Planning a trip to Mexico? Thinking about renting a car and driving in Yucatan? Feeling a bit intimidated and want to make sure you're prepared?
I know exactly how you feel- we were also a bit concerned about the dangers of driving in Mexico and taking a road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula. But at the same time, we really REALLY wanted to visit the Mexican Ruins like Ek Balam by ourselves and not on a tour.
So we hired a car in Mexico and set off into the Yucatan Jungle (where we got stopped by people in yellow jackets, discovered a hole in our fuel tank and nearly ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere!)
Here's everything we learnt about driving in Mexico. (Spoiler- it's not as bad as you think.)
Yucatan Road Trip Tip 1- you DON'T need to book a car far in advance
We didn't mean to have a Yucatan road trip. Heck, we never planned to drive in Mexico at all. We had booked a week all-inclusive in a beautiful hotel (it was even adults only, not one of the many family-friendly hotels in Mexico)… and we planned to lie on the beach or in the pool as much as possible.
But…. we got bored.
After 2 days.
It turns out, we're not cut out for relaxing holidays- which is why this is a road trip adventure blog and not a luxury travel blog!! 🙂
So, we decided to road trip around the area instead, which was a fantastic idea- there are so many amazing things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The hotel was able to arrange a car for us within 12 hours, and it was delivered to the front entrance (more on THAT below!)
If you're travelling with children, now is a great time to get some FREE and quiet road trip activities for kids, just in case you get sidetracked on your adventure!
Tip 2- Renting a car in Yucatan
We had never seen a hire car quite like it.
There were bits missing, scratches and dents EVERYWHERE and we're fairly certain there was a hole in the fuel tank (which is why we nearly ran out of fuel driving to the ruins from Cancun! )
Seriously, when the driver delivered it and presented the paperwork to mark the dents, we really wanted to just circle the entire car.
Driving in Yucatan requirements and tips
- In order to rent a car in Mexico, you must be at least 21 and have held your licence for over 2 years. Drivers aged under 25 may pay a young driver surcharge.
- Some hire car companies will not rent cars to people aged over 75- but not all have this restriction.
- You NEED a credit card. If you use a debit card, the deposit money ‘in case of damage' will be taken out of your bank account, not placed on hold. I wouldn't want to fight to get that back!
- Get the hire car company insurance (and make sure it says so on the paperwork.) However, you probably don't need their upsell insurance. Having said that, we preferred to pay the extra $20 for the insurance rather than have $2000 held on our credit card
- Make sure you have your driver licence in the vehicle with you.
- Check whether they can provide a travel car seat or if you need to bring your own
- Carry your vehicle insurance with you when you drive
- Carry a photocopy of your passport- NOT the real thing. Do NOT ever hand over your real passport unless you are in an actual police station and it is being demanded. All the more reason to leave it locked in your hotel room.
Things to check when renting a car in Mexico:
- Check the air conditioning works
- Check the windows go up and down
- Look underneath for any sign of a leak from the fuel tank and check the tank is full if they say it is
- Check the tyres are not flat
- Check the seat belts work
- Ensure the doors lock and unlock (including the trunk/ boot)
If you have a working radio, consider yourself lucky!
Seriously, you just want the basics on the car to be functioning. Make sure you get a number to call in case of emergency/ break down and make sure you have the number for your hotel too.
Another important tip– make sure your mobile phone works. Ideally, you want at least 2 phones working with data and, if you can, take some form of cigarette charger and lead (don't expect USB charging sockets in the car.) You don't want to find yourself stranded in the middle of the jungle with no-one but a drug cartel for company!
We use Google Maps all the time for creating road trip itineraries and route maps. It's a brilliant tool.
If you're new to road trips, here are 21 AMAZING roadtrip apps to make your travels easier (most are free!)
Is it safe to drive in the Yucatan?
Which brings us nicely to this common and important question.
Yes, it is safe to drive in the Yucatan as a tourist, as long as you are sensible.
- You WILL pass drug compounds with armed men on the walls if you are driving in the Yucatan. Sometimes, those men may wave or shout at you. Exercise your common sense and DO NOT STOP.
- Don't pick up hitchhikers.
- Don't let drunken friends lean out of the window and shout abuse at the men with big guns.
Basic stuff. There are many more tips and scams we discovered as we were driving in Yucatan, like the one on the 180D toll road from Cancun to Chichen Itza.
Is the Yucatan safe?
Believe it or not, the Yucatan peninsula is apparently safer than New York City! I have no idea how they figured that out, but it felt pretty safe for us.
Most of the violence is gang and drug-related, so if you stay out of the way of illegal activities, you should be absolutely fine.
Petty theft is a problem- wherever we parked, there was always a small boy asking if we wanted him to ‘watch the car'. We paid a small amount (10-20 pesos) and never had any damage to the car.
Like many tourist destinations, you can expect pick-pockets and scams like that. Leave all jewellery and expensive things behind, either in your hotel but ideally at home. Be aware of your bag if you have one and don't leave anything valuable in your car.
Essential Tips for Driving in Yucatan
- Do NOT speed. Don't give the police any reason to pull you over. Others may speed, but try not to.
- Don't use your phone while driving
- Wear your seat belt at all times
- Obey the rules of the road- even if no-one else is!
- If you have an emergency, dial 911
- If you breakdown on a toll road or a major road call the Green Angels, (similar to AAA in the USA or Green Flag in UK.) They are a bilingual roadside rescue. Their number is 01-55-5250-8221.
Common Tourist scams while driving in Mexico
Scams at the Gas Station
- The most common one is the ‘Bait and Switch'. You pay for your fuel in cash, then get a tap on the window saying you haven't given them enough (because they've switched a larger note for a smaller one). Avoid this by counting out the notes slowly and deliberately to the fuel attendant.
- Also, check that the gas meter has been reset before they start filling your car.
Do you need an International Driving Permit for Mexico as a UK driver?
Official answer- yes.
Unofficial answer- nope- but we highly recommend getting one, just in case.
Like I mentioned above, we didn't plan to rent a car in Yucatan. We didn't have international driver permits with us at all. It was only luck (or laziness!) that my husband had his driving licence with him- he hadn't removed it from his wallet.
No-one ever asked for an IDP. Having said that, we were never stopped by the police. So you can need one if you are pulled over.
If you're planning to drive in Mexico, I'd definitely recommend getting one, both for US and UK drivers. Here's how to get an International Driving Permit.
Do I need a 4×4 or large vehicle for driving in the Yucatan?
Not unless you're a large group. The roads aren't too bad around the Yucatan and it's pretty much all tarmac. We had a mid-size car for 2 of us and it was fine.
Which side of the road do they drive on in Mexico?
The right- same as the US & Europe (opposite side for UK drivers, but it's not hard to drive on the right.) Expect the car steering wheel to be on the left!
Do Mexican gas stations take cards?
Not often. Most gas stations only take cash- and only take Mexican Pesos. You may find some which take cards, but you'll pay in pesos. A full tank of gas in a medium-sized car cost 600 pesos.
Is it dangerous to drive in Cancun?
No more than any other Mexican city! Expect crazy driving, limited respect for rules of the road and people walking in front of you at any moment. The danger will mostly come from pedestrians and other drivers, not from the risk of kidnapping or violence.
Should I rent a car in Cancun?
For us, driving in Yucatan was a brilliant way to explore the area. But if you're happy staying in your hotel complex or getting a bus or taxi to nearby attractions, then no- you don't need to rent a car in Cancun.
Is it safe to drive at night in Yucatan?
As with most things, use your common sense. We avoided driving at night as we felt safer that way. If you're unsure too, then it's easy to grab a cab if you are going out for the evening. Easier to enjoy cocktails that way too! 🙂
We want to hear from you!
Have you driven in Mexico? Road tripped around the Yucatan? Let us know about your experiences below!
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