Traveling by car in Mexico

Some of our readers were wondering about the practical aspects of traveling by car in Mexico. And obviously about safety of such extravaganza. Some of them even consider coming over and needed a few tips. Instead of responding all of their concerns individually and writing hundreds of emails, here are some of the things I would recommend:

  • First and foremost, here are the formal requirements for crossing the US-Mexican border. Yep, everything in that article is accurate, and even though it sounds complicated, you can get everything done at the border within an hour or so.
  • When you shop around for Mexican car insurance, check online and compare at the border. The agents in Laredo wanted between 30% and 100% more then an online quote.
  • If driving through Laredo (like we did), use the Columbia bridge crossing. It’s few miles West from Laredo, and it may seem like burning a lot of gas, but the crossing is almost always empty, so it’s easier to get the paperwork done and you get onto the highway right away and don’t need to drive through Nuevo Laredo.
  • Hit the border early (Columbia opens 8.00 AM) in the morning to have much daylight for driving through the border region.
  • After crossing the border, “unlearn” everything you’re been taught about traffic rules and safety on the roads. There don’t seem to be any… your imagination (and vehicles capabilities) are the limits!
  • Avoid driving after dusk. It’s for your own safety – the roads are badly lit and their surface is unpredictable (rocks, potholes, drunks, animals, etc…).
  • Make sure your vehicle is in good shape before crossing the border – finding good mechanics and/or authorized dealerships is much more difficult than in the States.
  • Make sure your vehicle has got some decent clearance between the undercar and the pavement. Some of the speed bumps (called “topes”) here are 4 to 5 inches tall. And they’re the most frequent and popular feature on the roads in Mexico. Some of them are marked, most take you by surprise…
  • The longer and wider the rig, the more difficult it will be to maneuver some of the narrow streets. Most of the towns in Mexico were build, before Mayflower anchored Plymouth. The streets only allow for bidirectional traffic of unloaded donkeys. There is a street in San Miguel de Allende, where we have to fold the side mirrors of our minivan to get through…
  • The paid highways (called “cuotas”) may seem expensive, but are well worth the 100 pesos or so, per 20km… or so – I didn’t quite figure it out yet – there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their prices. They are no German “autobahn”, but as good as any US interstate. Unless…
  • … unless the “cuotas” are only one lane roads. It is common that you pay for a highway and drive on an equivalent of a well maintained US county road. In such case, the two lanes and the shoulders (if any) are spontaneously upgraded into a four lane highways.
  • The  non-paid highways (called “libramentes”), or lets just call them the paved roads, are… paved (at least for the most part). They remind me of the long forgotten and never attended roads in some underfunded US counties. Except…
  • …the “libramentes” are always busy. Usually it’s motorized traffic, but not necessary: cars, wagons, bicycles, wheel barrows, tequila fueled pedestrians and animals (wild and domesticated) are a norm.

And most of all, don’t be alarmed by everything you read in the US media. 99.9% of people here are very friendly. At the worst, some of the poor fellows may try to fool you for a few pesos you at the gas pump (make sure the pump is reset and shows zeros before start pumping). But at the same time, they will go out of their way to help you, should you be in trouble.

Oh, and remember, plastic is very much useless in most of Mexico (except for larger and tourist cities) – cash is king! So be sure to exchange your hard earned dollars for pesos before crossing the border. Or get it from an ATM – the rates are usually better then the border region crooks. Just remember that the ATM’s are not as frequent as in the US.

More questions? Let me know!

Sierra Madre Oriental

Christmas Holidays in Mexican schools started this year on December 17th and will last untli January 9th, 2012. That Friday was a last day with backpacks and books. What followed, was a Christmas show the next week and now we’re enjoying a time off school. Trying to make the best out of such long break, we’ve packed our van again and hit the road.

The plan is to make a loop around central Mexico. The first leg of this short trip took us from San Miguel de Allende, through Celaya, Queretaro, Jalpan, all the way to a small town in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains called Xilitla. The place is mostly famous thanks to Edward James, an excentric millionaire, who build… well, let me disclose that only after we visit the place.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the winding road through the mountains. It was curvy indeed. To a point, when Agnieszka finally throw up and said: “There’s no way we’re going back this road!”. Later on she read in our Mexico guide, that highway 120 is the least frequent way to get to Xilitla. Well, now we know why…

28-Dec-2011 16:23, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 18:07, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:05, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 18:03, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 16:04, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 14:57, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 28.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
28-Dec-2011 14:54, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 45.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200

¡Bienvenidos a México!

I promised to update this blog as soon as we arrive at our interim destination. Obviously I failed – we’ve been in Mexico since Friday. I can’t even blame it at lack of Internet access – we’ve been connected all the time. Let me catch up quickly.

Before entering Mexico, we’ve read countless warnings and articles describing situation in the country, and especially along it’s northern border.  Based on all that lectures, we were expecting to enter lawless land of guns, drugs and violence. Being somehow responsible parents, we were terrified with the prospect of encountering “banditos” or running into a random shoot-out. And based on the information disseminated north of the border, those things were supposed to be as common in Mexico, as Walmarts are in the US. No wonder that for the first few hours, I was white knuckling the steering wheel. In reality though, the biggest problem was to find… the right border crossing. The one we were advised to take is a remote bridge called Colombia-Solidarity, about  fifteen miles north from Laredo.

The roads in Mexico are not too bad. There are two categories of them – the free (libre) and the paid (cuota) ones. Obviously, the road conditions are much better on the “cuotas”, which I have to say are rather expensive. At least compared to the US. The road surface is mostly made out of concrete and it’s well profiled. Obviously not to be compared to the German “autobahns”, but nonetheless quite comfortable and safe. The “libres” are full of pot holes and filled with slow local traffic. It’s common to see all kinds of animals eating grass on the sides of the road or even on the median. Supposedly they’re also much less safe to travel. Especially after dark.

Our GPS has maps from 2007, which doesn’t make that much of a difference in the USA, but makes it pretty much useless here in Mexico. However, despite being deprived of modern technology aids, we had almost no problems in finding our destinations. I wouldn’t call the road signs as being a particularly good example of traffic coordination, but if you pay close attention, you will find your way around the country without problems.

Finding a particular address in an unfamiliar city is a different story altogether. We arrived in San Miguel de Allende around noon on Saturday. And it took us about an hour to find the house we are staying at. We found the right district, but were unable to find the street. It may have something to do with the fact that we didn’t have a map, but I suspect that even if we had one, it wouldn’t be of much help, since most of the streets (in that particular district) have no name signs anyway.

We decided to ask for help. My Spanish is about as good as my Chinese, so I was very proud of myself when I put together “donde esta” (where is) and the street address. My wife was really impressed when the taxi driver understood the question without a need for me to repeat it. However, when he explained how to get there, Agnieszka and I only stared at him, unable to understand a word. On second attempt, using internationally recognized hand signals, I suggested to the cab driver that we’ll follow him to the destination. Worked like a charm!

The house we’re staying at is a luxurious three level / three bedroom / three baths “casa” with a small courtyard with a fountain, large kitchen, office, living room and a rooftop terrace. Quite a change compared to the last couple of months we’ve spent living in a tent. And the best is, that this palace is actually much less expensive than the camping sites we’ve been staying at!


I’ll write separate posts about the beautiful town of San Miguel de Allende and the festivities surrounding the “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) that’s being celebrated here right now. For now, lets just say that the ambience of this enchanting  town will affect our further travel plans.  But that’s a different subject all together.