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Getting Around Mexico: Driving

Getting your car into Mexico properly documented is just the start of your problems. Although most people who venture in by car enjoy it and get out again with no more than minor incidents, driving in Mexico does require a good deal of care and concentration, and almost inevitably involves at least one brush with bureaucracy or the law, although the police have eased up of late in response to pressure from above to stop putting the bite on tourists.

Renting a car in Mexico - especially if done with a specific itinerary in mind, just for a day or two - avoids many of the problems and is often an extremely good way of seeing quickly a small area that would take days to explore using public transport. In all the tourist resorts and major cities there are any number of competing agencies, with local operations usually charging less than the well-known chains. You should check rates carefully, though - the basic cost of renting a VW Beetle for the day may be as little as US$15/?10, but by the time you have added insurance, tax and mileage it can easily end up being three or four times that. Daily rates that include unlimited mileage start at around US$55/?35; weekly rates can be better, from about US$250/?160. For shorter distances, mopeds and motorbikes are also available in some resorts but most of the large, international companies don't deal with them because of the high frequency of accidents.

Drivers from the US, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand will find that their licences are valid in Mexico, though an international can be useful, especially if yours has no photo on it. It's important to remember you are required to have all your documents with you when driving. Insurance is not compulsory, but you'd be foolhardy not to take some out.

The government oil company, Pemex, has a monopoly and sells two types of fuel : Premio (leaded) and Magna Sin (unleaded), both of which cost slightly more than regular unleaded north of the border, at about US$2 per US gallon. Magna Sin is increasingly available, in response to howls of outrage from US motorists who have ruined their engines using Premio.

Mexican roads and traffic, however, are your chief worry. Traffic circulates on the right, and the normal speed limit is 40kph (25mph) in built-up areas, 70kph (43mph) in open country, and 110kph (68mph) on the freeway. Some of the new highways are excellent, and the toll (cuota) superhighways are better still, though extremely expensive to drive on. Away from the major population centres, however, roads are often narrow, winding and potholed, with livestock wandering across at unexpected moments. Get out of the way of Mexican bus and truck drivers (and remember that if you signal left to them on a stretch of open road, it means it's clear to overtake). Every town and village on the road, however tiny, limits the speed of through-traffic with a series of topes (concrete or metal speed bumps) across the road. Look out for the warning signs and take them seriously; the bumps are often huge. Most people suggest, too, that you should never drive at night (and not just for road safety reasons) - sound advice even if not always practical. Any good road map should provide details of the more common symbols used on Mexican road signs, and SECTUR have a pamphlet on driving in Mexico in which they're also featured. One convention to be aware of is that the first driver to flash their lights at a junction, or where only one vehicle can pass, has right of way: they're not inviting you to go first.

In most large towns you'll find extensive one-way systems . Traffic direction is often poorly marked (look for small arrows affixed to lampposts), though this is less of a problem than it sounds: simply note the directions in which the parked cars are facing.

Parking in cities is always going to be a hassle, too - the restrictions are complicated and foreigners are easy pickings for traffic police, who usually remove one or both plates in lieu of a ticket (retrieving them can be an expensive and time-consuming business). Since theft is also a real threat, you'll usually have to pay extra for a hotel with secure parking. You may well also have to fork over on-the-spot "fines" for traffic offences (real or imaginary). In the capital, residents' cars are banned from driving on one day of every week, determined by their licence number.

Unless your car is a basic model VW, Ford or Dodge (all of which are manufactured in Mexico), spare parts are expensive and hard to come by - bring a basic spares kit. Tires suffer particularly badly on burning-hot Mexican roads, and you should carry at least one good spare. Roadside vulcanizadoras and llanteros can do temporary repairs; new tires are expensive, but remoulds aren't a good idea on hot roads at high speed. If you have a breakdown, there is a free highway mechanic service known as the ?ngeles Verdes (Green Angels). As well as patrolling all major routes looking for beleaguered motorists, they can be reached by phone via Mexico City on 5/250-0123 or 250-8221 (although they don't actually operate inside the capital, where you should call the Radar Service on 532-3700). The ?ngeles Verdes speak English.

Should you have a minor accident, try to come to some arrangement with the other party - involving the police will only make matters worse, and Mexican drivers will be as anxious to avoid doing so as you will. Also, if you witness an accident, don't get involved - witnesses can be locked up along with those directly implicated to prevent them from leaving before the case comes up. In any more serious incident, contact your consulate and your Mexican insurance company as soon as possible.

Getting Around Mexico

???Local transportation
???Banditry: a warning

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