Road Safety in Mexico

Road Safety in Mexico

8 October 2010 Immigration & Residency 11

Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have received multiple inquiries about the safety of driving from the US and Canada into Mexico. Dorothy and Bill Bell recently sent us this article, and we thought it worthy of sharing with our readers. Dorothy and Bill have lectured about Mexico Road and RV travel in colleges, RV Shows and private seminars throughout Western Canada and the US. They have traveled to all 31 Mexican states over a dozen times and are considered experts on road travel in Mexico. The following article synopsizes their experiences and opinions about road travel to and throughout Mexico. We hope you enjoy it!

American and Canadian "snowbirds" are making up their minds whether or not to drive by car or recreational vehicle to their place in the Mexican sun. Recent travel warnings by both the Canadian and American governments and negative media reports have generated a tremendous interest and concern over travel safety issues in Mexico, making the decision even harder.

Response to our first report on Road Safety in Mexico overwhelmed us. It generated over a thousand inquiries and requests for more detailed information on road safety in Mexico. The following is our best assessment and contains answers to many of the questions that have been posed to us.

We live in La Penita de Jaltemba Nayarit. It is a small community one hour north of Puerto Vallarta. The town is predominantly populated by Mexicans and has a very large "snowbird" community that both flies and drives here annually. There are only a few of us expats that live here year round. Despite the continuous reports of violence in Mexico, our day to day lives continue much as they have done for the last five years. We go to the market, restaurants, and bank as we have always done and we feel very safe.

We differ from most locals and tourists in that we travel by road thousands of kilometers a year in Mexico. Most gringos and Mexicans do not travel as much as we do. We love to travel and would hate to stop traveling because we were frightened. Although we are not too scared to travel, we are significantly more careful than we have been in the last twenty years of traveling throughout Mexico.

We are retired and make a small income from Mexican Road logs and advertising on our website. We would leave Mexico in a moment if we thought our lives were in danger, the risk was too great or the stress was too taxing. We would hate to leave, however, because we love our current life in Mexico. We love the people and culture. Our income is not dependent on Mexico tourism and nothing ties us here except our love for the country and our community.

Why Mexico?

Mexico is enchanting. It is not the cost of living that continues to attract us, but rather the way of life. We enjoy the warm climate, friends, sand between our toes daily, golfing, fishing and outdoor activities. Our lives are significantly simpler than they were before we retired here seven years ago... much less complicated.

We find most Mexicans honest and hardworking. They have a love for family and a love for life. We count many as friends and trusted colleagues. There are bad apples and good apples in any barrel, but for the most part there are mostly good apples where we live. The country is historically intriguing. We cannot get enough of the pyramids and colonial cities, the pageantry of parades or the small and large fiestas and local celebrations. We envy the Mexicans’ deep family roots and love our family and kids just that much more through their example.

We feel safer in our little town and in most places we visit here than we do when we travel and visit many cities and towns north of the border. Having said that, we recognize that things have changed in Mexico. The Mexican underworld with all of its horror (and ALL countries have an underworld) is brimming to the surface.

Road Reports

We have given daily thought on how we should advise people regarding road travel and safety in Mexico. While we know a great deal about driving in Mexico, the highway system, rules of the road etc., we are NOT experts in law enforcement. If you think we can guarantee safety, protect you and your loved ones from anything hazardous on the road…well, you’ve come to the wrong people. We can’t do that in Canada, the USA or Mexico.

We do however have common sense and with our Mexican driving experience, we can tell you when we think something is fishy, not quite right or altogether wrong.

If you have traveled before to Mexico, then we believe you will not see anything different from your previous visits. We have traveled thousands of kilometers during the summer of 2010 and have not seen anything untoward. We have gone out at night to restaurants and bars but, as always, stick to the more savory side of town. Exercising common-sense precautions, as we would in any place unknown to us, we have been and felt completely safe.

During the past few months, we have talked to senior Mexican authorities, those involved in the tourist sector, hotel and RV Parks as well as gas station attendants and friends and family. Everyone has uneasy and trepidation feelings. We are definitely NOT saying no problema…..we are saying WE HAVE HAD NO PROBLEMS.
Here is our unabashed, take it or leave it assessment on what is going on in Mexico:

  • Mexico is going through some radical social changes
  • There is indeed a drug war
  • There are car hijackings
  • People are getting killed
  • It is highly unlikely that you will personally experience any of the above

Radical Social Changes

Mexico has been a devout Catholic country for centuries. Things are changing rapidly and within one generation. We have many Mexican friends who come from families of twelve children or more but who themselves only have one or two children. We laugh and say that their parents didn’t have television, which is not only funny, but also partially true... technology and the Western culture it represents are changing Mexico.

In Mexico City, the capital leads the country on social and law reform. Abortions and same-sex marriage have all been legalized within the last five years. In other words, there has been a tremendous upheaval of what was once considered normal societal conventions.

Living next to the most powerful and rich nation in the world is tough. Many Mexicans have traveled North in search of a better life and are willing to work illegally at almost any job to put food on the table and to reach for the American dream. Other Mexicans have opted for illegal activities in Mexico, including drugs and drug related crime. It is hard to pass up an illegal act when you desperately need money to feed a family or deal with a sick relative. To paraphrase a drug gang’s recruitment billboard, “Are you tired of eating rice and beans? Come join us.”

There is a drug war

Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, has declared war on those drug gangs (many who have been recruited from the military) and the gangs are fighting back against police and military forces. They steal cars and trucks with tinted windows that can drive fast, get away quickly, while protecting their identity. People are being killed, it's true, but generally those people have had something to do with the drug trade or the fight against the gangs. Some innocent people have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this is the rare exception.

As avid road travelers in Mexico, we have never seen a carjacking, a phony road block or a murder. We have crossed using the Tijuana, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and Nogales border crossings during the summer of 2010. This summer alone we have traveled nearly 10,000 miles without incident.The only difference we can see at the borders between this year and the previous years is that tourist traffic has been significantly reduced. There is no evidence to show that tourists are being targeted. The reported violence generally takes place in border areas and in isolated spots throughout the country. And it is true, some tourists have been caught in the crossfire or wandered into a horrible situation.

How many innocent people are we talking about?

It is difficult to know who to believe when it comes to crime and statistics. Many Mexican newspapers are prone to exaggeration, sensationalism and often bear a stronger resemblance to the National Enquirer than the New York Times. Awhile ago, we explored a joint venture with a Mexican newspaper, and during the discussion, we asked why they had so few ads. “We have many ads,” said the editor. "The governor paid for this story, this restaurant paid for this one…” In other words, stories could be purchased and not every story in the paper was the result of honest journalism. Some have said that the drug gang killings of Mexican newspaper reporters is a result of their unwillingness to run a particular story or their willingness to publish stories about rival gangs. As a result of our experiences, we are very skeptical of articles written in many Mexican newspapers.

Should we believe the articles in Canadian and US media? We look closely at where they get their information, and is their source is a Mexican newspaper, who try to determine who they talked to and if the crime was reported to authorities. We look closely to see if there is an anti-Mexico bias in the story. As in Mexico, we don't always believe what we read in US or Canadian newspapers either.

The US embassy has issued a detailed and chilling travel advisory. The Canadian Embassy has also written a travel advisory, albeit less detailed and therefore less alarming. We take these reports seriously and agree with many of the warnings. However, we think it wise to compare these warnings and the underlying facts to facts and statistics for similarly sized US or Canadian cities.

CarJackings in the USA and Canada

The only carjacking statistics that we could find are from a 2004 US Department of Justice report that stated there were 38,000 carjackings annually in the USA, 74% in which a weapon was used. We believe the sheer volume of weapon related car-jackings in the USA puts the Mexican situation into perspective. (Those USA numbers seem alarmingly high to us, but we do not boycott travel in the US because of it.)

Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, has always had a lot of visible guns. Most jewelry stores and banks, for example, hire armed security guards to stand in front of stores to protect the business. It has been this way since we first started traveling in Mexico twenty years ago. The military has always had semiautomatic rifles at roadside military checkpoints. While we were not comfortable at first with military checkpoints, we have become used to them and realize now that they are harmless as long as you are not the person or people they are looking for... and we're not!

It is always best to follow the rules of the country when you are a visitor (and even when you're not!). We stop at checkpoints or pullover when policemen come up behind us with flashing lights. We are always respectful when talking with the police or military, and have always found them respectful when they speak to us. They are after people involved in the drug trade, not your average mom and pop expat heading down the highway.

People Do Get Killed

We have no doubt that people are getting killed and that the true numbers are escalating. The gangs do not want to give up their lucrative trade routes and territories. They are professionals who are trained to shoot and kill their enemies, the rival gangs and any legitimate police or military that might get in their way.

Our Advice

Here's our advice, based on our years of experience:

  • Travel if you feel comfortable. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are 100% safe. While it is VERY likely that you will NOT experience anything out of the ordinary, there is no point in going if you are going to be too nervous to enjoy yourself.
  • If you are flying, when you arrive at your destination, take an authorized taxi from the airport.
  • Don’t have anything to do with drugs. Stay away from places that look risky. Frequent tourist places that are in open, well-lit areas of the destination. Ask the desk clerk at your hotel if you are in doubt.
  • Take buses that travel in daylight hours.
  • Drive out of border areas as quickly as possible. Make your first overnight stop as far away from the border.
  • Drive on the main highways well into daylight hours. While we used to start at 6 AM, now we start our day at 8 AM. We quit earlier too, and of course, we don’t drive at night.
  • If possible, drive with another vehicle. This will give you confidence, if nothing else. If there is a breakdown, you will have immediate support.
  • Get a Mexican cel phone. But a "pay as you go" phone to assist you if there is an emergency. Put the emergency number 078 for the Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) for help with vehicle breakdowns, or 066 for general emergencies on your speed dial. The cheap cellular phones cost about $30 USD.
  • Don’t display your wealth. A big stuffed wallet doesn’t impress anyone, but it does make you a target. Have one wallet with 500 pesos or so in smaller bills. Tuck away any other cash that you carry with you. Don’t bring your precious jewelry or any other items with you on your trip that you cannot afford to lose.
  • If you are in an RV, don’t boondock. Not at a Wal-Mart. Not at a Pemex. Not at a beach. Stay only at official campgrounds.
  • Have a plan in case you run into an “unauthorized roadblock”.

Our Plan for an Unauthorized Roadblock

We always try to have a plan for the worstcase scenario. We figure our lives are worth more than our processions, so we have adapted the following plan for ourselves in case of an assault via an unauthorized roadblock:

  • Don’t try to outrun or break though the barrier.
  • Keep your hands on the wheel or on the dash in a visible manner.
  • Don’t stare or otherwise appear that you are trying to identify the culprits.
  • Wait for instructions to get out of the vehicle.
  • Hand over anything they ask for.

We would suggest that this plan would be good for any country… Mexico, Canada, the USA or Europe. We do not know or have not heard or read of anyone who has been hurt if they pose no resistance.

Road Travel Forum

To assist road travelers, we have set up a bulletin board forum. We are not interested in the immigration debate, gun control or whether you think there is a conspiracy to keep folks from traveling in Mexico. The forum is for people who want to travel to Mexico and want the best and most recent advice possible about road conditions and safety.

In this forum, people are responsible for their statements, so we do not allow anonymity. We encourage people to contribute. If you subscribe to this board, we expect you to participate, which includes writing your own road report and submitting it as soon as you get to your destination.

To participate, please go to and sign in. Let us know when you are crossing and if you want company. Report back as soon as you arrive at your destination. Have a pencil and paper while you drive to take note of authorized roadblocks, or anything out of the ordinary. There have been many floods this year. Let others know about detours, broken-up roads and other natural hazards.

But most of all, have fun and enjoy traveling in Mexico!


You can read more about Dorothy and Bill Bell at their website


  • Linda 12 years ago

    Thank you so much for your article. We are travelling to Merida in the spring by car, with our pets. We are concerned with where to cross and finding good motels/hotels to spend our nights. Any help would be appreciated.

  • Khaki Scott 13 years ago

    I am always concerned about the veracity of the articles I highlight for Yucatan Living. An NOB journalist admitted to one expat that he too writes negative frabrications about dangers in Mexico because he would lose his job if he didn't and he has children to feed. My constant worry is that - one of these days - there could be a real threat to safety and no one will believe any journalist - north or south of the border - on the basis of past unethical reporting.

  • Road Safety in Mexico From A Travelers View | 13 years ago

    [...] great article on Road Safety in Mexico from the perspective of the Bells you traveled 10,000 miles through Mexico and give accounts of [...]

  • Jim Kreisman 13 years ago

    Dorothy and Bill as a Mexico insurance specialist and writer of Articles on Mexico Insurance subjects, I wanted to thank you for sharing your view point and experiences. Your common sense advice is absolutely correct and the key to minimizing risk. One thing I would add is always stay on the main roads.

    Even when I travel to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) alone or with the family, I always keep in mind that I am in a foreign country and the rules and culture are different and my US citizenship affords me no special privileges. The "Golden Rule" and "Respect" go a long way in making and keeping friends in Mexico.

    One of the more common Mexico claims is a stolen car and since all claims must be reported from Mexico, travelers should make sure to keep a second copy of their policy with them in case the car is stolen or totaled. One of my favorite articles is “6 Mexico Insurance Scenarios You Want To AVOID With Your Vehicle!” and may be of value to your readers.

    Thanks again and I look forward to future articles on your travels.

  • Bernie & Lyn 13 years ago

    My husband & I have lived in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico for the past 10 years and echo your thoughts re living full time here. We love it and appreciate our good fortune to be able to spend our retirement years in such a happy, friendly place. We have even found some more Brits living here as well as Canadians and Americans, a very mixed bag of people including many Mexican friends as well. We have never felt threatened here or travelling down from the border.

  • Bobbi Coates 13 years ago

    Dorothy and Bill: Keep up the good work - I have been driving to Mexico from British Columbia for 16 years without a problem. This year I was concerned by all the bad news coming out of Mexico - but I am most reassured that nothing has changed and I cannot wait to get on the road again. You discribed the Mexican way of life beautifully. Thank-you.
    I go through Nogales Truck Crossing down Hwy 15 to San Carlos/Guaymas.

  • ralph blessing 13 years ago

    my wife and I drove from Washington DC to Merida, Yucatan at the beginning of 2010 and returned to DC about 4 months later. Going south we took the coastal road via the Brownsville-Matamoros border crossing, which while shorter was more nerve-wracking due to the narrow, hilly road much of the way with other drivers passing willy nilly. On our way back north, at the advice of friends in Merida, we took the cuota roads that took us a bit further inland to the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo crossing. A little longer and much pricier but a lot more pleasant drive. Plus it took us to one of our favorite places, Queretaro, where we had visited on our honeymoon 25 years ago, as well as to a new favorite, San Luis Potosi. Aside from some difficulties crossing the border on our way south (difficulties of our own doing, I would add), all went very smoothly both going down and returning. We look forward to doing it again on our next longterm visit to Merida.

  • Tanya Stewart 13 years ago

    I will be travelling by Campervan with my young family, and crossing the Baja North border at Tijuana around Dec. 10th.
    I am a little concerned about our safety and was wondering if anyone else will be travelling in the Baja North around that time - safety in numbers!!
    If you have any advice or ideas PLEASE let us know!!!
    Thank you.
    The Stewarts, from Canada

  • Michel Bellego 13 years ago

    I am Mexican and make my living from tourism, it is very sad to see how many people from US & Canada are not coming to Mexico on vacations or they are afraid when they get to come. I commend you for your write-up it is very correct and explains very well the situation in Mexico and is absolutely right that any US, Canadian or foreign tourist rarely will be involved in bad situations unless they look for it.

  • mary tabar 13 years ago

    Hi Bells, thanks for the info, I am planing on going to Merida one week before Christmas with my 20 and 25 year old daughters. We are flying, and think that there is enough to do in that area for a week. Any advice that you did not cover above? thanks again, you guys have a cool life!

  • Ray 13 years ago

    We did the drive in late March from Vancouver to Merida and the trip was so comforting and people were so good to us in Mexico it makes any of our past experiences in Canada and the US pale in comparison.

    We had to ask for help twice in Mexico due to my not listening to the navigator/chief/boss and each time it was with the police and they could not have been more helpful, hand directions, no English/no Spanish, and we worked it out.


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