in front of you might use them to let you know they’re coming up to some traffic. Flashers are also used to advise caution because there is something blocking the road ahead, like a jackknifed 18-wheeler. They are also occasionally used to let the car behind know they’re planning to back up. It’s best to put your foot on the break when you see flashers ahead.
- Turn signals. This is where it gets complicated. Right turn signals generally indicate a planned right turn. Left turn signals, though, can mean several different things. The left turn signal can, in fact, mean a planned left turn. Pretty simple, right? Well, since the left turn lane is sometimes on the far right of the road with a signal, it can actually indicate the person is moving right with the intention of turning left. I’ve also been told left turn signals are used to tell the car behind them that it’s safe to pass on a two-lane highway. However, to complicate matters, they can also be used to indicate it’s NOT safe to pass as the car in front sees something he/she thinks the car behind can’t see. So, in summary, use caution when you see the left turn signal and don’t assume anything.
There are plenty of rest stops along the cuotas. Some are big and fancy with restaurants and mini-marts, some are bit more basic.
There are a lot of gas stations along the cuotas, so no need to coast in on fumes unless you’re feeling adventurous. We filled up every time we stopped to use the bathroom (which was often) just to be safe. Gas stations have attendants who pump for you. We were warned to watch and make sure the attendant resets the pump to zero as to not be ripped off. The gas station attendants must know this because they often make a point of getting our attention before pointing at the pump when they reset. Tip the gas station attendants (10 pesos or so if they clean your windows or check your oil).
Some of these rest stops have free bathrooms and some require coins. We began preferring the paid bathrooms after we stopped at some free ones and had to breathe through our mouths. They usually charge between and 5 pesos, per person, for the paid bathrooms. It’s usually a BYOTP situation so stash some rolls in your car.
We’ve all read the warnings and heard the horror stories. Mexico has its share of crime and it’s devastating for the families affected by the violence. That said, as a visitor, tourist, temporary resident, gringo, or whatever you want to call yourself, you are relatively safe. Personally, we feel safe in Mexico. People are friendly, there are families with children nearly everywhere, and while we don’t speak Spanish well, we have found most people to be incredibly kind and helpful when we try to communicate. Basic precautions are necessary, as they are most places one might travel.
- Avoid driving at night. Poorly lit roads, potholes, livestock, people disembarking from buses or crossing the road, and the increased risk of crime, are all good reasons to generally stay off the highways after dark. I heard this warning so many times before we drove to Mexico that I pictured the sun going down and cattle converging on the highway en masse while truckloads of armed bandits hid in the bushes. While I don’t want to minimize the risk of driving at night, it’s always important to keep it in perspective. Don’t swerve off the road at dusk and hunker down in the gas station because you’re too nervous to drive twenty more miles to the planned hotel stop. At the same time, plan your day well so you can avoid unnecessary risk.
- Hide your valuables. Don’t swing a giant purse from your shoulder at the rest stop. Tuck your phone out of sight when you get out of the car to use the bathroom. If you have any secret compartments in your car, like an underfoot compartment (or a pivoting faux bookcase?), keep your laptop in there. Crimes of opportunity are the most common crimes, so be less of a glaring opportunity.
- Program the Angeles Verdes number into your phone. Angeles Verdes, or Green Angels, are government-funded roadside assistance crews on the federal highways (tasked with aiding tourists). They’re bilingual and available for assistance with break-downs, accidents, and medical emergencies. You can also call them if you get lost and they’ll provide direction services the old-fashioned way. The service is free (unless you need towing and additional repairs) but tipping is appreciated. Their number is 01-800-987-8224. In case of emergency, you can also dial 078.
Mexico is a big, beautiful and diverse country with so much to explore. With some basic precautions and preparations, driving is a great way to travel in Mexico. It’s budget-friendly, allows for flexibility, and gives you the freedom to see more of this amazing country.
Lindsey Fenimore blogs at www.freerangefenimores.com. She graduated from the University of Washington and later earned a master’s degree from Tulane University in public health with a focus in global health. She launched a rewarding career in international development in Washington, DC, but quit to stay home with her children. After moves to Wisconsin and Montana (and back again) for her husband’s career with the US Forest Service, they sold all their possessions, rented out their house, and moved to Mexico for new adventures.