Roads and driving

As you are most likely aware, road conditions in Latin America are (in general) much worse than road conditions in the United States and Canada.  Most Latin American roads are small, two lane roads with little or no shoulder. The main roads generally are navigable by any vehicle (you don't need a high clearance). We've got comprehensive information on how to avoid road hazards and arrive at your destination arrive safely.  

If you do get off the main roads you will find the roads can be in very poor condition, especially during the rainy season. Drivers may drive much more aggressively than road conditions should allow. Our best advice is to ''not'' try to keep up with the locals, but instead drive slowly and defensively. Remember that any accident involving a foreigner will often result in the police blaming the foreigner. Also, if you are hurt, medical treatment will most likely will be far away and sub par. All of this said, driving is an excellent way to see the countryside. Just drive with caution and take it easy. Check out our Gear Review page for roadtripper tested GPS units for tracking and safety.  You can also learn more about scams, locations that are known for corrupt police, and how to avoid paying bribes

General Information

Road Signs

Many road signs in Mexico have international symbols on them, however not all do. You may want to keep a Spanish-English dictionary handy in the car if your Spanish is not very good. If you are used to driving in places like the USA, you will be used to looking for signs that point out the highway number, but in Mexico the signs pointing out the highway number are often non-existent, or incorrect. It is better to use the green signs at crossroads that point out the next large town in either direction, which Mexico is very good at maintaining.

Road Signs in Spanish and their English Equivalents

Distances between cities

Check out this nice distance calculator to determine the distance between two cities. Keep in mind however, that you may often be driving much more slowly due to road conditions than you would in most developed countries. Another way to figure out how long it may take to get from point A to point B is to look at bus schedules. In Latin America many people travel by bus, so you can often plan you day's drive around how long a bus would take to make the same route.

Topes

In Mexico, speed bumps are called topes, and you will find a large amount of them on all roads in Mexico except toll roads or cuotas. Topes are used in Mexico to slow traffic down when entering populated areas, so be alert when driving into these areas. Topes come in various sizes, from a group of small humps the size of garden hoses to mammoth ones which will scrape the bottoms of many cars. Topes may not be marked or painted, which makes them very hard to see even in the daylight - sometimes skid marks on the road indicate that a tope is near.

Topes are a very common way to slow down traffic in Latin America. Topes may be marked with a sign and painted, or may have no sign and will be almost invisible. It is hard to believe how hard it is to see a speed bump while driving that is the same color as the roadbed. Be careful in the early morning or afternoon when shadows across the road will make topes look like just another shadow. A good rule of thumb is that if you are driving on a road and you start to see a cluster of buildings, chances are you will be in tope territory.

Speed bumps are called Rompe Muelles in Peru (literaly spring breakers), there are usually sign saying they are 50 m. ahead, or something like that. As mentioned above, look for them anytime you are in a small village, or if you see a car slowing down ahead of you.

Construction

It seems that almost every highway in Mexico is under repair. You will see a person on the side of the road without a uniform holding an orange flag. If he is waving the flag up and down in front of himself, you need to stop in front of him, and putting on your hazards on for people behind you is a wise move.

Road construction areas are often lacking signs, safety barrels, cones, or barriers. Be very careful, since signs may be non existent telling you where to drive, and often no barriers exist to stop you from driving into a road section under repair. Following another vehicle can help you navigate and reduce the chance of a head on collision. Rocks along the road may be used instead of cones, and may be difficult to see at high speeds. Some topes will be large enough to bottom out your vehicle, try slowly going over it at an angle.

Other Road Hazards

Donkeys, cattle, horses, dogs, pedestrians, and bicyclists will be a common site on and along the roads. Many roads lack shoulders or sidewalks, so there are few places for pedestrians to walk except on the roadbed itself. If there are large rocks on the road, it may indicate a broken-down truck or car ahead (despite the signs asking people not to throw rocks on the road), or may simply be the remnants of a recent rockslide. Either way, defensive and alert driving at all times is important. Be careful of robberies if you are driving in empty stretches, it has been reported that people have been robbed after stopping to clear a large branch off the road. You will see people walking along the roadbed while cars drive by at high speeds. Consider slowing down and giving lots of room, especially when children are present. Other things on the road include donkeys, horses, cattle, bicyclists, broken down vehicles, massive potholes, speed bumps, rocks and branches. Rocks and branches are often used to warn drivers about a hazard further down the road, slow down and drive with caution.

Driving at Night

Please try to avoid driving at night. The many hazards listed here are dangerous enough in daylight, so driving in the evening is especially dangerous. Even if you are not afraid of breaking an axle by hitting an unmarked ''tope'', be aware that highway robberies can occur after dark. On roads known for robberies, driving in the late afternoon is even considered a bad idea. Always make sure you leave early enough in the day to be at your next destination early in the day.

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Underpowered trucks, mopeds, hot dog vending vehicles and ox driven carts driving a the speed of a brisk walk will cause even the most timid driver into a passing maneuver. Always look behind you before attempting to pass, often one or more cars behind you will already be trying to pass you. If you do get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle, you may want to give plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you so that the passing vehicles behind you have room to pull back into your lane when attempting to pass three vehicles around a blind corner. Head on collisions are common.

  • If a slow moving truck in front of you turns on their left turn signal, they may be indicating that it safe to pass. However, if the driver turns on their left turn signal and waves their arm out the window, they are indicating that they will be making a left turn.
  • Make sure to look in your blind spot before passing, a driver behind you may be passing you before you have a chance to get into the left lane.
  • If traffic is slowing or coming to a halt unexpectedly, drivers turn on their hazards.
  • Using your headlights during the day will make you more visible to passing vehicles.
  • Rocks, branches, or other items in the road often mean there is a dangerous condition or stopped vehicle in the roadway ahead.

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In some countries, if you want to make a left hand turn across traffic on a two lane highway, you are expected to pull off onto the right-hand side of the road, put your left-hand turn signal on, then wait for traffic to clear before making the turn. Watch to see how other people are making left hand turns, and be aware of cars on the side of the road with the left turn signal on.

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