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Mexico

Getting around

Boat

Vehicle and passenger ferries connecting Baja California with the Mexican mainland sail between Santa Rosalía and Guaymas, La Paz and Mazatlán, and La Paz and Topolobampo. One-way passenger seat fares cost from M$550 to M$800; a car up to 5m in length costs between M$1000 and M$2500. There are also ferries from the Yucatán Peninsula to the islands of Isla Mujeres, Isla Coz­umel and Isla Holbox.

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Hitching

Hitchhiking

Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and is not recommended. Travelers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go. A woman traveling alone certainly should not hitchhike in Mexico, and even two women alone is not advisable.

However, hitching is not an uncommon way of getting to some off-the-beaten-track places poorly served by bus. Always be alert to possible dangers wherever you are. If the driver is another tourist or a private motorist, you may get the ride for free. If it is a work or commercial vehicle, you should offer to pay, something equivalent to the bus fare.

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Bus & tram

Bus

Mexico has a good road and bus network, and comfortable, frequent, reasonably priced bus services connect all cities. Most cities and towns have one main bus terminal where all long-distance buses arrive and depart. It may be called the Terminal de Autobuses, Central de Autobuses, Central Camionera or simply La Central (not to be confused with el centro, the city center!) If there is no single main terminal, different bus companies will have separate terminals scattered around town.

Baggage is safe if stowed in the bus’ baggage hold, but get a receipt for it when you hand it over. Keep your most valuable documents (passport, money etc) in the cabin with you, and keep them closely protected.

Highway robbery happens very rarely. The risk is higher at night, on isolated stretches of highway far from cities, and in 2nd-class buses.

Deluxe

De lujo services, sometimes termed ejecutivo (executive), run mainly on the busy routes. They are swift, modern and comfortable, with reclining seats, adequate legroom, air-con, few or no stops, toilets on board (but not necessarily toilet paper), and sometimes drinks or snacks. They usually show movies on video screens.

First class

Primera (1a) clase buses have a comfortable numbered seat for each passenger. All sizable towns have 1st-class bus services. Standards of comfort are adequate at the very least. The buses usually have air-conditioning and a toilet and they stop infrequently. They always show movies (often bad ones) for most of the trip: too bad if you don’t want to watch, as all seats face a video screen.

Bring a sweater or jacket to combat overzealous air-conditioning. As with deluxe buses, you buy your ticket in the bus station before boarding.

Second class

Segunda (2a) clase buses serve small towns and villages, and provide cheaper, slower travel on some intercity routes. A few are almost as quick, comfortable and direct as 1st-class buses. Others are old, slow and shabby.

Many 2nd-class services have no ticket office; you just pay your fare to the conductor. These buses tend to take slow, non-toll roads in and out of big cities and will stop anywhere to pick up passengers: if you board midroute you might make some of the trip standing. The small amount of money you save by traveling 2nd-class is not usually worth the discomfort or extra journey time entailed.

Second-class buses can also be less safe than 1st-class or deluxe buses, for reasons of maintenance or driver standards or because they are more vulnerable to being boarded by bandits on some roads. Out in the remoter areas, however, you’ll often find that 2nd-class buses are the only buses available.

Microbuses or ‘micros’ are small, usually fairly new, 2nd-class buses with around 25 seats, usually running short routes between nearby towns.

Costs

First-class buses typically cost around M$50 to M$70 per hour of travel (70km to 80km). Deluxe buses may cost just 10% or 20% more than 1st class, or about 60% more for super-deluxe services such as ETN, UNO and Turistar Ejecutivo. Second-class buses cost 10% or 20% less than 1st class.

Reservations

For trips of up to four or five hours on busy routes, you can usually just go to the bus terminal, buy a ticket and head out without much delay. For longer trips, or routes with infrequent service, buy a ticket a day or more in advance. Deluxe and 1st-class bus companies have computerized ticket systems that allow you to select your seat when you buy your ticket. Try to avoid the back of the bus, which is where the toilets are and also tends to give a bumpier ride.

Ticketbus (in Mexico City 55-5133-2424, 800-702-80-00; www.ticketbus.com.mx) provides tickets and reservations for many bus companies, chiefly on routes in the center, south and southeast of Mexico. You can book via the internet or telephone, or at any of its many offices in 44 cities and towns.

If you pay for a bus ticket in cash, cash refunds of 80% to 100% are available from many bus companies if you return your ticket more than an hour or two before the listed departure time.

Colectivos & other vehicles

In some areas a variety of small vehicles provide alternatives to buses. Colectivo (collective) taxis, Volkswagen minibuses (combis) and more comfortable passenger-carrying vans, such as Chevrolet Suburbans, operate shuttle services between some towns, usually leaving whenever they have a full load of passengers. Fares are typically a little less than 1st-class buses. Microbuses or ‘micros’ are small, usually fairly new, 2nd-class buses with around 25 seats, usually running short routes between nearby towns. More primitive are passenger-carrying camionetas (pickups) and camiones (trucks) with fares similar to 2nd-class bus fares. Standing in the back of a lurching truck with a couple of dozen campesinos (land workers) and their machetes and animals is always an experience to remember!

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Car & motorcycle

Driving in Mexico is not as easy as it is north of the border, and rentals are more expensive, but having a vehicle gives you maximum flexi­bility and freedom.

Bring your own vehicle

Bringing a car to Mexico is most useful for travelers who:

- have plenty of time

- like to get off the beaten track

- have surfboards, diving equipment or other cumbersome luggage

- will be traveling with at least one companion.

Drivers should know at least a little Spanish and have basic mechanical knowledge, reserves of patience and access to extra cash for emergencies. Good makes of car to take to Mexico are Volkswagen, Nissan, Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, which have plants in Mexico and dealers in most big towns. Very big cars are unwieldy on narrow roads and use a lot of gasoline. A sedan with a trunk (boot) provides safer storage than a station wagon or hatchback. Mexican mechanics are resourceful, and most repairs can be done quickly and inexpensively, but it still pays to take as many spare parts as you can manage (spare fuel filters are very useful). Tires (including spare), shock absorbers and suspension should be in good condition. For security, have something to immobilize the steering wheel, and consider getting a kill switch installed.

Motorcycling in Mexico is not for the fainthearted. Roads and traffic can be rough, and parts and mechanics hard to come by. The parts you’ll most easily find will be for Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki bikes.

Driver’s license

To drive a motor vehicle in Mexico, you need a valid driver’s license from your home country.

Gas (petrol)

All gasolina (gasoline) and diesel fuel in Mexico is sold by the government’s mono­poly, Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos). Most towns, even small ones, have a Pemex station, and the stations are pretty common on most major roads. Nevertheless, in remote areas you should fill up whenever you can.

The gasoline on sale is all sin plomo (unleaded). There are two varieties: Magna Sin, roughly equivalent to US regular unleaded, and Premium, roughly equivalent to US super unleaded. At the time of research, Magna Sin cost about M$7 per liter (US$2.40 per US gallon), and Premium about M$8.75. Diesel fuel is widely available at around M$6 per liter. Regular Mexican diesel has a higher sulfur content than US diesel, but there is a ‘Diesel Sin’ with less sulfur. If diesel drivers change their oil and filter about every 3500km, they should have no problems.

Gas stations have pump attendants (who appreciate a tip of M$2 to M$5).

Insurance

It is very foolish to drive in Mexico without Mexican liability insurance. If you are involved in an accident, you can be jailed and have your vehicle impounded while res­ponsibility is assessed. If you are to blame for an accident causing injury or death, you may be detained until you guarantee restitution to the victims and payment of any fines. This could take weeks or months. Adequate Mexican insurance coverage is the only real protection: it is regarded as a guarantee that restitution will be paid, and will expedite release of the driver.

Mexican law recognizes only Mexican motor insurance (seguro), so a US or Canadian policy, even if it provides coverage, is not acceptable to Mexican officialdom. Sanborn’s and the American Automobile Association (AAA; www.aaa.com) are worth looking into for Mexico motor insurance. Mexican insurance is also sold in US border towns; as you approach the border from the US you will see billboards advertising offices selling Mexican policies. At the busier border crossings, such as those to Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros, there are insurance offices open 24 hours a day. Some deals are better than others.

Short-term insurance is about US$15 a day for full coverage on a car worth under US$10, 000; for periods longer than two weeks it’s often cheaper to get an annual policy. Liability-only insurance costs around half the full coverage cost.

Insurance is considered invalid if the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Maps

Mexican signposting can be poor, and decent road maps are essential. A Mexican road atlas such as Guía Roji’s Por Las Carreteras de México (M$175) is a worthwhile investment. It’s sold at bookstores and some newsstands in Mexico, and is available from internet booksellers for a little more. A new edition is published annually and includes most new highways. Also useful are Quimera publisher’s regional road maps.

Rental

Auto rental in Mexico is expensive by US or European standards, but is not hard to organize. You can book by internet, telephone or in person and pick up cars at city offices, airports, many big hotels and sometimes at bus terminals.

Renters must provide a valid driver’s license (your home license is OK), passport and major credit card, and are usually required to be at least 21 (sometimes 25, or if you’re aged 21 to 24 you may have to pay a surcharge). Read the small print of the rental agreement. In addition to the basic rental rate, you pay tax and insurance costs to the rental company. Note: comprehensive insurance can almost double the basic cost quoted in some internet bookings: you’ll usually have the option of taking liability-only insurance at a lower rate. Ask exactly what the insurance options cover: theft and damage insurance may only cover a percentage of costs, or the insurance might not be valid for travel on rough country tracks. It’s best to have plenty of liability coverage: Mexican law permits the jailing of drivers after an accident until they have met their obligations to third parties. The complimentary car-rental insurance offered with some US credit cards does not usually cover Mexico.

Most agencies offer a choice between a per-kilometer deal or unlimited kilometers. Local firms may or may not be cheaper than the big international ones. In most places the cheapest car available costs M$500 to M$600 a day including unlimited kilo­meters, insurance and tax. If you rent by the week or month, the per-day cost can come down by 20% to 40%. You can also cut costs by avoiding airport pickups and drop-offs, for which 10% can be added to your total check. The extra charge for drop-off in another city, when available, is usually about M$4 per kilometer.

Here’s contact information (with Mexican phone numbers) for some major firms:

Alamo (800-849-80-01; www.alamo.com)

Avis (800-288-88-88; www.avis.com.mx)

Budget (800-700-17-00; www.budget.com.mx)

Dollar (998-886-02-22; www.dollar.com)

Europcar (800-201-20-84; www.europcar.com.mx)

Hertz (800-709-50-00; www.hertz.com)

National (800-716-66-25; www.nationalcar.com.mx)

Thrifty (55-5207-1100; www.thrifty.com.mx)

Motorbikes or scooters are available to rent in a few tourist centers. You’re usually required to have a driver’s license and credit card. It’s advisable to look particularly carefully into insurance arrangements here: some renters do not offer any insurance at all. Note that a locally acquired motorcycle license is not valid under some travel-insurance policies.

Road conditions

Many Mexican highways, even some toll highways, are not up to the standards of US, Canadian or European ones. Still, the main roads are serviceable and fairly fast when traffic is not heavy. Mexicans on the whole drive as cautiously and sensibly as people anywhere. Traffic density, poor surfaces and frequent hazards (potholes, speed bumps, animals, bicycles, children) all help to keep speeds down.

Driving on a dark night is best avoided since unlit vehicles, rocks, pedestrians and animals on the roads are common. Hijacks and robberies do occur.

In towns and cities and on rural roads, be especially wary of Alto (Stop) signs, topes (speed bumps) and holes in the road. They are often not where you’d expect, and missing one can cost you in traffic fines or car damage. Speed bumps are also used to slow traffic on highways that pass through built-up areas. ‘Tope’ or ‘Vibradores’ signs give you a warning about most speed bumps: the deadly ones are the ones with no warning signs – and if you hit them at any speed, you and your car will get quite a shock.

There is always the chance that you will be pulled over by Mexican traffic police for an imaginary infraction. If this happens, stay calm and polite and don’t be in a hurry. You don’t have to pay a bribe, and acting dumb and not understanding Spanish may eventually make the cop give up. You can also ask to see documentation about the law you have supposedly broken, ask for the officer’s identification, ask to speak to a superior, and/or note the officer’s name, badge number, vehicle number and department (federal, state or municipal). Pay any traffic fines at a police station and get a receipt, then if you wish to make a complaint head for a state tourist office.

City parking

It’s not usually a good idea to park on the street overnight. If your hotel doesn’t have parking, it’s best to find a commercial estacionamiento (parking lot). These usually cost around M$50 overnight and M$10 to M$15 per hour during the day.

Motorcycle hazards

Certain aspects of Mexican roads make them particularly hazardous for motorcyclists:

poor signage of road and lane closures

lots of dogs on the roads

debris and deep potholes

vehicles without taillights

lack of highway lighting

Toll roads

Mexico has more than 6000km of autopistas (toll roads), usually four-lane. They are generally in much better condition and a lot quicker than the alternative free roads. Cuotas (tolls) average about M$1 per km. Toll information is available at www.sct.gob.mx: click on ‘Traza Tu Ruta.’

Road rules

Drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Speed limits range between 80km and 120km per hour on open highways (less when highways pass through built-up areas), and between 30km and 50km per hour in towns and cities. Seat belts are obligatory for all occupants of a car, and children under five must be strapped into safety seats in the rear. Obeying speed limits, traffic rules and traffic signs will avoid giving police excuses to demand ‘fines’ payable on the spot.

One-way streets are the rule in cities. Priority at some street intersections is indicated by thin black and red rectangles containing white arrows. A black rectangle facing you means you have priority; a red one means you don’t. The white arrows indicate the direction of traffic on the cross street; if the arrow points both ways, it’s a two-way street.

Antipollution rules in Mexico City ban most vehicles from the city’s roads on one day each week.

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Train

The spectacular Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico that runs between Los Mochis and Chihuahua, known in English as the Copper Canyon Railway, is one of the highlights of traveling in Mexico. But the remainder of Mexico’s regular passenger train system effectively ceased to exist after the railroads were privatized in the 1990s. The very few services remaining operate on routes that are of no interest to travelers or are special tourist excursion services. Most prominent among the latter group is the Tequila Express (www.tequilaexpress.com.mx) running between Guadalajara and the tequila-distilling town of Amatitán.

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Local transport

Bicycle

Most Mexican towns and cities are flat enough to make cycling an option. Seek out the less traffic-infested routes and you should enjoy it. Even Mexico City has its biking enthusiasts. You can rent bikes in several towns and cities for M$100 to M$150 per day.

Boat

Here and there you may find yourself traveling by boat to an outlying beach, along a river or across a lake or lagoon. The craft are usually fast outboard lanchas (launches). Fares vary widely: an average is around M$10 a minute if you have to charter the whole boat (haggle!), or around M$10 for five to 10 minutes if it’s a public service.

Local buses

Generally known as camiones, local buses are often the cheapest way to get around cities and out to nearby towns and villages. They run frequently and are cheap. Fares in cities are rarely more than M$5. In many cities, fleets of small, modern microbuses have replaced the noisy, dirty and crowded older buses.

Buses usually halt only at fixed paradas (bus stops), though in some places you can hold your hand out to stop one at any street corner.

Colectivo, combi, minibus & pesero

These are all names for vehicles that function as something between a taxi and a bus, running along fixed urban routes usually ­displayed on the windshield. They’re cheaper than taxis and quicker than buses. They will pick you up or drop you off on any corner along their route: to stop one, go to the curb and wave your hand. Tell the driver where you want to go. Usually, you pay at the end of the trip and the fare (a little higher than a bus fare) depends on how far you go. In some northern border towns, ‘pesero’ is used to mean a city bus.

Metro

Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey all have metro (subway, underground railway) systems. Mexico City’s, in particular, is a quick, cheap and useful way of getting around. With 175 stations and used by over four million people every weekday, it’s the world’s third-busiest subway.

Taxi

Taxis are common in towns and cities, and surprisingly economical. City rides cost around M$10 per kilometer, and in some cities there’s a fixed rate for journeys within defined central areas. If a taxi has a meter, you can ask the driver if it’s working (‘¿Funciona el taxímetro?’). If it’s not, or if the taxi doesn’t have a meter, establish the price of the ride before getting in (this may involve a bit of haggling).

Some airports and big bus terminals have a system of authorized ticket-taxis: you buy a fixed-price ticket to your destination from a special taquilla (ticket window) and then hand it to the driver instead of paying cash. This saves haggling and major rip-offs, but fares are usually higher than you could get on the street.

In some (usually rural) areas, some taxis operate on a colectivo basis, following set routes, often from one town or village to another, and picking up or dropping off passengers anywhere along that route. Fares per person are around one-quarter of the normal cab fare.

Renting a taxi for a day’s out-of-town outing generally costs something similar to a cheap rental car – around M$500 or M$600.

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Air

All large and many smaller cities in Mexico have airports and passenger services. Depending on the fare you get, flying can be good value on longer journeys, especially considering the long bus trip that is probably the alternative. Domestic flights within Mexico are sometimes cheaper if you book them before you go to Mexico, in conjunction with an international round-trip ticket.

Fares

Fares can depend on whether you fly at a busy or quiet time of day, week or year, and how far ahead you book and pay. High season generally corresponds to the Mexican holiday seasons. You’ll often save money if you pay for the ticket a few days ahead or if you fly late in the evening. Round-trip fares are usually simply twice the price of one-way tickets, though some cheaper advance-­payment deals do exist.

Typical one-way fares from Mexico City with nonbudget airlines to most Mexican cities are between about M$1300 and M$2100 including taxes and charges, depending mainly on distance. Low-cost airlines flying from Toluca, 50km west of Mexico City, may charge up to 50% less.

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Bicycle

Cycling is not a common way to tour Mexico. The size of the country, reports of highway robbery, poor road surfaces, careless motorists and pedestrians and other road hazards are deterrents. However, biking around is certainly possible if you’re prepared for the challenges. You should be fit, use the best equipment, and be fully able to handle your own repairs. Take the mountainous topography and hot climate into account when planning your route. Bike lanes are rare.

All cities have bicycle stores: a decent mountain bike suitable for a few weeks’ touring costs around M$5000. Don’t expect to get much of that back by selling it afterwards unless you have time on your side.

If you’re interested in a long Mexican ride, consider the bring-your-own-bike tours of the Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Pacific Mexico and Michoacán, up to a month long, offered by the fun and friendly !El Tour (www.bikemexico.com).

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