By Car or RV
If you’re adventurous and like going to out-of-the-way places, but still want to have all the comforts of home, you may enjoy driving your car or RV to Oaxaca. On the other hand, consideration of cost, risk, wear on both you and your vehicle, and the congestion hassles in towns may change your mind.
Mexico City Driving Restrictions
If your planned trip will take you through Mexico City by car or RV, you need to be aware of certain driving restrictions.
To reduce smog and traffic gridlock, authorities have limited which cars can drive on which days in Mexico City, depending upon the last digit of their license plates. If you violate these rules, you risk getting an expensive ticket. On Monday, no vehicle may be driven with final digits 5 or 6; Tuesday, 7 or 8; Wednesday, 3 or 4; Thursday, 1 or 2; Friday, 9 or 0. Weekends, all vehicles may be driven.
A Sinaloa Note of Caution
Although bandidos no longer menace Mexican roads (but loose burros, horses, and cattle still do), be cautious in the infamous marijuana- and opium-growing region of Sinaloa state north of Mazatlán. It’s best not to stray from Highway 15 between Culiacán and Mazatlán or from Highway 40 between Mazatlán and Durango. Curious tourists have been assaulted in the hinterlands adjacent to these roads.
The Green Angels
The Green Angels have answered many motoring tourists’ prayers in Mexico. Bilingual teams of two, trained in auto repair and first aid, help distressed tourists along main highways. They patrol fixed stretches of road at least twice daily by truck. To make sure they stop to help, pull completely off the highway and raise your hood. You may want to hail a passing motorist or trucker with a Mexican cell phone to call the Mexico Tourism–Green Angels hotline (tel. 800/903-9200, or all-purpose emergency direct tel. 078) for you.
If, for some reason, you have to leave your vehicle on the roadside, don’t leave it unattended. Hire a local teenager or adult to watch it for you. Unattended vehicles on Mexican highways are quickly stricken by a mysterious disease, the symptoms of which are rapid loss of vital parts.
Pemex, short for Petróleos Mexicanos, the government oil monopoly, markets diesel fuel and two grades of unleaded gasoline: 92-octane premio (PRAY-mee-oh) and 87-octane Magna (MAHG-nah). Magna is good gas, yielding performance similar to that of U.S.-style regular unleaded gasoline. (My original car, whose manufacturer recommended 91-octane, ran well on Magna.) It runs about $0.65 per liter (or about $2.50 per gallon at this writing). On main highways, Pemex makes sure that major stations (typically spaced about 30 miles apart in the countryside) stock Magna.
Gas Station Thievery
Although the problem has abated considerably in recent years (by the hiring of young female attendants), boys who hang around gas stations to wash windows are notoriously light-fingered. When stopping at the gasolinera, make sure that your cameras, purses, and other moveable items are out of reach. Also, make sure that your car has a lockable gas cap. If not, insist on pumping the gas yourself, or be super-watchful as you pull up to the gas pump to make certain that the pump reads zero before the attendant pumps the gas.
The usual meeting ground of the visitor and Mexican police is in the visitor’s car on a highway or downtown street. To the tourists, such an encounter may seem mild harassment by the police, accompanied by vague threats of going to the police station or impounding the car for such-and-such a violation. The tourist often goes on to say, “It was all right, though . . . we paid him $20 and he went away . . . Mexican cops sure are crooked, aren’t they?”
And, I suppose, if people want to go bribing their way through Mexico, that’s their business. But calling Mexican cops crooked isn’t exactly fair. Police, like most everyone else in Mexico, have to scratch for a living, and they have found that many tourists are willing to slip them a $20 bill for nothing. Rather than crooked, I would call them hungry and opportunistic.
Instead of paying a bribe, do what I’ve done a dozen times: Remain cool, and if you’re really guilty of an infraction, calmly say, “Ticket, please.” (“Boleto, por favor”). After a minute or two of stalling, and no cash appearing, the officer most likely will not bother with a ticket, but will wave you on with only a warning. If, on the other hand, the officer does write you a ticket, he will probably keep your driver’s license, which you will be able to retrieve at the presidencia municipal (city hall) the next day in exchange for paying your fine.
Crossing the Border
Squeezing through the border traffic bottlenecks during peak holidays and rush hours can easily take two or three hours. Avoid crossing 7–9 a.m. and 4:30–6:30 p.m. Moreover, with latter-day increased U.S. homeland security precautions, the return, northbound border crossing, under the best of conditions, generally takes at least an hour waiting in your car, along with a hundred or more other frustrated drivers. (Note: Do not cross the border into Mexico without a valid passport for everyone in your party. U.S. border authorities will probably not let you return without one.)
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition