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Costa Maya Travel Info > Driving Tips for Gringos in Quintana Roo Mexico

Congratulations for making the decision to drive a car in Mexico. We think that driving provides you the freedom to move about Mexico and Quintana Roo on your own schedule and experience things you wouldn't see from a bus. There are a few tips we have learned that will make your driving safer and more enjoyable when you visit the Costa Maya, Mahahual and Quintana Roo. (Note: I am not an expert in Mexican driving law, so these are observations and information I have received from other individuals who want to help visitors to Mexico enjoy a safe driving experience. The guide books you purchase in bookstores also have very good driving tips). also check out the Driving section in FAQs and the web page on Driving signs for more information.

Topes

  • Topes are speed bumps located everywhere in Mexico. They are not always well marked. Their purpose is to slow you down. They range from a rope laid across the road to giant concrete bumps across the highway. If you do not slow down to a snail's pace before hitting a tope, you can expect to launch your vehicle into flight, potentially damage your suspension, and possibly bite halfway through your tongue as you land.
  • When approaching a town, assume there are topes. There are most always topes at schools, military installations and fire stations.
  • A wide tope often doubles as an elevated crosswalk. These are often marked as pedestrian walkways and have yellow stripes. The pedestrian always has the right-away on these types of topes and failing to stop is a ticketable offense.
  • A tope that is placed before an oncoming left turn indicates that you must yield to the left turning traffic. The tope is replacing the function of a left turn light for the oncoming traffic. You won't see too many of these, but Chetumal has one in front of the Police station on Insurgentes, so watch for this.
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Traveling at night

  • Plan to drive in the day.
  • Loose livestock can appear at any time. Construction sites or stranded vehicles are often unmarked by flares or other warning signals.
  • Shoulders are often narrow or absent altogether, making it difficult to recover if a wheel strays from the pavement momentarily. This is true of the highway from Tulum to Cafetal junction.
  • In many places there are no reflective paint stripes along the side of the road so that you cannot see exactly where the edge of the road is.
  • Sometimes cars have only one headlight or lack brake lights.
  • Bicycles seldom have lights or reflectors.
  • Pedestrians (often drunk) may walk along the road at night because of the lack of shoulders. The lights of oncoming vehicles make it almost impossible to see the pedestrians.
  • If you find yourself having to drive at night, try not to pass for all of the above reasons.
  • If you have to drive at night, please slow down.
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Local driving signals

  • If someone is driving towards you with lights flashing, it usually means that there is an obstruction on the road with some sort of lane narrowing. This may be construction, a stalled vehicle, accident or merely a tree that has fallen into one of the lanes. The custom is that the first vehicle to flash has the right of way and the other must yield.
  • Left turn signals are used for more than turning left and have their own set of rules. A blinking left turn signal on the vehicle in front of you could mean that it is clear ahead and you may pass, or it could mean the driver is making a left turn. An outstretched left arm may mean an invitation for you to pass. When in doubt, do not pass.
  • This sounds bizarre, but if there is no left turn lane and there is a lot of oncoming traffic it is your responsibility to pull over to the right side of the road and wait for it to be clear before making a left turn. Honestly I've never seen anyone do this and there really aren't a lot of shoulders but do be careful.
  • When making a left turn, look BEHIND you as well as at oncoming traffic (for the two reasons stated above).
  • In Mexico, it is illegal to make a right turn on a red light. However, taxis do it all the time!
  • Yellow traffic lights are a signal to stop, not just to slow down. The traffic lights will flash green before turning yellow.
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Renting a Car

  • Rental car agencies are usually very good. If you break down they they usually will give you a replacement car within 24 hours - even way out here on the Costa Maya. We have seen cars delivered in the middle of the night here.
  • Test to make sure you have windshield wiper fluid in the vehicle and that the wipers work.
  • Double-check that your credit card will cover Collision Damage Waiver on a rental car in Mexico. If it does, bring a copy of the damage waiver with you. It will save you from having to contact your credit card company and having them fax it to you in the event of an accident.
  • The standard insurance included with many car rental contracts in Mexico provides only nominal liability coverage, often as little as the equivalent of $200. Because Mexican law permits the jailing of drivers after an accident until they have met their obligations to third parties and to the rental company, renters should read their contracts carefully and purchase additional liability and comprehensive insurance if necessary. NOTE: as of 2008 - Jan. it is a requirement that all vehicles carry liability insurance. Do not make the mistake of thinking that your insurance will cover you without first checking. See the section below on Accidents.
  • Most cars rented out of Cancun are standard-shift subcompacts and jeeps; most have air-conditioning, but cars with automatic transmissions should be reserved in advance (though bear in mind that some smaller car-rental places have only standards).
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Emergencies

  • If you have an emergency while driving, call the Ministry of Tourism's hotline or (55) 5250-8221, extension 130/297, to obtain help from the “Green Angels,” a fleet of radio dispatched trucks with bilingual crews. Services include protection, medical first aid, mechanical aid for your car, and basic supplies. You will not be charged for services, only for parts, gas, and oil. The Green Angels patrol daily, from dawn until sunset. If you are unable to call them, pull off the road and lift the hood of your car; chances are good they will find you.
  • Avoid leaving your car unattended -- it is a target for theft
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Buying Gasoline

  • The state run Pemex stations are the only gas stations in the Country.
  • Gas stations usually only take cash. Quintana Roo gas stations will accept US cash, but usually give change in Pesos and give a lesser exchange rate then you can get elsewhere. The gas station at the north end of Bacalar will accept credit cards.
  • There are plenty of gas stations in and around Quintana Roo. The one in Mahahual has been operational for over a year and a new one opened in Bacalar in the summer of 2005
  • While this is not true of every gas station, when buying gas, assume you will be cheated and then you will less likely to be taken advantage of. The following are some tips to avoid getting ripped off. Take it as a challenge and don't let them take advantage of you!
    • Get out of the car and stand next to the person filling the tank.
    • If they try and distract you with washing your windshield or filling your tires with air, ignore them. You can deal with that later.
    • Stay focused on the pump and make sure it is cleared to $0.00 before they start.
    • Do not fall prey to the trick where the attendant says the pump on your side is not working. If that is the case, drive around to the other side or walk around to the other side.
    • Pay attention to how much change you should receive in return when paying for your fuel and EXACTLY the bills you give them. Gas station attendants have been known to intentionally give tourists the incorrect amount of change or tell you that you gave them a 20 instead of 200 pesos.
    • If they start and stop the meter write down the first amount. Don't trust their addition or the fact that they may change the number on their hand while you are distracted.
  • Gasoline is sold in liters (1 gallon = 3.79 liters)

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In case of an Accident

  • Most accidents involving visitors to Mexico are a result of the visitor not expecting or anticipating an unaccustomed, sudden change in traffic or road conditions.
  • When a car accident takes place, the driver at fault must pay damages before being released from custody

    For tourists driving into Mexico, the single biggest cause of motor vehicle accidents on the highway is the narrow roadway with almost no shoulder. When Driving In Mexico be aware of the drop-off from pavement to shoulder it is usually several inches, so if a right side wheel drops off the pavement, it will almost certainly result in an accident.

  • When Driving In Mexico this type of accident often results in the vehicle rolling over with significant damage to the vehicle and injuries to its occupants. Driver attention is enormously more important Driving In Mexico because the roadways are much less forgiving than the wide, four lane highways we are spoiled with in Canada and the U.S.
  • MEXICAN AUTO INSURANCE: Make sure you have Mexican liability insurance. All of the major auto rental companies will require it but sometimes it is included in the rate and some times they surprise you with it when you come. If possible, check on this in advance. Also check to see what your own credit card will cover. Many will cover collision but not Mexican liability. Some will say that they cover the everything, but in the case of an accident it is nice to have a Mexican insurance company send a local adjuster in behalf of your interests. A foreign insurance company may cover the costs, but you may find you are on your own. The liability insurance will give you that piece of mind.
  • If you are entering Mexico using your own vehicle, pre-purchase insurance on-line. It is much cheaper. Search for "Mexican auto insurance" in Google and you will find many good companies. We have had good experience with ING, but there are several very good ones.
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Military and agricultural checkpoints

  • Military and law enforcement checkpoints aimed at detecting narcotics and firearms traffic are located at various places throughout Mexico. It is your responsibility to stop until you are waved on. If you are not carrying drugs or firearms you have nothing to worry about. Smile, grab your purse or moneybelt and get out of the car when asked. If there are no other cars waiting, have your picture taken with them.
  • Do not pick up hitchhikers who can put you in danger of being arrested for unwittingly transporting narcotics or narcotics traffickers in your vehicle.
  • Your vehicle can be confiscated if you are transporting marijuana or other narcotics.
  • The State of Yucatan has agricultural inspection stations on its border to eradicate swine fever and inspectors may confiscate pork products at these inspection stations. Yucatan health inspectors may hold travelers for possible arrest by Federal authorities if travelers appear in violation of any Mexican laws, such as immigration, firearms, narcotics, etc.
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Policemen

  • Police have been known to pull over tourists in rental cars and try and extort money from the driver. IT IS ILLEGAL TO PAY A POLICEMAN ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD.
  • This is extortion and policemen are working off your fears and the knowledge that vacationers don't want to follow through paying a ticket.
  • Policeman in trucks are not highway policeman, they are "keepers of the peace."
  • If a policeman or someone posing as a policeman does pull you over, demand ID, take down his license plate number, ask his name and write everything down. Demand that they write you out a ticket and that you will pay it, but you want proof that you were committing the offense. The US consulate says:

    A written citation should be received before the payment of any fine. No money should be paid directly to a police officer. If you believe you are the victim of an extortion attempt, you should make a note of the officer's name and badge number, the time and location of the incident, and the number of the patrol car if applicable, and immediately call the US Consular Agency in Cancun or the US Consulate in Merida.

    The US Consular Agency is located on the second floor of Plaza Caracol, Boulevard Kukulcan, km. 8.5 Zona Hotelera, Cancun, and can be reached by telephone at (52) (998) 883-0272. The US Consulate in Merida is located at Paseo Montejo No. 453, Col. Centro, Merida, Yucatan. The US Consulate in Merida can be reached by e-mail at consularmerida@state.gov or by telephone at (52)(999) 925-5011 during working hours or (52)(999) 947-2285 after hours or on weekends.

Drinking and Driving

  • The possession of an open alcohol container in public is illegal in Mexico
  • Passengers can drink alcohol however the driver of a vehicle is prohibited from drinking alcohol while driving a vehicle on public roads.
  • Drunk driving is considered a major violation in Mexico. Designate a driver who will not drink.

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General

  • It is valid to use any driving license of any country, to drive in Mexico.
  • The signs on roads and cities follow the international standards.
  • There are one way streets which sense is indicated through the arrows in the corners; when the arrows are green, these indicated that the traffic by that street has preference, if they are red the cars should stop in the corner.
  • When Driving Mexico speed limits are stated in kilometers (1 mile = 1.6 kilometers).
  • If you are hit from behind while Driving In Mexico, it is your fault.
  • When driving in Mexico the one-way signs are usually attached to buildings 10 feet or so above ground level. The signs are only about five inches high x 2 feet long and easy to miss
    Streets going in the direction of the GREEN _ arrow have the right-of-way
    Streets going in the direction of the RED _ arrow must yield the right-of-way
    When in doubt, it's always safer (and smarter) to yield
  • The US Consulate warns US citizens not to loan their vehicles to Mexican citizens as those vehicles are subject to seizure by Mexican authorities. If confiscated, they are not returned.
  • The driver of a vehicle must wear a seat belt. Passengers are not required to.
  • Speed limits are posted in kilometers, not in miles per hour.
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