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Driving in Yucatan

Yucatan 180 AutopistaMany readers who plan to visit the Yucatan ask us about our driving experiences here. It’s not uncommon to read cautions from official websites and popular travel guides, or to hear rather negative anecdotal experiences that make it sound as if Mexico eats road warriors alive.

Lo ovides! (fuggitaboutit!) Don’t believe everything you read (except on this website, of course!) One of the great pleasures of living in this country is exploring it on the road.

The first thing you’ll need are wheels. Some folks (like us) bring their own cars through a process of temporary importation. But most others rent. All of the major rental car companies operate in Yucatan, especially in Cancun and Merida. They are as reputable here as anywhere, which means that we’ve had similar experiences renting cars here as in the U.S. or Italy or Indonesia. You can find Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Thrifty and Alamo rental agencies here, along with several others. We have never encountered a problem with any we have used, nor have we heard of many problems, considering that tens of thousands of tourists and vacationers rent cars here every year.

Selecting and reserving a rental car by phone or email before arriving is a good idea, but it can lead to confusion. For example, Avis and others usually quote the total amount for the period of time you want a car, but Hertz always quotes either a daily rate or a weekly rate and leaves it to you to do the math.  Another point of confusion is caused by the added price of insurance. While liability insurance is required by Mexican law and you will have to pay for it, that doesn’t mean it will be quoted in the rental price of the vehicle, unless you ask them to.

Another thing to keep in mind is that none of the rental car companies will guarantee a specific model of car, so they will quote you a price for a "type" of car, based on a model you specify. These include sub-compacts, compacts, economy, standard, mid-sized… you get the idea. Hertz may have more economical cars in their fleet, so they can underbid Avis in this regard. For example, here in Yucatan, the typical Avis sub-compact is a Ford Fiesta, while Hertz has the Atos. The Atos is only slightly larger than an NBA basketball player’s  sneaker, so they can charge less for it.

Of course, it does pay to shop around. In a poll we recently conducted at the Cancun Airport for a two-week rental price for a compact car, Avis quoted us $767, Hertz $624 and Alamo $512.

Here’s a good website for comparison shopping car rental prices from Cancun: http://www.travel-library.com/carrental/north_america/mexico/cancun/

Mexican law is very strict about liability insurance, but if you rent a car you will have paid for coverage (or they won’t let you drive off the lot). Wherever you travel in Yucatan, be sure to carry your country’s valid driver’s license, your tourist visa and your rental contract, which serves as proof of insurance. Every rental agency has an emergency number you can call if you have trouble and there is also a free service called the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) who respond to mechanical problems. Be patient, even if neither of these rescuers arrives, someone will. Yucatecos share a culture of helping each other with car trouble.

In the past five years, we have driven over 10,000 miles around Mexico. While we’ve seen a few accidents along the way, the only one we participated in was a minor fender bender in Merida. The insurance agents arrived promptly, equipped with cell phones, digital cameras and clipboards, to sort things out with surprising efficiency. As long as you’re carrying the right documents and nobody is seriously hurt, a routine accident is not much different here than a similar experience in Gringolandia with the obvious exception that all of the formalities are conducted in Spanish.

The Yucatan has some of the best highways in Mexico. These are called carreteras. Anyone who lives here or flies into Cancun to travel to Merida, will wind up taking the 180 carretera that connects the Mayan Riviera to Merida. There are actually two highway 180 routes, the autopista (toll road, sometimes also called the cuota, which is the Spanish word for “toll”) and the libre (free) road. The libre road will take you through many traditional Mayan pueblos (villages) and small colonial towns and is a “must do” if you live here and have the time.

Toll Booth on Carretera 180Most people who visit on a schedule or have business to conduct usually don’t have the luxury of taking eight hours or more to drive between Cancun and Merida, so they use the autopista, which takes a little over three hours. The maximum posted speed limit is 110 kmh (about 70 mph) and is even occasionally enforced. When you come to Merida on the 180 autopista, be sure to carry enough pesos to pay the two tolls, one at the Caseta X-Can at the Valladolid exit and the other at Caseta Piste at the Chichen Itza exit. The tolls cost a total of about $300 pesos.

There is also an Aduana (customs) inspection and military checkpoint at the state border between Yucatan and Quintana Roo. If you temporarily imported your own vehicle, you’ll need to show those documents here. They may also ask you to step out of your vehicle so they can inspect it for illegal drugs, firearms and contraband chickens. This exercise is routine across Mexico, so there’s no reason to be tense (unless you really DO have contraband chickens). Be polite. The guys managing these checkpoints are just doing their job and are usually bored to distraction.

Besides, you may be grateful for a little excitement. Anyone who has driven the 180 autopista will tell you it is one, long monotonous drive – fast but dull. The endless passing of an encroaching forest and unchanging ribbon of flat road between your eyes can be hypnotic. Take your CD collection or a good conversationalist with you. We often read to each other to pass the time. You may occasionally see an altar along the road to commemorate a death or as a place to ask the La Virgen to protect you from other drivers. Two of these are located at the 100 and 180 kilometer markers.

Yucatan Truck StopAt roughly the 150 km marker you’ll find what we call the “halfway point.” It’s a Yucateco truck stop where you can fuel up and grab a bite. Tasty regional food can be found here, along with many commercial products made by local Mayan enterprises, including honey, soap, shampoo, neem oil and aloe vera products, and various kinds of chilies. Be sure to stop in at Doña Tere’s luncharia, the only place in the world where you can order fresh panuchos or cochinita pibil and wash it down with a (rather good) cappuccino.

Mayan Products on the 180 AutopistaThe experience on the libre road is much different. If you drive off the major highways and into some of the smaller towns, there will be topes (toe-pays) or speed bumps. There will probably also be Mayans and their animals going about their business, which means they will be using the road for activities other than driving a car, which they seldom own. You will probably see families out for a spin in their tricicletas, their large, three-wheeled, foot-powered vehicles. When exploring the rural areas of Yucatan, and especially the traditional Mayan villages, please drive extra carefully.

Of course, it is possible to get yourself “lost” while driving in la selva (the jungle). We say “lost” in quotes because everyone around you will know exactly where you are, so just ask for directions. The tourist approach is to ask where your destination is located, as in “donde está Cancun?” Unfortunately, the locals probably don’t get out much. Many around Merida have never been to Progreso, much less Cancun. When they do travel long distance, it is usually by bus, so they have seldom navigated the region themselves. But whether they know or just think they do, they will gladly point you to a few local landmarks and from there, it’s todo derecho (all straight).

Don’t bother pulling out your map and asking them to trace a route for you because most Mayans have never used a map before. The best approach is to ask the locals where you are, locate it on your map, and then plan your next move. In some cases, the pueblo (village) you’re in may not be on the map, so you’ll need to guess which large-ish pueblo or ciudad (city) is nearby and ask for directions to there. Don’t worry, if all else fails, turn your car in any direction but south and all roads will eventually take you to a city or the sea. In Yucatan, everywhere really is todo derecho!

There are some unusual driving traditions in Yucatan. If the vehicle in front of you flashes his left turn signal, it may mean he intends to turn left, but it more commonly means it’s safe for you to pass. On two-lane roads, the vehicle in front may drive close to the shoulder so you can pass between him and oncoming traffic. We call this invisible center passing lane the “smerge” lane. Drivers behind you may expect this "courtesy" and express their wishes by flashing their headlights. And if you see a driver barreling down the middle of the road toward you, he is using the “smerge” lane, so give him some room and let him through.

Vocho in MeridaThe most challenging driving is found in the larger colonial cities of Merida, Izamal, Motul and Valladolid, where nearly all the streets are one-way, narrow and full of activity. Merida often seems like a huge pinball machine with autobuses and speeding vochos (Volkswagens) all vying for high score. Some intersections have roundabouts, called glorietas here. If you’re not used to them, they can be a bit intimidating. Just wait for an opening in the traffic coming from your left, then merge. If you’re not sure which exit to take out of a glorieta, you can always drive in circles until you find the right one. Also keep a sharp eye out for cruces de peatones (pedestrian crossings) or cruces de escolares (school crossings). You’ll be in big trouble if you enter a crossing zone when people are in it.

The only thing that we can say in general about Yucateco drivers is that they are unpredictable. Many drive just as you’d expect, but others are untrained, or a tad old, or as confused as you are, or talking on their cell phone while watching television (that’s right, Yucatecos sometimes mount a small television on their dashboard, right next to their plastic Virgen de Guadalupe).

Oh, and one last thing about driving here: We have been meaning to print a bumper sticker for our car that says, “Honk if you’re driving in Yucatan!” Yucatecos love to honk their horns. Some have upgraded their claxon to play a snatch of music or unlikely sound effect. Expect to be honked at, but don’t be offended; there’s very little road rage in Yucatan. Here they honk defensively, as if to say, “here I am!” when they don’t think you’re paying attention. But if you’re caught napping at a semaforo (stoplight), you can expect a bright and shiny “wake up!”


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90 Responses to “Driving in Yucatan”

  1. I agree, there are quite a few places here in Florida that are more “challangeing” than the Yucatan when it comes to driving. The glorietas and getting in the right lane to turn left on parts of Paseo Montejo can be “interesting”. One thing you forgot to mention it the lack of use of traffic lanes. I truly don’t know why the government wastes the money to paint them as they are of no use what so ever.

  2. I truly enjoyed the article. As I go to Merida every year fora month, I find bus travel so very easy as opposed to tours. Some day I am going to venture out in a car and I will now know I’m safe. Thanks for the article

  3. Nice to read a positive article about driving in Mexico instead of the usual rocky horror show. Thanks for a well written and very informative piece.

  4. Driving in the Yucatan was much easier than we expected it to be even five years ago. And more boring! We can still clearly remember that first drive from Cancun to Merida and our amazement at how flat, straight and incredibly long that drive was. We also wondered where those Mayans on the side of the road came from, considering all we’d been seeing for hours was jungle and more jungle. Little did we know that just on the other side of the trees we could see was a plethora of Mayan villages whose residents use the carretera as a faster way to get between towns on foot and on bicycle. Since we moved here, the government has continued to improve the roads and build new ones, and in our experience, Yucatan has some of the best roads in the country. And yet, you can still find narrow country roads and get lost in space & time if you want. It seems like the best of both worlds!

  5. Sometime you’ll need to compare driving in the “ciudads” there to making it through, say, downtown Boston or Memorial Drive in Cambridge. To date, those are the only places in the States that have given me the willies, so if it ain’t worse than that, I know I can take on the challenge :-)

  6. Hi Chris! Well, nothing in my experience can compare to driving through downtown Boston during the Big Dig. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. And I’ve driven in Rome, London, Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York. Driving in the Yucatan is a barefoot walk in the park on a Sunday morning compared to that.

  7. In the glorietas, who has the right of way, the cars coming into it or the ones already in it? I don’t want to guess wrongly.

    Also, in the poll you did at the airport where Avis cost $767, Hertz $624 and Alamo $512, did that include liability for the two weeks or not, in all three of those cases? Do you recommend buying comprehensive rental insurance coverage from the rental company on top of that, in case the plastic Virgin of Guadalupe nods off at an unfortunant moment?

    I am bringing a manual wheelchair to Yucatan, so so I need to rent a compact or one size up? The tennis shoe-size car is smaller than my chair is, I am certain. Can you write something about public parking availability, por favor?

    Muchisimas Gracias for the wonderful blog on driving. Your website offers far more helpful information than others out there. I am so glad to have found you. What can you not get in Yucatan that we can bring you when we come your way, to thank you?

  8. I hope more people visiting Mexico read this article. There is alot of bad press about driving here! We drive back and forth from Izamal to Merida several times a week and have never encountered banditos but instead mostly courteous drivers. I defintely feel safer driving here than other places I have lived because there are really not that many cars on the highway. In Merida it just takes a little getting used to the “rules”.

    When driving through little pueblos we usually check that todo derecho includes a street with electric poles once you are out of twon. That is usually a good bet that you are heading to the next pueblo.

    Also when renting a car I have always done best in Mexico with http://www.orbitz.com

  9. There were so many things that are so true in this article than made me laugh so much. I miss Yucatan a lot, and since I will be visiting soon and renting a car, I am glad you remind me about the driving in Yucatan.
    By the way, “forggitaboutit” in Spanish is “olvidalo”(for singular) or “olvidenlo”(for plural), (Volkswagens)are called “volchos” with an “l” and no vochos. I know you are working in your Spanish that’s why I am mentioning this to you, I am working in my English to, and I hope my writing is understandable as well, ha, ha, ha! I enjoy this article a lot. You surprise me every time.
    Sincerely, Lizbeth

  10. Gracias, Lizbeth.

    We enjoy your comments too! It is more emphatic to say ovidalo and it is a better translation.

    Since you’re working on your English, the proper way of saying it is, “I am working ON my English” (not “IN my English”). It’s confusing because in Spanish “on” and “in” are the same word, namely “en”. We have the same problem with “a” in Spanish, because it is two words in English, “at” and “to”.

    We have no doubt that many people pronounce vocho like “volcho”, since it is a made up word from “Volkswagon” (which has the letter “L” in it) and bicho (the Spanish word for bug). But anywhere we’ve seen it spelled, it’s vocho. Google it and see.

    Thanks for correcting us… we really do appreciate it!

  11. Dear Cindi,

    The cars in the glorietas have the right of way and they won’t let you forget it, either.

    The quoted rates for car rental include the basic liability insurance required by law, but there are additional insurance options you can select. For example, Avis offers:

    Loss Damage Waiver: $19.99/day
    Personal Accident Insurance: 3.99/day
    Additional Liability: $11.99/day

    We can’t think of a time when we elected to take additional insurance, but it’s a very personal decision.

    We would definitely recommend renting a mid-size, like a Neon if you’re bringing a wheelchair. There are many public parking lots in the cities, called estacionamiento publico in Spanish, but never a parking meter on the streets. In Merida, public parking costs between 5 and 10 pesos an hour.

    As for your kind and generous offer, read our article called Missing Gringo Comforts. :)

  12. We have used the autopista from Merida to Cancun many times and it is very nice to drive. The humor is the banditos with machetes are acually roadworkers cutting the brush down. The butterflies can be intimidating, so always make sure your washers are full.

    I have been told by Merida locals that the autopista can give you flat tires from the mix used in the cement. I never experienced this.

  13. I just returned from Merida after a three week trip visiting my boyfriend. We rented a car twice and drove out to the Mayan Riveria for a little beach time. I agree that the road is long and boring – we drove in a cheap rental with not radio! But we opted to take the libre route most times. I wanted to chime in that I used Maya Rentals on Calle 60 in el Centro and got a fairly junker car for $300/day including insurance and milege. It seemed like a pretty good deal considering the prices I saw walking around. Coming from Seattle I actually enjoyed driving in and around Merida – the conservative drivers up here make it less fun :P ).
    Thanks -

  14. Mike, They even have billboards up along the Autopista reminding you to check your tires. We’ve heard that running overinflated tires with thin treads over hot asphalt for three hours can definitely take its toll.

  15. Very informative article. Having traveled to Cancun and Mérida numerous times, there were few occasions where one encountered a difficulty with a car rental. Problems can occur, judging from the experiences we observed from fellow travelers, but they seem to be in the minority. It was very good to point out the insurance aspects. We heard many people arguing with the car rental people, refusing to pay for the liability insurance. The car rental folks were always respectful and patient. That was not always the case for the customers.

    Our experiences have been good. We made it a point to tip the folks and have found that with each trip we make, they remember us and go out of their way to get us through the process quickly. During the past few trips, we were pleased to find that we had been up-graded to a larger car without asking or being charged. Also, initially, our rental cars were not given to us with a full tank, but now we are always given a full tank of gas at the airport. The car rental agency we use has had the same employees for a while and it is always good to see a familiar friendly face.

  16. When we first got here, I thought the honking was obnoxious and rude. How wrong I was. I didn’t see one accident the whole time we were here for two months until the last day as we were leaving to the ADO bus station. It makes perfect sense. They honk before they get to the intersection. “Watch out, I’m coming”. It’s a courtesy thing. They don’t want a problem to occur. Except for when someone is stopped in front of them and they want the line to move. Then I think it’s just sheer excitement to hear the sound of their horn. They will beep it as long and as hard as they can. But it’s harmless fun. They mean nothing at by it. It’s just the thing to do.

  17. Very funny! Enjoyable and useful reading. Thanks.

  18. interesting read. I’m planning to visit the peninsula for two weeks next month with my girlfriend. I’ve been to mexico twice before but did all transport by public transportation. this time we wanna make the most out of our short time and rent a car. the plan is to travel clockwise around yucatan and quintana roo (and perhaps a bit of chiapas): cancun -> playa del carmen -> tulum -> xcalak -> bacalar -> calakmul ( -> palenque depending on time schedule) -> campeche -> merida -> valladolid -> cancun.
    I’m not worried about mexican driving since I’m from belgium and have been driving around brussels, paris, amsterdam, etc for years. only bangkok still scares me, haha. so according to what you’re saying it is wise to only take out liability insurance? I’ve read elsewhere that the most possible insurance should be taken. also what’s the latest update on the security situation in chiapas? last time I was there it was a bit rowdy. we spend a couple of hours staring at a road block on the way to san cristobal. thanks for the info!

  19. Hola, Nicolas.

    We envy your upcoming trip. Sounds like you’ll have a wonderful time!

    If you’re the type of person who tends to carry the most insurance possible wherever you live, then certainly you should do the same in Mexico. It’s a very personal decision and we wouldn’t want anyone to travel in Mexico if they felt insecure. There is an abundance of possible insurance upgrades to choose from. It’s just that in our opinion, the rental agencies and insurance companies benefit from these more consistantly then the drivers.

    There is always a military checkpoint at the state border of Chiapas. We’ve not had any problem driving to Palenque the many times we’ve done it. Driving up to San Cristobal is a different matter. You can get the latest news about that from Here.

  20. hey thanks for the answer.

    I’ll probably take out basic insurance just like I do at home. I’m pretty confident I won’t crash into a cow (or one of those damned topes). however all these different insurance types are confusing the hell out of me. CDW, LDW, PAI, XYZ. to make matters even more confusing, different rental companies include different insurances in the standard price, and offer the same insurances at different prices. I tried comparing similar packages and I got results ranging from 500 to 800 euros. doesn’t make much sense to me. I even got different prices between the american and the mexican websites of a certain company.

  21. …but wait! You left out the part about the banditos!!! If I have been asked that once, I’ve been asked a thousand times. I now send folks who ask that to the America’s Most Wanted web pages to check out the maps on where serial killers are currently operating in the U.S. There are, according to the FBI, never fewer than 5 serial killers on U.S. highways at any given time. I’d rather drive in Mexico! (and we won’t EVEN talk about crossing Houston on the WAY to the border!)

  22. I have drove all over the Yucatan and never had any problems!

  23. We are planning to buy a property in Merida and we are wondering if it is better to bring your own car from the States or buy one in Merida. What are your thoughts on this? JMU

  24. Dear JMU,

    This is not a particularly easy question to answer because it depends so much on your personal situation. For example, are you coming to live in Mexico permanently? Would you want to sell the car you have now anyway? How old is the car you have now? Do you want to keep one car where you live now and another one in Mexico? Etc.

    You can “import” your car temporarily when you cross the border into Mexico on an FM-T (tourist) visa for a nominal fee. This is called Permiso de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos. You’ll need to show your passport, title and registration for the vehicle, proof of Mexican insurance and have a major credit card. You will not be able to sell the car while in Mexico and you have to take your car out of Mexico when you leave or they’ll fine and tax you through the credit card.

    You can keep a temporarily imported car in Mexico indefinitely if you hold a residence visa (FM-2 or FM-3). The car’s import status will be renewed each year when you renew your visa, but you still can’t sell the car, nor can you let anyone else drive it.

    You can import your car into Mexico permanently so that you can sell it here, but you will have to pay a rather high import duty, depending on the age of the vehicle. For more info, see our article called, Placas.

    You’ll find almost every car dealership in Merida, and the aftermarket for used cars is quite extensive and priced better. Auto repair and service is generally quite good here, too. So if you don’t want your car anymore and you plan to live in Mexico full time, then most would advise that you should sell your car where you are and buy another in Mexico. If you only plan to visit from time to time, like to drive, and aren’t really ready to buy a new car, then drive your car down to Merida.

  25. ¡Hola! Working Gringos-
    I’m having a bit of trouble finding the thread that directly relates to my question, so this seems as sensible a place to put it as any. I remember you all commenting in an article about the tranquility of Mérida that only once had you really had much of a problem… and that was when your plates were stolen. As luck would have it, my plates were stolen as well – but not here in Mérida, rather in the somewhat dingier and less tranquilo Pachuca, Hildalgo. I was wondering what your resolution was to that problem, and how it affected your leaving the country when you tried to drive back up to California. I was able to get the police to give me an authorized notice recognizing the loss, but I’ve since had new plates sent from the states and have not felt up to what I think could be the bureaucratic nightmare of having them validated (I also think I could be looking at more fees). Do you all have first hand experience? Any advice you could offer me? Also, I was issued a six-month tourist visa but may not make it to the border before my six months are up. Any experience with fines (and all the difficulties that I’m sure arise when a car is involved)? Thanks so much!

  26. Hi Andy,
    When you say “validated” (your new US plates), do you mean by the Mexican authorities? In CA when you get your plates replaced, you get a new registration document with the new plates shown on that document. As long as you have that, the notice from the Mexican government that your plates were stolen and the VIN numbers all match up, you should have no problem. It may take some explaining but as long as you have the paperwork, you should be okay. We do not have firsthand experience because we could not get our CA plates reissued… we needed to get a smog check first and our car was thousands of miles away from where they do that!

    The expired visa might be a different problem… we don’t have experience wtih that either. You are supposed to return your tourist visa at the beginning of the NAFTA zone when you end your temporary car importation. If it is expired, we think they might charge you a fine, but it’s probably not that much. Our instinct would be to pay that and then you won’t have to worry about leaving the country when you get to the border.

    We welcome any of our other readers to comment if they have any experience with this.

  27. Well – I guess I’ve got an evil streak after all. A particularly exasperating friend is driving down to visit. I can hardly WAIT for them to face a six lane wide, busy city street – with no lane markers painted on it! What FUN! :) …and to make matters worse, I have every intention of making a video of it! :)

  28. My wife and I are living in Korea now, thinking about moving to the Yucatan in a few years, hopefully to open a business. We’re just looking into all the visa and house buying issues, doesn’t really seem like it’ll be all that hard. What I would like to ask is this. I’ve become very comfortable driving my scooter all over Korea. How likely is it that I’ll be able to buy a scooter in Merinda, and what do you think the riding experience would be like there?

  29. I see people on scooters in Merida all the time. Seems like a good way to get around to me.

  30. Garrin, it seems to us that people drive every conveyance ever invented in Merida, including bicycles, scooters, horse-drawn carts, stilts, tricicletas, converted motorcycles, high-powered wheelchairs, skateboards, modified volkswagons, golf carts, hybrids, hummers, and practically anything else you can name but two: hang gliders, because there’s nowhere to launch them from (it’s flat here) and subways, because the limestone tierra is just too difficult to dig up.

  31. At the risk of overextending a long string of comments, I’ll just add that I’ve driven from Los Angeles to Merida several times, and that I’ve been treated pretty well by the police and never encountered any bandits or farm animals on the road, even though I’ve driven late into the night.

    The autopistas are generally in pretty good shape, near the quality of most US Highways. Somewhat costly, but worth it if you have a long way to go. I found the main road through central mexico better than the road along the gulf coast, although the latter was fine most of the way, and it does avoid Mexico City, and it also shows you the countryside around Veracruz, which is as pretty as it gets. Once past the D.F., it is pretty smooth. The main roads in the Yucatan are generally as good as US Highways. The road up the coast towards Campeche is lovely and uncrowded.

    Rest facilities are not always what they should be. Not as much of a problem for men as women. I’m trying to figure out a good system so I can bring my wife on the next trip. It is a lovely drive, but the toilets are bad in a lot of places.

  32. We are planning to drive from Merida to Xcalak in March. How are the roads and frequency of gas stations and food?

  33. I’m driving down to Xcalak next weekend; I’ll write a full report when I get there. I have driven it before and the roads were fine. You take advantage of the PEMEX stations when you see them. I understand the news roads are completed and the drive is easier. I will let you know.

  34. There are decent roads (although many are two lane, depending on your route) until the last few miles. Anywhere away from the urban areas, you would be well advised to fill up almost everytime you see a gas station. (PEMEX) Again, depending on your route, some of the larger villages have stations, but most of the small ones do not. Xcalak is far from most civilization, so you’ll want plenty of gas once you arrive there. (I haven’t heard of them getting a PEMEX yet, but they didn’t used to have one). Also, while Merida has 24 hour stations, that isn’t always true in the small towns.

    So, map out your route, pick out the large towns and plan on pit stops and filling up:
    Merida – Valladolid – Cancun (or take an earlier turn) to Tulum – Felipe Carrillo Puerto
    or
    Merida – Ticul/Tekax – Felipe Carrillo Puerto – Xcalak

  35. OOoops! Forgot to mention that there may be military checkpoints on roads near Xcalak, as it is very near the border with Belize. Be sure to drive up to them slowly and stop.

    They only look mean with those automatic weapons. They’ve always been very polite and brief. Usually one or two questions, open a door or two and the trunk and you are off again.

    The military is only looking for drugs and other smuggling, in case you wonder.

    The typical gringo couple are not of much interest to them. They are as bored by the whole thing as you are. But they do have those guns.

  36. More questions — we are going through Ticul/Mani but then I wonder is it better to go through Felipe Carrillo Puerto and then Mahahual or the other route down toward Bacalr and then Mahahual.

    And Martha, (I know this is not about driving) but we have never been to Xcalak, how is the water for swimming, lots of turtle grass etc.? Easy to walk in?
    Dangerous water creatures?

    And biking around the area, birding? (of course snorkling)

    The Ceviche?

  37. I called vws bugs vochos
    It was funny to hear that in the Yucatan, they know them as volchos, where did the “l” come from?

  38. The water is fantastic. Seriously. Just incredible. Clear and clean. Some beach/sea floor is rocky and some is sand, just depends on the exact spot. Enjoy!

  39. Can any one advise on taking a bus from Cancun to Merida. Thanks in advance

  40. We just got back from Xcalak, driving to and from Merida. The road trip was just delightful. A few great small towns. We only had one military checkpoint, pleasant enough. We saw some yellow cabs in Xcalak that came from Mahauhaul and other places, even Cancun. It is a teeny town with very nice people. We accidently passed the road to Xcalak and continued following signs for Mahauhaul (I think the Xcalak sign was gone). Then once in Mahauhaul, we followed signs to Xcalak on the beach road. HUGE mistake, a horrrendous road. After hours in the dark, we finally came to the road block, and asked a local person who kindly explained how to return to the main road. It was dark and eerie ride with large surreal crabs running across the road. (We spoke Spanish on this trip everywhere, but in Xcalak there is a number of English-speakers, and a small community of Americans and Canadians)
    It is definite important to get gas at every gas station.

  41. The roads in Yucatan are for the most part better than here in Ohio where I live if you stay on the main roads. I have been passed by horses many times in the back country on what were once paved roads. We had a brush fire overrun our car last trip. That’s what the gas petal is for, get out of the way. The only way to see Latin America is by car. The buses will take you to the big towns but if you want to get out to Isla Arena or Mayapan in your own time then a car is a must. Our last trip we put 3200 km on the rental and had no problem other than getting turned around a few times. The advice on gas is right on, they are not on every corner and the stations run out so fill up at a half tank and anytime you are going out into the bush. There is only one station going across 186 down on the southern border of Yucatan, its 40 miles each way into the ruins at Calakmul, you do not want to run out back there in the forest.
    As to renting: take a digital photo of every inch of the car before you leave the yard, you pull the camera out on the return and there will be no problem with all the nicks and bumps that were on the car when you picked it up.
    Maybe I’m not right but when I see a little road going off the highway I feel the need to see what’s back there, can’t do that on a bus.
    PS. I’m good at backing up.

  42. The fires on the sides of the road to clear brush and keep the road clear can be frightening on a windy day when huge fires are blowing across the road and the smoke is so thick it is hard to see. But this only happened once to us.

  43. Hi Chris,

    I am thinking about coming down to visit client # 9 in the next coupla’ months or so. I learned to drive by cutting off DC taxi drivers years ago, spent many a weeked in TJ, not to mention months in Mexico (Mex. City, Guadalajara, Leon, Taxco, Acapulco, Puerta Vallarta, Cabo, etc), can navigate traffic circles with ease, the smerge lane is common in Thailand, and I became accustomed to the friendly beeping while being chauffered in the back of a cattle truck in St Lucia. One of the last times I saw client #9 he was freaking out in traffic on the 101 south to San Luis Obispo. Can he handle the 180 carretera or should I take the bus?

  44. well, we’ll answer that…. if you can handle Thailand and other cities in Mexico, the 180 will be no problem whatsoever!

  45. My husband and I have had wonderful time driving through the Yucatan Penninsula. Everything we read says “don’t drive at night.” But, we like to sleep in and tend to get a late start. So, we drove at night anyway.

    My favorite memory of 3 trips to the Yucatan was when we were driving through a jungle late at night in a VW Bug. We intentionally went off the highway to take road we saw on the map to connect to another highway. We kept coming to unmarked forks. I had this little compass on my key chain and would decide what fork to take based on the direction it seemed to go. Then the road would turn in an unexpected direction and I would doubt whether we went the right way. At one point my husband slowed down suddenly because the road was covered with tarantulas. COOL! A while later, people started appearing along the road, walking and biking in the same direction dressed in their Sunday best. It was just approaching Sunday at midnight. The jungle suddenly opened up into a small village with a carnival in the main square in front of a beautiful church. We eventually made it to the highway we were heading for, about 20 miles from where we thought we’d meet it.

    I’ve never felt anything but safe while driving the Yucatan, even while surrounded by tarantulas!

  46. I wouldn’t say “don’t drive at night”, however additional precaution is advised.
    Not so much because it’s unsafe in the sense that bandits assault you on your way, but because there are many people around (especially in the small villages) who are just not used to traffic.
    That means they are riding their bikes w/o backlight, walking in the middle of the street or do other stuff that could be a hazard to their life.
    Also, vehicles in Mexico are not necessarily in the same shape one is used from Europe or the US. So you might just hit something because it has no light and you don’t see it.
    Conclusion: no problem to drive at night, but just be extra careful.

  47. Checkpoints are something to be embarrassed about. I mean, the military / police looking through people’s cars without an order, it’s just arbitrary and invasive. I usually just find an alternative road when driving through Yucatan.

  48. A large, extended family is currently mourning the deaths of seven family members:

    Driving to visit relatives in Mexico for the holidays, at night, they came to a bridge over the Chonchos River which had been washed out. Their vehicle shot off the bridge, landing on it’s roof in the river and sinking. Only one person was able to escape. A second car saw the first one fall into the river and was able to stop, but they were unable to reach the submerged car in time to save more.

    Esparza said there were no signs or barriers keeping traffic off the bridge… “There were no signs or lights, nothing,” Alejandra Hernandez, whose 5-year-old son died in the accident, told The Dallas Morning News. “They fell in because it was dark.”

    When guidebooks and travel advisors say, “Don’t drive at night,” they mean, “driving at night in mexico is so much more dangerous that you may be able to realize.”

    Sure, people do it and nothing happens. But you could be surprised by something never expected. And then it is too late.

    So, use the utmost caution. As Harold and others pointed out, there can be many unexpected hazards.

  49. Driving at night outside the city can be dangerous, mostly because the roads in Mexico aren’t well lit enough (or at all), lack barriers or central islands and many don’t have any signs at all. If you come to Merida and you’re not familiar with it, avoid AT ALL COSTS the Periferico Ring, especially at night. It has no lights (yet) nor a single stop sign. It is an uninterrupted flow of mostly terrible drivers going at over 50MPH and many people have died trying to cross it (there’s only ONE pedestrian bridge at the moment, with more being built).

  50. I know that the city publishes a map every year of bus routes and bus numbers. Is there anyway that Yucatanliving can find one and pdf it on their web site or have MEL sell photocopies?

  51. I am over 80 years old, I have been driving in Mexico starting in 1946. I have driven in all the mexican states. before you drive in Mexico you better understand their laws.it is better to talk to a mexican for advice.

  52. Note: The periferico has stop signs and traffic signals. And, yes, it is true, many people have died — bicyclists, pedestrians, motorists — due to the fast and reckless driving that some people do there. Too many juniors.

  53. I would like to give it a try if you could possibly know, how much of a drive is it from Felipe Carrillo Puerto to Playa del Carmen. My husband just became an ejidatario, and we want to explore the area. He’s waiting for me in Merida, where we are planning to live, and I am over here in San Antonio, Tx, ready to take off and planning our upcoming journey…
    Thank you for your excellent articles !! Everything you write takes me there…

  54. I have a few issues with how many people said Merida is easy to drive in. I lived in Merida for 14 years. I learned how to drive there before I ever drove in the US. What people need to understand about driving in Merida is that we have no road rules. Yes we have stop signs and everything else civilized cities have but when it comes to actually driving forget everything you know. In Merida if you try to use turn signals it just tells people to cut you off… As for the border cross between Yucatan and Quintana Roo, well my friends and I went to Cancun almost every long weekend we had from school and I never once was stopped, and my car had Florida state license plates. I always would slow down and the armed guards would just wave us through. And honestly when it comes to driving at night, inside the city I think driving at night is sooo much easier than during the day because there’s half as many people on the road but on the highway its not quite dangerous but you have to watch out for people on the side of the road especially on the weekends you need to look out for drunks on their bicycles… But this is just my opinion as an American who grew up in Merida and now lives and drives in the US.

  55. Driving in Merida made me realize how asleep we can be at the wheel in the US. Paying attention is a must.

  56. you must try the tizimin road to get cancun, i tried it last week and was a very gratefull experience, too much safer than the free way wich cross valladolid, and with the same visual effect. i did it in 3 and a half hours. You must go first to tizimin, then the cross road to the holbox island, and there ask to get cancun, but you must take the cancun – holbox road, because there is another road wich takes you to the ideal town and make you lost about 40 min. Was a great experience, considering that the road isn´t sooo straigth and cross only about 5 villages (included tizimin city wich is very pleasent). I hope you could enjoy it as i did.

  57. Good article to review

  58. To all visitors, PLEASE STOP TO A COMPLETE HALT when you see the red octagon on the corner with ALTO in white letters! it’s the same as the american STOP sign, except that in here if you decide not to stop, you will probably have a big crash. A canadian couple (parents of a friend) died because they didn’t stop six months ago and my wife and child almost did because someone else didn’t either. In here the street without the stop sign will not even slow down, taking for granted that you will stop your vehicle.

    Also please remember that people here do not respect speed limits, unless they see a police car, so take it in consideration.

  59. I have a question about liability/collision insurance on rental cars. Our credit card covers this insurance when we pay for the rental car using our card so am I to understand that it is different in Mexico? I have phone both the car rental company and Visa credit card services and they assure me that we are covered. What can you tell me about this?
    Thank you

  60. Carole,
    We are looking into this to be sure, but our first instinct is that you are indeed covered.

  61. We are planning a drive from Campeche to Playa del Carmen. Is this a reasonable one-day drive? Any idea of how many hours it might take?

  62. Campeche to Merida is about 2.5 to 3 hours.

    Merida to Playa del Carmen is 3.5 to 4 hours.

    It would be a very long day.

  63. See this website for times and tolls.
    I agree with about 6-7 hour drive.
    http://aplicaciones4.sct.gob.mx/sibuac_internet/ControllerUI?action=cmdEscogeRuta&eligeIdioma=si

  64. Hola everyone!! Myself, my 86yr old Mother and one 50lb dog are considering driving from Brownville to Merida area. Am I insane or should I attempt this? Biggest concern believe it or not is Mom worrying about bathroom facilities. What do you all think? Greatly appreciate your thoughts and opinions. Gracias! Miguel

  65. We have made that trip a few times. You aren’t insane… it’s doable. You will have to search for places that will take a big dog, but they can be found (with a little extra money in hand). Also, there are always bathrooms at the Pemex stations, which are plentiful along the highway. There are also reststops with bathrooms, and any restaurant or store with a bathroom in Mexico wouldn’t think of refusing an 86-year old woman!

  66. Thanks “working gringo”. I have met someone from Florida who is looking for company on the trip down. She has made the trip before. Hopefully this will pan out.

  67. Working Gringos, I remember you wrote you were from California. I live in the Bay Area and am considering driving from here to Merida with my children (3,7,9). I have gotten many different numbers for the actual drive time hours that it will take. I think you mentioned you did the drive before. Can you tell me how long it would take to drive? # of driving hours? # of days it will realistically take us, taking into consideration that I am travelling with small children? And any problems we might entounter travelling with our two small dogs (to bring or not to bring)?

    Thanks!

  68. Hello: we are travelling to Merida for our fourth visit, and when we return to the Cancun airport we would like to avoid what has happened to us previously. Can anyone tell us which of the two exits to take from the ‘Cuarto’ to the Cancun airport? One mentions Tulum, the other doesn’t. For some reason we always take the wrong one, which leads us into the city of Cancun instead of directly to the airport. We get lost and then it takes an extra hour to find our way to the airport , praying we still have time to get on the flight…I don’t remember which exit is the ‘wrong one,’ which makes it likely we will make the same mistake again. Does anyone know what the sign says for the ‘right’ exit?

  69. Has anyone driven from Houston, Texas to Progresso or Merida? How doable is it? How long a drive? and with a 85 lb dog!!!
    Any information on added insurance on personal car, travelling with dog. etc would be most welcome.
    Thank you. Carole

  70. Hi everyone, If you are looking for nice houses in Mérida I have 3 great opportunities:
    One located in Montes de Amé (Mérida Yuc) about 1 min from Gran Plaza and Prol. Montejo.

    Other in Santa María Chuburná (Mérida Yuc) near Macro Plaza and Glorieta Xtabay and SCT.

    Last one in Montecristo (Mérida Yuc) with pool located in a very nice area near Plaza Altabrisa and Star Medica.

    Im the investor english spoken, if you are interesting send a mail to:

    frankmccourt [at] hotmail [dot] com

    And I will help you

  71. Driving from Florida to Playa Del Carmen, Mapped out on RandMcnally.com, my question is if Im looking at staying for 2 months how much stuff can I bring ?? I know clothes, but how about computers, magic jacks etc…..

    I’ve stayed in Puerto Aventuras and Playa for a few months at a time so i understand the saftey there, but Im hearing horror stories about driving through the border, any advice about border towns right now ??

    I see people say Do Not Drive at night… is that still the case?? if so where do you recommend staying?? is it safe?? are there gas stations along the way??

    thanks everyone

    mikemasella [at] aol [dot] com

  72. Mike,
    Yes, it’s safe to stay in hotels along the way. No, we don’t know much about the current state of affairs at the border, but we would recommend passing it as soon as possible… no dilly dallying. Yes, you can bring your computer and magic jack… they don’t really care about that stuff. No, we wouldn’t suggest driving at night if you can help it. People and animals come out at night in places you might not expect them. And yes, there are Pemex gas stations all along the way. They are state-owned, the gas costs the same at all of them, and they almost always have clean bathrooms.
    Have a great drive!

  73. Hello, Everyone, Thank you for the interesting and informative posts. I have an upcoming travel dilemma regarding one-way car rental, and I am hoping someone might have suggestions. Any insight most welcome and appreciated. Four of us are planning to drive the Yucatan peninsula and into Palenque, Villahermosa and San Cristobal over 15 days in early November. We already have our tickets purchased and would like to rent a car one-way from the Cancun airport to the Villahermosa airport. Although a bit off-put by the one-way drop off fees and rather steep prices in general, I had committed to booking online when I began reading hundreds of negative reviews about intl. rental companies like Alamo, Hertz and Europcar. There are so many consistent, horrifying stories of being scammed with additional fees and not having any legal protection from the US offices because the local franchises are independently owned. So, I also looked up a local Cancun rental company that offers one-way rentals named Buster Rental Car; but, they also had very negative, alarming reviews. My friends and I are looking forward to a nice, relaxing roadtrip where we can explore on our own time and much off the beaten path; but, I’m very concerned about finding a legitimate car rental company. Can anyone please recommend a car rental company (local or otherwise) that offers one-way rentals and is reputable? We are all veteran travelers who enjoy immersing ourselves in local culture and are pretty easygoing when traveling; but, finding hundreds of negative reviews has been pretty disheartening and warrants caution. Thank you so much, in advance, for any help or recommendations you may be able to provide, much appreciated. I’d like to book a car as soon as possible. Thanks again. -Christian

  74. Most likely the negative reviews are from people who do not understand that their US auto policy will not cover their damages to a rental car in Mexico the way it may cover damage to a rental car in the USA.

    Therefore, they have to buy additional insurance coverage in Mexico (or assume a large financial responsibility for the car). The additional insurance is quite expensive — costing as much or more than the car rental price itself. This is not a scam. This is the way insurance works in Mexico on rental cars. External insurance is not applicable.

    That’s the way it works. Perhaps just rent from a reputable agency (a large brand name), get a firm price and reservation number, and check what the insurance fees are online. Most of the big ones show that to you now and you will know the charges. I’ve done this myself and there has been no scam or surprise. Just expense.

    Since several are traveling, well, splitting the cost makes it a little better.

    Since you already have the plane tickets, you can figure whether it costs less to change the flights back to Cancun (or Merida or wherever) and bring the car back or to rent the car with the needed insurance coverage.

    ALTERNATIVELY: Take buses between cities — it is safer and more comfortable — and take taxis, bici-taxis or walk a bit more in each destination town. It is bound to be at least as interesting and maybe more so.

  75. I am partially disabled and have a handicapped placard from California. Is it useful to have this in Mexico? I’m renting a car..thanks!

  76. Bob, in Mexico, there are handicapped parking spaces in some places. We are not sure if your California placard would be recognized here, but if it’s not too much trouble, you could bring it along and try. In general, you aren’t going to get too much advantage from it here, however.

  77. Hi my wife and I built a hacienda here in Tulum, and plan to bring a light truck down here from Seattle. Any suggestions on good routes to take or places to avoid on route. Initially I planned on a straight route via Juarez, and through the center. Then I got to thinking it may be better to head further East through Texas and head down through Monterrey. Any thoughts or suggestions appreciated.

  78. Has anyone shipped a vehicle from the US, especially Texas, to Progreso or any other port in the region? I am looking for alternatives to driving the 1900 miles from the border given the current “troubles”. I understand there is a company (Linea) from Panama City, Florida, which will ship to Progreso for a reasonable charge but that is a long drive from our home in Colorado.

  79. Marty, we suggest that you contact the good people at Yucatan Expatriate Services (www.yucatanyes.com) or at least look at the website. There is a shipper, Linea Peninsular, that advertises on that website that can ship your car, as we understand it.

  80. Just wanted to warn people about the Pemex gas station just outside Valladolid before the highway. It is run by con artists who will try every trick in the book to scam you. They did a bill switch on my twice. Once they magically changed my 500 peso bill to a 200 and the other time they switched my 200 peso bill to a 20. Stupid naive me I thought I was having a little heat stroke by giving them the wrong bill each time only to find out that they have been doing this to others according to posts on other forums. There is a more reputable station a little farther down on the cuota highway towards Cancun. I wish there was a way to formally file a complaint with the police and have this operation shut down. They must be raking in thousands of pesos from unsuspecting tourists!

  81. This is a very common practice, though not so much in Merida. Thank you for warning us. We believe you can complain to PROFECO, an agency that registers consumer complaints. http://www.profeco.gob.mx/

  82. Hello

    Is there any car rental that doesn’t charge you 500 dls for pick up here in merida and drop off in cancun the car?, we need to go to Cancun on Sunday and leave the car at Cnacun airport and its been impossible… We have a chihuahua and that’s why we can’t take the bus… Anybody please help, our flight is Wedneady the 12th.

    Any help would be kindly appreciate it :)

  83. Perhaps you should consider hiring someone to drive you there. We are pretty sure it will cost less than $500 USD. Try William Lawson, lawsonsdriving.blogspot.com

  84. I didn’t read every post in this thread, but I’d like to reiterate that the price that you are quoted online is not the price you will pay at the counter when you get the car.
    I recently booked a five day rental through Orbitz, for a Thrifty car at the Cancun airport. I paid for additional insurance through the Orbitz site.
    When I got to the Thrifty counter, I was told that my price of $123 usd for five days did not include mandatory insurance which would bring the minimum cost of the five day rental to $326 usd! Further, they knew nothing about the additional insurance purchased through Orbitz and said that it had nothing to do with them (Thrifty) and that they would not honor it in any way.
    Turns out that the extra insurance offered by Orbitz is a third party thing that does have nothing to do with the car rental agency.
    So it isn’t that anyone is lying or being dishonest, but when booking a rental do be aware that the very cheap price that you are seeing is not what it will cost to rent the car. I really wish that the travel sites like Orbitz would address this and make it very clear.

  85. Thank you for your information. Recent first-hand experience is so valuable, thank you!

  86. Does anyone have any information about driving from Harlingen TX to Merida. We are driving down from Canada and visiting relatives along the way and Harlingen would be the most convenient place for us to cross the border. Any info would be greatly appreciated!

  87. I enjoyed the article but would appreciate an update since the advent of GPS. I have just downloaded the Mexico maps for my Nuvi and am looking forward to exploring during my trip in November.

  88. I went the other way this spring break and instead of renting from a big brand name rental like Hertz, found a local company though Google to provide the service http://www.yucatanvacations.com/car-rental-merida/. Sylvia, the owner is a great person and will provide you with all her expertise about a wide range of Yucatan topics. I really recommend you give her a call, she saved me hours of research and even a few bucks!

  89. My cousin and I want to hire a car from Cancun or Playa del Carmen and drive to San Cristobal in Chiapas. We are having trouble finding a car hire place that will let us pick up at one place and drop off at another. I would have thought this was quite common. I realize there will be a surcharge but is this reasonable? Any advice gratefully received by these not-quite-grey-nomads from Australia.

  90. First of all, Kate, you ask, “Is this reasonable?”. Silly question! This is Mexico. End of story. That said, the ONLY chance you would have with this would be with an international brand like Avis or Hertz. BUT the problem is that the franchise in Quintana Roo is probably owned by a completely different person than the franchise in Chiapas. Your best bet would be to take a bus to Palenque, and then rent a car there, drive to San Cristobal, and return the car to Palenque. The buses between big cities in Mexico are very safe, luxurious and incredibly air-conditioned.

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