From December through April—peak season—traffic clogs the narrow downtown streets, and negotiating the steep hills in Old Vallarta (sometimes you have to drive in reverse to let another car pass) can be unnerving. Avoid rush hour (7–9 am and 6–8 pm) and when schools let out (2–3 pm). Travel with a companion and a good road map or atlas. Always lock your car, and never leave valuable items visible in the body of the car. The trunk is generally safe, although any thief can crack one open if he chooses.
It's absolutely essential that you carry Mexican auto insurance for liability, even if you have full coverage for collision, damages, and theft. If you injure anyone in an accident, you could well be jailed until culpability is established—whether it was your fault or not—unless you have insurance.
Pemex (the government petroleum monopoly) franchises all of Mexico's gas stations, which you can find at most intersections and in cities and towns. Gas is measured in liters. Stations in and around the larger towns may accept U.S. or Canadian credit cards (or dollars).
Premium unleaded gas (called premium, the red pump) and regular unleaded gas (magna, the green pump) are available nationwide, but it's still best to fill up whenever you can and not let your tank get below half full. Fuel quality is generally lower than that in the United States, but it has improved enough so that your car will run acceptably. At this writing gas was about 12.8 pesos per liter (about $3.78 per gallon) for the cheap stuff and 13.4 pesos per liter ($4.12 per gallon) for super.
Attendants pump the gas for you and may also wash your windshield and check your oil and tire air pressure. A small tip is customary (from just a few pesos for pumping the gas only to 5 or 10 for the whole enchilada of services). Keep an eye on the gas meter to make sure the attendant is starting it at "0" and that you're charged the correct price.
A circle with a diagonal line superimposed on the letter E (for estacionamiento) means "no parking." Illegally parked cars may have the license plate removed, requiring a trip to the traffic-police headquarters for payment of a fine. When in doubt, park in a lot rather than on the street; your car will probably be safer there anyway. There are parking lots in PV at Parque Hidalgo (Av. México at Venezuela, Col. 5 de Diciembre), just north of the Cuale River at the malecón between Calle A. Rodríguez and Calle Encino, and in the Zona Romántica at Parque Lázaro Cárdenas. Fees vary depending on time of day, ranging from 12 pesos (just under $1) per hour to 20 pesos (about $1.50) per hour.
Several well-kept toll roads head into and out of major cities like Guadalajara—most of them four lanes wide. However, these carreteras (major highways) don't go too far into the countryside, and even the toll-roads have topes (speed bumps) and toll booths to slow you down. Cuota means toll road; libre means no toll, and such roads are often two lanes and not as well-maintained. A new 33½-km (21-mile) highway between Tepic and San Blas will shorten driving time to about 20 minutes.
Roads leading to, or in, Nayarit and Jalisco include highways connecting Nogales and Mazatlán; Guadalajara and Tepic; and Mexico City, Morelia, and Guadalajara. Tolls between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta (334 km [207 miles]) total about $25.
In rural areas roads are sometimes poor; other times the two-lane, blacktop roads are perfectly fine. Be extra cautious during the rainy season, when rock slides and potholes are a problem.
Watch out for animals, especially untethered horses, cattle, and dogs, and for dangerous, unrailed curves. Topes (speed bumps) are ubiquitous; slow down when approaching any town or village and look for signs saying "Topes" or "Vibradores." Police officers often issue tickets to those speeding through populated areas.
Generally, driving times are longer than for comparable distances in the United States and Canada. Allow extra time for unforeseen occurrences as well as for traffic, particularly truck traffic.
To help motorists on major highways, the Mexican Tourism Ministry operates a fleet of more than 250 pickup trucks, known as the Angeles Verdes, or Green Angels, reachable by phone throughout Mexico by dialing 078 or, in some areas near Puerto Vallarta, 066. In either case, ask the person who answers to transfer the call to the Green Angels hotline. The bilingual drivers provide mechanical help, first aid, radio-telephone communication, basic supplies and small parts, towing, tourist information, and protection.
Services are free, and spare parts, fuel, and lubricants are provided at cost. Tips are always appreciated (around 65–130 pesos [$5–$10] for big jobs and 40–65 pesos [$3–$5] for minor stuff; a souvenir from your country can sometimes be a well-received alternative). The Green Angels patrol the major highways twice daily 8–8 (usually later on holiday weekends). If you break down, pull off the road as far as possible, and lift the hood of your car. If you don’t have a cell phone, hail a passing vehicle and ask the driver to notify the patrol. Most drivers will be quite helpful.
Angeles Verdes (078.)
Rules of the Road
When you sign up for Mexican car insurance, you may receive a booklet on Mexican rules of the road. It really is a good idea to read it to familiarize yourself not only with laws but also customs that differ from those of your home country. For instance: if an oncoming vehicle flicks its lights at you in daytime, slow down: it could mean trouble ahead; when approaching a narrow bridge, the first vehicle to flash its lights has right of way; right on red is not allowed; one-way traffic is indicated by an arrow; two-way, by a double-pointed arrow. (Other road signs follow the widespread system of international symbols.)
On the highway, using your left turn signal to turn left is dangerous. Mexican drivers—especially truck drivers—use their left turn signal on the highway to signal the vehicle behind that it's safe to pass. Conversely they rarely use their signal to actually make a turn. Foreigners signaling a left turn off the highway into a driveway or onto a side road have been killed by cars or trucks behind that mistook their turn signal for a signal to pass. To turn left from a highway when cars are behind you, it's best to pull over to the right and make the left turn when no cars are approaching, to avoid disaster.
Mileage and speed limits are given in kilometers: 110 kph and 80 kph (66 mph and 50 mph, respectively) are the most common maximums on the highway. However, speed limits can change from curve to curve, so watch the signs carefully. In cities and small towns, observe the posted speed limits, which can be as low as 20 kph (12 mph).
Seat belts are required by law throughout Mexico. Drunk driving laws are fairly harsh in Mexico, and if you're caught you may go to jail immediately. It's difficult to say what the blood-alcohol limit is since everyone you ask gives a different answer, which means each case is probably handled in a discretionary manner. The best way to avoid any problems is simply to not drink and drive.
If you're stopped for speeding, the officer is supposed to take your license and hold it until you pay the fine at the local police station. But the officer will usually prefer a mordida (small bribe). Just take out a couple hundred pesos, hold it out discreetly while asking politely if the officer can "pay the fine for you." Conversely, a few cops might resent the offer of a bribe, but it's still common practice.
If you decide to dispute a charge that seems preposterous, do so courteously and with a smile, and tell the officer that you would like to talk to the police captain when you get to the station. The officer usually will let you go rather than go to the station.
Safety on the Road
Never drive at night in remote and rural areas. Bandidos are one concern, but so are potholes, free-roaming animals, cars with no working lights, road-hogging trucks, drunk drivers, and difficulty in getting assistance. It's best to use toll roads whenever possible; although costly, they're safer, too.
Off the highway, driving in Mexico can be nerve-wracking for novices, with people sometimes paying little attention to marked lanes. Most drivers pay attention to safety rules, but be vigilant. Drunk driving skyrockets on holiday weekends.
A police officer may pull you over for something you didn't do; unfortunately a common scam. If you're pulled over for any reason, be polite—displays of anger will only make matters worse. Although efforts are being made to fight corruption, it's still a fact of life in Mexico, and for many people, it's worth the $10 to $100 it costs to get their license back to be on their way quickly. (The amount requested varies depending on what the officer assumes you can pay—the year, make, and model of the car you drive being one determining factor.) Others persevere long enough to be let off with a warning only. The key to success, in this case, is a combination of calm and patience.
Mexico manufactures Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Volkswagen vehicles. With the exception of Volkswagen, you can get the same kind of midsize and luxury cars in Mexico that you can rent in the United States and Canada. Economy usually refers to a Dodge i10 or similar, which may or may not come with air-conditioning or automatic transmission.
It can really pay to shop around: in Puerto Vallarta, rates for a compact car (Chevrolet Aveo or similar) with air-conditioning, manual transmission, and unlimited mileage range from $19 a day and $120 a week to $50 a day and $300–$400 a week, excluding insurance. Full-coverage insurance varies greatly depending on the deductible, but averages $25–$40 a day. As a rule, stick with the major companies because they tend to be more reliable.
You can also hire a taxi with a driver (who generally doubles as a tour guide) through your hotel. The going rate is about $22 an hour without crossing state lines. Limousine service runs about $65 an hour and up, with a three- to five-hour minimum.
In Mexico the minimum driving age is 18, but most rental-car agencies have a surcharge for drivers under 25. Your own country's driver's license is perfectly acceptable.
Surcharges for additional drivers are around $5 per day plus tax. Children's car seats run about the same, but not all companies have them.
You must carry Mexican auto insurance, at the very least liability as well as coverage against physical damage to the vehicle and theft at your discretion, depending on what, if anything, your own auto insurance (or credit card, if you use it to rent a car) includes. For rental cars, all insurance will all be dealt with through the rental company.
Major Rental Agencies
Alamo (800/522–9696 in U.S.; 322/221–3040 in PV. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331–1084 in U.S.; 322/221–1112 in PV. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/472–3325 in U.S.; 322/221–1210 in PV. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3001 in U.S.; 999/911–8040 in PV. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (800/227–7368 in U.S.; 322/226–0069 in PV. www.nationalcar.com.)