Friday, 19 October 2018

Watch out for topes! And other life saving tips for driving in Mexico.

donkey
Driving in Mexico is stressful - I just want to get that out of the way to start with. The traffic is awful, the other drivers operate in a different universe of road rules (who am I kidding - what road rules), the road signs are someone's idea of a bad joke (when they exist at all), the frequent potholes are yawning caverns with 'journey to the centre of the earth' like proportions and don't get me started on the speed bumps.

Mexicans call speed bumps 'topes' which, literally translated, means 'stop'. It is a good name because if you hit one at speed you risk coming to a sudden, axle-breaking halt. They vary in height from mere ripples in the road to huge mountains of bitumen. Some are sign-posted - many are not. Some are painted yellow or white - many are not. Approach them in any way other than slowly and carefully, at your peril. David and I found the only way to deal with them was to have the front passenger watch for them and call out 'bump' whenever we got near one. The driver can't possibly see them all in time because he has a gazillion other hazards to negotiate.

Oh, and one other little gem for my countrymen (fellow Aussies), Mexicans drive on the right so on top of everything else you have to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Tope sign
Watch out for topes.

Have I put you off driving in Mexico yet? Earlier this year we (David and I) spent four weeks road tripping in Mexico.  As long as you have an adventurous spirit and the courage of Theseus fighting the Minotaur*, we found driving was a great way to get around.  Of course that's easy for me to say - I didn't actually do the driving - David did. I sat in the front passenger's seat praying. Sometimes I was too scared to pray and sat catatonic with fear instead. On a few rare occasions I watched the world go by and enjoyed the scenery.

Lest you think 'if David can do it, so can I', I should warn you that David will drive almost anywhere. He has been known to rent a car and drive in Lima, Peru. We once lived in Hong Kong and he drove everywhere (and more of a miracle he found places to park) and he's the only person I know crazy enough to drive in Macau. Also he doesn't do tours or public buses so when we began planning our Mexican adventure there was no question but that it would be a driving holiday.

Driving in the Yucatan Peninsula


Our driving itinerary 

We arrived in Cancun where we rented a car and did a 10 day loop around the Yucatan Peninsula staying at Chichen Itza, Merida, Tixkokob and Valladolid. From Merida we did side trips to Mayapan and Celestun and from Valladolid we did a long day trip to Coba and Tulum. All together we travelled more than 1,000 kms (620 miles).

This was the easy part of the holiday. Driving in the Yucatan Peninsula is not much more difficult than driving anywhere else in the world. Except for the urban centres this is a sparsely populated part of the country with few cars on the roads. 

Tips for driving in the Yucatan Peninsula 

  • Cancun International Airport is 18 kms south of central Cancun. If you rent a car from the airport you can jump straight onto the 180 cuota (toll road) without having to negotiate the city centre.
  • Don't drive at night. This is a universal rule throughout Mexico which you ignore at your peril. We broke it on our first day of course. It took us almost two hours to struggle through passport control at Cancun. The airport was days away from opening a new terminal which I am sure will help a lot. Then we waited another hour to pick up our rental car. After that we had a two hour drive to Chichen Itza. With the wisdom of hindsight we should have caught an earlier flight - we were never going to make it in the daylight. Negotiating our way through the chaotic streets of Piste (2.5 kms from the Mayan ruins) in the dark and finding our hotel - hidden away behind Chichen Itza on a back road was an experience I don't want to repeat.
  • When travelling long distances stick to the cuotas - unless you plan on spending the rest of your life wandering around the Yucatan Peninsula. The cuotas (toll roads) are generally in excellent condition and have very little traffic. Not only does it take forever to get anywhere on the free roads but once you miss the on ramp to a cuota it can be very difficult to find another one.
  • Take cash for the cuotas (toll roads). We were warned not to pay with a credit card if we could avoid it. Apparently card skimming is a national sport.
  • Keep your petrol (gas) tank topped up. Petrol (gas) stations can be few and far between.
  • Plan your route and make sure you know where you are going. Neither our brand new Garmin Nuvi GPS navigator nor Google maps were always accurate. If you have a GPS which tells you which lane to be in, nominate a passenger to keep an eye on this and call out lane changes. Mexico is not a place to make sudden lane changes.
  • Keep an eye out for one-way street signs. One-way streets are everywhere. The signs are usually a small arrow high up on street corners where you would expect to see nothing more than the name of the road.
  • Parking translates as estacionamento. If you see a sign with a large 'E' on it, you have found somewhere to park.
  • Stop at the 'alto' signs. In Spanish 'alto' literally means high. In Mexico it denotes a stop sign. I have no idea why and for once Google is absolutely no help. Just take it on faith that 'alto' means 'stop' - and stop!
  • Watch out for topes! Topes are literally everywhere, even occasionally on the highways. We once saw a car break an axle by hitting one too fast.
no parking sign Mexico
Do not park here.

Driving in Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca


Our driving itinerary

The states of Mexico City (Distrito Federal), Puebla and Oaxaca are as difficult to drive in as the Yucatan Peninsula is easy. Outside the cities and larger towns it isn't too bad. There is more traffic on the cuotas, going much faster and with a lot less regard for keeping a safe distance between vehicles but if you don't drive at night and keep your wits about you chances are you will come out alive.

I can't say the same for the cities. There are 127.5 million people in Mexico and every last one of them seems to own a car (or a bike or a truck) and spend most of their time in it. The sheer volumes of traffic make even short trips a nightmare and if you happen to take a wrong turn just accept that it will take a very long time before you get back on the right road.

We spent five nights in Mexico City, picking up a car at the airport on our last day. Even David isn't crazy enough to drive in the centre of Mexico City! From the airport we drove to Puebla City for three nights and then Oaxaca City for another three nights before retracing the route back to Mexico City Airport. This was a journey of about 1,000 kms (620 miles). The worst part of the trip was the bit around Mexico City airport and our biggest mistake was not giving ourselves a night at an airport hotel after returning the car. We just didn't need the stress of knowing we had a flight to catch when we were driving back to the airport.

Mexico City International Airport is only 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the centre of the city - not nearly far enough to escape the congestion which plagues the city. Moreover the highway around the airport has never been completely reconstructed after the last earthquake (or the one before that, or perhaps the one before that). The asphalt rolls and surges like a badly made bed after a hard night on the turps**. Our car felt like a boat dipping and swaying in a heavy swell, with no way to know which direction it would fall away to next. Any sensible driver would slow down in such conditions and proceed with all the caution he could muster - not the natives of Mexico City. They make not a single concession to the damaged state of the road, continuing to drive at dangerously high speeds and darting from lane to lane as if there are no other cars on the road.


Puebla
The central square in Puebla City.
A few extra tips for driving in Mexico City DF, Puebla and Oaxaca
  • Don't! Sorry - I just had to get that out of the way to start with. Knowing what we know now, would we drive in this part of Mexico again? Yes, probably, but only with great reluctance and because David point blank refuses to do tours or public transport.
  • Don't drive in Mexico City. Both Puebla and Oaxaca have international airports. If we were doing the trip again I think we would fly to one of those, or catch a bus or a train, or ride a donkey or walk if we had to, and avoid driving anywhere near Mexico City. Just to give you some idea of how bad the traffic can be we took a red bus tour while we were there. The hour and a half tour lasted for nearly four hours. For at least three of which we were stuck in gridlock traffic.
  • Read my tips above for driving in the Yucatan Peninsula. Don't drive after dark, stop at the alto signs, watch out for one-way street signs, plan your route beforehand and if you are travelling a long way stick to the cuotas. All of this advice is even more important in the rest of Mexico.
  • Leave plenty of time and then add a bit more. You will get caught in traffic at some point and it will take forever to clear. The driving will be a lot less stressful if you aren't glancing at your watch every five minutes.
  • Watch out for hidden red lights. Red lights in Mexico are not easy to see. Neither are green or orange lights but the consequences are less dramatic if you miss one. Along with watching out for topes and lane changes, designate the front passenger to be on red light alert scanning every intersection for these elusive creatures.
  • Don't get put off by stories you might hear about police corruption. I am not saying it doesn't happen but none of the policeman we came across gave even a hint of wanting a bribe - even the one who pulled us over for going through a red light. We were headed to the airport completely confused about whether we were on the right road and stressed out of our minds. He didn't even issue a ticket. In the end he took pity on us and gave us directions instead. 
  • Oh and - did I tell you to watch out for topes!
One last thing - Good Luck!

If you have ever driven in Mexico, or someone equally difficult, leave me a comment and tell me what it was like. I would love to hear your experiences.

* Theseus was a hero of Greek mythology renowned for his courage in defeating the Minotaur a labyrinth dwelling monster with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man.

** For my American readers, the expression 'a hard night on the turps' is an Australian/British saying which refers to someone who has drunk too much - way too much.

My other blog posts on Mexico


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42 comments:

  1. Good tips Lyn. Especially on the topes; I'd break my axles LOL.

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    1. The guy we saw break his axle looked like a local. I think you tend to drive more carefully as a tourist but the topes are demons in disquise.

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  2. A lot of people who are residents of their own countries drive like crazies. Mmmm...Italy comes to mind? There may be some countries where I would feel pretty comfortable renting a car and driving especially if I had someone along as a passenger to help. But not Mexico and certainly not after reading this post! #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. Italy doesn't even compare to Mexico. David has driven in Italy a few times - even Rome.

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  3. Ah yes the joys of driving in Mexico. Driving from Puebla to Puerto Escondido was the worst bit of road for us, apparently there's a new highway planned but it was due to be finished about 4 years ago. You didn't mention the people holding rope up in front of the car to get you to stop - did that not happen to you? We found ourselves in Zapatista held areas after they cut a tree down to block the road, maybe that forced us to venture into the wrong area.

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    1. OMG - no, we never got the rope trick. We stuck pretty much to 'safe' areas although our oldest son is in Mexico right now on a driving holiday and I must admit I am more than a little worried about him. Now you have added one more thing to my worry list.

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  4. Definitely right about the hazards, our bus was attacked by a watermelon thrown from an overpass. It was amazingly loud, never been so scared of produce before.

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    1. Haha - about the produce remark. It must have genuinely been scary though.

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  5. I'm not confident or adventurous enough to drive anywhere foreign - but my husband, like yours, will drive anywhere. I've always heard that the worst place to drive is Rome but it looks as if Mexico might rank right up there. Driving in Mexico City? Wow. That's courageous. Thanks for the tips. I'll definitely pass them on to the husband cause I won't be driving there. And I'll have my eyes closed when he does drive there. :)

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    1. I find closing my eyes only helps a bit - when we are actually about to hit something. Surprisingly enough driving in Rome wasn't all that traumatic. Europeans may have a bad reputation but they have a much greater respect for road rules than Mexicans. The worst problem is the traffic.

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  6. Driving in a foregn country is definitely a challenge and watching out for topes adds another dimension. #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. The topes were just plain scary. Maybe they slowed the traffic down a bit but at a huge cost in terms of making the driving more hazardous.

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  7. Wow, great story... We currently bought a car in Mexico and are in the process of driving down the west coast. It's been cool to be able to drive off the beaten path a bit. It can be very intimidating at times. We found out the hard way that part of the deal on the cuota roadside that you receive complimentary roadside assistance when our radiator blew!

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    1. I am so glad we didn't find out about the roadside assistance the way you did - you have my sympathy. I hope you are having a ball though.

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  8. David sounds like a hardy type of driver, and you need to be one to drive in Mexico, apparently! Sounds stressful, which might take a bit away from the enjoyment of a holiday. Having these tips could be a lifesaver---literally! :) #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. We still enjoyed Mexico, and we are considering going back. Difficult countries are always a lot easier the second time around.

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  9. Wow you guys are brave! Normally I do enjoy doing road trips but I think Mexico is one of the few countries I would be scared to drive in and I had no idea about the speed bumps. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. Brave isn't quite the word I would use - foolhardly, perhaps, or even stupid - lol!

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  10. Haha, driving in another country is always challenging and frustrating! Driving through the Balkans felt very much the same! But these topes are really quite extreme! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!!
    (www.caliglobetrotter.com)

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    1. Remind me to put the Balkans on my 'no drive' list.

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  11. Wow, you are quite ambitious. We mostly stayed on Isla Holbox when we were in Mexico, and since there are no cars on the island, we didn't have to worry about driving. We had shuttles take us back and forth from the airport. Really great tips, when we do decide to drive in another country, it's always nice to know exactly what to expect.

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    1. Did you see flamingos? I have read that Isla Holbox is one of the places they congregate. If we ever go back to the Yucatan Peninsula Isla Holbox is on my list of places to see.

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  12. Sounds a bit scary! Great tips though for anyone planning to do it themselves!

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  13. For 15 years we were part=time ex pats in Mexico. . .your post had me laughing at the memories of driving there. Sounds like it hasn't changed much from our time there. The one that always had us shaking our heads over was the need to pull to the very far right lane to make a left hand turn (making any turn in Mexico was a 50-50 I won't get broadsided endeavor) but this maneuver added real thrills to the experience. And I had forgotten the topes, ah, but now the memories are vivid! Great post as it is both entertaining and very usual information. (When we first began living differently we drove from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta with our two cats. Let me tell you the Mexico segment will be long remembered!!)

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    1. I am glad my post brought back a few memories. I don't remember having to pull to the right to make a left-hand turn but then David was driving not me - maybe I had my eyes closed for all the turns -lol!

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  14. Your husband is quite adventurous to say the least. Some of the destinations you mention are best left to the locals who have grown up on their particular traffic patterns. (Or lack thereof)

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    1. I suppose one piece of advice I would give people is to familiarize themselves with any road rules which might be different. Australia, for example, doesn't have four-way stop signs. Here there is no taking turns at a stop sign. You stop and you give way otherwise you're going to have an accident. It took us a while on our first U.S. road trip to figure out what to do at a four-way.

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  15. We don't even rent a car in Oaxaca or Puebla, trust our lives in the hands of taxi-drivers instead (they are cheap and used to the madness). But the Yucatan is a whole other world; even with the topes, we like driving there - well, my husband does the driving and he apparently doesn't mind. We don't use the quotas, unless we end up on them by accident; we like driving through towns. Yes, we might be quite mad ;) On the other hand, we drive on the same side of the road, and we know the peninsula like home. The topes are in the same spots, always at the entrance and exit of towns and villages, you're used to looking for them, even when they are missing the signs. We still hit a few on ocassion, but ... well, like everything else, you get used to it. It won't seem so bad the second time around.

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    1. I agree with you about not being so bad the second time around. We have found that in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Having driven in those countries a few times now we find it almost easy - almost! Perhaps we just need more Mexican practice.

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  16. When we were (driving) in Mexico, we heard the topes referred to as policia acostado: sleeping cops, haha. Fun and useful story. We can relate! For more fun, see our story about driving in Romania! https://travelpast50.com/10-rules-driving-romania/ Or, another about navigating (my responsibility while Tom drives) in England. Pinned!

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    1. I will read your Romanian post - thanks. David and I are considering going (and driving) there in 2020.

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  17. Although I have no plans to drive in Mexico, I enjoyed your entertaining article. A lot of your advice could be translated to anywhere you have never driven before. Thank you for an excellent read!!

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    1. Having no plans to drive in Mexico is smart - lol!

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  18. I think you've persuaded me I don't want to drive in Mexico! I'd much rather stick to public transport...

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    1. Honestly - I am not sure public transport would be a lot better. One day I may write a post on our experience catching the underground in Mexico City - now that was truly scary.

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  19. Lyn we have been to Mexico many times and most often we don't drive. There are a couple of exceptions to that and for those we concur very much with your advice. Whatever you do stay on the toll roads! We decided to 'save a few dollars' at one point and avoid a toll road. That resulted us being an innocent moving vehicle in the midst of police shooting at another vehicle near us. Nothing like the pop pop of gun fire whizzing by. True story I kid you not.

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    1. OMG! Sounds like it would make a great blog post - lol! Our older son Mark is in Mexico right now. Like father like son, he has hired a car. I am getting a lot more grey hairs worrying about his safety. Unlike us he decided to visit some of the less safe areas - like Acapulco.

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  20. I do like to drive in most places I travel to (although hubby does the driving). You see so much more than just about any other way. Of course, there is always understanding the differences between what you're used to and what is on the road in front of you (and that fine you get in the mail 3 months later because you drove on a restricted street but didn't understand the signage) The topes sound like driving in a minefield. I guess you just have to be happy that there is some semblance of a road to drive on.

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    1. You phrase 'like driving in a minefield' sums it up perfectly and I know exactly what you mean about that 'fine you get in the mail' - lol.

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  21. Great post Lyn! Sue and I have only limited experience of driving in Mexico (and that was probably enough :)). I vividly remember the endless topes, in all towns, around crosswalks, schools, playgrounds, etc, etc.
    But by the way, Mexicans drive on the proper side of the road (well usually). Its you Aussies that have it wrong :)) Cheers, Dave (Hubby)

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    1. Hi Dave, I obviously struck a chord with this post for both you and Sue to comment. I was waiting for someone to pull me up on my 'correct side of the road' quip - lol!

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