Driving in Mexico- Lessons from the 1st Week

Palenque Travel Blog

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Lessons for Driving in Mexico:

Life lessons from Week 1


  1. Turning Left: If you’re on a highway and you want to turn left, but you don’t have a clear shot at it, you’ll have to wait for traffic to clear before you can turn.  Never do as in the U.S. and put on your left turn signal and sit in the middle of the lane!  When you finally go to turn left, people will be passing you on the left and smack right into you.  Ouch!  Instead, you have to pull off the highway onto the right road shoulder and wait for traffic to pass, then scoot across to the left when you can.  Got that? 
  2. Ignore #1 if there is a dedicated left turn lane, like at a marked “returno”. 
  3. Perhaps there are 2 lanes turning left.  However, the outside left turn lane may also be used as a left turn lane for traffic turning left from the other direction.  I think whoever gets there first has the right-of-way, but let me get back to you on that.  Until then, stay in your far left lane and just wait your turn.
  4. At a returno (U-turn location with a left turn lane), if someone is waiting to make a left returno and you get tired of waiting, just scoot on up beside them to their right and turn in front of them when there is an opening.  No need to wait your turn.  Maybe they will wait, but maybe they will hit you- you never know…
  5. Did I tell you about some special left turns?  You’ll need to exit right, make a returno to the left, and then cross back over the road.  The sign for that will look like a big squiggle.  You’ll figure it out.  GPS is recommended!
  6. Some intersections have no lights or stop signs.  They’re called free-for-alls. 
  7. Lanes merge with no warning, no signage, and certainly no lane paint.  This also goes by the term “free-for-all”.
  8. Speaking of lane paint:  that would be a waste of money in cities.  No one listens anyway and with all the buses and taxis pulling over for passengers, the police on foot ticketing drivers, and the crossing guards with flags, drivers need lane maneuverability.  So Mexico smartly doesn’t use lane paint in cities.  Everyone just wing it!
  9. Let’s talk about streetlights.  Okay, green means go, but only if it is a solid green, not a green arrow on a light that has 4 lights on it.  A blinking green means you have about 2 seconds before it flips to a short yellow and then red.  Red means stop, but you can jump the green light to get started by about 5 seconds or so.  Lights are very, very long- you might really get to know the panhandlers at the intersection and invite them to dinner by the time the light changes.  Sometimes the light is blinking yellow and red alternating- but even the taxi driver couldn’t explain what that meant as he drove right through it without slowing.
  10. If you want to change lanes, do not use electronic turn signals.  Wave your arm out the window!  Need to turn right?  Have your passenger wave an arm out the window vigorously.  This works very well.  Most cars in Mexico have many people in them and no air conditioner.  Windows are always open and arms are working indicators.
  11. No Passing” signs are merely suggestions.  Waiting for a straight-away with a line of vision is for chickens.
  12. Dotted lines on the right side of the lane mean you really should drive astride it so people can pass from either direction without your having to be alert to swerve and avoid them.
  13. Any and all learning from Pothole Dodging 101 in Alaska is put to good use for Course 201 in Mexico.  While the potholes are somewhat fewer here, they are deep and deadly and each is an axle-breaking opportunity you’d best avoid.
  14. How do you know when the road you’re on will become a tollroad (Cuota) and not a free-road (Libre)?  You don’t.  One road will be both at different times along the route.  First it may be free, then toll, then free.  Not your excellent book map, the road signs, nor the GPS will let you know that you owe prior to arriving at a Casita de Cobre (Little house of Poisonous Snakes?  No, Tollbooth).
  15. Watch the right edge of the road.  It may disappear if the support underneath got washed out.  Other times there may be a drop of 2 feet just beyond the white line (if the road has lines at that point).  Just be careful of the right side.  This is also true in Alaska, but not quite as often.
  16. Topes are useful for your shopping.  Nearly all of your needs can be bought by hard-working sellers standing all day at the topes selling tangerines, soft drinks, agua, pineapple (prepared in baggies), freshly-squeezed orange juice, carved horses and Mayan sculptures, onions, bananas, etc.  You can even provide for your charitable giving and have your windshield washed.  Have your dinero ready for the many opportunities!
  17. Hit topes at 5 mph or less.  Topes require “technique” and a certain gunning it after the last wheels go over in order to mitigate rocking motion by providing forward thrust.  It’s all physics.
  18. Learn the Mexican hand languages.  You just do not want to see a fist with the thumb on the downward side. Also, hitchhikers don’t hold out their thumb - they point out to the side and wave their arm up and down.  A palm held up in the air means something like, “What are you doing, you Stupido?!” I think.  Or maybe it means, “Hey, thanks!”  I have to figure that one out.
  19. Since all my info while driving in Mexico comes from them, let me say here:


Teri and Mike Church, who wrote Mexican Camping, are my heroes.  These truths I believe to be self-evident: 

They drive much faster than anyone else.  They never get stuck in the slow lane and traffic jams don’t occur on their “interesting” free roads.  They (in RV’s of any size) ford brisk streams, climb 15% grade mountains, and back within inches of sheer cliffs on ice without ever batting an eye.  They are fearless.  They could find fun in a paper bag and undoubtedly speak fluent Spanish (plus 10 other languages).  They absorb into their brains forever the historical, cultural, driving, and tourist information for vast numbers of small towns and large cities.  They can give directions upside down and backward but you, mere mortal, still won’t find parking in front of La Venta in Villahermosa!


sowersby says:
Hi, Tessa and Family,

I just discovered your site. Barby and I camped next to you in Yosemite. I had wondered where your travels had taken you. I look forward to reading your blog. Be safe.

Gary Sowersby
Posted on: Nov 25, 2008
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