What You Need to Know Before Renting a Car and Driving in Mexico – A Complete Guide

What you need to know before driving in Mexico

If you’re travelling to Cancún, Tulum or Playa del Carmen, chances are you’ll be thinking about renting a car. There’s so much to see and tours can be pretty expensive. Many people think driving in Mexico is too dangerous, but the traffic isn’t nearly as bad as it is in many other countries (at least not in the Yucatán region). Renting a car will probably save you money and it will also give you the added bonus of flexibility and freedom. You can stop along the road if you come across something that looks interesting, you can choose to visit popular sites at your own time and avoid the crowds and rush hours. However, there are a few things that are good to be aware of. Make sure you read this blog post before you rent a car in Mexico.

When should you consider renting a car?

Although it is possible to see the Yucatán region beyond the beaches and resorts without a car, it can be a bit of a struggle sometimes.

Getting around the Yucatán region by public transportation isn’t always easy. There are buses and colectivos (Mexican shuttle buses) to choose from. Both traffic the main routes and are good options if you have a very flexible schedule and don’t have to get to a place at a certain time. They’re also a good option if you’re staying somewhere close to the bus and colectivo stops and are headed only towards the main attractions.

However, there are lots of beautiful, but remote, places where these options won’t take you. Chances are also that you’ll be staying somewhere a bit further away from the bus stops.

Consider renting a car in these situations:

  • You want to make sure you get to a certain place at a certain time.
  • You’re planning on taking in a lot of sights and moving around the area a lot.
  • There’s more than one person to split the costs of renting a car.
  • You wish to explore more freely, being able to go to remote places where tours and colectivos don’t go.
  • Doing activities independently is your cup of tea and you don’t like having to rely on other people to get you to and from somewhere.
  • You like being able to stop along the road if you see something interesting.

A cenote is a sinkhole with fresh water

Photo: For example some of the cenotes are hard to access without a car. By car you can see a lot of different sites during the same day and save time and money.

When is renting a car not the best option?

Although renting a car brings a lot of advantages, it’s not the best option for everyone.

The first and most obvious is of course that you need to have a valid driver’s license and be able to drive. Driving in a foreign country is not a good idea if you’re not a good driver. You need to be confident that your skills are at a sufficient level. You should also have enough experience driving. If you just got your license, think twice before renting a car in an unfamiliar country.

A basic knowledge of how to fix typical car related problems is always good. Especially if you’re planning on driving while it’s dark. Depending on where you’re driving the distance to the nearest village, gas station or town can be long and it might not be easy to get help.

In some areas telephone reception is very bad or non-existent. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to call for help if something happens and your car breaks down. Even if you do have reception, it won’t necessarily be helpful. For example, the 24/7 emergency phone number we were provided by the car rental agency didn’t answer (we tried calling for over an hour).

So to sum it up, you don’t have to be a car mechanic, but making sure that at least one person in the car knows how to fix typical problems – like changing a tire or what to try if your car battery is dead – is definitely helpful.

It’s also good to make sure at least one person in the car knows some basic Spanish. Looking up a few common car-related words is a good idea, in case you need to explain some kind of problem you’re having or just need to ask someone for directions. The traffic signs are obviously in Spanish as well, so make sure you know at least what the most important ones mean. For example “Alto” means stop, “Tope” means speed bump and “Curva peligrosa” means dangerous curve.

Where should I rent the car from and how much does it cost?

Tulum Beach Road and Raw Love

Photo: This car we saw by the Tulum beach road would have been very cute to drive. It would however not have been practical. Scroll down for a picture of the car we rented.

The cost for the car itself is rarely that expensive, though of course this will vary greatly depending on where you’re located and which car rental you are planning on using. The insurance is the pricey part of renting a car.

Although the insurance usually isn’t mandatory, it is definitely recommended, just in case something were to happen. We paid for a basic insurance, but didn’t take the extra insurances for the windshield and the tires that we were offered while booking online.

Many of the bigger resorts at the tourist destinations will have a car rental, allowing for the possibility to rent a car right at your own hotel. This has a number of advantages. You don’t need to think about transportation to the car rental to pick up the car or from the car rental having returned the car.

Renting a car via your accommodation usually guarantees you free parking and in case of any problems while renting the car, you have a short distance to the car rental to clear up any uncertain situations or ask for advice. However, this option will usually have a steeper price tag.

If you don’t want to rent via your accommodation or your accommodation doesn’t provide car rental service, you’ll find a car rental in most of the larger towns at the tourist destinations.

Before driving off remember to check the following:

  • Amount of gas in the tank.
  • Dents, faults, scratches (consider snapping a picture of these just in case).
  • Make sure there’s a spare wheel in the trunk.
  • Check to see the lights are working.
  • Automatic or manual (for example, we booked an automatic but got a manual).
  • Check the tires to see the air pressure looks okay.

Useful tips on driving in Mexico

Photo: This was the car we rented. Scroll down for total price of renting a car and driving in Mexico.

Useful tips for the driver

Watch out for speed bumps while driving in Mexico

Photo: Watch out for speed bumps while driving in Mexico! The yellow warning sign indicates a speed bump ahead.

Many of the roads have some pretty big speed bumps. Make sure to be on the lookout for these while approaching a village. Driving full speed over these bumps will certainly damage the car. Watch out for the yellow signs with a drawing of bumps and the Spanish word for the speed bumps, tope, written in black. If you see this sign, slow down!

The use of the left turn signal means that it’s okay to pass. If you’re driving behind someone who has the blinker on, the driver is signalling that it’s okay for you to pass. However, some really slow-going drivers will just leave the blinker on permanently, so make sure you check for yourself to see if it actually is okay to pass someone before doing so.

If you’re driving slow, you can use the blinker to let people know they can pass you.

Are there tolls or is it free to use the roads?

In the Yucatán region most of the roads are free and you won’t have to pay for driving on them.

However, there are also privately owned roads that you have to pay for. For example, driving from Cancún to Merida, the fastest route is the privately owned highway. If you want to drive on the free roads you’ll have to drive south towards Tulum first and then take the exit to Cobá.

If you’re not sure you can ask – “libre” is free and “cuota” is toll.

Driving in Mexico

Photo: Driving to main attractions and bigger cities was not difficult at all, there were plenty of signs to help us out. Trying to find smaller, lesser known sites was harder, but if we were unsure we just asked for directions and that was that.

Filling up on gas in Mexico

There’s no shortage of gas stations in the Yucatán region so finding a gas station shouldn’t be a problem. The national company Pemex operates them all. Compared to gas prices in Finland filling up the tank was a bargain.

Unlike Finland, there was no self-service at gas stations. An attendant will fill up the tank (just let the attendant know how much you need) and often also wash your windshield (a small tip for this service is appreciated).

Watch out for these scams related to driving in Mexico

Tips for driving in Mexico

Photo: Look closely and you’ll see there’s a small sign that says “importante” on the pump. This explains that it’s important to always make sure that the pump has been reset to zero. This used to be a popular scam, but it’s not common today.

While filling up on gas, it’s important to be aware of a few scams.

A once popular scam was to not reset the pump to zero. The result was that the customer thought he or she had bought a certain amount of gas and paid for that amount. In reality the amount that the customer actually got was a lot smaller.

This is why you should always check your own fuel gauge to make sure you’re getting the right amount as well as making sure the pump has been reset to zero.

Since this used to be a popular scam, today the stations have signs warning customers and reminding them to check that the meter is at zero. It’s unlikely someone will try to fool you this way, but it’s good to be aware of this.

Another scam to watch out for is the following. While one attendant distracts the driver with chitchat the other attendant fills up the tank, but diverts some fuel into another container. Again, it’s unlikely this will happen, but good to know.

From what I’ve understood the following is also uncommon today – but some tourists have reported that they’ve been stopped and told they have to pay tolls while driving on free roads. Remember that you don’t have to pay unless you’re driving on private roads (cuota).

Just be alert to warning signs and you’ll be fine!

Condition of roads in the Yucatán region – what to do if you get a flat tire

The roads aren't in the best shape in Mexico

Photo: The condition of the roads vary greatly. Some roads are fine, others are in terrible shape. Driving towards Sac Actun we encountered some rough roads. Drive carefully!

For us, the biggest inconvenience when it comes to renting a car in Mexico was the rough shape some of the roads where in. Coming from Finland, we’re not used to the kinds of potholes we encountered on the Mexican roads.

This is why it’s so important to make sure you have a spare tire in the trunk. Getting a flat tire is very common and something that might happen to you while driving in Mexico.

In case this happens, just change the tire and try to find the nearest flat tire repair shop (here are some instructions for changing a tire). Contrary to the procedure in Finland, this only took about ten minutes in Tulum and cost 100 pesos. All we had to do was drive to the shop, ask the guy if he could take a look at the tire and that was that.

There are however some roads that you should avoid all together. The road to Punta Allen in Sian Ka’an for example. In fact, mention that’s where you’re driving while at the car rental and they probably won’t rent you the car at all!

Getting a flat tire in Mexico

Photo: Getting our tire fixed close to downtown Tulum. It was so fast and easy!

Driving while dark – make sure the headlights work

Only a few of the main roads are lit. The sun sets at around 6 pm and once it gets dark it’s literally pitch black. This is why you have to make sure the headlights are working.

If you’re planning on driving later than 6 pm, chances are you’ll have to use the headlights.

In Finland, a few metres between the road and the forest is cleared, so the edge of the forest isn’t right by the road. The purpose of this is to make it easier for drivers to spot for example animals running out onto the road. Driving in the Yucatán region, there were many areas where there wasn’t any space between the dense jungle and the road. Remember to be cautious especially at night!

As mentioned earlier, the condition of the roads wasn’t always the best. Be extra careful while driving at night since it’s very difficult to notice potholes and bumps in the road in the dark.

In case of emergency

We were handed an emergency 24/7 phone number from the place we rented the car. As we were unsure what to do when we got a flat tire we tried calling this number for over an hour without result. A flat tire doesn’t really count as an emergency, but nevertheless, don’t count on getting help by calling someone. Some areas don’t even have reception.

So make sure you’re prepared to get out of any possible emergency-like situation on your own. Do you know how to change a tire yourself? Did you pack some extra water with you in case of an emergency? Do you know some basic Spanish? If the answer to all these questions is no, at least consider avoiding driving at night.

For us, the biggest help was the wonderful local people. Even though we could have changed the tire ourselves some local people insisted on helping us, giving us advice and wishing us luck. You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish, but knowing a few handy words will help a lot.

Tips on driving in Mexico

Photo: We were in Valladolid when we realized we had a flat tire and had a pretty long way back towards Tulum, so the only option was to change the tire.

Example of total cost of renting a car in Mexico for 3 days

Rent and insurance: 180 USD

Gas: 900 Mexican pesos (under 50 USD)

Repair: 100 pesos (around 5 USD)

Places visited: Cenote Sac Actun, Tulum beach, Akumal beach, Chichen Itzá, Valladolid, Cobá.

Total: around 235 USD

Parking in Mexico

Photo: Finding parking was usually not a problem. Near the main tourist attractions there was usually a parking area you could use for a small fee. At lesser known sites parking was free.

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