Should I drive to Mexico and beyond?
Nobody can answer that question but yourself.
After driving to the tip of Baja California for the first time, I instantly fell in love with traveling by car through foreign terrain. After several successive trips into Latin American—primarily Baja California, Mainland Mexico, and Costa Rica—I envisioned driving to the tip of South America. I envisioned it. Then I did it. Vision and action are your superpowers.
Traveling by vehicle gives you the freedom to go where you want. However, you also have the added responsibility of maintaining and protecting your ride. My most treasured experiences took place hundreds of miles away from the popular tourist sites in places that were unreachable by public transportation. Traveling by car gives you freedom and allows you to venture at your own pace in your own way.
In this guide, I have included detailed logistical information for the drive as well as personal experiences that either enriched my adventure or added to the occasional trials and tribulations of travel. My personal experiences will give you a more realistic idea of what to expect while traveling through Mexico and Central America.
The Gringo’s Guide offers detailed information, road maps, general driving advice, and fun stories about the drive through Mexico and Central America. If you are thinking about driving through Mexico and Central America then this guide is for you. This book focuses on driving by vehicle through Mexico and Central America (also known as the Panamerican Highway) and is not an all-inclusive travel guide. We recommend you purchase the Lonely Planet series for each location as a supplement to this travel journal.
The city to city portion of this guide is constructed as follows: firstly, the starting location and ending location for each section are printed in bold capital lettering:
Secondly, detailed driving statistics are listed as follows:
Driving Time: 6 hours
Thirdly, a map is displayed for each particular section with the major cities along the route and the respective highway numbers. Lastly, a short description of the drive is given along with a Special Directions and Lessons Learned section.
Study the Special Directions sections for clarification of specific instructions for each detailed area. The Learned Lessons section highlights special areas of concern. Additionally, the Hotel & Eats section provides travelers with specific hotel and restaurant recommendations that deserve special attention. Also, note that Spanish words and cities are written in italics for improved readability. Throughout the guide, you will find general information sporadically displayed to inform the reader of various important topics.
The Drive Through Central America
The drive through Mexico and Central America is a wonderful experience—however, it’s not an adventure for everyone. The following pages contain the author’s advice and a detailed account of driving through Mexico and Central America. Places and conditions change, thus be prepared to make variations or detours altered from the original directions—generally speaking, things in Latin America change slowly. There is no one correct way of doing anything and therefore if you find a way or route that you feel is easier or less complicated, please send your comments to the address at the end of this book so that your information may be included in the next publication.
Which Route should I take through Mexico?
There are three routes through Mexico, one is along the Atlantic Coast (actually the Gulf of Mexico), the second is through Central Mexico and Mexico City, and the third is by the way of the Pacific Coast. From Texas, the four main entry points are El Paso, Piedras Negras, Laredo, and Brownsville. Additionally, there are several east-west, north-south links as you journey south through Mexico.
The Pacific Coast route is the hands-down favorite among travelers. However, it’s seen some drug cartel complications over the past few years around the Michoacán area. The Pacific Coast route has better roads than the other two options and as you can imagine the views are breathtaking as you traverse the coastal mountains and scenic views. The author still recommends the Pacific route and in the 2021 update of this guide, we’ll be detailing the drive along the Pacific Coast in the city-by-city portion of this book.
The second most popular route is through Central Mexico, but it doesn’t offer the same immersion experience as the Pacific Coast. Driving through Central Mexican also means that you need to circumnavigate Mexico City. Let me tell you, driving through Mexico City is not for the faint of heart. The highway that leads into Mexico City feels like a Mad Max movie at times and you can almost be certain of getting pulled over by the Mexico City traffic police—be prepared to shell out some dollars to purchase your nonofficial Gringo pass.
The author’s opinion is that the central route bogs you down around Ciudad de México and after driving the central route on one trip south to Central America he recommends against it. If you really want to visit Mexico City, you can fly in from a coastal town and spend a week or two checking out the sites and loud sounds of this fascinating location. Most hotels will let you leave your vehicle in storage for a fee while you venture off to other locations. For shorter stays, you could also leave the car in the airport parking lot and once you return continue your journey south. This strategy is a great way to see other portions of the country that might not be along the coastal route and allow you to maximize your overall experience.
What documents do I need to dribe to Costa Rica?
You need the following at every board crossing and also when pulled over:
- Car Title
Carry your auto registration and vehicle ownership papers with you. You must have the title to the car in your possession on the trip, it must be the original and not a copy. A Mexican tourist visa is required and is issued at the border. Additional items you need include your passport, auto insurance papers, and any visas that you might need for Central American countries. Make photocopies of everything and carry 2 or 3 thumb drives with all your document files.
Visa requirements change frequently, thus check with each consulate before you leave. Do yourself a favor and obtain the necessary visas before you depart from the US. This saves a lot of time and confusion when entering countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua. In most instances obtaining visas for all the countries takes only a day or two at the embassies back home—a little preparation before the trip goes a long way.
A United States driver’s license is valid throughout Central America and Mexico—however, it is recommended that you get an International Driving Permit. You can get one by filling out a form available from your local AAA branch (www.aaa.com) and return it with $20.00 and two copies of your passport-type photo. If you return your application in person to the AAA office, they will issue it immediately to you. But if you prefer, return the application by mail and it will be mailed to you. The passport photos can easily be made at home on your printer. The permit is valid for one year.
When you need to present your license to the police or military, show them the international license—see if you can get away with not showing your US state license. If for some reason your license is confiscated, let them take your international license. That will permit you to drive with your government-issued license. This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try. Technically you are required to present both the driving permit and your USA state license, but you will rarely be asked for your USA license. By the way, don’t forget to use the international license when filing out border documents. Be consistent, the police or military may ask for papers during transit and they may notice a discrepancy if you are switching back and forth on the border entry documents.
What’s the right vehicle to drive to Costa Rica?
The vehicle you choose is the most important pre-trip decision that you make. You don’t have to drive a 4X4 to be comfortable on your trip, but you do need a reliable vehicle that will withstand hard driving. The ideal vehicle for driving comfortably in Central America has the following basic characteristics:
- air conditioning
- fog and road lights
- decent gas mileage
- excellent shocks
- good stereo
- new tires
- above-normal road clearance
- tinted windows
Spend some money and have a full inspection and tune-up before you leave. Take the used car parts with you on your trip, it’s hard to find spare parts in rural areas. Throw in an extra fuel filter, a spare tire, your basic mechanical tool assortment, and anything else you feel will assist you with minor repairs.
Tires! Tires! Tires! Fit your vehicle with a good set of tires. The majority of the roads are horrible and your best defense is a reliable set of tires. Replace or upgrade your shocks as well. Shake, rattle, and roll takes on a new meaning while driving through Mexico and Central America. The only defense between your spine and the horrible road is a good set of shocks.
If you are thinking about buying a used car for the trip, consider car brands that are most commonly found in Mexico—available parts are an important factor to consider. Though you don’t need a 4X4, it sure would be nice in some situations where you might want to get off the beaten track.
The most popular brands in Mexico are Chevrolet, Nissan, and Volkswagen according to 2020 sales statistics. Of course, you can drive other brands but you might need to ship in parts if you can’t find them in Mexico. I would also consider Toyotas. If you decide that you want to sell your vehicle somewhere along the journey—like Costa Rica—then you’ll want something that the locals find enticing. We have more information on selling your vehicle in the Costa Rica section of this book.
Driving Through Cities
Most of the roads in Mexico go directly through cities and towns—you can rarely go around and must traverse through the town to get to where you are going. Find a large truck or bus that is transiting through the city and follow it. Trucks and buses move through the city and on to the highway using the most direct route—thus providing a personal guide out of the city and on to the major highway.
Following large obstructing vehicles through the city provides cover for your Gringo—I am a target—license plates. The large trucks can hide your vehicle from plain view. Obstructed, the city cops might just miss your Gingo face and their opportunity to extract money from the infraction they just invented.
What To Expect From The Police & Military In Latin America
Throughout Central America and Mexico, the military presence is a fact of life. North Americans are not accustomed to seeing armed military on a crowded downtown street, but this is a common sight in Latin America. The reasons for the periodic military stops range from looking for stolen vehicles to inspecting for contraband, such as arms or drugs.
Mexico is pressured by the USA to help stop illegal immigration and sniff out terrorist activity. Most often the officials won’t mess with you, but once in a while, you get some young punk that will make the inspection arduous. In situations where you are motioned to pull over the officers will ask a few general questions and then check your vehicle or paperwork. No problem. Always present a polite and respectful attitude and the officers will do the same. Idiotic, disrespectful travelers can expect a synonymous response from officials. If you are traveling with a fluent Spanish speaker, have that person deal with the officials.
The police that hassles you the most are the local police in the smaller villages. Local police are poorly educated, minimally trained, and most corrupt. If you’re pulled over chances are that they will ask you for a small donation. In most cases, it is best to play their game and give them a small transit fee to continue your journey. Think of it as a road tax.
In Mexico, you are guilty of a crime until proven innocent, not innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, you don’t want an over-ambitious police officer creating some false crime or attempting to plant illegal contraband in your vehicle because you wouldn’t give him a small bribe. Often when stopped, the officials will ask: ¿De dónde viene? They want to know where you are coming from and where you are going. Give them as little information as possible and tell them you are going to the next big tourist town down the road.
How Do I deal With Propina, Bribes & Traffic Tickets?
For those from the United States, more often than not, interaction with the police or military is actually an opportunity to give him a donation—less so with the military. Finesse, calm, and using your head are the order of the day. Do your best to be pleasant, show him the documentation he needs, don’t forget to try and give him the International driving permit and not your state license. Make him aware you are a visitor and are not familiar with the driving customs. Usually, you will be given a warning and permitted to leave.
If the officer tells you that you committed an infraction he might ask you to follow him to the local police station. If this doesn’t happen, ask him if you could pay your infraction on the spot, put a small bill in your passport and hand it to him to check it out a second time. At this point, he usually takes the bill, returns your passport and you leave.
If the bride doesn’t work, he might write you up on the spot, retain your license, or even take your license plates, and request that you show up at the police station to pay the fine. In Mexico, he’ll have you follow him to the station to deal with the situation. In Costa Rica, the police will keep your license until you show up or they might even confiscate your passport.
If you break the law, your best solution to an infraction is to pay the fine at the location of the infraction. Tell the officer that you want to pay the fine and ask the officer if he will deliver it to the police station. Of course, we both know that it goes directly in his pocket and it will never make it to the station.
There were instances where I refused to pay the fine on the spot and went through the bureaucratic process of paying the fine at the station. Paying the fine at the station entails hours of paperwork and always equates to much larger payment than what would have been paid to the officer at the location of the infraction. Pay the officer with a smile and keep driving, that’s your best option by far.
What about crime in Mexico and Latin America?
Let’s start with the facts. People are 3 times more likely to be a victim of crime in the US than in Mexico. The US leads the world in gun ownership and has more murders with firearms. Statistically, the US is more violent and dangerous than Mexico.
However, travelers are popular targets because they stand out and usually have something worth stealing. Thus the odds substantially increase because you, most likely, are a more desirable target to the criminal than the local farmer that earns in a year what you earn in a month. The best thing to remember is to use common sense and avoid putting yourself or your valuables in a situation that would invite crime. Always park your car in a safe place. Stay in hotels that have locks on the doors and windows and think defensively when in large cities, (i.e. don’t carry your wallet in your back pocket).
During my travels through Mexico and Central America in my vehicle, I encountered two criminal acts. Unfortunately, the main criminals got away with the crime. While in Dominical, Costa Rica, my car was broken into. My toolbox, hiking boots, and an empty backpack were taken. While having breakfast the next morning at a local cafe I overheard that the police caught a thief that had broken into several vehicles the night before. I went to the police station and after waiting several minutes to see the sergeant I was told that they had recovered my tools—what actually ended up being about one-third of his tools. After filing a police report and 20 minutes of interrogation by the police—wait, I’m the victim remember—I received my tools.
The next day I noticed that my hiking boots were missing so I returned to the police station to ask if they had retrieved them. To my surprise, I found the sergeant in the front of the police station working on the police vehicle with the remainder of my stolen tools. The officer denied that they were mine and he threatened to take my driving permit away if I pressed the issue further. Unfortunately, many thieves in Mexico and Central America wear official uniforms.
Please don’t let crime rule your thoughts because most people you’ll encounter along the trip are trustworthy. Nonetheless, you must remember that these countries are very poor and that when given an opportunity thieves will take your possessions.
Should I Carry Firearms In Mexico?
There are many people who may consider carrying a pistol for protection. Don’t do it! Primarily, if you are caught with a weapon you will not only lose the weapon, but it can very well make your life miserable for some time. Secondarily, your small pistol will be of no assistance against numerous automatic weapons. You would be far outgunned unless you decide to take some type of high-powered assault rifle—but I don’t recommend it.
Throughout the journey, your vehicle will be inspected and some inspections are meticulous. There is a high probability that the weapon will be found. Regardless of what is said here, there are travelers that will insist on taking a weapon. If you must take a weapon, carry it on your person and not hidden somewhere in the vehicle. It is very unlikely that any officials will ever search you personally.
I did carry a rather large multipurpose Rambo-looking hunting knife on my trip. I placed it on the dashboard of my vehicle within reaching distance and within plain view. Never did any official comment about the weapon. Though I never used it, just having something made me feel more comfortable while traveling alone through the big cities. Pepper spray is also a handy alternative to other weapons.
Games Border Officials Like To Play
When you cross from one country into another there are a number of scams that the border officials like to use to get some of your money. Here are samples of a few of them.
Bring Them In Here Game: Game #1:
Your car must be inspected before you will be permitted to enter the country. The border official will tell you to take everything out of your car and bring it inside the inspection building. After the inspection, you will be permitted to take your personal items back to your vehicle and re-pack them again. It is true that your vehicle needs to be inspected, but this can be done at your vehicle. It is unnecessary to take everything out and bring it to the inspection station. Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico are especially good at this scam. In Guatemala, there are a number of men at the border that earn a living carrying travelers’ possessions into the inspection building.
You can negotiate with the inspector (usually the one assisting you with the papers) to have the car inspected with everything intact, but you will need to pay these “gentlemen” for their loss of work. About $10 US each will do it—most often there are four or five to be paid. If you don’t have many personal effects, carry them in and you will see that the inspector will hardly look at them.
You Need A List Of Items Game: Game #2:
Your possessions may cause you problems after you enter the country. The officials at the border will tell you that other officials (like the military or town police) may think that you brought your things in illegally. They will suggest that they make a list of everything you brought and that this special list will give you a clear passage.
The charge for this official-looking document ranges from $50 to $100. I thought I would avoid this problem by typing a list of all my possessions before the trip and then showing it to the border officials when they attempted to pull this one on me. The officials liked the list, stamped it with a stamp, and charged me a fee anyway. However, the charge was only a few dollars. For the most part, once you have entered the country, if you are stopped by the police or the military they could care less if you have an official-looking document. If their intent is to get a bribe, that document will prove worthless.
The Document Copy Game: Game #3:
You must have copies of all your documents. Officials will claim they must have copies of your car’s ownership papers, passport, and driver’s license. The official will tell you that the copy machine is broken or the official who operates the machine is on vacation—usually in the next room. The official will then tell you that you must pay extra to be allowed to enter. This scheme can easily be avoided by making extra copies of everything before you leave. Have at least one set for each border exit and entry. Of course, it’s a scam, but what can you do? Nada.
You Have A Bug On Your Shoe Game: Game #4
Your car and perhaps you must be sprayed for insects. There is a small fee for this. Most often, just pay the fee, get sprayed, and go on. Many people pay bribes to avoid this, the bribes are often more than the spraying fee. The pesticide that they spray can’t be a good thing to inhale, so keep clear as they fumigate your possessions and vehicle.
Gifts & Contributions
Take used clothing and other miscellaneous items and give them away as you go. These items may also satisfy the police, border guards, or military when you meet with the unavoidable bribe, inspection, or infraction. My most treasured items while traveling through Mexico and Central America were copies of used Playboys. I don’t read them—I use them as bartering chips. Well, okay, I might take a quick look at an article during times of boredom. “El señor policía, no tengo mucho dinero por la propina pero tengo Playboys para usted.” You should see their eyes light up and the smiles that protrude from their machismo faces. Don’t take any of last year’s issues; I have already passed all of them out.
Mexico Auto Insurance
Purchase Mexican auto insurance. Most US insurance policies are not valid in Mexico. You can buy insurance near the border, or from AAA, it’s not too expensive. Most insurance is sold by the day and therefore you must estimate your entry and exit dates for Mexico. If you plan on a longer trip, I recommend getting half a year or full-year coverage.
If you have an accident in Mexico without insurance you could quite possibly land in jail until the matter is sorted out. The laws are different in Mexico, as a foreigner you must comply with these laws. At the very least, consider it insurance to keep out of jail.
Central America Auto Insurance
Costa Rica and Nicaragua require you to purchase auto insurance at the border upon entry. The procedure is simple and straightforward. When you enter the country you must purchase insurance for at least one month. The price rings in about $90 – $140 per month.
There is no need to make arrangements before the trip, the insurance is sold in the customs building at the border. You are not required to purchase auto insurance in Honduras and El Salvador. However, ICI Insurance Agency provides car insurance policies for most of Central America and South America.
Always use high-grade gasoline in your vehicle. Look for Super or Extra at the pump.
Finding petrol for your vehicle during late evening hours is not a problem. Most gas stations are open all night along the coastal route and your only logistical problem is finding your way in the dark. In some areas along with the mountain passes—Michoacán and Puerto Vallarta especially—the fog can be dense.
Locate a large truck and follow it. The yellow and orange running lights on the truck will act as a guide through the fog. Please proceed with caution when driving in these dangerous conditions.
Latin American Driving Habits
Mexican and Central American drivers make driving in the cities a bit frustrating. Obedience to basic traffic laws seems to depend upon if a policeman is watching or not. For example, if you stop for a red light the impatient driver behind you may honk his horn and inch his vehicle uncomfortably close to your rear bumper—he may even tap it.
All the same, if you drive through the light and receive an infraction Señor Impatient is not going to pay the fine for you. Additionally, the lines that indicate traffic paths are quite frequently ignored— therefore drive defensively.
Turn signals take on a different meaning south of the border. Often a left turn signal on the vehicle in front of you is a sign letting you know it is safe to pass. Flashing headlights while passing lets oncoming cars know what you are doing. Additionally, when cars traveling the opposite direction flash their headlights as they pass you it can be a warning that the police or military are up ahead. This procedure is especially common in Costa Rica where the police are famous for their radar traps.
The unwritten Gingo law of driving in Central America and Mexico is don’t drive at night. Most of the problems that travelers encounter take place on dark desolate roads. As a general rule, get up early in the morning and drive until dusk. Although, it is very easy to drive into the night when a more preferential town is only one or two hours further. It is likely that you will break the night driving rule in order to find a good place to stay.
There have been groups of people that have driven to Honduras in five days from California, they take turns driving and go continuously. For those adventurers that dare to be different, you could theoretically drive from the US-Mexican border to Costa Rica in seven days, (these people are definitely coffee aficionados).
Challenging road conditions worsen at night. Occasionally, you’ll encounter drivers that do not use headlights. Animals and potholes in the roadway make driving even more dangerous at night. Just don’t do it.
When driving at night, decrease your speed and use high beam lights, respectful of other drivers. In many instances, you will notice that nighttime drivers use their high beams upon approaching your vehicle and they don’t switch to their low beams. When this happens, focus your eyes on the white lines at the side of the road until they have passed.
There is rarely highway lighting along the freeway, thus when you add all the nighttime variables together—animals, potholes, high beams, torrential downpours, the occasional bandit or military blitz—well, your odds are better at the roulette table in Las Vegas.
Animals On The Road
While driving you will encounter various types of animals: cows, sheep, horses, bulls, chickens, crows, vultures, pigeons, lizards, iguanas, snakes, rats, possums, deer, mules, oxen, coyotes, shrews, alligators, dogs, cats, and elephants. Ok, maybe no elephants. I managed to avoid a collision with all of the aforementioned except a pigeon that I demolished in Mexico.
At first, you will stop or come to a slow crawl when encountering animals on the road. Usually, animals in the road will not move or cross your path as you drive by. Most of the animals are busily grazing by the side of the road and could care less about your presence. Therefore a slight variation in your path and a touch of the brakes will suffice. Do not stop for every animal that is on the road. If you do this you will never get to your final destination because animals are on the road constantly. More importantly, if you stop, the Latin American bus driver that is behind you will run you and the animal off the road without thinking twice.
Animals are your main concern when driving at night. Note that some people in Latin America do not use their lights at night, thus never assume that a car is not rounding an invisible bend because there are no visible lights. Animals, on the other hand, never have precautionary lights. You rarely see them until they are directly in front of you. For your information, if you hit an animal of good size (cow, bull, horse, etc.) it is synonymous with colliding head-on with another vehicle. Be careful when driving at night!
Expect to pay toll charges on highways in Mexico—they are eerily vacant as most of the locals opt for the free route. The free roads are often two-lane highways—one lane for each direction—that are crowded with commercial trucks and full of potholes. Pay the toll. It’s worth it in most cases.
You won’t travel very far into Mexico before encountering speed bumps. They are called topes or bustos and they are located at the entrance and exit of small towns. Speed bumps come in various styles as concrete blocks, iron bullets, plastic dots called vibradores that shake every inch of the vehicle.
Topes extended high on the roadway may present problems for low riding cars. A loose tailpipe is especially susceptible to the speed bump phenomenon. Check the fittings around the tailpipe before you depart as a precautionary measure. Playing pick-up-the-tailpipe every one hundred miles along your journey is not an enjoyable game.
If you have an accident, stay calm, record all of the information that you can, and wait for the local police. Get the other driver’s license number and address. Do all the things you would expect to do in a similar situation in the US. Wait until the police arrive, even if no one is hurt. Do not move your vehicle after an accident, even if you are blocking a major highway.
If you are driving a rental vehicle, notify your rental agency immediately. Let the rental agency take care of everything. You do have a responsibility to protect their vehicle until a representative shows up. Do not abandon it, even if it is incapable of being driven. You may be responsible for thefts during your absence.
Should the vehicle be yours or loaned to you by a friend, then it is your responsibility to settle the situation. If the accident is your fault you must make a payment right then and there (rarely do local drivers have insurance). If the accident is the other person’s fault, you need to come to an agreement as to the amount of damage and collect from the other person—easier said than done.
If your vehicle is foreign registered and you have it in Latin America on a temporary permit, and the vehicle is permanently disabled, then you have a definite procedure to follow. In order to legally leave the country, you must deposit the disabled vehicle with the proper authorities at the Aduana. You will be given documentation at the Aduana that will permit you to leave the country. Most countries will stamp the vehicle into your passport which presents a problem if you try and exit the country without the proper paperwork.