Current Travel Advisories for Mexico:

Before booking a trip to Mexico and/or renting a car, review this warning and prepare to take a few risks.  Budget to have extra cash on hand if found in a situation where a police officer pulls you over in the rental car and demands a cash payment for a fake traffic ticket.  This is a real situation happening everyday for the last 10 years near Cancun and especially around the airport as vacationers return rental cars to make a flight.  The best advice is to follow and take seriously the state department travel warnings found online for Mexico.  They are real.   Police may demand $250 - 2500 USD and if you have the cash they will take it and you will be left alone to drive away.  Be aware of kidnapping schemes or being taken to an ATM to withdraw cash, although if found in the situation, you should simply get the money from the ATM and pay in order to be safe and return your rental car promptly.

If you want to drive around Mexico and see some impressive sights, many of which are off the beaten path, here are some of the things to consider when you rent.

You may decide not to get insurance from a car rental agency, if your US insurance covers any cars you rent. If you get a Full Damage Waiver, you will insure yourself against the agency that rented you the car.  It adds to the price, but it means that when you turned in the car, you would not have to deal with the hassle of arguing over the source of little dents and scratches.

You may decide to take a pass on liability coverage (if your home insurance covers it), but reconsider.  Mexican law requires you to carry liability coverage, and it is entirely possible that a Mexican policeman would be unimpressed when you showed him your insurance card from home.  And even if you brought along a letter from your home agent saying that you are covered in Mexico, would a Mexican policemen be able to read English?  Liability coverage is an added cost, of course, but it is insurance against a spoiled vacation.  And one other thing about renting a car in Cancun: if a nice, English-speaking person strikes up a conversation with you in the rental agency, and if she is not wearing a rental-agency uniform, she is likely trying to get you to go to a time-share sales presentation.  Be suspicious.  Oh, and one other thing.  Cars leaving the rental agency won’t necessarily have full tanks.  Make sure that the less-than-full tank is shown on the “checkout” receipt they give you.

 Speed Bump Nation 

Mexico is Speed Bump Nation!  There are speed bumps as you enter small towns, which makes perfect sense, but there are also speed bumps on major highways, in the middle of nowhere.  Generally they are marked, but the signs that mark them vary.  There is one sign that has a picture showing either one, two, or three bumps. (Perhaps even a four-bumper?)  (See photo here for example: )

Warning; most of the speed bumps are marked, some aren’t.  After you hit a few of these, you start having speed bump hallucinations.  A tree will be casting a shadow across the road, and on coming up to it, you will stomp on the brakes, convinced that it is a speed bump.  Also, in towns, people take advantage of speed bumps to sell things to passing drivers.  This means that if you take a speed bump at full speed, you might not only ruin the suspension of your car but might hit someone.  (All the more reason to be fully insured!)  

In Mexico, lesser highways are a challenge.  You can go 100 miles between gas stations, so as a rule try to keep your gas tank at least 3/4 full.  And in those 100 miles, there is likely to be no cellphone or internet availability; if your car dies or you run out of gas, you will have to get help from a passing car.

Another reason these lesser highways are challenging is because they have no shoulders.  Weeds and bushes grow right up to the pavement.  In fact, it looks like they are trimmed not by crews with machetes or weed whackers, but by the cars and trucks that pass by. The lack of a shoulder means that it would be very difficult to pull off the road, in case your car ran out of gas or died.

A random thought: anyone driving on these highways would be in trouble if struck by a case of diarrhea.  Like I’ve said, gas stations can be 100 miles apart, and when they exist, they might have a pay restroom.  If you lack the proper coins and need desperately to use a toilet, you will be a truly pitiful sight to behold.  Furthermore, the lack of a shoulder on these highways means that it would be both difficult and dangerous for you to take care of your “problem” between gas stations.  Bottom line: Any American going to Mexico has to be careful about the food, but someone using a rental car should be doubly careful. Stick to fully cooked food—no salads and only bottled water, even when brushing your teeth—and you should be fine.

Some of the highways that have broad shoulders are in fact lane-and-a-half highways.  When being overtaken, you are expected to move to the right to let passing cars—either in your lane or in the oncoming traffic lane—have more room.  And sometimes, if you are trailing a car or truck, it will start blinking its left-turn signal.  This is a sign EITHER that it wants you to pass it on the left OR that it intends to turn left, in which case you just might die if you try to pass it.  How good are you at mind reading? 

Traffic Laws

Mexican traffic laws are different.  It is hard to know what those laws are, though, if you can’t read the signs because you don’t know Spanish. Here is one website that explains Mexican signs:  You might want to print out a copy in preparation for your trip.  A favorite sign says “No deje piedras sobre el pavamiento.” it is a directive not to put stones on the pavement.  Is this done often enough in Mexico that signs prohibiting it are necessary? 

In little towns, you will sometimes turn a corner only to realize that the cars parked on both sides of the street are pointing toward you.  Half of the time, it will be because you are driving the wrong way down a one-way street; the other half, it will be because cars are parked on the wrong side of the street.  Drive very slowly until you figure out which it is.

In Mexico, there are “Alto” signs, meaning Stop, on the on-lanes of highways. In America, there are yield signs instead.  And Mexican drivers seem to treat them as yield signs.  If you come to a full stop at one of these signs a driver behind you may not expect this behavior and will have to stomp on his brakes to avoid running into you. Watch your rearview mirror at these "stops."  

Buying Gas 

When you buy your first gasoline, you might experience a sense of shock as you watch the amount you are being charged climb.  It rises so fast because you are being charged in pesos rather than dollars, and because gas is sold in liters rather than in gallons.  (In Mexico, the symbol for a peso is the $ sign, which makes things quite confusing.  You could fall out of your chair when, after your first restaurant meal, you get a bill for $300.)  And when you first buy gasoline, you might be surprised that an attendant will do the pumping and will also, without your asking, wash your windshield.  It is expected that you will tip him, maybe ten pesos.  

You want to be out of your car when getting gas, so you can make sure the pump is zeroed out before the attendant starts pumping; otherwise, you will end up paying both for the gas you got and for the gas the previous car or truck got.  All Mexican gas stations are run by Pemex, and the grade of gas you want to get is probably Magna (regular).  The gas stations generally don't take credit cards.  You have to pay in pesos, meaning that if you simply asked to have your tank filled, you will end up with an awkward amount of cash to pay.  With a little practice, you can predict how many pesos of gas to ask for, depending on the state of your gas gauge.  If you ask for, say, “trescientos pesos de Magna,” the payment will be simple.

More generally, in Mexico your goal should be to pay with cash rather than a credit card.  For one thing, lots of places don’t take credit cards.  For another, your credit card company will probably hit you with big fees to handle a peso transaction.  The best way to finance your visit to Mexico is by getting pesos from an ATM.  (By the way, “Donde es un cajero automatico?” is Spanish for “Where is an ATM?”)  Also, whenever someone gives you a choice between paying a bill in pesos or in dollars, it is almost always significantly cheaper to pay in pesos.

The Case for Using a Rental Car

If you decide to visting a place like the Hormiguero Mayan ruin, it means driving down a poorly maintained road. And because this road is so narrow, there was zero possibility of turning the car around.  In trying to do so, you would have either hit a tree or rock or get stuck in mud. So, if another car approaches, someone would have had to back up for several kilometers.  BUT, if you take the risk, you could see a very special site and have the whole place to yourself.  More generally, if you have a rental car in the Yucatan, you can get to Mayan sites in the morning when they first open.  This means that you can see them in the (relative) cool of the day, when the raking light sets off their features the best, and most important, BEFORE the tourist busses arrive. You could be almost alone at both Uxmal and Chichen Itza.   One of the biggest reasons for using a rental car in Mexico: you can go to places tours and busses don’t go to, and you can get to the places they do go to before these busses arrive!

As you drive around Mexico, expect to see surprising things.  For example, a person riding a bicycle along the side of a narrow highway.  Bad idea.  Then you could see a person riding along the side of a narrow highway, but against the flow of traffic.  Really bad idea.  And then you could see a person riding a bicycle against the flow of traffic while carrying a ladder.  Speechless? Most people would be. You could also see a cow, standing in the bed of a pickup truck traveling at 60 mph. Hey, in Mexico, these things happen!