Driving in Yucatán


Is it Safe to Drive in Yucatán?

In a word, yes.

You may have heard stories of violent crime in Mexico.  There are dangerous, crime-ridden areas (just as there are in the United States), but these areas are not in Yucatán. Yucatán has a very low crime rate; much lower than most US states.

You may have heard of corrupt police demanding bribes from tourists.  While this may happen (just as it sometimes does in the US), we never had any problems, and never encountered anyone who did.  The police we encountered were courteous and helpful.

You may have heard about reckless drivers on Mexican roads.  There are different driving practices in every country.  We found Mexican drivers to be more aggressive when passing, and we found the notion of “lanes” on city streets to be pretty fuzzy.  On the other hand, most drivers stayed close to the speed limit, and were courteous of other drivers.  In general, there are probably far more dangerous drivers on the roads in Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area than on the roads in Yucatán.

Highways and Roads

There are only a few divided highways in Yucatán, and not even many multi-lane highways.  When there are multiple lanes, you should not drive in the left lane, which is reserved for passing. 

Most state and local roads are two lanes (some barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass), and many are pitted with potholes, so use care when driving.

Note that roads generally go through the center of each town, requiring you to slow to a crawl.  Expect to share the road with bicycles, carts, and perhaps an occasional horse or cow, so you’ll need to stay alert and drive slowly and carefully.

You should also watch for signs along the road warning of topes, or speed bumps.  These are not the speed bumps you find in the US!  They may be a foot high and three feet across, and they can seriously damage your car if you take them too fast. 

In many cases the main road through town will be blocked for a market or celebration, and you’ll need to detour on small local roads or alleys (or stop and join the festival).  Road trips therefore take much longer than you might expect!

There is a divided toll highway between Merida and Cancun; although fairly expensive, it saves a lot of time by bypassing the towns along the way.

Finding Your Way

Roads are generally well marked with good signs.  Unlike many places in the US, exits are not numbered.  You’ll need to know the name of the town you’re looking for, as well as other major towns along the route, in order to recognize your turnoff.  It’s also very useful to learn a little Spanish, in order to understand roadside signs.  Finally, because many people in Yucatán can’t read, you’ll find understandable “picture” signs for restaurants, hotels, archeological sites, beaches, artisan markets, restrooms, and more.

Surprisingly, gas stations, rest stops, and convenience stores usually do not sell road maps.  Consider buying maps online before your trip.  We found our iPhone (with a pre-paid roaming data plan) to be incredibly valuable!  We were surprised that we could get a signal in all but the most remote locations, and we were saved many times by the mapping application, which allowed us to find our way through mazes of small streets in towns and villages.

Gas and Repairs

Gasoline in sold exclusively through government-run Pemex gas stations, easily recognizable by their green signs with yellow lettering, and green awnings.  In rural areas, there are very few gas stations, so fill up whenever you can.  (Pemex stations may also have the only available restrooms, which are usually clean and well maintained.)
Most Pemex stations don’t take credit cards, and the attendants who fill your tank and clean your windshield depend on your tips for their livelihood, so be sure to carry cash when travelling.

Note that, unlike the US, gas stations in Yucatán rarely have mechanics, which are entirely separate businesses, and may be hard to find.  If you’re driving off the main highways, at a minimum be sure you have a working spare tire and tools to change a flat.  If you’re renting a car, insist on checking this before you leave the lot.