Imagine the thrill of driving in a country completely foreign to you. The new sights, the smells, and the feeling of complete freedom on the road. This is what we felt when we crossed the USA border and embarked on our own Mexico road trip.
But proper planning is an important part of any Mexico road trip. Bringing the proper documents, how to handle vehicle insurance, figuring out the best places to visit in Mexico, and how to handle the Mexican police in case you get pulled over. In this Mexico road trip guide, we detail everything you need to know about driving in Mexico.
Why Trust Our Mexico Road Trip Article?
We understand. There are MANY Mexico road trip articles out there on the Internet, why should you trust ours? Here are just a few reasons why:
- 500+ Days On The Road In Mexico: We lived and traveled in our DIY camper van all throughout Mexico. We’ve driven through 29 of the 31 Mexican States including hectic Mexico City. We can’t say we’ve done “everything”, but we’ve seen a lot and driven off the “beaten path”.
- Six Border Crossings: Between The USA, Mexico, & Guatemala, we’ve crossed into and out of Mexico 6 times with our camper van. We know a thing, or two, about crossing the Mexican border with a vehicle.
- Experience With Authorities: From curious military checks to dubious police pullovers, we know how to deal with authority figures on the road.
We worked tirelessly to create the most comprehensive, all-in-one Mexico road trip guide to teach you everything you need to know about how to plan your own kickass Mexican road trip!
If you’re ready to continue reading, let’s get to it!
Should You Do A Road Trip In Mexico?
Driving in Mexico is not without its challenges. There are language barriers, stressful traffic situations, opportunities for police corruption, and oftentimes public toilets don’t have toilet seats! But don’t let these challenges deter you from embarking on the road trip of a lifetime in Mexico, because the upsides far outweigh the inconveniences.
No matter what interests you about traveling, there is a Mexico road trip just for you.
Do you love natural wildlife and jaw-dropping scenery?
With its extensive jungles, stunning cenotes, and “photoshopped blue” waterfalls, Mexico has got you covered.
Fancy yourself a beach person?
Mexico has lots of those, too. From casual beach vibes, to some of the best surf spots in the world, to beaches so isolated and unrestricted you can literally park your vehicle anywhere you want, right on the sand.
Perhaps you’re a culture and architecture buff?
Admire stunning Spanish colonial cities and churches and explore endless Mayan and Aztec ruins.
Or maybe you’re just on the hunt for Mexico’s best tacos?
Then good luck! Because there are so many different types of delicious tacos all over Mexico. Carnitas tacos, al pastor tacos, barbacoa tacos from Oaxaca, and tacos you may have never seen before in Merida, Yucatan.
Trust us, whatever your reason for travel, exploring Mexico on your own ultimate road trip will be the decision of a lifetime.
Driving In Mexico: What You Need To Know
But of course, now that you’re convinced of embarking on your own Mexico road trip, it’s important to point out several of the caveats about driving in Mexico, especially as a foreigner. Better to know now than after you’ve already crossed the border.
Driving In Mexico Can Be Pricey
Compared to the US and other developed countries, Mexico is quite an affordable place to live. Food, rent, and healthcare is significantly cheaper. But it sure isn’t cheaper to drive in Mexico. On average, gas costs about US$1 per liter (~$3.80 per gallon). Our camper van has a 25-gallon gas tank and it costs almost $100 to fill up from empty.
Not only the price of gas, but highway tolls (cuotas) can add up over time as well. Sometimes tolls cost as little as $2, but they can also cost us much as $10. And if you’re driving all day on tolled highways, you’ll find yourself constantly stopping at toll booths and forking over money.
The Roads Can Be Bad
The toll highways are usually quite modern and smooth. But once you’re driving on free roads, the quality of those roads can vary widely. From potholes and moguls, to dirt and muddy roads, and to a seemingly endless supply of speed bumps, your vehicle will take a beating while driving in Mexico.
After over 500 days on the road in Mexico, we’ve developed an unsubsiding hate and fear of speed bumps in Mexico.
Encountering Military Checkpoints While Driving In Mexico
As a consequence of Mexico’s ongoing war on drugs, there are numerous police and military checkpoints along the roads. Sometimes we get waved through without having to stop and sometimes we’re asked to pull over so that they can check our camper van.
We were nervous in the beginning every time we had to speak to those working at the checkpoints, but we quickly got used to it and checkpoints have become more of a nuisance than a concern.
Drive Defensively When In Mexico
Being able to speak a least the tiniest amount of Spanish can help immensely as you navigate Mexico’s roads. But you might be surprised to find out that you can easily get to your destination without speaking a single word of Spanish. It’s all about being friendly, respectful, and using efficient hand signals and gestures.
In fact, not speaking Spanish can even be helpful when you’re pulled over by corrupt police looking for a bribe.
How To Rent A Car In Mexico
Mexico is a tourist friendly country and has developed the infrastructure to serve millions of tourists each year. Not surprisingly, renting a car in Mexico is very easy and straightforward. Simply make a booking online, arrive at the airport in Mexico, and find the car rental counter associated with your rental reservation.
Just like in most countries, you have to be older than 21 years of age and if you’re under 25, you may have to pay a ‘young driver surcharge’.
When we were driving around Mexico City and Cancún, we saw plenty of visitors driving rental cars. So you definitely would not be alone.
My usual go-to for car rentals is Expedia. I love how they display all the different car rental agencies so that I can easily pick and choose which car best fits my need for the best price.
Documents Needed To Rent A Car In Mexico
All that you need to rent a car in Mexico is your passport, your driver’s license, and a valid credit card. That’s it.
Did You Need To Purchase Vehicle Insurance When Renting A Car In Mexico?
Yes, in Mexico you need to purchase insurance in order to rent a car in Mexico. Just like in most countries, there is full-coverage insurance and 3rd party liability only, the latter being the cheapest and most basic insurance required. Legally speaking, you DO NOT need to purchase full-coverage insurance if you do not want to.
Check the rental agreement to see if 3rd party liability insurance is already included in the rental price. Many times it should be already included.
How To Drive From The USA To Mexico (Border Crossing Guide)
Did you know that you can actually drive your own vehicle into Mexico? It’s 100% possible and foreigners are doing it every day as we speak.
If you are planning to bring your own American registered vehicle (or Canadian or from elsewhere) into Mexico, there are several additional steps you’ll need to take care of before you’re able to freely drive in Mexico.
What You Need To Drive Your Own Vehicle In Mexico
To simplify the process, you need three documents to legally drive your foreign-registered vehicle in Mexico.
- Valid Mexico Tourist Card
- Temporary Import Permit (for your vehicle)
- Driver’s Insurance
Below, we discuss each document in greater detail.
Valid Mexico Tourist Card
All tourists who enter Mexico will need a valid Mexico tourist card. It’s not ‘officially’ a visa, but…yeah it kind of is. In order to get your Mexico tourist card at the border, you will need:
- A Valid Passport
Temporary Import Permit (for your vehicle)
After receiving your Mexico tourist card, you need to find the Banjercito Office to get your Temporary Import Permit (TIP). Just as the name implies, this document allows you to import your foreign-registered vehicle temporarily into Mexico. To get this TIP, you will need to show:
- Valid Mexico Tourist Card
- Passport (+2 copies)
- Driver’s License (+2 copies)
- Valid Original Vehicle Registration (+2 copies)
- Proof of Mexican Auto Insurance (more about that below)
The name on the vehicle registration must match that on the passport and driver’s license.
Mexican Auto Insurance
“Is My US/Canadian Vehicle Insurance Enough In Mexico?”
No, under most circumstances, the vehicle insurance from your home country will not be accepted in Mexico. You MUST purchase Mexico-specific vehicle insurance.
Legally, you only need 3rd party liability insurance. But we recommend getting full insurance. It’s the smart choice.
Below are several places where you can obtain vehicle insurance for your drive through Mexico.
Read Our Full Mexico Border Crossing Guide
There are so much more nitty-gritty details that are needed to know about crossing the Mexican border with your own foreign vehicle, that we created a post just for this topic.
Learn More: Mexico Border Crossing Guide: How To Bring Your Foreign-Registered Vehicle Into Mexico
7 Top Tips For Driving In Mexico
1. Don’t Drive At Night
From Mexico’s bad roads, to wild animals roaming the streets, to drunk drivers, to cars with broken tail lights, there are many reasons why driving accidents and fatalities occur more frequently when driving at night. And you never know what kind of people are lurking out and about at night.
We try to stop our vehicle and find a place to sleep well before sundown.
2. When In Doubt, Take The Toll Roads
The best quality highways in Mexico are toll roads (‘cuota’ in Spanish). The roads are smooth, there’s generally no traffic, and you can expect minimal delays. However, you’ll have to pay to drive on these roads and costs can quickly add up.
Oftentimes there will be a free road (‘libre’) that rides “somewhat” alongside the toll road and it can be tempting to drive on these roads to save money. But unless you have a lot of time and are hankering for an adventure, we advise to always take the toll road.
These ‘libre’ roads are often of poorer quality, more winding, go through the middle of nearby towns, and filled with potentially hundreds of speed bumps. We believe that when taking into account your time, gas efficiency, and wear and tear on your vehicle, toll roads aren’t all that expensive in reality.
If you want know how much money you will pay in tolls to get to you destination, you can use this government toll calculator.
3. Be Vigilant Against Speed Bumps
Speed bumps in Mexico, called ‘Topes’, are the stuff of nightmares and a regular catalyst for arguments with your significant other. You will learn to hate them as much as we do.
To help regulate the speed of cars in villages and towns, the government and locals have resorted to erecting endless topes. And since there are no regulations as to the shape of these speed bumps, there exist many topes that are shaped solely to extract as much damage to your vehicle as possible. Or at least that is my view on it.
Some topes have formal signs to warn you of their existence. Sometimes there are only poorly hand painted signs. And many speed bumps have no signs whatsoever.
Some topes are brightly painted. And others blend perfectly into the asphalt. Sometimes I think the locals really enjoy seeing other cars slamming into speed bumps at full speed.
4. Add 20-50% Extra Time Than Google Estimates
We use Google Maps every day that we’re driving in Mexico. It is a fantastic app. But it’s initial arrival time estimate for a route is usually off by as much as 50%. This is because Google assumes you’ll drive faster on Mexican roads than is realistically possible, doesn’t accurately account for traffic jams, assumes you’ll drive the route perfectly without mistakes (very hard to do in Mexico), and doesn’t account for toll booth stops, military check stops, and the odd protest here and there.
It’s very smart to overestimate the time you need to complete a journey.
5. Don’t Ever Pay A Bribe When Pulled Over By Police
It’s actually a rare occurrence, but if you ever happen to be pulled over by police and a cash bribe is requested to prevent an actual fine from being issued, don’t pay the bribe. Ever.
Unless, of course, you really messed up and you broke the law.
But otherwise, you should always request for a written fine so that you can pay the penalty at the nearby police station. If you request this, for the vast majority of the time, the police officer will simply let you go with a warning.
Also, refusing to pay bribes teaches Mexican police that they are unlikely to collect bribes from foreigners, which helps all of us when we’re on the road in Mexico.
6. Learn The Rules For Driving In Mexico City & Mexico State
To reduce traffic in both Mexico City AND Mexico State, the Mexican government has implemented driving restrictions. Depending on the day and the time of the day, some vehicles are not allowed to be driving on the roads. These rules have tripped up many foreigners in the past and have resulted in several thousand peso fines.
The rules are as follows:
- Foreign-plated vehicles cannot drive between 5am-11am on weekdays
- No foreign vehicles can drive AT ALL on Saturdays
- Based on the last numerical digit on your license plate, you are restricted from driving during the following days
- 5-6: Mondays
- 7-8: Tuesdays
- 3-4: Wednesdays
- 1-2: Thursdays
- 0-9: Fridays
However, you can get around these rules by filling out this form. This form allows you to either apply for a 7-day pass twice per semester, or a single 14-day pass once per semester.
The website is in Spanish, but Google Translate should help you through it.
7. Be Attentive At Gas Stations
Gas stations are run a bit differently than you may be used to back home. All gas stations are fully serviced and someone MUST put gas into your car for you. But it’s important to pay attention to the gas pump meter and that the attendant ‘zeros’ the pump before adding gas into your vehicle. If you’re not paying attention, gas attendants can overcharge you by not zero-ing out the pump prior.
Also, we recommend paying for gas in cash and not with a credit card. This minimizes chances of credit card skimming. This has been known to happen in tourist hot spots in Baja and Cancún.
How To Get Internet While Driving In Mexico
Staying connected to the Internet is an important part of any Mexico road trip. And the best way to get Internet access is by purchasing a local Mexican SIM card. You can easily purchase a ‘TELCEL’ branded SIM card, without a contract or credit card info, from any OXXO Convenience Store (which are everywhere in Mexico) or at a TELCEL service center.
But we prefer the OXXO convenience stores because there’s always a store nearby.
The OXXO front counter sells SIM cards for 50 pesos (~$2.50). This includes:
- A SIM card
- Mexican Number
- A small amount of initial data (~200MB)
Once you’ve used your initial allotted data, you can visit any OXXO store to top-up your account. We usually purchase 200 pesos ($10) worth of data at a time, which is 3.5GB of data. But you can add anywhere from 20-500 pesos worth of data. It’s up to you.
In order to top-up your account, you’ll need to present the OXXO employee with your Mexican phone number.
What we say: “Quiero recargar para TELCEL, solo datos” (I want to recharge my TELCEL account, only Internet)
We find using a local SIM card is much cheaper than roaming on our US cell phones. This is especially true the longer your Mexico road trip becomes.
How Much Does A Mexico Road Trip Cost?
The cost of a road trip through Mexico is entirely up to you and depends on your length of travel, how many miles you’re driving, and how much you pay to sleep and eat out.
In our camper van, our average daily expenditures were 50 USD per day for the two of us.
We almost never slept at hotels and exclusively at campgrounds, which generally cost 3-5 USD per person per night. Yes, most campgrounds in Mexico charge on a per person basis.
Eating out generally costs $5-10 per person per day. And we would spend about $5 on travel activities.
The remainder of our daily budget went to gas and tolls. In our case, gas is usually are largest expense during our Mexico road trip.
Essential Smartphone Apps For A Mexico Road Trip
Having the right set of smartphone apps can really make or break your Mexico road trip experience. Throughout our 500+ days driving in Mexico, we constantly used the following 4 apps:
Virtually all small and medium businesses communicate with customers through Whatsapp. We’ve used Whatsapp to message hostels & hostels, schedule a time for the propane company to pick up and refill our propane tank, communicate with a mechanic, and even to order pizza. Whatsapp has helped us communicate instantly with so many companies here in Mexico. We much prefer using Whatsapp than standard email.
Though the app’s user interface leaves much to be desired, the iOverlander App is THE app for road trips not only in the USA & Canada for all around the world, including Mexico. With this app, you’re able to see where free and paid campsites are, where you can get water, where you can find a mechanic, important immigration points, and more. Using the iOverlander app takes much of the guesswork and uncertainty out of your Mexico road trip so that you can concentrate on enjoying and exploring Mexico.
During our Mexico road trip, we joined various Mexico-related Facebook groups to get great and timely information when we arrive at different destinations in Mexico.
For general Mexico travel information, we join the “On The Road To Mexico” Facebook group. There you can get:
- Current travel safety advice
- Great travel itineraries
- Border crossing tips
- Travel buddy information
For more city/town specific information in Mexico, we join the foreigner/expat Facebook groups for that particular town. For example, there are multiple foreigner Facebook groups for:
4. Google Maps
Google Maps certainly works here in Mexico, too! And it is probably our most often used app during our Mexico road trip. For us, Google Maps is more than simply a navigation app. We also use Google Maps for:
- Locate great restaurants and cafes;
- Find nearby places of interest;
- Check user reviews for updated information and prices; and
- Plan our driving route in advance by understanding driving times & distances
Also Google Maps is handy because many urban roads in Mexico are one way roads but these roads aren’t very well marked as one way. But Google ‘mostly’ gets the one way directions correct.
How To Get Water While On A Mexico Road Trip?
Getting drinking water is one of the most important survival skills and it’s useful to know when on a Mexico road trip. In our experience, there are two ways to obtain drinking water while driving in Mexico.
- Purchase disposable water bottles: You can easily purchase one-time use, disposable water bottles at the ubiquitous convenience stores all across Mexico. There are also many ‘big box’ grocery stores like Walmart, Soriana, & Chedraui. Bottles come in sizes from 0.33L to 10L. But because of the waste, we don’t prefer this method. It’s also the most expensive way.
- Purchase water from reusable bottles: At any OXXO convenience store (there are MANY in Mexico), you can purchase a 20L reusable water jug. For two people, this 20L water bottle lasts us about 5 days. And when the bottle is empty, we find another OXXO store and exchange the empty container for a full water bottle and pay a small fee. In the case that the OXXO store doesn’t want to exchange (if the bottle design is different), we carry a funnel to transfer the wter from OXXO’s bottle to our original bottle. It can be a bit of an inconvenience, but the water is much cheaper and we’re not throwing away endless plastic bottles.
For more information regarding how to find water while on a Mexico road trip:
Where To Sleep During Your Mexico Road Trip
In our suggested Mexico road trip itineraries below, we recommend several places to stay at each of the stops along the road trip path. We research extensively for the best value accommodations in each city and town based on central location, excellent amenities and reviews. We love getting great value, but we did splurge once in Morelia at Hotel de la Soledad for Christmas, and it was WORTH IT.
Most of our recommendations come through Booking.com. When we need to make hotel and flight bookings, we use this agency to constantly find the lowest prices. Plus we love their loyalty discounts, which we’ve found are easy to attain after just a few bookings.
If you enjoy camping, whether in your vehicle or in a tent, or you just like looking for free places to sleep, we highly recommend downloading the iOverlander app. This is an essential app used by the traveling camper van community all over the world and includes the best spots that users have reported to have slept successfully.
Top 11 Places To Visit On A Mexico Road Trip
Later in this article, we give 5 suggested Mexico road trip itineraries that cover all of Mexico. But before we do, we wanted to list our Top 10 Mexico road trip destinations. These 10 places are among our absolute favorite places not only because of the destination itself, but for the overall driving scenery and adventure.
1. Baja California (Beaches, Tacos, & The Trip Of A Lifetime)
What Mexico road trip could be possibly more iconic than driving down Highway 1 from San Diego, through Tijuana, and all the way down to the peninsula’s tip at Cabo San Lucas?
The beaches, all you can eat fish tacos, and tequila until the sun rises the next morning.
A seemingly unlimited number of beaches to fit anybody’s fancy. Our most favorite beaches were the ones so isolated and devoid of regulation that we could simply drive our camper van right onto the sandy beach and park wherever we wanted. Absolute freedom.
And one of the best parts about a Mexico road trip through Baja California is you don’t have to worry about any importation documentation for your vehicle. That’s right, all of Baja California is an import-free zone, meaning you can drive wherever you want with your American vehicle (or any other foreign vehicle) hassle free.
2. Copper Canyon, Chihuahua State
Hands down, if you are in northern Mexico, a road trip through Mexico’s Copper Canyon is an absolute must. This was Eric’s most favorite driving experience in Mexico. Copper Canyon, located in Chihuahua State, doesn’t just offer jaw-dropping canyon views, but provides opportunities for learning about the local Tamahumara indigenous communities, zip-lining, multi-day canyon hikes, AND a heart-pounding 10km drive down to the canyon’s bottom. You might never have a similar experience as the drive from Creel to Urique.
Also highly recommended is parking your vehicle in Creel, the main transport hub in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and hopping on the El Chepe train. This fantastic train ride journeys through the canyon and is one often considered one of the best train rides in the world.
We spent 8 days in the Copper Canyon and each day was unique. To learn more about our Copper Canyon road trip, read our article below.
3. Huasteca Potosina Waterfalls
Located on the eastern side of central Mexico, the Huasteca Potosina region offers beautiful natural scenery and is a perfect area for a Mexico road trip.
The Huasteca Potosina is a tropical rainforest nestled within the La Huasteca mountain range. Though there is a dry and rainy season, many gorgeous waterfalls exist year round for you to visit and swim in. During the dry season, these waterfalls and swim pools display exquisitely blue hues. But travel here during the rainy season, and you’re likely to see the full force of these waterfalls as the water comes thundering down the mountain sides.
Come prepared to swim and jump!
And while you’re in the region, drive through the Sierra Gorda biosphere, one of the most ecologically diverse and rich environments in all of Mexico. Lots of isolated and architecturally unique mission churches exist in the villages that are within this biosphere and are worth a visit.
And be sure to pass through Edward James’ “Las Pozas”, a gigantic surrealist sculpture garden in the middle of the rain forest in Xilitla town. Walking through this lost garden is like nothing you would have thought you would find in a country like Mexico.
We spent 10 days driving within the Huasteca Potosina and Sierra Gorda and documented some of the best waterfalls to visit. For more in-depth info, read our articles below to learn more:
Read More: How To Visit Mexico’s Huasteca Potosina Waterfalls
4. Las Grutas de Tolantongo
For the perfect photo op, look no further than the hot springs of Las Grutas de Tolantongo. It can feel a bit touristy when you visit this hot springs resort, especially if you arrive on the weekends, but these were some of the best hot springs we’ve experienced in Mexico.
Geothermally-heated water gushes out of the nearby canyon and gathers in several different areas including man-made pools, a cave, and a pitch dark tunnel. We admit that the waters aren’t really all that hot, more like very warm, but for 2 days we thought the experience was absolutely worth the effort. We paired our Las Grutas visit with our trip through Huasteca Potosina.
For more information on our visit to Las Grutas de Tolantongo, read our article below.
5. Oaxaca Coast & Beaches
Beach lovers can rejoice, the perfect Mexico road trip exists that includes some of the best beaches in Mexico, along the Oaxaca coast. And no matter what type of beach environment appeals to you, there is a beach that best suits your needs.
Looking for the perfect party atmosphere?
Head over to Puerto Escondido.
Want to surf world-class waves?
Playa Zicatela is the spot for you.
Seeking chilled vibes for relaxation?
Masunte is what you’re looking for.
Want something more remote and quiet?
Bahia San Agustin is perfect.
Or perhaps you just want to strip naked and walk around proudly without being judged?
Playa Zipolite is for you.
We spent 8 days exploring the best beaches along the Oaxaca coast and think this coastal region is perfect for a Mexico road trip.
6. Hunting For Mexican Souvenirs In The Oaxaca Countryside
The Mexican state of Oaxaca is home to some of the most beautiful hand-made artisan products in all of Mexico. Though you can find everything you need in Oaxaca City, the state’s capital, it’s much more fun and scenic to hunt down these products right where they’re made, at the source.
Oftentimes, these artisan products are made in small villages in the countryside and the only way to reasonably get there is either by organized tour or with your own vehicle. We loved having the freedom of having our own vehicle to explore these villages and buy wonderful souvenirs direct from the maker.
Driving through the Oaxaca countryside, we’ve purchased local Mezcal (similar to Tequila), Alebrijes (hand painted wood carvings), organic coffee, and beautiful naturally dyed, handwoven wool rugs. If you are in Oaxaca, picking up Oaxaca rug is a must!
Learn More:Mexican Souvenir Shopping Guide
7. Road Trip Through Michoacán
This Mexican state located just west of Mexico City isn’t a popular tourist destination…yet, but our 3-weeks exploring Michoacán in our camper van solidified this state as one of our favorites in Mexico. It’s also a perfect state to explore on your own Mexico road trip.
We spent 3-weeks traveling around Michoacán state. Read our experiences in the article below.
Whether you love wandering among gorgeous colonial-era architecture, or exploring beautiful countryside towns and villages, or you want to stretch your legs and hike up a volcano. Michoacán has the scenic diversity to satisfy your needs.
Or perhaps you love food and are on the hunt for Mexico’s best tacos. Some of the most delicious carnitas tacos are located right here in Michoaccán.
Uruapan, Mexico’s second largest city is also the self-proclaimed “Avocado Capital Of The World”. And for $1 USD, you can purchase 1kg of avocados. There is no better avocado deal in the world than here.
We spent 3-weeks traveling around Michoacán state. Read our experiences in the article below.
Read More: Visiting Michoacán: Best Places, Travel Tips, & Best Tacos!
8. Search For Some Of Mexico’s Best Coffee and Mole In The Hills Of Veracruz
The growing, roasting, and serving of coffee is serious business in the tiny town of Coatepec, located in the hills of Veracruz state. Here you can take a coffee tour at Museo del Cafe, a coffee production facility and museum.
Head back into town and sip on some of the tastiest coffees in Mexico. Our favorite is El Café de Avelino, a hard to find, tiny cafe with a cute interior design and delicious Americanos and Lattes.
After wandering around Coatepec’s gorgeous zócalo (central plaza), drive over to the neighboring town of Xico. This tinier and quieter town gets much less tourists, but produces the best (in our humble opinion) mole in all of Mexico. Yes, we think the mole is better here than Oaxaca and Chiapas.
9. The Chiapas Highlands and Indigenous Communities
Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas is home to some of Mexico’s most well known indigenous communities, including the famed ‘Zapatistas’.
Start your road trip in the Mexican highland town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and explore the hillside communities from there. Whether it’s San Juan de Chamula, Ocosingo, or the beautiful Lagos de Colon and Montebello, there’s lots to do and explore on your Mexico road trip.
And if you’re heading onwards to the Yucatan Peninsula, be sure to stop by Agua Azul, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Mexico, and the Palenque Mayan Ruins.
Chiapas offers some of the most environmentally diverse environments in Mexico. From mountains, to lowlands, and to the thick jungle, you can easily see so much of Mexico without having left this state.
10. Mayan Ruins Hopping In The Yucatan Peninsula
With over 30 MAJOR Maya ruins scattered all across the Yúcatan Peninsula (which also include Campeche & Quintana Roo states), planning your own Mexico road trip to visit several of these ancient archeology sites is a must if you will be in southern Mexico.
There are tourist favorites, like the awesome Chichen Itza and the photogenic ruins in Tulum. But there are so many other fantastic Mayan ruins to choose from, like the jungle isolated Calakmul ruins, or the impressive Palenque ruins, or the infrequently visited Edzna ruins, near Campeche.
Whichever ruins you choose to visit, we’re certain you’ll find magic and wonder as you explore these archeology sites.
11. Merida & Hunting For The Best Cenotes In The Yucatan Peninsula
Mérida is one of our most favorite cities in Mexico. According to Conde Nast, Mérida was voted as the world’s best small city in 2019. We think it’s a pretty great city, too!
But there is so much more to the lesser touristed, western side of the Yúcatan peninsula than this capital city. And one of the most popular activities in this region is to go cenote hopping. Cenotes are sinkholes that have formed from the collapse of limestone bedrock. And these resulting swim holes are popular places to visit and cool down during the heat of the day. Waters are clear and cool and the limestone caves surrounding the pools are gorgeous.
Visit the Mayan village of Homún, a 1-hour drive from Mérida and spend the day hopping from one cenote to another.
To learn more about the fantastic city of Mérida and the surrounding cenotes, read our article below.
Read More: Visiting Mérida: Top Tips & Planning Ahead
12. Drive Onwards To Guatemala!
And finally, if you find yourself driving near the Mexico/Guatemala border, why not drive into Guatemala and visit Mexico’s lovely neighbor to the south! Our favorite Mayan ruin, Tikal, is located in northern Guatemala and two of Guatemala’s most beautiful locations, Antigua & Lake Átitlan, are close to the Mexican border.
Even if you are renting a car in Mexico, you can still bring that rental into Guatemala. Simply let the car rental company know ahead of time so that they can prepare an affidavit for you to bring to the Guatemala customs at the border.
We spent 3 months living and traveling in Guatemala in our camper van and loved our time in this country.
- Visiting Tikal: Guatemala’s Famous Mayan Ruins
- Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala: Top Tips & Planning Ahead
6 Mexico Road Trip Itinerary Suggestions
Exploring the country on your own Mexico road trip allows you to get to places that would otherwise be hard to get to with public transportation. Not only that, but oftentimes we’ve found that the journey is just as memorable as the destinations.
The landscape and culture of Mexico is deep and diverse and we believe that in order to truly get a better understanding of the complexity of life in Mexico, exploring the country with a vehicle on your own Mexico road trip is the best way to go.
Below, we have carved out 6 perfect Mexico road trip itinerary suggestions for you to explore. These 6 routes are color-coded in the map below. Of course, it ultimately depends on how much time you have and where your starting point is. But we hope these itinerary suggestions can inspire you to plan your own Mexico road trip.
1. Baja Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
Cross into Mexico from San Diego (San Ysidro, more specifically) and find yourself entrenched in Tijuana traffic. Take a deep breath and drive defensively. We promise you’ll make it. We did!
2. Guadalupe Valley (Valle de Guadalupe)
Did you know Mexico’s wines are beginning to win awards on the international stage? Neither did we before we entered Baja California.
For Mexico’s best wines, take a detour to Baja’s Wine Country in the Valle de Guadalupe on Highway 3. Over 100 wine vineyards are located in this valley and many are open for visits and tastings.
A bustling city, as opposed to a quaint town, Enseñada is home to some of the best tacos in all of Baja California. Be sure to check out La Guerrerense for the best ceviche tacos we’ve ever had.
4. Skip Over To Highway 3 & 5
Get off the well-worn Highway 1 in Ensenada and cross over to the east side of Baja California on Highway 3. Pass through the mountain range (it was snowing hard, unbelievably, when we were there in December) and arrive in San Felipe.
5. San Felipe
Not the prettiest beach you will see in Baja, but for sure one of the least touristy. Park your car right on the sand and rent a cabana with picture-perfect coastal views. Very decent fish tacos in town, too.
6. Guerrero Negro
Not a great place to stick around, but this town is a convenient stop after a long drive in Baja. Plenty of hotel and camping options here.You can sign up for whale tours here.
7. Bay of Conception (Bahía Concepción)
The beaches along the Bay of Conception are some of the most peaceful and tranquil waters you will see in all of Baja California. Use the iOverlander app to locate the best beaches along the bay. Drive out to the beach of your choice and rent a cabana by the waters.
8. La Paz
This city might just be “another city” to many, but La Paz also has a lovely downtown district full of trendy bars and cafes if you’re looking to take a break from the beaches. Here in La Paz, you can also book boat tours to go out and see the majestic whales.
9. Todos Santos
Beautiful little colonial town lined with cobbled streets. Modern cafes, chic restaurants, and even a brewing company have set up shop here. A must stop along your Baja road trip circuit.
10. Cabo San Lucas & San Jose del Cabo
Catch up on the beach party and bar scene at these two popular tourist towns right on the southern tip of Baja California. Get your fill at some of Baja’s best beaches before starting your northbound trip back home.
11. Los Barriles
Instead of heading north on the same Highway 19 that you took coming south, head north on Highway 1 towards Los Barriles.
If you love kitesurfing, or interested to try it out, the beaches in Los Barriles are for you. Amazing white sand beaches with plenty of wind and resources for experienced and beginner kite surfers. Next to a sizable established town, great services and tourist infrastructure are at your fingertips.
2. Northern Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
Get off the beaten path with this fantastic Mexico road trip that runs through the northern half of Mexico. This road trip mixes a diverse range of natural beauty and old Spanish colonial-era cities.
1. Copper Canyon
Whether you start your road trip from the US or rent a car from Chihuahua City, head straight to Copper Canyon. This was one of our most favorite places to drive in all of Mexico. Larger and technically deeper than the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon is full of jaw-dropping sights and indigenous culture.
2. Durango & Zacatecas
Head to the old silver mining cities of Durango and Zacatecas. Here are some of the best examples of Spanish colonial-era architecture. Ride the funicular in both cities to get great views of the towns and feast on Mexican stews only found in northern Mexico.
3. Huasteca Potosina & Sierra Gorda Biosphere
Head east, to the lush mountains and valleys in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere and the Huasteca Potosina. At Sierra Gorda, visit several of the gorgeous mission churches in and around Jalpan de Serra. Once in the Huasteca Potosina, visit several of the stunning waterfalls and jump into the crystal clear pools to cool off.
4. Monterrey & Hiking In La Huasteca National Park
Finish your northern Mexico road trip by heading north towards the Texas border. But before crossing over, make a stop in Monterrey and the nearby La Huasteca National Park. In our opinion, the most beautiful national park in Mexico and a hiker’s and climber’s paradise. Hike up Pico Horcones for awesome views.
3. Western Central Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
History, architecture, and Aztec ruins, this road trip through central Mexico has it all. Quaint towns and beautiful state capitals, you won’t be ending your road trip wanting for more colonial history. And if you’re on the hunt for Mexico’s tastiest tacos, Michoacán state won’t let you down!
1. Mexico City
Start off right in the heat of things in Mexico City. The roads can be narrow and busy, but drive slow and careful and you’ll make it around this city without problems. The neighborhoods of La Condesa and Coyoacán are some of our favorites for exploring and chilling in one of the many local cafes.
2. Teotihuacan Aztec Ruins
After your fill with Mexico City, head north to the ancient Aztec capital of Teotihuacán. Explore the ruins and make sure to climb with the Sun and Moon Temples. Be sure to bring a wide-brimmed hat and lots of water. It can get hot out there!
3. San Miguel de Allende
Make a beeline to San Miguel de Allende. This picturesque town is seemingly every foreigner’s favorite retirement town and for good reason. Gorgeous architecture, lovely central parks, hip dining and drinking options, and welcoming locals. In 2020, San Miguel de Allende was awarded the best small city by Condé Nast Traveler’s.
4. Guanajuato City
From San Miguel, it’s a quick drive to Guanajuato City. If you’ve never driven on steep, narrow city roads, you’re in for a treat. This capital city is packed with architectural splendor and has some of the most grandest, over-the-top parks in all of Mexico.
Skip over to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán state. Stand in awe in front of the Morelia Cathedral and hunt for the remains of the city’s 19th century aqueduct system. Enjoy the city’s more relaxed vibes as you visit the gorgeous Morelia University library, artisan markets, and possibly our favorite church in Mexico, the ‘Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe’.
On your way out of Morelia, make a day stop in Quiroga, the self proclaimed capital of carnitas tacos. And we’d have to agree! The carnitas tacos in this small Michoacán town were some of the tastiest we’ve had in Mexico!
One of the most beautiful “Pueblo Magicos” (Magical Towns) in Mexico. The town is the center of Purépecha culture and is also the market hub for many of the various smaller villages to sell their handcrafted goods. From Pátzcuaro, you can easily make day trips to other scenic places, such as Santa Clara del Cobre, Tzintzuntzan, & Janitzio Island. One of the best celebrations for Días de Los Muertos takes place in Pátzcuaro, but you have to book very early for accomodations.
4. Eastern Central Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
1. Mexico City
Just like in Itinerary #3 (Western Central Mexico), start your road trip in Mexico City. Sample some of the best street tacos in Mexico and wander the capital’s historic center choc full of colonial architecture and museums. When you’re ready, hit the road to explore Mexico’s eastern central region.
2. Izta-Popo National Park
Get right off the beaten track and head straight to Mexico’s Itza-Popo National Park. Driving along the Paso de Cortés with your own vehicle you can thread in-between two of Mexico’s most famous volcanoes: Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. The road is a gorgeous high mountain pass. The first half of the road is paved, but the second half is a bumpy dirt road, so buckle up and enjoy the ride! Spend the night at the La Venta Ecotourist Village, a fun day park where you can fish, zip-line, and try your hand at archery, all under the gaze of Popocatépetl’s smokey peak.
3. Puebla & Tlaxcala
Exiting Itza-Popo National Park takes you almost directly to Puebla City. Here you can explore one of Mexico’s most dynamic cities, filled with beautiful Spanish churches, colonial-architecture, and a vibrant shopping street. Once you’ve had your fill, head over to Puebla’s smaller neighbor city, Tlaxcala, to sample the best Pulque in the country at Pulquería La Tía Yola.
4. Summit La Malinche Volcano
Mexico’s fifth highest Volcano is La Malinche, just a short drive from Tlaxcala. Hiking to the summit of La Malinche volcano is a hard, but very doable and worthwhile experience. Once at the top, you can see both Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanos in the distance. Sleep at Centro Vacaionales IMSS. Read more about Summiting La Malinche Volcano in this article.
5. Coatepec & Xico (Pueblo Mágicos)
Head over to the hills of Veracruz state and enjoy some of Mexico’s best coffee. In the small town of Coatepec you can learn more about the region: coffee production process and sample delicious Lattes and Americanos all around town.
After, driver over to the neighboring village of Xico and sample, in our humble opinion, the best mole in all of Mexico. Several shops also sell mole in bulk to take back with you!
6. El Tajín Ruins
End your Eastern Mexico road trip with a visit to Veracruz’s best preserved ruins; the El Tajín Pyramids. Plan to arrive during the weekday in the morning and prepare to explore these ruins by yourself before anyone else arrives. To learn more, read our guide: Visiting The El Tajín Pyramids: Everything You Need To Know
5. Southern Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
Handicrafts, beaches, and indigenous cultures; this Mexico road trip through southern Mexico includes a diverse set of sights and experiences. Some of our fondest memories of Mexico were created along this route and we would love to revisit the region when the opportunity comes up.
1. Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City is the perfect jumping off point for a road trip through southern Mexico. The city has a beautiful historic center and trendy restaurants and cafes nearby. There are also lots of opportunities to purchase gorgeous handmade artisan products, but we suggest holding off since this road trip itinerary will guide you to villages in the nearby countryside to purchase these same products directly from the maker.
2. Souvenir Shopping In The Oaxaca Countryside
Head out from Oaxaca city and explore the countryside. Here you’ll find a diverse range of artisan products in the various villages near Oaxaca. You can find handmade wool rugs (Teotitlán del Valle), hand painted alebrijes (San Martín Tilcajete), mezcal alcohol (Santo Tomás Tamazulapan) and organic coffee (Finca el Pacifico Coffee).
3. Oaxaca Coast & Beaches
Drive over to the Oaxaca coastline for some of the best beaches Mexico has to offer. Whether it’s beach parties you’re after (Puerto Escondido), laid back vibes (Mazunte & Zipolite), or isolated beaches (Bahía San Augustin), there is a beach along Oaxaca’s coast for you.
5. San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Once you’ve gotten your fill of beaches, drive on the highway to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a picturesque mountain town in Chiapas with strong indigenous roots and a history of anti-government sentiment, aka the ‘Zapatistas’. Chiapas-grown coffee beans are famous in Mexico and throughout the world. Explore the streets of San Cristóbal and sample the many cafés here.
6. Agua Azul & Palenque
Lastly, take the 175km highway from San Cristóbal to Palenque. This road, however, takes roughly 6 hours to complete as there are over 300 speed bumps to navigate. But it’s a gorgeous drive through the highlands and indigenous communities. Make a stop in Agua Azul for one of the prettiest waterfalls in all of Mexico. Once in Palenque, be sure to visit the famed Mayan ruins in the jungle & keep an ear out for howler monkeys while you’re there.
5. Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip
1. Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum
Begin your road trip through Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula by starting in Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Explore the vast beaches and visit the gorgeous cenotes in the region. Some of the best cenotes include ‘Gran Cenote’ and ‘Cenote Zacil-Ha’ along highway 10 from Tulum to Valladolid.
For a fun side trip, put your vehicle on the ferry to Isla Mujeres and explore white sandy beaches without the same tourist numbers as on the mainland.
Valladolid is everyone’s favorite small city in Yucatán. Picturesque colonial streets, trendy cafes, and a refreshing cenote (Cenote Zaci) right in the center of town. There is also a very awesome Bee Farm and Tour (Xkopek Beekeeping Park) that highlights the different variety of bees native only to Yucatán. We took this tour and it was fun and incredibly insightful, and at the end there was a wonderful honey tasting set.
3. Chichen Itza
Mexico’s second most popular pre-Columbian archeology site is a must see, though it can feel a tad touristy. But with your own vehicle, you’ll be able to beat the tour bus crowds and enter the site right when it opens at 8am. That’s when we went and there were only a handful of other visitors that day. Just remember to avoid Sundays, which is when Mexican Nationals can enter for free.
Cool off afterwards by visiting the picture-perfect Cenote Ik-Kil, which is just several kilometers down the road from Chichen Itza.
Travel onwards to Mérida, the relaxed capital of Yucatán state. Mérida is one of our favorite cities in all of Mexico. Beautiful colonial architecture, relaxed vibes, and the most welcoming and nicest local community in the country. Also, the delicious Yucatecan tacos you will find here cannot be found anywhere else in Mexico.
Also, Mérida was named the world’s best small city by Condé Nast Traveler in 2019.
Take a day trip to nearby Homún and spend the day hopping from one cool cenote to another. Cenote Hool Kosom and Cenote Bal-Mil were two of our favorites.
For more on Mérida, read our guide: Visiting Mérida: Everything You Need To Know
Get away from the tourist crowds with a trip to Campeche City. We thought Mérida was a relaxed capital city, but Campeche’s historic city center takes the prize for having the most chilled atmosphere. Spend the day walking along picturesque colonial streets and scramble up to the top of the enclosure walls that once used to protect the Spanish-held city from pirates and nearby Mayan tribes.
The San Miguel Fort (Fuerte de San Miguel) is now a converted museum displaying a wide range of Mayan artifacts and art. You can also get some great views across into the Gulf of Mexico from here.
6. Calakmul & Bat Cave
Circle back to the peninsula’s eastern side by driving on highway 186, which cuts straight through the jungle. Make a pit stop at Calakmul, an important ancient Mayan city literally on the verge of being retaken by the jungle. If it’s getting close to sunset, stop by the nearby bat cave and watch millions of bats fly out of their cave for the evening in search of food.
For some of the bluest waters in Mexico, drive onwards to Bakalar. While the town is ‘just ok’, take a boat ride up the river and see why Bacalar Lake is also called ‘the lake of 7 colors’. And if you haven’t yet had your fill of cenotes, the nearby Cenote Azul provides the perfect opportunity to cool off before you drive off to the next destination.
To truly escape the mega crowds from Cancún and Tulum, head over to Mahahual, and idyllic beach town that hasn’t yet been overrun with tourists. Mahahual is popular with cruise ships and so the town center can get popular during the day, but on weekdays and in the late afternoon, the town becomes peaceful and quiet. Head south along the coastal ride and you’ll find the tourist numbers drops dramatically the more south you drive.
FAQ - Mexico Road Trip Questions & Answers
Got questions about a possible road trip in Mexico? We’ve got answers! Below are some of the most popular questions that people ask about a Mexico road trip.
Is it safe to road trip in Mexico?
Yes! After 500+ days of road tripping in Mexico in our camper van, we have never encountered a single dangerous experience. However, we do keep to certain rules when driving in Mexico.
For example, we almost NEVER drive at night. We take the approach that anything can happen on a Mexican road at night.
We also drive much more defensive in Mexico than back home in the USA. Driving well below the speed limit is important and always keeping an eye on your rear view mirror and side mirrors for aggressive drivers looking to pass you on either side.
What is the safest route to drive through Mexico?
The safest route to drive through Mexico always involves driving on Mexico’s toll roads. Though you’ll have to pay to use these highways, the quality of the roads will be some of the best in Mexico. There is also little-to-no chance of any danger while driving on toll roads.
In addition, we would recommend avoiding the following regions while driving in Mexico:
- Along the coast on Highway 180 & 101 in Tamaulipas
- Along the coast on Highway 200 in Colima, Michoacán, & Guerrero
- Avoid the small coastal towns in Sinaloa. Keep to the toll road in Sinaloa.
Although no one can promise 100% safety when driving anywhere in Mexico, you will most likely be quite safe when driving in Mexico, especially if you avoid the above 3 regions.
Is it hard to drive in Mexico?
Driving in Mexico can be quite different than what you’re used to back home. But driving in Mexico isn’t impossible, you just need time to adjust.
Kilometers, not miles: Speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers, not miles. Keep that in mind or risk getting pulled over by the police.
Defensive driving is crucial: Especially when you cross into Mexico at one of the US/Mexico border crossings, traffic can become much more dense and chaotic. It’s important to drive slow and not make erratic movements. Keep to your lane and pay attention to the road.
Watch The Road: Mexico’s roads are full of potholes, cracks, and endless speed bumps. It pays to keep your eyes vigilantly focused on the road ahead of you. We’ve slammed into a fair number of hidden speed bumps during our road trip in Mexico.
Is Mexico safe right now 2021?
We would never say that Mexico is 100% safe to drive and travel, but in our 500+ days traveling in Mexico in our camper van, we have never encountered a dangerous threat here in Mexico. We recognize that our experience does not necessarily mean you will have the same experience, but we think that if you keep proper street smarts, be kind & respectful, and don’t drive at night, you will drastically reduce the chance of encountering dangerous situations in Mexico.
Border Precaution At Nuevo Laredo: A shockingly large number of Americans and Canadians are reporting being pulled over by local gangs and handing over money once they cross into Nuevo Laredo from Laredo, Texas. This border is a popular crossing point for foreigners and so this location is attracting opportunistic thieves. If you can help it, we recommend using other nearby border crossing points, such as Eagle Pass.
Does Mexico have a speed limit?
We have generally found Mexico to be quite safe for driving. Having said that, however, we do not recommend driving in Mexico at night. We always try to find a place to park and sleep well before the sun goes down.
There are many reasons why we don’t advise driving in Mexico at night.
- Bad quality roads full of potholes and cracks
- Invisible speed bumps
- Drunk drivers
- Many Mexican vehicles don’t have working tail lights
- Possibility of running into cartel & gang activity
We recommend starting your day early and ending your day before sunset to prevent yourself from having to drive in Mexico at night.
Can I drive in Mexico with a US license?
Yes! You can legally drive in Mexico with your US license. You will also need a valid passport and have your vehicle’s original registration papers with you.
Contrary to what you might be told, you do not need an international driver’s permit in order to drive in Mexico, just your valid US license. We’ve crossed into Mexico 3 times and the border authorities have never asked for our international driver’s permit.
Can you drive to Mexico from the US?
Yes! You can absolutely drive to Mexico from the US, and hundreds of tourists are driving across the border each day from the US to Mexico. You will need the proper documentation and auto insurance, however, to drive legally in Mexico. What you will need to legally drive in Mexico includes:
- Valid passport
- Valid driver’s license
- Mexico tourist card
- Valid & original vehicle registration papers
- Temporary import permit (if driving outside Baja California)
- 3rd-party liability auto insurance (at the minimum)
To learn more, read more in our Border Crossing Guide
Can you drive to Mexico without a passport?
In order to legally drive in Mexico, you MUST have a valid passport. This includes both if you want to bring your own American vehicle (or other foreign-plated vehicle) into Mexico or if you want to rent a car once you’re in the country.
Without a passport, you will not be able to obtain a Mexico tourist card or the vehicle temporary import permit when you arrive at the Mexico border with your car.
Final Thoughts: The Trip Of A Lifetime On Your Own Mexico Road Trip
If you read every word in our Mexico road trip guide and made it here to the end, then congratulations! We loved ‘almost’ every day of our 500+ days of living and driving all throughout Mexico. There is so much to do, see, and eat in Mexico that we could spend another 500 more days exploring everything we missed.
If you are interested in driving into Mexico from the USA, or simply renting a car here in Mexico, we encourage you to jump straight in and just do it! It was the trip of a lifetime for us and we are sure it will be for you, too.
If you have specific questions about your future Mexico road trip, please write a comment below or send us an email on our Contact Page. We’ll do our best to get back to you with answers to all your questions.