Is It Safe to Drive Through Mexico? The Complete Van Life Guide

Is It Safe to Drive Through Mexico? The Complete Van Life Guide

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Is It Safe to Travel Mexico by Van?

Is it safe to drive through Mexico? It’s one of the questions we are most frequently asked about our van life experiences and destinations.

As you make your way south through Mexico, there is a marked change in geography, food, and culture. The influence of indigenous culture becomes more and more noticeable. And, as it does, the influence of the United States wanes, as Walmarts and Burger Kings seemed to become fewer and further between. You also start to become aware that the southern states have less money than the north.

While everything we had absorbed about Mexico told us to watch out for epic crimes like kidnapping or horrific violence at the hands of Mexican cartels, we didn’t see or feel that. But, as we moved south, into the ‘tourist safe’ but poverty-stricken regions of Mexico, we were subject to and witnessed inordinate amounts of petty crime, surely driven by the institutional poverty that plagues these areas.

In a single day driving through Chiapas we were scammed, held up on the road for money by townspeople using homemade tire spikes, and finally had our car lock picked and woke up to a wild-eyed man sitting in our front seat, rifling through our belongings. Thankfully he only got away with only a camera lens and raincoat before Kelli’s ear-piercing screams sent him scurrying away into the night. But it was a reminder of the need to stay aware and vigilant when traveling here.

Don’t get us wrong, we feel safe traveling by van in Mexico and are not interested in perpetuating stereotypes and misinformation about safety in Mexico (truthfully our favorite regions like Chiapas and Oaxaca are some of the poorest in Mexico). Rather we want to address common questions regarding safety in Mexico.

Using our experience of traveling Mexico by van from the top to bottom, we have set out to address the question of safety in Mexico. Is it safe to drive through Mexico, is it safe to travel Mexico by van, is Mexico safe, and many more questions about safety in Mexico for van lifers!

Is it safe to drive through Mexico? We think yes!

Is Mexico Safe?

Traveling through Mexico, like anywhere else, comes with some inherent dangers. However, sometimes the media’s focus on the sensational can distract us from the true dangers of a region. Many people have often questioned our decision to van life through Mexico, and some have asked is it safe to travel Mexico at all.

While Mexico’s crime rate is higher than say the United States, the true statistical risk of being the victim of serious crimes is extremely low. Within some states such as Campeche, and Yucatán, these rates fall below the national average for the United States. Conversely, both the rate and the severity of food poisoning cases increase dramatically south of the border.

Given that, putting all your energy into avoiding kidnapping in Mexico rather than avoiding suspect street meat will likely put you in the hospital quicker than the cartel. Making sure you understand the true safety risks and how to mitigate them is the key to staying safe in Mexico.

So, is it safe to to travel in Mexico? Yes, in our experience, with proper preparation, precaution and mindfulness, Mexico is safe to travel.

Where Is It Safe to Travel in Mexico?

Mexico is a huge country, so it is unhelpful to make generalisations about the entire country as either safe or unsafe. Instead, care and research should be taken in each area you travel in to help understand and mitigate the risks associated with particular regions.

It is equally unhelpful to label some areas of Mexico (or anywhere else) safe and others unsafe. The fact is that dangerous scenarios can develop very quickly. Acapulco, once considered one of the premier vacation spots in Mexico, has been, since 2014, considered one of the most dangerous cities on earth. One where the military has disarmed the corrupt police force and where rates of violent crime are some of the highest in the world.

To travel safely through Mexico you first need to research your destination(s). By researching the specific areas you are intending to visit, traveling only in areas where it is safe, and taking basic precautions you will find risks can be managed and mitigated and, that travel through Mexico can be done quite safely.

How Can I Find Out Which Parts of Mexico Are Safe for Travel?

Two people camping on a beach in Mexico. Is it safe to drive through Mexico?
Is it safe to drive through Mexico? We felt safe camping here on this desolate beach.

Understanding the political, economic, social and military situation within the region you plan to travel is as important as it is simple. But how can you keep yourself informed and up-to-date with the curent situation of a particular location?

Government Agencies

One source to begin your broader research are government foreign affairs agencies. Government websites offer travel resources and up-to-date information and travel warnings. We use the US Bureau of Consular Affairs site and the Australian DFAT website.

These are great places to research known travel warnings and issues. It is also a good place to research regions in Mexico (or other places) that your government has deemed high risk and aress where they will not offer consular assistance.

The US Government, for example, keeps a website with a list of states categorized as ‘do not travel’ or ‘reconsider travel’ along with the threats that they have identified in these regions (usually crime, occasionally kidnapping). We have avoided traveling to all states categorized ‘Do Not Go’ although many have traveled these areas incident-free. Honestly, we considered visiting some of these areas and probably would have if there weren’t so many wonderful places that were not flagged by the US Department of State.

We did, however, travel through many states marked as ‘reconsider travel’ such as Chihuahua, Jalisco, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi. In these areas, we took extra precautions to ensure our safety such as making sure we did not drive after dark.

Online Groups, Groups, Forums and Apps

Online forums like Facebook groups are great places to seek advice on particular areas from experienced travelers for localized and current information.

Another tool we use for local research is iOverlander. This mapping and travel app uses community contributions to provide up to date travel information including warnings from other overlanders. This resource is helpful for issues at a local level which might escape the attention of government websites.

Local News and Local Government Agencies

If you do find yourself in a localised emergency situation, local online news is the best place to get information. You can also get in touch with Mexico’s governmental tourism agencies such as the tourist police for the region you are traveling in.

Situations can develop quickly so it is important to stay informed through local channels. We are not talking about drug cartels with assault weapons here either. Civil unrest, blockades and protests can turn violent quickly. Steer clear of these situations or face being singled out as a foreigner.

Finding yourself in the middle of a protest is a van life horror story that you likely don’t want to re-live!

Consular Services

Finally, your own country’s consular service in the region can help you stay up to date with situations as they unfold.

By staying informed and avoiding areas with increased risk you are doing the best thing you can to avoid being the subject of serious crime.

Van driving down a dirt road through the palm trees
Driving through the palm trees on the way to the beach in Mexico

So, Is it Safe to Drive Through Mexico?

Dangers you are likely to encounter driving are for the most part, more mundane than carjackings, or kidnappings. Crooked cops, pot-holed roads, and hundreds of f#%*ing topes are the ever present threats to you and your vehicle’s safety when driving in Mexico.

So, is it safe to drive through Mexico? We think yes. But here is a list of the most common “obstacles” we faced while driving in Mexico by van.

Topes Mexico

Mexico manages to keep people from speeding without police radars or hefty fines. In fact, they don’t use police or tech of any kind. Unfortunately, their simple solution is anything but elegant and is the source of a lot of headaches for those driving through Mexico. It is, however, presumably a godsend for the local suspension and shock absorber market. I am, of course, talking about the infamous topes, the Mexican speed bump.

Millions of topes cover the roads throughout the country from north to south. Some roads will have less, some will have more. Some topes will be large, some smaller. Many you will see and slow down for, ultimately though if you drive long enough in Mexico, one of these bastards will catch you unaware.

There have been more than a couple of times when I’ve been convinced our big old van has caught a little air speeding over these things, and not in a cool way. More in ah, we should get this thing checked out right away, way.

Be wary driving. Everywhere. All the time. Topes are often installed by the local community and come in a wide variety of shapes from inconvenient to terrifying.

Topes are one of the best reasons not to drive at night. Unsigned, unmarked topes can be difficult to see in the middle of the day and near impossible to see at night.

Be cautious and drive slowly, and keep a sharp eye out.

Toll Roads in Mexico

Cuota or libre? To take the tolls roads or to dodge them? It can be a conundrum. Often untolled roads (libre or sin cuota) run parallel to tolled roads and indicative travel times can be extremely similar. Tolls can be anywhere from $0.50 US cents to $15 USD and the booths extracting these tolls can be infuriatingly frequent. Given this, it can be extremely tempting to take free roads and often this can turn out to be a good strategy.

However! The hidden cost of avoiding toll roads can be substantial. Pot holes and topes can create dangerous driving conditions. We destroyed our air suspension and a pair of shock absorbers dodging tolls between Guadalajara and CDMX costing us a lot more than the tolls. Road condition also means that the travel time dodging the tolls is usually longer than indicative times.

When in doubt take the toll roads.

Campsite in El Cuyo, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Is it safe to drive through Mexico at night? No, we think it is best to be parked enjoying a cold beer as the sun sets!
Is it safe to drive through Mexico at night? No, we think it is best to be parked enjoying a cold beer as the sun sets!

Driving at Night in Mexico

Is it safe to drive through Mexico at night?

No!

Driving at night is not recommended in Mexico. Many roads are not well lit, increasing the dangers of hitting a tope or pothole.

Drunk driving is also a common problem as it is difficult to police among the large population.

Finally instances of violence, robbery and crime go up significantly after dark in Mexico.

One of the easiest ways to boost your odds of staying safe while you travel Mexico by van is to avoid driving once the sun goes down. Instead, park up, put out the awning and enjoy a cold beer!

Police Corruption in Mexico

Our experience of police corruption while driving through Mexico has been significantly less than what we were subject to driving through South American countries. Our understanding is that the government has adopted a very harsh stance on police found to be extorting bribes from tourists in Mexico.

Only once did cops try to shake us down for a bribe. Threatening to issue a ticket for an imaginary traffic violation unless we wanted to ‘pay the ticket’ on the spot. But, they were quick to back down when we asked for a copy of the infraction.

If you know you haven’t done anything wrong, politely request a written ticket and request the officer accompany you to the station so you can dispute the ticket with their superiors. A second strategy is simply to pretend (or actually) not to speak any Spanish. Corruption often goes hand in hand with laziness and if it seems like it’s too difficult to get the message across they may just wave you on.

Our personal recommendation, the combo, play the idiot and make it painful for the cops to communicate. If they persist, continue to play dumb, the trusting tourist without cash who would love to come down to the station and organize payment for a written citation. A final hail mary which has proved effective for us in the past is to turn on the waterworks. Loud, messy and an affront to the machismo of many police, a surefire way to get your documents thrown back at you and your car shooed down the street is to start bawling like a baby.

In the end though, if a cop does want to make your life difficult they can. While we hate to advocate giving in to people like this and perpetuating the problem sometimes it just isn’t worth the ten or twenty bucks it will cost to get on down the road.

Military Check Points in Mexico

In our experience mostly innocuous. The military looks for contraband being transported on the road networks. They check for weapons, drugs, and other illegal products using spot checks, searches, dogs, and mirrors. They are not generally out to extort or harass. Obviously don’t travel with drugs or other illicit items. Be friendly and compliant if stopped and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Police Check Points in Mexico

Like the military checkpoints, these routine stops are generally not problematic. Although there is a higher rate of bribe solcitiation reported especially in touristic areas like Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Another safety risk is fake police checkpoints. These situations can be very dangerous and if you fall into such a trap be prepared to hand over anything you have. These checkpoints are mostly carried out at night, another good reason to only travel by daylight.

Road Blocks in Mexico

Road blockades are a popular method of social protest throughout latin america. In South America, we noticed this technique often used for demonstration. In Mexico, it was usually used as a way to shake down people for money.

Roadblocks can range from children holding a rope across the road, to trees and rocks used to block the roads or, in one case, an entire village with nailboards demanding a tariff to proceed. Roadblocks of just a few people, we tended to slow down but then just drive by. Even if they are holding a rope, 100% of the time they drop it as we trundle past. At larger roadblocks, we usually insisted we had no cash or if the situation seemed dangerous handed over a small contribution maybe thirty or forty pesos.

One thing we did notice was that some people would take the opportunity to set up a stop before a real ticketing booth or toll gate (say for a national park or attraction). They would state they are the gate and take payment even providing tickets. When you arrive at the real gates you have to pay again. If there is no gate, and you are not sure if the people waving you down are legitimate, keep cruising past, you can always return to pay if you made a mistake.

Do I Need Car Insurance in Mexico?

You are legally required to have car insurance when driving in Mexico, and we think it’s a good idea to have anyway.

Most US insurance companies do not offer coverage in Mexico, so you’ll need to arrange extra cover before you arrive. We found the cheapest Mexican car insurance to be Lewis and Lewis Mexican Auto Insurance. For less than $300 USD, we were able to insure our van with full coverage for a year. This is an absolute steal when compared to the exorbitant prices in the United States.

The van parked at our campsite overlooking the monolith of Bernal
Camping under the shadows of Bernal in Central Mexico

Other Safety FAQs for Driving Through Mexico

Is It Safe to Camp in Mexico?

We camped throughout Mexico from rural areas to big cities from quiet villages to busy beaches. We generally felt safe although there were a couple of isolated incidents that made us nervous.

One night we camped on a dark street in Palenque, as we were falling asleep someone tried to open the car using the locked handles. I yelled out assumed the intruder wouldn’t return. That night, we awoke at 4:00 in the morning to someone inside our car rummaging around for whatever goods he could find. It was a terrifying experience at the time, but does make for a great van life horror story!

Another time, we camped by a lake in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Querétaro in northern mexcio. We were sharing the campsite with some locals a few hundred meters away who had come down to drink and play music. Although they were loud, we weren’t concerned falling asleep.

We woke up soon after midnight to find the group had moved their party right next door to us even though there was plenty of space beside the lake. Anxious that they had done this just to get a rise and start trouble, there was nothing we could do but to pretend to sleep through it.

These were the only two times we had issues camping and on the whole felt welcome and safe when camping, especially after striking up a conversation with the local.

Strategies for Staying and Feeling Safe in Mexico

Talk to locals in areas you plan to camp. Not only will this make you more comfortable, it will make locals more comfortable about the strange foreigners camping nearby. We speak to gas station attendants, local residents or guards to ask them permission, get an idea of the safety of an area and ask them to keep an eye out for us. This tip has made the most important difference in making us feel more comfortable camping in our vehicle.

Camp under lights, or better yet security cameras.

Camp near other travelers or van lifers. Head for popular campsites using your iOverlander app and increase your odds of having some other travelers nearby.

Camping in Cities in Mexico

Gas stations, supermarkets, places that are well lit, guarded and have security cameras are the best placs to camp for the night if you are camping with your vehicle. Park or facility guards are usually only to happy to keep an eye out on you and your vehicle.

READ MORE: Four Free Campsites in Mexico Not to Miss

Is There a Lot of Crime in Mexico?

As with any country, crime in Mexico does exist. And while Mexico has a reputation for being a dangerous place, overwhelmingly, that was not our experience.

If you are going to face crime in Mexico, the most likely culprit will be scams. This popular form of crime in Mexico runs the gamut from overpriced food in the markets to police scams for “traffic violations”.

There are other forms of crime in Mexico as well such as kidnapping and gun violence, however, if you stick to the areas deemed safe by the governmental agencies and to more popular locations, your chances of encountering this sort of activity are very low.

Can You Drink the Water in Mexico?

While things may have improved in Mexico, generally we would not recommend drinking the water. While some cities and regions now have state of the art water treatment facilities, this is the exception not the rule. A great rule of thumb to follow is if the locals are buying water, then you should too. In Mexico we advise traveling with some way of treating your water, we used a portable water filter but purification tablets or UV treatment could work as well.

Is Street Food Safe in Mexico?

Street tacos Mexico
Tacos are my favorite street food in Mexico!!

Yes ! Street food in Mexico is generally safe, totally delicious and one of the best parts of traveling in Mexico.

We ate street food daily, and while we got a sore tummy every now and then it was actually restaurant food that made us really sick. Street vendors that make people sick don’t stay in business very long. Do your research, ask around and watch where the locals go. Also, stick with stalls that are busy. Besides being a good indicator of quality, it means the food will be made fresh to order.

What Vaccinations Do I Need for Mexico?

The major vaccinations required for travel to Mexico are fairly standard and are often covered by childhood vaccination programs around the world. The typical vaccinations to ensure are up to date before travel are:

  • Hepatitis A and Typhoid
  • Hepatitis B
  • Malaria – While Mexico is not the worst place for Malaria if you are spending a lot of time out doors you may wish to talk to your doctor about an anti-malarial.
  • Rabies – Again not necessary for every traveller but if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors in rural or wilderness areas, you may wish to discuss this with your doctor.

How to Not Look Like a Tourist in Mexico

While this may not be completely feasible if you are blonde haired and blue eyed, driving around in an American or European car you can definitely take some basic steps to avoid being too conspicuous.

Dress down. Don’t where loud colours or flashy jewelry.

Take precautions in busy tourist hotspots. Be aware of your surroundings and valuables in tourist markets, busy city centres and other crowded areas.

Don’t get a loud custom paint job for your van, or make any other additions that could draw attention to the vehicle in which you plan to sleep every night. Even having foreign license plates can increase your chances of targeted crimes.

Be mindful not to flash cash, jewelry and expensive gadgets or items.

Don’t walk home alone at night.

Stay in well lit, well frequented.

Drink in moderation and never accept drinks from strangers.

Use registered taxis or uber where available.

Van parked by beach
For spots like this, we would drive through Mexico any day!

Final Quick Tips to Stay Safe in Mexico

Aside from travelling with the appropriate safety equipment and conducting thorough research there are other steps you can take to stay safe while driving through Mexico.

  • Make sure you equip yourself with contact numbers for local police, preferably tourist police.
  • Keep friends and family up to date on where you are travelling and when you’ll next be in touch.
  • Don’t drive at night.
  • Know the law by researching immigration and customs, road rules and wild camping laws. Wikitravel and WikiOverland are two online resources where you can find this information.
  • Use a safe to hide and lock up valuables.
  • Keep copies, not originals, of important documents on hand. This way you can avoid handing over something you can’t afford to lose to a corrupt official or criminal who can use it to extort you.
  • Don’t hand over documents to the police (or anyone else) where possible. Show them your copies of the documents and tell them the originals are at the ‘hotel’ for safe keeping.

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So is it safe to drive through Mexico? Is Mexico safe to travel by van? Is van life Mexico possible? We think it is and it’s something everyone should try!

We hope with this handy FAQ guide that we have been able to answer all of your questions about van life safety in Mexico. If you have a question or a comment about safety in Mexico or van life in Mexico, please let us know in the comments below!

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