In this post you can read more about driving, navigating and toll road here in Mexico. The post covers our own experience during our 3 mounts of traveling through Mexico. Here is an overview of the post:
- Toll roads
- Driving in Mexico
- Driving in Mexico City (c.d. Mexico)
- Filling up gas
- Navigation and timing
1. Toll roads
Toll road can save you time when traveling through Mexico. Other times there will be a free road next to the toll road, which will take you to the same destination. The toll roads are in a better condition, is less curved, shorter in distance and have no speed bumps, compared to the free roads. The price going on the toll roads vary a lot, and you don’t know the price for the toll road until you are all ready on it. It is not possible to get of the toll road, when you are on it. After you have entered the toll road you will meet a sign telling you what to pay. The payment depends of the type of vehicle you are driving, motorcycles are cheapest. The price for a car is usually twice as much as a motorcycle.
Libre = free road
Cuota = toll road, marked with D or d fx highway 40D (with few exceptions – it is Mexico)
Toll roads we have considered or have taken
Highway 1D: from Tijuana it is possible to take highway 1D to make a shortcut to the west coast on the Baja Peninsula. You pay to get on the toll road. We don’t remember the price, but it was cheap and worth the money. When you get to the coast it is easy to get of the toll road, and drive on the smaller free road near the ocean side. Price: we think is was 2 USD per motorcycle.
Mazatlan to Durango, 40/40D: This is a pretty new toll road 40 D, which has been build to make the trip to Durango from Mazatlan much faster. The free road highway 40 has a lot of curves and is twisting its way along the mountainsides. It is a beautiful and fascinating ride on a motorcycle. The old highway 40 is known as “El Espinazo del Diablo”. We went for the old highway 40 because of the curves, and it took us a whole day of riding to get to Durango. If you decide to take toll road 40 D, this drive is only 140 miles, which takes between 2-4 hours depending on traffic. To make the toll road 40 D, they build a famous bridge, which is hanging 402 meters over Rio Baluarte. From the old highway 40 we stopped and had a great view of the bridge. Price 40D: unknown
North of San Luis Potosi: this toll road takes you north of the city San Luis Potosi, between highway 49 and 57 so you don’t have to go through into the city. We took the toll road, and we are convinced that it saved us a lot of time, and it was worth the money. Price: 29 pesos per motorcycle.
Toll road 75D: starts north of San Luis Potosi at highway 57 and continues east. Our GPS told showed that we could save 30 min (11 miles) by taking the toll road. We didn’t know the price, and decided to take to take the free road, highway 57 further north and drive east on highway 80 to get to our destination. We were also catching up time according to the GPS. We would not recommend paying for the toll road. Price: unknown.
Toll road 70D or the free road 70: toll road 70D stretches west and east of Cd. Valles. We hit 70/70D just west of Cd. Valles and had to drive west to Rayón where the toll road 70D ends. Our map showed that the free road 70 was more twisting, but still followed 70D. The GPS showed that there was only a small difference in miles and driving time. We decided to take 70 and was still able to keep an speed between 40-50 mph. 70 is a well maintained road, with only a few and minor potholes – you don’t even have to pay attention to them. We would not recommend paying for the toll road. Price 70D: unknown.
Toll road M40D: our GPS recalculated our route, and without noticing it we were on the toll road M40D from Jilotepec de Molina Enriquez driving west. We think it is possible to take a free road instead, we were just not prepared . Price 32 pesos per motorcycle.
Toll road 55D and A-7 (west of Mexico City): just north of Toluca we was driving on toll road 55D. It is possible to take the free road 55, which should not be a problem. Price for 55D: 19 pesos per motorcycle. We were on our way to Valle de Bravo, which is west of Toluca. To avoid taking toll road all the way, we had to take toll road A-7 to get of toll road A-7, to get to MEX 1 (free road) from Toluca to Valle de Bravo. We were only on A-7 for 2 minutes. Price A-7: 14 pesos per motorcycle. When we finally got to Valle de Bravo we decided to take the main road through town to get to Avandaro instead of taking the toll road around Valle de Bravo. It was on a Sunday and the town was packed with people, several streets was closed of because of the Sunday market. All in all the traffic was congested through town, and we only manage to go through because we were on motorcycles riding in the left lane almost all the way (all the locals motorcycles do the same, and the police didn’t seam to care). You would save a lot of time by taking the toll road around Valle de Bravo, park at the city limit and walk into town. Normally the traffic in Valle de Bravo is only busy Friday through Sunday, because the area is a getaway for the rich people, who lives in Mexico City.
In general there is a lot of toll roads around and in Mexico City and the traffic is heavy. The Mexicans describe the traffic as insane and crazy! You really have to know you way around to avoid the toll roads, and it will make you life easier to take the toll roads around Mexico. Ask the locals or get a local guide. All the taxi’s seams to know all the free road, but they also get stuck in traffic all the time.
Toll road 135D and 135 (from Oribaza to Oaxaca): we decided to take the free road 135, which follows the mountains and valleys north of Oaxaca. It passes through several poor villages, but the view is amazing. First we drove in the jungle and then in semi dessert going into the mountains. The road is an eternity of curves for more than 160 km (100 miles). It took a hole day to get from the center of Oribaza to 8 km north of downtown Oaxaca. Our evaluation is that you can save a lot of time by talking toll road 135, but is it more boring. Price for 135D: unknown.
Toll road 190d (from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua): on the way from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua we drove on the free road 175, which is has a lot of curves. The next day we had to back track a little bit to get to highway 190 (the free highway 190) and decided to take the toll road. The toll road is really nice and the speed limit is 110 km/h. On the free road 175 our average speed was between 50-60 km/h. Yes, you can save some time by taking the toll road 190d, which is 18 miles long (6 miles west of the pay station and 12 miles east of the pay station). Price: 28 pesos per motorcycle.
EXPENTION – toll road 175D and 175 (from Oaxaca to San Pedro Pochutla or Puerto Escondido): we drove from Oaxaca to San Pedro Pochutla on highway 175/175D, and then a little bit west on highway 200 (free road). The map and GPS showed that we could take a toll road until a left turn following the free road 175 southeast to San Pedro Pochutla. We had to ride a least 200 miles and decided to take the toll road, but there was no toll road. The road signs with 175 and 175D were mixed and we never had to pay anything. Several placed it looked like the construction of the toll road had begun, but was never finished. Price: free.
Toll roads or not, it depends on your vehicle and how much time you have. It also depends on the day and time of the day according to heavy traffic. Sometimes you can save a lot of time and sometimes it is not that big of a difference. A lot of the locals take the free roads, and we can recommend them too. If you are not visiting the city it can save you a lot of time by taking the toll road, which bypasses around the city. Traffic is always more heavy and slower through towns because of all the speed bumps.
2. Driving in Mexico
The speed limits are set low in Mexico and everybody drives faster than the speed limit, which also include the police. On the other hand there is a lot of speed bumps in Mexico, the majority of the speed bumps is marked with signs or text. In the towns a lot of the speed bumps are unmarked, so watch out. The speed bumps varies in sizes and shapes, and a lot of them are pretty nasty. It is not a problem when we are on the motorcycles – but cars, trucks and busses drive slow and carefully over them. Since nobody drive within the speed limits, it is necessary to have the speed bumps, which makes everybody slow down. You may also meet speedbumps on some of the main roads.
If you are driving way above the speed limit you will risk to get a traffic fine by the police. Just follow the local traffic.
Our average speed on a main road is 50-55 mph (about 80 km/h) and the speed limit is typical between 70-110 km/h, which means that a lot of cars are driving faster than we are. On the left picture you see a sign, which means “No passing”, but again, if there is a shoulder it is normal to pullover and drive on the shoulder, while other vehicles are passing. Just keep your speed and let the other people go past you. You will meet other slow going vehicles, that keeps driving on the shoulder.
If you are riding on a road without any shoulder laying behind a truck, it is normal for the truck to signal with its left blinker, which means that there is no oncoming traffic, and you can pass. This happens all the time, even when the signs or road paint indicates that no passing is allowed. Turnouts are rare, and the Mexicans do not use them anyway, so this is there way of telling you if you can pass.
3. Driving in Mexico City (c.d. Mexico)
Mexico City (MC) is known to some of the worlds worst traffic and pollution. The city grew from 8.7 to 14.5 million people in the 1970’s, but the population in MC kept growing. Unable the contain all the new people, MC spread beyond the Federal Distric (DF = Distrito Federal) and into the state of Mexico. The latest count of the population in the Mexico City area counted a population of 22 million inhabitants.
It not easy to navigate in a huge city like MC. Not only is traffic fast but the way the roads and intersections a build does not make much sense when you are used to driving in Europe and USA.
Here is what we experienced. We had to drive to the south east part of MC but the map showed both a pay road and a free road. But what both the GPS and the paper map did not show was that the roads was on top of each other. another time it was the other way around. On our GPS there was only one road but in reality there were both a pay road and a free road. Very confusing.
Also when driving in bigger cities in general and especially in MC. Motorcycles lane split. Not just when traffic has stopped but ALL the time. Anywhere from at full speed of the freeway to squeezing through on the inside of a car in the wrong direction on a one way street. Also in MC there is actually a marked area between the cars and the pedestrian walk in the intersections, so the motorcycles can make their way to the front of the line and speed away when the light turns green.
4. Filling up gas
Filling up gas is a different story and you will often se a huge line of cars at the PEMEX stations. Now you might think that the line will take forever, but usually the Mexican people do not fill up the gas tank completely. It is more normal to add gas for 200 pesos, and fill up the car everyday or every second day. A big part of the Mexican cars are in a bad condition, and if the car brakes down, they don’t want the gas tank to be full of gas. Usually it only takes 2 minutes per car and the line move really fast.
90 % of the time you can only pay in cash. On Baja California we were only able to pay in cash all the way. Now we pay in cash all the time, because it is just easier. If you have 500 pesos bills and want to brake it, pay for gas, because they can always give smaller bills in return.
5. Navigation and timing
We have found out that navigating here is a lot different from what we are used to in United states or in Europe. First of all we found out that the maps for the GPS is not very precise. We did try both the Free open street map (OSM) and the one from Garmin. And there is not much of a difference except that the free map had some problems and kept making the GPS restart when riding in some areas. Also the OSM have had some problems making a route over longer distances. For example when planning a route for a long day it sometimes think there is a break in the road and makes a very long route around it.
We download our free OSM maps from www.alternativas.org The maps are free but I will recommend the you use the 20 USD to sign up and support the site.
For the first couple of weeks we used the Garmin map, but since there is not really any good Garmin maps over central and south America we wanted to get used to the OSM maps. So we have switched over and started using those. The main difference is the look of the maps and the fact that it best to only plan a short distance at a time. What we do is to get a overview by planning the route for the next day on either google maps or MAPS.ME and that way have some idea of the total distance and the conditions of the road. Is it cities or mountain roads, or is it curvy or straight?
Then when riding we most days only plug in the next bigger city or waypoint on the GPS.
And what about timing and time of arrival. Well don’t believe anything the GPS tells you. Sometimes you will catch up time if the road is good and straight and other times you will loose time. Let me give you an example. We wanted to drive from Hierve el Agua to Mazunte. In Mazunte there is a turtle museum where we wanted to see live turtles and they closed at 2:30 PM. The GPS told us it was just under 190 miles and would take 4.5 hours. MAPS.ME said 180 miles and 3.5 hours. We could see on the maps that the first half should be pretty straight and fast and then the last half would be more filled with small villages and curvy roads.
So we planned on about 5.5 hours including a quick lunch. But it took us just over 6.5 hours of pretty intense riding and only including a quick restroom stop and a very fast sandwich on the side of the road. Needless to say. We did not make it to the turtle museum before they closed a 2:30.
My point is: if you want to see something a a specific time. Get there the day before!
In general we never ride more than 55 m/h. On the “freeway” or pay roads we generally loose time. On straight secondary roads we normally win time but if there is many villages that normally includes a lot of speed bumps we loose time. On mountain roads that are curvy we normally loose a little time and on gravel roads we usually win time.
So how about finding a specific place? Well don’t count on being able to find a specific address on your GPS. Most times both Garmin and OSM maps can only find the street but have no idea where the specific number is. Also many smaller roads don’t even have names or a number.
What we have found out works the best is to find the place you want to go on google maps or MAPS.ME and then use the GPS coordinates for navigation on the GPS.
Following the GPS and finding your destination
When we are driving Camilla is in front and I am behind and playing the role as navigator. But the GPS is not precise and we sometimes have to guess. For example a short time ago we had to follow highway 136 just east of Mexico City. But in several intersections 136 split out in 2 or 3 different directions. In this case you have to know the names of the cities in the direction you want to go. Our GPS will not tell us that, so we look at our paper map. Sometimes its the next little village and other times its a bigger city several hundred miles away. And then you think.. Why don’t you just look at your GPS and see if you have to right, left or straight. Well sometimes the intersections are not very logical and maybe the GPS shows you have to turn left but in real life you first have to turn right and then left or maybe there is a new bridge or the bridge that was there is gone.
Other times the GPS will tell you to turn down very small roads or dirt trails. Perhaps the GPS thinks its a nice paved road, and maybe it was many years ago. So think for yourself and maybe there is a better road further up.
Our advice: Do not trust you GPS but know the layout of the area and get a feel of general direction and the names of the cities in the direction you want to go.
Asking for directions
Sometimes we stop and ask for directions for a campground, for place to eat or just how to get out of town. We know our Spanish is not very good and we often do not get the whole explanation, but that is not the point here. The point is that people will never admit that they have no idea where we need to go. So unless people seem very sure and trustworthy, ask a couple of people and go the direction they most people tell you to.