DRIVING IN MEXICO: NO
COUNTRY FOR NEW CARS
The thought of driving in México strikes a
deadly fear into the hearts of many
Americans and Canadians alike. Of course,
they purchased Mexican car insurance when
they crossed the border. Yet somehow this
only made them feel legal, but not safe. Now
here’s the reality as they ease their
$46,000 BMW onto the pavement and point it
They have heard there is no rhyme or reason
to the driving there, and any clown can get
a license. But they are tourists in the
classical sense, and they want to cruise
from town to town and only stop when the
spirit moves them. Serendipity is a proven
value in their lives, and they would never
be caught taking a package tour, even to
Antarctica. Furthermore, they hate what air
travel has become.
Isn’t that the dilemma for many travelers to
Before my wife and I moved to San Miguel de
Allende in 2007, she was driving a Saab and
I drove an Infiniti. We knew they couldn’t
easily be serviced in this mountain town of
75,000, so we sold them and bought a Ford
Edge when we arrived. There was the choice
between a passenger vehicle and a pickup,
and we had heard that license plates were
much cheaper on new pickups, but we felt
because of the limited passenger capacity,
we had to choose the car. After all,
wouldn’t hundreds of our friends and family
from the U.S. soon be flocking down to see
us? We hadn’t yet reckoned on the crusading
American media, obviously.
Unfortunately, our estimate of the pickup’s
passenger capacity was wildly off too. We’ve
since been keeping a running count on the
record for the most passengers in a pickup.
It presently stands at sixteen people and a
dog. This can be very handy running back and
forth to the countryside with your extended
family, but it occasionally results in some
catastrophic highway accidents.
San Miguel is a great historic town, and
appropriately, it has no traffic lights.
Major intersections on the outskirts are
handled by roundabouts, which are called
glorietas here. The idea is simple, although
it looks daunting to many. The center island
is about a hundred feet across. In the
middle is a monument to a patriotic figure,
although some believe the statue represents
Chaos, the god of traffic. Four streets
converge at the circle.
traffic moves counterclockwise. You enter
after yielding to the left, and continue
around to the right until you exit on the
first, second or third street. Or you can go
completely around when you’re doubling back.
If you can keep your wits about you it works
well. People are generally polite and
orderly. The worst move you can make is to
freeze up, come to a complete stop within
the circle, and cover your face with your
hands. I have seen this happen and it’s
never well received. People will start to
nudge you along.
This town has
a number of stop signs, none of them in the
central part. They are treated as advisory
in nature, and I have never seen anyone stop
for one unless the failure to do so would
result in a collision. This includes me.
other intersections are handled on an
alternating basis. You go, then I go, etc.
Everyone understands this and it works well
unless the other car is driven by a person
from México City, Guadalajara, or the
northern border states. In that case you are
regarded as a fool and a victim for letting
him through. This attitude will be well
understood by people who regularly drive in
Aside from this, in general there is an
attitude of live and let live. I have not
seen road rage here among Mexicans, only
Americans. Indeed, people are tolerant of
what I regard as free-style driving. A
certain amount of improvisation is customary.
If you see someone approaching head-on in
your lane, the natural thing to do is change
lanes yourself into oncoming traffic, which
will then slow down to allow your eventual
return to your own lane.
The concept of speed limits is understood
only by the transit authorities, and is the
object of crude humor among the general
Flashing colored lights are appreciated for
themselves, but using them to signal turns
when mounted on cars is a concept that has
not yet caught on in México. One exception
is their use on trucks in highway settings.
Say you are behind a truck signaling with
the left blinker. This means either, Pass me
because it’s clear ahead, or I am going to
turn left now. Your life depends on how you
scan the nuance of this.
In San Miguel, the streets are generally
constructed from the two most common
compounds on earth: dirt, and stones about
the size of a large grapefruit. The stones
are simply set in a matrix of dirt. Over
time, the dirt is pounded into a fine dry
powder that floats upward and seeks the
interior of your electronic equipment, where
it settles once again in the tiny
connections between the wires. Over time the
cobblestones loosen and have to be repacked
in more dirt. Driving over this rugged
surface, charmingly suggestive of medieval
London or Paris, gradually loosens all the
nuts and bolts in your car until your new
BMW sounds like a 1960s jug band as it
lurches down the street.
Both tires and shock absorbers have the life
expectancy of a butterfly in a hurricane.
What the streets do not do to your car, the
sun and weather will.
By now I hope I have established that what
at first appears to be random and senseless
is really a functioning system that can be
understood by most visitors with a knack for
improvisation and a broad sense of humor. I
should point out that I have written mainly
about driving in San Miguel. Regional
final word about parking. Someone once asked
me how my detective character always finds a
parking place in San Miguel. That, I replied,
is why it’s called fiction.