Road trip through Mexico : good idea or bad idea?
October 23, 2019 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Road trip through Mexico : good idea or bad idea? And if it's a good idea, where should I go and what should I do?

I'm thinking of taking a road trip through Mexico from 12/20/2019 to 01/04/2020. I love exploring other countries and I love road trips! However, I've heard Mexico has bad roads and drug gangs. Is a road trip through Mexico just a bad idea? Or is it a good idea as long as I'm smart? And what exactly would "being smart" entail in this situation? What places to avoid, and how to stay safe?

I'd imagine I'd rent some kind of SUV, since I've road tripped through Costa Rica and I know how bad roads in Central America can get. I'm a somewhat tall white dude (5'11") and I'll most likely be traveling alone. I don't speak Spanish, but I can speak passable "tourist Spanish", and I'd be down to put some effort into improving my Spanish over the next several weeks. I'm very comfortable traveling around other countries alone, as I've done it several times.

And as sort of a Part 2 to this question : if I do embark on this journey, what kinds of things should I see or do in Mexico? Interests include food, history, art, outdoor adventures, city life, village life, canoes/rafting, religious/holy sites, beaches, and places where other young(ish) people will be traveling. I should mention that while I do love hiking and the outdoors, one of my feet has an issue, so I can't really do anything that involves a lot of tricky footwork or really rough trails.

Finally, I do realize Mexico is a big country, and there's no way I can see it all in two weeks. If there's a route you would suggest, or a specific area(s) of the country I should concentrate on, you suggestions are welcome!
posted by panama joe to Travel & Transportation around Mexico (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For people who want to do your sort of travelling through Mexico-- driving yourself, away from tourist hotspots-- I always recommend "The People's Guide to Mexico." I know for a fact that each question you ask is covered extensively, and there is a lot of great advice there that you haven't thought of. If it were me, I might not even rent a car. Mexico has surprisingly great long-distance bus routes.
posted by seasparrow at 9:53 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think this is very much a region-by-region question; for instance I recently did a little bit of research about driving around as a tourist in Nuevo Leon and decided against it. However, I've done two road trips through Quintana Roo/Campeche/Yucatan at that time of year, one in Dec 2016 and one in Dec 2017. Few safety concerns either from the research that I did beforehand or the actual experience itself, which was amazing. Obviously things change and my thoughts are a few years out of date. Anyway:

On the first trip we went down to the ruins of Calakmul which is in a pretty remote area by the border of Guatemala and then we came back up through Campeche city-- this is the only place that I saw anyone saying that we could run into police asking for bribes, etc but we had no issues at all. Calakmul was great-- fewer people and fewer "off limits" areas.

The roads that we took were okay in our tiny economy rental chevy spark and we didn't stick to the highways. Sometimes we had to go very slow, but we never felt like we weren't able to take a road at all. Be prepared to drive a stick or pay more for an automatic. WATCH OUT FOR THE TOPES. So many aggressive speed bumps!

It was a ton of fun. My favorite things that we did that you'd need a car to do were stopping at every cenote that we passed by and the Puuc Route in Yucatan state, which got us a little bit out of the way onto some dirt roads and small towns. We also were able to camp in the Sian Kaan biosphere, which was amazing as well and would have been hard to do without a car.

That Christmas to New Years time is super popular for tourism, so if you go to touristy areas expect everything to be more expensive and crowded.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:53 AM on October 23, 2019

This is what the US State Department has to say : Mexico Travel Advisory. It varies from state to state, but does not look advisable for many areas.
posted by fixedthefernback at 10:14 AM on October 23, 2019

American expat in Mexico here.

First of all, a violent crime map of Mexico.

As you can see things are pretty good over here in the Southeast. And that's not just relative to Mexico. By at least one measure Mérida, in the Yucatán, is the 2nd safest city in the Americas and the 21st safest in the world.

When I first moved here I made a circuit of the peninsula. There are plenty of Mayan archeological sites (including of course the Chichen Itza) as well as the occasional restored Spanish era plantation. There is some beautiful coast on the East side (although I would skip Cancun) but the main natural attractions are the cenotes. There are also the reasonably stunning Aguas Azul on the West side. At this time of the year they're more like the Aguas Marrón, but they're still amazing. I had an adventure there.

I'm also a 5'11 white guy, although I'm pretty sure that didn't come into play. I'm certain that being a tourist came into play, but not much more than anywhere else. My Spanish was rudimentary but through a mixture of Google Translate, pantomime, and helpful English speaking people I never had any particular difficulty.

You might need an SUV to get some of the more remote Archeological sites, but the main roads are disappointingly mundane. Think rural routes in the American South.

Mérida itself is a modern city of 900,000 people. If you're yearning for home you can choose between several Walmarts, two Home Depots, and of course the ever difficult question of Costco vs. Sam's Club. It is still a third world city though with the normal huge divide between rich and poor, although it is notable for also having a middle class. You will never feel physically threatened, but don't put something down and turn your back.

The city contains some beautiful Colonial architecture and more museums than you can shake a stick at. The central part of the city (cleverly named "Centro") is beautiful and on the South end has a market that can only be described as "bustling". Hammock shopping was an interesting experience.

One last bit about Mérida, it sits in the Chicxulub crater, also known as the impact crater for the meteor that wiped out the Dinosaurs. No one seems nearly as excited about that as I am.

That's about it for me. If I've piqued your interest I'd start by filling out your itinerary with other attractions in the Yucatán that suit your interests.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:53 AM on October 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

WATCH OUT FOR THE TOPES. So many aggressive speed bumps!

Yeah, on the Yucatan peninsula main routes cut through towns (or more likely the towns sprung up around the routes). No matter how small the town/village there will be impressive speed bumps along with locals trying to sell you things when you slow down.

The problem is that you sometimes get very little notice about these, and occasionally no notice at all if it's dark. Never have I been happier to be driving on someone else's suspension.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:04 AM on October 23, 2019

I clicked on this post to enthusiastically say yes it is fine..however the fact that you do not speak Spanish fluently completely changes things.

It wouldn't be safe in my opinion for you to drive around in the United States either if you couldn't speak or read passable English. It is hard to tell when you are in a dangerous situation, or a situation that's about to become dangerous, in either country without knowing the language or culture.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 11:08 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Generally, the long distance toll roads in Mexico (called autopistas or cuotas) are good, smaller local roads are much more variable in quality, but the bus is a more convenient and inexpensive way of getting from city to city than renting a car. You might want to rent a car for a day or two in a particular destination to see some outlying attractions, but having one for a whole trip would be more trouble and expense than would be worthwhile in my opinion.

Here's one itinerary that would be good for two weeks, keeps you in safe regions, and would likely be cheaper than Yucatán over the holidays: fly into Oaxaca City, spend maybe four or five days based there - you have the city itself to explore, the ruins of Monte Albán just outside the city itself, and you could get a car for a few days and see some of the Oaxaca Valley like the petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua and some of the Zapotec artisanal handicraft villages. If you're there on a Sunday, the weekly market in Tlacolula has been taking place since before Columbus and is huge and has amazing food.

After Oaxaca, take an overnight bus to San Cristobal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands. Probably worth another four days based there. The city itself is beautiful. Nearby you've got a remarkable day trip in the self-governing Mayan town of Chamula, who threw their priest out of town in the '60s to practice their own syncretic version of Catholicism where St. John the Baptist is more important than Jesus, and the church is used for ritual magic (open to the public, but DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS). You also have the Cañón del Sumidero nearby as day trip, where you can take a boat tour through a jawdropping river canyon.

From San Cristobal, you could either finish out your trip by continuing on by bus to Palenque and see the well-preserved Mayan ruins in the jungle region there, and then fly back home from Villahermosa, or you could fly back straight from San Crisotobal via Chiapa de Corzo airport, but take a few days of layover in Mexico City and sample its amazing food and cultural scenes.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:08 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

trip by continuing on by bus to Palenque

Palenque is also the nearest large city to Agua Azul. You can take a half-day tour from there.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:13 AM on October 23, 2019

This may be covered in one of the links above, but if you drive at night watch out for cattle sleeping on the road. That is, drive slow enough to stop well within the distance your vehicle's headlights are showing you.

I had a very very lucky escape coming up Hwy 1 from Loreto in Baja (i.e. the big main road) and finding a herd of cattle lying in the road; my whole family's lives were risked by my driving what in retrospect was far too fast (probably about 50 mph).
posted by anadem at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2019

Others have pointed out that long-distance travel is often more comfortable by bus. Cars, with their ability to visit lesser known sites - are more effective when you want to look at a particular region. In terms of regions, many of mentioned Yucatan since it is interesting, relatively safe and finite enough to explore in your timescale. If you are interested in this area, then you should be aware of the concept of the "Maya Trail" - a long standing tradition of a more or less circular route that would encompass Maya sites and cultures within Mexico, Belize, Guatemala (maybe Honduras). The linked account describes one person's itinerary - but there is a lot of potential for you to pick your own route. You could hire a car at particular locations and take a bus for other links (over borders especially). My own experience of this route was to fly into Cancun (cheap gateway) then follow a route from Merida down through Belize, over to Tikal in Guatemala, up via Palenque to San Cristobel in Chiapas and back to Cancun to complete.

In terms of your particular interests: I believe this would would cover all of them: great food, interesting old and contemporary culture, other younger travellers aplenty, possibilities to canoe or hike. You'd be going at the best time of year, weather wise (but also peak travel season).
posted by rongorongo at 3:12 AM on October 24, 2019

I would not recommend the Yucatan or Quintana Roo in peak tourist season. I have never really been anywhere else I have felt so taken advantage of / quarantined as a tourist. I don't blame the locals, per se, but it was not enjoyable, to me. I also was not a big fan of the other tourists.
posted by dame at 10:25 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

We visited the Yucatan in March a couple of years back and had an amazing time, stayed in a hostel in Valladolid. Loved visiting the temples, taking photos of the iguanas, trying new food, swimming in cenotes. The cenote at Ek' Balam is magical, and the sculptures at the temple are incredibly well-preserved, with the plaster coating still intact. I speak some Spanish, but am not fluent, and everybody I met was happy to work with me to achieve an understanding. However, I'd say the more Spanish you know the better, especially if you plan on getting off the tourist track at all.

Unfortunately on our way back to the Cancun airport we got caught by a speed trap. The officer refused to return the driver's license unless we paid a bribe. We'd been told by the rental car agency that they aren't allowed to take your driver's license, only the car's plates, as collateral, but they literally told us they couldn't help us when we called them. We were going to miss our flight if we were delayed further, so we just rolled with it, but yeah, watch out. Especially around the tourist areas in high season, keep your wits about you and obey all traffic laws.
posted by Feyala at 12:47 PM on October 26, 2019

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