Tips for a rental car and driving in Mexico

We absolutely adore embarking on a memorable road trip. While Mexico may not be the initial destination that springs to mind when planning such an adventure, it is, in fact, an absolute gem of a country to explore by car. The reasons are plentiful, ranging from reasonable rental prices to the awe-inspiring remote locations that are best discovered when you have the freedom of your own rental vehicle. In this comprehensive blog post, we will delve into the myriad of reasons why we wholeheartedly recommend opting for a rental car in the enchanting region of Yucatan. Additionally, we will provide you with essential tips on ensuring your safety while on the roads, along with a breakdown of the costs you should anticipate during your journey.

Merida Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Why do you need a rental car in Mexico?

Mexico is renowned for its fast, affordable, and comfortable bus connections. Why waste money on a rental car? By opting for a rental car, you unlock the potential to immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of history and culture that this mesmerizing country has to offer.

One of the primary advantages of embarking on a road trip in Yucatan is the freedom it affords you to explore at your own pace. No longer bound by the constraints of public transportation schedules or group tours, you can chart your own course and unearth hidden treasures that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Imagine stumbling upon a secluded cenote, a natural sinkhole unique to Southern Mexico, where you can plunge into the crystalline waters and revel in the tranquility of your surroundings undisturbed. Such serendipitous discoveries are the essence of a road trip in Yucatan. 

Tip: to get a good indication of the prices for a rental car we often check prices on Discover Car Hire. They often have the best deals and it gives you a good indication of the prices for car rentals on your trip.

Driving distances | Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

When we travel, we prefer not relying on bus schedules as it usually consumes an entire travel day between destinations. However, having our own rental car allows us to depart and drive to the next destination at our convenience, making stops along the way to explore captivating attractions such as Mexican cenotes, vibrant villages, or charming restaurants. We thoroughly enjoy these days.

Some destinations are difficult to reach without a rental car, as the only alternatives are usually expensive taxis or guided tours. When exploring Yucatán, it is recommended to visit its renowned cenotes – underground water pools of deep blue color. However, these cenotes are rarely located within walking or cycling distance from towns. Therefore, a car is necessary to visit the most beautiful ones. Similarly, if you are interested in visiting the lost Mayan empire of Calakmul, which is hidden deep in the Mexican jungle, it is advisable to rent a car for the long drive through the jungle, especially if you wish to climb the high Maya pyramids.

We covered a considerable distance in approximately 3 weeks, including visits to waterfalls, cenotes, and Mayan pyramids, totaling 3,500 kilometers (over 2,000 miles). Although we occasionally remained in the city without using our car, we also drove approximately 500 kilometers in a single day (from and to Palenque and the Mayan ruins of Calakmul).

Maya site Coba | Aldea Coba | Mexico
Merida Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Is it safe to drive in Mexico?

Yes, it is safe to drive in Mexico. Important factors to consider include avoiding speeding and being aware of hidden thresholds, road holes, and animal crossings.

Speeding while driving in Yucatán is tempting due to the straight, long, and well-maintained roads. However, it is crucial to remain alert to road conditions and be cautious of speed bumps and animals.

Driving in Mexico can be challenging due to the high speed bumps. These obstacles require slow crossing to avoid damaging your car. Surprisingly, speed bumps are present throughout the country, including main roads near villages and even highways. Although some are clearly marked or have warning signs, this is not always the case. Therefore, it is advisable to always keep your foot close to the brake pedal.

In addition to being less common, big potholes on the road can also be annoying and hazardous. Occasionally, a well-maintained road can unexpectedly transform into one with potholes as large as or even larger than your car tire. It is essential to remain alert and vigilant, particularly by observing the vehicles ahead of you. If they make an abrupt maneuver, it is likely that they are avoiding a pothole.

There is also the risk of encountering animals on the road. Warning signs for monkeys and jaguars can be found along the road, but we did not spot any during our road trip in Mexico. Dogs posed the greatest issue as they are abundant throughout the country and can unexpectedly cross the roads. It was heart-wrenching to come across numerous deceased dogs along the road. Additionally, we frequently encountered iguanas on the smaller coastal roads.

This leads to a general recommendation: avoid driving in the dark, if possible. We only did this once after dining far away from our hotel. We made sure to drive cautiously and at a reduced speed.

You may encounter police checks occasionally, but they are not concerning. You can simply drive past them slowly, and sometimes the police ask general questions. For instance, we once had to show our car papers and driver’s license, while another time we were asked about our origin and destination. The police were friendly, and the experience was stress-free.

One last warning: be cautious on the roads in Chiapas. In Yucutan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, we felt safe while driving. However, Chiapas was different. The road from Palenque to San Cristobal, passing by Ocosingo (home to the Tonina Mayan ruins), is notorious for its lack of safety. Stay informed about the current situation on this road. During our visit in January 2020, we were advised against driving on this road due to conflicts between local tribes and gangs. The police and Mexican government were no longer able to guarantee safe travel. Some travelers found the roadblocks to be peaceful and didn’t mind giving money to the impoverished people of Chiapas. However, we wouldn’t have felt the same way, if we were threatened with machetes and our rental car was damaged. Consequently, we chose not to visit San Cristobal.

Roadsign jaguar | Tulum Coba Mexico
Campeche Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Tips for renting a car: beware of the extra costs

Renting a car in Mexico differs slightly from renting in other countries. Not all costs are included in the online prices, making it difficult to notice when booking. These additional costs can be quite high, approximately 15 euros per day. Therefore, we recommend booking a car online only if all essential insurance policies, full coverage, and taxes are clearly included in the price. To obtain a reliable estimate of normal rental car prices, we typically compare prices on Discover Car Hire. Discover frequently offers the best deals, and even if you choose not to book with them, it provides a useful reference for rental car prices at your destination.

We attempted to contact local agencies to inquire about the comprehensive price, including local costs and insurances. However, none of the local companies were able to provide us with a clear answer, and their responses were all ambiguous. Consequently, we made the decision to personally visit several of the local offices in Tulum and requested their most favorable offer, encompassing full coverage. This approach proved successful as we were even able to prompt them to compete with one another through bidding.

Our top suggestion for renting a car in Mexico is to reserve it directly at a car rental office and online only when all expenses are clearly stated.

Campeche Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Tips for driving in Mexico

In general, driving in Yucatan is similar to driving in other places. However, after a few days, we observed unique Mexican driving habits.

The Mexican overtake, also known as the Mexican three-lane, is a fascinating occurrence where wide two-lane roads are used as three-lane roads. It is not uncommon to witness cars driving in the center of the road, effectively creating an additional lane. If you encounter a vehicle approaching with flashing lights, simply shift slightly to the right to accommodate the extra middle line. Although this practice may initially seem unusual and hazardous, you will quickly adapt and adopt it.

This peculiar driving habit also involves the use of direction indicators. When the car ahead of you signals a left turn, it does not always indicate an actual left turn. Instead, it means that the driver intends to move to the right, creating a middle lane for you to pass. This sometimes occurs even when you did not necessarily intend to pass. Furthermore, while driving in the middle of the road, we observed Mexican cars continuously flashing their direction indicators throughout the entire maneuver, until they returned to their side of the road. Presumably, this is to inform oncoming traffic about their execution of a “Mexican three-lane”.

Another note: what might look like hazard lights, could just be an extra set of brake lights.

We had to adapt to the priority rules in cities with grid-like road layouts. Most roads are one-way, making it difficult for Google Maps to navigate at times. It’s important to note that in grid-like cities, you will either always have priority or encounter stop signs at each intersection.

Download the offline maps on Google Maps beforehand to navigate. We also utilize the offline maps solely for hiking, not for driving.

Valladolid Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack
Merida Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

The parking rules in Yucatán

The parking rules in Yucatán can be confusing, as we discovered on Cozumel Island. This led to receiving a parking ticket, despite our belief that we had parked in a designated free spot.

We were mistaken. Later, the police informed us that parking is prohibited in the entire town of Cozumel. This seemed odd since the streets are filled with parked cars. We speculate that the police may only issue parking tickets to rental cars belonging to tourists or maybe locals have permits to park here, but we will never confirm this. Fortunately, the fine was not substantial, so we simply paid it and opted not to engage in this conversation in our limited Spanish.

The police explained the parking system to us. Essentially, avoid parking in areas with yellow markings. However, this is highly perplexing as most parking spaces, such as those at supermarkets, are outlined in yellow. Additionally, it is peculiar to mark a parking spot only to indicate that parking is prohibited and this is not a parking spot you can use. The police clarified that this is due to the fact that these spots can be utilized in the evening in Cozumel, but not during the day (signs we overlooked). They assured us that this rule applies throughout Yucatán.

Regarding the parking fine, it took us some time to realize that we actually received one. A paper was discovered beneath the windscreen wipers, but we couldn’t comprehend its significance. This was not only due to it being in Spanish (Google Translate came to our aid), but also because we were unfamiliar with its format. Now we understand that this document indicated that our rental car’s license plate was confiscated as a form of leverage. We retrieved it after promptly paying the fine.

Therefore, if a paper is found beneath your windscreen wipers or your license plate is missing, it is possible that you have received a parking ticket. Interestingly, it is worth noting that many Mexican vehicles possess only one or even no license plates. Is there a connection? Could they be removing them voluntarily to prevent the police from confiscating one?

Tip: make sure to check if your rental car has both license plates when picking it up.

Extra tip: pay your fine promptly to pay less. We visited the police on the same day and received a significant discount, resulting in a payment of only 15 euros.

How much does it cost to hire a rental car in Mexico? And how about gas?

We paid 600 pesos per day for an 18-day car rental. Considering the high demand during the December/January holiday season in Mexico, this price is relatively high. However, if you choose to travel to Mexico during the low season, you can rent a car for approximately 20 euros per day.

Gas is another factor to consider. You won’t have to refuel your car yourself, as it is typically done by an attendant. They may also clean your windows and usually appreciate a small gratuity for that service. Ensure that the pump meter begins at zero when refueling. This scam is outdated though, and many attendants now specifically indicate the zero before starting. Credit card payment is often available, but it’s also possible that only cash is accepted. If you don’t have any cash, be sure to confirm the option of card payment in advance with the attendant.

The gasoline price in January 2020 was approximately 1 euro per liter. As of June 2023, it is now around 24 Mexican pesos, equivalent to 1.25 euros. In January 2020, we paid 700 pesos for a full tank, which was approximately 35 euros.

One final point: toll roads. These roads are excellent, with minimal entrances or exits. They provide the quickest route from one location to another and we highly recommend using them if you’re limited in travel time. We paid 25 pesos for a bridge to Palenque and 165 pesos for the Autopista 180 between Valladolid and Merida (January 2020). Cash was the only accepted payment method.

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