Tips for a rental car and driving in Mexico

We love a good road trip. Although Mexico might not be the first destination to think of when planning a road trip, this country is actually the perfect destination to explore with your own rental car. The rental prices are reasonable, the roads are great and the most beautiful remote places to see are best explored by car. In this extensive blog we tell you why we would recommend a rental car in Yucatan, how to stay safe on the roads and what costs you should expect.

Merida Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Why rent a car in Yucatan?

Mexico is known for its super-fast, affordable and comfortable bus connections. So why would you spend money on a rental car? To be completely independent of bus schedules and to be able to reach the more remote highlights of Yucatán!

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 to rely on bus schedules. It usually makes up for one entire travel day between the different destinations. But if we have our own rental car, we can just leave and drive to our next destination whenever we like to, making some stops on the road to see even more beautiful highlights like the Mexican cenotes, colorful villages or nice restaurants. We love those kind of days.

And some destinations are just too hard to reach without a rental car. The alternative would usually be an expensive taxi or guided tour. When exploring Yucatán, you’ll probably want to visit its famous cenotes – deep blue, underground water pools – but you’ll rarely find them within cycling or walking distance from towns. You need a car to visit the most beautiful ones. And how about visiting the lost Mayan empire of Calakmul, hidden deep in the Mexican jungle? If you want to climb those high Maya pyramids, you’d better get a rental car for the long jungle drive.

We drove quite a few miles in about 3 weeks. All the detours to waterfalls, cenotes and Mayan pyramids eventually added up to 3,500 kilometers (over 2,000 miles). Some days we stayed in the city and didn’t use our car, but we also drove about 500 kilometers in one day (from and to Palenque and the Mayan ruins of Calakmul).

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

Is driving yourself safe in Mexico?

To be short: yes, it is safe to drive in Mexico yourself. The most important things to take into account are (not) speeding, hidden thresholds and holes in the roads or animals crossing the road.

Speeding when driving in Yucatán is tempting because the roads are often straight, long and of good quality. You can drive them at a high speed, but only if you keep a close look to the road condition and beware of speed bumps and animals.

We found the speed bumps the biggest difficulty when driving in Mexico. They are very high. You can only cross them at a very slow speed, and even then you can sometimes hear a speed bump scraping your car. If you’re driving slow anyways, that wouldn’t be a big problem. But the strange thing is: those speed bumps are all over Mexico, even on the big main roads when leading through a village. So there are even speed bumps on highways, when a village nears. Some are well-marked or signs warn for them, but not all the time. So make sure you keep your foot close to the brake at all times, you might just need it.

Less common, but also annoying and dangerous are big potholes in the road. Sometimes a top-quality road suddenly changes into one with potholes the size of your entire car tire, or even larger. Make sure to always pay attention and keep an eye on the vehicles in front of you. If they make a sudden move, you know they’re probably dodging a pothole.

Then there is the danger of animals on the road. Along the road are signs warning for monkeys or even jaguars, but we didn’t see them during our Mexican road trip. Dogs were the biggest problem. They are all over Mexico and can cross the roads unexpectedly. We saw many dead dogs along the roads, which was an extremely sad thing to see. And another animal we encountered a lot: iguanas! We saw them a lot on the smaller roads near the coast.

This all leads to one more general recommendation: don’t drive in the dark, or just as little as possible. We only did this once after grabbing a bite far from our hotel. We made sure to drive extra careful and slow.

You might encounter police checks occasionally, but those are not a cause for concern. You can usually drive past them slowly and sometimes the police ask you some general things. One time we had to show our car papers and driver’s license, another time we were asked where we came from and what our destination was. The police were friendly and it wasn’t stressful at all.

There’s one last warning we would like to give: beware of the roads in Chiapas. In the states of Yucutan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, we never felt unsafe on the road. But Chiapas was different. The road from Palenque to San Cristobal – passing by Ocosingo (with the Tonina Mayan ruins) – is known to be very unsafe. Make sure to inform yourself about the current situation on this road. When we were there (January 2020), we were recommended to not drive this road because of local tribes and gangs. They started a sort of uprising in this specific area and the police and Mexican government can no longer guarantee safe passage on these roads. We heard some travelers experienced the roadblocks as peaceful and did not mind involuntarily donating money to the poor people of Chiapas. We wouldn’t have felt the same though, being threatened by machetes and damage to our rental car. So we decided 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 is slightly different than in other countries. Not all costs are included in the online prices, but it’s hard to notice this when booking online. And those extra costs can be quite high: about 15 euros a day! We would therefore recommend you to only book a car online if you can clearly see that all mandatory insurance policies, full coverage and taxes are included in the price. To get a good indication of the normal prices for a rental car we usually check prices on Discover Car Hire. Discover often has the best deals and even if you wouldn’t book your car with this company, it gives you a good indication of the prices for car rentals at your destination.

We tried to contact some local agencies, asking them for the total price including local costs and insurances. No local company was able to tell us this and all answers were vague. That’s why we decided to just visit some of the local offices in Tulum and asked them for their best offer, including full coverage. That worked pretty well for us, as we could even have them bid against each other.

So our most important recommendation for renting a car in Mexico: book your car on the spot at a car rental office and only online when it’s clear that everything is included in the price.

Campeche Yucutan Mexico The Orange Backpack

Tips for driving in Mexico

In general, driving in Yucutan is not very different from what we’re used to in Europe. But after a few days on the road, we started to notice some peculiar Mexican driving habits.

For example, the Mexican overtake – or as we heard some Americans describing it: “the Mexican three-lane” – is an interesting phenomenon. It means that wide two-lane roads are often used as a three-lane road. You shouldn’t be surprised to see a car driving in the middle of the road, creating a middle lane. If you see a car approaching you with flashing lights, move slightly to the right to create that extra middle line. It might feel very strange and unsafe, but you’ll start doing this yourself in no time.

This strange driving habit also has its own use of the direction indicators. If the car in front of you flashes its left turn signal, it does not always mean that it will go left. It means he’s will move to the right to create this Mexican middle lane for you to overtake. And yes, that also happened when we did not necessarily wanted to overtake. Also, when you’re driving in the middle of the road, we saw Mexican cars flashing their direction indicator during the whole manoevre just until they got back to their side of the road. Probably to show oncoming traffic that they’re doing a “Mexican three-lane”.

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

A last thing we had to get used to, were the priority rules. Especially in cities with roads laid out in a grid. Most roads are just one-way, creating a maze Google Maps didn’t even always understand. A good thing to know: when driving a road in a grid-like city, you’ll either always have priority or you’ll have stop signs on each crossing.

Tip: download the offline maps on Google Maps in advance to navigate. We also use the offline maps, but just for hikes and not in the car.

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

The parking rules in Yucatán

The parking rules in Yucatán can be a bit difficult to understand, as we found out on the island of Cozumel. The result was a parking ticket, even though we were quite sure we used a designated free parking spot.

We were wrong. Afterwards we learned from the police that parking is not allowed in the town on Cozumel at all. That sounded pretty strange to us, as the streets are packed with parked cars. We think the police might only give parking tickets to the tourist’s rental cars, but we will never find out. The fine was not very high luckely, so we just paid it and choose not to have this discussion in our poor Spanish.

The police did try to explain to us how the parking system works. The bottom line: don’t park anywhere with yellow markings. That’s pretty confusing for us though, as it seems that all parking spaces are lined out with yellow markings, for example at supermarkets. Ans why would there be a parking spot marked anyway, just to indicate you can’t park there? The police explained that this is done because you can use those spots in Cozumel in the evening, just not during the day (indicated by signs we didn’t see). This was the same throughout Yucatán, they said.

So, about the parking fine itself. It took a while to understand we actually had one. We found a piece of paper under the windscreen wipers, but we didn’t understand what it would mean. Not just because it was in Spanish (Google Translate is our best friend), but because we didn’t understand the format. From what we now understand, is that this form indicated that our license plate was taken from the rental car as a sort of leverage. We got it back after paying the fine on the spot. So: if there’s a piece of paper under your windscreen wipers or your license plate is missing, you might have a parking ticket. Remarkably, many Mexican cars have only one or even no license plate. Could there be a connection? Do they remove them themselves to prevent the police from taking one?

Tip: make sure to check if your car has both number plates when picking it up at the rental company.

Extra tip: pay your fine as quickly as possible. We went to the police the same day and got a big discount. We only had to pay 15 euros.

What does a rental car and gas cost?

We paid 600 pesos per day when renting a car for 18 days. That is a lot and normally the prices are much lower. But we were in Mexico in December / January around the big holidays, so in the most expensive time of the year for travelers in Mexico. If you travel to Mexico in the low season, you could rent a car for about 20 euros a day.

Gas is another thing to take into account. You’ll never refuel your car, as it is usual done by a pump operator. They often wash your windows too and expect a small tip for that. Make sure that the meter of the pump starts at zero when refueling. This scam is already so obsolete that many pump operators explicitly point out the zero themselves before starting. You can often pay with a credit card, but it is also possible that only cash is accepted. Make sure to check this with the pump operator in advance if you don’t have any cash on you.

The gasoline price in January 2020 was just under 1 euro per liter. We paid 700 pesos for a full tank, which was about 35 euros.

Then one last thing: toll roads. These roads are the best. They are top quality and have virtually no entrances or exits. The toll roads are the fastest way to get from one place to another. We paid 25 pesos for a bridge to Palenque and 165 pesos for the Autopista 180 between Valladolid and Merida. We could only pay with cash.

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