If you’re from the United States and have the travel bug, then one of the cheapest and most exciting adventures you can take is the Pan-Am Highway. This is the infamous road that runs all the way from Alaska down to the Southern tip of Chile (minus a little gap in Panama but we can just ignore that). Mexico makes up a solid chunk of this journey and also shares a giant border with the Southern states. This makes it an ideal location for the adventure of a lifetime.
As soon as you cross the border, there are some things that are very important to know. I can personally vouch that Mexico is not that dangerous a drive as it’s frequently made out to be. While it is largely safe, there are a handful of things that inexperienced drivers will need to figure out really quickly to avoid having a bad experience.
If you keep all of this in mind, then driving through Mexico can be an extremely enjoyable adventure. The Pacific coast of the country is easily the most beautiful drive I have ever taken and, despite the rough-around-the-edges experience, it is definitely worth the experience. From tiny towns with chickens running around to the largest and busiest city in the Americas, driving through Mexico is a massive undertaking.
25 Crossing The Border
Crossing the border from the United States to Mexico is exponentially easier than going the other way around. I’ve personally never even had my passport checked entering the country but have been stopped and searched at the border coming into the United States every single time (the border agents probably don’t get a ton of Indiana license plates...). Crossing into Mexico generally involves a stop light and a camera and likely not very much else.
24 Lanes (or lack thereof...)
Once you’re in Mexico, the first thing that you’ll probably notice is the lane system (or lack thereof). Lanes are frequently more implied in Mexico rather than painted onto all of the roads (like . It’s a surprisingly easy transition to make, however. Throughout towns, there are frequently lines carved into the road or indents that help determine where the lanes should be, but otherwise, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out where you’re supposed to be.
Another important thing to know immediately is that Mexico—like almost everywhere else in the world outside of the United States—uses Kilometers, and not miles. If the speed limit says 110, do not go 110 miles per hour or you will be in serious trouble. You can do quick mental conversions using a km as 3/5 of a mile, or you can look at the tiny background numbers on your speedometer. Similarly, temperatures are in Celsius.
The single most annoying thing about driving in this beautiful country are the speedbumps. They are everywhere, in the most inconvenient and frequently unpredictable places. Like leading onto the highway; or on the highway. Sometimes there are signs in place to warn drivers but sometimes you just kind of need to be aware. And sometimes, no matter how slow and careful you are, the unmistakable scratch of metal on pavement is unavoidable. Driving from Zihuatanejo to Oaxaca one day, I hit over 400(!) potholes. They’re no joke. Be careful.
21 Flagged Speedbumps
As you approach small towns, you may see the occasional rope hanging out over the road in front of you. There’s no need to fear, although it’s sure to give you some chills the first time you see it happen. Most towns have a good handful of speedbumps and, sometimes a group of kids will be doing this to warn you when there’s no signage. They’re doing this in the hopes of getting a couple pesos from you out of the warning. Sometimes, kids will wash your car at stop lights for the same reasoning as well.
20 Car Insurance
Just past the U.S. border, there are a number of shops selling Mexican auto insurance. This is something that you can also work out with your own car insurance agency, but it’s something to keep in mind. Not many policies will automatically cover you on the other side of the border, so you’ll want to look into buying a new policy. Obviously, whatever you decide to do/whatever policy you decide to go with, it’s completely up to you (but drivers should probably do their research beforehand).
There is a network of highways throughout the country that do require tolls which can range from 25-ish to 200-ish pesos ($1.50-ish to $12-ish). While this can add up over time, it is definitely worth it unless you want to make frequent stops in towns. The roads are much better, cleaner, safer, quicker and much less congested with more lanes. The amount of money you save on gas is likely going to make up for the toll costs on their own though, not to mention the potential damage your car will avoid.
18 Pumping Gas
Disappointingly to me, gas is not cheap in Mexico. In fact, it is slightly more expensive than in the States. Prices vary across the country, but generally ranged from 18-21 pesos per liter, averaging out to around $4 a gallon. Furthermore, unless you’re from Oregon, you probably won’t be used to having your gas pumped for you. You get used to it pretty quickly, however and you just need to learn a couple of phrases to get through this process without any confusion, such as ‘puedo usar una trajeta?’ which means ‘can I use a card?’ since some gas stations do not take cards.
17 Small Towns
No matter where you are in the country, you’re bound to pass by dozens of towns that, from the road, look nearly identical. There will be several stalls on the roadside, each likely selling the exact same things, a few homes or shops, a lot of Tecate signs, and of course, speedbumps. It’s definitely worth taking a stop every once in a while to grab a cheap and fresh snack from one of these street vendors.
16 road-side Mechanics
In many of these towns, there will be at least one mechanic shop by the road. Luckily, I made it through the country without ever needing these surfaces, but it would be handy to have them around so frequently. Several towns will have an entire row of various mechanics which may seem useful (or a symptom of a worrying amount of potholes and speedbumps), but I have heard plenty of stories of mechanics knowing essentially nothing, so maybe brush up on your car repair knowledge.
15 (Actual) Roadwork
Just like in the United States, roadwork can easily become frustrating and repetitive. Unlike the United States, if a road is closed, you are almost guaranteed to actually see people working. Many times, a road will be closed down to one total lane so both sides take turns going down. This usually takes maybe 5 minutes, but I’ve been held up for up to 20 minutes. Most importantly, keep an eye out and be careful of the roads.
14 Safety First
The police in Mexico usually drive pickup trucks and do carry guns, which can be a little intimidating. To be clear, I have never had a bad experience with the police in Mexico (unlike some other countries) and every interaction I had was perfectly pleasant. Shortly after entering a new state, there will be a police stop. Depending on which way you’re going, they will ask you some questions and maybe quickly check your car. Oftentimes, they’ll just let you pass by, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
13 Street Vendors
You will pass through areas of the road where there will be rows of stalls selling fruits, nuts, trinkets, etc. There will be rows of the same items over and over throughout the street with little to no differentiation. People will sometimes stand in the middle of the road to try and sell you stuff. If you need a snack in the middle of the long drive, make sure to patronize one of these stands and pick up some fresh fruit.
There are plenty of round-a-bouts throughout the country but they aren’t necessarily intuitive. Yield signs and stop signs seem to be pretty random in most round-a-bouts and a lack of clear lanes makes it complicated, but just be observant and you should be just fine. Outside of cities, round-a-bouts won’t be busy, but in the cities, they seem a little bit chaotic. You probably won’t have to go through that many so there’s not really any reason to worry about them in the first place.
11 Turn Signals Are Not Only Used To Turn...
Driving through Mexico for a week, I was never really able to figure out what all turn signals are used for. Just like in the United States, you should use turn signals when, you know, turning. Or when you're passing. However, people seem to use them for a lot more than just that. However, I couldn’t quite figure out everything they are used for. One additional use is to signal to people to pass you, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s the right or left one...
10 Right Side
Moving over to the right side is almost always the polite and efficient thing to do when you’re not passing. However, you aren’t likely to see people moving over when they’re supposed to. This can get a little annoying, especially when there are two trucks that won’t pass each other, but, like most things, this just requires a little bit of patience. The best thing you can do is to follow the rules of the road yourself and don’t get frustrated if you’re stuck going 30 km/hour under the speed limit for a while.
9 City Driving
Driving in any city can be tough on its own merit. Add in a lack of language comprehension, strong infrastructure, stop lights, etc. and you can imagine just how tough things can be. It’s important to stay with the flow of traffic because going too fast or too slow can be especially dangerous. Be aware of taxis and even some buses that will do anything they can to get even an inch (or meter) ahead in traffic.
8 Passing Other Cars
Many of the roads in Mexico are one lane each side, so passing is important—especially when you’re behind a truck. Always make sure to use your turn signal when you're passing and check the other lane! You need more space than you think to pass, so make sure there are no cars coming the other direction. Also importantly, a lot of the roads (especially on the coasts or in the mountains) are wind-y. You’ll go 10+ kilometers without having a lane straight enough to safely pass, so be patient.
7 Sand On The Road...
Primarily in the Northern regions of Mexico, there is plenty of sand, which is ever changing with the wind. Sometimes the sand will blow onto the road which causes some minor issues. Sometimes you’ll have to swerve around it so keep an eye out for oncoming traffic. Furthermore, if you’re driving by the beach, be aware of driving in sand, because you can definitely get stuck. Trust me, I would know. Day one in Mexico was slightly troublesome...
Mexico is a gorgeous country and nearly every state has a completely different geographical make-up. Oaxaca is largely farmland, Sonora is desert, and Nayarit is forest. A lot of the country, especially closer to the coasts, is full of forests and jungles. This means that the roads are gorgeous but also more difficult to drive on. The winding roads mean you need to take extra care and drive slower. The views are some of the best in the world and it can be an immense pleasure to drive through the country.
Of course this means that there is a ridiculous amount of biodiversity. You’re likely to have to avoid some butterflies and lizards or even some cows and sheep occasionally. There are also a lot of stray dogs around the country that, unfortunately, hang around the roads a lot. This seems dangerous, and it is, so take it slow, especially around towns. You should definitely do some research and see if there are any national parks around you to actually take in the wildlife.
4 Roadside Memorials
All across the country, you’re bound to see plenty of roadside memorials. They look like miniature houses, frequently with candles and pictures inside. I wasn’t sure what they were initially so I had to ask around. This is a way that Mexicans respect their deceased friends and family. These iconic shrines are everywhere throughout the country and you’re bound to see them pretty frequently across the country. If you see someone in or around one of them, be quiet and respectful.
3 The Pacific Coast
Driving down the Pacific coast is one of the most beautiful adventures that you can have. You will be going through several States, including the beautiful Sinaloa and Nayarit. The curvy roads, secluded beaches, and small towns are picture perfect and you’re bound to meet some wonderful people and have some great food along the way. There are a variety of towns and cities across the way for you to stay the night since the coast takes a couple of days to get through.
2 Green Angels
The Green Angels, or Ángeles Verdes is a tourist assistance organization providing roadside assistance. All the crew are bilingual and trained in mechanics and first aid and patrol all highways in Mexico, active for most of the day. They are also a completely free service to utilize as well. The number for the Green Angels is 01-800-987-8224. If you have any issues, please do not hesitate to utilize the Green Angels—it’s what they’re there for.
1 Don't Drive At Night
For many reasons, driving at night in Mexico is a horrible idea. The Green Angels aren’t on patrol, the speedbumps and potholes are far more dangerous when you can’t see them, and any cartel activity happens at night. It is very likely that you’ll run into trouble of some sort if you decide to drive at night, so do not do it. There is little danger in driving through Mexico during the day but make sure you stop somewhere before nightfall.