Driving in Mexico Q&A
by Penny Walker - Feb. 18, 2010 07:10 PM
Q: We are thinking of driving to Mexico in the next couple of weeks. The main area will probably be Puerto Vallarta, possibly as far as Huatulco. We're getting a lot of flak from people telling us how dangerous it is. We have traveled numerous times to different areas and don't feel it should be a problem. This is our first time driving down. What precautions (besides the obvious) should we anticipate? - A.C., Gilbert
A: I asked reporter Chris Hawley of The Republic's Mexico City bureau about this. Keeping in mind that this is advice, not a guarantee of your safety (you must make the ultimate decision), here is his very detailed take.
"I think it's fairly safe. I would, however, travel only in the daytime. This is not just because of highway bandits, but also because many of those coastal highways are narrow, badly lit, not very well marked and lack shoulders. At night, they are dominated by trucks and buses and become quite dangerous. The highways along the Oaxacan coast (on the way to Huatulco) are especially winding.
"Be aware that military checkpoints have multiplied as a result of President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on drug cartels. Expect to have your car searched, especially if you are traveling at night, have tinted windows or are driving an SUV or particularly expensive car. In inland Sonora, this is more of an issue when going north. But as you get closer to the coast (where the drug boats land), you'll find checkpoints on both the north- and southbound sides.
"Make sure your paperwork is in order. Because you are leaving the border areas, you will need a tourist visa (also called an FMT or tourist card), a temporary import permit for your car and Mexican car insurance. You can get these at the border. You will also need a U.S. passport.
"Gas stations are sometimes far apart, so never let your tank get below half-full. Before leaving the border, find a bookstore and buy an excellent road atlas. Guia Roji is probably the best. It also contains a guide to Mexican road signs.
"Brush up on Mexican highway etiquette. In Mexico, a turn signal can either mean 'I'm going to turn' or 'Please pass me.' So if you're going to turn, don't dawdle or your turn signal could be misunderstood. If a car is overtaking you from behind and there is only one lane, you are expected to straddle the shoulder so the other car can get around.
"Toll highways in Mexico are expensive, but usually worth it. The toll highways are patrolled by trucks called 'Angeles Verdes' (Green Angels) that provide free mechanical service if you break down.
"Finally, the Mexican government has a great online tool that will compute your route, tolls and even the fuel cost based on your car's mileage and engine size. According to the Web site, the fastest route from Nogales to Huatulco is 1,890 miles, goes through central Mexico and will cost you 2,363 pesos in tolls (about $182). The Web site is sct.gob.mx; in the upper-right 'Buscar en el sitio' box, search for 'point to point routes.' "
Republic reporter Daniel Gonzalez chimed in that you can save some time by getting your permits at the Consul General of Mexico in Phoenix, 1990 W. Camelback Road.
The consulate's main line is 602-242-7398; for vehicle permits, it's 602-249-9253. You'll need your passport, driver's license and title and registration (both the original and a copy). Alas, according to the nice, slightly flustered lady I spoke with, they are having printer problems; if you need permits this week, you may have to get them just past the border in Nogales - at the Banjercito office at kilometer 21, to be precise.
Now, Hawley wrote a rather alarming story recently about drug cartels tightening their grip. I asked him if his driving advice still stands. It does. The violence is not really focused on foreign visitors, he says: "Most of the cartels don't want the attention that attacking a foreigner would bring." Just use common sense, he advises: Don't wander remote beaches at night. Stay out of sketchy bars and brothels. Don't do anything illegal.
But of course, I trust that all of you, dear readers, are always on your best behavior while abroad.