Mexico Road Rules

Twelve Tips for Travel South of the Border
By William B. Kaliher

As you leave the customs facilities on the American border in Brownsville and enter Mexico by car, seven lanes of traffic converge, without warning, on a road designed for three. The jousting and intimidation that ensues more or less typifies the Mexican driving experience. Trucks run cars off the road, drivers shout and honk their horns, pedestrians and vendors stream along the shoulder, and stray cattle meander where they will. In short, the "rules" in this new auto culture are completely different.

After three decades of annual visits south of the border, both on-road and off, I've accumulated some valuable experience in the region. The following twelve tips for navigating Mexican roads may sound apocryphal, but rest assured: it's a different world down there and preparation is the key to a successful trip.

1. Lunar Landings. Many travelers describe the Mexican road system as a succession of potholes strung together with a patches of pavement. Others argue that the Mexican Highway department has large elephants walk the roads before the asphalt cools. Unfortunately, both descriptions are reasonable— always carry rescue flares in the event of being swallowed by one of the larger craters .

2.The Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. Mexicans are some of the most laid-back people on earth, but put them behind the wheel of a car and a chemical transformation takes place. Suddenly, those care-free amigos don't have a second to lose. Traffic lights, stop signs and posted speed limits are major impediments in there mad race to get where ever they are going as quickly as possible. Just take care to stay clear of their paths.

3. Speed Kills. Just about every settlement, from sprawling village to lone gas station, will be fortified by what they call lopes. The English translation is"speed bumps," but a closer approximation is "Appalachian Mountains." They are steep and wide, and first time you hit them, cruising at an oblivious 60 MPH, you're liable to overturn your vehicle. Afterwards the word "topes" will always elicit a certain paranoia and dread among in-the-know drivers.

4. Pay the Way. Mexico is full of toll roads, and most are not worth the exorbitant cost. The two exceptions are the route between Juarez and Chihuahua (it's eight dollars for a motorcycle to go 100 miles, but it takes you quickly through a desert with no alternative routes), and the byways around Mexico City (a metropolis from which no foreign driver has yet escaped with their sanity intact).

5. Left Lane Yield. Sometimes, at a three-lane stoplight, the two right lane vehicles will cross the left lane to make a left turn. In such cases, counter-intuitive as it may sound, the left lane driver must yield to the drivers or risk being sent home in a body bag.

6. No cop, no stop. Since 'highway patrol' is an oxymoron south of the border, open road driving between cities differs from the United States. Speed limits are posted, but drivers are free to more or less go as fast as they want. Defensive driving is highly recommended.

7. Merge. Right? Often times lanes will simply disappear of their own accord. Without warning, they stop— no sign, no gradual taper to other lanes, just an end to the pavement. The first time it happens you may slam on brakes and stare in amazement. By the third or fourth time you'll master the no-look merge without missing a beat.

8. Lights Out. As essential an accessory as lights may seem for night driving in the United States, they are deemed optional by many Mexican drivers. Whether this is in some way believed to conserve gasoline, or the locals merely put more faith in their night vision is uncertain, but the surprising encounters that result (it's amazing how quickly an unlit truck can materialize in your headlights), will make it clear why crucifixes and Catholic medallions hang ubiquitously in Mexican cars.

9. Free Parking. Equally disconcerting is the park-where-you-please policy that exists country-wide. While this may prove convenient for the frequent pit-stops that acclimation to regional cuisine entails, it has the overall effect of creating obstacle courses on certain city streets. And at night the random scattering of stationary objects become more like a mine field, since they appear with no warning and can be fatal when encountered.

10. Might Makes Right. Though most roads are designated for two-way traffic, and some go so far as painting lines in the middle to delineate direction, this in no way inhibits drivers from using any and all in their efforts to pass slower vehicles. For those traveling in small cars (or, worse, motorcycles) this leads to occasional trips to the shoulder as larger on-coming rigs occupy your lane for extended periods.

11. Livestock Crossing. Worry about deer where you live? In Mexico you better anticipate more than just Bambi. In cities, every pedestrian, bicycle, pushcart and horse cart will vie for a space on the road. In the country it gets worse. Yes, deer may be a problem, but so are cows, horses, donkeys and goats.

12. Lone Justice. The policeman has stopped you for some minor infraction. He wants to write you a ticket and take your license until you pay a thirty dollar fine at the station. At this point you need ask yourself one question: can you get off with the two dollar bribe the average Mexican would pay, or do you need to go as high as five dollars? The answer will lie in your Spanish competence and bargaining skills, but either way you'll avoid the citation.

With these golden rules in hand, exploring Mexico by car has never been so easy. Keep them handy on your travels, but don't be afraid to improvise. Good luck, and remember— if all else fails crucifixes and Catholic medallions are available at most of the larger tiendas.

All Original Material © William B. Kaliher. Photo © Corel Photo Inc.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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