I distinctly remember four plus years ago when we announced we were moving to Playa del Carmen, Mexico and would be driving down to our new home. Several incredulous friends said “You can’t do that. You can’t just drive from the United States into Mexico.” Turns out you can. And we did. And we have spent a lot of time driving in Mexico and have driven back and forth between Mexico and the United States several times since (I just love proving people wrong).
Are we crazy? Oh yeah, almost certifiably so. But not for the driving in Mexico part. Look, I get that flying would be faster (oh so much faster) and if you had asked me more than five years ago if I could see myself spending weeks at a time in a packed car crossing borders and through mountains and over some seriously crappy roads I’d probably have laughed. But our travel style (and budget) has changed drastically over the last few years and so these days off in the car we go, and recently that’s just what we did.
We haven’t been writing as much here lately because we’ve been busy driving. Driving. Driving, driving, driving and more driving. The last several months we’ve managed to fit in some quality time with family and friends, a couple house sits and some wine and moonshine tasting. But in between it has been back to driving. We drove from Mahahual, Mexico, which is about as far as you get in Mexico without being in Belize up to the U.S. border with Canada and back again. There were quite a few stops along the way in Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, Kansas City, Chicago, New Orleans and probably a whole host of other places that I’m forgetting, but in between we were always driving.
I guess I should amend that to say I was driving. I always drive us everywhere. On our second date I offered to drive, and 15 years later I’m still driving. I drive and Jason navigates (and by navigate, I mean sleep).
So since the U.S. to Mexico drive is still fresh in my mind, and for our friends who were convinced that it’s impossible to drive to Mexico, I thought I’d pull together a ‘how to’ in case someday you also want to prove someone in your life wrong. This is a pretty involved how-to, so if you have no interest in driving from the U.S. to southern Mexico and/or just don’t care, now’s the time to check out. See you next post! Which I promise will not be three months from now. All you other curious (and/or crazy) people, driving buffs, or those who just don’t have anything else to do right now, read on.
I should note that this is only our driving in Mexico version of a how-to, so many other people have done the drive and have a different version. Before we did the drive the first time, we researched, planned, researched and planned some more, and still did it our own different way. To each their own, but here’s our own version.
I will swear up and down and sideways to you that Mexico is as safe as any other place to visit. I’ve debated people and shared statistics, and if you want to engage further with me about that, let’s talk. But the one place I’m not looking to spend any extra time? The border. And so we choose our start and stop times each day based on when we prefer to cross from the U.S. to Mexico, which for us is usually first thing in the morning.
There are many, many places to cross the border between the United States and Mexico (in Texas alone there are 28 bridge and border crossings) and, of course, most people choose to cross depending on where they are coming from in the United States and where they are headed to in Mexico. There are also pluses and minuses to each border crossing. Smaller ones can have shorter lines, but can sometimes take some time to get through because there are less people working. Larger ones might have longer lines, but because of the heavy volume of people passing through there is a higher level of expertise and things can go much smoother. We’ve experienced both kinds of crossings and to date, I’m still not sure we have a preference.
The first several times we did the drive we crossed at Eagle Pass, TX. When we passed here we typically stayed the night in Eagle Pass and in the morning were at the border in just a few minutes here we then passed on through to Piedras Negras, Mexico.
But on this last trip we were headed to Mahahual from New Orleans, so we were looking for a border crossing that was farther east. Laredo, TX was one option and an extremely popular crossing spot, which also means sometimes wait times can be looong. Fortunately several years ago a second crossing was added about 30 miles west of Laredo called the Laredo–Colombia Solidarity bridge that has helped ease some congestion and where we decided to cross this time through.
We stopped the night before we planned to cross the border at a lovely Comfort Suites in the bustling metropolis of Cotulla, Texas (yeah, I had trouble finding it on the map too). The next morning we headed out and were at the Laredo-Colombia bridge in less than an hour where there was no line. Zero cars in front of us or behind us. I think the immigration officials were happy to see us just so they’d have something to do and someone to talk to.
As you drive through the immigration checkpoint, immediately to your right is the customs office. You’ll need to park and go in here to get your visas as well as register your car. They do have a car x-ray machine at this border crossing (Eagle Pass does not). Not everyone gets their car sent through, but if you do, it only take about 10 minutes of your time. After the paperwork, answering a few questions and running our car through the x-ray machine, we were off. And here’s where the fun starts and how we usually divide up the rest of the drive to Mahahual.
Day 1 – Columbia-Laredo border crossing to Querétaro – Ah yes, northern Mexico. Unsurprisingly, for much of the day it looks similar to southern Texas. The drive starts out pretty flat, barren and desolate, beyond quite a few industrial parks, before heading into some mountainous areas. Our goal for this day of driving is typically to make it to Querétaro which is about 10 hours from the border crossing. We do always have a backup place in mind in case of delays or if the border crossing takes an exceptionally long time. Also, Querétaro is a pretty major city and you don’t want to be navigating the traffic here after dark. Really, you don’t want to be driving any of this drive after dark if you can help it. It’s not that the banditos come out at night, it’s just that in the dark you can’t see potholes, topes or horses grazing in the middle of the highway as well.
Day 2 – Querétaro to Villahermosa – This day of driving is by far the most diverse, and most expensive, due to the number of tolls. From big cities to foggy mountains to lush jungle areas, you pretty much get it all. You first have to jump on the Arco Norte which is a two hour detour around Mexico City. Take this route. Always, always take this. You never, ever, ever want to try to drive through Mexico City on your way somewhere. If Mexico City is your final destination, cool, head on in. But beware that there are rules on which day cars are allowed to drive in the city based on the letters of your license plate. Traffic is just that bad there. For those who are simply looking to get to the other side, the Arco Norte toll road is the way to go. It’ll cost you about $400 pesos, but worth every single penny. After you get off the Arco Norte you’ll then have to navigate the major city (and traffic) of Puebla. Thankfully Puebla has recently finished an overpass that lets you basically fly right over the city. It’s another costly toll, but also worth it. About an hour outside of Puebla you’ll come to Pico de Orizaba. We’ve gone through here on clear days and we’ve passed through on days that we’ve experienced what we affectionately refer to as the ‘fog of death.’ The fog can be terrifying but there’s no other way around the mountain range, you have to go over it. Just go slow. Doesn’t matter how everyone else is driving. When there’s the fog – just. go. slow. Once you make it over the mountain, you’ll soon find yourself in the state of Veracruz. Lovely Veracruz. I mean that sincerely, there are beautiful trees and lots of farming in this area. But Veracruz’s roads? Oh, they are horrible. The next few hours become a game of dodge the potholes.
Day 3 – Villahermosa to Mahahual – And finally the home stretch. This eight hour day of driving doesn’t have many tolls, but there aren’t a lot of four-lane roads either. This last stretch of driving is where you’ll truly learn how to pass and be passed on the road in rural Mexico. There’s an art form to it and it requires awareness, patience and nerves of steel. But since you’re farther south, the weather is warmer and palm trees are prevalent and for us, it’s a sign that we’re almost home. So three days of driving across Mexico gets us to Mahahaul. This route can also work for driving to the Riviera Maya – places like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, you just bypass the turn off for Mahahual and keep heading north for a couple more hours.
So that’s the drive. At this point, we feel like we’ve got it down, although there are always surprises along the way. And as many times as we’ve done the drive, we’ve picked up a few key lessons that we always try to abide by and thought we’d share.
We primarily take the toll roads, we try to avoid driving after dark because of the aforementioned potholes and random animals crossing the road, we always bring our own toilet paper into the bathrooms along the way (because there might not be any) along with a few pesos to tip the attendant, and we always stay at Auto Hotels. And we don’t just stay at Auto Hotels because they are cheap (although they are, ridiculously so. Twelve hours for about $15? Sign me up). We stay at Auto Hotels because best-laid plans can be derailed through no fault of your own. We start each day with an idea of how far we want to get. But we’ve been delayed hours because of weather, traffic accidents and protests. We’d rather not forfeit the cost of a hotel room by not making it to a city we had planned to arrive in and we don’t want to push ourselves too far past dark to not lose out on that hotel room.
I get that Auto Hotels aren’t for everybody, but for us they’ve opened up a cheap and easy way to travel, we’ve started to identify some of the nicer ones in each city that we stay in so we know what we’re getting and being able to park at an Auto Hotel where you pull a car into a garage, close the garage door and then head into your adjacent room to sleep gives us a tremendous amount of peace of mind. As we’ve mentioned before, when we drive we are typically driving with everything we own in the back of our car. That includes all the computer equipment we need to make a living, a safe with all of our important documents and, of course, our load of skorts and crocs. Some of these things are just irreplaceable.
So now I’ve given you a few of our how-to’s on how to drive from the U.S. to Mexico, now it’s up to you to figure out your why. And if the only reason is to prove someone wrong? Well sounds like a good enough reason to me.